The dog stopped moving, and so did I. We were both momentarily frozen by the unnatural sound.
The bell meant someone or something had reached the camp, had reached Mal.
I raced back up the hill. The same knots that had been hard to navigate before were like thick ropes of root, laid out just to trip me up and keep me from reaching her.
I opened my mouth to cry her name, then hesitated.
What was over the next ridge? What had found our camp?
There were too many possibilities, and very few of them good.
Breakfast wasn't going to just stumble into our mouths.
I tightened my grip on the knife, my fingers growing numb in the process. The last hundred feet or so was a blur of narrow trees and foot trapping roots.
Feverish thoughts filled my head. The fires were closer, but they weren't here yet. Still, the flames brought other things, dark things, and she was alone.
I'm coming, Mal.
I wanted to scream that out, to tell my daughter I was close at hand, but something kept me from speaking. Something held my mouth shut.
I reached the camp and its trip wire, surprised to find the tiny filament still whole, its stolen bell bobbing gently above the knotted ground.
Was it the wind?
That thought might have carried more weight had the winds returned, but they traveled with the fire, and hadn't touched this part of the forest yet.
I stepped over the cord and found her exactly where I'd left her. My Mal was still wrapped up in a ball of quiet slumber. Her body covered in leaves and cheap blankets, and blissfully unaware of the world unfolding around her.
Big, and more angry-looking, versions of the beast I'd caught in my snare, sniffed at my daughter's quiet form.
I tried to remember what to do. We'd never had a dog, but that didn't mean I hadn't spent a little time around canines.
Growing up, we'd had a breeder on the street. Miss Anderson had been a cherubic old woman with a knack for putting the best of golden retrievers together. Her dogs were always in demand, and there had been plenty of Saturday mornings when a parade of cars would come to haul away their prizes.
Still, there was always one or two left after that first week, and as a little kid I considered it my sacred duty to play with those passed over puppies.
Golden orange and friendly, those animals bore no resemblance to the mangy things surrounding my Mal.
Thick fur coated in streaks of ash and matted with what I could only guess was blood or sap. To call these creatures dogs was to harken back to a harsher time. They lived on the fire’s edge. Like a surfer riding the pummeling waves into shore, these dogs, with their burned and ashen fur, rode the fire line.
They were hungry, and the fire line flushed out food.
Food like us.
I counted four of them. The tiny pack was too focused on my daughter to turn their attention to me, at least for the moment. The acrid smoke that lingered in the air brought with it a renewed tension. The fire was coming.
It was always coming.
One against four, but I had my knife, and my wits.
I tried hard to think back to more pleasant times growing up just down the street from the Anderson puppy farm, but my memories, like the forest itself, were scorched and frayed at the edges.
There were no secrets to be gained from those carefree days except one. The puppies always ran when I made myself big. At Mal's age, big had been relative, but holding up a towel in front of me had been enough to double my size.
We'd left towels back in the city, and what remained of it, and Mal slept beneath every blanket we owned, but I was bigger now.
I had hands, and a knife, and that would have to be enough.
I spread my arms wide and took up what meager space my skinny body could, then let them have it.
My words came out as mixture of fear and hatred. I hated this world, and living it in. I hated that Mal would never know life without the fires.
I poured that hate into my words, and into my hands.
"Get away from her!"
Momentarily startled, the animals hesitated, clearly unsure of what to do. Mal might have looked like a tasty treat, but here was a bigger one, and he looked dangerous.
I leaned into that look, waving my arms and stomping my feet. To a casual onlooker, I would have looked like I'd lost my mind, or worse, but to these monsters I wanted to appear too dangerous to mess with. Something higher on the singed edges of the food chain and not worth their time.
The closest canines backed off, unsure what to do, but unwilling to leave their slowly waking breakfast.
"Mal, wake up!"
My daughter did what most five-year-olds did when they were tired. She pulled the blankets tighter and smothered herself beneath a sea of leaves and fabric.
The dogs didn't appear to know what to make of it, and this confusion gave me an advantage. It put wind in my sails and courage in my hand.
I swung the knife back and forth, making sure their dark eyes followed the dulled metal blade.
"Get away from her."
The smaller ones backed up first, their paws light on the fallen leaves and parched ground. They didn't leave her completely. But their snouts were no longer inches from the most important ball of blankets in my life.
"You heard me. Get!"
My trick might have worked with the little ones, but their larger brethren weren't having anything to do with it.
They might have once been someone's pet, ranch dogs or farmer's best friends, but now they were hungry.
I could see it in their eyes.
It was a look I knew well. I saw it reflected in the stilted and ash-choked river water.
Hunger makes strange bedfellows.
We were both riding the fire line, running from the inevitable and scooping up whatever prey a burning world put in our path.
They weren't going anywhere.
So neither was I.
The lead dog, an over-sized lab that must have gotten the bulk of whatever meat they'd found, inched closer to my daughter.
I choked up my grip on the blade. It wasn't much, but it was something.
The big lab lowered its ears and barred its teeth. The growl that followed stirred my daughter in her cocoon.
Smoke burned at my nose. The fires were coming, and faster than I expected, but I couldn't worry about that now.
I only had eyes for the lab.
The big dog pawed at the ground and bobbed his head. I knew that look, because I'd seen it at the Anderson’s puppy farm.
He’s going to jump.
The dog clearly had enough weight to take me down and being on the ground surrounded by these monsters was not where I wanted to be. These weren’t a pack of unclaimed puppies.
I need something bigger.
The knife wasn't going to be enough. There were too many of them.
I got a foot under the nearest burned branch and kicked it up. The lab hesitated. I wasn't just some gangly predator. I was bigger now, and in his world size mattered.
"Get away from her!"
I swung the stick in my hand. I wasn't close enough to hit them, but I could fill the smoky air with a big stick and their dog brains with thoughts of what it would be like to be hit with it.
He hesitated, backing away slowly, teeth still bared and a low rumble in his chest.
"Mallory, get up now!"
My daughter sat up slowly and opened her eyes.
She wasn’t just Mal anymore.
She was Elle.
She was everything I missed about my wife, the confused look on her face in the morning, her hair wild, and lips that appeared poised to ask for coffee.
Mal was my world. Without her, I’d be better off walking into the flames.
She blinked away the smoky bits of night, and Elle vanished. Mallory was all that remained, small, weak, and scared.
"It's okay, just be still and I’ll think of--"
It happened fast, too fast.
I’d spent all my time worrying about the dogs I could see, not the ones I couldn’t.
Sharp teeth bit down on my shoulder as a beast I hadn’t counted on rode me into the ground. I lost the stick, my grip on the knife, and Mallory in the confusion that followed.
Her screams mixed with mine, and with the growling barks of hungry animals.
My traps had come up all but empty.
But theirs had worked to perfection.