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   Chapter 1 No.1

The Yellow Horde By Hal G. Evarts Characters: 26159

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


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.

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