THE TANGLED PACK
WHEN he returned to Lop-Ear’s kingdom, Conklin left his horse foot-loose with bridle off and tied to the saddle; no hobbled horse for him in the killer’s range! Then he crossed the region in a great circuit, marking his course by definite pilot knobs and sags in the land. When night fell he had hung fourscore wire nooses between tufts of sage, in clumps of prickly-pear, where clusters of weeds had grown in moist bottoms, and along runways where they came down banks through stunted bullrush and arrowbush.
The night was freezing. A stinging wind came against his back from the north. He was hungry. His water canteen was empty by the time he had made the miles to the sag between the Wolf Dens and the Needle Tops. He had broken a blister on his right foot. He was so weary he sweat, and the dry, bleak wind snatched the moisture away, leaving the salt powder to cut and sandpaper his skin. Every step demanded a conscious effort. And when he drew his breath it whistled through his teeth which throbbed with the cold. Physically he was all done.
But mentally he was in a mood to sing songs. He knew that at last he had hit upon, having earned it, a scheme which would give him an even break against the Lop-Ear pack of lupine outlaws. He asked no better odds than a fifty-fifty chance with those villains, or against any outlaw, for that matter. As he surged stumbling along he fell into the easier rhythm of a marching tune which gave him a measure by which to step. In the sharpest hour toward morning, when all the stars were sparking in the polish of the bitter zephyrs, he arrived in camp where his runaway horse came whinnying doubtfully to greet him, teasing to have the saddle removed from his faithless back.
“You blamed scoundrel!” he exclaimed, but the tone of voice told the horse he did not wholly mean it. The removal of the saddle and a whack on the flank with an open palm sent the animal, apparently with a conscience somewhat relieved, prancing and kicking off up the valley for more grass.
Conklin built a fire. He hung his coffee pot on the trammels and emptied a jar of soup into a kettle to heat. He stripped and rubbed down as briskly as his sore muscles could do it, and put on a dry clean woolen suit of underwear and thick woolen socks. By the time he had done this his soup was boiling and he drank, sipping a quart of the rich venison broth. He drank a little coffee and turned in among his blankets, wrapped up in his great waterproof tarpaulin, and as he moved his head to ease the crinkle of his ear on his pillow of boots and folded coat he lost consciousness in sleep. Roseate dawn was already at large across the sky.
He did not awaken till afternoon. He was stiff and sore. He dozed off two or three times before he emerged late in the day to cook himself a square meal. He devoted two hours to concocting a feast. He had spitted haunch of vension and courses of hot bread and driproast gravy, a sweet cake baked in a Dutch oven and some dehydrated-apple sauce. He ate leisurely of his meal and went out to talk a while to his horses who came prancing down to greet him.
This had been his first day of leisure. He had harried the wolves for more than two months. He had thought of nothing else. He had entered upon a novel occupation with rather commonplace knowledge but unusual abilities. He relaxed and now let his thoughts wander to other subjects. He knew he was come to a crisis in his wolf hunt. It was in the air.
Since he had been out two months, it was about time for him to go in and report to his employers. His string of lobo hides would prove his industry. Knowing the situation exactly, he realized that his efforts had not amounted to much more in real accomplishment than a snap of his fingers. The ranchers and sheep owners would not know that. A wolf was a wolf to them, whether the beast had caught a thousand jack-rabbits which destroyed a hundred tons of good beef fodder, or had killed three calves a week. But Conklin was not fooling himself. He was of the opinion that he had only just begun to trap. He was now in a position to make a really serious effort to catch Lop Ear and his raiders.
He was tired enough still to sleep pretty well that night. He was up at false dawn the following morning and was on his way to the Wolf Den knolls before sunrise. He carried his rifle, some lunch, a canteen of water and no traps. He would look his lines over and the following day he planned to head across the Flats of the Dancing Maids for the Bell Brand ranch, which he could see from the high places. Thought of meeting the boys again filled him with emotion. He had never before been even as long as a week away from companionship. He was now beginning to talk to himself for sake of hearing a human voice.
He crossed the sag and looked along the line of his southern traps. Then he came to the range of Lop-Ear’s band within which he had set his wire snares. He passed a dozen of these. Then ahead of him he saw in the sand the track of a great wolf.
“The big fellow—Old Tawny!” he exclaimed to himself, recognizing the mark. They were heading toward a cluster of prickly-pear in which he had set two snares. Breathlessly he drew nearer. The tracks in the alkali dust led into the cactus and he began to stretch his neck, looking. And as he circled around he came in sight of what he had hardly dared anticipate.
There hung the pale giant of the Lop-Ear pack, where he had run his head through the treacherous loop of wire which had been hung between two stalks of tall spine-misted clump. He had not noticed the tiny line, like a slender vine that dragged against his massive chest. The loop had closed about his neck. He had given a frantic leap, thrown himself in somersaults, pitching his strength against the implacable metal strand, hanging himself over a high fork to dangle limp—his cattle killing and sheep raiding forever done.
Conklin sat staring for a long time. He could hardly believe his own eyes. He had not anticipated such immediate results. He had succeeded this much before he was aware he had more than begun his efforts to win against the outlaws. When he dismounted and sought to drag the carcass out, he found the wire had cut deep and been twisted all about the cactus. He was obliged to cut it in several places. And when he skinned away the hide, he found it punctured by a thousand of the cactus quills. He could but wonder that he at last had made an inroad on the band which had done tens of thousands of dollars in damage. He realized, however, that this fellow was the most stupid of the six.
Tying the limp pelt on the horse the trapper rode on. He stopped at the fatal set to look it over again. A few cents’ worth of good wire, set according to the clues given by a hundred thousand or so exact facts, had proved the means of capturing a five-hundred-dollar reward. The wolver was well satisfied. He was about to hang another snare to catch another wolf, perhaps, in the same place. But when he looked at the runway his mind, now alert, made a significant observation.
The only wolf tracks through this particular patch of prickly-pear on that narrowing of runway passage were those of the tawny giant. Apparently no other wolves went that way. Come to think about it, the wolf band in a measure broke up and scattered when they arrived home in the Knolls. They traveled on their raids together, but they separated on coming to their range. And when Conklin back tracked two miles on this runway over into a tumult of broken rocks and boulders he found the wolf’s own den. And from the looks of it, and from tracks leading off into other territory, this huge fellow had had a certain degree of interest in two or three lobos over toward the southwest. Conklin wasn’t sure. He just made a guess at it. It was an interesting surmise, anyhow, that when the Lop Ear band relaxed they lorded a bit around among lobos of a lesser breed, perhaps stalking along proudly where frightened and admiring coyotes might see the great ones passing by.
The day was a windfall of success. Eighteen snares farther along two wolves had come racing after a jack-rabbit. The frightened long-ears had leaped twenty or twenty-five feet in its terrified dash to escape. Because the wolves were going so swiftly and digging their claws in so hard Conklin was not sure of their identity as he looked ahead toward an acre of sage through which led several paw- trodden ways. When he rode up on to an overlook off to the north where he could see into all parts of this miniature screen of thin “woods,” he could only utter an exclamation of astonishment, for there dangling like limp rags as they hung over shrubs twisted and pulled about as if by giant hands he saw two unmistakable carcasses.
He had snared the two young but competent members of Lop-Ear’s band. The ground under the sage brush was covered with a thin sifting of snow and loose alkali dust as well as sand. Jack-rabbits were not plenty in the Wolf Den knolls, naturally. But here were the tracks of three. One of the trails had been made by the fleeing quarry of the two racing wolves. The jack had gone clear over the sage touching the ground only in open places. The wolves had followed straight through until on the far side of the growth one of them had shot his head through the snare between two thickets with a runway between. He had been jerked with his head back and his hind paws had struck the dirt clear beyond the edge of the sage clump, and then the limber spring of the brush to the top of which the wire had been fastened had jerked the beast back and over the brush to the ground again, fairly in the face of the second wolf which was several yards behind.
This other wolf had flung himself out of the way. He had walked off sidewise in nervous wonder, watching the frantic struggles of his partner. Then as he realized the fact that death was in that anguish—that the mystery was menacing him—the wolf turned and dashed back through the sage brush and, going through another runway, ran his own head into another of the five-snare cluster in that acre and died as his deserted partner had done.
“Three of them!” gasped Conklin, overwhelmed by his good fortune.
He was weak with the evidence of his success. At no time had he lost faith in his ability, nor doubted the ultimate capture of these destroyers. He had not, however, anticipated or even dreamed of being overwhelmed by such an avalanche of good luck.
He skinned out these two victims, leaving the head intact as he had done with the mastiff skull of the big fellow, and went on his way again. There remained a score more of snares to look at. He went on past these perfunctorily, inspecting them from a distance. A trapper keeps away from his engines as far as possible, so as not to arouse the suspicions of intended victims who would ponder on the meaning of the occasional or frequent passing of a human in particularly runway neighborhoods. Even deer and bear notice where hunters go by, and keep an eye on human trails. Far more a wolf pays attention to the questionable habits of his enemies of a thousand generations.
Sure enough, there were no more wolves in the snares. A coyote had been hung up at the last one, and the wind had blown another around edgewise to the runway it menaced. But it had been a tremendous day. The wolver was dry-mouthed with his success. He was dazed, fairly numbed by what he had actually done. He circled down out of the knolls and started for the camp on the Needle Tops.
He had a string of steel traps set along here. He was tired. He was quite sure none of them contained anything worth going to. Yet because he was a thorough worker, with some feeling of compassion for the poor brutes whose appetites made them essential victims of cattle grower and sheep raiser enemies, he went up the draws and valleys to where he had placed the engines of capture.
As he rode in the soft sand of the approach to the fine spring where he had camped the night he lost his horse to the attack of the lobos, three of whom were now dead, he heard the distant clink and the metallic rattle of a chain. The noise brought him up short with a jerk. He knew the timbre of that sound. No common beast was struggling thus with a trap! After the first gesture of his tense surprize, he quirted his horse around to the left and dashed into a dry wash up which the fight of some beast was being made against the hopeless odds of a high grip triumphant trap.
Coming around a bend in the steep-sided channel of cloudburst floods he saw a tumbling and bounding mass of sage and cactus, of shining line of polished steel chain and reaching paws and tangled patches of hair.
“Wolf!” he exclaimed and drove a bullet into the heart of the agitation.
There was a convulsive straightening out of the balled up mass. The broken branches of sage fell away. The very chain slumped down. The beast, which had been all doubled into a center of terror and gnawing, snapping fight, shook itself to its feet and stood all clear for an instant, head up, tail out, eyes bright and bulging, mouth open with blood dripping from two jaws full of broken teeth.
The trapper staggered back and sat partly standing against the steep clay-bank of the wash. He was stammering and trembling as he saw the head of his victim. He could not believe the evidence of his eyes. His throat drew up in gasping excitement.
The wolf was medium-sized. He was a dark and proud-headed beast, who dying faced his enemy in the pose of those creatures which die on their feet.
One ear stood up and pointed toward the staggered and retreating man with his back to the dirt wall. The other ear was fallen down and had along its crumpled base a white scar where, long before, a bullet had destroyed the cartilage.
“Lop-Ear!” Conklin whispered. “Good Lord— Is that you, Lop-Ear?”
And for answer the leader of the outlaw pack collapsed where he stood covering the trap in whose steel would always be the gouges and the scrapes where the victim had bit and wrenched even that hard metal.