Callahan heard the sound of vacuuming inside and rang again. The vacuum cut, and a moment later he heard footsteps approach the front door. To his left, a lilac bulged with pale lavender clumps.
The man who stood on the other side of the screen door was stoop-backed, his thinning gray hair parted neatly to the side.
“Thanks for coming so fast. This way.” He swung the door open, and Mike Callahan entered.
As he followed the man into the house, Callahan could see that Dan Sunder’s limp had worsened.
An orange cat disappeared ahead of them into an unknown room. The country rambler was tidy, though plants and Hummels crowded the two windowsills. Dan’s wife stood in the living room holding a vacuum over the couch.
“Carla.” Callahan tipped his hat slightly.
The woman said nothing, staring at the rifle in Callahan’s hand.
Dan led Mike through the kitchen, which smelled faintly of bacon, and out the back door. They crossed a large parking area. A tractor and two Chevy pickups, one with its hood up, were angled next to the barn.
They passed through a closed gate and into a gently sloping pasture. A quarter mile up, forest slashed dark and oblique across it. Above that, sheer grayish-white mountains rose into the morning sky.
“Over there.” Dan pointed.
The wolf was lying on its side, but rose as Callahan approached, backed to the end of the chain that held the claw trap, and growled softly. It was a large male, with black-tipped guard hairs down its spine that stood on end. Callahan walked closer.
The wolf tried to back farther, but couldn’t. It opened its mouth, pink tongue hanging slack, saliva dripping. Callahan could hear the sound of its breathing—nervous, ragged. The wolf’s amber eyes appraised him as he raised the ought-six, sighted, and fired.
It took two shots to sever the leg, and even then the wolf surged and tore the remaining tendon. It limped sloppily away. Falling, righting itself, falling again, in a crooked line uphill toward the forest.
“Hasn’t got the hang of being three-legged yet,” Callahan yelled back at Dan. “He ain’t going to, either.”
Callahan spit, raised the rifle again, and put the beast out of its misery.
The female wolf stepped deftly onto the white granite crag and lifted her nose, catching the clean scent of resin, musty duff, a hint of smoke. Closer, somewhere up-canyon, carrion.
Hearing something, she cocked her ears forward and down. The sound came again, almost like the shriek of a hawk far below, from a small oval of limpid water. It was a wild laugh.
Gazing down, she caught motion. Two female human bodies playing and splashing two hundred yards below. The pool was shaped like a large eye, braced by a short cliff on one side, surrounded by forest on the two sides adjacent to the cliff. Directly across the pool from the cliff was a beach of coarse blond sand, shaped like a pale human hand stretching its fingers into the meadow grass behind it. Mica on the pool’s bottom amplified the water’s clarity and gave it an electrical charge. The center of the pool was dark and deep. On the beach lay a third woman on her back, sunning.
A feeling of deep kinship and recognition flickered in the wolf. Confused, she knew these creatures were to be feared. Still, there was wildness in these women that resonated across her genetic history, ancient and powerful.
The female wolf, beautiful by some standards, hideous by others, weighed ninety-six pounds. Her silver fur was tipped black, her eyes burned gold. She stood three feet at the shoulder, and just a hair less than five feet from the tip of her tail to the end of her snout. Four years old, she was in her prime.
The wolf had little knowledge of how humans conceived her and her kind. A form the devil chose as his earthly manifestation; a slaughterer of livestock; a symbol of wildness; one of the most intelligent and social mammals; an endangered species.
After leaving her perch she would return to her mate, the alpha male, and their small, loose pack where they lounged in a high meadow full of house-sized boulders. The pack currently consisted of the alpha pair, two sons, and an unrelated female that remained on the periphery. For the past three weeks they had traveled from Lemhi Pass, crisscrossing from Idaho to Montana and back, with no awareness of the geographical boundaries deemed so important by humans. They had traveled this far looking for a home.
Levi caught a ride with Art and Taki. A storm had broken an hour earlier and the rain fell steadily, as if not wanting to give up its grip on the valley. The windshield wipers kept a steady back-beat to the rain and muted conversation in the cab. Levi was filling Taki in on his current project. Art had already signed on as wheel man.
“I’m heading up Goat Creek the day after tomorrow to check out a lead that a small pack dropped in from Idaho. A pilot friend of mine saw four wolves just below the Idaho divide. Nobody knows anything about them. None of them are collared.”
“You might not agree, but the concept of a radio-collared wolf is just wrong,” Art interjected.
“Mostly I agree, but collars have their place.”
“How do you plan to get through Leeson’s land?” Taki asked.
“Climb around it.”
“I told him that’s impossible,” Art said to Taki.
“Sounds fun,” said Taki, laughing. “I’m almost inclined to invite myself along.”
“No way.” Art grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “You’re staying right here with me, not running off with some wolf freak.” Art’s laugh was strained, and Taki squeezed his hand for reassurance.
Art slowed to pull into the parking lot, but a black Escalade cut sharply in front of him, bumper sticker reading in all caps “KILL A WOLF FOR CHRIST.”
“One of your fans, no doubt,” quipped Art.
“This will be a nightmare,” Levi retorted.