‘Oh, shit, I stepped in something!’, Neil said visibly disgusted. The sun was rising. ‘Looks like dog poop’, he added. ‘Do you suppose the posse came this way?’
Pigli was at his side in less than a second.
‘Let me see!’, he urged. Immediately, he knew. The worry lines on his forehead suddenly leveled, his tired features relaxed as lighted by the glory of an epiphany and his face broke into as big a smile as they’d ever seen. ‘This is no dog poop, guys’, he exulted, ‘It’s a wolf’s! And it’s fresh! Hurray!’ he said and hugged them so hard he almost broke their ribs. ‘Oh, what a great discovery, what bliss! This means she’s got to be here somewhere! She can’t be far now!’ he said, bouncing up and down with impatience. ‘We’re not far from the northern entrance to the reservation. Less than an hour, I reckon, no more. If she came through here earlier in the day, there’s a good chance she’s made it!’, he cried.
‘Uh-oh!’, Neil suddenly said in a really somber voice.
‘What is it? I don’t like the sound of that!’, Pigli cried and turned around.
‘Maybe you should see this, too’, Neil answered and his face was pale. Three drops of dark red blood were evident on the forest floor only two steps away. Pigli nearly fainted.
‘It’s only a little blood. It can’t be a large wound. I’ll nurse her. You guys will help me. She’ll heal. I’ll hunt for her’, he said, looking for solace. Cleo and Neil nodded in silence trying to appease his grief, but their faces told a different story. They were staring into the ground, pale and tragic.
Then the shot gun irrupted. It seemed to come from several dozen yards below them, to their left. It drove a murderous, burning dagger through Pigli’s heart. ‘Oh, no, you don’t! ‘, he shouted, completely beyond himself. ‘Not again! Not when I’m so close!’, and darted forth like a spring. He seemed wrought in steel. He felt invincible.
‘Stop!!!’, cried Neil.
‘You’re going to get yourself killed!!!’ yelled Cleo. One more shot was heard. Then there was a loud yelp and angry voices were filling the valley.
‘Tiiiinaaa!’, Neil bellowed and rushed forward stumbling over his wings.
‘Boooss!’, Cleo roared in tears and raced along.
‘Yes?!’, they both replied at unison and the four of them bumped into each other in a crossroads in the middle of the forest.
It took a while before reality settled in and they became aware of it. All four of them were gaping at each other, not knowing who they were, what had happened or where to begin. Then Tina and Pigli fell into each other’s arms and wept.
‘Tina, you’re here! Are you alright, my love? I’ll protect you now, I will, I promise’, Pigli said, between sobs.
‘Oh, my darling, I missed you so much!’
‘Me too. I’m so sorry I let them take you away, so sorry.’
‘There was nothing you could do, I know that.’
‘I’ll never leave you again. Oh, my love!’, he soothed her and caressed her. They smiled and he tickled her ears and covered her with kisses. ‘Come on, let us cross into the reservation, there we’ll all be safe.’
A few minutes away, they saw the brown signpost with the park’s logo and map. They were out of danger now.
‘What was that last shot then?’, asked Neil, who was still a little dumbfounded.
‘The fools shot one of their own dogs in the foot’, Tina said and giggled .
‘Oh, your foot, I completely forgot! Let me see the wound! Does it hurt?’, Pigli wanted to know.
‘Oh, that healed a long time ago.’
‘No, dear, the new one. Where did they get you?’
‘Which new one, darling?’
‘I saw the blood in the forest, don’t try to be brave now, show me.’
‘Oh, no you silly’, she laughed. ‘That’s no wound. I’m just getting my period.’
‘So, you mean, it’s a good time to…?’
‘Oh, I love you, Tina!’
How typically male, Cleo thought. Barely a “Hello, how are you” and already he’s thinking about sex… Neil gave a shriek of joy, leaped up, batted his wings and began to sing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” really off-key.
‘Neil?!’, Tina said languorously and stopped him before it was too late.
‘Yes, Tina?…’, he answered and dilated his pupils, completely won over by the sweetness of her voice.
‘You need to take some singing lessons, honey’, she whispered, amicably.
‘Ahm, I… see’, he replied. ‘Uh, my voice’s a little hoarse’. There was a latent tear in the corner of his eye as he swallowed his pride.
‘The French Quarter in New Orleans is supposed to be great for artists. Don’t waste such a talent as yours’, she offered a kindhearted suggestion.
‘Right. Ok. I hear you. I’ll make you proud!’ he said, his enthusiasm thus reinstated.
Cleo gave a pleasant laugh and patted him generously on the back. ‘I’m sure you will’, she encouraged him. Her eyes were moist. ‘Come on. Let’s give the love birds some space. What do you say we do a little sightseeing’, she said and – nudging Neil along – started down the pebble paths of Hollow Peaks National Park.
Pigli and Tina lived happily in the woods. Cleo eventually went on air for a documentary-maker and clarified the whole story. She even starred in one of the episodes. The wolves were safe now and so were the people, by learning more about them. Damaris and Alexander, the couple’s first pups were born in early June. A bunch of late bloomers, but strong, playful and lively. Cleo was of course invited to the pups’ christening, as their godmother, and took her task seriously. She delivered a long and touching speech. She was very good in that role. Cleo had grown quite accustomed to speaking in public. Not before the tabloid press, though. She had found another way to people’s hearts and to their minds. Through good deeds. Her civic activism was the talk of the forest. She had begun volunteering for various organizations and was currently working as a teacher and counselor at the Sheep Day Care Center for Preschool Lambs. In the evenings, she was giving self-assertiveness classes to their moms and since her involvement, the domestic violence rates had dropped dramatically.
She had also heard from Neil. He was sending his best. ‘Since I have left the forest, no less than eight people have tried to catch me and stuff me into a bag, terrified that I might be carrying the dreaded H5N1 virus’, he wrote. The constant aggression had weakened his heart, but definitely strengthened his wings as it had prompted him to learn how to fly. He was now quite good at it. One of the best in his Avian Fitness Club.
Since he had thus toppled his mental barriers and begun flying like an eagle, he had really turned his life around. He was off drugs. He had dropped the “dude”. He had begun cultivating his voice and was now a lead singer in a New Orleans night club. He was making good money, a large portion of which he had already donated to the reconstruction effort under way after Hurricane Katrina. ‘It’s the least I can do for the poor victims, apart from warming their hearts with my music’, he said in his missive. In his spare time, when he wasn’t composing or working on his contralto, he was writing his memoirs, advising young chicken against dope. ‘There’s more euphoria to be had in real life than in these treacherous surrogates’, he worded it. There was little about women in his letters, and surely nothing had perspired about a girlfriend, but Cleo’s exceptional emotional intuition was quick to read between the lines. ‘He’s so shy and private’, she said. And then imparted the news that he was enjoying a hot love-affair with a ravishing brunette – in her opinion, the barmaid.
THE (HAPPY) END.