Rayne loved hiking in the mountains. The clean, crisp air in the morning. Looking down at the far-away city lights as he settled in for the night. To him, it was the best part of his life. So when he was offered training for a mountain search and rescue unit being formed, he jumped at it. Six months later, he had another skill set to add to his survival skills while on the mountain along with the occasional well paying gig to find some poor sap who had gotten themselves lost while trying something they weren’t prepared for. Then came the scariest call he would ever receive. A rescue operation in search of a man who had run off into a mountain forest with his two-month-old daughter. No one had heard from him in over a week, and they feared the worst.
Rayne disconnected the cell phone call and began packing up his camp. He would drop most of his gear at the ranger station and take with him only the essentials in a small pack, along with a medical kit. Something about the tone the man on the phone had used had fear running up his spine. The nagging thought the man had left out something important was bothering him.
It took less than ten minutes to pack his camp and be on the trail down to the ranger station. The search was on the other side of his peaceful little mountain and the ranger had agreed to drive him around the base of the mountain to cut down on the time it would take to get there. He ran through too many dangerous scenarios for his own good, as he had the twenty-minute hike to the station.
A burly man with more facial hair than necessary was waiting next to an ATV as he stepped from the path through trees onto the road. “Morning, Jacob.” He said, giving the man a wave as he removed the pack and dropped it onto the shelf at the back of the ATV.
“Morning, Rayne. Good to see you, though one could wish it was under better circumstances,” Jacob said as the two of them buckled into the machine.
“There’s truth in that,” Rayne said. They made the trip in comfortable silence until Jacob pointed the ATV up the side of the mountain. “Oh, hell. How high was he when he was last spotted?”
Jacob glanced over, the look on his face telling him he would not like the answer. The man’s words confirmed it. “Just past the break line. Some campers saw him when they heard the baby crying and called it in.”
“Damn, it gets cold up there. A child that small will not last long.” Rayne said, thinking and rethinking his plan. By the time they stopped, he had a good idea of how to handle things. Climbing off the ATV, he turned back to Jacob as he grabbed his pack. “I know it’s an ask, but can you bring two full sets of winter gear up? One in my size and one for the man. Bring extra blankets and supplies for the kid too. Leave them here on the path in the locker. That way, I can resupply and not have to come down. We have to find this kid, and fast.” Rayne’s anger was leaking into his voice, and he knew it.
Jacob just nodded. “I have someone already packing it up. Just wanted you and the others up here as fast as we could get you. Should have a base camp at this headline trail in a couple of hours.” He sighed. “Honestly hoping we’re packing it all right back down the mountain and you find them quick. This isn’t one I want on my heart for long.” He said, turning the ATV around and pointing it back down the mountain. “Don’t forget to do your thirty-minute check-ins.”
Rayne shouldered the pack and sucked in a deep breath, pushing his nerves back down to a place where he would deal with them later. “Will do. Keep me updated on any news.” He walked away without waiting for a further response. As he checked out the head of the trail, he saw a couple walking toward him, waving their hands to get his attention. Figuring they were the campers who called in the latest report, he nodded. He sent up a silent prayer for people who drug all the crazy things they did with them when they went camping. He called out, “hey, you folks, the ones who called in the sighting?”
The man responded with a deep baritone voice, “sure did. Saw the man about two hours ago. Headed up the side path towards Eagle’s Roost.”
Rayne sighed. Eagle’s Roost was a bitch of a climb for an experienced hiker, and a father with a two-month-old and no obvious gear was not an experienced hiker. This could go pear-shaped and do so fast. “And you’re sure it was the man we are looking for?” He asked, knowing what they were going to say.
It was the woman who answered. “Yes, Sir. That man was walking up the trail with nothing more than a baby slung in one of the cloth carriers about his chest. Thought it was strange. Then we heard the alert on the radio and thought it best if we called the ranger.”
“That was smart. Now I need to ask you to stay put. The ranger will be back up with supplies for the searchers and he will direct you on what else you should do.” He didn’t wait for a response before heading off toward the path to Eagle’s Roost. It was going to be a long hike and he prayed he wouldn’t be too late. A glance at the sky told him the higher he went, the colder it was going to get. He pulled his jacket tighter, wishing he had something a little thicker, but it would have to do for the first run.
Stepping on the rocky path to Eagle’s Roost, he kept his eyes open for any signs of someone coming through, not paying attention. It rewarded his watchfulness within a few yards. He saw evidence of someone running through the area without enough knowledge to hide their path. He slowed his pace and paid more attention to where branches had been broken. Finding small tuffs of cloth clinging to the broken ends of those branches. He followed them, picking each one off the branches as he went. He believed completely in the idea of leave no trace and those synthetic fabrics wouldn’t do any of the creatures in the woods a bit of good if they got a hold of them.
After about twenty minutes, he stopped seeing the fabric scraps and had the idea that the baby blanket had shifted so it wasn’t getting caught anymore—at least that was what he was hoping. As he circled the last area for the second time, he found the footprints and the paw prints. That wasn’t a good sign. He slowed his pace and listened. The sounds of nature were present in the crisp air, telling him the man was long gone from the general area.
He pulled out the radio call to check in with Jacob. Clicking the call button, he spoke in a calm tone. “Rayne to base,” he said.
The response came within seconds. “Go ahead, Rayne. This is base,” Jacob said.
“I found evidence up here. Small pieces of cloth and footprints.” Rayne said.
“Any evidence of the child?” Jacob asked.
“None will contact in thirty. Rayne clear,” Rayne said, moving back to the center of the clearing. He marked the location on his little GPS unit. Then he sent the location to Jacob’s unit before heading on toward where the footprints were leading. He followed back into the trees.
Watching what he thought was the man’s footprints, he followed them, trying to figure out who had been following who. The man following the animal or the animal following the man. It took the better part of half a mile for him to get the answer he was looking for. He knelt at the footprints. The paw print had broken the edge of the shoe print. “Damn, I was hoping you were following the wolf.” He said to himself. Looking closer at the paw prints, he judged it to be a second- or third-year wolf.
He listened to sounds again, this time he could hear movement. Heavy steps of something moving almost pacing him along the left side of the path. Slowing his steps, he kept his eyes trained on the path. The movement came closer. He turned his head toward the sound. Dark fur could be seen moving through the trees. It wasn’t a third-year wolf. This was much bigger than that. He looked closer.
Rayne could see a white patch on the right ear of the enormous animal and he let out a slow breath. It was his wolf—at least that’s how he thought of him. Stopping and turning toward the wolf, he whistled. The wolf stopped and stared at him. Rayne whistled a second time. This time, the wolf lowered his head and stepped from the trees. It walked toward him without lifting its head until he was standing in front of Rayne.
Rayne reached down and held his hand out palm down to the canine. It sniffed at his hand and lowered itself to his belly on the ground. “Hey, buddy. Been a while. I wasn’t sure you would recognize me,” he said.
The wolf licked his hand and rubbed against his legs. Rayne scratched him between the ears. “Do you know where the man is?” He asked the wolf as he gave it affection. He wasn’t expecting an answer, but the sound of his voice gave him a bit of comfort.
He had been camping on this mountain since he was a child, spending weekends with his father. When he was fourteen, they found a litter of wolf pups who had lost their mother. His father buried the female wolf’s body and took the pups down to the ranger station. The rangers had taken the pups to a rescue, and Rayne had helped with them as they grew. The bond that formed between him and the biggest of those pups seemed to have lasted through his release into the wild.
His thoughts were brought back to the mission at hand as the wolf butted its head against his stomach. He looked down. “What’s up buddy?” He asked, straightening. The wolf moved a few steps away down the path in the direction the footprints headed, stopping and turning back to stand in front of Rayne. “You know something, don’t you?” He nodded to the opening of the path. “Go on, lead the way.” Rayne said, shaking his head. He couldn’t believe he was talking to a full grown wild wolf. Jacob was going to love this. He was also going to kill him for thinking the wolf could help him.
Rayne followed the wolf until the timer on the radio beeped at him. He stopped and whistled. Pulling out the radio, he clicked the button. “Rayne to Base.” He said.
“Base here, go ahead Rayne.” Jacob’s voice was scratchy through the speaker.
“No sign of anything yet. Any reports from other teams?” Rayne asked.
“Negative,” Jacob said.
“Copy. I am still following the tracks.” He looked at the wolf, who stood waiting, pawing at the ground a few feet away. “Will report in thirty.”
“Copy Rayne, next report in thirty. Base clear.” Jacob said.
Rayne tucked the radio back into his belt and walked toward the wolf. The wolf led him down the path for about four hundred yards, then turned and stepped from the path into the trees. He marked the spot into the trees on the GPS and then followed the wolf again. Only a few minutes later, something caught his attention. The scent of copper tickled his nose. He again slowed his pace, now following his nose rather than the wolf. Too soon, he found the body—or at least what remained of one—of a man. Whoever it was had been torn apart by teeth and claws. The wolf had stopped, but in his distracted state, Rayne walked right past him toward the body. “Shit.” There was no sign of the girl or the blanket he had picked up the pieces of.
He pulled the radio from his belt and keyed the mic as he scanned the area. “Rayne to base. Come back?” He said, not even realizing he had broken protocol by using language he shouldn’t over the radio.
“This is Base. Go ahead Rayne.” Jacob said, seeming to ignore the mistake.
“Sending GPS location. A body has been found. Do you have a description of the subject we are looking for?” Rayne asked.
“Affirmative,” Jacob said, following it with a rough description of the man. Rayne looked down at the body sucking in a breath as Jacob’s description was dead on accurate. “Is it who you found?”
Rayne stared at the mess that was the body. “Affirmative. No sign of the girl. Continuing search,” Rayne said, his voice having gone emotionless.
“Copy, continuing search. We will send rescue to the location of the body. Thirty minutes to next report.” Jacob said.
“Thirty minutes to report, copy. Rayne clear.” Rayne tucked the radio back into his belt and moved past the body. There was a rut in the dirt around the body leading away from the immediate area. The wolf—he finally remembered the name he had given him years ago—Wrath, moved past the body at a distance. Instead of leading him anywhere, Wrath walked beside him as if he was a pet. They followed the ruts for a few minutes before stopping in front of a fallen tree. There was a hollow at the base. Rayne could see several wolf pups tucked into the hollow.
Wrath moved to the edge of the hollow and turned back to Rayne as if to say, here you go. Rayne moved closer, dropping to the ground next to Wrath. Wrath reached in with his muzzle and grabbed one pup with his teeth, removing it and putting on the ground near Rayne. He sat there and watched Wrath do it three more times before Rayne saw what he figured Wrath wanted him to do. There, surrounded by the fur of the remaining pups, was a tiny child wrapped in the remains of the blanket. He reached forward and took hold of her. Pulling her out of the hollow, he wrapped her in his arms, dropping to the ground.
With one hand, he reached out to scratch Wrath on the head. “Good boy,” he said.
Rayne pulled out the radio and keyed the mic. “Rayne to Base.”
There was a long hesitation before Jacob’s voice came back. “This is base, go ahead Rayne.” Jacob sounded distracted, and that worried Rayne.
“Subject acquired. Safe and sound. Requesting ATV evacuation at mouth of Eagle’s Roost as soon as possible.” Rayne said.
Again, there was a long pause before Jacob responded. “Copy, evacuation point Eagle’s Roost. ETA twelve minutes.”
“Twelve minutes Eagle’s Roost, copy. Rayne clear.” He said, standing. He sat the little girl against Wrath for a moment for warmth while he removed his jacket. Wrapping it around her as he picked her, he tucked her close to his chest. He turned to walk the last few hundred yards to his evacuation location, only to turn his head after a few steps. He whistled and Wrath lifted his head from where he was carefully replacing the pups in the den. “I’ll be back and bring you a steak, my friend.” He said.
The wolf tipped his head back and howled the same way he had as a pup when offered a steak. Rayne walked to the evacuation site, laughing. It was good to know the only monsters on his mountain were human. And better to know the little girl would be fine.
He would keep track of her and befriend her mother. Maybe when she was old enough, he could introduce her to her real savior, Wrath and his family.