“Here! Here! Here!” Anchu’s barks sounded more distant than any had expected, and they all sprinted to follow his voice.
“Over here!” they heard Larik call in the low light of the foggy morning, still unable to see anything beyond the next tree.
“Here! It’s here!” came Dak’s voice from a different direction.
“I’m right behind him…Oh! Shoot!” was Larik’s reply.
“Here! Here!” barks came simultaneously from Anchu and Umka, at opposite ends of the group, now strung out in a long oval in the woods.
“How can it be in two places at once?” Stone shouted through the fog.
Dak again barked out, in broken fragments of sentences. One could almost hear the leaps and turns he was making. “Almost…got it…Almost!…”
At the opposite end of the oval, Umka and Sasha could be heard making the same fragmented calls, “Here!…Oh!…This way…Oh!”
It had been, previous to the dog attack, a perfect morning for Rabbit’s grazing. The thick fog reducing visibility, providing some protection from predators. Green shoots still poked their way up through the season’s first snows. All the woods were quiet and peaceful. She froze at the sound of footfalls in the snow, approaching rapidly.
RUN! RUN! Escape her only defense. The dog saw her and let out a resounding call. Suddenly, the dog multiplied. It was a pack! They were everywhere, and a couple of them were very fast. One caught her scent trail, and was but a breath behind as she went through the drills: straight line across the opening then right turn and circle around to where you were. Stop. Freeze. Blend in. Listen.
Another dog from another direction and she was moving again. This time sprinting in a zig-zag line, changing course every few meters. Then the sound of dogs was in front of her. She bolted left, crossed the trail, and entered the dense thicket. Now she could hear the dogs’ barking begin to fade, as they raced off in a different direction. It sounded like they were now after her cousins, who had joined her for breakfast in the quiet dawn. Thicket drill: The smallest openings in the largest tangles make the best hiding places. She made a circle around the brush to throw the dogs off her trail, entered her secret lair and froze, stock still.
“It’s here! Here!” barked Larik.
“No! No! Over here!” Dak returned the call from the opposite end of the oval.
“No! Over here!” insisted Umka.
“I think we’re chasing more than one rabbit.” Stone called out. “Concentrate on the one nearest you.”
They worked in teams around the thick undergrowth. One dog prancing and pawing around front while the other traced around behind, waiting for their quarry to burst from the tangle. They tracked scent trails, noses pressed to the snow. They formed a perimeter around the area they believed held their target. They ran, they barked, they pawed and beat the brush.
Rabbit relaxed, breathed a sigh of relief as she heard the dogs circling the thickets on the other side of the trail. The coast clear, she left the safety of her hiding place and dashed back the way the whole party had come from. One large circle to throw down a masquerade scent trail, and she darted into the warren. She did a quick head count. They were all still here. Safe and warm and sleeping until Mother returned, and now they all stirred. She had a little laugh to herself at how easily dogs could be misled, then laid down to let her litter nurse.
“You’re going the wrong way! It’s back here!” Sasha called to the pack, running still further from the rabbit den in their frenzy. “I’ve never been able to catch a rabbit.” she said to herself, and laid down, panting. She began to think about life as a pack. It would be this every day. Of course they’d have all day every day to hunt without humans restraining them or hooking them to sleds.
“He’s got it!” The excited shout came from Larik. “Anchu’s got one!”
All the pack ran to see Anchu’s prize. Anchu held his head high as he walked among his tribe, the trophy draped in his jaws. He laid it down in the center of the group.
“Breakfast is served.” he said with a big grin.
All the dogs were elated with the catch. It wasn’t about breakfast, or even food. This demonstration showed they could work together as hunters, and that they stood a fair chance of feeding themselves this way. Between rabbits and the Fish Wheel, food would not be a worry. They ate at a relaxed pace, like a pride of lions in the heat of the savanna, lying on their bellies.
“This is really good rabbit. Thanks ‘Onch’.” said Stone, shortening Anchu to a single syllable. The rest reaffirmed this with random comments and smiles. Split seven ways, it was more of a snack than a meal, but it was symbolic of their potential success. They bathed in the snow after finishing, and otherwise lounged about, preening, and some napping.
The sun rose higher and burned away some of the fog. By mid-morning, Rabbit crept from her nest to go to the other side of the brambles, home of her cousin. Normally, by this time of day, they would all return to their homes to care for their young, and to avoid the harsh light of mid-day, which served to increase their visibility to predators. As she entered her cousin’s fur-lined den, the brood raced to her. Her cousin was nowhere in sight, and here her eight charges remained hidden, awaiting her return. They were very hungry now, having missed the morning meal, and nursed hastily at the teats of their mother’s cousin. She would let them have their fill. It may well be their last meal. If Mother didn’t return, it was not starvation that would kill them, but the unrelenting cold. She didn’t know why, but Rabbit was compelled to adopt the orphans, and she regularly visited to nurse the litter until they were big enough to go out on their own.
In the first night, two succumbed to the frigid temperatures. Two nights later, a third. Taxing as it was, Rabbit’s efforts paid off, and in little more than a week, five new faces emerged to populate the warren.
It was more of a celebration than a meal, or even a snack, to the Wild Pack. Spirits were high as they once again got underway, and set an overland course crossing Silver Creek, and on to Tun’s Mountain Lodge. The mists of morning lifted, and the sun shone brightly on the forest, filtering down through the ancient spruces, painting dappled shadow patterns on the snow. The air was crisp and the snow crunchy, and it seemed nothing could despoil this day.
Sasha thought again of her dear friend Kotka, and considered Larik’s premise, that a hunting pack has no place for a dog with a physical handicap. Suppose her pack went to the wild woods to live, and Kotka was unable to do so? How could she choose? Would she desert her pack, or the closest and longest friendship of her short life? How could she have both?
Answers eluded her, as she vowed to find a way, and lose neither.