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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Yellow Horde By Hal G. Evarts Characters: 17928

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The snow melted slowly in the high country but by mid-April a few bare spots showed in the more open meadows, the hardy mountain grass sending forth green shoots. The rabbits were drawn from the timbered ridges to nibble these first spring dainties. The surface of the drifts showed thousands of tiny mouse tracks,-the mice that had lived deep under the snow, subsisting on food previously stored, now coming forth to swarm into these first cleared patches.

The pups had grown large and strong and were able to follow their parents on the meat trail, and they soon learned to catch their own mice. The drifts in the passes had packed so firmly as to afford good footing and the game was coming back to the summer range. After the first few had made the crossing the rest followed their trails and the main tide of the elk migration set in, great droves of cows boiling through all the passes and streaming down into the green spots in the meadows. There was now meat in plenty, and the yelping barks of the cows sounded in the valleys that had been wrapped in white silence for so many months; but there was not a sound from the bulls; the antlered lords whose ringing challenges had filled the whole expanse of the hills the previous fall seemed voiceless now. These old fellows had remained up among the high bald ridges, their new antler growth tender in its velvet sheath, and nothing would be heard from them till after the porous growth had hardened and their points were polished for the next rutting time.

The wolf family returned to the den no more, except perhaps for a casual inspection when their wanderings chanced to lead them to the neighborhood.

The bears had come from their long sleep and left the dens. There were black and brown bears and monster grizzlies roaming in the meadows. At first the diet of these huge beasts consisted almost entirely of grass and twigs but their appetites rapidly increased and it was no unusual thing for a bear to appropriate one of Breed's kills.

Breed did not fear bears, knowing that their speed was less than his own and that they were harmless so long as he did not molest them and come into too close quarters. He accepted this stealing of his meat as part of the established order of things and always moved away when a bear came swaying leisurely up to his kill.

Shady, on the contrary, had a wholesome fear of bears and was excited at their approach, but at the same time she could not view their thieving ways in such a philosophical light and her resentment rankled deeper with each recurring theft.

The wolf family returned to a kill to find a great silvertip feeding there. Shady's rage boiled over and she swept down upon him with a furious burst of barking. She would have halted short of him but there was no need. Breed was profoundly amazed to see the mighty baldface flee down the slope with Shady in full cry behind him.

Breed knew that bears did not fear him, even though his fighting ability far surpassed that of his mate, yet a grizzly fled at the first sound of her voice. This deepened his respect for Shady; the mate who was so helpless in many respects was surprisingly resourceful in others.

It was not known to Breed that bears had learned to dread the bellowing of a pack of trail hounds in the hills through knowledge that men followed close behind, and that the dog note in Shady's voice stirred up visions of a man with a magazine gun on their trail. But while the reason was not clear to Breed, the fact that the mightiest grizzly took flight before his mate was repeatedly proved to him, and after once learning her power Shady permitted no bear to deprive her family of its meat.

As the summer advanced the pups learned to pack-hunt with Breed. Page 167.

As the summer advanced the pups learned to pack-hunt with Breed. The coyote howls at night were now confined to messages between mate and mate or between mother and pups. The life they led was essentially a family life and they had no interests outside of the family circle. Breed's cry to rally a pack was never raised, for his own domestic duties were many; and if he had sent forth the summons none would have answered it. He sometimes met Peg and ran with him for a while, but these visits were infrequent and brief, each having pressing business of his own.

Breed one day caught the scent of a coyote upwind from him. This in itself was nothing unusual but there was something vaguely familiar about it, something that roused old memories, and suddenly he thought of Cripp. He traced up the scent and as he topped the ridge he stopped short and bared his teeth, the hair rising along his spine. A horrid nightmare of a thing rose from its bed and leered at him. The hair had slipped from its body, leaving the skin shiny and slate-blue. The ears and head were furred, and the legs; tufts of hair sprouted from the shoulders and along the spine, but flanks and sides were bare and the long tail was rat-like, its joints showing through the tight-stretched skin. The lips were drawn back and revealed the blue gums receding from loosened teeth. This was the result of poison that had failed to kill.

Breed knew this grisly apparition for Cripp. The scent was there, and the warped foreleg. Cripp did not recognize his friend. His mind was clouded and the light of insanity gleamed in his sunken eyes. Breed whirled and fled, and a weird cry sounded behind him,-the eerie howl of a maniac.

All through the summer the coyotes shunned the specter of living death that plodded silently up and down the valleys and the ridges. When it came suddenly through the trees, drawn by the scent of a fresh kill, some coyote family scattered swiftly and left the feast. Cripp was as apt to howl in broad daylight as at night, and the sounds were meaningless, the unintelligible jargon of an idiot. Every coyote within hearing bristled with fear whenever Cripp's jabbering reached their ears.

In the background of Breed's mind the purpose to slay Flatear still persisted, but his duties prevented his spending the time to hunt for him. Occasional wolf howls were heard back here in the hills, the calls of strays that had drifted down from the north, following the line of the hills and keeping well back from the dangers of the low country. Each time he heard the wolf note the urge to kill was strengthened in Breed. He had heard Flatear's voice but once and so was unable to identify him by ear alone but must receive added testimony through eyes or nose. Twice he left his family to investigate the source of these cries. One came from a lone female; the other from a big gray dog wolf who had mated with a coyote, and there were five pups trailing after the oddly assorted pair. These pups were much like Breed's own and they gave proof that the coyote strain was stronger than the wolf. Their language was that of their mother. The only trace of wolf parentage was shown in their greater size and the dark fur of their backs. Breed's search for his old enemy proved fruitless. Many things of which Breed was unaware had taken place on his old home range since he had left it, and Flatear, terrified by the latest of these events, had slunk away to the north.

Collins' prediction had been verified. The coyotes in the low country where poison had been strewn broadcast on the range had suddenly turned from stale meat as from disease. Much of their food supply had come from bloated sheep, from locoed horses, and from cows that had eaten larkspur and died, but they would no longer touch these carcasses. Deprived of this source of food, their kills became more frequent and they grew bolder in their raids on calves and sheep.

Then a new and appalling menace reared its ugly head in the foothills, striking not at coyotes alone but at every living thing. There were many coyotes such as Cripp, with the hair slipped from their hides,-the ones that had survived a dose of poison but were unable to shake off its devastating after effects. Hydrophobia broke out among these and they ran amuck, striking alike at friends and foes. Sound coyotes were turned into frothing fiends that helped to spread the wave of madness that swept across three States. Horses and cows died by hundreds and it was no unusual thing for one mad coyote to bite fifty head of sheep in a single night. The five dogs that had harried Breed were themselves infected when they pulled down a mad coyote, and they drove poisoned fangs into forty head of stock before the last of the five was run down and shot.

There was but one ray of hope in the whole dangerous business and men seized on that. Mad coyotes lost their cunning and ran stupidly on some chosen course, biting every living thing that crossed their trails, but refusing to be turned aside even to avoid an approaching man. Riders poured through the foothills on fleet horses, shooting down the stricken ones, all other business suspended till

this menace had been stamped out. And through it all the ravages among the wily coyotes were far less than among domestic stock.

The spreading of coyotes over new territory, which had been only gradual before, was accelerated by the poison and madness that had blighted the foothills. Thickly settled districts far to the east, where coyotes had formerly appeared but infrequently, were now invaded by great numbers. Poison and traps could not be used effectively against them in localities where there were dogs on every farm, and the coyotes were safer there than on the open range. Reports that reached Collins showed that for eight hundred miles south along the base of the hills the coyotes were quitting the flats and roaming through the fastnesses of the Rockies.

Breed noted the steady flow of strange coyotes into the high basins of his new range. In the late summer his pups dropped one by one from the family circle, going off on some business of their own. During the latter part of August Breed was conscious of a vague sense of loneliness. This grew more pronounced and then suddenly he knew! The rally call for the pack rolled through the valleys and echoed among the peaks, and from far and near he heard familiar voices raised in answer. The parental responsibilities were over for one season, the pups gone forth on their own, and the members of the pack were free to follow the yellow wolf.

As Breed ran through the hills the pack gathered, and each coyote fell into his old place. Peg and his mate ran close on the right of Breed,-but the place on the left was vacant.

Cripp was coming, however. The cry for the pack had penetrated the fog that obscured his reason and touched a responsive chord buried deep beneath. That cry was meant for him. The coyotes made a kill and feasted, but before their hunger had been satisfied a living skeleton came moving toward them, and they scattered wildly and left the meat to Cripp.

Several strange coyotes joined Breed's pack and these new members seemed possessed of some haunting fear. Breed noted their constant air of expectancy and the intent regard with which they favored every coyote that drew near to them. They seemed always suspicious that some friend would suddenly turn upon them, and whenever some eager coyote clashed his teeth while feeding, these strangers that had come so recently from the low country started uneasily at the sound.

Night after night Cripp followed the pack and came to the kill. The coyotes all avoided him but the strangers were assailed with a ghastly dread of his grinning mask, and their fears were communicated to the rest of the pack. Breed himself caught it. An air of tense watchfulness pervaded their gatherings, a guarding against some menace as yet unknown but which the actions of the strangers indicated might be upon them at any moment.

After a week of this sort of thing Breed and Shady were bedded on a ridge slope that flanked a broad meadow when Breed saw a moving speck at the far edge of it. It proved to be a coyote, though at first its peculiar gait denied this. He came straight on across the open, and Breed saw one of his new friends trot from a willow clump in the meadow, take one look at the advancing stranger and become galvanized into a flitting streak that left the valley. Even at that distance his deadly fear was evident, and Breed knew that the unknown danger had become actual and was embodied in the queer-gaited coyote that was coming toward him.

He ran with an automaton-like stiffness, never changing his course, and occasionally stumbling as if unaware of the character of the ground over which he passed. His head swung out slightly to either side and he snapped each time. There was something sinister in every move, as if his body was driven on without conscious volition, actuated by some dreadful, unclean force. Breed knew it for some sort of poisoning, and his muscles bunched for flight. Shady barked angrily as if to drive the thing away. Then Breed saw a hairless travesty of a coyote move out of a draw and halt directly in the path of the mad coyote. Cripp stood there grinning till he felt the other's teeth score his unprotected hide; then he whirled and snapped back at him. The mad coyote kept straight on and Cripp followed at his own queer shambling gait. He drew close and ran alongside, and for a hundred yards they exchanged slashes in a senseless sort of way. Breed could see the blood oozing from the fur of the mad coyote's neck, and the blobs of white foam sliding down Cripp's shiny hide. Then the mad coyote fell and Cripp kept on for another ten yards before he missed him. He wheeled and returned, stumbled and fell and crawled back to his foe, and they lay there toothing one another in an impersonal, detached way, as if it did not matter.

Breed's soul revolted at this scene and he fled the spot. When he raised his howl that night he was twenty miles farther north, but the coyote pack answered from close at hand. Many of them witnessed the same scene from adjacent slopes of the valley. The others had viewed similar sights, and there was a general coyote movement north through the mountains, a widespread exodus ahead of the madness that was creeping up into the hills.

Breed had formerly been imbued with the home-loving nature of the coyote, and this had led him to restrict his wanderings to a comparatively limited area instead of ranging hundreds of miles in all directions after the manner of wolves. This love of a permanent home range now operated in a peculiar way. All ties were severed behind him, the land he loved bristling with such a wide variety of dangers as to preclude all possibility of his return. The wanderlust which now seized him appeared a complete reversal of his former desire to remain in one vicinity where every topographical feature was to him a familiar landmark; but in reality this very wanderlust was an expression of home love; every step he took away from his old range was unconsciously actuated by the desire to find some new spot which would take the place of the old.

For two weeks these wanderings were erratic and uncontrolled by any conscious purpose. He roamed on the Shoshone and the Thoroughfare, the Yellowstone and the Buffalo Fork of the Snake, then swung back across the Sunlight Peaks. Shady had acted queerly of late, frequently leaving Breed for hours at a time and climbing to some commanding point from which she would look far off across the hills, as if seeking something which was always just beyond the range of her vision; but she always came back to him. Breed found nothing out of the way in this. Mated coyotes were prone to follow separate trails for hours, even days, and then meet again. Shady had clung to him persistently, refusing to be out of his sight except when at the den with her pups, and this new manifestation seemed a natural one to Breed, an evidence that his mate had come to trust in her ability to shift for herself in the wild. But it was not this. Now that her pups had been schooled and sent out to face the world alone, Shady hungered to see the man who had raised her from a pup, and to feel his fingers scratching behind her ears.

As the pack straggled out among the ragged Sunlight Peaks Shady looked down across the lower slopes; one valley opened into another in an interminable procession and far down across the spruce tops a rift between two flanking hills afforded a view of the low country, shimmering in the sun. Sand Coulee Basin, her old home! And a variegated mass in the distance marked the Rainbow Buttes, rising isolated and alone from out the badlands. Shady struck a swift gliding trot and dropped down the slope, disappearing in the first twisted masses of timber-line spruce.

For the first few hours after her departure Breed gave it no thought, but when she failed to turn up he grew increasingly uneasy. Ten hours and he called to her and there was no reply, twelve and he circled to pick up her trail but it had cooled. He prowled the peaks for three days and nights, disconsolate and lonely, even though in close touch with the coyote pack, and sending out call after call for his mate. Shady had spent the first two days in almost continuous travel, put in a single hour with the Coyote Prophet, reveling in the feel of his exploring fingers and the friendly sound of his voice; then she departed as suddenly as she had come and spent two more days in reaching the summit of the Sunlight Peaks where she had left her mate, for after all his hold on her was far more gripping than that exercised by the man.

She heard Breed's lonely cry and answered it, and an hour later she was frisking about him with doggish enthusiasm. The yellow wolf accepted her lavish display of affection with dignity; his joy in the reunion was a match for her own, but the wolf in him was unequal to matching the effusiveness of the dog in her.

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