Noon Peak

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The Enemy Camp

Wheat and Little Scout hunker down as they watch the camp. The men have reset their flimsy shelter and can be heard slumbering away even through the late winter breeze. They tried their iron horses and found one of them fouled, but the other fired up and sent a roar across the wide pass, surely awakening every animal, even those deep in their dens.

Before retiring, the men set a blazing lantern on a platform they unfolded and staged, with shovels leaning against it. When he saw the men unpack these, Wheat at first believed they might pursue the human routine of digging a hole to envelop Shauna’s breathless body, but the ground was too hard for their shovels to dig.

The men lifted her instead, and tied rope around her legs to drag her to the pond. They tossed her body as best they could onto the ice, where the thin edge broke through. The water was barely deep enough to conceal her. Normally, at this time of the year, the water should be frozen, still and solid to the edge. Thaw has come early, as it has in more seasons than not, in the years Wheat can remember.

This task completed, they retired to their tent.

“Why did the dog go with them?” Little Scout asks.

Wheat looks at the boy. “That critter might be bigger than you,” he says, “but he’s no woodland animal.”

“He can’t keep warm in this?”

“No,” Wheat answers. “But the truth is, we can’t either. Not for long.” He nods toward the little shelter. “That thing they’re in will be surprisingly warm for us.”

Little Scout looks at him. “You mean, we’re going to take it?”

Wheat surveys as much as he can see in the broad valley. “No. You are. And there’s no time like right now.”

Little Scout turns and looks at the tent. His instinct for ambush has already kicked in. He is collecting ideas on how he will approach the tent. Where the hazards are. Where his escape route will be. Yet he hesitates. He looks back to Wheat as if to ask if this order was real.

“I’ll monitor the perimeter,” Wheat says, “and I’ll be ready for your call.”

Little Scout knows what he means. The pack drills on this sort of thing all the time. If he gets into trouble, he’ll send out a whine that can be heard across the valley.

“Go,” Wheat says.

Little Scout can feel the surge of fire within him. He trots off through the open glade to the camp, but it isn’t a carefree jaunt. This is the innate, purposeful jog of a warrior ready to break into a run, or dive for cover.

As he nears the camp, Little Scout can sense that the men are deeply enveloped in slumber, wrapped into their thick bags to ward off the weather. The dog is a different story. Little Scout senses that the dog is suspended in the state of near-wakefulness.

Animals of the woods understand that men have a sense of fear. It amuses them that the men tend to fear the least likely scenarios. An animal would never attack one of these shelters. Even a bear as imposing as kayak will rarely tear through the flimsy fabric if he knows that humans are not nearby.

It would be dangerous, little scout knows, to try to rip his way into the shelter. It will be better draws them outside, where they will be exposed.

The dog complicates this. Little Scout needs to take out the dog first. This cannot happen if he waits for one of the humans to emerge first.

How to arouse the dog? Little Scout crafts a plan. He circles the shelter to where he is closest to the husky. He can smell the animal. She wears the stench of civility. The human smell of cooked food, gravy, sweet stews. The pack will steal this stuff from time to time, but Little Scout is grateful not to live immersed in the human world.

Little scout releases a growl, too low and quiet to wake the men, but just enough to send a dog into a frenzy inside the cramped space.

Inside, the dog stands upright, shaking the shelter slightly. Little scout knows that her ears are perked, swiveling to determine where the noise has come from. Little Scout has already circled to the other side of the tent. He growls again.

The dog is disciplined. She does not bark, though she steps on the men while spinning to hear the growls of Little Scout. From yet another angle, Little Scout releases another.

One of the men yelps. Rustling comes from inside the shelter as it shakes with the bewildered lurches of men forced awake.

The men are talking to the dog, Little Scout can tell. He moves to another angle and sends out a loud howl the men can hear. The dog inside begins barking.

The men are yelling now. The opening to the shelter is opened, but only partway, and the dog first appears, by nose, then her head, then forepaws, and she breaks through. She starts directly forward toward where she last heard Little Scout.

The animal hesitates, arriving at the spot where Little Scout left tracks. Suddenly, from behind just behind the tent, in the husky’s blind-spot, he lunges.

The dog is larger than Little Scout, but where the husky is soft, the wolf is coiled like a spring of sinew and rigid muscle. He spirals his jaw underneath the dog’s neck and clamps tightly.

The husky manages to stand, and Little Scout leaves the ground and twists himself underneath the dog. His forelegs buckle, and Little scout, not releasing his grip on the dog’s neck, begins to tear at the animal’s belly with his hind legs.

The dog manages to roll away from Little Scout’s frenzied kicking, but the wolf hangs on, as blood begins to stream down his jaw from the husky’s neck. He girds himself to bite harder, But cannot. The dog’s neck is too thick.

Little Scout hears one of the men emerge from the shelter, and abandons the husky to dive at the man’s throat. Reaching inside the shelter, the man has barely enough time to notice the crazed critter lunging at him, with no chance to react.

He dives at the man’s neck easily because of his bent frame. He drags the man to the ground, kicking, flailing with his arms against the small wolf. Little Scout is too quick.

The man screams a bloody, garbled scream. Little scout clamps his jaw harder, drawing upon the muscles in his neck, shoulders, and back. They contract as one, and he severs something important, and a jet of hot liquid streams from the man’s neck.

Little Scout releases his grip and lets the man’s limp body fall in front of the shelter. His jaw drips with the iron-rich blood, and the taste permeates his senses. It is overwhelming. Intoxicating.

He looks for the husky. It is gone. Little Scout knows Wheat lurks on the hill beyond, and wonders if his performance so far will warrant recognition from the pack.

It shames him to think of this, but he realizes that such presence of mind may be a sign that his skills have matured.

Behind him, he hears a click. He turns to see the other man standing, holding his firestick. Little Scout has never been given the chance to view the muzzle of one of these devices, but he has heard enough about them to know that standing downrange for very long is likely terminal.

The man, to his credit, does not hesitate. He pulls his trigger.

He is a beat too late. Little Scout has darted behind the man, beyond the shelter, and dives into a thicket away from the pond. He hears the man behind him click something on his weapon. Suddenly there is a shattering barrage of noise from his firestick. Little scout races further up the hill away from the camp.

The man trudges after him into the forest. He has ceased firing his device. He cannot get a bead on the wolf in this swirling snow. The human is not wearing the thick garments his kind usually cloak themselves in during this season.

This is to Little Scout’s advantage. The human will freeze, and soon. Little Scout fights his instinct to run, and decides to toy with the man. If he can occupy the human and keep him from returning to his camp, he will succumb.

Little Scout looks down and notices something in the snow. This is blood. The dog has left tracks. Little Scout perks his ears but can hear and smell nothing. He circles back toward the man.

Below, he can see the man raising his firestick to his shoulder. The end of it is trained on him.

He crouches to jump directly at the man, but he is suddenly hit by something heavy and hard. It is the husky. The dog’s jaw clamps around Little Scout’s neck, and with desperate effort, the young wolf throws himself over. The dog’s grip tightens. She is powerful, and much larger. She maneuvers to crush the wolf’s neck, and Little Scout recognizes a kindred instinct in the dog. Something primal, that dates well back through uncountable generations.

He is filled with fury and pain, and senses something he hasn’t been used to throughout his young life. This is fear. He rolls to try to break the dog’s clutch on his neck, but the husky is strong. Little Scout does not have the size to force the dog over. His advantage by the pond was surprise - something now spent.

The man approaches, his firestick poised at his shoulder. He can’t get a clear line of sight, and moves closer. Suddenly, there is a noise from the brush. Wheat leaps from the forest and clamps his jaw on the man’s leg. The man howls and drops his fire stick. He collapses to the snow.

Wheat releases his bite and lunges for the man’s neck. The man holds up his hands in fright. And Wheat’s powerful jaw clamps tightly on a forearm, and a snap is heard. The man screams as Wheat flips his body over, breaking the arm into a gruesome, horrible contortion.

The husky hesitates, and his jaw releases Little Scout’s neck. Little Scout nips at the first piece of her he can find. It is the husky’s rear leg. Taking a page from Wheat, he crushes the leg in his jaw and flips over, and hears a satisfying click. The dog howls.

Wheat jumps onto the man’s back and digs his jaw into the base of his neck. He is just about to crush the man’s spine. Everything this man has ever done, whether he has family beyond the valley, or his own pups. Whatever he has done for a living in the human realm, and whether he will continue from this moment forward, has come down to a decision made by this marvelous, fierce creature known as Wheat.

Little scout looks up. Between the pulse of blood in his skull, and the racing fire under his skin, there is a noise. Through the mountain gale, He hears someone speak to him.

The muscles in Wheat’s neck and back are called forth to close his jaw. He does not hear it, and he seizes, near trembling, to break the man’s neck. The man, now limp, his arm askew, offers no further resistance.

“Wait!” says little scout. “What is that?”

Wheat’s ears perk. He does not look up. Between the piercing squeals of the dog, now lying prone and bleeding in the snow, and the man’s moans, there is a voice coming from the brush. It is Robert.

Wheat releases his grip on the man’s neck and rises. Little Scout leaves the husky to her whimpering.

“What’d I miss?” asks Robert, looking from the man to the husky, their blood beginning to form a carpet of red snow.

Wheat looks around, his first instinct being the security of his surroundings. He is concerned about who else may sneak up on him while attending to Robert and the man.

He is particularly concerned about Lark.

What will Lark think of what they’ve done here? Will he be proud of the boy, or will he know what danger Wheat sent them into? Will he approve of this test of the cub?

It is Little Scout who thinks of it first. “Where’s my dad?? he asks.

“Kid, you did this?” Robert asks, betraying several thoughts and concerns. He steps back. “Wow.” Robert gets it. His friend has found a frightening new skill.

Wheat does not detect Lark, and is satisfied that there is nobody else in the area. “The boy asked you a question,” he says.

“That’s exactly it,” says Robert. “He’s been taken.”

“What do you mean,” Wheat asks. “Being taken?”

“I mean the men,” Robert answers. “Lark’s been captured. He is imprisoned at their HQ.”

Wheat looks at the bend in the husky’s leg. She is breathing shallowly as her breath falters. The man moans. “You have done well enough here,” he says. “You must maintain this watch while I go to the village.”

“I will come with you,” says Little Scout. “We will set him free.”

“No!” Wheat barks. “Someone must hold this pass. Who will do that, you?” he demands, looking at Robert. “I will rally the other scouts and alert Marcella.”

Little Scout and Robert lower their heads. Wheat is their superior, and must be obeyed.

“I will tell your father of your valor here.” Wheat tells Little Scout. “In truth, you have done well. I admired your cleverness at drawing the dog,” he says the word in a manner dripping with derision, bordering on rage. “You see how these weapons of theirs tip the balance.”

Little Scout looks at the firestick laying in the snow. The stories he has heard have always terrified him. “What will be our fate?” he asks.

Wheat regards the cub and recalls his own memory. He knows the stories of his elders, of the time before the spinning birds in the sky. Though the pack was smaller now, there was always a sense that they were rebuilding. They had not known the difficulties faced by their elders. The horror of the previous warm season was something Wheat had never experienced.

Wheat never felt equal to the mettle of previous generations. This pack had gotten weak in its luxuriance, and Wheat recognized this even before he first heard the spinning birds above the forest.

He feels he is equipped to train the boy to understand how dangerous humans can be. Despite their soft flesh and their fragile energy, they become invincible when massing in numbers. Little Scout cannot learn this without his guidance.

Lark has never understood. Perhaps he will now.

It is imperative that he sets Lark free. Wheat turns to Robert and little scout. “Our fate remains in our control,” he says, “but only if we act. I suggest you use this time to rest in their shelter. There will be more of this later.” He nods at the human and the husky, and leaves.

“Will do,” says little scout. He realizes he has reached a milestone today. He is sure Lark would be proud, and he is more than a little disappointed that his father is not here.

More important is the notion that he’s going to let Wheat rescue his father alone.

When Wheat is lost in the Tempest and out of earshot, Little Scout turns to Robert, “Wheat is right. You should rest in the shelter.”

“Wait, what?” asks Robert. “I know how to get along in this weather just fine.”

Little Scout knows his friend will play tough for now, but after he’s gone, he will surely cozy up in one of the men’s bags. And why not? It is a rare opportunity.

“Wait a minute,” says Robert. “Did you say just me?”

“That’s right,” says Little Scout. “I am heading for the village.”

Robert begins to shake his head, but knows there is no point. The boy has tasted adventure. And more importantly, he is a wolf. “OK, kid,” Robert says. “I’ll stay right here and wait for all three of you.”

With that, little Scout is off.

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