It’s a few hours before sunrise, and if you stand in the forest with your eyes open, adjusting to the darkness of this moonless night, you might notice something. There! Movement behind the thick stand of evergreen trees off to your left. Is it a hundred yards away? Ten?
You hear a rustle from the right. There is a bush moving, just a little, then it stops. It sounds close. No more noise comes from the snow-covered ground. But now you don’t need to hear it. You can feel yourself surrounded by something. A presence that gives substance to the gloom. Your spine tingles and your stomach shrinks.
In truth, it’s a good thing you’re not really standing there in the black. You would be surrounded by hungry wolves.
On they come, flowing past the trees, like water coursing a stony rapid. They meet in glens and again separate around the pines, never pausing, focused on a single point not far off. As they close on their target, they spread apart, encircling around and beyond it. They begin to tighten their group, barring escape.
Four deer in a small clearing look up. A mother and three yearlings. They feel the presence too late. Yellow eyes stare at them from every angle. They shudder in panic.
Finally, a wolf, the alpha, steps forward to speak.
“Hello there!” he says. It is Lark, the pack leader. “Have you seen our latest trick?”
At this the wolves jump toward the deer and form a line in the open clearing. Some of them jump on top of each other, scrambling raggedly on each other’s backs. They form a standing triangle four wolves high, with Lark on top. He somersaults to the ground in front of the bemused deer and presents his paws in a kneel. “Ta da!”
One of the yearlings claps his front hooves, the other two look at him and shake their heads. Beulah, the mother deer, rolls her eyes. “Oh, please, Lark. You stole that from the raccoons.”
Lark lowers his head to one side. “It’s a coincidence, I swear it,” he says. “Oh, by the vie, you kids hungry? We got some prime cutlets here. Parmesan.” One of the other wolves steps forward and shrugs off an ill-fitting backpack. Lark pulls open the zipper and noses out a box of frozen dinners.
“You stole that, too,” says Beulah accusingly.
“Yeah, from people,” Lark agrees. Everyone in the forest knows the code. You take only what you plan to use, and not something already claimed. But with humans it’s different. You can rob them of all sorts of things.
“There’s this small group of them camping near the Greeley Ponds. Not using their bear box.” He chuckles at this. Humans can be such morons.
The young deer sniff the boxes curiously. “Kids! Get away. It’s probably chicken,” Beulah says. “We have other sources of protein.”
“Yeah,” Lark says. “You just have to eat a whole meadow of it. And you guys are pretty fast twitch, too.”
“It isn’t proper!” Beulah protests.
“You could get totally jacked, is all I’m saying.” He tears open the box and tosses a few cutlets to his pack. They dive in.
“Ugh, you guys,” Beulah says with a shake of her head. Her three boys bend their heads and go back to munching the new ferns starting to pop up through the receding snow. Spring is coming earlier than usual. “Hey, they didn’t happen to have any coffee with them.”
“You know, I didn’t happen to smell that,” Lark says, his jaws dripping with half-frozen spaghetti sauce. “We’ll send a Scout there to see if they crack any open at dawn.”
“Which one?” asks one of the wolves. Four of them are named Scout, and aptly so. They’re the ones who keep getting the assignments to watch for people. By now it’s a running joke whether the name defines the job, or vice versa.
“Oh, how about Little Scout this time?”
There is murmuring among the crew, but they agree. Little Scout is now catching some sleep back at the den. All the wolves know his reports are unreliable, if somewhat fanciful. They suspect he’s discovered the magic effects of mountain teaberries.
“Remember what he told us about the road the other day?” one of the wolves says.
“Yeah,” Lark says with amusement. “A whole line of trucks painted like the forest.”
“Like we couldn’t smell these things three valleys away,” laughs another.
“Ridiculous,” says Marcella, the wolf pack’s matriarch.
Beulah looks up. “No, we saw that,” she states.
The wolves look up, slowly chewing the last of their cutlets. “Have you been getting into the teaberries, too?” asks Wheat, one of the larger wolf lads. He is ironically named, with the darkest fur, almost black. The rest laugh.
“We did see it. Three nights ago,” Beulah says. “They had one of those spinning birds on a truck. Painted the same.”
The wolves knew the spinning birds well. Their loud rumbling shook the mountains, and their sound could be heard long before they were seen circling like giant hawks overhead. It couldn’t be chance that several of their pack had been struck with metal rain whenever these thunderous contraptions hove into the sky above them.
Little Scout hadn’t mentioned it, but they had laughed him out of the cave as soon as he started to give his report of these green vehicles rolling into the valley like a train.
“Are you certain?” Lark asks. The pack gathers around him. Their trust for Beulah’s nose, eyes and ears far outweighs that of Little Scout, and many of their other Scouts, for that matter.
“Tis true,” she says. Her spring meanders tend to stick close to her den, on a hillside just above the Mad River. She saw the trucks, maybe seven or eight of them, with their spinning bird on the largest one. “I couldn’t range far enough to tell you.”
“No matter,” Lark says to this. “But have you seen them leave?”
“Not that I’ve witnessed, no,” she says.
The wolves look at each other with fresh concern. It is strange to see such a concerted human activity going on this early in the season. The moon has completed more than three full cycles since the longest night, and the road is still traveled mainly by people in cars. These rolling boxes bear cut planks of trees on each roof, that the humans use to slide in ridiculous fashion down the snow-covered hillsides. Until the snows recede completely and the trees begin to gather water from the ground, the road is the only way in and out of the valley, at least for the people.
If the trucks and their flying machine haven’t been seen heading back down it, they’re still here.
“Thanks, B,” says Lark. Wheat and the rest of the wolves nod. “We need to talk with Little Scout. Quick Scout, we’ll need you to go find out about that coffee instead.” Quick Scout, an almost white wolf with black paws, barks and darts out of the clearing. Wheat picks up the bag. They nod to Beulah and run in the other direction, toward their den.
Beulah looks at her three growing boys browsing the young fir saplings. The wolves are known to be fierce protectors of the valley, and what bothers them should bother all. It hadn’t occurred to her to be concerned until seeing Lark’s furrowed brow. She feels a new pressure, like the barely detectable breeze before a gathering storm.
“Boys,” she says. “Let’s head back.”