Chapter 3 –
I looked around, impressed by my good luck. This was perfect. Man, I was awesome.
My grumpy cellmate was less than thrilled. “You expect me to sleep in a cave?”
It wasn’t really a cave, more like a large hole in the side of the hill that was big enough for both of us to sleep in without having to touch each other. That last bit was absolutely essential after the morning we had.
“Would you rather sleep under another bush, city boy?” I retorted.
“Stop calling me that,” he growled. “That joke got old a long time ago.”
I shrugged. “It’s still funny to me. You shouldn’t have tried to drink out of that stagnant puddle earlier.”
“How was I supposed to know that it was bad?”
“Because it smelled. Like alkali.”
He snarled softly, and I rolled my eyes. And that was basically how we had spent the last two hours. After I woke him up and we started hiking, he tried to pester me with more questions, which I ignored, and for my uncooperativeness, I was given the silent treatment. At least until he thought of another question and then started bugging me again.
“Believe it or not, but this is like a 5-star hotel out here,” I said, gesturing to the cave. “It’ll protect us from the wind and keep us dry if it rains. It’s also close to a stream full of nice, clean water we can actually drink.”
He glared at me.
“Clean water also means a lot of game nearby,” I explained. “So yes, I expect you to sleep in this cave.”
He huffed again, clearly not impressed. As empowering as it was to know that he would have been dead in two minutes without my help, he was making it really difficult not to poison him on purpose. A little gratitude wouldn’t hurt.
I snorted. Hell would freeze over before he said thank you. He was too busy being suspicious and paranoid.
“I’m going hunting,” I said. “So stay here while I’m gone. Gather up as much dry wood as you can, and I’ll start a fire once I get back.”
If there was one thing I had learned about the lion, it was that he hated when I gave him orders. He was clearly used to giving them, not taking them. So naturally, I tried to order him around as much as possible.
He bristled, like I knew he would, but I didn’t give him a chance to respond. As I walked away, I heard him mutter several uncomplimentary things about where I could shove all the wood he gathered, and I grinned. So predictable.
What if he leaves while we’re hunting? Sarai asked.
I shrugged as I ducked under a low hanging branch. Then we’ll get to eat twice as much, I replied. I’m not going to chase him and force him to accept our help. If he wants to leave, he can. Nothing is holding him here.
Other than most certain death, Sarai pointed out.
I grinned again. Other than that.
For four hundred years, the Pack and American Pride had been at war. In the beginning, we fought for territory and resources, tangible things that made sense. We didn’t have as many outright battles anymore – we couldn’t with the rise of technology, but that didn’t mean we weren’t prepared for one. All we needed was the spark, and then we would combust like dry kindling.
I couldn’t understand why. Why couldn’t we just move on with our lives? Why did we constantly have to be suspicious and afraid? Why waste all of our time and resources on a war we would never actually fight?
After spending the morning with the most infuriating wolf girl I had ever had the misfortune to meet, I wasn’t as confused.
I didn’t expect her plan to work, if you could even call that mad dash a plan. But, it had, and even more surprising than that was how we hadn’t split up. Instead, the wolf ran into the forest, and like a lunatic, I followed her.
I wasn’t in my right mind. I blame the near starvation.
But that wasn’t even the worst part. Oh no. After protecting me from the coyotes and leading me through the forest like some demented service dog, she shoved me under a bush and made me eat flowers. If Connor or Dom ever found out about that, I would never hear the end of it.
When I woke up, I expected to be alone under my bush, but the wolf girl surprised me again. She had stayed, and, for all intents and purposes, looked like she was trying to get me back on my feet.
And I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why. The sheer fact of not knowing was driving me insane. Why was she helping me? Was she planning on blackmailing me? Whenever I tried to wheedle information out of her, she just shrugged me off like I was some annoying fly.
This morning was well on its way to becoming one of the most embarrassing and irritating mornings of my entire life. Who knew someone so tiny could be such a large pain in the ass?
My cat was equally confused. Actually being able to sleep with food in my stomach had gone a long way to dulling his rage. If I ever saw a coyote again, he would probably try to rip it apart, but I wasn’t too fussed about that. But now, he was just cautious. He didn’t know what to make of this wolf girl. By protecting and feeding me, she was no longer the enemy in his eyes, but he still didn’t know what to do with her. Neither did I.
This morning, I had taken a moment to study her. In the daylight, I could see that her big shirt hid most of her figure, but her thighs and hips were not those of a little girl. Her pale skin was still smudged with dirt, and her rich brown hair was probably very pretty when it was clean and brushed. Her face was a study of contrasts: sharp little nose and defined jawline, offset by smooth, round cheeks and soft looking lips. But it was her dark green eyes that drew me in the most, little emeralds that were dangerously hypnotic.
She wasn’t classically beautiful. She wasn’t even my type, and yet, there was something about her that made me feel like I needed to remember her.
Then she had to spoil everything by opening her mouth. Her bark was almost worse than her bite, and I had watched her maul half of a coyote pack in her wolf form.
She didn’t like it when I asked questions. Whenever I pushed her, she would always retaliate with something insulting. It soon got to the point where I had to stop needling her or else I would’ve broken one of my cardinal rules and hit her. But then I caught the challenging look in her green eyes. If I lost control, there was no doubt in my mind that she would hit back just as hard. There was something about that that was oddly… exciting. And that just pissed me off even more.
My cat and I glared at the little cave. I didn’t want to sleep in it. I didn’t want to spend one more minute in this damn forest.
I wasn’t stupid. Admitting it hurt, but I had no idea what I was doing out here. Even a couple of hours of easy hiking had left me feeling drained, like a worn out sponge. And as annoying as the wolf girl was, I knew she would come back.
But if she called me ‘city boy’ one more time, I was going to break something.
Several hours later, I made my way back to the cave, sore and exhausted but happy. That had more to do with the assorted dead animals swinging gently against my back than anything else. Sarai had pulled off a small miracle, catching minks, rabbits, and even a fat little prairie dog. The lion and I would dine well tonight.
My shoulder twinged angrily, and I paused to rub it. You just had to chase that beaver into its dam.
What? Sarai grumbled. I thought I was fast enough.
Soon enough, I made it back to the cave. The lion was napping, but he stirred when I got closer. He blinked slowly and rubbed at his face as I dropped our dinner on the ground.
“Well,” he said sleepily. “It’s not filet mignon, but it looks better than weeds.”
I ignored him and turned to the large pile of firewood, slightly impressed that he had managed to do something right. Sarai might have been fine eating raw meat, but my human stomach wasn’t built for stuff like that. Cooking everything over a fire would take longer, but it was worth it to be able to digest what I was eating.
After so many difficulties yesterday, luck was finally on my side. I had found some flint down by the stream, so starting the fire was easy. Once I got a nice little blaze going, I turned my attention to the dead animals next to me. Equipped with several sharp rocks, I started dressing them.
The lion just watched me, frowning slightly. He didn’t look nearly as awful as he had last night. His black skin wasn’t gray anymore, and his eyes were no longer gold with his cat’s rage. Now they were a beautiful shade of dark brown.
And that type of thinking needed to stop immediately. I focused on skinning the rabbit.
“Where did you learn how to do that?” He asked as I set the rabbit aside and picked up one of the minks.
I glanced up, and he had a strange expression on his face, equal parts fascination and disgust. At least he hadn’t thrown up yet. “My uncle taught me,” I replied, turning back to the mink. “Good thing too.”
He glared at me. “Don’t talk to me like I don’t know a thing,” he growled softly. “I’ve had private tutors since I was 6. I’m fluent in French and politics, both foreign and domestic. I’m not stupid.”
I snorted. “Fat lot of good French does you out here.”
Little shards of gold flecked his dark eyes, betraying his cat’s annoyance. But for once, he stayed quiet.
After cleaning all of the carcasses, I set up a little spit and started to cook the skinniest mink. It didn’t have a lot of meat, but it would cook the fastest. From the hungry look in the lion’s eyes, the faster I got food into his stomach, the better.
The smell of cooking meat was starting to make my mouth water when he asked, “So if you know all of this stuff, then how did you get captured?”
I chewed on my lip a little, but I didn’t think that answering would get me into too much trouble.
“I was stupid,” I answered simply. And I really had been. “I was out hunting by myself and got caught in a snare. You?”
He kept his gaze on the fire. “I was in town meeting my cousin for lunch,” he said quietly. The anger in his voice was muted, but still there. “One of them ran into me as they were walking by. I didn’t think anything of it until I started to pass out. But by then, it was too late. When I woke up, I was in that room.”
Well, that was all kinds of worrisome. Due to our fast metabolisms, normal drugs weren’t as effective on Shifters as they were on humans. But somehow, the coyotes got their hands on a drug powerful enough to knock both of us out for hours.
He cleared his throat a little and changed the subject. “Do you have any idea where we are?”
“Well, because of that,” I pointed to the prairie dog, “I know we’re not in the Pacific Northwest. But best guess? Wyoming. Maybe Colorado. I’d need to find some sign of human civilization to be sure.”
He nodded, and then we were both quiet, waiting for the mink to cook. But it wasn’t a strained silence like the ones we had earlier. This one was relaxed and almost comfortable, like we were finally getting used to each other.
Frowning at the direction my thoughts had taken, I poked the mink’s thigh, and was happy to see that it was getting nice and firm. It would be done in a couple of minutes.
That was when I heard it. A deep, grating huff that sounded like the start of a chainsaw. I turned around and sat up, combing through the trees with my eyes. The lion said something, but I ignored him.
Please, oh please, let me be wrong, I thought, but then I saw a large, dark shape moving through the trees.
A bear. It must have smelled the meat and come to investigate.
“Get in the cave,” I barked, ignoring the confusion on his face, “and whatever you do, don’t make a sound.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but I ripped my shirt off and Shifted. I had more important things to deal with at the moment.
Sarai shook a little and then moved to the edge of our little camp, waiting as the bear continued to amble towards us. A coughing snarl rumbled through her chest, warning the bear off.
I knew the theory behind surviving a bear encounter as wolf Shifter. The best option was to run away, but I couldn’t do that, so I had to go to plan B. If you could convince the bear that you were too much of a threat, then they usually left you alone. That meant a lot of noise and a lot of posturing. It’s what Justin would have told me to do.
The bear huffed again, issuing a warning of its own, but it kept moving closer, drawn by the smell of the meat. Sarai’s snarls got louder. And then, it emerged from the trees.
Oh, sweet mother of Abraham Lincoln.
That’s not a black bear, I said numbly.
The grizzly paused as it saw us, and its cinnamon colored fur glinted a little in the sunlight. As it sized Sarai up, I couldn’t help but feel glad that I had Shifted so fast. I probably would have wet myself if I was still human. It was just so… big. I had never seen a grizzly in real life, and had no idea how something so massive could weave around these trees so easily.
It’s an adolescent male, Sarai noted, and I breathed a miniscule sigh of relief. If it was just an adolescent, then it was probably more curious than anything else. I don’t think even the lion could have intimidated an adult, but a stupid teenager? Sarai just might be able to scare it off.
The grizzly huffed, louder this time, definitely threatening us to get out of its way. But it still didn’t rush us, and Sarai grew a little more confident.
Sarai curled her lips back and pinned her ears against her skull. Instinct told her to crouch down, but she stood her ground, raising the fur on her hackles to look bigger. She punctuated her snarls with harsh barks, daring the grizzly to try and come closer.
The grizzly rocked back and forth, still undecided as to whether the smell of the meat was worth the trouble of getting around Sarai. They were at a stalemate.
Before the grizzly could decide to attack, Sarai lunged forward, snapping her teeth threateningly. The grizzly reared back, obviously surprised, but when it moved to retaliate, Sarai darted away just as quickly.
Sarai paced, and the grizzly kept stepping forward but then stepping right back. It still wasn’t ready to commit, but it didn’t want to give up either.
So Sarai charged again, this time getting close enough to nip the grizzly’s side. But the bear was faster than Sarai thought, swinging a massive paw. It caught her shoulder, and she crashed to the ground. Pain flared as Sarai scrambled to her feet and backed up as the grizzly followed.
You’re supposed to be scaring the damn thing, not getting into a fight with it, I snapped.
Don’t teach your Alpha how to hunt, she shot back.
Instead of running away like the grizzly wanted, Sarai snarled even louder. The adrenalin blocked the ache in her shoulder, allowing her to rush the grizzly and then dart away before she got swatted again. She kept her strikes fast and changed her target every time, lunging for the bear’s flank and then its face and then its neck, always keeping it off balance.
Finally, the grizzly had enough, and it turned away with an angry grunt. Sarai dove for its hip, and the bear shot forward with a surprised snort. But it kept loping through the trees away from the cave. Sarai waited until she couldn’t hear it, before walking back to the cave.
The second he saw her, the lion leapt out of the cave and shouted, “What the hell was that?”
Sarai looked at him, and then trotted over to where I had dropped my shirt. I don’t want to deal with him when he’s like this, I whined.
Tough, Sarai retorted.
Shifting left me light-headed. I was using too much energy trying to keep this damn lion alive.
With shaky hands, I pulled my shirt on as fast as I could, and my shoulder throbbed nastily. I had forgotten Justin’s warning about how strong bears were.
He was still standing over me, glaring at me with eyes that were half brown, half gold. There was no way I was going to be able to stand up and not pass out, so I stayed on the ground.
“Guess what?” I said tiredly. “I figured out where we are.”
Apparently, he wasn’t in the mood to be distracted because he just kept glaring at me. “What was that?” He hissed.
I looked up at him and tried to figure out what he was talking about. No luck. “That was a grizzly bear,” I replied. Obviously.
His jaw stood out as he clenched his teeth. “Why was it here?”
“It lives here.”
The gold in his eyes started to glow, and I waved my good hand at him. “Fine, grouchy-pants. It was here because we’re cooking meat. Bears like meat.”
He looked a little mollified since I had actually answered him. His voice was less growly when he asked, “How did you figure out where we are?”
“That one’s easy, city boy,” I said, grinning as his nostrils flared in annoyance. “That thing smelled like it took a bath in a mudpot, and there’s only one place in the continental United States that has those.”
“We’re in Yellowstone National Park?” He asked. Alright fine, so he wasn’t completely clueless.
I shrugged and then wished I hadn’t. “We’re either in the park or very close to it.”
He nodded, and the gold in his eyes faded away as he connected the dots. “Then that means we aren’t that far from the Border.”
The Border was the invisible line across the U.S. that divided Pack territory from the Pride. It was created by the ineffective Treaty of Lancaster at the end of the Civil War. The Northern half of the US and Canada belonged to the Pack; the South and part of Mexico was the Pride’s. And it had worked. Kind of. The fighting may have stopped, but the war hadn’t.
He shook his head slightly and looked back at me with narrowed eyes. “Why did the bear leave?”
“I scared him,” I replied easily. “He was only a year or two old, so it wasn’t that hard.”
He frowned. “How did you know it was young?”
I glanced up at him, but it didn’t look like he was joking. “Because he wasn’t the size of a Suburban. Seriously, have you never seen a nature show?”
He opened his mouth, but my stomach growled angrily. I turned to check the first course of our dinner and sighed in relief. “Oh look, the mink’s done.”
** Happy Solar Eclipse Day!!!**