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By Valerie Hobbs
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2013 Valerie Hobbs
All rights reserved.
JACK AWOKE FROM HIS DREAM with his back legs still running. A horrible man with a whip had been chasing him and Jack had run in terrified circles around and around inside a barn, unable to escape.
What a relief it was to open his eyes to the place where he was loved and not in Billy's Big and Happy Circus, where he had barely escaped with his life years ago.
Now his life here was perfect, except for the one thing that pestered him like a nasty flea: he was growing old. Or maybe he was already old. Getting up in the morning from his rug by the side of Luke's bed was no longer easy, not even for a Border collie. His legs were stiff. In cold weather they ached. Sometimes, to his embarrassment, he would grunt a little in pain.
Still, he always awoke before Luke, who liked to sleep in. Jack would poke his cold nose under the blankets, searching for just the right spot to make Luke squirm. "Aw, Jack," Luke would groan. "Can't you let a guy sleep?"
But Jack's nose wasn't needed to get his best friend out of bed this morning. The minute Luke's eyes opened, his feet hit the floor and he was climbing into his work clothes.
"You know what, Jack?" Luke said, pulling on his boots. "It's my birthday. I'm finally a teenager. Isn't that great?"
Jack didn't see the difference. Luke had never acted much like a kid, and he looked the same as always, only taller. He liked his sleep—who didn't? But when it came to doing his chores he never let his family down.
It was the same for Jack. He would rather die than disappoint Luke.
This morning, Jack bounced along on Luke's happy mood. They got through their chores in record time, feeding the dogs, the cats, and milking Bertha the kicking cow.
A bright ball of sun was peeking into the world, spreading warmth through Jack's bones. A soft breeze ruffled his fur. He followed Luke out to the barn, and when he saw Luke grab his saddle, he began rounding up the two-year-olds.
Today Jack was determined not to go easy on them. He would put them through their trials and expect perfection. He needed to see which of them could take over when he retired.
He didn't want to retire. The thought of staying behind while the younger dogs did the job he was born to do troubled him, but it was irresponsible not to have someone ready to step in. His job now was to find that dog and train him to lead. He would do it as he'd done every job he was ever given, to the best of his ability.
He gave his signal bark and Sarge came at once. Sarge, a two-year-old, was a good collie, strong and responsible. He wasn't quick, and his senses were not as sharp as they should be, but he was a dog Jack could count on for backup when he needed it.
He touched noses with Sarge and barked his signal again.
Casey and Freckles came around the corner of the barn together. With their nearly identical white faces, they were impossible to tell apart when they were born, at least for Luke, who couldn't pick them out by smell alone. It wasn't until they began to wobble around at about three weeks that the spots on Freckles's snout began to darken and gave her the name she was called by.
He and the three two-year-olds waited outside the barn until Luke climbed into the saddle. "Ready, Jack?"
Jack's answering woof put boy and horse into motion. Sarge, Casey, and Freckles set off behind them. Jack was about to take his place at the end when he heard a familiar bark and turned. There was Jackie racing as fast as her year-old legs would carry her, heading straight toward him.
What was she doing? He had told her that she was not to come. And here she was disobeying him. But she was his favorite and she knew it. Stopping just short of her grandfather, her eyes as filled with excitement as Luke's were this morning, she woofed.
He didn't answer.
She ran three circles around him, then stopped and waited, panting, her tail wagging eagerly. Her face with its classic black mask was so like his own. Let me come, let me come, she pleaded.
Freckles bumped Jackie's rump, hard. Casey gave her a low growl.
But Jackie wouldn't back down, and Jack finally gave in.
It was more than love that made his decision. Jackie had talent. More than any pup he'd ever known. He supposed her mother had something to do with it. Callie was one smart female and, like Jack himself, a prizewinning herder. But it was not only that. Jackie's instincts were strong and unfailing, so like his own.
He gave Jackie his no-nonsense look and ordered her to stay right on his heels. Any misbehaving and it was back to the barn. She fell into step behind him, stopping only to sniff the ground when her nose made her do it.
Jackie was thrilled to be out among the sheep, and Jack remembered exactly how that felt. He would let her wander for a while, then give her a taste of sheepherding. How much trouble could a yearling pup get into anyway?
The wolf was growing weary and his pace had slowed. Instinct told him that he must stay strong or he would be taken down like prey.
His wound from the rodent bite had begun to fester and itch. He tried to put it out of his mind, but he could not.
When at last he saw in the distance a swath of thick trees, his spirits lifted. He loped ahead until the woods surrounded him. There he ate whatever he could find, squirrels, rabbits, a fat juicy snake.
Revived, he moved on through the woods and found a field again, an open, grass-covered field stretched out beneath a deep blue sky.
And prey! Prey he had never seen the likes of. Slow prey. Fat and thickly furred, they waited to be taken down. The wolf raised his snout. Instinct was strong. He needed to howl. He wanted to call his pack to the feast, though he knew they would not come. They would not even hear him, and he would give himself away.
On his haunches, he was about to make his move when the canines appeared. Too small to be wolves, they were as agile and quick as the fat prey were slow. If one of the prey wandered from its kind, a canine was there on the spot to bring it back.
As he watched from behind a tree, the wolf could see that the alpha canine had age bearing down upon him. The young one who resembled the alpha in color and markings was faster. She looked to the old one for approval. The two touched noses, and the young one ran off again.
An unfamiliar feeling arose in the wolf. This, too, he tried to ignore, but it was as if something had stuck to his paw that he could not shake off. It had made for a restless sleep, this feeling he had no name for.
He had no kind. No one to greet with the touching of noses and rubs and licks. No one to return to. He was alone. He might always be.CHAPTER 2
JACK FOLLOWED THE SHEEP, checking for the patches of paint on their flanks that identified them. When Old Sally stopped at a patch of sparse grass, all the sheep pushed in. It had been a dry year. Jack could feel the worry that fell over the ranch each night like darkness. The sheep needed nourishment to produce the fine wool that Olaf and Katrin were known for. Hay could be bought, but there was little money to spare.
Another dry year or two might ruin them.
Jack remembered all too well the last days at his birth ranch and worried as much as anybody. First came drought, then fire, then the selling of animals, down to the last pup. In no time, it seemed, he had gone from pet shop to a little girl's baby carriage, and when he could stand no more he hit the road. That was where he met his great friend, the Goat Man, and when the Goat Man was no more, all the others: some good, like Hollerin; some not-so-good, like Snatch; and some downright evil, like Billy from the circus. Then, best of all, came Luke, who needed a home as much as he did, and Olaf and Katrin, who took them in.
But that was the past. Today, like any other good day, there was work to do. Jack put the dogs through their paces, culling a half dozen sheep from the flock, then neatly returning them. Freckles was best at this, so Jack sent Jackie off with her. The sheep were annoyed but obedient. But when Jackie threatened to nip Old Sally's leg, she got one of the ewe's meanest looks.
Jackie backed off, her feelings hurt.
Old Sally demanded respect. She and Jack had built something almost like a friendship over the years. She would help him out with the lambs, if he would leave her alone. She gave him a baleful look now as if to say, Who is this whippersnapper you've brought out today? Tell it to back off.
Jackie backed off. Old Sally was twice her size and twice as mean as any sheep she'd met so far.
Luke was out riding the perimeter. There had been talk of coyotes, but so far it had been just that: talk. Nobody had seen one for several months. Still, you had to watch for them. Drought brought the coyotes closer in, and their hunger made them brave. In packs, they could easily pick off the younger or weaker sheep. Olaf and Katrin had lost two sheep to coyotes, both in Jack's first year with them.
It had been his fault, though nobody blamed him. Jack had never before seen a coyote, and if he had, might have thought it was just some long-legged, strange-stepping dog. But he blamed himself. Not since that first year had another sheep been lost on his watch.
He vowed there never would be.
Jack watched the hills now. Through eyes that had lost a little of their sharpness, he scanned the trees at the edge of the woods. The coyotes, if they attacked, would come from there. Unless they came in great numbers, Jack was confident that he and the dogs could deal with them. But no coyotes appeared. Jack had time to run the dogs through several more drills before Luke came riding back.
"Let's head in," he said, to Jack's surprise. The sun was still high. "I don't want to miss my party!"
So that was the reason for Luke's happy mood. He was going to have a birthday party. Jack figured it would be like all the parties in the years before, with lots of food and noise. Jack could sneak in a nap and maybe a few extra treats. He rounded up the dogs and they fell in line behind him.
All but Jackie.
Putting Sarge in the lead, Jack went back for Jackie. He had to admit that she'd done well today. Her feints had improved and all morning she kept her focus where it needed to be: on the job.
Where was she now?
He sent her a sharp bark and, when it wasn't returned, set off to find her.
Jackie was not among the sheep. Jack went up one of the hills to get an overview of the field and the thin stream that had once been a river at the far end.
She was not at the water. She was not anywhere to be seen.
His errant granddaughter could only be in one other place: the woods.
Jack, worried now, raced down the hill and across the field. If that silly darned pup had gone deep into the woods ...
At the edge of the trees, he barked again. An answering bark came from within, not far away but far enough. Jack plunged in, leaves and twigs snapping beneath the pads of his feet. A myriad of odors assaulted his nose: dry leaves, decay, dung beetles, urine.
He stopped only long enough to sniff the base of a tree. Coyote? He couldn't be certain. The scent was stronger, more acrid, and, well, just different. There was something wrong with this animal. Some sickness.
He barked again and Jackie came bounding through the trees, her coat full of stickers and dry leaves. "Big feet!" she said excitedly. "I saw a snake and a bird that was dead and a dog with giant feet!"
He didn't have to speak to let her know how much trouble she was in. They ran side by side, Jack breathing hard and trying not to show it, while Jackie kept on about the dog with the giant feet.
He finally told her to knock it off. Dogs didn't have giant feet. Neither, for that matter, did coyotes. She was seeing things. The woods had a spooky way of doing that to you.
When they reached the barn, he sent Jackie inside to spend the rest of the day. She obeyed, her tail between her legs.
Giant feet. Jack's heart suddenly felt heavy. If Jackie's imagination was greater than her judgment, he might have to reevaluate her worth as a herding dog.
It was only at that moment, leaving Jackie behind in the barn, that Jack realized what he'd had in mind for her all along. He had wanted her to prove not only to himself but to the others that she was fit to lead. Now that hope might be dashed.
Giant feet. He almost wished she hadn't told him.
Caught up in his disappointment, Jack didn't recall the urine mark in the woods until dinner. He had guessed that a coyote left that strange mark. Now he still wasn't sure, but if not a coyote, what could it be?CHAPTER 3
LUKE'S PARTY was in full swing. Whole families from neighboring ranches had come, and the house was stuffed with people. In the four years since Luke and Jack had been adopted, this was Luke's biggest birthday party yet. Before Olaf and Katrin, he'd never had a party, and no real family at all.
Jack zigzagged his way through dozens of legs until he found Mandy Cross. She was sitting on the floor, wearing her worn jeans and a wrinkled shirt. Her hair looked like the back end of Banner, her horse, but her smile was sweet and her touch gentle. Of all Luke's friends, Mandy was Jack's favorite. Jack settled himself beside her.
"Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!" Luke blew out the candles on his triple-layer chocolate cake and everybody cheered.
"Open your presents, Luke," said Cece, Mandy's older sister, fluffing her blond ringlets. "Mine first, please." She handed Luke a small, flat package tied with a yellow bow that matched her sundress and the bow in her hair.
A blush spread over Luke's cheeks and he ducked his head. Muttering a thanks, he tore the paper off. Inside was a woven yellow friendship bracelet, the kind the girls made for each other.
"Uh, thanks," said Luke, and quickly set the bracelet aside.
"Oh! You don't like it!" Tears sprang into Cece's blue eyes. "I was afraid of that."
"No! It's ... nice," Luke said, blushing all the more.
"It won't hurt you to wear it," said Cece's father, big Curtis Cross. "Put it on!"
Frowning, Luke slipped the bracelet on his wrist.
When cheers went up, Luke looked like he wanted to fall through the floor.
Only Jack understood how uncomfortable his best friend was. The bracelet was too much like the halter Jack had been forced to wear in that terrible circus long ago. The bracelet was only made of string, but its intention was the same: to claim a fellow and hold him down.
By the look on Mandy's face, Jack could tell she didn't like that bracelet either. Every now and then, she'd sneak a look at Luke and her cheeks would redden.
Jack had seen this same behavior in dogs, only without all the changing of face color. It was clear to him that both Cece and Mandy wanted to be Luke's mate. Mandy with her sweet, shy smile was Jack's choice, but Cece was the alpha dog. Around her, Luke didn't have a choice: it was her or no one.
A cloud of weariness settled over Jack. He laid his snout in Mandy's lap. She smiled and smoothed her soft hand over his head until his eyelids fluttered and shut.
"... coyotes ..."
Jack caught only that one word and his eyes sprang open.
"Saw one loping across my land just the other evening, right about sunset," said Curtis Cross. "I got it in my sights, pulled off a shot, and, I swear, the thing flat out disappeared. Just like that!" He snapped his fingers.
Olaf and another neighbor, a big, beefy man they called Pinky, all started laughing. "You're losing it, Curt," Pinky teased. "You can't shoot straight, that's all."
But Jack knew better. He had seen the very thing Curtis Cross had described. Coyotes were the strangest creatures. In the blink of an eye they could turn into air. Jack didn't know how they did it—one minute the coyotes were there, the next they were gone. It was spooky.
The cake was cut into slices and passed around. Jack drifted off to sleep, but not before he heard the men arguing about guns. Olaf was what Curtis called a "pacifist." The rifle that hung over the fireplace was only to protect his family should someone threaten them. He could not bring himself to kill an animal.
"The coyotes come and you're going to have to pick them off, like it or not," said Curtis Cross. "You can't ask us to be saving your flock as well as our own."
"And I won't," said Olaf. "The dogs and I will take care of the coyotes, same as we always have."
"Maybe so, maybe not," said Curtis Cross, but he'd looked right at Jack as if he were counting the white hairs on Jack's snout. He didn't believe Jack was up to the job, not anymore, and Pinky probably thought the same thing. Only Olaf and Luke held on to their stubborn belief in Jack.
He would not let them down.
The party broke up, Katrin reminding Cece and Mandy that they as well as Luke would be writing an essay in their homeschool class on Monday. Luke made a face. Cece giggled. Katrin, their English teacher, was pretty easy on them. They could probably talk her into putting off the essay.
Mrs. Cross was tougher. If you didn't study your biology, you got extra homework and no snack. But their toughest teacher was Mr. Cross, who taught them history and what he called "the nuts and bolts of living." If you didn't do the homework he assigned, you got to weed his vegetable garden.
Katrin, Olaf, and Luke followed their guests into the yard to say goodbye. The moon was full, the air warm and still. Mandy smiled shyly at Luke. Cece whispered something in his ear. Jack stuck his nose under Luke's hand to remind him who his real best friend was. Luke let his hand rest on Jack's head.
"Looks like nice weather for the county fair tomorrow," said Olaf.
"Yep," said Curtis Cross. "Adele has been baking pies all day. She's counting on first place this year."
Excerpted from Wolf by Valerie Hobbs. Copyright © 2013 Valerie Hobbs. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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