Loud booming sounds like thunder woke Richard from his sleep. He threw the covers off and stumbled to the window. Peeking through the blinds, flashes of light blinded him as spots littered his vision. Blinking them away, he opened his window and looked out at the night sky. Search lights could be seen from a distance as they focused on a point in the sky while gunfire rained heavily on one area. World War 2 had just began, and everyone’s anxiety level was high because of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Knowing his father, Carl, was a hard sleeper, Richard rushed to his parents’ room. His mother, Patricia was rousing him as Richard dove into the bed.
“Dad! Wake up, we’re under attack. Wake up.”
“What? What’s going on?”
“Honey, somethings going on.” Patricia’s Ozark upbringing drawing out her words as she hurried into the front room.
Carl staggered into the front room and walked outside into the chilly, February night followed by Patricia. “It’s those damn Japanese attacking us again, that’s what it is. I knew it would only be a matter of time before they launched another attack on us.
“What should we do?”
“I’ll get in touch with Eugene, a friend of mine in the real estate business. We’re getting away from the coast. We’re not safe here anymore. Especially since that submarine shot at that oil plant in Ellwood. Maybe we can find a place in Missouri to live, close to your parents. There we would have mountains on each side that planes couldn’t get past. I can’t think of a safer place to go, can you?” She was deep in thought about her nine-year-old in the bedroom watching the night sky.
“Maybe you’re right. I’ll try to get in touch with them in the morning.”
The next day, the news headlines were feeding the hungry eyes of everyone wanting answers. Weather balloons, Japanese planes, and war anxiety were among the top headlines. But, the one that was hardest to explain was the photo published by the Los Angeles Times showing search lights focused on one area of the sky. It seemed no one had a logical answer. Carl and Patricia wasted no time on theories or false alarms, and within three days, they had contacted her parents about purchasing a farm in Missouri and were packing to leave.
Four months had passed as the Cospers found new safety and security in the hills of southwest Missouri. Carl was working in the fields for various neighboring farmers as Patricia tended the housework and gardening. The transition from California to Missouri was difficult and arduous for the family with work and food, hard to come by.
The front door closes as Richard strides barefooted and shirtless in overalls to the weather-worn barn. The mundane task of gathering eggs and tending the chickens had fallen on him since he was old enough to defend himself from the bully of a rooster his family owned. There was no love lost between the two as they constantly were at war with one another. The rooster would attempt to flog his shins only to dodge a foot aimed for his head. Besides the rooster, Richard enjoyed the other farm animals.
Coming into the barn, the red-brown chickens were busy scratching the floor searching for bugs and grains hiding under the litter. The large door creaked and squeaked as he pushed it along the long bar, blowing his straight, blonde hair out of his eyes, allowing the cool morning breeze to come rushing in stirring up the animals. The chickens quickly ran into the surrounding yard to forage and scratch for goodies. After scattering a few handfuls of corn in the grass for them, he turned inside to tend the others.
Climbing the stair-stepped bales, he grabbed a twine string in each hand, flinging the bale off the stack with a grunt, sending it toppling and rolling to the barn floor. After hopping down, he popped the twine with a jerking motion as his father taught him. All the tools and equipment that came with the farm were heavily used, including the animals and the land. The fields were not producing much forage, so Carl was forced to ration some of the last season’s hay to the animals. Using the dilapidated pitchfork, he pitched hay for the two larger animals, George and Maybell. George was an older, working horse his father bought for a cheap price, that always leaned into a gentle rub above his nose and under his chin. They would soon be working partners in the hay field and Carl wanted them on good terms with one another. George wasn’t fast at anything, but steady.
Sighing as he gave George a final rough pat on the neck, Richard took the bucket off a post and set to work milking Maybell. Maybell was the oldest resident on the farm, but still produced enough milk for her owners. To keep her calm, he sang or whistled church hymns and farming songs, allowing the peaceful melodies to flow out of him and fill the air. Carl never lost focus while he worked as his father taught him to keep his head down, and focused. Richard was anything but focused while he worked, as any nine-year-old would be. George’s ears perked up the first time he whistled and Maybell always relaxed when he sang his favorite church songs so he made a conscious effort each time to fill the barn with his cheer.
The sunlight pierced through the small cracks in the roof as Richard finished milking. He hated milking at first because his fingers would swell and cramp, putting him in a foul mood by the time he finished. Speed and dexterity now guided his hands, allowing him to quickly get his morning chores out-of-the-way. Putting George and Maybell out to pasture for what was available, he strained the milk through several pieces of cheese cloth into a second bucket, removing any bugs or debris that frequented the bucket as he milked. Richard struggled with the weight of the bucket as he took it to the kitchen, placing it in the cool corner to rest before his mother started her part of the work on it.
After giving his mother a kiss, he was racing out the door to the backside of the barn. Pulling his cane pole out of its hiding place, he reached between some boards and clasped his lucky tin-can. Carl disproved of his frequent fishing trips but never turned down a fresh bite of sizzling-hot, breaded fish straight from the fry-pan. Running to the tree-line, he pulled back layers of moist leaves revealing healthy worms wriggling about. Plucking four of the biggest, dark-red ones, he dropped them into the tin can and put a fresh layer of damp dirt on top of them, keeping them cool as he started towards the creek.
The dry grass crunched under his feet as he picked his way around the prickly thistles he hadn’t dug up yet. The familiar trail wound its way through the trees that grew denser as Richard’s feet picked up into a skip as he went along. The coolness of the bare dirt was a relief from the crunchy, stiff grass the animals grazed upon. His mother, Patricia, would always scold him after he visited the creek with dirt and mud smeared up to his knees when he returned home. She never liked her home dirty, however, Carl and Richard always kept her busy with the cleaning.
After the fallen log and the second bend in the creek, he arrived at his coveted fishing hole. This gentle-flowing creek was never lacking for fish. Bluegill, flat-head catfish, and small-mouth bass riddled the banks and terrorized the currents. If Richard went home empty-handed, it was because he spent most of his time skinny-dipping instead of fishing.
A quick glance around proved that no one had been here recently and that the fish should be in their usual spots. Kneeling down, he pinched off a small part of a worm and threaded the wiggling piece onto the hook. Crawling on his hands and knees allowed him to creep up to the bank without casting a shadow on the water. He was careful to slowly edge his head over the edge just far enough to see below him. A darting movement in the water spoke of fish.
The cane pole inched out as the baited hook swung over the water, slowly placing the baited hook in the perfect spot. The piece of cork would hold the hook off the bottom, allowing the current to bring his bait to life. Fishing here was a matter of patience rather than skill. A minute crept by without any fish falling for the bait. He raised the hook out of the water and set it further up the current, letting it sweep down past him. The cork disappeared under the water. Wide-eyed, he gave his pole a hard yank as the hook captured the lip of a bluegill thrashing and jerking trying to remove the hook from its mouth. With a gentle sweeping motion, the fish was soon on the bank as Richard rolled over and grabbed the fish. It thrashed against his grip with every muscle to no avail. Holding it by the tail, he smacked it on an exposed rock, ending its struggle. Placing it on a smooth rock, he baited up his hook and went in search of another loaded hole to fish.
The next bend in the creek produced a deeper hole that usually housed a catfish or two. Carl forbade him to noodle for catfish until he was older and able to hold the larger catfish this creek could produce. His uncle had drowned accidentally when Carl and he were younger while noodling for catfish. Richard was capable of hauling them to a shallow part of the creek and then pulling them out of two feet of water or less, but he didn’t dare try to pull them from their dens.
Shading his eyes, Richard couldn’t see the dark outlines of any fish but decided to fish it anyway. Not bothering to conceal himself, he swung his legs over the edge of the bank and dipped his line in the water. The water was deadly still after the rings spread outwards from the cork and bait. The current didn’t reach back this far into the bend, permitting algae to grow along its shallow edge. As he sat there, his mind began to wander off. He couldn’t read or write yet, but he would imagine stories like those he heard in Sunday school at their church and on the radio.
Vast armies would collide head-to-head as they fought for coveted land or Holy items. Dragons would swoop down ruffling his blonde hair before soaring off into the distance. His cane pole often became a magic wand waving it about casting different spells and turning bullies into toads and the like. In spirit of the war, he would be a front-line soldier, fighting for his country. It wasn’t until the hook got snagged or hung in a bush did he awaken from his daydreaming.
Normally, the birds were calling out to one another as they fluttered from tree to tree searching for food or mates. But something had alarmed them into concealing themselves and it was the silence that brought the hairs up on the back of Richard’s neck. Pulling his hook out of the water and placing the pole on the ground, he spun on his seat looking around. Removing his pocketknife from the front pocket of his overalls, he extended the longest blade he had as his eyes darted about in search of the disturbance. He knew all too well that mountain lions lurked in this part of the woods, mostly due to the stories the locals told him to put the fear of the wild woods into him. He had yet to find any tracks of the large cats around this area of the creek, despite checking each time he came as his mother instructed.
If it was a mountain lion, Richard didn’t know if he would be going home for lunch today. They were double his size and weight and his three-inch long blade wouldn’t be long enough to do any damage to it. Holding his breath, he continued looking around for the golden-tan fur. A small rustle of leaves drew his attention back to his first fishing hole; now he had a bearing on it. Before moving, he spotted a stout branch the thickness of a baseball bat. As he crept over to it, he carefully removed the leaves that covered the end of it and tested the strength of it, it would hold well enough for a scrap. He tiptoed back to the path and slowly crept along, silently praying that an armadillo made the commotion.
Hiding behind a white birch tree, Richard peeked around towards his fishing spot. Catching his breath before it could reveal his presence, he saw a large, coal-black wolf sniffing his dead fish laying on the rock. His heart began hammering as panic took hold of his senses. He had never seen anything like it before. Carl had told him stories about the wolves from when he was a logger in Montana, but when Richard was cowering in fear on the couch, he reassured him that wolves didn’t come this far southeast because there wasn’t enough big game living in the neighboring woods. The tears began to flood Richard’s vision as he bit his lip trying not to make a sound. Wiping his eyes with the back of his trembling wrist, he peered around again at the wolf.
It easily stood as tall as Richard. The shining coat was a tell-tale sign that it was a good hunter. As the gentle breeze changed direction, its head snapped up, sniffing the air. Richard bit harder as the blood began to flow from his lip as a warm sensation ran down his leg. He couldn’t outrun the beast, nor climb a tree fast enough to escape the wolf as it cautiously stalked closer. “They are more scared of you, than you are them,” his father’s gruff words echoed in his head. He was brave alongside his dad, but out here alone with a wolf, he was frozen in place. Losing all control, his feet stamped in anger fueled on by fear. The wolf’s head pinpointed his spot, flattening its ears back as it closed the distance in two large strides. The menacing growl rumbled deep within its chest, there was no fear in the wolf as it slowly circled the tree, bringing Richard into its sight. Baring its dripping fangs at him, Richard whimpered as tears flooded unceasingly to the ground.
Raising the shaking club in front of him, Richard wanted to growl back as he did the coyotes, but found his voice choked off. The wolf’s lips pushed up exposing a perfect set of glistening, pearl-white teeth while the hair along its spine stood on end. Never in his wildest dreams did Richard ever think that he would be killed by a wild animal. His father was always with him when they encountered coyotes terrorizing the chickens, bolstering his confidence. Now, this wolf was going to kill him and eat him.
Without warning, the wolf sprang onto Richard, knocking him to the ground with such force that he dropped his club and his breath pushed out in a pained grunt. The massive beast pressed all its weight down on him, immobilizing him under an icy stare and intense body heat. Saliva dripped onto his cheek as the wolf raised its head, giving warning growls to some unseen enemy.
A white blur flashed through Richard’s peripheral vision as the piercing cry of a mountain lion behind him met the aggressive challenge of another animal he couldn’t see. He still had a grip on his knife and luckily, his arm was out straight and mobile. With everything he had, he brought the knife up towards the head of the black wolf in one last, desperate effort to survive. The blade tip hit bone and glanced off, producing a small cut on its cheek. The wolf snapped at his hand, opening a small cut on his fingers causing Richard to drop the knife. Looking down at him, a guttural growl silenced any further thoughts of escaping.
He closed his eyes as the fight continued behind him. The ear-piercing scream made him cringe under the wolf as he wished this was all a bad dream. The spotty sunlight illuminated the dust being stirred up as the growls and screams continued. He lost track of time as he lay helpless underneath the wolf.
The black wolf began barking as another similar bark joined in. Richard’s only guess was that the white creature had driven off the mountain lion or killed it. The wolf raised itself off Richard and towered over him as a smaller-framed white wolf joined in looking down at Richard. He didn’t know what to expect as a feeling of comfort and security calmed his mind. The two wolves retreated several steps as Richard rolled to his side. Closing his eyes and letting the tears flow freely, he clutched his bleeding fingers.
The two wolves laid down beside each other and waited for Richard to recover himself. He finally turned his head and met two sets of eyes as blue as the lake. There was a peacefulness about them that Richard didn’t understand. They had just saved him from a mountain lion and were now as peaceful as new-born pups. As he sat up, he shook the dirt and leaves out of his hair as they followed his movements, exuding a noble confidence.
“Thank ya,” his mother’s accent mirrored in his words.
The white wolf perked its ears forward at this and voiced a little yip. Calling to them, “I don’t got no food, except for that there blue I caught earlier.” The black wolf nosed the white one and it got up, inspected the fish and started eating it in large bites. “You sure gave that cat hell back there. Had ya’ll not come along, I’d be long gone by now.”
“Do ya’ll have names? All our animals got names like: Maybell, George; Mr. Whiskers, and Fluffy.” As the white wolf came back to lay beside the black one, Richard felt a sense of the chill of midnight and then the warmth of dawn. “Night and day? What does that even mean?” Again a chilling sensation came over him as he saw a picture of the moon and then the warmth of the sun as it rose over the horizon. “Moon and Dawn?” The white wolf yipped at the mention of her name, but the black wolf continued to stare at Richard with unblinking eyes. Pointing to the white wolf, Richard affirmed his guess, “Dawn?” She gave another approving yip. “If your name is Dawn, then what is your name?” looking to the black wolf. In answering, the wolf stood up while arching its head back, singing out its resonating voice that echoed among the trees. With the final echo, it finally occurred to him. “Midnight! Your name is Midnight!” Both wolves gave small yips of approval. “I wish I could keep ya’ll as pets, but Poppa wouldn’t have it. He says ain’t no good ever come out a wolf. But…” his voice trailed off as his mind once again returned to the earlier encounter.
An image of the creek trickled into his thoughts, rousing him from his thoughts. Hopping to his feet and dusting the debris from his hands and clothes, Richard headed towards a low spot in the bank to splash water on his face. As he walked, he looked down at his overalls and saw the dark spot on his overalls, flushing his cheeks as he thought about what his father would say if he found out about it. Unbuckling the shoulder straps, he stripped to his underwear and headed to the water, carrying the overalls.
“If my pa finds out I peed my breeches, he’ll beat me black and blue. He says you ain’t a man if you piss your breeches.” Richard was scrubbing furiously on the overalls as he said this more to himself than the wolves. Holding it up, the water cascaded out the leg hems. Turning it around to look at the backside, he noticed that the seat was brown with filth. As he dropped the garment into the water, he looked around for a rough rock to scrub with. With the constant flow of water, stones in the creek were polished to a smooth, glass-like surface. As he got closer to the edge of the bank, scrutinizing every rock and picking some up only to toss them away, something dropped into the water in front of him with a plop, splashing him in the face. As he wiped his face, he let out a pained cry when his fingers traveled over his split lip. Holding his hand out, the watered-down blood trailed down his fingers. Stooping down, he began splashing his face with a grimaced look.
He stood up and shook vigorously from head to toe. Looking up at Dawn, a big grin exposed a few missing teeth, “I learned that from Coon, my dog. Poppa put him down last year when we still lived in California.” Dawn glanced to Midnight. Richard felt around for the roughness of the new rock. It wasn’t a large one, but it was flint and he handled it carefully, adjusting his grip on it to avoid the sharp edges.
Grabbing his overalls, he tramped over to a deeper area of the creek and sat down on the smaller pebbles in the water. He scooted down until he was up to his stomach in water and began wiggling his backside into the small pebbles, burrowing into them as a toad does in the mud. This was his favorite way to relax in the creek when he wasn’t helping his father. “I sure do miss Coon.” Richard worked the flint rock with an absent mind along the denim of the pockets, scrapping the dirt and mud off occasionally dunking it into the water and rubbing it with his open hand. One of his fingers started bleeding and Richard placed it into his mouth. Looking up at Midnight, “Why’d you bite me so hard for?” The black wolf huffed and turned his back to him and laid down.
Time passed slowly as Richard finished getting the mud off his overalls. Holding up his work, “That’s gotta do.” Richard stood, putting his legs in and fumbling with the clasps. His stomach was rumbling as he placed a hand on it. Looking up and shading his eyes, “No wonder I’m hungry. I missed lunch time,” rubbing his stomach. A picture of him getting his hair wet stopped him in his steps. Looking in the direction of the wolves, “Why do I need to get my hair wet?” A new image of him reaching out with his cane pole trying to get unhooked from a low-hanging branch and falling into the creek explained the answer. “That way, I’m soaked from head to toe?” Midnight appeared over the side of the bank, gave a small nod and turned away down the path. Walking back to the deeper area, he set his feet into the pebbles underneath the water and doubled over, dunking his head in the water. Standing tall, he again shook like dog, flinging water droplets in every direction. Climbing the bank, he ran to catch up to the wolves.
“I’m gonna get me some lunch and I’ll be back later for some more fishing,” he said as he ran between the two towards his home. Spinning to face them, “It would best if ya’ll stayed away from the house, just-in-case my poppa is home early. He hates wolves.” His dirty heels kicked up dirt as he left the two wolves standing in the path.
“Momma! Guess what?” the words flew from his mouth as he burst through the door. “Some wolves saved me from a mountain lion today.”
“Richard Elliot! Just look at you, you’re a filthy mess. Out. Out. Out.”
“But Momma, it’s true.”
Drawing her words out, “I don’t wanna hear any ifs, ands, or buts about it. Outside, now. I’ll get you some clothes and a warshcloth.”
“Argh, fine,” as the door closed behind him. As he waited outside, a high-pitched caa rent the air. Turning around, a common grackle was walking towards him. Something was different about this one, it didn’t have iridescent colors flashing in the sunlight, but was solid black. Another caa brought his attention up to see an all white grackle gliding towards him on stiff wings. Landing with a few hops, they two birds looked at him with inquisitive, beady eyes.
“Heaven sake’s alive, they’re a coming in the yard now. Get out of here! Shoo! Shoo!” Patricia was flailing the clothing at the birds trying to scare them off. The two birds let out a loud, alarmed screech as their wings spread out, lifting them to the safety of the air. “It’s bad enough they’re a eating our cornfields, now they’re after my garden as well. After lunch, I want you to walk down to the field and check on it. Okay?”
“Sure, ma.” His head was downcast as she placed the clean overalls on his shoulder and handed him the washcloth.
“You don’t need to use soap, just get the most of it off.” She placed a hand on his head. “Why are you soaking wet? Can’t you play in the creek without laying down in it?”
“Oh, my hook got hung up on a root and I was a trying to get it out. I was reaching way out over the creek and fell in.”
With a gentle hand, she lifted his chin, “Your lip is swollen. Did you hit it when you fell?”
Looking around, “Yeah. I don’t know if it was a rock or a root though.”
With a smile, she bent over and placed a kiss on his forehead, “You’ll be okay. I’ve seen much worse out of you when you were little and you’re still here giving me grief. Wash up and I’ll get your lunch ready.” Turning, she disappeared into the house, leaving Richard walking sullenly towards the rusty water pump over the well.
Richard’s lunch was a distracted blur as he spent most of the time looking longingly out the window. Now following the fence row towards the field, his mind kept going back to the black and white birds in the yard. They had looked like grackles, but, he couldn’t recall any being white or lacking the colorful flashes of blues and purples.
Barking dogs brought him out of his thoughts. Looking around, he spotted a pair of Labrador Retrievers eagerly approaching from the treeline. The larger of the two was solid black, while the other was white with a pink nose. The white dog began wagging its tail as it got closer.
“Dawn? Midnight? Is that you?” A yip from the white one affirmed his suspicions. “I thought you were wolves though?” Proving the point, Midnight hunched over in a bracing stance and Richard’s eyes went wide as the Labrador slowly increased in muscle and tissue as it took on a wolf-like appearance. After the hair extended to the full length, the wolf let out a long, howl to the sky.
Carl was closing the mailbox beside the road, when a sound of his past echoed over the land. He knew it from when he was a logger and vowed never to forget it; the call of a wolf. Dropping everything, he raced down the pot-holed driveway cursing himself for not getting another dog for Richard. Adrenaline surging through his body, he leapt onto the porch, clearing the steps.
Throwing the front door open, screaming, “Patricia! Patricia where’s Richard? Where is he?” His Winchester model 94 gleamed in its owner’s grasp.
“Honey, what’s wrong? Why…”
“Where’s Richard? Where is he?”
“He went to check on the field, but he could be down at the creek. What…”
Carl didn’t wait for her to finish as the screen door slammed against the house. The creek was closer and he knew that his son would more than likely be there than anywhere else. As he sprinted across the yard, his cap fell off leaving his oiled, grey and black hair dancing as he ran. The tears threatened his eyes as he blinked hard to push them away.
The shadows began to swallow him as he plunged into the treeline. He knew his son’s favorite spots to play and fish, making a bee-line for them. With ragged breaths, he came to the first spot along the creek. He wasn’t a dedicated tracker, but deer season aided him in deciphering the scene. The damp, loose dirt along the creek held the recent tracks as he saw his son’s footprints along the path. He looked at the ground, searching for blood or torn clothing. Noticing a mud-hole along the path, he clearly saw Richard’s footprints heading back to the house. Going further along the path, the ground was gouged and torn with claw marks. The distant protruding nails of the wolf littered the area. Looking through the disturbed leaves, he saw another set of tracks; mountain lion. Carl’s head began to spin as he tried to understand the tracks. Giving up, he ran back to the first area where most of Richard’s footprints were. He found a fishing pole, intact and laying on the ground. Again, he searched for signs of blood and found none. If he wasn’t here, he was in the field. With a quick wipe of his face, Carl flew down the path, making haste to the field.
Richard was sitting in the shade in awe as images of the night in February flooded his mind. He never forgot that night the search lights lit up the night sky. It was hard to comprehend that it had only been a short few months ago that their ship was the reason for that night’s excitement. Midnight interrupted the images with a picture of a man running with a desperate look, as a gun swung back and forth in front of him pulling him forward.
“Pa!” As he looked towards the gate, his father’s voice calling his name echoed the concern on his face.
“Pa.” Richard ran into his father’s arms.
“Son, you’re okay. I was so worried about you. What are you doing out here?”
“Ma asked me to check on the field and I got to playing with some dogs that found me.”
Carl looked ahead at the two dogs sitting a few feet away, “Are they friendly?”
“Sure. They’re smart too. Could we keep them? You talked about getting another dog after Coon died.”
Carl broke free from Richard and walked over to the dogs with his gun in front of him. The dogs were calm as they looked up at him with their deep, intelligent, blue eyes. He could see that they were not threatened by his gun. Holding out a limp hand to the black Labrador, it leaned forward and sniffed his hand and returned to a resting position. He did the same to the white one, it also leaning forward to sniff his hand and then bumping his palm with its nose for a head rub. Carl gently rubbed behind the right ear as Dawn leaned into his hand.
“Have you named them yet?”
Richard stepped up beside his father, pointing first to the black one, “This is Midnight, and that one is Dawn. Can I keep them?”
Carl was silent, looking between the two dogs, “We’ll talk to your ma about it when we get home.” Grabbing his son by the shoulder, he pulled him into his side as they turned toward their home with the two dogs close behind.