The village is quieter than Lark can remember. None of the human vehicles meander along the roads, swerving with the intemperance of their drivers, as they normally do at this hour. At the close of the typical human day of sliding around their cleared mountain slopes, they take to revelry in their gathering dens. This ritual closes with a lot of sliding around on the highways instead.
On this night, there has been no revelry. Lark keeps as close to the road as he can, without being spotted by the men. He knows of several trails that lead to crossings, but every one of them means a compromise. It adds a measure of time to thread his way through the undergrowth of the darkened wood, but staying out of sight is imperative.
Lark passes behind houses, each of them dark, showing no sign of occupation. Some are open to the night, their doors torn or removed completely. Vehicles stand empty along roadsides and in driveways. Some of them have caromed deep into the gullies away from the hardtop. These sit devastated with scars given by the boulders and trees on their paths. One even remains running, its lights fading to a dull yellow.
To Lark, these open dwellings and conveyances invite larceny, or at the very least exploration. The pack could feast for a week on the entrails of a well-stocked coldbox found in these human dens. But a wolf’s sense of irony is keen enough to understand the ease of an opportunity is equal to its danger. He leaves the open houses be.
In the center of the village is a large pond, created by man, alongside one of their largest structures. Lark chooses a narrow, well-wooded spot to cross the hardtop, and gets as close as he can to the building. A long bridge, wide enough for two of Lark’s pack to cross together, reaches from the far bank to where he crouches behind manicured junipers and azaleas.
The dark shadows of men move slowly alongside the structure’s walls, carrying their firesticks low at their hips. Voices are heard from the dens inside. Sometimes shouts and irate tirades, but mostly whispers.
There is a great deal of anguish here. Lark cannot decipher the human speech, but he can sense it.
A group of men suddenly emerge from the building, carrying something heavy. The large white cloth they bear nearly drags along the pebbled path. A deep red bloom collects and grows around its middle, and Lark does not mistake the smell. The men struggle to drag the cloth to the edge of the pond, where they release it. Exactly the object Lark expects to see rolls into the calm water - a human. A female.
Lark senses something else, and finds his suspicion confirmed when two dogs exit the building. Huskies. They immediately sense him, and turn their heads across the pond, growling. The men holding the tethers lurch forward as they pull angrily against their restraints. Suddenly, one breaks free of his master’s grip and drives headlong across the bridge.
Flushed out, Lark bolts from his hiding spot. The men on the other side are shouting now, and the other dog is set free. Lark darts along the pond’s edge and heads back toward the road crossing. The dogs reach the end of the bridge and accelerate through the snow. As Lark dives into the woods across the highway, they are only seconds behind.
The men come running well back of the huskies. Lark hears a shot ring from a firestick. There is another bang, then shouting. No more shots come while Lark runs through the woods behind the human dwellings.
The dogs are keeping pace, and the men will easily be able to follow his tracks. Lark knows he must break his pattern. He sees a shattered entrance into one of the houses, and races across the clearing into the open doorway.
He is in a dark enclosed space, paneled in the false wood sheets the humans enjoy building their dens from. Lark jumps into a cavern where risers climb to the chambers above. This is an opportunity. He reaches the top of the steps and crashes forward, tearing open the large silver casing that contains the humans’ food.
As he hears the dogs enter the space beneath, he lunges into the box and collapses the metal racks. Bottles full of every kind of sticky liquid hit the hard, slick floor and explode across the room. There is no meat, so Lark lashes at the second door. He is rewarded when ham, chicken, and steaks tumble out, sliding to the feet of the two large huskies standing in the doorway.
Lark is larger, but these two are well trained. They growl. In the open lot below the window, Lark can hear several humans running toward the house.
He has one advantage. He is untrained. Lark has never been rewarded with beef cuts for barking on command. These dogs are not wolves. He can feel their confusion as they drool over the meats. He raises the fur on his collar and bares his teeth. The huskies are terrified, but they stand firm. They mimic Lark’s display, and rather pathetically, he notes.
Lark lowers his guard and fades back, lowering his head. A submissive maneuver. The dogs are thoroughly confused, and as they move toward him, Lark noses the meats. A large roast rolls toward the dogs.
The quality of their training is top-notch. The huskies ignore the food and move closer. Lark can hear the men entering the house, stumbling in the darkness below. He rises once more and bristles, growling this time with terminal menace.
The dogs cower. Their choice is clear. Attack and die, or stand down, and feed.
As they hesitate, Lark turns and bolts for the far end of the building. He dives through an open window and heads for the end of the lane. Beyond this human neighborhood is the head of a ridge leading to Flat Mountain.
Behind him, he can hear yelling as the men prod their dogs into action. He can also hear their yelps, as whatever the men use for prodding are employed. How grateful to not be a dog, he thinks.
Lark dodges into the snowy woods and heads for the side of the ridge. He passes an open clearing where the men have been robbing the woods of their trees. As the wolves of the past told it, the men once denuded the valley much more completely than the limited stands they work now. The damaged streambeds and scoured hillsides still show the marks left by their unbound culling of the forests.
Near the head of one of the clearings, Lark passes a small hut, not a human dwelling, but a small metal structure they haul around on wheels. He notices something. A sound. He stops in the open lot near the building. There are smells here that don’t belong. He hears a voice inside the metal box.
A door opens, and a man steps out. He holds a firestick. Lark can hear another voice from inside, then two, and a small human head pokes from the doorway. It is one of their cubs. A female. Her blond hair curls below her shoulders, and Lark can easily make out the redness in her eyes. She has been whimpering like a fox kit. The man hastily blocks the door and kneels to the small creature, whispering.
In the distance, Lark can hear the dogs barking. His tracks lead right to this place. He knows he can escape if he moves now, but he stands frozen in the middle of the lot.
The man hears the dogs, and turns away from the building. Suddenly, he stops and stares firmly at Lark. Their eyes lock. Wordlessly, the man nudges the cub inside the door, and a human female looks out through the opening. She follows the man’s gaze to the wolf, and is about to open her mouth wide, when the man holds up a hand, extending one finger before his lips. The woman draws the child inside, into the darkness.
These humans have escaped capture, Lark realizes. He cannot lead the men here. With a slight bow of his neck, he turns and heads back along his track. Behind him, he can feel the man’s gaze following. He hears the dogs drawing closer. They are on a collision course now.
Lark runs straight back along his track until he can stand to close the gap no longer, and drops into a ravine leading toward Lost Pass. The dogs are louder now, and he can sense them as they pick up the new trail. Lark leaps across the stream and scrambles up the far bank. The dogs have reached the top of the ravine, and he hears another shot ring out, but it is not a firestick. Instead, it sounds like a loud tap.
It rings out again, and something grabs Lark’s right hind leg. He rolls over and howls in pain. The grabbing sensation is accompanied by something else, not pain, but equally debilitating. He gathers his feet and runs again, hobbled by the tug of a wire, much like the devil wire he found himself entangled in a few years past.
Lark looks back. There is no wire, but he sees the huskies rising to the trail, mere yards away. He jumps to his feet and starts hobbling along. The dogs are upon him. This changes the game.
Lark leaps at the neck of the first dog. The husky ably dodges away from his snap, and the other dog takes a sharp bite at Lark’s hind leg. Lark sweeps his rear claws across the face of the second husky, and it whines as it rolls into a small rivulet by the trail’s shoulder.
The first husky recovers and lunges bravely at Lark’s neck. This is a mistake. Lark ducks and lashes his open maw at the neck of the poor creature. His jaws snap tight, with a power nearly triple that commanded by the dogs, and his teeth sink deep into its fur-covered skin. The warm blood gushes from its rushing veins, but the deal is done. The dog’s life is finished with the snap of its neck.
The second husky climbs to its feet and hobbles toward Lark. Lark is about to turn and race for the ridgetop, when the men climb out of the valley and strike him with a stretch of wires. The sharp metal spikes burrow into his skin, and he feels them, but their pain is obscured by something much more devastating.
Lark’s entire body is stilled as a thread of agony courses from the wires, filling his body from the tip of his tail to his eyes. He can’t think of a way to identify exactly what it is. It burns, but is not fire. It freezes him, but is not ice. His muscles seize, and he shakes, lying and kicking on the ground. He can see the dog pulled away, its tether in the hands of one of the men. The man with the wires steps over him. The pain strikes him once more.
Then he can see nothing else.