PRETTY SHELLS’ DISTRESS
DELOS CONKLIN had caught four of the six miscreants of the wolf pack which so long had troubled the stock range. Lop-Ear, the leader, had succumbed to skill and luck. The wolver’s task was therefore probably accomplished, for the two remaining members of the band, the slender half-breed wolf-dog and the female, would hardly have the strength or ability to carry on a proportionately destructive career, even if they still had the will to continue their raiding. The trapper could at least now return to the Bell Brand ranch, for he would do well to report to Wool-Head and his association employers the results of his campaign.
Accordingly, Conklin took up his traps and snares, broke camp and, making his packs for the sawbucks of the carrier animals, prepared for departure. He left the four chief skins of his major victims outside the other bundles. When he had loaded his animals he tied the skins of the wolves to the top bundles where they would dangle, flaunting the broken ear, the tawny giant, and the dark and handsome youngster hides where the sun would shine on them, and perhaps some passing vulture circling over the desert of the Flats of the Dancing Maids would see them. The truth is he wanted those trophies to be seen when he should swagger over to the Bell Brand outfit and nonchalantly begin to slip the bridle and loosen the cinches of his saddles.
But a surging and overwhelming desire came to him to find some good excuse for going along the slope of the Singing Bird mountains, thus to come down from the north to Wool-Head Dan Plack’s ranch outfit. He refused to acknowledge to himself the motive which was urging him to this. At the same time he was aware in the depths of his understanding of a transformation which had taken place in his heart during the lonely months of his isolation and wolf hunting.
Pretty Shells had started a new train of thought in the depths of his subconsciousness. As he hesitated over several plans for his visit he removed the four lobo pelts from their banner fastenings and made them into a neat and inconspicuous bundle lashed like the others to the common bulk of the loads. He looked his camp site over, making sure he had left no dish or tool behind, swept the cañon and the mountains with a farewell swing around of appreciative gaze and cracked his quirt to startle his little cavalcade on their way.
Emerging into the breadth of the long valley with its ceaseless parade of the Dancing Maid whirlwinds he looked wonderingly across the Flats to see on the far side where the ranch stood. It would be nearly twice as far to go around by the foot of the Singing Birds timber line. Snow made a lace collar along the high slopes following the line below the dark green timber belt. He swung his pack horses to go that greater distance however. His resolution did not come from the desire to show Pretty Shells the skins of the lobos he had outwitted. Indeed, at the moment the wolves had nothing to do with it. Their capture was no longer a considerable feat. It was merely a bit of by-play in the scheme of lives.
“I’ll go tell Pretty Shells she’s right!” he explained to himself in so many words as he cut across the head of the Flats of the Dancing Maids in the direction of the place where he knew he would strike the entrance of the wagon trail into the woods, which were now silhouetted against the acreages of snow wherever openings were visible behind the shapes of the trees.
That was a long day. The blow of each hoof rang on the ground, which was mostly frozen, like drum-sticks on vibrant rawhides. The air seemed thin as it was clear. It dragged like razor blades across the skin, leaving its sting at every invisible gust. The sky was blue, with no moisture crystals in it to give a milky tinge. Except for the horses and the man there did not seem to be one living thing anywhere in all the enormous field of vision, not from the crest of the Singing Bird mountains rising white and jagged against the northern sky, nor anywhere down the south lee to where the edge of the desert valley dipped beneath the horizon. But against the Sparkling Dawns the ranch suggested the living that might be—its blocks of fields and the toy-like buildings.
The distance to be traversed was too great for Conklin to hurry. The animals must be given their own time to cross that majestic plain, where it was so salt and arid that the very sage bushes were but tiny tufts of scraggly and aged dwarfs, widely scattered. Down from the surrounding mountain slopes stretched water-dropped streaks of red gravel beds, and waves of sand had been blown by northwest winds in reefs that were the color of gray pearl as the sun shone on them. There were spreads of level playas of creamy colored crystalline alkali, pools above which even close at hand appeared the shapely deceptions of strange mirage. And on one of these flattened crystal beds Conklin saw the prints of paws.
Lop-Ear and his five companions had crossed that clay while it was still moist after some rain-storm. Every one of the band had left seals sunk in the plastic surface. Even those tracks were filled with the spirit of the confident creatures romping as they raced, making imaginary killings in their savage expectations; staring at the tracks, the wolver had the illusion that above the printed page still hovered the ghosts of the four which had passed on. He was obliged to shake himself to be rid of the impression. In a measure it was the truth. Those six outlaws had put their personalities into everything they did—they had done it with all their power and instinct. Fate had overcome four of them. But not one need ever be ashamed when he faced in his new world any of the ghosts of his kind, particularly not any who had skulked and puttered around over in the Wolf Dens.
Conklin had the odd notion that when Lop-Ear should come upon Broken Foot over yonder, amends would be made. There’d be a new understanding. There’d be congratulation and recapitulation. The man followed on after his pack horses which had gone plodding along their way. The whole business was inexplicable. What was he doing out here, catching wolves?
Night had fallen when the trapper reached the foot of the Singing Birds. He went out of stinging cold into an odd warmth. The sky changed into murky gloom in which a few stars of the first magnitude shone dimly. He knew the signs. When he made his camp that night he built his bed of boughs on a rise in the ground. And he took the trouble to pitch his tent. Rain began to fall and by dawn it was a deluge.
Swirls of fogs and mists, sweeping down out of gray winds, and sheeting of warm rains laid their war upon the vanishing crystalline snows.
“The January thaw’s come early!” Conklin reflected, sitting before the fire he had built under a spread of tarpaulin. “Good thing I didn’t go down into the big flats. If I’d been caught there, we’d had to swim in places.”
He rested. He had nothing to do. He had been plugging steadily for nearly three months. He had not missed one day in all that time. He now felt in his relaxation the fatigue which shows even in the slow throbbing of the heart and the refusal of the mind to think consecutively. Yet the experience was pleasant. After having worked so hard his conscience let him excuse his satisfaction in utter indolence.
The horses browsed around close about where he cut a balsam which they could eat. He did some fancy cooking. Most of the time he stretched out on his bed of evergreen boughs, letting his fancies run as they would. He was glad the storm hadn’t overtaken him when he came to pass the time of day at Pretty Shells’ cabin. He ran his hand through his new-grown beard, wondering what she would say to see him come by, a long-haired trapper in the ragged habiliments of the deep wilderness?
He took his time. When the rain blew by in a gust of fading crystals and a tang of zero cold again, he waited awhile for the water to run off and the soft swamps to freeze. He need not hurry. He was a man who had closed his case, so to speak. He wasn’t quite sure what the date was. Some days he had lumped in his diary of trap-line notes, and the record was not explicit. It might be Christmas or more likely it was near New Year’s—one side or the other!
Accordingly, when he had looked up two of his horses which had strayed, he repacked his outfit and started early in the morning to arrive about noon at Trembling Leaves pond. He surmised that he would not find Pretty Shells at home. Probably she would be out rebuilding her trap-cubbies and making ready for the big rush of the furs she could take now that the animals were released to run as they pleased on bare ground instead of wallowing in loose snow.
He was mistaken. When he rode up to the camp on his saddle horse, having turned his pack animals loose down close to the lower edge of the timber belt, he was met by Pretty Shells who heard his approach when the hooves of the horse he rode rang against the frozen rocks.
“Conklin!” she cried out in joy. “Oh, I’m so glad you have come!”
“What luck with the wolves?” she cried. “Lop-Ear and his band came by, crusting deer. They killed five between here and the next pond. That was two weeks ago. Did you find where they were weak?”
“Yes,” he nodded, “I caught four—the big pale dog, the two yearlings as we called them, though they were really small three- or four-year-olds.”
“Yes?” she asked, as he paused.
“And-Lop Ear—I caught him too!”
“You caught Lop-Ear?” she repeated, her tone oddly congratulatory and regretful, too.
“Yes, I felt like a hangman—”
“I was a hangman!” he exclaimed wryly. “I caught three in copper wire nooses. Lop-Ear I trapped in high-grip jaws. He jumped from a lookout rock and landed on a pan, where he always came down from looking off across the Flats of the Dancing Maids. I’d almost believe he went there to dream and plan his deviltries.”
“Yes, I would believe it!” she nodded. “He was bad. He was savage. He destroyed living things wantonly. He had to die. But I am glad you are sorry, that you felt compassion for him even while you were obliged to exterminate them. You say two you did not kill?”
“The half-breed dog-wolf and the black female still remain. I left them. I had made up my mind to start the next day for the Bell Brand. I found all four caught, three snared and one trapped that trip over the lines. Fortune breaks that way sometimes. But you, Pretty Shells? What luck have you had?”
“I never caught so many furs in my life before. I had most beautiful black and silver foxes. I had mink, otter, pekan. I caught several reds and several beautiful cross foxes. But when I returned to my cabin, having taken up my traps, ceasing my winter killing, I found the door open. When I looked in I stood bereft of all that I had won. Some one had come and robbed me, Conklin. He stole all that I had. Not one pelt remains.”
“Robbed by a fur thief!” he gasped, his face hardening as it reddened.
“When was that?” he stood tightening his belt.
“I found my fur all gone when I returned yesterday.”
“Who did it—any clues?” He began to look about.
“I found a mitten which the robber left when he headed away.”
“Could he carry all the skins on his back?”
“It would be a heavy load for a strong man. A powerful man might do it.”
“Which way did he go?”
“You know when the ground froze it was full of water. The frost crystals sprouted out through the surface. I found foot-prints leading across the outlet of Trembling Leaves pond, and over the mossy ground beyond, trampling the ice ferns standing on the ground. He was going north.”
“When was that?”
“Night before last, perhaps yesterday morning. I was not sure.”
“All right, Pretty Shells. If you’ll take care of my horse—tell you what you do. You’ll find my pack horses down the trail at the timber line. Why don’t you take them over to the Bell Brand outfit. Take your own horses, too. Sure you will—” he looked at her—“you must!”
“Why— But you’ll return this way?”
“I may come around by Tribulation. I may come through here. It’ll depend on the weather. You’ll be at the ranch, won’t you?”
“Yes,” she nodded thoughtfully, studying the ground for a time. “You would do all this for me?”
“Pretty Shells, there is nothing I would not do for you,” he cried. “When I come back I shall tell you—try to tell you what I can’t delay now to put into words.”
Rapidly she prepared a good meal while he made up a pack, taking one of her heavy woven blankets and a cowboy tarpaulin she had used to canvas her own outfit when she brought it in. He took jerked venison, smoked fish, and plenty of cold bread. He made sure he had plenty of matches, safe in a tight tin box, salt, cartridges and other necessities. When at last he sat down to eat, his own preparations were completed and over the table they did not talk about much of anything.
Her heart was singing, “I knew he would come,” and his was throbbing at the thought of any one’s imposing on a woman—such a woman—and with the increasing urge to avenge her, the more because he wanted particularly to protect her himself.
When they had drunk their coffee, he turned to take up his rifle. She came to the open door to help him put on his pack. He hesitated for an instant and then took her in his arms, not in farewell, but because this was the thing he wished most of all to do at that moment. Both knew his errand out on the trail of the raider was one of deadly peril. And he kissed what was to him the sweetest smile he had ever seen in the world.
“Conklin,” she said when she let him go, “you know this thing you are going to do is dangerous?”
“You are sure you are going to take care of what to me is more valuable than furs?”
“Oh, if it is your happiness, nothing in the world can defeat me or take from what is yours!”
“I know you’ll do it!” she assured him, and he strode forth, jumping from rock to rock across the outlet of the Trembling Leaves and other Bubbling Spring ponds, picking up the footprints of the man who was bearing away on his back the fur taken of a trapper—in a land where stealing a trapper’s catch means just one punishment if the thief is caught at it.