The Wolf Pack (Spears)/Chapter 12
CLOSE OF THE CAMPAIGN
A FORTUITOUS incident had given Delos Conklin a curious opportunity. Wild creatures are always sneaking around the isolated cabins and camps of men. Coyotes come to their camp-fires, cougars even walk with humans in the dark, and many a bear has gone into a shack in the search of adventure, information or something to eat. Conklin could have shouted aloud for joy when he heard the uproar when the foolish young but full-grown cougar took a chance at attacking the penned-in horses.
The horses were range ponies, long-haired and tough. They had climbed through mountain forests and scrambled across miles on miles of broken stone above and below timber lines. The two were old pals. At that first shriek of astonished pain the two animals went into action. The alarm of the first neigh became a mad anger of hate and self-defense. The horse which saw its friend assailed bucked to the rescue with tail up, mane flying and mouth wide open, snorting with rage.
Conklin darted closer. He saw the front door of the dug-out in the side hill flung open. The light of the fireplace showed a man coming out rifle in hand—and only one man. And the fellow was Tom Redding, unquestionably. He rushed to the corral gate just as the shrill snarls of the now embattled cat screamed above the mêlée of thumping hooves and yelling horses.
Redding stood with his rifle poised, looking through the interstices of the gate trying to get a shot at the invader. Conklin ran down through the loose sand and up behind him, rifle ready.
The charging horses crashed against the corral fence, first on one side, then on the other. They surged against the gate and the owner sprang back, partly turning, as the three brutes came through the flimsy barrier. Redding, turning partly, saw Conklin within fifteen feet.
There was no pause, no least moment of hesitation. The thief’s rifle muzzle swung around in a hip-point. Delos Conklin had never been closer to death than in that instant when the desperado, who had come to protect his stock from a big cat and had found a man, must have believed that it had been merely a ruse to bring him out of his hiding place.
The rifles went off practically simultaneously. Conklin had the advantage of having come with his weapon pointed, ready. The other’s long, heavy .33 caliber slug passed in a hiss of coiling wind, so close that it raised a scorch bruise on the side of Conklin’s neck. Conklin’s own .30-30 projectile went true and the mushrooming tore through heart and backbone, killing its victim where he stood.
Conklin ran to the cabin to make sure no one else was there. He found only a single bunk in the disorder of the hermit’s house. The horses and cougar went off down the valley, still fighting. Thus had come to the climax the fur-thief pursuit.
Pain where the trap jaws had bumped told of swelling bruise and outraged bone and muscle. It drew Conklin’s mind from the tragedy in which he was now the principal figure. He pulled off his boots and went to work on the injury. A bottle of balsam which Redding had gathered for some similar injury was on a split-log mantel. Conklin covered the closed wound with a thick coating and then wrapped the injury with strips torn from a cotton shirt which hung on an antler prong pegged to the log wall.
In the corner were the bundles of packed furs. Hanging from wires along the same end of the cabin were the thief’s own catch—a large array of pelts, but they had not been handled with the same skill or care as those he had stolen over on the south side of the Singing Birds.
Conklin poked around in the things piled up along the walls of the ranch-house. There were two old saddles, a bale of wire, a score of magazines the covers of which had nearly all been worn off, and in one corner a badly worn suitcase. In this were two suits of “city clothes,” and a handful of rumpled clippings, which described sundry crimes. There were four reward notices, such as are fastened with thumbtacks to the bulletin boards in post-offices and on hooks in sheriff and police chief headquarters.
“George Caven, alias Robert Skeens, alias Scraggly Jim Flenk” were the names in one such list. One picture was that of “Tom Redding” before he needed a shave, when he was wearing white collar and business men’s suit. Another showed him as he stood with handcuffs, an open shirt, bare and tousle-headed, just as he had been rounded up by a sheriff’s and detective’s posse three years previous as he fled after holding up the Moss Agate Savings Bank. One of the clippings explained his presence here in the far foothills to the north of the Singing Bird.
The reward offered was five hundred dollars, the same as for killing one of the Lop-Ear band of wolves. The fact made Conklin cringe. He could not feel successful as he thought of the dead man lying out there by the corral. He had had no choice in that duel but to aim to kill. The moment had been one of life or fife—but it left the victor in a grim mood of self- analysis.
He carried out a wagon-top tarpaulin and spread it over the body, weighing down the sides with cobbles. He walked with a good deal of difficulty, limping. At the same time he was lucky beyond measure. Had the jaws struck unevenly, or a right-and-left blow, instead of exactly opposite his leg bone would surely have been broken—and here he was sixty or seventy miles back in the wilderness at the least, a country more than a hundred miles from any settlement, in all probability.
He dragged in a cedar stump to keep the fire going. He sat before the blaze, keeping his hurt leg warm, unable to think of sleeping on account of the ache. In the morning he could eat. He looked the country over from the doorway. Even in the soft fight of night he could see at least a hundred miles toward the north, and it was all alike—woods, opens, the Disappearing River bottoms far away. To this place the bandit had retreated, only to be overtaken when he could not be honest even with a fellow trapper.
There was no sign that any one had ever come here but the fugitive. He had five or six horses. The fence above the cabin had been built to keep fifteen or twenty head of cattle over in the valley at the foot of the Singing Birds. When during the day Conklin looked these animals over he found three Bell Brand steers and four other brands, strays which had come wandering up here close enough for the man who was hiding out to think it worth while to hold them, hoping perhaps to raise stock and after a time pass for an honest rancher down at some general store and post-office in the Disappearing River valley.
By daylight Conklin found three traps set at the pass fence gate, including the one which had tripped him. He brought them down to the cabin and hung them up. He didn’t know what to do. He had committed no crime, yet he was involved in a pretty bad business. A killing is never pleasant to acknowledge, even if justified. Surely, the account was fully settled with the fur thief. That was really the only concern Conklin had in the matter.
Obliged to wait while his leg grew less painful, he thought it over. He shuddered at the thought of going out the long trail with the grisly burden. He decided at last what he would do. A few weeks previous he had built a cairn for the covering of a wolf which had excited his admiration and compassion. With less good-will he now wrapped his human victim in the tarred canvas and gave him a grave and a similar monument. He knew, when he had done this, that the man would have preferred it so. The less said, the better. But Conklin put all the clippings and the reward notices into a bottle, stoppered it tightly with a cork well sealed in with balsam mixed with sand, and placed the marks of identification into the heap of stone, taking care to make the enclosure safe from pressure.
He opened the fence to let the cattle have free range whither they would. He managed to catch one of the two horses that had been fighting with the cougar. Then he rode, and caught two others, one of which he gentled for his own riding, and the other for the packs of furs. He took all the skins, of course.
He surmised that the bandit might have hidden his loot somewhere in the neighborhood. When he examined the cartridge and revolver belt hanging by the bunk where the man had slept he found three money pockets. There was nearly five hundred dollars in small bills in the slots. No use to waste this!
Conklin was glad to head back over the Singing Birds. He had watched the sky anxiously, fearing that a blizzard might cover the high passes with deep snow. A squall whitened the country from timber line to timber line over the crest, but the horses easily waded through the scant fifteen inches of snow, and two thousand feet higher than Trembling Leaves pond the ground became bare again.
He led his horses most of the way, in spite of his hurt leg. But he could ride enough at times to rest the injury. He came down to the cabin of Pretty Shells late in the afternoon. He supposed of course she had gone on into the Bell Brand ranch as he had suggested she do.
Instead she opened the door and ran out on the sand at the edge of the woods to look, when she heard the thumping and bumping of horses’ hooves on the frozen ground against stones. She met him where he crossed the brook outlet. She looked at the big pack on the horse. She saw that he dropped to his knees when he swung down from his saddle, cringing with the hurt. She ran to him, her face pale and lips trembling.
“Shot?” she asked, looking through tears at his boot.
“No—trapped!” he shook his head, his smile a little twisted with pain, but a right happy look in his eyes. “I brought your furs.”
She put her finger over his lips, giving warning.
“Don’t talk about the furs, please! I know you had to go to avenge your woman,” her face flushed crimson, “and not just to bring the furs.”
She studied his set features; she knew the fur country—that there must have been a tragedy; she bit her quivering lip.
“Oh, I’m so sorry you had to do it!” she whispered. “Your heart suffers at the necessity you were under to do so dreadful, so tragic a thing! I’m sorry— But I had to let you go. My man had to go!”
“I did not expect to find you here.” He looked at her in fond reproof.
“No?” she laughed, softly. “Where else would I wait for you, except in my own home?”
“But I might have gone around the other way!”
“How long would you have remained at the Bell Brand ranch if you had not found me there?” she inquired.
“You—you wanted me to come here for you?” he laughed. “Well, I’ve come.”
“I know!” she nodded brightly. “I knew you would.”
So they rejoiced in the place to which necessity had brought them. They supped on the best that Pretty Shells could cook. They talked of many things. First of all, of packing Pretty Shells, furs and bags and baggage back to civilization. Then he wondered if he could call his wolf campaign finished with two of the band still at large?
“I have news for you,” she told him. “When I went down to look after your horses I saw two wolves passing through the junipers below the thick timber. They were traveling, I’m sure—Leaving the country! One was slim and light of weight, the other dark, mottled black and lustrous.”
“You were not far from them!” he suggested.
“Not far!” she admitted. “Close enough to see their tongues in their mouths. As they raced they looked over their shoulders at their back trail. They were frightened. They ran close together. I could tell it was not a case of going somewhere, but of leaving some tragic terror behind them. I doubt if ever they will return, or even stop till they are far beyond the range of Tribulation.”
“They had found where their mates were destroyed,” he nodded. “No, they’ll never go back to the Wolf Dens. They’ll go far, perhaps be travelers instead of circlers now. Lobos, probably even coyotes, become vagabonds.”
“Then you’re not going to keep on looking for them?” she asked, her voice suppressed in its tone. “You’re going to settle down?”
“I’m going to be anything you want me to be!” he exclaimed. “I could have no choice in that. I do not want ever to disappoint you.”
“Oh, white man!” she whispered. “If only I can elevate myself to deserve that trust of yours!”
He laughed, and presently they packed their horses and went riding off down the trail which led them to the Bell Brand ranch. And seeing them coming from afar, Wool-Head Plack and a little red-haired woman rode out to meet them, giving them jubilant welcome.
And that night at the ranch-house the boys spread out the wolf hides. They turned four of these over and over in their hands, smoothing down the coarse hair and holding them up to let the lamplight shine on them.
“This range’ll not be the same with them all gone!” Park Cable said reflectively. “They sure tied to a heap of history and romping in their day.”
“Yes,” Pretty Shells added, leaning to take hold of the elbow of her sweetheart. “And you’ll never know the most of it, either!”
“That’s so!” Wool-Head nodded. “I reckon the biggest part of what those scoundrels did won’t never be told, for a fact!”