Beyond The Ponds
Wheat and Shauna head into the boggy meadow around the Flat Mountain Ponds, beyond which lay the human towns to the east, where people aren’t hemmed in by the valley. It’s clear that the humans are up to something brash. They’d seen people do harm to each other, many times more violent than anything their own kind could do. But this is new. It’s organized, like an entire pack gone rabid.
Of course, such sickness soon causes its victim to be cast out, and death follows. This outfit has already lasted too long for that. Shauna and Wheat are off to find whether this behavior is happening beyond the ridges.
“What do you suppose these people are up to?” asks Wheat.
Shauna is silent. She’s seen the menace of humans up close, having been on her mission on the other side of Thornton Gap, to meet with packs on the other side of the big river. Wheat knows she’s seen a lot of strange human activity in her travels. There are highways and towns over the ridges north and west that dwarf the little village in the valley, and the violence of the people seems to increase with the size of their settlements.
A voice comes from the trees behind them. “They’re preparin’, that’s what it is.” The wolves are startled. They turn, half-growling, ready to pounce, when out steps a tall moose from the brush onto the trail.
Shauna and Wheat relax. “Henry!” Wheat says. “You’ll get yourself mauled sneaking up like that, you know.” He doesn’t dare say “killed”, knowing he and Shauna are no match for the old bull.
“Throw fur some other time, we can,” says Henry. “This runnin’ monkey escapade is out of your league. Out of all of ours, way I see it.” He barely stops chewing whatever green thing he’s just pulled out of the bushes.
“What are you talking about?” Shauna asks.
“Well, you know how we load up for winter?” Henry says. “That’s what the monkeys are doin’. ‘Cept the winter they’re plannin’ is a good deal longer.”
“What does killing each other have to do with that?” asks Wheat.
The big moose eyes the two wolves. Neither of them have lived half as long as him, and they’ve never seen a true winter, like the one a decade before. That was a winter to remember, though few wanted to. Nobody in the valley talks about it, but not from shame or guilt as much from familiarity. Everyone knows the details, so there’s no point in rehashing the horror of that spring.
“I forget you’re uninitiated,” he says. “I hear the talk when they’re in the woods. There’s a color to it. They’re not all the same, you know. Oh, they all complain. But about different things. Some grouse about their leaders, their things. You know those rolling boxes of theirs? Cars, they call ‘em. Those are a problem. The trees they used to hack down? They still do, just elsewhere. The other monkeys, mostly the hunters, they complain about the other ones complainin’. They all got a fear in them, about their valley. It’s bigger than ours. And it seems to be gettin’ worse. I seen this comin’. Trouble is, I think we’re ridin’ the flood with ‘em.”
Wheat and Shauna look at each other. “So what are we supposed to do? Watch them kill each other?” Wheat asks.
“Don’t see as we have much choice-” Henry says, stopping suddenly. They all hear it. One of the human ATVs is heading up the trail leading into the meadow. Or maybe two of them.
The wolves and moose stand dumbfounded. Normally they’d already be bounding into the trees, but the morning's events has driven them toward a dangerous curiosity. These men coming up the vale might offer some clues about their aims.
“You want to learn somethin’? Here’s your chance.” says Henry. He trots into a pine grove, beckoning for the wolves to follow suit. They head back toward the mountain. A few minutes more pass before the buzzing machines lurch into the meadow. There are two, each ridden by a human. Shauna can see their colors now, their garments a mottled green, like the rolling horses they ride. They carry their firesticks strapped across their backs.
They reach the edge of the pond and stop. There is some pointing and gesturing to the lines of trees around the edge of the marsh. By their behavior, it is clear they mean to choose a place to camp. One of the men turns to look toward the stand of trees where Shauna and Wheat duck behind a boulder, and suddenly freezes. His eyes lock in their direction, and he reaches over his shoulder to remove his firestick. Quickly, the other human reverses his machine and brings it around, looking toward the wolves.
The man lowers his firestick toward the wolves. Wheat and Shauna freeze, knowing the sunrise plan may have fulfilled its potential for disaster. Their legs press the ground like coiled springs, ready to launch at the slightest twitch from the men. The humans haven’t yet moved from their perches upon the rolling horses.
At once, there is a scream from a brushy knoll close to the pond, and the two men jump. It is Henry, rushing toward them, calling out with a hollow, high-pitched wail that sends shivers down Wheat’s spine. How Henry skulked around the men so quickly, he’ll have to find out later.
Without considering their next action, which normally would be to take off into the woods to count their luck elsewhere, he and Shauna do something completely outside their nature. They charge.
The human with the firestick turns to see the massive bull moose coming at him, and jumps from his machine. He runs back down the trail, and is quickly knocked on his muzzle by Henry’s kicking front legs. He drops the stick and hobbles to his feet as Henry lowers his huge head and lifts the man into the air. Falling onto a boulder, he smashes his head and rises once more, blood now streaming from a deep gash. Henry kicks at him again, and soon the human no longer moves.
Shauna races at the other man, who throws his rolling horse into gear and suddenly yells as it lurches backwards into the pond. It drives deep into the muck at the waters’ edge, and whines as its wheels spin, throwing water and drenching the man. It digs itself a divot in the mud and flips sideways.
The wolves are nearly upon the man. He jumps from the vehicle and runs through the mud and reeds, his firestick slapping against his back. As Shauna lunges at his neck, he turns and staggers backward, pulling a smaller firestick from his belt. He fires, and Shauna falls to his side with a yelp of pain.
Wheat is already in midair, and strikes the man in the back. He snaps his jaws on the man’s forearm, feeling a click and hearing a searing scream. He lets go and jumps in front of the man, now pulling himself through the mud with one arm, still clutching his firestick. He aims it at Wheat, and the wolf bounds out of the way just before he fires it. There is no blast, only a click. The device is fouled by the mud.
Wheat backs away and noses Shauna. Her breath has left her. Henry ambles toward them, his quarry subdued, and stamps the dirt, snorting steam from his nostrils. The human laying on his side in the mud smiles, throwing his firestick to the pond. He vocalizes something as Henry and Wheat move closer. They share a glance as the man climbs to his feet. His arm is smashed and gushing blood, and they watch him stagger away toward the only machine left upright.
Henry moves to block his path, and they recognize the human’s expression of understanding. He laughs, and trudges off toward the village, holding his arm and watching Henry and Wheat behind him. When he nears the edge of the woods, he breaks into a jog.
Wheat nudges at Shauna again. He looks at the ground, not knowing what to think.
“Not long enough, she lived,” Henry says. “Tis a shame in any case, but those monkeys weren’t aiming for this.”
“They pointed their arms right at us,” Wheat says in protest. “Look at what they’ve done to Shauna.”
“But not with a hunter’s device. Opportunity. That’s all it was,” Henry says, nodding toward the human machine. “These humans weren’t hunting. They’re equipped for some kind of blockade.
Wheat looked over the equipment piled on the rolling horse. The humans had lugged a lot of food and other materials that clearly weren’t the tools of hunters. They would have made too much noise and thrown off too many scents for people trying to hunt.
“You’re right. It’s a siege. That’s what Shauna saw on the road,” says Wheat.
“If they’re closing the valley, this would be a way out,” Henry states.
Wheat raises his head and squares himself, the way Lark would do. “I have to continue with Shauna’s mission, to find out what’s happening beyond the ridges.”
The moose looks balefully at him. “If you’re suggesting we get involved-”
“You said it yourself. We’re in this flood with them,” Wheat says angrily. “Whatever it is. Just while I’m gone, let the pack know what’s going on here. And keep this pass open.” He wheels and begins to trot off toward the villages to the east, beyond the ponds.
“Will do, alpha,” Henry replies. When Wheat stops and looks over his shoulder with a snarl, he backs away. “Very well, Wheat. We’re all in the flood.”