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SECOND CHANCE

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 20
Dragon Harvest

 

Thock!  Thock!  Thock!  The sounds of a lone axe echoed across the valley, but Ellie didn't know whose it might be.  Trees were being felled in the woods for use constructing new fences around the gardens with local lumber, but it only sounded as if one person was chopping right now.

The new mother sat just outside her den with a cup of local tea and a barely-touched, misshapen slice of toasted bread made from new flour, having finished breastfeeding her infant twins. Both were developing naturally with humanoid characteristics becoming more distinct each passing day. No longer looking like little more than wolf cubs, their arms and legs, fingers and toes were extending and shaping up, with also a little color showing up in their scalp hair. Both Carl and Ellie had been naturally blonde-headed in their youth and Jodie looked to have taken on this color atop her head. Jude's hair was darker, almost a chocolate brown, and was more reminiscent of the grandfather he'd been named after.

The little female was gaining weight, but her smaller brother didn't seem to be getting any bigger, something that concerned both of his parents. Jude seemed healthy enough, but he was only a little larger than he'd been on the day of his birth. He'd been the smaller of the two from the start, but with his sister's growth, the difference in size between them was now more apparent.

As much as she hated the term, the word runt kept creeping into Ellie's mind and she felt ashamed for thinking it.  She had tried to get Jude to take in more nourishment than Jodie, but he never seemed to want much and what he did consume didn't seem to make a difference.  From all signs, however, there didn't seem to be any other problems other than his smaller size.

Two weeks after the birth, the ears and eyes of both pups had only just opened, and both seemed to be alert to their surroundings.  Carl was concerned about how long it had been taking, but several had assured him that it would likely take about two weeks if they followed the natural progress of normal wolf cub development.  Ten days after their birthday, Jude and Jodie were both looking back at their parents with murky blue eyes and responding to their voices.

It had also taken some getting used to hearing the sound of the twins' little cries. Not quite the sound a human baby would make, but neither was it like a puppy either.  There were times in the middle of a sleep period when one or the other would cry out for attention that either Carl or Ellie would wake up in a panic at the unfamiliar sound, but they were both slowly starting to grow accustomed to it.

Thock!  Thock!  Thock!  The chopping sounds from the forest continued and were even a little comforting to the mother wolf. It was rhythmic and soothing in the quiet of the valley. Although experienced in hiking and camping trips away from civilization, without the continual noises of a city or even a small town, Second Chance could often be too silent for her tastes.  She kept expecting to hear wheels on pavement or the sound of aircraft in the sky, but here the only sounds came from birds, the wind and occasional voices of her fellow colonists.  The chopping of wood told her that activity was indeed in motion, and although it wasn't very loud, she welcomed it for her peace of mind.

Another sound interrupted her solitude, however.  She recognized Jodie's cries immediately and set her tea and toast aside to attend the needs of her child. 

*** 

“Giddy up, ya horny animal!” Aaron called out.  The longhorn bull had stopped again to graze at yet another patch of succulent grasses and didn't want to continue pulling his load. The brown bear sitting in the seat atop the wooden wagon whipped the reins up and down vigorously, but the hearty bovine ignored him while the tasty patch was consumed.

Hoon!

“What was that?” Ken asked, standing up on two feet to look above the ripe heads of wheat.

Hoon!  Hoon!

“I don't know,” Raine said, hopping up into the back of the four-wheeled wagon for a higher vantage point.  He looked out across the prairie with a frown. “Manny, Aldo and I heard that sound when we went exploring to the south,” he added.

“That's right, I remember that,” Aldo remarked. “Never did see what made it, though.”

“Gerard and I heard one also,” Aaron muttered, “but it was at a distance. Maybe it's just a bird or lizard of some kind.”

“I think that's what attacked the horned bird I injured,” Carl said distractedly.  He was standing near Horny's head, deftly avoiding the animal's long horns as the bull moved his head to and fro looking for the source of the call, the tasty grass now forgotten. “It's a predator of some kind.”

“That's not good,” Kevin murmured, looking around nervously.

“Everybody up into the wagon,” Carl directed. He, Ken, Aldo and Kevin scrambled up and joined Aaron and Raine, standing amongst the various items they'd successfully salvaged from the Magellan wreckage. The operation had gone well and according to plan, and although they didn't find as much to scavenge as they'd hoped, they were able to extract the ship's flight recorder.  Carl had also found a few engineering tools and parts he was hopeful would help him get the gyrocopter back in the air. The wagon was only partially filled with salvage, the rest making up their tools and remaining supplies.

“What about Horny?” Kevin asked, looking down at the large Texas Longhorn bull that Cheryl had nicknamed due to his impressive set of horns, as well as his enthusiastic demeanor toward the cows he serviced.

Ken crept forward past the brown bear in the driver seat and stretched out a hand toward the primary harness buckle attaching the bull to the wagon. “He's armed, but maybe he can defend himself better without this load.”

“Don't release him yet,” Aaron warned. “If he runs off now, we may never catch him and Cheryl would skin us all alive for losing her calf-maker.”

“Why didn’t she loan us a cow instead?” Ken muttered. “The females have the same long horns that he has.”

“Maybe he’s more aggressive enough to use them,” Aldo suggested.

“There!” Kevin whispered. “I see it!”

“Where is it?” Raine asked beside him, drawing an arrow into his bow. The fennec fox pointed out across the prairie and then the cheetah could see movement in the grasses even if he couldn't see what it was.

Hoon! Hoon! Hoon! The sound emanated from the disturbance in the grass directly behind the wagon.

What emerged from the grass made Carl's hackles rise. Its long face was relatively triangular in shape with a single horizontal nostril across its sharply pointed nose and a large auricle spread across the top of its head from earhole to earhole. Its short velvety fur was vertically striped in the same colors as the prairie wheat, giving it the perfect camouflage for its environment and its solid black eyes were intensely confident and alert to everything around it; in just seconds, the hoon's eyes had tracked to the bull and each of the Furs, marking all their positions. Its mouth was open, revealing an impressive set of cutlery, though its short tongue didn't extend beyond them. Roughly the size of a Great Pyrenees mountain dog, it stood on four long though thick legs and it possessed a magnificent brush of tail fanned up over its back. It had the look of an experienced predator that was used to taking down prey larger than itself.

Carl swallowed hard, immediately remembering how terrified the large injured hornbird had been when one of these creatures had attacked it on his previous trek back from the Magellan wreckage.  Ken reached out and quickly unbuckled the bull's harness, and Horny took advantage of the freedom to turn and face the new predator.

The hoon extended its neck and a new cry issued from its throat, sounding somewhere between a cross of wildcat and feral dog that set the teeth and nerves of the Furs on edge.  Horny lowered his head canted to one side so that a point was lined up with the other animal and he stamped the ground with a warning snort. The hoon narrowed its eyes at the display, but didn't back down. It advanced with confidence and flexed its jaws.

Thunk!

The feathered shaft of an arrow entered the back of the hoon's neck and extended through its throat, pinning it to the ground, but that barely slowed it down. The animal thrashed around making an ear-splitting shriek of pain and rage, jerking the shaft and its head up from the ground to look at Raine, who was scrambling to load another arrow in his bow.

Horny was momentarily ignored as the hoon had a new target and its muscles bunched up to leap into the wagon. Before anyone could do anything, it launched itself up toward Raine but misjudged the cart’s railing. It scrambled for purchase to pull itself up and the cheetah whacked it hard across the face with the frame of his compound bow. The hoon jerked back, but didn’t lose its grip on the wagon, so Raine changed tactics and stabbed at its eyes with the end of the arrow still in his other hand. He missed hitting those fierce orbs, but the snarling animal dropped back to the ground to gather itself for another attack.

Distracted and in pain, the creature wasn't ready for the sudden charge of the bull. The end of one of the long horns caught the hoon's flank and went deep; the animal was carried away several yards before the bull stopped to shake its massive array. The predator slipped off to the ground, but determination got it back up onto its feet.  Horny snorted and readied for another charge.

Unwilling to allow the new predator to do even a little damage to the bull with teeth or claws, Aldo fired off an arrow of his own.  This one penetrated the animal's rib cage; it yelped and staggered, but then leapt up toward the wagon again – only to be knocked backward by a powerful blow from an ursine paw.

Enraged, it glared up at the brown bear that peered over the side of the wagon at it, but Raine loosed another arrow and this time it went through the predator's eye. The hoon jerked sideways from the force of the impact and flopped over in the grass, one paw twitching for only a moment before it fell still and stopped breathing.

“Holy cow!” Aaron exclaimed.  “It took Horny and three arrows to stop that thing!”

Ken jumped out of the wagon and landed beside the still beast, but then he turned back toward the spooked bull. The Longhorn was still standing ready to fight in case the hoon got up again, but the red wolf approached him with quiet movements with both hands stretched out toward him.  Horny allowed the familiar figure to get near him when the hoon predator stayed down, and only relaxed when his hand stroked the Longhorn’s forehead.  The bull regarded Ken with a proud bovine expression, looking triumphant and full of himself.

With a nod, Ken took a handkerchief from a pocket and calmly wiped away thick blood from the end of the horn. He then took Horny's harness and helped maneuver him back into place while Carl, Raine, Aaron and Aldo all crawled out of the wagon to take a closer look at the hoon. Only Kevin stayed up high and off the ground, adrenaline coursing and heartbeat still rapid as he panted away his terror.

Raine put a tentative hand on the hoon's chest, feeling for a heartbeat, but the critter was lifeless. “We've got to take this thing back with us,” he said, looking at Carl. “Jon and Dr. Mochizuki will both want to see it.”

“What if it wakes up in the wagon with us?” Kevin inquired with a frown.

Aaron reached out and grabbed one of the arrow shafts protruding from the beast's body.  He gave it a good shake, but there was no response.  “I don't think you have to worry about that, kid,” he said.  “It's dead now.”

“Oh, okay.”  The small fox didn’t sound convinced.

Aaron picked up the hoon with a grunt and carried the body over to the back of the wagon. He flipped it over up against the Magellan's flight recorder and Kevin retreated to the front seat of the wagon.  The bear crawled back up and smiled at the fox when he took the seat beside him.  Ken handed the bull's reins up to him with a nod.

“Okay, let's get moving back to base before one of that thing's relatives comes looking for him,” Carl directed. Aldo jumped up into the wagon to keep an eye on the hoon and Raine handed him his bow. He and the rest followed alongside, down on all fours again. 

*** 

Jon watched quietly as Aaron carried the corpse of the hoon over his shoulder up to Dr. Mochizuki for examination, but then he turned back to the Magellan party.

“I'm glad you're okay,” he said to them. “Aside of the omnivorous pigs, this is the first real predator we've seen since we got here, and I'm thankful none of you were hurt.”  He clasped his hands and then rubbed them together with a smile.  “Now, let's see what you brought back from the ship.”

Kevin hopped back up into the wagon with a grin.  He pulled a box across to the side where Jon looked on curiously. “I found the kitchen,” the young fox said. “There was a lot of damage, but I did find a bunch of utensils I thought Kim and Yuki could use.”  He held up a scorched metal spatula with a melted handle that might have been plastic at one time. “They'll need some cleaning first, though, and maybe someone can carve them a new wooden handle for this one.”

“I found a stand-alone, claw-foot bathtub made of fiberluminum that was still in decent shape in the captain's quarters within the forward gravity drum,” Raine said, leaning against one of the wagon wheels. “I wanted to get it, but no one else would help me unbolt it from the deck and take it back out to the wagon.”  The cougar grinned at the cheetah's sour expression. “Just imagine, Jon — relaxing in a tub of fire-heated water up to your shoulders to wash the dirt and grit from your fur!  Bathing in the river is fine if you like cold spring water, but I miss a hot bath!”

“I agree that sounds great,” Jon admitted, “but I'm sure it would have been a hassle to bring it back.”

“Can I go back to get it later?” Raine pleaded. “If you let me do this, I'll let you have the first bath!”

The mountain lion laughed. “We'll see.”  Raine smiled with a triumphant nod. His captain's response hadn't necessarily been negative, so perhaps there was still a chance.  He and the others pointed out other items that could have value to someone in the camp, but it wasn't until Kevin rolled what looked like a black and orange pumpkin over to the side of the wagon to him that the cougar's eyes lit up.  Like most everything else they'd brought back, there were signs of damage, age and weathering on the object, but according to the original specifications, the Magellan's flight recorder should have survived it all.

Jon reached into the wagon and picked up the basketball-sized sphere as a crowd began to gather around the wagon. “I'm going to take this and see if the data on it is still accessible by the equipment we brought,” he said. “I’ll need copies of all the notes and photos you took, but for now, you all have fun with your scraps!”

The others started fielding questions about their experiences with the gathering Furs, but Kristen fell into step beside her mate.

“Maybe now we can find out what really happened,” she said hopefully.

“It's definitely a mystery that a lot of people back home would like cleared up,” Jon agreed.

“Did the guys find any bodies?”

The lion shook his head. “They found the remains of some of the livestock still in cryo tubes, all long dead, but none of the people. Remember that we were revived in orbit before the Meriwether Lewis started its landing, so the Ferdinand Magellan probably followed similar policy. Even though Carl had help with him this time, it was the same as when he reported his earlier investigation. They found none of the crew or passengers. Scavengers probably disposed of the bodies a decade ago. The fuselage was split open and so were the cargo bay doors, all above that deep crevasse. 

“If we were to rappel down into its depths, we would probably find a lot of detritus from the crash piled up below, but from what they could see, it looked practically bottomless. Raine said he dropped a rock into it but never heard it hit anything below. That just means it could have soft landed in sand or on vegetation, but they didn’t have any lights strong enough to penetrate that darkness to its bottom. Maybe someday the AHCP will send a ship to investigate with the proper equipment, but for now it's best left alone.”

He and Kristen walked up the path to the cavern and then to the dome they shared.  He set the sphere on the floor beside their table and left the room to get the equipment he would need from supply. While he was away, Kristen peeled off her coveralls and shook them outside in the cavern. She's spent the greater part of the day in the gardens and had soil all in them.  When she moved back inside, she opened a chest of drawers and pulled out a set of furman shorts.  She put them on and was adjusting the strap across the back of the waistband over her tail when Jon returned.

He saw her topless state, and although she was well covered up by her fur, he couldn't help but admire her figure. He remembered back to the time when they'd first met and how touchy she had been about her weight. She'd been a little plump then, but nothing he would consider fat, though her self-image had been different than how everyone else had seen her. Now as an anthrofelis mountain lion, her weight was more evenly distributed and she was even rather cute.

She winked at him and then slipped on one of his oversized tee shirts, eliciting a verbal sigh from her mate. Kristen laughed and then pulled up a chair when he set a small metal box upon the table.  He opened its top and pulled out four cables from the lid.  Matching color coding, he plugged the cables into corresponding jacks in the box unit and then knelt down on the floor to plug the others ends into the flight recorder.  The receptacles were corroded, but Jon scratched off enough residue with his claws that he finally got a good connection.

He thumbed on the power of the tabletop unit and the flight recorder resonated with a low hum. There were no lights or other sounds from the sphere, but a small screen on the metal box went through a series of startup commands synchronizing a signal between the two devices.

The sphere suddenly made a high-pitched whine that made both cougars wince. It was at a frequency that humans probably couldn't hear, but as Furs it was painfully noticeable. The small screen on the box suddenly filled up with seemingly random code, but whatever it was receiving from the flight recorder was being stored within its own memory crystals.  It was meaningless to Jon and even a little disappointing, but once it was finished, he would hook the box up to the com unit and transmit everything in a concentrated data burst back to Earth. Perhaps someone within the AHCP would be able to make sense of the information.  

*** 

When Carl returned to his dome, he found Ellie kneeling beside the baby crib they'd fabricated from spare materials. It was simple in design without any frills but it served its purpose.

“Hello, sweetie,” he said in a near whisper to keep from waking the children.  Ellie jumped and looked over at him with startled eyes. She'd been so preoccupied with her thoughts that her sensitive hearing and olfactory senses hadn't informed her of his return.  She blinked and looked over at him and it was then he saw that her eyes were moist.

“Hello,” she whispered back, wiping at her cheek fur with her fingers.  “How was your trip?”

“Just a little eventful,” he said distractedly. He reached out and brushed bangs from her forehead. “What's the matter?”

She dipped her head and then looked back at their children.  “It's Jude,” she said quietly. “He's stopped eating and he's too small as it is.”

Carl frowned and moved over to the crib. Just looking in over at the cubs, it was easy to tell them apart.  Jodie had a greater size than her brother, who was too thin even for his smaller frame.  They both slept, each curled around the other, but they were a mismatched pair.

The male wolf reached out and lightly stroked the fur behind his son's ear. “When was the last time he's had any milk?” he asked quietly.

“Yesterday morning.  He's refused all offerings since then.”

Carl studied his children for a moment, but then he pulled off his furman shirt and set it aside.  He gently scooped up the smaller one in his hands and then held him close to his chest fur.  The little boy sniffed at his scent for a moment and then let out a small sigh, but otherwise didn't make a sound as he snuggled up to his father's warmth.

Carl rocked back and forth and lightly stroked the fur along Jude's back with a finger.  The small cub opened his mouth and curled his little pink tongue in a wide yawn and then buried his nose against his father's fur.

After long patient moments, the papa wolf looked over at his wife and mate. “Make another offering,” he whispered.  Ellie raised an eyebrow, but opened her furman top without comment.  Carl handed the little one over to her and she laid him across the crook of an arm with his head at her breast.  Almost immediately, Jude began to suckle.

Ellie watched in wonder and then glanced over at her husband; he looked incredibly pleased with himself.  “Daddy's little boy,” she remarked with a twinkle in her eye.  “He must have missed you while you were away and lost his appetite.”

“See? I told you I should have stayed.”  Carl smiled and then leaned in close. “I missed all of you,” he said. He gave her a quick, affectionate lick on the cheek and then slipped an arm around her waist. There was a small whimper from the crib, so he turned toward his daughter and picked her up with a relaxed smile. 

*** 

Aldo was having a contented nap on a bed of moss beneath a tree in the woods the next afternoon.  It had been a long, full day of work with a team setting fence posts around the garden and he had taken his first sleep period out in the forest instead of going back to the cavern. The spring weather was comfortable, and even in the heat of the day the shadows of the woods were pleasant.

He'd been having good dreams lately, most about Cheryl. With both of them having been raised in country settings, they were kindred spirits and he was quite fond of her easy smile, sense of humor and her work ethic. They had not hooked up in the time they'd known one another, but he was generally shy by nature and had not initiated anything beyond a friendship. That didn't stop his dreams, however, and he'd often wished he could bottle them up to experience again later.

One such dream involved nothing more than a camping trip with just the two of them, but just as things were about to get interesting, a dark malicious entity permeated the dream and attacked with such violence that he came awake with a start.

The nightmare didn't necessarily end there. A strong, fear-filled scent assaulted the bloodhound's olfactory senses and he involuntarily shivered all over.  This wasn't the first time he'd smelled that scent and he was suddenly afraid.

He scrambled up onto all fours and looked around.  He, Manny and Michael had experienced such a scent out on the prairie far to the south that led to a desolate region of sandstone caves and gullies. They'd never seen what had set their fears on edge and had beaten a hasty retreat before they found out.  Aldo had often wanted to go back with an armed party to see if they could ferret out what it might be, but duties and responsibilities around the colony had never really presented an opportunity.

He was suddenly aware that he was alone in the woods with something whose scent alone frightened him. Straining his ears, he realized that it had also grown completely quiet around him. There were no bird calls, no rustle of tiny furball feet amongst the leaves on the forest floor and even the buzz and clicks of insects were absent. The air itself was even still and he was unable to determine which direction the scent originated.

The bloodhound swallowed with difficulty and began making his way back toward the little horseshoe valley, the hackles along his back seemingly standing up in permanence. He had no way of knowing if he was being stalked, so he stretched out his senses and tried to detect anything malevolent that might be nearby.  He tried to keep his steps through the woods as quiet as he could while simultaneously making haste.

As he got closer to the colony, he finally began seeing movement through the trees. The wildlife they'd had in abundance in the valley was rushing away as if making an exodus, and that thought alone filled him with dread.  The fear scent had permeated the air and it was making everything afraid.

What kind of critter could instill such a reaction in every living thing? Aldo thought to himself.  He had once called the unseen creatures dragons, and although it had been said in jest, terrible visions of giant fire-breathing lizards kept coming to mind.

When he reached the edge of the clearing, the bloodhound saw several things at once. Cheryl and Arne were in the corral frantically trying to gather up livestock that were frightened and trying to get past them to escape up into the barn. Other Furs were running and loping as fast as they could for the cavern and there were several lined up at the top of the path already armed with bows and rifles.  In spite of the panic that was rampant across the little valley clearing, there was one thing that seemed especially out of place.

All the lil-deer that had recently tripled in population were calmly milling around the clearing. They weren't eating the grass or flowers and none were frolicking around as usual, but they all seemed to be waiting for something with their ears and little tails up; there was none of the fear or panic in their little faces.  All of the rest of the wildlife had vacated the area, leaving the little deer to themselves to wait… but wait for what?

Aldo began to shake and shiver from fright.  He felt an overwhelming need to rush up to the presumed safety of the cavern, but he couldn't make his legs work.  The fear scent was stronger now and he felt rooted to the spot right between the close trunks of two large twist-oaks.

It was then he saw them walking purposely through the underbrush of the woods to his left; it was the originators of the scent that made just about every living creature mad with fear just from the smell alone.

Twice the size of the largest thunderpig, these dragons looked like a crossbred creature with a leonine and crocodile-like body with rough shaggy fur.  Each one, and there were two of the things, had a head that was vastly oversized, impossibly making up nearly a third of its massive overall length. That great head was upon a thick neck with seemingly exaggerated shoulder muscles that had to be necessary to support such weight. One was larger than the other, and the smaller of the two creatures was nearly twelve feet high at the shoulder with an overall body length two and a half times its height.

Aldo could see long, curved talons on its fore-paws that flexed in and out with each step of sturdy legs. There was a short, but thickly bulbous tail behind powerful back legs that didn't cover much but seemed to act something like a counterweight for that massively huge head.  Both creatures walked boldly to the edge of the clearing and then stopped, looking out at the population of lil-deer with intense, fathomless black eyes.

Each opened its mouth and Aldo felt overwhelmed by another strong wash of the fetid scent. He felt petrified, his claws digging deep into the rough bark of the tree he was pressing his face against and he could feel his muscles quivering. The teeth within those mouths were long, hooked and inward curving, perfect for holding onto prey.  It was the most frightening thing he had ever seen, whether awake or in the midst of a terrible nightmare.

Despite the top-heavy appearing heads and ungainly looking bodies, the dragons suddenly surged forward with speeds that would have rivaled Raine in a flat-out run. They charged forward with their maws open, issuing such a roar that made the ears hurt and it only took an instant for the two of them to charge right into the midst of the lil-deer.

The resulting slaughter was violent and messy. The dragons slashed at the their prey with their talons and chomped down, sharp teeth and powerful jaws severing them nearly in two with the first bite; chewing was fast, open mouthed and bloody as they ripped and shredded the oily meat and crunched bones with little effort. When one deer was consumed, a dragon moved swiftly to another, sometimes gutting two deer at the same time.

Through the carnage of the attack, however, the deer never ran or tried to escape. It was as if the fear scent kept them as rooted to the ground as it did to Aldo.  It was a one-sided affair and the Furs up in the cavern could do nothing but stare in horror at the scene played out below that seemed to go on and on. Even those who were armed never pulled their weapons up to bear.

In its feeding, one of the dragons made its way near the corral, and for a moment it looked as if it might go for the cattle – or for the fear-stricken Cheryl and Arne – but the great creature wasn't interested in any of them.  It seemed as if its appetite would be satiated only by the little, foul-tasting deer.  It simply looked over the fence at the cowering Furs and livestock for a moment, its large nostrils taking in their scent, but then it turned its hideous countenance back toward the lil-deer to gorge again.

The feeding went on, but after a time, both dragons slowed and eventually filled to capacity. The larger one moved across the field to its mate, and in an odd, affectionate way, they nuzzled one another for a moment.  Then as if by signal, they turned in unison and ambled slowly through the remaining deer out to the forest, walking Meriwether Lane on a path that would take them out to the prairie.

Several moments after they had gone, sound and movement slowly returned to the little horseshoe valley. Birds of all kinds began screeching and chattering amongst themselves in such a din.  The remaining little deer seemed to come out of a daze and began moving away from the bloody carnage left spread out all across the clearing, and as they congregated on the far side, Aldo noticed that there only seemed to be about a third of the little darlings left, most of them the young ones.

Perhaps this was the natural course of things here. The lil-deer must have a population explosion every spring and the dragons thinned them out again. There was no way of knowing if it only happened in this little valley, but more likely the dragons moved from oasis to oasis to harvest them as an annual staple to their diet.  Perhaps the oily substance in the meat was necessary to the health and rearing of young dragons.  It was all supposition, but these thoughts whirled through Aldo's mind as he, too, came back to his senses.

There was shouting from the cavern and he could see Jon giving orders to a small crowd. Within a moment, Hank, Norman, Aaron, Raine and Manny set off toward Meriwether Lane at a run armed with rifles and bows slung across their backs.  He doubted they were charged with killing the massive beasts, but more likely it was to make sure they had indeed gone away and wouldn't return anytime soon.

It was fortunate that the dragons had been uninterested in anything but the deer. Remembering how difficult the fight had been against the thunderpigs, Aldo was certain they had nothing that could have stopped these things from destroying everyone if they'd set themselves upon the flesh of furmankind.

This line of thought made Aldo wonder if the fear scent would also stop a thunderpig in its tracks as it had everything else.  If the colony survived another year in this place, it was unlikely that anyone would want to be near the lil-deer herd the next spring. What would happen if the Furs' children were out playing amongst them the next time the dragons returned? Would the kill-frenzy blind the hideous beasts so that they ate anything else that might be in the mix?  That could explain the mass exodus just before the harvest.  The dragons ate only the deer, but nothing else wanted to be caught up by mistake. 

*** 

It took the rest of the day and most of the long night to clean up the mess. Blood, bones, hair, bits and scraps were strewn all over the clearing and no one wanted the smell to attract scavengers and other predators to their camp. A large pit had been dug and the remains were piled up inside, but then a fire was set to it all when the winds were favorable to blow the smoke away from the mountain cave. Once it had all burned to ash, the pit was filled in again.  They could do nothing about the blood splattered all across the grass, but myriads of birds and furball mice braved the smoky valley to consume what they could.

Three days following the lil-deer harvest, things began to settle into routine once again.  The dragons had been followed out a short distance across the prairie and it appeared that they were well on their way toward the north without even looking back.  With luck, they wouldn't be seen again until the next spring.

Jon and Carl were sitting on the bank of the lake late into the night, quietly discussing a change of plan the cougar originally had concerning the survey of surrounding lands. He'd thought long and hard about the discussions others had been having about the hills to the east and was in favor of focusing a survey in that area. The conversation was well into plans when a heart-rending wail echoed from the cavern. 

The wolf jumped up with instant dread and began running toward the zigzag path with Jon fast on his heels. They passed others who had reacted to the cries and didn't stop until they reached the wolves' geodesic den.

Jon hesitated at the door, but Carl rushed inside.  Ellie was on her knees beside the crib, wailing with great wracking sobs as she clutched something to her bosom.

Carl knelt beside her with a lump in his throat, and when he saw what she held, his own dam of emotions let loose.  The little form of Jude lay still in her arms, tiny blue eyes unseeing and jaws partially open without a breath between them.

The little boy had been weak from the start, but despite his parents' best efforts to nurture and care for his health, it wasn't enough. Carl and Ellie both sobbed as other Furs gathered outside their door, but the noise and anguish woke up the remaining twin.

Jodie cried out in the darkness for attention. Ellie was unwilling to release her son, so Carl made himself get to his feet to pick up his daughter.  He gathered her up in his arms and then sank again beside his wife. He didn't even bother to quieten the little girl so that the three wolves could cry out in distress together.

After several long moments of suffering, two of the cries merged into mournful howls, and then in her own high-pitched little voice, two-week old Jodie learned to howl that night.

NEXT CHAPTER

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