THE CAMPAIGN BEGINS.
SO WOOL-HEAD’S married, did you say?” Park Cable asked Pretty Shells, when all hands were at the supper table, ready to listen to the astounding surprize of their Bell Brand ranch life.
“Yes,” she nodded, laughing with approval.
“But how the —— did it happen! Why, that feller wa’n’t a lady’s man.”
“But he was—Amelia Forbes’s lady’s man!” she laughed again. “You see, he made up his mind on the way to Tribulation. Always, he would think about her and her glorious head of red hair. So he wished he could please her. And arriving in town he went at once to her house. A man was in her sitting room, a man who had been visiting her. He was a lawyer. You see, she had a boarding house and made a good living, and she would cook well for her husband. She would have a place for him to live. Wool-Head went in. He didn’t ever think much of lawyers, and he especially didn’t like this Len Harden, Judge Harden. When Harden came to Tribulation a year ago, he defended a man who was accused of blotting brands you remember—that Trinity River fellow. Harden found a law somewhere to let the fellow go. Since then Wool-Head and he haven’t been friendly.”
“You bet not!” Cable nodded.
“Harden wouldn’t shake hands with Wool-Head, and the next he knew he was pike-poled through the front window over the picket-fence into the middle of the street. He was running on all fours when he landed, and Mrs. Forbes was very indignant at the way Wool-Head treated her friend. She got knee-holds on his neck and claw-holds in his hair.”
“Whooe-e-e!” the listeners exclaimed, breathlessly.
“She was a regular wildcat. He had an awful time getting her loose. They became better acquainted in the next ten minutes than they’d ever been in the past five or six years.”
“That’s right,” one of the boys mused. “Nothing like a scrap to git to know a lady. I ’member one time—”
“Aw, shut up!” he was silenced.
“There was lots of excitement. Everybody was running to look-see. Then she kicked him in the eye and he—”
“What! How’n —— could she—”
“He was holding her kind of upside down— And he started to run. He came down the street and she had him by the belt. They crossed the plaza into the court-house. He couldn’t get away. He apologized so nice and she was so sorry the way his eye hurt they shook hands and made up. Then he asked her to marry him, and she called the county judge over, Mr. Sheldon; it was a real handsome wedding—very sentimental!”
“Well, by gosh!” Pasty Face Begane exploded, “Looks like he surrendered complete, getting licked and married both! That’s an awful beginning—”
“Don’t you think he was very wise, very shrewd, so cleverly winning his heart’s great desire?” Pretty Shells inquired with a little smile.
“I can see where things ain’t going to be so dog-gone quiet around this here Bell Brand outfit any more!” Cable sighed.
“It will be very beautiful!” the widow declared.
In something of a daze the cowboys went about the affairs of the big outfit. There was no formal superintendent or foreman. Wool-Head did his own bossing. Talking it over, the hands divided up the work to be done. Conklin shook out the wolf traps, tried their springs, and talked a good deal with Pretty Shells, who told him the lore she knew about wolves.
“But do not forget no two are ever alike,” she warned him. “Lop-Ear will never be caught by bait. You must trick him. He knows all this country better than any man. Until you know him better than he knows men you can not hope to defeat him. A rabbit needs to know only how to eat grass, but to catch a jack a coyote must know his own affairs and the rabbit’s, too. And lobos know more than coyotes, because they are obliged to outwit mares who have colts and men who ride herd to cattle or tend sheep.”
“Was I foolish, Pretty Shells?” he exclaimed. “I saw them all passing along the slope below the timber on Singing Bird. All but one jumped high and wide over the wagon tracks. The big pale one was clumsy and fell in the hoof prints of your horses. He squealed, frightened. But I was afraid it was too far to shoot with any chance of hitting them, and I waited a better time—”
“You look a long way ahead!” she said soberly. “That is, in trapping and hunting wolves!”
“Perhaps in other things, too,” he suggested in a tone that made her wonder what exactly he had in mind, yet continued in a way to interrupt her thoughts, “I don’t like the idea of your being out there all alone.”
“No, that is not the way to feel about it. I do not go there to be alone. Rather I went to consult King Squirrel and Queen Magpie. The jays, who are all rogues, are still to be respected for their laughter. I may even be able to make the Great Bear listen to me.”
“As long as you are not seen by that fellow Tom Redding, or whatever is his real name, I know you’ll be all right.”
“He is the evil devil of the mountain chain,” she admitted. “He came there when Running Voice and I had built our cabin. He despised an Indian. At the same time he hurried on his way, after Running Voice had told him how to find the passes over the mountains into the more distant Disappearing River basin. He spoke about Indians taking all the furs, as though they should belong only to white trappers. I do not know. I never said one word before about it. Yet I believe he envied Running Voice his many good furs. I never liked him. It was a great kindness to me telling him that if he came over to this side of the Divide he must contend with you. Truly, the half of all the furs here are now yours!”
“Not much!” he laughed. “My job is the wolves—that’s all.”
“You can not unsay it!” she laughed. “With the timber belt part of Lop-Ear’s range you may have to seek them there. No place is better to set a wolf trap than in lake-shore sand where they run, spreading their paws. The task is worthy of a reader of wolf minds!”
“It’s a job, putting down four-square inches of trap-pan trigger in ten thousand square miles of lobo country where one certain wolf is going to step on it a week or two later.”
“Yet you do not deny you hope to do just that!”
“No, that’s so!” he chuckled wryly.
“I have a good many Number 1’s and 2’s, Kangaroo Jumps and Triple Clutches. I do not intend to use the half of them—you can use what you want for small furs.”
“No—I’m a wolver,” he shook his head. “It’ll take all my time learning to know those big fellows, to set and tend them. You can’t do fur trapping and outlaw wolf-hide trapping, both.”
“They’ve offered one hundred dollars bounty on any lobo, besides the big money on Lop-Ear and his wicked partners. You have trapped wolves?”
“Just a few. I spent a winter in Minnesota when a boy. I was in Canada nearly a year, back country. That was before I landed in the West.”
She was turning a gray steel wolf trap over and over in her hands, shaking her head doubtfully.
“Where’ll you begin putting down your traps?” she asked after a time.
“I’ll start at headquarters. To put out a forest fire you get at the heart of it,” he answered, explaining: “There is a big dome of washed-down mountains between Needle Tops and the west end of the Singing Birds. There are the Wolf Dens—I call the country. It’s the hangout of all the wolves in this country—rabbit hunters and stock killers both. Some go into the timber belt on Singing Bird mountains, but probably the snow’ll drive them back into the Wolf Dens hangout. Anyhow, I saw their tracks in woods and open desert—the same wolves. Bare ground trapping is easier than in the snow. They can’t read a trapper’s tracks so well, in any event.”
“Good luck!” she wished him. “You plan well!”
“More luck to you!”
“You have been here a long time; how old Were you when you came?”
“Just a boy—I’d been out of college a year. I was twenty-two.”
“You need not have been just a wolver if you had stayed back there.”
“You keep going farther and farther back.”
“Why not? What are you doing—talking to me!”
“I’m Indian,” she replied. “More is not expected or wanted of me.”
He shook himself impatiently.
“Suppose you catch Lop-Ear and kill all his band—then what?” she asked.
“That’d mean thirty-five hundred dollars.”
“A good stake, boy, to make a good start,” she suggested.
“I haven’t caught ’em yet,” he shook his head. “Time enough to figure on spending the money when I deposit the warrants in the bank.”
“I think you will, though. I don’t mean you shouldn’t go after them. You’ll be better paid than as a cowboy. You’ll be far back, miles from any ranch, finding the places where the wolves hide. Men in such circumstances do not always maintain their human attributes but degenerate nearer the level of the wild creatures who have had no advantages of ten thousand generations of fixed traditions and recorded experiences. You’ll be better paid, however, than a cowboy. Truly, I should like to make my meaning clear to you. There is more in you than just the ability to trap outlaws. Do you know what I like best in all that I know you have done?”
“I should like a good deal to know,” he answered.
“Then I shall tell you. I like to think of your standing there watching Lop-Ear and his fleeing sheep-killers running to hide in their far retreats among the Wolf Dens, as you call their hiding place. You used your judgment. If you had shot at them, I should have been badly disappointed. It would have spoiled for me, a woman, a picture I should not like to see ruined. Oh—I know you do not expect me to say such things. I may not have even the right to do so. Red blood is in my veins and that means love of the loneliness of the forest and desert. White blood is in my veins and this means a struggle for ideals and the longing of ages for better things than we children of civilization have yet attained. I war with myself. My heart challenges my soul. But though you are all white, still you are gifted with the great boon of dissatisfaction. If it is ignobly yielded to, what excuse have you? But if you make of your temptations the stepping-stones to usefulness according to your opportunities and genius, surely you are blessed. When you have caught the outlaw band of wolves are you going on catching wolves?”
“I don’t see how you foresee such things!” he blurted out.
She chuckled as if there were probably a good many things he did not know about her particularly and about women generally. She had probed a part of his mind which he supposed to be hidden from every one, the ambitions he had inhibited and the hopes he had failed to nourish.
“But I’ve got to catch those wolves!” he urged. “What comes after—it may be a long time—will take care of itself.”
“Yes, of course!” she nodded. “By all means—but please never forget that it may be only a beginning, just an episode!”
She left him with a thought which somehow she had branded on his imagination. He gathered his trapping outfit and made up his packs. When, three days later he was ready to go almost westerly to the Wolf Dens, the headquarters of the outlaw pack, Pretty Shells was also ready to go on her own nearly due north trail toward the Singing Bird mountains. The ranch boys helped both of them load their horses and just after sunrise they waved good-by all around to go their lonely ways. And, for horns, whenever the cow hands looked, they could see the dark spots and later merely the tufts of tawny dust where the tiny cavalcades wended their ways.
While the riders were waiting on her and helping her with all her affairs, Pretty Shells relaxed and gave them her gracious praise. Now she sat erect in her saddle, standing on her stirrups with her back taut, her wide-brimmed hat a bit aslant, and watchful, her head turning from side to side as she surveyed the green timber of the mountain belt ahead. She glanced in all directions. At intervals she turned to gaze reflectively for a minute or two at a time over to her left where descending into the low Flats of the Dancing Maids she could see the wolver on his way to exterminate the raiders.
She knew what it was to have the affection of men. To her it was a little bewildering to be so well regarded. She suffered infinite pity when now and again one of the boys packed his sawbuck and rode away because he could no longer endure his failure to possess her. But she had always succeeded in persuading even the most ardent that her heart just had not responded to his. Her very tenderness had increased the pain of those who loved her, but in all the world there was not one honest man who had been embittered by her. She could resist without being hard, she could even flirt a little, playfully, and so well that none could misunderstand her good nature. Now when she looked after Delos Conklin in the tenderness of her compassion she was obliged to steel her heart a little against him, not to protect him, but to save her own self from a new and living sorrow.
Indian, she could be patient and she could keep herself from giving any sign. The poetry of her savage forefathers had given her an overwhelming longing for the inestimable privileges of those fastnesses of the Singing Bird Mountain chain. To this love of Nature was added the certain practicality, the methodicalness, the mathematical order of the white race. Feminine intuition enabled her to understand the spirit as well as the material things. She could read between the track of wolves or the words of men. And though she went her way bravely to the cabin on Trembling Leaves pond in the Bubbling Sands chain, she knew fear—the strange and unconquerable foreboding that sometimes lies in the shadow for those who go into the wilderness and which Indian lore and white records unite in calling the devil of it.
Her emotions added to the charm of her wild home. The memory of her dead husband, Running Voice, had retreated to the dark niche of her heart. He had given her great happiness. She would have loved him as long as he lived. She had not expected ever to free her heart of the anguish of his cruel and unexplained assassination. The shock of finding him lying dead with a bullet through his back over at the head of the Trembling Leaf pond, by the inlet, had whitened two spots at her temples. These she had always covered with her fine, wavy black hair, using artfulness. Now she changed her coiffure. She was startled, when she saw the effect of her new mode in her mirror. She colored wonderingly to find how beautiful she had become. She recognized her rare gift, or rather reward, not knowing why or whence. It did not dawn on her that she was magnificent because she had been kind, had pitied and been gracious, was good—but she needed no one to tell her that she was in love. Her splendid affection permeated her, giving tints to her cheeks, grace to her figure, the glory of a trembling flower to her gesture and rare flames to her eyes.
She went about her tasks with quiet precision. She neglected not one most trivial act or bit of work in all the multitude of things she had to do. Her cabin was immaculate. Her kitchen utensils shone from her efforts. She mocked the jays and magpies to their own delight and confusion. And now that the season was approaching, she watched the passing by of mink to see the fluff of their hair, waiting for the blue to pass and the prime fur to show itself in the richness of its color. Frosts, the coloring and fall of the broad leaves of the deciduous trees, the whitening of the mountain tops with squalls of snow and then the passing by of the coyotes from the heights past the ponds on their autumnal migration into the lower and warmer levels were all significant and she noted them constantly.
And so she waded down the outlet one day to set traps at pools where she had seen tracks of otter. And, sure enough, she had read the signs aright. She found a great lutra sunk by a fatal stone in the dark water. When she examined the fur it was prime. She apologized to the Great Otter for her necessity. Presently she put out traps for mink, then marten and pekan, and the first snow betrayed red foxes into snares she had set with smoky brass wire.
The forest floor was alive with rich game. Plenty of food had given all the creatures ample supplies. Their tracks covered the revealing page with a thousand tales of their adventures and the tragedies of the necessities of the living and the fates of the victims of the ravenous. And Fortune had played a curious prank on the young woman who had thrown herself upon the mercy of Fate. That year silver and black foxes were at their best. The demand had never been so great in the fur marts. Pretty Shells made cunning lures and contrived deadly engines, which combined the intimate knowledge of the Indian nature student with the ingenuity of the methodical white race. She thought to catch red foxes worth ten or twelve dollars; instead she found silver grays and blacks worth hundreds of dollars; even the marten were not commonplace, for those she took were dark and their fur longer, heavier than any she had ever knowm.
For every hour she spent going over her trap-lines she spent another hour dressing the pelts. She liked little enough the tragedy and disaster she was bringing upon the beasts of prey which were her victims, but when she had their skins in hand, and must needs stretch and flesh, dry and handle them, this she loved to do. Of each one she made a peltage gem, a pretty fur so well taken care of that she knew nowhere was it better done by any hunter. There could be no other way to live!
She had seen nothing more alarming than the tracks of a passing cougar or a great bear looking for a den in which to hibernate. She was lulled into a feeling of security. The foreboding dread which at first had made her cautious and given her vague alarm was lost in the long days of her constant occupation.
A new moon waxed into a full, and then disappeared from the brilliant skies. Snows came and melted. The needles of the pines and spruces took on the bright winter polish. The birds were puffed up with the dark winter plumage. Even the passing of a wild and terrific blizzard left but a deep soft snow to exasperate the plunging members of the weasel tribe, mink and marten, otter and pekan who liked not at all this swimming in a crystalline sea. Donning her snowshoes, the young woman played through the forest, loving the pink and blue shadows cast by the winter sun upon the sparkling snow that festooned the shapely evergreens and covered the ground high up on their straight and shapely trunks.
When she skirted along the edge of the timber line, in and out among the juniper cedars, Pretty Shells looked far away to the lower desert valley. Far warmer down there, and the snow came and went. The colors were crystalline and beautiful. Her mind was recovering its equilibrium, her soul possessed new perspectives, and when from the high places she looked over at the Wolf Dens she wished she knew what was taking place there, hoping in her heart of hearts that Delos Conklin was as fortunate as she had been.
Those were busy weeks from early November to the holidays. Then a strange freak of the season came. The January thaw came early. It was a terrific downpour of warm rains. It enveloped the Singing Bird mountains in heavy mists of fog. The dripping of the trees tinkled upon a melody of floods that roared in every gulch and cañon.
Nothing like this had been known in years. A lake appeared down on the Flats of the Dancing Maids. The Bubbling Spring ponds were filled to the timber line. When the end came in a zero-whiff of wind and a falling of frost crystals the forest floor was bare even in the darkest shadows. The floods rapidly retreated. The runoff lowered a half in a day.
The trapper went forth to take up her traps. She had enough. The season of the best furs had passed. The mink had begun to fade, foxes to rub, and now the animals should be left to their courting and family affairs. She was gone three days. When she returned every skin she had caught had been stolen from her main cabin.