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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Yellow Horde By Hal G. Evarts Characters: 16967

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Breed's great paw had not squarely centered the trap and the jaws clamped on but two toes. He fought the trap with all his strength, backing up to gain slack in the chain, then throwing all his weight and force into his spring as he launched himself into the air, only to be jerked violently to the ground at the end of the chain.

Four times he sprang, and four times the breath was almost jarred from his body as he smashed down on his side. As he rose from the last spring he suddenly stiffened, standing rigidly in one spot while every hair rose along his spine. Twenty feet away a great gray shape loomed in the sage. Breed knew it was the midnight killer who had left such sinister evidence of his handiwork scattered along the foot of the hills,-and there was no doubt of his purpose. The yellow wolf was handicapped and knew that he had no chance, but he did not storm and rage aloud as a dog would have done; his was the coyote way. He backed up inch by inch till he stood above the trap stake, and this move gave him a four-foot striking range each way.

Flatear did not fear traps with the full knowledge of their powers and limitations as the coyotes did, but with the superstitious dread of the wolf. In common with all his kind he had merely avoided instead of investigating this danger, and now his understanding could not distinguish between a trap that was set and one that was sprung and harmless.

The clank of the trap chain delayed his attack. He feared that the thing which clamped his enemy's foot might leap out and seize his own. The killer circled his victim, and the yellow wolf turned round and round in the same spot, keeping his bared fangs toward his foe. The trap chain kinked and twisted till it gave him less than a foot of play. Only his insane hatred of Breed led Flatear to brave his horror of that sound of grating steel,-but he came in close at last, crouched and sprang. Breed leaned sharply to one side and met him with a side slash of teeth but the weight of his enemy threw him and he felt the killer's teeth cut cleanly into his shoulder and slide along the bone. Flatear reversed his snap so swiftly that it seemed but a double swing of his head, yet the second swing drove his teeth along Breed's neck and laid open a six-inch gash. As Breed struggled to his feet the wolf's fangs sliced at his throat and ripped it open but not deep enough to kill. A loop of the kinked trap chain was tightened on Flatear's toes by Breed's convulsive backward dodge, and a ghastly fear that he himself was trapped swept through him, transcending even the lust to kill the yellow wolf. He made one wild leap for safety,-and the tightening kink cracked his toes and threw him, the same lurch dragging Breed down with him, and they rolled into a furious tangle of clashing teeth and rattling steel.

Out in the night the coyotes were moving in from all directions in answer to the call Breed had sent out ten seconds before the steel jaws gripped him. Shady was trotting leisurely up to the saddle to meet her lord and mate,-the mate whose life was flowing out through a score of ugly rents. Breed's strength was ebbing fast, and he no longer had the power to put killing force behind his teeth. Flatear snapped aimlessly, his mind half crazed by that fearsome pinching of the chain on his toes. He felt it loosen and slip off, and he leaped clear of the spot.

A shape moved over the edge of the saddle and the next instant Shady drove straight at the gray assassin, raging as she came, the dog in her boiling to the surface. Before she reached him a yellow streak split the night and Peg's teeth crunched on the wolf's hind leg, the little coyote's deadly silence contrasting queerly with Shady's fighting shrieks.

The big wolf fled from this combined attack, one hind leg sagging as he ran, the muscle torn raggedly across by Peg's one snap. Once more Breed was indebted to Shady and his coyote followers.

But Breed was far gone. He struggled to rise but fell back again and lay still, the blood oozing from the rents in his tattered pelt. He raised his head and looked at Shady, and for a single instant his mouth opened and his red tongue lolled out in friendly greeting, showing his spirit still intact even though his body was slit in ribbons; then he lowered it flat between his paws and moved nothing but his eyes.

Shady crept close to him and licked his wounds. The coyote pack came up in pairs and circled about their stricken leader, some of them squatting on their haunches as they regarded his plight, others moving restlessly about; all of them silent as the grave, the only sound in the notch being Shady's continuous low wails as she implored her mate to rise and follow her.

The bitter frost claimed Breed's swollen foot and stiffened it, numbing all sense of pain. He felt comfortable and content. Then Peg moved up and sniffed critically at the trapped foot. He set his teeth in it but Breed did not flinch. The three-legged coyote crouched beside him and turned his head sidewise, the right side of his jaws flat on the trap, his teeth sliding along the cold steel and shearing away the frozen flesh. The leg was dulled to all sensations and Breed felt no pain. Shady viewed this amputation closely and whined with anxiety as it proceeded. Peg sliced the meat from the two toes, set his teeth firmly across the bones and crunched just once. Then he hooked one forepaw over the trap and scratched it away from Breed's sprawling hind leg, two severed toes remaining in the trap.

Peg's lips and gums along the right side of his face were seared and burned from contact with the chilled steel of the trap, raw patches of flesh showing where the skin had adhered to the frosted springs and had been wrenched loose. He nursed these wounds with his hot tongue, and fiery twinges of pain racked him but he did not whine. He curled up and slept for an hour, then rose and nipped Breed's flank. The cold had stopped the flow of blood from Breed's cuts and the pain of the nip roused him from the stupor. He struggled to his feet and stood swaying while Shady bounced around him with joyous yelps. Then he set off for the hills, moving at a walk, with his head drooping weakly.

The next morning Collins stood and looked down at the two great toes in the trap.

"Pegged him," he said. "Pegged old Breed. He'll be minus two hind toes from now on out-but he could lose two toes off each foot and still beat the game. The whole coyote tribe must have been up here to look him over from the number of tracks."

When Collins returned to his shack he found six stockmen awaiting him. The stampede of the sheep and the big kill made by Breed's pack up in the hills had enraged the sheepmen. They had confidently expected that some man would collect Breed's scalp on a fresh tracking snow, but while every rider had scoured the foothills for Breed's tracks after every storm, no man had cut his trail. After gorging on warm meat at night a wolf runs sluggishly the following day; his muscles lack snap and his wind is leaky, and a good horse can wear him down. Twice in his first year Breed had been harried far across the foothills by hard-running horses, and now the first spitting flakes of a coming storm brought recollections of those desperate races and roused his uneasiness to such a pitch that he set off for the hills and remained there till the wind had piled the snow and cleared long stretches which made tracking from a running horse impossible.

The sheepmen at the cabin informed Collins of the big killing and their tale was punctuated by every possible epithet applicable to the coyote tribe. Collins, owning no sheep, was in a position to view the killing in a more philosophical light than they.

"You can't rightly blame 'em," he said. "Men raise up sheep to kill 'em in cold blood; coyotes kill 'em when they're hungry. Two sides to it, 'cording to whether you're a coyote or a man."

The stockmen stated the purpose of their visit. Their association had raised the bounties, making it profitable for wolfers to hunt even in the summer months when pelts were unprime and valueless; the price for spring pups had been raised to equal the reward posted for adults; and now the association would furnish free poison for all wolfers and advocated its use all through the year. They stated their belief that this system, if followed ruthlessly, would result in the practical extermination of prairie

wolves. They rested their case and anxiously awaited the Coyote Prophet's verdict on their plan. Collins shook his head.

"Part of it's good," he told them, "and part of it's dead wrong. Anyhow you can't kill 'em all. I've told you so for twenty year and I stand on what I've said. There'll be a million coyotes left to howl when the last man dies. The raise on summer bounties is a good move-a man can afford to kill shedders at that price; and the pup bounty will set men to digging out their dens. But your main plan was laid out by men that don't savvy the coyote mind." Collins leaned forward and tapped one forefinger in the open palm of his other hand to emphasize his point.

"You let this all-year poison idea slide! You mark me-if you try that on you'll lose; more ways than one. I know 'em! A coyote will take a chance on guns and traps, but he's superstitious about these strychnine baits. After a few turn up on the range with a dose of it the rest will quit your line. Your traps won't show one catch. There's only one time to use it and that's after you've bait trapped and trail trapped till only the wisest are left. Then shoot the whole range full of poison; get it all out at once and knock off all you can. Then take your poison up and quit! You hear me,-quit! Then they'll sort of halfway forget before another year and you can spring it again. But I'm a-telling you the facts,-if you leave poison scattered round loose for six months you'll see coyotes increasing fast and there'll be hell to pay amongst your sheep; you'll break behind two ways at once. There'll be just enough that forget themselves and take on a poison feed to keep the rest in the notion of passing up all dead meat. They won't even touch bloats or winter-killed stock. When they're hungry they'll make a kill,-and they'll work on your sheep."

"I've stripped off three times more pelts than any wolfer that's mixed poison with his traps. Now my trap line is played out and I'm going to throw poison into 'em for a month,-and quit."

As Breed lay convalescing from his wounds he reviewed the dangers of his chosen range, not knowing that the one horror which he feared more than all else combined was about to sweep through the foothills. His former attitude toward Flatear had been one of aversion for his gruesome practices, but with no touch of personal enmity. But the gray wolf had not only pounced on him at a season when mating was past and dog wolves at peace, but had almost torn him to shreds while he was helpless in the grip of a trap. Breed now felt a terrible hatred growing in him, a desire to kill the slinking gray beast as soon as he gained sufficient strength to take his trail.

Breed was too weak to hunt but there was enough of the coyote in Shady to lead her to rustle food for her mate. For five days Breed lived wholly upon the chunks of meat which Shady purloined from the frozen bait piled against Collins' shack,-the meat which he intended to poison and strew all across the range as soon as he had finished taking up his traps. On the sixth night Shady found that the whole of the great stack of meat had entirely vanished and near morning she returned without food.

Breed's strength had flowed steadily back to him and he craved meat. By noon his hunger was a hollow ache. Then suddenly he knew that there was meat two miles west of him. The wind was square at his back so he could not possibly have scented it, and any man who had seen him rise from his bed and head for meat that lay two miles downwind would have charged the act to that mysterious intuitive knowledge that animals are supposed to have.

There is one sure way by which men of the open locate animal carcasses: the location of winter-killed stock or range cows mired down in an alkali bog is pointed out to them at a distance of several miles. Game wardens make use of it to locate the illegal kills of poachers, and rangers to locate the kills of cougars and wolves. In all countries there are meat-eating birds and their flights reveal much to practiced eyes.

Breed's mysterious information came from seeing an eagle pitch down far to the west of him. Two minutes later another swooped from another angle. Ravens and magpies winged toward the spot,-and Breed set off at once toward the converging lines of their flight. His hunger overcame his dislike for daylight traveling, but he held to high ground instead of the valleys.

He came to the edge of a shallow basin devoid of all vegetation except an occasional spear of grass, chalk-white patches on the surface of the earth showing it to be an alkali sink. A hundred yards beyond the last tongue of sage that reached out into it Breed could see a quarter of beef, two eagles jealously guarding it. Magpies and ravens flitted about, waiting for their share of the feast. One of the eagles made frequent moves to scatter them when they came too close, rushing at them with a queer hopping run, his wings half spread and trailing back. Breed could plainly hear the snapping of his powerful beak.

The larger eagle suddenly took flight, rising with awkwardly flapping wings and cutting eccentric loops and curves, each dip calling forth a raucous scream. He fought his way to a height of two hundred yards, then lost all muscular control and fell loosely to the ground, his mate taking wing as he smashed down on the flat.

A vague dread seized Breed. He watched the magpies close in to the feed. A score of them took the air at half-minute intervals, fluttered wildly and with a spasmodic jerking of their long tails and pitched down in death. The rest of them left the meat. Breed's mind again proved capable of associating ideas, of constructing theories from known facts. The birds had been alive. There were no clanking traps or sound of gunshots to account for it,-yet they had died. Their crazy flappings had been in sharp contrast to their usual grace when in the air. Their actions had not been normal, and Breed someway thought of the ways of poisoned coyotes. He had never seen a poisoned horse or cow, or till now a poisoned bird,-had always believed it an affliction of coyotes alone; yet he felt the quickening of long dormant fears. He knew that meat was poisoned and he would not go near. He drew farther back in the sage and rested till night.

He started out with Shady at dusk and they were joined by Peg and his mate, the four of them hunting together. Peg killed a jack and Breed's share of it partially satisfied the gnawing of his hunger. As he traveled on he sampled the wind for some sign of the gray killer. It had narrowed down to a feud between the yellow wolf and the gray, an undying hatred, and whenever they next met there would be one of them whose trail the coyotes would never again cross on the range.

Then all thought of hunger, all thought of his feud with Flatear, everything but stark horror was suddenly swept from Breed's mind. A horrid, racheting cough sounded from straight ahead. A coyote whisked into the open and bounced toward them with bucking leaps, strangling and gagging as he came, then whirled and snapped at himself, the froth dripping and foaming from his jaws and the moonlight reflecting from his set, staring eyes. They drew away from him and he writhed on the ground in nasty convulsions,-stiffened and stretched out with his eyes bulging from their sockets and glaring forth in death.

Breed headed for the hills and Shady and the two coyotes clung close to his flanks, as if numbers relieved the horror of the thing they had just seen.

Three times before they reached the hills they were terrified by the appearance of former friends who had suddenly been stricken into foaming maniacs. Breed turned on the first rise of the hills and howled. The members of the coyote pack read the message. Breed was bidding farewell to the land of sage. Perhaps he knew that he would never see the gray foothills again.

Six pairs of coyotes gathered toward his cry. They had seen much and lived to pass their knowledge on. Every one of them had run the gauntlet of rifle fire; they had been hounded by dogs. Most of them had been maimed by traps,-and now this affliction that turned coyotes mad with a single bite of meat.

They followed Breed back into the hills, a wise band, the pick of the coyote tribe and well able to cope with new conditions and teach their future pups the work of pioneering in strange countries which lay ahead of them.

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