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Snow Wolf

SNOW WOLF

BY JOEL HOVELL

Copyright © 2015 Joel Hovell

All Rights Reserved.

ISBN: 1517411548

ISBN 13: 9781517411541

Table Of Contents

Front Cover
Title
Copyright
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
A Message from the Author
Biography
Back Cover

1

A WARM SOUTHERN breeze below through the conifer pines and spruces populating the wilderness of green and blue, their brown bark camouflaged when observed from above the forest canopy. Numerous aspens dotted the tree-covered landscape. Some were grouped into small stands, though most stood alone among the dominant pines and spruce.

A wide but shallow river meandered northwest. The liquid volume was destined to arrive in the Pacific Ocean weeks later, but not before enduring a steep drop from the crest of a narrow waterfall and patiently waiting to exist the small, constrained pool immediately below.

Six creeks contributed from the south and east. Each individual body of water varied in depth and length, though none was greater than five feet deep and twenty-five miles long.

Amid this vast rainbow, shades of gray and white appeared on a crest forming the south perimeter.

These shades became four distinct individuals of the species Canis lupus, or gray wolf. Three were a mixture of pewter gray, cream, dirty orange, and coal black, but one lone wolf was pure white, similar to winter snowflakes.

This white canine was known as Snow Wolf, the alpha male of the Black Sheep Pack—a group of gray wolves formed by human intervention in March 2012 at a zoo located in downtown Portland, Oregon. Every member was an orphan of extinct packs with the exception of one adolescent.

The official name for their current residence was Wolf Mountain State Forest, which consisted of nine hundred square miles of forest-covered wilderness in northwest Wyoming. The property shared borders with Idaho on the western fringes and Yellowstone National Park on the north frontier.

The annual hunt for the gray wolves would begin statewide in Wyoming with the next morning’s sunrise. This season, Wolf Mountain had been removed from an exemption lift forbidding the recreational activity, so there was a very good chance the Black Sheep Pack might join the dead association themselves by tomorrow’s dusk.

Two gray wolves nestled together to share personal warmth despite the abnormally mild air temperature.

The larger canine was Alpha Female, a name provided due to her social status and maternal qualities.

The smaller wolf, known as the pup, was the Black Sheep’s lone juvenile and Alpha Female’s offspring. The wild canine was barely six months old, which was a distinct contrast to the rest of the pack, who were all two years or older.

A third Canis lupus sat a few steps away on the forest floor. Known as The Brother, because he was Alpha Female’s sibling, the gray wolf was quite lean in comparison to his sister, even without the additional pounds from her postpregnancy state. He was considerably lightweight, especially when compared to Snow Wolf. While The Brother might have been Black Sheep’s omega by nature, he was considered an outcast and their personal oddball at heart. The Brother pondered daily when he would discover a single female on their numerous nomadic expeditions throughout the Black Sheep’s territory near the fringes, who would dominate his existence.

However, the present dilemma of the pack was more important than natural affection for the opposite gender. The Brother had agreed with Snow Wolf and Alpha Female once the pack was larger, he would then begin his quest for an alpha female in earnest.

Alpha Female gazed at Snow Wolf; she was concerned, as his muscles were tense, and especially when she lacked the knowledge of what troubled him.

Snow Wolf himself was also uncertain of the true origins of his unrealistic concerns. He remained conscious of the debilitating stress overwhelming his intelligent mind and muscular shoulders, but he wondered if the numerous worries revolved around the subsequent day’s pursuit of elk in the southern highlands. But what was so worrisome about a task considered normal and routine for predators?

The Black Sheep Pack was low on food, having been unable to secure an enormous score during the past several days. Starvation loomed close because the four Canis lupus struggled to meet the minimum requirements of proper sustainment with their few random kills of cottontail rabbits and ruffed grouse. However, the realistic concern wasn’t the source of Snow Wolf’s anxiety. The white wolf feared failure on their next elk hunt.

The first attempt to erase all negative emotion by taking in the beautiful, diverse landscape failed Snow Wolf. He deemed every biotic individual, both animal and vegetation, as unimportant in his slightly irrational mind-set.

Will we be able to capture and subdue an elk? What if someone is injured? What if another wolf pack intervenes? What if we outright fail?

The questions didn’t stop coming, and Snow Wolf’s unrelenting vexation continued to spiral out of control.

He closed his weary eyes and sighed, seeking a relaxing mental counterattack. He entered a state of peace and tranquility and forgot, for an instant, about his persistent determination to maintain the Black Sheep Pack’s basic existence. Victory was achieved.

The last rays of sunshine penetrated his eyelids, revealing a western horizon painted bright orange when he opened them again, blinking rapidly as the saturated colors blasted his face.

Snow Wolf looked away and locked eyes with Alpha Female.

She scanned his expression closely, clearly attempting to see inside his troubled mind for answers.

The Brother perked up for a moment, moving those few steps closer to his kin; deposited his furry head on their front paws; and resumed the transition toward precious, peaceful sleep.

Adjusting his body to form a semicircle around The Pup, Snow Wolf laid his head on both front paws. Alpha Female stared into his exhausted eyes and then snuck a peek at their son.

Snow Wolf noticed The Brother had opened his eyes long enough to examine him; his face expressed concern, though Snow Wolf was uncertain of the root cause. Whatever the reason, The Brother appeared uncomfortable, despite being ready to fall asleep at any moment.

Snow Wolf struggled to maintain awareness, falling instead into a deep slumber and losing his grip on reality temporarily.

The dormant Snow Wolf dreamed he observed a scene that resembled a moonless night, and then a bright white light replaced the darkness. The harsh light slowly faded to reveal a wolf pack with seven members. They struggled to sprint through deep snowdrifts in pursuit of an elk herd two dozen strong as the winter weather intensified toward whiteout conditions.

Four additional gray wolves intersected the panicked elks’ escape. These specific wild canines possessed the key to creating a temporary quarantine zone, and the quad sealed the elks’ escape route.

Every mature elk capable of fierce resistance manned a tight, defensive ring.

A brief standoff occurred. Both belligerent and oppressed simply stared at each another.

The first move was initiated when a gray wolf terrorized an elk cow protecting her young bull.

A second Canis lupus growled as the individual prowled in close support.

A third wolf began a swift patrol around the elk-composed circumference.

The four wild canines blocking the elks’ initial escape attempted to tighten the noose.

Everyone else closed in and attacked the trapped elk, grabbing the cow and dragging her outside the ring. The frightened ruminant was annihilated.

Every pack member loosened his or her bite long enough to secure a sufficient portion from the fresh carcass.

Snowflakes continued falling in larger flakes, blending together into a single, bright white image.

As the morning sunlight infiltrated behind Snow Wolf’s eyelids, he felt the persistent agony of impressive hunger and thirst.

The white wolf rose without disturbing the unconscious Alpha Female or their son and trotted toward a local creek bed below their current camp.

Multiple aspens, with bright yellow leaves, rustled in the light breeze. The creek bed’s current trickled northwest, scraping small rocks deposited in the water’s pathway.

Snow Wolf’s mind was lost in thoughts of the previous night’s paranoia and subsequent pleasant dream. The alpha male finally understood his fears were unrealistic. He rejoiced at his major breakthrough in silence.

Snow Wolf took in the symphonic sounds of the forest around him as he took multiple laps of cool water, easing his dry throat. The Canis lupus felt stronger despite the lack of protein and iron nourishment. His self-confidence increased exponentially.

Snow Wolf ran toward the Black Sheep Pack to reveal his renewed ambitions once satisfied of his early morning refreshment.

The three members awakened one at a time as he crested the rise.

Alpha Female was the first to notice Snow Wolf’s replenished demeanor, and she advanced toward him to lick her mate’s face on both cheeks.

The Brother and The Pup passed by, ignoring the intimate scene, and continued their short excursion toward the creek.

She fell in behind her son and sibling.

Once they had all gotten their fill, the Black Sheep Pack moved due south for the distant highlands.

Snow Wolf took point several feet ahead of the others.

By midmorning, a scorching heat wave overcame them. The humid air felt similar to July or August rather than early October.

The Black Sheep Pack continued southward despite the nauseous warmth.

The forest landscape gradually altered with each subsequent mile. The four wolves witnessed deep, bowl-shaped depressions dispersed throughout the shaded environment, which had formed temporary ponds from the harsh thunderstorms that had blown through recently.

Intense beams of light struggled to penetrate the thick forest canopy.

Several shadows settled over the Black Sheep and assisted them in their quest to remain unnoticed by both big and small game.

Visibility increased as the four wolves approached the forest’s edge.

Tall, aged pines appeared along the southern fringe, almost forty yards away.

Where the topography sloped downward, the Black Sheep recognized the official start of the highlands.

Snow Wolf and his pack lowered into prone positions to examine the herd of elk grazing below.

The ruminants stepped eastward toward an opening in the steep, vertical rock wall.

A brilliant idea struck the white wolf once he noticed the natural bottleneck, and he formulated his plan in quick succession. He decided to separate the Black Sheep Pack into two groups. Two wolves would guard the rock-wall opening. Two would drive the elk herd toward the others to seal the trap’s back door.

Snow Wolf quietly yipped his objectives for everyone and waited until he’d received acknowledgement they all understood.

The Pup and Alpha Female moved for the western edge, counterclockwise of the ruminant group.

Snow Wolf and The Brother traveled east, toward the wall’s opening.

The terrain of the steep slope Snow Wolf and The Brother initially attempted to descend was composed of sharp rocks and smooth stones, more resembling an impassable vertical wall than a well-traveled trail. The pair had to find a more suitable path.

Two hundred yards farther east, Snow Wolf noticed a perfect forty-five-degree angle.

The Brother led their return ascent, disappearing within the dense vegetation to run the long distance to their second descent location—all without one disturbance of the elk herd below their current elevation.

Snow Wolf scanned the western edge of the elk herd, dismayed to discover Alpha Female and The Pup had reached their starting positions. The white wolf understood his group’s descent was difficult, but they were behind schedule. The Brother and the white wolf needed to master the impressive slope quickly, before the first elk reached the rock-wall passageway.

Snow Wolf sprinted through the tall pine trees, reducing speed just short of the change in slope. His anxiety increased with each additional moment on the downhill terrain.

The Brother slowly followed, until both wolves planted their sore paws at the base. They made the final stretch of the journey toward the rock-wall opening with caution.

A large gap separated the rock wall’s projections from the north and south hilltops, wide enough to allow easy passage for entire herds of elk or deer to enter the adjacent sections of highlands.

Snow Wolf and The Brother deposited themselves on opposite faces, with the white wolf hidden behind the northern wall and The Brother holding the southern foundation.

The Black Sheep’s trap was fully constructed and set.

Alpha Female and The Pup sprinted toward the increasingly suspicious elk.

Mother and son diverged courses as the ruminants grew agitated and forgot their personal goal to graze. The Pup veered southeast as Alpha Female moved northeast.

The Pup shifted left with a sudden sharp hook, to invade the herd’s perimeter.

The quick maneuver elevated the elks’ fears, and they ran toward the rock wall’s opening.

Alpha Female pulled the same action from the opposite flank. However, the maternal canine swiftly retreated, as an elk bull was almost successful in his attempt at goring her with his massive antlers, missing by mere inches.

Snow Wolf and The Brother, sensing the prime moment had arrived, formed a blockade across the narrow passageway as the lead elk approached.

The horned beasts, their mates, and the calves were terrorized a second time, and they broke off in three separate directions. To the north and south, inside this section of highland, a few brave souls ran through the guarded gauntlet, dedicated to breaking the Canis-lupus ambush.

Neither Snow Wolf nor The Brother budged their attack on a single courageous elk, much less stepped aside, despite nearly being trampled on several occasions.

The Brother invaded the elk herd without consideration of his safety to assist Alpha Female and The Pup in surrounding a weak ruminant.

The frantic elk avoided the lean gray wolf as though the wolf were an infectious disease.

Snow Wolf adjusted his stance within the narrow passageway and took up his new position in the center of the narrow opening.

The three gray wolves trapped an elk cow with a sprained leg, tightening the personal trap until the elk cow could no longer maintain her enveloped position.

Alpha Female attacked the panicked elk by slashing the elk’s long brown legs.

The Brother lethally pestered the injured cow with bites to her large abdomen.

A loud sound whistled past The Brother, followed by an audible echo. The foreign projectile missed by inches.

A second similar item struck an elk bull after he pushed in to assist the injured cow. The male ruminant instantly dropped on the grazed grass, though his powerful rear legs continued twitching.

Alpha Female halted, and a third projectile screamed, striking her through the heart. The maternal wolf exhaled vital air from her lungs. She fell to her wobbly knees before completely collapsing.

The Brother ran toward Alpha Female, but it was too late.

She was lifeless.

A fourth sound echoed. The small missile pierced The Brother’s skull, just below his right ear.

He collapsed and died beside Alpha Female.

The Pup panicked and glanced at his father for a quick, lifesaving solution.

Snow Wolf comprehended the deadly incident and realized his fears were realistic after all. Time was of the essence. His son required assistance before another fatal blasting whistle found him also.

2

I SLAMMED MY locker closed with a loud bang and turned to wish my coworkers good-bye as everyone descended the narrow wooden stairway and headed toward the metal front door and the parking lot just beyond.

Although today was Friday, the completed ten-hour shift was my final before I joined my three best friends for a weeklong vacation in Wyoming. If I’d had prior knowledge of the type of adventure I was about to experience, then I might not have gone and certainly would have believed the eventual truth entirely fictitious.

Loud rock music blared as soon as I turned the V-6 engine over and crawled toward the rickety gate entrance in my used sedan. A quick left turn, and only half a block away from my part-time manufacturing job, and I was smack in the middle of rush-hour traffic, in full swing for the next two or three hours.

This daily road ritual only reassured my belief that an urban life was not for me. I preferred the quiet wilderness, where the weary mind could clearly ponder for hours without consistent interruption. I conquered the countryside with a heavy backpack, my entire collection of prized and mandatory possessions, and Zen-like revelations.

I had enrolled at the local trade school, with a major in forestry, specifically to become a smoke jumper. My first semester was set to begin January 2013, exactly three months after my adventure in Wolf Mountain State Forest with my high-school classmates.

Sunset transformed my urban neighborhood into a dark, narrow maze, with sparse light fixtures illuminating the numerous houses.

My family and I occupied a renovated one-story home in the northeast corner of Clark and Fifth. The bank had foreclosed on our previous residence in response to my parents’ inability to pay the monthly mortgage, which was a direct effect of the financial crisis in 2008.

My older sister’s new coupe was parked along the concrete curb. The bright green paint job sparkled as my headlights danced across the thin metal surface.

I slowed my silver sedan and parked behind the lime-colored coupe, since our two-car garage was at full capacity.

Despite the prior knowledge of Isabel’s presence at the kitchen table, I was unprepared for the expected increase in conversation that usually made me uncomfortable. Not because I lacked the words to say when either my parents or my older sister asked me a simple question, but rather I preferred to eat in silence.

A distinct Italian aroma easily overwhelmed my senses as I reached the side door, and I hurried inside, intent on getting out of my dirty clothes and diving into some delicious food.

My stomach growled in anticipation of the lasagna and seven-layer salad occupying the center of the kitchen table.

Half-starved from my long, miserable shift, I collapsed into the empty kitchen chair closest to the tight hallway. I felt mentally drained and numb, even as the goodness of Italian-influenced food hit my stomach.

Sure enough, Isabel was in the midst of another boastful conversation intended to please our parents.

My one defensive measure was to appear cold and invisible, though I was in full view of everyone.

“Guess who came inside this morning?” Isabel asked, shifting glances between Mom and Dad.

“Who?” Our father picked at the remainder of his lasagna.

Isabel downed a sip of water before she responded. “You know the tall corporate tower downtown with the large glass windows?”

“Yes,” my father replied.

“Well, the wife of the CEO who owns the entire building was in a hurry to style her hair for some formal occasion tonight.” Isabel waved her hands as she talked. “So she let me fix her up for the event, her hair, her makeup, everything, and she loved it! She’s promised to send all the women who work in the skyscraper to me to get their hair done, too! More customers for my thriving business! Isn’t that exciting?”

“Congratulations, Isabel. Someday, you’re going to be the celebrity stylist you’ve always dreamed about.” Mom deposited a second serving of seven-layer salad on her plate.

Like clockwork, my mind wandered inside a daydream.

Every night Isabel arrived for a family supper, and she babbled about her successful career as the owner of a deeply cultured salon. I was exhausted from the consistent praise while I appeared to hug the painted kitchen walls in silence.

“Hey, John. John Ellis?”

My mom’s voice pulled me out of my deep thoughts.

“Don’t you have anything to say about your sister’s good fortune?”

Every family member examined me as though I were the final slice of delicious lasagna.

I gave the canned response that was expected to avoid any drama. “Congratulations, Big Sis.” I resumed eating despite the six eyes locked on my every movement.

As much as I wanted a peaceful meal, my mother refused to allow that wish to come true.

“Is there something wrong, John? I can hear the gears turning in your mind. You must be concentrating on your hike in the woods, huh?” Mom forked another mouthful of salad and waited for my answer.

I downed my current bite, cleared my mouth, and tried to force my thoughts past my frustration and sound pleasant. “Sure, I just have to finish packing. That’s all.”

“All right, sometimes I’m not so sure about whether you are just quiet or brooding…”

The Italian dish was lukewarm once I finished clearing my plate for the cherry-pie-and-vanilla-ice-cream dessert. I savored the treat while my family concentrated on the growing pile of dirty dishes.

Thankful for the distraction, I slipped away toward my bedroom unnoticed, but not before snatching a second slice of cherry pie in an attempt to assuage the intense hunger that persisted despite three servings of lasagna and salad.

I threw enough blue jeans and cotton T-shirts for six days into the empty backpack waiting on top of my twin mattress—the seventh set would be worn en route to Wolf Mountain State Forest—a swimsuit I wore on summer fishing trips, should the occasion arise to cool off in any one of the surrounding lakes or ponds within the wilderness area; a hand ax; a carton containing one hundred matches; thirty feet of bright red parachute cord; a bowie knife; and a handful of other items required to live in comfort away from civilization.

Although tomorrow was the start of October, the forecast called for temperatures to hit anywhere between seventy and eighty degrees all of next week. I skipped packing the thick winter jacket since our vacation would end one day prior to the frigid weather the weatherman was calling for the week following.

My smartphone, resting on the handmade desk, illuminated, notifying me of an incoming text. The name “Kristi Meadowood” was visible at the top of the screen.

Hey, ready to go tomorrow?

I quickly texted a reply.

Yes, just finished. Sure am tired from work.

I sat the phone back on my desk and resumed my final check of all items needed for the weeklong excursion.

The smartphone alerted halfway through the critical detail.

I figure we can always take turns driving. I don’t have to lie on your shoulder the entire time.

I took a step back when I finished the text, widening my brown eyes. Was Kristi implying she wanted our friendship to change into something more serious?

I sat down on the edge of my bed.

Sure, fine with me.

Good! I can’t wait to see you. We have so much to discuss.

I know. We better sleep now while we can. Good night, Kristi, sweet dreams.

My stomach tightened. I felt queasy at the endless possible replies my best friend might type.

You also, John Ellis. Love you.

My cheeks turned bright red as I read and reread those final two words then smiled at the realization that Kristi had engaged me in text as a possible excuse to indicate her desire to take our relationship to the next level. Or were the amorous words simply to indicate her sincerity to love me as a best friend should and I was overthinking the entire situation?

I plugged in the micro-USB cord to recharge my phone. I needed it at full capacity for both personal photographs and potential calls for assistance.

I sat the stuffed backpack beside my door; flicked the overhead light off, throwing the room into complete darkness but for the streetlights outside my window and the soft glow of my alarm clock; and fell, face up, on the bed. I closed my exhausted eyes, certain I would sleep well tonight.

Instead, my eyelids popped open, almost of their own accord.

Does Kristi wish to be my girlfriend now? If so, how long has she felt this way?

Kristi may have been an only child, but her personality was bubbly and outgoing. She was my total opposite, in every way.

Why me? Out of all the guys in the world, why would she ever pick me?

I kept hoping the answers would somehow appear on the barren ceiling that I couldn’t seem to look away from.

I reexamined every detail of Kristi’s past, looking for faint clues.

Kristi was originally from Los Angeles. She and her family had moved into the neighborhood a week after we had. I had spoken to her our first day of high school, and we had been best friends ever since—almost half a decade and counting.

No wonder. I was the first person to approach her when she was scared and lonely, and everyone else was judging her. Of course, Kristi latched on to me. I guess the stars finally aligned in my favor.

Exhaustion overwhelmed me, and a thick darkness settled over me as I drifted to sleep.

The dream started off simple enough—a field of tall grass, green blades swaying in a gentle wind, and Kristi.

She sat on a blue-and-white blanket, with a woven basket perched near the center. She wore a white cotton dress, her soft hands loosely clasped together in her lap. The light breeze teased Kristi’s raven-black hair.

Kristi grabbed the half-full pitcher. “More lemonade, John?”

“Yes, please.” I handed her my empty glass.

Kristi poured a full glass and deposited the pitcher beside the open basket before batting her long black eyelashes. “Tell me, how was work this week?”

“Not too bad,” I said, placing my glass on the used porcelain plate. “My hotshots managed to extinguish all the flames in our assigned sector. We rushed the fire line and were able to help out the other teams until the wildfire was completely out.”

“I know I can always count on my smoke jumper.” Kristi smiled, her blue-eyed gaze locking with my brown one.

“And if I’m ever injured, my beautiful nurse can always heal me.” I grinned.

“Aw, how sweet of you, dear,” Kristi said then laughed and pointed behind me. “Look how cute they are playing.”

I turned to discover two young children—a boy who appeared to be a microsized version of me chasing a girl similar to Kristi.

I panicked at the peculiar image but replied, “Yes, they most certainly are.”

“Take this day in, John. Before we know it, they’re going to grow up and move away.”

She leaned in, and my heartbeat quickened as I felt her lips for the first time in my imagination.

Kristi and I repacked the picnic basket, and she took my hand in hers as we strolled across the meadow.

“Our kids sure have grown.” Kristi turned and stared into my eyes. “Before long, they will be in kindergarten and homework will cover the kitchen table every night.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll help them out, if that is what you’re hinting at.”

Kristi’s smile disappeared. “It’s not that. What I mean is…life is so short.” Kristi lowered her voice. “One moment, they’re barely able to walk. The next, they’re receiving high-school diplomas. I bet our parents felt the same way with us.”

“We just have to enjoy the time we have now, before they become mature, responsible adults who don’t think they need us anymore.”

Kristi squeezed my hand, and we continued toward an old oak tree towering atop the grassy hillside.

“You know, John, you’re right. I love how philosophical you are without even trying.” Kristi kissed me on the lips.

Five feet up the old oak’s trunk was a large heart carved into the thick brown bark with the letters JE and KM inside.

“Making a new memory for us to visit?” Kristi placed her left hand on my right shoulder.

“Why not? Let’s carve a bigger heart around the old one to show how much our love has grown.” I reached inside my jeans front pocket. “But first, I want to give you this.” I opened the black velvet box to reveal a diamond necklace.

Kristi’s blue eyes sparkled brighter than the collection of diamonds, and her mouth dropped open.

“Happy anniversary. Five years. Can you believe it? I thought this might match your diamond ring.” I watched the tears stream down Kristi’s cheeks.

“I don’t know what to say.” Kristi wrapped her arms around my neck. “Thank you, dear.”

My best friend and wife turned her back toward me so I could clasp the necklace around her neck.

The crystal-clear stones appeared to dance when Kristi faced me again.

She planted a warm kiss on my lips, and I wrapped my arms around her lower back, pulling her close.

“John.” Kristi placed her hands on my chest and pushed away gently. “I have an anniversary gift for you as well.” She rummaged through her bright red purse strung around her right arm.

A square plastic box emerged from the small, feminine cavern. Inside the container was an analog watch, similar to those worn by members of the Army Special Forces.

“I love it, sweetheart. Thank you.” I stared at the complex timepiece.

Kristi tightened the watch around my extended left wrist, and intermittent beeps blasted my ears.

I slammed my hand down on my snooze button and looked around the room. It was still dark out, and I glanced at the time—one minute past five. I had promised Kristi I’d be at her house by quarter past six.

Armed with an intricate story guaranteed to make for some interesting conversation during the long drive to Wolf Mountain State Forest, I jumped up and headed for the bathroom.

3

THE WARM, HUMID air was calm as the eastern horizon prepared to reveal a bright orange sunrise.

Through the fading darkness, a single white light shone, originating from an old two-story house surrounded by a wide expanse of open ground divided by barbed wire.

Today was the season opener for gray wolves within the state of Wyoming.

Their shadows casually stirred in the main room as three men carefully examined the topographic map spread across the wooden kitchen table.

“All right, here’s my plan. Drive your pickup across my south pasture, and park on this side of the property line. From there, I think you will know where to start looking for them.” Hank Williamson scratched his gray hair.

“Are there any gates over on that side, or are we gonna have to climb over?” Mike Lockhart asked.

“No, but you have my permission to snip the barbwire between two of the fence posts. The strands there need replacing come next spring. Might as well kill two birds with one stone.” Hank stepped away from the expanded map to stir the pot of coffee that had begun boiling on the antique stove top.

“Sounds good to me. Anything else?” Mike continued scanning the map while his friend Dan Moore tapped his fingers on the tabletop, signaling his boredom.

Hank glanced away from the stove. “Yes, good luck, and come back here in one piece, both of you.”

Mike and Dan gathered their packs and weapons after tucking the large map away in a front pocket and headed out the front door.

The bright red pickup bounced across the terrain made bumpy from the cattle crossing the pastures throughout the summer months.

Both men sighed in relief once the state forest came into view through the high beams.

Silence returned as Mike shut the V-8 engine down.

A breeze swept across the expansive, open ground from the south, reminding them both this day would be warm and muggy. The wind direction was not in their favor to minimize human scent from the wild canines the men wished to kill.

Sunrise remained an hour away despite the muted rainbow of colors slowly brightening the sky. The minute to legally claim a gray wolf through lethal means would arrive in short order.

Mike and Dan stepped out with their headlamps highlighting the landscape. The men grabbed their wolf-hunt gear, which was stored inside the rear cargo area.

Small boxes of ammunition lay open on the tailgate. Mike and Dan quickly loaded the lethal contents into their firearms and front pants pockets. They each carefully returned the steel bolt and iron lever action, each man fully aware that centerfire rifles were two steps from a complete discharge.

The gun barrels glistened as the men’s headlamps reflected off the truck’s right flank.

Dan grabbed his pair of wire cutters from the glove box. Each strand of barbwire fell apart as the sharp blades broke through like a table knife through butter.

The thin, rusty steel bent easily under Mike’s hand, opening a pathway six feet wide.

Dan returned the hand tool to the glove box, killed his headlamp, and gathered his centerfire rifle and camouflage backpack.

As the journey toward the highlands inside Wolf Mountain commenced, morning officially arrived. The sunshine increased the warm air toward new, unusual highs for October in Wyoming, and the gentle breeze ceased altogether, leaving the camouflaged men sweating considerably.

Dan and Mike chose two pine trunks along the forest’s edge, where the elevation sloped downward to form the fabled highlands, as their best line-of-sight positions. They remained silent in spite of not spotting a single hint of ruminant or canine wildlife anywhere near their proximity.

Dan withdrew his phone to see if cell reception was possible and discovered two bars out of five. Dan figured the weak signal was suitable to send a text message. His hands trembled as he typed, but Dan understood his long-distance relationship with Alyssa hung in the balance.

Good morning, honey. Sleep well?

His nerves tensed in anticipation as he waited for her reply.

Yes, I just wish you could tell me that in person.

Dan felt the tension in his shoulders ease slightly.

I know, but this is once in a lifetime for me. I hope you understand.

Dan quietly exhaled to avoid alerting anything—Mike or any passing wildlife—to his presence. The last thing he needed was his friend discovering exactly how troubled he felt inside.

I know how you feel; just please call me tonight. I want to see you even if we are hundreds of miles apart.

He felt relief at her response and smiled as he typed.

I promise

That’s good to hear. I’ve got to leave for work now, love you.

You, too, sweetheart.

Dan returned the smartphone to his backpack.

Over the course of six months, Dan realized Alyssa had seen him face-to-face exactly twice, whether at his home in nearby Wrangler or at her two-bedroom apartment in Seattle. He was too consumed in his work as a professional hunter and never in the same region or even the same country twice. But he had two weeks coming between this trip and his next official safari. He planned to make every second of it count. She was worth it.

Though Dan and Alyssa had been formally dating for three years, their bond continued to deteriorate. Increased effort to achieve the subsequent level in their romantic relationship on Dan’s part was required to rekindle the once lively love for another.

A small speck caught the wary men’s attention. The unidentified animal was set on a course directly southeast.

Dan examined the four-legged creature through his binoculars—an elk bull, with six more following fifty yards behind. He assumed the seven ruminants were headed toward the narrow passageway in the rock wall that allowed easy access to the eastern section of highland.

“Dan, I really want that bull down there in the lead,” Mike whispered.

“I’m sure you do, but we’re here to eliminate wolves. We can come back for them ruminants anytime.”

The men watched the small elk herd closely, just in case a pack of canines, whether gray wolf or coyote, appeared to intercept them.

“Half an hour. If we don’t see any canines by then, I get the first shot,” Mike said without lowering the binoculars from his keen eyes. “What do you say?”

Dan nodded. “Deal.”

The two friends patiently waited for the agreed-upon thirty minutes to run down, scanning the northern hillside and the western slope connecting the north and south elevations, as well as the eastern rock wall, paying special attention to the small opening. Not one gray wolf or even its distinct howl to alert the pack of elk in the vicinity.

“Time’s up, Dan.” Mike reached for his centerfire.

“Yes, sir. I’ll get your distance.” Dan leaned left to grab the range finder.

The small herd of elk continued to graze its way toward the rock-wall opening, completely unaware of Mike and Dan observing its every move.

The ruminants’ pace was slow enough to be considered a still shot; however, the wind sometimes played on men’s souls.

Dan calculated. “I’d say about one hundred and thirty-two yards, my friend.”

“Excellent, well within range.” Mike settled his gun on his shoulder and softly switched the safety off, his finger ready to pull the metal trigger.

“Hold up. Pause.”

Mike clenched his jaw, lowering the firearm from his squinted right eye. “What’s the matter?”

“I see something white on the opposite hilltop. It might just be what we’re actually looking for.”

“Oh? Let’s see.” Mike grabbed his binoculars.

Three gray wolves appeared around the white wild canine. The four dropped into a prone position as though lowering their outlines on the crest.

Dan set his binoculars down in awe of the wondrous sight.

“Wow, his fur is pure white. I sure hope we can get a shot at it.” Mike adjusted his stance.

“So do I, but we’re here to take wolves no matter what. We can’t be choosy, except to avoid taking down any pups.”

Mike nodded. “Understood, but I can just picture that one stuffed in my living room. Kacey would like that.”

“Okay, let’s see where they’re headed.”

The subsequent minutes felt like hours as the two friends anticipated the wolves’ flanking maneuver to attack the elk herd.

As expected, the wolf pack divided into two—one group headed west, while the second went east. The elk hunt had begun.

“Looks like them wolves are hungry,” Mike said.

Dan nodded. “Sure seems that way. Just a bit closer and we’ll have them in our sights.”

“Give me the signal when you believe they’re in range.” Mike readied his loaded rifle.

Through the scope of the expensive range finder, Dan discovered the east-group wolves were a distance of one hundred and seventy yards. Well in range if the men chose to target the unsuspecting canines.

Dan noticed the white wolf and its gray counterpart were struggling to descend the near-vertical rocky slope.

Halfway down, the canine pair turned and headed back toward the forest’s edge. They vanished between the conifers for a minute, reappearing due east of their previous position.

The west group fared better with their descent into the open highlands. Their distance was closer, approximately one hundred and forty-one yards.

Dan realized one wolf was smaller than the other, but that still left three wolves eligible for fatal selection.

Both groups drew closer to the elk herd then fully formed their trap for the ruminants.

The white wolf and its gray friend disappeared near the entrance to the narrow passageway, but Dan and Mike knew they were hidden behind both sides of the rock-wall corridor.

Dan and Mike witnessed the two western wolves commence the most spectacular event of their mortal existence as they seemed to taunt the elk on the fringe of the herd, and then they began a full-speed envelopment of the elk herd.

One calf panicked the small elk group into full retreat for the rock-wall passageway.

Dan was astounded by the wolf pack’s precise plan.

The longer Dan and Mike delayed the kill shot, the farther away the group traveled.

“Now I see what they’re doing. They’re bottlenecking them. Ingenious.” Mike shouldered his centerfire rifle.

“And that’s when we’ll get our chance. The rock-wall corridor will impede the wolves’ progress, too, and provide us with a window to at least shoot that gray adult acting as driver,” Dan said.

“No wonder you’re the professional and I just tag along between out-of-state hauls.” Mike chuckled.

“And that’s why you get the first shot. I’ll tell you when.”

Before Dan was able to signal, however, the white wolf and its gray friend blocked the opening.

Two elk managed to break through their newly created impediment, while the other five panicked and scattered in separate directions.

The west group never let up hounding the ruminants, which continued running due east. They managed to rout an elk cow, too weak from an injured leg and struggling to maintain pace. The gray adult standing inside the narrow opening ran between the horrified elk to assist.

Their surrounded meal dropped, exhausted from the swift roundup.

“Holy smokes! That bull I mentioned earlier is ready to charge at them three.” Mike pointed.

“I’ll take the wolf closest to us. You ready to shoot?” Dan asked.

“Might as well. That elk cow is blocking the other adult.”

“In that case, I’ll go first.” Dan lined the crosshairs up slightly ahead of the closest gray wolf’s intended path. He inhaled a large breath and exhaled slowly, his finger easing the trigger back.

BANG!

Dan was deafened as the loud decibel level overwhelmed his eardrums, and his hearing was dampened by the consistent ringing aftereffect.

“I think you missed the wolf. He’s still moving,” Mike said.

“I know. Take the bull before we lose him,” Dan requested, and he ejected the spent cartridge from the firearm breach to reload.

The mental pressure on Mike was readily visible. His right cheek was deformed from his tight grip on the centerfire rifle. He closed his left eye as the right examined the elk bull downrange.

BANG!

The idle bullet launched at supersonic speed.

Mike’s chosen trophy collapsed, both rear legs kicking ferociously until the nerves ceased the flight maneuver.

Dan patted Mike’s left shoulder. “Nice shot, man. My turn.” He adjusted his mounted scope to track the closest gray wolf along the northern hillside. He aimed the crosshairs two feet ahead of the Canis lupus and slowly pulled the trigger.

BANG!

The bullet impacted the wild canine with brute force. The predator collapsed to its trembling knees and keeled over dead on the grazed-grass ground.

“All right! Want me to shoot the other one?” Mike shoved the unspent cartridge inside the bolt action’s breach.

“Go for it. We’re going to be here awhile anyway.” Dan jerked the lever action, ejecting the second depleted minimissile.

Mike’s centerfire rifle produced substantial recoil, but the bullet intersected the gray-wolf adult as it stood over its fallen canine comrade.

Through the pair of binoculars, Dan observed the carnage below. He witnessed the young wolf pup’s initial confusion, trying to decide which direction led to a safe escape, unaware its adolescent hide had purposely not been targeted by the two hunters.

Having watched the one-sided battle unfold, the white wolf left its lonesome post at the rock-wall passageway, his priorities clearly shifting from guarding duty to running toward the wolf pup’s exposed position.

Dan and Mike continued to fire their centerfire rifles in an attempt to scare the two wolves from the carnage site. They failed, and both wolves survived the lethal hailstorm by hiding behind the lifeless elk bull.

“Well, other than my unfilled elk tag, we have no reason to stay. We still need to scare them off before they try eating your bull.” Dan secured his rifle across his back.

“They better not. You know how much beef costs these days? I need every pound I can get from that carcass.” Mike reloaded and attempted to rise.

“I know, but we must stay invisible, or they’ll bolt.” Dan grabbed his friend’s right shoulder. “There’s no point in going down there to put on a show.”

“Even if we have the upper hand?” But Mike complied and sat back down. “Why not this once?”

“Because it’s too risky. There’s no way of knowing if they might attack.”

“Well, maybe you’re right. Besides, that young one looks like he’s already afraid.” Mike placed his centerfire on the forest floor.

4

SNOW WOLF KNEW past the final elk, traveling eastward as if it weren’t even there. His main focus was assisting his son, hidden behind the elk-bull carcass. Motivated by extreme hunger, which had been gnawing all their empty stomachs the past few days, his pup was trying to grab the animal’s thick skin and drag it out of range.

Several more gunshots interrupted the wilderness chaos as Snow Wolf drew closer. Temporary safety from the continuous lethal storm was his only goal in mind.

The bullets always whistled past Snow Wolf’s original hiding spot, but he reached the dead bull without any wounds beyond those burned into his memories.

Settling down beside his son, Snow Wolf licked The Pup, grateful they both remained alive though Alpha Female and The Brother were dead only yards away.

The loud, fatal noises ceased, and Snow Wolf peeked over the elk’s flank in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the camouflaged human snipers. He scanned the entire southern hill from top to bottom, east to west, and repeated the process a second and third time. No movements or foreign images were detected.

Snow Wolf wondered if the area was safe enough for a swift retreat toward the southern hillside. They could either try now or wait until after darkness settled to conceal their escape across the open landscape. But their stomachs tested their patience to wait until sunset. They were starving, despite a nutritious meal resting inches from their pained faces.

Adrenaline rushed through Snow Wolf as he stood to attempt their escape.

The Pup followed suit while a renewed firestorm of bullets raced toward them.

Time slowed to a crawl, as father and son crossed the highland terrain, heading for the slope’s base. Small dust clouds alerted the wolf pair of where the lethal projectiles impacted the ground.

Snow Wolf slowly climbed the near-vertical embankment, pushing The Pup forward every inch of the way. The murderous gunfire ceased without claiming a victim.

At the summit, Snow Wolf and The Pup gazed at the horrific destruction below. The sight of Alpha Female and The Brother lying dead beside one another hit Snow Wolf like a wave.

Anger and confusion enveloped Snow Wolf; the emotional pain of losing loved ones had returned. How did I allow this catastrophe to become reality? Why didn’t I listen to my gut instincts? How am I supposed to live with myself after killing half my family when I could have led them in a different direction to safely hunt small game instead?

The two wolves mourned their tragic losses with long, remorseful howls.

As much as he knew The Pup wished to descend the difficult slope again and share a proper good-bye, the environment remained hostile, and their stomachs urged them to reenter the dense forest and resume their hunt for necessary nourishment.

Snow Wolf hung his head in shame, but The Pup appeared unmoved by their tragic loss once the quick final respects had concluded.

Father and son disappeared into the conifers, placing themselves farther away from their personal dead, never to return to the highlands again.

A filtered orange sun penetrated the forest canopy of pine and spruce. The rays cast long, parallel shadows on Snow Wolf and The Pup.

They arrived intact at their previous night’s sleeping ground, but with no small game to sustain them.

Snow Wolf’s fears increased to paranoia when he thought human hunters were hidden behind each and every tree trunk or concealed inside the numerous small depressions surrounding them, waiting for the terrified Canis lupus to travel inside the range of their deadly firearms.

Snow Wolf cast aside his persistent panic, and though it never fully faded into nonexistence, he forced his mind-set to believe he could resist all foes—animal or human—not for selfish reasons but to show The Pup he was a four-legged individual of determined strength rather than cowardice.

Snow Wolf pondered his experiences and wondered what could have been done differently. Nothing came to mind, except maybe if they had followed the herd from a distance after seeking safe cover and resumed the hunt in the next section of highland. Just maybe the weakened elk cow Alpha Female, The Pup, and The Brother surrounded would be willing to accept surrender. But the hour was late, and the elk herd most likely was miles away from the initial trap.

Sounds of a warm breeze blowing through the aspens rustled a peaceful symphony and dulled their remaining fears as they made their way to the same creek they had all visited as a pack only hours before.

Every molecule of water Snow Wolf and The Pup took in soothed their dry tongues. For a few brief moments, father and son dropped their guard completely, concentrating on drawing in every last drop to full satisfaction.

Afterward, The Pup trotted back up the hill alone; his mission was to guard the elevated position they had occupied the previous night—not necessarily from the humans or fellow predators but to secure their claim on the small property, since it was on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Snow Wolf headed downstream to hunt for unsuspecting cottontail rabbits. He glanced at The Pup ascending the gradual slope, fearful this might be the last time he saw his son, and then the white wolf turned to face northward, resuming his slow patrol along the creek bank.

His self-confidence drained quickly once the shock and horror of the day’s events replayed in his mind. Snow Wolf attempted to push past surrendering all resolve to live. His son depended on his survival, despite being old enough to be independent.

Snow Wolf refused to allow any more hurtful memories in. It had done nothing more than clog his consciousness. Staying focused on the present was required to survive another day. Granting permission for The Pup to give into his panic a second time was unacceptable. Snow Wolf chose instead to teach his son how to stand up, resist, and undertake another roll of the mortal dice.

The arrival of dusk cast a thick black veil over the dense forest as Snow Wolf noticed the creek bed veer northwest. A full moon replaced the sun within the darkened sky. Distant stars, both bright and dim, speckled through the Earth’s atmosphere.

Snow Wolf continued downstream without observing a single herbivore to suit his needs. Partially distracted by worry that The Pup was in danger due to human hunters, a lone cougar, or an entire pack of coyotes, his certainty of finding food dwindled.

Snow Wolf beat himself up for not encouraging The Pup to tag along and experience survival skills when desperate and hungry. He slowed to a halt and was inclined to abandon all efforts farther downstream.

Through the faint moonlight, Snow Wolf detected movement between him and the shallow creek bed. The Canis lupus scanned the area as his muscles tightened.

An unknown group of animals stirred approximately thirty yards to the northeast.

Snow Wolf crouched and inched toward the sounds of wildlife. Surely the obscure creatures were not a group of unsatisfied coyotes.

Upon closer examination, the white wolf realized exactly what he’d happened across—cottontail rabbits, four to be exact, still completely unaware of Snow Wolf’s presence.

He crawled behind a patch of dense brush and formulated a plan of swift action.

Snow Wolf peeked through the open pockets of his natural hiding place. His strong sense of smell targeted in on their secreted odor. Both curved ears tuned in to receive the cottontails’ gently created sounds.

Snow Wolf crawled around the thicket to the northernmost section and cringed. Will the rabbits escape my grasp and disappear down a hole to their underground home? One more rabbit to go, just one more needs to look away before I pounce.

The white wolf held his breath in anticipation.

Then his wish was granted.

Every single rabbit faced away from Snow Wolf’s general direction. The moment to strike had arrived.

Snow Wolf raced forward, closing the twenty-yard gap between them within seconds. He easily caught the closest cottontail, his sharp fangs driving deep into its soft neck.

A high-pitched scream sounded as the unfortunate herbivore lay motionless in Snow Wolf’s clamped mouth.

He dropped the dead rabbit to pursue a second one.

Two rabbits disappeared down burrows as expected. The fourth one, though, quickly hopped toward the creek bed, attempting to swim the narrow, shallow span.

Snow Wolf sprinted faster to capture the rogue cottontail before it soaked its grayish fur.

Too late.

Snow Wolf’s prey jumped into the clear liquid and began to swim with furious strokes.

The white wolf held the advantage in the one-on-one pursuit. The creek was low enough for him to simply wade into the small body of water.

Snow Wolf grabbed the rabbit by the throat as both predator and prey reached the opposite shore, but not before a splash of cold water hit his face when the rabbit exited the creek.

Snow Wolf struggled to breathe, nearly losing his prey when he wished to inhale through his mouth. Instead, he breathed deeply through his nose to maintain his grip on the wet rabbit’s throat, allowing the shocked animal to accept a quick death.

He hobbled toward the southern shore, exhausted from the entire torturous situation, which had almost done him in during the process. However, Snow Wolf was calm in spite of the overabundant adrenaline pumping through his veins. Instead of panicking, the white predator yawned and shook off the frigid water soaking his beautiful white fur down to the concealed skin.

A short-lived chill overcame Snow Wolf, even in the warm October air. He examined the dead rabbit lying before him.

The white wolf collected and secured both animals and slowly withdrew upstream, cautious of any ambushes by vicious teeth hidden in the darkness.

A breeze blew north through the forest, suppressing Snow Wolf’s ability to hear possible approaching intruders from the south, but his keen sight and strong smell sensors reinforced the wild canine’s inner defenses.

Snow Wolf reached the sleeping grounds where The Pup was located.

First, rest; then continue our natural, daily ritual—survive.

5

I CLOSED MY tired eyes in a tight squint, defending them against the bright kitchen light, and tiptoed around the broad room in fear each footstep might wake the parents.

The incandescent lightbulb above the sink was dim, almost forming a late-night restaurant scene.

I gathered the ingredients for my version of a breakfast of champions—a cardboard-like carton of brown eggs, a plastic-wrapped loaf of white bread, and sausage links from the freezer.

Orange lines appeared inside the countertop toaster as two slices of white bread began to cook.

I shifted my focus to the brown eggs and sausage links sitting near the range. With three forceful blows from a dull butter knife, I directed the first yellow yolk into the small metal mixing bowl. A second brown egg required four hits before its contents exited the thin, brittle shell.

I carefully whisked the raw yellow mixture with a dinner fork and then poured the eggs into the pan, transforming the gooey liquid into scrambled eggs.

I forgot to remain quiet when I realized the time. Every sound produced more volume than the preceding one, especially when the sausage links began to sizzle.

I scarfed down every bite, still shocked my parents hadn’t walked in after all the banging and thumping, and deposited the now-clean dishes in the drainer on the counter.

Time ticked away with each transition of the kitchen clock’s second hand. I was almost empty of available time when I switched off the light above the kitchen sink.

I sprinted toward the darkened bathroom to brush my teeth and begin the final preparations for the long drive northward.

“Don’t forget to say good-bye, Son.” My father appeared in the narrow hallway.

Mom exited their dimly lit bedroom to give me a loose hug.

How had I forgotten that my parents would never permit me to travel hundreds of miles from home without an official farewell? Oh well, I’d be a fool if I appeared completely cold this time.

“Bye, Mom. Dad.” I hesitated before shaking his hand.

“Good luck, stay safe out there, and take good care of your friends,” my father said.

“I will.”

Finally ready to hit the road, I stole one last glance at the half-illuminated house and noticed my parents peeking between the shades of the living-room window. I never acknowledged their watchful eyes. I was too occupied with storing the heavy external-frame backpack on the unused backseat immediately behind the driver.

The V-6 engine roared to life without misfire, and I shifted into drive and crawled away from the concrete curb and toward Kristi’s residence, our planned rally point before everyone proceeded toward Wolf Mountain State Forest.

Several houses along my route were already full of light and life. Some, in fact, where vehicle backup lights revealed intentions of people possessed to leave before the dawn.

I was surprised, as most people slept late on Saturdays. Then again, maybe they were up and moving because of the abnormally warm week, and everyone was committed to enjoying the outside before winter snows arrived.

When Kristi’s residence appeared, I abandoned my random thoughts and focused my all on her.

Will I blush when I tell her about my dream?

There was no reason to be timid around her—about the fantasy or anything else.

I sighed and prepared myself for the approaching intimate conversation.

Kristi stood waiting on the sidewalk, with a bright smile lighting her face.

“Good morning. Sleep well last night?” Kristi walked toward me, a backpack in her soft hands.

“Yes, yes, I did.” I slammed the driver’s door and opened the back door of my car. “Even dreamed of you.”

She halted two steps from me. “Really? You should tell me the story once we are underway.”

The sound of a motor increased in volume. Two parallel beams of light appeared from the other end of the street. They changed direction and shone on the asphalt driveway, blinding me as Kristi and I were spotlighted.

Our two best friends, Adam and Taylor, had arrived to complete the two-vehicle convoy.

“Morning, John. Morning, Kristi.” Adam climbed down from the cab. “I assume you’re ready to shove off.”

Taylor exited from the passenger side, her entire focus concentrated on the cell phone in her right hand. Despite her inability to fully deposit the rectangular object, she shoved the device inside her shorts pocket and stepped toward Kristi and me. “How far is the campground from here?”

“About four hundred miles. Why?” I asked. There was no telling what Taylor had on her mind, but I sensed a deep lack of interest because she had chosen the second option for a vacation destination—the sandy beaches of Southern California.

Taylor shrugged. “Just wondered.”

“Okay, then.” Adam clapped once. “Let’s hit the road; shall we?”

I assisted Kristi with storing her backpack in the backseat. We climbed in the front seats and waited for Adam to move his pickup truck so I could lead the group toward Wolf Mountain.

Neither Kristi nor I spoke for the first few miles. The roar of the engine and our smartphones intermittently displaying light from their spots inside the two cup holders between us were the only real signs of life in my old silver sedan.

I flicked on my left blinker, signaling our change in course from due east to straight north to Adam behind me as we approached the four-lane highway.

Adam and I merged into traffic without delay, and the metropolis faded in the rearview mirror.

I glanced at Kristi. “I assume you ate breakfast, right?”

“Yep. I had some Greek yogurt and instant oatmeal,” she replied.

“Sounds delicious. Of course, I’d add scrambled eggs and toast, so I didn’t starve.”

“I figured as much. You eat as though you’ve been starved for days. I don’t understand how you stay so trim. I worry about every extra muffin.” Kristi examined her phone for incoming texts. After pressing a button to open the screen, she placed the device back in the cup holder.

“Well, I do work in a factory. The boss works us like machines in overdrive.” I noticed a hybrid car passing us in the left lane.

“True, true. You do work hard. All I do is shuffle papers around and answer the phone.”

My hands and arms tingled with the renewed silence. Kristi’s presence seemed different than it had on any previous occasion. Was she waiting for me to express some deep, dark secret? I wasn’t exactly sure, but I remembered Kristi saying she wanted to hear my latest dream.

“So…you want to hear about my dream now?” I asked.

Kristi turned to face me, crossing her suntanned legs. “I’m all ears, John.”

I chose my words carefully to convey the story with precise detail.

Kristi remained silent until I reached the scene with the old oak tree. “Aw, that’s so sweet. I wish my dreams were like that.”

“Well, I wish I knew what happened next, but the alarm clock went off instead.”

“Bummer. I should tell you about mine from Tuesday night.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror to check on Adam and Taylor. Adam was solely trained on the road ahead, and Taylor was sound asleep. They were fine.

Kristi started explaining her dream from earlier in the week as I turned my attention back to her.

“We were walking throughout the mall downtown. I bought some bright blue shoes that caught my eyes and tried on several dresses and some scarves. Once I found what I wanted, you paid for everything. We held hands and walked to the food court for dinner. Italian. It was so good!”

I strived to maintain control of my pounding heart and not betray the depth of my affection. “Nice. I love it, Kristi.” I had never struggled with anxiety in her presence the way I was in this moment. I continued to keep my eyes trained on the asphalt pavement rushing toward us.

“Really? Thank you, darling.” Kristi kissed me on the cheek.

I turned red and was unable to control my wide grin in response.

“Tell me, dear, when you first met me, I mean…how did we become friends? All I remember is being in the same homeroom.” I inquired.

A moment of silence surrounded us as Kristi twisted in her seat and rubbed her arms.

I adjusted the air conditioner and snuck a peek at her face.

“My family had recently moved from Los Angeles. My father’s job transferred him to Salt Lake after massive shutdowns across California, Nevada, and Arizona. My parents bought the house we have now after a quick search online. We had been staying in a hotel, but it cost too much to stay after a week.” Kristi shifted her gaze between mine and the road ahead. The car again fell silent as she gathered more pieces of the story.

Sunlight began to peek above the forest, and I shut off the headlights.

“My mom dropped me off at school early that morning. I spotted you standing outside in the hallway, alone. We talked, and I made sure I sat beside you in science lab. That’s how I managed to get so many assigned experiments with you.” Tears streamed down Kristi’s cheeks.

“Is there something wrong?” I handed her a tissue from the armrest.

“No, John.” Kristi wiped her blue eyes. “I just never realized how much you mean to me before. Our friendship is beautiful, and I hope it never fades away.”

“Me too.”

Kristi’s cell chirped and played some random ringtone.

“Hello, Taylor. Everything all right back there?” Kristi swallowed in an attempt to sound normal and wiped her eyes. “Yes, I’ll ask him.” She held the phone away from her ear. “John, Taylor says she needs to use the bathroom and Adam needs to stop for gas. Do you know where the next gas station is?”

Although it had been five years since the last time I’d traveled this far north, I knew exactly where the closest station was located. I double-checked the mile marker as we passed. “Tell them we can stop a couple of miles away.”

Kristi relayed the information to Taylor and Adam. “Just follow us. See you there. Bye.” She returned her smartphone to its cup holder and smiled at me.

6

FOUR ROUNDED EARS intermittently appeared from behind the lifeless elk bull. Sometimes a pair of eyes, but Dan knew the two gray wolves were too frightened to expose more.

“I wonder what they’re waiting for.” Mike loosened his grip on the centerfire rifle. “It’s not as though we can shoot them through the carcass.”

“They can sense danger is near; that’s why. Especially when our scent is blowing toward them,” Dan said and continued watching through his binoculars.

The sun peaked, and the air was heavy with moisture. Noon had officially arrived.

Droplets of sweat emerged on Dan’s forehead, and his white handkerchief was damp after two or three swipes.

The potable water in Dan’s canteens was distastefully lukewarm on his parched tongue. He wished for an inaccessible ice cube or two.

“Wait a minute. I think they’re running.”

Mike peered through the mounted scope on the bolt-action centerfire. “Good, then let’s get them moving farther away.”

Dan traded his binoculars for the lever-action rifle and chambered a live round. “Ready?” Dan asked as he targeted the two wolves through the mounted scope. “Four shots total. You start.”

The white wolf led the young gray canine toward the northern hilltop, their heading straight as an arrow even as the bullets impacted the ground around them. Not once did the Canis lupus glance back.

Dan and Mike stopped firing their precious ammunition just as the two wolves reached the north slope’s base. They watched the wolves ascend the near-vertical rock, howl once after topping the crest’s edge, then disappear between the pines and spruces of the dense forest.

“I’d say we’re ready to come out of hiding and inspect our trophies.” Dan stood up to stretch his legs.

“Good! Any longer and my rear end was gonna start aching.” Mike gathered the shell casings scattered between them.

“You could have brought along a cushion. I sometimes do.”

“No need. I’m used to it when I drive cross-country.”

“All right, suit yourself.”

They left their camouflage backpacks, to eliminate tension on their sore spines, carrying only sanitized butchering knives.

Dan grabbed his lever-action centerfire in case the wolves returned for the elk carcass.

Several hours later, the large plastic gloves, which extended past their elbows, were stained with blood and the elk bull lay in six different-size pieces, ready for transport out of Wolf Mountain State Forest.

“Are you sure we can’t just bring the truck in and load up?” Mike examined the bull’s impressive antlers.

“I’m sure. Regulations are regulations, and the weight of that truck would rip this ground too much.” Dan removed the used plastic gloves from his arms.

“Then how are we supposed to carry this thing out of here?”

Dan examined their gruesome hard work, processing information at double speed since he understood spoilage might occur because of the abnormal heat. “Let’s take the shoulders first, and then we can work with the prime cuts.”

Side by side, the best friends hiked over the northern slope throughout the humid afternoon. Each subsequent load challenged their spines to the breaking point as droplets of sweat covered their tanned skin from head to toe.

By midafternoon, only the gray-wolf carcasses remained on the grazed floor of the highlands. Otherwise the men just needed to gather their hunting gear from its concealed position before they exited Wolf Mountain.

Dan’s smartphone displayed the time—six minutes past five.

The air had remained humid and warm, even as the afternoon transformed to evening, and they were rapidly losing sunlight.

“Do you think we should hose them down once we reach the barn?” Mike closed the pickup’s tailgate.

“Yeah, it’s been almost five hours since you shot him,” Dan replied.

“I sure hope the meat ain’t spoiled. Would be a shame to waste such fine meat.”

“At least you’ll have a head to mount and fur for the living room, not to mention the gray wolf. I’d say you have plenty to be thankful for.”

“True, true.” Mike climbed inside the cab.

The truck’s headlights illuminated the desolate pasture.

Two small circles reflected the high beams. Then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, the image vanished.

Dan spotted the long, narrow legs growing smaller and smaller. He realized the strange creature was a mule deer, out scavenging any remainder of summer’s bounty.

Don’t forget; don’t forget. Tonight, you tend to your personal relationship with Alyssa. Remember how you almost lost her on two other occasions because you neglected her?

The kidney-jarring bounces across the pasture eased as the two friends finally reached the dirt road. A red flashing light appeared on the instrument panel—someone inside the vehicle wasn’t buckled in—but neither Mike nor Dan paid any attention to the reminder. They were almost there. What could possibly happen?

Except for the yard’s security light high above their heads, darkness completely dominated the natural landscape.

Mike parked the bright red pickup beside the faded wood barn door. The vehicle’s headlamps and taillights automatically darkened, as he intended.

Dan shoved the large door aside to reach the light switch immediately inside. He grabbed the thick rubber hose to connect it with the metal pipe that protruded through the outer barn wall.

The metal trough below the exterior faucet was almost half-full when Mike and Dan decided to lift the elk shoulder and prime cuts one by one to soak for several minutes. Dan used the open hose end to brutally shower the trophy meat where it rose above the surface.

Dan shut off the water faucet to roll up the lengthy hose and returned the light item to its original place.

They dumped the cold aquifer water that had been soaking the large collection of elk meat. The soft earth beneath Mike’s and Dan’s feet easily absorbed the excess hydration. One by one, Mike and Dan carried the perishables back toward the truck’s cargo area.

“I bet Kacey is ticked at me for being late for supper.” Mike slammed the tailgate shut. “We better hit the road.”

“Ah, don’t worry. I’m sure she’ll understand.” Dan glanced toward the house when a door opened.

“Hold up, gentlemen.” Hank walked out to greet them. “My wife wanted me to give you these to share.”

“She’s an excellent baker, amigo. Tell her thanks,” Mike said, relieving Hank of one giant bag of cookies.

“I will. Are you guys coming back tomorrow?”

“Well, I’m not. I promised Kacey I’d do some yard work,” Mike replied.

“How about you, Dan?”

“Maybe, but probably just to go after some elk or mule deer. We’ve already filled our wolf tags this season.” Dan reopened the tailgate.

“Excellent. You two should hunt some of the coyotes I’ve seen hanging around here lately. I fear this winter is gonna be harsh.” Hank examined the three trophies.

“Will do. How about later this week?” Dan asked.

“Fine with me. I might even come along, depending on the day.”

“All right, we’ll be seeing you, Hank. Take care.”

“Good-bye.” Hank ambled back toward his house.

Large, dusty clouds formed behind Mike’s pickup as they traveled east and out of the driveway. Neither man spoke a word as Dan fiddled with the radio, but all he found was more political news and bad music.

Dan hooked his phone up to the truck’s speakers and pulled up a station from the Internet.

The truck gradually reached the summit, unveiling a beautiful skyline and Wyoming’s western metropolis of Wrangler, which stretched for miles in all directions. Nearly half a million people lived here. It was a rare urban gem hidden by miles of endless wilderness.

Block after block, the modern residential structures seemed to create a matrix-like mosaic. Except for subtle differences, such as color and the diverse front yards, the homes were all similar in shape and size.

“Do you want me to help you with the butchering tomorrow?” Dan asked.

“No, I can get it.” Mike turned into his drive. “But you’re welcome for supper tonight. Kacey won’t mind.”

“I accept. What are we having?”

“Chicken Alfredo and cooked carrots.”

“Mmm, that sounds better than what I had in mind.” Dan disconnected his smartphone.

“And that would be?” Mike opened the garage door.

Dan hesitated, wondering if his actual answer was worth embarrassing himself over. “Um, takeout.”

“Ugh! One of these days, you got to find yourself a wife to help you with the cooking,” Mike stated.

“It’s just what was easy after I came back from Alberta.” Dan slipped his phone in his pocket. “I never feel like making anything once I get unpacked.”

“Okay, but you should look into that sometime. I’m sure you have plenty of opportunities since you travel all over.” Mike carefully edged the pickup inside the three-car garage.

The white wooden door, which separated the house from the garage, opened. A tall, youthful woman appeared and flashed a smile at Dan as the men stepped out.

“I was getting worried you two might not return,” Kacey said as she approached the pickup.

“Oh, we’re fine, dear.” Mike kissed his wife on the cheek. “Right, Dan?”

Dan stared at his worn hiking boots while giving the pair a moment of privacy. “Right.”

Kacey embraced her husband. “Good. I’ll warm your supper in the microwave. Dan? You want some as well?”

“Yes, please. Thank you.”

Kacey turned and strode toward the kitchen.

Mike grabbed Kacey by the hand. “Don’t you want to see our wolves and my bull?”

“You lead the way,” Kacey replied.

The trio strolled toward the red pickup’s tailgate; Kacey and the best friends examined the severed elk bull and both gray wolves. Kacey smiled when she noticed the large antlers that once advertised dominance for the dead elk.

“Nice rack, Mike.” Kacey rubbed her husband’s back. “I’m so proud of you, sweetie.”

“Thank you, dear. Don’t worry; this is not our anniversary gift this year.” Mike wrapped his left arm around her shoulders.

“That’s good, because I wasn’t about to let you off the hook a second time.” Kacey kissed her grungy husband before unlocking herself from his intimate grasp.

Mike’s wife exited the garage to warm the men’s evening meals. Mike and Dan rushed to deposit the prime elk meat inside the freezers. As for the deceased wolves, they had been carefully wrapped in black trash bags before also being stored.

They stacked their hunting gear along the garage’s back wall and entered the house, only to be greeted with a mouthwatering aroma and plates of food waiting on the island countertop.

“Looks delicious, Kacey.” Mike grabbed both dishes.

“What do you men want to drink?” Kacey opened the fridge. “Water? Milk? A beer?”

“Water is fine, please,” Dan answered.

“Same for me, honey.” Mike sat the plates on the kitchen table.

There was a round, chocolate-frosted cake on display, with one slice already removed from the pastry dish to reveal the inside layers were also chocolate brown.

Kacey wielded a long, razor-sharp knife like a professional baker. She separated two long slivers from the chocolate cake.

“Do you have any vanilla ice cream?” Dan handed Kacey his empty plate.

“Yes. How many scoops would you like?” Kacey asked.

“Two should be plenty, please.”

“Mike, dear?”

“Just one.” Mike cleaned his plate with a fork.

Since none of the three adults spoke a word while they savored Kacey’s creation, Dan returned to daydreaming about Alyssa.

I hope she isn’t angry. We haven’t had a decent conversation in nearly two weeks, and she’s been so patient with me, especially since half the time I’m unreachable. One of these days—maybe next week—I’ll visit. Remind her exactly how much she means to me with a small though powerful gift.

The warm evening persisted, even though the hour was already past eight.

Dan swiftly gathered his camouflage backpack and centerfire and placed the sacred items in the front seat of his pickup. He contemplated replacing the old, rusty vehicle with a newer model, just not brand-new like Mike’s.

The V-6 engine coughed and sputtered, finally catching, and Dan spotlighted the pond behind Mike and Kacey’s home when he turned on the headlights. The engine roared loud enough for the entire neighborhood to notice Dan’s urgency to speak with his Seattle girlfriend as he backed out of the driveway.

7

SENSATIONS OF TERROR and chaos repeatedly attacked Snow Wolf. The self-induced anxiety felt similar to deep jabs by summer mosquitoes. Not one individual who walked on two legs or four was located anywhere near his ever-changing position toward the northwest and due north. The only smells were of vegetation and Snow Wolf’s body odor. Every sound was made by his sore paws as they touched the forest floor. The white wolf’s eyes, however, perceived hostile predators everywhere. He was too overwhelmed to continue the expedition toward his son upstream.

Snow Wolf breathed deeply. Every direction he scanned seemed to hold threats, waiting to be discovered.

The Canis lupus glanced at his trembling front legs, unable to proceed toward The Pup’s elevated position without calming his numerous fears.

Snow Wolf dropped the two rabbits to inhale a large breath through his mouth.

I must continue on, for The Pup. But the pain is too much. Oh, Alpha Female, The Brother, why did I let you die?

Snow Wolf howled a remorseful song.

The white wolf gathered dinner and resumed the long journey despite his persistent fears, watching shadows in every direction until he arrived at their camp for the night and discovered The Pup safe and sound, fast asleep, in a curled ball.

Snow Wolf dropped the two rabbits.

His son slowly awoke, clearly grateful to see his father instead of a hostile predator.

The Pup examined the two lifeless cottontails, and to Snow Wolf’s surprise, he chose the moist rabbit. His son ripped the lifeless creature to shreds by utilizing both his fangs and front paws.

In contrast to The Pup’s swift, fierce appetite, Snow Wolf dabbled with his well-earned food, too focused on the afternoon’s carnage. He struggled to maintain a firm grip on his thoughts, but he was successful in camouflaging the emotional hurt from The Pup.

Why did The Brother have to die? Why not me? It was my idea, my plan that led us to those killing grounds.

He realized there were no sufficient answers to be found. Snow Wolf had to live with being the driving force behind The Brother’s lifeless fate.

The white wolf altered his focus to Alpha Female, the love of his life, his sole intimate companion. Snow Wolf desperately attempted to come to terms with the fact that she was gone forever. Snow Wolf asked the same two questions of himself, and again, no solution was discovered.

I miss you, Alpha Female, but I know the memories of you will always remain with me. I cannot bear the burden of saying good-bye to you so suddenly.

Snow Wolf struggled to conceal his deep sorrow. He glanced at his son, who had almost completed his meal of rabbit. He was puzzled by how The Pup had managed to overcome the unfair odds on several occasions throughout the previous afternoon.

Does my son possess a permanent form of good luck? Why have the human hunters, who chose to remain invisible today, kept The Pup alive? Is it because of his youth? I would like to believe so. What a wonderful world…if the superior bipeds allowed us wolves a chance to experience life before taking it from us.

Snow Wolf shoved his tempestuous thoughts down once more and devoured his rabbit until only a few bones and inedible entrails were left to scavenge.

Both he and his son fell asleep once they got settled in for the night. Their tired, aching bodies were relieved by the opportunity to recover.

Snow Wolf dreamed the distant stars fell to Earth, transforming into gray wolves to act as guards from fellow predators and firearm-wielding humans attempting to harm him and The Pup. The star-origin wolves never tightened the circular perimeter the innumerable canines created.

Snow Wolf felt secure, both in reality and fantasy, until an uncomfortable sense overwhelmed him. He casually opened his tired eyes to glimpse for the source.

A quad-legged individual paced back and forth, clearly anxious of possible untraceable threats.

The Pup.

Why is my son acting like this? What does he imagine might possibly harm us both, besides the human hunters? No, not now.

Father and son noticed a flash of dull color on the western edge of the hilltop.

Running at full speed toward Snow Wolf and The Pup, a lone coyote advanced on their camp.

Looks like news traveled fast about my shattered pack. Here come two more behind the lead canine. The battle for this ground is on.

Snow Wolf launched his body up to intercept the three coyotes, fully prepared to sacrifice his existence in protection of The Pup.

The unequal opposition collided, with their fangs unveiled. Each canine snarled at their respective enemy as they rolled on the forest floor.

Snow Wolf immediately gained the advantage, despite the unfavorable odds. He clamped his razor-sharp teeth deep inside the coyote leader’s neck.

Upon release, the three canines fled down the western slope.

Snow Wolf breathed a sigh of relief.

The adult Canis lupus turned to face The Pup.

The shock and horror of the recent skirmish was written all over the young wolf’s face as he stared at his sire.

Shallow gashes and bruises occupied Snow Wolf’s face and neck.

The Pup approached his father to soothe the afflicted wounds with his moist tongue. He licked the sores, and Snow Wolf was grateful of his son’s assistance.

Hurried footfalls interrupted their calm.

Snow Wolf advanced a second time to obstruct the coyotes’ planned attack.

The Pup retreated eastward toward the creek bed downhill.

The coyotes surfaced on the western crest, seven in all, appearing aggressive and hungry. The large group quickly surrounded Snow Wolf inside a loose but ever-tightening circle and eliminated every avenue of escape from his arsenal.

Two Canis latrans continued past the skirmish without hesitation, taking an easterly course down the slope where The Pup had disappeared.

Snow Wolf tensed with fear, worried his son might be also annihilated. He glanced, one by one, at each of the five predatory individuals staring into his keen eyes, trying to decide which was the alpha male. Once Snow Wolf thought he’d identified the leader, he carried out a plan of swift revenge.

The five opposing coyotes were astonished by Snow Wolf’s quick counterattack.

The Canis lupus knocked their alpha male to the forest floor and pierced his neck, allowing blood to flow in huge streams and cover Snow Wolf’s pure-white fur with every slowing beat of the alpha’s heart. The two leaders crashed to the ground, each desperate to win the fierce duel, but the end was inevitable.

Snow Wolf was victorious.

Everyone stood around the dead body, unable to comprehend what had happened. When Snow Wolf’s opposition regained its focus, two coyotes lunged at him. The remaining two panicked and retreated from the resumed battle.

Snow Wolf tackled one rogue canine while the second sank its fangs inside his sensitive flesh at his exposed throat.

Though he whimpered for the first time, he possessed no time to howl. Snow Wolf firmly grasped the first adversary.

With one complete roll on the forest floor, Snow Wolf successfully loosened both coyotes from his hide, and opportunity quickly assembled to regain the initiative.

The white wolf knocked his more violent opponent off balance, slashing its face to bloody shreds.

The secondary coyote evacuated eastward, tail tucked firmly between its rear legs.

Snow Wolf understood the current odds were equal if not overwhelmingly in his favor, but the coyote continued without pause, even though it was close to a state of uncontrollable panic brought on by Snow Wolf’s repetitive blows.

The final impact resulted when the white wolf pierced the coyote’s thick skin with his bloodstained fangs, and precious life exited the Canis latran’s body with one quick motion.

Snow Wolf, thoroughly exhausted, struggled to stand. He scanned the area for any other threats, closely examining each spruce, pine tree, and every scattered pocket of thick brush before concluding he was alone.

He remembered The Pup remained in immediate danger and sprinted faster than his sore legs desired.

Let my son be all right. He’s the only member of my wolf pack remaining to remind me of my lovable Alpha Female.

The Pup stood atop a gray boulder positioned along the opposite shore of the creek bed.

Four coyotes surrounded the tall rock pedestal, unable to climb the impediment without a better foothold. They slowly skulked around his son’s natural barrier, howling for assistance in the siege of The Pup and emphasizing superior numbers to the point of nauseous annoyance.

Snow Wolf exposed himself by alerting the smaller canine opponents with a loud, growling bark.

The coyotes jumped and quickly withdrew southward, disappearing among the dense forest.

The Pup leaped down from his perched stance to join his injured father.

Both wolves closed the distance—The Pup trotting through the crystal-clear creek while Snow Wolf continued his descent. They exchanged licks of gratitude, pleased they were again safe from danger.

The bleeding from Snow Wolf’s new wounds was minimal, mostly scratches, which would disappear within days.

The Pup, in contrast, displayed no noticeable blemishes. The few injuries he was burdened with were mental in nature.

Father and son settled into the new, peaceful environment as they trotted alongside one another downstream, certain the coyote pack wouldn’t attempt to harm them again.

Snow Wolf was bothered instead by the notion that he’d almost lost control of himself in a physical manner.

_If only Alpha Female and The Brother were still with us. I cannot resist much longer. I must find the wolf pack north of us. I need help. _

Each occasionally disappeared on opposite sides of the same dense brush as they traveled. Snow Wolf worried he might never see The Pup alive when his son didn’t exit the thick forest undergrowth for far longer than expected.

When The Pup finally emerged, the white wolf realized he was beginning to understand how the elk herd had felt in its desperate quest to escape his pack’s trap through the narrow passageway in the rock wall.

8

LUCKILY, THERE WERE two pumps not in use as I eased into the lot and aligned my tank with the pump closest to the convenience store.

Adam stopped his pickup truck directly behind me.

While I filled the car with a tankful of midgrade, I noticed Taylor sprint toward the front door of the convenience store, quickly outpacing Kristi. I watched the girls disappear behind an aisle stocked with potato chips.

The pump clicked off, and I returned the hose and headed inside to find everything a modern nomad might need to survive a week or two in the wilderness of Wolf Mountain—snacks, such as beef jerky and sugary candies, bottled water, camping supplies, and natural-gas refills. If not for the fuel pumps, I might have mistaken the small business for a local sporting-goods store.

I refocused my attention and walked toward the checkout counter along the front wall half-composed of thick glass.

“Hello. Pump four.” I reached for my leather wallet.

“Your total is twenty-three dollars and sixty-seven cents,” the young woman behind the register said. “Out of twenty-five? Your change is a dollar thirty-three. Thank you. Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

I left Adam at the front counter as Kristi and Taylor reappeared near the potato chips. Together, the three of us exited the convenience store. Nobody spoke a word.

“Ready for some fun, darling?” Kristi pulled the seat belt across her chest as we both settled back in the car.

“Yes, I am, sweetheart. Let’s do this.” I started the engine and resumed our trek northward.

The beautiful scenery north of the busy gas station appeared to originate from a centuries-old folktale. The rounded hills transformed into steep slopes thousands of feet tall. Conifers of pine and spruce covered the landscape below the forest line. Several meadows adjacent to the two-lane highway contained both golden-brown grass, prepared for cold winter temperatures, and numerous elk, desperate to discover nature’s remnants of summer.

With my hands occupied, maneuvering the silver sedan between the painted lines, Kristi snapped several photos to document our shared experience.

A large brown sign approached: Wolf Mountain State Forest: Next Right.

I steered toward the empty off-ramp, and another sign announced we were only five miles from our destination.

“Almost there, Kristi. Once we set up our tents, it’ll be supper time. Do you have an idea what’s for dessert?” I glanced at Kristi.

“Oh, I’m not sure. I think I’ll keep it a surprise.” She smiled. “But I know you will not be disappointed.”

“Cool.”

We entered the gravel parking lot of the busy campground, and I stationed the vehicle near the front door of the registration office, which was a refurbished log cabin from an era two centuries prior.

“Here we are. Welcome to Wolf Mountain State Forest.” I was flooded with excitement, unable to contain the renewed joy without smiling from ear to ear. I realized a five-year-old memory had been revived. This was exactly the type of vacation I required to calm myself of the swift city pace I had maintained all these months.

An old woman stood behind the front desk as the four of us entered the lobby.

“May I help you?”

“Yes, one small lot for tonight and tomorrow morning, please,” I said.

“That will be thirty dollars, then.”

I reached for my leather wallet to grab a twenty and ten to pay for our purchase.

The old woman took the cash from my left hand and secured it inside a locked metal box resting under the desk. “You’re lot number fourteen, down the gravel road here.” She pointed directly behind her.

“Thanks a lot. Good-bye.”

Sunshine continued to pour through the deciduous trees dotting the campground while my friends and I ate supper at the weathered and worn picnic table.

The two tents we’d set up before eating absorbed the plentiful sunshine as though they were a pair of solar panels ready to transfer the energy collected for unrequited warmth overnight. At least Adam and I had remembered to open the mesh-covered windows at the rear and front doors.

The campground was quiet except for the occasional crackling of our campfire. Although it was at full capacity this particular October weekend, most families remained inside their expensive trailers for supper.

I felt unusually uncomfortable with my friends’ silence. My intuition revealed they were withholding important information but not necessarily a choice between life and death. What hidden news had I sensed?

To create conversation, I disrupted the emptiness with a harmless comment. “These tacos are delicious, girls. Props to you both.”

“Why thank you, John.” Taylor smiled and turned to face Adam, sitting across from her. “What are your thoughts on our meal tonight?” she asked.

Adam finished chewing a bite of sweet corn before he spoke a word. His eyes appeared locked on an object hundreds of yards away.

I wondered what was going on with him. He seemed detached from his usual open-book personality.

“Excellent. You make my mom look like an amateur,” Adam replied offhandedly before looking down at the half-eaten food on his paper plate and drifting off again.

Whatever he was thinking about, the mental grasp was powerful.

“Really? Kristi and I are really that good?” Taylor giggled. “Hmm, maybe we should just open a restaurant downtown and show the world what we’re made of.”

“Can I be your first customer?” I asked, playing along with the ironic future plan. “It’s only fair, since I am a friend.”

“Absolutely.” Kristi grabbed another bite of sweet corn.

“Adam, you can be our second.” Taylor touched her boyfriend’s right arm just below the elbow.

Utter silence.

Adam played with the food on his plate without regard someone close to his heart had spoken to him.

Whatever occupied my friend’s mind, the potency of the subject was stronger than I had thought beforehand.

“Is there something wrong?” Taylor placed her hand on the picnic table.

“No, I heard what you said. It’s just…I’m not exactly hungry right now to eat there anytime soon.” Adam concealed his glum face with a big smile.

“Well, you don’t have to eat there this very moment.” Taylor gazed into Adam’s eyes, resting both her hands on his. “Besides, the restaurant doesn’t exist yet. Kristi and I don’t even possess a building to start such an operation.”

“I know, but what about us?” He narrowed his eyes.

“No, silly.” Taylor was trying not to laugh. “I’ve known since the instant I met you a lesson in handling sarcasm was required. Kristi and I are not opening a restaurant.”

“Okay, I was just making sure.” Adam resumed eating his last bites of supper.

Complete verbal silence recaptured the eerie void.

I indulged in the unfinished corn and taco on my plate, unable to identify the strange quiet surrounding me.

Surely, my three best friends weren’t all angry about something.

I scarfed down a second serving of sweet corn and two more tacos before I realized I had finally satisfied my hungered stomach. Then I remembered dessert.

What did Kristi make for our secret treat?

Kristi finished her supper and stood to stretch.

Had she forgotten her promise to produce a delicious dessert?

Instead of discarding the used paper plate and plastic utensils into the nearby garbage barrel, Kristi reached inside a cooler we’d brought from home and pulled out a thick paper box, similar to the ones from the downtown bakeries at home. She opened the cover to reveal a strawberry cream-cheese pie.

She remembered!

This was a favorite dessert of mine. If not for the intense fear of ridicule, I may have rose from my seat at the weathered picnic table to hug and kiss her before Adam and Taylor.

“Where did you get that?” I asked, wide-eyed and mouth watering.

“We bought the pie at the snack stand while you and Adam were setting up our tents.” Kristi grinned. “Might as well treat ourselves before switching over to a diet of trail food.”

Taylor stood to assist Kristi with serving.

I glanced from the delicious pie slice on my paper plate to the fire’s dancing orange flames. I found myself pondering just what kind of experience we might have inside Wolf Mountain State Forest.

Will we come across black bears or a cougar? Or a pack of wolves?

I remembered the small aerosol can of pepper spray deep inside my backpack. It was powerless in comparison to the handgun I owned, but the small firearm was locked away in my bedroom at home. If the pepper spray wasn’t enough, I held the knowledge to create a crude spear in less than a minute.

Defensive problems solved, the slice of strawberry cream-cheese pie disappeared in less than five bites. I handled my plastic fork to clean the crust crumbs and soft cheese from the paper plate completely. Although I knew I had eaten more than enough to satisfy my stomach, I dared to ask for an additional piece.

I licked my lips. “May I have a second slice?”

Kristi’s eyes sparkled as she laughed. “Sure, John, I believe you’re capable of utilizing the knife to cut a piece out yourself.” She resumed her conversation with Taylor.

Adam and I remained silent, consuming our dessert in peace.

Everywhere I looked throughout the campground, bright orange and yellow enhanced the once-all-green-and-brown environment. I couldn’t resist the prospect of this beautiful scene transforming into a winter wonderland in less than two weeks.

“John.” Kristi touched my left hand. “What would you like to do tonight for fun?”

I knew lazily sitting beside the campfire was at the bottom of my list of activities, but I also had a full belly and stiff legs after the long road trip.

A solution arose when I gazed at the grassy field between our campsite and the two-lane highway. A freshly painted jungle gym stood one hundred yards away. However, in the foreground, there were four metal poles, approximately ten feet high, with brand-new volleyball nets attached and sandy courts underneath.

The blood in my veins pumped in anticipation of the swift-paced fun.

“Do you have a volleyball handy?” I asked.

“No, but I bet we can borrow one from the registration office,” Kristi said.

“Wonderful, now I hold an opportunity to reveal my superb skills on a personal level. This is going to be a night to remember.” Taylor grinned and pumped her fist in the air.

My heart sank into my stomach.

What did I just release into this already chaotic world?

I downed the last bite of pie. “Adam and I can go check one out while you girls clean up. I’m sure you’ll be done before we return.”

“Fine with us. Now run along, boys. We don’t have much daylight left.” Kristi waved her hand, gesturing for Adam and me to leave the campsite.

The lot we possessed was several yards from the registration office.

Along the gravel road, I noticed several people were gathered around their campfires, immersed in gossip. Most individuals noticed us walking by, but few actually acknowledged us with a wave or a hello.

Inside the log cabin, the old woman readily stood again behind the counter. “What can I help you two gentlemen with tonight?”

“We were wondering if you had a volleyball we could borrow?” I placed both of my hands on the front desk.

“Sure, let me go fetch one from the bin.”

Stored within a tall, narrow wire structure were several soccer balls, footballs, and volleyballs. There were even cotton mesh jerseys, dyed dark blue and red for more formal competitions, in a cardboard box beside the metal bin.

The old woman grabbed a fairly new volleyball and placed it on the tabletop. “One of you can sign this sheet to check it out, and you should be set to go.” She placed a clipboard and ballpoint pen beside the ball.

I wrote my name, lot number, and time of acquisition in the respective boxes.

The old woman took the clipboard and pen from me. “Have fun. Make sure to bring it back when you’re done.”

Our footsteps seemed louder on the return trip to the campsite. I personally knew Kristi and Taylor were patiently waiting for our return. Their end of the bargain was easier to complete, even with the slow task of confirming the campfire was extinguished.

Sure enough, the girls stood beside the weathered picnic table, lost in conversation. Girl talk, most likely.

“Ready, John?” Taylor asked when she saw us walking up. “I am impatient to smash the ball at you and Kristi.”

I felt defensive of her dominant personality expressed on rare occasions. No wonder our high school had won numerous titles at the state level in volleyball.

“I’m ready.” I clutched the volleyball tighter. “How about you, Adam?”

“Yup.” He joined Taylor, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. “Come on, sweetheart. Let’s show them what we got.”

The beach-like sand enveloped my toes. I felt lighter than air with each step on the artificially created surface. Although confident in my ability to serve, I tossed the volleyball to Kristi first.

The spherical object followed a rather horizontal trajectory, barely able to overcome the net without smacking into the mesh.

Taylor, directly across from Kristi, sent the ball straight into the warm air for Adam to smash swiftly toward us.

But I stopped the potential first point with a set, which Kristi followed by bumping the volleyball higher than the previous attempt.

I launched the volleyball over, only to witness Adam repeat the exact same maneuver. In response, I popped it back even harder.

The ball appeared to rise in a perfect, tall arc aimed right at Adam.

He prepared to slow the object’s descent, adjusting his bare feet in anticipation of the direct hit. His entire body grew tense with each second of hang time.

To my disbelief, the volleyball hit the sandy ground immediately behind Adam; Kristi and I took the game’s first lead.

“How many points do we need to win, Taylor?” Kristi caught the ball using both hands.

“Twenty-five,” Taylor said. “Let’s make it thirty to give ourselves a challenge. Good?” Kristi and Taylor smiled in wicked agreement, like two rogue foes prepared to clash swords.

It was at that specific moment that I realized the match was far more than a casual game.

“Then only twenty-nine to go.” Kristi bumped the volleyball into play.

The game took on an air of fierce battle as both sides played for keeps.

Seconds away from our next point, Taylor sent the volleyball screaming toward us before Kristi or I could react. She blew a kiss in our direction, as though to say, “My turn. Prepare yourselves for the worst.”

Back and forth, everyone attempted to pull away from their opponent’s score and win the match, but neither Taylor and Adam nor Kristi and I ever managed to lead by more than two or three points. Every point achieved was fiercely resisted.

I knew the competitive volleyball game was going to be long and drawn out when I noticed the nearby yard light automatically switch on.

9

DAN ENTERED THE one-story home through the front door. The darkened antechamber was void of any sign of life or someone even living there. Not a single consistent sound except for the confident steps his hiking boots created could be heard. Sometimes his camouflage backpack brushed the paneled walls, which seemed to tighten the already-narrow room even more. There was nobody or nothing to be severely frightened by here in the suburbia of Wrangler. Unless Dan considered his immediate neighbors as cold public enemies.

Two of the three bedroom doors were open. The second room on the left was locked.

Dan placed the rifle case down to fumble through his large collection of keys, many of which were shaped the same as the front door’s key.

He patted the vertical painted surface on the inside right wall, looking for the light switch, as his eyes adjusted.

The room looked like it was the smallest section of a large downtown history museum. Head mounts of various animals from around the world occupied each wall except the one with the white-trimmed windows. There, Dan had hung extravagant paintings of white-tailed deer, moose, and elk, all surrounded by framed images from adventures Dan would never forget.

Positioned in the center, a long wooden workbench covered with arrows and miscellaneous gear requiring immediate attention occupied the space. Along the walls, below the trophies, were long wooden shelves holding all the gadgets he might need on his next safari—multitudes of differentiated camouflage to wear and conceal ground blinds; maps describing remote locations throughout the world on each habitable continent; ammunition locked inside the nearly a half dozen military surplus boxes, with the description of what they had formerly contained still legible in yellow paint; replacement parts for damaged arrows; and oil for rusty firearm barrels. There was no item Dan hadn’t stocked, unless it was one recently released on the free market.

Dan worked the gun-safe combination and opened the large door. Inside, the small space was filled with enough firearms to stock a National Guard armory. Centerfire and rimfire rifles, shotguns, compound and recurve bows, all arranged in vertical fashion in a tight semicircle. Dan returned the centerfire rifle he had used on the wolf hunt to the last empty position.

A thorough cleaning of his canteens and tossing the plastic wrap, which once held homemade granola bars, and Dan was ready for the next step of unpacking.

He had plans tonight!

Dresser drawers swiftly opened as Dan rushed to gather clean garments. He wanted to shower before his cyberappearance, even though his unbearable stench was incapable of traveling the hundreds of miles to Alyssa’s monitor.

Several bells and whistles sounded once Dan pressed the computer’s power button. He scrubbed his hair with the towel while he waited for the start-up menu to appear and then carefully entered the preset password.

Medium-size icons filled the screen, distorting the wallpaper of an unaware elk bull in the immediate background.

Dan wielded the wireless mouse and selected the shortcut for his video-chat program, which automatically prepared to call Alyssa in Seattle.

A classic ringing-telephone sound notified Dan to wait patiently. For all he knew, Alyssa might have decided to avoid him by enjoying a girls’ night out.

At least I kept my promise.

The consistent noise ceased as Alyssa’s face filled the monitor, a natural smile immediately grabbed Dan’s attention.

“Hello, Dan. How was the hunt?” Alyssa asked. “It was wonderful. I shot my first wolf today,” Dan replied.

“Congratulations! I’m happy for you, darling.”

“Thanks, honey.” Dan noticed his girlfriend sigh and smile as though under the watchful eye of an aggressive captor.

What Alyssa wanted to discuss was more important than any first he might have had on a hunt, and Dan knew it.

“I miss you, Dan. Why can’t you come visit sometime?”

The career hunter watched Alyssa frown, her eyes narrowed, he knew she was angry due to his long absence.

“I know.” Dan adjusted his position in the spare dining chair. “I hope to within the next two weeks, but I have to start packing for the next one.”

“You told me that the last time we spoke. Tell me why you keep avoiding me.” “I’m not. It’s just that I don’t have much spare time either.”

“Oh, yes, you do.” Alyssa nodded. “You could always visit me for a few days on your way up to Canada or Alaska. Or declare a weeklong vacation.”

Dan knew there was more to the ongoing argument. Alyssa was correct in her accusations—he had been avoiding his girlfriend. Dan understood to reclaim lost ground in their relationship would require his intended small, powerful gift.

“All right, I’ll come over Tuesday.” Dan struggled to restrain his rising voice. “Is that okay with you?”

“Fair enough, Mr. Moore. You call me when your airplane lands.”

Dan noticed Alyssa attempting to power down her computer to discontinue their conversation. He blurted out every word on the tip of his tongue to distract her.

“Alyssa, please. I’m trying my best to make this long-distance relationship work. If you want me to live with you, that’s quite all right with me.”

“It will take more than that, Dan. Impress me. Treat me like a human being. I want to be loved by someone, specifically you. If you’re trying to say you don’t anymore, please tell me so I’m not confused and hurt anymore.”

“Alyssa, I do love you, honest. You’re the only woman I think about. I don’t care to date anyone else. I want you.”

“Really? You mean it this time? Just because you’re not cheating doesn’t mean you’re not ignoring me.” Alyssa swept the long hair covering her eyes off her face.

Butterflies multiplied in Dan’s stomach, and his nerves tightened in his neck and face. He realized Alyssa was correct. He wasn’t being fair. She could no longer handle the everyday loneliness because Dan was never around. A deep sorrow overwhelmed his body to where he almost lost the ability to speak clearly.

“Okay, okay. I understand how you feel, but please give me a second chance. Just this once, or you can go find another man to love,” Dan said.

“Are you sure? You are willing to bet your relationship with me and possibly losing big? Interesting.” Alyssa glanced away from the webcam and then looked back, her gaze looking as though it was locked straight on his, and pointed a finger. “Fair enough, but I better see you sometime this coming week, or else.”

“I promise. Is there anything else you want to talk about?”

“No, that’s all for now. I want to save something for when we see each other face-to-face. You?”

Dan yawned. “No, I probably should turn in. It’s getting late.”

“You do that. I can see the lines underneath your tired eyes even through this cheap webcam,” Alyssa said.

Dan examined the smaller window, which held his webcam’s visual of himself.

She’s right. The international hunter looks exhausted.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be coming soon.”

“I know you will. Love you, Dan.” Alyssa blew a kiss toward the screen.

Dan returned the intimate gesture. “I love you, too, honey. Sweet dreams.”

Sleep eluded Dan, and his tired eyes refused to close. The linen sheets covered his body from the neck down, and Dan let his mind wander back to their conversation and his inability to comfortably bear the loss of Alyssa’s confidence in him.

I have been faithful to Alyssa all this time, but she still isn’t sure of me. I understand she’s upset over where I live and the weeks I’m gone, but I’m trying. She’s worth it. Just once more. I’ve got to try once more. If my attempt to sweep my girlfriend off her feet is unsuccessful, then I’ll move on with my already-broken heart. I must buy the small, powerful gift to assist me as an ally to recapture Alyssa’s broken heart. But when and how? I’ll think about that plan tomorrow, even if I may forget out of debilitating fear, not accidentally through forgetfulness as on previous occasions.

A discouraging, consistent sound blasted throughout the darkened master bedroom, and Dan slammed his palm down on the alarm clock.

The time was five thirty, almost an hour prior to sunrise.

He staggered, even on rested legs, as he eased down the pitch-black hallway. Dan turned left into the dimly lit kitchen to gaze through the double-paned window where the sink was. The eastern horizon provided a collection of various shades of orange. Yes, today was brand-new.

The refrigerator shelves were sparsely stocked, with a carton containing one dozen brown eggs and an unused, expired half-gallon jug of milk. There was a Styrofoam container filled with restaurant leftovers, but Dan decided the contents were too old for safe consumption. He tossed the scraps in the garbage can and decided his breakfast would be made from scratch using items from the freezer in the pantry.

Dan strolled back toward the kitchen with a small armful of food, a sharp contrast to his mind, which had shifted into overdrive. He was depressed and angry over the personal choices that had led to the inner struggle preparing to negatively alter his life forever.

If only Alyssa was here or I was at her Seattle apartment to discuss our relationship in depth. At least then my broken heart could heal from the self-inflicted emotional wounds. Maybe I’m a workaholic who requires more time off in between hunting expeditions, but I love my career life. Why has my life story come to a decisive choice between happiness and mutual love?

Two bright beams caught Dan’s attention halfway through his meal preparations. Mike had arrived early to haul their trophies to the local headquarters for the Wyoming Game & Fish Department.

Mike entered the kitchen. “Looks appetizing, Dan. Did you leave enough for me?”

“Didn’t you eat yet?”

“No, I will once we get back. Kacey wants to speak with me in private.”

“I see. You in the doghouse as well?”

“Nope.” Mike placed his faded ball cap on the kitchen table. “You?”

Dan sighed and wondered if last night’s conversation with Alyssa was worth mentioning, since the subject was so sensitive, but decided Mike was a friend he could trust with his mortal life. Besides, he needed all the help he could get.

“Big time. Alyssa is threatening to leave me. If I don’t visit her next week, we’re through.”

“That’s too bad. Kacey really likes swapping stories of their adventures at the mall,” Mike said.

“I know, but it looks like I won’t be coyote hunting any time soon.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll feel better once we sign in our trophies.”

The outside air was cool though a touch humid when the two men left the one-story home, but another day of abnormally warm temperatures was scheduled.

“So, what kind of yard work is Kacey making you do for her?” Dan buckled his seat belt.

Mike shifted his pickup truck into reverse. “The usual fall stuff, rake the leaves, prepare the garden for winter. Nothing much. At least she’ll be helping me.”

“That’s good. I thought maybe she might be punishing you by letting herself off the hook.”

“Nope, Kacey has a good work ethic. Sometimes I wonder who really works harder.”

Dan glanced at his friend. “How come we’re doing this so early? They don’t even open until seven thirty.”

“Because tonight Kacey and I have a dinner party to attend. A couple of old friends from high school are in town,” Mike replied.

“Nice. I suppose, even if I wasn’t busy packing for my next trip, that’s your polite way of saying I can’t come.” Dan grinned.

“You could, but we already made reservations for four.”

Dan concealed his hurt feelings. “That’s fine with me. Besides, I need to talk to Alyssa again anyway.”

A white SUV was parked in the small parking lot beside the Fish & Game Department’s office. No human activity was detected on the premises.

Dan feared they might need to return later or wait until Monday. But the concern subsided once he noticed a middle-aged woman unlocking the front door.

“Looks like we’re the only ones here,” Mike mumbled. “We should be able to get registered and out of here quick.”

The same woman Dan had noticed when they arrived was sitting behind the receptionist desk, entering paperwork into the computer. She noticed the men’s presence before they reached the glass front door. “Good morning. How may I help you two gentlemen?” she asked.

“We would like to register two gray wolves and one elk bull,” Mike said.

“Okay, I’ll be right back with the proper paperwork and the game warden.”

A copy machine roared to life along the back wall.

The woman flipped the master prints each time the bulky hardware attempted to idle. She stapled the numerous sheets of paper into three separate packets. “Here you go. Just fill out your name and contact information in the appropriate spaces.” Then she disappeared.

The first page requested things the men had always experienced when dealing with bureaucratic paperwork. The others, however, suggested a tape measure for the length and circumference of the body parts. Mike pointed with his pencil. “Why do they ask so many stupid questions?”

“Research probably, why?” Dan continued writing in information.

“Just wondering.”

“Morning, men.” The game warden approached them and shook their hands. “My receptionist tells me you have something to be examined. Nick Scott at your service.”

“Yes, we do. They’re in the bed of my truck.” Mike turned and headed outside.

All three men formed a semicircle around the animals. Various-size tape measures and brown clipboards occupied the lowered tailgate.

Mike and Dan followed the game warden’s instructions to properly measure each section of the outlined criteria. Nick copied their measurements one by one on the men’s packets at the respective locations.

The paperwork dragged on for what seemed like half the morning. Dan tapped his foot, though there was no urgency to rush home.

“Only a few more measurements and we’ll be done,” Nick said.

“Good, my wife wants me home for breakfast. She’s making omelets,” Mike said.

“Mmm, too bad I have to stay here. I might have joined you. By the way, where exactly did you shoot these?”

“Over in Wolf Mountain,” Dan replied.

“I didn’t know there were any wolves over there. Yeah, I remember the department accepted some from a zoo in Portland last spring, but I thought they had moved on.”

“Well, we saw four hunt down the herd Mike here got the bull from. The pack was led by an alpha male with white fur.”

“Did you say a white wolf?” Nick set down his clipboard. “We’ve been looking for him for quite some time.”

10

FROM THE CORNER of his eye, Snow Wolf noticed The Pup hesitate and scan the creek bed on their right. Snow Wolf approached his son.

At first glance, Snow Wolf assumed the half-submerged object was a trout. However, it was much too large.

It was a lone rabbit swimming toward their side of the shoreline and struggling to keep its head above the surface.

If Snow Wolf had been bipedal, he might have laughed at such a humorous scene.

Hiding behind two pine trees, the duo patiently waited for their cottontail prey to proceed inland.

Snow Wolf peeked around the tree trunk as the rabbit shook off the excess moisture in its light gray fur. He concealed himself again once the herbivore hopped unknowingly toward them, passing the wolves’ hiding spots without any awareness of the predators ready to pounce.

Snow Wolf launched into action and caught the cottontail off guard as he grabbed its neck.

His prey screamed, which pierced the silent wilderness, exposing Snow Wolf and The Pup’s location, but the alert was too late for the rabbit itself.

The Pup bounded toward the lifeless creature and inspected the fresh carcass.

Snow Wolf locked eyes on him and then pushed the kill toward his son with his nose.

The warm flesh disappeared within moments.

Snow Wolf led The Pup across the creek bed, and they prepared to sweep the eastern bank toward the south, taking full advantage of the vibrant growth near the shore. The vegetation east of the creek had already turned golden brown in preparation for the long winter months.

Dusk was fast approaching. Shadows grew longer. Snow Wolf was exhausted, and he lacked the adequate nourishment required to function. His legs ached from numerous miles traveled, his respiration stayed shallow and fast because he seldom had time to relax, and his eyelids constantly remained at half-mast, but Snow Wolf was determined to keep The Pup alive. Otherwise, the white predator would have collapsed hours ago to relieve his internal pain.

He oscillated between daydream and reality, even in his waking hours. Despite the consistent alteration in his state of mind, Snow Wolf had managed to stabilize his confidence.

They were yards from the large boulder The Pup had stood atop to escape the coyotes’ grasp not so long ago.

Snow Wolf knew moving any farther southward would be a waste of their precious time in this small-game hunt. He considered moving farther east, inside new growth of pine and spruce. At least there, the environment contained a larger amount of dense vegetation for rabbits, pheasants, and ruffed grouse to hide in.

A loud sound disrupted Snow Wolf’s thoughts, familiar in tone with yesterday’s frantic disaster.

The human hunters were back.

Snow Wolf quickly reacted to avoid becoming a third casualty of the Black Sheep Pack. The white wolf raced toward The Pup and led him to safe cover.

The sight of blood surprised him. His son had been shot through the right front shoulder, which was pouring blood from the major wound.

The Pup struggled to his feet, collapsing once before forcing his legs under him until he was fully upright.

There was nothing Snow Wolf could do to further aid his injured son. He sat beside The Pup as several more bullets raced toward them.

His son’s eyes conveyed his fear and his pain.

Snow Wolf watched The Pup’s eyelids slowly close and his breathing completely cease. The Black Sheep Pack no longer existed. Snow Wolf was heartbroken in addition to being starved and frightened.

Fear and rage raced through Snow Wolf’s tense nerves as he retreated northward under a barrage of gunfire. On several occasions, the bullets raced mere inches away on either side, increasing his high-level anxiety and inching him closer toward a nervous breakdown.

Snow Wolf ran faster, and his lungs burned from the exertion and lack of air.

The Canis lupus stopped half a mile from The Pup’s murder scene to recover, safe and sound…for the moment.

Adrenaline was the only thing keeping Snow Wolf from succumbing to extreme fatigue or death.

The white predator moistened his dry tongue and parched throat with water from the creek. The cold liquid allowed him to clear a small portion of his heavy, anxious thoughts.

However, Snow Wolf remained paranoid in all aspects. The conifer trees appeared to strike him with their lower branches. The dense brush concealed human hunters and belligerent predators. The one friend and ally he believed in was the creek bed, unless the scattered trout attempted to betray him as well.

What shall I do; where shall I go? There is nobody but me to care for now. My territory has disintegrated, and my pack is gone. I am incapable of defending anything successfully anymore. The only thing left is to join the wolf pack in the far north. At least then, I’ll survive.

I know I want to choose a new alpha female and form a new pack someday, but she will never be what Alpha Female was to me. Only she was my lifelong friend. I cannot repair this deep wound by simply replacing her. The pain is too much.

Sadness replaced anger and resentment. Snow Wolf couldn’t tolerate his new, forced seclusion. He forgot the immediate dangers lurking.

The only physical act the white wolf was capable of mustering was wading through the creek and cooling off the paw pads burned from constant contact with the harsh forest floor.

Tingling sensations raced up his legs as blackness covered the dense forest, and the distant stars and nearby moon took their positions to partially illuminate his natural environment.

Snow Wolf distracted himself from the mental and physical pain with another long drink from the creek bed. His mind ached from the huge loss of the Black Sheep, and his stomach growled with intense hunger unlike any previous experience.

Snow Wolf remembered his last experiences in captivity at the Portland Zoo the previous spring. He recalled how sufficient nourishment had been regularly available twice a day.

Despite the vast space to roam inside the large exhibit, Snow Wolf hadn’t been free to adventure outside the chain-link fence. At least here in the wilderness, he was provided access to satisfy this personal desire. Snow Wolf was independent to secure happiness and edible sustainment at the expensive cost of unexpected death.

His wet paws touched solid, dry earth as he lowered his weary body on the shore.

Snow Wolf reevaluated the decision to proceed north once he had captured enough prey for the long, difficult journey. He contemplated the available alternatives at his disposal.

If I travel west, I will discover plentiful game for my requirements. However, there is a human path of some sort in my way. I wish to avoid further contact with these bipedal creatures wielding firearms.

Toward the east, beyond the new growth, the open highlands curve north. Maybe I can scavenge carrion left by nomadic vultures. No, the stakes are much too high. I shall continue north instead, as planned earlier.

Snow Wolf looked at the forest floor and noticed a thin line across his left front shoulder. The human hunters had managed to strike him after all.

He tensed with anger and fear.

How dare they ruin my pure-white fur! Wasn’t the slaughter of my pack enough? Greedy fools!

The distant stars shone, appearing to twinkle as their light passed through the thick atmosphere. Although they held no ability to intervene in Snow Wolf’s life, he eased his mind with the thought that the distant objects were guardians watching over him as the Black Sheep members had nurtured one another.

Maybe my son, Alpha Female, and The Brother are still with me, inside my mind, my soul. If not there, maybe they are overhead as the stars are. I am grateful for even having known them.

The Canis lupus trembled at the knee joint when he stood. The moment to advance toward the north wolf pack had arrived.

A soft voice spoke inside one ear. Snow Wolf imagined this was Alpha Female mentoring him.

You must leave me to care for yourself. I cannot allow you to join me so soon in death. Go, Snow Wolf. My physical body is far away, but my soul has been integrated with yours, my love. I am with you in this sense, Snow Wolf. Seek your gratification, before the hour is too late to pursue prey this night.

Snow Wolf glanced upstream. He was cautious the deadly human hunters might follow from a safe distance, watching his every move through the darkness.

Were they?

Hunger, exhaustion, loneliness, and fear all weighed on Snow Wolf’s shoulders, but Alpha Female’s encouragement aided Snow Wolf in maintaining his waning strength and determination.

He turned north, leaving the unbearable memories in the past, and breathed a sigh of relief. The emotional distress was gone from his mind.

The defeatist notions counterattacked.

How could I have let down my guard? Why didn’t I scout the area beforehand?

Snow Wolf wanted nothing more than to howl a sad, mournful tune in The Pup’s honor, but fear of alerting the humans to his exact location kept him silent.

Just as the white predator decided to halt his hunt, subtle movements occurred on his right. Snow Wolf focused all his attention in that direction, his anticipation spiraling upward.

Another cottontail rabbit, slightly smaller than the one Snow Wolf had killed for his dead son, appeared. It was better than nothing whatsoever.

The Canis lupus lowered his body to his pained belly and crawled forward for the swift kill. He closed the ten-yard distance to five, careful to not alert the rabbit of his nearby presence.

Snow Wolf stopped. He felt ready to pursue the unaware cottontail.

The white wolf lunged toward his prey and secured a firm hold on the rabbit before it screamed in panic, alerting the entire forest locality an aggressive predator was on the loose.

The herbivore died of shock between Snow Wolf’s pointed teeth.

Snow Wolf swiftly devoured the well-earned rabbit and collapsed on the forest floor to preserve his energy for digestion, finally free to recall the three fellow members of his Black Sheep Pack and how they’d comforted him when their difficult lives had progressed from bad to worse.

Memories of The Brother, how jealous his facial expressions had been when he’d sat alone, watching Snow Wolf, Alpha Female, and The Pup bundled together, flooded his mind. He thought of how The Brother’s one goal in life had been to locate an alpha female for himself and splinter from the Black Sheep to form a new pack and how that optimistic opportunity lay incomplete.

Snow Wolf shifted focus to his son. How young and innocent The Pup had been. Snow Wolf had only recently begun to teach him the arts of survival within the vast, diverse wilderness, to function as a member of the pack, and to eventually follow in his father’s footsteps. The sensible plan had been forever halted. The Pup would remain an eternal adolescent, dependent on his caring parents.

Finally, Snow Wolf dwelled over his absolute affection for Alpha Female, remembering how compassionate and capable of motivating him she’d been when his determination slipped. He thought of how she had nurtured their son and expressed interest in The Brother’s well-being and how Alpha Female was gone except as a whispering soul inside Snow Wolf.

The white wolf’s stomach settled, and he rose and resumed his hunt for survival, continuing downstream through the forest and into unfamiliar territory.

There had been no need to roam here before. For all Snow Wolf had known, the untouched area may have splintered and been claimed by competitive groups of coyotes or gray wolves.

The creek bed gradually meandered and widened northwest, resembling a shallow river and forming a floodplain on the eastern shore almost twenty-five miles from Snow Wolf’s starting point.

He diverged from the body of water to descend inside the dense brush full of small game.

11

“Twenty-eight to twenty-six.” Taylor launched the volleyball over the net.

The fake out was well executed, placing the trajectory between Kristi and me, but I sidestepped left for the expected interception, interlocked my fingers, and bumped the ball with one fluid motion.

Adam set the ball for Taylor to score another easy point.

Instead, she smacked the shot horizontally toward her boyfriend.

Adam desperately tried to keep the live volleyball in play, but his efforts failed when it struck his right forearm and fell harmlessly on the sand.

Hungry to assist Kristi in defeating our best friends, I set my feet in the sand and watched their body language so I was ready for any countermove. I couldn’t believe how deeply involved I was in this pickup game.

Adam tossed the volleyball to Kristi for the next serve.

Kristi smiled. “Twenty-seven to twenty-eight.”

Everyone sprang into action once the serve was airborne.

Taylor hit the volleyball with a loud slap, preventing an injury to her face. It sailed toward me near the center of my court.

My original intention had been to set the ball across the net without Kristi’s assistance, but I accidentally propelled the ball straight up, towering over the ten-foot-high net. I ducked, giving her room and opportunity to save my ill attempt.

Time stood still as Kristi ran across the sand in an attempt to reach my poorly placed shot. To my dismay, the volleyball pounded the sandy surface and bounced once when she was two steps away.

I realized we were one point away from Taylor and Adam’s victory. Kristi and I required three to win.

Adam’s serve began like most he’d produced throughout the fierce competition.

I jumped to stop the arc but fell short, missing the ball by several inches.

Kristi raced toward the rear of the court to prevent another catastrophic loss of points. She dove headfirst in the sand, and the ball was launched high enough for me to bump.

I swung upward and connected a solid hit dead center on the ball.

It landed immediately across the net before either Taylor or Adam could react.

One point down, two more needed for victory.

“Nice work, Kristi.” I assisted my teammate to her bare feet.

Kristi flashed a smile in my direction before she jogged back to her initial position on the sand-covered court.

We fed each other’s sense of optimism—together we might defeat the high-school volleyball champion in our circle of friends.

“Twenty-eight to twenty-nine!” I recommenced the game.

The ball veered left toward Taylor. She bumped it without hesitation and set Adam up perfectly for his classic smash.

Kristi crossed the court, following the expected route, and easily dropped the volleyball to rest behind Taylor on the soft sand.

“Last serve! Tied at twenty-nine!” I knocked the volleyball into a steep arc.

Taylor and Adam adjusted their stances closer to one another, but neither of my two friends moved to deflect the ball.

The thud on the sand at their feet instead made the quick decision.

“I don’t believe it, John. We did it!” Kristi rushed over to hug me.

“Yeah, we did.” I gazed into her blue eyes.

Taylor ducked under the volleyball net, her face illuminated with smiles and laughter, and interrupted our celebration. “Kristi, why were you not on the team back in high school? You’re incredible.”

I eased out of Kristi’s embrace and joined Adam.

The girls walked toward the campsite behind me.

“Well, I was so busy trying to get into nursing school, I never thought it was worth my time.” Kristi glanced off to her right.

“Understandable, but you’ve got some awesome moves.” Taylor gasped and grabbed Kristi’s hand. “Maybe we can join a volleyball club together once we get back home.”

“Sure, that would be great. Let’s do it.”

I stopped and turned to face my three best friends. “Does anyone want to make s’mores? I’ll go return the ball since I signed out on it.”

“Come on, girls. What do you say?” Adam grinned.

“All right, but remember, we have to get plenty of rest tonight.” Taylor wrapped her right arm around Kristi’s shoulders.

The registration office was dimly lit when I approached. I entered the unlocked front door to find the same woman still manning her post at the front desk.

“Good evening again. Returning the volleyball I see?”

“Yup.” I placed the volleyball on the counter, and it slowly rolled across the surface, almost dropping to the wood floor before she grabbed it.

She placed the ball between her hands and the counter. “I’ll sign this back in for you. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No, nothing tonight.”

“Then I’ll be seeing you and your friends tomorrow at dawn. Good night.”

“Yes, ma’am. Bye.”

My friends’ marshmallows were almost cooked into a melted pool once I made it back to the group and found a thin, dead branch to cook my own over the fire. I utilized the bowie knife I’d packed to strip the grayish bark to unveil a bright cream-color length of the wood itself.

Kristi and Taylor were consumed with discussions about their solo adventures at the Salt Lake Mall.

I’d never paid attention to their girl talk when the four of us were together before, but for some reason, I didn’t tune the rise and fall of their voices out this time.

“When I was there last Wednesday, I found these neat red shoes, which were a perfect match for my red skirt and black blouse,” Taylor said.

“Really? How much were they?” Kristi grabbed a chocolate bar from the open plastic package.

“Like, eighty dollars, maybe less. But when I tried them on, they hurt my feet. I guess that’s what I get for constantly wearing flats.”

“How’s the software business, Adam?” I sat down beside him on the long log bench.

“Not too bad. My boss says he wants to hire two dozen more employees by January,” he replied.

“Cool. Mine just doesn’t see how my work experience is enough to earn a promotion. I’ve only been there four months, but it’d be nice to make some more money.” I hummed as the warmth of the melted marshmallows and chocolate sandwich hit my tongue.

Ah, the joys of camping traditions.

“Hey, if you need more cash, I’m sure my boss can hire you to fill one of the no-experience-needed positions. Most don’t know much about coding until we teach them the basics during the first two weeks.”

“I would take it, but I’m working on my degree. You know me; I’d much rather be a smoke jumper.” I grinned.

“No, that’s fine, either way. If you change your mind…” Adam wiped the melted chocolate from his upper lip.

The conversation was fluid and varied, changing topics several times, as we enjoyed our time together.

Meanwhile, I kept thinking about Sunday’s hike. Where would we travel? What wild animals would we observe?

“Boys, we’re turning in, so you’re responsible for dousing the fire.” Taylor headed for her respective tent.

“Okay, we’ll be joining you very shortly,” Adam replied.

“Yeah, it’s already past eight thirty, and we have to be up for breakfast by five.” I shoved the last piece of gooey chocolate in my mouth before grabbing one of two buckets painted red.

I sprinkled the fire with water until the flames died to embers, and Adam grabbed the collected soil in the other bucket and dumped it over the sizzling embers.

Except for the yard light by the volleyball courts and a few stars, our world was pitch-black. I glanced at the fire pit as a precautionary measure to confirm the embers were extinguished before I turned in.

The air was warm but tolerable inside the small tent.

Kristi was tucked inside her sleeping bag, wide-awake and waiting. “Anything you want to talk about, John?” she whispered.

“No, I think I’ll wait until tomorrow.” I crawled inside my sleeping bag.

“Are you sure?” Kristi touched my right forearm and gazed into my eyes. “It’s not about the hike, is it?”

“No, I’m fine, just exhausted. That’s all.” I wasn’t ready to discuss my true feelings just yet.

“Okay, but you can wake me later if you need to talk.”

“I’ll be fine. Good night, honey. Love you.” I kissed her cheek.

“You, too, John, my sweetheart.”

Four heavy backpacks were laid across the weathered picnic table inside our small campsite. The campfire was extinguished and the tents torn down to their portable size. All that remained was a visit to the registration office and notifying the old woman that we were cleared off the lot.

Not a soul stirred throughout the quiet campground besides my friends and me and the local wildlife. Everyone was asleep. Not surprising since it was Sunday morning, and most of the campground tenants would be returning home tonight.

Despite the early hour, the front door of the registration office was unlocked.

I held the entrance open for my friends to file inside.

“You’re up early,” the old woman said as she walked into the lobby from a backroom kitchen. “Heading out into the forest right away?”

I smiled. “We are. Just wanted to tell you our lot is available.”

“Lot fourteen, correct?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, take good care of yourselves now. I’ll watch over your vehicles like a hawk.” The old woman waved.

“Thank you. We’ll be fine. See ya in a few days.” I returned the gesture and followed my friends outside.

The gravel road we had used to reach our designated lot also led toward the river, which was covered up with men and boys scattered along the shore, poles at the ready, as they worked the area, looking for any one of the plentiful trout occupying this stretch of water.

We descended the stone stairway and turned toward the forest, exchanging salutations with the fishermen as we strolled into the wilderness.

The pines and spruces forming the border between civilization and wilderness stood about eighty feet tall, and I reached for the topographic map and compass in my backpack’s left side pocket.

Let the adventures begin!

“According to this here, we can visit the highlands on the far side, a lake full of trout five miles from here, or a waterfall about ten miles upriver. Kristi, what do you think?”

“Hmm, how far away are the highlands?” Kristi asked.

I examined the scale and worked quick math in my head. “Hmm, looks like nearly twenty-four miles, one-way.”

“Never mind then.” She giggled and shook her head. “I choose the waterfall.”

I wondered if we’d had more time, could we have reached the highlands and returned in time? It had never occurred to me to ask one of the ranchers living within Wolf Mountain State Forest for permission to park in their yard and hike in. It would have cut our time walking considerably and given us the chance to capture dozens of photographs of elk and mule deer.

“I’m with Kristi, waterfall.” Taylor nodded.

“What does the lakefront look like?” Adam inquired.

I closed my eyes and recalled from memories from half a decade ago. “There is gravel on the beach and a campsite in the middle of a small grove of aspens. Otherwise it’s all knee-high grass.”

Adam rubbed his chin. “Is there any way we can visit both the lake and waterfall without backtracking?”

“Sure, I don’t see why not. There’s a trail about six miles long connecting the two,” I said.

“Then I say we go to both and skip the highlands.”

“Sounds good to me.” I folded the topographic map and stuck it back in its pocket. “I’ll choose the same. Girls, do you object, since we’re tied?”

“Why not? I know Adam wanted to fish sometime this week.” Kristi shrugged and adjusted her backpack straps.

“But we still want to cool off beneath the waterfall as well, promise?” Taylor asked.

“Will do, girls,” I said, slipping the compass in the pocket of my jeans. “Let’s get moving so I can keep it.”

12

ACCORDING TO WHAT what I’m seeing here.” Nick pointed at the lifeless gray wolf on his left. “This one was known as Alpha Female. The small one you saw yesterday was her son, The Pup. The wolf on the right is The Brother. They were all members of the human-formed pack, the Black Sheep.”

“So, what you’re saying is that Dan and I destroyed the group?” Mike asked.

“Precisely, even before your hunt yesterday, the department was looking for Snow Wolf since his radio collar went dead. Now we have to capture the canine to start a new pack. If only Wolf Mountain was protected like Yellowstone.”

Dan sat the clipboard down. “How are they gonna do that?”

“The agency gave me permission to track him once I received credible intel.” Nick glanced at his boots and then directly focused on Dan and Mike when he looked up again. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but would one or both of you be willing to help me out?”

Thoughts of Alyssa patiently waiting in her Seattle apartment flooded Dan’s brain. He pictured her big smile, ready and waiting, and soft arms prepared to hug him tighter than a carnival teddy bear. Dan struggled with an answer, as though making a choice between life and death.

“I can’t help you. My wife has me on yard-work duty. And I have to work come Monday,” Mike said.

“Dan?” Nick asked.

The career hunter paused. On one hand, Dan didn’t want to break his promise to Alyssa, especially when their romantic relationship was weakened. On the other, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Whom should he betray first?

“Sure, why not? I have the next two weeks off,” Dan replied.

His friend’s eyes narrowed before Dan completed his sentence. The international hunter had betrayed two individuals with one decision.

“I thought you were going to visit Alyssa in Seattle this week?” Mike asked.

“I think she’ll understand.”

“I hope so, but I wouldn’t be so sure, according to what you told me.”

Dan knew his best friend was correct, but he remained stubborn and avoided Mike’s accusations. “I’ll call her tonight. I’ve got some packing to do.” Dan handed Nick his finalized paperwork.

“Thank you, Dan. Tomorrow, we go in at dawn.” Nick attached the papers to the clipboard.

“What’s your plan?”

“We’ll enter Wolf Mountain where you saw Snow Wolf last. By the way, neither of you mentioned the exact location.”

“Over in the highlands, near our friend Hank’s ranch,” Dan said. “I can show you when you pick me up tomorrow morning.”

Nick took Mike’s forms and added them to the others. “Then it’s settled. I’ll make a few calls into the head office so they can appoint someone in my absence.”

Neither Dan nor Mike spoke a single word as they traveled away from the Fish & Game Department’s office. The pickup’s rubber tires were the only sound as they drove.

Dan sighed and spoke up, unable to take the tightening in his chest a moment longer. “So what’s wrong with me doing this favor?”

“You’re purposefully making decisions you know will lose Alyssa. That’s why. You said it yourself; you don’t want her to leave,” Mike said.

“Yeah, yeah, but I know Wolf Mountain like the back of my hand.”

“That’s not an excuse to break that poor woman’s heart.”

“What isn’t?” Dan evaded the accusation. “It’s not my fault I was drawn to her. It just happened.”

“According to that logic, I met Kacey because she tied an invisible rope around my waist and pulled me toward her.” Mike shook his head.

Dan struggled to argue with his best friend’s wisdom. He knew helping Nick capture Snow Wolf instead of flying to Seattle to visit Alyssa was selfish, but he was too far in, too involved, to back out now. “I’m sure Alyssa will understand. Besides, it won’t be hard to find Snow Wolf, not with that white fur.”

“I hope you’re right. I better not see you all depressed and lonely like you were before meeting her.”

The workbench in Dan’s hunting-gear room was covered with several items, both large and small. There was a large, topographic image spread out on the timber surface underneath the colossal pile covering every inch of Wolf Mountain State Forest’s nine hundred square miles. Dan reviewed the elevations he expected to endure during the expedition.

Throughout the morning hours, Dan struggled to maintain focus. He kept hearing Alyssa’s voice reminding him of her wish for them to be physically together and the anger in her typically soft voice once she understood what Dan was undertaking.

He cringed as he imagined the moment Alyssa heard the latest news. “What have I done? I knew my romance was on the line. Why didn’t I listen to Mike? Now it’s too late to change my mind. I need to be with Alyssa, not the game warden,” Dan exclaimed aloud to the empty room.

Afternoon arrived, and Dan had completed packing for Sunday’s adventure. To pass the time until his planned video chat with Alyssa, he prepared a final home-cooked meal for one, which made enough for two meals in all.

The moose steak sizzled with each contact of the orange flames. A buttered cob of corn lay wrapped in aluminum foil. This was the first opportunity since July for Dan to utilize his small charcoal grill. Ultimately, it was his last chance before winter’s bone-chilling cold and plentiful snowflakes.

Even while Dan comforted his broken spirit, he had to acknowledge more than just his and Alyssa’s troubles weighed him down. He was reminded Mike had been betrayed as well with Dan’s refusal to listen.

He passively stared at the backyard fence separating his suburban property from the neighbors.

The clock sounded three chimes, and the humid afternoon had caused a layer of sweat to form on Dan’s skin. He wiped his brow and turned the page of the paperback about mastering broken relationships. Each chapter described helpful hints for how to correct his maimed bond. He felt powerless against Alyssa’s expected wrath unless he implemented a couple of them tonight, but this was his first experience reading about such an intimate topic. Usually Dan absorbed information devoted to his profession.

“A woman needs to feel comforted by her chosen man. This requires spending time alone together without the entire world there as well. Power down your smartphone, turn off the television, and all you need to do is be there with one another in silence or soft, comforting music. Neither of you even have to speak. Quality time together will be more than enough to allow each individual to find themselves on the same page for a change.”

As if I didn’t already know that. There must be something useful in here somewhere.

Sure enough, the next chapter revolved around honesty with your partner.

Dan easily maintained focus from beginning to end. He read the passage a second time to fully comprehend what the author was saying.

Hmm, what can I do to show how much I need her in my life? What gift can I obtain to allow me additional time to acquire the small, powerful gift? Flowers and candy? No, too much like Valentine’s Day. A sapphire necklace from the jewelry store? No, they will be closed until Monday. What if I write down how I feel about Alyssa? I’m not much of a love guru, but I know someone who can help. What am I waiting for? There’s no time to waste.

The five-story apartment complex towered above the surrounding residential structures. The exterior was made of tinted brown bricks. Dan’s former classmate Gwen Moeller lived on the third floor with her two house cats. Dan knew her expert-level literary skills, honed from composing a romantic novel series on a teenage girl who struggled to discover love, were enough to help him find a solution.

“Come in. Come in.” Gwen opened the apartment door. “How are you doing, Dan?”

“Not too good. I’m having a bit of trouble finding the words to win back my girlfriend’s approval,” Dan said.

“All right, well, you have come to the right place. I’ll take you under my wing.”

Several sheets of white paper covered in unfinished ideas were scattered about the kitchen table. Dan and Gwen sat beside one another, occasionally typing on her old laptop. Despite the valiant efforts, their official document was insufficient to impress Alyssa, and time was rapidly fading.

“I don’t believe we need more than five or six bulleted points. What we have agreed on is plenty to win Alyssa’s heart,” Gwen said.

“How should I finish it?” Dan asked. “All I have so far is how sorry I am and promises to replace every mismanaged opportunity.”

Gwen sighed and closed her hazel eyes. “Well, I think you should tell her the truth.” Gwen reopened her eyes. “Be honest about how much you love her. Don’t just write it down, but physically show it. Tell her what might happen if you two break up.”

“That’s the whole reason I’m here,” Dan said.

“Then your heart is on the right track.” Gwen shifted the laptop toward him. “Here, type up what you’re feeling about Alyssa right now.”

The night air was stuffy and almost tropical as Dan exited Gwen’s apartment, but he had a spring in his step. With the sealed white envelope containing the typewritten agenda, Dan felt confident, even if this had to happen in cyberspace.

I hope she understands. At least now, I’m prepared for any verbal attacks she might generate.

His stomach growled in anticipation of the leftover moose steak warming in the oven as Dan checked his messages. One was from Mike, asking if Dan wanted to join him at his party.

Dan immediately sent a text to decline the generous offer.

Three messages were meme images another former classmate had found online and had him in stiches before deleting them.

The final message was from Alyssa, expressing her disappointment in his last-minute cancellation of their online conversation.

Darkness had overwhelmed the once-blue sky by the time Dan had cleaned the dishes and put everything back in its place. The moon was fully visible, as were the distant stars.

Dan deposited the folded paper on the disorganized office desk before he sat in the spare dining chair. He pressed the desktop’s power button to unleash the start-up sequence.

A ringing sound announced Alyssa’s appearance.

She broke into a big smile and waved hello, a beautiful pink blush covering her cheeks. “Good evening, Dan. I miss you.”

“I miss you, too, sweetie,” Dan said.

“Tell me, when are you coming to Seattle?”

Dan sighed long and hard as he tried to calm himself and reached, with trembling hands, for the folded paper. He looked directly into the webcam. “Alyssa, I have something very important to tell you.”

13

THE DENSE BRUSH rustled, and feathers flapped in a frantic fashion. A lone ruffed grouse dashed out from its hidden position to flee toward safety.

Snow Wolf captured the frightened brown bird as though it had been handed to him.

The ruffed grouse screeched a loud, irritated sound as the bird thrashed to escape Snow Wolf’s firm grasp, smacking the white wolf repeatedly around the face and neck, and then fell silent.

Snow Wolf sat down to consume his second meal this dark night.

A gentle breeze blew through the forest and unlatched the feathers stuck to Snow Wolf’s grungy face.

The Canis lupus ate slowly, partially distracted by thoughts around the Black Sheep Pack.

Surrounded by scattered brown feathers and a few avian bones, Snow Wolf’s stomach no longer grumbled for nourishment, and the white wolf strolled toward the nearby creek to wash the ruffed grouse down.

Snow Wolf returned to his camp and laid his heavy head on his front paws, forcing his eyes closed to wait for sleep to overwhelm his exhausted body.

A sense of uneasiness snapped him awake. Snow Wolf rose to his feet and examined each direction for intruders. Examination of the floodplain revealed a tall aspen several yards to the south.

He moved to the safer spot and established a comfortable bed on summer’s final green grass blades. Exhaustion took over, marking an official finale to Snow Wolf’s twenty-five-mile journey through the hostile, dense forest.

In his dream, Snow Wolf woke and stood alone on the east bank. With the sun shining through the forest canopy and a gentle breeze brushing his pure-white fur, he reveled in feelings of peace and tranquility.

Without warning, dozens of coyotes appeared on the crest behind him, near where the Black Sheep had slept before the tragic event in the highlands.

There were too many to properly count, as another group ran upstream toward Snow Wolf, a third band came from downstream, and a fourth headed westward from the new growth of dense conifers.

Among the instant confusion, Snow Wolf noticed The Pup standing atop the large rock on the opposite creek bank, already surrounded by their Canis-latran belligerents.

Only one solution came to mind; Snow Wolf would fight until death prevented him from further resistance. He unveiled his sharp fangs, running toward the first coyote victim in line.

In the seconds preceding contact with his initial canine quarry, relentless gunfire pierced the predator battlefield. The coyote horde retreated in fear for its life, completely clearing the forest landscape.

Snow Wolf seized the opportunity to rejoin The Pup. Emotion flowed through him like wildfire until he caught a glimpse of his son on the boulder. His eyes were closed, his body lifeless. Through the entire lethal hailstorm, The Pup was the lone casualty.

Tears streamed down Snow Wolf’s white-furred cheeks; he inhaled deep breaths to control himself, but they failed to check his exponential sadness.

Why? How could my son possibly die? What crime was committed to allow such misjudgment? The Pup was innocent! He never harmed anyone his entire life, except to feed! Nothing more, nothing less. How dare the humans kill another pack member! This calls for revenge!

He jerked awake, the tunes of peaceful songbirds surrounding him. Snow Wolf struggled to calm his overdriven mind, but he managed nonetheless. The Canis lupus fell asleep again. This time no nightmares threatened his safety.

Intense sunlight overwhelmed him, and Snow Wolf glanced away to focus on the floodplain’s landscape. Every joint ached from the previous night’s adventure. Though intense physical and mental pain dominated Snow Wolf, he was grateful to be alive despite the desire to think otherwise.

The Canis lupus discovered a gravel trail slicing through the floodplain some twenty yards north of the tall aspen tree. His nerves pulled tight with wariness, Snow Wolf wondered if the foreign human scents were clues the bipedal hunters had continued to follow him.

He studied the strange smells until he concluded the human odors were old. Whoever the individuals were, Snow Wolf sensed they were miles from the floodplains and resumed the expedition northward by paralleling the gravel trail from inside the forest’s edge.

Short shadows cast by the conifers revealed midday had arrived. A sound of flowing water trickled ahead.

The Canis lupus emerged from the dense vegetation to stand on the moist earthen shore. The view before Snow Wolf was breathtaking. Light gray stones formed an intermittent path across the creek bed. Two wooden bridges spanned the distant riverbed and another creek.

Snow Wolf submerged his front paws in the cold water, allowing his dry tongue to secure well-needed moisture. His stomach growled in protest. Another day’s hunt would soon begin.

Snow Wolf understood the exposure level was dangerously high while he attempted to cross the first body of water. There were no countermeasures to use should he bump into trouble. The important task required completion, however.

Snow Wolf jumped onto the first light gray stone and began the stressful trek.

Between the first and second rock foundations, a lone trout swam inches beneath the surface. Sometimes, the adult fish penetrated the watery environment and produced a subtle splash.

Snow Wolf glanced at the north shore twenty yards away to help him continue on, smoothly hopping on the third and fourth stones. The fifth and sixth rocks were easier to land his trembling paws on, as the upper surfaces were flat. At the seventh stepping, Snow Wolf slowed his rushed attempt to cross over and then leaped onto the bank of the creek’s north shore.

Snow Wolf examined the weeping willow. The lonesome tree’s lower branches touched the water’s surface, harmlessly dragged by the slow current, and he thought of the trout he’d spotted earlier.

Hmm, if I stand completely still, I might just catch one. No time to waste.

Snow Wolf chose a spot five yards from shore. The bone-chilling water was just deep enough to submerge his neck and chin.

The numb temperature made his efforts to stand like a stone statue difficult, but he kept his eyes focused downward, searching for the first flash of fin. Nothing short of an ambush by the human hunters would prevent Snow Wolf from collecting a trout.

Impatience gnawed his concentration, and boredom took a heavy toll, especially when the white wolf felt helpless if the humans did appear.

What if I’m wasting precious time and energy? What if I die of starvation before securing more foodstuffs? No, I can do this. This may be the last one I possess for quite some time.

A trout swam near Snow Wolf’s front legs.

Its overall length impressed the white predator, and he fought to contain his excitement as the moment to strike inched closer.

The Canis lupus lunged beneath the surface with sharp fangs already unveiled.

The frightened trout splashed cold water into his eyes, but Snow Wolf maintained a firm grasp despite its fierce attempt.

He waded toward shore with his victory clamped tight between his teeth and his damp head held high. Snow Wolf was pleased with the fresh catch.

He slowly chewed to savor the delightful meat.

If only my pack members were alive, then we could acquire an elk or deer to last several days.

He huffed and sighed at his own circular thinking.

Oh, well, I am convinced I contain the ability to secure what is lacking. So, secure more trout, or try for ruffed grouse and rabbits?

As tasty as the white meat had been, Snow Wolf chose to pursue prey on land and moved inland a few yards. His eyes and ears alert to each subtle image and noise, Snow Wolf glanced left and right for both unaware small game and beady-eyed humans.

Disappointment and anger freely replaced ambition, as Snow Wolf moved farther downstream without a single sign of food.

He wondered whether his slow pace should be more nimble or if he should have crossed the wooden river bridge and then gone west instead of his eastward advance.

Snow Wolf turned, gazing west and then staring into the swirling water of the river.

I cannot continue any farther east, but strolling through old territory isn’t an option either. No time to waste. The hour has arrived to metaphorically kill two birds with a single stone.

The river current was swift, and its volume was deep enough to submerge a Canis lupus with several feet to spare. Almost sixty yards lay between the north and south shores. A classic natural obstacle, the white wolf had witnessed more than one fellow predator be taken down by currents throughout his two years of life in captivity and the wilderness.

Snow Wolf had never encountered such a hindrance, and a subtle shiver of fear shot down his spine at the thought of drowning. Despite his inexperience, he remained optimistic he could overcome the large body of water.

Go on, Snow Wolf. There’s no reason to be frightened. Meet you on the other side.

Snow Wolf sighed at the sound of Alpha Female’s soothing promise before drawing closer to the water’s edge. He entered the cold, fast-paced water and quickly waded for greater depths.

Once Snow Wolf’s head barely cleared the surface and the river bottom was unreachable, the white wolf instinctually raised his paws in a textbook dog paddle and allowed the strong current to drag him downriver without fear of drowning.

Each stroke caused pain, which raced throughout his body. The north shore appeared to move right, as though Snow Wolf stood still. Regardless of the optical illusion, he continued to swim with all his strength. The hour was not devoted toward surrender as if cornered by powerful belligerents. Snow Wolf understood at any moment, the river might drag him under.

14

DROPLETS OF SWEAT formed a thick layer on my sun-beaten face. To cool off without stopping for a short swim in the cold river, I poured lukewarm water from the spare canteen over my greasy hair.

Adam followed my lead, while our friends, Kristi and Taylor, simply dabbed themselves with bright-colored handkerchiefs.

Except for the warm temperature and sunlight, our Sunday experience in the forest of Wolf Mountain had been wonderful.

I was breathless from the natural beauty of the deep-green conifer needles with the tree trunks spaced out enough to allow ample light to the vegetation forming a mosaic on the forest floor. The riverbed played a tune of classical origin from centuries prior to my mortal beginning. Songbirds formed duets and trios on the lowest branches several feet outside our outstretched grasp. I couldn’t ask for a more spectacular scene.

Approximately two miles from the crowded campground, a long wooden structure appeared on our right. I examined my topographic map to confirm this was the river bridge where the trail led toward the lake full of trout.

“Let’s stop here for a short break, guys,” I said.

Taylor dropped her backpack. “Good, my feet are starting to hurt.”

If not for the considerable exercise I conducted at work, my spinal cord would have snapped under the forty pounds of gear.

Kristi and I remained on the north shore to sit on large dark-gray stones inches from the cold water. It was our first true opportunity to privately chat since our departure from civilization.

“This place is beautiful, John. If only we could bring it back with us,” Kristi said, interlocking her hands on her lap and crossing her ankles.

“I’m with you. This is why I suggested coming here instead of some crowded beach in So-Cal.” I wrapped my arm around her shoulders.

Kristi laid her head on my shoulder as we gazed at the glistening river. She positioned her hand around my sore back.

I felt confident she was falling head over heels for me, but the actual question had yet to be asked. I knew I had fallen for her long ago.

I’ll ask her this evening, when no one, not even nature itself, will notice me wander inside a vulnerable state.

It was just past nine—two miles in less than three hours.

I grabbed my backpack, ready to head toward the lake full of trout.

Adam and Taylor already stood on the south end, waiting for Kristi and me to join them.

The trail narrowed, and we were forced to travel single file.

I took point, with Kristi second in line, and Adam formed the rear as a preventive measure from possible attacks by wild animals.

Although the familiar terrain remained flat, like the Great Plains, the conifer trees were heavily concentrated here. Thick brush and golden-brown grass grew like a tall chain fence. There were several indicators loggers had cut the overgrowth in past years. At times though, the foliage spilled across anyway—a Wyoming version of Brazil’s Amazon jungles or the African Sahel. Thank goodness no poisonous creatures lurked nearby.

Five yards behind me, Taylor changed her tune of casual conversation with Kristi to a strict, serious tone. “How much farther until we exit this bottleneck?” Taylor asked.

I halted to examine the folded map for a quick estimation, comparing the general elevation changes with those illustrated on the large, thick paper. “Two miles more, maybe less. You’re not claustrophobic, are you?”

“No, but I’d much rather be in the open instead of this potential death zone.” Taylor dabbed her face with a handkerchief.

“We’ll be fine. Believe me. We’re quite safe here,” I lied.

“Okay, I hope you’re right.”

Her concerns unlocked my fears of hungry predators ready to snatch one of us at random. I was confident no aggressive animals existed in these parts—most wild creatures were more afraid of humans than vice versa—and the potential safety issue was discarded as I tried to locate a suitable area to rest for lunch.

Several stumps pierced through the tall golden-brown grass that dominated the small once-cleared square. A log left to rot by forestry technicians divided the constrained space almost in equal halves.

Two large plastic bags filled with trail mix lay at our feet for everyone to access. Another contained Red Delicious apples. We each carried peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches we had made following breakfast.

“How long should we stay at the lake, John? I assume we’re not going to walk back after reaching the waterfall.” Kristi grabbed an apple.

“Just one night and then one at the waterfall. After that, we can always head farther upriver and return to the waterfall by evening,” I replied.

“What’s beyond the falls? The highlands are too far away for us to reach on this vacation.” Taylor set down her sandwich.

“There’s a floodplain where several creeks flow into the river along a quarter-mile stretch. We might find some nice pics of wildlife to bring home with us,” I said.

“Cool, good thing I have my smartphone and camera then.”

I got distracted by my lunch. It was amazing how good a little exertion made the plainest fare. The Red Delicious apple I selected from the plastic bag was extra large and juicy. How could anyone choose fake ingredients over something this sweet?

Twelve thirty, the time was ripe to move out. According to my map, the trail would form an S-curve half a mile north of the lake and our first major change in elevation since we left the campground. Something on my left rustled enough to catch everyone’s attention.

Taylor gasped and stood still. “What was that?”

I knew she figured the animal was a predator ready to pounce. “Just a rabbit or two. I saw one run across the trail ahead of me.”

“Good, I can’t wait until we reach the lake.”

The trail widened with each step closer toward the S-curve, almost enough for Kristi to walk beside me again. Still, I knew the return of visibility was not enough to satisfy Taylor.

In the distance, I could view the lake full of trout. The surface glimmered wildly. I imagined myself at the closest shore, ready to attach bait to a sharp metal hook.

“Careful, everyone. I don’t need any sprained ankles now.” I held Kristi’s hand as we started down the man-made stairs.

Adam took Taylor down to steady their descent. All four of us remained vigilant in case the hillside collapsed beneath our feet.

Bright sunlight welcomed our arrival to the private waterfront. It was just as I’d imagined, except ruminants had grazed the tall grass I’d pictured long ago. Our intended campsite remained as advertised, minus one aspen, which appeared ready to topple.

“Listen up, everyone. Adam and I will set up the tents, and Kristi and Taylor can work on supper after we dig out the fire pit.” I set down my backpack.

“What about that tree there? Are you sure it won’t blow over in tonight’s storm?” Taylor asked.

Her concern reminded me of the last weather forecast I viewed before leaving Salt Lake City Saturday morning. I remembered how the meteorologist was precise in their perceptions our location would be stormy on Sunday night, a few hours after our arrival at the lake full of trout. Whenever the dangerous weather conditions would appear, I knew the aspen tree Taylor pointed at may yield more lethal consequences than the storm itself.

“I’ll take a look at it after supper. Regardless, we have a lot to do before dark.”

“Approximately how many hours do we have before the rain comes?” Adam uncased their tent.

I glanced southward. The sky was clear and blue, for now. The storm front most likely was just beyond the horizon. “Three, maybe four at most. Either way, the sun will have set by then.”

“Good, we should be ready long before that.” Adam grinned.

The fire pit was constructed in short order, as were our fabric tents. Tonight though, we would need a tough physical barrier against the expected fierce winds. Our long metal stakes were sufficient to hold the fabric shelters in a breeze, just not against consistent gusts.

The blue tarps I stored in the bottom of my backpack were adequate protection. Using some branches and wood screws from home, my conceived “wind wall” became reality with Adam’s assistance. We stepped back to admire our construction.

“Looks good to me. Let’s go find out how many trout we can land.” Adam patted my back and chuckled as he took off in search of his tackle box and rod.

Six plastic baits of various color filled the miniature tackle box I’d brought along. Even with the small selection, I struggled to choose one. We may have set out to have fun, but the fresh trout was also our main course for tonight, so we couldn’t afford to come back empty-handed.

I stood, barefoot and out of reach from the cold water, ready to carefully reel in the line the second my bobber moved.

The large campfire crackled wildly several yards behind me, as Kristi and Taylor prepared to fry the first trout once Adam or I caught one.

I felt a jerk and then strong tension, and the narrow end of my rod pointed downward. Instinctively, I jerked back, setting the hook, and slowly began the tug-of-war with my dinner. “Wow, feels like I’ve got a big one here, Adam.”

“You want me to grab the net?” Adam asked.

“No thanks, I’ve got him under control.”

Time stood still with each stubborn trout. The line almost snapped on my fourth attempt, but the fish surrendered as it surfaced. From tail to mouth, it was almost a foot long and plenty of meat for us to consume in one meal.

“Nice catch, John. How many more do we need?” Adam watched me retrieve the bait from the trout’s lower lip.

“Just two, I believe. We can always come back for more.” I set down my fishing pole.

In less than half an hour, we caught one trout each without much difficulty. I volunteered to clean and scale the fish at the lakeshore, tossing the inedible parts into the water to prevent overnight visits by black bears and numerous other wild creatures.

Multiple smells engulfed the forest vicinity with tasteful amusement. Kristi and Taylor sat beside the campfire to carefully watch their culinary creations. I examined the pines and spruces along the edge behind Adam; my eyes were pleased by the red sunset though not my mind.

“You recall that time when we ate at the Italian restaurant downtown? I asked the chef for his recipe. I would like to know how mine tastes,” Kristi said.

It took some blowing to cool the food enough, but I was too hungry to care too much about a scalded mouth. “Mmm, this is good, Kristi. Double thumbs-up.” I spoke with my mouth full.

Kristi smiled and turned. “Good, Adam?”

Nothing but the campfire was heard.

I faced Adam and saw hunched shoulders and a brooding stare as he watched the flames dance while picking at his plate. What had been a casual night, surrounded by picturesque views and good company, felt as though it had taken a hard left into awkward tension.

“Fine, just fine,” Adam mumbled.

Taylor placed a hand on Adam’s back and glanced at Kristi and me. Her concern was clear. “Is there something wrong, dear?”

“No, I’m all right.”

“Okay, you’ve been acting strange since you returned from fishing.”

“Nope. It’s all good.” Adam cleared his throat and looked at everyone before flashing an obviously forced smile. “I was just thinking about the storm and that tree.”

I wasn’t buying it, but I decided not to push. Adam would talk when he was ready.

Besides, he was right. We had to do something about that aspen before the weather broke. Would a collective push be enough? We had thirty feet of parachute cord, but I didn’t think we should waste a precious resource.

“You have an idea, don’t you, John?” Kristi asked.

“I sure do. I just hope it works on the first try.” I grinned.

15

DAN? WHAT’S WRONG You are coming over, right?” Alyssa asked.

“That’s what I want to talk about,” Dan said.

He opened the white envelope and unfolded the typewritten bullet points. His eyes followed the lines displayed on the paper one after another.

“Wait. I thought you said your plan was to come over Tuesday?” Alyssa leaned toward the webcam.

“I know what I said, but something has come up,” Dan replied.

“Like what?”

“I have decided to help our local game warden with tracking down a white wolf.”

“Oh, cool. Have fun, darling. Is that all?”

Dan easily noticed Alyssa’s sarcasm before she finished.

Dan paused, wondering if the typed agenda was enough for Alyssa to understand his decision. However, he realized his long afternoon with Gwen had been for this very opportunity to save his weakened relationship.

“No, I want to officially apologize for all the emotional pain I’ve caused you,” Dan said and cleared his throat.

“Sure thing, go right ahead.” Alyssa adjusted herself in the swivel office chair.

“I’m sorry I can’t be with you in Seattle sooner, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Believe me. I really want to see you in my strong arms; this self-imposed separation between us hurts me also.”

“Are you sure? You said the same thing when you avoided me before leaving for Alberta, Germany, I can name more.”

“No, no, I know them by heart, too.” “So, how are you going to mend my broken heart?”

Dan glanced off camera at the bulleted agenda for one of several ideas.

“I want to cook you a nice dinner at your apartment, and then I’ll buy you anything your heart desires. Clothes, jewelry, anything, you name it, and it’s yours,” Dan said.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Dan. That is not a fair deal I believe. Do you have anything else to add?” Alyssa replied.

“Sure, how about I cook every meal except when we want to go out on the town, buy anything you want, attend a play of your choice at your favorite theater, and I will again express my love for you as a bonus. Deal?”

Alyssa brushed away the hair that covered her left eye; she glanced down at her organized desk to evaluate the second offer.

“Hmm, all four items are very generous.” Alyssa gazed into the webcam. “And I can sense the pain in your voice of your struggle to compile your half of the deal…All right, I’m satisfied. You better start expressing your love for me before I reject it.”

“I love the way you’re so concerned of my well-being when I fly abroad for exotic hunts, how you say how much you will miss me and the words cut through my skin like a machete…The way your long, brunette hair falls upon your shoulders. Your hazel eyes remind me how unique you truly are, your soft touch upon my bare skin as I hold you close. Nobody can ever fill your shoes to love me as you have. I would be a fool to release you into another man’s arms.”

Dan gazed at the monitor to observe Alyssa smiling as her face reddened.

“What’s on your mind, honey?” Dan asked.

“That was beautiful. I don’t know what to say.” Alyssa fanned her face with both hands.

“Sh, don’t cry. Everything’s all right.”

“I know, I just…Dan, that’s the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

Dan watched the tears slip slowly down his girlfriend’s cheeks. He swallowed past the lump in his throat as she wiped them away, knowing he had little to offer beyond words to comfort her. “Is there anything I can do before I go tomorrow?” Dan placed the document on the office desk.

“Yes, will you have cell service? I still want to be able to contact you when I need a shoulder to lean on.” Alyssa sniffled.

“There should be, at least along the fringes of the forest.”

“Good.”

“Don’t worry, honey. We’ll be all right.”

His girlfriend’s eyes swelled with more tears, and Dan felt even more guilt over choosing to help Nick locate and capture Snow Wolf. Promises had been made, though. He couldn’t betray them. He’d broken enough promises to Alyssa already.

Alyssa continued crying. “I know, but I worry.”

“Sh, it’s okay. I’ll be fine,” Dan said.

“Well, that’s true.” She sniffed loudly. “You’re a professional.”

“Is there anything you want me to bring or do for you when I arrive in Seattle?”

“Just one thing.”

“What’s that?” Dan asked.

“Can you please fly here the day you recover from the excursion? I need your shoulder to cry on.”

The alarm clock sounded the arrival of four thirty Sunday morning. Nick had declared their departure for Wolf Mountain was at seven.

Dan’s bright-red eyes stared back at him in the sterile bathroom mirror. The dark lines and bags underneath were well apparent, even from ten feet away. The cold water he applied to rinse his facial skin sent a deep shudder through his sore spine. Dan hadn’t wanted to leave his comfortable bed, but he understood the repercussions of broken promises.

Dan replayed Alyssa’s understanding of his journey while he ate. He thought of how she had broken down after he’d issued the amorous apology. Dan was surprised and a little confused by his girlfriend’s unequivocal support. Regardless, he knew he had a lot of making up to do when he reached Seattle. The woman was far too good for him.

A white SUV slowed and entered Dan’s driveway.

Dan glanced out his window, saw the game warden waiting, and swiftly gathered his gear.

“Morning.” Nick waved as Dan locked the front door.

“Good morning. Did the agency find a replacement?” Dan asked.

“Unfortunately, no. Everyone around my sector is picking up the slack. Our reserve wardens are on vacation or out of state for a conference.”

“That’s too bad. At least Wolf Mountain will be temporarily well covered.”

“True,” Nick said.

Nick briefly explained their intended search area across the property line from Hank’s cattle ranch. They would examine the northern hill where Dan and Mike originally noticed Snow Wolf’s pack. Depending on the evidence discovered, the two men would continue in whatever direction the paw prints led.

“But what about food?” Dan asked. “We only packed enough to last four, maybe five, days?”

“I’ve made arrangements for a resupply by helicopter once I call in the request,” Nick said.

“Nice. So how many days do you plan on staying out here?”

“Ten, max. Only five if we don’t actually see any signs of Snow Wolf or The Pup.”

“All right, then. Just a few more miles and Hank’s place should be on the left.” Dan refolded the large map.

Huge clouds formed as the game warden and career hunter entered the ranch driveway.

Dan noticed two men in blue jeans, cotton shirts, and white cowboy hats, to shield their eyes from the bright sun, laboring along the barbwire fence in the same pasture he and Mike had used their last trip out.

Dan exited the SUV and approached the ranchers. “I thought you said this project wouldn’t begin until next spring?”

“Well, I didn’t feel like lazing around the house while the weather was nice, so my son and I decided to put ourselves to good use,” Hank replied.

“Yeah. Just think, within the next week or two, the snow will be flying.”

“Sure am gonna miss this warm weather. There are more projects to complete than I have time to mention them all.”

Dan was reminded of someone who might assist Hank and his oldest son with today’s task. Surely, Mike’s wife wouldn’t mind him enjoying the warm, fresh air while it was here. “If Mike ain’t busy, you could always call him up,” Dan said.

“Nah, his wife probably has plenty for him to do already.” Hank chuckled.

“Okay, well, I’ll be back in a few days, so I’ll catch you then.”

“Good luck, Dan. You, too, Nick. Go find that white wolf.”

The backseats and rear cargo area were covered with cased firearms, camouflage backpacks, and enough supplies to endure five or six days deep inside Wolf Mountain.

Dan carried the most lethal weapons between himself and the game warden—a .30-06 centerfire rifle—his primary weapon. For self-defense purposes and his secondary, he had a .45 semiautomatic pistol.

Nick had brought his service weapon, a 9 mm handgun, to serve as his main protection. In place of a secondary, he’d chosen a department-issued dart rifle. The initial goal was to tranquilize Snow Wolf once the two men got within shooting range. No easy feat since gray wolves were known for their excellent hearing.

The pace for this hunt was set by Nick and barely under that of a speed walker, but neither Dan nor Nick showed signs of exhaustion.

Sweat formed on Dan’s brow. Even with the shade, the warm sunlight pierced the dense forest canopy. He continued across the crest to reach the location where he and Mike had shot the two wolves and elk bull.

They topped the hill, and the men were rewarded with a picturesque view of elk and mule deer scavenging the last blades of green grass. The creatures appeared unaware or unconcerned with the fact that wild animals had lost their lives near where they currently stood.

“Too bad we’re on official business. Otherwise, I might take one back with me,” Dan commented.

“Same here. My job doesn’t allow me much time off during hunting season.” Nick examined his unfolded map.

“You hunt big game, too? Sure is a great way to get some fresh air, ain’t it?”

“I’m with you on that one. Sometimes, I get lucky and take a week off late in the season. Otherwise, weekends are my best bet.”

Dan adjusted his stance several times and examined the mixed group of elk and mule deer below. “How exactly are we going to cross over without disturbing them?”

Nick observed the diverse herd, using a pair of binoculars, and then he looked directly left, where the terrain formed what looked like a bridge between the opposing hillsides. “We can follow the slope west. From there, we’ll travel clockwise until we reach the north side.” Nick traced one finger across the unfolded map.

“Won’t that take several hours? Why don’t we just go straight across, far enough away so the ruminants don’t notice us?” Dan asked.

“Yeah, it may take longer, but I don’t think we should go tromping around in the open, especially when the sun is already making today quite hot.”

“All right, all right. Have it your way. Just let me wet my whistle.” Dan turned up his canteen.

Dan and Nick, in single formation, weaved through the dense brush and old conifers without slowing down.

The men were treated with sparse cover and fewer pines and spruces when they reached the western slopes. In place of their intended concealment, they discovered an open area with an amazing view of the highland.

Smartphones and digital cameras flashed intermittently as the men preserved the colorful scenery, aware each second of delay meant the loss of precious daylight. They returned their electronic devices to their respective compartments inside their backpacks and pockets.

The north slope was a gradual grade, and according to the sun’s position between the west and east horizons, midday was almost an hour away. Nearly three hours had passed since their arrival.

The elk and mule-deer herd Dan and Nick had successfully avoided entered the eastern section of highland.

There was no evidence the Black Sheep Pack had stood along the crest’s edge, not even one paw print from either of the two remaining members.

Dan and Nick slowed their pace to minimize exhaustion from the intense heat rather than the easy climb.

“Whew, I’m nearly ready for a break. How about we stop for lunch at the top?”

Dan stopped to down a mouthful of lukewarm water. “Fine with me. I’m hungry anyway.”

“Excellent. You have to tell me about one of your adventures. Surely you have some good ones tucked away?”

Noon had officially arrived for Wolf Mountain State Forest.

Cold-cut sandwiches were the main course of choice until they returned to civilization. Dan wielded a turkey and cheese, while Nick possessed two salami sandwiches.

Dan shared his personal stash of air-sealed condiments with the game warden, small packets of mayonnaise and yellow mustard from leftover takeout meals.

“So, which adventure do you wish to share with me?” Nick asked.

“Well, I have two on hand you can choose from. Would you like to hear about British Columbia or Alaska?” Dan asked.

“I’ll choose Alaska.”

Dan described his four-day excursion in the far-north state filled with steep, almost-vertical slopes. He recalled memories of glassing for Sitka deer with a local guide he’d hired months earlier. Dan explained exactly how he’d closed in on a lone eight-point buck.

“I was about fifty feet above him. He looked around, trying to find me, but he only scanned the environment at his elevation. I shot the buck through the lungs. He dropped without a single twitch.”

“How long did it take to pack him out?” Nick removed his second salami sandwich.

“Probably five hours. I sent the carcass out by amphibious plane around six that evening, so it could be butchered and packaged once I left the next night.”

“You don’t always cut open your trophies?”

“Nope, I never have the time on my hunts. In fact, except when I’m here, I actually ship my meat and head mounts separately by airliner. Usually takes a couple of days to reach Wrangler once they clear customs,” Dan said.

“Really? That can’t be cheap.”

“Couple hundred bucks, at least. But since I shot it, at least I know where it came from.”

“Probably healthier too in comparison to the deli department.” Nick folded the plastic sandwich bags. “We should get moving and look for clues.”

With the exception of their firearms, the men left their gear at the base of a pine tree along the forest edge.

They combed the exact location Dan had noticed the wolf pack two days earlier. Several paw prints were discovered, but none led northward in the direction Snow Wolf and The Pup had made their desperate escape.

“Are you sure this is where you saw the two wolves reenter the forest?” Nick knelt to closely examine the dry forest floor.

“I’m positive, because there was a single pine among several spruces right near where the rock ledge grew steeper.” Dan pointed out the exact location.

“Maybe a bit farther east might do the trick.”

Five steps was all Nick and Dan needed to find two sets of old tracks leading northward.

“Yes! Here they are! I’ll plant a yellow tent stake so we don’t lose our spot!” Nick said, grinning with excitement.

“Come on, amigo! Let’s grab our gear and make up for lost time.”

16

HALFWAY ACROSS THE expanse, Snow Wolf noticed a large gray rock piercing through the river current. The Canis lupus struggled against the swift current as he swam toward the refuge.

Just as Snow Wolf thought he might have missed the rock completely, he slammed against the haven in the middle of the river. The strong current held his wet body in place and gave him the opportunity to climb aboard.

One hundred yards lay between the Canis lupus and his initial upriver position on the south shore. Snow Wolf looked downriver and noticed the body of water meandered sharply southward before resuming a northwest course. Pebble-size stones were deposited along the north bank, which provided the perfect spot for him to disembark the rough waters with ease.

Snow Wolf shivered as he sank back into the river, but he resumed paddling across the expanse.

Small rocks scraped against his hungered stomach, and his legs cramped in the cold water until it barely covered the white wolf’s paws.

Snow Wolf had reached the north shore.

Blissful emotion overwhelmed the Canis lupus as he moved inland. All fear evaporated, along with his burdensome stress and doubt.

Snow Wolf shifted westward to run parallel to the river, veering a touch northwest until the body of water was almost out of sight. He sensed victory was in his grasp, even as the sunlight grew dimmer. He felt untouchable.

Negative thoughts reemerged when the familiar human structures appeared one hundred yards away. The Canis lupus knew once he reached them he possessed no idea which direction to go on his hunt for survival.

Well, there are those two wooden bridges again, and I have not found anything suitable to eat. All this time wasted, except for the fact that I know I can survive another day without my pack members, without Alpha Female, in particular. I still miss her, even if her words of wisdom remain with me forever.

Images flashed in his mind, showing comforting scenes of Alpha Female and The Pup lying side by side on their final night together, safe and sound, as well as scenes of The Brother jealously watching without any effort to conceal his body language.

Snow Wolf was depressed by the vivid memory. He almost howled with anguish, but he didn’t have a moment to spare to mourn for his companions.

Movement on his flank caused Snow Wolf to turn to examine the stirring, thick brush.

A pair of ruffed grouse rummaged through the dense vegetation.

The white wolf lowered to his belly. His only option was to crawl, counterclockwise, toward the area behind the birds.

He halted several times to guarantee his avian prey hadn’t budged and fought the persistent impatience that developed as a result. Failure was not an option.

Snow Wolf continued forward despite the impulse to quicken his pace, even as the dry pine needles scuffed his underbelly.

Three yards separated the predator and prey.

Snow Wolf sat on the forest floor, almost wishing he could produce a smile.

The ruffed grouse frantically debated escape, but neither bird stepped forward to lead the duo toward safety.

Snow Wolf had the complete advantage. The opportunity to strike had come, while the ruffed grouse were paralyzed with indecision. He burst into motion, crashing through the brush before either brown bird realized what occurred.

The lone wolf grabbed the closest ruffed grouse. Driving his fangs deep into its neck, he instantly killed the brown bird.

Snow Wolf dropped the lifeless prey to pursue the second grouse, which was running toward the nearby open field for takeoff.

The brown bird raced through the undergrowth, and Snow Wolf backed out the entrance he had initially used.

Oh, no, you don’t, little fella. Not today.

Snow Wolf raced around the vegetation, greeting the grouse as it broke from the thick concealment.

Both animals slammed on the forest floor as the white wolf pounced on the avian creature. Snow Wolf’s fangs dug inside the bird’s flesh.

A sharp chirp pierced the quiet landscape, and both lifeless ruffed grouse were consumed in short order.

Thoughts of rejection by possible alpha-female candidates or being labeled an outcast by the alpha male stirred in his mind. There was also the chance that he might never discover a wolf band along his expedition.

I have to try, though. I can’t stay here, and my best chance of survival is increasing my numbers. The only way I’ll ever know is to try.

Exhaustion entered the white wolf’s sore body early in the evening. Memories of the Black Sheep returned to agonize him. Bouts of jealousy intensified tenfold.

I still cannot fathom…how my family members were murdered even though they blended in quite well while I stick out like a sore thumb.

Snow Wolf’s main current concern was locating a suitable resting area. He stepped on the pristine gravel trail made to convenience the forest’s wildlife, resuming his journey westward, until he reached a tall pine several yards north of the trail.

The white wolf fell asleep quickly and was transported to the exact spot his memories had been taking him all day.

Alpha Female strolled toward Snow Wolf. She stood on his right flank, staring at the elk herd below.

The Brother and The Pup emerged from the dense forest and gathered around them, awaiting further orders. Time seemed to slow as the gray wolves stood in silence.

Each of the lower-ranked members understood interruption of their alphas’ intimate encounter was forbidden. Instead, The Brother and The Pup examined the grazing elk completely unaware of the eyes watching their every move.

The Black Sheep Pack separated into two groups.

Alpha Female initiated the hunt, and the group headed toward Snow Wolf and The Brother.

Suddenly, two men appeared behind them in the eastern section of highland.

A deafening sound pierced the quiet landscape.

The Brother collapsed.

Snow Wolf refused to move, fear paralyzing his legs like rebar in hardened concrete.

One hunter trained his muzzle on the white wolf.

The second human reloaded before he too pointed imminent death at the Canis lupus.

Snow Wolf clenched his body in preparation of the massive pain he knew was coming.

Wind gusted out of the south. A lightning bolt struck the earth due east. Rumbles of thunder rolled across the skyline, echoing through the valley. But the sky was clearly blue, and the sun continued to provide continuous streams of warmth and illumination.

Snow Wolf cringed as he witnessed the hunters reaching for the metal triggers. He closed his eyes to wait.

Two loud sounds sliced through the darkness, and Snow Wolf presumed he was dead despite the lack of unbearable pain. His eyes were open when a second flash of lightning lit up the sky.

He was alive and well. The terrorizing scene had all been a nightmare.

Snow Wolf calmed his respiration and stretched his legs out of their frozen positions. He was soaked to the skin from the immense sheets of warm rain falling. A pool of runoff had formed inches away from him.

He drank from the puddle, and he continued slowing his body’s response to the nightmare. His mind grew louder as Snow Wolf debated whether the recent nightmare was a warning to proceed with caution once daylight arrived or stop altogether.

No, this awful dream cannot mean anything. My pack is already nonexistent, and I know humans will not come looking for me now.

Exhaustion overcame the white wolf once the storm silenced, and he closed his tired eyes, giving in to the need for rest and renewed peace.

Songbirds’ melodies awakened Snow Wolf. Every joint and muscle ached as he stood to stretch. He ignored the physical pain, pushing his body forward to quench his thirst and search the forest. Another long day of securing food was in store.

Sunlight penetrated the forest canopy as Snow Wolf crossed the creek bridge. He continued northwest. He refused to worry over canine or feline predators attempting to disrupt his renewed hunt. Snow Wolf felt secure neither wild creature would come this deep within the Black Sheep’s old territory just yet.

Morning swiftly evaporated, and the only creature Snow Wolf had encountered was an old man headed southeast. He had whistled a tune unknown to the lone wolf and passed by, never noticing the wild canine hiding behind a small patch of brush despite his white contrast.

Snow Wolf resumed his trek northwest as the environment fell quiet.

The scattered growth of thick brush transferred into dense browning grass. Sunlight intensified due to the lack of cover from either tall conifers or aspens.

Snow Wolf’s progress was slowed as he was forced to halt constantly and peek above the blades of grass for curious eyes. However, it soon paid off.

The white wolf spotted an orangish-brown head fifty yards due north. His curved ears perked in anticipation.

17

THE SOAPY BOILED water was used to first sanitize the bowie knife and then used to wash the mess kits and utensils. The sharp, silver eight-inch blade glistened in the last rays of sunshine.

I hoped this precious possession was powerful enough to slice the dead wood fibers of the unstable aspen. There was no alternative method to fell the tree, except to wait for tonight’s thunderstorm and strong, unpredictable winds. The safety of my friends and myself, as well as the fabric tents, were in grave danger if the trunk collapsed.

The bark appeared rotten through and through.

I jabbed the trunk with gentle force to test how deep the disintegration went. To my complete surprise, I found the knife was nearly consumed whole. In fact, I had underestimated the severity of the situation. At any moment, the tree might topple across our temporary campsite, especially with the aid of some fierce southern winds.

“Adam, can you help me give a push here?”

The girls stood off to one side, holding hands and looking quite nervous with my plan.

“On the count of three,” I said. “One, two, three.”

The unstable aspen toppled southwest.

Tomorrow’s breakfast fire would be supplied with localized fuel.

Kristi jumped up from her seat beside the campfire. “Thank goodness you’re both all right.” She sprinted toward me, her flip-flops smacking the ground and her raven-black hair bouncing on her shoulders.

“Oh, it was nothing.” I embraced Kristi. “Just a crazy idea I came up with to protect you guys.”

“Don’t forget me.” Adam motioned for Taylor to approach him. “I helped defend ourselves from the evil tree, too.”

“Come on, everyone. Let’s celebrate by finishing Taylor’s delicious dessert.” I led Kristi toward the campfire.

The subsequent conversations rose and fell from the personal to the mundane. My main concern, though, revolved around the approaching black clouds slowly developing on the southern horizon.

I stood from my spot at the campfire and ran toward the shelters, calling for Adam to help me construct a tarp to act as a thin-layered roof over both tents and collect our collapsible shovels to dig a moat around each temporary shelter.

With seconds to spare, the swift precipitation pummeled the aspen grove as everyone dove into their respective shelters for the night.

I was the last one in after securing the campsite from the soaking weather.

The final image of the outside world was of a stray lightning bolt striking a pine tree along the eastern shoreline over two hundred yards away.

I watched in case the dense forest erupted into flames.

Instead, the unfortunate pine collapsed and landed inside the lake with a loud, tall splash.

Torrential rainfall violently struck the blue tarp positioned above our two fabric tents. The shallow trenches Adam and I had dug remained empty, though the soil dampened from occasional bursts of sideways precipitation. Except for the gusts that pounded the tents’ exteriors, the wind walls provided sufficient protection.

My friends and I were safe, but I struggled to preoccupy my bored mind, except to finally ask Kristi what had been driving me insane on an unconscious level.

What would she say?

I cringed at the mere thought, but my imagination ran wild with ideas. The worst of which was her saying anything along the lines of, “John, I think you’re making a big deal out of this. We’re just best friends, not intimate lovers.”

As much as the thought terrified me, I couldn’t put it off any longer.

“Kristi, do you think my dream was a sign? I mean, I was thrown off guard by you professing your love the other night on the phone.”

Kristi took a deep breath. “I know, but, darling, I couldn’t keep my feelings for you hidden any longer. The burden was too great to keep it a secret forever.”

A flash of light illuminated the fabric tent. By some mystical origin, I realized I wasn’t alone in my fears.

“Ever since I moved to Salt Lake with my parents, from the moment I met you, I fell head over heels for someone who accepted me for who I was. You were my only crush in high school, but I was scared to tell you. I held off, using homework and sporting events as excuses to avoid this discussion. We both were consumed with achieving excellent grades and attending Taylor’s volleyball matches.” She swallowed hard and looked me in the eye. “I thought about revealing my love for you this past summer. The long conversations at the coffee shop after a movie, long walks in the city park, any of those times we managed to be alone…

“Now we share another opportunity. While the weather outside is frightening, and both Taylor and Adam cannot hear us, I have to tell you once more, I love you, John. I want to be your girlfriend, okay?” Kristi fell into my warm arms as tears formed and landed on my shirt. Kristi cried until I had wiped each one from her warm cheeks.

“I know, dear. I felt like I was receiving mixed signals, which obscured your real intentions.” I soothed my best friend turned lover.

“Thank you for not lacking compassion. That’s one of those qualities about you I truly enjoy.”

My entire world, minus the storm, felt as though it were climaxing into a scene from fantasy tales.

Kristi’s blue eyes illuminated with each lightning strike. She wrapped her half-bare legs around my waist, and each warm breath she took caressed my cheeks, increasing their redness. Her bosom was mere inches away from my chest.

Any pain or confusion I had escaped in one quick motion. I felt a strange calm.

“Your lips are juicy. Kiss me again, darling.” Kristi fluttered her eyelashes.

“Yes, my princess.” I complied.

Raindrops continued to fall as Kristi and I shared moment after endless moment simply enjoying one another. The weather created the perfect bubble to get lost in, and that’s exactly what we did.

I struggled with the part of me that was convinced everything that occurred in the privacy of our fabric tent was all nothing more than another pleasant dream. By sunrise, the fantasy could slowly fade.

“I wonder…what will our parents say when we return? I mean, my family might tease me about their oh-so-serious son successfully loosening up, especially my older sister.” I glanced at Kristi’s darkened outline.

“Well, I don’t think they will. They understand you’re just as human as they are, capable of making responsible, adult life decisions. Mine probably feel the same way about their only daughter. I’m sure they’ve discussed my dating life. We do make a great couple.”

“You’re right, honey, but let’s wait until we’re both ready to announce, when we won’t be embarrassed whatsoever, except me if Isabel is present.”

“John, please don’t worry about her. I’m sure she went through the same thing when she first started dating.”

“But she’s a girl; she can blush in front of her parents without it being a big deal,” I said.

“And you’re a guy. Your old man probably dealt with the exact same feelings you’re experiencing right now.” Kristi grabbed my hands.

“I’ll try, dear. I promise I won’t let this bother me anymore.”

“That’s the spirit. Imagine what else you can accomplish with a small dose of encouragement.” Kristi’s soft hands brushed the back of my neck.

I sensed safety and the possibility of growing and prospering after this violent, stormy night. My face remained bright red, and I felt my heart and soul ignite with intensive passion. This was the exact instant I realized being single was no longer part of my existence.

Kristi stared into my brown eyes. “Is there anything else you wish to discuss?”

I was thrown off guard. I had assumed as the thunderstorm loosened its grip, we might catch some sleep. I realized this night still possessed potential. The real question then was how was I supposed to ask.

“How often do you think we should go out? I mean I know I’m a novice when it comes to romantic relationships, but you’re my best friend. I don’t want to lose you twice. I want to be sure we’re doing this correctly and not just another statistic. I refuse to allow these issues to tear us apart.”

Kristi placed her hands on my forearm. Her eyes gave no clue to her thoughts through my entire fumbled speech, but I held on to the realization that there was no tension in her touch.

“John, I understand your concerns. I’m sure we can arrange dates once a week or every other week. You have a good head on your shoulders; we both do. We’re not like other people. We have the ability to think for ourselves. I agree, society is a mess with marital problems, but the two of us are able to see eye to eye. Neither of us has picked a fight or started some petty argument with one another. We care about each other too much.”

Her counseling measure was interrupted by a change in the light. I noticed Kristi sigh deeply again. She had more motivational words up her sleeves, and I knew it.

“Forget the rest of this world; forget other people’s problems. Let’s focus on us. We hold something truly beautiful right here and now. Don’t allow outside distractions to bother you. If an issue does arise, let’s talk about it. We have phones, computers, and the ability to speak face-to-face. Don’t let anything or anyone permanently divide us. Our bond is weak but growing. I love you, John, and we can make this relationship succeed.”

I was speechless. She was completely correct about not worrying so much about others and how they lived their lives. They didn’t personally know my name or my story. How would they understand what events had occurred in my life? I hadn’t simply gained a girlfriend this stormy Sunday night. I had found a lovable mentor.

“Thanks, Kristi. You are an amazing human being.” I hugged her close.

The thunderstorm slowly exited the area. Distant stars, no longer obscured by thick, dark clouds, provided a dim light for me to fully view my girlfriend’s face. Her blue eyes were radiant and her pressed lips ready to smooch.

Kristi wrapped her soft arms around my back. Our mouths touched as we toppled across the sleeping bags. I allowed her to kiss me as long as she wished.

It didn’t matter how late it was, or how early we had to rise; we enjoyed every second together and curled up beside one another to share the night.

Kristi nudged my arm. “John.”

“Yes, honey?”

“I will always love you, from the bottom of my heart. Sweet dreams, my darling. I shall kiss you on the cheek come morning’s sunlight. Good night, swee…”

I was prevented from replying as Kristi drifted off midsentence, filling the calm air with hushed sounds of her breathing. I carefully reached over to kiss her warm forehead, and another strange though comforting feeling rushed through my veins.

I struggled to open my tired eyes in the morning light. Familiar sounds alerted me that someone had rekindled the campfire, and I knew I had to get moving.

I rolled out of my warm sleeping bag to recover the dry hiking boots sitting at the tent’s door.

Kristi remained asleep even while I loudly stirred throughout the tent’s interior. Her bosom gently rose and fell with each breath.

“Such a sweet, innocent angel she is.” I kissed her forehead.

Adam was trying, but it was clear he was unprepared to make breakfast by himself. He rushed around the temporary campsite, gathering every pan and utensil we’d brought.

“Need help?” I called out.

“Sure do. Here.” Adam pointed at the collapsible metal pot. “Go bring up some water to boil for dishes.”

18

AS AFTERNOON TRANSITIONED toward evening, the warm day became increasingly intolerable.

Dan and Nick followed the two sets of wolf prints for several miles. Sometimes the aged trails veered both west and east as the Canis lupus traveled around small depressions. The men understood the consequences of camping deep inside Wolf Mountain when a powerful thunderstorm was due to arrive, but there were no alternatives except pressing forward.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if Snow Wolf and The Pup were coming toward us unknowingly?” Dan asked.

“Yeah.” Nick sighed. “I wish I’d asked for more volunteers before coming out here.”

“But then Snow Wolf and his son might be farther away than they are now.”

“True, but at least we could have split into two teams and worked our way toward one another.”

According to Nick’s map, a creek bed was approximately two hundred yards northeast. The paw prints continued due north.

“We probably should set up camp soon. It will be dark before supper is over,” Dan said.

“Okay, I’ll be over there by that rock formation.” Nick pointed northward.

Dan hiked alone to the creek in order to refill his almost-empty canteens. Although he possessed a miniature filtration system, he decided to bring the water back to their temporary campsite and boil out the impurities there instead.

The hillside gradually dropped off, and Dan noticed the start of the specific creek bed he’d been looking for. With each step closer to the small body of water, a familiar, nauseous odor intensified. The career hunter figured a dead animal was nearby. Nothing else explained the potent smell.

Where is it coming from?

He tightly wielded the .30-06 centerfire rifle in case scavengers ran out. The safety was still engaged, though Dan kept his thumb hovering over the switch.

Beside a pine tree, several crows and turkey vultures surrounded a half-eaten animal.

Dan disengaged the safety and cautiously approached.

Thirty yards away, the crows squawked and fled.

The turkey vultures simply scattered in organized groups, though not in a desperate panic.

Dan released his finger from the trigger to reset the safety switch. He ran toward the partially consumed carcass to identify the animal. Up close, the scene was a horrific sight, easily greater than the awful smell from afar.

Dozens of black flies occupied the rotting flesh. The rib cage was completely exposed, as were the remainder of the vital organs. Both front and rear legs remained unscathed.

Dan knelt to examine the creature’s feet and discovered the remains of a gray wolf, possibly The Pup. When he had a good sense of his exact location, he resumed the short hike toward the creek bed.

The running water soothed Dan’s tense nerves. He placed both canteens into the cold, crystal liquid, filling the metal containers easily. He resealed the canteens and walked uphill for Nick’s campsite.

Crimson flames greeted Dan’s arrival at the crest.

The game warden was constructing his individual tent before he began supper.

Dan placed his camouflage backpack ten feet from the shelter and campfire. “Guess who I found on my way to the creek?”

Nick ceased working and turned to glance at him. “You find Snow Wolf and The Pup?”

“I might have found The Pup. I’m not sure since the carcass is almost gone.”

“Really? Let’s go take a look,” Nick said as he extinguished the campfire.

Clouds of dust surrounded Dan and Nick’s descent toward the scavenged remains.

Several crows and turkey vultures had returned, surrounding the unidentified wolf carcass.

Nick clapped his large hands to force them to retreat.

The crows scattered in every direction.

The vultures organized themselves before escaping toward the east.

Nick lifted the feet of the carcass to confirm the canine was in fact a Canis lupus.

Dan was correct; it was a wolf, though further research was required to verify the individual as The Pup.

The game warden reached for his smartphone to call the Fish & Game Department in Wrangler and leave a message.

After several minutes, the device vibrated in Nick’s hand. “Hello, Sarah? What did they say?”

“Yes, your dead wolf is The Pup. They would like you to place a GPS device near the carcass so somebody can pick it up tomorrow morning,” Sarah replied.

“Will do. Should we stay close until they arrive?”

“No, you have permission to press onward to locate Snow Wolf.”

“All right. Thanks, Sarah.” Nick adjusted his stance. “By the way, can you tell my wife I’m okay?”

“Sure, no problem. See you back at the office. Bye-bye.”

“Bye.”

There were six GPS devices inside Nick’s camouflage backpack, one of which was attached to a nylon collar intended for Snow Wolf. Nick grabbed one without the collar and carefully positioned the device beside the scavenged carcass, anchoring the electronic receiver with a tent stake through the attached metal ring.

“I wonder who killed him. The Pup was too young to die,” Nick said.

“Probably never will know. Most likely poachers because no ethical hunter would take him,” Dan replied.

The men stared at The Pup—lifeless and inches from their feet—and felt a mix of emotions. The men were sorry the hunt for Snow Wolf’s son had ended in this manner, yet relieved one Canis lupus remained to be discovered.

Nick stood beside the dead wolf, turned toward the campsite, and sighed. “Well, there is nothing we can do to revive The Pup. We better go finish our tents and start on supper.”

With the tents completely constructed, the campfire under control for proper heat distribution, and a sweet aroma of apple cobbler and fried trout filling the forest, Dan and Nick relaxed for the first time all day.

Dan’s smartphone still held just over half a charge. The signal displayed two bars, at best, but was suitable enough to distribute text messages throughout the world.

Hi, Alyssa. How was your day?

Dan placed the smartphone on the forest floor and resumed eating. An incoming text arrived seconds later, and Dan continued eating while reading the message.

Fine. I went shopping with some girlfriends of mine after work. I bought myself a bright blue dress and matching shoes.

Good. Nick and I have traveled nearly seven miles today. We found the white wolf’s son, but the vultures got him first.

That’s awful! Do you know how he died?

No, but we suspect poachers since wolf pups are illegal to kill, even while wolf season is ongoing.

Well, thank you for at least letting me know you’re all right. I love you, Dan.

You, too, honey. I’ll text you tomorrow, hopefully.

Dan powered down the phone to conserve power and shoved it back in his pants pocket.

“How’s your girlfriend, Dan?” Nick flipped the fried trout.

“She’s fine, just telling me what she did today.”

“Must be a patient woman if she allows you to travel the world for weeks at a time.”

“Yeah, Alyssa is, but recently she told me I had to visit more often than once every three months.”

“Every three months?” Nick almost screamed. “Wow, that’s a long time, my friend.”

“I know. My scheduled hunts are always one or two weeks apart, but I usually spend most of that time catching up on bills, housecleaning, and packing for the next adventure.” Dan downed another bite of apple cobbler.

“Oh, come on! That’s plenty of time to see her. You only need two or three days to visit.”

Dan swallowed hard because he knew the game warden was right, and he dodged the light accusation instead. “Yeah, but I’d rather stay for at least a week.”

“So you’re telling me that you avoid visiting your girlfriend because you need six or seven days? I’m sure you can budget four at the least.” Nick removed the last fried trout from the crimson flames.

“I guess I could. Why didn’t I think of that before?” Dan said, distracted by the thought.

“Because you probably never discussed your problem with anyone besides her.”

Dan knew his friend was correct. Alyssa would have been more than satisfied if he stayed at her apartment for a few random days here or there, rather than none at all. The small, powerful gift he intended to purchase most likely would never erase the emotional pain of her loneliness, but it would be a strong catalyst.

The metal canteens Dan had deposited in the campfire were white-hot. The career hunter used the oven mitts to remove them from the crimson flames and placed them beside the rocks lining the fire pit.

Nightfall arrived as the last embers were extinguished. The distant stars disappeared behind thick, dark clouds. The forecasted thunderstorm was due to arrive shortly.

Dan and Nick raced to fortify their tents from the heavy rainfall with tarps.

“We should be all right. I’m just not sure about this wind that’s picking up,” Nick yelled.

“Me neither. I hope the stakes are strong enough to keep us from blowing over that cliff,” Dan shouted. A loud thump sounded, and he looked down to find Nick’s coil of bright red parachute cord.

“Take the last of it, and tie your tent to some trees,” the game warden shouted.

“You have enough? I don’t want you to blow away while mine is secure,” Dan replied, gathering the thick, woven fibers.

“Yeah. Let’s hurry before we’re soaked.”

Strong gusts in excess of fifty miles an hour slammed the waterproof tents. The raindrops bombed the men’s shelters but lost momentum as they struck the impermeable tarps. The lightning strikes produced a consistent rumble from multiple directions. Their individual tents resisted all nature threw at them.

Nothing but clear skies surrounded Dan and Nick when they awoke Monday morning. The men examined their tents and found the temporary shelters would be dry enough to repack after breakfast.

“I don’t see any damage except for some downed branches. I hope the GPS device didn’t blow away,” Nick said.

“We can always check on our way out. By the way, which direction are we traveling today?” Dan threw a small branch several feet.

“My guess is that Snow Wolf is hugging the northern creek bed in order to join up with a pack outside Wolf Mountain. There are other groups one hundred miles east and a few fifty miles due west. The north one is only ten miles beyond in Yellowstone.”

“So you’re saying we should follow the creek north?”

“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting,” Nick said.

“Okay, I just wanted to know what your plan was.”

Powdered eggs and canned meat were nowhere near as delicious as the apple cobbler and trout had been, but time was of the essence, especially when Snow Wolf could have traveled several miles already.

The men broke camp and descended the hill to check their GPS device, along with personal gear and firearms, before heading out.

19

CLOSER EXAMINATION REVEALED the foreign individual was composed of brown fur.

Snow Wolf understood the animal was a whitetail doe practicing her instincts to care for the fawn at her side, being cautiously wary for watchful predators.

The young ruminant grazed on the remnants of summer’s lush vegetation.

Snow Wolf examined his chosen victim carefully, eager to pinpoint small clues the fawn’s body language broadcasted detection of the white wolf.

Not too large as I wish to avoid waste. Not too small and insufficient. They are perfect for my bottom line.

The lone wolf figured if he captured young, innocent prey, the potential meal would equal two days’ worth of precious energy. It was enough to propel Snow Wolf forward until he discovered the northern wolf pack.

His nerves tightened. The fawn seemed to unconsciously torment him to unravel, as though a carrot and stick situated before a workhorse.

Blades of withered grass rustled as he pushed through. Snow Wolf lowered the distant gap to ten yards by crawling through the dense concealment. Snow Wolf halted several times to avoid being discovered too soon.

By mere chance, neither the fawn nor the doe suspected her situation was becoming a dire one.

At ten yards, Snow Wolf stopped to peek above the tips of the grass blades one last time. Tension increased inside his mind, permeating every area of his body. He sprang into action without hesitation.

The doe’s head immediately rose, her ears perking with curiosity, then dropped as the maternal deer witnessed Snow Wolf closing on her location.

The attack triggered motherly instincts to protect her fawn.

The white wolf sank his fangs inside the yearling’s neck, and both wild animals tumbled to the forest floor.

Bright red blood flowed from the fawn’s wounds, staining the tall grass.

Snow Wolf watched the young deer’s eyes close. Snow Wolf stood beside the dead fawn, and the doe stared into his strained eyes.

Then the adult ruminant turned and disappeared toward the northeast.

I know my principle—let the young live, and prey on the old instead—has been broken. But I am alone, and I cannot consume the doe by myself. Just this once, I shall disobey.

Persistent bleats echoed throughout the wilderness, the volume diminishing as the doe ran for safety.

The forest fell silent for the white wolf to devour his acquired meal. He consumed slowly, savoring the texture.

Snow Wolf envisioned the members of the Black Sheep Pack surrounding him with a pile of bones at their feet and rays of sunlight passing through the forest canopy. He imagined The Pup playing in the tall green grass with The Brother and Alpha Female strolling toward Snow Wolf and licking his face. Snow Wolf gained comfort in knowing his wolf pack was within easy grasp.

The daydream was just that.

Instead, turkey vultures scavenged the remains, confident the dazed Canis lupus inches away would not annihilate them.

Snow Wolf headed south for the river to drink before he resumed a northwesterly course. His confidence renewed, despite persistent reminders that the Black Sheep no longer existed in the physical realm.

Everywhere he looked, the natural environment was void of thick brush or tall grass. Only aged, tall pines stood in this specific section of forest. With each step forward, the old timber thinned to allow increased sunlight on the floor.

Snow Wolf closely followed the gravel trail, sometimes traveling on the artificial path despite the heightened risk.

I am not afraid of the hunters who slaughtered my pack anymore. It’s been too long since my last contact with them. As for other humans, they would not wander here without specific purpose.

Sunset was minutes away when a strange noise intensified from downriver.

Snow Wolf had recently altered his course to due north, but curiosity of the sound won. He traveled half a mile farther northwest until he got his answer.

A waterfall.

A bridge also crossed the swift current several yards upriver.

The white wolf stood on the north end, patiently waiting for the best opportunity to cross.

What if the hunters are hidden along the south side? Why should I cross anyway? I wish to travel north, not south. But something inside me is drawing me in this opposite direction.

To prevent any opportunity of a fatal shot, the lone wolf broke into a run, pounding the wooden planks with his paws like a hammer to nails.

Snow Wolf wondered if he would ever reach the south shore. The bridge span was quite long compared to any previous river structure he’d examined. Sure enough, he placed his feet on gravel, rushing toward dense cover before he continued.

Nothing other than Snow Wolf seemed to be on this side of the forest. No birds sang from lower tree limbs. The environment was quiet. He immediately went on high alert.

What could it be? Who? I must proceed carefully, but I cannot retreat this time. Whoever they are, if my trail is found, I might be followed.

His plan was simple—sweep the forest north and east of the gravel trail. Snow Wolf was frightened by the unknown; however, he descended the hillside anyway.

A strange though familiar scent was present at the base of the waterfall. It was human, and Snow Wolf lowered his guard slightly once he realized canines did not oppose him.

Smells like flowers. But where would humans collect anything so strong on the nose? Come to think of it, I detect a second scent, possibly a third. Either a single human held all three or they are not alone. Regardless, I better watch my step from this moment on.

Each footfall was slow and inconsistent. Sometimes, wary that every contact with the forest floor might disclose his current position, Snow Wolf halted his step forward in midair.

Despite the worry of sounding his presence, the brush thickened to become a single natural fortification. Even if humans suspected Snow Wolf was nearby, their search to discover him would be a difficult one.

The water descending over the rock’s edge increased in volume, but another sound was heard over the consistent flow. Then he heard a multitude of varied voices—two soft, mellow tones and two deep and strong.

Snow Wolf was aroused with excitement, though also guarded. Whoever they were, the humans sounded friendly.

Orange and yellow leaves crunched beneath Snow Wolf’s feet. Curiosity and fear loomed in his mind. Were these unseen humans friends or foes?

The white wolf dashed to another aspen tree, careful his entire body was concealed behind the trunk.

The voices continued at regular levels, revealing no awareness of Snow Wolf.

Snow Wolf knew he must crawl to the forest’s edge to actually examine the humans.

For yards, Snow Wolf crawled past several aspens and conifers prepared for winter snows and through thick brush built like concrete walls ten feet high.

Sunlight occasionally struck his eyes, causing blindness for a moment or two.

From his current position inside the forest’s edge, he noticed large, smooth rocks occupied by four humans. Their faces expressed warmth and compassion.

Can I trust them with my well-being? If I approach, is it possible they might provide a small snack? Hmm, maybe I should bypass them and continue on north as planned. No, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I shall introduce myself once the hour is right.

The lone wolf turned and crawled straight toward the two aspens he’d hid behind earlier.

No one except Snow Wolf occupied the gravel trail on the hilltop near the waterfall, and he moved quickly and quietly, intent on collecting a long drink of crisp water from the swift river current.

His tongue and throat relieved, the white wolf followed the riverbank downstream.

At considerable risk of being exposed to both assassination and curious eyes, Snow Wolf watched the humans mingle at their campsite. They were too distracted with eating whatever was placed before them to notice him.

He proceeded for natural concealment so neither human nor predator obtained his location.

Questions of curiosity agonized Snow Wolf. Each thought over the group of humans seemed to create five additional ones.

Who are these humans, truly? Where did they originate? Their appearance is foreign to those residing in nearby towns. They dress differently; they speak in positive, uplifting tones. Maybe they came from places similar to those surrounding me when I was an exhibit?

Are they actually friendly, or is their body language fake, to camouflage their real intent? Would I frighten them if I confronted them at their campsite? Should I forget the entire thing, act as though I never saw them, and travel north again?

An opportunity to bridge the gap between both social species was rare. Snow Wolf chose to carry out the self-appointed mission.

If trouble comes along, I can always retreat for the forest and move on. Somehow, I must appear more shy than they are. I can easily accomplish this by rolling on the ground. Sounds good to me.

Snow Wolf ran as though a grizzly bear chased him. He knew the plan’s deadline would arrive before the environment was cast into darkness.

At the waterfall, Snow Wolf selected the spot to emerge from the dense forest. A small stand of pines jetted toward the riverbank behind and northwest of the human-occupied campsite. The gradual slope toward the temporary settlement would provide minimal though sufficient cover should the humans notice Snow Wolf enter their back door.

He silently ran and weaved toward the campsite in a fashion similar to the failed elk hunt days earlier.

Thirty yards lay between Snow Wolf and the unsuspecting humans.

The sunshine waned as shadows lengthened.

A patch of brush and a pine tree were all that hid the white wolf from premature detection. The setup was perfect.

How do I draw attention to myself? Whimper for a bite to eat? No, too subtle. Wag my tail? That should be my backup plan once I do hold their attention. Yip? Suits me fine. I just hope my legs stop quivering.

With the approach set in stone, the white wolf stepped out from the dense vegetation.

Anxiety immediately flooded his entire body. The Canis lupus instead overcame his extreme worries and took one step closer to the unaware humans lost in conversation.

20

I SUBMERGED THE collapsible aluminum pot into the lake full of trout. Excess water ran down the external surface as I mustered the strength to raise the metal container.

I slowly climbed toward the campsite to boil the collected water. Even two gallons were difficult to carry the several yards to the campfire. The considerable weight reminded me how sore I was from yesterday’s hike here. The pain was nowhere near enough to keep me sidelined.

Two pans adjacent to the collapsible pot of boiling water sizzled with life.

I hurried preparations for the pancakes to prevent charring the melted butter. One large package of pancake mix and three cups of boiled water, and breakfast was underway.

I glanced toward the tents when I heard the zing of a zipper just as my first pancake turned golden brown.

Kristi crawled out of our tent, still dressed in Sunday’s attire. She struggled to keep her blue eyes open, dark lines apparent, and walked past Adam and me without a single word of acknowledgement.

Bubbles formed across the imperfect pancake, and the delicious aroma of flapjacks and eggs wafting around the camp teased my senses.

I watched my girlfriend return from the lakeshore refreshed and smiling.

“Good morning, Adam. Morning, John,” Kristi said.

“Morning, Kristi,” Adam and I said in unison.

“I’ll be ready to join you guys in a few minutes.”

My girlfriend disappeared inside our tent as Taylor emerged from the second structure. Unlike Kristi, she wore a different set of clothes and looked fully prepared to endure another day in the wilderness of Wolf Mountain State Forest.

“Smells delicious, boys. I’ll come help you after I wash up.”

“No need, Taylor. We’ve got everything under control,” Adam said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. You just come right back, and I’ll serve you the best camp breakfast you have ever tasted.”

All concentration on breakfast faded as I noticed Kristi reappear from our tent. Every article of clothing she wore seemed to be chosen just to impress me, and her long black hair had been neatly brushed. I watched her every step. She was magnificent.

Kristi sat with her legs crossed on a stump to my left.

I remained by the fire, cooking the pancakes.

We casually smiled when our eyes met, wary to keep our romantic relationship a secret until this afternoon at the waterfall. I was sure Taylor and Adam suspected something, but we preferred to keep our best friends guessing.

“Sleep well, Adam?” Taylor asked.

“Yes, you?” Adam poured the scrambled eggs into her mess kit.

“Beautifully, didn’t wake up once after the storm passed. John?”

“Slept like a baby,” I replied, flipping the half-cooked pancake.

“Good. Kristi, how ’bout you?” Taylor blew on her steaming scrambled eggs.

“Sure did, BFF. These pancakes are great, John. Nice work.” Kristi sliced another bite off.

“Thanks,” I replied.

After breakfast, the discussion shifted toward more feminine topics as Kristi and Taylor dominated the conversation.

Adam and I kept silent, watching the time pass. We had to get moving if we wanted to actually have time to enjoy the waterfall.

Taylor and Kristi gathered the dirty dishes while Adam and I escaped to deconstruct the tents. Each team separately completed their appointed tasks until everyone formed up to dismantle the wind walls.

Two minutes past nine, less than six hours before our intended arrival at the waterfall, we broke camp and moved down the path.

I confirmed our change in cardinal direction on my compass. The paper map revealed the terrain gradually formed a large depression. If any location inside Wolf Mountain was ripe with wildlife, this was it.

I took point until we approached a small metal sign attached to a square wooden post, and we all gathered around to examine the message displayed:

[*
p<>. Wolf Mountain State Forest
*]

Waterfall—6 Miles

Floodplains—9 Miles

Highlands—17 Miles

Wyoming Fish & Game Department

“So, people do travel out here often.” Taylor snapped a photo of the message with her smartphone.

“Well, I’m sure they would readily point us in the right direction,” Adam said.

One hundred yards inside the dense forest, the narrow trail split. The right veered due east, toward the fabled highlands. The left remained northeast, which was our direction of choice.

I glanced southwest for a final glimpse of the glistening lake.

The trail swerved past a lone aspen among several pine trees, with every leaf bright yellow in preparation for the tree’s life cycle to enter dormancy.

I gathered one as a souvenir, as did Kristi and Taylor, an additional physical memory to bring home to Salt Lake.

Moss-covered boulders stood beside the trail with raindrops pooled at their base, creating shallow streams.

Kristi and Taylor stopped to capture photos with every camera device in their possession.

We continued toward the flat, expansive bottomland.

Temporary ponds were in every direction. The environment smelled fresh, and the view was as vibrant as though we’d entered a Wyoming version of a Louisiana swamp.

I was overwhelmed by the massive array and didn’t even notice the mule deer Kristi spotted thirty yards out.

She reached for her camera once again to capture the animals in the natural environment. Steadily adjusting the manual focus and while down on one knee, she snapped once, twice, three times.

Everyone gathered around to inspect her latest collection of pictures.

Our ascent to the opposite slope was difficult and muddy, and we were covered by the time we stopped for lunch.

For a second day, the midday meal consisted of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, fresh apples, and bags of trail mix.

“I can’t believe we managed to come so close without spooking the buck,” Kristi said, grinning with excitement.

“Me neither. I didn’t even know they were there until I saw you snapping away.” I reached for another handful of raisins.

“Do you remember how many points the buck had?” Adam asked. “I thought there might have been eight or ten.”

“I think that’s about right. Kristi, why don’t you check the photos?”

“Will do, one sec.”

The camera whirred and clicked as my girlfriend flipped through the shots. When she found the picture with the best angle, she handed her camera to me.

“I see one, two, three four…eight, nine, ten…fourteen on his rack. Wow!”

“I’ll be damned. If John here had seen him during hunting season, he’d be on the wall by now,” Adam said.

Kristi powered down the camera. “All right, boys, let’s finish eating so we can go swimming.”

Half a mile from the lunch site, the songbirds returned to provide a soft chorus. Their tune soothed my mind since they were a natural advanced-warning system for nearby predators.

The gravel trail intersected with a similar path running west to east.

I checked my map and located our current position’s distance from the waterfall. We were no more than a quarter mile away. However, the place was far off any established path.

“Should we search for one, John, before we waste precious time cutting through?” Adam asked.

“My guess is if such a trail exists, it would be the shortest distance between the falls and the main gravel trail,” I replied.

After a fifteen-minute search, Kristi shouted that she’d discovered our elusive path.

“It looks a little overgrown though!” Kristi shouted.

“How bad is it? Can we still pass through without cutting anything?” I moved toward my girlfriend.

“I think so, at least around the thicker areas.”

Thick brush covered the trail’s entrance, and I wondered how Kristi had recognized it without actually entering the natural maze. I realized the forest was cut back almost fifty feet along each side. Then I noticed the small metal arrow.

“Waterfall: One Hundred Yards.”

Except for scattered pockets of thick vegetation too dense to pass through, the trail was wide enough to travel on.

The sunshine intensified as we emerged from the trail’s end.

A small, elevated spot downriver provided an adequate campsite. We marched toward the tiny hill on the small dirt trail, prepared to construct camp exactly as we had the previous evening.

Firewood was easy to collect as the forest provided numerous dead branches knocked down during Sunday night’s thunderstorm.

Adam and I stacked the fuel beside the fire pit and waited for our lovers to finish changing in their respective tents.

When they finally exited, I froze, unable to speak or move. I could not believe how gorgeous Kristi looked in her bright orange swimsuit. Her skin was naturally tanned from head to toe.

“Your turn, boys. See you both in the water.” Kristi giggled and waved as she headed for the water’s edge.

Taylor and Kristi picked their way down the rocky hillside, careful to not gouge their soft, bare feet on any sharp stones.

They had made it halfway down before I was released from the magical spell Kristi had unconsciously cast.

The sandals I had stowed in my backpack at the last minute actually came in handy as I made my way down the hill. I watched Kristi and Taylor swimming below the waterfall with their long hair flowing behind them in large, matted strands.

A casual smile illuminated my usually serious face. This was one of my first real experiences of amusement since I had graduated from high school.

I met up with Adam at the bottom. He challenged me to a race, first thing.

I swam back and forth, my bones chilling a little more with each relay across the small pool and my arms sore from pulling swift strokes to beat Adam. He won the majority of the races because I was a lousy swimmer, but when I defeated him, I felt even proud of the minor accomplishment.

“John, Adam, can you come over and talk?” Kristi asked.

“Sure, we’ll be right there,” I replied.

Three boulders formed a circle along the south shore. Kristi sat alone on the one farthest from shore. Taylor and Adam occupied the one closest to our temporary campsite.

“There’s something important we must discuss with you two,” Taylor said. “As everyone is aware, we announced our engagement in August. But Adam and I never made public the wedding date because we had to discuss it first. We’ve chosen next May, the Saturday before Memorial Day weekend. I was wondering if you would like to stand up for us?”

I was utterly shocked by my best friend’s request.

Kristi approached Taylor and hugged her. “Absolutely, I will. Congratulations.” Kristi struggled to hold back tears.

“I’m in, Adam. Point me in the direction of the suit, and I’m there,” I replied.

My friends grinned, but their smiles quickly faded when Adam cleared his throat.

“We’d been meaning to tell you sooner, but after our honeymoon, we’re moving to Silicon Valley on a permanent basis,” Adam said.

“We’re truly sorry to break the news like this, but we figured better now than at the altar.” Taylor shrugged.

Kristi stared at Taylor, clearly dumbfounded by the revelation, and her eyes welled with tears. “What? Why? Did you lose your jobs in Salt Lake?”

“No, we chose to team up with a start-up in San Jose developing new features for cryptocurrency. The product will soon be available open source,” Taylor said.

“Okay, but what will we do without you two? You’re our best friends.”

“I know, honey, but you have John now.” Taylor comforted Kristi in her wet arms. “He’s a good man to have.”

The girls embraced until Kristi ceased sobbing uncontrollably.

“How did you know?” Kristi asked. “We never told anyone.”

“I noticed the stars aligned between you two.”

“Can you promise us you’ll visit sometime and video chat once a week or so?”

“We will. I promise,” Taylor said.

My eyes remained dry despite the persistent waterfall spray. How had I managed to overlook the clues Taylor and Adam had left hidden in plain view? They had talked about cryptocurrency and Silicon Valley every time our conversations had a small gap. I should have known why Taylor and Adam had chosen to come here, where no one except us would hear their secrets. What else was left to throw Kristi and me completely off balance?

21

THE MEN’S HIKING boots were quickly covered in thin-layered mud from the mushy forest floor, and water intermittently dropped from the pine and spruce needles. On occasion, they struck Dan and Nick as though tapping their shoulders to question them.

“Are you sure Snow Wolf went north?” Dan asked. “I haven’t spotted any of his tracks since we started.”

“Positive. Even if he decides to not join another pack, the floodplains farther north offer plenty of game,” Nick replied.

“Okay, but do we know that for sure? The storm has erased all of Snow Wolf’s paw prints. For all we know, he might have traveled in a different direction.”

“Well, that’s just a chance we’ll have to take. If we come up empty, we can always radio for a helicopter to extract us.”

Seven miles separated the men from their Sunday-night campsite. This was an incredible feat considering the distance had only taken them five hours to complete.

Dan and Nick halted their swift advance north when they discovered large, smooth stones adjacent the creek. It was a perfect spot to consume their lunch.

The noon meal consisted of peanut-butter sandwiches, candy bars, dried fruit, and trail mix, just in case.

At first, neither Dan nor Nick spoke a word, too concerned with finishing their meals to resume the fast trek downstream.

Dan downed an entire canteen of potable water, refilled the metal container, and dropped an iodine tablet inside before depositing the canteen in his backpack’s right side pocket.

“Do you make a good living?” Nick sipped his purified water. “Flying around the world on exotic hunts and right here in America?”

“Yes, I guess you could say that. I can’t complain. Make good money selling video footage and written accounts of my adventures. I’m no millionaire, but I get by. Why?” Dan asked.

“No reason, I just want to know more about you,” Nick replied.

“Like what?” Dan packed away his plastic trash.

“Oh, your family and relatives and stuff. Seems to me the only family you have are your two hunting buddies and your girlfriend.”

Dan was taken aback by the deeply personal question. “That’s because I have no parents.” Dan sighed. “They died when their plane struck a mountain over in Africa because the peak was obscured by dense fog. I might have relatives in Nevada, but I’ve never met them.”

Nick covered his opened mouth. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“It’s all right. It was years ago. I’ve gotten over their death.” Dan inhaled deeply to calm himself.

“I didn’t mean to bring up such an emotional topic.”

“No, no, it’s not a problem. You didn’t know anyway.”

“Would you feel better if I told you about mine?” Nick asked.

“Go right ahead,” Dan said.

Nick situated the half-eaten candy bar on the smooth stone to his right and drank a mouthful of water from the canteen. “Well, I grew up in Buffalo, New York. My parents were both entrepreneurs. My father owned a machine shop, my mother a bakery. I have a younger brother working on Wall Street as a financial analyst. No idea what my relatives are up to, haven’t seen them since I was ten years old, though they reside in Ohio.”

“You said you’re married, right?” Dan asked.

“That is correct. I met my wife down in Denver back in 2005 while attending a conference.” The game warden sighed and smiled, lost in the memory. “We married two years later, back east, so our parents could attend the wedding. Our daughter is four now, so she’ll be starting kindergarten next fall. My wife stays home to care for her, but she plans on attending college to become a wildlife biologist.”

Dan finished the last portion of dried fruit in his hand. He sealed the plastic bag as Nick explained his background.

“And here I thought you were a bachelor without a care in the world. Come on. We better move along.” The career hunter stood and grabbed his heavy backpack.

An eerie sensation dominated the expedition two miles north of their lunch spot. Neither Dan nor Nick understood where the ghostly source originated.

The career hunter wondered if maybe he was sensing another human lurking nearby. When he glanced toward the clear blue sky, he noticed a group of turkey vultures flying in tight circles about one hundred yards farther north. Dan suspected another grim scene similar to how he discovered The Pup.

Dan and Nick sprinted toward the suspected carcass. Their camouflage backpacks bounced against their sore spines with each footfall.

Dozens of crows crowded the remains to the point that the men didn’t recognize the lifeless creature.

Nick clapped his hands to frighten the black birds until they were nothing but persistent squawks overhead.

The dead animal was almost gone; only the bones and legs had been left alone.

“I sure hope this isn’t Snow Wolf.” Dan dropped to one knee. “I can’t even identify the species.”

“Looks like a coyote, Canis latran. His paws are canine all right.” Nick examined the footpads. “They’re too small to be a gray wolf.”

“But why would anyone want to go through the trouble of coming out here and then leave their claimed animal behind?”

“I’m not quite sure, but I know this is not a coincidence since we found The Pup the same way. Looks like we might be on a manhunt as well.”

“I think we are. Look.” Dan pointed directly behind Nick.

Imprinted in dried mud, a series of boot impressions led away from the devoured carcass. From the little knowledge they could gather, they knew the individual who had created them was tall, heavyset, maybe muscular, and most likely a man.

“How about that?” Nick turned around. “The footprints were hidden in plain sight. I better call it in. Let somebody know we’re also searching for a poacher.”

The discovered human trail led them eastward, around a pair of steep hills covered with infinite spots to conceal a campsite. Several logs crisscrossed to form an impassable weave on the slopes. Thick brush grew throughout the elevated section of forest.

Dan and Nick continued through the lower areas where the vegetation was thin enough to move without difficulty. They stopped to refresh themselves with purified water and handfuls of trail mix.

Footsteps sounded, though the men were motionless. Their human quarry sounded as though he was only a few yards farther along the unofficial trail.

Dan and Nick removed their camouflage backpacks and quietly deposited magazines into their pistols before moving forward close to the forest floor.

As predicted, the suspected poacher was a tall, strong man. He appeared to be collecting firewood through the thick brush hiding the game warden and career hunter.

Nick pointed. “Let’s get closer.”

“Okay, I’ll take the right flank,” Dan whispered.

The men rose to their feet five yards from the suspected poacher.

“Stay exactly where you are. Don’t move.” Nick held his gun steady, aiming at center chest.

“Who are you?” The suspected poacher raised his hands.

“Do you know who shot a wolf two days ago and a coyote yesterday without removing them?”

“No, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“Then what are you doing out here?” Nick asked.

“Enjoying the fall season, just like any sensible hiker might this time of year,” the man replied.

“Where’s your survival gear? Surely you’re not living out here permanently.”

“And what if I am? I don’t bother anyone.”

“Well, you’re on government property.” Nick lowered his 9 mm. “You can camp here temporarily but not live here. Besides, why would you want to live way out here anyway?”

The man dropped his hands. “Because I don’t care for civilization. I’m tired of the rat race you call home sweet home.”

“The rat race you call home sweet home.”

Dan was puzzled by the comment. He considered a practical answer might have been that the suspected poacher believed the world was unfair to him.

But unfair by whose definition?

“Then why didn’t you move to Alaska?” Nick asked. “You can do that up there.”

“Too cold and dark for most of the year. I’d rather live somewhere where there are four equal seasons,” the man replied.

“Okay, okay, that’s fine, but you’re gonna have to come with us,” Nick said.

“You’re arresting me?” he asked.

“Yes. Let’s go grab your things and move out.”

One hundred yards northeast of the encounter location, a crude cabin stood surrounded by five acres of cleared land. Pumpkins and corn grew side by side in the western parcel. A scarecrow with an old straw hat and soiled clothing stood among the fall crops.

An arrangement of wood fencing behind the cabin fenced in six goats eating harvested hay. The man disappeared inside the cabin alone.

“And satellites never found this place? They must be too busy spying on more important land.” Dan touched one goat’s head.

“I guess not. Nobody would expect such an establishment miles inside Wolf Mountain.” Nick rested his arms on the wooden enclosure.

“This homestead looks as though it’s from the 1700s. Maybe the park rangers can use this as a tourist destination.”

“That would be nice. Sure hate having to run off this guy for minding his own business.”

The anonymous gentleman carried a small fabric seed bag. He leaned against the fence post adjacent to the log cabin’s rear wall, ready to leave the majority of his possessions behind forever.

“Well, I’m waiting on you two,” the man said.

“What is your name, sir? We forgot to ask when we all met back there.” Nick headed toward the cabin.

“Rick, Rick Skaggs.”

“How old are you?”

“Sixty-four,” Rick replied.

“And you’ve been here how long?” Nick asked.

“Three years, almost four.”

“That long? What did you do before coming out here by yourself?”

“I was a farmer. My loan defaulted back in 2007, which forced me to file for bankruptcy,” Rick said. “I took up some odd jobs over in Wrangler until I saved enough to buy what I needed to live here.”

“I see. That’s very interesting.” Nick rubbed his jaw and tilted his head to one side. “I tell you what. I have an idea. Since you appear to be minding your own business, you can stay if you can tell us who shot the wolf and the coyote.”

Rick squinted and avoided Dan’s and Nick’s glances.

The career hunter knew their suspected poacher was hiding important information from them.

“All right, I’ll tell you. It was me. I only killed them so they would stop preying on my livestock,” Rick said.

“Thank you, Rick. Can you do me a favor?” Nick leaned against the fence rail.

“What’s that?”

“May Dan and I stay here overnight? We’ll be gone by tomorrow morning.”

“Sure. Got any food to contribute?”

The warm afternoon transformed into a hot, humid evening. The air smelled of goat manure and the three men’s supper—home-canned peas, goat burgers, and fresh corn bread. Dan and Nick had provided the appetizer with their dried fruit and trail mix.

Dan noticed a tall stallion along the forest’s edge. The lone horse galloped toward the log cabin to join the previously fed goats.

“What’s that thing doing by itself?” Dan pointed at the running animal.

“Oh, Pete? He was grazing in the meadow south of here,” Rick said.

“And Pete comes back without you fetching him?”

“That’s right. Good horse he is. Too bad my mare died a year ago. Don’t know what I’ll do once he passes on.”

Inside the cabin, a large handmade table occupied the center of the room, and there was a bunk bed along the wall opposite the horse and goats. An inactive woodstove stood beside the bed, and mounted cabinets were hung near the doorway, for cooking utensils and dishes.

The items that caught Dan’s and Nick’s attention were the recurve bow and rimfire rifle stashed in a back corner. Arrows were stored in a fabric quiver standing nearby, and the ammunition was stored inside an old locked box.

“Do you hunt much, Rick?” Dan examined the weapons.

“No, not unless I have to, why?” Rick asked.

“Until we found you earlier, we were looking for a white wolf named Snow Wolf. His pack is now extinct, so our goal is to haul him back to where he lived before. I thought maybe you might have seen him around.”

“No, can’t say I have. I did notice a wolf like that with the one I shot two days ago.”

“Then you have seen Snow Wolf?” Dan asked.

“Guess I did. What do you want to know?” Rick deposited three porcelain plates on the wooden table.

“Which direction did he go?”

“North, just as you two were headed, I suspect.”

“That’s good to hear.” Dan helped set the table. “Is there anything else you can tell us?”

22

THE GROUND BETWEEN Snow Wolf and the humans was composed of smooth rock. One step at a time, the white wolf drew toward the four unsuspecting bipeds.

Snow Wolf looked toward the clear blue sky and produced a weak yip, hopeful the attempt managed to secure human concentration on him.

No luck, the single person who managed to comprehend the subtle sound failed to gaze directly behind him.

Once more, Snow Wolf yipped. Three more loud bursts, and success was achieved.

The four people stood from their seated positions around the warm campfire. They gazed at the white wolf, though their eyes never locked.

Snow Wolf immediately dropped on the stone-covered terrain and began rolling on his back, a sign meant to show how harmless he actually was.

The person who’d originally had his back to Snow Wolf apparently thought otherwise. He attached a bowie knife to a thick wooden shaft.

A second individual wielded a wood shaft also, but no sharp point had been fastened to the end.

Two others stood behind the crimson flames, clearly frightened of his close presence.

Both armed humans descended the hillside toward Snow Wolf.

The canine stood and watched their forward movements, desperately wagging his tail to convey his friendly, peaceful intent.

Ten yards separated Snow Wolf from the weapon-wielding humans when they stopped. The canine’s body was frozen with intense fear. He was scared the sharp spear might soon taste warm blood.

What have I done? This isn’t what I wanted at all! Why didn’t I just bypass this curious experience once I knew they were humans and not competitive canines?

The spear wielder began to speak in a slow, stern voice.

Snow Wolf perceived the expression as an act of preparation for the looming battle.

Again, the spearman called out.

Snow Wolf realized the communicated message was directed at the people uphill beside the fire, not him.

Their actions revealed the true nature of the request. They were planning to gift Snow Wolf with a cooked trout.

The spearman broke his statue-like stance by throwing the trout.

The white wolf took a single step back to avoid being struck. He watched as the foodstuffs gently slapped the rocky ground. He examined it for toxic substances but only discovered smoke and fire besides the main tasty fish smell. Without a single glance at the armed humans, Snow Wolf devoured his provided meal.

The wolf left the tiny fish bones untouched, and the spearman handed his weapon off to his friend and extended his hand, his fingers pointing outward as if an advanced-warning system.

Snow Wolf and the spearman locked eyes, both individuals understanding at once the other’s intentions.

The white wolf relaxed as the human hand stroked his soft fur, grateful his mission had been a complete success.

I can’t believe it. Imagine a wild animal approaching humans as though it were their household pet. What shall I do now? Hang around their campsite? Should I continue northward?

The continued touches of the spearman helped soothe his anxious mind.

The other three gathered around Snow Wolf and the spearman, exchanging turns to pet his pure-white fur, but a long-haired human touched the nylon band strapped around Snow Wolf’s neck.

The white wolf had forgotten about this foreign object over the past few days, too occupied with thoughts of preservation and escaping sudden death.

Despite the distance separating Snow Wolf and the campfire, the crimson flames danced into his eyes.

The four humans ceased their comforting company with the Canis lupus. They called for Snow Wolf to follow, but the anxious feelings almost overwhelmed him into submission.

Step by slow step, the canine ascended the hillside.

All five individuals sat around the rock-lined circumference, conversations of the humans rising and falling just like the flames before them.

Snow Wolf sat nearby and glanced at John, the spearman, and continued to learn more about this new group as he watched their interactions.

Taylor remained dominant with words throughout the warm night. The third person, Kristi, also continued a consistent chatter with everyone, especially Taylor. Adam, off to Snow Wolf’s far left, remained silent more than the others. Regardless, everything they said was of importance to Snow Wolf, because for the first time in four days, he felt comforted by another’s close presence.

I never realized humans besides zookeepers were friendly toward wolves like myself. I figured most people were too fearful to comprehend how similar humans and gray wolves actually are.

The lone wolf soon found himself alone by the fire as he drifted back from his thoughts. Snow Wolf placed his head down on his front paws, and boredom immediately filled the void.

···

Adam stepped onto shore. “When did you and Kristi decide to hook up?”

“Officially? Just last night, but it’s been slowly building, especially over the past three days.” I waded toward dry land.

“She’s a good girl for you, John. Always there to watch your back.”

“I know.”

“Ready for some river fishing?” Adam asked. “You pick the spot.”

The river’s current was fairly slow, though quick enough to remain crystal clear. Despite having spent so much time in the state park with my family, today was my first time here. For all I knew, this particular body of water held no fish.

Ten yards upriver, Adam continued to cast constantly and discovered trout were biting, but the aquatic creatures resisted all attempts to reel them in.

Adam and I lost the hooked fish numerous times because the fish stole the plastic bait before disappearing. Gradually, we managed to capture four at the loss of more than a dozen.

White rice, baked beans, and handmade biscuits made from our limited flour supply were waiting by the time Adam and I joined the girls and began filleting the trout.

The main topic of conversation during the meal was where on earth should our expedition take us tomorrow.

I suggested exploring the floodplains before we returned to the waterfall.

“I think we should stay here and enjoy the waterfall,” Taylor said.

“I don’t want to stay here all day, but I don’t mind coming back tomorrow afternoon,” Adam replied.

“I’m with Taylor, though. I’d prefer we made our way toward the top of the waterfall.” Kristi pointed toward a path that seemed to lead to the top.

“Then that settles it.” I stood up. “We break this tie once and for all. Anybody have a coin?”

“Nope,” Adam replied.

“Girls?”

“Not me, I don’t carry cash or coins,” Kristi said.

Taylor sprinkled salt on her trout fillet. “I have some in my purse back at the campground.”

“All right, then my girlfriend and I will play rock, paper, scissors. Two out of three wins.” I set down my mess kit, and I faced Kristi for the inevitable match.

I was not sure why I felt the quick challenge was necessary—to prove I was capable of handling problems as a confident leader should, maybe. I was perfectly fine with either option.

“Ready?” I winked at Kristi. “Rock, paper, scissors.”

Kristi chose scissors, and I embraced rock. One point for the floodplains. We shook hands for round two. My girlfriend selected scissors for the win, since I chose paper.

“Here goes,” I said.

I chose rock for the third round, Kristi maintained scissors, and the competition was final. Tuesday’s destination was the floodplains. The only decision left untouched revolved around whether or not to leave the tents behind unattended.

“What do you guys think? Should we lea—”

A strange, hushed noise pulled my direct attention away from the issue at hand.

I kept silent in case the source revealed itself.

“Something wrong, John?” Kristi asked.

“I’m not sure. I swear I just heard a dog whimper.” I scanned the vicinity for the sound’s origins.

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Nah, I must be dreaming.”

Three short yips pierced the rocky riverside landscape directly behind me.

My best friends stood and gazed downhill at a white dog less than thirty yards away.

I was awestruck and frightened and intuitively grabbed one of the wooden shafts used to keep the pans above the crimson flames. I quickly tied my bowie knife on one end to produce a crude spear.

Adam took possession of the second shaft before we both descended to face the canine.

“Be careful, guys. I don’t want anyone hurt.” Kristi held Taylor as they placed the campfire between them and the lone wolf.

“We’re fine, really, dear,” I yelled without turning around.

The white wolf stood as we approached, well aware of the handcrafted weapons in our grasp. He wagged his tail several times as if to communicate that we shouldn’t move any closer.

Or is his true intention to signal a call of friendly welcome?

The current situation was foreign to Adam and me. I figured most wild canines, especially wolves, were afraid of humans.

Why the exception on this strange, rare occasion?

Attached around the white wolf’s neck was some type of human-made contraption, a black nylon band with a small plastic box. The peculiar object was a radio-frequency device, similar to those used by the Fish & Game Department. Only tamed canines carried them, and my fears subsided with this realization.

“Kristi, Taylor, bring down a cooked trout please!” I shouted.

The girls snapped out of their frightened states, and Kristi gathered the leftover fillet, slowly stepping down the hillside. She halted directly behind me.

I felt the greasy trout being placed in my right hand.

My girlfriend quickly ran back toward the campfire to rejoin Taylor.

“Want me to throw it?” I asked Adam.

“Sure, you’ve got a better arm anyway,” he replied.

I projected the fish in a perfect parabola, more horizontal than vertical.

The fish nearly smacked the wolf on its nose, even after it stepped away to avoid direct impact.

He curiously sniffed the foodstuff before devouring the cooked trout.

“Here, hold this for me.” I handed my crude spear to Adam.

He grabbed my right arm. “John, wait.”

“I’ll be all right. Trust me.”

One step at a time—ten yards away, nine, eight—the lone wolf watched my every footfall. He neither growled nor unveiled his razor-like teeth.

I knelt to stroke his smooth, silky fur between his lowered ears and along the spinal cord. I heard my friends gasp and mutter at the rare occurrence.

One by one, they joined me.

Did this really just happen? Am I dreaming instead? No, this is real. No one will ever believe this!

Taylor dropped to one knee and held up her smartphone, and Kristi wielded a digital camera to her immediate left.

“Say cheese!” Taylor said, quietly. “Smile.”

The sudden flash penetrated my retinas, and then a second, brighter burst further agonized them.

My friends took turns beside the calm white wolf. The more photographs we captured, the more believable our story.

Kristi was the final one to pose with the wild canine. She examined the nylon collar for clues of the wolf’s origins. “According to this, his name is Snow Wolf. He was released into Wolf Mountain in March of 2012, after being held at the Portland City Zoo. Looks like we have a domesticated wolf here.”

When I heard the word domesticated, I understood Snow Wolf’s behavior. He had grown up in urban captivity and had experience being around humans because of the zoo. When released, Snow Wolf probably became a member of some established pack inside Wolf Mountain.

Were they nearby and as friendly as he?

“John?” Kristi’s voice pulled me from my thoughts. “Do you think Snow Wolf can stay with us until he rejoins his pack?”

My immediate answer was no. Our food supply was inadequate to feed a Canis lupus along with ourselves. Then I realized Snow Wolf could stand guard overnight in case hungry predators came investigating easy nourishment. This sudden adoption seemed more beneficial than I’d expected.

“All right, he can stay. But from now on, Snow Wolf finds his own food,” I finally answered.

23

SNOW WOLF SURE is a strange wild animal, isn’t he?” Kristi stared into my brown eyes.

“Yeah, but he is partially tame. The collar did say he came from a zoo.”

“That may be so, but I sense Snow Wolf is hiding something.”

“Snow Wolf is hiding something.”

I shifted to rest on my back and pondered what Kristi might have meant. Was my girlfriend implying the white wolf had abandoned his pack?

“It’s possible. I mean, when animals are released back into the wild, they tend to gather in multiples rather than a single individual,” I said.

“Then where are his friends?” Kristi rolled on her stomach to face toward me. “Surely he’s not a loner?”

“Well, it is wolf season here. Maybe Snow Wolf lost his pack to hunters, and he’s just trying to find someone trustworthy.”

“I hope that’s not the case, though I don’t mind having a guard dog for a change.” Kristi placed her hands on my right arm. “John, can we talk about us for a moment since that’s settled?”

I smiled. “Sure. What’s on your mind?”

My girlfriend sighed, and I knew this was about our best friends’ announcement to move to Silicon Valley.

“What will we do without Taylor and Adam?” Kristi asked. “They’ll be leaving us next year, and nothing is going to be the same anymore.”

“I know, but it’s their lives. We have to be happy for them,” I said.

“Yes, that’s true, just…why didn’t they tell us sooner?”

I allowed Kristi to fall into my arms. She began to sob, despite her attempts to keep quiet.

My dirty shirt absorbed the endless stream of tears as I tried to soothe my girlfriend. “Sh, it’s all right. At least we have each other.”

“Yeah, but our group is falling apart.” Kristi continued crying.

“No, it won’t. We can always make more friends. Besides, they promised to stay in touch.”

Kristi pulled back and looked at me. “Like who? I haven’t made any real friends since I met you.” She wiped the tears remaining on her lashes.

“Well, how about we join a club together?” I asked, touching her hands. “One specifically for couples like us, so nobody feels left out.”

Kristi sniffed and then drank a mouthful of potable water from her canteen. “That’s a good idea. Thanks, John. I knew you were a smart cookie.” Kristi giggled.

My girlfriend crossed her legs and leaned close, planting a warm kiss on my lips. I felt my heartbeat quicken, bringing a growing warmth with it.

Kristi resettled in her sleeping bag and dozed off.

···

The campfire smoldered, and the distant stars and nearby moon faded as dawn arrived.

Snow Wolf stretched his stiff legs and yawned, and his stomach growled for nourishment. He was the first awake this calm, warm morning.

To occupy his newfound boredom, Snow Wolf slipped away from the campsite and reentered the dense conifer forest, eager to catch some small game for his personal satisfaction.

Snow Wolf’s keen eyes quickly adjusted to the dim light. He walked through the thick brush at a slow pace. Every few steps, the lone wolf stopped to listen for subtle sounds.

One hundred yards south of the young adult’s makeshift residence, a quail was devouring dispersed seeds.

Snow Wolf sensed the upland bird long before he recognized the avian creature.

He swiftly stepped forward to claim the prey animal. The cost, however, was Snow Wolf’s surprise attack had been compromised.

The quail produced a sharp-pitched chirp, alerting the area.

Dispersed, ruffled feathers and cleaned bones laid at Snow Wolf’s feet, but his tongue was dry at the mere thought of how far he might travel to locate a second meal after the bird’s warning cleared the forest of any additional prey. He knew he had two choices available: move farther into the forest and away from his new friends, or return to camp and catch trout.

Snow Wolf recalled the forest landscape along the earthen trail was overgrown with thick brush. He figured the specific location might provide the small game required to fill his stomach.

Before Snow Wolf crossed the seldom-used trail, five rabbits hopped toward the riverbank on the narrow path. He chased them until he caught the smallest herbivore far behind the others.

The captured rabbit screamed as Snow Wolf drained it through puncture wounds in its neck. The warm red blood pooled on the forest floor and stained Snow Wolf’s pure-white fur.

He swiftly finished the rabbit carcass of all edible portions and hurried back toward the safety of the humans’ campsite.

···

A sudden movement pulled me from deep sleep. I figured it was most likely Snow Wolf growing impatient after an entire night outside by himself.

I glanced at Kristi, who was sound asleep, and eased quietly toward the door. After the upset over Taylor and Adam moving, she needed all the rest she could get.

The white Canis lupus stood beside the fire pit as though a stone statue. A swirl of smoke attempted to antagonize the wild canine, but he made no attempt to avoid it.

I sat down to tighten my bootlaces, and Snow Wolf ran toward me, his tongue hanging out, and seemed to smile in greeting.

I took the sheathed hand ax with both hands, ready to enter the dense forest to collect the necessary wood to stoke the fire.

The white wolf trailed me several yards away.

When I returned, Kristi and Taylor were preparing breakfast.

I deposited the split wood, gathered numerous handfuls of dead leaves from along the forest’s edge, and rebuilt a fire on the old embers that were still popping. Tall crimson flames ignited easily.

Everyone ate breakfast in silence, with Snow Wolf’s curious actions enough to keep us all entertained.

The steaming powdered eggs in our mess kits intrigued the wild canine.

I tossed a small piece on the ground at his feet.

Snow Wolf tasted the warm yellow lump and promptly spat it out.

Everyone laughed, amused by the white wolf’s picky refusal of processed food.

The unfolded topographic map in my hands displayed a trail that led directly toward the floodplains. Our first task, however, was to blaze a new one through the dense forest in order to reach the main gravel road.

We followed the general pathway created Monday afternoon, constantly veering east and west to maneuver past brush too thick to crash through.

Once the gravel trail had been reached, I reexamined the map to estimate the rest of the trip.

“John, how far is the bridge from here?”

I used the map’s scale to calculate the distance. “About three-quarters of a mile, why?” I asked.

“Just wondered.” My girlfriend watched Snow Wolf wag his white tail. “Say, what do you think about stopping for the night somewhere between the bridge and the floodplains? Taylor and I thought that maybe this way, we can still cool off without rushing back to the waterfall.”

“Adam? What do you think about this change in plans?” I asked.

“Fine with me. No need to waste precious time forcing our way through that tangled mess,” Adam replied.

“Okay, that settles it. We’ll camp farther upriver instead,” I said.

The gravel trail led us straight southeast for half a mile until a sharp left turn northeast turned us toward the bridge.

I felt the sweat form on my face and chest and reached for my canteen.

Kristi took my hand in hers after the quick swipe to cool my face and neck, and we interlocked hands, unafraid to show the world our gradually increasing bond.

···

Snow Wolf was overwhelmed by boredom while the young adults stood around investigating a thin paper with curved lines on it, lost in conversation. He reentered the forest to start the search for a third victim.

I wonder where those rabbits escaped to. Surely, they do not behave like elk and mule deer and run miles away. They must be close at hand somewhere just beyond my grasp.

He followed a northeasterly course mere yards from the overgrown earthen trail on his left.

The human friends disappeared behind the dense brush, and Snow Wolf was alone once more.

Fifty yards from the campsite, the cottontails made no effort to conceal themselves as they browsed the minimal vegetation available.

Snow Wolf crawled forward to remain unnoticed until the optimum moment to strike. Less than ten yards from the nearest herbivore, he rushed the unaware rabbit. Snow Wolf sank his sharp fangs into its flesh. Without hesitation, Snow Wolf consumed the unlucky cottontail. He knew the young adults were moving farther away, with or without him.

···

The bridge spanning the river was composed of steel supports and a wood-planked roadbed. Unlike the previous structure my friends and I had crossed on Sunday morning, there was a brass plaque near the center of the span informing us the Army Corps of Engineers had built the bridge in 1937 and refurbished it in 1983.

The swift current was almost twenty feet below our feet.

I heard the waterfall even though it was over a quarter mile northwest. I motioned for Kristi to snap a photograph of us together in the middle of the bridge, our hands still linked together.

We reached the north shore just as Snow Wolf howled his arrival on the south side.

Even from the considerable distance, I noticed the red stains on his neck and face. The source most likely came from an unfortunate rabbit or pheasant whose final scream of life I never heard.

He ran toward us, his tail wagging profusely.

We continued southeast toward the floodplains as a reunited group.

24

THE CRIMSON FLAMES slowly died as the split wood was consumed.

The three men took their seats around the handcrafted table inside the small log cabin, an aroma of corn bread, goat meat, and peas continuing to engulf their senses.

Dan checked the time. Less than two hours before sunset.

“After you last saw Snow Wolf on Sunday, did you find any wolf tracks near your property?” Nick served himself a portion of peas.

“Hmm, I believe I might have found some when I shot that coyote yesterday. Whether they were his, I don’t know.” Rick ate a slice of corn bread.

“I have proof that Snow Wolf may have passed by your homestead here. There are no other wolf packs within Wolf Mountain.” Nick set the partially eaten corn bread on his plate and reached for one of the goat burgers placed on the table’s center.

“Two months ago, I spotted a pack of eight about five miles east of here. The group you’re talking about only has four members,” Rick said.

Nick nodded. “They most likely came in search for food. This year has been a drought to remember.”

“Maybe, but I think they were here to stay. I listened to their calls all night. The howls originated beyond the woods’ edge, somewhere east of here.” Rick grabbed another corn-bread slice.

“All right, even if it wasn’t Snow Wolf, you said earlier that you had spotted him moving north at a quick pace,” Nick said.

“That’s correct,” Rick replied.

“Do you think Snow Wolf continued north, just west of here, exactly where you shot the coyote?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s settled. Dan and I will move north once dawn arrives.” Nick set down his fork. “Would it be all right if we sleep inside the cabin tonight to avoiding wasting time with our tents?”

“Sure, I can sleep on the floor, or outside, if you want to take the bunk beds,” Rick said.

“No, no, you keep your original bed. I don’t need you straining your back on our account.”

“It’s all right with me. How do you think I survived while this place was under construction?”

Darkness descended on the remote homestead as the three men finished washing dishes. A full moon broadcasted dim light on the pitch-black environment. Thousands if not millions of distant stars appeared to twinkle as the photons struck the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Dan stared at the log cabin’s ceiling, unable to sleep. The thought of Alyssa worrying about his well-being had his head spinning.

He examined the dark room for casual stirs from Rick or the game warden, but there were none. They were sound asleep. He adjusted the brightness setting on his smartphone so the screen barely illuminated his bunk. One bar of cell reception was all Dan could obtain inside the hand-built structure.

He stepped as quietly as possible on the noisy floorboards toward the crude door with its handmade lock. His heart thumped faster until he closed the door behind him.

Outside, Dan discovered his half-dead smartphone could muster three bars, but only after he’d moved thirty yards away from the log cabin and halfway into the northern parcel of open ground. He checked the in-box for messages from Alyssa, but there were none.

Hi, honey. How are you?

He impatiently paced back and forth, waiting for his girlfriend’s reply. Dan feared Alyssa was somewhere downtown where silent mode was mandatory.

Several minutes passed before a notification displayed, and he touched the pop-up to examine it.

Fine, just reading a book at the coffee shop alone. Is everything okay with you?

Yes. We met an old man today who told us he shot Snow Wolf’s son.

You found the poacher? Is he in Nick’s custody?

Not exactly. We kind of gave the guy a warning this time.

Okay. How much closer are you to finding Snow Wolf?

“How much closer are you to finding Snow Wolf?” Dan wondered if the white wolf’s capture was even measurable. However, Dan understood what Alyssa meant deep down.

Couple days, maybe. Probably no more than four.

Good. I miss you, darling. Please hurry.

I will. I better get back to bed in case Nick finds me missing.

But it’s only seven thirty where you are. You must be tired.

Well, we’re getting up really early. Good night, Alyssa. Sweet dreams.

Good night. Stay safe out there.

Tuesday morning arrived sooner than Dan and Nick expected. Their phone-derived alarm clocks sounded in unison to create a destructive annoyance. All three men rose from their beds to start their intended tasks.

“What would you two like me to make?” Rick folded the wrinkled blankets.

“How about some scrambled eggs and more of that delicious corn bread,” Dan replied.

“Sounds good. I’ll yell once it’s ready.”

The horse and goats behind the log cabin chewed their cud in separate cycles. Dan forked half a dozen small piles of dry hay for them.

Nick, meanwhile, endured the dirty job of removing their brown waste to spread it around the south parcel.

Intermittent sounds of pigs were heard coming in from the east. Several stood along the forest’s edge, patiently waiting for someone to come along and provide them grain.

“Dan! Nick! Breakfast!” Rick called out.

“Where do we wash up?” Dan asked the game warden.

“I don’t know,” Nick replied. “Why don’t we go inside and ask?”

They walked around the cabin to reenter the wooden structure. Rick had deposited a large porcelain bowl filled with scrambled eggs and steaming pork sausages on a plate beside them.

“Where do we wash up?” Dan asked.

“Down at the creek,” Rick replied.

“Do you have any water here?”

“Except for drinking, no. Unless you want to stick your hands in the rain barrel as I usually do.”

“Got a bar of soap?” Nick asked.

“Sure. You’ll find it wrapped in plastic on the lid.” Rick pointed behind them.

The camouflage backpacks and firearms persisted to slow Dan and Nick’s pace. They returned west toward the coyote carcass to resume their trek north. Songbirds refused to produce a melody despite acknowledging their presence to the two men. They were busy with important tasks.

When the men had finished their breakfast, they’d left Rick to wash the dishes by himself. The old man offered to provide them an extraearly start in addition to setting out one hour ahead of their originally intended plan. Dan and Nick understood they would need to cover territory twice as fast in comparison with Monday’s journey.

“What’s gonna happen to that old man?” Dan asked. “Someday, another game warden or a park ranger will find his illegal operation and run him off.”

“I don’t know.” Nick stopped to face Dan. “How about we make a promise. We say nothing about Rick and his homestead. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Good, now let’s focus on finding Snow Wolf.”

By midmorning, the warm air had increased to the point that Dan and Nick were soaked in sweat. The men used their last drops of potable water to cool themselves. They didn’t want to halt their swift pace, even to satisfy their tongues.

Dan checked his phone for the time and saw it was almost eleven. They had been going for almost five consistent hours of nonstop walking.

Neither man knew how many miles they’d traveled, but according to Nick’s map, a river was less than three miles away toward the north. This tactical information meant there was a good chance Snow Wolf’s cold trail would go disappear altogether.

“Why don’t…we stop…for…an hour? I need to…refill…my canteens,” Dan said as he gasped for air.

“Fine, but I don’t feel tired yet.” Nick carefully dropped his backpack to lean beside a rock. “By the way, I know you were outside the cabin last night, texting your girlfriend.”

Dan exhaled with a hard blow, his breathing finally returning to normal. “So? I thought I’d be nice and let her know how I am.”

“Well, you don’t have to get angry with me. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I never said you did,” Dan said.

“Then why are you so mad? Did something happen I don’t know about?” Nick collected his two empty canteens. “Look, if you’re having problems with Alyssa, I don’t wanna hear about it.”

“Nothing happened. I’m just antsy to finish this so I can go visit her.” Dan gathered his canteens, too.

“Aha!” Nick pointed at Dan. “You are procrastinating.”

“No, I’m not.”

“And why are you here instead of Seattle?” Nick asked.

“Because I am afraid she might say no,” Dan blurted and then blinked as though he’d been smacked.

Slack-jawed, Nick took a step backward, nearly dropping his canteens. “Wait, you’re avoiding Alyssa because you want to marry her?”

Dan stood frozen. “Yes, but I haven’t found the time to go shopping for an engagement ring.”

“You know women nowadays actually want you to wait until after you propose.”

“According to whom?”

“My wife receives some e-mail newsletter every month about relationships, and she told me that a growing number of single women prefer it if the rings are picked out after the initial engagement.”

Dan pondered the new information, and Nick turned to move toward the creek bed. A strange calm in the instantaneous discussion endured until the professional hunter commented on his discovery.

“I hope you’re right. I’ll give it a try once I help you first,” Dan said.

“That’s the spirit! Come on. Let’s go fill these.” Nick motioned for him to follow.

Sealed packets of iodine tablets rested on Dan’s backpack. They split one pack between their two refilled canteens, shaking the metal containers until considered enough to readily dissolve the iodine.

The contents of their lunch were exactly the same as the day before—peanut-butter sandwiches, trail mix, and dried fruit. However, Rick had provided them with jerky made from goat meat. The exotic flavor delighted their bored taste buds.

“You have any more of those?” Nick swallowed another piece of his jerky.

“No, this is all I’ve got.” Dan held up the meat strip.

“I can’t believe you waited all this time to tell anyone about your intentions to marry.”

Dan sighed after he downed a bite of his peanut-butter sandwich. “Because I didn’t want anyone to laugh at me.”

“And who would that be?” Nick asked.

“Um, Mike and Hank,” Dan said.

“What?” Nick laughed. “Why would your friends tease you about something so common in society?”

“Because I used to tell them I would never marry or even date.”

“So you’ve changed. What business is it of theirs?”

“I want them to stand up for me.”

“Oh, come on! Now you’re just being foolish. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“Yes, there is. They might embarrass me in front of everyone.” Dan swallowed a handful of trail mix.

“As if I wasn’t either at my wedding? Believe me. Nobody is gonna remember your every move after you say ‘I do’ anyway. Can I tell you a secret?” Nick looked at Dan and grinned. “Nobody cares. Everyone is as afraid as you are. They’re more worried about their own actions than anybody else’s.”

Dan sat silent, avoiding his lunch, as he thought about Nick’s philosophical wisdom. “Really? How do I know that’s going to be the case with my friends?

“Because we’re all human; that’s why,” Nick replied.

Flowing water was heard nearby, and the men noticed the familiar creek bed on their left moving faster than at any previous point.

Nick examined his topographic map and found their current location near where the creek intersected the river and another creek-size tributary.

The forest had thinned to mostly thick brush and dispersed golden-brown grass. A single aspen tree stood near the south edge, surrounded by pines and spruces alike. Fallen yellow leaves covered the ground inside a fifteen-yard radius. There was a gravel trail leading toward the creek-size tributary.

They followed the unused pathway toward the side stream. The men halted along the south shoreline to reexamine the map.

“I don’t see this body of water on here, but this is from 2002. So much has changed in the past ten years,” Nick said.

“I bet, somewhere near this location, Snow Wolf crossed and continued north. We can use those stepping stones over there.” Dan pointed.

“Well, the last time I checked, we still had about three hours before calling it a day. Let’s go.”

The large gray stones stuck two feet above the water’s surface. Dan led the charge across them without any hesitation.

Nick trailed far behind because of his lacking skills in balance.

The friends reached the north shore without falling. They sipped the sanitized creek water gathered hours earlier, relieved the difficult task was behind them.

Their camouflage backpacks sat adjacent to a lone weeping willow. The lower branches resisted the creek bed’s current hoping to drag them downstream.

Dan followed the shore back toward the stones while Nick moved in the opposite direction. Surely there was permanent evidence of Snow Wolf’s path somewhere along the way.

When the men returned, Dan spotted a single paw print in some dried mud. He raised his right hand to signal Nick to stop. “I think we may have something here.” Dan knelt.

Nick squatted beside him to examine the rare find. He reached inside a pocket and grabbed his digital camera. “Yup, that’s Snow Wolf all right. He must have headed toward the wooden river bridge.” Nick photographed the footprint.

“This looks fresh, no more than a day old.”

“Then he must be somewhere nearby. Let’s go find him.”

The wooden river bridge curved several feet higher than the river itself. The surface was run-down from decades of weather exposure.

Dan and Nick quickly noticed the human imprints mixed with Snow Wolf’s.

Were they a part of some twisted dream?

“Snow Wolf must be trailing some unwary hikers. We better find them before he does,” Nick said.

Snow Wolf’s paw prints ran parallel to the main gravel trail, an act considered unnatural for a Canis lupus.

Nick was correct in his observations—the white wolf was following humans who’d recently ventured through the area.

The men followed the fresh tracks two miles northwest until they disappeared altogether, minutes away from the end of Tuesday’s adventure.

“Should we continue on, Nick? I don’t see a suitable place here to set up.” Dan tightly wielded his .30-06.

“Let’s try down by the river. At least that way, we can go fishing for supper again.” Nick shouldered his dart rifle.

“Good, I’m starved.”

Two hundred yards from the river’s edge, Nick noticed a white speck west of his location. He halted and signaled Dan to crouch behind a rotten pine log.

“You see him?” Dan asked.

“I’m not sure, but I saw something white,” Nick whispered.

“I hope it’s Snow Wolf. Our luck must have changed.”

“There’s no such thing as luck.”

Sure enough, Nick had been correct.

Snow Wolf unknowingly closed the distance between them at a slow pace. The Canis lupus stopped to examine the area forty yards from the concealed men. The wolf’s ear perked, and he sniffed the air, sensing trouble was imminent.

“Can you take the shot?” Dan whispered.

“Maybe, this is only designed for shots closer than thirty yards, though,” Nick replied.

“Snow Wolf knows we’re here. Take it before he disappears.”

“All right, I’ll try.”

Nick disengaged the dart rifle’s safety switch and then peered through the scope to align the crosshairs on Snow Wolf’s neck. He squeezed the trigger slowly.

Dan watched Snow Wolf through his binoculars in case the wild canine ran off. His heartbeats quickened with each second of anticipation.

THUMP!

The dart rifle sounded an unmistakable misfire.

Snow Wolf whipped his head around to look directly at the men’s hiding spot and sprinted due west as he howled an alarm for all animals—rogue humans were on the loose.

“Darn this lousy thing!” Nick threw down the dart rifle.

“Should we give chase?” Dan asked.

“Might as well, but now we’ll never catch him.”

“Then let’s move. At least we can try before nightfall settles in.”

25

I UNPACKED MY lunch of peanut-butter sandwiches and trail mix.

Kristi unveiled the same lunch in addition to dried fruit wrapped in clear plastic. A light breeze entered our sector of Wolf Mountain State Forest, and her black hair swayed with each casual gust.

We quietly listened to the melodies of nature. The riverbed soothed our already-relaxed nerves. Songbirds chirped occasionally to perform a private concert.

The sounds were interrupted when a sharp chirp sounded in the east. I knew prior to Snow Wolf’s return he had captured an unaware bird.

The white wolf crossed the wooden bridge with a dead pheasant clamped between his sharp fangs. Snow Wolf sat down ten yards away, adjacent to the gravel trail, to eat his well-earned meal.

“You should be a travel agent, darling,” Kristi said, smiling. “This place is beautiful, John. And just think, within a couple of weeks, this entire area will be blanketed by pure-white snow. At least Snow Wolf can easily blend in for a change.”

“This is exactly why I wanted to come here. We are entirely secluded from civilization here, minus the bridges and trails. Plus, it is an excellent location for us to have some alone time.”

“You’re so inventive, John. You transform scenes like this into painted masterpieces.”

“Yeah, well, I have a good eye for excellent detail.” I tossed a handful of trail mix inside my mouth. The sweet, salty flavor excited my bored taste buds. I consumed one handful after another until Kristi pulled the plastic bag out of my grasp.

“Hey, save some for me.” Kristi giggled.

I winked. “Sure, honey, anything for you.”

We moved closer to one another until our arms touched. I wrapped my right arm around Kristi, and she did the same with her left.

Snow Wolf walked toward us with a puzzled look on his face.

I couldn’t resist teasing the wild canine. “What’s the matter, boy? Cat got your tongue?”

“It’s all right, Snow Wolf.” Kristi smiled. “We’re fine, thank you.”

The white wolf sat at our feet as a domesticated dog might when waiting for treats.

Neither Kristi nor I possessed anything worthy of a treat in our backpacks. Instead, we examined the wild canine’s silky white fur.

“John?” Kristi gazed into my brown eyes. “Would it be all right if we danced?”

“Sure, but I don’t know how,” I replied.

“It’s easy. I’ll teach you.” She tugged on my right arm, urging me to stand.

I held my arms up, ready to respond to my girlfriend’s commands.

She placed my right hand on her lower back and the left outstretched in her right. Kristi wrapped her fingers around my neck. “When we dance, we turn clockwise. You shift your left foot this way and bring your right foot with you on the next beat.” Kristi led the practice session.

“Now, when it’s time to twirl me, loosen your right hand but keep it at the ready when I return. Cool?”

“Yes, dear,” I replied.

Despite having no music, I imagined sweet ballads as we casually turned in tight circles.

Snow Wolf yipped on occasion as if to congratulate our moment.

Round and round, Kristi broke away half a dozen times to twirl before she returned to my gentle grasp.

It was a moment in time I would never forget.

My girlfriend and I crossed the wooden bridge to rejoin Taylor and Adam, with Snow Wolf following several yards away.

I felt an enormous boost of energy surging through my veins. I felt invincible, if not immortal.

Kristi matched my pace step for step, our fingers interlocked once more.

The yellow leaves of aspens reappeared in our path, and I was reminded of the photographs we had captured hours earlier. How everyone, including Snow Wolf, had been amused by the instant gratification. It was such a shame the aspen timber slowly transformed to brown skeletons.

The afternoon sun continued a descending course, and the abnormally warm air had cooled though it remained humid.

My best friends and I agreed to take a break one mile upriver from the waterfall. The girls were eager to wear their brightly colored swimsuits for a second time on this weeklong vacation.

Adam and I wielded our collapsible shovels. To cook supper after a brief cooldown in the nearby river, we knew the fire pit was required as the open ground was composed of tall, dry grass. In specific areas, the blades nearly reached my waist and were more than capable of igniting an uncontrollable wildfire.

Snow Wolf sat near the southern edge of the large clearing, looking as though he were unable to decide what action he should be completing.

I looked away to watch Kristi as she emerged from our tent. The next moment, I turned back to examine Snow Wolf, but the wild canine had disappeared. Our Canis-lupus companion must have resumed his daily struggle to survive.

The local river was colder than I had expected. Regardless, I joined my friends near the center.We stood where the surface reached our stomachs, playfully splashing one another or racing to the shore.

Once everyone was exhausted, we returned to the north riverbank to talk and enjoy our evening.

···

Snow Wolf traveled due south at a slow, consistent pace. Although his stomach was satisfied, his mind screamed. He was mentally exhausted from the constant barrage of human contact, though amused by the social excitement. He required quiet reflection to process his thoughts.

One mile south of the young adults’ campsite, the white wolf stood beside a tiny patch of thick brush, and he pondered his tense muscles and why the regained privacy was difficult to obtain.

The answer was revealed when he heard an inconsistent sound. Snow Wolf feared the dangerous humans who had killed his beloved Alpha Female, her brother, and their son days earlier were close.

Hunters!

Snow Wolf’s heart pumped faster, but his feet felt frozen in large ice blocks.

The entire forest was silent, but Snow Wolf heard alarms loudly sound inside his restless mind. The lone wolf understood the situation was dire.

An audible thump pierced the wilderness.

Snow Wolf howled a distress call to warn the young adults of the potential danger. The wild canine sprinted north as the campers’ voices grew louder.

···

In the midst of conversation, I heard a wolf howl originating from the south. I realized the distress call was our beloved Snow Wolf.

“John?” Kristi grabbed my arm. “What’s wrong? Do you think Snow Wolf is hurt?”

The fear in my girlfriend’s blue eyes paralyzed me for a second. “I don’t know, but I better find him before dark,” I replied.

“All right. You take good care of yourself. I don’t want to lose you as well,” Kristi said.

“Yes, honey, I will.” I knelt to plant a kiss on her lips.

Kristi released me. “I love you, John.”

“Adam, you protect the girls for me.”

“Sure thing, John. We’ll be fine,” Adam said.

I made a heart shape with my hands for Kristi, and she returned the gesture.

I ran toward my respective tent to exchange the soaked shorts I wore for soiled blue jeans and a T-shirt. I grabbed the sheathed bowie knife off the unrolled sleeping bag before I left the campsite.

I wielded the unsheathed knife, point down, in my right hand. I stopped numerous times to listen for Snow Wolf’s distress howls, but none were detected. The sole sound I heard was my own feet, smacking the gravel repeatedly with each footfall. I feared Snow Wolf had encountered the worst.

A quarter mile from the campsite, I slowed my swift search to a halt and stepped off the gravel trail. My heart pounded as the sweat poured down my red cheeks. I gasped and tried to catch my breath. I was prepared to surrender all resolve, to allow Snow Wolf passage beyond this chapter of his life, but once my breathing slowed, I screamed to draw the lone wolf’s attention.“SNOW WOLF! WHERE ARE YOU?” I yelled repeatedly as I moved around the general area.

The wild white canine never revealed himself, and my thinning patience further shriveled. I understood Snow Wolf was strong, but if I could just confirm he was, in fact, safe.

A new idea struck me. What if the howls had been intended for fellow gray wolves? To answer his pack’s calls? I denied factual acceptance of the developed conclusion; one piece of evidence was clear. If the distress howls were in fact communications with additional wolves, then why hadn’t I heard any variants in the tones? Surely, wolves weren’t monotone and didn’t all sound alike. The truth was my imagination was running wild with possibilities.

Who was Snow Wolf afraid of? More importantly, which direction did the lone wolf travel?

I persisted southeast, hoping to discover clues of our friendly predator’s whereabouts. I managed to recognize two paw prints, which showed Snow Wolf was headed directly north at a frantic pace. I never located a third track, even though I searched in widening circles clockwise.

Prior to dusk, I noticed a dim ray of artificial light piercing the darkened environment. I clutched the bowie knife tighter, ready to throw the sharp tool in self-defense. The thought that I would soon encounter a belligerent human increased exponentially.

I yelled to warn the anonymous threat of my close presence. “Who goes there?”

“Don’t shoot! There’s just two of us,” the man replied. “We’re coming out.”

Two men emerged from the thick brush carrying firearms and burdened with heavy backpacks. I estimated they were in their late thirties or early forties. The men appeared to be wolf hunters.

“Who are you?” the same man asked. “What business do you have here with only a knife and the clothes on your back?”

He shut off his flashlight, and I placed the bowie knife in the sheath attached to my hip.

I explained my dilemma, finding Snow Wolf, and how my friends were waiting back at the campsite. Even through pitch darkness, I watched their eyes widen when I told them Snow Wolf had joined my friends and me on Tuesday’s hike.

“What color was his fur?” The taller man shook hands with me. “The name’s Nick, Nick Scott. I’m the game warden around here.”

“Dan Moore,” the shorter one said.

“White as snow. What do you want with Snow Wolf? He didn’t harm anyone if you’re trying to subdue him.”

“No, no, we’re not out to kill the wolf,” Nick said. “You may have noticed a GPS device attached to the nylon collar around his neck. You see, the device malfunctioned two months ago, and I wanted to replace it once I received updated information on his location. However, Dan here and his friend told me they shot two members of Snow Wolf’s pack as part of the ongoing season. An unknown poacher shot the third, which was protected under the guidelines of being too young. Snow Wolf is a loner without a stable territory. That’s why we came here, to capture the canine and return him to the zoo in Portland, Oregon.”

I took a step backward, almost lost for words. “Really? Interesting. If you don’t mind, I can help you tomorrow morning and Thursday, as necessary. You’re both welcome to join my friends and me for supper, so long as you contribute,” I said.

“Sure, why not. In fact, if you need anything tomorrow, we have a two-way radio to call in a chopper.” Nick adjusted the backpack he wore. “Where exactly is this campsite of yours?”

“About a mile northwest up the trail. I’ll lead.”

The three of us marched toward my friends as we exchanged stories from recent days and distant years.

Nick turned his flashlight back on once the sun disappeared completely.

We arrived an hour later to the sight of Kristi running toward me. She fell into my arms after a warm kiss on the lips. “Where have you been? I was worried sick, as was Taylor.” She looked at the two men with me and cocked her head to one side. “Who are your new friends?”

“The game warden and his friend. They were searching for Snow Wolf, too.” I stepped back to catch a glimpse of Kristi’s blue eyes. “I’ll tell you about my little adventure later.”

26

A SINGLE FRIED trout remained within the used pan deposited beside the campfire on stones that formed the outer ring. There were also baked beans and dried fruit nearby, though more plentiful in scope.

Dan and Nick agreed to split the final fish between them.

I left the informal social event to grab my fishing pole, eager to descend into darkness toward the riverbank alone while my sole illumination came from the full moon and distant stars. I stood along the north shore patiently to lure a trout.

My best friends’ and our guests’ voices rose and fell like the ocean tides.

I glanced behind me several times to physically view their happiness. A hollow feeling increased in my chest, and I sensed a drastic shift of my existence. Would anyone besides Kristi ever truly care on a personal level?

“Snow Wolf is a loner?” Kristi asked. “I’m worried about him, John, even if he’s capable of surviving on his own.”

We sat down on the grassy shore together. I wrapped my free arm around her shoulders, and Kristi rested her head on my chest.

“He should be fine. I mean Snow Wolf has managed to survive the last four or five days. I’m concerned too, honey, but for tonight, he should be safe and sound. Besides, Snow Wolf probably has quite a bit of reflection to complete.”

Kristi gazed into my brown eyes, and I gifted her with a soft peck on the cheek.

“I know, but we really became friends today with Snow Wolf. All four of us did. And now the canine has returned to the wilderness. I sure hope he finds a pack to join,” Kristi said.

“Me too, but Dan and Nick want to continue searching for him. I promised we would help them.” I adjusted the cast line.

“Sounds fine to me. Besides, Snow Wolf is too intelligent for these backwoods wolf packs. He deserves a group where he actually belongs.”

Kristi and I remained alone beside the river, discussing intimate topics, until I finally captured three fish in all. We strolled back to camp with big smiles, hand in hand.

“And that’s how we ended up here, speaking with you all tonight,” Nick said.

I sat beside the campfire to fillet my three trout, occasionally helping myself to leftover dried fruit.

Kristi examined the heated frying pan as she listened to the game warden explain their current dilemma.

“So how are we going to catch Snow Wolf if your dart gun has malfunctioned?” Taylor asked.

“Well, I figured since he’s familiar with you guys, he might just come back if he doesn’t see me and Dan.” Nick downed the last of his potable water. “Once we do catch Snow Wolf, I’ll inject one of the darts’ contents and put him to sleep.”

“How are we going to transport Snow Wolf out of the forest?” Adam asked. “We can’t just keep drugging him every time he becomes conscious.”

“I have a two-way radio to call in a chopper. Snow Wolf will be flown to Wrangler International Airport for a flight to Portland, Oregon. If you want, you all can take the chopper out and spare yourselves the roughly fifteen-mile hike back to the campground.”

Kristi deposited the trout in the frying pan, and I served myself the final remnants of cold baked beans to stave off my intense hunger.

“So where do you think we should begin? Snow Wolf wasn’t between here and where I met you guys,” I said.

“We’ll search the forest toward the northeast. If we don’t find anything by tomorrow afternoon, I guess the quest to find Snow Wolf will just have to die,” Nick replied. “You all are staying until Friday at the latest, right?”

“Yes, but we don’t officially have to be back until Sunday. My plan was to use the weekend to rest up for work on Monday.”

“No, that’s quite all right. None of you have to feel obligated. But it’s nice you all volunteered for tomorrow, at least,” Nick said. “Either way, let’s turn in so we can start early. We’re going to utilize every hour of daylight.”

Everyone, except Kristi and me, entered their respective tents to escape reality for a few hours.

Kristi let me serve myself, while she strolled toward our shelter to retrieve a single sheet of white, folded paper. My girlfriend handed it to me to examine.

“John, I’ve been holding on to this for a while now. I can’t wait to show this to you any longer,” Kristi said.

“You made this after we first met in high school?” I asked. “It’s beautiful. How come you never showed me this earlier?”

“Because I was too shy to approach you. I wanted to be friends rather than soul mates because I was scared I might come across as too strong,” Kristi replied.

“Well, I’m still happy you finally shared it with me. I love it.”

We drew closer, and our lips touched for a single moment.

“I was right about you, John. This, us, is breathtaking.” Kristi smiled. “I better let you finish your supper so we can sleep.”

···

The small, cleared area was created by loggers years ago. Tall golden-brown grass replaced the aged pines and spruces, which had previously dominated the parcel, and made a perfect camouflaged spot for Snow Wolf to continue his subtle existence away from outsiders.

Deep sleep eluded the lone wolf though his keen eyes were prepared to give in to exhaustion. His thoughts were heavily concentrated on the frantic escape to preserve his mortal existence.

Snow Wolf took a deep breath to calm his mind and pondered the four young adults camped beside the river.

I know they need my protection until exiting the wilderness. Are my efforts justified to travel the half-a-day journey to rejoin them?

Snow Wolf’s anxiety increased. His paws tingled with numbness.

I know the young adults are compassionate, but they will never replace Alpha Female, The Brother, or The Pup. They will soon leave the forest forever, so maybe I better wish them farewell.

Prior to dawn, Snow Wolf was bored and debated whether he should remain next to the smoldering fire or capture small game for his anxious stomach.

Instead, a chilling image appeared southeast of Snow Wolf’s position—two men who wielded centerfire rifles.

They followed me!

Snow Wolf howled to awaken his unconscious friends.

The four humans exited their fabric tents, half-asleep.

“What’s wrong, Snow Wolf? What’s the matter?” Taylor knelt beside the Canis lupus.

The lone wolf replied with a low growl.

Consistent gunfire erupted, and bullets raced past the young adults and Snow Wolf as they either fell to the ground or fled for the dense forest.

Kristi and Taylor hugged one another as they screamed.

John and Adam repeatedly yelled for the wolf hunters to cease their fire.

Snow Wolf disappeared through the conifer trees until the gunfire ended. He looked over his shoulder as an intense argument replaced the short-lived void.

What on earth is going on back there?

He stepped toward the campsite, and the heated debate increased in volume.

A quick glimpse between the pines and spruces revealed the deadly centerfire rifles were in John’s and Adam’s possession.

Snow Wolf breathed a sigh of relief. Although the ongoing conversation was an encrypted message, his perked ears heard every word.

“I say we shoot Snow Wolf. Them wild dogs are nothing but trouble, in my opinion,” the first man said. “They sneak around at night to prey on our livestock, nothing but four-legged thieves.”

“And just when have you seen a wolf, specifically Snow Wolf, kill a cow or a sheep? You leave them alone, and they will leave you alone. How much more do you people need to realize that?” John asked.

“I have seen wolves attack livestock. It ain’t a pretty sight. Usually have to terminate the animal afterward because of how maimed they are. What do you think of that?” The second man adjusted his stance.

“But I’m telling you, Snow Wolf is harmless. He came to us last night and even managed to sit beside the campfire, peacefully, until you two showed up.” John pointed at the smoldering fire.

Snow Wolf closed the distance to less than twenty yards. He revealed himself just as the first man noticed him.

“There he is!” the first hunter yelled. “Hand me the rifles, you stupid boys!”

The man grabbed the centerfire in John’s firm grasp, and John struggled to regain possession, the muzzle jerking in various directions as they fought over the loaded firearm.

The first hunter accidentally touched the metal trigger during the fierce scuffle, and John collapsed as the blood flowed from the sustained leg wound. The rogue hunter pinned John by his throat with the discharged rifle with the clear intention to suffocate him.

Snow Wolf felt frozen along the forest’s edge. He watched as Adam and Taylor jumped the deadly man to assist John.

Kristi held the second hunter at gunpoint. Her superiority was never challenged.

The white wolf couldn’t resist helping the young adults. He bound toward the battle and jumped the first man. His heavy weight was enough to knock the rogue hunter to the ground.

Kristi returned the second man’s centerfire to Adam as she raced for the tents to gather the first-aid kit and zip ties.

“You are going to be all right, John. I promise.” Taylor applied pressure to the leg wound with her own T-shirt.

“I know. I’m too young to die.”

Snow Wolf licked John’s face to comfort him.

“Kristi, hurry!” Taylor screamed.

“I am. I’m coming!”

“You know…your friend…deserves to die,” the first hunter said, struggling for air as he spoke. “Since you…you all…prevented us…from shooting…that white wolf.”

“Are you kidding me?” John asked. “You sick, twisted fools. If it wasn’t for you, nobody would have been wounded.”

The rogue man remained silent. It seemed reason had finally penetrated his thick skull.

Kristi and Taylor rolled white linen around John’s damaged leg. The blood continued to gush from the sustained wound, but John was in good hands.

Intense sunlight pierced Snow Wolf’s tired eyes, and a rush of strong determination forced him up on his rubbery legs. He glided through the tall, dead grass to obtain a cool drink from a nearby pond.

Now, I must bid farewell to these friendly young adults. I must discover if their livelihoods are in excellent shape yet.

27

I AWAKENED TO the continuous crackle of the campfire. Dawn had arrived to signal Thursday morning was on me.

I glanced at Kristi, who remained fast asleep, and debated whether or not I should chance waking her with a warm smooch. The choice was absolutely clear—I stubbornly refused to wake my girlfriend for my own selfish reasons.

The riverbank was blanketed with a thin layer of dew. I submerged my hands in the frigid water to wash away the dead skin and grime buildup and then dried them through utilization of the wasted campfire warmth.

Nick was well underway with breakfast preparations consisting of powdered scrambled eggs and pancakes. The game warden instructed me to begin heating the cold pan for the powdered eggs.

I deposited the portable surface several inches above the crimson flames.

Dan dismantled his tent as though an invading army had permanently forced him into a panicked retreat. His camouflage backpack was horizontal beside the deconstructed shelter. He frowned throughout the entire ordeal.

“Sleep well, John?” Nick mixed the batter for our pancakes. “You look exhausted if those bags under your eyes are anything to go by.”

“Yes, I did. I’m just not used to hiking a dozen miles for several days in a row,” I replied. “How about you?”

“Never better. This crisp, clean air is much healthier for me. I can’t imagine how I dealt with the smog back in Buffalo.”

The powdered eggs sizzled in the pan, and I flipped them over with the spatula. “I know what you mean. Although Salt Lake is not nearly as bad as, say, Los Angeles, it’s still noticeable.”

Nick flipped the half-completed pancake to reveal a solid golden-brown surface. He prepared the subsequent pancake by filling the measuring cup deposited atop the light-brown batter. “You better go wake your friends. Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes. I’ll watch the eggs for you.”

“Okay.”

I reentered my tent to awaken Kristi. I couldn’t resist the strong urge to allow my girlfriend to continue dreaming, but I understood there was plenty of important work to get done.

“Morning, sweetie. Your breakfast is almost ready.” I knelt at Kristi’s bedside.

My girlfriend wiped her tired eyes. “What time is it?”

“Five thirty.”

“Those men are serious about starting early, aren’t they?”

“Yes. Now come on. I don’t want you to miss breakfast.” I exited the tent and headed for Taylor and Adam’s tent just as the door unzipped.

Adam crawled out and stood beside me. “We heard Nick tell you to wake us.” Adam walked past me toward the riverbank to wash up.

“Morning, John,” Taylor said. “Smells delicious.”

“Good morning. See you in a few minutes.”

A thick stack of pancakes was piled high and sitting on a spare mess kit, along with a large collection of scrambled eggs inside a second metal container. There were plastic bags of dried fruit and trail mix, but nobody touched them until after we finished the main course.

The six of us ate breakfast in almost complete silence. The only conversation consisted of the occasional requests for salt or pepper.

Nick and Dan assisted the girls with the dirty dishes, forming an informal assembly line to wash, rinse twice, and dry.

Adam and I removed our backpacks and unrolled sleeping bags and then raced to dismantle our respective tents before loading everything into the backpacks.

The heavy pack dug deep into my sore shoulders. My friends and I joined Dan on the main gravel trail as Nick brought us to attention.

“All right, everyone. Stand about five yards apart, and face northwest.”

We all followed Nick’s order.

Nick inserted himself into the makeshift line on the right flank, and I was to act as the left flank.

“Let’s move,” Nick said.

We moved swiftly across the grassy clearing and pushed inside the dense forest.

I wondered if Nick wanted to find Snow Wolf before lunch and how exhausted my best friends would be after we endured this quick march.

Exactly as predicted, my friends struggled to keep pace and Dan continued without fail.

Their sad facial expressions revealed a deep disgust with Nick’s order to find Snow Wolf, but I personally remained eager well after the first half-mile sweep.

Once we’d covered five sweeps in total, all prior to lunch, even I had started regretting my generous donation of precious vacation days. What had I been thinking?

No clues to Snow Wolf’s whereabouts were located anywhere.

I was surprised, as were my friends, who then focused their anger on me for the first time.

I quietly hoped our bad fortune would change after lunch.

The early afternoon was unbearably silent for everyone except Dan, who brooded under his breath.

I glanced at Kristi as she consumed the first of two peanut-butter sandwiches with a look of utter disgust on her face. I knew she was tired of the same lunch day after day.

Kristi soon noticed me watching her. She flashed a quick smile, and we begrudgingly resumed eating.

The persistent silence strained my already-tense nerves. I remembered when Kristi and I had first met, how awkwardly shy my every move in her presence was, but the current situation was even more ridiculous. I sensed the hostility was because nobody wanted to speak first out of fear of being judged.

Just as I worked up the courage to say something myself, Kristi recognized my uneasiness.

“Come, John. I need to speak with you, alone,” Kristi whispered in my ear.

We slipped away from the quiet group and stood behind a thick patch of brush. I feared, even thirty yards away, someone might overhear us.

“I knew this wouldn’t be a cakewalk, but this has become a needle in a haystack. I don’t want to break our promise, but this is supposed to be a vacation, not a volunteer project with no end in sight,” Kristi said, keeping her voice low and brushing her hand down my arm.

I understood the subtle sign as a way for Kristi to let me know she needed a hug.

“John, we have to say something, and fast. I know Nick said we’re the key to success, but why don’t we just leave Snow Wolf alone? He appeared happy when we first met him. Who knows? Maybe the white wolf found a new alpha female already.” Kristi touched my cheek.

“I feel the same way, dear, but we promised.” I took Kristi’s hand in both of mine. “I wouldn’t feel right backing out on Dan and Nick now. I mean, this isn’t the same as boycotting some horrible product at a store. This is a life we’re talking about. I know you are unhappy for having been dragged along on this search for Snow Wolf. Please, just this once. Okay, Kristi?”

She pondered my request, staring at the forest floor without saying a word, and then Kristi smiled as she locked her gaze with mine. “All right, but you owe me, darling. Anything I request—within reason, of course—has to be granted.”

“I sure will, honey.”

We hugged, almost forgetting everything else as we slipped inside a short-lived daydream.

Kristi and I returned to the others with our hands interlocked.

···

“Okay, everyone!” Nick gestured toward the map he carried. “This afternoon we will move toward the southeast until we find Snow Wolf’s tracks. Once we discover those, we’ll follow and see where they lead.”

Dan took up his position on the right flank, with Taylor on his left and Nick on his immediate right. He remained deeply angry because of the game warden’s poor leadership during the morning expedition. Thoughts of peaceful mutiny continued to roll and formulate in his head until an intense pain shot down his back, ripping him from his traitorous machinations. The heavy camouflage backpack felt as though it was about to permanently injure his spinal cord. Extreme anxiety flooded his brain, tempting Dan to halt altogether.

They were already half a mile southeast of their lunch location, and no one had discovered a single paw print.

Dan struggled to keep up with Taylor and Nick with each additional step. He distracted himself from the pain with thoughts of Alyssa patiently waiting for him in her Seattle apartment. He pictured a home-cooked meal prepared for a candlelit supper.

Dan bounced between reality and daydream until Taylor’s scream yanked him into the present.

“I see some! Right here, guys!”

Everyone converged on her position with renewed vigor to examine the evidence. They were careful so as not to permanently destroy any additional paw prints.

Nick knelt beside Taylor. “Yup, they’re his all right.” He scanned the area and checked the prints again. “That’s strange, though. They led southwest. Let’s follow them.”

“Should two of us backtrack northwest, just in case?” Dan asked.

“Yes.” Nick stood again. “John?”

John adjusted his backpack’s straps. “Sure, who’s with me?”

“I’ll come, darling.” Kristi smiled. “You all run along now. We’ll rejoin you once the trail runs cold, or vice versa.”

Dan and Nick, along with Taylor and Adam, veered southwest to follow Snow Wolf’s tracks. They crossed the trail and spotted more paw prints that grew in detailed form.

···

Snow Wolf’s imprints faded with each northeasterly step they took. Despite the stress of trying to find the white wolf, Kristi was satisfied we were finally alone again.

“John? What do you think I should ask for first when we get home?” Kristi took my right hand in her left.

“Well, how about a first date?” I halted to examine one of Snow Wolf’s tracks. “Would you like for me to reserve a table at a fancy restaurant downtown?”

“No, I was thinking more of a long chat at a coffee shop. We have so much to talk about,” Kristi said.

“All right, that works. Anything else?” I asked.

I could see the gears turning in her mind as she tried to come up with her next plan. I knew the request was complex when she squinted her blue eyes and tapped her bottom lip with her fingers.

Then Kristi got the giggles. Tears formed, and she bent over, holding her sides.

I stood and faced Kristi. “What’s so amusing?”

“I want you to go shopping with me Sunday,” she said, chuckling at her own joke.

“No problem.” I smiled. “Where are we going?”

“To the mall, specifically to buy perfume and dresses. And you’re paying.”

I glanced at my dirty hiking boots while contemplating the approximate balance in my bank account. I was pretty sure I had enough funds to cover anything she might want.

“Something wrong, John?” Kristi looked worried as she grabbed both my hands. “I don’t want you to spend your entire paycheck on making some silly dream of mine come true.”

“No, just doing some figuring,” I said. “Let’s turn back. I think Snow Wolf might be closer to the others.”

···

John and Kristi met back up with the four members of the original group hot on Snow Wolf’s trail, which continued southwest toward the riverbank. The distinct paw prints weaving through the thick brush left everyone certain they were headed in the right direction.

Dan drank the final drops of potable water from his two canteens as the abnormally hot afternoon sun beat down on him.

Sunstroke or heat exhaustion was the last thing anyone needed, so they were all going to require a halt of their stubborn intentions to push “just a little farther” and refill their personal containers.

Four o’clock arrived without notice, and the humidity decreased along with the warm temperature. Even with the unusual heat, Dan feared the forecasted blizzard would arrive the next day.

We don’t find him soon, and this insane weather could be the death of us all.

“I see him! I see him!” John shouted.

Sure enough, a white speck was easily spotted off to their south, fifty yards away.

The group halted as John and Kristi slowly approached Snow Wolf.

28

CRISP POND WATER satisfied Snow Wolf’s dry tongue, as six Canadian geese disregarded the lone canine and sailed the calm surface. The Canis lupus, however, carefully examined the waterfowl.

I just wonder…what if I camouflaged myself in the tall, dark green grass? Would the waterbirds move away from the deep center?

The lone wolf’s stomach growled in anticipation of the nearby meal.

Snow Wolf entered the thick waterfront vegetation with extreme care and patiently waited for the waterfowl to float closer.

All six geese remained near the small body of water’s center, more focused on enjoying the slight breeze pushing them across the sparkling surface than scavenging for underwater greenery.

Snow Wolf crouched low and watched the waterfowl barely move from their original positions. Time dwindled for the wild canine to capture an early day meal.

I’m wasting daylight here. Maybe I should attempt to capture another pheasant or cottontail. Besides, the young adults will be moving out soon.

Snow Wolf swiftly exited the waterfront vegetation, and the Canadian geese circled the acre-sized pond before retreating southward.

Snow Wolf reentered the dense conifer forest to begin the three-mile journey toward the young adults’ campsite as he recalled anxious reminders of the four friendly humans.

Hunger gnawed his empty stomach. He refocused his attention on the swift capture of the first small-game candidate.

The white wolf sensed a trio of ruffed grouse hidden somewhere within grasp.

The small brown birds struggled to remain concealed, but they were readily discovered by Snow Wolf’s keen eyes.

The white predator’s pursuit was short-lived.

The first bird of the three fell far behind. The unfortunate grouse emitted a final sharp chirp before being devoured.

A low, growling sound originated from the wild canine’s stomach. Snow Wolf sat down to consume his well-earned meal of ruffed grouse. His mind continued in overdrive, keen on the memories of the compassionate young adults.

I know, by now, the four friendly humans may have continued their trek to exit this vast forest-covered wilderness. But I have to find them again. When I do relocate the bipeds, I shall remain with them until they leave for their real home turf. From there, I will resume searching for the wolf pack in the north, regardless of whether the alpha male accepts or rejects me.

All that remained of the avian creature were indigestible bones and brown feathers, but Snow Wolf noticed the buildup on his tongue, a major sign that he required another meal before pushing his body once more.

The lone wolf rose to his feet and resumed the hunt.

With each footstep south and west, the dense forest became more and more abnormally silent. The songbirds ceased their peaceful tunes, leaving only a light breeze, which managed to penetrate the numerous natural barriers.

Is this a final attempt by human hunters? Fellow gray wolves prepared to conquer my pack’s disintegrated territory?

The sudden, hair-raising event died as quickly as it had begun. Songbirds returned to their peaceful melodies. Even the gentle wind eased as Snow Wolf’s environment settled.

His worrisome thoughts were replaced by an urgency to capture another animal and provide protection and farewell to the four young adults.

A long gravel trail intersected Snow Wolf’s southward travels. The white wolf recognized his journey was already over except for the final mile between him and the temporary campsite.

One hundred yards due east of the young adults’ campsite, a sudden flash of movement caught Snow Wolf’s eye as it headed toward the nearby riverbank. Snow Wolf pursued the frightened animal and successfully closed the gap to mere inches.

The fearful creature was a lone cottontail rabbit. It surrendered as the lone wolf slashed the herbivore with his razor-sharp incisors.

Snow Wolf began to consume the poor creature even while its low heartbeat quickly faded. Warm red blood stained the pure-white fur on the wild canine’s face and neck. His patience gone, he was almost angry the cottontail had appeared prior to his arrival at the campsite rather than afterward.

I must hurry before their trail runs cold.

The Canis lupus left the inedible bones and distasteful entrails for eager scavengers, along with half the small carcass, despite the intense hunger he unwillingly endured.

Snow Wolf sprinted westward to arrive at the abandoned campsite less than a minute later.

As expected, the fabric tents were gone, and all four humans were missing from the once-active establishment.

Snow Wolf lowered his head but was unable to pinpoint the specific direction the group had taken from their evident scent.

I should have come sooner, joined them the previous night. Maybe then…No! Enough of these thoughts. I tried to keep my promise, but they are gone. After a quick nap, I’ll pick up the journey to locate the northern wolf pack.

The lone wolf secured a cold drink, traveled some two hundred yards into the forest to make camp, and closed his tired eyes for some needed rest.

Loud footsteps yanked Snow Wolf from his nap. He knew the multiple intruders were human before they made a grand appearance.

Six bipedal individuals formed a crude line.

Two humans broke away to proceed directly toward Snow Wolf’s position.

Once the two moved in range, the Canis lupus was stunned to discover John and Kristi. Snow Wolf rose on his sore paws only to stand frozen in place.

···

“It’s just us, Snow Wolf. Remember? We’re your friends. Please don’t go. We won’t hurt you. The game warden just wants to change your collar and return you to the zoo.” I spoke in a low, soft voice to the wild canine staring at Kristi and me. “Someday, you can build a new pack with a new alpha female and a large litter of pups. How about that, Snow Wolf? Doesn’t that interest you, old pal?”

My girlfriend and I casually stepped toward the elusive white wolf.

Not once did Snow Wolf attempt to escape, despite the strong reason to flee the stressful situation.

I left Kristi standing a short distance away to approach the wolf alone.

“Be careful, darling!” Kristi said.

I extended my right hand toward Snow Wolf. The wolf understood the gentle gesture and didn’t move an inch as I wrapped my bare arms around his neck. I stroked Snow Wolf’s head and neck while Kristi slowly approached to pet him as well.

Adam quietly delivered the replacement collar with an attached GPS device.

I loosened the original collar and tightened the new one around Snow Wolf’s neck. The first goal was completed.

The two-way radio screamed static until the game warden adjusted it to the correct frequency. Nick wielded the microphone in his right hand, inches away from his tired face.

“Hello, anybody there? This is Nick Scott calling in from Wolf Mountain. Do you read me? Over.”

“Yes, I can, Nick. Did you find Snow Wolf? Or are you requesting a resupply mission?” the unknown individual asked.

“I found Snow Wolf. Some hikers Dan and I encountered yesterday assisted us,” Nick replied. “Can you check to see if Snow Wolf’s new tracking device is working properly?”

“Sure will, Nick. Stand by.”

We all stopped, waiting. Seconds felt like hours as we stared at one another.

“Nick? Are you still there?”

“Yes, I am,” Nick replied.

“We have Snow Wolf’s GPS collar on radar. Mission accomplished. Ready for the helicopter?”

“I believe we are. Get Snow Wolf’s flight to Portland arranged while we’re en route.”

“10-4.”

I watched the game warden grab a tranquilizer dart from his backpack.

Kristi and I held Snow Wolf tighter in case the Canis lupus tried to escape the necessary ordeal.

“Okay, Snow Wolf.” Nick knelt beside the lone wolf. “Sleep tight. Before you know it, you’ll be in Portland.”

The white wolf closed his eyes within seconds of the injection and sank to the forest floor as Dan approached to assist the game warden in carrying the drugged canine toward the open area of our former campsite.

29

AN ELK HERD, one hundred strong, grazed the final blades of green grass inside the section of highlands where the narrow rock opening allowed easy access eastward.

Snow Wolf and the three members of the Black Sheep Pack watched from their elevated position along the north rim. The four wolves diverged in two separate directions—Snow Wolf and The Brother moved east for the rock-wall passageway, Alpha Female and The Pup westward to act as the drivers of the large elk herd.

Snow Wolf and The Brother arrived at their preset positions, and Alpha Female commenced the hunt.

The Pup veered southeast while his mother moved northeast.

An old elk cow stood surrounded by Snow Wolf’s beloved pack members, unable to overcome the tight noose the canines created.

Suddenly, gunfire erupted from the southern hillside. The bullets eliminated the entire herd in an instant.

Alpha Female directed The Brother and The Pup to converge on Snow Wolf’s position at the rock-wall opening.

“Snow Wolf,” a voice said, startling the wild canine from behind. “These are my elk for the taking. What do you think your pack is doing?”

Less than five yards away, a man dressed in faded camouflage, with a centerfire rifle wielded in his tightened hand, stared into Snow Wolf’s eyes. A long, deep scar ran across his left cheek, which started an inch below the left eye and ended near his lip.

The aggressive human hunter deposited a cartridge in his firearm’s chamber as Snow Wolf’s pack arrived. He gently touched the metal trigger to release the loaded ammunition.

BANG!

The rifle discharged with a deafening sound, and the bullet struck The Pup through his skull. Snow Wolf watched his son collapse on the grazed ground at his feet in a small heap, and his blood boiled at the horrific sight.

The three canine survivors unveiled their sharp fangs as the human struggled to reload. They ran at full speed to attack the bitter man. Their revengeful act was successful, and the immediate threat was eliminated temporarily.

The bittersweet dream transformed the empty darkness into a sense of mental peace. Snow Wolf would finally receive the well-earned break he deserved.

···

A subtle whirring noise increased in volume as the requested helicopter arrived to extract our informal group in pairs.

Adam and Taylor grabbed their heavy backpacks before the loud metal beast touched down.

Kristi and I were scheduled for the second flight.

“Okay! Time to jump aboard, you two!” Nick shouted over the roaring engine.

My two best friends dumped their gear in the front passenger seat, where the copilot was usually located. Adam slammed the door before positioning himself beside Taylor in the rear row.

Nick secured the slide hatch and signaled the pilot for takeoff. The game warden retreated to the forest’s edge, where I stood with Dan, Kristi, and a sleeping Snow Wolf.

The helicopter pilot revved the engines, lifted to hover thirty yards above the forest floor, and performed a counterclockwise turn to fly northwest toward the campground approximately fifteen miles away.

“So.” Nick looked at Kristi and me. “Do you plan on returning to Wolf Mountain next year? The forest is magnificent during September and October.”

My girlfriend and I glanced at each other, but neither of us spoke a word. We knew our answer, even without a discussion.

“Well, maybe, but we have other places to visit on our bucket list. Plus, we’re headed to college, and the curriculum is going to dominate pretty much every second of our precious time,” I replied.

“I see, but you’re welcome to come back anytime.” Nick grabbed a canteen from his backpack’s side pockets.

“Don’t worry. I’m sure at some point we’ll return. I promise.”

“Sounds good, just send me an e-mail to notify me when you are.”

The familiar helicopter returned thirty minutes later.

Kristi and I handled our heavy backpacks in preparation for the swift boarding task. We turned toward Nick and Dan, one final face to face.

“Good-bye, Nick. Bye, Dan.”

I shook the men’s hands, and Kristi embraced them. We raced toward the helicopter, but I turned back. One detail remained unfinished.

“Take good care of yourselves! Good-bye, Snow Wolf! Till we meet again!” I shouted.

“Good luck, John! Don’t let Kristi go, no matter what life throws at you!” Nick grinned.

We stuffed our heavy gear in the empty front seat and jumped in the rear row.

“John?” Kristi laid her head on my left shoulder. “When should we visit Snow Wolf in Portland?”

I pondered the question for a moment and realized the sooner we made the arrangement, the better. “How about next year, during spring break?” I asked, wrapping my arm around Kristi’s shoulders.

“Sure. At least then, Taylor and Adam can tag along. But first, the drive home. I can’t wait for our first date.” She grinned and squeezed me tight.

A Message from the Author

I wish to thank you for downloading Snow Wolf. I hope you enjoyed this novel as much as I did writing it. If you don’t mind, I would really appreciate if you spared a few minutes of precious time to write a review wherever you received this from to help spread the word.

Thank you for the generous support.

Have yourself a wonderful day Literary Explorer.

Joel.

Joel Hovell is an author and lifetime student who engrosses himself in phlebotomy, electrical engineering, and anatomy courses at Fox Valley Technical College. He oftentimes is found in solitude studying these subjects, and those he discovers online while watching Youtube videos. He resides on a dairy farm near Seymour, WI.

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Snow Wolf

It was supposed to be a relaxing wilderness retreat—a seven-day vacation from the everyday grind. But for John Ellis and his three best friends, their trip to Wolf Mountain State Forest has become so much more. Deep in the woods of Wyoming, the four friends become deeply self-reflective, exploring their relationships, identities, and future careers. And upon forging a romantic bond with fellow traveler Kristi Meadowood, John sees the perfect chance to contemplate the next step of their relationship—and their buddies Taylor and Adam have a few surprises of their own to reveal. But when the group encounters a lone white wolf, as pure and bright as snow, their journey takes an unexpected turn. After a momentary miscommunication, the friends accept Snow Wolf as their guard dog and protector. But the wolf is struggling to survive as it heads northward in search of a pack of his own. Exploring contemporary issues with passion and heart, Snow Wolf is a story of overcoming obstacles—searching for love and acceptance, staying true to oneself, and enduring overwhelming loss.

  • ISBN: 9781370936199
  • Author: Joel Hovell
  • Published: 2016-12-21 21:35:24
  • Words: 55040
Snow Wolf Snow Wolf