But my bones did make it. By the light of a half moon we finished our trip. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Peter’s colony wasn’t it, whatever it was.
I followed the Golden into a gully congested with young cedars and damp ferns. The path was spongy, gentle to the pads of my sore feet. At the bottom of the ravine, a small, effervescent creek flowed over smooth rocks. I drank from it and it was tingling sweet.
“We’re here, Mister Daks.”
I looked up with water running off my snout. All around us were large rocks, boulders worn edgeless by a great deal more water than the dribble that now flowed around my legs. Atop each rock was an Ogg. It was eerie, they were so still. Their eyes sparkled with reflected moonlight and they were as silent as the stars. For a moment the only sound in the air was the soft purring of the stream at my feet and the thumping of my heart.
“Welcome back, Peter, ” said a small female of indeterminate lineage.
“Is everything okay?” There was genuine concern in the Golden’s voice.
From above and behind me came another voice, as rough as a thousand pine cones. “They came close today, Peter. Just before the sun settled. They came hunting and saw Bon-Bon. He ran to the South, towards the farm land.”
“To lead them away, we think,” said another.
“We heard a shot,” added the female. “From far down the hill.”
“Has Bon-Bon returned?” asked Peter. His words trembled.
“Louis and Jahl-Habra are out looking for him, but . . .”
Peter’s shoulders slumped and his proud head fell. “Bon-Bon,” he whispered.
“Who’s the pupper, Peter?” This was a new voice, another female.
“This is Daks. Uh, excuse me. That’s Mister Daks. He’ll be staying with us a while, I believe. He has a few things to decide about his life, and he needs a place to do it in. Right now, he’s tired and very hungry, so take care of him. He’s recently had more than his share of troubles.”
“Follow me, Mister Daks. My name is Ah-Teena.” Bouncing from rock to lower rock, she came down and stood by my side. She was of a medium size and extraordinarily well proportioned. But of course, anyone with legs that match their body looks well-proportioned to me. “If you’re as hungry as you look, I’ll probably have to carry you.” Then she laughed.
I considered telling her what I thought of her attempt at humor, but I kept it to myself. I was the stranger here, after all.
As I followed her out of the boulders and into the greenery, I heard Peter say, “I saw Roth and Anna-Bar tonight. They’ve come back.”
* * *
Clearly, this Ah-Teena was well acquainted with the path. She moved with confidence while I strained my eyes to see where to step next. Low foliage, surprisingly thick for the time of year, blocked whatever moonlight there was.
“Do you like rabbit, Mister Daks? We have rabbit tonight, but if you don’t like that, we have a sack of apples and some bread that Jahl-Habra brought back yesterday.” She spoke over her shoulder and never slowed her pace to do it. “There may even be some potatoes left from the last time I went out foraging.”
“Slow down. I can’t see very well.” To prove my point, I stubbed my toe and stumbled over a tree root. My nose collided with her backside.
“You’re a little young to be thinking about that sort of thing, aren’t you?”
It embarrassed me, the way she snickered, but I didn’t know why. “What do you mean? I can’t see. I tripped.”
“You’ll see soon, little Mister Daks. Look ahead. Can you see that light?” Ah-Teena stopped and I went to her side. A soft orange glow, not even enough to cast shadows, seeped through the fronds and branches ahead.
“That . . . that looks like fire.”
“It is fire, ” she said and moved on.
The light grew and I could see more. That we were approaching fire made me a bit anxious, but at the same time, I was intrigued with her talk of eating a rabbit. If a rabbit were even a fraction as delicious as the chicken Peter had provided earlier, I might have walked through fire to get at it.
The light was coming out of an opening in the ground. “A burrow?” I asked.
“Sort of. A burrow for humans. A mine, actually. A man dug it. Mish-Shka says he did it to find something he thought was worth dying over. But don’t worry. There are no men left here. It’s a forgotten place.”
“And the fire is in there? You have fire inside a hole in the ground? And you want me to go inside with it?”
“Do as you wish, Mister Daks. But whatever food we have is in there. And later tonight, when the wind from the North picks up and freezes the snot on your whiskers, you may wish to remember the invitation is still open.” With that, she disappeared behind a bush that partially covered the entrance. I could hear her tell someone that Peter had returned.
I followed, but not immediately. In my short time on this world, I had developed an uneasy relationship with fire. Twice, I had been burned by embers popping out of an open fireplace as I lay next to Mom on cold evenings. Another time, late in the summer, I blundered into the legs of a smoldering barbecue while chasing a red rubber ball. It was the children’s fault that a number of hamburger patties were knocked to the ground because it was they who threw the ball for me to chase. And it’s certainly not my fault that humans have a problem with a little grit and dead grass on their food. But it was I who got the blister on my butt from the burning briquette, and it was I who got spanked for being a tad clumsy. Because of that incident, I had resolved to forever after keep my distance from fire.
But I could feel the beginnings of a chilled wind, and though I had no idea whether it was from the North or not, I didn’t want to risk frozen snot on my whiskers. Not among strangers. I could also smell the aroma of what had to be this rabbit meal she spoke of. It was an odd, gamy smell—not nearly as enticing as the chicken, but inviting. I decided that maybe fire and I could get along, at least until I had something in my belly. I stepped around the bush and into the hole.
* * *
Twenty pairs of eyes turned to me. Twenty noses tested my scent. Five of them belonged to a litter not three weeks out of the womb. Their mother lay in a niche in the wall, scrutinizing me with suspicion. She bore a resemblance to the Black Laa-Bradoure clan, but there were more lines of blood running in her veins than I had toes to count on, and her litter showed the influence of even more. There was even a pupper with bronze hair. The way the fire reflected off of his coat, I had to conclude that Peter did more with his time than bring chicken dinners to strays.
The rest were from an assortment of clans, or combinations of clans. Some were big, some small. Some were old and some young. Ah-Teena sat in the middle of the cave, telling them the news, and I must say that in the light, she was awfully attractive, in a mixed-breed sort of way. She was the color of amber, with an emblem of purest white on her chest. I have never seen a more finely-tapered snout, and her ears were pointed and alert.
“. . . and this is Daks. Excuse me. Mister Daks. Peter brought him home. From the looks of him, he could use some friends, so let’s make him feel comfortable.” She winked at me and I was overcome with self-consciousness. So many eyes upon me, such a marvelous smile Ah-Teena possessed—I wished Peter to be by my side for support, and I wasn’t even sure why.
The youngster with the coat so suspiciously like Peter’s shuffled over to Ah-Teena and asked her, “What happened to his tail, Auntie Teena?” He meant to whisper, but I heard him clearly.
Ah-Teena was brisk in answering. “Poo-Lee, is this your idea of consideration, to point out the deficiencies of strangers?”
The pupper shuffled his feet and put his feathery tail between his legs. He looked to his mother, but she gave him a hard stare through her heavy eyebrows. “No, Auntie Teena. Saw-reee,” he said, then rolled his chubby self back to his family, head hung low.
Thankfully, I didn’t remain the center of attention for much longer. Ah-Teena brought me a scrap of food and the tribe went back to what they had been doing before I entered—notably, evaluating the events of the day. The puppers kept their attention on me longer than the adults, but eventually they went to scuffling amongst themselves, chewing at each other’s legs and backsides. Not so long ago, I might have joined them for a game of rough-and-tumble, but the past day had done something to me. It felt like not being able to cry, but wanting to. The passion for play seemed a faint memory.
This hole in the earth was well lit for as far as I could see into it. The fire was small, and for that I was thankful, but its light reached forty paces or more into the cavern. Beyond that were only dim shapes. It appeared the tunnel might end just beyond my clear perception of it, for most of the dim shapes seemed to be a jumble of boulders and rough protrusions on a crumbling wall. The Oggs were spread out around the fire, some against the walls, others lying in comfortable nests around the floor.
The rabbit morsel was good, very good, but it was cold. While I was accustomed to my meals being served cold, the chicken I had eaten earlier had given me a new standard of culinary excellence. This was also my first taste of wild game, and it took me a good many bites to accustom myself to that muscular flavor.
I ate and listened to the conversation. The Oggs were happy that Peter had returned. Evidently he had been gone for three days and they had been concerned about him. But at the same time, they were equally upset over the brush with men that had occurred earlier. Their anxiety over the well-being of the one called Bon-Bon was extraordinary.
“He’ll ne’er be back, I say,” said one hoary old individual they called Chew. “Bon-Bon’s a goner. Tryin’ to lead ’em off over the open ground to the South . . . would o’ thought he had more sense’n that. I think they got off a good shot at ‘im and he’s a-layin’ out there in them scrapple rocks ‘cross the river.”
The puppers’ mother sobbed deeply. “No. Please, no.” Her words were as uncontrolled as a sneeze or a hiccup. They were not meant for other ears, but most of us have talented ears, and most of us heard her. The puppers stopped wrestling and pushed their backs against her as though this were the most somber moment yet in their short lives.
Ah-teena’s pretty, fox ears pointed forward on her head and she stomped at the cavern floor. “Chew, you don’t know anything! You don’t even know he went South. Bon-Bon is quick.”
“Yes!” They all agreed. “He is quick. And smart!”
“They’d never get Bon-Bon. Not Bon-Bon,” Ah-Teena said. She spoke directly to the lamenting mother, but there was something less than total conviction in her voice.
I finished my meal and moved next to Ah-Teena, trying to be inconspicuous. In doing so, I stumbled over Chew’s legs and rammed Ah-teena with my nose, again. She gave me an exasperated look, as though she would rather have a bushel of fleas sitting next to her than me, but then she forced a smile. I recognized it for what it was—a patronizing gesture—but it was welcome, just the same.
The bushes at the entrance parted, and for a slim moment, I thought the night itself had risen on four legs and entered the fireglow. He was old, older than Chew, older than anyone I had ever seen before, and he was enormous. Huge! I had no idea there were clans with sons that big until he lumbered into the cavern. He wasn’t as big as a cow, but cows diminish in size when one gets to know them.
With Grey Mish-Shka, the more I got to know him, the bigger he seemed.
* * *
“Louis and Jahl-Habra are back,” is all he said. It was his rough voice I’d heard by the creek, and it reminded me of my night in the cornfield, dry leaves being shuffled about by a thin breeze. The tribe smothered him with questions, all speaking at once, but he shook his massive head. “Peter will tell you.”
Peter entered behind the giant and others followed. There were no more questions, even though each fretful face twitched with questions. Two sturdy fellows were the last in. They each carried a large piece of wood which they dropped upon the fire before settling quietly against the mine’s wall. Peter stood near the cave’s entrance and waited for everyone to find a place. Those who had been there all along made room for the newcomers and everyone sat straight on their hind ends. The sad mother pulled her young ones in close and licked their heads to keep them quiet and still. Fire shadows danced on the walls, but that was nearly the only movement, there in that hole in the earth. Before Peter spoke, it became so quiet that the wind rustling amongst the cedar trees outside seemed loud.