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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Yellow Horde By Hal G. Evarts Characters: 16330

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Wolfing was no longer profitable in the foothills and Collins pulled up stakes and left. He loaded his belongings on his pack horses and journeyed far to the north. Later he sold his horses and traveled by canoe, and after a roundabout course he pre?mpted an old cabin between the Laird Fork of the Mackenzie and the head of Peace River. The climate was moist and the underbrush growth was often so dense as to force him to hack out a trail in spots as he laid out his trap line. The side hills were matted tangles and the valleys shaking bogs, and Collins had little love for his new surroundings. There were no cheery sounds at night, only the howls of wolves. In midwinter of his first season in the north he was roused out of a sound sleep, certain that somewhere close at hand a coyote had howled. During the brief gray light of the following day Collins stopped and gazed long at a small, wolf-like track in the snow.

"Coyote!" he announced triumphantly. "It was him that howled."

Twenty yards farther on he crossed a second coyote track, and for half a mile there were trails pointing to the north. There was one that showed evidence of a missing foot, a peg-leg such as those he had often seen on the open range. Then Collins halted and studied the next two trails that appeared side by side. One was a wolf track, and there were two toes missing from one hind foot. The smaller tracks were evenly spaced, and placed one before the other in a straight line after the manner of coyote and wolf, but ten feet beyond where Collins stood the trail showed the wavering gait of the dog with an occasional track out to either side. A sudden mist blurred Collins' eyes and he dashed it off with the back of his mitts.

"It's Shady," he said. "Old Shady and that yellow Breed,-both still alive and way off up here." Collins threw back his head and sent forth the clear piercing whistle that he had used to summon Shady in the long ago. Three times the shrill blast, long and sustained, was sent far out across the snowy hills.

Three miles to the north Shady lay curled up with Breed. She suddenly raised her head. Breed too opened his eyes and cocked one ear to listen. Shady was conscious of no actual sound. Some faint vibration reached her ears and seemed to play upon some chord deep within; the impressions were hazy and indistinct, yet she was aware of a vague sense of loss, a wave of something akin to homesickness, and she whimpered softly, then closed her eyes and slept.

Collins heard more and more coyotes howl, and in the next two months he had brief glimpses of perhaps a dozen as they moved across some opening. At least half of these seemed larger than the coyotes he had known, and they had dark fur on their backs. The Coyote Prophet studied long over these strange things. The coyote voices roused an ache for the homely cabin in Sand Coulee Basin a thousand miles to the south; and each time one howled he said:

"I'm going back. Once it comes spring I'll make tracks out of here. This here's no fit country for a white man, and me-I'm going back."

But Collins did not go back with the opening up of spring. Rumors of a gold strike sent men stampeding toward the fabled spot, a long journey to the north and east. Three parties crossed over the old trail past Collins' shack. The old wolfer caught the fever and followed the last of them. Before he left he made one last prophecy.

He predicted that the hill coyotes of the northwest from the Yukon to the Yellowstone would be larger and have dark fur on their backs from frequent infusions of wolf blood; that within a dozen years the fur markets would distinguish between these dark silky-furred ones and the woolly yellow coyotes of the plains. He scrawled this message on a wrinkled scrap of paper, signed it, tacked it on the wall, and started off down the trail.

A month later a party of five men stopped overnight in the deserted cabin. One of them deciphered the queer scrawl.

"Crazy," he announced. "Some old coot went off his nut from being holed up alone-and this is all he left."

A tall lean man whose warped legs betrayed his sage-country origin leaned over and studied the signature.

"Collins," he mused. "Now whoever would have figured to cut his trail up here? He maybe was crazy,-but anyway, I'll bet five hundred that scrap of paper will pan out just like it says."

A hundred miles beyond the cabin Breed and Shady were educating their third litter of pups. The nature of the country had prevented the excavating of a proper den and Shady had taken possession of a windfall. Breed was vastly disgusted with this new land, heartily sick of being shut in by the interminable hills and of traveling through swampy jungles of tall brush, and he was glad when the pups were old enough to shift for themselves.

He gathered the pack and started on, his course this time more east than north, and he covered better than twenty miles each day with a definite purpose of leaving behind him this country so thickly overlaid with brush that its effect upon him was almost a feeling of suffocation. He came out into the lower hills and crossed occasional open spots. Then, after ten days, he crossed through a rolling country and just at dusk came out on the shoulder of a hill; before him lay broad stretches of low plains, open meadows alternating with strips of heavy timber, the whole a wonderful park-like landscape swimming in the twilight. From nearby hills he heard the coyotes beginning to tune up, and each one was facing toward the plains, the first spot they had seen in three years which reminded them of home. Breed led the way and brought his band out into the first reaches of the Mackenzie Barrens that stretched back among the trees.

Breed found no trap lines here, and there were no mad coyotes or poison baits. Another two days and the trees were left behind, open country stretching ahead as far as his eye could reach; the brush was stunted and reminded him of sage; there were clumps of dwarf spruce much like the twisted cedars of the badland brakes, and thickets of stunted willows such as those that sprouted from every side-hill spring in Sand Coulee Basin. It was like a homecoming after being exiled for three long years,-and Breed was content at last as he bedded on a knoll. The range was once more dotted with stock-only these were wild caribou-and old habits cropped out in Breed; he knew there were no men here, yet all through the short two-hour day he frequently raised his head and his eyes swept the range for signs of the devilish riders. When he left his bed he found fresh evidence that he was home, that Sand Coulee Basin could not be farther away than over the next tongue of high ground; for he had not traveled a mile before he smelled coyote blood and traced it upwind to find an old friend stiffened in death, and with her throat slit open,-the work of the silent assassin that had terrorized the foothills of Hardpan Spur.

Breed's hatred of Flatear had been dulled with time. He had met hundreds of wolves since the fight in the notch, and at first he had sought for his enemy, but later this search had been manifested only by a careful investigation of each new wolf he met, a vague suspicion that the big gray might be an enemy; but this had become almost a mechanical process rather than a distinct impression of why he should expect to find an enemy among wolves.

Animal memories are a mixture of impressions received through the senses of hearing, sight and smell, and after a considerable lapse of time it requires the coordination of all three of these senses to reconstruct the thought in its entirety. The sight of the slain coyote filled Breed with rage but lacking a definite object upon which to vent it. The scent around the spot further enraged him, and the picture of the great gray beast swam nebulously in his mind. A wolf howl sounded close at hand and stirred still another long-dormant pool of impressions; the whole crystallized into a distinct likeness of Flatear,-and Breed was off on the hunt for his ancient enemy.

Flatear saw a great yellow wolf rushing down on him

and he whirled and bared his teeth. The gray wolf weighed a hundred pounds, Breed slightly over ninety. They circled cautiously for an opening, hind parts tensed and drooping, ears laid flat and lips drawn back to expose the yellow tusks. Flatear sprang first and Breed met the open mouth with his own. The clash of teeth sounded far across the barrens and silent shapes changed their direction and moved toward the sound. Three times Breed took the force of the drive on his teeth and the jaws of both wolves dripped blood. A wolf came slipping up to watch, and two breeds of the yellow wolf's pack stationed themselves ten yards away. Three more wolves appeared; then Peg and Fluff came to the scene and Peg moved behind Flatear and crouched.

Breed's snarl warned him off. The three-legged coyote was old and hoary, in his fifteenth year and with but a short span of life ahead; his teeth were rounded and worn down but his spirit was stout, and he longed to mix it with the wolf. His leader's order held him back, but he remained the nearest of the lot, watching every move of the combat as if appointed judge of it.

Flatear rushed time and again, using his greater weight to batter down his antagonist's guard, but Breed gave back each time and Flatear's driving shoulder never reached its mark and his teeth were met with teeth. Breed was losing ground and Flatear pressed him hard. The yellow wolf seemed to have but one style of defense and no heart for attack. The fight was a mere procession of retreats before Flatear's heavy drives, and the gray wolf grew accustomed to this monotonous defense, and his attacks were unconsciously conformed to it, becoming equally mechanical, his one purpose to wear his enemy down by sheer strength and weight.

And when Breed, instead of cringing away, struck at him with every ounce of his ninety pounds, Flatear was unprepared. He had started his spring and Breed's counter drive was aimed so low that his chest skimmed the ground. Flatear slashed savagely downward but the yellow wolf's head was well under him, and even as Flatear's teeth grazed Breed's shoulder his forward sweep was checked in mid-air as powerful jaws closed on a foreleg with a sickening crunch of bones. The opposing weights of both wolves pivoted on that one leg, and in addition to the fracture Flatear's whole side and shoulder were wrenched clear to his spine.

There was an uneasy movement among the spectators, now numbering more than a score, wolves and coyotes for the first time in history mingling to witness the settling of a personal feud. Peg now sat down contentedly, his tongue lolling out in a satisfied grin.

Breed's tactics changed and he wheeled round his disabled enemy with lightning feints; then his shoulder struck Flatear with a solid smash that crumpled him and he went down with Breed's teeth at his windpipe. His end was of the sort which he himself had handed to so many others,-and the new range was safe for coyotes.

The silent spectators were startled by a faint whining sound. This whimpering grew louder and the wolves slunk away but the coyote pack remained. Breed's sudden hunt for Flatear had caught Shady unprepared, but she had finally cut his trail and was following it to the spot.

For three months Breed saw no more of wolves, and when next he did see them the beasts were white. He had led the pack to the basin of the Copper River at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Their travels were over, and they now ranged a limited area of less than a hundred miles in extent. Except that no high hills flanked their new home, its features were much like the old. There were no longer any days and nights, but a seemingly endless period of varying degrees of twilight, and the rolling hills were deep with snow.

Breed had met many new animals since leaving the land of the Yellowstone; he had known moose and goats in British Columbia, caribou on the barrens and the iron-gray sheep at the head of the Nelson. Now there were strange shaggy beasts with hair that hung nearly to the ground, and they came out of the north in small droves, the white wolves traveling on the flanks of the herds. He found musk ox easy prey and there was no lack of meat.

A few days after the first of these appeared Breed and Shady topped a ridge and saw the one thing necessary to make the image of the old home complete. A light twinkled some half a mile away, as Breed and Shady had so often seen the lights of Collins' cabin. Shady whined as she looked at it and Breed raised his voice and howled. As if in answer to the howl a shrill whistle floated to them and Shady at once slipped from Breed's side and headed for the fire.

Collins had turned back from the fabled gold fields, heartsick for the sight of his native foothills, disgusted with the Arctic night and a flat white world, and with two companions he had braved the terrors of a winter journey and headed into the south. They traveled light, supplies for three packed on a single sled, drawn by six dogs. Food had run low and for a week they had been forced to subsist on starvation rations; one more day and they would have killed a dog,-and then they crossed the trail of a musk ox herd. There was now food in plenty but Collins' mental exhaustion did not vanish with returning physical strength. He was obsessed with the idea that he would never see the sagebrush hills again and his companions could not rouse him.

They fastened the dogs in a clump of dwarfed spruce and built a small fire on the downwind side of the trees.

The old wolfer sat huddled in his furs before the fire, dreading to enter the little tent to crawl into his sleeping bag alone with his thoughts; for the white madness was driving its iron into his soul and striking at his reason. His mind coined queer white couplets; the white wolf pack and the white ice pack,-a whole world shrouded in white night.

His companions had looked upon the white madness before; had seen men die from the deadly monotony of it all. It was conceivable that a book of bright pictures, anything with warm colors might penetrate the pall of white fog that clouded his brain and shatter the obsession, reinstating reason on its tottering throne. But there was only the howling of white wolves out across the white snow fields. Then a wolf howl sounded from close at hand.

It seemed to pierce Collins' stupor and strike some memory filed long ago in his subconscious mind, and he suddenly straightened and glared at them.

"I can pick him out from amongst a thousand wolves," he stated. "There's no wolf shiver to that howl. It's a yellow wolf! As yellow as gold, not a damned white hair on him anywheres! It's Breed, the yellow wolf of Sand Coulee Basin-there's color come into this white hell hole at last!"

A shrill whistle pealed from his lips and his companions shook their heads. Then the wolf howled again and they stiffened with surprise as a score of wild voices answered. The sounds were new to them and the snowy waste was filled with bewilderingly different inflections that ripped back and forth through opposing waves of sound till it seemed that jeering cachinnations rose from a thousand fiends.

They read the gleam in Collins' eyes and his disjointed utterances as a sign of hopeless madness,-but in reality it was returning sanity. A new warmth stole over him, and the certainty that he would win through.

"Here they come," he said. "The little yellow devils! They've spread from the Arctic to the Neck, like I always knowed they would. There's music a white man can listen to-the music of the little yellow wolves."

Then the two men sat silent and wondered if they themselves were mad. For the dogs were snarling and straining at their leashes in the scrub spruce, and a strange yellow she-wolf with a strip of dark fur along her back came creeping toward the fire. Her eyes regarded the two men suspiciously and one ear tipped toward the dogs beyond. She slipped up and rested her head on Collins' knee, enjoyed his friendly voice and rubbing fingers for a single minute, then vanished in the night as the yellow breed-wolf called his pack.

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