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LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 5
As the Crow Flies

 

“Wild strawberries!”

Raine Terrance left Kristen's side and rushed out into a small natural clearing. Shining in the sun beneath its leaves were several juicy-looking strawberries. They weren't as large as those often found in a commercial market, but they could be just as delicious.

The cheetah knelt in the dirt and picked one. He glanced over at Kristen with a smile and then bit into it.  The berry juice washed over his tongue and he rolled his eyes in mock ecstasy.

“Mmm, these are good,” he said, handing another to her.

The mountain lioness gave him a smile and bit into the strawberry. She closed her eyes briefly, enjoying the fruit flavor. After she'd swallowed it, the botanist examined the wild plant.

“Good source of Vitamin C,” she recalled, fingering the small white flowers, “the leaves make a great tea, and combined with water, the juice can treat red eyes as well as sunburn. It's also good for kidney and stomach trouble, and mashed into a paste, it can even soothe a toothache. It would be great if we could find a multipurpose plant like this on another world.”

“If anyone can find one there, I'd wager it would be you,” Raine told her with a smile.

“Thanks. Come on, let's harvest a few for the walk and get back to the group before they pass us by altogether.” They worked quickly to pick a bunch, but neither of them had the pockets of a robe top anymore, so they could only take as much as they could hold in their hand paws.

“I wish I had a basket so we could take back enough for everyone,” Kristen murmured.

“Well, we don't, so we'll just have to enjoy them ourselves,” Raine replied grinning. Once they had enough to tide them over for a while, the felines made their way back to the passing group of Furs led by Hiamovi Avonaco. The underbrush in this place had gotten thicker and snagged on fabric and fur alike, and Cheryl seemed to have the worst of it having longer fur than anyone else.

After Kristen and Raine rejoined the troupe, the cougar felt a tentative tap on her shoulder.

“Hi,” Travis said quietly.  She raised an eyebrow at him, instantly on her guard, but when he didn't do or say anything offensive, she relaxed.

“Hello,” she replied.

“Hi,” said Raine.  Travis glanced at him with an unreadable expression for only a heartbeat, but then he nodded courteously.

Kristen offered him a small fruit from her handful. “Have a strawberry,” she told him in an attempt to be nice. Although she hadn't witnessed the scene herself, the mountain lioness had heard about his words and actions toward Cheryl back at the place where Gerard had gone over the edge of a cliff.

The German Shepherd had been nice to Kristen over the past few days, though she was still wary of him. Travis could tell by the look in her eyes that he would need to tread softly, so he averted his eyes and took the proffered berry.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. He ate the strawberry and enjoyed its rich flavor, but when he swallowed it, he continued to walk beside her.

The female cougar exchanged puzzled looks with the cheetah on her other side. Travis' presence felt like an intrusion, but she gave Raine a look of apology and then turned to the canine with a neutral expression.  “Is there something we can do for you?” she asked.

Travis looked down at his feet with both hands in the pockets of his shorts. He almost looked humble and it wasn't like him at all.  “I've been thinking about the other day,” he said quietly. “I apologize for tagging along with you so much, but if you hadn't warned me about the hemlock, I might not be alive right now. I'm grateful.”

Kristen sighed inwardly. He had said as much to her already, so she was puzzled why he would bring it up again.  Still, he seemed sincere.

“You're welcome – again,” she said quietly.

The canine looked at the strawberries in her hand and gave her a small smile. He leaned his head toward her and spoke in a voice so quiet that she almost didn't hear him. “May I help you again the next time you go out looking for your edible plants? I promise I'll behave.”

“Okay,” Kristen said in a similarly quiet reply. “If you can honor your word to behave, I'd be glad to accept your assistance.”

Travis began to wag his tail and he probably wasn't even aware he was doing it. “Thank you,” he said with a smile.

“Have another strawberry,” she told him, extending her palm.  He took one with thanks and popped it into his mouth. Then without prompting, he engaged her in trivial conversation, continuing in a low voice.

After several minutes, Raine began to feel awkward at the quiet talk between his companions. He hadn't known there was anything between Kristen and Travis, so he excused himself to offer some of his strawberries to a few others up in the line of Furs.

Kristen watched him go with a frown and sighed inwardly once again. She hoped that Travis hadn't completely ruined any chance she might have had of a good friendship with Raine.  She was strongly tempted to go after him, but Travis stopped her with a light touch to the arm and pointed to a flowering bush at the base of a tree.

“Hey, is that anything we should be on the lookout for?”  

*** 

Jon pulled his tail free of a clinging bush he passed with a grumble. Avon led them all along an animal trail that paralleled the ravine, but the way was narrow and the group was traversing it in single-file. It was bad enough that they'd had to endure fleas, ticks and biting flies, but there were more than a few thorns within the underbrush they passed through and it seemed that no one had escaped their stings.  Sissy walked just in front of him and he could relate to her occasional yelps and whimpers.

Avon stopped occasionally to push through the trees on their left to check their proximity to the ravine. The river at the bottom of the canyon was closer as the depth of the rift rose the further they trekked upstream and they could all hear the water as it coursed down the mountain. It was the grizzly's hope that they could find a place where the river was shallow enough for them to cross. It was his fear, however, that the crevice would extend too high up on the side of the mountain before they could find a crossable area.

Jon grumbled again when another briar snagged the hem of his shorts. Not for the first time was he tempted to toss them aside altogether. He stopped, reached back to his hind limbs, pulled the fabric loose, and then followed after the orange feline. 

Up ahead somewhere, he heard Kevin give out a half-hearted cheer for thinning underbrush. It's about time, the mountain lion thought. Had they not been trying to parallel the ravine, there were likely other paths through the woods that avoided all the thorny plants they could have taken.  He suspected the animal trail they followed now was created by smaller critters that could move between them without getting snagged.  Some of the Furs had gotten up on their feet to move bipedal through this area. At least only their legs got stuck by brambles that way.

For himself, Jon had discovered that for long distances, walking on all fours was by far more comfortable due to the reconfiguration of his arms, legs, hip and pelvic area. He had gotten used to traveling thus over the past couple of days, and the irony of it amused him.  As much as he had been against it from the beginning, Jon had discovered on numerous occasions that he was becoming accustomed to his new form. He still harbored his old psychological resistance, but the slow transformation over time had chipped away at that resolve and had made it easier to accept. Had the transformation been a quick process, he fully suspected that he would have broken down and gone mad long before now.

There were still times when sudden muscle cramps, spasms and shooting pains would hit him as further minute changes were made to his body, but they were only intermittent instances now. Although he didn't have a date marked on a calendar, he suspected they were near the end of their physical alterations.

He heard several sighs of relief and he looked up to see that the dense underbrush had indeed thinned out. Scrub brush and trees became the norm and he could even see the moss and shade-loving forest grass on the ground again. Maybe now they could all get a respite from the briars for a while.  

*** 

The scent was stronger. While the group of Furs had been walking parallel to the ravine, the shifting winds over the expanse blowing in through the trees had alerted Aldo's sensitive nose. It was the same scent he had picked up earlier, but he still had no frame of reference on what it was he smelled. It was no tree or plant, not water from the nearby river or the soil, and neither was it anyone from their party of thirty-one Furs. Despite his ignorance, however, the bloodhound was certain that something was either following or stalking them.  It seemed inconceivable that some animal in the forest would find a large group of predator types to be of interest, unless whatever it was tagging along was a two-legged hunter.  In his present form, Aldo feared a human more than he did a wild animal at that moment.

Afraid of where his train of thought was going, he decided he couldn't keep his suspicions to himself any longer. He would feel relieved if mistaken, but he didn't want to take the chance.

At the very back of the long line of Furs, Aldo could see Jon and Sissy in casual conversation, both on all fours as they made sure no one was left behind by bringing up the rear.  Although the mountain lion was in no position of authority, Aldo had seen Avon talking earnestly with him on numerous occasions, so the bloodhound figured he could at least be of some assistance.

“I'm sorry I threw a fit about it at the time,” Jon was saying, “but I'm glad you kept them.”

“I'll bring them over to you when we get back,” Sissy replied. “I think you look good in them.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

“Jon?” the bloodhound asked, stopping aside to let the cougar and housecat catch up to him.

“Aldo,” the feline acknowledged. “What's up?”

“We're being followed… or stalked,” he remarked in a matter-of-fact tone. Both Jon and Sissy looked instantly alarmed.

“Are you sure?” asked the orange feline.

“I've smelled them for two days and nights. I can't identify what they are, only that the scent isn't coming from anyone in our group.”  He walked with them, but was staring off into the shadows of the forest where the overhead sunshine was unable to penetrate the canopy of overhead tree cover.

Them?” Sissy's eyes grew wider. “There's more than one?”

“Why didn't you say something sooner?” Jon asked, following Aldo's gaze out to the shadows but seeing nothing out of the ordinary.

“I wasn't sure until now,” the bloodhound replied defensively. “This is not a scent I'm familiar with and it's nothing I've ever smelled back at the Institute, but the air currents coming from the ravine have given me a better whiff of it today.”  Had he been walking upright, he might have put his hands into the pockets of his shorts, so instead he proceeded with his head down. “I just thought someone should know.”

“You were right to tell someone,” Jon assured him.  The cougar looked over at his companion. “I'm going to take him up to talk to Avon. Would you mind hanging back to make sure we don't lose any stragglers?”

Sissy looked around behind her with a frown. “I don't know…” she murmured.  “If there's something stalking us, I'm not sure I want to be back here by myself.”

“I'll take the rear,” Gerard's voice came from just in front of them. After his ordeal stepping off into the ravine, the ursine Fur was now taking it easy further back in the long line of travelers. “I heard what Aldo said and I agree that's something that Avon should know about.”

Sissy looked up at the brown bear with gratitude. “Thank you,” she said earnestly. 

Gerard gave her a friendly smile and took up a position behind her. “No problem,” he replied. “I can stay back here and keep an eye on your cute tail.”

The orange cat blinked twice at his words and then narrowed her eyes with a smirk. “It is a cute tail,” she acquiesced, swishing the appendage with a wiggle of her hips. “Just make sure no wild critter tries to bite it!”

Gerard laughed at her banter and gave her an exaggerated wink. “I will, ma'am!”

Jon and Aldo exchanged amused looks and then remembering their purpose, moved forward to catch up to their leader. Several Furs looked annoyed when the pair of them moved past them in line, but it only took a few moments to reach the grizzly at the front.

Jon moved up beside the bear. “May we talk to you for a minute?” he asked.

“Uhm, sure,” Avon muttered distractedly, looking off through the brush at his left toward the parallel ravine. The crevice was getting shallower and the sound of running water from the river was constant, but they still had some distance to travel before they might cross it.

“It's important and we'll need your undivided attention.”

Avon finally looked over at the pair of them as if only just now realizing they were there. “What's important?” he asked, looking from one to another. “If it's trivial, we really don't have time to stop and chat about it.”

Jon's eyebrows furrowed. “We're being stalked,” he said simply.  That got the grizzly's attention.  Before Avon could say anything, Jon prompted Aldo to repeat what he had told him earlier. 

When he finished, the ursine leader nodded. “Well, I know you have a nose more sensitive than anyone else's in the group,” Avon said as they walked, “and I believe you.”

“But?” Jon asked with a frown at the bear's tone.

“But… I don't think we really have anything to be concerned about,” Avon added. “It would be foolish for anything to try to attack such a loud, raucous group of mixed predator types like ours. Whatever it is may simply be curious, but I can't imagine we're in any danger.”

“I hate to sound like I agree with either Kim or Yuki,” Aldo said in a quiet voice, looking around to make sure neither of the sisters was within earshot, “but what if it's a local hunter? We may have passed by someone's hidden tree stand out here without ever seeing it. Someone with a gun would be a very real danger, especially if it's someone who's never heard of a Fur before.”

“Does your stalker smell like a human?” Avon asked.

The bloodhound paused. “Not really, but—”

“Then don't worry about it.”

Jon cleared his throat. “Hunters have been known to wear animal scents to mask their own. I've used that trick myself.”

Avon nodded as he walked, mulling over what he'd been told. After a few quiet moments, he finally looked over at Aldo.  “Until we have a sure sign of danger, just stay on the alert; keep me posted if anything changes.”

The bloodhound nodded. He wasn't sure what he really expected the grizzly to do about his revelation, but at least he had done his duty and told someone in charge.  It still didn't make him feel any better about their situation, however.

Avon went back to monitoring his steps alongside the twenty-foot margin of brush between the animal trail he followed and the ravine drop off.  Jon frowned at the bear's preoccupation and then looked back at Aldo. He gestured with a tilt of his chin toward his tail.

“I'm going back to the rear of the group,” he told him quietly. “On my way, I'll put out a bug in a few ears so others can keep an eye out for trouble.”

The canine looked relieved. “Thanks, Jon. I appreciate it.”

*** 

Sunlight was fading behind a bank of clouds and the group of Furs still hadn't found a way across the river. The ravine was now an hour behind them, having passed the waterfall that had been etching the crevasse in the mountainside for eons, but the river water was still too wide, deep and swift for them to safely cross over to the other side.  Night-sighted eyes would allow them to travel farther into dusk if they wanted, but Avon had recognized the fatigue in the expressions of his followers after a full day of travel on the small but steady incline.

The sound of rushing water made it difficult to speak aloud to the whole group as he announced his decision to stop for the night, but the grizzly stood up to his full height on the top of a jumble of boulders near the banks of the river so he could be seen by all. The underbrush beneath the forest here was light and there was plenty of room for everyone to stretch out and rest. They would continue on in the morning to look for a place to cross.

If anyone was hungry, there were plenty of fish in the river for the catching. With the length of their journey, there were only a few who felt they had the energy for nighttime fishing. Their resilient stamina had allowed them to travel farther without eating than any of them had thought possible, but there were some who wanted to eat simply because they were used to doing so on a regular schedule. Most, however, were more than willing to call it a night.

Aaron washed his hands in the river after satisfying his appetite with several raw fish he'd caught in the shallows between rocks at the banks. When he stood and shook off his hands, he looked up at a commotion in the trees. Several vixens were all scrambling around to and fro at something on the ground, scattering leaves and pine needles amidst giggles and laughter.

It wasn't until Dahlia stood up in triumph with a fat mouse caught in her jaws that Aaron realized what was going on. Before anyone could try to take it from her, she put her head down and began to eat the rodent raw, chewing on it as if she were nothing more than a feral fox herself. The other foxes were still scrambling and Aaron realized that they must have stirred up a whole horde of rodents among the brush and rotting logs of the forest.

The brown bear chuckled at the sight, pleased that the vixens were hunting for themselves.  He dried his large hand paws on the fur of his legs and then walked upright among the rocks back toward the main group. 

Although it was getting darker, there was still plenty of light left for them to gather firewood for the nightly campfire, so Aaron began looking around for Norman to help him gather up kindling. He walked around the Furs, but he didn't see his friend anywhere.

He inquired with several small groups settled down to rest, but it wasn't until he approached Alicia sitting by herself with her back up against a tree trunk that found someone who knew.

The black bear's expression brightened when he approached her and she invited him to sit down beside her. It was the first time that day that the object of her interest had been without the cursed Border Collie at his side and she was pleased to have him to herself, even if only for a few minutes.

Aaron returned her smile, but shook his head. “Thanks, Alicia, but I need to gather up some wood for the campfire. Have you seen Norman?”

The sow got up to her feet with an unreadable expression. She put a hand lightly on his arm and leaned in close. “He's off in the woods taking a turn with Turner,” she whispered, “but I can help you gather firewood.”

Aaron's brow furrowed. “Dara Turner has been taking a turn with all the Ursis males lately,” he grumbled.

“Have you?” Alicia asked tentatively.  To her relief, the brown bear shook his head.

“No, I'm not interested in someone like her,” he muttered.

“Dara told me that she's concerned that there are more males that females for an Ursis colony,” Alicia whispered, “so she wants to make sure she's made herself familiar with you all before she settles down with any of you.”

“I suppose that would explain why she's been so loose.”  Aaron looked over at her and gave her a look of amusement. “What are your plans in that respect?”

The black bear looked up at him with a suddenly impish smile. “Any guy who catches my eye will have to earn a spot in my bed,” she replied.

“Oh?  What does a guy have to do to earn that coveted spot?”

Coveted?  Alicia blinked twice at that and suddenly turned away. She looked at him over her shoulder with a smile and beckoned with a finger.

“C'mon,” she said in normal tones without answering his question. “Let's go get that firewood.”  

*** 

AS with each night, Jon and Avon took the first watch together. Although their eyes were more sensitive to miniscule amounts of illumination in the darkness than they had been as humans, the skies were fully overcast and there was no starlight or moonlight, making the watch difficult. The glowing coals of the campfire provided the only light to see by. The sound of the river the Furs slept beside was constant and masked softer sounds, adding to the difficulty of the watch.  Avon had found a few large rocks near the water's edge to sit upon. Jon was stretched out upon a limb in a tree above the other side of the group.

Unfortunately, they were both as tired as everyone else and the continual white noise generated by the flow of water had a calming effect. The grizzly had trouble keeping his eyelids open after only an hour and he fought the drowsiness with a weakening resolve. Upon his limb in a tree, the mountain lion dozed lightly, having already drifted off.  

*** 

Avon's eyes snapped open when a shriek ripped through the quiet night air, his mind instantly alert. He jumped to his feet, looking across the glow of the campfire and saw a wild flailing of arms and legs as someone screamed for her life. He could not tell what was going on from his vantage point, but others awoke groggily and were quickly getting to their feet amidst the screams.

At the first shriek, Jon stood up on his limb and almost toppled off into the darkness. Regaining his balance using his tail as a counter balance, his eyes quickly sought out the source of the screams and adrenaline surged through his body when he saw two wild coyotes trying to drag the diminutive Erin Sealock off into the darkness. One had its jaws on her left arm just above the elbow and the other had her by the right leg below the knees. The fennec vixen had been sleeping near the edge of the group and it appeared the coyotes had seen the small fox as easy prey.

Jon launched himself from the limb, landing on all fours a scant ten feet from the fray. Without a plan in mind, he jumped forward with a wild feline shriek, his claws slashing frantically at the nearest coyote. Almost right on his heels were Ellie and Dante.

Neither of the coyotes seemed willing to lose their meal despite the sudden presence of the three strange predators and both of them hung onto Erin with growls in their throats.  Coyotes were typically scavengers and would usually back down from larger adversaries, but these two seemed frantic for food and were unwilling to give her up.

Erin screamed as one of them bit down harder and Jon threw himself bodily upon the coyote hanging onto her arm. He slashed first at the canine's eyes with his claws and then wrapped both his arm and legs around the attacker in a fierce bear hug. Jon squeezed the coyote's abdomen tight with his legs and wrapped his powerful arms around the animal's neck and shoulders. Something popped inside the coyote and the beast let out a painful yelp, releasing Erin abruptly. It whined in sudden agony and despite Jon's grip, the animal managed to wriggle out of his grasp and dash off into the woods.

The second coyote was just as tenacious as the first, refusing to give up its meal in the face of other dangerous creatures. Ellie darted in to bite the animal on the flank, and when it quickly backed away from those powerful jaws, Dante jumped in to swipe at it with razor sharp claws without getting too close himself.

It took several tries, but the white tiger finally got in near enough for his claws to connect, raking bloody furrows across the coyote's face. The pain was too much for the wild animal and it finally released the fennec woman to run away. Ellie took off after it, unwilling to just let it go, and both were quickly lost in the darkness amidst yelps and fierce growls.

Jon curled his arms around Erin to pick her up, but she shied away from him to cradle her injured arm and pull her injured leg up as close as she could. Before he could try again, Jenni was there beside them. Erin clenched her eyes tightly until the feline nurse cooed into her ear to calm her.  Ken showed up a moment later and talked to the small vixen in a quiet voice for a moment before Erin finally nodded.

“Jon,” the red wolf said, “please take her over by the campfire. We'll need the light to examine her wounds.”  The cougar nodded and gently slipped his arms beneath her, consciously avoiding her injuries. Before he could stand up with her, a sudden raucous canine fight out in the darkness roused up the hackles of those who heard it.  The battle was vicious, but brief. One of the combatants shrieked in a brief shrill cry and then its voice abruptly silenced. The quiet in the forest was startling and Carl rushed out into the darkness.

Someone had stoked the fire, throwing fresh wood on the flames. Jon set the diminutive vixen on the ground beside the ring of stones around the campfire, but this time Erin didn't want to let go of him. Jenni and Ken knelt down beside her and both had to speak reassuring words to her to let them examine her injuries. She had blood all over her arm and leg, and there was more blood further up on her leg.

When Ken tentatively felt for bite wounds up high on Erin's inner thighs, the desert vixen suddenly grabbed his arm and pulled the wolf down to her.

“What is it?” the doctor asked in a quiet voice. “Did one of them bite you there?”

Erin shook her head and despite the pain in her arm and leg, she felt embarrassed. The blood at her crotch was not an injury, she explained in a bare whisper. Ken suddenly understood and cleared his throat, returning to the wounds on her leg.

Without even a First Aid kit, there was little they could do to treat her, but they knew the wounds needed to be cleaned out. Jenni leaned down to one of Erin's large ears and told her that she would need to be moved again.

At the medics' direction, Jon picked her up again and took her to the river. Michael grabbed up a burning stick from the fire and held it up as a torch, following them to the water.

Erin cried when they put her injured limbs into to the cold mountain river to clean out the injuries, but Jon held her securely while the physicians worked quickly.

Carl and Ellie returned from the shadows of the forest moments later. Avon went to them to check on her, but Ellie waved him off, saying the coyote never got a good hold on her. She might have a few claw scratches beneath her fur, but her double coat protected her from anything serious.  When the grizzly inquired about the coyotes, she simply wiped blood from the fur around her muzzle and informed him that one of the animals was no longer a concern.

Sitting next to the campfire out of the way, Aldo Banner had his arms wrapped around his knees. He knew it was the coyotes that he had smelled all along, but until now he had been unable to identify the danger. He shook from the tension of the event and put his head down on his knees.

A few minutes later, he felt a gentle hand upon his shoulder. The bloodhound looked up into the sorrowful eyes of his leader. Avon crouched down beside him and studied him in the firelight.

“Are you okay, my friend?” the bear asked him.

Aldo began to nod, but then stopped and shook his head. “No,” he answered weakly, “I'm not. I'm a nervous wreck.”

“That's my fault,” Avon told him, the words coming out with difficulty. “You tried to warn me, but I sincerely thought nothing would try anything against us. After all, we're primarily predators ourselves. Aldo, I apologize for not listening to you.  A… coyote attacked one of us, and they know that we're predators.  Some unknown creature on another world may not even see any of us as a dangerous adversary and we might not be so lucky if I ignore the talents of those in my group like I did tonight.”

The canine nodded, but didn't say anything for a moment or two.  “Is she going to be okay?”

Avon looked behind him toward the river and then returned his gaze to the flames burning beside them.  “For the most part,” he muttered. “Jenni didn't believe anything was broken, but Erin may need some minor surgery as soon as we get back. I'm glad we kept some of the robes we'd stretched out of shape for Gerard's rope. Ken is using them to wrap up Erin's injuries with them, but we'll all have to look out after her the rest of the way back.” 

The bloodhound rested his chin upon his knees. “Unfortunately, Erin is the one with a counseling background,” he mused, “so if she needs to talk to someone about the attack, there's no one else more qualified among us until we get back.”

“She has plenty of friends in our group. Any one of them could simply listen.”  Avon let the mesmerizing flames of the fire calm his mind, but after a moment he shook his head. “I just don't understand why they tried to take her. She's not a prey animal.”

“It was probably the smell of blood,” Aldo conjectured aloud. When Avon looked up at him with a puzzled expression, the canine looked down at his hands. “I've been smelling her ever since we were dropped off, but after a while I've tried to ignore her scent since it's something I'll have to get used to with all the females around.”

“I don't understand,” the grizzly remarked. “What blood?”

Aldo looked at him in mild surprise. “She's menstruating, Avon. She must have started just before Marcelo dragged us out here. Are you telling me that you can't smell it?”

Avon frowned. “Now that you mention it, I think it's been on the periphery of my senses, but I suppose I've just associated it with the occasional mouse, squirrel or bird those in the group have caught and eaten along the way. It's not something I've consciously thought about.”

The bloodhound tapped the side of his sizeable nose. “I couldn't miss it. I've ignored it for the most part, but I'm sure her scent is what attracted our guests.”

Avon sighed and bobbed his head in agreement. “If that's the case, the coyotes probably thought she was a weak and injured animal that they could take in the night for their meal. I wouldn't have believed them to be so bold, but they must have been awfully hungry to stalk her for days, even when we've left behind the remnants of our own meals they could have scavenged.” 

The grizzly fell quiet for a moment, but then he finally nodded, patting Aldo lightly on the shoulder. “Don't be upset over this,” he said. “The fault was mine and I'll take full blame. You did what you were supposed to do and I want you to keep me informed of any concerns you may have for the rest of our journey.  With luck, we'll be back in our beds within a day or two, but until then I need to rely on that nose of yours.”

Aldo Banner looked at him with a renewed look of serious determination. “You can count on it,” he said.  

*** 

AN hour later, Erin was lying on her side on a bed of leaves and grass beside the campfire, her arm and leg both wrapped up in torn remnants of their old robes. She was visibly shaken and upset, but several of the bears had volunteered to surround her for the remainder of the night so she could sleep without fear of a repeat attack. The diminutive vixen was thankful for their offer, but even though they had formed a circle around her up to the campfire stones, she was uneasy.

The rest of the Furs had begun to settle down, but Avon and Jon were extra vigilant now, both of them partly to blame for letting the coyotes get to her. They had grown so complacent during the past few nights that both had drifted off to sleep when they should have been keeping watch over everyone. Had they been attentive, they might have been able to drive off the coyotes before any harm had come to Erin.

Although he was sure that the woman's monthly cycle had attracted the night stalkers, Avon had respected her privacy and had mentioned it to no one else outside of the bloodhound who had brought it to his attention.  It was generally accepted that she had been selected simply because she was among the smallest of the Furs and that she had slept on the outside perimeter of the group, making her an easy target. After all, there had been no threat of danger beforehand.

Erin lay staring into the depths of the campfire, the flames reflecting off the moisture in the fur around her eyes, small glistening streaks that seemed to follow the cry-line markings of her facial fur. She had always loved the aroma of a wood fire; the fire was calming, but her hopes that it would somehow help her relax were far reaching.  She stayed that way for several long moments, but the memory of waking from a deep sleep into a living nightmare was too fresh.

Over the sound of the river, a lone coyote yipped in the darkness some distance away. She didn't know if it was one of her attackers that had gotten away or yet another one out in the forest, but the sound sent shivers down her spine.

Most of the Furs had gone back to sleep, but there were some still talking in low voices. Kristen was one of them, quietly conversing with one of the bears surrounding the small vixen.

“Please, Gerard,” she whispered, “let him in so he can sleep beside her. She'll be better off with someone there to comfort her, and he may be in danger himself.”

The brown bear shook his head. “Just because he's another small desert fox doesn't mean the coyotes will be after him too,” the tired ursine grumbled. His sprained wrist was sore from walking on it, and he wanted nothing more than to be left alone so he could sleep.

“That's exactly what I'm afraid will happen,” Kristen retorted, pulling up on the hem of her shorts. “Kevin's no larger than she is and they might try to take him just as they tried to take her.”

“Ellie killed one, so I doubt the other will have the courage to come back again to try on its own.”

“It might if it's so hungry that it stalked our group in the first place.”

Gerard grumbled again, certain the feline wouldn't let him sleep until she got her way. “Oh, all right,” he acquiesced. “He can get inside the circle, but no others.” He waved a hand paw toward his ursine companions. “We're not wagons of the west to be circled around everyone for protection during the night.”

Kris smiled at his analogy and put a hand gently upon his arm. “Thank you, Gerard,” she said. She turned and looked back at two forms huddled on the other side of the fire and gestured them to come to her. Kevin approached her sedately, followed by his girlfriend, Rose. Both moved together on all fours.

“I still don't like it,” Rose whispered when Kevin knelt down in front of Kristen.

The young fennec fox was weary of the days-long argument the two of them had endured since their first night out. He turned to her, tired from their day of travel, and sighed audibly at her.

“Rose, calm down. I'm only going to be sleeping beside her, not sleeping with her,” he whispered. “Isn't that what you told me that you did with him?”

“Yes, but we weren't both the same species!” she hissed.

“I'm closer to you than he is, but you slept with him instead of me!”

“I slept beside him!” Rose bristled. “Besides, I was asleep – it's not like I turned away from you on purpose. I don't even remember doing it!”

“Calm down you two,” Kristen admonished them. She turned to Rose with a frown. “There are no ulterior motives here. This is simply a matter of safety.”

“Stay out of this,” Rose told her boldly. “If he's afraid of the dark, my sisters and I can surround him in our own little circle of protection.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Gerard muttered wearily.

“Please…” said a new voice.  Rose, Kristen and Kevin turned toward the fire and saw the diminutive fennec woman looking at them from her bed with moist eyes. Her pixyish voice had lost a lot of its character with that simple plea.

“Erin?” Kristen asked. “What do you need?”

The tan vixen wiped at her eyes with her good hand. “I don't like being the subject of a couple's argument,” she said quietly, “but I'm too shook up to sleep by myself. Please, Rose. Let him stay beside me tonight. You can have him back in the morning.”

The miffed red vixen glared at her for a long minute and then gifted Kevin with the same look. After a tense moment she stood up and looked down at them all. “Fine!” she spat unkindly. “You can have him. I'm done with him!” She turned on her toes and then stormed away into the darkness.

Kevin looked absolutely miserable, but he didn't make a move to go after her. Instead, he cleared his throat quietly and then moved past Gerard into the protective circle.  “Thank you,” he muttered quietly to him and Kristen together.

“I'm sorry,” Erin whispered when he knelt down behind her. “I really wasn't trying to come between you.”

Kevin sat down crossed-legged, not an easy task with digitigrade feet. He looked over her side toward the fire, rather than directly at her. “It's been like this for several days,” he muttered in a low voice. “It's not your fault.”

“It's going to be another long day tomorrow,” Gerard grumbled. “Can we all get some sleep now?”

Erin knew the bear was tired after a full day of uphill travel, but his words stung as if he had accused her of keeping everyone up on purpose. She sighed and sniffed at the moisture in the air, silently wishing her limbs would stop hurting.

“Good night,” she said quietly. Gerard mumbled a response and then became still.

Kevin unfolded his legs after a time, laid down behind her and curled up so that his tail draped across his nose, effectively hiding his face. Erin could feel his presence, so she shuffled backward slightly so that her back rested against his. He didn't say anything so Erin closed her eyes and tried to get some rest. 

*** 

When Erin awoke several hours later, the first thing she noticed was the throbbing in her arm and then a matching pain in her leg. She had curled up her good leg so that the knee was up against her stomach, but the injured limb was stretched out beneath her. The next thing she became aware of was an arm around her waist and a softly pointed nose resting upon her neck. Kevin's fingers were lightly stroking her belly fur, but she could tell from the depth of his breathing that her companion was still asleep. The two fennec foxes were spooned together, with his body aligned up perfectly against her, and in the coolness of the damp morning, Erin was comforted by his presence.

There was no one stirring yet, but the coals of the campfire were lightly hissing from misty rain that fell gently from the dark sky. When she opened her eyes and looked beyond the fire stones, she could see Arne standing guard over the sleepers, his broad shoulders up against a thick maple tree behind him. The sun had not yet lightened the sky much, but there was enough illumination that she could see the intent expression on the lion's face as he studied the shadows surrounding them.

For the first time since she had signed her contract with the Anthro Human Colonization Program, Erin was wondering if she had made the right choice by volunteering. There had never been a doubt in her mind until now, but the certainty of what she might face out there had been made all too real to her here.

For all intents and purposes, the Earth was tame. Mankind had thousands of years behind it to learn and shape its environs, but despite this, there would always be creatures that survived by killing and consuming others. The proverbial circle of life kept on turning, and last night Erin almost became a part of that circle in a violent manner.  That was the problem with a circle; no matter where you were on the food chain, something else would always be coming up behind you.

It had been a little over two years since she had signed her contract and it was long too late for her to back out now. What would be waiting for them out among the stars? Would they find a whole world to tame for themselves, or would the colonists turn out to be nothing more than an exotic meal for whatever predators lived there?  If she could be attacked by a common coyote here, what could she expect in a place where everything was unexpected?

Kevin mumbled something in his sleep, but otherwise didn't move. Despite her injuries and self reflection, Erin felt bad for the young fox. She was nearly a decade older that he was, but after the events of the night, she was reluctant to leave the safe feeling in his arms. Since most of the Furs still slept, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift back into slumber.  

*** 

It didn't take long for the rest of the Furs to awaken in the midst of the light rain that now fell upon the forest. Thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance and although traveling outdoors where lightning was a hazard was always dangerous prospect, Avon wanted to push on toward the Institute due to Erin's injuries. They were all anxious to get back home, but most would have preferred to wait out the day under the cover of trees from the rain.

Kim and Yuki used the miserable conditions of the weather to make another bid to abandon their return trip; they should seek out caves or other shelter right away, but just about everyone else was determined to get the injured fennec woman to safety before infection set into her wounds.

Ivan had not partaken of the fish or mice the night before and complained of being hungry as they set out alongside the river. “Ellie should have brought back the coyote she killed for the rest of us to eat,” he grumbled. “After all, it was going to eat one of us!

“I'm sorry you're hungry,” Avon said as he picked his way around rocks and brush, “but we don't have time to go stalking more game as we did before.”

The red fox tod looked behind him at the injured fennec; Erin rode upon the back of the grey wolf who had volunteered to carry her. She sat astride of him, her fingers clinging to his thick fur, her eyes closed as his natural gait swayed her gently from side to side. Abandoned by his own red vixen, Kevin walked beside Carl and Ellie with his head down.

“If you see any small game along the way you think you can take down quickly,” Avon continued, “go right ahead, but don't wander off too far from the group.”  

*** 

“We should be able to cross here,” Manny said with certainty.  The arctic fox stood upright knee deep in the middle of the river. The waters here were slow moving, although the banks were wide apart. They had only been walking for an hour before the waters grew calmer. They were now in a grassy valley between mountains, but still high above the region. With luck, the Furs would soon be able to begin a downward journey toward their destination, although the constant slow rain would keep things miserable.

“Go all the way across,” Michael called to him.  The foxes looked at one another for a moment, but then Manny shrugged and continued. The mountain water was cold and he was choosing his steps carefully, but so far he'd had no trouble getting across.  After several minutes, he stepped upon the banks of the other side and waved back.

“C'mon over!” he said with a grin. “There was nothing but a few minnows nibbling at the fur on my legs to worry about!”

“That's good enough for me,” Dante remarked. The white tiger was the next one who ventured across, but instead of walking upright as Manny had, the monochrome feline went boldly on all fours. Water soaked his belly fur, but otherwise his footing was solid on the river rock below. He made it across to the other side in good time and the rest of the Furs began crossing over several at a time. Rather than ride upon Carl's back in the water, Avon carried Erin upright on his shoulders far above the cold river that might have contaminants to infect her leg wounds.

As he had done for most of the journey, Jon brought up the rear, waiting until the last one was across before going himself. Bogged down in the water, even only knee deep, could prove hazardous if a predator chose that time to attack. The little valley was quiet in the rain, however, and they had all made it to the far side without incident.

Kristen shook off her feet as she looked around. There were signs that this side of the river had seen a forest fire sometime in the past. The area had recovered well with new growth, but there were barren dead trees and charred stumps everywhere in testimony of that event. Although she was no expert on forest fires, she conjectured from the size of the thriving plant life that it couldn't have been more than nine or ten years since it had occurred.

Travel should be easier without the dense underbrush they had gone through up the other side of the mountain. Now that they had finally circumvented the deep ravine, the faces of the Furs reflected a lighter attitude all through the group.

Encouraged by this, Avon waved a hand over his head for the journey to continue. This time they would be going predominantly downhill as they paralleled the river going in the opposite direction as they had come.  

*** 

I think I've lost more weight,” Kristen muttered, holding onto the waistband of her shorts.

“You don't sound too happy about it,” Travis remarked, idly rubbing his nose where the porcupine had stuck him. “Personally, I think you looked better with more meat on you, but I know you were never happy about your weight. You're looking pretty good these days.”

Kristen looked over at him with a raised eyebrow. After the coyote attack on Erin, it was too dangerous to go out alone, so the German Shepherd had accompanied her away from the group to search for more edible plants on their new route. She would have preferred the company of her new friend Raine, but as annoying as he could sometimes be, Travis was actually being helpful and pleasant.  Although he still seemed attracted to her, his sexual innuendos and blatant comments had ceased. Even the statement he'd just made was said in idle conversation, rather than the precursor to another attempt to bed her.  Perhaps the anthropomorphic changes they'd all gone through over the past months as well as their cross country journey had given him better manners. Either that or the long day of rain had dampened his spirits along with his fur.

Whatever the cause for the changes in his attitude, she welcomed it.  He was not the only one going through changes, however.  She hiked up on her waistband with another sigh.

“Thank you, Travis. That was sweet. Whatever is causing my weight loss has made my clothes too loose,” she said, leading him around a large clump of dense brush. “I almost feel like I'm wearing one of the stretched-out robes instead of my shorts!”

“Maybe it's just the exercise,” the canine suggested idly, taking a moment to sniff at a flowering bush for anything that might be edible. “We've done a lot of walking and our diet has changed, so I'm sure we've all worked off some of our weight in the process.”

“Maybe so,” the botanist agreed, “but it is difficult walking through the forest with one hand clutched to my shorts to keep them up.”

A smile crossed Travis' features, but he hid it from the feline. It had taken quite an effort to behave around her, so he didn't want her to think she had to be on her guard around him again. He'd even had to struggle to keep his tail from wagging on its own when she said something nice to him. The woman was more relaxed now during their foraging expeditions together than she had ever been since she'd known him.

There was little underbrush, but there seemed to be several fallen trees in the area. Kristen wandered over to one such tree that looked as if it had been down for some time, likely from the earlier forest fire.  Travis watched as she bent down beside it to peer beneath in its shadows, and then she abruptly stood up again in apparent excitement.

“Lycoperdon umbrinum!” she exclaimed in delight. She bent over the top of the horizontal tree trunk so she could reach something on the ground on the other side.

“Huh?” Travis replied absently as he stared at her backside.

“Puffball mushrooms!” she explained without looking back at him.  She reached over the tree with both hands to harvest her find, but when she let go of her loose-fitting shorts, the cloth hem below her tail slipped free and the shorts drooped to her knees.

 Travis blinked.  The woman didn't seem to realize that she had just bared her butt to him, and with her bent over the log and her tail up in excitement, the canine male suddenly got an unobstructed view of her feminine assets.

Travis swallowed with restraint, but then a feral grin spread across his lips. He was only a few feet behind her and it only took one wide step to reach her.  He grabbed her hips and abruptly thrust up behind her, trapping her against the tree.

Kristen yowled from the sudden physical contact, and although Travis had neglected to drop his own shorts in his rush to take her, she had no delusions on what he was trying to do to her. She shrieked and tried to push him away, but he grabbed the tree trunk on either side of her with both hands to keep her pinned in place, bent over in front of him.

Unable to push him back, and actually afraid of deepening the physical contact with him if she could, she twisted around frantically at the waist and raked her claws across the side of his neck. He yelped, but didn't release his hold on her with one arm while trying to get his furman shorts down with the other.

Kristen drove her head back fast with her eyes closed, striking the canine's forehead hard.  Travis stumbled back a step in a shower of visual sparks and it was all she needed. Jon wasn't there to save her this time, but she had weapons of her own now.

The mountain lioness hissed and clawed at his face and arms, and when he thrust a hand at her in defense with a growl of surprise and frustration, she sank her teeth down hard upon his wrist.

Travis yelled out in pain and then Kristen slammed a knee hard into his crotch, instantly immobilizing him. The canine fell to the ground with his injured hand to his chest and the other between his legs in agony.

Finally released, Kristen turned to run, but the shorts around her knees dropped to her ankles and threatened to trip her, so she stepped out of them and ran away as quickly as she could back toward the rest of the Furs, leaving Travis where he lay writhing on the ground. She didn't know how quickly he might recover, so she dropped to all fours and loped for the safety of the crowd.

The group was easy to find by the sound of their voices, but before she reached them, Aaron, Norman and Dara came running toward her through the underbrush, having heard her feline shriek and thinking the coyotes were on the attack again.

The cougar could barely see them through the moisture in her eyes and she launched herself for the first one she came to, wrapping her arms around him tightly.

“Whoa, Kristen!” Norman exclaimed. “What happened?”

“Yeah, and where's your shorts?” Dara asked.

“It, it, it, it, it…” Kristen stammered, letting her tears soak into the bear's chest fur. She gasped for breath and clutched him tightly.

“Calm down and tell us what happened,” Norman said in a soothing voice, stroking the fur on the back of her head.  Avon, Carl, Jon and Dante joined them just as Kristen tried again.

“It… it was Travis!” she managed to say, her words muffled in the bear's chest. “He tried... tried to rape me!”

“Travis!” Aaron exclaimed with a growl. “I'm gonna rip his head off!” He started toward the direction she had come from, but Avon grabbed his arm.  He looked at Aaron first, and then to Norman.

“Go find him and bring him back, but don't hurt him,” he ordered.

“No promises,” Aaron spat back defiantly. “I'm going to —”

“Jon, go with them,” Avon said in frustration. “Make sure they bring him back unharmed.”

Dara slipped in and took Norman's place to let him go. Kristen didn't care. She clung to the ursine woman and began to cry.

Jon gave the grizzly a dark look. “What makes you think I would want to do that?” he growled, casting his gaze toward at his shaken and naked housemate.

“Because you're going to do what's right,” Avon growled back at him. “Listen, you have one of the most responsible heads of anyone in this group. Use it.”

Jon glared up at the bear for another moment with his lips pressed together tightly, but then he nodded. “All right,” he muttered.  Avon's expression softened.

“Thank you, now go get him before he runs off somewhere,” he said.  Norman and Aaron both glared at the larger Ursis, but he was their official leader and when Jon trotted off into the woods, they turned and followed him.

When Avon turned back toward Kristen, Dante was pulling out one of the stretched out robes that he'd been carrying over his shoulders for the group. The garment was too big for her, likely once belonging to one of the bears, but the tiger tied its arms around his housemate's hips so she could be covered up. He'd graciously kept his gaze averted from her private region and Kristen gave him a grateful hug for his help; it wasn't the first time he had been there to cover her up when she was exposed.  She wiped at the moisture on her cheeks and Dante kept his arms around her for support; the cougar seemed about to collapse on weak knees.

Avon knelt down on one knee to put himself lower to her level. “What happened?” he asked softly. “Are you hurt?”

Kristen swallowed nervously and looked around at the worried faces surrounding her. She felt dirty and exposed, and folded her arms across her chest.

“I-I've lost some weight and my shorts were loose on me,” she began in a voice barely above a whisper. “I-I bent over a log to get at some mushrooms I'd found and I-I guess my shorts dropped when I let go of them. That's when… when… he attacked me… from behind…”

Dare swallowed. “Did he manage to—?”

“No,” Kristen interrupted her, looking down at her shaking hands. “I clawed his face before he could.”

“Are you hurt?” Avon asked again. “Physically?”

“Probably bruises beneath my fur,” the cougar replied quietly, “but otherwise I'm unhurt.”

The grizzly nodded and looked over at Dara and Dante. “Would you two take her to Jenni, please? I want her looked over, just in case.”

“Sure,” Dara replied. Dante simply nodded and turned Kristen away to go.  Avon got to his feet and took a couple of the stretched robes from the tiger before they departed.

“Just in time,” Carl muttered.  They all looked up to see Travis walking unsteadily through the trees toward them, both bears flanking him, each holding tightly to the canine's arms, one of which had a bloodstained wrist. Jon followed a few steps behind and all of them looked angry.

The German Shepherd was shoved down to his knees onto the ground in front of Avon. As soon as his arms were released, the canine held his injured wrist up to his bleeding face. Jon continued walking, but as he passed him, he growled lowly in a matter-of-fact voice, “Touch her again, Travis, and I'll break your neck.”

Avon glared at the mountain lion, but Jon ignored him and went on to check on his housemate.  The grizzly knelt down again and examined the bloody furrows on the German Shepherd's neck, face and arms. Kristen had raked him good, but Travis was fortunate one of her sharp claws had missed the carotid artery in his neck.

“Here, take this and press it against your wounds,” he said in a deceptively calm voice, handing over a scrap robe to the canine. Travis didn't look up at him, keeping his gaze down at the ground, but did as commanded. The injuries hurt and there was nothing else on his mind at the moment except for the pain.

“What are we going to do with this… coyote?” Aaron asked, spitting out the last word as if it were a curse. “He's just as bad as they are, preying on the women!”

“Why don't we just shove him off into the ravine and be done with him?” Norman suggested with a growl. “If anyone ever finds his carcass, they'll just think it was someone's deformed dog or something.”

Avon studied the canine for a long moment, but Travis wouldn't look up at any of them. “As tempting as that might be,” the grizzly said at last, “someone will have to watch him at all times so we can turn him over to Marcelo.”

“I'll take the first watch,” Aaron volunteered. “If he tries to run, that'll be all the excuse I need!”

They all liked Kristen and seeing what this cur before them had done to her made them all angry. Avon was no exception. Sometimes the responsibility that came with being the leader of a group could get in the way of personal feelings. He knew he had to keep the German Shepherd safe until he could be turned over to a higher authority, but that didn't mean he had to be nice to Travis.

Avon grabbed the canine roughly by an arm and Travis hissed in pain as the bear pulled him up to his feet. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Travis looked up from the hand causing his arm further agony and his dark eyes pored deeply into Avon's. “She'll have to watch over her shoulder from now on,” he spat out in a raspy voice. “One day I'm going to be there and she won't have anyone around to run to for protection!”

Aaron stepped in and punched Travis in the kidney. The canine yelped in pain; his legs went out from under him and Avon had to hold him up to keep him from falling to the ground.

Avon shot Aaron a dirty look, but the smaller brown bear simply shrugged and said, “Let's tie him to a tree and leave him for the coyotes.”

Travis was now unable to stand on his own, so Avon hoisted him up and draped him over a shoulder as if he were a large sack of potatoes. Travis gasped for air, undecided where he now hurt the most, but didn't struggle.

“Let's get him back to Ken so he can treat his wounds,” Avon said.

“Let's not,” Norman growled. “I vote we let him bleed out.”

Avon sighed audibly. His companions were not making things easier, but he couldn't tell them that he felt the same way as they did. For now, he had the responsibility to take Travis back to Marcelo, where he would be dealt with there, but if they had been on another world, what would he have done then?

It was a thought that would be on his mind for a long time.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.