Defend the Flock
The wolf, Silver, padded heavily through the woods. Normally a healthy size, lean and quick, he was now the sickly thin that animals have a hard time bouncing back from. His stomach growled constantly. The rabbits and occasional foxes that he hunted down were at least something, but their flesh barely gave him back the energy it took to catch them. He used to be a fast and skilled hunter. But now his hunger made him a sluggish scavenger and fogged his brain. Silver had been alone now for three cycles of the moon’s waxing and waning; and by his count he was coming up on his fourth full moon.
Wolves stick together and take pride in their pack bonds. When one wolf gets separated from the pack, the rest will search for days to find them again. But when a huge grizzly bear stomps into the pack’s feast of an adolescent elk, it can be easy to be separated in the ensuing chaos. Silver’s ribs still hurt from when the bear swiped a huge pat at him and knocked him away. He was lucky to survive, and the wolf knew it. Still, he missed his pack.
A strange smell drifting through the woods caught Silver’s attention. It didn’t smell like any animal he’d hunted before, but it was strong and close. Maybe this could be his chance, the wolf thought to himself, if it was a whole herd of deer or whatever, maybe he could catch the slowest, youngests, or lamest and maybe be okay. Quickly, he ran through the trees, his nose guiding him until he skidded to a halt. He’d reached the edge of the forest and running along it and blocking his way was a fence.
Silver had run into fences when he was a young pup. But those were abandoned, broken down, and rotting. Fences long after any human had touched them. This fence was well maintained, made of clean timber planks, and stood straight and tall. The wolf looked it up and down. He guessed he could have easily jumped over it if he was in good health, but another growl from his stomach denied that hope. Still…that smell enticed him too much to turn away. Instead, Silver began walking along the fence, hoping for an in.
The fence was made of vertical planks held together by a horizontal iron bar. Gaps between each plank were just big enough to see through, maybe with enough room for a skunk or rabbit to get through, but no more than that. Through the gaps, Silver could see a vast expanse of grass. This wasn’t the uneven, yellowish grass of a prairie where wildflowers and bushes flourished in the spring. No, this was a uniform bright green grass going for as far as the wolf could see over the rolling hills. The grass wasn’t the wolf’s focus. He was looking for a weak spot in the fencing; maybe a gap in the planks just big enough to squeeze through, or a cracked or rotted plank he could break with a good running start. Whatever could get him in and closer to that smell.
Finally, after maybe a mile, he found something. One plank was broken, the bottom third snapped off. Silver gave the space left behind a test. He could fit his muzzle through and most of his head, but knew the rest of his body, as thin as it was, couldn’t. He stood back, calculating what to do. If he could dig far down enough and wide enough, he could squeeze through, he thought. So, he dug. His claws loosened the dirt while his hard paws scooped and flung it between his back legs. The more he dug, the more excited the wolf got and the more frantic his digging became. He was almost to the point he could force himself through the hole when a tremendous sound ripped through the autumn air. It was like the roar of a massive bear or deep rumbling thunder. Afraid, Silver ran back into the woods and hid behind a fallen log.
Silver stayed hidden long after the monstrous sound was gone and the sun had set. Frogs and crickets started their nightly chorus as Silver returned to the fence. The earth in the hole was growing stiff and hardening in the cold night, but Silver summoned up his strength and dug furiously. His breath rose in clouds of steam as he finally got it big enough that he could fit. He gingerly wiggled through. With a few squirms and a powerful kick of his hindlegs, he was through!
He almost somersaulted as he stumbled onto the soft grass and got up shakily. It’d been almost four days since he’d eaten, and that was only a small rabbit. Once his feet could hold him up again, he looked around. He could see in the dark rather well, and the moonlight made everything a little clearer. A faint mist hung over the grass - it would condense into a dew by dawn. The wind picked up and the wolf sniffed greedily at the air. He turned in the direction of the wind and saw the dark silhouettes of buildings about half a mile away.
There was nothing to hide behind between him and the buildings except the gentle slopes of the hills, so he slunk low to the ground and crawled. When he was about a hundred years from them, the wolf recognized the buildings as a barn and human farmhouse. Like the fence, he had seen ones like this before but these were still kept up by the humans who built it. The smell came from the barn and once he knew there was nothing between him and it, the wolf quickly bounded over. His mouth watered as he panted. He was so close. His quarry was inside. Hoping he’d be lucky twice, he walked around the barn and looked for another breech in the structure. He went around four times, but the barn was well made. The only gap he found was the one between the huge barn doors, but that was only wide enough to peek through and the large iron latch kept them tight shut. So, the wolf found a small patch of dirt around the side and curled up. He dreamed a wolf’s dream - of food, summer afternoons, and his pack.
The heavy thud and creaking of old metal and wood jolted Silver awake. It was still dark, not long before dawn, but there was a great commotion inside the building. As Silver got up and carefully peeked one eye around the corner, the inhabitants of the barn spilled out through the open barn doors. It was sheep! Though he’d never encountered sheep like this, Silver recognized the similar faces and body shapes to the rams and wild goats he’d seen. Silver eyed the flock, watching for any that had a limp, stumbled, or were slowed with age. A half a dozen or so lambs darted in between the adults, but kept too close for them to be considered targets. Silver was hungry, but weak, and he didn’t want to fight off an angry mother ewe as well. The last few stragglers ran out of the barn and two more figures came out, and these weren’t sheep.
At first, Silver thought one of them was a wolf. Though it had a strange pattern of white and black fur and was much smaller than any wolf, this animal was definitely lupine in nature. Silver stayed hidden. Some wolves are accepting of strangers, but he was in no condition to test this wolf’s friendliness. Plus, there was the other one to consider. It stood tall on two legs and was bundled in many layers of clothing. Silver took a step back, not wanting to be seen by the human. He knew about them, and they don’t take kindly to wolves - even when it's them who wander into the wolf’s territory.
Silver watched the human close the barn doors again then kneel down. He put his glowing lantern down as the small wolf - what he would have called a dog - ran up and nuzzled the human. The human smiled and scratched and rubbed the dog’s ears and back before getting up again.
“Go on now,” the human said and the dog ran after the flock. Not overly concerned with keeping up, the man followed at a steady pace. And slowly, outside the reach of the lantern light, the wolf followed.
Silver stayed low to the grass as he watched the activity of the sheep, dog, and human. The sheep moved together in a big cloud. When they stopped to graze, some would lay down on the grass; then when they got up to move, the black and white dog would keep them together, chasing the stragglers back into the flock and maintaining a constant perimeter around them. Meanwhile, the human was mostly unconcerned with the animals. He’d give sharp whistles on occasion and the dog would bring the flock closer. Sometimes the man would check the fencing, or bend down and examine some of the grass, or he’d simply sit down on a rock or stump and watch the animals.
Hours passed. Silver waited. He hoped for a moment that the dog would go away or leave a gap in its perimeter patrol that the wolf could take advantage of. Losing hope, Silver gave a thought to returning to the barn and seeing if he could get in and wait until the flock returned, but then it happened. The dog trotted over to the human, who at this point was sitting and whittling on a small chunk of wood, and laid down at his owner’s feet. Not wanting to be hasty, though his weak muscles and stomach begged for immediacy, Silver stayed low and still. He watched the dog fall asleep as the pile of wood shavings on the human’s feet grew. After ten minutes, when the wolf couldn’t take it any longer and desperation took over, he tensed, picked a target, and shot forward.
Silver ran as if the sheep were skittish deer that he’d been tracking for miles. He ran straight and true, then leapt. He let out a snarl of triumph and in that moment was blind to everything except the sheep that would fill his empty stomach.
The flock, too placid to react sooner, scattered as the wolf snarled and landed on his prey. Its bleat was the loudest. Silver’s extended claws raked through the thick wool, searching for flesh. His jaws were wide open and went right for the thin, soft throat. The two went tumbling over each other but soon the sheep’s bleating were barely a gargled cry as the wolf bit down on its windpipe. Tasting blood, warm and thick, Silver thought his starvation was over and finally he would be okay. But that thought lasted only a few seconds, long enough to clamp his teeth in more and his claws to find fleshy purchase when a heavy force crashed into him and he was knocked off the ewe.
It was the dog. The dog that was only half his size had barreled into him like a bear’s sweeping paw. Silver snarled as he got up and squared off against the black and white nuisance. The dog’s lips curled and it gave several warning barks. Back off, they said, they’re mine. But Silver was having none of it. If he had to kill this dog too, then he would. He snarled again, tensed, then pounced with an angry roar. The dog barked and met the wolf’s challenge. Together, they were a whirlwind of fur, claws, and teeth. If Silver had been in full health, he’d’ve torn the dog to shreds - easily. But starved and blinded by hunger and fear, they were evenly matched. They rolled on the grass, the sheep running in all directions as the canine and lupine fought. Everytime a claw or bite landed for one, the other landed one of his own. The two fought until a loud blast of thunder ripped through the air.
At the sound, the dog jumped off and leapt back. Silver growled confused. The sky was a clear blue so why was there thunder? The dog barked angrily but kept its distance. The wolf snarled again and crouched, ready to end this and shut the sorry excuse for a wolf up for good when a second crack of thunder sounded and a chunk of grass between the wolf and the dog exploded into dirt and sod. Now Silver was scared as well as confused and took a step back. But when the third crack of thunder came and the grass right at his feet burst apart, the wolf yelped and ran.
The dog ran after him, keeping its distance as if herding a stray sheep, but snarling and barking the whole way. Behind them, the man shouted and swore as he followed. Silver’s head was clear now and thinking of only one thing…escape! He ran, winding through the hills until he found the fence. He got to it and ran alongside it, hoping he’d find the way out somehow. His wounds bled, the wind from running turning the wet fur cold, and his head pounded. Just as he felt his body forcing itself to slow down as he got weaker, he came to it.
Nearly skidding past it, Silver scrambled into the dirt furrow and through the fence. Splinters and dirt stung at his wounds, but he made it through just as the dog caught up and snapped at his heels. Silver paused as he got to the nearest trees, expecting the furious dog to come crawling after. But the dog only barked at him through the hole. Panting, Silver thought it was over, thought himself safe. But then, the human came running into view. Silver only saw the man’s red face and billed cap before the man raised his gun. Silver was between two thick oaks, mostly obscured, but when the bark of the tree beside his head burst at the crack of the gunshot, the wolf yelped and ran as fast as he could.
As he ran, his body grew weaker as adrenaline left his system. Silver thought of that first moment he’d seen the human and the dog, how affectionately they’d nuzzled each other and how the man scratched the dog’s ears. The wolf stopped, panting with a dry throat, and collapsed. Before he blacked out, he thought of his pack, summer afternoons, and wished he was a herdsman’s dog instead.