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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Yellow Horde By Hal G. Evarts Characters: 15833

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Breed found the hills buried deep under a blanket of snow. In the low country the drifts lay only in the gulches and the more sheltered spots but up in the lodgepole valleys and the heavy stands of spruce on the slopes the white covering seemed endless and unbroken. The dogs killed the meat for the whole pack, for at this season the she-coyotes were unfitted for the strenuous work of pulling down heavy game. For the same reason they were unable to travel long distances in the snow. Breed too was disinclined to move rapidly. His foot had healed but the swollen leg was weak and tender. The pack averaged less than twenty miles a day.

At the end of a week Breed's old home was more than a hundred miles behind and he was well up in the backbone of the hills. He came out upon a mighty divide and gazed off across a rolling country extending fifty miles each way, all of it high but ringed in by still more lofty ranges, their ragged saw-teeth standing gaunt and grim against the sky. There were broad, open meadows spread out before him, great areas devoid of trees, intersected by timbered ridges and rolling parks where the stand of spruce was dotted. The whole of it lay under a four-foot layer of snow and gleamed dead white and lusterless, but even so its aspect was more inviting than the gloomy forest through which they had come.

The open-loving coyotes elected to remain in this land rather than penetrate the questionable beyond. As they crossed the open spaces the racy smell of the sage leaked through the packed drifts underfoot and they knew that parts of these valleys were carpeted with the same brush that clothed the foothills of their home land. This was the summer range of the elk herds and once well down the slope of the divide they found a country that seemed devoid of game.

After advancing in loose formation for five miles without any coyote finding a promising trail, Breed caught a fugitive scent of meat. He circled and looped, now catching it, then losing it again. The broad valley stood white and silent, gripped in a dead calm, and the few vagrant breezes were imperceptible, merely the sluggish drift of local air pockets that shifted a few feet and settled.

The yellow specks that moved in pairs far out across the snow fields slowed and halted, changed their routes and headed toward the leader who was questing about with uplifted nose. Then Breed dropped his head and ran with nose close to the snow, twisting and turning in one locality of less than a hundred yards in extent. The eyes of every advancing coyote were fastened on Breed. They saw him stop abruptly and shove his nose into the snow, and the little puff of steam which rose around his head as he breathed hard into the drift was clearly visible to them all. They put on more speed as he began to dig, and when the first of them reached him they saw a tawny expanse of elk hair at the bottom of the excavation.

They tore away the snow and uncovered the whole carcass of a winter-killed elk that had been refrigerating there for months. Breed lingered near this spot for three days, the coyotes bedding near by in pairs, and up here where there were no men they fed in the daytime whenever so inclined. There was not an hour of the day or night when Breed could not see one or more coyotes tearing at the elk. When the last scrap of meat, hide and hair had been devoured and the bones gnawed white and clean, Breed moved on in search of more.

There were always some few stragglers that lagged behind the elk herds and failed to start for the winter range till after the passes were blocked with snow. These turned back and starved when the grass was buried deep and their feet were cut and worn from pawing through the crust to reach it; for the elk is strictly a grazing animal and cannot live entirely by browsing on the twigs and brush as do moose and deer.

For a month Breed prowled this high basin country, and in all that time his feet never once touched earth except when crossing some bald ridge from which the wind had whittled the snow. His menu consisted exclusively of frozen elk.

A chinook swept the hills and held for a week, the hot wind melting and packing the drifts and clearing the more exposed slopes free of snow. The pack had split up and scattered in pairs, each she-coyote selecting some likely spot and remaining in that vicinity.

The first day of the chinook every she-coyote started her den, and the sites, though widely separated, were identical in many respects. Each chose a ridge with a southeast exposure while higher ridges behind cut off the sweep of the north and west winds; and every den was located in a heavy clump of sage. This latter feature was not for the reason that sagebrush reminded them of home, but because experience had proven that the heaviest growths of sage were indicative of deep, soft soil beneath and so pointed to easy digging, a rule used not only by home-seeking coyotes but by homesteading men as well, and one that holds good throughout a half-million square miles of sagebrush country.

Shady too had settled on an open ridge and now spent much of her time there, but this seemed more from a disinclination to travel and a dislike of bedding in snow than from a definite purpose of excavating a den. This puzzled Breed. Shady leaned more to the casual dog way of trusting that a suitable spot would present itself on the day when her pups should arrive; yet there was enough of the coyote in her to cause her to scratch out a shallow nest in a sunny spot. This act was more for present comfort, however, than from any intent to make provision for the future.

Peg and Cripp had always clung more tenaciously to Breed than had the others of the pack and Peg had settled on a ridge not more than two miles away; but Cripp was no longer to be found. It had been long since his voice had been raised in answer to Breed's call and he had not come back into the hills with the coyote pack. Breed missed the trusty follower who had run with him on so many hunts, and day after day he expected to catch a trace of Cripp in the wind or to hear his friendly voice at night, but the crippled coyote never came.

Peg was now Breed's sole companion at night, except when their mates joined them at the two frozen elk carcasses in the bottoms between their home ridges, and the two of them explored the surrounding country together. Peg's lips were scarred along the right side of his face, the price of Breed's liberty. There are close ties between animals, a myriad proofs of friendships and enmities, the same as among men, and it may be that the act which had brought Peg those honorable scars had helped to cement the bond between himself and the yellow wolf. Whether or not they had means of discussing Cripp's absence, there can be no doubt that they missed the genial old rogue that had been their running mate for so many months and that they wondered at his fate.

Breed visited Peg's home ridge during the height of the chinook. Peg's mate was a silky-haired coyote, her fur fluffy and long. Fluff lay sprawled contentedly in the sunshine while her mate worked on the den. She growled uneasily at Breed as he peered down the hole. A shower of dirt greeted him and he drew away as Peg backed from the den and shook the dirt from his fur. Fluff took her turn at the work but soon tired of it, and Peg started in as soon as she left off. A she-coyote picks her own den site and starts the hole, but because she is easily exhausted near denning time it falls to the dog to complete the den.

When Breed returned to Shady he found her scratching leisurely at the nest she had scooped out. It was merely a raking of the surface to loosen and soften the bed which was smooth and glazed from her having bedded there when her fur was wet; but Breed read it as a tentative start toward making a permanent home.

When Shad

y ceased her aimless scratching Breed edged her aside and tore at the soft earth with his paws. He had buried himself to the hips before he drew back. Shady entered and critically inspected the hole, then immediately backed out. That was the extent of her interest. It may have occurred to Breed that his mate's shifts at digging were extremely brief, but nevertheless he persisted till he had tunneled a curving entrance eight feet long and hollowed out a nest eighteen inches high by three feet across. All well-ordered she-coyotes have at least two, and the majority of them three openings leading from their homes. Shady failed to indicate the direction which she wished these emergency tunnels to take so Breed laid them out according to plans of his own. By the time the den was completed the chinook wind had cooled, and winter tightened down over the hills once more, freezing the surface dirt so solidly as to make excavating impossible.

Breed repaired to the last frozen elk carcass in his neighborhood and found Peg there before him. An hour later a she-coyote came to the feed. She sprawled flat in the snow and tore ravenously at the frozen meat. Her eyes were hollowed from hard journeying and lack of food. Breed knew her for Cripp's mate and he momentarily expected to see his friend. When her hunger was appeased she faced back toward the divide over which she had come and howled; then, as if knowing her cry would go unanswered, she turned and left them as abruptly as she had come. She had no time to lose and she could not dig a den, yet she planned the best she knew. There would be no mate to rustle food for her, and meat would be the first essential while her pups were young. Five miles beyond Breed's home ridge she found an elk drifted deep under the snow in the heavy timber. She crawled into the heart of a windfall jam, choosing one where the lay of the land would prevent her being drowned out when the drifts should melt, and stayed there till her five pups were born.

When Breed returned home near morning he heard queer squeals issuing from the yawning mouth of the den. Shady's doglike faith that a place would somehow be provided for the great event had been justified and she had taken possession of the den which her wild mate had so carefully prepared.

Shady wandered no more with Breed, but stayed at home in the den, and for the first week all that Breed saw of her was a brief glimpse of her nose as she came to the mouth of the hole, seized the elk meat which he brought as an offering and backed down out of sight with it. After that he occasionally saw the whole of her but these views were hasty. Whenever Shady emerged from the den her tail barely cleared the mouth of it before she twisted back and dived headlong from sight, panic-stricken lest some mishap had befallen the pups during her long eight-foot trip from them to daylight. After two days of hourly excursions of this sort she spent a few moments outside the den, and thereafter these periods were lengthened until she remained on the warm slope fully as much as in the den.

Night after night Breed heard the howls of the lone she-coyote that had denned in the windfall. Always she faced toward the land that had been her home. A she-coyote whose mate is killed after the running moon will raise her pups alone and refuse to accept another mate; yet the howls she sent out were calls for a mate, and from this Breed knew that she did not believe that Cripp was dead. He pondered long over this mystery of why Cripp still lived but did not join his mate.

The supply of elk meat rapidly diminished and at last was gone. The only carcass Breed could locate within ten miles was the one near the windfall, and the widowed mother defended that furiously against all comers. The warm days of early March had turned it stale and putrid but it was all she had.

Every waking second of Breed's time was spent on the meat trail. An occasional blue grouse or snowshoe hare was the largest game he found. That the coyotes were faring as poorly he knew from the signs he crossed each day in the hills. He found the tracks of dog coyotes many miles from their dens and always the signs showed that they had been working out some cold rabbit trail. Breed found the tracks of many bobcats in the hills and these appeared to have been wandering aimlessly. But Breed knew that the noses of cat beasts are not keen enough to work out any but the warmest trails; that this accounted for his seldom finding signs that a cat had trailed a rabbit, and that their apparently crazy way of traveling was in reality a systematic shifting across the air currents in search of the warm body scent of their prey. Several times Breed picked up a hot cat track and followed it at top speed but the big bobs held mainly to the heavy timber and always took refuge in a tree.

When Breed's pups were three weeks old he had his first look at them when Shady came from the den on a warm afternoon and a swarm of fluffy little creatures toddled after her. There were eight of them, all with heavy frames that gave promise of their attaining almost as great size as their father, and there were strips of dark fur along their backs. After that first trip they spent much time romping and quarreling on the sunny side hill.

A pair of golden eagles had nested on the rough face of a pinnacle that rose from the floor of the valley near its head, some five miles from Breed's home ridge. These mighty birds soared far out over the divide and returned with meat for their fledglings in the nest. Their pealing screams often split the silence of the valley. Shady paid small heed to them but Breed often cast a wary eye aloft when the screams sounded from close at hand.

Shady was stretched comfortably before the den one day, watching the pups scattered out along the ridge, when she became aware of a faint rushing sound such as the first puffs of a fresh wind make when they strike the trees some distance away. This increased to a humming roar. She looked up to see a huge shape driving down upon a pup with incredible velocity, swooping at a sharp angle, the great wings spread wide and hissing through the air as the big bird tipped dizzily from side to side. Within two seconds after the first droning sound had reached Shady's ears she saw the eagle strike his claws through a pup and start up the valley on lazily flapping wings. Shady raced madly under him and raged until the valley echoed to her fury. Then she quieted and watched till he was but a tiny speck off toward the nesting peak, the dead pup dangling loosely from the talons that had struck clear through his slender body, the hind claw on each foot meeting and interlocking with one front claw in a grip which nothing short of the actual severing of a leg tendon could break.

Thereafter Shady knew why Breed showed uneasiness when an eagle screamed near the den.

The pups knew every note of their mother's voice and obeyed it implicitly. They would be asleep in the den when a note would summon them forth to play, every pup tumbling hurriedly out; she would give another cry when they were playing carelessly in the open, the tone being so nearly identical with that of the first that a man might hear it a hundred times and detect no difference, yet every pup would dive headlong for the nearest hole.

Shady learned to watch for the eagles. Nearly always it was a shadow which warned her first. She would see a swiftly moving black speck gliding over the snow fields or darting along the slopes of the ridges that flanked the valley and she instantly issued a warning to the pups, knowing that where there was a shadow there must be a bird above. Sometimes Breed saw the birds first and called. Shady relayed the danger signal to her young, and even if she was half a mile away the pups made a prompt and desperate spurt for the den.

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