They ran without interruption all through the night and into the early hours of the morning. The tiny birds of the forest started chirping, putting their homes in order, calling out for their mates or demanding their servings of food, and the first rays of light were on the leaves as the three friends decided to pause and rest. Neil was tempted to discharge his daily morning quaver into the world, but Pigli’s appalled look froze the music in his throat.
‘Ahm… sorry. Instinct, dude, what can I do?’, he quickly apologized.
Immediately after, they fell on the ground exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and sunk into a deep sleep, devoid of dreams.
They awoke two hours later and continued to climb stealthily. They had to be particularly cautious so they were forced to take a lot of detours. Pigli was intent on the tracks. He knew Tina’s thinking and, assuming she was still alive and free, she would not have walked in broad daylight either. There was a pleasant spring breeze in the air but with all the surrounding tension, it was difficult for them to enjoy it. For one thing, they were glad that it directed Tina’s scent into their nostrils, but on the other hand, they worried it would make it just as easy for the posse to locate them, should there be dogs on the trail behind them. They had to keep as quiet and be as inconspicuous as possible and that was hell for Cleo.
‘From ecstasy to agony…’ she kept mumbling to herself. ‘Now would be a good time to be constipated’, she said. ‘But unfortunately I’m not’. That gave Pigli an idea.
‘That’s excellent, actually! Go ahead and go. Your strong smell will throw the posse off target. They’ll never imagine a sheep and a wolf walking together!’
‘And have the dogs on my tracks? No, thank you!, she whispered terrified.
‘Fine! Hold it in, then!’, Pigli replied, a little upset. ‘I offer you a solution that would benefit everyone, and all you can say is No.’ But what Pigli didn’t quite grasp was that Cleo was a runaway too, and she had no intention of being dragged back to her flock tail between the legs by two raging canids. As for Neil, he didn’t even dare to clear his throat, much less tune his voice. He was dead worried he’d fall out of practice but remained silent as a fish. They only stopped once, around noon, to cool down because it was getting warm. There were plenty of insects filling the air. The conditions were strenuous, but they managed to put a considerable stretch of road behind them until late afternoon, when they arrived at the Spruce Rift weather station.
A man was out and about. As they approached, Cleo carelessly stepped on a twig and it snapped. The sound had a tremendous effect on the meteorologist, because the man went back inside and returned only a few minutes later carrying a rifle of mythical proportions. He was looking warily around him all the time, and practically slid alongside the cabin walls to the fenced enclosure where his measuring instruments were. In his hand he had a loose piece of paper, typed in bold capitals, which he hurriedly attached to the enclosure door.
‘What’s he doing?’ Neil asked. ‘I can’t see very well.’
‘It looks like he’s putting up a notice, or something’, Pigli answered.
‘What does it say?’, inquired the cock.
‘Cleo!’, Pigli summoned her. ‘You go! Go read what it says. I can’t show my face here. Please!’, he added.
The man went to check all his instruments, one by one. When he re-entered the cabin, to compile the readings and mail in his report, Cleo crept out of their hiding place and scuttled off. She stopped in front of the notice, and as she started reading her eyes grew bigger and bigger, until she finally gave a shrill gasp and put her hoof to her mouth. She rushed back to the other two like an arrow. They were both tense, holding their breaths.
‘Well, what is it?’, Pigli asked.
‘You’d better sit down’, Cleo uttered gravely.
‘How about I roll over and play dead, too, while I’m at it?!’, Pigli growled. ‘Will that do?’
‘Ok, ok, but it’s serious. It says, ‘BEWARE! BEWARE! RUNAWAY WOLF ON THE LOOSE. WAS SPOTTED LAST NIGHT IN JELLYVILLE ENGORGING RABBITS. SHE IS CONSIDERED DANGEROUS. RANGERS HAVE ORDERS TO SHOOT ON SIGHT. It doesn’t say whether with real bullets or tranquilizers. And it gives Tina’s description.’
‘Oh, no!’, cried Pigli.
‘Sure, they mistook you for her’, said Neil. ‘After all, I did too. You see, they don’t have your description, because it was night and my master caught only a glimpse of you in the flashlight, but the Zoo must have a detailed description of her. And to humans, all wolves look alike.’
‘Sure enough’, attested Cleo.
‘Poor Tina! At least this notice is fresh, which means they haven’t captured her yet. We have to find her! We have to make it to the reservation!’, Pigli pleaded.
‘I was just thinking’, Neil said. ‘We’re looking for Tina but so is the posse. What if they get to her sooner? What if they’ve made another sighting today and are closing in on her as we speak? I mean, we’re following tracks that are at least two days old. What if they have information we don’t have? Why don’t we do a little spying?’
‘What are you suggesting?’, Pigli asked.
‘If they do know more about her, it’s bound to be in the press’, Cleo chipped in. ‘They wouldn’t miss it for the world. They’re probably going to say something during the seven o’clock news, a warning to people or something like that, and we might find out more.’
‘But that’s in an hour’s time!’, Pigli cried.
‘I know, it’s a delay, dude, but imagine you find out something important, that allows us to take a shortcut. Although’, he added, ‘one rarely learns anything of importance from television.’
‘Who knows, Boss? He’s got a point. And anyway, we can make up that time. You know these woods better than anyone, right?’
‘I’m not so sure anymore’, Pigli whispered and gave in to their suggestion.
It was the most excruciating wait. Pigli had insisted they at least use this time to rest and freshen up, but inside the cabin the meteorologist was laughing out loud watching some silly show and his outbursts would startle them over and over again. So they were all wide awake. By seven o’clock it was already pitch black and they braced themselves and drew closer to the log cabin. Inside, the TV image was flickering, but the sound was good. They slouched and listened. The wolf story was the breaking news. There were two anchors dissecting the information in the studio. Every 10 seconds they would switch over to one of the five correspondents the station had positioned in the area. The first talked to the Zoo keeper, who was astonished by Tina’s behaviour, but moderate. The reporter cut him short and gave the line to the second one. This went on to interview the posse, an incoherent bunch of chubby-faced men who described Tina as “extremely dangerous and not afraid of humans.” A duplex was set up on the screen. The third correspondent was busy interviewing Neil’s former master who was jumping to apocalyptical conclusions.
‘First the bird flu and now this!’, he was yelling in to the microphone. ‘Beware people; the whole world’s gone crazy! What’s the government doing? Why haven’t they killed that beast yet? What are they waiting for? First a cock, now a rabbit, next thing you know it’ll snatch a child! Our very lives are in danger!’, he went on an on.
‘For crying out loud, stop hollering, dude!’, Neil addressed the image on the screen and then turned away and sat. He looked at Pigli. ‘How distasteful!’, he added. He felt repulsed and ashamed of his master.
‘Bloody tabloid press. Always ready to unleash a war on someone or other’, Pigli said and spat. It depressed him. ‘When did I ever touch a human being? What would I even want with one?’, he asked. Both his friends met his saddened glance and looked down. ‘Look at the fuss he’s making about one lousy rabbit. You’d think I robbed him of his livelihood entirely. What is one supposed to eat if anywhere you turn all there’s left is rabbits?’ He sounded defeated.
‘Perhaps we can counter them with our own PR’, made Cleo an attempt to cheer the mood. ‘An appeal for sympathy. Something glitzy, something catchy like… like… uh, if it hadn’t been for wolves, Rome itself would not have existed. You know, Romulus and Remus who were suckled by one…’
Cleo, the media-savvy sheep turned publicity hound.
‘Thanks, but for Tina and me there’s no more time’, Pigli said drearily. On TV, the wolf story carried on in a crescendo of high-pitched and fanatical voices which had already exceeded their allotted time slot. ‘Bloody tabloid media’, he said once more, in a dwindling voice. ‘Look, it’s obvious I only have tonight to find her. It’s life or death. I have to risk it. Thanks for everything, but I really have to go now.’
For a moment they were disconcerted. Then, Cleo broke the silence.
‘We’re coming with you!’, she said boldly. ‘The heck with the press. I don’t want to be famous that way.’
‘You’ll be in danger’s way. I can’t take that kind of responsibility. This is not your fight.’
‘How do you get that?’, Neil raised his head. ‘You’re forgetting what she did for me. Danger? I could sit around all day and still get run over by a car or scalded in soup. That’s life. But I have never met a nobler creature than your Tina. Yeah, of course we’re coming, and we’re going to find her too!,’ reinforced Neil his determination.
‘Definitely. Don’t you worry’, added Cleo.
Pigli looked at them both with big gentle eyes. There was a lump in his throat. ‘I’m grateful for your friendship’, he said.
(to be continued)