The Wolf Pack (Spears) by Raymond S. Spears
II. Pretty Shells Resumes Possession

pp. 7–11.



HAVING gone Indian, fleeing to the wilderness, Pretty Shells yielded to the instinct which urged her to return to the Singing Bird Mountains, to occupy again the stone cabin she and her husband, Running Voice, had built on Trembling Leaves pond. She liked all the boys of the Bell Brand outfit. After they had come to understand her virtue and her pride they respected her feelings. They treated her well. She particularly had talked with Delos Conklin who understood the voices of the living desert nights and who read the trails of the wilderness for the news of the many creatures, finding him interesting and attractive in his reticence, for he was not talkative nor boisterous in his bearing.

She had been unable longer to resist the desire to climb five thousand feet up the mountain side to dwell alone in the building of flat stones, some of whose memories would be painful, reminding her of a happiness now departed. When she went out over the trap-lines she had followed for years with her husband, or going over loops alone to meet him in one or other of the line cabins, she found them all undisturbed. No cache of the traps she had taken up was disturbed. The old blaze marks, blue with ooze of pitch or gum, still marked plainly the way from cubby to cubby on fur runway after fur runway.

Especially she sought with anxiety trace or track of some other trapper coming to claim this fur pocket; apparently not one human foot had trod any place in all this great domain; much less had any other trapper appeared to blaze his claim to this wealth of peltry which had increased till everywhere she found the signs of their paws, hair where they had rubbed and scratches where they had climbed trees or run upon the ground. She knew by this that the stars were propitious, the spirits not unwilling to have her appear there again.

When she clipped branches and blazed plainer marks to show her the way lest she forget, she renewed her ownership to the whole territory as far as the lines she and Running Voice had stretched them. This was Fur Land law. Any violator would at his peril break the peace by attempting to set his traps or seize the peltry of the now closed forests on the south side of the Singing Birds.

Pretty Shells, having followed each of the main and loop trails along which stood the old cubbies, sat again in her main cabin doorway, with a curious squirrel puzzled by her silence and a raven piping odd noises, insufficient for so large a bird. She saw with great contentment the rippling of zephyrs which clawed the clear waters of the pretty little lake. She sighed with pleasure as trout broke the water, their rainbow colors flashing amid the blue and white reflections of the sky. She knew she had done exceedingly well, although she had reverted, if not to savagery, at least into an aboriginal setting.

Her outfit included tools and articles of wildcraft, and also shelves of books, a working library which repeated echoes from tribes of long ago in tales of gods and fairies, including stern ethnological reports with literal translations of traditions of Red Indian Thunder Gods, the Evening Sky, of Squirrel and Mink, Beaver and Otter, the Most Fighting Pekan and the Most Swaggering Bear. Thus she combined the practical with the spiritual with an odd unity of what some call Truth.

One thing brought a frown to her smooth forehead, leading her to look askance toward the depths of the forest which surrounded her, extending from a thousand feet below her level to several thousand feet higher up the mountain side. Her tragedy of the wilderness had never been solved. The scoundrel who had assassinated Running Voice, robbing him of furs and money belt, was still abroad unnamed and unsuspected—bad.

Running Voice was shot down from behind, with no chance for his life. He had never in his life harmed any man. His good nature had not saved him from the bullet of a coward, who fled like the shadow of a passing cloud. Pretty Shells could never understand why her man had been taken from her.

The daughter of Clyde Byron and of Falling Rain was not stupid. When she saw the sun go down and night settled in silence upon the mountain bench she barred the heavy door and sat in the shadow beside the blazing fireplace struggling against her own timidity. She was not sorry she had come. At the same time, she strained her ears to catch any sound. When her husband had gone over his trap-lines, she had remained alone in her cabin unconscious of fear. Now she struggled with her two minds, one frightened and the other loving the grandeur of this beautiful isolation. She had not foreseen her dilemma. Now in full force she felt the terror of the dark and the rising tide of her courage.

In her heart confidence won. She conquered her dreads. The jangle of conflicting emotions subsided into the harmony of her sympathy with her surroundings. If she whistled in one way she would hear the answering neigh of the two horses she always had kept gentled and tame. If she gave voice to other cries jays and magpies answered, or squirrels and even foxes. In the daytime when she saw a shadow flit along the sand, cast by the sun, she gave a shrill, penetrating and wilderness-filling call with the result that sure enough a great peregrine falcon swerved to return at a terrific pace answering the challenge, only to be baffled by his failure to discover who thus had given throat to his own kind’s battle cry.


Pretty Shells had been one with her man. She had carried a rifle as he hunted and she had killed game. She read the tracks of the creatures. If a blue wing fluttered far out in the green timber shadows her quick eyes detected the motion. And she had killed meat for the kettle, peltry for the fur buyer, and dried sinews with which to sew soft buckskin and had fastened beads to knife sheaths or shapely moccasins. She had handled all the furs her husband caught, dressing them each skin according to its hair or fur. And though she usually had accompanied Running Voice over his distant trap-lines, tending the traps, she had also run her own short loops around the ponds and up the mountain gulches near home. She need depend on no man now.

In three years the Boiling Sands string of ponds had become a fur pocket. Mink were running along the shores and up the streams in broad day. She found the hair of red foxes and pekans on their runway logs. She discovered claybank otter slides and beaver dams which were drowning hundreds of acres of level forest bottoms. The hoof prints of venison were in runways on ridge backs and through knolls. She could live here in these Singing Bird mountains indefinitely. No one had set traps anywhere on this, the south side of the range, since she carried the body of her husband down to bury him at the Bell Brand ranch.

Methodically she set about her inevitable tasks. She could not always be sure of having deer close by. Accordingly she killed a fine three-year-old buck, stripped off the skin and cut the meat into strips. These she salted in the hide, a layer of salt and a layer of meat. Then she tied up the bundle for twenty hours or so. Taking out the meat she washed each piece carefully in fresh water, strung it all on stiff green sticks and having made a bed of hardwood coals, she hung the meat over them in the smokeless heat till, after three or four hours, the pieces stopped dripping. She wrapped the dried chunks in a tight bag and hung it on a wire from a rafter until she should need it. The meat would keep indefinitely.

Fish she caught as she had learned to do back in Pennsylvania where she went to school. A light rod with lines, leaders, reel and flies fairly hummed to the rushes and lunges of the bright-hued trout. She took more than a hundred big fellows, two, three and four pounders and dried them with salt and smoke.

She gathered berries, nuts, roots and seeds. She plodded at her tasks. She carried heavy burdens. She worked with steadfast patience, giving thought to each thing she did. She marshaled all her forces to fasten a bead the size of a pinhead on a gauntlet, or to drag to her cabin the long pole of a dead pine which took all her strength. Her watchfulness and knowledge were Indian, but her foresight and stores of food and firewood were white. She grained and knuckled the brains of the deer she had killed into the stretched skin, converting it into a beautiful piece of soft, tawny buckskin. She cut it to a pattern and sewed a short skirt out of it, with bead designs and fringed seams as well as hem.

She killed porcupines, dyeing the quills, eating the delicate meat of the legs and even saving the thin skin for pouches. She read the signs of the forest, watching the aspens and noticing the activities of the beavers, feeling the tang of the night frosts on her hands and. listening to the voices of the birds.

When a flock of wild ducks pitched down over the great barrier of the Singing Bird range to come to rest with loud splashes and quacks of relief in the pond near her cabin she rejoiced. Autumn was at hand. Winter would come in due season. She was becoming more and more ready for the snow and cold. She had shaken off the low and common practises of civilization as known at the Bell Brand ranch. She had ascended from the tasks of the kitchen and the dining-room into the true feel of the beautiful lodgepole pine and Little People of the mountains and streams.

Her mind was cleared of many trivial and unimportant matters. She did not have to think in terms of so many pails full of water, so much flour, so many slabs of beef, so many huge potatoes, so much bread or pie. She merely prepared a delicate handful of bird meat, perhaps a stick of candy, a fanciful biscuit or a rich broth. She enjoyed eating, but now with her own slight necessities she became aware of how dreadful it had been to serve ten or twelve men with huge messes of grub in horrible quantites, though she smiled as she thought of Wool-Head. And of Delos Conklin she thought often with mingled feelings of pleasure and dismay.

Having performed her tasks, some which the modified skilfulness of civilization made pleasant and easy, and others to which she gave the perfect savage taste which they required, she would read an hour or two in her books, embroider and bead, seek a rabbit for a potpie or a wild goose for a pot roast—when the big fellows arrived on their south-bound flights. She was equally careful to sit a long time out under the forest canopy, her clothes, apparently so gorgeous in their colors and beauty, nevertheless blending with sunlit autumnal leaves and the dusky shadows, so that she could watch the passing of shy creatures unseen; and thus a cougar came shambling and slithering along with switching tail and moon-green eyes glaring around him in a baleful hunting lust. She shot him when he stopped to stare uneasily as he crouched, conscious of some alien presence; and presently his long, wide tawny hide was spread upon her cabin floor where she would step on it leaving her couch in the first dawn.

THEN Lop-Ear came with his pack. She had nearly forgotten the presence of these attractive outlaws. The moon was shining. The cabin pond was like a pool of milk, it was so bright and full of light. The trout swimming through the water were black fish-shapes and cast black shadows on the white-sand bottom. Migrant birds were chirruping uneasily in the trees, as if they were still on their way in the night. The green timber forest had awakened, as the desert does, in the evening. And then as they topped a ridge or knob far away, the voices of the wolves became clamorous in the gloom. Pretty Shells had been asleep. She awakened with a start, to find herself standing on the cougar-skin rug, shivering. She heard the yelping voices as they became fainter when the wolves ran down into a hollow whose sides intercepted the sounds. Then they burst forth louder as they came nearer. They were hunting over the Singing Bird Mountains; they had game started; they were exultant and rollicking in their chase.

The listener opened the door to hear the plainer. She knew the lay of the land so well that she could trace the course of the pursuit. The pack circled behind an outstanding ridge of half a mile or so length and then came around the east end, heading straight for her own pond, which she called Trembling Leaves. She shivered at their approach. And then she heard a rising tide of squeals, yelps and heavy baying, felt the increase in the speed of their run from an easy lope into a swift, dashing, sprinting race with one another.

A branch broke opposite her on the slope down to the lake. She heard the clatter of antlers where they struck small second-growth holes. And a minute later the pound of bounding hooves drummed on the night wind as the frantic quarry raced for water in which to cover its trail. The wolves were so close behind that she fancied she could hear the swish of their passing, too. There was a splash across the lake in the reflections of the trees. She had a glimpse of moonshine sparklings. She could see the shapes of the wolves when they came out of the shadows, like dark wraiths on the white sand in the gray light. She heard the snort of the deer’s labored breathing, and then a sharp barking of the pursuers as for an instant they seemed to be consulting what they should do now. Then silence fell upon the scene, the echoes chasing themselves away. The waves the invisible deer rolled up cast reflections like those on the swell of a boat. The mountain night seemed to be clutched in a grim suspense. The whimperings of frightened little animals and birds trembled in the darkness. Then all was quiet.

When the listener stepped outside into the shadow of her camp she was ready to believe that the whole episode had been merely a vivid, awful dream. She could hear nothing, see nothing, feel nothing in the moonlit night. She grew slowly conscious of a relaxing of the tension. But it was only the lull in a grim tragedy.

The suspense was broken by the terrified bleat of a stricken buck. The wolves burst out anew in their weird shouting, changed now from the yelping music of the race into the hoarser and heavier portends of attack. Their shrill baying was broken and made into terrible gutturals as they took hold with their teeth, snapping and tearing, their throats full of gurgling and intermittent sounds, muffled and thrown out first on one side and then on the other as they seized, snapped and at last bored in. And then, the game torn down, the pack became a hungry swarm of snarling beasts eating their fill as they wolfed down their prey, and jostled one another with nips and yaps.

The sounds soon subsided. It did not take the brutes long to eat their fill. As their hunger was assuaged they grew quieter, and before the listener had settled, back on her heels silence again pervaded the landscape. Instead of the howls of the wolves she heard the sharp bark of an excited fox who had been listening to the invasion and now was coming near in hopes of a shred or two from the meals of majesty. A coyote, too, gave an oddly timid and doubtful call as if he wondered how safe it was to be even in the echo of such a famished passing. Three owls called a refrain.

The peaceful atmosphere, the rare and lovely sensation of safety and complaisance had been shattered by the wolves’ deer hunt. The hermit Indian woman retreated behind her barred door and sat wrapped in a robe before the fireplace in which she heaped up an armful of wood. The omen was only too significant. When lobos come through it means trouble. Even great bears listen with ill patience to those scoundrels.

The pack was intact. She had heard every voice, counted six different brutes by the vibrations of their throats. She had no welcome for them, though they brought back with sharp distinctness the recollections she had of the affairs away down on the ranch at the mouth of Noisy Waters cañon. Oddly enough she missed the spaciousness of the Flats of the Dancing Maids. She felt the crowding in of the dark woods whose shadows fell upon her cabin.

In the morning she went along the edge of the timber on the south side of the lake and found where the deer had been ambushed by the clever brutality of the wolf band. The deer had landed on a sand spit, partly grown to brush and shrubs. As the animal surged toward the cover of the woods the leader of the pack cut in from behind and doubtlessly had hamstrung the tired buck. And there the other wolves had charged in from the shadows to finish and devour. Where the kill was made fox tracks ran all over the tracks of the wolves, and now that day had come a score of mountain jays had come down to pick the shreds that remained on the bones.

Pretty Shells left no moccasin tracks among the paw-prints of the animals. Heretofore she had given no thought to her own trails. Now she looked over her shoulders as if wondering whether some one was likely to follow her own footsteps. She was glad her cabin was under the trees, its front toward the open lake partly obscured by low second growth.

Her eyes looked along the opposite shore, searching the lines of gray tree trunks, pausing to study the shadows or the questionable shapes. She looked back into the near thick stand of slim, tall timber in which she could not see far. The wolves, she saw by the lead of their tracks, had headed up over a low divide the far side of which ran steeply down to the edge of the sage and open desert. Rifle in hand she worked that way, knowing the hunters were now heavy with food and probably sleeping.

She hunted with extreme caution. She made no least audible sound with the fall of her soft foot-soles The breeze, however, was not quite right, for it rolled down the mountain in cold waves on the way to the warming alkali far below.

As she came to the crest of the long low ridge there was a sudden rush over to the right, or westward. She caught a glimpse of a pale shape darting swiftly among the trees. She recognized the largest of Lop-Ear’s companions. She heard the throaty whining cry of warning, low but distinct as the scoundrel escaped. She saw another, a slim black fellow, but had no chance to shoot.

When she looked around she found their warm beds where they had thrown themselves on mattings of pine needles, curled up by rock or fallen tree top to sleep off their fresh gorge.

“I should have had at least a shot or two at those beasts!” she told herself. “They’ve gone off down the mountain, and probably I’ll never see them around here again.”

Her conscience troubled her a little. This wolf pack was a menace to all the country. It killed game. It raided the cattle herds and the sheep flocks. To kill any of the lesser members of the pack would mean two hundred and fifty dollars from county and cattle association bounties. To get Old Lop-Ear himself would mean five hundred dollars. She would have been glad to pull down some of that money. Luck had played against her.

She returned to the lake shore. She paused before going out from under the cover of the trees. Her instinct to cover her tracks had now fallen into abeyance. She felt a tendency to sing, and hummed a bit. Yet like all things which dwell in the wilds she stopped short before going out into the open of the white-sand beach. Her eyes swept along the opposite shore in the restless inquiry of the wilderness wanderer.

And coming down to the lake shore opposite, a third or half a mile distant, she saw a man. He sat on his heels at the water’s edge with his rifle butt on the sand as he scooped up a drink in the palm of his hand. He was too far away for her to see the exact details of his raiment, but he was tall, gray, and jack-knifed as he squatted; he unfolded oddly as he straightened up.

He stood for a moment with his rifle resting in the crook of his elbow, looking along the lake shores. Then he turned, strode into the woods again and vanished. Pretty Shells leaned trembling against a tree.