THE WOLF DENS
FOR hours as he plodded westward the Needle Top Mountains seemed to Delos Conklin to grow no nearer. Then he entered their royal purple shadow on the long slope up to their buttressing ridges. He camped after sunset at the entrance to the cañon where a trickle of spring brook water vanished in a wide alluvial fan of sand and gravel. Here, too, Lop-Ear and his outlaw band had quenched their thirst early that day. The following morning up the valley the rider found where the wolves had killed an old cow and her calf, coyotes eating what the slayers had left behind.
Only strays of the Bell Brand wandered over to The Needles. But every autumn the round-up-wagon had to cross the Flats of the Dancing Maids to pick up these wanderers which probably had caught a whiff of water or perhaps the scent of grass from the rugged range. Conklin found the country rough and difficult. The wolves led him up to a mesa top, which was all that remained of another desert valley flat like the one two thousand feet lower down where the little whirlwinds lifted dust in the semblance of whirling girls. This mesa, miles long, was grown to sage and wisps of arid country weeds. The rider saw jackrabbits and cottontails. Two or three times, when he skirted along the brink at the edge of the table-land, he saw coyotes skulking off down to lower levels when he disturbed them as they hid from the sunshine in the shadow of a rock. In some places he looked down a sheer precipice two hundred feet high, but washes had cut deep into the mesa mountain and here up the easier incline he found runways of living things, from insects to hoofed game, coming up to the high level.
Forty or fifty head of cattle were on the mesa, and in passing the wolf pack had run two or three of these over edges and the dead carcasses of these animals lying on the jagged rocks far below showed how wanton had been the attacks. At the north end of the mesa the wolves went over the brink, running down into a clump of stunted cedars. At sight of these Conklin turned back, went over the west side and descended to the same level two miles distant. Here he hobbled his horses and rifle in hand hunted around into the juniper belt.
Sure enough, he found where the wolves had stopped to lie down. They had loafed for several hours in the cover from night wind and day vision. But they had departed several hours before Conklin arrived, heading down into the wide bare valley toward the northwest. The hunter hesitated as he looked across the miles of desolation. Then he returned, cooked himself a young jack-rabbit, repacked his fed horses and started on the trail again, knowing how useless it was to pursue these traveling brutes. At the same time he could see they were headed for some real timber where the north end of the Needle Tops sloped down into the valley beyond which rose the majestic Singing Birds. A long dry night, walking most of the time to rest his saddle horse, Conklin plodded on his way. Not until two hours after daybreak did he come to water at the lower rim of the timber. He had lost the wolf trail after the moon went down.
He was awakened late in the afternoon. He looked down at the spring pool from the cover of the woods. A band of sixteen antelope had come up out of the valley to drink. He shot one of these, for he needed real meat. A bunch of cattle were among the animals which drank at this good water. Four or five were mavericks, unbranded, but the others were marked with the Bell of Wool-Head Dan. Cougar tracks showed the wolves were not the only meat-eaters thereabout. A big cat came shambling around a point after Conklin had ridden along the bench of the mountain and he killed it with a fine shot from the saddle, for there is not time to take a good position when one meets such quick brutes. In half an hour the clean skin of the victim was dangling over the pack, despite the objections of the indignant horse.
North of the end of the Needle Tops was a vast low knoll, rounded in general outline, and yet covered with tip-tilted slabs and pinnacles of stone. Even in the distance Conklin could see black spots which were the shadows of cavern entrances. When at dusk he rode up to one of these he saw a grisly shape slip into a crevice among upended rocks. And when he made a dry camp on a flat with scant vegetation he heard snarling and yipping at a little distance. Then coyotes waxed melancholy and jeering in the thin air.
“Wouldn’t be surprized if I’d found something!” Conklin admitted to himself. “Look it over tomorrow!”
He surely had. A huge mountain ridge had been washed and wasted away till it had assumed the appearance of a ruined city of savage Titans and ogres. In every patch of sand a yard in size were the tracks of coyotes, old and young. In all directions from the square miles of fresh and abandoned dens extended sage flats while toward the north and northeast rose the Singing Bird Mountains with inviting forest that stretched out of sight along the greater slope.
Riding in and out, up and down, over this devastated wreckage of geological structures, Conklin yielded to the feeling that it was a place which had known less grim conditions and better occupants than the furtive beasts of prey. His instinct was not mistaken. He came to a gorgeous display of fossil trees, a thousand acres of forest which had been inundated and turned to stone. Now the mucky sand was washing away and the dead woods were standing as monuments to their own life or lying prostrate where a cataclysm had thrown them down. And among these the searcher found the tracks of many great wolves who preferred the cemetery to the green timber which grew so well only a few hours’ gallop distant.
“No accounting for tastes!” Conklin told himself, as his sun-dimmed gaze looked far in hopes of discovering where the animals drank.
He rode into a number of gulches and followed many miles of trails, finding bones of cattle here and there where they had been torn down in the wolf homeland, before he discovered what he sought. Then under a red sandstone overhanging he found an emerald pool as clear as a perfect, cloudless gem. The water was only a little salt. To the thirsty explorer it was delicious. As he bumped his head on rising, he saw over to the right a pearl-handled, four-bladed cow-country knife.
Conklin had seen no other trace of living men. He looked around with inevitable nervousness at this inexplicable indication. Perhaps some wandering cattle country nomad had in passing lost it. But the rider knew this would have to be proved to him before he would admit it. The blades were rusted only a little—yet it was pretty old rust. Throwing down his pack and saddle, hobbling the two horses to let them eat the grass which grew in single blades here and there in this coarse gravel and kettle-bottoms of clay, alkali or sand, Conklin went circling around and around in spiral course until some two hundred yards distant and up against a ledge of rocks which had a dozen bands of color, no two alike, and there in a hole, almost a cave, he found some man’s camp. On a ledge was a tin pail made out of a fruit or tomato can, a baking-powder can with some matches in it, several empty.33-caliber rifle shells and a handful of charred sage-brush sticks, dead embers of a coffee and fried meat fire.
A dozen other better places to camp had been passed lower down, nearer the spring. This had some significance, but Conklin regarded the fireplace with squinting eyes and curling lip corner. The camper had stacked up a stone fence in a curve around the outside of the embers. A blaze behind these stones would not shine out across the open desert valley in any direction and even its reflections were back out of sight from the entrance to this hole in the stone. But whoever had stopped here more than once could look from the shadows out across the open land; he could by day see the tiny toy-like Bell Brand outfit down the line and across the Flat of the Dancing Maids forty or fifty miles away; and he could see around to the southwest, the west and clear around to the nearly due south. Only an outlaw, in flight though none pursued, would have chosen this particularly uncomfortable and difficult place, because it possessed advantages he needed in his affairs. One might call the place the Wolf Dens.
Conklin studied the knife. Three of its blades were thick and wide, good to whittle with, or to unjoint leg bones. But one was thin, narrow and razor keen. To a man who knew his wilds the knife told a good deal. A cowboy would have used the heavier blades, cared for one or two of these with a good deal of honing or dressing if he was methodical. But the previous owner of this pearl-handled tool had kept the thin narrow edge with closest attention.
“Marten trapper!” Conklin decided, almost offhand.
He looked across the country to the heavy green timber. The spirit of the situation made him uneasy. He returned to the spring, and made his camp like an honest man, far enough from the water to allow the thirsty creatures to come for their share, but he built no fire that night. And in the morning he shook a rattlesnake out of his tarpaulin and blanket.
“Bad country!” he thought to himself, “I don’t like it a bit!”
He had heard no sound in the night, but he found his pack horse had been cut down within half a mile of where he slept. Hobbled, the poor beast had been easy prey for a band of wolves. The tracks led straight away toward the Singing Bird Mountains. They were unmistakable to the angry cowboy. Lop-Ear and his pack had worked in dreadful silence but left their signatures in the sand.
Conklin spent the day tramping and clambering over the knoll of wolf dens. It was alive with coyotes. He shot nine during the search. He found a dozen caves or holes in the rock which had unmistakably the tracks of lobo wolves. He saw one of the lobos two hundred odd yards distant rising from beside a clump of prickly pears, but missed both shots he made. He found just around the cactus where the wolf had eaten a jack-rabbit. This lobo was not a member of Lop-Ear’s pack, apparently. It might even be that the silence brooding over the knoll of wolf dens, the brief demonstrations of coyote misery in the dark had been due to the presence of the ferocious and swagger band. Conklin wondered, as he returned to the remains of his horse of which the ignoble beasts had come to eat when the killers had gone on their way.
Coyotes, especially the young and yearlings were easy to knock down. The fact that Conklin had obtained two shots at the rabbit-eating lobo indicated a less knowing brute. There was somehow an analogy between the wolf raiders and the furtive human who must have been a desperado. With his real discoveries to report, Conklin hesitated between heading down the long, dry course straight to the ranch and following the wolves over to the Singing Bird Mountains. Along the green timber route he would travel quite a few more miles but he need not make any dry camps, for water was plenty on that course.
When he thought of Pretty Shells he hesitated, counting her presence at the Trembling Leaves pond as an argument against passing that way. At the same time by cutting across he need not pass within five miles of her lakeside cabin. For the rest he knew he ought to try and get a line on the forest activities of the killer pack. He knew that Wool-Head Plack would tell him to go kill the wolves. Would ask why the Hades he hadn’t stayed with them. And would also add a growling taunt on learning that the savage brutes had killed the hobbled pack horse.
Delos Conklin had done no trapping and only casual hunting since he was a boy and youth. At the same time he had been an attentive listener to the stories of good trappers, and had read of a hundred feats of beguiling coyotes and wolves, accounts of which had appeared in handbooks and magazines popular in the ranch dormitory lobbies. Also he had studied the creatures wherever he rode and followed their trails wherever it had been convenient to do so, the truth being that he was a thorough “natural born” nature lover.
He could do nothing by halves. A top-hand rider, on the long beats watching the boundaries and at whatever lonely work he had to do, he filled in the vacancies of the hours of transit, the wakeful periods of riding herd, listening to the teeming life of the desert night or reading the signs in the dust of the days.
Wool-Head Plack had chosen him to hunt down those destroyers. A wise rancher, the employer had noticed the indications of special powers and desires for observation as displayed by Conklin. He had sent the cowboy out to find out where the wolves denned in. That really meant, Conklin now realized, that he must exterminate the beasts which were destroying thousands of dollars’ worth of beef in the cattle ranges and making forays into the sheep country farther east doing worse damage. It had taken the rider a long time to realize the job Plack had given him to do.
ACCORDINGLY, Conklin settled into a new frame of mind. He changed his very purpose from finding out about the activities of Lop Ear’s band into a determination to kill them, or drive them out of the country. He rather ridiculed his own slow wit in understanding what Plack wanted him to do. He thrilled a little, as he realized the big fellow’s trust or hope. Trappers had made tentative efforts to capture the wolves. Three or four wolf-hunting dogs, Borzois, had been imported over beyond the Sparkling Dawns where ranchers in better pastures had tried to cope with the wandering scoundrels.
Late in the day, having led his loaded saddle horse across the valley in the trail of the galloping band, he lost the tracks among the rocks even before he reached the woods of the Singing Birds timber belt. The restlessness of the wolves amazed him. They would stop for a few hours to sleep. But here they were on the move even when they had gorged at a kill. It took him all that day to see the point, but when night fell he understood. The wolves had seen him on their tracks, they had known his object, and when they had killed one of his horses they weren’t going to remain anywhere near him, but would flee a day’s journey before lying down to rest.
“The blamed crooks!” the amazed and wrathful hunter gasped, adding with reluctant but necessary admiration, “They know what they’re about!”
For the first time any human had definitely come to understand the situation as regards Lop-Ear. Conklin camped down in a hollow by a falling spring run. He did not have need to hobble his saddle horse—a fact that probably had saved its life. He broiled a venison steak over a bed of coals. He rolled up in his tarp and blanket on a bed of pine needles under the tall trees far enough from the tinkling music of the brook so he could hear other sounds in the night.
Some time during the wane of the moon he was awakened by a howl far away. He started up, listening sharply. Presently he heard another wail in the trembling air. It was a lobo cry, he was sure. He wondered what it meant, what thought was in the mind of the beast when it called thus toward the stars in the sky. He did not know whether it was one of Lop-Ear’s pack or whether it was crying for companionship. He believed he would have to learn that language, however, if he desired to accomplish the destruction of the menace to the cattle and sheep business.
On the following day he led his loaded horse along ridge-backs, in deer and elk runways, through aisles of rolling forest and scrambled in some pretty bad going over broken granite and found ways through occasional windfalls or across the pathways of landslides. Three or four times the horse stood on its hindlegs and snorted when it smelled bears. Conklin saw a number of deer, and many lesser beasts. The mountain range was well named, for birds were fluttering throughout the woods, and now and again a flock of jays or magpies would keep company with the strange phenomenon of a man with a horse. And the hunter was conscious of the feeling that these birds, especially the magpies, had seen men before and did not hold them in high regard.
A man doesn’t like to believe things which aren’t so, which are just plumb foolish. The very notion that he knew the minds of those birds was exasperating to Conklin. He stopped short and looked at the gay magpies which were coming along behind him. The moment he turned his head the whole flock instantly scattered and vanished with white and black flapping of departure.
“They’ve been shot at!” Conklin puzzled, still doubtful, but glad to be relieved by so plausible an idea. The birds would have come much closer and perhaps have been less taunting, more curious in their tones, but for their previous experiences with the deadly weapons of men.
Wool-Head Plack said no one lived in the Singing Bird Mountains. Trappers like the husband of Pretty Shells had occasionally spent a winter season catching fur in the timber belt, he had remarked, but it took good men to endure the difficulties and the brooding loneliness. It was like an Indian-blood woman to “go wild” and retreat to such a place. In thirty years since the U.S. Geological Survey had hired Plack to transport an outfit and carry supplies for the map-makers, less than a dozen people were known to have been in that wilderness which from all directions was two or three days, at the least, from any through wagon road—and it was ten days or so from a rail end.
But these birds knew a man’s potentialities, they knew a human’s wicked possibilities. Conklin looked over his own shoulders. Some one had killed in cold blood the good Indian, Running Voice. Only about three years had elapsed since that murder from ambush. No explanation had been given. But his widow had loved the Singing Bird country, returning to it when she could no longer resist the lure of the wilds.
Lop-Ear’s pack and a human mystery were somewhere in this timber range now. Conklin figured he might as well look the country over and find out the lay of the land first as last. He gave up his intention of returning immediately to the Bell Brand outfit. He knew in a general way the kind of country toward the east, and especially along the wooden bench on which were the Boiling Sand ponds; he turned due northward to cross the divide, if he could find a way through or over.
When he thought he was on the way up the main range, he came to a valley with a lake eight or nine miles long. He recognized this as the one where the map-makers had camped. Plack had described it, and so Conklin headed for the west end, finding the old pack trail on the easy slope from the small ridge. The place where the tents had been pitched was grown to weeds and switch-timber. The stumps where trees had been cut for firewood stood around. If any one, else had passed by since the site was abandoned no evidence was betrayed to the searching eyes of the investigator.
Conklin turned his horse loose on a beaver meadow up the lake inlet. Here was a level grown to grass. After some hesitation, he made his own camp back in the woods, cooking a chunk of meat as he considered the problem of his activities. Other humans in that country were none of his business—but the wolves were. The brutes hunted the green timber, the open desert, the sage and ranch lands. Probably only Pretty Shells was in the whole Singing Bird Mountains. At the same time he felt the warning in the furtive watchfulness of the birds. They had made a tremendously deep impression on his consciousness. He ridiculed his subconsciousness, his little-suspected powers of observation and interpretation. At the same time he frankly yielded to his awakened sense of caution, hiding back in the brush up a little gully.
He circled for three or four hours examining the country for tracks and signs. He found where the wolf pack had followed the north shore of the big Take, running true to form as they worked their paws in the crystal sands, spreading their claws to let the grains cut away the caked clay and polish their nails. They left the pond heading up a spur, following a game trail cut by ages of hooves and paws. At least two deer had been in the runway since the wolves ascended it in single file. When he found this the hour was too late for him to go far, but the following morning, with several good chunks of antelope meat ready cooked, Conklin traced the runway for miles until it led into a wide pass in the bottom of which were some acres of small evergreen timber in a narrow line clear over to the north side. The animal paths were higher and in the open valley above the timber line. The summit in this crossing was a good ten or eleven thousand feet above the sea level and probably eight thousand feet above the ranch outfit, some forty-odd miles to the southward.
And here in the runway worn by passing animals Conklin stood to stare at four .33-caliber brass shells where they had fallen on the ground when some hunter had emptied them firing at a victim he desired to kill. When Conklin picked up the brass tubes he found no stain on the under side. Their bright polish was undimmed. They would not ordinarily tarnish for weeks in this high, clear atmosphere. But drifting wind, passing beasts and the hard stony ground had all combined to hide the boot prints of the shooter—if he wore boots.
Over on the north side, well down the slope, Conklin found where some one had slipped in a wet springy place, as deer do, and left the print of a boot heel for nearly a foot in the clay-like muck. Farther down in another soft place was the track of heavy feet descending the steep grade. These were several weeks old. Conklin left no marks of his own laced boots, which he had worn in anticipation of running around on foot a good deal. He had the feeling that he had better cover his own traces.
More than two thousand feet below, beside a cascading brooklet, the pass runway led Conklin to a place where the hunter had stopped to build a fire only a few inches across. He had cooked something here. A spruce branch had been broken off and a roughly whittled gambrel stick with hair in the splintery end lay at the foot of a small tree.
“He got ’em!” Conklin said, scrutinizing the hair. “Why—That’s a mountain sheep!”
A heavy fine and imprisonment was the penalty for shooting this game. This hunter was a wilderness cheater of the laws. Conklin had read the story that far. For the rest, he knew the wolves had not crossed the mountains but probably had kept to the south side of the Singing Birds, swinging toward the east. He built a long fire against an overhanging rock and on a bed of fine sand. When the sand was heated he threw armfuls of boughs on it, and then crawled into the heap, sleeping warm and sound all night long.
Soon after sunrise he was back over the pass heading down to the old survey camp. And on the way he came into a blazed line along the side hill which he had not noticed on his way up. From its course he saw that it was a trap-line, and a few rods along it he found a trap-cubby. This was a pekan, or fisher, set. Possibly a lynx would pass that way; the location was where the big weasel relative was apt to pass by.
For a minute Conklin was nonplussed. He thought perhaps the man who had come to the top of the Singing Birds had this line blazed through here. But as he studied the course of the trail through the woods he saw that fresh cuts in the tree trunks marking the way had also old blaze marks on the same or intervening trees. When presently he came to a place soft enough to take the print of a foot he stopped short, thrilled.
That shapely moccasined foot was not the same as the booted foot of the long-striding man. Only one person could have been along this trail; he had come to the fur country of Pretty Shells. He followed the line a mile or more, but was obliged to leave it to cut down across to the old survey camp to find his horse.
When he had saddled again he headed for Boiling Sand ponds for he would have to tell Pretty Shells she had a neighbor to the north beyond the Singing Bird divide. That neighbor was questionable, though probably only a hunter.
Late in the afternoon he came to the head of the chain of little lakes. As he stopped at the outlet of the upper pond he saw where some one had jumped from a rock to a soft bank, scrambling in the dirt. Right at the brook side this big-footed man had blazed a tree with an ax. He had run a line down from the main divide toward the north and carried it southward as far as Conklin could see in the woods.
At sight of this he bristled angrily.