Excerpt from “Wild Angel”

At the start of Wild Angel, Sarah McKensie’s parents are murdered. Sarah, at age three, is adopted by a pack of wolves. In this excerpt from Chapter 8, eight-year-old Sarah is thriving with her adopted family.

Sarah remained weaker and slower than her packmates, but she compensated for her physical lacks with her keen intelligence. She learned from observing the creatures in the world around her. Seeing raccoons hunt for frogs in the marshy meadows, she tried it herself — and discovered that spring peepers can be tasty. Watching a spotted skunk raid the nest of a quail, she learned to search out nests and devour the eggs. Observing squirrels feasting on the seeds of the sugar pine, she took to harvesting the cones herself, cracking the nuts between two stones and eating the tasty meat inside.

Though she lacked the strength and stamina of a young wolf, Sarah had abilities that the wolves lacked. When a burr got caught in Rolon’s ear, Sarah’s clever hands yanked it free. She could climb up oak trees and scramble up rocky faces too steep for the wolves to ascend. She could snatch a choice bit of meat from a kill, then escape into a tree to eat in peace, out of reach of her hungry pack mates.

She was careful to stay out of sight of any humans — but she observed people without being observed. The brown-skinned people who had lived in these hills long before the settlers had come from the east knew what plants could be eaten. Sarah watched them from hiding and followed their example, harvesting the bulbs of wild onions and quamish plants that grew in wet meadows, eating the sweet flowers and leaves of wild mountain violets, the tender shoots of bracken ferns, and the spicy leaves of wild mint.

White people both frightened and fascinated her. One of the trails that emigrants to California followed down to the Sacramento Valley ran through the southern edge of the wolf pack’s territory. When the pack was traveling in this area, Sarah often hid near the trail to watch wagon trains of emigrants pass, marveling at the lumbering oxen and the creaking wagons.

Sometimes, she stole from the emigrants, snatching clothing that had been spread to dry on rocks by the river. More than once, she slipped silently into emigrant camps at night, wandering among the sleeping travelers, looking for items that she could use: a pair of wool socks, a new pair of moccasins, suspenders to hold up her trousers, a hunting knife that was stronger and sharper than hers.

By the time she was seven years of age, she was an amazing young savage. From her youngest days, she had done her best to keep up with the pack. As she grew older, her stamina increased until she could run for hours without tiring, eating up the miles with an effortless loping pace.

She could climb like a squirrel, scrambling up rocky faces and sprawling oak trees with ease. She could sit quietly in the forest while a covey of quail walked within a few feet of her, unaware that the motionless figure beneath the trees was a human being. She knew every rock and tree in the pack’s territory — the best time and place to find berries and birds’ nests and edible greens, the best hunting grounds, the best places to hide.

She was tanned from the sun and the soles of her feet were tough as leather. She kept her curly hair cropped short with the knife that she wore on her belt.

She knew that she was different from her packmates. Their bodies were covered with warm fur, while hers was smooth and hairless. Their teeth were strong and sharp, while hers were small and blunt. She had a flat face and a tiny nose and she ran upright, rather than on all fours.

Even so, she thought of herself as a wolf. She watched people — the Indians and the miners — but she did not think of herself as one of them. No, she belonged to the pack. She watched people; she stole from people, but she was not one of them.