She heard him from the mountain, a voice high and thin, breaking the night’s quiet. The cry was such as her own children made when she was gone too long searching for food to bring back to the den. It was the cry of something blind and helpless, a cry of hunger. She heard it and she could do no other thing but go toward it.
How it came to be alone in the tallgrass is a story for another time. She heard it with her sharp pointed ears and smelled it with her sharp black nose. Her nose told her the truth. It was not a wolf pup but a human baby, alone on a bed of prairie grass under the starry dark. She smelled on the breeze the horses that had come and gone, running hard. They had run away pulling a wagon that scarred deep ruts in the grass.
Her paws stepped in these ruts, found the gouges the horses had torn from the prairie. She paused, suspicious, and sniffed the ground and raised her nose and sniffed the wind. They had been here, but they were gone, except the baby. In the torn grass she smelled the fear on the horses and in the air she smelled something burning. She knew the ways of the wind and fire out on the prairie. The fire was a breathing thing, ever hungry. The fire would be here soon and find where the baby lay in his nest of grass.
She could not resist his crying because she was a First Mother who had birthed many children, and there were no others like her in this valley that smelled of smoke and terror. Her children had grown fat and happy until the coming of the Trapper the past moon, the Trapper who had killed her Mate, scattering the others, and then found the den where she had hidden her pups away.
The cries of the human baby traveled through the night and found her ears and went into her ears and into her blood. The cries opened up places inside her that had not yet gone dry, where milk recently flowed from her nipples to feed her pups and make them strong. It hurt to make milk again.
The coyote was skinny and mangy, her ribs poking from her pelt, and she needed food for herself, a plump mouse or jackrabbit. Here was this thing wrapped in a white cloth under the night sky. It had fallen from the running horses but the soft grasses had broken the fall. The running horses had not stopped for it. The child might as well have come from the stars themselves. And now it was alone here as she was alone. She did not think what to do, even if the baby bore the same tainted smell as the Trapper. Her body had told her when the milk rinsed out of her. She went toward it, sniffing tentatively at the corner of the cloth, and then touched the baby’s soft skin with her wet black nose. The baby quit crying. It gurgled, shocked.
The coyote licked it with her tongue and tasted the salty skin. If she had not been a First Mother, if another of her kind had found this pink bundle in the grass, the story might have been different. She stood over the child and crouched down so that it might reach her nipples and suckle. Yes, it hurt to make milk again. Her milk flowed out of her, emptying her of all she had to give, but her heart was full, as full as the night sky above.
When the child was done feeding she opened her jaws, clenched the white cloth, and lifted the child from the grass. She carried him away from the smell of burning where the prairie grasses would soon blossom with flames. The child rocked to and fro in his hammock of cloth. She took him in this manner to the place she called home, the mountain from which she had first heard his cries, the mountain where she had been alone for a time, but not any longer.
Her father had told her many stories, and this was just one, the one that reached furthest back into history, when settlers had gone to war with the Indians, and after the massacre, one child was saved by a feral mother. Her father told stories of a giant who lived inside a mountain, of wolves and lost children and the monsters they later became. The stories he told were the only answer he had for the absence of her mother. Though he never said so outright, they were about a childhood place he would never see again. She did not set them down on paper until after her father died and she herself was six months pregnant, a pastor’s wife, a stranger living in a small town.
Her hand shook as she wrote the words. She was in the room that was to be the nursery, and it was bare except for a small desk she planned to use as a changing table and the rocking chair where she sat with a spiral notebook spread open on her lap. Aqua-colored light soaked the room from blue curtains drawn across the window.
Yesterday, one of her students had rung the doorbell while she was down in the basement. She had looked up through a grimy basement window and beheld tennis shoes and the ragged edge of a coat. She saw the legs of this scarecrow figure and nothing more. He rang and rang that bell, and she just stood rooted there. A cold hand touched her shoulder, bidding her to stay. Even the baby she carried inside her was still and waiting. The bell kept ringing in her brain a long time after the figure in the coat went away.
And now the bells were ringing at church next door, as though this were any other Sunday, but she would not be joining her husband in the sanctuary. As pastor’s wife she did not want to face the congregation after what had happened. Her husband’s parishioners would greet her and smile. They desperately needed good news, and she was it. How are you? The baby? They would lay hands on her. The child was not hers alone; it belonged to them as well. They would touch her hair as though she had returned from the dead. They would speak once more of angels.
No. She needed to be alone here. She opened her notebook and began to write, balancing it on one knee. She could hear organ music and recognized the strains of “This Is My Father’s World” as the service began. Quaking voices. Such a gift, this murmur in her blood. The rocking soothed her, as did the words she scratched on the page with a fountain pen, a Montblanc Meiserstruck her father had given her when she graduated from high school.
Late last night she had seen the coyotes, three of them emerging from the cornfield late after dark. They did not howl at first but entered the cemetery behind the church with a short series of yips and barks, one and then the other, their calls braiding into a chorus, until eventually one howled in a language that was part of the great outer darkness. The coyotes weren’t supposed to be here; they were searching for something. They had come from the lone mountain like a storybook curse and roused the town with their plaintive singing, vanishing by daylight.
Clara Warren’s hand shook as she marked the words on the page because she knew she was trapped inside of one of her father’s stories, and the only way out was to write it down. She wrote as if her life depended on it, and maybe it did.
The day before, Seth Fallon limped toward town under a boiled-blue sky, a dry wind trailing him from the fields. Despite the heat he wore a long, oilcloth coat he’d taken from the mudroom, and inside the coat he had the twelve gauge his father had given him last Christmas, with the promise they would hunt whitetail in the swamp come fall.
Earlier that morning he had taken the shotgun into the shop, clasped it in a vice, and sawed off precisely seven inches. Then he sanded down the bore, oiled the barrel, shined it with a rag, and leaned the gun against the door, so he could tidy what mess he had made, discarding the sawn barrel in the trash and sweeping steel scrapings from the concrete floor. He hung the saw back on its hook, folded the cloth in a neat square, and stored it with the gun oil in a metal cabinet. When he left everything was in its place, just as his father had raised him to do.
Barely a scratch of rain had fallen in two months the Saturday afternoon he set out for town. A summer of drought baked the crop in the furrows, leaving whole rows sere and stunted, so that the wind gnawed at what remained and lifted a fine scrim of topsoil from the fields and flung it against the outbuildings. He walked with this wind under a sun that was a cinder in a vacant sky, the gun cool against his ribs.
The farthest he had ever traveled from this valley was across the state border to Sioux Falls. This was the only home he had ever known. The town of Lone Mountain perched along terraced streets overlooking the surrounding valley, a half mile wide and thickly wooded on either side. For aeons the Minnesota River had been at work eating through topsoil toward the earth’s core, carving out this place from vast prairie farmlands stretching hundreds of miles all around.
The valley had been a place of both shadow and shelter for generations of Indians—the Cheyenne, the Fox and Sauk, the Dakotas—all who came to hide from the winter winds on the prairie. Only the ghosts of the Indians remained, but these were potent ghosts with no love for the Germans who had stolen their land following a summer of war a hundred years before, and when a little girl drowned in the river, the old-timers crossed themselves and thought of the brown hands that surely pulled her under. They later said such a ghost moved in the boy, an angry spirit urging him on. Such darkness could not have come from one of their own.
They had lived here for generations after traveling across the Atlantic but still felt like sojourners. When the hail came, when the river bucked and broke its banks, when the children lay awake in the late hours fevered and coughing—they knew this place belonged to the devil, had always belonged to him. Prince of the broken world, broken now more than ever with the last family farms going under. The Torvicks. The Kantors. Jerry Kroger and his tribe of daughters. All gone.
And now this wickedness.
The boy stopped at the parsonage first, where the pastor and his wife Clara lived next to the church. Clara was his substitute English teacher at Lone Mountain High. Her husband was off visiting a homebound couple when the boy rang the bell. Alone down in the basement, Clara wasn’t able to explain later to authorities why she didn’t answer the door.
Next, he went down the main drag, moving toward a downtown that bustled with weekend traffic, so many people parked outside the pool hall and Jurgen’s Corner Grocery. No one later remembered seeing him on the sidewalk or could recall phoning the sheriff, Will Gunderson. It might just have been that Will was driving past at that very moment and what he saw—a school-age boy hunched into a coat in the fullness of Indian summer—troubled him. Will was a survivor of two tours in Vietnam, a decorated veteran, and he was a known hard-ass who had taken the boy into custody several times before this day.
He pulled over beside Seth Fallon and rolled down his window to say something. What passed between them is a mystery. Seth flung open his coat and brought out the gun. No one remembered seeing Seth come down the sidewalk, but that shotgun blast echoed all over Lone Mountain.
Excerpted from Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman. Copyright © 2013 by Thomas Maltman. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.