Spring comes late to the forests of northern Minnesota. Geese soar in from the south, only to stand flat-footed on frozen lakes, complaining loudly to one another. Bears, groggy and cross, emerge to a world still cloaked in snow. Deer search in vain for tender shoots. Yet the wolf pups pushing their way into the world found their den warm and dry and welcoming.
Their silver mother greeted them, one by one, drying wet fur with her tongue and massaging breath into each tiny body. And though their eyes were sealed, their ears folded tightly against their heads, she could guess already what place each would take in the pack.
"Leader" she named the first brown pup, a vigorous male. The second, a female, she called "Sniffer." And she gave Sniffer's twitching nose an extra lick. Another female arrived, with spindly legs already in motion. "Runner," Silver said. "You will be swift and sure-footed, and the pack will need you." Then she drew the pup toward her nurturing body. The fourth emerged with his brow furrowed. "Thinker," his mother said fondly, licking his forehead smooth. "You will always be watching and planning, won't you?"
The den, dug into a hill above a frozen lake, angled downward from the entrance for six feet, then made a ninety-degree turn and rose for another six feet to the birthing room. The pups' father, King, a large black wolf with a white star on his chest, had been lying at the turn of the narrow tunnel, listening, waiting. As each pup emerged, his tail wagged fiercely. When the fourth pup had settled at the mother's side, King backed rapidly toward the surface.
"Four pups," he told the others waiting there. "Four healthy pups. Each one of them big and strong!" Then he danced, leaping and whirling for the joy of the new life that had come to the pack.
Helper, a young tan male born to these same parents the year before, danced, too. His silver sister, Hunter, joined them. "How fine to have pups!" they sang. How fine, too, no longer to be the youngest, the least in the pack!
Bider, a mature male, pure white, came forward. "What good news, King," he said, lowering his body and reaching up to nudge his leader's chin.
A few moments later, however, when King and the two yearlings lifted their heads to sing the new pups' praise, Bider looked on in silence. Once he, too, had been king. He'd had his own pack, his own pups to sing for. But that was before he had been deposed and driven out to hunt alone in the darkest part of winter. Now he waited, biding his time . . . and another king's pups were not what he was waiting for. He turned from the celebration.
The howl finished, King crawled once more into the den to check on his new family. Leader, Sniffer, Runner, Thinker. What splendid pups!
This time, though, he stopped, puzzled, halfway between the entrance and the birthing room. What was that new smell? He strained to see in the deep dark of the den. The eyes of a wolf gather in even the faintest rays of light, so he could just make out the four brown furry bundles lined up along their mother's belly. They were nursing vigorously, intent on their first meal. King's tail went into motion at the very sight of them.
But Silver was busy with something more. A pup? Was she washing another pup? Yes. This one black like his father, black with a minute white star on his chest.
King's own chest swelled at the sight, and he inched forward eagerly. A look-alike son! What name would his mate choose for this son who wore his black fur and white star?
But Silver offered no name. She only went on licking.
King scooted forward further to check his son himself. He sniffed the new pup from nose to tail, tail to nose again, then drew back slowly.
Something was wrong. The black pup was small. Much too small. And he was not yet breathing.
"Runt!" The name exploded from King. "This one's a runt."
The world beyond the den was a good one, but it was hard. Only the strongest, the best, the most intelligent and competent survived in it. And sometimes not even they. Two of the pups in the last litter had died before they ever emerged from the den. Their mother had taken them, one at a time, off into the forest to bury them. Would she be doing the same again?
At last, under Silver's persistent tongue, the black pup took a breath. Then another. Air filled his tiny lungs, just as it did his brothers' and sisters', and his mother drew him gently toward her belly to begin to nurse.
Only then did Silver acknowledge her mate and the name that had sprung unbidden from his lips. "He may be Runt for now," she said, laying her chin across this latest arrival, "but who knows what gift he may bring to the pack?"
"Who knows?" King repeated softly, though wasn't the pup's mother supposed to know? She always had before. "Maybe," he added, "you have a better name."
Silver was silent for a long time. "No," she said at last, "I know no other. Not yet."
Which only confirmed King's fears. His son was marked for death.
The pups' father looked long and hard at his five offspring, especially at this last, the one whose black fur and white star filled him with such love. Then, tail wagging more slowly this time, he backed toward the surface to carry this further news to the pack.
Leader, Sniffer, Runner, Thinker. Four fine pups.
And Runt. Now there was Runt.
Copyright © 2004 by Marion Dane Bauer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.