Chilly Wolf didn’t really start thinking until after the fight. He’d made it to the cover of deep timber and plenty of brush, decided to adopt the insulting Chilly derogative as his permanent moniker in the same way cowboys had made an insult their own badge of pride long before cowboys were cool…and that was about it. Trot, pause, check backtrail. Trot, pause, check backtrail. On, and on, and on, past sunset and deep into the night, heading generally southeast, crossing streams and circumnavigating small lakes in either human or wolf form as the conditions required. It was heavy going for an obese young werewolf, but he kept at it.
Later, he’d realize the attack probably saved his life, got him fed, made him stop long enough to rest up and think things through. At the time, he wasn’t realizing much at all except that he was noticeably hungry. Water was no problem for a wolf in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; there was plenty of that. Food, however…Mom always had supper on the table promptly at six p.m. as the old man required. Man, what I wouldn’t give for a teriyaki burger right now. Plenty of packs of coyotes were howling; he could identify at least three within a one mile radius. One pack of wolves, too, but they were way distant. No need to worry about them, and coyotes always ran when they caught the scent of wolf.
Except when they didn’t.
He found himself distracted by an aroma that smelled positively delicious. Entirely without thought, he shifted course, moving toward the source of temptation. A coyote pack had something; the excited kill yelps sounded like what, half a dozen? Maybe not; two coyotes could sound like twenty when they really got going. He didn’t even pause when the trees suddenly ended, launching him into a small moonlit clearing. A small, moonlit, and bloody clearing. They had a goat–what idiot brought a goat out here in the woods? Some wannabe off grid survivalist with sawdust for brains?–and the top dog coyote had already torn out its throat. They got a goat, tore out its throat…dammit, Chilly, not the time for doggerel…or even coyoterel…. Even when the big boss snarly face coyote launched himself forward instead of fleeing as coyotes always did, he didn’t realize the thing would actually try to kill him. Not until the animal went for his throat, a shadow in the moonlight with extremely sharp teeth.
His wolf body saved him. Chilly Bronson the fat kid would have frozen in confusion and died on the spot; the dog coyote was big for a coyote, close to sixty pounds at a guess, and greasy fast…but, enraged at being challenged for its kill, the coy was also stupid. C.W. was definitely short, but he packed more than one hundred pounds into his roly poly body. Worst of all for the mighty goat killer, the boy had been trained to fight by werewolves. He’d never once whipped his older (and now dead) brother, but a natural coyote didn’t have a chance. When the old dog feinted for his face before darting to the side for a swipe at the wolf’s side, Chilly simply reacted as he’d been taught. His turn was far swifter than his opponent expected. They always underestimate the fat kid, he thought as his jaws closed on the big coyote’s neck, right behind the ears, covering the spine. Wolf jaws possess ten times the crushing power of the average domestic dog; he felt the vertebrae crunch between his teeth and that was that.
The rest of the pack suddenly remembered why coyote standard practice is to run away as fast as you can when a wolf shows up; they were gone from the clearing before their leader’s limp body hit the ground.
Halfway between the coyote carcass and the downed goat, Chilly shifted back to human form. Why, he couldn’t have said. He didn’t stay that way for long. The bloody goat didn’t look the least bit appetizing to a chubby twelve year old boy; better to consume what he could in wolf form…which, he realized with mixed relief and revulsion, appeared to be far less picky about such things as blood, gore, and entrails lying around.
Besides, he could probably take on twenty pounds of meat as a jet black wolf, enough to run on for several days if he must. Try that as a black haired boy!
Surprisingly, he found himself unable to take down more than an estimated fifteen pounds. What was happening to his basic gluttony? He was pondering this, trying to decide if he could or should attempt to gag down another mouthful or two of goat tartare, when he smelled the mountain lion. Time to go; he had no illusions about cougars. If he tried fighting one of them, at least a full grown one, he would die…and the big cat would probably die laughing. Of course, lots of people still doubted there were even any mountain lions living in Michigan these days, but they doubted the existence of werewolves, too. So there.
He left the remaining goat meat for the larger, more experienced predator, and moved on for another five miles or so, a terrible distance for a wolf trying to digest a decent meal but nothing at all to a human boy fearing pursuit by vengeful vamcritters.
By that time, the moon had set and cloud cover was gathering, blotting out the stars. Not even his wolfie super eyes could see well enough to be sure he wouldn’t step on a rattlesnake or some fool thing like that. He found a huge deadfall with a downright cozy little resting spot protected by three great branch stubs that kept the forest giant from lowering its massive trunk all the way to the ground. It might not have been a comfortable place for a human to den unless he was an old time mountain man, but for a wolf, it was pretty darned close to heaven. The death owls were hunting small rodents in the deep night, but that was no concern of his. He slept, perchance to dream.
When he woke, the sun was high in the sky, squirrels and jays dominating the general daily din of the forest. He was at peace except for needing to piss like a racehorse. Which he did, circling his nest in a sizeable circle to mark his territory, then lying back down to sleep again. That was tossing too much scent around. Part of him knew that, but dammit, he was tired…and he was relaxed, too, comfortable in his own furry hide for the first time in…well, pretty much forever. He napped, dozing, waking, repeating the process, until late in the afternoon, at which point he was finally slept out.
From that point forward, it was a matter of remaining hidden, lying beneath the fallen tree, head up, ears pricked forward and fully alert as he waited for sunset, sampling the scents carried on a breeze barely worthy of the name…and pondering the only two dreams he could recall.
Theodore Kraznick, old Lord Heartbite himself, in leopard form, lashing his poison tipped tail left and right, furious. Find the coward, he was saying. Money is no object. Some lackey–unidentified but male, brown hair, bland features–telling the Big Man, we can’t cover all the truck stops, sir; we need direction, please.
And the follow up dream. Mom herself, looking good but looking worried, too. Remember son, she says in her firm, clear, contralto voice, the psychic trackers cannot find your imprint on the Universe if you make no imprint in the first place. No strong emotion. If you maintain your balance, you will blind him. Her smile lines crinkled then, and she added, go south, young man; go south.
Lying there, waiting, his mind drifting, he finally realized what he’d missed. Of course the Biters would have major intel on him by now. He’d thought only of escape, refusing to think of the aftermath. But any smell tracker in the entire group–old Leopard Piss himself if it came to that–would be able to smell his wolf form. Which meant they now knew he could shift. He’d been angling more or less southeast, but instead of pointing westward toward Montana, he needed to run straight south for a long, long time. Days, maybe. Enough, at any rate, to convince any followers–his paranoia had him pretty well convinced there would be some of those after all–that he really was making a beeline for the border. The southern border. Mexico. His childhood homeland.
Looping out of route like that would cost him time, a week at least, but time was one thing he possessed in abundance. It would take the Heartbite Clan months to rebuild their attack forces. Years, maybe. At any rate, more than there was left of the summer. For now, time is my ally. I must not be afraid to use it. Use it or lose it. No hasty misstep; even one could kill me. He knows I can shift, so he’ll want me back more than he would have. Sucky situation, but it is what it is.
With the coming of deep dusk, Chilly resumed his journey. Strangely, he felt no hunger. Burying himself in comfort food as he’d done for most of his young life, he’d never believed the myth that a wolf could go for days, even a week, between meals. Slaking his thirst at the first tiny rivulet he encountered, he thought about that…but not for long. Wolf instincts were a fine thing, tuned to awareness of the environment. There were too many dangers out there, too many ways for a wolf to die or become seriously injured, which in most cases amounted to the same thing. In the bad old days, wolfers had hunted his kind–either natural or were–nearly to extinction, both in the United States and in Europe. The way his powerful jaws had crushed that coyote’s spine…that gave him new respect for the wolf killers. Wolves really were alpha predators.
I’m thinking too much, he realized. His mind, even in this furry form, was a difficult thing to tame. Still, his thoughts would likely have continued to run amok had it not been for the howl that suddenly pierced the early night. Terror, sadness, grief!
He froze, chills running down his back under his caped fur, hackles rising. Loss, pain, horror! The voice of a young wolf in serious trouble. Distress, agony, despair!
The emotional pressure was too great. Without thinking, Chilly howled back. I’m coming! I’m coming! So called scientific studies claimed to know all about wolf howls and what they meant. Yeah, right. His sense of direction, even in human form, was better than most; the wolf in distress appeared to be at some distance from his present location–a quarter mile away or perhaps a bit more–but directly along his intended route. That he was responding as a wolf to help a wolf…no, Dad would not have done that. Dear old dead Dad had been all about immediate family only, let the hide hunters take the rest, a fricking wild wolf was nothing but an animal. But then again, Daddy dearest was dead in Montana, eh? Screw you, old man. Not that he’d really want to do that; his father–alive or dead–was definitely not his type.
Paradoxically, the distress call sharpened his survival awareness. He did not rush blindly forward, not even when the distress howl sounded again. And again. And again. It might be a trap. He didn’t think so. Not really. How could the Biters have gotten ahead of him and known which way he’d be going? But he was a firm believer in Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.
The distress howler turned out to be closer than he’d thought, well under a quarter mile. He stopped cold for a long moment, staring.
She was a young female wolf, no more than a yearling at most, with golden eyes full of pain and fear and…hope? She stood smack dab in the center of the game trail he’d been following…and her right foreleg was crushed inside the jaws of a vicious steel wolf trap.
Chilly Wolf’s first thought was purely selfish: There but for the grace of God go I. He’d considered a whole lot of possibilities, dangers that could come at him from almost any angle, yet the thought of a human poacher setting a trap illegally–in this wooded area on this trail at this time of year it definitely had to be illegal–had simply never occurred to him.
But what to do about it? He approached the trapped youngling with a new level of caution, adding his human knowledge of the way trappers worked to his wolf instincts. There might be another trap lying in wait, eh? Crap. He knew he was a lot stronger than anyone realized, but he’d have to shift to human form to work the release bars…at which point the young female might totally freak out and kill him in her panic. She stared at him with pain filled golden eyes, clearly visible even by starlight. Shit; when he shifted, he’d be pretty much blind, too, compared to his wolfie night vision.
Ironically enough, it was the trap itself that inspired him to give it a try. Offset toothed type, he thought, fury rising. She’s kind of frozen in shock so far, doesn’t seem to have fought the trap hard enough yet to totally mangle her leg, but that can’t continue. She’s a wolf; her instinct will be to fight the trap, maybe even chew off her own leg. A wring-off, asshole trappers called it when an animal amputated its own foot in the name of freedom. I’d like to wring-off the neck of every bastard who ever set one of these. Whether the trapped female’s whimper was inspired by her situation or by the rage vibrations emanating from the blocky young male who’d come to call, who knew? He cared about nothing except his enemy, the uncaring–and, he noted, slightly rusty–steel.
Unbelievably, the wolf in the trap went utterly still, staring at the fat boy who’d materialized within reach of her jaws.
“I’m going to help you,” Chilly told her quietly. “Please trust me on that.” As if she had any reason to trust a human at this point. Slowly, carefully, he reached one booted foot forward, pressing much of his weight down on the release bar next to the jaws of death. No good; this was a double bar trap. He would have to put equal pressure on the other bar with his other foot. Still no good; even his chubby hundred pounds plus was not enough. This was a stout fricking trap. Absently, he noted that the offset teeth of the trap were actually blunt pegs, not like some of the old school types from earlier centuries. An uncaring part of his mind also logged the information that if the wolf lunged forward instead of leaning back away from the trap, she could swallow his genitals in a single bite. Unless the extra blankets he still carried wrapped around him like the paper mache layers of some demented hornet’s nest stopped her…he was simply not heavy enough, dammit; first time in his life he’d ever been too light. The frustration built inside him, fueled further by his promise to the trapped animal, amped exponentially by his stubborn fury that refused to accept defeat–not for him, but for this innocent creature. The toxic cocktail of emotions swirled, a tornado vortex of power…
…and for the first time in his life, Chilly Willy Bronson lost it completely. So I’m not heavy enough, eh? He knelt by the trap, focusing, the top of his head facing the wolf. Chubby or not, he’d been born with unusually large hands. Now, at age twelve, those hands were big enough, their fingers long enough, to wrap one grip around each looped-tongs release bar. Old school at that, maybe, not one of the close-to-the-jaws step-down-only newer versions. Whatever; it’s not like I’m an expert on wolf traps. Now, should the animal lunge, she would miss his privates–and take off his face. Lunge, hell; she could just stand up straight and we’d be touching faces. Ignoring everything else, he began flowing power, from the earth all the way up through his core and then down through his arms to his hands, concentrating the strength, increasing it slowly but surely…
…and the trap release tongs came together as easy as that.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t considered one thing. How was he going to spread the trap jaws to actually release the wolf’s leg? The spring tension was off, but he couldn’t relax for a millisecond, couldn’t use his thoroughly occupied hands to pull the jaws apart. What…? “Honey,” he said, the strain evident in his voice, “you might want to limp up here and see if you can slip a claw from your other front foot in there to pull at least one jaw away from your trapped leg, eh?”
Had he not been in a state of consciousness where nothing could surprise him, his eyes would have widened when she did exactly that, whimpering a little but still…it worked. The jaw on the side between her legs pulled away from her trapped limb, leaving little bloody marks that he sensed rather than saw. She whimpered again, pulling the wounded limb free from the remaining jaw, lifting the foot carefully free of the trap, and backing up rather hastily.
Chilly tried to let the tong loops spread apart slowly, but his otherworldly energy had suddenly run out. The jaws snapped viciously shut–on empty air. The palms of his hands felt bruised. “Good girl,” he told the freed wolf, who was sitting on her haunches, quiet now, her injured leg held up in the way of wounded creatures everywhere. “You really done good.”
Damn, it was good to be back in wolf form. For one thing, he could see again. He could, you know, smell stuff. Hear better. All of the above and more.
Wary of traps now–as he would be for the rest of his life–Chilly eased out around the sitting female and resumed his journey. At first, he was more than a little distracted by the soreness in his front paws. Yep; he’d bruised them against that trap releasing steel, all right. As soon as he could get safely clear of the trapline and find a secure nesting place, he was going to have to call it quits for the night; there was no point in injuring his traveling appendages any further. Besides, he noted, my new best friend seems determined to follow along. Miss Wolf was trailing him as best she could on three legs.
Save a life and you become responsible for it. That was the saying, wasn’t it? Or was it something about owning that life? Either way, oops, no good deed goes unpunished. Frankly, he wouldn’t mind having her furry company for as long as they had solid timber cover, but the day was coming when he’d need to go places no wild wolf could safely travel. This young one had obviously become separated from her pack, pretty much a death sentence at her age, right? So what was he to do about it? He needed to think, really think, a luxury he could not afford while on the move through hostile territory–and for a wolf, when you stopped to think about it, all territory was hostile. No, he’d need a place to rest up, safe from prying eyes. Take a day or two to really think things through. No matter the problem, there was always a solution, right?
Even so, he didn’t find a suitable spot until after midnight. They’d covered some miles, he and Miss Limpalong, though a ridiculously small number for traveling wolves. There were deadfalls here and there, but none to match his previous fort-up. He was getting spoiled, maybe. One little cave would have been perfect except for the rank smell of bear permeating the area. Then, his own bruised pads getting so touchy that he could no longer afford to be picky, he finally made a choice. The great boulder leaned against a mossy-faced mini-cliff, providing solid overhead protection. Both ends of the three foot wide passageway were open, but if he faced downwind, relying on scent to tell him if anyone was sneaking up from behind…yes. It would do.
Exerting himself to free his new tagalong and then covering miles of countryside on bruised pads…It took more out of me than I realized. He was asleep in seconds, waking only partially a few minutes later when the young female crept cautiously in beside him, her furry hide warming his own. That seemed right. He slept more deeply, coming fully awake to false dawn’s early half-light, trilling birdsong announcing the coming of a new day in the forest. He yawned mightily, only belatedly remembering he was not alone. Looking down at the sleeping form of the young girl wolf–
“Shit!” It came out as a yelp, of course, but enough to rouse the attractive and utterly naked human girl curled trustingly against his belly fur.