When he found the girl huddled under a tree in the woods, her sobs sounded like a dying creature. The thought of an easy meal attracted Wild Dog to the wails, but he had dealt with humans before. Where there were Little Ones, Big Ones soon appeared.
Still, he stayed nearby. Her tiny body was not meant for survival in the woods. Human teeth and claws were no match for other creatures, and something inside Wild Dog felt protective as if she were his own pup.
Listening for the Big Ones, he thought of the last night of his mother’s life. Though small, she was fierce and protected him until the last breath rattled from her frail body.
He expected human noise to cut through the forest sounds. But the strange sounds never came. The big humans never found this Little One.
The morning broke, and she began to wander. He followed behind, out of sight, listening for the things that would hunt for her. When night came again with waves of stinging rain, she crouched in a small crevice in the bluff — the same gap where he was born and kept safe by his mother.
Her shivering arms wrapped tight around her knees, the fluffy little creature she carried tucked in the space at her chest. The animal stayed motionless wherever she placed it, but she still carried it like a pup.
Wild Dog approached to warm the Little One. At first, she was frightened. When she screamed, he thought of running away, but then she began to speak. Her voice was sweet, like honey dripping from the beehive in the big oak tree on long summer days.
“Are you a nice puppy?” She asked as he came closer, his head held low. Finally, he lay down far enough away to ease both of their nerves.
Resting his head on his front paws, Wild Dog watched Little One as closely as she watched him. The rain ebbed, and the night grew colder, making her blunt teeth chatter. He inched toward her, sliding on his belly, and buried his nose into her open hand.
“I don’t have any food, puppy,” she said and stretched out on the ground. He curled into a tight ball next to her, and for a moment, she froze. Wild Dog stayed motionless the way his mother had taught, every muscle coiled in preparation.
After a while, the girl curled into her own ball and rested her head on his hind hip. He closed his eyes, but didn’t sleep, listening to the woods around them.
The next day she called him River. He needed water and knew she would too. As they walked, he herded her toward the creek, at times letting her lead until she strayed too far from sight.
“Come on, River,” Little One sang in a blue jay trill.
He trotted along the banks, risen with cool fresh rain until he reached her. Crouching atop a large wet rock, she piled smaller stones in the water.
“Look, River. I made a pool for us.” She spoke to him as if he would answer, though, of course, he could not speak Human.
He bent his head and drank, the water trickling between his canines. Little One’s belly rumbled with hunger, though she was more content to play than search for food. He thought of catching a mouse to share with her.
As he drank, a tree limb floated past him and collided with Little One’s stacking stones. The stones shifted, releasing a wave downstream. Water coursed over Little One’s perch and, with slick fingers, pulled the Fluff Creature from the stone.
“No!” Little One let out a pathetic cry and jumped, splashing about on her belly. Fluff Creature slipped from her reach, bobbing below the surface. “Brown Bear!”
Looking around desperately, she searched for it, then froze and squinted. Wild Dog followed her gaze to the place where two streams merged into vicious waters.
Fluff Creature held onto a low slung tree branch, its fur flattened and face downturned. Wild Dog saw her eyes widen. Little One was up and running before he could catch her with his teeth.
He jogged after, cautious of attracting too much attention. When she waded out, the water reached her chest. This was worse than attention.
Bouncing at the edge, he yapped and howled, telling her to come back. Fluff Creature doesn’t breathe. Why rescue it?
She didn’t listen. Reaching the animal, she grasped the branch. As water surged, the branch gave way.
“River!” She screamed, and Wild Dog ran after her, heart racing. The girl was too heavy a burden to swim with, but he couldn’t leave her.
The icy water shocked him, but he moved with determination, pulling with his front paws and thrashing downward with the back ones. Finally, as her head dipped below, he reached long, grabbed the folds of fabric at her neck, and tugged with all his strength. Her arms flopped across his back, and he swam to shore.
She sprawled on the bank, hacking and coughing until breath came freely, and he stretched out alongside. Curling in toward him, she pulled Fluff Creature up to her button nose.
“I want to go home, River,” she said and closed her eyes.
Wild Dog let Little One sleep, the bright sun warming them. He remembered the trail where humans came with their packs and food. He remembered following the mouthwatering scent with an ache of hunger and loneliness after his mother was gone. But the noise of the Big Ones assaulted his sensitive ears, and he fled to the shadows of the woods.
He would lead Little One there now, he decided. He would bring her to the humans.
When the sun tilted westward, Wild Dog licked her face until her eyes fluttered open. She looked around, stretched, and sat to her haunches, looking down at Fluff Creature.
“Oh, Brown Bear. I’m so sorry.” Her eyes leaked, and whimpers escaped her lips, softly at first, then louder.
Wild Dog took her damp sleeve between his teeth and tugged, but she swatted his nose with her fingertips. He stood and nuzzled under the girl’s arm until she got to her feet. The noise would draw attention. They needed to leave now.
Her eyes barely opened, but she clutched Fluff Creature in the crook of one arm. Wild Dog took hold of her sleeve and guided her along the shortest path to the human trail. Though it was open and made them easy prey, it would be faster than the shadowy trail through the woods. He couldn’t shake the sensation of being watched.
He did his best to guide her around large rocks and low limbs, but her long human hair tangled in a branch. She squealed and thrashed. Wild Dog clamped his teeth on her hand, not to wound, but to quiet. It’s what his mother had done. She screamed louder, but another noise overtook her scream. A loud growl echoed through the trees and off the bluff. It shook Wild Dog deep in his gut.
He knew the sound well enough. A mountain cat would kill them both. He looked around for the source but only spotted it when it was upon them. The girl screamed louder, and Wild Dog snarled and barked, baring his teeth. He lunged at the cat, biting at anything.
Pain surged through his shoulder, searing like fire, and a sound louder than the biggest thunderclap the little dog had ever heard rang out. The cat’s fangs released as it sank to the ground.
Wild Dog sat back on his haunches and twisted to look for Little One. A jolt of pain shot through his shoulder, and he let out a yelp.
“River! You’re hurt!” Little One yelled.
“Grace?” River’s heart pounded at the sound of the male human voice, but the man rushed toward Little One and crouched down low.
Another man followed with a shiny stick. He snapped the branch, freeing the girl, and she wrapped her arms around Daddy.
“What d’you reckon that is, Jimmy?” Wild Dog shivered at the sound of the Big Ones’ voices, but the pain kept him frozen.
“I dunno. Too small to be a coyote. Could be mixed with a stray. Better call park services to fix him up.”
“No! He’s mine!” Even with a snarl in her tone, Grace’s sweet voice sent a wave of calm over Wild Dog.
“Okay. Whatever he is, he put up a good fight for you, Grace Anne.” The man moved toward him, palm outstretched, and fear gripped again. He pinched his eyes shut, but when the man’s fingers cupped his chin and scratched, River’s tense nerves melted. “You’re a brave pup, little one,” the man said.
“His name is River,” Grace’s voice chimed, “and I’m keeping him.”
Photo by Rachel Baskerville on Unsplash.