I know that the title is a bit pathetic, but it’s the best thing I could think of to describe a situation falling between Balto and Balto II. I’ve used some characters and events from other fanfiction in my tale, though I did change the names and descriptions given to Balto’s pups to match those in Wolf Quest. Please be sure to check out Cyberwolf’s Reunion, Tricksy’s New Life, Tricksy’s Lessons, and Kindred Spririts to get the full picture. I’d like to give a special thanks to Silver Wolf for her great advice on plot and character development. Balto, Jenna, Boris, Nikki, Kaltag, Star, Rosie, her parents, and any other characters from the two Balto films are owned by Amblin Entertainment. Russell Lupus, Tricksy, and Kemo are owned by Cyberwolf. I make no claim to any of these, but the storyline and all other characters are mine. Feel free to use my characters and events in your stories, but if you make any money with them, I want a cut. I’m just a poor college student :) I’ll also be posting this on www.fanfiction.net. My review section is open to everyone, so you don’t have to be a member to post any constructive criticism. Other than that, please enjoy.
Balto, wolf-dog of Nome, Alaska, entered his house quietly and shook the snow out of his fur. For springtime in Alaska, there was quite a bit of snow falling, more than usual at least. For most of the day, he had been at his former home, a derelict old fishing trawler, visiting his old friends, Boris, Muk, and Luk. He smiled to himself. To think that a Russian Snow Goose and two polar bear cubs had been his only friends until just recently never failed to bring a smile to his face. He almost missed the days of scrounging for his food and relying upon his speed, cunning, and friends to keep him alive. Those carefree days had vanished since he had led the sled team that carried the lifesaving diphtheria antitoxin to Nome. Now he was a hero with a real home, regular meals, a beautiful mate, six puppies, and literally a town full of friends. Not that life was much easier. Being a hero and a father gave a whole new meaning to the word responsibility. Having to change his lifestyle while trying to keep himself and his pups out of trouble at the same time was a different race altogether. On top of that, he’d been having some troubling dreams lately, and he’d only discussed that with Boris. Still, it was nice to get away for a day or two and be “just one of the guys” again.
He stood in a moment’s hesitation in front of the fireplace, realizing that he would be overrun the instant he lay down. Though he was pleased to see a bit of himself in the pups’ antics, he wasn’t sure he was up to the task of dealing with them at the moment. No guts, no glory. Heaving an exhausted sigh, he stretched out in front of the hearth.
Balto swore his pups had a sixth sense as they entered the room. His four sons, Rush, Kodi, Jenner, and Dingo, and his daughter, Kala, had Jenna’s reddish and cream-colored fur. Aleu, on the other paw, had begun displaying her wolf heritage early. His youngest daughter’s brownish-gray fur, narrow muzzle, and bushy tail made her look as wolflike, if not more so, than Balto himself. As soon as the pups noticed that he was home, Balto was quickly overrun by all six rambunctious furballs. While his other puppies ran around him excitedly, showering him with questions and roughhousing with each other, Aleu elected to climb onto his back and gnaw on his ear.
Oh, well, it’s not like I wanted to sleep anyway. He breathed a deep sigh and raised his head carefully to keep Aleu from falling. “Isn’t your mother around?” he asked.
“No, she went out with Rosie,” Rush replied, trying hard to act more responsible than his siblings. This ended when Jenner tumbled into him and the two pups started wrestling.
“She said that she would be back in a little while,” Kala added helpfully.
Balto nodded before he felt something jump onto his belly. He looked down and saw that Aleu had apparently tired of chewing on his ear.
“Come on Papa! Let’s race!” she exclaimed, excitedly hopping around him.
Balto yawned. “Have a heart, Aleu. I really need to get some sleep now. I’ll race you later, okay?”
“Only if you catch me first!” Aleu countered, intending to play one way or another.
Balto shook his head in mock surrender. “Oh, all right. You want a head start, I suppose?”
Aleu shook her head in a decisive negative as she assumed a racing position that mirrored his own. Balto shrugged and stood up with a yawn. “Okay. On your mark, get set, go!” Aleu hadn’t taken more than two steps before he caught her by the scruff of the neck. “I win. You all go do something quiet.”
“Not fair, Papa!” Aleu argued. “That was cheating!”
Balto smiled. “Not cheating, parents’ prerogative. Go on now and let me get some sleep.”
“Awww,” all the pups moaned as they walked off.
“He really did cheat,” Balto heard Aleu mutter to her siblings.
“You know that, and we know that, but parents never play fair,” Jenner remarked as they exited.
Balto shook his head and had just laid down again when he heard a scratching at the door. He groaned and tried to bury his head under his pillow. Won’t these interruptions ever cease? He heard the scratching again. “What?” he called, trying not to voice his impatience.
He was surprised to see Kaltag poke his head inside. “Good evening, Balto,” the husky said. “Mind if I come in? This night is the coldest, the snowiest . . .”
“Kaltag! Sure, come over here by the fire.”
Kaltag squeezed in through the door and shook some of the snow out of his fur. “I can’t stay but a minute,” he said, walking over to the fireplace. “But by the Aurora Borealis, this is the most glacial, the most frigid, the most biting cold I’ve ever felt for this time of year.”
As soon as the sled-dog was seated, Balto’s pups barreled back into the room. Balto smirked as Kaltag was nearly bowled over by the excited puppies. Of all the dogs in Nome, Kaltag was by far their favorite, and they always enjoyed his visits.
“Hi Uncle Kaltag!” Jenner exclaimed. “You’re all covered in snow!”
Kodi wagged his tail in anticipation. “You been out sledding?”
“Isn’t Tricksy here?” Kala asked.
“Yeah, where’re your kids?” Rush added.
“Ya stayin’ long?” Dingo asked.
“Salutations, I know, no, no, at home, no. Does that answer all the . . . Hey!” he laughed as Aleu climbed onto him and began chewing on his ears. He looked beseechingly at Balto. “And I thought I’d gotten away from all this when I left my pack with Tricksy.”
Balto looked reproachfully at his daughter. “Aleu.” The pup slowly slid off Kaltag’s back.
Kaltag winked at her. “Hey, I was only joking. I can’t feel anything after being out in the cold anyway. Besides, I’ve had plenty of experience with pups. You might say I’m a professional of sorts. A real natural.”
“Well, Mr. Professional,” Balto said sarcastically, “You care to show me how it’s done?”
“All right.” Kaltag looked at the pups and winked. “Last one to the kitchen’s a wheel dog!” The pups bounded off, yipping excitedly. He cocked his head jauntily. “Now that, my friend, is puppy-control.”
Balto couldn’t help but to chuckle. “And all this time I’ve been doing it the old-fashioned way of just telling them to take a hike. Whatever was I thinking?”
Kaltag laughed. “It’s nice to see ya again, ya old mongrel. It’s been far too long.”
“It’s only been three days, Kaltag, but I’m glad to see you too. How’s Tricksy?” Balto asked, referring to Kaltag’s mate, another wolf hybrid.
“Oh, she’s fine. We’re still staying busy with the pups, but it’s basically a piece of cake.”
Balto snorted. “Well I’m up to my ears with my bunch. I’m tellin’ ya, Kaltag, it’s not as easy as I thought it would be. I mean, I was always into stuff when I was a pup, but this is six times as bad. Sometimes I almost rethink my decision to agree with three little words Jenna said a couple months ago.”
Kaltag smiled, anticipating his friend’s answer. “What’s that?”
“‘Let’s start a family.’ It’s a full time job, but I guess their wild side is partly my fault.”
“That’s four words.” Kaltag shook his head. “They seem like good kids, though, part wolf or not.”
Balto nodded. “Yeah. At least if they ever get out of line I can threaten to talk to their Uncle Kemo. That calms them down in three seconds flat.”
“That wolf certainly has a certain aura,” Kaltag agreed.
“They don’t know he’s a wolf. They don’t even know they’re part wolf.”
“Whatdya mean they don’t know?” Kaltag blurted out. “Aleu looks . . .”
“Just like the others,” Balto interrupted.
“Oh . . . of course. I . . . uh . . . that’s just what I was just about to say,” Kaltag stammered, for once at a loss for words. “It’s just . . . well, Trix and I made sure to tell our bunch about being part wolf, and I’m surprised you haven’t done the same by now. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know.”
“I know that.” Balto sighed. “Sorry if I snapped at you, but it’s hard being a half-and-half. Jenna and I decided that we were going to make sure that Aleu didn’t think she was any different from the other pups. Looking like a wolf doesn’t make her a wolf after all, but I’m afraid that’s not what human eyes will see. You don’t have that problem; yours look more like you than Tricksy. You’ve got it easy.”
“Easy? Right.” Kaltag smiled before looking startled. “Oh! Speaking of wolves, I ran into Kemo today and he gave me a message for you. That’s why I came here tonight in the first place. He wants you to meet him ASAP. He would’ve told you himself, but you know how he is with towns and humans.”
Balto frowned. “Does Tricksy know you’re here?”
Kaltag nodded slightly. “Yes.”
Crestfallen, Balto raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Please tell me you didn’t tell her why you’re here.”
Kaltag winced. “I had to, Balto. You know it’s impossible to keep a secret from her. She can smell even the tiniest little fib! Really. It’s the most unnatural, uncanny, paranormal . . .”
“Don’t overdo it, Kaltag. She’s not that good,” Balto said, shaking his head. “I still wish you could’ve kept your mouth shut about this. Anytime something dealing with wolves crops up, she has to be involved. Now she’s going to want to tag along with me like some overgrown pup. So when is she coming?”
“Um . . . she’s not.” Seeing Balto’s confusion, Kaltag gulped and added. “I told her no.”
“You? You told her no? And you’re still alive?” Balto whistled in surprise. “What happened?”
“The room temperature dropped twenty degrees, but I was able to convince her that she needed to stay with the pups. She finally backed down.” He gulped. “I think she’s still mad at me.”
Balto laughed. “And they call me a hero! Well, thanks for the message, Kaltag. You’d better go and make sure she’ll still let you in the house. I’ll leave out as soon as Jenna gets back.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Kaltag asked. “Kemo sounded worried, and he’s usually cooler than an iceberg in January.”
“I don’t have much choice. Someone has to keep an eye on this bunch.”
“I’ll watch the little devils for a bit. I can stay until Jenna returns. Tricksy will understand.”
“You hope,” Balto said sympathetically. “Thanks, Kaltag. You’re the best, the greatest, the most helpful, the most altruistic . . .”
“Yeah, yeah. Drop the vocab jokes and just get outa here. I’ll handle everything.”
Balto flashed his friend a broad grin. “Thanks Kaltag. You’re a real pal.” With that, he rushed out of the house.
* * *
Kemo was a snow-white wolf whom Balto had saved two years ago. His pack had been trapped and slaughtered by hunters, and Kemo, badly wounded, had narrowly escaped the same fate. Balto had found him half-frozen and barely alive and nursed him back to health during the following days. During this time, Balto had learned in the process that he was Kemo’s cousin by birth and brother by adoption, and after recuperating, Kemo had taken up residence as a lone wolf in the coniferous forests surrounding Nome. This arrangement seemed to suit him; isolated to avoid much contact with humans yet close enough to stay in touch with Balto.
Now, as Balto ran through the forest, he wondered why Kemo would’ve sent for him. The wolf normally avoided all contact with everyone from the town, including dogs, yet something had him concerned enough to send a message with Kaltag. Whatever it was would not be good.
The snow had begun to fall more heavily and a strong wind drove it into Balto’s face, partially blinding him and forcing him to rely on his nose instead of his eyes. As soon as he caught Kemo’s scent, he sped up and finally sighted Kemo’s cave. He ran inside, grateful to be out of the weather. Looking around, he saw, not only Kemo, but four other timber wolves. This was odd since Kemo liked his privacy.
Kemo and some of the other wolves stood up, startled at Balto’s sudden appearance. “Balto! What are you doing here?” Kemo asked.
“Kaltag said you wanted to see me.”
“Yes, but I expected you to know the insanity of traveling in a blizzard.”
“You were always the sensible one, not me.” The tension among those gathered eased and the wolves sat down again. “So what’s the big emergency? Kaltag said you sounded worried.”
Balto expected an outright denial of this statement, but Kemo simply shook his head sadly. “I am, Balto, I am. We have a bad situation. Yesterday I heard that a group of armed humans were in the buffer between the territories of Anvil Creek Clan, Eagle Pass Clan, and the Clan of the Hills. I thought they might be hunters, so I went to see what was going on. What I discovered proved far worse than I feared.”
Balto shook his head. “For you to say that, it must be bad.”
“I remained out of sight, but I overheard some of their conversation. They’re surveyors, and they’ve come to find places to build. They’ve already begun clearing an area of trees.”
Balto was puzzled. “They’re there to build? That’s not worse than hunters.”
A large, grizzled male shook his head slowly. “No, this is worse. Much, much worse.”
“Yes,” a male with mottled gray and black fur added. “When a few move in, more will come.”
Another wolf, a small, gray female, spoke up. “Soon there will be a town, and there are no places for wolves near a humans.” She shook her head sadly. “My mate paid the ultimate price to learn this lesson.”
Kemo nodded in solemn agreement. “Tutchone, Sekani, and Kiska all make good points. We will be killed or driven off if more humans move into the vicinity.”
“Kemo, you know that isn’t true. You don’t live more than a couple of miles from Nome, and no one has even taken a shot at you.”
“This is different, Balto. I’m simply a lone wolf. As long as I mind my own business, most have enough sense to leave me alone, and those that do not soon learn. But what of the packs that my friends lead? If more humans come, they’re sure to be hunted down. To humans, we are little more than born killers. Stumbling blocks to their conquest.”
“Not all humans see wolves that way. What about that researcher who was here last year? The one who saved your life?”
“He was one in thousands,” Kemo said dismissively.
“Kemo speaks true!” Tutchone said emphatically. “Twelve of my clan have been slaughtered in two snows. For no reason other than being careless enough to be seen.”
Kiska spoke up. “I, too, have seen these humans. They say that another human, someone important, is coming here. What his connection to this is, I do not know. Perhaps if we can convince them it is bad to build there we can avoid any unpleasant confrontation.”
“Any confrontation will be unpleasant,” Balto declared. “You’re going to have to be diplomatic.”
“I do not know how the other leaders feel, but I would rather fight!” a small black male snarled.
Kemo looked at the young leader. “Calm yourself, Eyak.” He then looked to Balto for his response.
“Fighting is not the way. If you attack them, you’re signing your own death warrant, as well as that of your pack,” Balto declared evenly. “And every pack represented here.”
Eyak stood up, looking at the gathered wolves. “This half-breed would have us rolling over in submission to these invaders! As leader of the Eagle Pass clan, I say that my pack would rather die.”
“Are you sure enough to gamble with the lives of four packs?” Balto asked calmly.
All eyes focused on Eyak, who turned his fiery gaze upon Balto. “To what level would you have us sink? Have us crawl into the humans’ camp, tails tucked between our legs?”
Balto stared into the wolf’s eyes. “You know I did not say that, so don’t put words in my mouth.”
Eyak growled. “Do not presume to dictate orders to me. I am not one of your puppies.”
Balto shrugged. “Right. My pups are well behaved.”
This drew some snickers from the gathered wolves, and the fur on Eyak’s neck rose slightly. “What do you mean by that, half-breed?”
Balto met his gaze without blinking. “I mean that you are acting like a youngster who didn’t get his way. When you stop acting like a pup, I’ll stop talking to you like one.”
Eyak’s fur bristled with unbridled fury. “Whether we fight or not, we’ll be destroyed, and you will likely be responsible for our destruction!”
Now Balto stood and faced off against the young pack leader. He could take many insults, but he had to draw the line somewhere, and Eyak had just crossed it by questioning his integrity. As Eyak began to advance toward him, Kemo stepped in.
“Stop this! We will accomplish nothing by fighting among ourselves.” He focused his piercing gaze on Eyak. “And you, Eyak, should be ashamed. Your last remark was uncalled for. I know, as do all the clans, that Balto can be trusted implicitly. Even your father knew this to be true.”
“A pity he was slaughtered by that half-breed’s friend before he could answer for himself.” Eyak growled, glaring at Balto. Balto met his stare evenly. Eyak looked away, fur still bristling, and sat down.
Kemo’s gaze turned molten. “I have spoken to Tricksy on that matter. Every wolf knows that any battle could be his last, and you have no doubt heard that your father started the fight.”
Eyak snorted. “More of that half-breed’s lies! His views are tainted by his association with humans!” He met Kemo’s gaze. “My status is equal to your own, Kemo. I have a right to voice my concerns.”
Kemo glared the young leader into silence. “Your concerns have been voiced and duly noted, and unless you wish to openly challenge my authority outside of this council, be silent. You are here by invitation, not by right, and as such, you will learn your place.” He turned to Balto. “I am sorry for the words of our youngest member. He should know that open aggression in a clan gathering is forbidden.”
“Apologies are unnecessary,” Balto said, not taking his eyes off Eyak. He could feel the anger smouldering beneath Eyak’s venomous stare. That wolf’s hot temper could cause problems for all concerned. “Have you thought of what you want to do about this?”
“We do not know where to begin,” Kemo admitted. “That is why we require your help. You possess an understanding of humans that we lack.”
“Kemo, you know I would love to help you, but what can I do?”
“Your advice will be sufficient for now,” Kemo answered.
“You want advice, I’ll give you advice. Don’t do anything hasty. Just watch and wait a bit.” Balto could tell that the gathered wolves did not like his answer. What did they expect me to say, go into the camp and kill them all in their sleep? He shook his head and looked outside. Seeing that the snow was subsiding and dawn was rapidly approaching, he stood up with a yawn. “I’d better be getting home. Jenna will be worried. I’ll try to find out something in town.” As he walked away, he stopped and looked back. “Just remember, I won’t help kill, injure, or otherwise forcibly drive away the humans.”
As Balto walked away, he heard Eyak remark, “He is a fool.”
“Not a fool. Simply an idealist,” Kemo replied. “And an optimist.”
Balto walked into the house, feeling far more exhausted than before he left. He had two hours at most until breakfast. At least all six pups were sound asleep, nestled against Jenna. Though utterly drained, he couldn’t fall asleep, so he sat staring into the fire, deep in thought. Was the situation as serious as Kemo and the other wolves made it appear? Being part wolf made him sympathetic to their cause, but he also knew that there was little he could do to help them if humans decided to build somewhere. Yet if he did nothing, it could spell doom for the local packs.
“Balto? What’s wrong?” Jenna asked, raising her head.
He looked back at her. “I just can’t sleep.”
“Something Kemo said?”
“Kemo?” Balto asked. Then he realized that Kaltag would’ve told her where he had gone. “Yeah. Humans are encroaching on his territory. They’re planning to build something up there, and it’s got him and a bunch of the other wolves worried that they’ll be hunted down or driven off their lands. Some want to avoid confrontation, a few want to fight. None of them really know what to do. Not even Kemo. I tell ya, Jenna, it shouldn’t happen to a dog . . . or a wolf. Now they want my help.”
“Are you going to give it to them?”
“I don’t know, Jenna. Part of me says that this whole thing is wrong and I should do something to stop it, but another part of me says that there’s nothing I could do. I do know that I can’t just turn my back on them. You know what happened the last time humans took something from Kemo.”
Jenna frowned. After his pack was slaughtered, Kemo had tracked the two hunters to their lodge. He would’ve killed them had Balto not intervened on behalf of the humans, a fact Kemo still seemed to resent. Granted, he had every right to do so according to the law of the pack, but human law didn’t work the same way unfortunately, and she didn’t want anything to happen to her mate’s brother. “The wolves aren’t planning anything . . . aggressive, are they?”
Balto smiled at her concern. “Don’t worry. They just want my advice, and I don’t think they’ll do anything rash as long as I give it to them.”
“I really feel sorry for Kemo and the others, but what can you do about it?”
“I don’t know. This all hinges on one human’s decisions. He’s coming here from some far-off place.” Jenna made no reply and Balto looked over at her. “What’s the matter?”
“I was out with Rosie and her parents earlier. They were out shopping for food and a few other things. There’s a man coming to stay with us, and I gather he’s from somewhere far away.”
Balto unsuccessfully tried to stifle a groan. His daughter stirred. “Papa?”
“It’s okay, Aleu. Go back to sleep.” Balto waited a moment until he was sure his daughter was asleep again before looking at his mate. “That was the last thing I needed to hear tonight. How am I supposed to tell Kemo that his enemy is staying in my home?”
“You don’t know that he’s an enemy,” Jenna said, lying down again. “Maybe this isn’t the human the wolves told you about. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
“Yeah, I hope so.” Balto looked back at the fire, trying to approach the problem logically. So much hinged on this one human. If only he knew more about him. He sat for a long time, wondering who this stranger could be.
Chipper would’ve dashed off the plane to play in the snow if his human, James Ramsey, hadn’t been holding tightly onto his leash. As it was, the pup would simply have to wait. His parents, two purebred border collies walked at a more stately pace behind them.
The father, Dash, laughed. “Slow down, Chip. Remember what we said about staying together?”
“But Dad . . .”
“No buts. You can go exploring after we’ve settled in.”
“But I’m almost a year old! I can take care of myself. ”
“Eight months, and I don’t doubt it,” Dash said. “But we still need to find out where and where not to go so we don’t run into trouble. Get it?”
“Got it,” Chipper said reluctantly.
“Good. Let’s keep it that way.”
“Who’s that?” Aurora asked, looking over her mate’s shoulder.
Dash turned and saw three humans and a husky walking toward them. “I’d say that’s our escort.”
Their master met the man halfway and politely introduced himself. The little girl, with the red and white husky preceding her, joined them. The husky sat down in front of them. “Welcome to Nome,” she said. “My name’s Jenna. I suppose you’re the ones who are going to stay with us.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Dash said. “My name is Dash.”
“The pleasure’s all mine,” Jenna said amiably.
“And my name is Aurora,” the other adult collie said.
“Wouldn’t by chance be another fan of the Northern Lights, would you?”
Aurora shook her head. “I’m afraid not. We can’t see them where we live, but I’ve heard so much about them from Treg. He’s a sled-dog we met in Anchorage. I’d love to see them someday.”
“You’re in luck,” Jenna laughed. “They’re quite spectacular this far north.”
“Are we going to see Balto, Dad?” Chipper broke in.
Jenna raised an eyebrow in amusement. “And you are . . . ?”
“Oh. My name’s Chipper.”
Dash smiled at his son’s impatience. “Our son. I’m afraid he became a bit star-struck with all the stories Treg told him about Balto. When he heard that Balto still lived in Nome, he decided he wanted to meet a ‘real-live hero’ as he puts it.” He tousled the fur on his son’s head. “I’ve tried to tell him that heroes don’t always make house calls.”
“Well, Balto is one hero that does. I can guarantee you’ll see him pretty soon,” Jenna said.
“Really? You know him?” Chipper asked.
A small grin appeared on Jenna’s face. “We cross paths from time to time.”
The humans began to walk away from the airstrip. The dogs stood up and followed their respective humans. Dash and Aurora chatted with Jenna about their journey, with Chipper interrupting often to add missing details.
A lull finally appeared in the conversation, and Chipper cleared his throat. His paws were growing numb after walking through snow. “Is it always this cold up here?”
Jenna laughed. “Cold? We’re getting into the warmest part of the year!”
The pup completely missed the joking tone in her voice. “What?! But I feel like I’m turning into a pup-sicle!”
“That’s popsicle,” his mother corrected.
“In my case, it’s pup-sicle.”
Aurora rolled her eyes, but Jenna laughed lightly. “Don’t worry, we’ll be at my home in a few minutes. Besides, there’s nothing like a brisk walk to warm you up.”
Balto sighed as he stretched out beside the stove. He had finally persuaded his pups to take an afternoon nap, and that gave him time to sleep as well. He’d been unable to fall asleep last night, forcing him to rely on whatever bits he could snatch during the day. Even then, he was often plagued by his mysterious dreams. He managed, but the trick was convincing the pups that it was they, and not he, who needed the sleep. He wouldn’t have had a problem if Aleu wasn’t so quick on her paws. She was able to counter every argument he’d ever tried with them. He allowed himself a small smile. A chip off the old block. At least with visitors coming today, he’d had an excuse to make them to take a nap. Why couldn’t they have company more often? Speaking of which, I’d hate for our future guests to see me with bloodshot eyes. He yawned and laid his head down. Finally, peace and quiet.
Just then, he heard the front door open and he stifled a groan. He closed his eyes tightly. Why did these things happen just when he was trying to doze off? “It’s not fair!”
“What’s not fair?” Jenna asked, walking into the room.
Balto opened his eyes. “Every time I try to get some sleep, something always happens, that’s what’s not fair. I might as well give up sleeping altogether.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I didn’t sleep well last night, and it takes a lot of energy to just keep up with the pups.”
“I understand, but try to put on a smile. The human is here, and he’s brought three dogs with him.”
“And that is part of the problem,” he said to himself as he raised his head.
Jenna arched an eyebrow. “Balto, be good. I know of a puppy who is dying to meet you.”
Puppy? Balto’s face fell.“We’ve got enough as is. You never said anything about a puppy.”
Jenna smiled sardonically. “You never asked.”
“Wonderful. I guess I don’t need my ears anyway.”
“I think this pup’s a bit past the ear-chewing stage.”
“Well, that’s one bit of good news.” Balto sighed. “We don’t have to wake our pups yet, do we?”
Jenna shook her head. “When they’re soundly asleep for once? You’ve got to be kidding.”
Balto grinned. “Time for Balto, Savior of Nome and Hero of All, to make his grand entrance.”
Jenna snorted. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you weren’t a half-wolf.”
“What do you mean by that?” Balto asked.
“Just that I’d say you’re all ham. I think you enjoy attention more than you let on.”
“That, my dear Jenna, you’ll never know,” Balto said with a smile.
“Just keep thinking that,” Jenna said as they walked toward door leading from the kitchen to the entryway. She stopped at the doorway and nodded toward the hall. “Your public awaits.”
Balto took a deep breath and stepped through the door.
* * *
Chipper was so excited that he was talking in run-on sentences as he waited in the foyer with his parents. He knew he was rambling, but he didn’t care. He was actually going to meet a hero. Jenna had just stepped out of the room, saying that she was going to find Balto. Just think, before long, he’d be able to meet the famous Balto. Jenna had already told him and his family all about the diphtheria epidemic and everything related to it, including a brief rundown about the Serum Run from her perspective. When Chipper heard that Balto wasn’t initially put on the team, he’d been shocked. But when he’d asked why the fastest dog in Nome wasn’t chosen in the first place, Jenna had hedged around the question without really answering it. A look from Dash had told him to drop the subject, but the question was still plaguing his mind as they waited.
He sighed impatiently and looked at his father. “Jenna’s been gone for a long time, Dad. When are we going to meet Balto?”
“She’s been gone for three minutes,” Dash said. “You just have to be patient, son. I’m sure it won’t be much longer, and pacing the floor won’t speed things up any more.”
“I can’t help it,” Chipper said. “I wonder what’s keeping him.”
“Can I help you?” a voice asked from behind him.
He turned around to see who the newcomer was but yelped and jumped halfway behind his father. The rest of his family was likewise startled. “It’s a . . . it’s a . . . it’s a . . .” he stammered.
“Wolf?” the newcomer asked, a wry grin on his face.
The pup nodded in speechless shock. Dash was studying the strange canine carefully while Aurora stepped protectively in front of Chipper.
“Don’t worry, I don’t bite. I was told that you wanted to meet me. The name’s Balto.”
“You’re Balto?” Dash asked.
Balto nodded. “The one and only. Who did you think I was? A wolf?”
Aurora finally recovered. “Aren’t you?”
“Only half,” Balto said with a short laugh.
“Only half?” Chipper asked.
Balto looked at Jenna. “Do they always repeat everything?”
Jenna frowned. “Balto.”
“Sorry, Jenna,” Balto said with a sheepish grin.
“Is that why you weren’t put on the sled team right off?” Chipper asked. “You look like a wolf?”
“Chipper!” Aurora admonished. “Don’t be rude.”
“It’s an honest question!” Chipper risked a glance at Balto and saw that the wolf-dog was flexing his jaw muscles. “Isn’t it?” he asked nervously.
Balto nodded slightly. “Yes, but you’re the first I’ve ever met with the guts to come right out and ask. I’ll tell you the whole story later, but in the future you shouldn’t run the sled with the runners frozen.”
“Huh?” Chipper asked in puzzlement.
“Sorry. I forgot that you don’t know anything about sledding. I think another way to phrase it is ‘a little tact goes a long way.’ If you plan on exploring Nome, I’d keep that in mind if I were you. But in any case, don’t worry. Half-wolves don’t eat everyone when we first meet them.”
Chipper winced. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
Dash cleared his throat. “I apologize for our . . . surprise at seeing you. We weren’t exactly informed that you were part wolf.” He looked past Balto at Jenna.
Jenna shrugged. “You didn’t ask. I could’ve told you that Balto and I were a bit more than casual acquaintances, too, but I think the best way to judge one’s character is to test their reaction to an unexpected situation. It’s a pretty reliable assessment.”
“I assume we passed this . . . test?” Dash asked dryly.
“You didn’t attack me and you didn’t run out the door. Well within acceptable standards,” Balto said with an apologetic smile. “So how many humans are with you?”
“Only one right now,” Dash answered. “But if things work out, our human’s mate and baby will be joining him.”
Dash nodded. “Two years old, I believe.”
Balto looked dispiritedly at Jenna. “Like I was saying, I don’t need my ears anyway. Or my eyes, or my tail, or my . . . ouch!” He yelped when Jenna’s paw slammed down on his. “Or my paw. What was that for?”
“What is it you’re always telling our pups about judging others?” Jenna asked.
“Oh, don’t worry about Micky,” Chipper interrupted. “He’s gentle with everyone. He never pulls ears, or tails, or fur. He does like to play, though.”
“Well,” Balto said doubtfully, “I suppose I can handle that.”
“You said that you were ‘more than casual acquaintances,’ ” Aurora said, changing the subject. “And from your mention of ‘pups,’ I assume you have some of your own?”
Jenna smiled. “Six, as a matter of fact. One month old yesterday. They’re asleep right now, but you’ll be able to meet them a bit later.”
“Uh, on the subject of puppies,” Balto said, “one of our daughters looks more like . . . me than her mother, and none of them know that I’m part wolf, if you take my meaning. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention that when you meet them. ”
“Of course,” Dash said, glancing at his son. Chipper nodded.
Balto cleared his throat. “He is past the ear-chewing stage, isn’t he?” he asked, nodding at Chipper. The pup looked embarrassed.
Jenna looked hopelessly at the ceiling. So much for tact the great lesson on tact.
“Long past,” Dash laughed. “And thank goodness for that.”
“But he still has plenty of energy when he’s not tired,” Aurora said pointedly.
Jenna winced. “I’m sorry. I never even thought to ask if you wanted to rest after your journey.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Dash said, stifling a yawn. “But if you could show us where we can bed down, we’d be obliged to you.”
“The kitchen is the warmest room in the house. I think you’ll be comfortable there. If you’ll follow me, please.”
* * *
“So,” Balto said once Jenna returned. “Shall we check on the humans?”
Jenna chuckled. “What is it you are always telling the pups about eavesdropping?”
Balto cleared his throat. “‘Eavesdropping is a bad habit. It’ll just make you and everyone else mad.’ That’s why I’m not going to eavesdrop. I’m simply going to listen in and gather information.”
Laughing, the two dogs walked into the livingroom where the visiting human was talking to Rosie and her parents. They arrived just in time to hear the visiting human say, “So when do I get to meet this famous dog of yours, Rosie?”
“Anytime you want to,” Rosie said cheerfully. Balto gave a low bark and Rosie looked at him. “There he is right now.”
“Speak of the Devil,” Rosie’s father muttered to himself. Despite having the wolf-dog living with them for over two years, he’d never gotten used to Balto’s wolf-like ability to slip in unnoticed when he was the topic of discussion. Whether it was intelligence or mere coincidence, he had no idea.
The man looked to the doorway. When he saw Balto, he rose halfway to his feet and uttered a startled gasp. “That is Balto? He looks like a . . .”
Rosie’s father held up his hands. “I know he looks a bit wolfish, but he’s only half-wolf. Near as we can tell, anyway. Don’t worry, he’s quite tame.”
“I read that they’re a bit temperamental,” the man said.
“Nonsense. Balto’s as gentle as a lamb,” Rosie’s mother replied rubbing Balto’s ears. The wolf-dog rumbled with pleasure.
“You’re sure he’s safe?” the man asked.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Ramsey,” Rosie’s father said. “You’re safer around Balto than you would be around many purebreds.”
Hesitantly, the man held out an open hand to Balto, only to jerk it back when Balto started to grab the proffered hand between his teeth. “I thought you said he was safe!” the man exclaimed.
“He is,” Rosie said indignantly. “That’s just his way of saying he likes you. He’s not going to bite you or nothin’. Now you’ve hurt his feelings.”
Ramsey looked beside his chair, but the wolf-dog had vanished. Wonderful. I’m staying in a house with an oversensitive, manic-depressive wolf who can sneak up on me. I just hope he doesn’t carry a grudge. And that he’s had a rabies shot.
Rosie’s eyes narrowed. “Balto’s not like that. He’s nice.”
Did I say that out loud? “I’ll keep that in mind,” Ramsey said uncertainly.
“Calm down, Rosie,” her mother said. “I’m sure Mr. Ramsey didn’t mean anything bad about Balto.”
Rosie nodded, but still regarded him with mixed suspicion and reserve. Well, so much for first impressions. “I’m sorry to leave such pleasant company, but I really need to rest up for tomorrow. If you would please show me where I can sleep, I’d appreciate it.”
* * *
“Don’t worry, Balto. I’m sure you’re making a mountain out of a snowdrift.”
“He pulled away, Jenna.”
“You startled him, that’s all. What would you do if you didn’t know me and I lunged at you?”
“I didn’t lunge. Besides, other dogs do the same thing sometimes. Face it, Jenna, I look like a wolf, so he was frightened. Any human who mistrusts wolves is bound to be trouble for them.”
“You can’t be sure he’ll be trouble, just like you can’t be sure that he mistrusts you,” Jenna said. “Perhaps he was simply startled. Besides, I’ve warned you about doing that to humans. Even if it is a sign of affection, some humans are just a bit surprised when you do it. You know that. Some come around.”
“But many don’t. You know that. I could see it in his eyes, Jenna.” And it could mean trouble for Kemo and the others if my suspicions about this man are correct. He laid his head on his paws resignedly. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this whole situation.”
More Bad News
Chipper was sleeping soundly the next morning when he suddenly woke up. He raised his head and scanned the room, wondering what had roused him. No one else was in sight, and though he listened carefully, he could hear nothing other than the clock chiming six times. It feels almost like someone is watching me. He sniffed the air and shook his head. Nothing. My mind must be playing tricks.
He was just drifting off to sleep again when he heard soft voices whispering.
“Do you think that’s one of them?” one asked.
“I think so,” another answered.
“How can you be sure?” a third asked.
“I can’t!” the second asked indignantly.
“Sorry,” the third said.
Chipper jerked his head up from the floor, but again saw nothing. He warily scanned the kitchen, but could still see nothing. All the stress from traveling is just making me skittish. It’s just my imagination. Yeah, that’s it. He carefully laid his head so that he could see most of the room and pretended to sleep.
“This is fun,” a different voice giggled.
“I dare you to go over there,” a fifth said.
“You’re just too scared to do it yourself,” the second said.
“Well if you’re not scared, why don’t you go?” the fourth asked indignantly.
“Fine. I will.”
This time Chipper barely opened his eyes, but to his surprise, he could see nothing. He raised his head and scanned the room again. Then he spun around and looked behind him. Still nothing. This is getting out of control. He shook his head in resignation and lay down again. If I ignore it, maybe it’ll just go away. That’s it. Don’t encourage whatever it is.
Yet another voice spoke. “I don’t know about this.”
“Oh, hush up,” said the second voice.
“Yeah. If you got your way all the time, we’d never have any fun,” the fourth said.
Chipper mentally rolled his eyes. Sounds almost like a bunch of puppies quarreling . . . wait a second! That’s it! One, two, three, four, five . . . six voices! Didn’t Jenna say there were six puppies? Now everything’s beginning to make sense. Time to find out if I’m right.
“What are you waiting for?” the first voice asked.
“I’m going, I’m going!” the second voice said.
Chipper heard the click of tiny canine claws on the tile floor behind him. The paw-steps stopped right behind him and circled to his left side. Suddenly, he felt a thump against his side, and he immediately rolled with the blow and slammed his paws down on a furry mass, pinning it to the floor. In the weak light of the room, he could see that it was indeed a puppy, and a spitting image of Balto at that. This must be the one Balto was talking about.
He quickly looked back at the second doorway and saw five other puppies, mirror images of their mother, standing frozen in the doorway. “All right. You five. Here. Now.”
The pups looked at each other indecisively before walking slowly forward, exchanging guilty glances. “Now we’re in for it,” a pup he recognized as the third voice whispered.
“Told you we shouldn’t ‘ve done it,” the owner of the fifth voice whispered.
“Oh, shut up, Kala!” one of the other puppies said.
The pups stopped in front of them, yet still at what they considered a safe distance. Chipper turned his attention back to the whimpering pup he’d pinned. “If I let you up, do you promise not to run?” The pup nodded and Chipper removed his paws from her chest. The pup backed up and sat beside her siblings. “Didn’t your parents ever tell you that it’s impolite to attack someone when they’re asleep?”
“We weren’t attacking you,” one pup, the fourth voice, said sincerely.
Another pup, the fifth voice, nodded vigorously. “We just wanted to play.”
“We wanted to find out who you were, too,” another pup added.
“Besides, you aren’t asleep.”
“Not anymore, anyway.” Chipper looked incredulously at the pups. “If you wanted to know who I was, why didn’t you just ask?”
“Okay, who are you?” the pup he’d just released asked.
Chipper sighed and closed his eyes. Was it his imagination, or was there a trace of sarcasm in her voice? “What’s your name?”
“I asked first,” the pup protested.
“I’m bigger. Talk.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t get your tail in a knot. My name’s Aleu.”
No pretense at hiding the sarcasm there. Chipper momentarily wondered if she talked to everyone like that. “So you’re Aleu,” he said. “What are the rest of your names?”
“Rush,” one puppy mumbled, staring at his paws.
“Jenner,” another said, glancing away.
“Kodi,” another said, also looking down.
“Dingo,” the third said, mirroring his brothers.
“My name’s Kala,” the other girl in the group said. “And I had nothing to do with this.”
“Shut up, Kala!” Jenner barked.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Aleu agreed.
“Baby! Was I the one whimpering like a newborn pup a few seconds ago?” Kala retorted.
“Cool it,” Chipper interjected. “You want to know who I am, right? My name’s Chipper.”
“Hello,” the puppies answered in a somewhat subdued voice.
After a short pause, Rush cleared his throat. “So you don’t want to play?”
“I didn’t say that,” Chipper yawned. “Just give me a few more minutes of sleep, huh?”
* * *
“So what brings you to Nome, James?” Rosie’s father asked at lunch that afternoon.
“As much as I’d like to tell you, I know very little about it. All I can tell you right now is that I’m here to see a construction project through.” Ramsey stopped when Balto, who was lying beside the fireplace, jerked his head up and looked at him. It’s almost like he understood what I said. Nah, impossible.
“How are you supposed to supervise a project you know nothing about?”
“I meant that as a polite way of saying, ‘I’m not at liberty to say.’ I was given a general briefing as to the nature, but I’m not supposed to reveal even that little tidbit until we settle on a site. With any luck, we might just have found what we’re looking for.”
“Can you tell us where that is?” Rosie’s mom asked.
“Sure. We’ve found a three hundred-acre plot about five miles north northeast of here. I’m checking it out day after tomorrow.” James Ramsey looked over his shoulder to gauge Balto’s reaction to that, but the wolf-dog was already gone. Very peculiar.
Ramsey blushed. I said that aloud, too? I’ve got to quit doing that. “Nothing. Anyway . . .”
“Boris! Come out, I’ve got to talk to you!”
“All right, all right. Don’t rush me. I’m old goose, you know,” the goose called, waddling down the gangplank. “Why is it your answer to everything is more speed?”
“I need your advice about something.”
“Oi! All this hubbub over advice?” Boris slapped a wing against his forehead, but sensing that Balto wasn’t in a joking mood, he sobered somewhat. “Okay, Boitshick, tell old Boris what the problem is, and I’ll try to help you.”
“It’s about what Kemo . . .”
“No. Oh, no. I get into wolf business and my goose is cooked.”
“This is important, Boris. Remember what I said about my meeting with Kemo other pack leaders?”
“Yes, yes. What of it?”
Balto looked to both sides to make sure no one was within earshot and leaned close to Boris. “That human they’re worried about is staying in my house.”
“WHAT!” Boris exclaimed. His outburst was cut short when Balto picked him up by the head and carried him into the trawler. When he was released, Boris was sputtering with indignation. “Why do you always have to do that? What going to hear us, trees?”
“You never know who may be out there among the trees. But that’s beside the point. That human is boarding with Jenna’s humans.”
“Okay, so what is the problem? If no one knows . . .”
“That’s just it, Boris. I promised Kemo I’d help in any . . . almost any way that I could. He’s put a lot of trust in me; more than any half-wolf would normally get from a wolf.”
“Ah,” Boris said. “And you are afraid that you will lose this trust if he finds out, yes?”
Balto nodded in agreement. “If I make the wrong move and force the pack leaders not to trust me, they won’t listen to reason anymore. They may make a decision that’ll destroy them.”
Boris nodded sagely. “I see your problem, Boitshick, but I cannot make decision for you. You must consider first what Kemo will do when he finds out, and then decide how the greater good will be served; telling your brother or protecting human.”
Balto frowned. Not exactly the clear-cut guidance he was hoping for, but it was still a start. “Thanks Boris. I’ll have to think about that.”
* * *
“So,” Dash said. “Does it always snow a lot up here?” He was looking out the window at the accumulating ice flakes.
“Huh? What?” Balto asked, coming out of his reverie.
“Does it always snow a lot up here?” Dash repeated.
Balto shrugged. “I guess it depends on your definition of a lot,” he said simply.
Jenna looked over at Balto. He seemed to be particularly moody this evening, and it seemed that even Aurora and Dash were noticing as they tried to carry on the strained conversation. She started to say something to him, but sighed and turned to their guests. “It isn’t unusual to get a bit of snow this time of year, but usually the snow is melting by now. As far as I can remember, this is the first time we’ve had a cold-snap last this long.”
“I see,” Dash said with a nod. “We usually don’t get very much snow where we come from.”
Another pause. Finally, Aurora broke the silence. “After the weather clears, could we get a tour of the town? I know that Chipper is anxious to do some exploring, and I’d certainly like to see the Northern Lights you spoke of.”
“I’m sure we could arrange that, couldn’t we, Balto?”
“Hmm? Oh . . . sure.”
Jenna frowned slightly at his preoccupied tone and indifferent response. “We can introduce you to some of the locals. I’m sure that you’ll get to meet Sylvie and Dixie tomorrow whether we go out or not. Sylvie is the local gossip. She knows everything about who did what, when, and where. And whenever you meet Dixie, be sure to compliment her about something; anything at all. She’s the type who thrives on attention, and she’s the biggest flirt in Nome. And then there’s Tricksy. She can be either your best friend or your worst enemy.” Jenna paused. “You didn’t hear any of this from me, by the way.”
“Of course not,” Aurora said with a nod.
“And I’m sure that Balto can introduce you to some of his friends too. Let’s see. There’s Tricksy’s mate, Kaltag. He sort of fancies himself as an intellectual, but you’ll get used to that. And then there’s Nikki. He’s a bit rough around the edges, but he’s all heart. And Star hangs out with Nikki and Kaltag. He’s the shy one.”
“Do you know any wolves?” Dash asked curiously. “I’ve always wanted to meet one.”
“What makes you think I’d know any wolves?” Balto said gruffly.
Dash realized he was walking on thin ice and tried to back off the topic gracefully. “I don’t know. I just thought that since you were . . .”
“A wolf?” Balto said caustically. “I’m a half-wolf, remember?”
Jenna looked sharply at her mate. “Balto!”
“Well does everything about me have to involve wolves?” Balto snapped.
Dash was taken aback. “I’m sorry. I meant no offense.”
“You’re getting worked up over nothing,” Jenna said.
With a low growl, Balto stood and stalked out of the room.
“Balto!” Jenna called after him. She sighed and turned to Dash and Aurora. “He’s not usually like this,” she apologized.
“I’m sorry if something I said upset him,” Dash said.
“It’s not your fault.” Jenna stood quickly. “If you’ll please excuse me . . .”
“Of course,” Aurora said.
Jenna quickly hurried out of the room, and Aurora and Dash exchanged glances. Could anything else possibly go wrong?
* * *
Balto walked determinedly toward the back door. His conscience had been plaguing him ever since their human had arrived, and his discussion with Boris had only compounded his confusion. He knew that he hadn’t been entirely truthful to Kemo. The minute he’d discovered the human’s intentions in Nome, he should have told his brother the whole story. Remaining silent was betraying the trust Kemo had placed in him. He had to tell Kemo now. He wasn’t sure what Aurora and Dash thought about his manners, and no doubt Jenna was making up some excuse for him, but he could apologize later. Jenna would see to that anyway. The important thing now was to inform Kemo of everything.
Before he could reach the door, he heard a crash in one of the rooms. “Just what I need. An interruption.” He turned toward the room.
“Now we’re in for it,” he heard Kala say.
“You should’ve watched where you were going, Aleu,” Rush said.
“It’s not my fault! Jenner pushed me!”
“Did not!” Jenner exclaimed.
“Enough,” Balto said, striding into the room. He looked down at the shattered remains of a porcelain vase. “I’ve told you guys a thousand times to be careful when you’re playing, haven’t I?”
“Yes, Papa,” Aleu said sheepishly. “But . . .”
“No buts. We’ll talk more about this later. You all go to bed.”
“But what about dinner?” Jenner protested.
“Perhaps that will make the six of you think next time. Now mush!”
Aleu stayed put. “But Papa! That’s not fair!”
“I’ve already told you twice. Do you want to go for three?” Somehow her father’s is controlled tone of voice was far more menacing than angry words, and a tear trickled down Aleu’s face he turned and walked swiftly out of the room.
Jenna rushed into the hall and saw the puppies sitting and staring at the door. “Did you see where your father went?”
“Outside,” Rush answered.
Jenna was about to leave when she saw her daughter crying. “Aleu, Honey! What’s wrong?”
Aleu shook her head sadly. “Papa just got mad at us for no reason. He said to go to bed.”
“Without dinner,” Jenner added.
“What’s wrong with him?” Aleu asked.
Jenna took a deep breath. “Your Papa’s not really mad at you. He’s just not himself.”
“Then who is he?” Kodi asked.
“It’s just an expression, Dear.” As much as she would’ve liked to repeal what Balto had said, it was never good to publically disagree on such matters. “Go on and do as you were told, and tell Chipper I’d like him to watch you guys for a bit. All right?” Confused and upset, the pups nodded and walked away.
Jenna ran after her mate and quickly caught up to him on the outskirts of town. “Balto!”
Balto rolled his eyes. Great. Just what I need. “Busy, Jenna.”
“What is with you tonight?” Jenna asked, blocking his path. “You were pretty rude to our guests, don’t you think?”
Balto grimaced. “I suppose. I’ve just got a lot on my mind.”
He tried to move around her, but she blocked him again. “That’s not a very good reason, and you know it. I’ve also never heard you snap at any of our puppies until now, and you were pretty harsh on them for something as trivial as that vase. It was an accident, and my humans didn’t like that vase anyway. Something is bothering you.” She looked expectantly at him.
“I’m in a hurry, Jenna,” he said, glancing past her
“Then talk fast,” she replied, sitting in front of him.
Balto bit back a growl. Why is she being so stubborn? “It’s Kemo.”
“Kemo?” Jenna asked with a puzzled expression. “What’s wrong with him? Is he all right?”
“As far as I know he’s fine, but I don’t know for how long. Remember that discussion we had a few nights ago? The one about the wolves being worried about humans? Well I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since. I know I should’ve told Kemo about this human the minute he arrived.”
“So why didn’t you?”
Balto heaved a sigh. “He’s under enough pressure from the local packs as it is. If I tell Kemo, then he’ll be honor-bound to tell the other leaders, and if he does that, I’m not sure what will happen.” He looked seriously at Jenna. “It could possibly put us or the others in danger.”
“But if you asked him to keep it secret, he would, wouldn’t he?”
“I’m not sure. The laws among wolf packs are almost as foreign to me as they are to you. I’m not sure it would be ethical for him to put my wishes above the welfare of the clans. Besides, if something happens and I have to warn him, what can I say? ‘Kemo, I didn’t tell you this before, but now you’re in danger. You have to believe me now’?” Balto shook his head unhappily. “He’d never trust me again. It’s all or nothing.”
Jenna frowned thoughtfully, and after a moment’s thought, she spoke up. “You could always just feed him information without telling him where you got it from.”
Balto shook his head again. “You’ve met Kemo before, Jen. Do you actually think that I could hope to keep anything a secret from him? He’ll pick up on that easily.”
“I’m not sure about that,” Jenna replied. “Kemo’s not the type to pry, and you know he won’t question anything you tell him.”
“I still wouldn’t be giving him the whole truth, and I’ll feel worse than I already do. Anyway, we’re always telling our pups that lies catch up to you in the end, and telling half-truths is the same as lying in my book. I’d feel like a liar and a hypocrite.”
“I know, I know,” Jenna said, closing her eyes in thought. “But it still might be a fair compromise. You’ll be giving him the information, but simply on a need-to-know basis. Where’s the danger in that?”
Balto hesitated before nodding slowly. “I guess you’re right. The sooner I get this off my chest, the sooner I’ll be able to sleep. I’ll see you a bit later.”
“A bit later nothing. I’m coming with you.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Balto said.
“Well, you know how Kemo is about being disturbed in the middle of the night, and besides . . .”
“Besides what?” Jenna arched her eyebrows.
His discussion with Kaltag came to mind. “Well . . . the puppies. Someone’s got to keep an eye on them, so maybe you should stay home.”
“I already asked Chipper to watch them. If you didn’t want me to go with you, then just say so.”
So much for Kaltag’s strategies. When Jenna took that tone, there was no point in trying to press the matter; he knew he’d already lost the argument and so did she. “All right. Come on.”
Another Late-night Meeting
“You are sure that this is the human?” Kemo asked.
Balto had just finished telling the bad news to Kemo and Tutchone, one of the pack leaders form the previous meeting, and neither seemed pleased. In fact, they seem downright worried. “He’s in Nome, and he’s here because of some project. I think it’s a safe assumption.”
Tutchone snorted. “When you’re a wolf, assumptions cost lives.”
Kemo shook his head in disagreement. “That depends on the assumption. I think we should just make ourselves scarce. We must ere on the side of caution until this trouble has passed.”
Jenna cleared her throat, for once drawing attention to herself. “I hope I’m not speaking out of turn.”
Kemo cracked a small grin. “Your words are welcome here, Jenna. As the alpha of Balto’s pack, you should know by now that I view your judgement with the utmost respect.”
Jenna smiled and nodded. “Thanks. This is a bit of a longshot, I know, but do you remember that young researcher who came here last year? Russell Lupus?”
Kemo nodded. Of course he remembered. Russell Lupus was the only human he’d ever came close to liking. An idealistic naturalist, fresh out of school, Lupus had come to Nome to study wolves to prove that they weren’t brutal killers. When Lupus discovered a den site, however, Kemo had chased him away from it, pursuing him across a frozen lake. He’d fallen through a patch of thin ice, and the young researcher had saved his life, almost at the cost of his own. “What of him?”
I’m sure that if there was any real danger to wolves, he would return quicker than an arctic snowstorm.” When silence greeted her, she looked around and saw the wolves staring dubiously at her. “I wasn’t aware that I said something amusing,” she said indignantly.
Kemo shook his head. “Tutchone and I mean you no offense. Personally, I do not doubt that he would do anything in his power to save a wolf, but you put far too much faith in humans. We cannot take such a gamble. A human’s idea of progress is the annihilation of anything, including wolves, that stands in their way. This is beyond your comprehension. Humans don’t hunt dog.”
Jenna looked hurt. “Oh. I see.”
Kemo sighed deeply. “I’m sorry, Jenna. I know that you are trying to help, but you have never experienced what we wolves have at the hands of humans. I’m sure Balto has told you what happened to my pack. Every wolf has a similar story.”
Jenna nodded slowly. “But I still don’t think you should underestimate this human. Something tells me that he’ll play a part in this before the end.”
Balto looked outside. The hour was growing late, and the weather was clearing. “Anyway, we just thought you might want to know what might be in store for you and the local packs. Kiska’s information has proven correct as always.”
“I appreciate it,” Kemo said. “I would welcome your counsel on this matter.
Balto sighed. “All I can say right now is the same thing I told you last time. Just watch and wait for now. Maybe it won’t be as bad as we think. If it is . . . well, we’ll run that race when the time comes.”
Kemo frowned but nodded and turned to Tutchone. “We must warn the others of this.”
Balto also frowned. “When you tell the Eagle Pass Clan, make sure that Eyak won’t do anything to compromise the situation.
“Understood.” Kemo nodded to the other wolf. Tutchone quickly loped out of the cave. When he was gone, Kemo turned to his visitors. “Thank you, Balto. I don’t know what we’d do without you,” Kemo said with a mock bow.
“Don’t mention it. I’d just hate to see that pretty white fur of yours as a throw rug,” Balto teased.
Kemo’s grin wavered. “With humans on the move, you may have to get used to the idea.” He snorted. “I would certainly like to know where you get all your information.”
Balto was at a loss for words. He still wasn’t comfortable with the idea of keeping the whole story from his brother. But I can’t risk any other path. “I . . . uh . . . have my sources.”
“Indeed.” It was obvious that Balto did not want to discuss the identity of his sources. He was hiding something, and Kemo was slightly hurt that Balto didn’t trust him enough to talk about it. Still, he decided to let the subject drop.
Balto felt uncomfortable under Kemo’s piercing gaze as he opted to change the subject. “Jenna and I had better be going. We need to make sure our pups haven’t destroyed the house yet.”
Kemo nodded. “I understand. Be sure to bring them to visit sometime.”
“We’ll do that,” Jenna said. With that, they stood up and walked toward the opening of the cave.
Kemo cleared his throat. “Um . . . it’s pretty late to be heading out, don’t you think? It smells as if the snow is going to pick up again, and it would not be wise to travel in such weather conditions. Especially with fresh snow on the ground to hinder you.”
Balto looked outside again. Kemo was rarely wrong about weather, but certainly he could see that the snow had lessened. Unless . . . “Yeah, I see what you mean, but we’d better hurry before it gets any worse.”
“Well . . . uh . . . you could always stay here for the night and head for home in the morning,” Kemo said, studying his paws.
Jenna smiled. “We really couldn’t impose.”
“It’s no imposition.” Kemo said quickly.
Too quickly. Balto recalled that Kemo’s pack had been slaughtered around this time two years ago. He looked at Jenna, silently urging her to play along. “Think the pups can survive a night without us?”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine.” Jenna said with a knowing smile. “If you’re sure it’s really no bother . . .”
“It’s no bother at all,” Kemo said quickly. “Besides, being a lone wolf gets . . . well, lonely. I would enjoy your company.”
The next morning, Aleu awoke early. She lay in bed for a few moments longer, wondering what she should do first. Finally, her growling stomach decided for her, and she nudged Jenner and Rush. “Hey, wake up!”
“Huh?” Rush asked. “What d’ya want?”
Jenner tried to bury his head beneath his paws. “Go away Aleu! I’m tryin’ to sleep!”
“What’s the matter with you? Aren’t you hungry?”
“Yeah, thanks to you,” Rush growled.
Kala yawned and stretched. “If you watched where you were running, we wouldn’t be in trouble.”
“Maybe Papa’s forgotten about it,” she said weakly.
Kodi snorted. “Papa never forgets anything,” he said glumly. “Remember what he said about discussing it more? We’re not out of this by a long shot.”
All the pups frowned. That was not a pleasant thought for any concerned.
“It was an accident,” Aleu muttered. “It’s not like it’s my fault.” The other pups stared at her. “Well it’s not!”
“Yeah right!” Rush scoffed.
“Jenner dared me to race you!” Aleu argued.
Jenner snorted. “If I dared you to jump in the harbor, would you do that too?”
“Depends if it’s frozen or not,” Aleu shot back. “Besides, you all were running too.”
“Yeah,” Rush said. “But who’s fat head hit the table.”
“Yeah,” Kodi and Dingo agreed.
“What do ya want me to say? That this is my fault?”
“YES!” the other five exclaimed.
“Okay then. It’s my fault. All right? MY FAULT! Ya happy now?”
“It’s a start,” Rush said.
With a growl, Aleu pushed him out of the basket. “Ow!” Rush sat up, rubbing his head with one paw. “What was that for?”
“For blaming everything on me, that’s what.”
“You’re dead meat!” Rush cried as he pounced on his sister.
Jenner and Kodi immediately brightened. “Dog pile!” they exclaimed, jumping into the fray.
“Come on, guys, grow up,” Kala said, trying to pull them apart.
Dingo began pulling on the other side. “Yeah, what if you break something else?”
Chipper arrived just in time to see the two pups literally absorbed into the battle. “You all cut it out. You’re going to wake everyone up!” he hissed. “Don’t make me come over there!” Still no effect. So much for trying to be nice. He hurried over and tried to intervene, but like Kala and Dingo, he got tangled up in the whole mess.
Before he could disengage, a voice spoke from behind them. “What’s going on?”
The pups froze where they were; Rush with Track’s forepaw in his mouth, Kodi sitting on Kala’s head, Kala laying half-way on Dingo, Dingo on top of Jenner, Chipper in the middle, and Aleu sitting on top of the whole bunch. Chipper turned his head and saw Balto and Jenna standing in the doorway. Had it happened to anyone other than himself, he would have found this predicament vastly amusing. With a sigh, he disentangled himself. Great going Chipper. You’ve really done it this time.
“Uh . . . just trying to break up a little scuffle. Did we wake you up?” Stupid question.
“No, but we heard the commotion half a block away.”
“I’d believe it,” Dash yawned, walking into the room.
Chip winced. “Sorry. Pups will be pups, you know.”
“Indeed.” Balto looked at his pups who had quickly untangled themselves and were trying hard to be inconspicuous. They all looked more than a bit nervous. Probably worried I’m still angry with them. Well, now’s as good of time as any to apologize. “Now about last night . . .”
“I guess that was my fault,” Aleu interrupted.
“It wasn’t just Aleu,” Jenner said. “I dared her to race Rush.”
“We’re sorry, though,” Rush said.
“Really sorry,” Kodi added.
“Can you stop being mad at us now?” Kala asked.
Balto’s mouth dropped. No excuses, no shifting the blame, just an apology. After his hasty actions last night, that was the last thing he’d expected. He lay down eye-level with them. “I’m sorry too. I’ve had a lot on my mind, but it was wrong for me to snap at you like I did. So here’s the plan. You guys try to be more careful, and I’ll try not to keep my frustrations to myself. Let bygones be bygones. Agreed?” The pups nuzzled him in reply, though Aleu was more hesitant than the others. They must’ve given her a hard time about the vase incident, and she probably linked that to me. I’ll try to make that up to her somehow.
Jenna walked over and laid down beside Balto and her puppies. “It’s good to see you back to your old self. You’ve still got to give our guests the grand tour of the town.”
“Maybe tomorrow we can take them down to the Old Mill,” Balto suggested.
“What’s so special about an old mill?” Chipper asked.
“That’s the meeting place for all the dogs in Nome,” Balto patiently explained. “It’s probably the best place to meet everyone at once and not freeze while doing it.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” Dash agreed.
“Can we come too?” Jenner burst out. The other puppies looked up hopefully.
Balto smiled and looked at his mate. “Jenna?”
Jenna smiled back. “I don’t know, it’ll be awfully cold.” The pups’ ears drooped in disappointment. “I don’t see why not.”
The pups cheered and Balto beamed. “I’ll make sled dogs out of ‘em yet.”
“Brrrr. This snow is freezing!” Chipper exclaimed as he sank up to his belly in snow. He jumped back and shook snow onto his parents.
“What did you expect?” Aurora laughed.
“You know what I mean,” Chipper grumbled. “I’ll be lucky if I don’t get frostbit.”
Balto chuckled lightly as he listened to their discussion. “What are you talking about? That was just a light dusting we got last night.”
“Light dusting!” the pup exclaimed.
“So where are we going first?” Dash asked, changing the subject.
“Hopefully someplace warm?” Chipper suggested.
Balto laughed again and nodded. “I figured you could meet Kaltag and Tricksy’s family.”
Chipper cleared his throat. “Any . . . um . . . surprises?”
Balto stopped and looked at Chipper. “Tricksy is part wolf and looks it too, if that’s what you mean.”
Chipper winced and took an involuntary step back. “I guess that came out wrong.”
He snorted. Like father, like son. “Actually she would probably be flattered if you thought she was a purebred wolf, but that’s beside the point. You’ve got to remember that it isn’t easy being a wolf-dog. Most of us are seen as thieves and troublemakers.”
“Even you?” Chipper asked tentatively.
Balto nodded. “At one time, yes. Even me.”
“You never did tell us the whole story about rescuing the team,” Dash said.
A distant look appeared in Balto’s eyes as he thought back, and as they walked, Balto told them the story of how he had been banned from running with the team because of Steele, the lead dog. The team became lost, and he went in search of them, only to have to fight Steele to bring the team home. He told of Steele’s treachery in destroying the trail markers Balto had left to guide them to Nome. Then he arrived at his favorite part of the story; going over the side of a cliff with the medicine.
“That, my friends, ” he said, “was the moment I finally came to terms with who I was. I didn’t want to recognize the wolf in myself. It had been nothing but a burden to me up to that point, but then I remembered something that Boris told me . . .”
“Who’s Boris?” Aurora asked.
“Huh? Oh, he’s a Russian goose. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a father.” Not surprisingly, that earned him some quizzical stares. “Anyway, Boris said ‘A dog cannot make this journey alone, but maybe a wolf can.’ That was all I needed. I pulled the medicine back up the cliff, and we continued on with our journey.” He purposely left out the part about the mysterious white wolf. He still didn’t fully understand that, so they probably wouldn’t either. “After a few other interruptions along the way . . .”
Balto chuckled. “Speaking of interruptions.”
How yous doin’ dere?” a brown chow-chow asked, walking up to the group.
“Since when did you start hangin’ out with tenderfoots?” a small gray husky added.
A larger husky with brown fur around one eye nudged him none to gently “That’s tenderfeet. And he started hanging with you after the serum run three years ago.”
“Hey!” the smaller husky protested. He shut up when the bigger one raised glared at him.
Balto looked at Aurora, Dash, and Chipper. From the return gazes, he realized that an explanation was probably in order. “Up here, any dog that doesn’t run on a team is called a tenderfoot.” Turning his attention to his friends, he nodded toward the group. “Nikki, Kaltag, Star, this is Dash, Aurora, and Chipper. These boys were on the sled team that brought the diphtheria medicine to Nome a year ago.”
“With Balto dere as lead dog, of course,” Nikki added.
Kaltag nodded. “Never was there a more noble, courageous, a more canny, a more modest . . .”
“He got us home easy,” Star broke in with a wave of his paw.
“Or would have if someone hadn’t sneezed and caused big avalanche,” Nikki muttered. Star growled.
The larger husky shrugged. “Now, Nik. Star’s right. Balto got us home easy.”
“Huh?” Star asked.
Kaltag rolled his eyes. “I said ‘Star’s right.’ Do I have to repeat everything for you?”
“No, it’s just . . . I don’t get it! You actually agreed with me?”
“So what?” Kaltag asked innocently. “I always agree with you when you’re correct.”
“Y . . . you never agree with me!”
“Precisely my point,” Kaltag replied smoothly.
“Huh?” Star asked. Kaltag’s wit apparently went way over his head.
Balto rolled his eyes. “Situation normal.”
“They were on the team that saved Nome?” Chipper whispered incredulously to his parents. “That crew would have a hard time finding their way out of a cardboard box, much less finding their way through the wilderness.”
Balto looked back in their direction. He certainly had a wolf’s sense of hearing. Chipper looked embarrassed, but the wolf-dog broke into a grin. “Half the dogs in Nome think the same as you,” Balto said with a wink. Chipper breathed a sigh of relief and turned his attention back to the conversation.
“. . . sled team or not, you’re still a tenderfoot,” Kaltag said.
“Now just a . . .” Star protested.
Balto took this time to step in. He cleared his throat, and both dogs looked at him. “Sorry to interrupt your . . . chat, but I really shouldn’t be keeping my guests out in the cold. I was planning on taking them over to meet you and Tricksy,” he said to Kaltag.
Kaltag bowed slightly. “My deepest, sincerest apologies. I don’t know where my manners are . . .”
“That’s ‘cause ya don’t have none,” Star laughed.
Kaltag hit him upside the head. “That’s ‘any’, and I most certainly do.” He grinned at the others. “I live just down the road . . .”
Before they could go anywhere, a feminine voice spoke up. “Hey Balto, who’re your friends there?”
Balto turned and saw an Afghan hound and a Malamute walking toward them. “Hi Sylvie, Dixie. These are the outlanders that Jenna told you about a few days ago. They’re staying with us for a while.”
“Any of them . . . available?” Dixie asked slyly, appraising Dash.
Dash was immediately conscious of Aurora staring at him. “Sorry. I’m taken.”
“What happened to steady stream of suitors in these parts?” Dixie lamented.
“Sorry, Dix,” Kaltag said. “As we say in the racing business, ‘You win some, you lose some.’”
“In my case it’s more losses.”
Chipper noticed that Star was very conspicuously looking anywhere but Dixie’s direction. He must like her. He wondered why the husky wasn’t trying harder to get her attention. Then again, it wasn’t any of his business.
“So what are your names?” Sylvie asked.
“I’m Dash. This is my lovely mate Aurora and our son, Chipper.”
“Not to rush things,” Balto interrupted, “but again, I shouldn’t keep you all out in the snow.”
“Of course not,” Kaltag said. “As I was saying, I live just down the road, if you’ll follow me. Everyone’s welcome to come along.”
“As much as I’d love to sit around and chitchat, I’ve got some pressing business at the Boiler Room,” Sylvie said. “I’ve got it from a very reliable source that . . .”
“And I’ve got to go along to charm the information out of any . . . reluctant sources,” Dixie added, giving her most attractive pose. “We can go with you as far as Kaltag’s house, though.”
As they started walking down the street, Chipper spoke up. “So, how long have Nikki, Kaltag, and Star been together?”
“Ever since I can remember,” Balto said.
The pup trotted abreast of Balto. “Do they always fight like that?”
“Who, Kaltag and Star?” Balto shook his head. “They’re not really fighting. A fight in these parts can get you killed. The arguing is just how they get along with each other. They’re really good friends.”
“That’s right. I’d never really hurt my pal Star here,” Kaltag said from the front of the group, tousling the fur on Star’s head.
“‘Course not,” Star said cheerfully. “I couldn’t ask for a more trustworthy, a more chivalrous, a more understanding . . . geeze! I’m even starting to sound like you!”
“Pardon my lack of mirth regarding your sense of humor,” Kaltag grumbled. He stopped in front of an average-sized, two story house. “Well, here it is. What do you think?”
“It’s lovely,” Aurora complimented.
“I’ll like it even better if it’s warm,” Chipper whispered to his parents.
Walking toward the front steps, Kaltag glanced up. “Hey Star.”
“Huh?” Star asked, halting under the eaves of the house. Just then, a pile of snow that was hanging precariously over the edge fell off, completely burying the Husky.
Nikki chuckled. “Hey Kaltag, dat was pretty good timing dere. Can I see dat again?”
Star came up sputtering. “That wasn’t funny! I . . .” His voice was cut off when more loose snow slid off the roof and submerged him again.
Kaltag snorted. “Catch it that time, Nik?” Dixie and Sylvie began to chuckle as well.
Star surfaced again. “You’re a riot, Kaltag, a real riot,” he said, shaking the snow out of his fur. He strode away angrily.
“Hey, Star! Come back!” Kaltag called.
“Yeah,” Nikki added. “We was only joking with yous.”
Star spun around. “Oh yeah? You see this? I’m not laughing.” He turned and stormed off.
“Gee,” Dixie said. “I wonder what’s got him so hot under the collar.”
Balto cleared his throat. “I think maybe you took pushed him too far this time.”
“It was only a bit of fun,” Kaltag argued. “He’s never gotten that upset before.”
Nikki nodded. “Yeah, we does it all the time. We never mean anything by it.”
“I don’t know what’s eating at him,” Kaltag muttered.
“Why, Kaltag,” Sylvie said, “I’m surprised you haven’t noticed. Star obviously likes somebody.”
“Oh?” Dixie asked, her voice betraying her surprise. “Who?”
“Well, I don’t have anything substantial as to who, but rumor has it that she lives around Nome.”
“But that could be any one of dozens of dogs, Sylvie!” Dixie exclaimed.
“Or twice as many wolves if he goes for the wild type,” Kaltag added with a snicker. He cast an apologetic glance at Balto. “No offense intended of course.”
“None taken,” Balto said with a sly grin. “I’m not the type to hold a grudge.”
“Tricksy’s hearing about this, isn’t she?” Kaltag asked mournfully.
Balto grinned. “Oh yeah, but don’t worry. I’m easily bribed.”
“You’re all heart, Balto.”
“Ya know,” Nikki began, “I too can be easily persuaded . . .”
“Oh stow it Nikki.”
“Well, we’d best be going,” Sylvie said. “Wouldn’t want to miss out on a hot story.”
As the two girls walked away, Nikki looked in the direction Star had taken. “Guess I’d better go talks to him. Yous guys enjoy.” He too left.
With one more concerned look where Star had disappeared, Kaltag winked at the others. “Come inside. Wouldn’t want any tenderfeet to get frostbit.” He chuckled lightly at his own wit as he walked inside, followed closely by the others. Kaltag bowed with a grand, sweeping gesture. “Welcome to my humble abode. Help yourselves to a seat by the fireplace. Hey Trix! Where are you?”
“Kaltag? Is that you?” An attractive lupine dog entered the room. She stepped back in surprise. “Oh! I didn’t know we had company.” She quickly smoothed her fur.
Kaltag nodded. “Sort of an unexpected surprise for myself as well. Allow me to introduce to you Aurora, Dash, and Chipper. They’re new here in Nome.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet all of you,” Tricksy said. In another room, the tinkle of shattering glass was heard, immediately followed by a chorus of “Wasn’t me.” She sighed as she gave Kaltag an exhausted glance. “I’m glad you’re home.”
“Long day?” Kaltag asked.
“That is an understatement. Your turn.”
“Sure, Trix.” He looked at the others as he turned to exit. “Make yourselves comfortable.”
“Sounds great,” Balto said, walking toward the den.
He hadn’t gone more than a couple of steps when Tricksy planted a paw firmly on his chest. “I’ve been looking for you.”
That didn’t sound good. “What now?”
“I ran into Kemo yesterday, and after some . . . gentle persuasion, he informed me of what you two discussed at your secret meeting last week.”
“Secret meeting?” Chipper asked curiously.
Balto gave him a quick glance before returning his gaze to Tricksy. “Do you mind if we continue this conversation elsewhere? In private?”
Tricksy froze at his unusually severe tone. “Oh. Uh, sure.” She led the way to the kitchen, and as soon as the swinging door closed behind them, Tricksy turned and sat down. “You’ve got some nerve hauling me off like some misbehaving puppy. In front of everyone else, too! That was downright embarrassing! You may be a hero, but I can still take you apart!”
Leave it to Tricksy to get defensive. “You didn’t have to bring it up in front of them. Look, Trix, I don’t know how they did things at your old village, but here in Nome, there’s a thing called tact,” Balto growled. “You put me in a very awkward position by just mentioning Kemo. Now what did he tell you?” Balto asked, in a forcibly calmed tone.
Tricksy opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it upon seeing his expression. She looked at the door. “Lighten up! The walls in this house are pretty thin, ya know. He told me that the wolf packs were in trouble, and that some human was responsible for it. Now I want to know why you hadn’t told me about it. And why did you drag me out of there just now?”
“I can’t afford to have the information getting around. That’s why I didn’t tell you sooner. And I ‘dragged you out of there’ because this isn’t something we can discuss in front of them.”
“I’m not making the connection. Why so secretive?”
Balto drew a deep breath. “Because they’re part of the problem.”
“Them? Why would the packs hereabouts consider them a threat?”
“It’s not them, it’s their human. I think he’s the one Kemo was worried about. From what I’ve overheard, their human is supposed to survey the construction site tomorrow, and I intend to shadow him and find out what’s going on.”
“Good. I’ll come with you,” Tricksy said, hopping up.
“Oh, no you don’t.”
She shot him a glare that would melt a glacier. “Why not?”
“ I’m trying to keep a low profile there. If I go alone, I have a better chance of remaining unnoticed than if you come with me. Besides, I already know where the site is.”
“If you’ll remember, I can move quieter than you. Kemo said so. And if you really wanted to tell me those location, you could right now. You just don’t trust me.” Tricksy raised her nose indignantly.
“That’s not it, Trix. It’s just that . . .”
“If you did, you’d let me come with you.”
With a defeated sigh, Balto bowed his head. “All right, but I’m warning you. Not a word to anyone.”
* * *
“So did you take care of the pups?” Tricksy asked when she and Balto entered the livingroom
Kaltag nodded, giving her a puzzled stare. “Luckily the only thing broken was that hideous lamp our human’s sister gave him.”
“He was looking for a way to get rid of it anyway.”
“Still, I don’t think our pups will forget the rules about breaking stuff very soon.”
“I hope you weren’t too hard on them,” Tricksy said, arching an eyebrow at Balto.
How does she know about that? Sylvie couldn’t have heard, so . . . Jenna must have told her. She and Tricksy were pretty close; nothing could involve one without the other hearing about it. With my luck, Sylvie will hear about it and then everyone in Nome will be talking.
“Nah. I just had a talk with them and made them go take another nap. I’d say that was quite adequate.” Kaltag winked at Balto. “Piece of cake.”
Balto rolled his eyes. “Right. Showoff.”
Kaltag laughed and looked at the others. “See? Even heros need a hero. So anyway . . .”
Chuckling, Balto laid down beside the fireplace. As the others talked, he let his mind wander. Everything seemed to be happening at once: wolf problems, puppy problems, Tricksy, guests; there was seemingly no end to his tale of woes. Then his mind drifted back to Aleu. He really wanted to make things up to her. Then an idea hit him. With any luck, Aleu and I’ll be back on good terms tomorrow.
The Best-laid Plans . . .
The next morning, Balto rose early and stole quietly out of the house. He hadn’t bothered to wake Jenna, since he’d discussed his plan with her the night before. Though she’d initially been hesitant, she’d agreed in the end, and now he needed help from someone else for his plan to work. He walked quickly down the street to the edge of town and then hurried to the wrecked trawler. As he walked up the gangplank, he heard Boris’ quiet snoring, and chuckled silently. He silently pulled the blanket off the sleeping goose and then carried a bucket of water into the cabin. Breaking the film of ice on top, he nudged the bucket with one paw.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaa!” Boris yelled, leaping up and shaking the icy water from his feathers. “Who did that?! I . . . Balto! What are you doing here?”
“Mornin’ Boris! I’m here to ask a favor of you.”
“You think you can just waltz right in here, throw a bucket of ice on me and then ask me for a favor?!” the goose sputtered. “What?!”
“Now, Boris. It’s not like you’ve never woke me up like that. Anyway, I’m going out with Tricksy this morning to follow a human.” At Boris’ questioning expression, Balto held up a paw. “Wolf business.”
“Forget I thought of asking.”
Balto arched an eyebrow. “Anyway, I want you to come with us.”
“Why? I’m just one old goose, Boitshick. What can I do that two half-wolves can’t? Two halves make a whole after all.”
Balto sat down. “Well, Aleu and I had an argument, and I was going to take her out with us to . . . you know. Show her some of the stuff I’ve learned. Wolf stuff.”
Boris held his wings to his head as though he had a headache. “But I thought you and Jenna were not going to tell puppies about being part wolf . . . though Aleu is more wolf than others.”
Balto shook his head. Boris never had agreed with his and Jenna’s decision regarding the puppies’ wolf heritage, and he brought up the subject whenever he could. “Let’s not go into that this early in the morning. I’m not going to tell her that it’s wolf stuff. It’ll sort of be a father/daughter type thing. I figure it’ll smooth things over between us.”
“Yes, but you still haven’t told me where I come in. Oi! You canines always beat around the bush!”
“There is going to be a time when Tricksy and I need to go on ahead, but can’t afford to have an inexperienced pup tagging along with us. Things might get . . . sticky. That’s where we’d need a responsible, intelligent someone like you.”
“Okay, okay. When you put it that way, how can I refuse?” Boris asked, shrugging dramatically.
* * *
“You mean it, Papa? Really?” Aleu asked, bouncing in anticipation.
“Shh.” Balto glanced at his other pups who were still asleep. “That’s right. Just you, me, Tricksy, and Boris today.”
“Wow! Wait til the others hear!”
“Whoa, there Tiger. I don’t want you to tell anyone else about this yet. It’ll just be our little secret for now, okay?” Balto whispered conspiratorially. Eyes wide with excitement, Aleu nodded quickly. “All right, then. There are a couple of things I want you to remember. Tricksy and me are going to have to leave you with Boris for a bit, and I don’t want you to try following us. Agreed?” Aleu nodded again. “Good girl. Let’s go meet Tricksy.”
They walked outside and found Tricksy waiting for them at the gate. “What took you so long?” Tricksy asked. Then she noticed Aleu. Without hesitation, she drew him to one side. “Have you lost your mind?” she hissed.
“Take it easy, Trix.”
“Take it easy? You could’ve warned me you’d do something this insane!”
“So you could tell me I’m crazy that much sooner?” Balto asked wryly. “I just thought that we could show her some stuff. You know, stuff like Kemo and I taught you.”
“Huh? Oh, you mean w . . .”
Balto cut her off. “Yeah, that. But whatever you do, don’t refer to anything we do with the word ‘wolf,’ all right?”
“But this is insane. What if someone sees her? She looks like a . . .”
“Don’t worry. Aleu won’t be following us during the business part of our trip. She’ll be hanging back with Boris.”
“Well if that’s the case, okay then.” She walked over to Aleu and tousled the fur on her head. “So you want to see me show up your father, huh?” Aleu giggled and Tricksy turned to walk past Balto. In passing, she whispered just loud enough for him to here, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
* * *
“So where’re we going Papa? What do we do first?”
Aleu’s questions had flown in rapid succession since they’d left, and Tricksy’s ears were beginning to ring. She stopped and stayed Aleu with one paw. “Okay, Kiddo. First thing to learn about traveling in the woods is you have to be quiet. You can talk, but just not loud. You’re here to hear, not to be heard, got it? You’ve got to see with your ears and nose as much as your eyes.”
“Oh,” Aleu said, her face betraying her chagrin.
Balto chuckled. “Don’t worry, this is just your first time. I remember the first time I took Tricksy out here. She was trying so hard to move quietly. Let’s just say she didn’t and leave it at that.”
Aleu smiled again, but still began to make a concerted effort to glide along as her father and Tricksy did. Just then, a loud cry was heard from above them and Boris came hurtling down through the pine boughs and crashed into a snowbank. Aleu dashed over to the fallen goose. “Uncle Boris! Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
Boris pulled his head out of the snow and began smoothing out his feathers. “Now I remember why I don’t like flying anymore. When you make crash landing, everyone always ask if you’re hurt. Why not, ‘Nice to see you,’ or ‘Do you need our assistance?’?”
Aleu giggled. “Nice to see you, Uncle Boris.”
“Do you need our assistance?” Balto asked, a smile spreading across his face.
“Hmm, I wonder which side of family that comes from?” He stared accusingly at Balto.
Balto laughed and shook his head. “Come on, Boris. Stop playing in the snow and let’s go.”
“You call this playing?!” the goose sputtered. “Oi! Canines are all alike; always running mouth faster than paws . . .”
* * *
As they traveled, Tricksy and Balto showed Aleu some of what they knew about the forest. She quickly picked up everything they showed her and was soon moving almost as silently as the two adults.
Balto began to grow uneasy as they moved deeper into the woods. He couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that he was being watched. He thought he’d picked up Kemo’s scent a few times, but he couldn’t be sure. He heard a twig snap on his left and he quickly stopped and looked in that direction.
Aleu picked up on his rigid stance and crouched down. “What was that, Papa?” Aleu whispered.
Balto sniffed the air and caught Tricksy’s eye. “He’s playing tricks on us,” he whispered in her ear.
Tricksy looked warily at the path ahead. “I’ll bet he’s having a good laugh right now,” Tricksy snorted. “Wait til I get my paws on that Kemo . . .”
“Kemo?” Aleu asked. “You mean Uncle Kemo is here? Can I meet him?”
“Quiet, Aleu,” Balto said. “We don’t know that for sure. Let’s move on.”
Humbled by her father’s criticism, fell in step behind him and remained silent until they came to the edge of a large clearing. Looking upon the scene, she was awestruck. “Wow!”
Below them lay a large encampment of humans, busily surveying and discussing with animated gestures. Elsewhere, other men were chopping wood and using dogsleds to haul it back to the camp. This chaotic scene so captivated Aleu that she began to walk toward it. She found her trip cut short when she was lifted from the ground.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Balto said when he set her down. “This is where Tricksy and I leave you for a bit. You stay here and do what your Uncle Boris tells you.”
“Awww!” Aleu protested. “Why can’t I come too?”
“Remember our agreement?”
“But . . .”
“It might be dangerous down there.”
“But . . .”
“And I’m your father, you’ll do as I say. End of argument.”
“Oh . . .” Her father’s tone left no room for dispute. Frustrated, she sat down.
When he was sure he’d made his point, Balto turned to the goose. “Take her back past the treeline. Make sure you stay hidden until we get back.”
Boris rolled his eyes. “Of course we stay hidden. What you think I am? Dodo?”
“I don’t think you want an answer to that,” Balto said, walking away with Tricksy following him.
Once they were out of sight, Aleu growled angrily. “It’s not fair! Papa never lets me do anything.”
Boris looked at her questioningly. “What not fair about keeping his baby safe?” he asked, poking his wingtip at her nose for emphasis.
Aleu brushed his wing down with a paw. “I’m not a baby.”
“Then you are the smallest grownup I ever seen,” Boris countered, herding her back farther into the woods. “Anyway, we do as Balto says, eh?”
* * *
Balto and Tricksy stopped a short distance away from the camp and laid down in the snow. Balto raised is head and gave the camp a once-over. Just then, he caught a glimpse of the visiting human walking into the camp from one of the dog sleds. He then turned his head toward Tricksy. “Let’s move in close and see what we can find out. I’ll head left, you go right,” he said, nodding toward the less crowded side of camp.
Tricksy shook her head. “No, I’ll go left and you go right.”
“Give me one reason why you always argue with everything I say.”
“I only argue with you when you’re chauvinistic, arrogant, overprotective, insensitive, or any combination of the above.”
“I said one, not five.” Balto shook his head in defeat. “All right, you go one way, I’ll go the other.”
They split up and headed in their separate directions. Balto hadn’t gone very far when his feeling of uneasiness returned. He sighed audibly and glanced back. “All right, Kemo, you’ve made your point. You can stop fooling around now.”
Laughter shattered the silence, and Balto snapped his head around. Kemo was lying on a log to the side of the trail, convulsing with laughter. Balto rolled his eyes and shoved the white wolf off the log and into a snowbank. “I thought you were supposed to be the mature one.”
Kemo, still laughing, climbed to his feet and shook the snow out of his fur. “It’s nice to see my humor so easily appreciated by a receptive audience.”
“Very funny. I’m here because of you, ya know.”
The wolf became serious. “I know, and I appreciate it.” As they began moving, he glanced at Balto hesitantly. “I saw someone new with you and Trix. Very young. Very . . . lupine. What pack is she from?”
“Mine. I brought Aleu with me today.”
Kemo looked sharply at his half-brother. “Is your brain frostbit?! What were you thinking?”
“I brought her as a way to sort of make up with her.”
“But bringing a wolf puppy . . .”
“Puppy. Just plain old puppy. Aleu is all dog.”
Kemo squeezed his eyes shut. “I won’t debate that with you again, at least not here, but she looks like a wolf regardless. What happens if a human sees her?”
“Don’t worry, she’s perfectly safe. I’ve got Boris watching her right now, and he’s going to keep her out of sight.”
Still uncertain, Kemo shrugged. “Well, as long as she’s here, I guess I can drop by and say hello.”
Balto grimaced, regretting what he was about to say. “I wish you wouldn’t do that just yet. She’s not exactly accustomed to strangers.”
“You mean you’ve never told her about me?”
“It’s not that, it’s just . . . I never told her you were a wolf.”
Kemo hesitated. “Oh.”
He was hurt; Balto could discern that from his voice. “Maybe some other time,” he suggested.
Kemo nodded tersely. “You’d better go and tell the camp dogs not to sound an alarm if they see or smell me. I’ll wait here.”
. . . Often Go Awry
“Come on, Uncle Boris! Let’s play again!” Aleu exclaimed, wagging her tail happily.
Boris sat up slowly, covered in snow. “I think we’ve played ‘Stalk the Goose’ enough already. Why don’t we just rest for a while?” He glanced up. “Oi! Why do I let myself get talked into these things?”
“But I’m bored, Uncle Boris,” Aleu whined. “We’ve been waiting forever!”
“Not long enough for forever.” Aleu gave him as pitiful of look as her bright blue eyes could muster. Boris sighed. “All right, all right. How about we play new game?”
“Sure!” Aleu agreed readily.
“Okay. Dis game is called ‘Baby-sit.’”
Aleu frowned suspiciously. “I’ve never heard of that before. How do we play?”
“Simple. I say baby sit. You the baby, so you sit.” He pushed her into a seated position under a pine tree before reclining against the trunk himself.
“Awww! But Uncle Boris!” Aleu flopped down, resting her head angrily on her forepaws. “Can’t we just go find Papa and go home?”
“I don’t think that is good idea. Your father wants us to wait right here.”
“But I’m getting hungry and cold.”
“I’m sure it won’t be much longer,” Boris said, patting her head.
Aleu lowered her head back to her paws before raising it again. She sniffed the air, and grew excited when she caught the savory aroma of cooking meet. “Hey! Food!” She jumped up and started to jog toward the source of the smell.”
“Hey! Come back here!” Boris called. He waddled after her as fast as he could, but she was already running downhill. “Heel, Girl! What you think you are, Greyhound? Come back!” Aleu paid no attention to him and he shook his head. “Balto’s going to kill me.”
* * *
Balto shook his head as he eavesdropped on the humans’ conversation. They were there to build all right, and from the sound of it, things weren’t good at all. He’d overheard plans for a store as well as for lodging arrangements. It seemed as if Kemo was right after all. Unfortunately, he had no way to know for certain. If only he could find out what the finished project would be.
The man who was lodging with him bent down to study some papers. “I still don’t think this is quite what we’re looking for. What we had in mind was something smaller right here. Less intrusive.”
One of the other men looked up from the paper. “What did you have in mind, Jim?”
Balto raised his ears to listen to every word. “We were more interested in . . .”
A group of startled shouts followed by a loud clang cut him off, and Balto looked irately behind him. He saw another human, obviously a cook, run to the table.
“What’s the matter, Tommy?” he heard one of the men ask. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
One of the other men elbowed the cook jokingly. “Whatever he’s fixing us probably sat up and shook his hand,” he laughed.
The cook shook his head. “Tweren’t no ghost, and tweren’t your dinner. I just seen one o’ them wolves the locals was ravin’ about.” Balto sat up sharply. If they were going after Kemo . . .
The first man reached for a rifle. “You’re kidding. Where?”
“I got ‘im pinned up in the potato bin. Just a littleun.”
Balto made a mad dash for the kitchen tent. I wonder what a wolf pup would be doing in a human camp. Racing quickly located the metal box near the back of the tent. “Can you hear me?”
A tiny voice, slightly muffled by the metallic echoing, answered from inside. “Papa! Get me out of here! I’m scared!”
Balto’s heart leapt to his throat. Aleu! “One second.” He quickly studied the latch, and then used his nose to flip the catch. The door fell open, and he reached his head inside and picked up his daughter by the scruff of the neck and turned to leave just as four men, including Ramsey, rushed to the flap. Balto set his daughter down and crouched in front of her, ready to spring into action.
Two began to raise their weapons, but were stopped by a third. “Hold it. That’s just Balto again.”
“Are you sure?” one asked.
“Positive,” the first declared.
Ramsey nodded his confirmation. “That’s him all right. And the other’s one of his pups. I’m staying with their owners. They must’ve followed me, though I can’t fathom why. Or how.”
Taking advantage of the lull in danger, Balto hastily carried his daughter out of the tent and didn’t stop running until they were safely out of the human camp. Breathing heavily, he set her down and stood where he was, trying to catch his breath. “Are you all right?”
“I think so,” she replied in a quavering voice.
Tricksy sprinted over to him. “Balto! What happened? I heard an awful racket down there.” Then she saw Aleu trembling next to her father.
Composing himself, Balto looked up at his companion. “Aleu startled a few humans . . .”
Before Balto could continue, Boris came running up to them. “There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” He grabbed Aleu’s face with his wings. “Don’t scare me like that again!” He broke off when he saw Balto’s expression.
His gaze hardened as he glared at his daughter. “What do you think you were doing back there?”
“Lighten up, Balto,” Tricksy began. “Everyone’s all right, so why don’t you just . . .” She broke off too as Balto’s eyes turned in her direction.
“Let’s head for Nome. Now.” He nudged Aleu forward, and Boris and Tricksy fell into step behind them. As she trudged along, Aleu knew that the journey home would not be pleasant.
* * *
The silence was ominous during the long walk home. Tricksy had long since run home, and Boris, after exchanging a few words with Balto, had flown toward Nome to “find some chow.” Aleu had regretfully watched him go, knowing that her last potential ally had abandoned her. They continued to walk in silence, and while normally that wouldn’t be a problem, it compounded Aleu’s terror of arriving home. He had never struck her in anger, but she’d never before seen her father this angry, either. After today, I’m not sure I should push my luck.
The sky was lit only by the faint Northern Lights as they neared the outskirts of the town. Balto turned her on a new course toward the grounded boat where he had lived once upon a time. This was definitely not good. “Uh, Papa, why are we going there?” she asked hesitantly.
“We need privacy,” her father answered shortly.
Privacy? She gulped. That couldn’t be good. Personally she would’ve preferred a public, well-lit locale with several witnesses. She knew she was in for it; she could discern that much from her father’s expression. To what extent, however, she had no idea, and as they approached the derelict trawler, a sense of impending doom washed over her. Her pace slackened until a bump of her father’s nose nudged her into motion. Reluctantly, she crept up the gangplank. Entering the cabin, she edged her way to the far corner and cowered there, eyes lowered and tail tucked between her legs. She wished he would yell at her, hit her, or something, anything, to end the wait. Her father remained silent as he entered the cabin.
Balto knew his daughter was waiting for him to blow up, and this caused him to check his automatic reaction to do so. He sat down momentarily to compose himself, trying to separate fact from emotion. He was only partially successful as he fought hard to keep his voice calm. “One reason,” he growled. “I’d like to hear one reason for what happened back there.”
“Papa, I . . .”
“I’m not finished.” Aleu’s protests died unspoken. “I told you to stay with your Uncle Boris. I told you not to follow me and Tricksy. You could’ve been hurt!”
Aleu shuddered. Her father wasn’t yelling, but his severe tone had the same effect. “I was cold and hungry and I smelled food and I . . .” She broke off, sobbing.
Balto hesitated, realizing that she wasn’t the only one at fault here. He’d made the mistake in bringing her on a potentially dangerous mission, and he really shouldn’t have left them waiting so long. He knew that she was almost as upset as himself, probably more, but after what almost happened . . . “Look, Aleu,” he began in a calmer voice, “a surprised human can be very dangerous, especially when they think you’re a . . . thief.” Balto was thankful he’d not allowed himself to slip up and say wolf.
Aleu choked back another sob. “But I wasn’t going to steal anything. I was just hoping they’d give me something like Rosie does.”
“Not all humans are like Rosie.”
“I’m sorry, Papa. I didn’t think . . .”
“That’s right. You didn’t.” Aleu lowered her head in shame. “Hopefully you’ll learn something from what happened. Let’s go home before you mother starts to worry. We’ll discuss this more later.” He turned abruptly and walked out of the cabin, and a downcast Aleu trailed after him.
* * *
They arrived back at the house quickly, and Aleu slunk past her mother and siblings and hurried to the back room. Confused, they turned to Balto for answers, but he was noncommittal and simply lay down in front of the fireplace. Jenna decided against asking him openly in front of their guests, and resolved to drag the information out of him later. The pups on the other hand, chose not to wait and instead followed Aleu back to the room.
Aleu was lying in bed with her face turned away from them, and they quickly rushed over to her. Entering last, Jenner nudged the door partly closed before joining his brothers and sister around Aleu. “So what gives?” he asked.
Kala nodded. “Yeah. We heard the human mention you and Papa.”
“He said you got caught,” Rush added.
“And that some people thought you were a wolf,” Dingo chimed.
Aleu rolled over sharply. “Thought I was a what?”
“A wolf,” Dingo repeated.
“That’s ridiculous. A wolf’s a wild animal. How could anyone think I was a wolf?”
Rush shrugged. “I don’t know, I never saw one. That’s just what he said.”
“You know humans aren’t very bright,” Jenner said. “But I think it would be neat to be a wolf.”
“Who cares about that?” Kala interjected. “What happened?”
Aleu lowered her head to her paws again. “Nothin’,” she muttered.
“Oh, come on,” Dingo protested.
“Yeah,” Kodi agreed. “Papa’s madder than a polar bear in summer, and you’re in here cryin’ your eyes out. Something must’ve happened.”
Aleu sighed and sat up. “Okay. Something did happen, but it wasn’t entirely my fault.”
Kala rolled her eyes. “Why does that sound familiar?”
“Maybe ‘cause we heard it yesterday for something else that wasn’t her fault,” Rush commented.
Aleu clinched her teeth. “I don’t have to tell you guys anything, you know.”
Kala held up a paw. “Okay, okay. Just go on.”
* * *
Jenna finally found her chance to talk to her mate when the others were called by their human. She laid down beside him and watched the fire. “If you don’t shake this bad mood, you’re going to make one lousy host when we take Aurora and Dash’s family to the Old Mill tonight.”
Balto rolled to a half-seated position. “Oh, no.” He closed his eyes. “Not tonight, Jen. I don’t think I can handle any more excitement tonight.”
“Something that happened earlier?” Jenna queried innocently.
“I suppose you’re waiting for an explanation.”
Jenna nodded. “It would be nice. I heard that human mention seeing you and Aleu.”
“Aleu got caught by humans today. They thought she was a wolf.”
“What?!” Jenna sat up sharply.
“Keep it down, Jenna. We don’t want to upset everyone else. I left her with Boris while Tricksy and I went to observe the human camp Kemo told us about. Aleu apparently got tired of waiting and ran off to get something to eat. To make a long story short, she got caught by the cook and I had to get her out. We both would’ve been dead if that human hadn’t recognized us.”
“No wonder you’re both upset.”
“That’s why I’m upset. I think she’s upset because of a little talk we had on the way home.”
* * *
“Then he said we needed some privacy and took me to his boat.”
“Did he sock ya?” Jenner demanded.
Aleu shook her head. “No, but I thought he was going to.”
Kala frowned. “Did he yell at you?”
“No,” Aleu replied softly.
The others collectively heaved an exasperated sigh. “Then what happened?”
“He asked me why I did what I did, and then he said we’re going to discuss it more later.”
Jenner winced. “Uh oh. The dreaded words. Been nice knowin’ ya, Aleu.”
“Shut up, Jenner!” Kala ordered, shoving him aside. “This is serious. She may have done something incredibly stupid, but this isn’t a laughing matter.”
“Thanks a lot,” Aleu growled, laying down again.
“I guess that didn’t come out right,” Kala replied with a grimace. “So what do you think’ll happen?”
Her sister shrugged. “I don’t know, and I don’t really want to.”
“What do you mean by that?” Kala asked suspiciously.
Aleu looked innocently at her. “Mean by what?”
Before Kala could reply, Jenna called from the livingroom. “Kala! Aleu! You and your brothers come out here. We’re getting ready to go to the Old Mill!”
The pups’ mood immediately brightened, and they rushed toward the door. Jenner glanced over his shoulder, and noticing that Aleu hadn’t moved from the bed, stopped. “Aren’t you coming?”
“What am I supposed to say if Mama or Papa ask why?”
Aleu shrugged, and turned away. Jenner sighed and walked out of the room.
* * *
The house was a hive of activity. Jenna was running back and forth, trying to get the pups groomed, the pups were excitedly running all over the place, playing and generally giving their mother fits, and their guests sitting back and watching it all.
Balto sat down facing Aurora and Dash. “Do things ever get this exciting down where you live?”
Aurora laughed lightly. “All the time, and our pup’s almost full-grown.”
“You seem to have done a good job with him.” Balto sighed thoughtfully. “Kaltag and Tricksy make parenting seem so easy. There’s times when I wonder if I’m doing everything right.”
Dash shook his head. “You aren’t.” Seeing Balto considering an appropriate protest, Dash continued, “Everyone makes mistakes. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent. Just let it come naturally.”
Balto nodded toward the pups. “The last time someone gave me that advice, I ended up with more than I bargained for.”
“I think everyone’s ready,” Jenna announced as she joined them.
“Come on, pups!” Balto called. The puppies dashed over and lined up. “Now I want you guys to be on your best behavior while we’re out. That means be polite to everyone and tone down the roughhousing and . . .” Balto glanced over the group. “Where’s Aleu?”
Jenner shrugged. “Last time I saw her, she was back in our room.”
“Yeah,” Kala added. “She didn’t look happy.”
“Are you making her stay here?” Jenna asked quietly.
Balto frowned. “No. I’ll go get her.”
* * *
When he looked into the room, he saw his daughter lying in bed. Taking a deep breath, he squeezed through the partially closed door, causing a hinge to squeak. Aleu looked toward the doorway, but upon seeing her father, quickly put her head back down, hoping he hadn’t seen her move. Balto tried not to smile; she never was good at pretending. “Aleu, we’re getting ready to leave.”
“I’m not coming,” she mumbled.
“Why not? Are you sick?” Aleu remained silent. “Is it because you’re still mad at me?” When Aleu still failed to respond, he closed his eyes, and tried to keep his voice neutral. “Look, we don’t have time for this. If you’re still mad at me, we’ll talk about it whenever we get back. Now do you want to come with us?”
Aleu shot her father an angry glance. “Yes.”
“Well then you’re going to have to get your fur groomed and cheer up before we leave. So are you coming or not?”
Aleu placed her head between her paws, again refusing to respond.
Balto growled in frustration. “I don’t know why I bother. Suit yourself, but you can still change your mind. I hope you will.” He walked away and stopped momentarily at the door, hoping that Aleu would join him. When she didn’t he shook his head in disappointment and walked out.
* * *
“Where’s Aleu?” Jenna asked when Balto reentered the room.
“What? She’s wanted to go the Old Mill with the us for a long time.”
“She said she’s not coming.”
“I’ll go talk to her,” Jenna replied firmly.
“Just let her be, Jenna.”
Jenna looked toward the doorway. “Maybe I should stay here. Someone has to look after her.”
Balto shook his head. “She’s not alone. The humans are here to watch her.”
Jenner hesitantly stepped forward. “Uh, Papa? I’m not feeling too good. Can I stay home this time?”
Balto forced a smile away from his face. Jenner was feeling fine; he just wanted to keep Aleu company. “Sure, Big Guy. We’ll take you when you’re feeling better.” As Jenner trotted back to sit with Aleu, Balto turned to the others. “All right everyone. Let’s mush.”
“Smells like things’re gonna get a mite rough tonight,” a wizened St. Bernard named Doc declared.
Dash leaned over to Balto. “Are you sure we should be staying here? We might get snowed in.”
Balto cracked a smile. “Positive. The last place you want to be is out wandering in this mess. But as for getting snowed in, I wouldn’t count on it. These spring storms rarely drop a lot of snow.”
“What’s your definition of ‘a lot’?” Dash asked.
Before Balto could reply, Aurora, Jenna, Dixie, and Sylvie broke into laughter. He shook his head. “I wonder what they’re talking about.”
Dash glanced over at them and shrugged. “From the sound of it, probably us.”
Balto gazed outside and watched a single snowflake drift past the window. “Things could be worse.”
* * *
Aleu waited in bed for what seemed an eternity until she heard Jenner sleeping soundly beside her. She carefully rolled to her feet and glanced at Jenner, who was breathing slow and evenly. Good, he’s asleep. She silently crossed the room to the single window and jumped onto a table. Cloudy, but no snow falling. It’s now or never. She hopped lightly to the floor, and began to pad silently to the door.
“What’re you doing, Aleu?” Jenner asked behind her.
Aleu grimaced. So much for that. “I’m going away,” she replied without glancing back.
Jenner darted between her and the door. “Away? Away where?”
“I don’t know. Just away.”
“You’re nuts! Why?”
“I don’t wanna hear it, Jenner,” Aleu growled, pacing the floor in front of her brother. He held his ground, and she sighed in vexation. “Can you please move out of my way?”
Jenner rolled his eyes. “This is the most absolute stupidest idea you’ve ever had, and you’ve had lots!”
“I said I don’t wanna hear it. I get blamed for everything, even when it’s not all my fault. I’m goin’ away so I won’t bother anyone anymore. So are you going to move or not?”
Jenner shook his head. “How will you survive? You’ve never been on your own.”
Aleu raised her nose indignantly. “I can take care of myself. I’m not a baby.”
“You’re certainly acting like one,” Jenner muttered. “Besides, aren’t you forgetting something?”
“There’s no way you can get away with this. Papa knows this whole place better than you do. He’ll find you easy.”
Aleu looked outside and saw a light snow beginning to fall. “Not if you don’t tell him.”
“Even if he doesn’t, Uncle Kemo will. Papa says he knows this area better than even him.”
“I can take care of myself,” she repeated, walking past him.
“What do I tell Mama and Papa?” Aleu walked out of the room without acknowledging his question. “If you freeze to death, don’t blame me!” he called after her.
Moments later, Aleu was standing outside the house. Thankfully, Jenner hadn’t followed her, and it had been a simple task to slip past the humans conversing in the livingroom. Now she was at a loss, however, as to which way she should go. She knew the way to her father’s boat, but that would be the first place he looked. She also knew the general direction of the human camp, but again, she would be too easy to find. After a short period of indecisiveness, she decided to head in the opposite direction of the camp. With that plan in mind, she began to run toward the treeline on the far side of town.
At the same time, Jenner was facing similar indecision inside. He knew that his parents had to be told about Aleu running away, but he also knew that if Aleu got caught because of him, she’d probably never speak to him again. But if I don’t tell on her, she might not be able to speak to me again anyway. That thought decided him. I’ll go to the Old Mill and tell Papa everything.
He ran out of the room, tiptoed past the livingroom where the humans were engaged in a conversation, and darted outside through the doggie door. As he jumped off the porch, it dawned on him that he didn’t even know the way to the Old Mill. He skidded to a halt as he reached the curb and looked both ways. “Right or left? I don’t know! Doggone it, the things Aleu gets me into! The farthest I’ve ever been from home is Kaltag’s house, so what do I . . .” Then it hit him. “Uncle Kaltag! He’ll know the way!”
* * *
Kaltag’s six puppies squealed with delight as they roughhoused with their father. He finally surrendered and fell down in front of the fireplace. The puppies swarmed all over him, gnawing on his ears or simply cuddling up against him. Fatherhood was far from being as easy as he bragged to Balto. But it certainly has its rewards.
A sharp prick made him raise his head. “Take it easy, Kip. Ears are a requirement to run as team leader, you know.”
“Sorry, Daddy.” The pup smoothed the fur around his father’s ear with one paw.
Kaltag laughed. “Don’t worry about it, Champ.”
Seeing her mother looking anxiously out the window, the three girls, Kiana, Galena, and Crystal broke off from play-fighting. “What’s wrong, Mama?”
“Hmm?” Tricksy looked away from the window. “Oh, nothing. Just a funny feeling, that’s all. I guess there’s a blizzard brewing.”
Kaltag nodded his assent. “It won’t be fit outside for dog nor beast tonight.”
“How do you know?” Tok, the oldest boy, asked.
Kaltag winked at him. “Your Mama’s never wrong about the weather. She’s part wolf, ya know.”
“We know,” Kip said, rolling his eyes.
“Yeah,” Tracks, the youngest boy added. “You’ve told us a zillion times.”
“There’s no such word as zillion,” Kaltag said. He tousled the fur on his head. “But that’s to get it through that thick skull of yours. That came from your mother’s side, ya know.”
Tricksy’s turned, eyes narrowed. “Care to say that again?”
He winked at the pups, causing them to snicker. “Only joking, Trix.”
“You’d better be. We wolves are known to lose our tempers when we’re made fun of.”
“So let that be a lesson to you all.” Kaltag grinned broadly at the pups.
“Kaltag, I’m warning you . . .” She broke off and cocked her ears.
Kaltag stood up, letting the puppies slide off him. “What is it?”
Tricksy shook her head. “I thought I heard something. Perhaps it was just the wind, or . . .” She broke off again. “There it is again. Something’s scratching at the door. Were you expecting anyone?”
Kaltag shook his head. “No. Are you sure that branch isn’t knocking on the roof again?”
Kaltag looked at the pups. “You all stay put while we check this out.”
They walked to the front door, while their puppies, curious about what was happening, gathered in the entryway. “Kaltag grabbed the rope attached to the crossbar and tugged on it. The wind tore the door open, and nearly ripped the cord out of his teeth. To their utter astonishment, a snow-dusted Jenner stumbled in the door, teeth chattering, and tiny icicles hanging from his whiskers.
“Jenner!” Tricksy exclaimed as her mate pulled the door shut.
“Son, what are you doing out on a night like this? Where’re your parents?” Kaltag asked.
Jenner tried to halt the violent chattering of his teeth, but to no avail. “I . . . I . . . I . . . h . . .h . . . have to . . . g . . . g . . . g . . .get . . . t . . .t . . . t . . .”
“You poor dear! Come in here and sit by the fire!” Tricksy nudged him toward the livingroom.
“C . . . c . . . c . . . can’t. H . . . h . . . have . . . t . . . t . . .to . . .”
“What you have to do is sit in there by the fire,” Kaltag declared firmly. He looked at his surprised pups. “You all go to bed. Jenner’s not in any condition for visiting.” The pups hesitated for a moment. “Come on, now. Mush!” The puppies scampered off.
Jenner tried to resist being herded toward the fire. “B . . . b . . . b . . .”
“No buts. When Trix tells you to sit, you sit.” He picked the pup off the ground, and despite the young pup’s weak struggles, he bodily carried Jenner to the fireplace. “As soon as you’ve thawed, you can tell us what this is all about.
Tricksy curled up around him, offering him what warmth she could. A few minutes later, Jenner, though still shivering, was beginning to recover, and she helped him stand up. “Where are your folks?”
“T . . . they’re at th . . . the Old M . . . Mill. I have to . . .”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Kaltag interrupted. “One thing at a time. What are you doing out? I know your folks don’t want you pups wandering alone. Especially not in weather like this.”
“I’m tryin’ t . . . to tell . . . Gotta see Papa. Aleu’s gone. R . . . r . . . run away.”
Tricksy’s mouth fell open. “What?! She ran away in a snowstorm?” Jenner nodded dumbly. She spun around to face Kaltag. “Balto has to be told.”
Kaltag nodded. “I’ll go right away.”
“I can do it,” Tricksy protested.
“No time to argue, Trix. I’ve run sleds in weather like this. You stay here with the pups.”
Realizing the gravity of the situation, Tricksy didn’t argue. Instead, she walked over to her mate and nuzzled him. “Take care of yourself.”
The husky nodded. “Don’t I always?”
“But I want to go,” Jenner broke in. “I have to.”
Kaltag decided against arguing. “Fine. We’re moving fast, so I’ll have to carry you.”
Jenner nodded his head. Tricksy tugged on the rope and held it tightly as the door swung open. Kaltag grabbed Jenner by the scruff of the neck and ran into the night.
* * *
Meanwhile, Aleu was trudging through the snow drifts in the forests outside Nome. Her paws were now so cold that she couldn’t feel them anymore, and it was a conscious effort to keep moving. Jenner was right, this was a stupid idea, but it’s only a matter of time before help comes. I know he ran to tell Papa as soon as I left. Maybe Papa’s searching for me right now. But what if he isn’t? What if no one’s coming? She quickly shook her negative thoughts away.
She huddled against a tree for some protection from the wind, and howled as loudly as she could. Hearing nothing, she howled once again and pricked her ears, but the only sound she heard was the wind howling through the trees. She lowered her head in despair. I can’t go any further. If I move, I’ll die, If I don’t, I’ll die anyway. How do I know that? Oh, well, it doesn’t matter . . . better to stay rested than tired. Besides, I’m beginning to feel a bit warmer now. Why do I feel so tired all of a sudden? She curled up at the base of a tree and closed her eyes, letting the snow cover her fur coat.
Search and Rescue
Unbeknownst to Aleu, her cry for help had not gone unheard. The wind carried the howl to a group of lithe wolves as they wove their way through the trees. Turning his ears into the wind, the pack leader pointed toward the sound with his nose and the group fanned out and began searching.
The leader soon picked up an alien scent and began to follow it toward a large fir tree. At a distance, he saw an abnormal mound, but before he could investigate, another lupine creature dashed to it from the opposite direction. It dug furiously, and to his surprise, it unearthed a young puppy. It howled for help and was quickly joined by five of the other wolves.
He walked cautiously over to her. “A bit out of your territory tonight, Kiska?”
The wolves spun around, and upon recognizing him, prepared to fight. “Well, well, well. Eyak. I could say the same thing to you?” Kiska replied. “What is your business here?”
“None of yours, I assure you, but he is one my clan,” he replied, nodding at the comatose youngster.
Kiska’s eyes narrowed in disbelief. “Don’t you mean she?”
Eyak shrugged. “Isn’t that what I said? Anyway, she’s one of ours.”
“We’ll see about that.” Kiska nudged the pup’s body. “You. Wake up. You must wake up!” The pup groggily opened her eyes. “Who are you? What is your clan?”
“I . . . I don’t . . . I don’t . . .” Her eyes began to droop again.
The youngest of Kiska’s pack looked at his companions. “She doesn’t know her own clan? What kind of wolf is she?”
“She’s slipping.” Kiska said. “Delirious from the cold. We must get her to shelter.”
“I must take her back to my pack’s den. Get her out of the elements,” Eyak interjected smoothly.
“Of course. Who likes frozen food?” one of Kiska’s pack growled softly.
“Silence, Andan.” Kiska stared hard at Eyak. “What proof can you give that you speak the truth?”
“Looks like you’ll have to trust me,” Eyak said with a cold smile.
“Trust you?” Andan snorted. “Not likely.”
“Silence,” Kiska repeated. “Arguments are unnecessary. We hunt here by Kemo’s permission. This trespasser has no say in the matter.”
Eyak bit back a growl as he sensed his pack form up behind him. “I beg to differ. It is you who have no say in the matter. I would suggest you back off now while you still have legs to do so.”
“Do not presume I am weaker than Tagish.” In spite of her bravado, she knew that her pack’s chances of winning this were slim. “We take her before Kemo. Let him be the judge of matters in his territory.”
“No! He has always been partial to the Anvil Creek Clan.”
Just then, the rest of Kiska’s pack arrived, and the odds were shifted in her favor, but looking at the pup, she knew they had to act fast or fighting would be pointless.“The abandoned den over that knoll,” she suggested, nodding at a distant rise. “Three of your pack, three of mine. We will question her there.”
With little choice, Eyak shrugged feigned indifference. “As you wish, but we will not forget this.”
Ignoring his posturing, Kiska immediately began issuing orders. “Tandera, Nootka. You two on me. Silently, she took her scout and highest-ranking male aside. “Chehalis, find Kemo,” she whispered. “Don’t stop until he is found. Failure is not an option. Fly!” As her runner sprinted away, Kiska turned to the Quinault. “You will leave with the rest of the pack, but stay within sight of the den. Let’s move!” She grabbed Aleu and the two packs began to run toward the den.
* * *
Kaltag quickly arrived at the Old Mill, still carrying Jenner. After Kaltag set him down, Jenner gazed around the crowd of dogs gathered in the timeworn building, searching for his family.
“I can’t see a thing, Uncle Kaltag. Everyone’s in the way.”
“Don’t worry, Jenner. They’re in back.”
Chipper trotted over to him. “Jenner? What are you doing here?”
The pup ignored him and glanced around frantically. Finally spying his parents, he quickly twisted his way through the throng and pawed impatiently at his dad’s leg. “Papa! I’ve gotta tell you something!”
“Not now, Jenner,” Balto said with a quick glance at his son. Then he stopped and glanced down again. “Jenner? What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be at home!”
“I asked first,” Chipper muttered. Dash nudged him to be silent.
Jenner looked at his brothers and sister staring anxiously at him. “I know, Papa, but . . .”
“You know you’re not supposed to go anywhere without myself or your mother with you.”
“But . . .” Jenner looked imploringly at Kaltag, who had joined the group.
The husky sighed. “I brought him. We’ve got a situation, Balto.”
“Why? What’s wrong?” Jenna asked anxiously. “Is it Aleu?”
“Easy, Jenna.” Balto gazed steadily at his son.
Kaltag nudged the pup. “Go ahead, Jenner. Tell him what you know.”
Jenner took a deep breath. “Aleu ran away.”
“What?” Jenna’s eyes widened in fear. “Balto, we’ve got to do something. She could freeze to death in weather like this!”
Balto was staring outside, trying to compose his thoughts. “Jenner, did you see which way she went?” His son shook his head despairingly. “All right, we’ll comb the town and the woods. Kaltag, are you coming?”
“I’m with you,” Dash declared.
“I am too,” Aurora added.
“Count me in,” Chipper chimed. Dash glanced at him, but didn’t argue.
“Are you three sure? You aren’t really built for this climate.” They nodded.
Jenna was pacing frantically. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”
Balto frowned at this but turned to Nikki and Star. “You two coming?”
“Sure thing dere, Balto,” Nikki replied.
“Right with ya, Boss,” Star added.
Six other dogs also volunteered.
“Where do we start, though?” Kaltag asked.
“The snow’s going to make tracking hard,” Balto agreed. He paused thoughtfully. “Kaltag, Nikki, you guys search the outskirts of town. Jenna, you’re with me. Doc, watch our pups until we return. The rest of you buddy-up and scour the town. Howl if you find something. Let’s mush!”
* * *
As they ran out of town, Balto headed first for his boat. Aleu knew the way, and it was possible that she would go there to worry everyone. Apparently of the same thought, Kaltag immediately ran to the opposite side of the beached fishing smack upon their arrival. Balto and Jenna ran up the gangplank.
“Boris!” Balto shook the goose awake.
“Balto! Jenna! What are you doing here this late? Oi! Couldn’t whatever it is have waited til morning? I thought the Cossacks were come for me!”
“We don’t have time for that, Boris. Have you seen Aleu?”
Boris put both wings to his head in exasperation. “Now how could I see Aleu, when Aleu is home with you?” He paused. “She isn’t home?”
Jenna shook her head in consternation. “We were hoping she was with you.”
“Don’t worry, Jenna. We’ll find her,” Boris said comfortingly. “Just let me ready for takeoff, eh?”
“It’s too windy for that, Boris,” Balto warned.
“Nonsense. Like perfect flying weather in Old Country.”
“All right. Check everywhere.” Balto jumped over the side, followed closely by Jenna.
“Anything over dere?” Nikki asked.
Balto shook his head. “You?”
Kaltag raised his head from the ground. “Nothing. What now?”
“We should meet up with da others,” Nikki suggested. “Maybe they had better luck dan us.”
“They would’ve howled if they’d found anything,” Jenna said. “We have to keep looking.”
Balto frowned thoughtfully. “We couldn’t hardly hear anything with the wind howling. Let’s check and if they don’t have her, we’ll go out into the forest.”
* * *
“I’m telling you, any tracks are covered up by now with snow,” Star said as he and Chipper made their way toward Balto’s house. “Why do you think Balto didn’t come here in the first place?”
“No harm in trying is there?” Chipper countered.
Chipper ignored him as he found what he was looking for; a bare spot on the road. Now with a little luck . . . Chipper sniffed it and quickly became excited. “Hey! I found Aleu’s scent!” Walking further up the sidewalk, nose to the ground, he stopped and glanced behind him. “Heading this way!”
“Are you sure?”
Chipper smelled the spot again. “Positive.”
“But . . . but there’s two wolf packs out that way! One of them almost killed Kaltag once!”
Chipper gulped. He’d heard Treg talk about wolves, and nothing he’d said was good. He immediately became concerned for Aleu. “We’ve got to go after her.”
Star was stuttering in disbelief. “We should get help first. Going out alone is insane!”
“Agreed, but we’ve got to. If the situation out there is as dangerous as you say, it’s a tossup whether the cold or wolves get her first. Let’s just howl like we said we would and go.”
“But how will the others find us?” Star interrupted.
“They can follow our trail. The snow is lightening up.”
“I still don’t know,” Star muttered uncertainly.
Chipper shrugged and turned away. “You can stay here to tell the others where I’ve gone. I just thought you’d want to impress a certain someone with a show of bravery.”
Star’s mouth fell open. “How did you . . . never mind. Hey, wait a minute! Don’t get sore, I never said I wasn’t going. I’m just being cautious, that’s all.”
Star traipsed past him and Chipper grinned victoriously. “Hey Star! Wait up!”
* * *
Aleu slowly became aware of voices around her, and her eyes fluttered open. She waited for her fuzzy vision to dissolve into their true shapes before attempting to stand up. She managed to get halfway to her feet before her legs gave out and she toppled to the floor again. Ground, rather, as she quickly noticed she was in a rock shelter of some kind.
“She is awake,” a voice behind her said. “I will inform Kiska.”
“No you will not,” another voice declared.
“But Kiska’s orders . . .”
“Are irrelevant. I am countermanding them. Mantan, Dalag, make sure he does not move.” Aleu heard footsteps draw near to her. “Glad to see you are finally awake.”
The amiable tone seemed alien to the harsh voice. Aleu began to stand again, until she spied a pair of large paws. Her gaze traveled up the creature’s forelegs and finally to . . . she uttered a startled cry as she tried to scramble away. The creature, thinking ahead, had pinned her to the floor before she could move. Obviously, escape was not an option. “Who are you?”
“It was I who found you. What might your name be?”
“I asked you first,” she replied indignantly.
The wrathful expression on the creature’s face told her that this was probably not a wise move, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared. “So you did,” he said with a forced smile. “I am Eyak, leader of the Eagle Pass Clan. And your name is . . .?”
“Aleu,” she replied. She studied the creature carefully, and noticed three others with similar features. The one who was cornered against the rock wall by two others was bristling angrily, while the other two watched him closely. They looked somewhat like her father, but not quite. There was something more primitive about them. They must be wolves. “What do you want?”
“Merely to ask you some questions. From which clan are you?”
His smile wavered for a moment. “I’m not in the mood for games. What is the name of your clan?”
“I . . . I don’t understand. What do you mean?”
“Your parents, then. Who are they?”
Now that I can answer. “My papa’s name is Balto, and my mama’s name is Jenna.” Surprise was evident on the wolf’s face, but mistaking this for disbelief, she looked earnestly at the gathered wolves. “You believe me, don’t you?”
Instead of replying, he turned to consult with Dalag. “What do you think?”
“Possible, but perhaps you should test her,” the other suggested.
Eyak nodded. “An excellent idea. If she is kin to Balto, we would gain a great deal of leverage over that meddlesome half-breed.”
“But the other packs will not stand for it,” Mantan argued. “They would intervene. Kiska’s pack already knows about her, and you know that she has already sent a scout to Kemo.”
Eyak paused as a plan formed in his mind. “Perhaps that is in our best interest.” He walked over to the puppy again. “I have discussed the matter with my clan, and we are in agreement. You lie.”
“But it’s the truth! Honest!” she protested
“Then where is your father?”
“I don’t know,” she replied softly. “I . . . I don’t think he doesn’t know I’m gone. He’s been acting strange ever since this man came to stay with us . . .”
“Man? From outside of Nome?” Eyak asked.
“Uh huh, and they brought some dogs with them, and . . .”
“Yes, but what about the human? Why is he here?”
Aleu balked at the intensity of the question, and wondered if she should be talking to this stranger after all. “Something about a project. I . . . I’m not sure.”
“Then be sure! I must know!” She began to cry, and Eyak bared his teeth, advancing slowly toward her. “I grow weary of these games.”
His advance was halted when a small gray female rushed inside, followed by six others of mottled color. She strode up to the larger wolf, fairly bristling with rage. “Eyak, why did you not send for me the minute she awakened? You said that if my pack stood watch . . .”
“It must have slipped my mind,” he replied smoothly.
“And Nootka’s?” she asked, nodding at her cornered packmate. Then, noting the crying pup, her eyes narrowed. “What is going on here?”
“I was simply having a quick chat with the pup. She is of my clan, after all.”
Kiska glared at him. “It appears what little trust I gave you has been misplaced. You will find it wise for the Eagle Pass Clan to leave our borders within the hour. Otherwise you will have a fight, and it will not be my clan that is outnumbered.”
“We will go,” he snarled, “but know that we go of our own will, not yours.”
“Leave the pup,” Kiska growled when he moved toward the youngster. With another snarl, Eyak and his followers filed out of the den. “Mantu, Chaglag, Nootka. Make sure they leave as instructed.”
Now that the threat had passed, Kiska’s fur fell flat again, and her expression became more tender as she lay down in front of the sobbing pup. “What is your name, young one?”
“Aleu,” the pup said, blinking away tears and backing away.
“You have nothing to fear,” the wolf said soothingly, taking a step forward.
Aleu tried to retreat again, but noting her escape was blocked by the other wolves, she froze in fear. “There, there, daughter. You are safe now,” the wolf said soothingly. She began to lick the tears from the pup’s face, and when Aleu’s crying subsided, she lay down at eye-level with the pup. “Now then. Who are your parents? What clan are they from clan?”
Aleu shifted nervously. “I . . . I don’t know you.”
The wolves around them chuckled, and the wolf proffered a kindly smile. “My apologies. I am Kiska, daughter of Koyu and Niska. I lead the Anvil Creek Clan. And you are Aleu . . .”
Aleu blinked away tears and imitated Kiska’s manner of speech. “Daughter of Balto and Jenna.”
She gasped in surprise, but quickly settled her astonishment and grinned at her packmates. “The daughter of Balto? Everyone mind your manners. We have a distinguished guest among us.”
A brown male with a black muzzle nodded. “No wonder Eyak acted as he did.”
Seeing Aleu’s questioning expression, Kiska quickly explained. “What Andan means is that Eyak and your father have had . . . disagreements in the past.”
“But how does he know Papa?” Aleu frowned thoughtfully. “How do you know Papa?”
A brown and gray male laughed aloud. “You will find that Balto is known to many. His fame is not confined to the human’s town.”
Kiska nodded. “It is as Quinault says. Your father’s counsel is respected by all except perhaps Eyak.”
“But why doesn’t he like Papa?”
“So many questions! You must keep your father busy.” Aleu looked away. Noting this, Kiska quickly pressed. “Eyak is very new at leading a pack. He tends to be a bit overzealous concerning some things. He challenged your father’s credibility in a clan gathering, and he was shamed in front of several prominent leaders. Justifiably so, of course, but Eyak has a selective memory and is slow to forget.”
“Papa can take care of himself,” Aleu agreed proudly.
Finally, here is my chance. “True, but what of you? I realize that appearances are deceiving, yet you seem far too young to be without a guardian. If your parents are not here, why are you?”
Aleu looked down, refusing to meet Kiska’s curious gaze. “I . . . I’d rather not say,” she mumbled, rolling a pebble back and forth with one paw.
Kiska nodded her assent. “Understandable, at least for the time being. Now if you will excuse me a moment, there are matters which I must discuss with my clan. Andan, take care of her.” She turned and was followed by five of her six compatriots.
An Unfamiliar Familiar Face
“Why did you not press for the information you wanted?” Senak asked once they were seated outside the cave. “She would have broken.”
Kiska’s eyes bored into his. “We have discussed this before, Senak. The object is to gain her trust, not to break her. That is how we differ from the Eagle Pass clan and the reason broke from them two generations ago.” She turned to the others. “Opinions?”
“She has something to hide,” Quinault said. “She is far too nervous. She acts as one on the run.”
A brindled female named Tandera nodded. “Yes, she must be a runaway. That would explain her hesitance to answer your questions regarding family. But why would she run away, I wonder.”
“We should focus on Eyak’s hasty departure, not trivial topics,” Quinault interjected. “Why was he so eager to leave? He is not intimidated by numbers, and should not have departed without a fight.
Kiska nodded. “He is up to something. We must be cautious. As for the pup . . .”
“She must be lying,” Timinuk, a young male, growled. “Look at her. She has the appearance of our kind. Besides, no dog’s pup could wander this far from the human village in a blizzard and still survive.”
“Do not underestimate our domestic brethren,” Kiska warned. “Especially Balto’s kin.”
“But we do not know this to be the truth,” a black and gray male named Naskapi stated.
“But if she’s telling the truth, why would she run away?” a female named Akkide asked.
“Perhaps she wandered away from home as our own young ones do at times,” Quinault replied.
“What are we to do with her?” Ahtena, another female, asked. “We have not the numbers or food to feed and care for her, even if we wanted to.”
“Speculation is pointless,” a wizened male named Chinga stated. “You know our laws, and Kemo’s.”
Kiska’s frown was mirrored by several others. Yes, she knew the laws well. They could either leave, kill, or adopt the pup. “Such rules are not set in stone. They’re guidelines.”
“Tagish would never have presumed to change a law that set for generations,” he challenged.
“I presume nothing, though you presume much yourself.” Kiska’s frown deepened. Caught between a rock and a hard place. Hunting is too scarce to consider adopting, and the other two options mean certain death for her. And I would have to carry out the law of my pack or lose my position. “We will decide her fate when the appropriate time comes, but now is neither the time nor the place to do so. In any event, I am inclined to believe her, and if she is who she says she is, she must be returned at all costs.”
“And if she is lying?” Senak pressed.
Kiska knew she couldn’t voice her true opinion without losing the respect of some she led. Best to stall for time. “We will do what we must, but perhaps Kemo can shed light upon this mystery.”
“What mystery?” a voice asked from behind her.
She started and spun around to see Chehalis. “Sneaking up on me is not wise at the moment.”
“Sorry. Kemo is here.” The white wolf materialized out of the darkness beside him.
“Thank you. Take Senak and Akkide with you and wait where we discovered her. Someone may track her there.” As her scout dashed away with Senak reluctantly following him, Kiska turned and bowed to the white wolf. “Kemo. Thank you for coming so speedily. I know the journey is long and the weather unpleasant, and normally I would deliver such a message myself, but I decided it would be more useful for me to keep an eye on our find . . . and the Eagle Pass Clan.”
The white wolf waved a paw dismissively. “Your thoughtfulness flatters me. Many would have done as they wished upon finding such a . . . discovery. And from your mention of Eyak’s pack, I assume I am correct. As for your method of delivery, Chehalis was most courteous. Now what is this about finding a pup in a snowbank?”
Kiska shrugged. “She claims to be Aleu, daughter of Balto and Jenna.”
For the first time to Kiska’s personal knowledge, Kemo showed genuine surprise. “What?!”
Kiska nodded. “There is no lie in her eyes. I believe she speaks true. See for yourself.” Kemo was already striding toward the den. Kiska hurried to keep up with him.
* * *
Meanwhile, Aleu impatiently paced the ground under Andan’s careful scrutiny. The wolf was obviously unhappy about being demoted to babysitter. “What’s taking so long?”
Andan regarded her with equal impatience. “You will know in good time.”
“But I want to know now. Is it about me?”
The wolf sighed in exasperation. “How can I know what is said out there when I am here with you?”
“Are you mad at me?”
“No, but you could try anyone’s patience with your constant questions.”
Great. I’m awake twenty minutes and I’m already bothering someone. Aleu hung her head. “Sorry.”
The wolf sighed. “I suppose I should feel some honor in watching you. At least if it is decided that you are who you claim to be.”
“What do you mean ‘if’? Don’t you . . .”
Just then, Kiska reentered the cave, and with her came a large, white wolf. The other wolves crowded inside as well. “Forgive me for testing you like this, but I cannot be too careful. I invited one here who will know if what you say is true.”
The white wolf nodded solemnly. “It is true. I saw her today while I was following her father and Tricksy to the human camp.” He gazed at the pup. “You may call me Kemo.”
Kemo? The name hit her like a ton of ice. Uncle Kemo? “But I thought . . .”
“You thought I was a dog, I know, but Balto and I really do know each other well.” He gazed intently at her, sizing her up. “Speaking of your father, where is he? I know that Balto would never allow one of his own to stray so far.”
“I’m not sure,” she replied softly, lowering her head in shame. “He . . . um . . . doesn’t know I’m here. I don’t even know if he know’s I’m gone yet.”
“You ran away,” Kemo stated flatly. Aleu gave a tiny nod, and the large wolf sighed. “What you did was extremely foolish. I guarantee that your father knows you are missing. He likely has half the dogs of Nome risking their lives looking for you. Your very presence here almost started a battle between two clans. Then there was the danger in which you placed yourself. To die alone is a fate worse than death itself. From what Kiska has told me, you came very close to doing just that.”
He spoke in a deep, calm voice, and though stern, he certainly wasn’t angry. Aleu risked a glance at him. “You aren’t gonna yell at me or anything?”
A flicker of annoyance crossed his face. “That is not the point.” Aleu bowed her head at the reproach, and Kemo sighed. “No, I am not going to ‘yell at you.’ What is done is done, and words spoken in anger accomplish nothing. Nor is it my place as I am not your father.” Aleu nodded, head still lowered. The wolf turned to Kiska. “I’m taking her to my den. If someone trails her here, tell them where she can be found.”
“It will be done.”
The white wolf nodded his thanks and turned to Aleu. “You will come with me. It’s not far.”
Aleu stood and followed gratefully. Here at last was someone she felt she could trust.
Found . . . Again
“She can’t have gone this far,” Star remarked as they trudged through belly-deep snowdrifts. “We should’ve found some sign of her by now.”
Chipper suddenly raised his head from the ground. “Just did. She’s been here.”
Star walked over. “Scent’s old. She could’ve been gone for hours.”
Suddenly, a sharp howl pierced the night, and Chipper edged closer to Star. “What was that?”
“Wolves,” Star replied in a hushed tone. “We’re getting out of here now.”
As they started to back away, a canine form materialized out of the darkness. “Why are you here?”
“It’s a trick. Back away slowly,” Star whispered.
A voice spoke behind them. “Very perceptive for a domestic canine.”
They spun around and saw a two other wolves in an increasingly tightening circle. “Thanks,” Star said. “If you don’t want us here, we’ll just go, okay? The sooner we leave, the better for all of us, right?”
“Wrong. You stay for now,” the leader snapped. “Why are you here?”
“We’re looking for a puppy,” Chipper said.
The wolves paused. “A puppy?” the leader asked.
“She’s the daughter of Balto,” Star added.
“You may have seen her,” Chipper suggested. “She looks a lot like a wolf.”
The wolves glanced at each other. “What we have or have not seen is our own business. What connection does this pup have to you?”
“We’re friends of Balto,” Chipper declared. “And he doesn’t like it when his friends get eaten.”
The leader looked at another wolf, who nodded. Sighing, he turned to the pair of dogs. “I apologize for the inconvenience. I am Chehalis of the Anvil Creek Clan. You will come with us.”
“Better do what he says,” Star whispered.
Chipper gulped but offered no response.
The wolves led them to a nearby rock shelter, where they were met by still more wolves. One of them stepped forward. “Kiska, these claim to be friends of Balto.”
The pack leader nodded. “Ah, they’ve come for Aleu?”
“You know where she is?” Star asked.
Kiska nodded again. “Yes. She left with her uncle not half an hour ago.”
“Uncle?” Star asked.
“Yes. Kemo. He’s a lone wolf in these woods. He took her to his den to wait for Balto or someone else to come looking for her. It lies on the east bank of the stream due west of here. You can make it in ten minutes if you hurry.”
“W . . . we’re . . . I mean . . . we can go?” Chipper stammered.
Chehalis and a few other wolves laughed. “Of course. Why shouldn’t you?”
Kiska smiled. “Any friend of Balto is a friend to us. Go in peace.”
* * *
Aleu again stole another furtive glance at Kemo as he stood watch at the entrance of his den. She was trying to sort out what the other wolves had said back at the Anvil Creek den. Why would Papa know any wolves? And how can a wolf be my uncle? Mama’s a dog and Papa’s a dog, so that means I’m a dog. So how can a wolf be my uncle? She frowned thoughtfully. Then again, Uncle Boris and Uncle Kaltag aren’t really my Uncles. They’re just friends of Papa. Maybe it’s the same way with Uncle Kemo. Yeah, that’s it, he’s just a friend of Papa’s like he said. Still . . .
“Um . . . Uncle Kemo?”
“I was just wondering. How do you know Papa?”
Kemo had known that the question would be asked sooner or later. “He saved my life many years ago. As I said, your father and I know each other very well.”
Aleu frowned. “Then how come Papa never said you were a wolf?”
Kemo smiled. Persistent. Just like her father. “Balto has a saying, does he not?”
“Several,” Aleu said, rolling her eyes.
Kemo sighed. He’d never have allowed such behavior among his own pups. That was a long time ago. Let the dead remain buried. “I was referring to ‘Appearances are everything and nothing.’”
Aleu nodded. “What about it?”
“Some dogs dislike wolves simply because they’re wolves. They base their hatred on this fact only. Your father wanted you to judge by what you knew rather than what you thought you knew. You’ll understand someday.” He stared into the night.
“Do you have a family?”
Kemo continued to scan the trees outside his den. “I did once. A long time ago.”
Aleu cocked her head to one side. “Where are they?”
Kemo sighed. “They’re gone. They went to a place where I could not follow. It’s one of those things that you won’t understand . . .”
“Until I’m older,” Aleu finished glumly.
“Correct,” Kemo said with an affirmative nod.
The conversation fell silent for a few minutes. Aleu cleared her throat again. “Uncle Kemo?”
Kemo sighed again. She’s certainly making it hard to stand watch. “Yes, Aleu.”
“Did you have any puppies?”
Puzzled, Kemo turned his head toward her. “Why do you ask that?”
Aleu shrugged. “I just thought if you haven’t, you should. I think you’d make a good papa. You’re almost as good as . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“As Balto?” Kemo asked, ignoring her hesitation. “That means a lot coming from you. But since we’re on the subject of families, why did you run away?”
Aleu hesitated. “Papa’s been acting weird.”
“How do you mean?”
Aleu shrugged. “He gets mad easy now, and he’s acting . . . weird.”
“Why is he . . .” Kemo turned his head sharply when he heard a sharp crack outside. “Get back!”
Aleu crouched down and backed away. “What is it?”
“Stay back and don’t move until I come back.”
* * *
“Are you sure sneaking up to a wolf’s lair is a good idea?” Chipper asked again.
Star shook his head. “Actually it’s downright stupid, but we want to see this wolf, don’t we?”
Chipper nodded. “Yeah, I suppose so, but I still think . . .” He broke off when he heard a loud snap.
Star cringed at the noise and slowly raised his paw off the broken stick. They all froze and listened. The only thing they heard was the whisper of the wind through the treetops. Hearing nothing, they resumed breathing.
“Whew. That was close,” Chipper commented.
Star nodded. “Too close. Maybe no one heard.”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” a deep voice said behind them. They spun and saw a white wolf crouched to spring at them. “Who are you?”
“Kemo?” Star asked.
The wolf nodded. “Yes.”
“We’re friends of Balto.”
The wolf relaxed. “You’ve come for Aleu, then?”
“Is she all right?”
“I believe you’ll find her well. Please come inside.” He walked into the cave. “It’s all right, Aleu. You can come out now.”
“What was it Uncle Kemo?” She stepped back when she saw the others. “What are you doing here?”
“Balto has everyone out combing the entire area trying to find you,” Star said.
“Yeah, I do.”
They all turned and saw Balto standing in the cave entrance. Aleu blinked in surprise. “Papa?”
“Balto? How did you get here so fast?” Star asked.
“I heard your howl in town. Following your trail was easy enough.” Balto walked inside and sat down facing his daughter. “Are you all right? What are you doing here?”
Aleu studied her paws. “Uncle Kemo came and got me from the other cave.”
“I don’t think that’s what he meant,” Star said.
“Thanks, Star, but I think I can handle it from here. Um, could you and Chipper go find Kaltag? Have him tell everyone else that Aleu is safe with me and we’ll be back in Nome shortly. And tell Jenna to wait for us at home.” About as nice a way as any to tell them to get lost.
Star apparently got the point. “Oh. Let’s go tell the others, Chip.” The two dogs quietly exited.
“I’ll leave you two alone to talk,” Kemo said, rising to leave.
“That’s not necessary, Kemo.” Balto turned again to his daughter. “I meant, why did you run away?”
Aleu’s head drooped lower. “I didn’t want to bother anyone anymore. Especially you.”
“Bother me?” Balto lowered himself eye-level with her. “Aleu, what are you talking about?”
Aleu refused to meet her father’s eyes. “First there was the other night when you got upset, and then there was today in the camp . . .”
Kemo laughed quietly. “Yes, I heard you caused quite a stir . . .”
“Don’t encourage it, Kemo,” Balto growled. “She nearly got k . . . caught in the process.”
The wolf looked at Aleu. “I see. So if I’m understanding this correctly, you almost got, um . . . caught in the humans’ camp, and you ran away, as you put it, so you wouldn’t bother him anymore. Correct?”
Aleu nodded slowly. “I’m nothin’ but a problem for everyone.”
“That is not true,” Balto declared flatly.
Kemo nodded. “Your father is correct, but I’ll tell you what I think happened. I suspect that when you were captured, your father was a bit upset. The two of you had a disagreement, and he pulled rank saying that you would discuss it more later. You, wanting to avoid any punishment, ran away, perhaps convincing yourself you were helping everyone. Yes? No? Maybe?”
Both Aleu and Balto stared at him, mouths open in surprise. Kemo knew the entire story as if he’d witnessed it firsthand. “Well, maybe,” Aleu finally admitted.
Balto shook his head in confusion. “How did you . . .?”
Kemo laughed aloud. “Come now, Balto! I had a family once. You think that I never had to deal with anything like this? I do have to say that your family certainly makes it more complicated.” He turned his gaze on Aleu. “And I also have to say that running away and nearly freezing to death is not quite the way to solve anything.” Aleu nodded, head lowered, and he raised her chin with his paw, forcing her to meet his gaze. “Talking works much better in cases such as these.” His kindly smile was returned by his niece.
“You’d best take her home now; the others will be waiting,” Kemo said, turning to Balto.
Balto looked at Kemo. “Thanks for the assist.”
Kemo nodded, but as Balto and Aleu began to exit, the wolf waylaid his brother. “Don’t be too hard on her. Words spoken in anger accomplish nothing and are often soon regretted.” He shrugged when Balto shot him a dubious look. “I have already spoken to her on the matter, and after all she’s been through tonight, I do not think there will be a recurrence.”
“What do you mean, ‘all she’s been through’? Kiska mentioned some trouble.”
“Aleu became a bone of contention between the Eagle Pass and Anvil Creek Clans. The tension between those two clans has been a tinderbox since they split. It’s ripe for the spark, and Aleu nearly ignited everything again.” Balto nodded and turned to leave. Then Kemo spoke again. “ Oh, and I didn’t reveal your secret to her either.”
Balto nodded his appreciation. “Thank you my brother.”
“Don’t mention it. I was pleased to be of service.”
With that, Balto walked outside, and he and Aleu began the journey home.
Kemo lay in his den, quietly brooding. He had waited for so long to see Aleu, yet fate (and Balto’s wishes) had determined that his first encounter with his niece would be laced with half-truths. As one who valued integrity and honesty above all else, it had just rubbed his fur the wrong way to engage in even harmless deceit, if there ever was such a thing. Now the simple memory of the incident festered in his mind. Truth and honor are intertwined. The loss of one is the loss of the other. Am I then dishonored by circumventing truth? He shook his head. It’s odd that my own brother has put me in this position.
His troubled state did not prevent him from spinning into a fighting stance when he heard some gravel shift near the entrance. Though his eyes spotted no intruder, his nose revealed otherwise. “You are unwise to come here, Eyak. You know I dislike being disturbed at night.”
A black silhouette emerged from the shadows. “True, and I apologize for bothering you at this time, but what I have to say is of the utmost urgency.”
A low growl rumbled in Kemo’s throat. “Your reason had better be good enough for me to allow your life to remain intact. Threats against me are one thing, but threats against my kin, especially against those who cannot defend themselves, is quite another. What you did to my niece was . . .”
“Dishonorable?” Eyak prompted with a smirk.
Kemo’s eyes narrowed. “This goes beyond dishonor. It was despicable, barbarous, unconscionable.”
“Flattered, I’m sure.” Eyak smirked. “But it was necessary. I gained information that you will find intriguing to say the least.”
“You are letting the end justify the means, and the means involved the threat of harm to my niece. The mere sight of you is an insult to my eyes.”
“Yet this will benefit every clan in this region. I discovered more concerning the human heading construction in the south forest.”
Kemo froze. “And that would be?”
“That he is staying in Nome . . .”
“Balto already informed me of this. I sent Tutchone to warn you two nights ago.”
“Yes, and there is one conspicuously missing detail, which I have discovered. Where is this human staying, or did Balto tell you this as well?”
Kemo thought back to the night before last and frowned. “No. I was under the impression that he did not know yet.”
Eyak smiled victoriously. “Oh, he knows, or at least he should. The human is staying in his home.”
Before Eyak could move, Kemo had him pinned to the ground. “You lie! It does not surprise me that you would stoop so low as to offer slander against an honorable canine like my brother. And without him here to defend himself. You are a coward and a hypocrite.”
Coward?! Hypocrite?! He will pay dearly for that. It was all Eyak could do to force himself to calmness. No point in fighting where I’m sure to lose. Yes, he will pay dearly, but later. “I am no coward, and what I offer is truth, not slander. This is what I discovered from his daughter. She claimed that Balto has acted strangely since a man arrived to stay in their house. He is here for a project.”
“A project can mean many things to humans.” Kemo pressed harder on Eyak’s ribs.
Eyak gasped in pain. “Perhaps, but piece the facts together. Balto’s unease, his reluctance to help us, his daughter’s information. Look inside yourself. All of the missing pieces add up to only one thing. Think carefully. If you truly believe I lie, strike me down.” Eyak exposed his throat to attack.
Kemo hesitated. Aleu had started to tell him something before the others had arrived. Can it be that she was going to tell him the same thing Eyak claims she revealed to him? If so, I don’t know what to think. Has Balto betrayed us? Kemo snarled in contempt and allowed Eyak to stand. “Save your insignificant melodramatics. I will check your story. If you have spoken falsely . . .”
“You will find that I have not,” Eyak interjected. As he turned and walked outside, he allowed a smile to play across his face. Balto has lost this battle, and once Kemo discovers I have spoken true, the half-breed will likely lose the war as well.
* * *
By the time Balto carried his exhausted daughter up to their house, Jenna was nearly frantic with worry. She rushed outside to meet them as he turned up the walkway. “Oh Balto! Is she all right?”
“Yes. She’s sleeping right now,” Balto said, as they walked into the house. After laying the sleeping pup in the basket, he stepped back to look at her. “She’s had quite a night.”
Jenna looked at him. “Where did you find her?”
“At Kemo’s den.” Balto held up a paw to forestall any questions. “It’s a long story, and I’ll let Aleu tell it herself in the morning. From everything Kemo and Kiska told me about what happened, I think Aleu’s learned her lesson without any input from us. She apparently tangled with another wolf pack.”
“You sound like you don’t know exactly what happened.”
“That’s because I don’t. I was more concerned with finding her than I was with getting background information. One thing’s for sure, though; she won’t be forgetting any of this anytime soon. I’m sure she’ll have a good story for us tomorrow morning.”
* * *
The next morning, Aleu did tell her story, and what a story she had! Though obviously embellished somewhat, the tale was none the less amazing. Though her brothers and Kala were irritated and a bit disappointed that their wayward sister hadn’t been punished, they still listened eagerly to the story, often leaning forward in wide-eyed anticipation. While everyone else, including Dash, Aurora, and Chipper saw it as entertainment, Balto began scrutinizing the story for important information once Eyak entered the picture. That was one wolf that was a killer.
After Aleu had finished her abridged and edited version of the previous night’s events, Balto quietly took her aside. “Mind if I ask you a couple questions about last night?”
“Sure!” she exclaimed, eager to retell her story.
“You said that Eyak asked you a lot of questions.”
“Yes,” she said with a nod. “And he was really mean about it too!”
“What did he ask, and what did you tell him? This is very important.”
“Well, he asked who my parents were, and I told him your and Mama’s names. Then he asked why I ran away, and I said you’d been acting strange since that human came. That’s when he got all mad and started asking about the man, and I . . .” Aleu noticed his concerned expression and cocked her head. “What’s wrong, Papa? Did I do somethin’ bad?”
“What? No, don’t worry about it. Tell your mother I’ll be back later.”
Puzzled by his speedy and not-quite-sincere reply, Aleu watched her father dash out the door.
Balto panted heavily as he sprinted toward Kemo’s den. He had not run this fast since the 1925 Serum Run, yet he had great incentive. If Eyak tells Kemo before I do . . . Doggone it! I knew this would happen! I just hope I’m not too late. The minutes seemed like hours and the hours like days as he ran. If only his luck held, another disaster might be averted, yet he feared his impending meeting with his brother. This isn’t going to be easy.
Soon, he arrived at the partially frozen stream that marked the western boundary of Kemo’s territory. He angled deeper into the woods and made his way to the cave. Not that he expected Kemo to be there this late in the day, but he hoped to at least pick up a trail. He quickly reached the concealed den opening and entered. He looked around. No one home. Maybe I’m not . . .
“Balto. I’ve been expecting you.”
. . . too late. Balto suppressed a grimace and turned around. Kemo was sitting beside the cave’s mouth, safe from immediate detection. “I figured as much. We’ve got a lot to discuss.”
Kemo offered a slight nod. “That we have, so why don’t we begin with the truth. It seems to have eluded you recently.”
Balto shook his head. “I see Eyak has already been here.”
The wolf’s voice grew suddenly intense. “That is irrelevant the point. Is what he said true?”
“Depends on what he told you,” Balto said as he sat down.
“If that was an attempt at levity, I is poorly timed. So why don’t we cut to the chase, as you like to phrase it. You know what I am going to ask, so is he staying with you or not, this human?”
Balto nodded. “Yes, he is.”
“And has been since he arrived?”
Kemo stared hard at him. “Then this is what you tried so hard to conceal from me the night you and Jenna brought news of the human’s arrival? Why did you not tell me then?”
Balto released his frustration with a deep breath. “I feared for safety of the human and his canine companions. And that of my own family.”
“Why? You do not trust me?”
“It’s not you I don’t trust. You would be obliged to tell the other packs since it concerns them as well, and I couldn’t be sure how they would react.”
Kemo jumped to his feet. “That is no excuse to lie!”
Balto held his anger in check. Barely. “Back the sled up! Let’s suppose that I had told you of this human’s whereabouts. If news had gotten to Eyak or extremist members of other packs, the human and his dogs would have been endangered, and my family would be targeted for harboring them.”
“What makes you think I would not have kept your secret, had you asked?”
“As I said, you would be obligated to tell the others. You’ve said as much in the past.”
The white wolf spat in disgust. “Do you really know so little of our kind? If you look deeper into wolf society, you will see that bonds of kinship outweigh those with outsiders. Counting the what-ifs will get us nowhere, however. What is done is done, and there is no turning back.” Balto opened his mouth to speak, but Kemo cut him off. “The truth I would have understood. That is honorable. A refusal to answer I could have understood. That is honorable, though bordering upon guile. But willfully lying and skulking about the truth is an unforgivable offense. And to endanger every clan in this area . . .”
I can only take so much. Balto rose to his feet and looked his brother in the eye. “I wasn’t endangering anyone, Kemo. I kept you apprized of everything except his location, and I would have revealed that too if it became necessary. Where is the danger in that?”
“The problem is that I am no longer sure of what you tell me. The more one avoids the truth, the easier the lies become. Just what is the level of danger in which we reside?”
“I’m not sure . . .”
Kemo turned and paced the cave floor. “That answer was expected. It appears Eyak was correct in his reasoning. You have become tainted by your association with humans. You betrayed your own kind. My only question is, ‘why?’”
“My kind?”Balto bristled. “You have no idea what it is like to have two ‘kinds.’ Both look to you for assistance, yet both see deceit and innuendo when you help one over the other. And you accuse me of betrayal? How do you think I feel about your sudden association with Eyak? That wolf was willing to harm your niece, my daughter, last night just to get information to hurt me? Be careful who you lie down with. You may just rise up with fleas. Or dishonor.”
“Dishonor?!” Kemo spun and pinned him against the rock wall. “Let me tell you of dishonor. Dishonor was lying to me. Dishonor was lying to the clans. Dishonor is trying to shirk your responsibility to your kin. I may disagree with Eyak’s methods, but they were certainly effective in exposing this treachery.” Kemo stared hard at him. “Lower your hackles, friend. As much as I despise your actions, I do not wish to fight or inflict harm upon you.”
Balto glared back. “A bit late for that. I guess you’re content letting me dwell in my own dishonor.”
Kemo slammed him against the wall again. “And do not mock me,” he growled. “That you cannot see the disgrace in your actions . . . Go.”
Balto pushed him away and the two eyed each other. “How can you say that? This isn’t settled yet. What about these bonds of kinship you spoke of? I’m your brother!”
Kemo shook his head. “I have no brother here. Not anymore. This argument is closed.”
“Kemo don’t do this. ‘Words spoken in anger accomplish nothing and are often soon regretted.’ Doesn’t that sound familiar to you?”
“I will regret nothing.” Kemo turned his back. “Go.”
“But the human. What will you do?”
“I will do what I must. Leave me. Now.”
* * *
Balto arrived back in Nome long after night fall. He had been dejectedly roaming some of his old haunts since his fallout with Kemo. I have no brother here. Not anymore . . . I will regret nothing . . . I will do what I must. Kemo’s ominous words still rang in his ears. He shut his eyes tightly as he tried will them away. I can’t let Aleu hear about what happened.
“Where were you?” Jenna asked when Balto walked into the house. “Aleu said you rushed out of here like a . . . What’s the matter.”
“I had to talk to Kemo. Apparently Aleu told Eyak about the human staying here.”
“A pack leader who has a vendetta against me. His father was the one who planned the attack on Kaltag, and the one who fought and lost to Tricksy. Eyak blames me for convincing the other leaders that Tricksy didn’t provoke the fight. He’s been looking for a way to get even with me for a long time. Looks like he’s finally done it.”
Jenna gasped. “You mean he told . . .”
“Did Kemo actually. . .”
Balto nodded again.
“But surely he’ll listen to reason. How did it go?”
Now Balto sighed. “It didn’t. We started arguing, and one thing led to another. Next thing I know, he disowns me. I should have told him when I had the chance.”
“It’s not your fault! If anyone is to blame, it’s me. I discouraged you from being open with him. If you were to tell him this . . .”
“Then he would think of me as a weak liar instead.” He sighed heavily. “I’m afraid I’m stuck.”
Jenna leaned comfortingly against him. “You were only doing what you thought was best.”
“Unfortunately it wasn’t good enough,” he grumbled.
“You think Aurora and Dash’s human is in danger?”
“I’m not sure, Jenna. I’m not sure about anything anymore.”
She leaned comfortingly against him. “Don’t give up hope yet. After Kemo cools down, maybe he’ll listen then.”
“I wouldn’t count on it. Even if he decides he is wrong, he’ll be too proud to admit it.”
“Then look on the bright side.”
He gave her a puzzled look. “What bright side?”
“You may have just saved four lives.”
Balto lowered himself to the floor. “Maybe, but I’ve more likely just condemned sixty.”
“Balto, you still don’t know that this project will hurt any of the packs.”
“True, but even if it is harmless in that sense, they won’t listen to me anymore. If Eyak’s calling the shots, that human and his dogs are dead meat if they’re found, and thanks to Aleu that won’t be much of a problem. If that happens, they’ll have set themselves up for extermination. You know how humans react when wolves attack pets or livestock. Think what will happen if the humans lose one of their own kind.”
“You don’t think . . .”
Balto nodded. “Every pack would be slaughtered. It won’t matter if they were involved or not.”
“That’s pretty unlikely, don’t you think? Kemo’s always been a leader, not a follower. He wouldn’t just let someone else make all the calls.”
“That’s why he’d be right up front when the bullets start flying. I just hope he thinks before he gets himself and everyone else killed.”
There was a long pause before Jenna spoke again. “Do you think Kemo would actually allow an attack to happen?”
“Depends on how threatened he feels, but you’re assuming he would be included in the decision. I wouldn’t put it past Eyak to make the first move, claim the humans attacked his pack, and then draw Kemo into the conflict. It doesn’t matter how the human is killed. It will still start a war the packs simply can’t win.” He paused and perked his ears.
Jenna tensed. “What’s wrong?”
Her mate shrugged. “I thought I heard something.”
Kemo sighed for the umpteenth time and continued to pace his den. His argument with his brother . . . former brother, he corrected, had unnerved him almost as much as it had Balto. It was unusual for him to completely lose his composure, but this situation certainly seemed to justify his actions. Then why am I so confused? Unable to reach a conclusion, he left his den and began to walk. The night was frigid, but he took no notice. He didn’t bother to follow his usual paths, nor did he care. He knew every tree and every rock. This was his element. He continued to trudge through the snow, almost completely walling off the rest of the world. So isolated was he in his thoughts that he jumped in surprise when he felt a furry shoulder against his own.
“Kiska! What are you doing here?” he growled. He saw Quinault, Andan, and Tandera behind her.
The neighboring pack leader bowed low. “I am embarrassed to say this, but it is my duty to inform you that you have entered Anvil Creek territory.”
Anvil Creek? How could I have gotten that far off course? “Are you evicting me?”
“Of course not. You are welcome, but you seldom venture this far into our territory, and never at night. Nor are you easily caught off guard. Is something troubling you?”
She stared intently at him, but finally nodded. “We shall leave you then. Go where you please, but do not venture too far west. That takes you into the territory of Eagle Pass Clan and beyond our aid. They’ve been expanding and we have not the strength to fight them . . . yet.” She looked at her packmates. “We go east.” The four wolves turned to leave.
Kemo spoke suddenly. “Kiska?”
She turned to face him again. “Yes?”
The white wolf sighed. “My path is no longer clear to me. I no longer know who or what to believe.”
This sudden revelation startled Kiska and the others momentarily. “Quinault, take the others and continue on patrol. I will catch up.” When they disappeared, Kiska cocked her head curiously. “That is not like you. You have always been the most decisive, level-headed leader I know. What has happened?”
“We have been betrayed.”
“By who?” Kiska asked, recoiling in shock.
“One of our own. Balto.”
Kiska shook her head emphatically. “Not possible. Balto has ever been our most trusted ally.”
“Perhaps in the past, but I learned . . .”
“Eyak!” she exclaimed, her disgust evident. “Bah! How can you believe him over your own brother? Especially after what he tried to do to your niece?”
“Balto admitted it, that’s why! And I will thank you to mind your own affairs.”
Kiska nodded. “My apologies. Perhaps I spoke out of turn, but please do not grow angry, my friend. I simply seek the truth. What has he allegedly done?”
“The human, the important one, has been staying with him ever since we first discussed our human problem with him.”
Kiska frowned. “That is odd. Tutchone told me that Balto was the first to warn of the human’s arrival, and it is unlike Balto to be anything but completely forthright. He must have supplied a reason.”
“Yes. He was protecting the human and its dogs from what we might do.”
The young pack leader shook her head. “Yet you have failed to say where his betrayal lies. True, he has not told the entire story, and to doubt our integrity is insulting, but his logic is sound. There are some within my own pack who would call for war if they knew this. I see no treachery.”
“He betrayed our trust! If the truth has eluded him once, who knows how many lies he has fed us!”
The simplicity of her answer dumbfounded him. “What?”
“You know. Has Balto ever told us anything not in our best interest? In fact has he ever done anything that led to the harm of even one wolf?”
“Until now, would you have trusted anyone’s word over Balto’s?”
Kiska sat back. “Then perhaps you should consider that before jumping to conclusions.”
Like a scolded puppy, Kemo shifted uncomfortably. “Do you still trust him after this lie?”
“Not a lie. Simply an abbreviated truth.”
“In that case, yes. I would trust your brother with my life and the lives of all in my clan.”
“I will consider your words.”
Kiska nodded and sniffed the air. “Smells like severe weather is coming. As she walked away, she stopped and looked earnestly at him. “Take care of yourself.”
Kemo watched her vanish into the trees, sighed wistfully, and began to walk again. His mind was still in turmoil. Balto betrayed my trust. But if that’s true, why do I feel so bad about how I treated him? It must be difficult having two kinds, I’ll grant him that. So why am I so angry? He thought for a moment on this. “Balto doesn’t trust me. That is the issue. Why, he didn’t even want his daughter to meet me; it’s not like I haven’t dealt with puppies before . . .” He stopped in his tracks. Is that it? Am I jealous because Balto has a family and I do not? But that’s impossible! The more he thought about that, the more it disturbed him. Jealousy? The mere notion repulsed him. He tried to shake the thoughts away, but failing at that, he turned toward the human camp. What is done is done. I should do something worthwhile rather than pondering such things.
* * *
Kemo crept far closer to the human camp than he’d ever dared. He knew this was reckless, but he needed more information on the camp if he was to do anything. There were a couple of campfires still burning, with a few armed men tending each one. The camp’s two sled teams were also huddled there, but their attention was on the fire, not him. The white wolf smiled. No wolf pack would ever leave itself so open. A wolf’s senses are alert at all times.
“Can we help you?” a rough voice asked from behind him.
Alert at all times, huh? This really isn’t my night. “Thank you, but no. I was just leaving.” He looked around and saw three malamutes and two huskies behind him. This is not good.
“I don’t think so, Lobo,” one of the huskies said.
“You wouldn’t want to be a bad guest, would you?” the other asked.
They began to gradually close their arc, herding him toward the camp. He could take on two or maybe three, but the rest of the camp would be on him as soon as the fight started. And it was beginning to look like running was going to be difficult. “Hey, I was only looking. I’ve never seen so many humans before. Now how about I go now and we forget all about it. After all, Balto wouldn’t like it if one of his friends got hurt.” There. That should satisfy them. What dog would cross the Great Balto?
One of the huskies gulped. “He’s right, Barrow. If Balto heard, we’d be dead meat.”
“Easy, Prudhoe. There ain’t any proof that he’s telling the truth. Even if he is, you know as well as me that dead wolves tell no tales,” the malamute said with a malicious sneer. “No survivors, no problem.”
Kemo watched them closely. “There’s also another saying. Three can keep a secret if two are dead.”
“Maybe you should learn to count, Wolf. There’s five of us, and it ain’t us who’re gonna be dead.”
Not good. “The point still stands. I sincerely hope that one wolf is worth all five of your lives. Balto would likely hunt down anyone who killed me. He tends to grow very angry with any who hurt his family.”
The dogs hesitated a moment before bursting into laughter. “Family, is it?” the leader asked. “Next thing he’ll be telling us he’s Balto’s mother.”
Kemo regarded them with clear disdain. “No, his brother.”
“Look, Wolfie. Everyone knows Balto is a half-breed. Ain’t no way a full wolf is his brother. Let’s put this varmint out of his misery.”
“I don’t know about this, Barrow,” Prudhoe interrupted.
“Yeah,” another added. “What if he’s telling the truth?”
He looked around his circle. “Even a flea-bitten half-breed mutt like Balto has a sense of decency. If you were him, would you want this lobo here claiming he was family?”
The other husky shook his head. “No.”
“Then think of it as doing him a favor by ridding this wolf of his wild fantasies.”
Kemo continued to retreat. “Look, fellows. I really do not want any trouble.”
“Too bad, wolf. You’ve got it anyway. Let’s get him!”
Time to even the odds a bit. Kemo sprang forward with uncanny speed, bit down on the malamute’s neck and shook his head. The dog fell to the ground bleeding and Kemo took off while the other four dogs were still in shock. He only got a few second lead. His attack had drawn the attention of the men and dogs in the camp. The dogs ran to cut his escape route. The loud report of a rifle echoed through the trees and the snow exploded in front of him. A few more shots were fired, but none came close. He quickly shifted direction to avoid the ambush. He sprinted into the trees toward Anvil Creek territory.
Luckily, his lifetime training had granted him great stamina and speed, and one by one, his pursuers dropped back until only the original four were keeping pace. His muscles burned, and his lungs cried for air. He saw a sled on one of the trails and angled toward it. If he could get the four dogs tangled with those in the harness, the chase would be over. If not . . . well, the chase would be over anyway, one way or another. To his dismay, the musher halted the dogs and unslung a rifle as he drew closer. Too late to turn back now. He saw the man pull the trigger but heard only a muffled pop. Then another, then another, then another, all seconds apart. One by one, the four dogs seemed to lag before collapsing to the ground. He put on an extra burst of speed and jumped the sled. As he landed, he heard another pop and felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. Moments later, his legs became sluggish and his head light. So this is what it’s like to die. He sank to the ground and his vision began to fade as he heard the approaching crunch of human boots on snow. Forgive me Jan. I’ve failed you again.
* * *
Balto was sleeping fitfully. Now his slumber was troubled by more than the all-too-common dream of wolves and ravens. Suddenly his dreams were pierced by a gentle nudge and his eyes snapped open. He expected to see Jenna leaning over him, wondering what was troubling him. Instead, he saw a gray head leaning over his; a head with pointed ears, a long narrow muzzle, and sharp teeth. With a startled cry, he sprang at the intruder, pinning her to the floor. Breathing heavily, he quickly realized the intruder wasn’t a stranger. “Tricksy?! What are you doing here?”
“Well! Talk about your warm welcome!” Tricksy exclaimed. “Aren’t you at least going to say hello before jumping all over me?”
“Don’t you know what time it is?”
“Human time or wolf time?” she quipped. “It’s about three human hours until sunrise, but . . .”
“Tricksy! What are you doing here?”
“You already asked me that. So instead of sitting there on top of me, how about letting me up to explain. It wouldn’t be good for you or me if Jenna saw us like this.”
Balto moved aside and let her climb to her feet. “Whatever it is, it’d better be good. I have enough trouble getting sleep as is.”
“Why should I care how he’s feeling, especially at this hour of night?” Balto yawned.
“No! I mean he’s down!”
That brought Balto to full consciousness. “Down?! You mean down as in ‘dead’?”
“A couple of hours ago . . .”
“Slow down! I don’t know how exactly. Kiska’s scout Chehalis witnessed Kemo being chased by four dogs, and a human shot them and Kemo. The human carried Kemo’s body away. Chehalis thought you should know. He would have helped, but his group arrived too late.”
“Did he say how badly Kemo was hit?”
“He couldn’t tell. The weapon the human used was unlike any he’d ever heard. No loud bang or anything, and the wounds showed only traces of blood. I’m not sure I should tell you this, but it’s always good to be optimistic. The four dogs that went down were still breathing when Chehalis investigated. He didn’t say much about them.”
Balto set his jaw firmly. “Come on, Trix. I want to find out why those dogs were chasing Kemo if they’re still there. Then we find out where he was taken.”
* * *
“We’re getting close now,” Tricksy said in a hushed tone.
Balto nodded. They had been running for half an hour and were deep into Anvil Creek territory. He was beginning to lose hope of interrogating the dogs that had chased Kemo; they would likely be long gone by the time he and Tricksy arrived. “All right, let’s split up. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose out for any signs. Meet back here in ten minutes.”
Without a word, Tricksy angled away and disappeared from sight. Balto continued on his present course. In spite of his wolf-tuned senses, he was unable to locate anything. Disappointed but still optimistic, he hurried back to the rendevous hoping that Tricksy would bring better news. He arrived close to the appointed time but saw no sign of Tricksy. After five minutes he began to feel uneasy. Ten minutes and he was seriously worried. He stood up and began to follow her trail. Five minutes into the search, he found her curled up at the base of a large pine, paws covering her eyes.
“This is no time to take a nap, Trix.” When she didn’t respond, he cautiously approached her in case she was playing one of her infamous tricks. “Tricksy? What’s wrong?”
She finally looked up, her face streaked with tears and looking very ill. Very unlike her usual self.
“Th . . . th . . . the clearing,” she stammered, body quivering furiously.
“The clearing? What about it? Did you find the dogs?”
Tricksy shuddered. “All over the place.”
“What are you talking about? What did you see?”
“W . . . wolf kills.”
Wolf kills? “What’s the matter with you, Trix? You’ve hunted before, and I know you’ve seen dead game. I saw you take down a caribou without getting upset.”
Tricksy shuddered. “This is different, Balto. Look for yourself.”
* * *
Balto quickly turned away from the grisly sight and tasted bile. After leaving Tricksy, he had thought he was prepared for anything. Wrong again. He forced his stomach back down and steeled himself against what he knew he was going to see again. He took a second glance and wished he hadn’t. The victims weren’t caribou. They were the dogs he’d been searching for, or more to the point, what was left of them. They were badly mangled, two almost beyond recognition. All four were from Nome; thugs that had been known for their deep hatred of wolves. How they got tangled up with Kemo, and how they came to this fate, he couldn’t begin to guess. He began to search the area for any sign the attackers might have left.
Tricksy joined him in spite of her better instinct. “What pack could’ve done this?” she asked.
Balto sniffed the bloody pawprints and gulped. “Anvil Creek.”
Tricksy started. “What? That’s impossible!”
“You know as well as I do that every pack has its own unique scent. Most of the tracks are too mixed up to tell, but the ones I can make out smell like those of Kiska’s band. The others I can’t identify.”
“But why?” she asked. “Kiska is very peaceful. She would never allow this.”
“I don’t smell Kiska anywhere. She may not have known.” Balto sighed. “This is a dead end.”
Tricksy winced. “Affirmative.”
Balto’s face was set with grim determination. “Let’s find that human’s trail and follow it. We have some business to settle with him.”
An Unlikely Ally
Kemo slowly regained consciousness and noticed three things. First, he was back in his cave. Second, he heard the crackle of fire. Third, he was not alone. He leapt to his feet, or more to the point, tried before stumbling and falling to the cave floor. He quickly slid himself away from the fire in the cave entrance and growled at the masked intruder. The human looked over at him and slowly reached toward him. Kemo growled louder and snapped at the proffered hand. The human pulled it back and raised it toward his mask. As he pulled it off, Kemo’s mouth dropped. It can’t be!
The human was a well-built young man with sandy hair and pleasant features. He held out his hand again. “Hey there, fella. Remember me? Russell Lupus? That’s right, I saved your life last year when you fell through the ice, and you saved me after that. You are the one I saved, right?”
Kemo timidly sniffed the hand. Russell reached up and tried to scratch the wolf’s ears, but Kemo pulled away. “Still don’t trust me, huh? Well, I don’t blame you, especially after I put that tranquilizer dart into you. That was the only way I could think of to save you from the mutts that were chasing you. Besides, I wanted to thank you for pulling me back to town when we got out of that frozen bay.” Russell tossed a few pieces of wood into the fire. “Of course that’s not the only reason I came back. I’m here about the construction a few miles from here.”
Kemo raised his ears and whined.
Russell laughed. “Yeah. That’s how I feel about it, too. The thing that bothers me is that no one seems to know what it is. Everyone connected to the project is very tight-lipped about it. That’s not a good sign, especially since I want to continue studying wolves in this area. Any building could disrupt everything, and if it’s a hunting lodge or something . . . well, I’ll do my best to kill the project before it kills any wolves. From what I saw tonight, that might be a bit difficult.”
Kemo nodded once, and the young biologist raised his eyebrows. “It’s almost like you understood what I just said. You know, you’re odd for a wolf.” Kemo stared quizzically at him. “From a researcher’s standpoint, anyway,” Russell added. “Very few wolves are loners. Usually something big has to happen to separate a family unit. I guess you must have gotten separated you from your pack.”
Kemo shook his head and rolled over in the easily recognizable “playing dead” position. Then he looked at the rifle which leaned against the side of his cave. Russell followed his gaze and shook his head slowly. “I could swear you understand what I’m saying. The scary part is that I think I just understood you, too. Your pack is dead?”
When Kemo nodded again, Russ was ecstatic. “Unreal! Positively unreal! I’m actually having a conversation with a real wolf. This is a major breakthrough like you wouldn’t believe!” He reached into his pack for pencil and paper, his sudden movement startling the white wolf. He quickly jotted down some notes and looked up again. “ Just wait until my government connections hear about this. I’ll be raking in grant money hand over fist to continue my research! Can all wolves understand humans?”
Kemo stared at him in stony silence.
“Come on, Boy, talk to me! You have no idea how important this is! This is the breakthrough I’ve always dreamed of! There have to be studies and tests and . . .”
Kemo closed his eyes and put his head back. This is going to be a long night.
* * *
“Why would a human be going deeper into the wilderness instead of heading toward a town?” Tricksy complained. “I mean really! If men are supposed to be a dog’s best friend, why doesn’t man do us a favor every once and a while?”
Balto didn’t bother to look back. “And you were saying what to Aleu about traveling in silence?”
“That’s different. I’m a wolf, so she doesn’t know how to sense danger like I do.”
“Quarter-wolf,” Balto corrected.
“Just wolf. Kemo said so.” She looked at him as though challenging him to argue the point.
Balto looked uneasily at his surroundings. “Whatever you say, Tricksy.”
“Whatever you say, Trix. I know everything, Trix.” Tricksy said in a mocking tone, sticking her nose in the air. She almost tripped over Balto when he came to an abrupt stop. “Hey! Watch it!”
Balto looked around again and sniffed the air. “Wait a second. I know this place.”
“Well instead of hanging around here all night while you reminisce, why don’t we mosey on down the trail. We’re not sightseeing, you know.”
“Shut up and look around you, Trix. Where are we?”
“We’re in Kemo’s territory. I already mentioned that.”
“But where does the human’s trail lead?”
Tricksy sniffed the trail and oriented herself facing the destination. She gasped. “Kemo’s den!”
Balto nodded. “That’s what I thought. From here on out, no more talking, and let’s split up and meet at the cave entrance. If we can surprise him, we take him. But wait until I signal you.”
“I know, I know. I’m not stupid.”
Balto crept silently to the den, often pausing and extending his senses. He smelled smoke on the wind, and heard the faint crackle of fire, telltale signs of human occupation. Inching closer to the cave, he also saw the flicker of light inside, as well as the back of a human. He looked to his right and saw Tricksy paralleling his path. She looked over at him. Taking a deep breath, he nodded.
* * *
Kemo was lying on the ground as far from the fire as possible and pretending to sleep. This seemed the only way possible to kill the conversation that the human kept trying to continue. How could I have been stupid enough to reveal that I understood him? It’s not like me to slip up like that. It must have been that tranqui-whatever he shot me with. Then again, it wasn’t like me to get caught off guard by those camp dogs, either. Either way, what am I supposed to do now?
He risked slowly opening an eye and looking at the human, who was still watching him. He suddenly stiffened. He didn’t know why, but he suddenly sensed impending danger. He sniffed the air but the wind was wrong for him to scent anything. He jumped just in time to intercept a flying canine form. He and his adversary crashed to the ground, biting and clawing at each other. Then another canine jumped into the cave and blocked the human’s path to the rifle.
Kemo froze and took a close look at the canine pinning him down. “Tricksy! What are you doing?”
“Trying to find you! What are you doing? Or more to the point, what are you doing alive? You’re supposed to be dead!”
Kemo shook his head bewilderedly. “What are you talking about?”
“Chehalis told us you’d been shot,” Tricksy explained.
“By this human.” Balto growled at the balaclava-masked man as he tried to move.
Kemo’s eyes narrowed as he walked between Balto and the human. “My welfare is none of your concern. I thought I made that clear.”
“You did, but if you die I still feel obligated to do something.”
“You need feel no obligation. I certainly feel none.”
“Chehalis said you’d been shot,” Tricksy said again.
“I was shot with a tranqui-something that put me to sleep. Nothing more.
“What about the dogs that chased you?” Balto asked. “Do you know anything about how they died?”
Kemo did not flinch from this, though he was a bit surprised. He’d assumed his pursuers had been shot with the same stuff he had. “If they’re dead as you say, then they got what they deserved. That’s the human’s business, not mine. Now if you’ll excuse me . . .”
“They weren’t killed by any human,” Balto interrupted. “They were killed by wolves.”
Kemo refused to show any surprise. “That is not my concern, just as my welfare is none of yours.”
“Kemo! What kind of way is that to talk to Balto?” Tricksy interjected.
“The only way to talk to a traitor,” Kemo snarled.
“Traitor! He’s your brother!”
“I suppose he would not have told you. He seems to have trouble passing along information.”
Tricksy growled. “We came out here because of you, you know. How about some gratitude?”
“Fine. My gratitude you have.”
“Then maybe you can tell us what happened to you?”
“I was attacked by five dogs and this human helped me evade them. Anything else?”
“Yeah.” Balto nodded at the human. “Who is he?”
“One who seems to care more about our kind than you. Russell Lupus is his name. Perhaps you remember him?”
Balto’s mouth dropped and his fur flattened. “What . . .? How . . .?”
“It doesn’t matter. You are no longer needed here. Please leave.”
“This isn’t over, Kemo. I never betrayed you or any wolf. You’re seriously mistaken.”
“No, this is over, Balto. It is you who is mistaken.”
With a growl Balto turned and stalked out.
Perplexed, Tricksy turned to Kemo. “What is wrong with you two?”
“Why don’t you ask Balto. If he’ll give you a straight answer, that is.”
She glared at him. “Just you reconsider what you said. Like it or not, he is your brother.” Then she followed Balto out of the cave.
Kemo stared after their fading forms as Russell Lupus slowly stood up and lifted his facemask. “What was that all about? Wasn’t one of them Balto?”
Without thinking, Kemo nodded. Then he mentally winced. Here we go again.
* * *
Tricksy quickly caught up to Balto. “What was that all about? If I hadn’t heard that conversation with my own ears, I would have never believed it!”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Trix.”
“Well you’re going to talk about it.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes you are, and I’ll drag it out of you if I have to. And you know I can, too.”
“What do you think you are, my mother?”
“No, your friend.”
“You’re impossible!” he accused.
“So are you,” she snapped.
“Then why won’t you let it drop?”
“Like you said, I’m impossible. More to the point, I’m a mother, too. If I can sense when one of my puppies is hiding something, do you honestly think you have a chance?”
“It’s none of your business!” he snapped.
“If that’s the way you feel about it, fine! Keep your secrets! I don’t care what’s going on.” She quickened her pace.
“Come on, Trix. Don’t get sore.” Balto closed his eyes in frustration. “He thinks I’ve betrayed him and all the other wolves by not telling him about the human staying in my home. I think there’s more to the story, but that is all that he would say to me.”
She returned to his side, all hint of anger gone. “When did the trouble start?”
“Yesterday. That’s when he accused me of . . .”
“No, no, no. I mean, when did it start? Did you all have any arguments or disagreements before that? Anything at all?”
“No, of course not. I . . . wait. The other day in the woods, he wanted to meet Aleu.”
Tricksy shrugged. “So?”
“I tried to put it off. He seemed a bit upset.”
“That’s what? You think he thinks I don’t trust him or something?”
“It’s more than that! Men are so dense!”
Balto rolled his eyes. “Can you please spare me the lecture and tell me what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you see? Kemo envies you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Kemo jealous of me?” Balto snorted. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“Okay, let me break it down for you. Kemo lost his family. You, on the other paw, have a beautiful mate, a thriving family, and everything else that Kemo wishes he had, and you won’t share it with him. Does that clarify things?”
“Wait, are you telling me that Kemo is upset because I have a family and he doesn’t?”
Tricksy tapped his head with her paw. “Good boy. Want a treat?”
“No, I just want to go home.” He began to walk away. “At least I belong there.”
Kemo felt as though he hadn’t slept in ages. After a night of trying to convince the human that everything had been nothing but a dream, he was now seriously worried about his sanity. I don’t care if that human did save my life. Letting him know that I understand their coarse speech was a mistake. He had just begun to finally doze off when he heard the young researcher stirring about his cave. He raised his head and saw that the human was gearing up for a journey. Finishing his preparations, Russell Lupus walked out of the cave.
Curious, Kemo stood and followed him. He watched the human enter an abandoned cave a few hundred yards away, and he caught the scent of several dogs. That must be where he hid his sled team. Very considerate of him not to bed them in my den. He was probably afraid he would offend me. A few minute later, the human had his sled loaded and his team harnessed in front of the cave and he spurred his dogs into motion, and the white wolf quickly noted the direction. South. This could be interesting. Kemo broke into a run parallel to the sled.
* * *
Balto trotted behind the sled carrying James Ramsey to the camp. Dash had decided to accompany him that day, and was surprisingly keeping pace. “You run well for a Southland tenderfoot..”
“Thanks. You run well for a Northland sled-dog.”
Balto stared quizzically at him. “What do you mean by that? We Northlanders are born to run.”
“We border collies were bred to herd sheep and other livestock, and that entails a lot of running. What’s it like to run on a team, anyway?”
“It’s some of the hardest work a dog can do,” Balto snorted. “But it’s rewarding. I don’t know how to explain it, but when a sled-dog runs, it’s like being enslaved and free, tired and refreshed, disappointed yet satisfied, all at the same time.”
Dash frowned. “Kind of confusing, don’t you think? When a border collie runs livestock, at least things stay exciting. I’d think that doing nothing but tugging a sled would get monotonous.”
Balto shook his head and continued in silence. Running a sled was something that no one but a sled dog could understand. He turned his attention to his current mission. Things had to be looking bad for the wolf packs if Russell Lupus was back in the neighborhood. He had to find out what was going on soon. Time to pry for some information. “You wouldn’t happen to know exactly what your human is working on out here, would you?”
The border collie chuckled. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Come on, Dash. What am I going to do, spread classified data all across the Yukon?”
“Of course not. But if my human doesn’t want anyone of his own kind to know anything, I’m sure the same rules apply to me. I can’t tell you, but if you listen well, I’m sure my human will drop a few hints today.” Dash stopped. “Why are you so interested anyway? I wouldn’t have thought you the type to pry information from me.”
Well, so much for subtlety. “Just curious, that’s all.”
Moments later, they arrived in the camp, with its loud and bustling activities. Balto remained close to Ramsey in spite of his dislike for the man, determined to catch every word.
Dash watched him, an amused smirk on his face. “Just curious, huh?”
Balto pinned him with a hard glare. “Yeah. Curious.”
An hour passed before the humans finally began to debate their orders again.
“Look, Jim,” one foreman said. “We don’t know nothin’. We just work here. That means we follow orders as they’re written.”
“But I follow orders as they are explained,” Ramsey countered. “This is too intrusive. We don’t want New York City, just a . . .”
A startled yelp sounded from the far side of camp, and the humans broke off their discussion and turned to look. Balto growled lightly. Just my luck. What’s the problem now? He stood and looked around the dozens of frozen human legs and saw Russell Lupus approaching the camp on his sled. All this commotion about one man? Then he saw the researcher’s companion. KEMO!!!
* * *
By the time they reached the outskirts of the camp, Kemo’s breath was coming in ragged gasps. He’d run for days before, covering distances far greater than the jaunt he’d just traveled. Tiring so quickly was so unlike his usual performance that he could not understand it. What was in that thing he shot me with?
Russell Lupus hopped lightly off his sled and walked into the camp. He had noticed Kemo running beside his sled during transit, and now the wolf was walking beside him. Not a bad way to emphasize why I’m was here. Kemo stuck close to the researcher, remaining just slightly ahead of him. Many camp dogs, recognizing him as the wolf who had caused their teammates’ disappearance, growled menacingly him. Kemo kept his head high and his gaze straight ahead, retaining his proud stature in spite of them. He noticed Balto and another dog staring in silent shock as he passed. Forcibly resisting the urge to lock gazes, he gave no sign of recognition.
The foremen and Ramsey heard the commotion long before they saw the source. They stared incredulously as Lupus walked straight toward them with a wolf in tow.
“What is the meaning of this?” Ramsey thundered.
The researcher offered his hand. “My name is Russell Lupus. I work in conjunction with the . . .”
“I don’t care who you work with!” a foreman interrupted. “What’s that creature doing here in my camp? You’ve got no right to be here!”
“. . . governments of the United States and Canada to study wildlife and report my findings back to their respective governments,” Lupus continued, ignoring the angry supervisor. When no one took his proffered hand, he lowered it to his side. “My primary focus is on the behavior and patterns of wolf packs, and this ‘creature,’ for your information, happens to be a wolf.”
James Ramsey glared hard at the younger man. “We are well aware of that fact, Mr. Lupus. The question is, what are the both of you doing here?”
“Like I said, I am working in conjunction with the governments of Canada and the United States to study wolves, and I’m here to find out exactly what you are doing here.” He reached down to pat his companion. “Consider him an ongoing project, if you will.”
The foreman glared at him. “Look, College-Boy, we’re also working on a government contract, and we happen to be very busy right now. So if you’ll excuse us, we have to get back to work.” Kemo growled at him and he eyed the wolf distrustfully. “And take your pet with you.”
Russell Lupus flexed his jaw muscles but remained otherwise calm. He looked down at the wolf. “Well, it looks like they’re going to be touchy about this.” Returning his attention to the other men, he nodded once. “You haven’t heard the last of this. Good day to you, sirs.” With that, he turned and walked back to his sled with Kemo following close behind.
To Balto’s annoyance, the humans of the camp changed the topic of discussion from blueprints to plans for damage control. He heaved an exasperated sigh.
“Looks like I finally got to see my wolf,” Dash growled indignantly beside him. “What was that all about anyway? A wolf coming into a human camp? What next?”
“Trouble, and lots of it.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Never mind, Dash.”
Why? What . . . Hey! Where are you going?”
Balto was already running.
* * *
Finally entering the surrounding forest, Balto slowed to a walk and tried desperately to sort everything out. “If these surprises don’t stop, I won’t find out what’s going on until it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?”
Balto jumped and looked to his right. Walking quietly beside him was Kiska. He had never liked being taken unaware, and after what he and Tricksy had discovered last night, he certainly didn’t like the idea of not noticing the packleader. “Kiska, you know I don’t like you sneaking up on me like that.”
“That is why I tread upon as many sticks and leaves as possible before approaching you. What in your life that has you so preoccupied as to not notice my arrival?”
Though he wasn’t fully certain he could trust her, he decided to test her with the truth. “A lot, unfortunately. Should I start before or after Aleu ran away?”
Kiska’s eyes widened. “Again?”
Balto shook his head. “One time only. Hopefully the last.”
“In that case, please start after.”
“Kemo and I had an argument the next day. He accused me of betraying our kind.”
Kiska held up a paw. “Just a question. When Eyak sows seeds of discord, trouble soon sprouts.”
“How did you know about Eyak?” Balto asked suspiciously. “I never mentioned him to you.”
“I have received Kemo’s interpretation of the facts.”
“Then you know that he now refuses to acknowledge me as his brother?”
Kiska nodded. “An unfortunate situation, to be sure.”
“I assume you know that last night, Chehalis saw Kemo chased by several dogs and shot by a human north of here?”
“Yes. He told me that he had given Tricksy a message for you.”
“She told me. But when we went to the clearing to find the dogs who had chased him, they were all dead, and messed up pretty badly at that.”
“Slaughtered. By wolves.”
Kiska showed no reaction. “Which pack?”
Balto stared hard at her. “Yours.”
That brought a startled gasp from the Anvil Creek leader. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. Many of the pawprints had the scent of Anvil Creek.”
“ I knew there is some dissent within my pack, but it can’t have gone this far. Not without me knowing it. Unexpected, this is. And troubling.”
Balto’s face remained neutral. “Is it?”
“Of course it is! I . . .” Kiska hesitated before shaking her head sadly. “Ah. I, too, am suspect.”
“I didn’t say that, Kiska.”
“It is not necessary for you to say it,” she said. “Were you in my position and I in yours, I would be uncertain as to your motives as well. What next?”
“I’ve been trying to find out exactly what the humans’ intention is toward the clans, but before I could discover this, Kemo arrived at the camp with Russell Lupus.”
“The researcher who visited last year?” Receiving a nod, Kiska shook her head. “This is ominous news. For him to be looking into this matter signifies great danger to us.”
“If I was you, I would look to danger from within your clan. If there are any more attacks, it could provoke a similar response from the humans.”
Kiska hesitantly nodded. “The only members of my pack who could have been in the area are Chehalis, Akkide, and Nootka. All three I trust without question.” Kiska stood. “I shall investigate this matter personally. I do not wish our friendship to suffer because of this incident, so I shall bid you farewell for now. May we meet again under better circumstances.”
Another Unwelcome Surprise
Balto finally arrived home, feeling worried and confused. Kiska had showed little surprise that wolves had initiated an attack. That meant that tension between the wolves and humans had grown so great that violence didn’t surprise even the most pacifist of wolves. This is all so mixed up. Humans on one side, wolves on the other with me in the middle, being drawn deeper and deeper all the time. And then or course there’s Kemo, who won’t even look at me as his brother. At least I can have some peace in my own home . . . A loud crash brought him back to reality. Someday, that is.
* * *
“Not again, Aleu!” Rush exclaimed.
“It wasn’t my fault!” Aleu countered. “Jenner pushed me!”
“Stop fighting,” Kala interrupted.
“Yeah,” Kodi said. “That’s what got us in trouble the last time.”
“You going to make us?” Jenner countered.
Dingo entered the argument. “There’s four of us and two of you.”
“Come on, you all,” Rush said. “Let’s just hope Papa’s not home yet.”
Balto strolled into the room. “And why’s tha . . . OUCH!!!” He leapt back.
The pups turned around slowly. “Uh oh . . .”
Balto looked down. A potted cactus had been knocked over and was lying in the doorway, obviously what made the noise and pricked his paw. “Where is your mother when I need her?” he asked rhetorically.
“She went over to Aunt Tricksy’s with Aurora and Chipper,” Aleu offered helpfully.
Balto was about to say something else when he heard a knock at the door and Rosie call out from another room, “I’ll get it!!!”
Balto cocked his head toward the hallway. I wonder who that could be. There’s no way that Ramsey could have gotten here so quick, even if we’d left at the same time.
“Hi Rosie. Remember me?”
Balto closed his eyes. He didn’t need to see man’s face or hear Rosie’s squeals of delight to know that the caller was none other than Russell Lupus. I really don’t need this today either.
Hearing Rosie’s excitement, the pups started to make a dash for the door only to be stopped by their father. “Slow down, pups. You guys go to the kitchen and stay there. And be more careful.”
“But Papa!” Aleu protested. “We want to see who’s here. Who is he?”
Balto looked toward the hall. “An old acquaintance. Go on, now. Do as I told you and stay there.”
Aleu shrugged dismissively. “Sure,” she said, a bit to readily.
“And stay there,” he emphasized sternly. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
* * *
When Balto entered the hall, he saw Russell Lupus standing in the foyer and holding Rosie. Her parents entered as Balto watched.
“Well I’ll be! Russell Lupus!” Rosie’s father strode forward to shake his hand. “It’s certainly been a while since you were in these parts.”
Russ smiled and clasped the proffered hand. “Yes sir. Far too long if you ask me. Unfortunately I’ve been tied up in Ontario for two years finishing my doctorate.”
Rosie’s father raised his eyebrows good-naturedly. “Doctor Lupus, is it?”
The young biologist laughed. “Just Russ, Sir. Titles and honorifics make my skin crawl. Besides, I like to think of you all as family.”
Rosie tugged on his coat sleeve. “Are you here about wolves again?”
“I sure am,” he said with a smile.
Rosie grew even more excited. “Can I come with you again? Please Mr. Lupus? I had so much fun the last time you took me out to see the wolves!”
“Now, Rosie, I don’t think this is quite the time to be pestering Russell with all the questions,” her mother admonished. “I’m sure he’s quite exhausted.”
Russell held the girl out in front of him. “Not Mr. Lupus, just Russ. Your mother is right about the exhausted part, but just between the two of us, I don’t see why not. With your parents permission of course. But that’s something to talk about when I’m better company.” He set her down again and nodded at her parents. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to find out if Mr. Johansson can board my sled team again, and after that I’ve got to check into Mrs. O’Harney’s Bed and Breakfast.”
“Nonsense, my boy! You’ll stay right here with us,” Rosie’s father said.
Russ shook his head. “I really couldn’t impose on you again. Especially not on such short notice.”
“It’s no bother at all,” Rosie’s mom replied, siding with her husband.
Russell looked reluctantly at them. “If you’re sure I won’t be a burden . . .”
“Of course you won’t, Mr. Lupus,” Rosie piped up.
“If that’s the case, I suppose I have no choice but to accept your gracious hospitality.” Russell Lupus smiled and executed a gentlemanly bow. “However, I certainly won’t saddle you with taking care of my team, so I’ll return shortly from Mr. Johansson’s shop.”
“Very well,” Rosie’s father agreed. “We have another man presently staying here with us, and he will probably have returned by the time you get back. He seems to be quite an intellectual. I’m sure you two could find something in common to talk about.”
The implication of what just happened hit Balto like an avalanche. The tension between Ramsey and Lupus had been made quite clear back at the camp, and the wolf-dog’s eyes widened at the realization of the storm heading his way. Something in common?! If only he knew how close to the mark he hit!
* * *
True to his usual timing, James Ramsey arrived ten minutes after Russell Lupus left the house. Dash had given him an odd look, but made no mention of his strange behavior at the camp. As the man sat chatting with Rosie’s parents, Balto could do nothing but wait for the explosion that was going to hit when Russ returned. It was early evening, and Rosie’s parents had just finished telling him about their other guest. He was definitely intrigued.
“So you say that this fellow is an intellectual?” Ramsey asked.
“He’s definitely an independent thinker,” Rosie’s mother said.
Her husband nodded. “In fact, several of his theories run contrary to popular beliefs.”
“Might I inquire as to what those theories are?”
And so it begins, Balto thought grimly. To his relief, a knock at the door interrupted the conversation. It was short-lived, however, as he realized that person at the door was likely Russell Lupus.
“If you’ll wait one moment, I’m sure he’ll enlighten you himself.” Rosie’s father said as he rose to answer the door. “Ah, there you are, my boy. Our other guest has arrived as well.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting him,” Russ said, taking off his parka and gloves. He followed Rosie’s father into the livingroom.
Rosie’s father addressed a man who was facing away from the doorway. “This is the young man I was talking about. Just got his PhD at the University of Ontario.”
Russ strode forward to shake hands with the man who was just turning to face him. Both hesitated in disbelief as their eyes locked. They remained frozen when they recognized each other. Balto closed his eyes in anticipation. Three, two, one . . .
“YOU!!!” they exclaimed at the same instant.
Within fifteen minutes, the situation was noticeably uncomfortable. Ramsey had sequestered himself in his room, while Russell Lupus remained in the livingroom, not at all his usually talkative self. Rosie also seemed subdued, and her parents were at a loss to comprehend what was going on with their two boarders. Balto had quickly realized the wisdom in staying out of this one as long as possible. He had quietly slipped out of sight to look for the pups. Miraculously, they were exactly where they were supposed to be. Everything really is out of balance when they actually stay put.
“What’s going on, Papa?” Rush asked.
Balto flopped down and sighed. “It seems we have another guest. His name is . . .”
“Russell Lupus?” Aleu interjected. Seeing her father’s raised eyebrows and the annoyed glares of her siblings, she gulped. “Lucky guess?”
Now there’s there’s the pups I know and love. At least one thing is still normal around here. Balto shook his head, trying not to laugh. Not that I would have stayed put at their age with something this interesting. “Indeed. Any other ‘lucky guesses?’”
“Um . . . no. Just one,” she replied, casually shuffling back a few steps.
Balto shook his head and laughed aloud. Seeing their father’s amusement, the pups joined in and piled on top of him just as Jenna walked into the room.
“What’s so funny?” she asked, causing the group to laugh harder.
Gradually the laughter subsided, and Balto looked down at the pups. “You all run on, now. I need to talk to your mother.”
As soon as the puppies were gone, Jenna chuckled and shook her head. “You seem awfully chipper this evening. Have things improved that much?”
Balto sobered and his smile faded. “Actually they’ve gotten worse. Russell Lupus is in Nome.”
“So I noticed. He’s in the other room talking to my humans.”
“He’s staying here, too,” he continued.
Jenna nodded. “I gathered that much from their conversation. What’s wrong with that?”
“He and other guest got their introductions out of the way at the camp. They get along like two male elephant seals.”
Jenna winced. “I see. Things seem quiet now.”
Balto shook his head. “The calm before the storm, Jen. Russ has only been here a couple hours. They still have to get through their first evening meal together.”
* * *
To say the mood at the dinner table was tense understated the situation entirely. Russell Lupus sat on one side of the table while James Ramsey sat on the side farthest from him, and all was silent except for the occasional scrape of silverware on dishes. Both men pretended to focus on their meals while occasionally eying each other suspiciously. Once, each caught the other staring and both jerked their heads back toward their plates. Rosie and her parents watched the two men with some anxiety, wondering exactly what they’d gotten themselves into.
Finally, the silence grew too intense for Rosie to stand it any longer. “Mr. Lupus, sir? When am I going to get to see the wolves again?”
Russ forced a smile onto his face. “How many times do I have to tell you to call me Russ, huh? I’m not a ‘sir.’ I work for my living.” Ramsey raised his eyes slightly and looked at him, wondering if that shot was directed at him.
Rosie giggled. “So when am I going to get to see the wolves, Mr. L . . . I mean, Russ?”
Russ shook his head. “That depends on more things than I can track.”
“Well, the weather for one thing. All this snow is a bit out of season. Another thing is the wolves themselves. As things stand right now, they might be making themselves scarce.”
Rosie’s face fell. “Why?”
“Chances are they’re disturbed by everything going on outside of town. Some people build whatever, wherever with no regard as to the natural balance.”
James gritted his teeth. Too much is enough. “How do you know that such things aren’t considered?”
Russ raised an eyebrow. “You’re telling me that they are?”
“Of course. Any time a project is planned, the full impact of a project is weighed against the potential benefit to human progress.”
“And of course those items are always of an equal value.”
James shrugged. “Certainly compromises must be made . . .”
Russ nodded his head in feigned enlightenment. “I see. And no corporate bigwigs controlling the purse strings ever influence those compromises.”
“Well, I never said . . .”
“And you’re going to tell me that if it came down to clear-cutting a forest or forfeiting a major construction project that the forest would win, no questions asked?”
“As I said, when it comes to human progress . . .”
“Human progress? It’s out in the middle of nowhere! Tell me how that is human progress.”
“I’m afraid I cannot tell you any of the details, young man. I am under orders . . .”
Russ shook his head and laughed. “‘Not to say anything’? Is that what you were going to say? Let me tell you something, Mr. Ramsey. I have traveled all across the North American continent, observing everything I could. In the United States, wolves are extinct in the eastern United States, and very nearly so in the west. Dozens of other animals are on the verge of extinction due to the expansion of ‘human progress.’”
Balto shook away the dizziness caused by watching the verbal tennis match. He, Jenna, and Dash’s family were observing the argument uneasily. They won’t remain civil to each other much longer if this sparring continues.
“Don’t you think you’re being unfair Lupus? After all, many corporations are taking measures to have a low impact . . .”
“Only when there’s a profit to be made. Two steps forward, three steps back, that’s all that is.”
“Yet it’s also necessary.”
“Necessary, you say? Then why are workers busy clearing land ten miles from here in near-pristine wilderness? It’s pointless!”
“And where would you be today if someone hadn’t cut the forests and quarried the stone to build the hallowed halls of whatever two-bit shack of a university you graduated from?”
Here it comes, Balto thought.
Russ glared at him, jaw muscles tightening. “I happen to have graduated with honors from the University of Toronto with a PhD in environmental sciences. That aside, I’ve known your type since before I eve r entered into my studies. Anyone who willingly turns a blind eye to the consequences of your “human progress” is nothing but a parasite.”
That almost brought Ramsey to his feet. “Why you insolent young pup! Let me tell you something, Lupus. I was working construction sites while you were still in diapers. I know this business up, down, front, back, and sideways, and I’ve known your type from the start. Anyone who attempts to halt progress to save a half dozen trees is nothing but an overzealous ecofreak. Look around you sometime, Boy. We live in a realistic world, not some dreamland generated by your holier-than-thou ideals. Maybe when you realize that you don’t know everything, you’ll see things the way they are.”
Before Russ could reply, Rosie’s father cleared his throat. “Gentlemen?”
Both men looked over at him, realizing seemingly for the first time that they had an audience. Ramsey scowled, angry that he had lowered himself to a shouting match with that arrogant whippersnapper, while Lupus blushed, embarrassed to have partaken in the argument when he was trying to appear more civil than that apathetic conformist. He looked at Rosie who was staring in wide-eyed shock following the outburst.
Ramsey got up from the table and, offering a muttered excuse, stormed away from the table. Those gathered at and around the table heard a door slam. Dash stood abruptly and walked back to join him, followed by Aurora. Chipper hesitated until his father called, and with an apologetic look at Balto and Jenna, he went to join his family.
Russell looked around in mute chagrin. “I’m sorry for that, folks. I don’t usually let myself get goaded into an argument like that.”
Rosie’s father shook his head. “I suppose I should’ve seen that coming after the reaction you two had to each other earlier.”
“I’ll just move in to Mrs. O’Harney’s Bed and Breakfast. I really don’t want to put you folks out just because I have trouble agreeing with the guest who was staying here before me.”
“That won’t be necessary Russ,” Rosie’s mother interjected.
“Though we’d appreciate it if you could maintain some decorum for Rosie’s sake and ours.”
Balto exited into the kitchen, and Jenna soon joined him. “It appears the storm has now broken,” she said, sitting beside him.
Balto shook his head slowly. “No, Jenna. That was just the opening thunder.”
* * *
The rest of the evening passed without any further confrontation. The next morning, breakfast was somber among the humans, though it too passed without incident. As soon as the dishes were cleared from the table, James Ramsey stood to make an announcement.
“As much as I appreciate all you folks have done for me, things at the construction site have reached the point where I really should be there at all times. This traveling between there and here just won’t work any longer. So this morning I shall be relocating there.”
Rosie’s mother shook her head. “Are you sure there’s no other way, Mr. Ramsey? After all, we’re more than happy to . . .”
“As much as I appreciate your kind gesture, business before pleasure. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go pack my belongings.”
* * *
“Well, Balto. Looks like this is where we part ways,” Dash said to his canine host.
Balto nodded. “I’m sorry your human won’t change his mind.”
Aurora shook her head. “It’s for the best. Especially with the trouble he’s having with the other human, I’m sure your humans don’t need the extra burden.”
“It’s been a pleasure having you,” Jenna replied.
“It was a pleasure staying here,” Dash said.
“If you need anything, don’t hesitate to let us know,” Balto said. “We’ll be more than happy to help.”
The two border collies nodded and Balto and Jenna went to join their humans.
Chipper came dashing into the room. “What’s going on? Why’s our human packing?”
“We’re moving to the construction site for now.”
“But Dad, I don’t want to go! I want to stay here!” Chipper protested. He’d come to rather enjoy staying in the home of a hero, even if things were more than a bit chaotic.
“You’re going to find that there are a lot of things you have to do in life that you don’t want to do,” Dash said, walking toward their human’s room. “This is just one of many.”
Dash turned around to face him. “There’s nothing we can do about it, Chipper. You’re just going to have to get used to the idea.”
Chipper frowned, but arguing was obviously pointless, even to him. Instead he walked back to bid Balto and Jenna’s puppies farewell.
* * *
For the second time in a week, the clan leaders had once again gathered, this time in a remote clearing. The circumstances were the same with one exception; entire clans had gathered this time. A conclave of this nature was rare; so rare in fact that even the eldest knew of such happenings from legends only. They were meeting for the same reason, and the borders were clearly marked in this dispute. Kiska and the Anvil Creek Clan were adamantly opposed to conflict of any sort. Eyak and the Eagle Pass Clan were clamoring for action. Tutchone and the Clan of the Hills were undecided, though fully prepared to fight if necessary. Kemo frowned as he listened to the various arguments for and against war, but in spite of the gravity of the situation, he remained aloof from all three factions.
“. . . We cannot sit idle while humans absorb our lands piecemeal. We must unite and drive them away like the animals they are!” Eyak finished. Many nodded their heads in agreement, even some in Kiska’s pack, and a few howled their approval. The young packleader sat down with a satisfied grin.
Kiska immediately stood and moved to the center of the circle and addressed the gathered clans. “These humans are not known to be our enemies! Why do some of you continue to label them as such with no proof?”
“Proof? They are trespassers!” Senak interjected.
Kiska turned to glare at him. He should have known better than to publically raise dissent among her ranks. “They are above our laws.”
“Why?” Eyak challenged. “Tell us why, Kiska. Why should we not treat them as a rival clan?”
“We do not invade their lands, they invade ours,” Tutchone agreed softly. All eyes turned to her.
“They have not threatened us yet.” Kiska shook her head. “Even together we have not the strength to fight them.” The assemblage fell silent, unsure of any response. Kiska stared at those gathered. “I believe there are none here who will contest this statement. The humans have not harmed us yet, and I believe that they will continue to ignore us so long as we avoid them.”
“Do you propose we do nothing?” Tutchone asked.
Kiska shook her head. “No, I make no such suggestion. I simply urge moderation. If we fight, we will be destroyed. I have heard much of these humans. It is said that they outnumber the very stars in the night sky and do not flinch to kill their own. Should they hesitate to kill us as well? It is a fight we cannot win, my friends.”
Kemo was the first to break the silence. “There is one point that I have neglected to mention. There is another human. A researcher whom some of you may remember.”
“The one Balto’s mate spoke of?” Tutchone asked.
“The same. He is here to stop the construction if humanly possible.”
“How do we know this human can be trusted?” another wolf asked.
“He observed the Akleet Clan for a week. This was before the Akleet joined the Clan of the Hills. Jederoc was the leader at the time.”
Jed nodded slowly. “I remember him.”
“Was that not the same human who invaded a densite and attempted to kidnap one of your clan’s young?” Eyak queried scornfully.
Jed hesitated, not wanting to put his friend in a bad position. “He did stumble upon our den, yes. His motives remain unclear to us, though it is likely that he entered the cave simply to escape the weather.”
Kiska spoke before Eyak could reply to this. “An understandable reason, but while he works on his end of the bone, we should attend to ours. She returned to her seat and took a deep breath. Here is the part I know they will not like. “I propose that we continue with our original plan. Let Balto find out what their plan is and decide from there.”
Frenzied chattering broke out among those gathered. Eyak spoke over the din. “You propose that we wait for that half-breed to bring our destruction?”
Quinault entered the conversation. “Do we know for certain that Balto has betrayed us?”
“Of course he betrayed us!” Dalag interjected. Another outburst moved around the circle.
Quinault quietly stood and stared at each wolf individually, his cold gaze dampening the fiery spirits of most and bringing an uncomfortable silence to the rest. “Do we know for certain that Balto has betrayed us? Or is it possible that we do not yet fully know his true designs? I direct this question, not to Eagle Pass Clan, nor to any of the other clans, but to one who has not spoken yet. The one who knows for certain.” He returned to his place and all turned to Kemo.
Kemo met their stares impassively, carefully considering his answer. Then his eyes met Kiska’s, and, remembering her words bowed his head. “I do not know this for certain.”
“But he is harboring the lead human, is he not?” Eyak demanded.
Tutchone stepped forward. “The man has entered the human camp. He seems to have brought his possessions with him.”
“Very well, he was been harboring the human has he not?”
Kemo nodded. “That is true.”
Eyak strutted haughtily before those gathered. “He protects our enemy? I think that our comrade has removed all doubt!” Wild clamoring again broke out among the ranks.
Kiska leapt to her feet. “You dare to spout such accusations against one who is not present to answer your charges? You, Eyak, speak truth with two tongues!”
In a split second, Eyak stood before her bristling. “You dare to question my honesty? You, who is known to associate with him? How do we know you are not party to his betrayal? Indeed, how do we know that Anvil Creek Clan is not accomplice?”
Eagle Pass Clan was on their feet, spoiling for a fight. Kiska’s pack rose and formed up behind her, while the Clan of the Hills cooly observed the face-off.
“Enough!” Kemo stood suddenly. “Must blood be shed needlessly? We should hold our discussions and our tongues until tomorrow. Cool your tempers, and then we will talk more. We should continue to observe the humans, but no faction must act without the others. Is that clear?”
Kiska offered a sharp nod of assent. Eyak, seeing little he could do, reluctantly nodded as well. With that, the wolves split into packs and disappeared in separate directions.
A Shot in the Dark
“I wish I was back at Balto’s house,” Chipper muttered as he paced around the tent. This was his second night in the camp, and already he was tired of it. “At least there a warm bed. Good food. A warm bed. Yeah, I’d give anything for a warm bed. My paws are cold, my ears are cold, my nose is cold, my tail is cold . . .”
“Chipper! Go to bed, Son, the rest of us are trying to sleep,” Dash moaned.
“I’m too cold to go to sleep,” Chipper argued.
Dash raised his head. “You can curl up between your mother and me if you stop chattering.”
“I can’t help chattering, Dad. It’s freezing in here.”
“You know what I mean. So come over here and get some shuteye.”
Chipper crawled in between his parents and closed his eyes. Then he stood again, turned a bit, and lay down again. Still unable to get comfortable, he stood again.
“Chipper! Go to sleep!”
Chipper lay down immediately and stayed in one place until he was sure his father was asleep again. This just isn’t going to work. He stood slowly, hopped over his sleeping parents, and walked outside the tent. Stupid humans. They argue and we dogs get the short end of the stick. He began to walk around camp, looking for anyplace that appeared warmer than his current location. Suddenly, he fell through the snow with a startled yelp. He jumped out when his feet landed on something furry.
A gray husky stuck his head out of the hole. “Hey! Find your own bed!”
“I . . . I . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to . . .”
“You heard what I said! Scram!”
Chipper backed up, still offering apologies, only to fall through the snow again.
“What the . . . Hey! Get out of here!”
Chipper tried another direction, but fell through another hole. “Hey ya stupid city mutt! Get lost!”
Completely flustered, Chipper made a dash toward the camp, but again found himself on something soft. “What the . . .” A white female husky quickly jumped up at the same time as Chipper. “Some nerve you’ve got! It took me ten minutes to finish this nest!”
“I ‘m sorry. I didn’t mean to . . . I mean, I’m just trying to get back to camp.”
“What are you doing out here in the first place?”
“Just trying to keep warm.”
The husky shook her head. “Southlanders don’t belong in the Yukon.”
“Try telling that to my human,” he muttered.
She backed up a few steps and gave him a once-over. “You’re kinda cute for a city dog, but I don’t think that’ll help you much with some of the guys around here. I’m afraid you’ve walked into a bit of an icetrap. If you want to keep the peace, not to mention your skin, you’d better wait until morning before heading across.”
Chipper’s face fell. “But what am I supposed to do until then?”
The female frowned. “Well . . . say, what’s your name, anyway?”
“Well, Chipper. I’d feel bad if I got you killed, so it appears that I have no choice but to let you stay here tonight. My name’s Alyline. Ali for short.”
“Thanks a lot Ali! I really appreciate this. I promise I won’t bother you.”
“A little late for that, don’t you think?” Before he could reply, she curtly nodded at the hole. “Go on, now. Hop in.”
He walked over to her nest, but as he prepared to climb in, he froze.
“Are you hard of hearing, Kid? I said to hop in. What’s the holdup?”
Chipper stood for a moment, staring hard at the camp before shrugging. “Nothin’ I guess. I thought I saw something.” Without further ado, he jumped into the hole, followed by Alyline. Within a few minutes, the hole was completely covered with snow, and both dogs were snug and warm inside. They didn’t hear the muted noises, nor the pained yelp within the camp.
* * *
Dash awoke with a start. Something doesn’t feel right. He sniffed the air, but even his sensitive nose was overwhelmed by the many odors of the camp so that he could not detect anything alien. Suddenly, he heard a cry of pain very close to their tent, and he was instantly on his feet, fur bristling.
Aurora rolled to her feet, crouched low. “What was that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it was just . . .” Dash was cut off by the sound of a gunshot, quickly echoed by another. “Trouble.”
Their human sat up sharply. “What on earth . . .”
A moment later, a man burst into their human’s tent. “Mr. Ramsey! There’s something you should probably see.”
Ramsey arose and followed the worker, the two border collies tailing him. A small group of men were inspecting what was left of their supplies. Sacks that had once contained food were reduced to rags, their contents rent and scattered about. Ramsey shook his head. “How did this happen?”
The cook nodded at a torn sack of flour. Imprinted in the white powder were two perfectly preserved pawprints. Large, canine prints. “My guess is it’s them wolves hereabouts. Ain’t nothin’ else makes prints like them ‘cept sled-dogs. And they wouldn’t’ve left that over there,” he declared, pointing toward the back of the tent.
Ramsey slowly walked over and winced. Dash and Aurora peeked around his legs. Aurora gasped and Dash closed his eyes. One of the camp’s sled-dogs was lying on the ground. His throat had been torn open. James turned his eyes away from the macabre sight. “I heard gunshots. Did anyone hit whatever did this?”
One worker, still holding his rifle, shrugged. “I think so, but I can’t know for sure until morning.”
“Let’s get this mess cleaned up. Have someone guard the stores at night from now on.” Ramsey paused before motioning toward the dead husky. “And take care of him.”
The head foreman nodded. “You’d better keep an eye on those dogs of yours, too. If a husky can’t handle a wolf, a southland dog certainly can’t.”
“Chipper!” Aurora quickly looked around. “Where’s Chipper?”
A sickening dread came over Dash. “Let’s check around. He’s probably in camp somewhere.” He tried to sound more confident than he felt.
* * *
Chipper was startled to awareness by the muted sound of gunfire. He opened his eyes and saw nothing but enclosing white snow. “What . . .? Where am I?! What . . .?!”
“Hey, Kid. Cool it. You’re with me, remember?”
Chipper jerked his head around and felt a wave of relief wash over him when he saw the white husky. Now he remembered; Alyline had let him stay in her snow-nest. He sighed deeply and turned an apologetic glance at his host. “Sorry. I guess I woke you up, huh?”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “Nah, some idiot human in the camp must be doing his target practice earlier than usual. I should’ve been up an hour ago anyway.” She immediately began digging at the top of hollow and with Chipper’s help, broke through in a matter of seconds. They hopped out and shook the snow out of their fur.
Alyline cocked her head to one side. “What’s your name again?”
“That’s what I thought. Sounds like someone’s calling you,” she said, nodding toward camp.
“Omigosh! My parents!” He started to run toward camp but slid to a halt and turned. “Thanks again.”
“No problem. Drop in on me anytime . . . just try not to drop in on me next time.” As Chipper bolted toward camp, Alyline shook her head. “Tenderfeet,” she muttered.
* * *
“Chipper!” Aurora called. She looked around anxiously. “He’s not answering, Dash! Where could he be? Chipper!”
Both cocked their heads, listening intently for any reply. They were so absorbed that they didn’t hear Chipper run up behind them.
Chipper stared at them quizzically for a moment. “What are you listening to?”
Both jumped and spun around. “Chipper! You’re all right!” Aurora exclaimed, nuzzling her son. “We were so worried!”
Chipper pulled away. “Worried? What for?”
Dash frowned at him. “For a lot of reasons, namely because we had an agreement. No wandering alone, remember? Where were you?”
After he explained the situation, Dash was shaking his head. “Now you see what I meant when I told you not to go wandering around if you don’t know the territory? From now on, I want you to stay in camp at night.” He held up a paw to stem any protests. “Something broke into the stores and killed a dog. We aren’t sure, but it may be a wolf, and if that’s the case, we need to stay as close to humans as possible. Wolves don’t usually attack them.”
Chipper frowned. So much for any fun around here.
Fuel to the Fire
In Nome, things were rather dull in spite of Russell Lupus’ presence, but to Balto, the lull was much appreciated. Since the pups were still asleep and he didn’t have to play host to anymore, he finally had time to focus on the problems before him. Eyak was at the bottom of the problems to come, and he had to stay a few lengths ahead of his opponent in this race. That unfortunately meant more time away from his family.
He was still deep in thought when Jenna found him, and she knew of only one thing that could be on his mind. “Found the solution yet?”
Balto grimaced. “Not yet. I can feel trouble stirring just beyond my sight, but I can’t pinpoint it.”
“Perhaps that’s because trouble lurks around every corner.”
Balto shrugged. “Maybe. But which do I tackle first?”
Jenna nudged him. “What do your instincts tell you?”
“Are you sure you should be asking a half-breed that question?” He shook his head. “They tell me to take the most obvious opponent first, but I’m not sure that I can do that without exposing my back to another enemy.” Sighing he shook his head again. “Indecision is my worst enemy.”
“Then I’m afraid I’ve got more bad news. Aleu’s started asking questions. After seeing you and Kemo together the other night, she seems to have noticed a resemblance. I know how you feel about our pups knowing about being part wolf, but . . .”
“But you disagree?”
Jenna shook her head. “No, but I still think that sooner or later they’ll have to be told. Better to hear it from you than someone else. You should consider that.”
“Right now I’m too worried about Kemo and the others to focus on that. It’ll have to wait.”
Jenna rubbed her face against his. “Don’t worry. An answer will come to you.”
He looked at his mate. “I’m going to that camp again. I’ll probably be gone for a while, so don’t wait up.” He rushed out the door and down the street.
Tricksy, noted his determined pace as he passed her home. She ran to join him. “Where are you off to in such a hurry”
“I’m coming with you.”
“Trix . . .”
“Don’t argue. Kaltag will take care of my bunch, and you never know when you need another set of eyes, ears, or teeth.”
* * *
Kemo shook his head as once again, the other wolves began clamoring to voice their opinions. The clans had assembled once again that morning, but they had made no progress since they had adjourned the night before. The pack leaders continued to trade words, offering the same points and counterpoints.
“Tell me,” Kiska addressed the wolves. “Have these humans offered harm to us yet?”
“Give it time,” Eyak remarked. “Humans bring death with them.”
Kiska pinned him with an icy stare. “If the clan of Eagle Pass has information they should share it.”
“Look at the history of our clans. We have all lost fine hunters to humans or their accomplices. The Clan of the Hills has lost twelve, and Eagle Pass Clan has lost fifteen, including my father, all within two snows. Kemo lost his entire pack and almost fell victim again the other night. Your band, Kiska, has suffered losses as well, or have you so quickly forgotten Tag?”
Kiska glowered at him. “Leave Tag out of this. He only ever wanted peace.”
Eyak shook his head, feigning pity. “Yes, my dear Kiska, but that still did not make him invincible, did it? Did it stop him from being gunned down in cold blood by a human hunter.”
Suddenly, Mandan of Eagle Pass Clan stumbled into the circle. Bedraggled and bloody, he collapsed there, breathing hard. Many gathered gasped in surprise, while Eyak, Kemo, and Tutchone rushed to examine him. He was bleeding profusely, and failing rapidly. “Men . . .” he coughed.
~ ~ ~
Kiska’s mind strayed back five years. She and Tagish were again running carefree, not burdened by the loss they now bore. It was late season, and a heavy frost coated everything. She and her mate were wandering the forests, rollicking across the frozen ground. She leaned against his strong gray shoulder.
“Do you love me Tag?”
He smiled down at her, his smooth, baritone voice rushing back into her consciousness. “You know that I would never say anything not from my heart.”
“Then say it to me,” she persisted. “Tell me that you love me again.”
With a broad smile he began to circle her and speak to an unknown assembly. “I, Tagish, leader of Anvil Creek Clan, claims this she-wolf. She is mine and mine alone! I am her’s and no other’s! My love for her shall remain as long as my spirit exists.”
With a smile to mirror his, she joyfully raised her alto voice. In hindsight, this expression of love likely separated them, as within moments, they scented humans. Before they could flee, thunder cracked as her Tagish was struck down. Following Tag’s command, she fled, but refused to stray far from him.
~ ~ ~
“The humans shall pay for this dearly,” Eyak declared.
Kiska looked again at the fallen wolf and realized he had passed from the world of the living. She turned her eyes from the sight and glanced at Kemo. He continued to stare stonily at Mandan.
Eyak turned to face her. “There is your proof. What say you now, Kiska? Are they our enemies?” He stared wildly at the others. “Who will join me?!”
Tutchone bowed his head. “The Clan of the Hills is with you.” His pack clamored its support.
“I, too, shall join you,” Kemo declared. “For justice. Not revenge.”
“And what of Anvil Creek Clan?”
Several voiced their agreement, but Kiska stared at all in disbelief. “Have you gone mad? Open war with the humans is not only pointless, it’s suicide!”
Eyak narrowed his eyes. “Come, now, Kiska. Tagish would be disappointed at your hesitation.”
~ ~ ~
That night, she returned to the clearing, only to discover that Tagish remained where he’d fallen, still grasping the last strands of life. The humans had shot him not for food or fur, but to leave him to die slowly. “I’m here, my love. I will stay with you.”
“. . . .must go,” he gasped. “Too dangerous for . . . you. I am spent.”
“No! Don’t say that, Tag!”
“Take . . . Clan. Lead them as I . . . Promise . . . promise you will ever seek peace. Promise . . .”
~ ~ ~
“No,” she said softly. A single tear ran down Kiska’s face, the only emotion marked by the others. “No. How dare you mention his name for the purpose of spreading dissent and destruction? All who knew Tagish will remember that he sought only to live in peace. Even in death.”
“Then perhaps those of Anvil Creek should tuck their tails and slink away from this council like the cowards they are!”
Anvil Creek Clan stood, bristling with indignation, and Kiska turned slowly, searching for the wolf who had made the accusation. Ironically, none were courageous enough to make the challenge to her face. She decided to address the challenge anyway. “We of Anvil Creek are not afraid of death. We are not cowards, but nor are we hypocrites. We have always professed a love of peace, as have most of you who gather here tonight. Do you so easily discard these ideals?”
Tutchone shook his head resolutely. “No. But the attack was made against one of our own. We must seek justice. Every clan law is clear on this matter. Why are you reluctant to act accordingly?”
“What you seek is not justice but vengeance at Eyak’s whim!”
“In this conflict, you are either with us or against us. So tell us, Kiska, daughter of Koyu and Niska. Where does your clan fall?”
“I am with you!” Senak announced.
“I, too.” Timinuk agreed.
“What say you now, Kiska?”
Eyak towered menacingly over her, but Kiska held her ground. “I am not with you.”
“Then you speak for yourself,” Chinga announced.
Kiska was shocked speechless. She had expected the young, impetuous ones to go, but never the eldest member of her band. Uncertainty suddenly rippled through the rest of Anvil Creek Clan, and all but Quinault, Chehalis, Akkide, and Andan left her side to join the others. Betrayed by her own clansmen, she stared dumbly at those she previously counted among her friends.
“Your clan has spoken.” Eyak smiled smugly. He raised his voice to the assembly. “Since the majority of Anvil Creek Clan has defected to join their rightful leader, I declare all Anvil Creek territory to be forfeit.” He lowered his voice threateningly. “Any interlopers will be dealt with accordingly.”
No where else to turn, she gazed imploringly at Kemo. Unable to bear her pained eyes, he finally spoke. “Kiska. You and your band only may continue to hunt in my lands. You are free to stay where you please. Let no one here question this invitation or my support.”
Eyak bowed. “Then no one shall, though I do fear that this traitor may cause further harm to us from there. But we have things to discuss. No outsiders must be present.”
Kiska raised her head sharply. “If that is your wish, we shall take our leave from this council. I pray that you do not go to your deaths.” She and her remaining friends rose and disappeared into the forest.
* * *
Ramsey was poring over dozens of blueprints with the foremen when a worker entered the pavilion carrying a rifle.
“I got the critter that killed the mutt last night.”
“What was it?” the foreman asked?
“ It was a wolf alright, and from the tracks, I’d say there’s a whole lot more of ‘em.”
Ramsey nodded. “I wouldn’t think they’re much of a threat, but thank you.”
The hunter shifted his feet. “I . . . uh . . . Do you remember those four dogs that went missing a few nights ago? I found them, too. Slaughtered by wolves.”
One of the foremen pounded the table. “Not much of a threat? These creatures are becoming a nuisance! A menace, even!”
“This is not our problem,” Ramsey replied cooly. He looked at the hunter. “Take whatever steps necessary to minimize damage to our resources and timeframe.”
“This undertaking has suffered too many setbacks as is. Nothing more can interfere with our schedule.”
Everyone nodded resolutely.
“So this is how it ends?” Andan paced furiously before Kiska. They had fled deep into Kemo’s territory, finally halting near his den. “We should have forced the point. Now the humans will divide and conquer us!”
“There was nothing we could do. Remember our origins, Andan.” She stared wistfully into the sky. “We have always been refugees from Eagle Pass Clan. It has always been every individual’s choice to return if they wished. Now those who have forgotten our past will relearn the truth.”
Chehalis shook his head. “That is no excuse for their betrayal in such a grave matter.”
“Do not confuse their choice with betrayal. Yes, their choice is difficult to accept, but the majority of the clans have now spoken. Now we must try to distance ourselves from the damage that will be done.”
Andan sputtered. “Tagish would never have permitted this . . .”
The young wolf suddenly found himself pinned against a tree with Kiska glaring an inch from his face. “Do not presume, young one, to tell me what your father would or would not have accepted. I knew his mind far better than most, including you.” She stepped back, allowing him to retreat a few steps from her. “Tag would have accepted the decision, but he would not have remained idle.”
A slow smile played across Quinault’s face. “You have a plan.”
She nodded. “I do.”
“But what can we do?” Akkide asked. “They are many and we are few.”
“Kemo is both the strongest and weakest link in their strategy,” Kiska explained. “He is a brilliant leader, but I believe him mindful enough not to be ensnared by Eyak’s words. Kemo believes in honor above all else, but he includes another priority. One which we observed a few nights ago.”
Andan’s eyes lit up. “Family?”
Kiska nodded. “Correct.”
Chehalis skeptically arched an eyebrow. “You mean to involve Balto. How do you propose to do this when the two refuse to speak to each other?”
“That I do not know yet, but this is our only hope if we are to stem the coming flood.”
* * *
By the time Balto and Tricksy reached the human camp that evening, They knew they were too late. Every man was armed in some fashion and the air itself seemed electrified with tension. Balto hurriedly sought Dash and Aurora for an explanation. The news was unwelcome.
“Are they sure it was a wolf?” Tricksy asked.
Dash nodded. “At least one caused a lot of damage last night. It even killed one of the sled dogs. Four others were discovered a mile from here, and they were torn to pieces by those creatures. One of the humans got a shot off. They found the body this morning.”
Tricksy grimaced. “This is not good. Not good at all.”
Dash glared angrily at the two half-breeds. “Well after everything I’ve seen, wolves really do deserve the reputation they’ve got!”
Aurora shot her mate an angry look. “Dash!” The border collie fell silent. “Before you say something you’ll regret later, listen to them.”
“The clans are frightened. They’ll never admit it, but they are. They feel they’re acting in self defense, and they’re doing it like they have for generations. They have no idea what’s going on here, and frankly, nobody else seems to either.”
“So what are we supposed to do until then?”
“Stay near humans as much as possible. We’re going to track down the clans.”
“What are you going to do then?” Chipper asked. In spite of the gravity of the situation, he couldn’t help but feel a bit of youthful excitement at the danger.
Balto closed his eyes in despair. “I don’t know yet, but I’ll do whatever I must. Trouble is likely heading this way.” He and Tricksy sprinted from the camp. I’d better warn Kiska, and fast!
* * *
It was Kiska who found him first. Rather, she waylaid him and Tricksy before they entered Anvil Creek territory. “Balto! I must speak with you.”
He slowed to a fast walk. “I need to talk to you as well. Do you know what the clans are up to?”
She hesitated before shaking her head. “I’m afraid I cannot help you.”
Balto’s pace faltered. “You’re sworn to secrecy, then?”
“No. I am no longer a privileged member of the council.” She quickly told her story.
Tricksy bowed her head. “I’m so sorry to hear that, Kiska.”
When she finished, Balto nodded sympathetically. “Well, now two of us have been betrayed by Eyak. How long before the rest fall?”
“Eyak is planning to lead a war against the humans. More than this, I do not know.”
“That’s insane! How can three clans take on so many humans and win?” Tricksy paced furiously. “There has to be a way to end this madness!”
Kiska nodded.“There is.”
Balto growled and began to walk on. “Kemo no longer respects my judgement.”
Kiska quickened her pace to keep up. “You are not angry with him?”
“No. Disappointed maybe. If nothing else, I’m certainly worried. Kemo almost died the last time he tangled with humans. I don’t want to lose him.”
“Why don’t you go to him? Tell him how you feel.”
Balto stopped again. “Trying to change Kemo’s opinion is like trying to run a sled with frozen runners . . . solo. Kemo won’t listen. If he did, we wouldn’t be in this mess right now.”
“Then perhaps if he came to you?”
Balto slowly nodded. “I bear him no hard feelings. In spite of his faults, he is my brother. It isn’t right for us to be separated over something as trivial as an argument.”
* * *
Kemo silently crept far closer than he’d ever dared come to the human encampment. He glanced to his sides, and was comforted by the presence of his mate Jan and his trusted friend and advisor Chee. The rest of his pack had fanned out behind him. But how can this be? They’re all dead. All looked ahead with iron resolve. As they continued their silent stalk, he saw Balto standing before him.
“Don’t do this, Kemo. It will be your death!”
The white wolf growled. “If that is my destiny, so be it. You no longer need concern yourself with my welfare. We are finished.”
His brother stood firm. “Kemo, I’m begging you. Please go back.”
Kemo would have walked past him if he hadn’t felt a tug on his tail. Looking back, he saw his four pups, all looking up at him. How did they get here? We never take them hunting with us.
“Don’t go, father!” his youngest daughter pleaded.
“Please don’t go!” another repeated.
Then Eyak stood next to him. “We cannot delay. If we are to succeed, we must attack now!”
Kemo looked at the young pack leader and then at his pups. Then he crouched down before the youngsters. “Don’t worry,” he consoled them. “We will return shortly.”
Then he turned to brush past Balto, but his brother was no longer there. He must have retreated. They crept closer and closer . . . Kemo stopped in mid stride to the yelping cries of several wolves. Then he was reliving a nightmare that had haunted him for two years.
He turned and saw two of his packmates writhing on the ground. He approached them and saw that they each had strange black things around their paws, holding them securely. Kemo tried to bite them off, but they were as solid as rocks. Jan circled around to try to figure out how they might be removed, but she, too, yelped in pain. Kemo ran to her and saw that she also has one of the strange things around her paw. He tried desperately to free his mate from the trap, but it was no use. His head shot up as a thunderous crack rang through the air. He would never forget that sound. One of the wolves who wasn't trapped cried out and fell, convulsing in agony on the snow. It was soon stained red and the wolf no longer moved or breathed. Kemo looked around for the source of the danger, but could only watch helplessly as one of his pups was thrown, landing in a bloody heap. His pack was soon reduced to five. Then Chee, carrying one of Kemo’s pups, fell to the ground, never to rise again.
"Go!" shouted Jan," Save yourself!"
"No! I won't leave you here!"
"If you don't then you'll be killed to. We've lost."
Kemo growled and again attacked the trap with his teeth. One of his canines broke and fell into the snow. Blood oozed out of his mouth, but he didn't care. He didn't want to see his mate killed. I won’t let it happen this time! I won’t let it! Jan snarled fiercely and slashed at his shoulder. He yelped and jumped away.
"Go!" she shouted once more. Kemo turned but still hesitated. "Go! Now!"
"I love you," said Kemo.
He turned to run, but a burning sensation creased his head and he fell to the ground. Paralyzed with pain and fear, he could only lay there as Jan cried out for the last time. Trembling with rage, he looked at his massacred pack and the bloodstained snow. This can’t be happening again. It has to be a dream.
Then Jan’s spectral form appeared before him. “You’ve failed us.”
“No, Jan. Please don’t say that.”
She began to fade. “We died that you might live. You turned your back on your friends and family.”
Kemo covered his ears with his paws. It didn’t happen this way! She loved me! She said to save myself! I didn’t want to leave them!
His gaze stopped at a pair of black forepaws in front of him. He looked up into Eyak’s unmerciful gaze and tried unsuccessfully to stand. “Help me my brother,” he pleaded.
“I have no brother here,” Eyak replied with a mocking smile.
Horrified, Kemo was speechless. Strange. Those are the same words I spoke to Balto. “Eyak . . .” The black wolf casually ambled away. “EYAK!!”
“We died that you might live. You’ve forgotten,” the ghostly voices of his pack echoed.
“You’ve betrayed us.”
* * *
Kemo jerked his head up, panting hard, eyes flashing around his den. He gulped and tried to force his breathing to slow. “It was a dream. Just a horrible dream.”
He stood up and walked outside into the cold night air to steady his nerves. It’s been a long time since I’ve dreamed about that. But why Balto? And why Eyak? Why did Jan accuse me of betraying them? He breathed a steadying sigh and tried to shake the questions and residual images of his dream from his mind. It doesn’t matter. She’s dead, along with the rest of my pack. Ghosts of a dead past. He shook his head violently. No, they’re more than that! They were my friends. My family. My life.
He looked the fading moon and realized that little time had passed since he’d returned from the council. He closed his eyes. I hope I know what I’m doing.
“Kemo? Are you all right?”
The unexpected voice startled him. “Kiska. You’re a bit out of your territory, aren’t you?”
“I have no longer have any territory?”
The white wolf winced. “My apologies. I forgot . . .”
Kiska shook her head. “Do not worry. We shall manage.”
Kemo sat down and stared up at the starry sky. “It will begin soon. If you join now, perhaps you can regain some of your losses.” Receiving no reply, he turned his eyes to her. “You still do not approve?”
She fell silent for several minutes. “I do not.”
“Even after seeing Mandan shot?” He shook his head in disbelief. “I do not understand.”
“Seeing a fellow wolf die reminded me that it is one year to the day since Tag departed from me. He made me promise with his last breath to avenge his death.” She quickly stayed Kemo’s interjection. “Through peace, not violence. To this day, I do not understand his reasoning.”
Kemo frowned, remembering his lust for vengeance after Jan’s death. “Perhaps he did not foresee how dangerous things would become for us.”
“Or perhaps he foresaw more than we could ever hope to glimpse.” She fought to retain her composure. “You, too, have suffered great loss. Do you ever see spirits?”
“You know I don’t believe in Spirit-Guides.”
“I know, but do you believe that death is the end?”
We died that you might live. You turned your back on your friends and family. We died that you might live. You’ve forgotten. You’ve betrayed us.
“No,” he whispered. “Some things linger.”
A ghost of a smile crossed Kiska’s face. “Then you know of what I speak. I can’t explain it, my friend, but there are times that I can see and hear Tag so clearly that I feel his presence. Unless I miss my guess, you still feel the presence of your pack. Do you wish to speak of it?”
Kemo hesitated and began to tell of his dream. When he finished, he opened his eyes. “It makes no sense to me. I fought to save my pack, but I keep hearing Jan’s voice, telling me I’ve betrayed them.”
“You told me once that you left your father’s clan to search for Balto, did you not?”
The white wolf turned away. “Please do not speak of him.”
“Why? He’s your brother, Kemo.”
“No longer. Can you please let it rest?”
“Yes, but can you?”
“Your friends and family died while you led them on a quest to find your brother. For you to forsake him is an ungrateful affront to their sacrifice.”
“That’s not true!”
“Do you fear the truth?”
“I fear nothing!”
“Then why are you so defensive?”
“I am not defensive!”
“You are! Face it, my friend, it is wrong to allow such a rift between you and your brother. Whether it’s spirits or your own heart speaking to you, you know you are wrong.”
“No!” he suddenly lashed out, knocking her to the ground. She lay still for a moment before rising slowly to her feet. Realizing what he had done, Kemo stumbled back a few steps. “I . . . I’m sorry Kiska. I . . . should not have done that.” He sank down and a shudder coursed through his body. “I no longer know what I am doing.”
“If the wind no longer calls to you, you should look to see when you forgot your name.”
“But how can I go back?”
“You can start by returning to your brother.”
“I can’t . . . we can’t. After everything I said . . .” He looked up at her. “And the more I think about it, it seems like I did the right thing. I know I probably shouldn’t feel that way, but I do.” Kemo shook his head in confusion.
“He will forgive you. You should go to him.” Kiska looked at the moon. “The night wanes. I must return to what remains of my clan.” As she walked away, she stopped and looked earnestly at him. “Take care of yourself.”
He sat for a long time outside his den, braving the cold and the turmoil of his own mind. “Maybe Kiska is right.” He snorted. “Kiska. She seems to see right through me. The only other who could ever do that was J . . .” He stopped himself from mentioning the name of his dead mate. Why should I hesitate? Kiska is no more than a friend and confidant. An equal. Still . . . He shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Right or not, it would be dishonorable for me to abandon the others after giving them my word to aid them. I’ll sort all this out after I deal with the human threat.”
* * *
It was just before dawn when Ramsey awoke when he heard growling. He sat up on his cot looked around the tent, wondering what was wrong. This became obvious to him when he saw a human silhouette with feet propped on his table. Dash was staring menacingly at the intruder. Ramsey quickly lit a lamp.
“Glad to see you’re awake.”
“Lupus! What are you doing here?”
Russ slid his feet off the table and turned his body to face the other man. “I would think my reasons would be obvious to a learned man such as yourself.”
“If you’ve come here to cause trouble or speak in riddles, you can just get the h . . .”
Russ waved his hand dismissively. “Temper, temper. I’ve come to tell you that my concerns registered with your big-business overlords. They’ve decided to put off this corporate hunting lodge you’re building for a complete investigation.” The researcher produced a telegram from his pocket.
Ramsey quickly snatched the document and read it. He raised his eyes to meet Lupus’. “You expect me to stop everything on account of one document that could have been easily forged?”
Russ snorted sarcastically. “Now that would be downright dishonest of Western Union, now wouldn’t it? Lucky for them, me and three wolf packs, this is the Real McCoy. I realize, however, that you are going to thoroughly check the validity of the message, so I will be more than willing to lead you into Nome to begin your sleuthing.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lupus, but I will provide my own transportation.”
“First of all, I can see you don’t know much about traveling in the North, therefore in need of guidance,” Russ laughed. “It’s just before dawn, and it will take at least an hour to gather and harness a team, so that leaves the few motor vehicles you have at your disposal. Second, the snow has been melting since yesterday, so whether you decided to travel by sled or motorcar, you would become mired in trail slush before you were halfway there. Third, as you read in the letter, you are to cease labors immediately, and I would hate to report a lack of compliance. I know you’ll want to resolve this as soon as possible, and that means a trip to Nome. Which of course leads back to problem number one, to which I am the easiest, if not the most agreeable solution for you. I’d inform your foremen that they have the day off.”
Ramsey gritted his teeth. “I’ll get you for this, Lupus.”
“I knew you would be agreeable. By the way, I’d wear a parka and mukluks if I was you. It’s a bit nippy outside.”
“Kemo. I thought you would not come.”
The white wolf narrowed his eyes. “I am here, Eyak. That should be sufficient. Or would you prefer to absorb my territory?”
Eyak barely flinched. “Let us return to our plan.”
“Yes. But remember that we only take targets of opportunity. We are not strong enough to take the combined might of the humans. Timing is difficult. Were this the dead of winter, it would be much simpler to hold them off. As it is, we can only hope to make it difficult enough that they retreat. We sabotage materiel only, no direct attacks.”
“Very well,” Dalag sneered. “Does materiel include their canine slaves?”
Kemo hesitated, remembering that there were some dogs he found marginally likeable. “If they present an immediate danger, yes.”
Eyak nodded. “Chinga, pick several scouts to provide warning if anyone tries to interfere. They are to kill any who venture near.”
Senak sprinted into the midst of the leaders. “Two humans and three dogs have left the camp. Our quarry is among them.”
Eyak grinned wickedly. “Excellent, Senak. You shall lead the scouts that Chinga picks.” The young scout preened. “Dalag, take six of our fastest runners. You will prevent the human from reaching his destination.”
Kemo stood abruptly. “We agreed there were to be no direct attacks on humans!”
Eyak turned to him. “If this human is removed, we can end this battle right now, my friend.”
Kemo shook his head. “Trap him. Let him die by the teeth of hunger, not the teeth of wolves.”
Eyak was about to press the point before conceding with a sly smile. “Very well. Dalag, move out.”
* * *
Balto and Tricksy ran quietly along a trail leading to the human camp. They had been unsuccessful in locating the clans, and were returning to try once again to discover something from the humans. The casualties were already climbing, and the conflict wasn’t at full intensity yet. Balto was all to aware that his timetable was limited. If I were Eyak, I would move today. That way no one has a chance to rethink the situation.
Balto’s thoughts were interrupted when he heard Tricksy’s shouted warning. He turned just in time to see a canine form leaping toward him. He rolled with the impact and planted his forepaws on the stunned wolf’s throat before it could regain its footing. Balto sniffed his fur and recognized something familiar about him. “What is your name?”
“What business is it of yours?” the wolf spat back. At a growl from Balto, the wolf’s courage melted.
“I asked your name. I know you are from the Anvil Creek Clan, and Kiska will come if I call.”
“Help will come if I call.”
Tricksy growled. “Then why don’t you save all of us the time and trouble by answering the question.”
The wolf muttered something under his breath.
Balto leaned closer. “Say again?”
“Senak,” the wolf snarled. “I am Senak, son of Selu and Tandera.”
“Do you know who I am?”
The wolf gave a small nod. “You’re the wolf-dog. Balto.”
“Then why did you attack me?”
“My orders were to prevent anyone from passing through this area.”
Balto increased the pressure on Senak’s throat. “A simple ‘halt’ would’ve been more effective, don’t you agree?”
The wolf’s breathing was becoming noticeably uncomfortable. “Perhaps. What do you want?”
“Simply to continue on my way, but while we’re chatting, why don’t you tell me where Anvil Creek Clan was night before last.”
“Patrolling our borders, if it’s any of your business.”
“And four days before that?” Tricksy asked.
Balto looked at Senak skeptically. “And where were you?”
“I was with Chinga’s group.”
Tricksy’s eyes narrowed. “And what do you know about the deaths of five dogs?”
Balto’s voice grew stern. “Then who does?”
“Maybe you should ask your half-brother. That is if he will still speak to you.”
Balto pressed hard on Senak’s throat, causing the wolf to gasp in surprise and pain. “Perhaps you should mind your own business. Who ordered you to guard this trail?”
“And who convinced you to kill the dogs that were pursuing Kemo?”
“No . . .”
“If you are wise, you will not tell us a lie.” Tricksy took a few menacing steps toward him. “I have ways of getting information, and many you will find most uncomfortable.”
She leaned close and whispered something to Senak. The wolf’s widened in fear. After a quick glance at Balto and receiving no pity there, he began to talk.
* * *
“You’d better be right about this, Lupus. If I find out you’ve been leading me on some wild-goose chase . . .”
Russ rolled his eyes and continued to study the woods as they walked. “Please dispense with the idle threats, Mr. Ramsey. The telegram I delivered was genuine in all respects.”
“If that’s the case, I’ll prepare to talk some sense into my employers. You’re causing a lot of problems by standing in my way with this nonsense.”
“I assure you that causing problems is not my intent, Ramsey. I’m simply trying to keep everyone from getting the short end of the bargain. And for your information, I have provided your institution with some preliminary data that could change the scientific world. I just happens that these findings involve the wolf packs in the vicinity of your construction zone. To be quite blunt, you are standing in my way.”
“The feeling is mutual.”
Russ was about to respond when a piercing cry split the air, closely echoed by another. He halted and cocked his head. Several more voices took up the cry.
Dash lowered his stance, a low growl rumbling in his throat. Chipper crouched beside his father as Aurora’s eyes darted apprehensively.
“Odd,” Lupus muttered.
“Odd? What’s odd? What’s going on?”
“That sounds like hunting calls.”
“What’s your point, Lupus?”
The researcher tensed slightly. “There aren’t any packs in this area. I think we’d better move on.”
“I was just beginning to like it here.”
Ignoring the remark, Russ urged his team into motion. He risked a glance behind the sled and saw a large, gray and black wolf pacing them one hundred yards behind. Looking to his right and left, he saw two others. This is not good. Ahead, at a bend in the trail, he spotted a shallow cave thirty yards away. “Can you run Mr. Ramsey?”
The wolves broke into a sprint, determined to cut them off. “Run for it!”
* * *
Kemo crept close to the quiet human camp. Nothing was stirring at this early hour. He looked over his shoulder at the other wolves. “Tutchone, take your clan and circle to the far side. Eyak, you take Eagle Pass Clan to clearing. Everyone else is with me. Don’t move until I do.”
Eyak choked back a snarl. “As you wish.”
Tutchone gave a sharp nod. “It will be done.”
Both leaders dispersed and Kemo settled down to wait. I wish Kiska was here. I could use her advice right now.
“Is all well?”
Kemo looked back at the wolf who’d spoken and gave him a once-over. He was young and lithe with soft gray fur. Barely old enough for his first hunt. I hope this will not be his last. “Yes. Do not worry.”
The wolf shivered. “Then why do I have a bad feeling about this.”
Kemo turned to the camp again. “You are fearful before the battle.”
“I am not! I . . .” The wolf halted as he remembered Kemo’s high status. “I’m sorry. I should not have spoken like . . .”
The white wolf gave him a wry glance. “You are correct. You should not. But once spoken, you should not shrink from your words.”
“Even if I’m wrong?”
“That is why you must always be careful what you say.” Kemo hesitated, remembering Kiska’s words. He immediately felt uneasy about the whole venture, but shook it off. “There is no such thing as being fearless. Courage is acting in spite of your fears.”
He looked around. Tutchone and Eyak had positioned their clans and were now looking to him for his order. Summoning all his resolve, he slowly stood and . . .”
The white wolf jerked his head around to see Balto and Tricksy sprinting toward him. I don’t have time for this.
The two half-wolves skidded to a halt and Balto stood in his path. “Don’t do this, Kemo. It will be your death!”
The white wolf growled. “If that is my destiny, so be it . . .” He broke off as his dream came rushing back at him. The feelings, the pain, the death.
His brother stood firm. “Kemo, I’m begging you. Please go back.”
Kemo steeled himself. “I can’t. But if something should happen . . .”
“Don’t let it,” Tricksy interrupted. “Call off this madness while you still can.”
* * *
Eyak crouched silently in the clearing west of the camp. He shifted restlessly. What is taking him so long? He should have given the command by now! He turned to look at the hill where Kemo’s conglomerate pack lay in wait. His eyes narrowed. Those two meddlesome half-breeds! They’ll ruin everything we’ve worked for! He slowly stood and looked at his clan. “Let’s go!”
* * *
“I do not have time to discuss this in committee!” Kemo argued. “We must eliminate this threat before it grows too . . .” He was cut off as a howl pierced the dawn, joined by more than a dozen others. These were echoed from the other side. Kemo looked over the hill, eyes widening in fear as he saw Eagle Pass Clan rushing to attack prematurely, an action mirrored by the Clan of the Hills. He whipped his head around to his pack. “Let’s go!”
“Kemo, I can’t let you do this. I’m your brother.”
“These are my brothers.” The white wolf rushed down the hill, followed by the other wolves.
Kemo ignored him, rushing instead toward the camp. Nothing was moving. Something’s wrong. His pack was following close behind him, the other packs were converging on the camp. Then he realized what was wrong. Eyak’s clan’s howling should have awakened every dog and man. Nothing’s moving.
He slid to a stop. “Hold! Everyone turn back! They’re . . .” His voice was cut off by a sharp crack. Oh no. Not again . . .
* * *
Watching helplessly from the hilltop, Balto and Tricksy saw the assault break apart as a flurry of gunshots erupted from the camp. Within seconds, six wolves were down and several more were staggering with severe wounds.
Balto started to rise, but Tricksy held him back. “Don’t Balto! They’ve made their choice. This isn’t your fight.”
“But Kemo’s down there!”
“Balto . . .”
“I won’t watch him die!”
“What about your family? Jenna? Your pups? If you get killed, who’ll look after them?”
Balto hesitated, considering her points. Finally, steeling himself, he turned again to look at the camp. As he watched, all his fears were realized. “NOOOOOOOOOO!”
* * *
It was utter chaos, and Kemo was right in the middle of it. He saw several of his fellow wolves fall to the ground, never to rise again. One of the younger members of the Clan of the Hills halted next to his fallen brother. A well aimed shot ended the tender moment. Another five wolves went down without coming close to the human camp. Kemo kept moving, trying to be an elusive target, and he quickly gauged their numbers. A third of the wolves who had started the run would never rise to finish it. The Clan of the Hills had lost ten of its sixteen members. Then he saw Tutchone fall.
This has to end. He ran between the three groups. “Retreat! Retreat! Fly!” None of the wolves hesitated, instinctively following his orders. Many didn’t even make the forest. Seeing everyone in flight, Kemo turned and began to run with all his might. Only five hundred strides to go. Two hundred. One hundred . . . fifty . . .” Suddenly, he felt a burning sensation rip through his body and he staggered.
He lay still for a few seconds before inching his way slowly toward the treeline, creating a lengthening red stain on the snow. He was oblivious to the snow exploding around him. He finally had to rest. I must be hurt badly. He heard a soft crunching of snow and looked up, his eyes following a pair of black legs.
“Please . . . help . . .”
Eyak smiled and jogged past him.
Kemo stared at the leader in shock. “Please . . . brother . . .” He curled himself into a ball, trying to squeeze the pain away. The footsteps faded away, and Kemo began to sob silently. Balto was right. We were no match. His vision began to blur, and as he stared, it seemed to him that Jan was running toward him, pulling him with her to whatever end awaited him. “Jan . . . so sorry . . .”
* * *
Balto rushed down the hill before Tricksy could stop him. As he reached his fallen brother, he saw Kiska trying in vain to move the white wolf. Balto joined her, along with Tricksy, and the two half-dragged, half-carried Kemo deeper into the forest. As Tricksy ran back to cover their trail, Balto turned his full attention to Kemo.
Kiska, normally level-headed, was on the verge of sheer panic. “This can’t happen! We’ve got to do something!” She licked at Kemo’s wound, trying vainly to stop the bleeding.
Balto moved her aside as gently as possible and examined the wound. Luckily, the shot wasn’t broadside; it had merely punched into the wolf’s shoulder at an angle. Still, the wound continued to bleed, slowly draining Kemo’s life away. “Kiska, where’s the rest of your clan?”
“Scouting our flanks . . . will he be all right? He’s still bleeding!”
“I’m not sure. He needs help, and there aren’t any humans around here.”
“There has to be something we can do . . .”
“Kiska, calm down!”
“I won’t lose him too!”!
“Listen to me! We need to find Russ Lupus. Do you know where he is?”
Kiska nodded.Race Against Time
James Ramsey sat reclining against the inside of the ice cave, eyes studying the frozen stalactites above him. Dash sat beside him on the side closest to the opening, while Aurora and Chipper sat on his other side. They’d made it into the relative safety of the cave barely ahead of their attackers. Luckily, a few shots from Rus’ signal gun had scared them back from the cave.
“They’re still out there, aren’t they, Dad?”
Dash nodded slowly, still gazing outside. “Yes.”
“Why are they doing this?” Aurora asked. “What did we do?”
“It’s not us, it’s him,” Chipper said, nodding toward their human.
“And how would you know that?” Dash asked incredulously.
“I heard Balto and Jenna talking about it.”
His parents looked at him. “You what?”
“I . . . I accidentally overheard them talking about how a bunch of wolves were mad because of something our human is doing. It was the a couple days ago.”
Dash laid down and covered his eyes with his paws. “Why didn’t you say so before?”
“You wouldn’t let me.”
After a moment of silence, Dash shook his head. “Looks like I blew it that time.”
“Is there any chance of us getting out of here?” Aurora asked.
Her mate shook his head. “Not likely. We’ll be lucky if someone even finds us.”
“If we’re missing for a couple of days, someone’s bound to come.” Aurora suggested.
Dash shook his head. “If we’re gone that long. If the wolves attack us tonight . . .”
“Balto will look for us, won’t he?” Chipper asked.
“I don’t know, son.”
“Well, I think he will.” Chipper replied.
Dash returned his gaze to the trees, hoping that his son’s enthusiasm wasn’t doomed for a big letdown.
* * *
Russ was also studying the woodline. “I don’t understand it . . . wolves don’t just attack humans.”
James shrugged. “It’s like I’ve been saying all along. It’s the nature of the beast . . .”
Russ cut him off with an angry glare. “Look, we might be in here for a long, long time. You and I may not agree with the other’s ideologies, but let’s at least agree to disagree for now. We’ve got more pressing issues.”
“Yeah. Like surviving.”
They fell silent for several more minutes. Russ continued to scan the area outside, and James continued to stare at the overgrown icicles.
“So, you have a PhD?” Ramsey asked suddenly.
“That’s right. Wildlife biology.”
“What made you choose that field?”
Russ shrugged. “I’ve always liked animals, especially wolves. I even fancied that they understood a whole lot more about us than we give them credit for.”
“I have yet to see anything to prove that point.”
“If we ever get out of here, I’ll be sure to show you. Anyway, on my first visit to Nome, I was observing some of the local wolves. One day I stumbled onto a densite, and a big white wolf chased me away. He fell through the frozen bay as he pursued me.”
“Good riddance.” Ramsey muttered.
Russ ignored the shot. “I swore long ago that I would give my life to save a wolf. I got him out of the water, but fell in during the process. The next thing I remember is waking up in Doc Welsh’s infirmary. I was told that a large, white canine dragged me to the outskirts of town.” Russ turned to look at him. “That wolf saved my life.”
“A wolf saved you? And you’ve got half a dozen trying to kill you right now? Talk about irony.”
“Who says they’re after me?” Russ asked calmly.
Ramsey caught his subtle point. “Wonderful. I have a pack of wolves with a vendetta after me. Whatever will I . . . Lupus!”
Russ turned quickly and fired a shot with his tranquilizer gun. The wolf darted away from the sting he felt in his shoulder but staggered and fell within a few seconds.
James Ramsey sat down slowly. “That must be some powerful stuff.”
“Yeah. Unfortunately, I only have enough for one more shot like that, and he’ll be coming to within a couple of hours. I also don’t think we can count on the signal gun trick to work again.”
Lupus reclined against the rock wall and began to reload his weapon, using a half dose. Times like these almost make me wish I had a real rifle . . . almost. “So what about you? How did you get to where you are?”
“Besides clearcutting, razing, and pillaging nature’s resources?” Ramsey commented sarcastically. Seeing that Russ wasn’t seeking a confrontation, he quickly amended his remark. “I was sort of grandfathered into it, if you know what I mean. Everyone in my family is into construction. My grandfather founded a large contracting firm, and now it’s grown with my father and uncles owning shares of it. We’ve got nationwide prestige.”
“You sound as if you aren’t that enthusiastic about your job.”
Ramsey shook his head. “It’s not that. It pays well, and I’m good at what I do. I suppose I’m comfortable, but . . .”
Russ raised an eyebrow. “But you’d rather be doing something else?”
Ramsey looked at him, shocked. “How did you know?”
“My father is a banker. He manages three of the largest branches in the Toronto area. I was under more than a little pressure to major in accounting and take over one of the branches.” Russ closed the bolt on his rifle. “I had other plans.” He paused momentarily and then looked at his companion. “So if you didn’t want to be a contractor, what did you want to be?”
“A veterinarian.” He looked up at a snort from Russ. “What’s wrong with that?” he demanded.
Russ continued to chuckle. “Nothing . . . it’s just the last thing I was expecting. Please, continue.”
“Well, I did a lot of studying in the field, but finally my family threatened to pull the plug on my tuition trust fund if I didn’t do something worthwhile. So here I am.” He looked over at Russ. “Don’t think for a minute that I’m against what I’m doing, though. We honestly did pick the area we felt would have the least impact.”
“What are you working on, anyway?”
“Some businessman’s hunting getaway. Beyond that, I honestly don’t know. We were given a series of specs to follow, and that’s that. What it boils down to is that I don’t know anything . . .”
“I just work here,” Russ finished for him.
* * *
Balto and Tricksy flew across the snowy ground, making for the town of Nome. They had to head off Russell Lupus before he reached the town and convince him to follow them. Otherwise, Kemo probably wouldn’t last long. Tricksy suddenly skidded to a halt and perked her ears. Balto listened carefully and could faintly hear the sound of a small pack of wolves. Since there were none that he knew of in this area, he realized suddenly that something was amiss. Turning down a different trail, he and Tricksy tried to balance speed with stealth. As they approached from downwind, they began to hear voices.
“But Kemo’s orders . . .”
“Are overruled, Tandera. Kemo’s down. That puts me in charge.”
“Why you, Eyak?” Timinuk asked, suspicion evident in his voice.
“Because Kemo made it so with his dying breath.”
“And we take your word for this?”
“You will do as you are told,” Eyak snarled.
Tricksy turned to Balto. “Can you believe these guys?” she snarled softly.
Balto motioned for her to hush.
“By what authority?” Tandera asked. “Until I hear from my own clansmen . . .”
“They’re dead. The humans slaughtered them.”
Tandera gasped. “Senak? He’s dead? And Chinga? And . . . and . . .”
Eyak nodded sympathetically. “I’m sorry. Kemo began the charge too soon. The humans were ready for us . . . we never had a chance.”
“That’s a lie! Senak isn’t dead. And several others of your clans still live.”
All the wolves spun to see Tricksy striding angrily toward them. Those from Eagle Pass dropped into fighting stances. Balto had little choice but to follow her into the clearing.
“You dare to accuse me of lying?” Eyak growled.
“What do you speak of?” Timinuk asked.
“She speaks of treachery,” Balto declared.
The wolves of Eagle Pass Clan looked uneasily at each other, while the others narrowed their eyes in confusion. “Who?” Tandera finally asked.
“Eagle Pass Clan.”
“You lie,” Dalag snarled, turning to the others. “If there is any treachery, it is from him!”
Balto spoke on, ignoring the accusations. “My companion and I sought out Kemo to talk him out of attacking the human camp. While we were talking, Eagle Pass Clan charged prematurely. This alerted the humans and set the Clan of the Hills and Anvil Creek Clan up for a massacre.”
Chocanti, a gray male from the Clan of the Hills spoke up. “But you said that several live . . .”
Tricksy nodded. “Several do, but their numbers were diminished and scattered during the attack. I’m sorry to say that your clan bore the brunt of the losses. I saw Tutchone and ten others fall. Anvil Creek lost about half their number.”
Tandera stiffened suddenly. “How many from Eagle Pass?”
Tricksy looked at Balto, hesitating at Tandera’s harsh tone.
“How many?” Tandera demanded again.
Tricksy glared at Eyak. “Four.”
Balto shrugged. “Five by my count.”
Tandera lowered her head. “Five?” She raised her head suddenly. “Five only? How so, Eyak?”
“This is obviously a ploy to regain your confidence and sway you from the truth,” Eyak protested. Will you fall so easily to this trickery? To one who tried to protect your enemy?”
“Which enemy?” Timinuk asked, taking a step toward the leader of Eagle Pass Clan.
“They offer accusations, not proof,” Eyak sneered. “Do you not see? He is trying to arrange for your enemy to slip from your grasp. Ever the dishonored pet of the humans.”
“We don’t have time for this,” Balto argued. “Kemo’s life hangs in the balance, even as we speak.”
Timinuk straightened. “Eyak says that Kemo is dead.”
“That’s a lie!” Tricksy exclaimed.
Without warning, Eyak lashed out, ripping her shoulder and almost knocking her off her paws.
Balto immediately leaped into the fray, knocking Eyak off balance. Tricksy hastily retreated a few steps from her attacker and quickly examined her shoulder. It wasn’t a minor wound, but nor was it serious. She stood frozen for a moment as she watched Eyak and Balto circle, lunge, and parry.
Eyak stood back for a moment. “What is this? Must one half-breed call on another to fight her battle for her?”
Tricksy pushed past Balto and shot him a warning glance as he prepared to rush to her aid. “Stay back! He’s mine.”
Balto shook his head. “Tricksy, we don’t have time for . . .”
Tricksy tuned him out as Eyak began to circle her. She reexamined her shoulder, which was still bleeding, before turning her full attention to Eyak, keeping her face to him at all times.
Eyak moved at a casual pace, around her. “It was not enough for you to kill my father, was it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You desire to see me dead. And my clan with me.”
Tricksy snorted. “You overrate yourself. I have better things to do with my time than plot your demise . . . though you seem to know a bit about ulterior motives yourself.”
Eyak lunged at her but his jaws closed on air. He turned and saw her behind him. He lunged again, but again his jaws clicked shut upon nothing.
“Why do you flee like the four winds? Do you fear me, coward?” Eyak sneered.
“I’ve been called worse by better.”
He leaped at her. This time, Tricksy met his attack head on. The two locked together, standing on two feet while ripping at each other’s necks and faces. Then the unthinkable happened. Tricksy slipped on an icy patch and fell backward. The breath exploded out of her as she hit the ground hard.
“Tricksy!” Balto again began to move toward her, but this time Dalag and Timinuk stepped in front of him. “You cannot interfere. The challenge was offered and accepted.”
As her vision cleared, Tricksy was aware of Eyak standing over her, a sadistic grin upon his face. He stepped onto her throat, making her breathing even more difficult. “And now, half-breed, it has finally come down to this. You no doubt killed my father in a similar way. Long have I awaited this moment. And now you will die knowing that I will also purge your foul blood from your family as well.”
Something inside Tricksy snapped. Perhaps it was some primeval maternal instinct, or maybe she simply recovered faster than he anticipated. Regardless, Eyak found their positions reversed before he knew what hit him. If looks could kill, Balto thought, Eyak would be dead one hundred times over.
Tricksy had her teeth bared just inches from Eyak’s exposed throat. “You just picked the wrong fight. This is between us.” She snorted and stepped away from him, rejoining Balto instead.
“Tricksy, we have to go,” Balto said urgently. “Kemo needs our help, remember?”
“None shall pass until you give us further evidence that what you say is true,” Timinuk declared.
“What proof would you have other than our word?”
Dalag had observed the unfolding events and now he eyed Balto suspiciously. “We would hear it from one of our kind.”
“Then you shall,” a new voice declared. Everyone spun and saw Quinault, Andan, and Chehalis striding purposely toward them. Their eyes were burning with the desire of vengeance.
Quinault strode to the center of the group and turned to Balto. “Kiska learned from Senak that a small pack was dispatched to cut off the humans. She thought there might be trouble.” He turned his gaze upon those gathered, halting longest on Tandera and Timinuk. “It appears she was correct.”
Eyak stumbled to his feet, trying to regain some of the dignity lost in his sudden defeat.
“Quinault, my old friend, your courage is admirable in returning here. I fear that now you and your rogue clansmen must now pay the price of trespassing.”
“Not without a fight,” Andan growled.
“We do not recognize your authority here.” Quinault turned his gaze from Eyak as if dismissing him as a trivial problem and looked at the others. “Balto is correct. Kemo is wounded and must receive immediate aid if he is to survive. Kiska is with him now.”
Dalag shook his head. “How can this be? Eyak said that Kemo fell.”
Chehalis bared his teeth. “Did he also tell you that he left Kemo to die?”
Those of Anvil Creek Clan who had joined Eyak were wavering in their support long before this revelation. Now they turned their fierce gazes upon their current leader. Without a word, they turned away and took their rightful places behind Quinault. Those that remained of the Clan of the Hills backed away from Eyak as though he were a rabid beast. The leader of Eagle Pass resized the situation and looked back at his own kinsmen. Their eyes burned angrily.
Timinuk shook his head in shock. “So Kemo is alive?”
“He won’t be for long if we stand here arguing,” Balto said pointedly.
“Impossible!” Eyak exclaimed. “He was shot. I saw him die.”
“You saw him crawling toward the forest, and you left him. We heard his plea for help.” Tricksy snorted. “Like father, like son.”
“You left him?” Dalag asked slowly.
“He was already dead. No chance of survival.”
Dalag’s eyes narrowed more. “You left him.”
“I did what I had to to survive! You would have done the same!”
“Kemo would not,” Tricksy said softly.
A sudden inspiration hit Dalag as he struggled with that issue. “How did Mandan die?”
Eyak tensed. “He was shot by humans. You saw that yourself.”
“Why was he near the humans? Why was he not at the council with the rest of the clan?”
Everyone looked to Eyak. A sudden fire came into the leader’s eyes as he turned his gaze upon Tricksy. Without warning, he jumped at her again. Tricksy unexpectedly fell away from the attack, using her hind legs to catapult him to the ground. He again found himself staring into Tricksy’s angry face.
“Go ahead. Kill me, Half-breed. Unless you lack the courage to finish what you started, you cannot deny me that right.”
Tricksy laughed aloud and Eyak recoiled as if he’d been hit. Shaking her head, Tricksy walked away, flanked by Balto and followed by the wolves. Dalag hesitated only a moment, giving his leader a look of glaring contempt, before turning to follow the others.
“Are we allowed to pass?” Balto asked.
Timinuk offered a stiff nod.
The leader within Balto kicked into high speed. “Chehalis, lead the others to Kiska. Tricksy and I will follow as soon as we can. Let’s move!”
The others hastily complied.
* * *
James Ramsey reclined uneasily against the rock face, apparently asleep, but ever alert. Russell Lupus stared at him for a moment before returning his attention to scanning the woodline. Perhaps this Ramsey isn’t as bad as I thought. If we ever get out of here, maybe I can convince him to help me out.
Movement drew his attention outside again and he quickly raised his rifle. He searched for any threat through his telescopic sight but could discern nothing, save trees and snow. He slowly lowered his weapon and sighed. It wasn’t easy taking shots at animals he swore to protect. Still, there was a difference between pulling a wolf out of an icy lake and letting a pack of them argue over light and dark meat. A sudden tug on his sleeve caused his heart to leap into his throat with that thought as he snapped his head to his left.
“Balto! Is that you?” The canine licked Rus’ hand and Rus rubbed his ears in return. “Boy, am I glad to see you!”
“Balto! I knew you’d come! I just knew it!” Chipper exclaimed, hopping excitedly around his hero.
Balto winked. “Right in the nick of time, too. I’ve got a bit of an emergency, so I can’t talk now.” He tugged again on Rus’ coat.
James watched for a moment, unsure what to say until Rus began to gather his supplies.“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. Balto obviously has something important to show me. You coming?”
Ramsey shook his head. “You’re crazy! With a pack of bloodthirsty predators out there waiting to have us for dinner?” Balto’s shot the contractor an expression that looked almost cross, and Ramsey threw up his hands in surrender. “All right, all right. I’m not just going to sit here all by my lonesome.”
Friends in Strange Places
It was a matter of minutes before Balto led the humans to the place he’d left Kiska with Kemo. Russell Lupus quickly slowed the sled and secured the team nearby. He slowly drew near to the stricken wolf. Kiska stepped protectively in front of Kemo, fur raised and teeth bared. She glanced at Balto and after a moment’s hesitation, allowed Rus to approach.
The researcher made a mental note of this behavior before crouching beside the white wolf. “He’s lost a lot of blood, but he’s still alive. Rifle shot. Must have nicked a vein.”
James nodded and noted the entry and exit wounds. “That’s bad. I wonder where that happened.”
“Judging from the howling and shots we heard from inside the cave, I’ll give you one guess.” Rus shook his head sadly. “I can take care of sprains, cuts, and broken bones, but this is way out of my league.” He looked at Ramsey and noticed that the man was probing the wound. “What are you doing?”
“Remember when I told you about wanting to be a vet? Well, I’ve kept up with my studies somewhat. This wound is a clean pass through. I’m going to need a needle and thread and your field knife. And you said you still have one of those tranquilizer darts? Let’s take him back to that cave. When we get there, here’s what I need you to do . . .”
* * *
“What are they doing,?” Kiska asked apprehensively as she watched one human build a fire and the other jab something into Kemo before starting to sharpen a knife.
“Trust them, Kiksa. Like I said, they’re here to help him.
She glanced at Rus as he placed the knife in a metal pan of water that he was boiling over a low fire. After a few minutes, James walked over and drew the knife out of the water and approached Kemo. “Balto!”
“Trust them,” Balto repeated.
Kemo gave a low moan as the human began to make an incision. Kiska leapt to her feet. “They’re killing him!”
Balto stood and moved to block her attack vector. “No, they aren’t. It’s how they’re trying to heal him. You have to have.”
Kiska made no reply, though her eyes promised swift revenge if anything happened to Kemo. She winced slightly as Ramsey used the knife to widen the wound in Kemo’s side. Balto watched a bit apprehensively, fearing not only for his brother’s life, but the humans’ as well.
“Do you think they can do it?” Tricksy whispered into his hear.
“For their sakes, I hope so.”
* * *
Two hours later, James Ramsey breathed a sigh of relief as he tied the last knot in the threat and cut off the extra with the knife. Tossing the knife into the kettle of water, he turned to Rus. “I’ve patched him up as best as I know how. He was already pretty far gone when I started. Now it’s up to him.”
“We should go on and set up camp,” Rus suggested.
James shook his head. “I don’t think that’s such a great idea. We don’t know how he’ll react when he comes out of your anesthetic. It’d be better if we weren’t around to startle him.
A blur of colors. No defined shapes or edges. Everything seemed to have a soft look as the world spun before his eyes. Sounds were muffled and possessed an odd echo. His mouth was dry, as was his nose. The only sense that appeared to be available to him was touch. He realized that he was lying down, and something was caressing his face. The spinning seemed to slow as a familiar form coalesced in his vision. “Jan?”
The form seemed to shake its head. “No. Do you not recognize me?” a muffled voice asked.
“Where am I?”
Another form appeared next to the first. “You’re safe now. Don’t you recognize this place?”
Rather than answer, he shut his eyes posed the one question he had to ask. “Am . . . am I . . . dead?”
“Far from,” the second voice asked
“Then why can I not see? And why do I feel so weak?”
“You were shot,” the first voice explained. “A pair of humans repaired your wound. I observed them stick something into you before they began. Perhaps that is what causes the problem.”
The second nodded. “It will pass. You’ve had a rough day, Kemster.”
Kemster? He closed his eyes again, trying to recall where he’d heard that before. “Tricksy?”
The owner of the second voice smiled. “In the flesh.”
His vision gradually solidified, and he could see his company a bit more clearly. His eyes fixed on the owner of the first voice. “Kiska.”
Rather than saying anything, Kiska licked his face again.
Tricksy smiled. “She’s been watching you all night. Wouldn’t even sleep. I don’t know what she sees in you. After all, you’ve caused us quite a bit of trouble, what with you going and getting yourself shot.”
Kemo relaxed and closed his eyes. “. . . wasn’t intentional . . .” Within a minute, he was asleep again.
“You’d better let him rest for now,” a voice said from the entrance of the cave. “He’s got a lot of healing to do.” Tricksy and Kiska turned to face the speaker.
“Why didn’t you come in when he woke up, Balto?” Tricksy asked.
“I’m still disowned, remember?”
Kiska shook her head. “I’m sure he’s past that, considering what happened.”
Balto shrugged. “Maybe. Call me picky if you want, but I’d prefer to make sure everything is clear between us. I don’t want a half-hearted patch-up made because he thinks he might die. I’ll wait until he’s fully conscious before talking to him.”
“You’re right. That is picky,” Tricksy commented.
“I prefer to keep a low profile.”
“You were proven to be, once again, correct,” Kiska said. “You have shown that you possess more wisdom than the wisest among us. I would think that this would be a cause of joy to you. Hardly reason to keep ‘a low profile’ as you say.”
“Joy?” Balto shook his head. “Too many lost their lives today for me to call it joy. I’ll be back in a couple of hours?”
Tricksy rolled her eyes. “Going off to try to secondguess every decision you made today?”
“No, to find something to eat,” he replied calmly. “You don’t know me as well as you think.” He turned and walked out of the den.
Kiska and Tricksy exchanged glances. “He is troubled,” Kiska remarked.
“You said it.”
“Blaming himself for this?” Kiska asked, nodding at Kemo.
“Most likely. Let’s just hope that he sorts himself out while he’s gone.”
* * *
Balto padded silently through the snow, lost in his own thoughts. He had known to expect treachery from Eyak, yet the aggressive leader had still managed to get the drop on him. He knew that he should not be considering the what-ifs, but he had lost many that he considered as friends that day.
Balto’s mind snapped back to the present as he subconsciously chided himself for not paying attention to his surroundings. Dalag stood before him, flanked by several other wolves. “What do you want?”
Dalag took a step forward. “Simply to warn you to be wary. The humans have several teams hunting wolves. They will likely shoot you on sight.”
Balto glanced at his surroundings and realized that he was indeed close to the human encampment. He also became aware of an odor that did not belong. “What’s that smell?”
Dalag’s gaze hardened. “Follow me.”
He led Balto to a small rise and crawled slowly to the top. Upon reaching the top, Balto saw the source. A large fire was built in the clearing outside of the camp, and there was only one thing he could think of that the humans would be burning.
Dalag answered the unspoken question. “They’ve been burning our dead for the past few hours. The other clans are in hiding, but we have observed a couple of their hunter teams dragging new kills to the fire. Luckily, none within the last two hours. We of Eagle Pass Clan are now acting as lookouts.”
“I’ll bet Eyak loves that.”
“We no longer give allegiance to Eyak.”
Balto looked at him. “Then who is the leader of your clan? You?”
Dalag shrugged. “For now, I suppose. Eyak is in exile due to his crimes against our clan and others, but I do not wish to be leader. We would gladly take Kemo as our leader or even join Kiska’s band. I only hope . . .” He broke off, appearing very uncomfortable.
“What’s the matter?”
“I . . . I hope that we can somehow regain the trust we lost through our naivete. Yet you do not speak to us as enemies. I would have expected you to say . . .”
“‘I told you so?’” Balto shook his head. “It’s not my style. But for Eyak’s sake, I hope Kemo recovers. Otherwise I’ll be looking for him, and our next meeting won’t be pleasant.”
* * *
Kemo again opened his eyes. Time seemed to have stood still, as it was still dark outside. He tried to rise, but a searing pain caused him reconsider this action.
“Glad to see you awake again.”
Kemo slowly turned his head. Kiska was staring at him with a look of relief on her face. “Kiska?”
The smaller wolf nodded. “How do you feel?”
The white wolf lowered his head to the ground again. “I will manage.”
She walked over and dropped a rather scrawny snowshoe rabbit beside him. “Are you hungry? I know it isn’t much, but it’s all I had time to hunt.”
“How long have I been asleep?”
“Almost two days now. You will be happy to know that the human you saved a year ago came through for you. He and the other human worked for two hours to fix you.”
Kemo stopped eating. “What other human?”
Kiska hesitated. “The one the others wanted to kill. He did most of the work.”
“I don’t believe it.”
Kiska stared quizzically at him. “I would not make up a story with something such as this.”
“But are you sure?”
“Yes. After Balto led them to you . . .”
Balto? “And after all the things I said to him . . .”
“He’s maintained that he was your brother from start to finish. He’s been worrying over you since you were injured. You should feel lucky to have one such as him.”
“How could I have been so wrong? First the human, then Balto, then . . . how many did we lose?”
“It is not important at this moment . . .”
Kiska didn’t hesitate. “Twenty-two. Perhaps twenty-five. Right now, all the clans are scattered. Weakened. No one knows for sure.”
“Twenty-five?” Kemo closed his eyes. “We weren’t prepared. Didn’t have the strength. I led the others into a trap. And after I was shot, Eyak . . . he left me. I failed and he . . .”
“Stop.” Kemo blinked in surprise at the sharpness of the command. “Do not try to take responsibility for all that happened. You made some mistakes, yes. But so did every other clan leader, including myself.”
Kemo averted his eyes. “Trusting me as leader,” he whispered.
“Do you not understand? You cannot take responsibility for those we’ve lost. It was Eyak who betrayed them. Eyak who betrayed you. Do you not see? It was his manipulation that roused support for a strike at the humans. He planned Mandan’s death to force the issue. It was his premature attack that led to the slaughter. It was his lack of conscience that made him leave you to die when you were no longer of use to him. It is not your fault.”
“But I allowed myself to be guided . . . misguided at that. I think . . .”
Kemo whipped his head around to face the new speaker, wincing in pain as he did so. To his surprise, Balto was sitting just inside the den entrance. “How long have you been listening?”
“Long enough.” Balto rose and strolled nonchalantly inside so that the wolf could see him without aggravating the wound in his shoulder. “For what it’s worth, I don’t hold anything against you. In hindsight, I should have been open with you to begin with.”
The white wolf nodded solemnly. “That would have helped, yes. And I should have listened with open ears before jumping to conclusions.”
Balto closed his eyes and sighed. “You’re taking far too much blame for this. I really should have told you the full story.”
“Or taught your daughter not to speak out of turn.”
Balto opened his eyes and looked quizzically at Kemo. Seeing the light-hearted twinkle in his eyes, he smiled. With that simple joke, both realized they were brothers again.
* Two Weeks Later *
Balto sat on the bow of the old fishing trawler with Jenna beside him. All but the smallest traces of snow had melted days ago, and their pups playing outside and enjoying the warmer weather. Balto shook his head as he watched Aleu wrestling with Jenner, Rush, and Kodi at the same time, and making a good show of it.
“Still having trouble deciding?” Jenna asked.
Her mate shook his head again. “I’m almost decided.”
“Balto, dear, you’re running out of time for a decision. You do realize that they’ve only got one more week with us. They’ll likely go to local families, but they’re still going to be moving on.”
“I know, I know. That’s part of the problem. I mean, with everything that’s happened, I’ve missed out on almost half their lives so far. Trying to rush anything concerning the pups seems . . . wrong.
“Besides that, I remember what it was like growing up as a half-and-half. It wasn’t easy. Rush, Jenner, Kodi, Dingo, and Kala shouldn’t have to worry about it. They look enough like you that no one thinks about them being part wolf. I don’t want them to get hurt.”
“But what about Aleu. She looks exactly like you. She’s going to find out eventually, so wouldn’t it be best if it came from us rather than someone that wanted to hurt her?”
“You said yourself that they’ll be going to humans around here. Everyone knows that if they mess with my family, they have to deal with me.”
“Balto, how would you feel if every time something happened, someone came running to take care of every problem for you?”
“I wouldn’t know, now would I?”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
Balto sighed. “I guess I’d feel embarrassed. Unconfident. Pressured.”
“Then you understand where I’m coming from.”
“Yes, but . . . she’s still so young, Jenna. There’s no way she could possibly understand what being part wolf means . . .” Balto trailed off thoughtfully. “After everything that’s happened this past week, I’m not sure I even know what it means anymore. After what has happened, I tell you now that I’m not interfering in wolf business again.”
Jenna raised an eyebrow. “When you get that tone, it means you’re brooding again.”
“It’s just that being part wolf separates you from those you love. I’d rather they didn’t have to deal with that just yet. I’d rather she not have to deal with that just yet. Let them be young and innocent for a while longer.”
“You still have a little more than a week weeks.”
“I know. And you know what? I’m going to make every minute count. The hero of Nome is taking a break from every problem except those in this family. Now that the humans have decided to make some sort of wildlife park instead of a rich-man’s hunting lodge, my schedule is free.”
Jenna leaned against him. “But you are going to tell them, right?”
Balto shifted his paws uneasily. “Eventually.”
He cracked one of his wolfish grins. “My word is good as Klondike gold.”
“Oi! Dat is the first sensible thing you’ve said in a month!”
Balto snapped his head around and saw Boris standing on the railing behind him. “How long have you been eavesdropping?”
“Only for the past five minutes, and you know what Old Boris think?” The goose stabbed a wing at his nose. “He thinks you’ll try to find some way to weasel out of telling.”
“And I think you don’t know me half as well as you think you do.”
“And I did not raise you from being knee-high wolfling without knowing more than you think.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell the pups at the right time.”
“And when might I ask is . . .”
“Good evening. I hope we aren’t interrupting.”
All three turned to see two wolves standing down below them. Balto, grateful for the interruption, greeted them enthusiastically. “Kemo! It’s good to see you getting around again. I suppose Kiska has taken good care of you.”
Kiska smirked. “It was not easy. Kemo is stubborn, headstrong, and generally difficult.”
Balto laughed. “So true.”
“I manage to limp around just fine, thank you,” Kemo replied.
The pups meanwhile, stared in awe at the majestic visitors. Recognizing who they were, Aleu quickly recovered and bolted toward them. “Kiska! Uncle Kemo!”
Kiska smiled. “You should make that Aunt Kiska, young one. We have forged Anvil Creek and Eagle Pass Clans into one Great Clan. Kemo has decided to join us.”
Balto jumped down from the boat and walked over to his brother. “That’s excellent news.”
“So what will you do now?” Jenna asked.
“We will be moving the clan a bit farther away from humans. After what happened, I am not sure that staying in the vicinity is wise,” Kemo replied. “Not yet, anyway.”
“Are you sure? Haven’t you heard what the humans are doing?”
Kiska nodded. “We have, but bad feelings die hard. We will be moving into Eagle Pass Clan’s territory for now. Do not worry, you’ll see us occasionally.”
“What news of the human that saved my life?”
“He’s taken a liking to Nome. He’s moving here with his family very soon.”
“For once I am truly glad that I was wrong about someone.”
Balto smiled. “We wish you the best.”
Kemo nodded and looked at the other pups, who were still frozen. He slowly approached them. “I foresee great destinies for all of you.” He turned his gaze on Aleu. “Especially you. Listen to your father when he speaks.” Kemo raised his eyes to his brother. “He will never steer you down the wrong path.”
The pups nodded solemnly in reply.
“Farewell, Balto. If you are ever in Great Clan territory, let us know.”
“Take care, Kemo.”
A few minutes after the two wolves had disappeared into the forest, the pups began chattering excitedly about what had just happened. Balto was silent for a long time, thinking about what his brother had said about Aleu having a great destiny before her. He’s probably still stuck on her becoming a wolf. Well, as much as I love and respect him, my daughter is going to be all dog. With that decision made, he was sure that he would sleep well that night.
That night, wolves and ravens began to haunt his dreams again.