BROKEN ROOT, THE GUARD
FIRST of all Delos Conklin felt the isolation, his remoteness from the Bell Brand ranch, when he had settled down to the hard task of ridding the great range of the six outlaw wolves, to kill which he had been assigned by his employer’s influence over the cattle and sheep growers of the Tribulation court district. He had been chosen because in all the land there was no wolver. Trappers were rather scorned by the population. A few boys had a dozen or two traps. Now and again some coyote attracted attention by catching chickens or a skunk took up its abode uncomfortably near a ranch or sheep fold. Running Voice had been the only professional trapper in the country, and he was a woods fur seeker, not an open desert man.
Conklin had talked trapping wild animals on occasion at the ranch table or before the fireplace. He had some theories on the subject. He had some remarkable stories to tell about the cunning of otter, the habits of pekans, the sharp practises of red foxes, and he had taken three or four old traps that had long hung disused in the Bell Brand harness shed to catch a coyote which was coming in close at night to the annoyance of Wool Head Plack. The capture of this animal had led to Conklin’s reputation as a trapper. He rather liked the distinction. Now he was a little uneasy in his mind for fear his gesture had been a little too proud and confident. He had never caught a gray or lobo wolf and he knew his work was cut out for him. He was pretty sure that he knew more than most animals, but he had no illusions that he knew the business of Lop-Ear and his hungry pack well enough to fool the notorious beasts, beating Lop-Ear at his own game.
He had a pretty good general knowledge of the lay of the land. He went to the north end of the Needle Tops and pitched his tent in the cañon of the last spring. This he figured would be better than going to the water-hole in the Wolf Den knolls which he decided he could use to better advantage than drinking the water and having his horses there. He had learned a pretty serious lesson when he found his pack horse dead with the hobbles on the poor brute’s hocks. He cringed with pity and regret every time he thought of the helpless animal cut down by the ferocious wolves. Moreover, the grass was better up the Needle Tops than in the barren Wolf Den waste of Bad Land and crumbling or broken stone.
Having made his camp, dragged down dead cedar stumps and hung up a blacktail deer which he was luckyto kill the first day, he rode the second day over to the Wolf Dens, studying particularly the runways and signs, the numerous caves and dripping-water formations. Coyotes skulked away when he approached too near. Some of them had never seen a man before, he could tell, for they were uncertain whether to flee or just circle around keeping their eyes open.
Tracks of big wolves, heavy ones that dragged their claws when they stepped in the loose sand, puzzled him. They did not look familiar when he came to study them carefully. He set two No. 5 traps, however, where a path had been worn around a corner of rock at the entrance into a dry wash. He buried the drags in the sand, wrapped the bright gray steel in thin, soft parafined paper to keep dirt from clogging the trap, and brushed the sand over the pit, roughing it all so as to make it look as much like the paw prints as he could. He noted well the location so he could find the place again, using a pyramid rock a hundred feet high as his landmark. He called these traps No. 1 and 2 in his trap-line list.
An acre of nearly level sand out of a gulch was circled and crisscrossed by the tracks of playful wolves. The animals seemed to have come down a path through a clump of sage on a side-hill. He walked around and at the top of the knoll he found a place between two rocks which was just right for a trap set. Without touching his hands to anything around he pulled sand out to make a pit, laid in the drags and chain and rested the trap, pan-up, in the hole. He covered the jaws with soft paper and then with a cedar paddle shoveled dry sand over the engine of destruction.
And thus here and there, wherever tracks seemed promising or the looks of the country was satisfactory, he put down trap after trap until he had gone some miles along the east side of the Wolf Dens. But only when he reached the bones of his dead horse did he have the feeling about the wolf tracks that they were made by the particular outlaws he was sent to capture.
The moment he came to a huge paw-print that showed the scuffling and wallowing of an awkward, enormous brute, he recognized the big fellow of Lop-Ear’s band, and realized that all those other wolf tracks he had seen were those of strangers. He had studied to good purpose the tracks of the six where he had seen the band over on Singing Bird slope. This animal he knew. His cheeks warmed with an odd gratification.
The outlaw wolves lived in the northern part of the Wolf Dens. The evidence was plain, for Conklin one by one picked up the trails of the members of the pack, recognizing Lop-Ear’s the moment he saw the faint impression of the tender paw. A trim and clearly made trail distinguished the half-breed wolf-dog.
Within a week Conklin had caught five lobos, but they were not outlaws. If they ever ate beef it was probably after a steer had met death by accident or had been killed by the outlaw band. The rattling of the chains and the whining of the victims spread the alarm throughout the Wolf Dens that a trapper had come. The tracks of Lop-Ear and his pack grew old. The band had gone romping away, Conklin wondering whether his presence had alarmed and warned them to leave permanently or whether it was just the chance of their going on another raid.
As soon as he found the raiders had departed he set traps throughout their home range. He knew meat or food bait would be futile. The animals ate nothing they did not themselves kill. But as a wildcrafter who knew at least a little about the brains and fancies of beasts and birds he discarded old-fine trapping notions. The Lop-Ear band had been brought up on the efforts of ranch and farmer, sheep-herder and sport trap habits. Conklin realized that these wolves were of extreme intelligence, brutes whose cunning included a number of attributes generally considered in human intelligence to be the mark of distinction of mankind.
He sat at night by his camp-fire wondering what these wolves would be most interested in. His experience with foxes had given him an inkling, but only an inkling, of what to expect. He had tricked a good many foxes with what he called “curiosity baits.” One time he had caught raccoons where they came down to wash their food beside a stream. He had wrapped some bright tinfoil around a trap pan and set the trap under water at the coon runway. A fool brown coon had wondered what in the world shone so in the sparkling fight of the moon, and felt the tinfoil with its paw to release the trap jaws and thus come to its doom.
Now he found some of his wolf traps bedeviled. There was a wolf with a badly twisted paw which visited Conklin’s traps to show contempt for the human’s efforts. This fellow was a male who at some time had pulled away from a trap, the hurt hind-foot now dragging as he walked. He did not travel with other wolves. He gnawed bones when he found fresh ones. He dug roots to eat them. He patiently pulled needles of prickly-pear to eat the fruit and green lobes. He slept where weariness overtook him. Now and again Conklin saw where other wolves had chased this crippled beast, and in one place where five or six coyotes had circled around the unfortunate, making proud of their daring in plaguing a lobo which had fallen to low estate. But this outcast lobo followed the trapper’s fines and dragged his most cunningly placed traps to expose them wherever they were hidden. He dropped dried bones on the pans, springing the jaws. He turned over and sprung the traps from underneath by pulling the pan from behind the jaws which closed without jeopardy from them.
Conklin found where this wolf had followed him for miles, like a still-hunter, fifty or a hundred feet off to one side of where the trapper rode his horse or went on foot. The brute ignored the green hide with which the trapper wrapped his feet to kill the human or betraying scent of moccasins or boots in the places where he walked. And more especially this fellow, to whom Conklin gave the name of Broken Foot, went up into the Lop-Ear den country during the absence of the pack, pawing out all the most cunning trap-sets in sand or alkali. Upon the return of Lop-Ear, however, Broken Foot slunk away five or six miles southward and skulked here and there till the outlaws departed again on another raid, when he returned to shower the evidences of his contempt wherever he found a pair of steel jaws laid to ambush the able leaders of the clan.
This hobo outcast of his own kind was presently getting on Conklin’s nerves. He could but reflect the contempt which the wolves felt for the fellow, which even coyotes did not hesitate to display for a miserable, always starving wretch. But Broken Paw must have gone hungrier than ever on many a night in order to search out and betray the human menace.
Conklin despised any man who used poison to kill animals. Now he was driven to attempt to destroy this old fellow who upset every plan and scheme which seemed to promise a hope of success against Lop-Ear or others of the killers. Lop-Ear’s pack returned to the Wolf Dens, lazy from a heavy gorge. Conklin found where two of them, the yearlings, trotted right around a turn and up a narrow jack-rabbit path toward a string of five blind-set traps in the runway. They were going right along, and there they found all five traps sprung and dragged, clogs and all, from their hiding places. Conklin saw by the surprized sidelong leap of the two beasts that they had not been thinking about traps. He would almost surely have caught one of these two—his first blood of the pack—but for that skulking meddler. And this fact stirred the wolver into a rare demonstration of his exasperated and helpless anger.
He put out a striped squirrel with strychnine in it. The wolf buried this deep in soft sand, and marked the place effectually. Conklin dragged a dead deer for miles through the Wolf Den knolls on his lariat and dropped along the way pellets of deer fat which each contained a translucent grain of poison. He found several coyotes and three lobos which had been deceived. He knew he had probably destroyed twice as many which he could not find—and these in turn would poison others which ate them. But these gave him little satisfaction, except to prove his own prowess in putting down bounty and hide money. Broken Foot ignored the drag fine of poison completely, ’tending strictly to business, gnawing roots and amusing himself with fantastic revenge on every steel trap along eighteen miles of line sets.
Until this crippled evil genius was disposed of only a chance of luck would bring any of Lop-Ear’s band to Conklin’s stretching boards. The trapper was dealing with a vagrant wolf, one which had no den, no runways and no habits except the one of following the trapper’s trail to neutralize every effort to kill or capture the able outlaws, nobility of the Wolf Dens.
One day Conklin wired two traps together, back to back. He set them both, wrapped them in soft parafined paper and put them at about the edge of Lop-Ear’s district in the knolls. The pack was at home. They had come across the Flats of the Dancing Maids and skirted along the foot of the Needle Tops, howling in the night as they passed within half a mile of Conklin’s camp and scattered to their holes in the northern knolls. On their arrival Broken Foot had painfully retreated from that part of the territory clear southward almost to the Needle Tops as his tracks chanced to show in a film of snow which had come drifting down and spread dirty with dust in the lees of stones and hills. While the outlaws were home Conklin knew the ostracised wolf would hang along the deep cañon which marked the southern end of Lop-Ear’s district. He had found a place where Broken Foot always came by to sit awhile on a sugar-loaf knoll, with switching tail and scratching crippled paw as if he were whimpering and stirring uneasily about as he looked across into the forbidden country where beggars were not allowed to drag their twisted paws along, when the big fellows were at home.
That was an old trick, often successful in catching trap-turning foxes and coyotes. Conklin was rather sure the shrewd crippled lobo would not be fooled by it. At the same time the trick was worth trying. The trap was set with adequate care on a narrow ridge that led up to where the vagabond wolf went to his lookout. The wolver passed that way three times in three days and then skipped it as he circled into the back country. He saw Broken Foot’s tracks coming down a dry wash and printed in the sand, his paw dragging and heading toward the knoll from which the outcast snuffled the north wind that came down over the Lop-Ear band country. To go look at the double-trap meant five or six extra miles; Conklin hesitated and then went to look.
When he came in sight of the ridge he saw, two hundred yards distant, that the wolf was there. He gave a little yelp of satisfaction, but his smile died from his lips when he came up to the caught beast. Broken Foot had been outwitted. His right forepaw had been caught half way to the heel. He had jumped and thrown himself a few times, but ceased after a few flounders. He now sat facing his doom.
His tracks had betrayed the truth about him. Some of his hair was gone, on account of an attack of the mange. He was gaunt and shaggy. His hip as well as his paw was badly twisted. His back was kinked and his tail was nearly hairless, like a rat’s. Conklin had never seen a wolf so badly warped by misfortunes. There remained of all Broken Foot’s frame only one feature which could hold attention.
His head was large, well haired and not old. Broken Foot looked to be twenty years old, judging by his body, but his head was that of a six or seven year old, in the prime of fife. He lifted it now. His great eyes were wide open, brown and staring past the man toward the Lop-Ear home range. His ears were lifted straight up, twitching a little. His jaws were set and his tongue did not draw in and out between his lips. He neither begged nor hoped for mercy.
And when Conklin had destroyed the starved outcast, he could not quite bring himself even to take the scalp from that fine head. The ears and eyes would have served to draw a county treasury varmint bounty warrant for fifty dollars, but an odd compunction overcame the man who had so long been baffled and outwitted by this beast so that instead of adding to the disfiguring maims, he went up to the top of the lookout knoll, dug away a broken mass of stones and then erected a real cairn on the highest point, and placed on the top the heaviest monolith he could roll up and heave to it.
Then he went back to his main camp, calling it a day’s work. And as long as he should live he knew he would never begrudge either the effort to make the monument—which none who should ever find it was likely to understand, especially if wolf bones were found beneath it, or the fact that for a bit of sentiment he had neglected a whack at fifty iron men.
When he sat contemplating his long drawn efforts to make progress against the killer pack, Conklin for the first time was able to feel that he at last had made a palpable stride. Broken Foot had been a genuine sentinel guarding the approaches to the safety of Lop-Ear and the inner or upper circle of wolves. Having cleared the way that much, the wolver could now measure the distance he had come. He had won the privilege to come to grips with the quarry he sought.
“Now I’m ready to begin!” Conklin said to himself, with realization of the situation.
He puzzled a long time that evening. Commonplace tactics were of no avail; he must gather to his aid all the scattered lore of special cases in which novel methods had been used.
What he needed was an idea. He could think of nothing hopeful as he sat before the fire wondering. When he stretched out to sleep, he could not lose his consciousness as his mind reached and groped. He seldom lost his rest in this way. When at last he fell into oblivion he was weary beyond measure.
But when he awakened in the morning he was astonished to find ready-made in his imagination a suggestion as simple as it was useful.