In the Colorado mountain town of Steamboat Springs there must be three hundred dogs. Jack's malamute, McKinley, is the leader of them all. But Jack, being human, has no way of knowing that. For him, his family's dog is just a great pal. And protector. Jack cannot know that Redburn, a "leash-licking" Irish setter, is McKinley's rival for the job of head dog. The boy cannot know, with the sudden hillside appearance of a she-wolf, Lupin, that not only McKinley's job -- but his life -- is in danger. Lupin's message: Dogs free yourselves from mankind. Come join us, we who need you to replenish our diminishing wolf pack in the wild. But imagine how a good dog, loyal to his human pup, would hear Lupin's call! McKinley's thrilling story tells itself, as first he and the boy together encounter Lupin in a canyon perfect for an old-time ambush, and later as they try to save her from both Redburn and a neighbor, a vicious man armed with a gun and a grudge. No one -- not even McKinley -- can foresee the end.
McKinley had been sleeping in the front yard bushes. Hearing the familiar voice, he lifted his head and looked around with sleepy eyes. He was just in time to see Jack, his human pup, skid so fast on his mountain bike that gravel scattered everywhere. The boy leaped off the bike, raced across the place where the cars sat, and ran into the house.
Now what? McKinley wondered.
Though he would have liked to sleep more, McKinley stood, yawned, stretched his muscles until they were tight, then relaxed them until they were loose. Shaking his head, he jangled his collar tags, and then ambled toward the house.
By the time McKinley reached the door, it had already swung shut. As he had taught himself to do, he bent down, wedged a large forepaw where there was a gap beneath the door, extended his claws, and pushed. The door popped open a little.
Sticking his nose into the gap, McKinley shoved the door further open and squirmed inside. Once there, he sniffed. Smelling dinner, he trotted down the hallway, wagging his tail, till he heard Jack saying, "Dad, I'm not making it up. I really saw a wolf."
McKinley stopped short. His tail drooped. Was that the wolf word the boy had used?
When he was young -- Jack had also been much younger -- McKinley had spotted a wolf during a walk with his people. It was just a glimpse, but the people had seen it, too. They had become very excited. That's when McKinley learned the wolf word. He could recall the wolf's reek, a mix of deep woods, dark earth, and fresh meat. Its wildness had frightened him. And excited him. But that was a long time ago.
Wide awake now, McKinley hurried past the large room and into the small food place.
Jack was talking to the man of the family. Sometimes the man was called Dad, sometimes Gil. McKinley liked him and the way he always smelled of the outdoors.
"Now, hang on, Jack," the man said. "You sure it wasn't just a big old German shepherd? They can look a lot like a wolf."
McKinley stood still, his head cocked. There it was again, the wolf word.
"No way, Dad," the human pup answered. "You know how much I've read about wolves. I'm sure this was one. I mean, yeah, at first I thought it was McKinley. But it wasn't."
Wanting to understand more, McKinley jumped onto one of the sitting places near where the humans put their food when they ate. Mouth slightly open, tail wagging, he sat, turning from the pup to the man as each spoke.
"I'm not saying you're wrong," the man said. "Just, if you're right, it's pretty amazing. Hasn't been a wolf sighted around here for years. Remember the time we spotted one up in the Zirkel Wilderness? But not here in Steamboat Springs."
McKinley saw Jack look around. "Where's Mom?"
At the mention of Jack's female -- the boy called her Mom, the man called her Sarah -- McKinley barked once. The woman spent time on Most Cars Way in a place where there was lots of food, and often brought him treats -- like bones.
Gil said, "She has to work the dinner shift. So it'll be just you and me tonight. Sausages and carrots. And your mom made bread. Now keep talking as you set the table."
Jack all but threw down his eating sticks and tall, clear bowls as he chattered. "I was a little scared," he was saying. "I mean, that wolf really surprised me. I think I surprised him, too."
The human pup poured water for himself and the man into the tall bowls, then thumped down onto the sitting place. McKinley edged closer to the boy.
"Here's grub," the man said as he brought food to the boy and sat across from him. "And I'm starving."
McKinley, eyeing the food, drooled and licked his own nose.
"I was marking trail up by Rabbit Ears Pass all day," the man said. "Fair amount of snow up there already. Promises a good season."
"Hear that, McKinley?" Jack cried. "Snow is coming!"
Snow, a word McKinley knew and loved. He barked in appreciation.
"But go on," the man said to the pup. "Tell me exactly what you saw."
Jack spoke between mouthfuls. "See -- the wolf had this thick, gray fur coat -- with sort of flecks of gold. His head was wide -- his muzzle was light colored -- and I think he had a limp."
"Was he bigger than McKinley?"
Jack turned toward him. McKinley, wishing the human pup would calm down and speak slower, leaned over and licked his face.
"A lot skinnier," Jack said, wiping his cheek with the back of a hand. "Longer legs, too. Gray fur. Not blackish."
"You didn't see a collar, did you?"
"Describe his eyes."
McKinley watched closely as Jack swallowed the last of the sausage. "Not, you know, brown and round like McKinley's. Like, sort of yellowish. And, you know, egg-shaped."
The man reached for his tall bowl and drank. Then he said, "Well, that's certainly wolflike. Where'd you see him?"
"Up in Strawberry Park."
McKinley yawned with nervousness. Strawberry Park was a small valley outside of Steamboat Springs. It was hemmed in by forested hills, and beyond, by snow-peaked mountains. Looming over everything was the great mountain, where most of the humans did their snow sliding.
There were only a few houses in the area, and the dogs who lived there ran completely free. McKinley was head dog there as well as in town.
"What were you doing there?" Gil asked.
Jack shrugged. "School was out. I was exploring."
"McKinley with you?"
Jack gave his dog a quick smile. "Wish he was."
Liking the attention, McKinley barked.
"Hey, how about feeding him his dinner?"
"McKinley, I'm sorry!"
The pup leaped up.
McKinley watched as Jack snatched his food bowl from the floor, then reached into a food box. The boy put some bits into the bowl, added water, and set it back on the ground. As a final touch, he placed two dog biscuits on top.
McKinley wagged his tail, jumped off the sitting place, and went for the wet food, gulping down the biscuits first.
"Jack," Gil said, "if that was a wolf -- and I'm not saying it wasn't -- there are going to be lots of people in town stirred up. Generally speaking, folks don't like wolves."
McKinley stopped eating to look around. There it was again, the wolf word.
"I know, Dad," Jack said. "People say wolves are mean and vicious. They aren't. Look at McKinley."
"McKinley is a malamute," Gil said. "Not a wolf."
"Part wolf," Jack insisted.
"Well, maybe so, way back. Not now. Look Jack, the point is, this is still ranching country. If people learn there's a wolf nearby, some of them will be wanting to hunt it down. Kill it. I'm serious, Jack. Since you like wolves, be smart. Don't let anybody know what you saw."
The words hunt and kill unsettled McKinley. Hunting was not something that Jack's family did. But there were many humans in town -- and their dogs -- who hunted. For McKinley it meant danger. Just the sense of it made him bark.
Avi is the author of more than seventy books for children and young adults, including the 2003 Newbery medal winner Crispin: The Cross of Lead. He has won two Newbery Honors and many other awards for his fiction. He lives with his family in Denver, Colorado. Visit him at Avi-Writer.com.