What was there but your pack? A city was a pack, but it was more like ants. Some mass of creatures scuttling, seemingly uninvolved with each other, but all working together in some small way. They made the place run just by being there, and doing what they were going to do anyway. A town was a pack – the people knew each other better, and it was the first point where you’d start to see people banding together properly. A town moved like a colony, a group of great apes. There were leaders, and followers, the females, and the children. Big structure, but it was all just a pack. The villages were the last stop before the wilderness. Villages were more like symbiotic animals. The birds picked the ticks, and the cop moved the drunks along. The mothers brought food to the young, and the bakers made the bread. But they didn’t move like ants, and there wasn’t a strict hierarchy. But under it all, from a country to a friendship, it was all a pack.
Dylan slid down against his perch, and stretched his leg to the fire, pushing small lumps of dry wood back before they could escape. Every fire seemed to burn brighter, and throw more sparks into the air. Carlos and Frank lay across the other side of the circle, Carlos asleep with his hat over his face, and his bag under his head. Frank whittled. They listened for the faint sounds of insects drawn by the fire, the dull beats of moth wings, the sharp puff when one of them strayed too close.
All around, their dogs lay sleeping. Dylan was a teenager, and he didn’t remember life before the choke, and neither did the others. This was the world they had always known since they could think about more than eating and sleep. Walking across the land, hunting for themselves and the dogs, and trying to find the meaning. They’d been educated, but as these things do, their small dome lost its people in a trickle. People weren’t having enough kids, too many special townspeople, like water engineers, couldn’t be kept there. The cities syphoned people away from the empty spaces. People would find a train line, and then they were in it. The conglomerate swallowed them up, taking them into the system. They got a number, a job assignment, housing, food. Each of your days was planned by others, and you just lived it until you died. Their mother had her children late, and they didn’t know their father. He was probably another one that left. They never could get their mother to leave, even when there was nothing left to stay for.
Out in the darkness, they heard yips. Several dogs woke from their sleep and started west. Dylan let out a low whistle, and they gathered to him. He waited for the sound, and none of his dogs moved, but they never stopped looking.
“Bring it here” he told them, and the dogs walked into the night.
Frank recalled the terrain. No bluffs big enough for an echo, too much ground scatter to carry sounds long distance. That dog was close.
“Another one? How many are we up to?”
“Doesn’t matter. We protect them, they protect us. They’ll find it, and they’ll try to bring it back. If it resists, then we don’t have anything more to worry about.”
“There’s coyotes out here. Mountain lions, maybe. Who’s saying they come back.”
“The rest hear a fight, and then it’s a time and numbers game.”
Frank finished his whittling. He’d carved a cross. Some little symbol he saw beside his mother’s bed, stamped into the cover of some book. She was quiet. Hadn’t taught them a lot. Most of what they knew, they learned alone. He tossed the cross into the fire and picked up a fresh scrap of wood. He let his hands wander, seeking for the shape within this piece of waste firewood.
“How different are coyotes?” Dylan asked the silence.
“Can’t be that different. Four legs, long muzzle, wagging tail. They always looked like dogs to me.”
“They’d be wild though.”
Dylan surveyed the pack that remained. A lot of their traits had started to cross over. The older dogs looked like purer breeds, but after a couple of years together, their pups became pure mongrel. Pieces of that dog would show up 2-3 generations later. Longer legs, humped backs, thick heads. He picked a puppy from a litter as it slept, and laid it in his lap. It didn’t waken as he pet it. Important to let them know that the pack was here for the little ones. Important to remind himself too. This pack had saved them more times than they could count. Raiders seemed spooked by dogs, let alone 30 or 40 of them. They had taught the dogs to circle around them, moving all the time, keeping an eye out. The smarter dogs were scouts, the stronger dogs stayed in the middle for protection. Puppies were carried in satchels until they could walk on their own.
“Have we ever had a coyote before?” Dylan wondered.
“Had a dingo once. And that mean little wolf. No coyote I remember.”
Out in the dark the yips returned, and then a few barks from closer to them.
“They found it. They’ll be trying to get it to come back over here. What are they good for?”
“Scavenge, I think. Could be useful, the pits can’t scavenge for shit.”
This time it was a star. Frank turned it over in his hands, counting its points, and the lines between. He idly counted to thirty as he refined the shape, trying to keep track of the changes as he flattened surfaces, and sharpened points. There was a rapid exchange of barking and yipping. Then silence.
“They got it. They’re bringing it back.”
:What makes you say that?: Frank asked. He threw the star into the fire and found another piece of iron-hard wood. He discarded his thirty count – you couldn’t let one whittle affect the next. Each was its own. He sharpened the point of his blade against the stone he sat on. After several minutes the dogs returned with no injuries, and with a coyote behind them. It was tall, but weak. Dogs didn’t seem to notice the world changing around them, and this one probably used to get a lot to eat out here. Carlos stirred from his sleep as knife scratched stone. He motioned to the others as he saw a new dog circling the edge of camp, unsure of these humans. Carlos threw it a little food when it came near enough. Within an hour of their coaxing, it was laid by the fire, sleeping with food in its belly. It was low in the rankings, but its size would make up for that.when it could walk around comfortably again. They’d take it to the stream to clean it up tomorrow.
“Why are we here?” Carlos wondered aloud, half asleep.
“We were on our way back north before the summer comes in. Too hot this far south, for both us and them.”
“I meant more like; why are we on this journey? We never seem to get any closer to a destination.”
“Journey is the destination” Frank muttered as he swirled his knife around an entrenched knot.
“That’s the whole thing? We just walk around, add dogs to the pack, and then do it again tomorrow.”
Nobody had an answer for him. They didn’t have a plan, they didn’t have a goal, and there wasn’t really any reason for them to consider going back to a town or a city. Probably no town would trust three teenagers travelling with a horde of dogs that seemed extremely loyal to them.
“We walk south before winter, we walk north come spring. I don’t know there’s anything else that we need to be doing right now. Getting by is fine” offered Dylan.
“Well what about the future? Don’t we have to figure something out at some point?”
“What’s there to figure out” Frank retorted, “Future’s going to happen tomorrow regardless of what we think, and what we try to do. It marches on. We’re just here because we’re here.If we weren’t, we’d be somewhere else. Tomorrow we’ll kick the fire out, round up the pack, and we’ll go.”
“That’s the thing though. We keep going. Are we ever going to stop?”
Dylan looked at the stars. Someone had told him once that they guided sailors in wooden boats across the oceans of the world. They took people to new lands, and they would take you to other continents far from here if you knew how to read them. He saw a brass compass once, and he wished that he’d stolen it like he wanted to. His mother was alive then, and he hadn’t wanted to make her mad. But it had been right there, sitting on the mayor’s desk, with all backs turned to it. They could be following its needle right now if they wanted to. All the way around the world.
“Let’s go see the ocean. The pacific should be a couple of weeks west of here. We’re bound to hit it eventually. We can see how big the world is, get a really big perspective. Maybe then we’ll know what to do.”
Carlos watched the coyote until he saw its breath change as it fell asleep. It belonged. The dogs all belonged, and even if they didn’t understand it, they were all a part of something bigger.
“Let’s do that. Summer won’t start for another few months, we’ll have plenty of time.”
Dylan whistled softly, and a few dogs walked over to him. He used sign language with them to make them understand that they were all going to sleep, and to keep watch until the sun came up. They were good dogs. And they were good boys.