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Authors: C. Alexander London

The Wild Ones

BOOK: The Wild Ones
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THE WILD ONES

C. Alexander London

PHILOMEL BOOKS
An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA)

P
HILOMEL
B
OOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014

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A Penguin Random House Company

Copyright © 2015 by C. Alexander London.

Map and interior art copyright © 2015 by Levi Pinfold.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

London, C. Alexander, author. The wild ones / C. Alexander London. pages cm.

Summary: After his parents are killed, Kit, a young raccoon, sets off for the city with a stone that may be the key to finding the Bone of Contention, a legendary object that is proof of a deal giving the wild animals the rights to Ankle Snap Alley, which the dogs and cats—known as the Flealess—want back and are willing to kill for.

1. Raccoon—Juvenile fiction. 2. Animals—Juvenile fiction. 3. Quests (Expeditions)—Juvenile fiction. 4. Territoriality (Zoology)—Juvenile fiction. [1. Raccoon—Fiction. 2. Animals—Fiction. 3. Fantasy.] I. Title.

PZ7.L8419Wi 2015 [Fic]—dc23 2014040349

ISBN 978-0-698-17415-3

Version_1

Contents

Also by C. Alexander London

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Map

Part I

DECENT HOUSE PETS

RACCOON RUN

THE SHORT GOOD-BYE

Part II

AN HONEST FELLOW

FRIENDS OF THE FUR

SURE BETS

TRAPPED RAT

HOWL TO SNAP

THE BROOD

RIKY TWO RINGS

A DEBT IS DUE

RETIREMENT FUND

Part III

KIT CASSEROLE

THE PARISH SCRIBE

ONE-HUNDRED-HEADED CANNIBAL

GIVE A HOOT

THE RATS REMEMBER

A RAT OF ACTION

THE BOSS'S BET

TOOTHSOME

LOST AND FOUND

DEAL BREAKER

Part IV

THE DOG'S DAY

PAMPHLETEERS

HOME IS WHERE THE FIGHT IS

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

THE BARK OF BATTLE

CLAWS UP

A DEAL'S A DEAL

WILD LIFE

To Brian Jacques,
whose books made me
a reader,
and to M
r. Xanders, who made
me read them

Part I

RACCOON
ON THE RUN

Chapter On
e

DECENT HOUSE PETS

OF
all the alleys beneath the Slivered Sky where the animals of fur and feather make themselves at home, Ankle Snap Alley was the most notorious. It was known far and wide as a den of thieves and crooks and cheats. In Ankle Snap Alley, honest folk were rare as roses in winter, and a decent house pet from a good home would never set foot in such a garbage heap.

And yet, one night, not all that long ago, a whisper-thin silver dog came creeping into the winding paths of the alley. The dog was a miniature greyhound. He stepped
daintily across the broken concrete, hopped over weed-choked trash, and skirted the rusted skeleton of a bicycle, which he glanced at with disgust.

The dog's collar was fine leather, and two jingling tags hung off it. One tag said he'd had all his shots from the veterinarian, and the other gave the address of the home where his People fed him and bathed him and invited him to sleep at the foot of their soft feather bed.

The dog froze in place, lifted one paw from the earth, and sniffed at the moon-kissed air. He swiveled his thin neck around and saw a glint of yellow eyes in the shadow between two buildings. A tiny bell made a delicate tinkling noise. The jingle of the dog's tags answered the bell. That was the signal. The dog was in the right place.

“Do you have information for me?” he asked the shadowy figure. Although the miniature greyhound's body was dainty, his voice was deep and rumbling, like dynamite in a silk purse.

Two yellow eyes blazed from the shadows. “Me?” the other creature replied. “No, I do not.”

The dog snarled. “How dare you call me out here at this undogly hour and waste my time with no information.”

“Listen more carefully, Titus,” hissed the creature in the shadows. “I said
I
don't have information for you. But
he
does.”

There was a flash of orange claw as the figure shoved a
small animal from the shadows into a puddle of moonlight. It was a black-and-white woodpecker with a shock of red plumage atop its head. It looked about frantically. The little bird's wings were bound to its body by a rubber band, and a metal paper clip clamped its beak shut. One of the bird's eyes was swollen shut, and it hopped forward with a distinct limp.

“He took some
convincing,
” the shadowy figure said. “But I promised if he talked I wouldn't eat his head.”

The bird squealed through his clamped beak.

“Now tell him what you told me,” the creature ordered the bird. “Have they found the Bone of Contention?”

The bird shook his head no. The dog exhaled with relief.

“But they've found a clue,” said the figure in the shadows. “He saw 'em buy a stone from a traveling deer. It had the markings of Azban, the First Raccoon, on it. Isn't that so?”

The bird nodded yes.

The dog sighed. “So they're closer than ever to finding the Bone?”

“If you believe the Bone is real,” said the shadowy voice. “Cats don't put much faith in the old stories.”

“You cats were wild in the old days,” said Titus. “We dogs were not. We know the Bone of Contention is real. And that is why it must never be found.” The dog narrowed his eyes at the woodpecker. “Tell me, bird, where do they live?”

“Mrrpm, mrrm, mrrrp,” said the bird through his clipped beak.

“Hush,” said the dog. “Don't talk.” He slid a piece of tree bark forward on the ground and placed it directly beneath the bird in the white moonlight. “Write.”

The bird bent its head and pecked at the bark on the ground; the
tap-tap-tap
of its beak echoed in the quiet. When it was done, the dog looked at the address the woodpecker had pecked.

“Thank you,” he said. Then he spoke to the yellow-eyed shadow. “Sixclaw, you'll take care of them?”

The figure in the shadows laughed. “You dogs never say what you mean. ‘Take
care
of them'?”

“You know what I mean.”

“You want them dead?”

“I want them dead,” Titus agreed. “No one can ever find the Bone of Contention. Especially not the stinking raccoons, not their stinking children, not their children's children . . . who I am certain will also stink.”

The creature stepped from the shadow into the circle of moonlight beside the captive woodpecker. He was an orange-and-white cat wearing a purple collar on which hung a small bell that chimed every time he moved. “My services do not come cheap,” he said.

“When the job is done, you'll get more than you could ever desire,” Titus said.

“I can desire a lot,” Sixclaw answered. “A cat's appetites are bottomless.”

“Well, you can whet your appetite with this little bird here,” said Titus. The bird's eyes widened, and the cat grinned from ear to ear. His pink tongue danced across his razor-sharp teeth.

Titus turned to go, picking his way back over the strewn garbage and overgrown grass of the alley, cautious with every placement of his paws. He hated to visit this filthy place and hated to do business with cats like Sixclaw, who were half wild in spite of their collars and dishes of milk left out on porches. Sometimes unpleasant alliances were necessary, even between cats and dogs. They were on the same side after all, when it came to ridding themselves of the vermin of Ankle Snap Alley.

As he left the cat and his prey behind, he turned his head back with a jingle of dog tags. “When you eat the bird, leave his head for the vermin to find,” he called back. “As a warning from the Flealess. Their time is up.”

Chap
ter Two

RACCOON RUN

RUN!
Kit scrambled on all four paws, charging across the field for the tree line. The big sky above was bright blue, and the sun blazed yellow with the glare of day. He had been woken from a deep sleep in his burrow, and now a pack of hunting dogs howled and snarled on his heels.

They had his scent, five of them, all bred to kill. They could outrun a fox or a rabbit, and they could certainly outrun a woodland raccoon like Kit. He'd never been chased before; he didn't know what to do.

His instincts screamed at him to move and to move fast, while his mind raced to catch up with his body.

In his head, his mother's shout echoed. “Kit! Wake up! They're here for us! Run!”

His lungs burned, his legs ached, but he ran as fast as he could. Why were they chasing him? And what had they done to his parents?

“Keeping running, lad,” the leader of the pack of dogs called out. “It'll be that much more fun when we tear you to pieces.”

The other dogs howled and jeered. He could smell their hot breath. His senses prickled, and he dared a glance over his shoulder.

They were nearly on him!

The massive bloodhounds wore thick leather collars. Their brown ears fluttered like banners, their fangs glistened with slobber. The leader of the pack snapped and nearly caught Kit's tail.

He couldn't outrun them.

But he was a raccoon, was he not? Cleverest of the animals, his father always said, a son of Azban, the First Raccoon, who could've tricked the light from the moon if he'd wanted to. Kit couldn't outrun these brutes, but he could outthink them.

What did he know about dogs? What could he do that they couldn't?

An idea slapped him like a branch across the face: He could climb.

He turned sharply, leaping sideways just as the pack leader dove to bite again. The dog's jaws clamped around nothing but grass, and the other dogs tumbled into him from behind, rolling on top of one another in a snarly heap. Kit bolted hard for the nearest tree at the edge of the meadow.

The dogs were on their feet again. He'd cut the distance to the tree in half, but the pack was cutting the distance between them faster. He didn't know if he would make it. The thought of dogs' teeth breaking his fur and gnawing at his bones added speed to his stride. When he reached the tree, he jumped for the trunk and caught on with his claws. He scampered up, catching his breath in the crook of the first branch he grabbed.

The dogs circled the base of the tree, barking mad.

“You get down here and face your doom,” the pack leader demanded.

“Go away,” Kit shouted down at them. “Leave me alone!”

The dogs laughed uproariously at that. One of them laughed so hard he had to lie down and roll on his back, his snout rubbing into the dirt.

“Look, little guy, it's nothing personal,” the pack leader explained. “We've been hired to do a job of killing you, so that's what we've got to do. You come on down and get killed, and that'll be that. I promise, we'll do it quick. It won't hurt . . . much. We won't even eat your head.”

Kit scooted higher up into the tree, so high that the dogs below looked small as mice. He curled into a ball in the safe crook of a branch and shuddered. The dogs paced, waiting for him to tire. But Kit could stay up in the tree for days. The dogs would go eventually. They had collars on; they were People's dogs. They couldn't wait for him forever, could they? Would they?

And, still, the question rattled his mind,
Why?

It had been a beautiful night, the night before. Stars blooming across the sky as thick as thorn bushes and a moon so round and bright it put the daytime sun to shame.

Kit's family burrow was a cozy place, with a nice hole under their big tree to enter through, a great room where his mother and father worked on their archeological discoveries together, while Kit would play outside.

That night, Kit had played in the moonlight with some of the rabbits from the tree next door, showing them how to tie and untie knots in blades of grass. The rabbits were hopeless at it, but they enjoyed watching Kit's nimble fingers.

His mother made an apple grub cake for dinner, while his father studied a strange piece of stone he'd brought back from one of his foraging trips in the city beneath the Slivered Sky.

Kit, being a Big Sky raccoon, was not allowed to accompany his parents on these trips to the city, where the
People's tall buildings cut the sky into slivers, but he loved hearing tales of the goings-on.

“The city's a rough and unforgiving place,” his father explained to him. “If it isn't People trying to trap and kill wild folk like us, it's their terrible house pets hunting us down for sport. Even the other wild animals scheme and plot to take what doesn't belong to them. It's a brutish life in the city, Kit, and you're better off out here in woodlands beneath the Big Sky.”

“But doesn't Uncle Rik live in the city?” Kit asked.

“Your mother's brother does live there,” said Kit's father. “He's more comfortable surrounded by no-good garbage-scrounging liars than your mother and I are.”

“Is that why I've never met Uncle Rik?” Kit wondered.

“He's got important work to do in the city,” Kit's mother told him. “And we've got important work here. I'm sure you'll meet him one day.”

His father returned to studying the piece of stone in his paws. It was perfectly flat on one side, with jagged edges, like it'd been broken off from something bigger. On it there was a paw print, which Kit's parents told him was how the First Animals wrote.

“Did you find that in the city?” Kit asked.

“Not quite.” His father sighed. “I bought it off a traveling deer, who bought it off a nervous gopher, who says
he bought it off a hedgehog in a shop beneath the Slivered Sky. I recognized the footprint right away. Azban, the First Raccoon.”

“What's it say?” Kit asked.

“I've no idea,” said his father. “Your mother's the one who reads the old language.”

“Hey, Ma,” Kit called. “What's this old stone say?”

“I don't know, my son,” she told him. “I've been too busy making your dinner to study it properly yet. Perhaps if you learned to cook, instead of playing with knots, then I'd have more time to do my work—”

“Don't let the boy cook!” his father cried out. “We'll be eating acorn candy and honeycomb pie for every meal.”

The whole family laughed. Kit really loved acorn candy and honeycomb pie.

After dinner, his parents tucked him into his burrow, smoothing the soft moss and letting him nuzzle in their fur.

His mother told him a story, a story of Azban, the First Raccoon, who had tricked Brutus, Duke of Dogs, in a game of chance and won the moonlight from him. From that time on, the People's house pets, the Flealess, were banished to the bright and terrible day. Only the Wild Ones were left free to romp and howl in the cool moonlight as they pleased.

“That's why the Flealess won't leave our kind in
peace,” his mother told him. “They want the moonlight back. They think we cheated it from them.”

“But we didn't, did we, Ma?” Kit asked. “It's just a story, right?”

“You can't steal what is freely given,” his mother told him. “Azban was too clever to cheat. I imagine the truth is he won a game fair and square, and the Flealess are just looking to old stories for an excuse to why they hate our kind . . . but don't you worry about that.” She patted his head. “Out here in the Big Sky there are no Flealess to fret over. It's a nice place to live, isn't it?”

“It is,” Kit agreed and drifted off to sleep just as the sun came up, glad for Azban and the blessed moonlight . . . and then:

HOWL! CRASH!
SHRIEK!

The dogs burst into the raccoon warren. His father was already fighting them in the other room as Kit's mother jostled him awake. She shoved his arms into his jacket, flopped a hat onto his head, and stuffed a pouch of nuts and seeds—emergency money—into his pocket. She told him to run.

She didn't say why or who from or where to.

And now, here he was, confused and frightened, alone up a tree, a raccoon on the run.

•••

“Tough spot, huh, kiddo.” Startled by the unexpected voice, Kit nearly fell out of the nook of his branch. He heard the dinging of a tiny bell. “Relax,” said the voice. “I'm a friend of the fur.”

Kit looked up and saw a bright orange cat with blazing yellow eyes perched on a branch above him. The cat wore a purple collar with a bell on it. The breeze through the tree made the bell chime quietly. It was almost soothing.

Kit's nose worked the air, confused. The cat had the smell of the Flealess—shampoos and People and their fancy foods—but there were no People in this wood, save the hunters and their dogs.

“Who . . . who are you?” Kit stammered.

“A pal of the paw, a friend of the fur, all of one claw, and so forth . . . ,” said the cat. “Why don't you come up here to this branch, where it's safer from those nasty old hounds.”

“I don't know what they want from me,” Kit whined. “I think they . . . hurt my parents.”

“Hush, little fellow,” the cat comforted him. “Come on up here, and we can chat all about it.”

Kit glanced down at the howling dogs below and up at the strange cat above. Then he planted his black claws in the bark and hoisted himself up.

“Nice to meet you, guy,” the cat said. “What's your name?”

“Kit,” Kit said, using his gray-and-black-striped tail to wipe away a tear from the dark fur around his eyes.

The cat put a paw on Kit's shoulder. Kit noticed the cat had six claws on his paws, instead of the usual five. He felt the prickly sensation as the tips of each razor-sharp claw rested against his fur.

“It is good to meet you, Kit. Sixclaw's my name,” the cat said. “For obvious reasons.”

The cat smiled, and Kit laughed.

“You seem like a nice kid, and it is truly sad when bad things happen to nice kids,” Sixclaw added.

Kit nodded.

The cat sighed. “And of course, sadder still is when things seem like they finally might get better but, instead, they get so very, very much worse.”

Kit glanced sideways at the cat, whose mouth had opened into a cut-throat grin. Without another word, the cat shoved Kit from the tree.

Kit fell, and as he fell, he heard the dogs below howl with violent glee.

“Nice one, Sixclaw!” the pack leader shouted, just before Kit hit the ground with a wind-thumping thud.

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