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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Yellow Horde By Hal G. Evarts Characters: 25755

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


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 w

ho 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."

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