pp. 2–7.



FIND out anything?” “Wool-Head” Dan Plack growled impatiently, in a voice that matched his shaggy, whiskery crown and huge weight of brawn.

“Yes,” Delos Conklin answered, as he swung down from his lank horse, stripping his saddle and bridle off, “Lop-Ear’s pack have been killing white-face babies up those draws of the Singing Birds. I counted eleven, since we were there last week, besides the old ones.”

Wool-Head grumbled, his heavy body twitching as if he had been tied. For the first time a problem of the range was too much for him. Wolves, big lobos, had become stock killers in the Bell Brand range while evading all efforts to destroy them. The rancher was wholly unaccustomed to the feeling of helplessness. Successfully he had held his own against cattle thieves and homesteaders, sheep flock diplomacy and other invaders. His utmost contempt was displayed when he called an enemy a coyote. He now abused coyotes in a low, thundering flow of language which resembled a storm over the Sparkling Dawn Mountains that stretched to the eastward of the buildings, corral, fenced alfalfa and enormous spaciousness of the Flats of the Dancing Sand Maidens, the miles on miles of sage, sand and alkali to the westward.

The whispering and almost metallic sounds of Noisy Waters Creek were reflected down over the outfit in echoes from the huge megaphone of the cañon. Sunset had passed and the tired cowboy dropped his saddle over a tie-rail. The music of the cascading stream grew louder and Wool-Head’s easy-flowing profanity mingled with the peaceful water melody as the cowboy, gem-blue eyed and handsome in weariness, even, paused to listen, caught by a novel sensation of satisfaction. Such contrasts of anger and peace were always surprizing him, delighting his longing for something different, strange and charming. At the same time he hid from Dan Plack his poetic appreciation of this situation. It would be quite useless to try to explain to the rancher why the predicament of the range was so pleasing.

Conklin leaned for a minute against his warm saddle, breathing slowly. He turned his head to sweep with his glances all the horizons of this enormous and colorful valley. From the rose crystal hue of the sky overhead to the dark blue of the huge mountain range in the twilight shadow beyond the Sparkling Dawns to the eastward—a patch visible through the Wagon Pass—around by the mirage of a sea approaching like a tidal wave out of the southward to the Needle Tops like golden topaz and ruby, where lusters of pearl and gleams of precious stone facets marked the passing of the sun, as far as the dark timber belt of the range at the northward there was not one dull patch the size of a hand. Weary with all that day’s riding, his eyes dimmed by the glarings of the cloudless hours, and fairly reeling with weakness, even as he mustered his remaining strength of endurance, the cowboy listened to the desert notes, gazed at the wilderness gleams, fairly gasping for his lungfuls and sighed with content. Such an experience was worth being staggering tired.

Still, he knew better than to say so. Other cowboys were around, a pretty Cherokee breed-widow was cooking for the outfit, and Wool Head Dan was in a mood to seize any least opportunity to burst into a cloudburst of rage, venting his general indignation upon any convenient mark. Conklin knew it was discreet not to talk of the beauty of scenery which hid miscreant disasters and heavy losses, difficult to meet. This was one of his own disappointments, making him quieter, less demonstrative and perhaps more competent than any of his fellows in the crew. He had been sent to look the north lines over. His report that Lop-Ear’s pack had jaw-wracked a lot of calves was, to all the minds but his own, the most important thing he had seen that day. He was sorry for the rancher—who would have knocked him down for an expression of pity. For himself the day had been full to overflowing. Even with the wolf tracks, the running prints of their paws in the sand, the dark patches where the calves had been torn to pieces, the magpies, jays and other meat-hawks perching on the torn, tender bodies of the animals, the cows pawing the ground and bellowing, the inestimable privileges of a hard and beautiful land had given the rider sixteen hours of compensation for what all who knew him must have called his folly and his crime of wasted opportunities.

PRETTY SHELLS saw him coming. Her dark eyes took note of the difficult progress he made over the crumbled earth, swaying as his high-heeled boots tipped this way and that on the hoof-prints of many horses. She shrugged her shoulders. He was headed for the water barrel tap. When he reached for the dipper she handed to him a bowl of coffee not too hot to drink, strong and black. He paused to stare at her.

“Thank you— Thank you!” he exclaimed, and she detected the note of wonder in his voice. He was grateful for her sympathy. He sat down on a bench and drank. All who worked on the Bell Brand ranch came to evening work-worn. The widow, herself, was tired. But she knew Conklin had saddled at least two horses that day, and probably three or four from among scattered animals of the ranch. The one he rode in was limp-kneed weary, at that.

A good wash, a few minutes’ rest, the stimulus of the coffee and the expectation of a luscious cattle country meal brought Conklin in better strength to the big dining hall. He ate with gusto, though not too much. When he had finished and the kitchen help were washing the dishes for the clean-up, Pretty Shells found Conklin out at the concrete water tank in the center of which boiled up a sparkling mound of piped-in water. He was looking at the golden glow of an ascending moon which was still hidden below the crest of the Sparkling Dawns.

“You look— You always look at the sky and at the far away!” she accused him.

“If I looked too close I might be blinded,” he replied.

“Might be blinded?” she repeated, puzzled.

“I know better than to look straight at the sun, not being an eagle,” he answered.

For a time she contemplated his words as she watched his face in the starlight reflections from the surface of the water tank. She was a grave featured young woman, if she was not veiling her thoughts behind a smile or a taunt.

“You mean— You mean me?” she asked, “So you don’t look at me—!”

She laughed. He had paid her a very pretty compliment as an excuse for not looking at her. Men usually neglected the scenery when she was in sight. Quite possibly, Delos Conklin’s lack of boldness in this matter accounted for her rather special interest in him. He had now made amends in a few words, she realized.

“You went into the timber today?” she inquired. “Up the Singing Birds?”

“Yes; not far, though; just to the Boiling Sand ponds.”

“And is my cabin still there?” she asked quickly.

“Oh, yes! I ate my lunch at your table. I brewed my tea in the old crockery pot. A squirrel came and sat on the door-sill to look at me.”

“And is there fur around there—marten, mink—beaver?

“Lots of tracks. Old Lop-Ear and his band ran along the sand of the shore— The lake’s pretty low.”

“Yes?” she asked. “The wolf always runs in sand. It cleans the dirt from his paws. A cat, the little lynx or the great cougar always walks along the foot of a great precipice if she can. We caught plenty of fur and some good hides when we, my husband, Running Voice, and I lived in that stone house. I am going soon to live there again.”

“Not alone!” he exclaimed.

“Why not?” she shrugged her shoulders. “Here, cooking for all your hungry teeth, I work from star-light before dawn till star-light after sunset. My husband, a successful trapper, was a good man. He had no enemies, yet some one shot him down, leaving no trace but the empty .33 caliber shell where he lay in ambush. I found my dead man where he fell on the trap-line up the inlet above Falling Leaves pond. I brought him down here. He lies buried under the mound of stones there on the little hill beyond the ranch corral, near me now. When Running Voice was gone I was lonely.

“Now I am going back to live in the cabin by the Boiling Spring ponds. No one has trapped there since that time. No new lines have been blazed, so it remains mine according to the customs of the trappers. I shall soon ask you to bring my ponies in. I know you boys will be gentle and pack them for me. I am going back to my cabin. I shall blaze the trails more plainly. I shall trim out the twigs and deadfall tops. The squirrel and the jay will keep me company. I may hear the wolves passing in the night. Perhaps a cougar will wail as he walks the high forest friendless and feared. I can think again my own thoughts and do my own things.”

“And what’ll they be?”

“You think having no men to cook for I’ll lack for occupation?” she asked him. “You helped me forget the man I loved. The scar of my sorrow still remains. Sometimes it still hurts. You think I am a squaw. I ought to be stirring vegetables in soup, basting roasting meats in pans, and bringing coffee for tired men to drink. But that is not my occupation. Have not I plaited lariats of rawhide strong to hold the most powerful steers? Did one ever stretch in the rain, or break that you know? Those chaps you wear— Who made them? And when you wished to save the wildcat skin you shot last December, who stripped and fleshed it, who worked it soft and sewed it in a rug for your mother?”

“You mean you’ll trap and make up furs?” he asked.

“I know how.”

“Well, if you caught Lop Ear, it’d be worth five hundred dollars bounty.”

“He is a wise wolf, that old scoundrel.” She shook her head. “He makes few mistakes. The bullet which let his ear fall dangling was a lesson he never forgets. He is not yet my enemy. He and his pack came in after my husband died. You know I saw them all passing by this spring? I told no one that, Lop-Ear now limps a little as he runs. He perhaps knows steel traps. He is difficult to fool. It may be no human yet knows enough to inveigle him into jaws of death.”

“That’s so!” Conklin exclaimed. “I noticed he favors his left forepaw as he runs; he doesn’t let his weight fall on it; it’ll take a wise trapper to catch him.”

“There is nothing the matter with your eyes,” she remarked. “I know by that you have been a trapper, a reader of trails. You are good in the round-up. You ride well. No one is more faithful when cutting or branding. You earn your wages. But your heart is not in the cattle business. You are never so industrious as when you are sent to ride the rims of the valley to estimate the herds, find the cows and their calves, or report the damage of Lop-Ear’s raids. In what is your heart, then?”

“And you are not a blanket-squaw!” he exclaimed.

“No, that is true,” she admitted. “I was in Carlisle Indian School. I was a teacher of classes. I am a Cherokee, and Sequoyah who invented the alphabet of our language was my mother’s great-grandfather.”

“What are you doing here!”

“Cooking for the Bell Brand outfit,” she laughed.

“I beg your pardon,” he said contritely, “I am not minding my own business.”

“True!” she mocked him. “You are an industrious cowboy. You are very dirty, with dust behind your ears. You, too, have been a college graduate. On you was spent the years of a family, giving its best. For some poor devil the job you hold as cowboy would be a great opportunity. He is on foot, somewhere, now, out of work or bent with despair.”

“And you—!” he turned on her sharply.

“I am cooking, when I should be doing beautiful bead work, dressing rare furs and perhaps, as I toil, thinking in my soul some great feat to perform for my people! Oh, I how how wasteful I am! I am humble beneath the sting of your rebuke on the waste of my talents. I am sorry and unforgivable. When Sunday comes will you have my horses in the corral, the fractious ones gentled by the boys; the pack saddles I have repaired? My outfit will be ready.”

“You’ll leave— So soon?”

“I have some conscience,” she replied. “A woman needs it, you know.”

He gritted his teeth as she turned again to her kitchen.

When Pretty Shells asked the rancher for her time, the huge fellow shook his shaggy head, gesticulating and shouting. What the Hades did she think she was going to do? Wasn’t she the best blamed cook from Cajon Pass to Hole-in-the-Wall? Didn’t he know it, and everybody? A woman who’d work as steady as she had for come three years had no business quitting, but ought to keep at it, indefinitely. Still, it was useless to argyfy with a woman. He brought her in gold the wages for thirty-odd months. He brought her as a gift a good wagonload of supplies, too; things she would need for her fool project of going up to the Boiling Sands ponds to her cabin. He sent a wagon and two men, with one of the kitchen help squaws along with her string of horses and the boys had these animals pretty well gentled—at least broken enough for her to ride, if she needed to.

“Dog-gone!” Old Wool-Head swore. “Losin’ calves to them wolves an’ losin’ the best danged cook to a woman’s fool notion— Ain’t nothing helpless es a man like that—”

The wagon did not return till afternoon of Tuesday. The teamster reported Pretty Shells as safely landed at her stone cabin, bag and bundles. She had brought in from a cache her murdered husband’s rifle and ammunition, his revolver belt and knife sheath, and other necessities. She had accepted a .22 caliber rim-fire special repeater which Conklin had given her, coloring at this token of his esteem.

“Shoot a hundred of the thousand shells,” he had advised her. “Then you need never lack for meat to eat.”

“I can shoot straight,” she said. “My husband, he taught me much. I think, perhaps, he knew I should need to know such things.”

Finding the squaw-cook had really taken her departure, Wool-Head went over the Wagon Pass into Tribulation, the supply town of the whole region, and caught “Pasty Face” Begane, a wild rider who had been broken but not gentled by a savage rodeo horse at Gunshot some years before. Pasty Face, crippled a little in the legs and body was badly distorted in his mind—but he could cook.

THE night after the wagon came down from the Singing Birds all the sleepers in the ranch were awakened by the passing of Lop-Ear’s pack in the dark. Yelping wraiths of the sage and alkali, they filled the vast Flats of the Dancing Maids with their jubilant squealing, baying, careless rage. It was as if they were taunting the humans who listened, despite themselves, shivering at that challenge out of an ancient past when human beings must stand back to back, clubs against fangs in defense of life. The wolves were crossing from the Sparkling Dawns to the Needle Tops. Long after their loping had carried them down into the low bottoms a shrill squeal with carrying music in its vibration returned clear as a tocsin and rattled the drums of uneasy ears.

In the morning when at dawn the ranch crew sat down to breakfast Wool-Head growled and snuffled over his chunks of meat and hot bread, sure sign of outbursts of rage during the day. His bull-red eyes rolled as he glanced at his men. He lifted his lips from clenched teeth as he heard the voice of Pasty Face Begane swearing shrilly in the kitchen looking for his tools, which he had not yet grown accustomed to finding. The cowmen ate even faster than usual and escaped to the corral in the effort to stand from under the gathering wrath of the rancher whose snarling had already begun for the day.

Wool-Head seemed to pay no attention to these swift getaways. When only Delos Conklin remained, as always more leisurely than the others, for he refused to bolt and gulp his food, the rancher’s sidelong glances turned more and more to the rider who said less yet did more than any other hand in the outfit, and with less stir. Conklin ate with cool precision. He had his manners, possessing which was something of an insult to many a cow-ranch crew. The huge bulk of the owner, hanging over the long white platter which served him as a plate, moved and twitched as with face down he worried into his food like a heavy grizzly bear, his glances looking through the screen of out-bristling grayish-red eyebrows to watch the slow satisfaction of the gentleman of the range.

A bully of the cattle country often finds seemly manners an excuse for insulting taunt. Wool-Head Dan Plack wanted trouble under which to bury his consciousness of helplessness on account of the murdering wolves. Nevertheless, he hesitated to say one word to this silent, slender and most efficient rider. The better the worker in the pasture, the quicker he would resent an insult of any kind. Conklin could eat as long as the owner himself and get away with it. But knowing the fitness of things, the cowboy went out first to the corral, caught a gaunt brute known as Many Devils and was giving him the necessary morning gentling when Wool-Head came charging out to saddle his own huge quarter-Belgian draft mare.

“Conklin,” Plack turned to the rider, “find out where them —— wolves live, will ye?”

“Yes, sir!” the cowboy nodded and went over to the kitchen for his grub. He loaded a pack horse with camp outfit and with his rifle boot on the saddle soon jogged westward across the Dancing Maid flats, following down the alfalfa fence taking pot-shots at jack-rabbits with a .22 caliber rim-fire snake pistol and bait gun as he rode. He shot several pests and left them kicking in the dust.

Some three miles distant he swung into the tracks of the wolf band. They had thrown the loose sand which the wind daily drifted down the lee, plowing with all their paws—except the favored right fore foot of the leader, which just touched the sand so delicately at each leap as to make a clear shallow intaglio impression of the pad. The biggest wolf wallowed along throwing the crystalline particles. The half-breed dog-wolf jumped a half farther than the others, a slim villain of tremendous speed if need be. The female, queen of the pack, ran a crooked line, throwing the others off their stride in the playful mood or indifferent way of her sex.

Conklin laughed as he read these tracks of a rare band of animal villains that ranked importantly with other bandits of the great pasture region.

Other desperadoes were in that wild country. The man who had killed the husband of Pretty Shells, for example, was unknown and furtive—bad. He had never been identified with any one. He might be a hermit, one of the nesters from over in Disappearing River basin, or just one of the thieves of the country—a wandering vagabond with hidden camps, or only a tarpaulin spread down for his resting places.

There were forty or fifty thousand square miles of country traversed by a road here and there, a shipping station on a railway so distant as to be hardly considerable as a feature of the region. Years before it had been a Land of Hope into which ventured a good many thousand home-seekers, but for twenty years it had been steadily losing population, becoming more and more a Desert of Lonely Men.

The primitive desolation fascinated Delos Conklin, who loved its difficulties, dangers and beauty. Wool-Head Plack could have paid him no more satisfactory compliment than to send him out to find the wolf den, or dens. Only a good man could hope to discover Lop-Ear’s home country.

The Needle Tops were far away, nearly a day’s ride to the westward. Their fastnesses were little known. Their isolation gave them mystery and romance, making them a fit place for dens of savage beasts or hard humans.