- Transcriber's Note: Variations in hyphenation are preserved. Specifically, "homecoming" vs. "home-coming" and "timberline" vs. "timber-line". -
THE YELLOW HORDE
THE YELLOW HORDE BY HAL G. EVARTS
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHARLES LIVINGSTON BULL
TORONTO McCLELLAND AND STEWART 1921
Copyright, 1921, BY HAL G. EVARTS.
All rights reserved Published April, 1921
Norwood Press Set up and electrotyped by J. S. Cushing Co. Norwood, Mass., U. S. A.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
When dawn lifted the shadows from the low country, Breed was prowling along the first rim of the hills Frontispiece
The elk migration had begun PAGE 63
As the summer advanced the pups learned to pack-hunt with Breed 167
Breed was compelled to hunt farther from home as the deer quit the valleys 191
THE YELLOW HORDE
The wolfer lay in his cabin and listened to the first few night sounds of the foothills. The clear piping notes of migrating plover floated softly down to him, punctuated by the rasping cry of a nighthawk. A coyote raised his voice, a perfect tenor note that swept up to a wild soprano, then fell again in a whirl of howls which carried amazing shifts of inflection, tearing up and down the coyote scale. One after another added his voice to the chorus until it seemed that the swelling volume could be produced by no less than a full thousand musical prairie wolves scattered through the foothills for a score of miles.
Wild music to the ears of most men, the song of flat wastes and deserts and limitless horizons, freighted with a loneliness which is communicated to man in a positive ache for companionship,—and which carries a wealth of companionship in itself for those who have lived so long under the open skies that the song of the desert choir comes to them as a lullaby.
It moved Collins, the wolfer, to quiet mirth. Always it affected him that way, this first clamorous outburst of the night. He read in it a note of deep-seated humor, the jeering laughter of the whole coyote tribe mocking the world of men who had sworn to exterminate their kind.
"The little devils!" Collins chuckled. "The little yellow devils! Men can't wipe 'em out. There'll be a million coyotes left to howl when the last man dies."
From this oft-repeated prophecy Collins was known to every stockman in three States as the Coyote Prophet, the title a jeering one at first, then bestowed with increasing respect as men saw many of his prophecies fulfilled. The coyote's larger cousin, the wolf, ranged the continent over while the coyote himself was strictly a prairie dweller. For twenty years Collins had predicted that wolves would disappear in settled districts while the coyote would survive; not only survive but increase his range to include the hills and spread over the continent from the Arctic to the Gulf. There were rumors of coyotes turning up in Indiana. Then came the tale that a strange breed of small yellow wolves had appeared in Michigan. Those sheepmen who summered their sheep in the high valleys of the western mountains complained that stray coyotes quit the flats and followed them into the hills to prey upon the flocks. The buffalo wolves that had once infested the range country were gone and it was seldom that any of the big gray killers turned up on the open range except when the pinch of cold and famine drove a few timber wolves down from the north. Men saw these things and wondered if all of Collins' sweeping prophecies would come to pass. In the face of conditions that had placed a value on the coyote's pelt and a bounty on his scalp, there was no apparent decrease in the numbers of the yellow horde from year to year.
Collins listened to the coyote clamor and knew that they had come to stay. The concert was suddenly hushed as a long-drawn wolf howl, faint from distance, drifted far out across the range. Collins turned in his blankets and peered through the window at the black bulk of the mountains to the north of him, towering clear and distinct in the brilliant moonlight.
"If you come down out of those hills I'll stretch your pelt," the wolfer stated. "I'll pinch your toes in a number four."
The wolf whose howl had occasioned this assertion was even then considering the possibilities of which Collins spoke. Men called those of his kind breed-wolves, half coyote and half wolf. He stood on the high divide which was the roughly separating line between the haunts of the two tribes whose blood flowed in his veins,—all wolf except for the yellow fur that marked him for a breed. The coyote voices lifted to him and Breed read them as the call of kind; for although he had spent the past ten months with the wolf tribe of his father his first friendships had been formed among his mother's people on the open range. The acrid spice of the sage drifted to his nostrils and combined with the coyote voices to fill him with a homesick urge to revisit the land of his birth.
But he would not go down. Breed knew well the dangers of the open range; the devilish riders who made life one long gamble for every wolf that appeared; he had gruesome recollections of the many coyotes he had seen in traps. But those things gave him small concern. It was still another menace—the poison baits put out by wolfers—which held him back. Not that he feared poison for himself, but coyotes writhing in convulsions and frothing at the mouth had always filled him with a terrible dread. It was an epidemic of this sort which had driven him to leave the sagebrush land of the coyotes for the heavily timbered country of the wolves. The memory of it lingered with him now. Would he find these stricken, demented creatures there?
Breed moved down the south slope of the hills at last, the sage scent luring the coyote in him, but moved slowly and with many halts occasioned by the wolf suspicion which urged him to turn back. When dawn lifted the shadows from the low country, Breed was prowling along the first rim of the hills.
Two dirt-roofed log cabins showed as toy houses, small from distance, and he could see the slender threads of smoke ascending from others, the houses themselves beyond the scope of his vision. The range was taking on fall shades, the gray of the sage relieved by brown patches of open grasslands and splotches of color where early frosts had touched the birch and willow thickets that marked each side-hill spring. Tiny dark specks moved through it all. Meat! It had been long since Breed had tasted beef, and his red tongue lolled out and dripped in anticipation of the coming feast.
But he would not go down until night. Twice during the early evening Breed howled, and Collins, down in the choppy country below, turned his glasses toward the spot to see what manner of wolf this was who howled in the broad light of day. The second time he located Breed. The yellow wolf stood on the rims half a mile above, looming almost life-size in the twelve-power lens. Collins noted the yellow fur.
"A breed-wolf," he said. "The most cunning devil that ever made a track. He'll never take on a feed of poison bait or plant his foot on a trap pan. He'll come down—and I'll ride him out on the first tracking snow."
Just at dusk Breed howled again and dropped down to the broken country at the base of the hills, skirting the flats and holding to the roughest brakes, then swung out across the rolling foothills.
The wind soon brought him the message that coyotes were just ahead and he traced the scent upwind, anxious for the first sight of his former running mates. Two coyotes scattered swiftly before his approach, each carrying his own piece of a jack rabbit which the pair had caught and torn apart. Breed did not follow but held steadily on in search of more. The urge for companionship was even stronger than hunger, and he sought to satisfy the stronger craving first. Twice more he veered into the wind, and both times the coyotes slipped away as he advanced. He followed the line of one's retreat and the coyote whirled and fled like a yellow streak in the moonlight. Breed was puzzled by all this, but the craving for food had grown so strong as to crowd out all else, and he abandoned the hunt for friends to hunt for meat instead.
Out in the center of a broad flat bench a mile across Breed made out a group of slowly moving specks which he knew for cows, and he headed toward them, taking advantage of the cover afforded by every clump of sage as he crept up to a yearling steer that lagged behind the rest. He had hunted heavy game animals with the wolves, animals with every sense alert to detect the approach of the big gray killers, and he fully expected the steer to break into full flight at the first warning of his presence. He had almost forgotten the stupidity of the cows on the open range and the ease with which he had torn them down when hunting them with his wolf father long before. He made his final rush and drove his teeth deep into one hind leg before his prey had even quickened his gait. The steer lurched into an awkward gallop and bawled with fright as the savage teeth cut through muscles and hide. Breed lunged for the same spot again; once more and the leg was useless, the hamstrings cut, and it sagged loosely with every step. He slashed at the other leg. Within a hundred yards of the start the steer pitched down, bracing his foreparts off the ground with his two front feet, and even as he fell the yellow wolf drove for his throat.
Then Breed circled his kill, looking off in all directions to make sure that there was no route by which men might approach unseen. He stretched forth his head and cupped his lips as he sent his tribal call rolling across the range, the message that here was meat for all of his kind who would come and feed. A score of coyote voices answered from far and near.
Collins heard the dread cry and knew that the wolf had made a kill. He knew too that whenever the wolf note was heard, all other sounds were stilled as if every living creature expected to hear an answering cry and waited for it to come before resuming their own communications. The fact that the coyotes answered the cry assured Collins that it was the breed-wolf that had howled; that coyote ears had read a note of their own kind in the sound, a note which even his experienced ears could not detect.
The yellow wolf tore at the warm meat and waited,—waited for his coyote kinsmen to join him at the feast. He howled again and they answered, reading invitation to coyote as well as to wolf in the sound, but they would not come in. An old dog coyote trotted up and down the crest of a slight rise of ground two hundred yards downwind. Another joined him, then a third, and in less than an hour there was a half score of coyotes circling the spot. Breed could see dim shapes moving across the open places and padding on silent feet over the cow trails that threaded the sage. Surely they would come in. The shadowy forms were restless, never still, and prowled round and round him, but they would not join him at the kill.
Breed was mystified by this strange thing. Here was meat yet the meat-eaters would not come in and feed. Coyotes had fed with him long ago but shunned him now. Breed could not know that then he had been accepted as one of them, having grown to maturity among them and so become known to every coyote on his range; that they had forgotten him as an individual, as he had also forgotten them. If there were any old friends among those who circled round him now he did not know them as such, only as a companionable whole; and they knew him for a wolf,—a wolf at least in size and strength. There was a coyote note in his call but not one of them would venture in to feed with the great yellow beast that was tearing the steer.
At last a grizzled old dog coyote drew up to within ten yards. He had lived to the limit of all experiences which a coyote can pass through and still survive. He had even known the crushing grip of a double-spring trap, a Newhouse four. This misadventure had occurred in midwinter when the range was gripped by bitter frost. The cold had numbed the pain and congealed the flesh to solid ice. He had cut through the meat with his keen-pointed teeth, and one desperate wrench had snapped the frozen bone and freed him. There were many of his kind so maimed, and the wolfers, abbreviating the term peg-legs, called these three-footed ones "pegs."
A second coyote joined Peg near the steer. He too had lived long and hard. He had been shot at many times and wounded twice. A shattered foreleg had healed with an ugly twist, the foot pointing inside and leaving only the prints of two warped toe pads when it touched the ground.
Peg and Cripp circled twice round the steer at a distance of thirty feet. They had known other breeds and had found that some would share their kills. Breed went out to greet them and they sidled away as he advanced, stopping when he stopped and turning to face him. Cripp allowed him to draw close, his teeth bared in warning against a too effusive greeting, while Peg drew swiftly in behind the wolf. The peg-leg coyote stretched forth his nose for one deep sniff, then sprang ten feet away as Breed whirled. Cripp drew up for a similar sniff as Breed faced Peg, then leaped away as Peg had done. Nature has endowed the members of each animal tribe with a different scent, and most animals identify enemies and friends with nose instead of eyes. That one deep inhalation had assured the two coyotes that there was a strain of their own scent mingled with that of the wolf. They grew bolder and stalked stiffly about him, appraising his qualities with eye and nose. When Breed returned to the feed they followed a few steps behind. At first they kept the body of the steer between them, then lost all restraint and accepted Breed as a brother coyote from whom they had nothing to fear.
An hour before dawn Breed left the spot and traveled back to the edge of the hills where he bedded for the day. He was full fed and satisfied with life. It was not until night closed down about him that he was conscious of the single flaw in his content, the one thing lacking to complete it all. Breed loosed the hunting cry but there was no answering call. He tried again without success. When with the wolves he had longed for the smell of the sage, the scent that spoke of home to him, and the mocking voices of the coyotes. Now that he had all these he missed the muster cry of the pack, hungered to hear the aching wails coming from far across the timbered hills, penetrating to the farthest retreats of the antlered tribes and sounding a warning to all living things that the hunt-pack was about to take the meat trail. But he knew that coyotes did not hunt in packs; that they hunted singly or in pairs, killing more by stealth than strength; clever stalkers and the most intelligent team-workers and relayers in the world, but lacking the weight and driving force to tear down a steer,—calves their largest prey.
Breed howled again and started on the hunt alone. Even then, though he did not know it, his pack was gathering to him. The two wise old coyotes who had fed with him the night before knew that wherever they found the big breed-wolf, there they would also find meat. They had started up at his first call and Peg was coming swiftly from the south, Cripp from the west. Breed had not traveled far before he was aware that other hunters were abroad and running with him, swinging wide on either flank. Here was his pack! At first he was not sure, but whenever he wheeled or veered from his course the two coyotes altered their routes to accord with his. He ran on for miles, thrilled with the knowledge that his queer pack followed loyally where he led, and when at last he singled out a steer the two veteran coyotes angled swiftly in and ran but a few yards on either side of him.
Then Breed sounded the meat call,—and two jeering coyote voices launched into full cry and howled with him. And Collins, the Coyote Prophet, for the first time in all his experience heard wolf and coyote howl in unison over the same kill.
Every night thereafter Breed's pack of two ran with him on the hunt and always there were the dim shapes circling the kill, padding restlessly through the sage as they waited for the yellow wolf to leave so they could swarm in and pick the bones.
At first Breed had retired to the edge of the hills to spend his days, but his habits were changed through long immunity until his days as well as nights were spent in the open country; but his caution was never relaxed and he bedded on the crest of some rise of ground which afforded a clear field of view for miles in all directions. He frequently saw some of the devilish riders and occasionally one drew uncomfortably near his retreat, but always veered away before discovering his presence. His days were untroubled except by the memories of poisoned coyotes which persisted in his mind. When he slept his dreams often reverted to these poisoned horrors, and their death rattles sounded in his ears and his feet twitched in imaginary flight as he sought to put distance between himself and these haunting demons. Breed knew that poison was some evil exercised by man, but its workings were shrouded in mystery. Traps he could understand,—and rifle shots; for although this latter force was peculiar, yet there was sound. He understood only those things which to him were real and actual, things communicated through his physical senses. Poison seemed some sort of intangible magic, an evil spell wrought by man, and which transformed sound coyotes into diseased fiends in the space of seconds.
Always he waked snarling from these dreams, and always he was vastly puzzled by the abrupt change from night death scenes to the daylight calm of the open range. For dreams too were beyond his comprehension. They were actual scenes and scents and sounds to him,—then vanished. It was only natural that his greatest waking terror should stalk through his dreams, two mysteries combined to haunt him. Also it was inevitable that these dreams should eventually link up with the personal equation.
Breed slept one day on the crest of a knoll and suddenly it was night instead of noon, and Cripp and Peg were leaping about him in a frenzy, their frothing jaws snapping on the empty air in their madness. He faced them with bared fangs,—and it was noon once more, but the two old coyotes stood before him in reality, their own noses wrinkled in snarls which answered his menacing actions and warned him off. The same old baffling wave which flooded Breed after each of these recurring dreams engulfed him now. Peg and Cripp were as sane as himself, yet a moment past they had been stricken before his very eyes. It had been very real, and Breed started suddenly from the knoll and headed for the base of the hills five miles away, nor did he stop until he was far back among their sheltering ridges.
With the coming of the night he felt the loss of the two old coyotes who had traveled with him for the past three weeks. They had been normal when he saw them last and as this latter impression was the stronger he knew that he would find them untouched by madness; yet the vividness of the dream lingered with him and held him back from the low country. He howled once and started on a solitary hunt through the hills. The cry drifted faintly to the flats below and reached the ears of Cripp and Peg. They started instantly in the direction from which it came.
The chain of hills in which Breed hunted was but an outcropping spur, extending thirty miles eastward at right angles from the main bulk of the hills, and he found no meat. The elk and deer were high up in the parent range and would stay there until heavy snows drove them down to winter in the valleys of the lower hills. Breed worked up the slope until he reached the crest of the divide. He prowled along the bald ridge, undecided which course to take, then whirled and faced back in the direction from which he had come. Five miles below him a coyote had raised his voice; another answered. By traveling steadily Cripp and Peg had covered much ground since Breed's first cry of the night had reached their ears and the two coyotes were ten miles within the first folds of the hills and still seeking the yellow wolf, the leader of the pack.
Breed cupped his lips, his head stretched forth and his muzzle depressed to a line slightly below the peak of his shoulders as he sent forth the hunting cry to summon his loyal band. An hour later Cripp and Peg were with him, the three of them swinging west along the divide toward the rough mass of the main range of hills. Morning found them climbing through a matted jungle of close-growing spruce and down-timber.
Breed chose a ridge that lifted above the trees and there curled up for the day in a clump of stunted sage. Coyotes hunt in the full glare of the noonday sun as readily as at night and Cripp and Peg slept a bare two hours before starting once more on the hunt. They found small game less abundant in the high hills than in the flats and they scoured the surrounding timber without success, returning at last to bed down near Breed on the open ridge. Hunger drove Breed from his bed before the sun had set and he headed deeper into the hills, the two coyotes following, even though they had small liking for this country which seemed devoid of meat.
The yellow wolf sampled the cross currents of air which drifted in from each branching gulch. He crossed the cold trail scent of several deer but was in no mood for following a long trail so passed them by. It was the actual warm body scent he sought. He stopped suddenly with uplifted nose. The shifting breezes had carried the deer scent to his nostrils,—one brief flash and it was gone. Breed tacked back and forth across the wind, caught it again and held it, following the ribbon of scent upwind as easily as a man would follow a blazed trail through the timber. Two hundred yards from the start he sighted his prey, a fork-horn buck grazing slowly along under the trees. Breed turned his eyes to either side to determine the location of Cripp and Peg but they had suddenly vanished from sight.
He crept toward the fork-horn, standing without the moving of a muscle whenever the young buck lifted his head, advancing swiftly when he dropped it again to feed. The wind held steadily from the deer to him and Breed drew up to within fifty feet. The buck lifted his head and looked off in all directions, not from present uneasiness but from his never-failing caution, then reached for another bite of grass, and even as the downward motion was started Breed launched forward in a silent rush.
The fork-horn caught one backward slanting glimpse of him and fled just as the wolf's teeth clashed a bare inch short of his hamstring, and Breed was off in pursuit of an animal whose speed matched his own. This prey was no awkwardly galloping steer but a nimble beast that swept ahead in twenty-foot bounds, and after fifty yards Breed was still ten feet behind. Then a yellow streak darted over a windfall jam and Peg flashed at the buck. The deer turned almost at right angles in his fright, and as he turned Breed's teeth slashed his leg, but not deep enough to cripple, and the chase was on again. Another fifty yards and Cripp leaped from behind a spruce trunk and struck gamely for a leg hold. The flying speed of the buck jerked him clear of the ground, broke the hold of his teeth and threw him end over end. But he had retarded the deer for one half-second and the yellow wolf closed his jaws on a leg with all the force he could throw into the drive. Breed too was thrown, but the deer was turned again and running with less than half his former speed, one hind leg powerless. Peg was angling across to turn him still another time but Breed overhauled him first and slashed at the other leg, and as the deer rolled downhill the three-legged coyote dodged the churning hoofs and fastened on his throat.
Collins had journeyed far into the hills to replenish his supply of meat. It was scarcely dark under the trees when he heard the breed-wolf and two coyotes howl together,—thirty miles back in the heart of the hills!
"There now!" he exclaimed. "I've been telling 'em right along that the coyotes would take to the hills some day. Those breed-wolves—they'll teach 'em to live in the hills."
When Breed had eaten his fill from the deer he headed back for the low country. The effect of the mad dream was waning before the fact that Peg and Cripp were with him in reality, sane and normal in every way. The three of them were sluggish and heavy with meat and they traveled slowly with frequent halts for sleep.
The following night Breed's howl sounded again in the foothills and a score of coyotes answered him from far and near. The coyote tribe had learned that when the yellow wolf prowled the range there would be fresh beef for all. Each night the number of shadowy forms that padded through the sage round his kills increased, waiting until the wolf should leave and they could close in and finish it to the last mouthful. They grew bolder from the fact that two of their own kind fed with Breed, and on the first night after his return from the hills three others found courage to come in and feed upon his kill before he left it. Within a week he was accepted unreservedly as a member of the coyote clan.
Each succeeding evening Breed found more and more coyotes gathering swiftly toward him at the first hunting cry of the night, spreading out over a quarter-mile front and running with him on the chase, knowing there would be meat in plenty at the end of the run.
Collins noted a curious change in the coyote signs in his immediate neighborhood. He still found their tracks singly or in pairs, where they wandered in all directions through the sage in their hunts for jacks, or padded thick round some spot where they had killed a calf, but he soon discovered that whenever he found a track which the breed-wolf had left the night before he had only to swing out to the right or left to find the trails of many coyotes pointing in the same direction,—a general movement of coyotes over a wide front. Collins had heard many tales of late which accorded with a prophecy he had made long ago; for three hundred miles north and south men who rode back into the mountains reported seeing coyotes far back in the very heart of them and of hearing their howls from among the highest peaks. His prediction that coyotes would take to the hills and feel as much at home high above timberline as in the flats had come to pass.
Collins studied long over the many coyote trails which always paralleled the tracks of the yellow wolf and made still another prophecy,—that breed-wolves would teach the coyotes to hunt in packs.
No man who has lived long in the open and observed the ways of animals and birds doubts that each tribe has a language of its own,—the vocabulary of cadence and inflection. A man may watch a marsh teeming with waterfowl, their contented chuckles filling his ears; then every wing will lift at once, every bird roused to sudden flight by the change of a single note so faint that it makes no impression on the ear of the watching man, yet sufficient to warn the birds as surely as a gunshot. A widely scattered bunch of range cows will graze placidly for hours, and suddenly every head will be raised and every cow gaze off in the same direction.
Coyotes catch all finely shaded inflections and interpret them as unerringly as a man notes the difference between a bawling cow and a blatting sheep. Mate communicates with mate through all the coyote refrains of the night; half-grown coyotes answer their mother's voice but are silent when another calls. All that wild outburst in which men read only an uproar of meaningless savagery is in reality the intelligent conversation of the coyote nation.
Breed's range covered fifty miles each way and there were some two hundred coyotes who used the same strip or whose range overlapped his own, and of these there were but few who had not at one time or another profited by some of his kills. Breed knew the voice of every coyote in the little band that made up his pack. Even when their notes reached him faintly through a maze of other howls his ears identified their voices as certainly as the eyes of man pick out the faces of his friends among a crowd. Those coyotes in whom dog ancestry was less than four generations removed betrayed that fact to him when they howled.
There are those who believe that the shepherds and police dogs sprang originally from the jackal. In any event, there are more dogs that revert to the wild bunch from these wolfish types than from all other kinds combined. The gulf between shepherd and coyote is not wide, and except when raiding coyotes and stock-guarding dogs meet in a clash of interests they are more apt to mate than to fight.
Throughout the whole of Breed's range there was but one note which puzzled him,—and it was not the ancestry but the present habits of the one who made the sound that baffled him. The parental mixture was plainly evidenced in the voice. It was the cry of a she-wolf, a half-blood coyote and dog, and Breed heard her howl night after night yet could not locate her. He would answer her cry and announce that he was coming, but always she evaded him. When he picked up her trail and followed it persistently, it invariably led him toward an isolated cabin. The wolf in him held him back from too close an approach to the homes of men. When he stopped she called again from up near the twinkling windows of the house. There was a lonesome note in her cry, and it was furtive, carrying both fear and invitation in its tones as if the she-wolf felt herself an outcast and both longed and dreaded to break down the bars between her wild relatives and herself.
And she was an outcast, without doubt. Collins had trailed her mother, a renegade shepherd, to the den. He had turned in the rest of the pups for bounty, keeping her for a pet. She was slightly heavier than a coyote and the fur of her back was dark, the badge of shepherd parentage. The yellow underfur showed through the black guard hairs of her back-strip when the wind ruffled it, the black shading to yellow on flanks and sides, and from this Collins called her Shady.
Shady's relations with men and beasts were unsatisfactory in the extreme. Stockmen hate the coyote with an intensity that they show toward no other animal, and with good reason, for the coyote meets them on a more equal footing than other beasts, his strategy outrivaling that of men. He repays their cruelties against his kind by killing their sheep and calves in broad daylight and executing a well-covered retreat before the owners can exact the penalty, then returning at night to raise his jeering laughter almost under the windows of his enemies.
Collins had no stock, his business being that of killing coyotes, and he found far more to admire than to despise in the qualities of his prey and so did not accord coyotes the undying hatred shown them by other men. In his gruff way he was kind to Shady. Those who came to his cabin were mainly stockmen and they hated Shady cordially. That she sprang from a renegade sheep dog, a traitor to her kind, was even more condemnatory in their eyes than the coyote part of her.
The coyotes, less averse to the proximity of man, had investigated Shady's case by drawing nearer to the cabin than Breed would go and so were no longer curious about her. Breed was almost two years old yet he knew nothing of dogs. His mother had ranged a limited strip of country in which only two men made their homes and neither had owned dogs. When north with the wolves he had met none of his domestic cousins except those renegades or breeds that were of the wild. He had crossed the trails of others at rare intervals. Therefore he did not know dogs as allies of men and so enemies to himself; rather Shady seemed some extra-shy wolf creature yet with sufficient courage to range in close to men. She seemed a daring adventurer to Breed.
It was partly this curiosity which piqued his interest in her. Then too he recognized in her a freak type,—as he himself was a freak. Each stood for the first generation of a new breed, the equally divided parental strains not yet dulled and blended by further crosses, and so each of them recognized something outstanding and unusual in the other.
At first their knowledge was confined to what each learned of the other by ear alone, unaided by the testimony of other senses. Breed never once caught sight of her, and the trail scent which she left behind told him little except that she was half coyote and half dog, as he already knew.
For a month he answered her howls, his curiosity unassuaged. And as Breed puzzled over Shady's voice, so Collins puzzled over Breed's. Collins had heard him howl more than a hundred times and knew that there was some slight difference between his voice and the pure wolf note. He had made a close study of animal sounds and knew them well. He knew Shady's voice from that of other coyotes. Her variations were less sharply defined; more sustained than the bewildering staccato of the coyote and with a slightly coarser tone. Collins knew that he should be able to detect that peculiarity in Breed's howl,—a difference which he felt was there but could not place. There were times when the solution rose to the very surface of his mind and struggled for interpretation into readable thought, but always it eluded him in the end.
Shady came to listen for Breed's voice among the multitude of other sounds, and in some small measure she felt acquainted with the yellow wolf. She missed his voice on those nights when he hunted in some far corner of his range and the familiar cry failed to reach her.
This sense of familiarity led her at last to wait for a sight of him. Breed traveled one night toward the howl which always had the power to draw him, and he suddenly saw Shady fifty yards ahead. She would permit of no nearer approach, fleeing before him as he came on, stopping when Breed stopped, but always keeping that fifty-yard gap between. Every night for a week Breed strove to narrow the breach, but without success; but Shady's doubts were wearing down before his constant advances and she found no menace in his actions. She eventually allowed Breed to draw near and they viewed one another at a distance of ten yards. Their course through the sage was a series of eccentric loops as each circled repeatedly downwind to catch the other's scent.
Then their relations were reversed, Breed the retiring one, Shady the aggressive. There was the scent of the stables, a horsy smell that clung to Shady and which Breed could not understand. There seemed too some vague taint of man about her which held him back. Shady grew bolder in the face of his timidity, and Breed's new-found suspicion eventually waned before her friendly insistence. Their friendship once established they romped together night after night.
Shady was puzzled over the fact that this new playmate invariably left her early in the night. These meetings took place before Breed raised his voice to summon the coyote pack for the nightly hunt. He would break off in the middle of a race and send out the call, then leave the wondering Shady to her own devices for the rest of the night.
His curiosity satisfied, Breed answered her invitations less often and she saw him only at infrequent intervals; and there was a reason for this flagging interest. Wolves and coyotes mate for life, or till one or the other of a pair falls victim to the wiles of man. When once a pair is broken the survivor will not take unto himself another mate till the next running time of wolves. There were pairs of coyotes running together in Breed's pack; there were also single she-coyotes and single dogs, but while the mated ones were as devoted as ever before, these single ones had only a general interest in the others, their attitude uninfluenced by the lure of sex. And Shady, hampered by her relations with man and so unable to follow Breed's leadership at will, exercised less influence over him than either Peg or Cripp.
Breed killed abundantly, the coyotes picking the last morsel of each victim before dawn. Often he killed twice in one night. Word had spread that a breed-wolf had turned up on the range and was running with the coyotes. Private rewards were added to the State bounty till a total of two hundred dollars was posted as the price on his scalp. Every rider kept a sharp lookout for the breed; yet so great was his caution that except for that first day of his return, when Collins had seen him on the rims, no man had set eyes on the yellow wolf.
Breed's watchfulness for traps and poison baits had waned from the fact that he found none of either on the range, and he now gave them scarce a thought. On the other hand his caution to avoid horsemen was quickened from seeing many of them and his vigilance in that particular was never relaxed. He chose his beds with care and he slept so lightly that the least sound penetrated his consciousness and carried its message to his brain. The shrill cachinnations of a prairie dog, the shriek of a burrowing owl or the bawling of a range cow; any of these usual sounds of the open failed to rouse him; but invariably he knew when a man was dangerously near. If the menace was upwind and within reasonable distance, his nose detected it. At times the creak of saddle leather reached his ears or the sound of the horse's hoofs warned him.
This hoof reading was a curious thing. Breed could not tell why he knew when a horse was ridden, but invariably he did. If walking, the feet of an iron-shod horse struck pebbles and rocks with a metallic sound and Breed was suspicious of all horses that wore shoes; but usually a rider traveled at a steady trail trot. It was not the way of loose horses to strike a steady, regular gait and hold it, and the even vibrations of a shuffling trail trot beat through all other sounds and warned him that a horseman was near.
Men grossly underestimate the keen physical senses of the animal world, being loath to credit them with finer sense perceptions than those possessed by man, dulled by countless centuries of disuse. A coyote can scent the tracks left by a bird long hours past; the smell of fresh blood is hot in his nostril a full half-mile downwind while the nose of man could scarce detect it at a distance of two feet. His ears, attuned to receive the delicately shaded tone inflections of coyote converse, catch vibrations of sound far too fine to make the least impression on the ears of man. And it is through these sense impressions that animals are warned at distances which men believe impossible without the aid of some subtle intuition or sixth sense. They speak of these things as animal instinct and let it go at that.
In addition to this Breed had many other ways of protection at his command; he usually knew of the approach of man long before the direct message reached him over the paths of his own physical senses,—this from his vast knowledge of the ways of animals and birds and his ready understanding of their widespread systems of communications. Their actions frequently put him on guard before his own senses apprised him of the actuality of the danger.
These things, coupled with his own habits and backed by coyote intelligence, made Breed an animal most difficult to stalk.
Collins knew the wolf habit of bedding on a rise of ground. He knew too that the dog who turns round and round before lying down is not merely chasing his tail but instead is exhibiting a relic of his wild ancestors' way of rising frequently from his bed and turning to look off in all directions before resuming it. Day after day Collins swept the range with powerful glasses and through his knowledge and persistence he located Breed at last.
Breed lay on the crest of a knoll. Peg and Cripp were hunting in the shallow basin below him and he watched with keen interest the diabolical cunning of his two chief followers. Peg ranged in the open while Cripp paralleled his course, moving along just behind the wave of a low ridge. A long-eared jack rabbit bounced from his bed in front of Peg and fled swiftly for a hundred yards, then halted to look back as he discovered that he was not pursued. He reared on his haunches, forefeet clear of the ground, as he watched the coyote who had veered away from him and was now questing aimlessly through the stunted sage. Peg turned toward him again and the jack bounced away toward the ridge, stopping again as Peg swung away. From his point of vantage Breed could see the cunning Cripp keeping even with the jack, following closely its every move and peering at it through the scattered sage that topped the ridge. Peg, apparently unconscious that there was meat in sight, rambled in erratic tacks that crowded the rabbit toward the ridge. Breed saw a crouching shape slip behind a sage within ten feet of the jack, whose eyes were occupied with Peg. There was a flash of yellow as Cripp struck him and the dying squall of the big hare floated to Breed's ears. He rose from his bed in excitement, then paused to sweep the country with his gaze before resuming his nap.
Collins had seen! From the point of a commanding ridge five miles away he had centered his binoculars on the yellow wolf. The wolfer's horse grazed in the bottom of a gulch, his reins trailing loose, and Collins moved swiftly down to him and swung to the saddle. He had covered less than two hundred yards before Breed, five miles away, knew that a man rode toward him!
The pronghorn antelope has a most peculiar signal system of his own. He is furnished with a white patch on his rump, the hair long and stiff, and when alarmed, instead of bristling his neck roach as do other animals, the antelope bristles this white rump patch. The sun strikes light from the glistening hair and every antelope within view follows suit; the warning is flashed from band to band till every antelope throughout an area of many miles knows that some man is abroad on the plains.
Whenever a band of antelopes sported within view of Breed his eyes flickered open for frequent glimpses of them. Ten minutes after the two coyotes had killed the jack Breed opened his eyes for a view of a pronghorn buck that had taken his stand on a low ridge half a mile away. Breed caught the danger signal and was instantly alert. For as far as his eye could reach he could see the glistening points of light which he knew for antelope flashes. The whole antelope tribe was facing toward the danger and so pointed out its direction for Breed. It is this sort of signaling which men will not understand, preferring instead to credit an animal, warned at a distance of many miles, with some mysterious occult knowledge.
A band of antelope joined the buck on the ridge and fled with him toward Breed, stopped to look back, stamping their feet excitedly, then swept on past as a rider topped the ridge they had just left.
Breed flattened in his nest, resting his head between his paws. It was not his way to rush off in panicky flight across the open at the first glimpse of man, but rather the coyote way of remaining motionless till the enemy had passed, or slipping away unseen if he came too close. The horseman came on at an angle that would take him three hundred yards to one side, then altered his course and angled the other way. He stopped to look over a bunch of cows, shifted again to view another bunch and circled round it; came on again but turned to head a stray steer back toward the rest. Collins was using the same tactics in approaching Breed that the two coyotes had so recently used to stalk the jack. He seemed about to pass two hundred yards away but lifted his horse into a keen run and whirled him straight for the point of the knoll, then shifted his course again to round the shoulder of the little hill instead of over its crest, knowing that Breed was running at top speed down the opposite slope. He pulled the horse back on his haunches and flung from the saddle with the first glimpse of the fleeing wolf.
Breed did not stop to look back as most other animals would have done but ran with every ounce of his speed. He flinched away from the sharp crack near his head as a rifle ball passed him and the crash of the report reached his ears. The next shot struck close behind and the biting gravel stung him as the ricochet hissed past within an inch of him. He held straight ahead but resorted to the coyote ruse of flipping from side to side in sharp tacks, his tail snapping jerkily outward to balance him on the turns. Bullets ripped through the sage about him as Collins emptied his gun. Then he was safe on the far side of a swell and Collins was grinning ruefully at a wolfless landscape.
"Coyote stuff!" he said. "A man might as well gun up the corkscrew flight of a jacksnipe as to pour lead through the gaps in a side-steppin' freak like that. But you, Breed,—you better keep your eye on me. The Coyote Prophet is out for your scalp—so walk soft, old boy,—walk soft."
Breed struck a swift, gliding trot and held it clear to the base of the hills, stopping only when far up the first slope of them to sweep the low country for sight of his enemy. That night when he raised his howl it reached the ears of perhaps a hundred coyotes far out across the flats and immediately thereafter there was a strange movement in the coyote tribe. The majority of them rambled in all directions on personal business or pleasures of their own but through it all, strung out over a five-mile front, more than a dozen coyotes were running swiftly toward the hills. They were not to be turned aside but held their course, gathering to the wolf who had led them to many a kill,—willing to follow wherever he should lead. An hour later, when Breed raised his voice from the divide, a wave of coyote answers rose in unison and when he headed toward the parent range there were fourteen coyotes traveling with him through the hills. They moved together, but not as man understands that term, for they did not travel closely grouped. Some were half a mile to either side and some far behind, and there were gaps of several hundred yards in the line. Their trails sometimes shifted and crossed, but noses and ears kept them well informed as to the locality and actions of the rest.
They entered the rough mass of the main range and pushed on, traveling in this loose formation. Toward morning Breed stopped and listened to a far-off sound which reached him. Every coyote in the pack had also stopped to listen, their red tongues circling hungrily along their lips as they caught the significance of the sound.
There were no sheep on Breed's immediate range. Trouble between the cowmen and those who grazed sheep had been temporarily adjusted by apportioning the range. Sheep now grazed far to the south but the cowmen allowed the privilege of pastoral transportation across the cattle strip twice a year for those who summered their sheep in the hills. The snows were late in falling and the flocks had been held correspondingly late high in the hills.
Breed had known sheep in the past,—and this was the sound of sheep. Two herders had combined their bands to work them down to the low country and the camp tender stayed to help them with the crossing. Breed listened long to the droning undertone, the maddening blat of five thousand woollies on the bed ground, its querulous volume persisting through the sound of water and wind and drifting to him across a distance of five miles. Then he stretched forth his head and issued his hunting cry.
The savage peal ripped through the plaintive chant of the sheep as the prow of a canoe cuts sluggish water, and traveling against the current of sound it reached the ears of the camp tender who rolled over in his blankets and cursed. There was a half-minute cessation of the baa and blat, and before it was resumed the tender had prodded the two herders into wakefulness.
"Better sleep with one eye open," he advised. "There's a wolf in the hills. Just crossing through, mebbe—but anyhow you better stay awake to hold the sheep while I fire a shot to scare him off if he comes too close. He'll put 'em off the bed ground and scatter 'em if he slips past the dogs."
The cry sounded again, this time less than a mile away, and a clamor of coyote howls rose with it.
"Coyotes!" the tender exclaimed. "Night shooting won't scare those cunning devils off,—they know a man can't see at night. It sounds like they was running in a pack, and enough of 'em to make a noise like as if the whole damn coyote nation had took to the hills. Wonder how come they're pranking round with a wolf? They'll likely only hang along to cut out some strays—but if they do come in close in a mob like that, it's good night, sheep! Them shaller-brained woollies will take to the peaks."
The sheep had risen from their beds and were huddled close. The tender and herders stood with drawn guns and the three dogs bristled savagely and turned their gaze toward the timbered slope that rose on one side of the open side-hill bench that served as a bed ground. There was a movement among the sheep; the fleecy mass buckled and surged as those on the outer edge turned and sought safety by plowing toward the close-packed center. The three men stationed themselves in a triangle three hundred yards apart, hoping to steady the sheep and hold them. The dogs circled swiftly round the milling horde, driving merciless teeth into every panic-stricken sheep who sought to quit the flock. The whole mass suddenly crowded off to one side and all three dogs sped round to hold them.
One herder saw a flitting streak leave the timber edge and glide toward the sheep; another; there was no moon and he could not be sure. His gun barked twice as a dozen shadowy forms crossed the open, strung out for two hundred yards. Then hell broke loose on the bed ground.
The fear-crazed horde streamed past the other herder and the tender. They shouted and struck out with heavy staffs, trying to stem the tide and turn it back. The resistless sea of fleece surged on and was swallowed in the gloom of the heavy timber down the slope. And in the center of it all Breed and the coyote pack were working.
They ripped through the mob and split it; drove through again. The sheep split into a hundred small detachments and blundered on under the trees. The men stumbled through the down-timber windfalls and their shouts and the frantic barking of the dogs rose above the clamor of the sheep,—but there was not a sound from the yellow killers who had started the stampede. Every coyote knew the location of the men and each one singled out a stray band for his own and swept ahead with it. The dogs worked like fiends but the marauders were in too great force for them. Whenever a dog bore down upon a coyote the raider fled straight away from the sheep and their blats recalled the dog to duty. The mad wave rolled down the slope and up the next.
The first light of dawn revealed each of the three dogs holding a large band of sheep. The two herders and the camp tender had each rounded up a smaller bunch. They worked their separate ways back toward the bed ground, gathering strays along the way. The camp tender held them in the open while the two herders and the dogs combed the surrounding hills for stragglers; and as they worked they cursed the coyote and his ways. It was no unusual thing in their experience for a few coyotes to fly at a bunch of sheep and scatter them, cutting out a few that straggled away from the protection of men and dogs, but this savage attack in pack formation and the harrying of five thousand head of sheep far through the hills was new to them.
All through the morning they rounded stragglers toward the flock and shortly after noon they headed the tired sheep down toward the foothills, fearing a repetition of the stampede. Just at dusk they milled the sheep and bedded them on a ridge in the low country, a mile from the base of the timbered hills.
The camp tender looked them over with practiced eye and shook his head.
"There's no chance to make a count now," he said. "But when we do make one it's dollars to dimes that we'll tally out two hundred short."
Collins had waited till the fur was prime and the flesh side of the coyote pelt showed flint white before throwing out his trap line. He made the first set three hundred yards from the cabin, choosing the spot with care, for he knew that the last place a coyote would enter was the one where guiding clumps of sage formed an inviting lane across the traps. He selected an open spot instead and dismounted on a sheep pelt spread flat upon the ground; with a hand-axe he hewed out a triangular trap bed a foot across by three inches deep, placing every shred of fresh earth removed from it in a canvas sack; then he fitted a heavy Newhouse four in place with both springs bent far to the rear and drove a slender steel pin out of sight through the swivel ring of the chain. He smoothed a piece of canvas under the jaws and over the pan and poured the soft earth over it all, filling it level with the surface and tamping it firmly with his fingers except that within the six-inch circle of the jaws. From a second sack he sifted dust over the spot till it matched the surrounding flat, remounted and leaned from the saddle to recover the sheep pelt on which he had knelt and used it as a fan to whip the dust of the flat into curling eddies which settled back so uniformly as to defy the eyes of any man to detect the location of the trap. The surplus earth removed from the hole he carried away to be emptied far from the spot. For Collins knew the qualities of his prey and a good wolfer leaves no sign. He had used no foolish scent to disguise his own, knowing that the heat of day and the frost of night would diffuse his scent and obliterate all trace of it, the same as an animal's trail grows cold in time, while any foreign odor lingering longer than his own would only serve as a guide for the cunning prey he sought.
The wisdom of the fox has furnished theme for song and legend, and only those who have followed the trap line for both fox and coyote know that Reynard's vaunted brain is but a dry sponge when compared to the knowledge-soaked brain of the prairie wolf. It is the way of the coyote to live near man, confident that his own cunning will offset that of his arch enemy and lead him unscathed through all the contrivances men may employ for his destruction. Collins knew that the fox was only trap-shy while the coyote was—vast difference between the two—trap-wise; that he would go to a bait, knowing the traps were there, and risk his life in an effort to uncover them and so leave evidence behind that he was keener than his foe.
At the end of a week Collins had thrown out three pear-shaped loops of traps, each line with a length of twenty miles, the whole a clover-leaf effect with his cabin as the base. He had used no bait until his scent should have been blotted out round his traps, not from fear that coyotes would not approach the bait while his scent was fresh but from certain knowledge that they would approach too soon, locate his traps and uncover them. When the third trap circle was complete he started back over the first and baited the sets, then commenced the steady routine of riding one string each day and thus covering his entire line in three days.
Shady frequently accompanied Collins on these trips and when he made a trap set she sat down some distance away and watched him with full understanding of what he was about; for Shady's past experience with traps had been large. She had seen Collins take many a coyote from his traps. Twice she had slipped away to steal the bait from some set near the cabin and both times had felt the sudden deadly clutch of steel jaws on her foot, remaining in their grip till Collins had released her. She had seen coyotes dead and bloated from eating poison baits,—and meat was now a danger signal to Shady, not a lure. She would touch no food except that which she obtained at the cabin.
The trap line had yielded many coyote pelts while Breed was still in the hills and he knew nothing of the widespread mortality among the coyotes in his absence or the dangers which lurked in wait for him on his return.
There were two hundred sheep scattered for miles through the hills and Breed and the coyote pack found easy killing. Winter had claimed the lofty peaks, while but little snow had fallen below timber line.
Breed sensed the coming storm. The movements of the elk herds told him it would be a heavy one. It was nearing the end of the elk rutting moon but the bulls were still bugling. Breed heard the clear bugle note of an old herd bull, the piercing sound reaching him from many miles back among the snowy peaks. It was closely followed by others. The elk migration had begun; the herds were evacuating the lofty basins of their summer range and boiling out through the high passes of the peaks before the snowfall of the coming storm should block them in,—coming down to winter in the lower valleys of the hills.
The certainty with which animals gauge a coming storm is cited as proof of that mysterious instinct with which men credit them; yet this information may reach them through known laws. Breed knew of it from the elk movements, and it is probable that the elk in turn were warned from some similarly natural source,—perhaps from atmospheric changes, more likely from the flight of migratory birds.
A marshland may be empty of certain species of ducks in the fall; then suddenly a flock will pitch down out of the blue, followed by another and another till the whole sky is streaked with the oncoming horde. They will feed and start on, the belated arrivals not even alighting but holding straight ahead. The flight ceases as suddenly as it commenced and inevitably a storm drives down out of the north in the wake of the flocks. But this is not instinct. The storm strikes those birds that have remained farthest north and as they scurry ahead of it the more southerly ones take wing. Many ducks fly at rates of speed that are well over a hundred miles an hour and so can distance the swiftest storms. Even the ears of man may detect the difference between the wing-whistlers of a flock of mallards or other slow-flying ducks and the humming screech of redhead or canvasback hurtling through the night with tremendous speed; and animals note such things more readily than man.
In any event Breed knew of the coming storm many hours before the first soft flakes fell and melted on his yellow coat. He took shelter under the low-hanging branches of a stunted spruce and slept. It snowed for two days and throughout that time there was little sound in the hills. Each coyote in the pack had sought out a similar shelter, the mated pairs bedding together, the others singly. No one of them howled during the storm. The elk and deer held to their beds without a sound. The few stragglers who had not yet crossed out through the passes were the only ones that moved, pushing on through the storm, and the herd bulls traveling with them bugled to hold their cows together; but the snow-filled air deadened these distant sounds. And for two days Breed heard nothing but the soft hissing of the snow through the branches or the groaning of overburdened trees. The third night a big gray owl hooted gruffly an hour before dawn, and as if dispersed by the sound of his voice the last gray clouds scudded past and the stars flamed from the steel-blue sky of night.
A savage wind sprang up with the sun, shrieking along the exposed ridges and rippling the valleys of lodgepole pine, hurling its force against the spruce slopes. For another day Breed heard only the howl of the gale, the snow sliding from the swaying branches and the sudden crash of falling trees,—not a sound of life. The fury of the wind abated toward night and an hour after dark there was a sudden lull followed by one last rush of wind, leaving the white hills wrapped in a vast silence.
Breed heard a single bugle note of a young bull, the last he was to hear for another ten months, for the mating time of the antlered tribes had been ushered out with the storm. The gray owls hooted the warning that they would soon set forth on silent wings to strike down any small creature that moved across the white carpet under the trees. The elk were working back up to the bald ridges that had been blown free of snow. All the night-feeders of the wild prowled in search of food after the fast.
Breed raised the hunting cry and the coyote pack answered roll call. They were gaunt and their flanks were pinched up and hollowed from the three-day famine. They ran silently and with but a single purpose, spurred on by hunger. A coyote far out on one flank of the pack winded a bunch of elk and headed for them. The elk accorded him scarcely a glance as he drew near. In an earlier day, before the white man had invaded the foothills, the elk herds had wintered there, but the coyotes had not molested them; of late a few coyotes had invaded the high country, the summer range, but the elk did not fear them.
The coyote howled, one short eager blast, and angled in between the herd and a straggler on the edge of it, a yearling elk, a spike bull, his first antler growth consisting of two pointed spikes eighteen inches long. He was not alarmed,—but it was a new kind of coyote that faced him now, one that had learned pack hunting under the leadership of the yellow wolf.
The coyote made a swift lunge and drove his teeth in one hind leg. The young bull whirled and aimed a sweeping slash of his polished spears, intent upon impaling his foe; and as he turned a second coyote flashed from behind a tree and slashed him. The bull whirled again and struck wickedly with a smashing forefoot. The rest of the elk had stopped to gaze in amazement at this strange scene,—at coyotes attacking an elk.
Every coyote in the pack had altered his course at that short howl, wheeling as at a command. Yellow shapes had appeared as if by magic and were sliding under the trees on silent feet and circling the bull. There was something sinister and purposeful in this concerted action and the rest of the elk milled about uneasily and at last turned and trotted off. The spike bull fought with hoof and horn, but at every turn a coyote slashed him from behind, striking always at the hamstring. His rage turned to fear and he fled. He struck the heavy four-foot drifts where the wind had scoured the snow from the ridge above and sifted it deep in the timber. His sharp hoofs and heavier weight let him deep into the snow while the coyotes padded easily along, their feet sinking in but a few inches. He tired himself with desperate charges at some coyote that always eluded him while others drove fangs in him from behind. More coyotes joined the running fight and he was far gone before Breed drove through the pack and struck him with all the force of a killing wolf. He spent the last of his ebbing strength in a whirlwind of furious fighting, then went down and the yellow horde swarmed over him. They fed long and when they left the feast they were no longer gaunt. Flanks had filled out and paunches sagged heavily, nearly touching the snow. The following night they returned to the kill and finished it. Then Breed headed back for the open sagebrush foothills. The immediate fear of being shot had departed, leaving only the lesson as a reminder of his narrow escape.
The pack reached the edge of the hills in the first morning light and many of them kept on, but Breed, more averse to daylight traveling than they, would not venture down till night. The low country lay spread out below him, ragged patches of brown alternating with those of dirty white, the wind having scoured the snow from open grass-country and piled it to the tops of the sage in the heavier clumps and in long drifts trailing away downwind behind them, or packed it in the depths of badland washes and cracks. The powdery snow had been swept from the open before it had time to melt and the dry air of the hill country had sucked up what little moisture remained, leaving the flats almost as dusty as before.
With nightfall Breed descended to the tongue of the foothills that reached up into the notch formed by the outcropping spur where it joined the main range at right angles. Thirty miles east along this Hardpan Spur was his home territory and he followed along the base of it. Not till within ten miles of Collins' cabin did he howl. The wolfer heard it, and again he had the feeling that he could almost name that peculiarity in Breed's note, but before he could give it expression the solution was slipping away from him as always before. He could feel the odd quality but it defied analysis in words.
Shady too had heard the call and answered it. Breed started toward her but stopped abruptly and tested the wind. The scent of stale meat played on his nostrils and he veered aside to investigate. He moved along a cow trail and peered from the edge of the sage at a ten-pound chunk of meat that lay in the center of an open flat. He knew what that meant. Suspicion flooded him and every hair tingled as he realized that this was the work of man. Traps! No coyote on the range would have found need to look twice at the tempting morsel to know that it had not come there by accident but had been placed by some man as a coyote lure.
Breed, springing as he did from two wise tribes, had been educated in two schools. His coyote mother had led him to meat, knowing men had put it there to bait her, and she had taught him to detect the most cunningly buried trap. Later he had practiced this art himself. The old dog wolf who was his father had followed one simple rule which served him well. He killed each meal as he felt the need of it and would touch no other food, not even returning to previous kills of his own. Breed was possessed of both traits in moderation, inclining to either for long periods as his moods varied. Breed moved to within ten feet of the meat and extended one forepaw, feeling cautiously through the carpet of dust, then pushed it two inches ahead. For a solid hour that paw was not once lifted from the ground except when the other was pushed forward to replace it. He moved ahead an inch at a time, the edging forepaws feeling through the dust for the least sign of loosened earth beneath. He knew that the crushing jaws of a trap yawned beneath the surface somewhere near the meat. His eyes swept every inch of ground for a sign that differed from the rest and his nose quested for a spot which held the taint of man. A faint trace of it pervaded the place, coming mainly from the bait itself and almost blotted by the meat scent.
Cripp and Peg watched every move from a distance of ten feet. Two young coyotes had come to the spot and one of them worked in toward the bait from the opposite side, using the same tactics as those employed by Breed. At the end of an hour Breed stood within three feet of his goal and the out-stretched paw suddenly touched yielding earth. He scratched gently along the edge of this softened spot; a claw scraped some solid substance and the moonlight glinted on a point of naked steel. Breed pushed his paw beneath it and gently lifted till half of a deadly four-pound trap showed above the dust. He looked long at it, then veered past it to the bait; and the young coyote edged in from the other side. Breed's feet did not shift an inch as he tore a mouthful from the meat, but the young coyote across from him strained to drag the whole of it from the spot. It was wired solidly to a stake and he shifted far to either side in his vain efforts to dislodge it. There was a hissing grate of loosened springs and the young coyote felt the bone-shattering snap of a trap as it closed on his foot. Breed whirled and leaped ten feet away, from which point he watched the struggles of his ill-fated friend. In his desperate struggles to free himself the young coyote leaped clear across the meat and the trap that Breed had unearthed closed on another foot. Breed circled uneasily round the spot, powerless to help the coyote that was stretched full length between two traps, yet he lingered till an hour before dawn.
This experience quickened old fears in Breed. Memories of past horrors, long dormant but not forgotten, welled up out of his mind to increase his caution, and fresh pangs were added by similar discoveries on each succeeding night. The whole range seemed studded with fearsome traps and the odor of stale meat was borne on every breeze. There were few nights when he did not find some animal fast in one of these man-made snares. Each new victim acted differently, according to the characteristics of its kind. Breed found a badger in a trap and the animal ceased his struggle long enough to wrinkle his nose and hiss at Breed with a thick snakelike sound. The badger's forepaws were more than twice the size of his hind feet, and were fitted with heavy two-inch claws, while those of the hind feet measured but half an inch. He was caught by one hind foot, leaving the powerful spading forks of the forepaws free to work. He had always found safety by burrowing in the ground and so now, in his last extremity, he turned to digging and plowed every inch of the surface within reach. He settled on one spot at last and burrowed from sight. Breed watched the heaving dirt till it ceased to move as the badger settled comfortably in fancied security, buried to the full limit of the trap chain.
Some nights later Breed passed a cross fox that had strayed down from the high country and had stepped into one of Collins' traps. The fox was never still, weaving in and out, looping and turning round the pin that held the trap; lashed into constant movement by his native nervousness but making no strenuous efforts to break loose. Later the same night he found a bobcat. The big cat made no move save a slight creasing of his facial muscles preparatory to a snarl if the wolf drew near. The first pain had dulled and he rested quietly, lacking the hardihood to stretch his own flesh and bones in a struggle against the trap.
But Breed always found a trapped coyote fighting,—fighting silently and gamely to the last heartbeat. Coyotes are high in the scale of intelligence and so each one has an individuality of his own. One would surge time after time against the chain, driving savagely to the end of it. Another would grind his teeth against the cold steel till his jaws dripped blood, while a third would amputate the mangled foot. But whatever the method, the basic fact was the same,—no coyote waited submissively for his fate but waged a ceaseless, desperate fight for freedom.
All these things heightened Breed's suspicions. He felt the reassertion of wolfish caution within him, driving out the coyote desire to outwit man. Three times he unearthed the traps and stole the bait. Then he refused to go near stale meat. He was nauseated by the smell of it and merely avoided instead of investigating the spots from which the scent came to him. And this was not through fear of traps—he retained full confidence in his ability to detect them—but from the fact that wherever he had found traps in the past he had also found poison and so these two were associated together in his mind.
Throughout a whole month of accustoming himself to these new conditions, Breed had visited Shady but twice. He had the companionship of coyotes to fill his time and the lonesome howls of the she-wolf were unanswered. It is the stock dog without steady occupation that reverts to the wild. Mere inactivity, even if coupled with kindness, is insufficient to still his natural restlessness and fill his life; he must have careful training and active employment to be content,—and Shady was half wild.
The mating time of wolves was drawing near and Breed caught the new note in Shady's voice. He dropped all other business to hurry to her. Though the season was yet some time ahead they knew its nearness and each recognized in the other a possible future mate.
Collins thought of Shady more as a pet than as a dog and so had not troubled to train her. The wild traits in her were as apparent in maturity as they had been in infancy—even more pronounced—and chief among these was her natural aptitude for stealing. She pillaged Collins' stores and even sneaked food from the table when his back was turned, as her wild ancestors for many generations had stolen his bait. Collins curbed this propensity, not by judicious training which would eliminate it, but by the simple process of chaining her to the cabin wall when he left for a trip and did not wish her to accompany him. So it was not strange that Shady viewed thieving from the standpoint of expediency. Those who came to Collins' cabin predicted a bad end for Shady.
That insistent note in her voice was more pronounced as the season neared and Breed tingled to the sound of it. The frequency of his visits increased till they were of nightly occurrence instead of semi-monthly. He used every wolfish inducement to lure her away from the vicinity of the twinkling lights that marked the abode of man. She longed to follow him into the wild but could not bring herself to face its terrors. Breed longed to follow her when she left him but could not bring himself to face the horrors which must lurk near the haunts of men. These clashing outlooks upon life held them apart. The wild represented safety for Breed, its dangers known to him and accepted as a part of it and not to be greatly feared. Those dangers were the work of man, and by natural consequence Breed assumed that their numbers and deadliness increased in proportion as he drew nearer the homes of men, the house itself the most dangerous of all. Shady's mode of life had taught her the reverse of this; that complete safety lay in the cabin and its immediate vicinity, the known and unknown terrors of the wild increasing in ever-widening circles dependent upon the distance from the refuge of the cabin that was home to her.
The season had started and some few coyotes had paired, yet Breed could not induce Shady to follow him. The preceding winter her desire for motherhood had been thwarted. Collins had chained her to the cabin for a month. Coyotes are without the wolf suspicion which fills their larger cousins with fear of human habitations, and they are prone to investigate them at night while a wolf will not approach. Several dog coyotes had braved the dangers of Collins' cabin in answer to Shady's howls. Her soft whimpering had roused the wolfer each time this occurred and every new admirer had been greeted with a charge of buckshot as he slipped toward the house, three dog coyotes having paid for their temerity with their lives.
The Coyote Prophet intended the same imprisonment for Shady the present season but he neglected it one day too long. He came from the cabin, a collar and chain in his hand, only to see Shady slip away into the dusk. A minute later she howled.
Breed heard it. Every fiber of him quivered to the sound. It was the mating call!
Collins whistled in vain. There was no answering whimper from Shady. But the habit of obedience was strong in her and she lingered within sound of it. Breed came nearer than ever before, his fears dulled by the message she had sent him. Collins came from the house again and whistled shrilly. Breed shrank from the sound and drew back as Shady trotted a short distance toward the house; she answered the whistle with an uneasy whine and Collins moved in the direction from which it came, coaxing as he advanced.
Fear flooded Breed. It spurred him to sudden rushes of flight which were halted in a few stiff bounds as the longing for Shady cried out against his leaving her. Then came the clanking of the chain in Collins' hand. It was the clank of a trap chain to Breed,—and he was off. That same sound, its meaning so different for each of them, resulted in flight for both. Shady ran with him through the night, and once started it was not so hard to keep on. And as she ran she transferred her trust from Collins to Breed, giving herself entirely into his keeping to lead her through the unknown perils which lay ahead,—and she ran close to him, her nose almost touching his flank.
The exhilarating element of danger in trap robbing, which appeals so strongly to the coyote, held no fascination for Shady. She was vastly trap-wise but used her knowledge solely for self-preservation. Every scrap of meat on the range represented possible pain or death to her and she found no sport in close investigation with its attendant risks. She was entirely dependent upon Breed, feeling a sense of security in his nearness, but weighed down by the vast unknown which seemed to close in upon her whenever the gap between them exceeded the span of one leap. She would not touch any food other than that which he provided.
The coyotes clustered round the steer that Breed pulled down a few hours after luring Shady from the cabin and she viewed them suspiciously, warning them off by repeated growls. Peg and Cripp edged in to feed. Shady's protest rose frenziedly and she raged at them but did not attack, and the two old coyotes eyed her warily as they ate. She noted that Breed accepted their presence and she quieted and patterned her actions according to her mate's.
The rest of the pack came in. Her uneasiness persisted and for an hour she ate but little, edging away from physical contact with those who crowded about her. She pressed close to Breed's side and whirled to snap at any coyote who attempted to wedge between them, but her suspicions subsided as she found that these nips were never returned. Whenever a dog coyote was inclined to make friendly advances to Shady a low growl from Breed warned him from her side. The sense of strangeness, of having been catapulted from a sheltered life into the midst of a growling mob, wore off and Shady rapidly accustomed herself to these new conditions.
The feast was but half finished when the head of every coyote in the pack was raised at once and the shuffling feet and grinding jaws were stilled as a timber wolf howled from the slope of the Hardpan Spur. All animal sounds were suspended till the last ripples of Breed's answering cry died away; then lesser beasts, having preserved strict silence while two mighty hunters spoke, resumed their own interrupted communications.
The Coyote Prophet heard the two cries, and that baffling quality in Breed's voice was instantly clear to him, as was the reason why he had never before been able to give it name. He had quested for the difference with his ear,—and the difference lay in the feel of the sound. Collins had felt the crawling of his flesh and the roughening of his skin at the gray wolf's cry; for a man may hear that note every night of his life and the wolf shiver will shake his frame the last time it sounds as surely as it does the first. It is not fear; no man can name it; but the wolf shiver is as inseparably linked with the wolf howl as the involuntary gasp is linked with a dash of ice water on the spine. And Collins knew that that quality was lacking in Breed's cry. The personality of the gray wolf was marked by absolute savagery, his bleak outlook on life undiluted by a single ray of that humor which is so evident in every act of the dog and the prairie wolf; and this difference of temperament was reflected in his voice, apparent to the ears of the animal world, apparent to Collins only in the different way in which his subconscious mind reacted to his howl. Collins, having once defined Breed's note, its sound so identical with that of the wolf howl yet so dissimilar in the elusive feeling which accompanied it, had no further doubt that he could thereafter identify Breed by his howl.
"You, Breed! I've got your number now," he said. "I could pick you out from amongst a hundred wolves." This was merely a casual assertion, a self-congratulation over having solved the puzzle, and the Coyote Prophet made it without a thought that the day would ever come when he might have opportunity to file it among prophecies fulfilled.
The wolf howl affected Shady in a similar way, its stark savagery clashing discordantly with the dog strain in her. She felt the grating along her spine, and the hair rose with it. There was an air of expectancy among the coyotes. Heads were raised between mouthfuls and all eyes were repeatedly turned toward the hills. It was the first time that Shady had heard the cry of one of the big gray hunters. She noted the tension among her new friends without reading its portent. Of them all, Breed seemed the only one unaffected. One by one the coyotes left the feast, then the remaining few sidled hurriedly away as a huge dog wolf moved swiftly across the flat. His pace slowed as he neared the kill and he halted ten feet away, his quivering nose taking stock of the two who fed there.
Shady's long run through the sage had whipped her soft fur full of sage dust, its sharp scent nearly obliterating the conglomerate smell of the cabin which usually clung to her. The reek of coyote scent and fresh blood that permeated the spot still further concealed it, and though the wolf caught the peculiar odor he could not trace its source to her without closer inspection. He was hungry and advanced to the meat, tearing off huge bites and gulping them down till the wire edge of his hunger was appeased, then sidled cautiously round the steer to nose the mating she-wolf. As he neared her his eyes peered over her at Breed. That foreign odor which he had noted he now traced to Shady, but having once accepted her it did not trouble him. Shady flinched away from him and Breed's lips writhed up and cupped away from his ivory fangs. There was no mistaking the snarl that accompanied this baring of his teeth and the gray wolf moved back to the opposite side of the steer.
Thereafter both wolves ate sparingly and each watched for the least hostile move in the other. The coyote pack ringed in close, awaiting the departure of the timber wolf. He frequently turned his head and favored the closer ones with a baleful stare, the move always accompanied by a flattening of his ears, and the ones so fixed by his appraising eye shrank deeper into the sage. Each time this occurred his head swung abruptly back toward Breed.
Shady feared and hated the wolf. If she thought of him in human words she would have given him the name of Flatear, and with good reason. In coyote, fox and wolf the ears are even more expressive than the eyes. A wolf's ears work when he sleeps, one of them inclining toward the least sound that reaches him. When awake his ears seem to work automatically in conjunction with nose and eyes, tipping sharply forward and turning in the direction of any strange object or questionable scent that excites his curiosity. And the flattening of the ears is indicative of his mood, preceding even the snarl, their backward angle an accurate gauge of his intent. It seemed to Shady that the big wolf's ears were chronically laid as he regarded Breed. She was unversed in the ways of her wild kinsfolk and could not know that the yellow wolf and the gray were sparring for the advantage of the first blow in the savage fight that would soon be waged for the right of proprietorship,—herself as the prize.
Both wolves centered their attention on the main issue and waited only for an opening. Shady and the restless coyotes out in the sage were forgotten, each wolf conscious only of his foe. Those others mattered not at all, for there were certain known laws which all past experience had proved unalterable. She-wolves showed small concern over the clashes of rival males; coyotes never fought with their big gray cousins, and there were no other wolves about. The issue was squarely up to them.
Each time that Breed appeared off guard for a split second the gray wolf laid his ears, the involuntary betrayal of muscles tensing for the fatal spring; and Breed's own flattening ears each time evidenced his readiness to counter. Shady sensed the enmity between them without knowing the inevitable result. Her mode of fighting was the impulsive way of the dog, the act almost simultaneous with the desire, and this protracted, cold-blooded calculation was new to her.
Breed gave an opening at last, turning and reaching for a bite of meat, and exposing the unprotected side of his neck. Flatear struck for it without a sound, driving straight across the steer with all his weight behind the gleaming rows of teeth. Breed dropped flat and as his enemy swept over him he swung his head up and sidewise in a terrible slash that tore an ugly rent in the gray wolf's paunch. They whirled face to face,—and both were treated to a series of tremendous surprises which shattered all previous convictions.
Shady harked back to the ways of her domestic ancestors, to the custom of dashing into a neighborhood dog fight and mauling the one strange dog in the lot, regardless of sex,—and Breed had been her friend long before he had become her mate. Flatear was the one strange dog to Shady, and he found himself assailed by a screeching fury who fought without care or caution, her sole aim being to sink her teeth in any available part of him. As he leaped away from this unnatural she-wolf he was met by a second surprise. The coyote pack had learned to strike when the leader struck. Peg flashed round a sage and laid open his flank, and as he whirled to face this new enemy Cripp slashed him from behind. Three coyotes darted past Breed and before he had recovered from the shock of the surprise his enemy had fled.
Flatear did not flee from fear but from an overwhelming sense of the whole world gone mad, the shattering of tradition and the overthrow of natural laws. The chaos in his mind sent him flying from this insane place within six seconds after his first attack. A mating she-wolf had been transformed into a she-fiend and in the same second he had been mobbed by coyotes. No doubt he believed with Collins that strange things had come to pass of late in the ranks of the coyote tribe. Flatear headed back for the hills out of which he had come, and as he ran his bewilderment crystallized into a consuming hatred for the strange yellow wolf, the hybrid beast who had upset the established order of things. He did not know that Breed himself had been so nearly paralyzed with sheer astonishment that he had not joined the attack.
The coyotes settled once more to the enjoyment of their interrupted banquet. Breed little realized that he had made a mortal enemy, one who would not merely attempt to deprive him of his mate during the running moon as would any other unattached dog wolf, but one whose enmity was for the individual and who had marked him for the slaughter when next they met, regardless of time or season.
The number of coyotes in Collins' territory had been cut down by half and only the wisest were left. As they grew more trap-wise the wolfer increased the cunning of his sets. Clearly marked cow trails crossed through every low saddle in the foothills and Collins studded these with traps. After once his scent was cold the coyotes had nothing to warn them of these sets, but trail trapping is largely chance and not productive of great results.
Breed saw one coyote in a trail trap and he forswore the following of cow trails. The coyotes soon learned to avoid them. Collins noted the absence of coyote tracks on trails that had once been padded thick with them and the wolfer chuckled over this evidence of their resourcefulness.
Some of Breed's pack had fallen victims to the trap line but their places had been filled by new recruits, every one trap-wise to the last degree. But even these found it increasingly difficult to retain their lives.
A new menace hovered over every coyote that ranged near the foot of the Hardpan Spur, a menace that filled the hardiest prairie wolf with dread. Many a lone coyote was suddenly startled by a huge shape that leaped for him and bore him down. None thus attacked lived to spread the warning and the only knowledge the others had of the lurking fiend was the finding of old friends, stiff and dead, their throats gashed open by savage teeth. The tracks and scent round these murder spots identified the slayer.
Flatear spent his days high in the hills and at night he dropped to the low country to perpetrate his unnatural crimes. Coyotes had violated the customs of centuries and turned their teeth against him. He now wreaked vengeance for this affront. There were no wolves to answer his call, so Flatear no longer howled, but prowled the range without a sound to warn prospective victims, a silent assassin that struck without notice.
At the end of a week he had left a long trail of victims behind but not one of Breed's pack was among them. Those that had pack-hunted with the yellow wolf and learned the advantages of combined attack in killing heavy game now put that same knowledge to good use for their own protection, sufficient evidence of the quick adaptability with which coyotes rise to meet any new emergency.
Mated pairs now ran close when hunting, sometimes traveling in fours. Flatear soon discovered that the teamwork of a pair of fighting coyotes was more than a match for even his great prowess and his kills grew fewer.
Cold fear clutched every coyote that caught a fugitive scent of the gray killer, but Breed did not share this dread. He was Flatear's match in size and strength and so was not concerned. Breed could not know that Flatear's hatred had become almost an obsession; that night after night the slayer was craftily trailing him and that killing coyotes was but a side line to lighten the hours of a protracted stalk for Breed himself. Flatear was a veteran warrior and he waited only for an opportunity to attack when he should find Breed alone. Nose and ears kept him apprised of the yellow wolf's whereabouts, but usually there were coyotes running with him and invariably the tracks of the she-fury were mingled with those of her mate. Breed was untroubled by any thought that sudden death lurked in wait for him the first time he should run alone through the sage.
While Flatear plied his bloody trade and made the nights fearsome for the coyotes, men found one more method of harrying them by day.
The first Breed knew of this danger was one day when he lay with Shady on a high point of ground. There were many things about Shady which he could not fathom. From the first he had found much of mystery in her. She insisted on traveling in broad daylight whenever the notion seized her and she seemed not to share his fear of horsemen, often rising incautiously from her bed for a better view of them, careless of the risk of their seeing her.
Shady cocked her ears alertly at a distant sound, and the same note, faint as it was, roused Breed from his nap. Somewhere off across the foothills several men had raised their voices in a wild outburst of cheers. This sounded again and again, each time from a point nearer to where Breed lay. A band of antelope sped past without following their usual custom of stopping to look back. Breed caught the vibrations of pounding hoofs, the sound of many hard-running horses blended in one. Through it all he heard an occasional note that was strange to him, a shrill, sharp note that had something of the wolf in it, yet which he knew was not made by any beast he had met before. And at this note Shady laid her ears and growled.
The cheers and the hammering hoofs came closer and Breed fixed his eyes on the edge of the flat bench spread out for half a mile before him. A coyote spurted from the mouth of a draw off to the left of Breed's position and raced across the flat. He was stretched out and running his best, but before he had covered two hundred yards five great wolfhounds poured out of the draw. They were slender and long-coupled, capable of tremendous speed, and before the coyote passed below Breed the lead dog was but a few lengths behind.
For the most part the dogs ran silently and wasted no breath in senseless clamor, but occasionally one of them loosed an eager yelp, the sound as thin and keen as his body. A dozen riders streamed across the flat on furiously running horses, cheering as they came. The coyote doubled to evade the snapping jaws of the foremost dog, and as he turned another struck him. He rolled over twice, and when he gained his feet he faced his enemies. He knew the game was up but he went down fighting,—fighting against odds without a whine; and Breed watched five savage dogs mauling a limp dead thing that ten seconds past had been his valued friend. These strange beasts did not move off as the men rode up, and Breed realized with a shock that the men did not ride with the purpose of killing them; that they were leagued together and that the dogs were the creatures of men the same as sheep and cows were their property.
He stole down the far slope, keeping the high ground between himself and the horsemen. Shady followed him closely, moving furtively and with many backward glances, her tail tucked almost between her legs, and Breed, accustomed to Shady's indifference to the approach of riders, wondered at this sudden reversal of her usual ways.
But it was not the men that roused Shady's fear; above all other things she feared and hated dogs. The few that had followed their masters to Collins' house had always sensed the wild blood in her, and at the first opportunity they had pounced on her with intent to kill. Shady had found friends among the coyotes and had found only hostility among dogs. Savagery is only relative, according to the views of the one who pronounces upon it, and from Shady's experience she was right in her judgment that the ultimate limit of savagery was reached only in the dog.
The owner of the dog pack lived some ten miles from Collins and the whole countryside had assembled to witness the first race. There were fewer riders in each chase as the novelty wore off but the days were few when the owner failed to take the dogs out for a run. Wolfhounds run only by sight and coyotes are slippery prey, doubling and twisting on their trails to throw their pursuers off, so the result was always in doubt and every chase did not yield a coyote pelt.
After that first day Breed did not wait for the dogs to draw near but started off the instant he found that they were coming his way. It was Shady's habit of daylight traveling that led Breed into grave danger within a week after the dog pack had made their first run. He followed Shady down the bed of a gulch which screened their movements from prying eyes but at the same time served to shut out all the various signs by which Breed received long-range warnings. As they loitered along the bottom of the draw the antelope bands were flashing the danger sign; range cows on the ridges all stood facing the same way; everywhere coyotes were scurrying for cover, but all these things passed over Breed's head. A coyote flipped into the gulch and he did not tarry but passed Breed with merely a sidelong look and vanished round a bend.
Breed was instantly alert. He darted to the rim of the draw and looked warily about him. There was not an antelope in sight and no cows grazed in the little basin that flanked the gulch at the point where he left it; not a sign to warn him of the source of the danger. He ran for the crest of a ridge for a better view,—and the next instant he was in full flight back the way he had come, for as he sky-lined himself on the ridge five sharp-eyed wolfhounds a quarter of a mile away had darted toward him. He knew that they had seen him and were coming, that death was sweeping down on him.