Change Of Plans
If you stand among the hardwoods a little while after sunset, there’s a rustle in the branches, just beginning to sprout their new leaves. Soon, the hollow echo of the valley’s walls will start to dampen as soft green foliage fills the landscape and soaks up the breeze. The spreading canopies of maples and birches will soak up the rains, drip wet with dew and filter the sun’s rays from the soft ground, itself returning the damp warmth of rising saplings and vivid grasses with the immutable onset of spring.
But now, all of that that remains beyond another cycle of the moon. On this evening, a clear blue day is ending, and the billowing grey clouds coursing overhead from the west bring the threat of cold, drifting rains and winds that will whip the trees and scour the mountaintops. An echo in the valley retains a cold, sullen resonance that seems to ring as if the hillsides themselves describe a bell in which every creature, branch, and falling stone is the clapper.
As the moon is slowly obscured, the hairs on your neck stand on end as an open-throated call rises from somewhere in a ravine below Noon Peak. A wolf. It is answered by another call miles to the east, beyond another ridge, somewhere in a broad marshy bowl which the darkening hillsides enclose almost completely. There, the stars reflect on the calm open pools that collect the crashing streams tumbling from the hills, where brooks and rivers begin to cut their routes downward into valleys far away.
It is Wheat, now arising from his rest in a hollow near the bog, hidden from the track, the two rolling horses the humans left behind, and the body of his friend Shauna. As he returns the howl from his packmate, who he realizes is Red Scout, he knows they expect to hear a reply from Shauna. It will not come.
There is another call. Wheat replies, then pauses, revealing a gap of time for Shauna to fill, but there is only emptiness. He howls once more. There is a chorus of calls from the far valley, and the tale is told.
The men have not returned. But Wheat knows they are unlikely to leave behind their machines. He has seen humans abandon a great deal of gear. They leave bags, mostly laden with their fabric covers and other unusable clutter, and sometimes food. He’s seen them leave tents and items that beep and blink in garish colors. But for such a noisy device, with its ability to transport men so swiftly along the trails, to stand mute for a full period of daylight, has never been subject to Wheat’s witness.
Wheat knows his job. He is to keep watch over this marshy valley until given further instructions by Lark. Knowing of Shauna’s loss, it is likely that he will be joined on this evening, probably by one of the Scouts. Wheat watches the stream while the moon floats higher, until the clouds drift in to hide its reflection from the pools. The stillness of the water is riffled by winds, briefly gusting and driving the forest to a low whisper.
In the waning light, he sees Henry appear on the far side of the bog, accompanied by Wilma. Soon, Beatrice also emerges from the trees several leaps away. The three moose catch notice of Wheat, now sitting well upwind at the edge of the field. They nod and dip their muzzles to the mud. Wheat rises, looking away, then moves toward the human vehicles. They deserve a more thorough inspection than what he was able to give them earlier, when his greater priority was to find a den.
The two machines remain where they were left by the fleeing man. One stands in the trail, and two bags hang open behind its saddle. One held seeds and grains of a sort, and Wheat can smell evidence of something richer. A few unopened bags of dried chicken, broccoli, and carrots have been pulled to the ground by rodents, who were unsuccessful in liberating the contents. There are also a few stems of unidentifiable meats the men eat. Lark and many of the pack love these, though Wheat finds them sour.
Further down the trail, toward where the first man lay on his belly, is the long firestick. He dropped it part of the way while running from Henry. Wheat has seen many of them, but has never had an opportunity to inspect it closely. It is no longer than a cedar sapling, and as straight. A strap connects to it in two places, and its coloring is too dark to blend in with the land even in the twilight.
The second machine still lay on its side partly submerged in the muddy edges of the bog. Wheat smells something foul here, and suspects it is the same residue causing the color-riddled film on the water. Somewhere under the murk is the solid metal firestick, shining in the moonlight and alienating the confused trout. This is not a place to dip the muzzle. He moves on.
There is a stir in the meadow. Henry and the other moose lift their heads. It isn’t the return of men. Wheat recognizes the approach of Lark and Little Scout just before they emerge from the trees behind him. A third trace on the air tells him they are accompanied by Robert.
Lark stops at the edge of the woods and Wheat goes to him. “This spot is essential, Wheat,” he says. “We know from Robert that it is considered equally so by the humans.” This is the closest Lark will come to praise. He looks around the meadow and sees the two human devices sitting by the bog’s edge. Beyond, he sees Henry, Wilma and Beatrice ambling back into the trees.
“There were two,” Wheat tells them. “Soon after we arrived. One was put to end by Henry, and the other has run that way.” Wheat nods in the direction of the town. “His firestick never left his back, but he used a smaller one to finish Shauna.”
“This is unfortunate,” Lark says. “Shauna carried news from the western packs, and was our envoy to the east. Now we’ll have to put that off until we can secure this route.”
“Where else are these humans setting camp?” Wheat asks.
“We’ll learn that by the morning,” Lark tells him. “Red Scout is down valley along the roadway, watching the blockade the men have set up. Quick Scout is at the Greeley Ponds again. Master Scout is heading toward Livermore. Rye and Claris will patrol the Gap, and Marcella holds the den.”
“Are they setting camp alone?” Wheat asks, perplexed. He already thinks the plan has too many holes in it for the pack to manage.
“No. The news of Shauna gave us pause,” Lark says. “If something happened here, it may be pivotal to their plans.”
“We kinda think they’re coming back,” Robert adds. Lark gives him a sharp glance.
Wheat is often amused by the fisher. Robert often takes advantage of his special role with the pack, and Wheat wonders if someday Lark’s patience will wear thin. “It’s agreed in my view. The humans are going to regroup and put their focus here,” Wheat says. “But when? Why didn’t they come back today?”
“That’s what I am hoping to learn,” Says Lark. “So I am heading to their base on the other side of Flat Mountain. With Robert.”
“But this bog, if they come back,” Wheat begins to protest. “I’ll need assistance.”
“Little Scout will remain with you,” Lark says. He nods to Little Scout, who until now has been sitting quietly, monitoring the valley around them for any movement.
Wheat nods, but mostly by reflex. Lark is giving him an extra set of paws, but not a shred of experience in maintaining a picket in such a wide valley. And he knows there will be no short effort expended in correction of the cub’s errant frolicking.
Lark notes this hesitation. “Is this acceptable?” he asks.
“Very well,” Wheat answers. “I have a den. There is food, by the machines.”
“I have no doubt you’ll excel,” he says. “This spot will be reinforced if need be.”
He turns to Robert. “We’ve got to move along. Remember, stick by the trail. I will range to the west of the ridge, and we’ll report above their base before the moon sets.”
“Sure thing, big guy,” Robert says. Little Scout laughs, earning a sharp ear flick from Lark.
“Listen to Wheat,” Lark says. He and Robert both turn and head down valley, toward the village.
Wheat sits sullenly watching them go.
“This doesn’t look all that bad,” Little Scout says. “Did you bump into Old Henry?”
“He never said words about her,” Wheat answers. “Just how unfortunate it is that he had to change plans.”
Little Scout looks at him questioningly.
“Shauna died to protect this valley, and this pack. And he just brushed her aside.”
Little Scout bows his head at this. He realizes Wheat is right. “I’m really sorry about Shauna. My dad is, too. Trust me.”
Wheat looks at him, then moves off toward the machines. “Let’s eat. They have that jerky stuff you like.”