After a quick lunch of hot dogs and chips, Warren led the children along a hiking trail. He smiled at the memory of when he had walked the trail with his parents as a boy. His smile faded, however, when he noticed only Terry was keeping pace with him, though Terry was a bit winded from keeping up with his father. Matt and Coba were further behind, with the little boy already exhausted and the girl short of breath. Coba had just caught up with Warren when she lost her footing and slid backward. Warren quickly reached out, catching her by her outstretched arms while keeping himself from sliding. He pulled her towards him and lifted her until her feet could touch the ground, then let go when he knew she could stand on her own again.
"Thanks!" Coba gasped.
"Of course." He frowned, noticing her knees got scraped. No blood came out, but her skin looked a bit red around the peeled skin. "Do you want to go back?"
His daughter shook her head. "I'll be alright. Walking will be a little stiff for a few minutes, but I'll get over it."
"Funny how you can get over pain, but you can't get over your feelings," Terry snorted.
"That's enough, Terry!" Warren scolded, noticing Coba's pained expression at the teen's remark.
Terry huffed and continued walking, not looking at what was right in front of him.
"Watch where you're going!" Warren warned his wayward son.
"Why don't you watch—AAAHHHHHH!" The teen's feet were briefly seen over the slope, then disappeared as multiple grunts and thumps were heard.
"Terry?!" Coba cried out in concern over Matt's burst of laughter, rushing to peer over the slope.
A scream of pain answered her as angry buzzing filled the air. Terry was rushing up the hill to them, dancing in pain as multiple hornets stung his thigh and chased him. Matt threw himself to the ground, saving him from getting stung, though he was still giggling helplessly at his half-brother's misfortune. Warren swatted at some wasps, but got stung and bitten on the hand by the angry insects. Coba took a spray can out of her hiking bag. "Close your eyes and hold your breath!" she instructed her father, half-brother and Matt.
All three of them did as they were told, Coba holding her own breath as she sprayed at the hornets. One by one the insects slowed until they fell, knocked unconscious by the spray can's contents. The girl wiped the can with a cloth, then pulled out medicine for bee stings. "Who all got stung—ugh!" She grimaced and coughed, disgusted by the air. "It's supposed to be scentless spray! Slagging dregs lied!"
"Language, Coba!" Warren scolded, though he and Terry were shaking with laughter.
Warren and Terry let her tend to their injuries, marveling at how she did so without getting squeamish. "How were you able to keep cool instead of panicking with the hornets?" Terry asked curiously. "Usually you get overwhelmed in stressful situations, from what I've seen."
Coba shrugged. "I just knew what had to be done, I suppose."
"Schway." Maybe Coba's not so bad, after all, Terry thought.
"Can we keep going?" Matt asked as he stood up and dusted himself off.
McGinnis looked at Terry. "You got stung the most. Feel up to hiking more?"
"Depends. How much longer will we have to go uphill?"
"A few minutes, then it's all downhill. The trail loops around and back into the campsite."
"Then I'll be alright," the teen said with a nod.
"Good." Warren looked at Coba. "It'll get steep in some spots. Be careful where you put your feet."
As if I never am! Coba thought. "Okay, Dad."
All three kids were relieved to find out their dad had been right about how little they had left to go uphill. Once at the top of the trail, the hikers were awed by the spectacular view of the campgrounds and the riverside. Terry, Matt and Coba caught their breaths, then followed Warren down the trail. Matt ran down the hill with Terry hot on his heels, both laughing as they raced one another. Coba wanted to join in, but chose to remain with Warren on the side of caution.
"Don't go too far!" Warren called after the boys.
"Got it!" Terry called back.
Coba watched Terry and Matt. "Terry's leg is still sore," she noted in a quiet voice. "He's limping as he runs, and he's not as fast as he usually is."
Her father nodded. "I noticed. I'll properly look him over when we get back to camp. Why aren't you running with them?"
"I have a hard enough time walking on uneven ground," she replied. "No sense taking risks if there's no need."
Warren blinked in surprise at her words. "Good point. How did you get so smart?"
"Mom home-schooled me, mostly. Plus I like learning new things, especially when it's not in a stressful environment."
"You know public high school's going to be stressful though, right?"
"I'm aware," Coba said grimly. "But I also know you don't have the time to have me home-schooled. I'll figure out how to get through it, don't worry."
McGinnis grinned, warmed by her spirit. "I won't."
Matt came running back, Terry hard on his heels. "Dad! There's a man in the woods!" Matt exclaimed.
"We found him," Terry clarified, panting, "but he was screaming like crazy! Something about monsters in the woods."
"Maybe they're werewolves?" Matt suggested.
"Werewolves only come out at night," Coba pointed out.
"Not in Twilight!"
Terry groaned. "Will you stop talking about that franchise? It's stupid!"
"Just the story is!" Coba said. "I only like the action parts."
"Yeah, the action parts are the best parts in the movies!" Matt agreed.
Warren checked his cell for a signal bar. Seeing one, he called Susan and quickly told her what the boys had discovered.
"Sit tight, I'll be there in a minute," Susan replied. "Make sure the kids stay with you; there's no telling if this man is dangerous."
"My thoughts exactly. See you in a bit." Warren hung up the phone. Matt started walking away, but Warren grabbed him by the shoulders. "Stay with me, all of you. Ranger Muldoon's on her way."
Coba and Matt nodded as Terry stared back up the way they came. "Yeah, she is. Dang, she's fast!"
Looking to see what his eldest child was talking about, Warren saw the brown-haired woman sprinting fast towards them. His breath caught in his throat when he saw a large, gray-brown canine enter the trail and chase her. "It's a wolf! Schway!" Matt said, oblivious to the possibility that Susan was in danger.
"Ranger! Behind you!" Coba called out.
Susan glanced over her shoulder and noticed the wolf. "Oh! Hi, Balto! Getting your exercise for the day?"
The wolf's only response was labored panting, though Susan could have sworn that he was smiling. Once he and Muldoon got to the four campers, he greeted Coba and Matt with curious sniffs, getting them to pet him while the ranger caught her breath. Terry was impressed. "A wolf that acts like a dog? Schway."
Susan smiled. "Yes. My boss rescued Balto here as a pup and had her Great Dane mix raise him with her pups. He knows how to be nice to humans and their animals, as well as how to keep other wolves from attacking us without hurting them."
"So he's basically the peacekeeper," Coba noted.
"And he's sired a few litters over the past couple of years. A couple with the Great Dane mixes, a couple with the wolves."
They all looked at Coba in surprise. "How did you know that?" Susan asked.
"He acts like some dogs I've known over the years who had several litters. Also, he told me."
"Oh, right, like you can speak and understand dog," Terry said skeptically.
The girl showed her peers a device she had in her pocket. "This communicator I made allows me to do both," she said.
"Cool!" Matt exclaimed.
Susan blinked in surprise as she looked at the girl. "Did you make that?"
Brooklyn nodded. "Uh-huh."
"Impressive. I should get our tech guy to show you around his lab. Perhaps he'll learn something."
Coba blushed, embarrassed by the praise.
"I'd better look for the man you boys heard," Susan said grimly. "Which way is he?"
Just as Matt pointed down the trail, a man burst out of the woods. His frantic expression shifted to one of relief. "Ranger Muldoon!" he cried, hugging the familiar person. "Oh, thank God!"
Muldoon's eyes widened. "Mike Grey! Where have you been? We've looked everywhere for you!"
"Not everywhere, if you didn't find him," Terry muttered.
Warren smacked Terry upside the head. "Terry! Manners!" he scolded.
"Where's my family?" Grey asked concernedly, ignoring the teen's comment. His eyes were filling with tears of relief. "Are they alright?"
"They're fine," Susan assured him. "They went home a week ago, but have called every few hours to see if you've turned up." Nice that he has a family that cares about him, even if they can be annoying, she thought. "They'll be thrilled when they learn you're alive."
Mike chuckled to himself. Terry and Coba both looked down and frowned a little, wondering what it would be like to have a family that cared about everyone in it.
"Let's get you to the lodge," Susan told Mike. She looked to Warren. "You may want to head back to your campsite. Whatever—or whomever—did this to Mr. Grey may be close by."
Warren nodded. "That's what I was thinking."
"Shouldn't we find out who or what they are and make them pay?" Terry asked.
"Without knowing what we're up against?" Coba asked incredulously.
"Don't be chicken," he snorted. "Something needs to be done so they don't hurt anyone else!"
"I'm not saying I disagree with that," the girl clarified. "I'm just saying we shouldn't blindly go into danger."
"Your sister's right," Susan started.
Terry glared at her. "She's not my sister."
Coba flinched, hurt by his comment.
Muldoon nodded to the angered Warren, then led Mike away after instructing Balto to stay with the family and protect them. Warren gave his oldest child a hard look. "Apologize. Now."
"Why should I?" Terry challenged. "I hardly even know her, yet you expect me to say 'Oh, welcome to the family, sis,' just like that?"
"Yes! Like it or not, she stays."
"So she can keep driving you and Mom apart?"
Warren was shocked. "What makes you think it's Coba's fault your mom and I divorced?"
"Because the final straw was drawn the day we met for the first time," Coba said to Warren, trying to keep from breaking into sobs. Seriously? I'm about to cry for the fourth time today? She looked at Terry, her cobalt blue eyes betraying her heartache and stunning him into silence. "I'm sorry, Terry. I didn't mean to cause all this trouble."
"Don't be," Warren told her. Noticing Matt was also distressed, he added, "Why don't you and Balto take Matt back to camp?"
Coba nodded, then made a strange sound to Balto. The wolf nodded in understanding, then followed her and Matt back to their campsite. "What did you tell him?" Matt asked, forgetting the argument his dad and brother were still having.
"I asked him if he'd accompany us back to camp," Brooklyn replied.
"I didn't know you could speak wolf!"
"Domestic dog, actually, and only a little bit. I picked up some words while listening through my communicator."
"Still cool! Maybe Terry and Mom would like you if they knew what you can do."
The girl was uncertain. "I don't know that they'll ever like me. I'll just have to learn to live with it."
Matt was confused, but shrugged. "Wanna race back?"
"I don't know how safe—hey!" she called as Matt raced ahead.
"Last one back is a rotten egg!" the boy teased.
Coba frowned, as she disliked races, but ran after him. Balto had no trouble keeping pace, placing his large paws confidently on certain parts of the path. Coba tried to stick to the parts of the path that Balto ran on, and quickly caught on to how the ground was laid out. Her eyes widened upon seeing Matt not paying attention to the path. "Matt, watch out!"
Before the words had a chance to sink in, Matt's right foot landed on a patch of loose ground at the edge of the cliff. The boy gave a cry of alarm as he lost balance and tottered over the edge.
Once Coba, Matt and Balto were out of earshot, Warren turned to Terry. He sighed after a moment. "Terry... you know your mother and I have been having trouble before we met Coba."
The teen gave his father a troubled look. "I know. But wasn't she the final piece? Or... or was it me getting in trouble?" He looked down shamefully.
Warren stared at Terry in shock. "No! It wasn't because of either of you. Your mother and I just... didn't work hard enough at our relationship. I still love her, you and your brother. She and I just can't be together anymore. We hurt each other too much."
Terry looked at Warren quizzically. "I know you hurt mom when you got with Coba's mom. How did Mom hurt you?"
McGinnis paused. Though Mary had somewhat demonized him for her kids, he did not want to do the same to her. And Terry won't like the truth about Matt. Before he could answer, he heard Coba shout.
"Matt, watch out!"
Turning his head abruptly to the sound of the shout, Terry dashed in the direction it came from. "Come on!" he urged Warren, even though Warren was right on his heels.
Coba and Balto rushed forward, but the girl was the first to grab him. She fell forward from the boy's weight, but caught the new edge of the cliff with her free hand. Coba looked at the boy. "I'm going to swing you to the edge. Grab it when you can!" She then spoke to Balto in dog, "Help him up when he does!"
The wolf nodded in understanding. "Can do!"
Brooklyn swung her arm and body mightily, getting Matt within reach of the cliff's edge the third time she did so. Matt grabbed the cliff with his free hand, then let go of Coba's hand before grabbing the ridge. Balto gripped Matt's shirt in his teeth and helped the boy get back onto safe ground. Coba felt a wave of relief when she heard Terry and Warren's footsteps close in. She started to raise her hand to haul herself up, but she shrieked as her grip slipped on the loosened ground, sending her plummeting into the river below.
"Coba!" Matt screamed.
Warren stared over the edge in despair. "Oh my God," he gasped. My only daughter just saved my ex's son. Now she's drowning... He saw a small form burst from below the water, and immediately recognized it as a head with long black hair. "Coba! Hold on, I'm—" Before he could dive in to save his daughter, a slim teenager rushed past him and tensed his legs to jump. "Terry, no!" he yelled, reaching out to grab him.
But he was too late. Terry had already leaped into the river to pursue his half-sister.
I apologize for the delay of this chapter's posting. I wanted to get further into writing the third chapter before posting this one.
And yes: in my head-canon, Balto (well, the Balto in this story, not the real-life Balto or the Balto in the Universal movie trilogy) is an ancestor of Ace, and thus Ace is part wolf. Of course, Ace is probably a great-grandpup instead of a pup or grand-pup of him, since Ace doesn't look so wolf-like.
Please leave a review and have a great rest of your day! :)