|Works by Bob Stein on Shifti|
The service road was rough enough that Devin didn’t feel anything unusual in the old 4x4’s steering until a sudden metallic squeal and snap came from the front end. He jammed on the brakes instinctively, only to have the right front slam and catch on the ground, causing the borrowed pickup to flip neatly over the edge and tumble end-over-end down the mountainside. He screamed as the world did somersaults around him, throwing up his arms as the windshield exploded. The truck closed in around him, each impact crushing the cab down a little more. He threw himself sideways across the bench seat just before a final, bone-jarring thud sent him spinning into darkness.
Something was grunting close to Devin’s ear. He struggled awake, trying to make sense of confused memories and strange surroundings. As eyes focused, he found himself staring at a dark blue plastic panel with a chromed nameplate proclaiming ‘Cheyenne.’ Right. Andy’s truck. Oh, shit. He’d gone off the road! It was hard to move, but he did a quick test of limbs and was relieved to find everything seemingly operational. Was he bleeding? In shock? And what the hell was grunting? He twisted his head back to look for the source, and then screamed as something soft and rubbery pulled at his face.
Squirming back in a panic, he discovered the driver’s door was either open or gone. He had to fumble with the old seatbelt latch a moment to get free, and slid out of the cab onto mossy, damp ground. Taking a deep, shuddery breath, Devin gaped at the crumpled vehicle. Unrecognizable except for the color, the old Chevy was less than half its original size. The roof was crushed down to the level of the dashboard, and both the camper shell and cargo bed were missing. After staring a moment, he threw up violently on the ground.
Oddly, he felt better afterwards. Maybe because there was no blood in the bile. In fact, he seemed to be mostly unhurt except for some dull aches that promised impressive bruising later on. He brushed bits of glass from his blond hair and shoulders, then stood up shakily. The camper shell was dangling from tree branches about a hundred feet up the steep slope, with the road probably another couple of hundred feet above that. It would be a tough climb, but he was lean, fit and young.
He’d almost forgotten about the strange contact when he heard a louder, deeper grunt from the other side of the wreckage. The noise was vaguely familiar, not quite the sound of a pig, but close. As he moved around the front for a look, something large and dark thrashed violently on the ground. “Shit!” He jumped back, heart pounding. A large caribou was caught under the front of the truck. From the short antlers, it was probably a female. It was also dying.
The animal flailed its forelegs weakly, blowing bloody froth from its mouth with each panting breath. Its hindquarters were pinned under the wreckage, apparently crushed by the impact. Devin clenched his fists, hating to see her suffer. Caribou were beautiful animals. They were common throughout Alberta, and popular targets for hunters. However, this one should have been safe, for they were in the fringes of Jasper National Park. Safe from bullets, but not falling trucks. Just when he thought he couldn’t feel any worse, another, much smaller shape stumbled awkwardly into view. A calf, newborn or hours old, with remnants of the umbilical dangling from its belly.
“Aw, crap.” Devin felt his eyes burn and tear up as his gut tightened. The calf must have been lipping him before. It stared up at him, obviously confused, and grunted plaintively. Then it dropped its head to sniff and then nosed its mother’s side. She lifted her head a few inches, eyes showing white, and then fell back. Scratch two caribou, for the calf didn’t have a prayer out here on its own.
Did the Park have any kind of rescue service? If he could get the calf someplace it could be bottle fed… that thought died as he remembered where he was. Dammit! Just getting himself out of this ravine would be difficult enough. And he was miles from anywhere. The Service Road had seemed like a good idea, since it cut directly over from 16 to 103. Andy had told him about the shortcut when he’d handed over keys to his truck. “Nobody uses it this time of year, and you’ll save an hour getting through Jasper.”
Just how far was he from any kind of help? At least 30 miles from Jasper. And he’d been on this service road a good ten or fifteen miles. Naturally, the truck had picked the halfway point to break. Devin looked back up the rugged mountainside and frowned. He was in good shape, but trying to scale that and also hike long distance without proper gear was going to a problem. And it would be dark soon. Just perfect.
Another soft grunt drew his attention back to the calf, who was snuffling the mother’s belly where it disappeared under the mangled metal. Unable to comprehend what had happened, it was trying to reach the teats that it knew meant food. Devin moved cautiously around the mother. She was barely breathing now, but might still manage to snap or kick at him to protect her young. The calf twisted around and sniffed at him, and then resumed trying to reach the elusive udder.
“Hello, little guy.” Devin spoke softly, and reached out to gently stroke the soft fur on the baby’s flank. It flinched a little, but did not even look up from its quest. It must have already decided he was no threat. Devin squatted down and peered under the wreckage. The female’s odor was strong and acrid, her hide mated with sweat. Her udder was swollen with milk, but it was too far back for the struggling calf’s lips to reach. An experimental push against the truck failed to budge it. The calf grunted and snuffled at him, then nosed his chest.
Tears ran down Devin’s cheeks. Dammit, this was all so unfair! The mother should have been safe down here in the ravine, her baby should have had a life that could measured in years, not hours. Now it would starve to death with the food it needed just inches away. There had to be something he could do. He placed a trembling hand on the mother’s side. “I’m so sorry. I know you’re scared and hurting. And me being here is probably making it worse. But I want to try to help your baby here, even if it’s just for a little while.” He spoke soothingly, stroking the dense fur a little longer before pulling the calf away form the gap. “Let me try something, little guy.”
Lying on his belly, Devin had no problem reaching the teats. How did these things work? Famers milked cows. He struggled to remember old TV shows or biology textbooks. The first touch of his hand caused the mother to quiver, and he jerked it away. “I’m trying to help your baby.” He whispered more to himself than anything, building up the courage to try again. This time he wrapped fingers around a teat and pulled down. A squirt of liquid hit the ground.
After a few more tries, Devin manages to fill one cupped palm with milk and slid out carefully. The calf sniffed and almost instantly had licked up the still-warm nourishment. By the time the mother’s udder was empty, Devin’s hand and arms were screaming in agony. However, the calf appeared to be satisfied for now, and contented itself with snuffling and nuzzling him.
The mother gave a wheezing grunt. Her eyes no longer showed white, but that could be due to impending death. Still, he slid up and gently lifted her head into his lap. Her nostrils quivered, probably catching a mix of her own milk-scent and the calf, who came over to touch its nose to hers. It was enough to get Devin’s tears flowing again. “It’s all I can do. I’m sorry.”
He could see himself reflected in her liquid brown orb. There were impressions of curiosity, confusion, sadness, concern for the baby. Devin blinked, feeling a little confused himself. Where was that coming from? Yet the longer he stared at her, the stronger those feelings got. The calf lipping at his neck seemed more important, both creating and filling a need that had never existed before.
Devin blinked. The calf was laying down beside him, sleeping. How had it moved so quickly? He must have dozed off. A glance down told him that the caribou mother was dead. He slid out from under her and gently lowered her head to the ground. Nature would not be so kind – predators would rip her carcass to shreds. His gut clenched suddenly. Damn! Predators! Here he was with a newborn calf and a dead adult, both prime targets for wolves, bears, and whatever other carnivores might be wandering the woods. He looked around, alert for sounds or movement. He needed to get away fro here, to get the calf someplace safe.
The calf struggled up as soon as Devin stood, and stayed close as he moved around the wreckage to make a quick search. Here was nothing useful he could see – everything loose must have been scattered down the side of the mountain. The smart thing to do was to climb back up to the road. Someone was bound to come along. But that meant abandoning the calf. He couldn’t do that. It took a moment before he realized it was more than just lingering guilt. The thought of leaving the calf was as abhorrent as chewing off his own arm. If a pack of wolves attacked right now, he was quite certain he would die to protect it.
Although he was disturbed by that, Devin focused on getting out of here. He needed to find a path back to the road that the calf could follow. The service road had dipped down a few miles back. There would be less to climb, anyway. He sighed, then started walking in what he hoped was the right direction. The calf grunted and scampered to follow. It might have been Devin’s imagination, but as the wreckage was lost from view he thought he could see dark shapes already slinking towards it.
Night fell quickly, and after being unable to find any sign of the road above, Devin decided to stop and rest. The calf butted against his leg and nosed his belly, grunting insistently. “Sorry, little guy. I don’t have anything for you.” There was no shelter around, and he silently cursed himself for not at least trying to find his jacket. Even mid-May, it still got cool at night. He’d be pretty chilly. And hungry. Devin looked at the calf sadly. It was already hungry. How far could they get before lack of nourishment made it too weak to follow?
Scouting around, Devin located a hollow filled with decaying leaves. It would make a good place to rest. The strong odor of the natural mulch would help hide their scents from predators, and he had a clear view of the area. How did he know that? He shrugged to himself. Well, it made sense, anyway. Though it wouldn’t be much help if they did get attacked, he also located a stout length of an old branch to use as a club. Then he settled into the leaves with the calf huddled next to him, and tried to rest.
He came awake sometime during the night. Although it was uncomfortably cool, what had disturbed his sleep was prodding and licking on his stomach. The calf had pulled up his shirt and was searching for dinner. “Wish I could help, little guy.” He tried to push his shirt back into his pants, but the calf pulled it out and resumed nosing. Sighing, Devin decided to let the calf satisfy itself that nothing was there. He lay back in the leaves, staring up at the dark silhouettes of branches over head.
It seemed less cold when he opened his eyes again, though it was still dark. The calf hadn’t given up, or was trying again. He felt the lips tug and pull, and then a strange sensation almost like urinating. Huh? Pushing up to his elbows, Devin stared groggily down at his stomach. The calf was busy lipping and pulling at dark protrusions that seemed to be attached to Devin’s belly. The odd urinating sensation came back, pulsing in time with the calf’s efforts. There was something wrong with that, but the activity relieved pressure in his gut and also satisfied a curious need that he couldn’t quite identify. Fatigue won out over curiosity, and after detecting no threat, he lay back and slept again.
The reddish glow of sunrise was visible through the trees when he woke next. .He felt surprisingly comfortable. The leaves must have made a good blanket, and the calf was pressed against him. He sniffed at it, finding comfort in the familiar scent, then stood up and shook himself. Still not quite awake, he realized he really needed to take a piss. Moving away from the still-sleeping calf, he undid his jeans and faced one of the pine trees. Then yelped as hot liquid sprayed down into the seat of his pants.
Bewildered, he stumbled back from the tree, yanking his soaked jeans and underpants down. The organ he expected to see was no longer protruding from his crotch. Instead, there were two protrusions from a dark swelling a bit higher up. An udder and teats. Just like the ones on the mother caribou. As his head cleared, Devin remembered some strange dreams during the night. The calf lipping and pulling, nursing. Reaching back, he slid his fingers over his buttocks. There were several things wrong.. He felt dense hair covering the skin, and after identifying the one familiar opening, discovered a new one below. He was a she.
Devin grunted out a laugh. Oh, right. He was a female. A female caribou, if the udder was any indication. At least this was a really interesting dream. There was movement behind as the calf lurched up and stumbled over. It found the imaginary teats and began nursing hungrily. Devin grunted again at the curious feelings, pressure and release. He felt relaxed, satisfied. Nice dream. Her nostrils quivered, and she flicked her ears.
Huh? She shook her head, then reached up to feel her face. Her mouth and nose were pushed out, not quite a muzzle, but not far from it. Ears had migrated higher on her had, and when she checked her forehead she discovered large bumps that grew out noticeably as she stood there in shock. Grunting in fear, she pulled away form the calf, who protested and tried to find her teat again.
What was going on here? Devin stared at herself. Thick brown fur was spreading up her chest, which had barreled slightly. Her hands throbbed, and the four fingers on each slowly merged into two digits that became dark and hard. Something in-between hooves and hands. The weight of her antlers increased,, as did the intensity of her senses. That included her awareness of the calf, who had resumed nursing, and of the presence of... others.
Blinking, Devin stared as a dozen caribou emerged from the trees. Part of a larger herd, no doubt, perhaps investigating the scent of the calf. A magnificent stag ambled close and sniffed at the calf, then at her. Devin remained still as he inspected her, afraid and excited. If she was going to save the calf, she had to be accepted, be part of a herd. She tried to resist that mindset, but the calf’s needs were dominant.
Teeth closed on the fabric of her shirt, and the male yanked hard enough to make her stagger. The garment ripped free with surprising ease, leaving her naked. Devin trembled, her mind whirling. This couldn’t be real. The male plodded around her, snuffling and licking her sex, then continuing around and facing her again. He grunted loudly, then nosed her muzzle. His breath, his scent filled her nostrils, and she felt yet another connection reach out and bind her.
When the male turned and ambled into the woods, Devin followed with the other females. She could see more of the herd now, with young calves scampering nearby. Other animals snuffled and lipped at her in greeting, reinforcing the sense of belonging. And thought Devin was sacred out of her mind, she was also fascinated by the possibilities. She wasn’t an animal – she still had hands of a sort and walked on two legs. And despite the strong instincts that were still growing, she had not lost any of herself.
Her calf trotted alongside, stopping occasionally to sniff at some leaves or a strange plant. Devin knew that it truly was her calf now, her responsibility. Somehow, she’d become a surrogate mother. But for how long? Once the calf was weaned, she might change back. Assuming she didn’t follow any of the other urges that had surged when the male was near her. She flicked her ears, finding those urges more interesting as she thought about them.
There was no point in bemoaning her fate, or worrying about the future. For now, Devin decided to accept her lot and enjoy the maternal pleasures granted her by whatever power had reshaped her. Somehow, she had the feeling that the outcome would be up to her. Movement and grunting alerted her, and she nosed the calf away from its investigations. Her herd was on the move.