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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Yellow Horde By Hal G. Evarts Characters: 24318

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

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 elk migration had begun. Page 63.

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.

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