The Wolf Pack (Spears)/Chapter 6
THE QUARRY SHOWS ITSELF
DELOS CONKLIN awakened between dawn and sunrise on the morning after he had confronted the gaunt and evil-hearted wretch who called himself Tom Redding. Conklin used his safety razor on his soft skin and thin pale beard. He breakfasted when he was clean and bathed. He caught his beaver-meadow-pastured horse and one of Pretty Shells’ to borrow it for the packing to the Bell Brand ranch. She would be glad he had taken the animal, he knew. He left a note telling what he had done, however, and said he was going to trap especially for Lop-Ear and his outlaw band of wolves. He made sure that what he wrote would give no inkling to Redding of the true situation should the scoundrel come sneaking back.
“In case you come this way,” Conklin began his note. He added a plain warning, “Look out for a lank fellow claiming to be Tom Redding and who blazed a fresh line past the head of the third pond up the chain.”
With some reluctance, a feeling of sadness, he turned his back on the stone cabin in its beautiful surroundings. He had confronted a deadly serious problem there for sake of the woman who preferred to dwell alone in the fastnesses of wilderness. Her cabin was full of the spirit of her gentleness and love of trees, birds, flowers and sunlit places. At the same time he knew that she went about her hunting and fishing with something of the precision of a Priestess of Baal, or the emotion of an Indian dancing one of the tribal sacrifices. She killed game, caught fur-bearers and even took a beautiful bird in order to use its bright feathers for some feat of embroidery. But he suspected that she followed secretly, so that no man should know it, the ancient Indian custom of apologizing to each victim and feeling genuine sorrow for the necessity. This was the impression he had from her cabin, its furnishings and the splendor of its setting.
He rode down the grade which had permitted the ascent of the heavy ranch supply-wagon. He saw, from the lower timber line, the desert that extended to a horizon more than a hundred miles distant. And what seemed to be only a short part of the whole lay between him and his destination, resting like a child’s play-ranch around the slope against the side-hill of the Sparkling Dawns. But for all his steady plodding it would be late when he reached the Bell Brand outfit.
He stopped for a minute still in the forest shade to gaze at the enormous valley. He would never forget the scene, for it was in the prevailing sunshine just a huge gem sunk by unimaginable art of cloudbursts and tender winds in the face of a crystalline earth. To east and west he saw mesa-tablelands the tops of which marked the highlands that had been. Ages of floods had washed down the valley, carrying away the mile and more depth of stones and clays. And the floor of the basin had been polished by the passing down the line of the light feet of the whirling winds who gave the Flats their name of the Dancing Maids.
As he stood there a motion to the left caught his eye. He turned to discover a lift of tawny dust like the puff of cigaret smoke over in the east where the Sparkling Dawns ran down into the valley-pass and the sun- rise end of the Singing Bird range began the ascent into the noble green darkness of the timber belt. Other tufts of agitation indicated something on the run, but so far away that even his excellent and accustomed eyes could see only the smoke of the motion.
Conklin watched, puzzled. He could only surmise how many miles away it was to that posse of the wilds. It might really be coming horsemen stretched out in single file following a sheriff. He presently could tell as they drew nearer that there were four or five or six of these running wraiths. He could distinguish the trembling blackness of creatures which, no matter how far away they were, how tiny their impression in that vast background had the spirit of being alive—very much alive as they raced. The observer sat down to watch. He was aware of a spectacle he might never see again. There was tumult in that bit of spirited romp. He knew, after a time, that these were not humans on horseback, but beasts, and presently he was on his toes and breathless for excitement as he questioned. Could this be Lop-Ear’s savage raiders riding the slope of the valley bound for home over at the dens above the Needle Tops? And then he could see them clearly.
There were six of them. They were trailing along fifty or sixty yards apart. They were plunging along swiftly, yet in their gait was a something which despite their speed indicated their weariness. They were running on their nerve, some wrath darkening their bloody and immediate past. The sun had risen on their crimes, perhaps catching them unawares. If ever any one saw a criminal band making their getaway it was Delos Conklin as he watched the lobos scurrying by, with now and then a low, shrill, and in the brilliance of the desert, musical whimpering yelp, first one brute and then another, a huge, brawny and pale giant bringing up the rear as he lumbered along.
Lop-Ear was in the lead, his head down. Next behind romped the slim black female who kept her graceful looks as she sailed along, either unwearied or refusing to display her fatigue. Behind her ran the sleek, slim half-blood wolf and greyhound taking a half greater length of leaps than any of the others but coming down too heavily, tired on his long slim legs. Two young ones, though full grown, whined by, their whimperings nearly constant as they followed. The biggest of all had begun to lose his pace. He was dropping behind a little. He had more strength, probably, than any two of the others but he hadn’t the endurance in the same proportion. He limped at times as his sore paws, cut by the crystal sands, stung him. And after the amazing procession had gone by Conklin saw the big brute swing up the grade, quitting to find rest in the grateful shade of the timber belt canopy.
Men lose their own intentions in the immensity of spectacles. Here was Delos Conklin hunting these scoundrel wolves. Prodding against his elbow was the butt of his adequate rifle. He watched the wolf band come to the wagon tracks that came up the slope on their way to and from Trembling Leaves pond. He stood tense with interest as he wondered what they would do at that track of humans.
Lop-Ear came as if he did not notice the ruts in the gravel and sand, but at the jump when the next would land him between the marks of the tires and amid the punches of the horse hooves in the loose ground, the leader flung himself with all his might five or six feet in the air and clear over the trail which might perhaps contain some deadly human agency of destruction for lupine raiders. The she-black rose with airy nonchalance of a gay jack-rabbit and outjumped Lop-Ear by two yards. The greyhound breed made a beautiful take-off but came down weakly, fell, rolled over and squealed and then sprang to his feet again to sprawl painfully onward. And finally the pale and burly giant in the rear did not notice what was ahead but landed between the tire ruts, uttered a bellowing yelp of dismay and flung himself in a panic of awkward weariness and fear to be on his way again, having scrambled about with all four paws among the horse and wagon tracks.
Conklin hesitated to shoot. No marksman had much chance of hitting any of them, since they bulked so small in the greatness of that land. The zip of the bullets would but add to their suspicions and experience. He could better afford to give over this chance than improve their ability to escape him later, when he foresaw he should be set to the task of overcoming their great native cunning, developed by the failure of their enemies quite to outwit them. Never does a hunter show his ability and foresight quite so well as when he abides in shrewd patience the temptation to alarm game in futile gambles against the odds of Fortune. There would be a definite let-down in the fears the wolves had for human tracks and trails because the big fellow had blundered into the wagon ruts without coming to any harm other than rasped nerves. Some other time these outlaws might be persuaded themselves to take a chance—to their own discomfiture—if now the hunter let them go past with no idea that they had been watched at that crossing.
Conkling resumed his march to the Bell Brand ranch. He had seen clearly the killer pack, a fact to help his imagination estimate the individuals. He knew his quarry all by sight. When he came to the place where the six wolves crossed the roadway he stopped, of course, to identify the tracks of the individual animals, making doubly sure of their respective size, peculiarities, signs by which to identify them. He spent thus a good hour, one of the richest in all his years of observation in reading the book of Nature.
Then he went on down into the desolate valley. At intervals he sponged the mouths of his horses, taking a few swallows of water himself. The distance was great, the footing generally soft and difficult. In the wastes the mirage played havoc with the realities. The roadway ahead was at times lost in oceans or dream cities. Had he believed his own eyes, he would have turned aside to avoid chasms or climbs over mountains so enormous as to baffle the most intrepid. But he kept to the safe way between the two wagon ruts and in the rose and purple of sunset he saw a castled pyramid whose walls were pearl and windows emerald, foundations gold and silver resolve itself into the cabins and corral of the Bell Brand outfit as he knew it would, and there he removed the saddles from the horses, whacked his hat on his bat-wing chaps and sniffed toward the cook’s house.
“Howdy,” one of the cowboys greeted him as he came up to join in the wash.
“Howdy,” he replied, hanging up his sombrero.
“Find them danged wolfs?” Park Cable inquired.
“I reckon so-o!” Conklin replied. “Dens over to the north end of the Needle Tops. Big washed-down broken country and bad lands there. They’re gawd-awful travelers, though.”
“We be’n dragging down b’low in the Sparkling Dawn draws and cañons. That blamed scoundrel’s pack went through theh couple days ago, killing two heifers an’ five babies that we found. Didn’t hardly more’n taste the big beef. They’re bad, I tell yah!”
“My gawd, I’d like to get a good whack at them anywhere within eighty rods. I could sure strip ’em at three hundred yards—I know’t, if I had half a chanct.”
“You bet,” Conklin sighed, “but a man don’t have shots like that—not when he’s prepared’n ready.”
“If they went beyond the Sparkling Dawns, they’ve come back,” Conklin observed. “I saw their tracks, where they crossed the wagon trail and Pretty Shells’s road. Heading west again, for home. She’s come out—to stay?”
“No, ——!” two or three remarked, disgustedly, “just after some silk thread an’ ribbons. Huh! The big feller’s drove her over to Tribulation excusing himself to git his mail.”
“I bet the president, two bunco steerers, a subscription agency and a chanct to draw a wife to a marriage agency have all writ to him, that’s what I bet. Things like that can’t wait, y’ know.”
“Nope. He lookin’ for a wife?”
“I don’t expect. Somebody sent in his name’s a prospect, though, a while back. That’s what the president’d be writin’ him about. You see, he’s sure mad and embarrassed, when he gits his matrimonial chances by mail. They got him down as a real he-man, kind, gentle, e-mensely rich in lands and cows, and lonely f’r congenial company. The tempacher of the pos’ office raises with his embarrassment an* indignation. He can’t say a word, though, account of he is a bachelor, he’s rich, and they mis-call him, but not libelous, as gentle. Wouldn’t yo’ like to see’m proposin’ to that red-haired spit-fire—what’s her name’?—over to Tribulation?”
“You mean Mrs. Forbes? Say, you know, I seen her call down Sheriff Dexter, one day. She don’t look so big, she ain’t so wide as some, but she sure has voice. I ’member one time, over on the K—B, they was a most awful bull bellowing around nights. We figured that bull’d weigh eighteen hundred an’ have horns nine foot from tip to tip. Well, one day we atchewly seen who made all that noise. It was a little undersized runt of a crooked back three-year-old bull that no beef buyer’d leave in the cut. He had more voice’n all the rest the bulls put together. Lucky for him he could run, though. He sweat off two hundred pounds from the big King bull, being chased by him. Well, sir, Dick Clebone kept that dwarf bull around, just to sing, he said. Never would sell ’im, not even for an op’ry performer. Mrs. Forbes reminds me of that’n.”
“She’s sure spunky! I’m glad it’s sixty miles ’r so to where she’s at. I sure despise living in cities where you gets kept awake by loud speaker and permanent music. I don’t mind coyotes ’r the whispering when the sand’s running before the wind. They ain’t civilized. You know, being civilized’s a detriment to humanity. It gets on a man’s nerve. That’s what ails N’York an’ Europe an’ all them places. Tribulation’s bad ’nough, but think of Chicago an’ Kansas City an’ Sante Fe an’ Flag Staff an’ all them metropoluses. Don’t it make you turn your toes in an’ hunch up, thinkin’ of them gawd-awful crowds? It does me. The two worsest things in this world is big cities an’ a noisy woman. But I s’pose it takes all kinds and rattlesnakes to make the world.”
“It sure do—and does,” Park Cable declared. “You might add Lop-Ear to such sentiments.”
“That’s right!” Conklin exclaimed. “He’s one blamed hypnotizing mesmerist, he is. He buffaloes the landscape with his performances.”
So the riders talked, seriously about unimportant or amazing matters, but with gay persiflage and carelessness about what might have seemed to some to be the essentials. And so they kept the world’s affairs level, averaged down and up to a reasonable equality of the range—themselves included. Of all those they jeered and abused the most affectionately; the most urgently insulted were the most capable and likable.
Conklin told the story of his wanderings. He pictured the range of the wolf pack. He told of the other lobos and coyotes who must acknowledge the Lop-Ear band as supreme. He talked baits, blind sets, snares, poisons and agreed heartily that bullets were the only sure means to be rid of thescoundrels.
“I came by Trembling Leaves pond, and stopped overnight at the cabin of Pretty Shells,” he said. “While I was there a fellow who said he was Tom Redding came hammering on the door—”
“Didn’t he hail from off yonder?” Park Cable exclaimed.
“No. Rapped the planks with his fist.”
“If it’d been Pretty Shells—”
“She’d ought to have poured hot .30-30’s through the door pronto!”
“What’d you do, Conklin?”
“Opened up. Talked turkey to him. He begged. He claimed he was come trapping fur, but I sent him back over the Divide. Reckon he’ll stay yon side the summits.”
“Who the —— is Tom Redding?”
No one knew. None even had a very clear idea of the country north of the Singing Bird range. No really big ranches were in that land, however. It didn’t feed into Tribulation at all—too far and too rough to go there. It was a hundred miles or so to anywhere in that direction, from the top of the range.
Lava beds, bad lands, some timber in the mountains, the Disappearing River, some good bottoms where Latter Day Saints had established farms here and there at the edge of the wilds, were recalled as features of the territory. But ten thousand square miles added only a few words of real, known facts to the store of the Bell Brand outfit data.
“Good men have gone in there and never come out—or they come out bad,” one of the boys who had said nothing about the region remarked at last. “I had an idee to see that land, one spell. It’s the kind of a country you don’t talk about when you’ve quit it.”
“Must be one awful sweet home-abiding, Winslow,” Conklin suggested. The man who knew nodded his dark and sharp-featured face, his eyes gazing into the fire.
“Yeh—if vinegar an’ bitter-root’s your idea of candy!” the cowboy admitted reluctantly. “Ever hear of the Scrambling Gulchers?”
“Say—um-m—reckon!” several nodded, grunting, Park Cable exclaiming, “That’s so! Now’t yo’ speak of ’em—”
In mixed company of a cowboy crew there are topics about which one absolutely must mind his own business, even to the point of practically perfect ignorance. The Scrambling Gulch country was notorious for one sufficient reason. It had been the refuge and rendezvous of which every Western desperado had heard and to which led obscure and difficult trails at points along which were places where sheriff posses had turned back and beyond which very competent and fearless detectives had gone and never returned. Detectives on the one hand and friends of bandits on the other made it advisable for those who even mentioned that far back locality to do so in terms of curiosity and not of acquaintance or spite.
Delos Conklin had talked more about Lop-Ear’s wolves and his search for their dens and range than he had talked in months of constant association with his fellow Bell Brand riders. The killer brutes had loosened his tongue. And now they had led to a certain covert linking of their notoriety with that of the ill-famed human desperadoes.
The rider who had been sent in pursuit of the wolves hesitated to go to sleep when he had stretched out on his bunk. He ransacked his memory for what he had heard with casual interest about the human outlaws. The Scrambling Gulch leadership was vested in three or four desperate men who had all been embittered at first by real wrongs. One, Phil Harvey, had been accused of misbranding a colt, and because his accuser was a successful horse rancher and he was a mere boy rider, it had led to a fight in which the youth had made a killing, and become a fugitive not from justice but from the victim’s irate Horse Protective Association friends. Tim Scales had been made the scapegoat in a sheep raid, his cattlemen employers having let him go to prison “as an example,” after making peace with the wool and mutton growers. Scales had broken jail, and taken to robbing banks, trains and other utilities. Tom Redding was neither of these.
In the waste of surmise, gossip and misinformation about the Disappearing River valley there was here and there a word about a sinister leadership which covered itself behind a screen of known, active miscreants. Curious yarns were told about a man who passed for reputable, with connections in important centers of the country, from San Francisco to Chicago. Nearly everything told about the mystery was incredible. Yet it might be some of it was true. Somebody might be a link between the outside world and the fugitives from punishment for many varied crimes. Conklin could but resent the danger which spread so wide that it silenced the tongues of even usually reckless cowboys.
The Scrambling Gulchers explained well enough the fellow who had come to Pretty Shells’s cabin hammering on the door contrary to the code which demands that honorable men hail from a distance rather than alarm a woman by their coming, unbidden, to the door. Always in criminal bands are degenerates from civilized standards. Tom Redding was trapping between his raids on earnings of honest people, or at least on the accumulations of those who conformed to the conventional rules of conduct. Many a scouter from the law retreats to the fur land wilds after a hold up or an attack.
“Wonder if I really fooled that brute?” Conklin puzzled, for he was badly concerned about the woman who, going Indian according to her blood, had cheerfully made her claim for peace and happiness on the Singing Bird Mountains. As a man, knowing what he did, he could not leave her unguarded. Circumstances were favoring him in his not-too-welcome necessity. As soon as Wool-Head heard the wolf report he would order Conklin to stay with them till they were destroyed. He must become, for the time at least, the professional trapper for the Bell Brand range.
In the morning the crew took their time repairing and soaping their leathers, making ready for the beef round-up which was now at hand. As soon as Plack returned he would order work to begin. This would mean longest days of peak efforts, straining all equipment and forcing each man to the limit of his endurance. A breathing spell for a day or two would prepare them for their task.
And then, coming along the Shake-Down trail, they saw the dust of the ranch buckboard. And presently they could make out the animals, and were curious to observe that there seemed to be only one on the seat, driving—and that one quite too small for the bulk of Wool-Head. Indeed, it was Pretty Shells lifting and swaying to the climb and fall of the four wagon wheels.
“Well, where’s the he-man?” Conklin asked.
“Oh, he’s married and gone on his honeymoon,” she.
“What!” the grouped and approaching listeners shouted, adding with emphasis, “Who?”
“It’s wonderful!” she laughed cheerily. “Run this stuff into the cook-house, will you? It’s a feast. And— No, not those things! They’re mine. Keep them separate! And that’s a good boy—I won’t say a word till the horses are out and the harness up!”
The crew scattered in all directions, taking care of the arrival’s necessities. She had, however, headed off Conklin, who would have kept away from her.
“Wool-Head says you’re the wolver, now. I must tell you about Lop-Ear. He brings his pack through my own country—”
“I followed him there, Pretty Shells,” he nodded. “I’ve some things I must tell you. A man came down from the north yesterday, blazing a line down through to the edge of the lower timber line, claiming the trapping and building cubbies. He started to smash in the cabin door, so I came out. I’d stopped there. I borrowed one of your horses to bring in my stuff. Lop-Ear and his wolves killed my pack horse the other day. I knew you wouldn’t mind—”
“Indeed not! Oh, it’s so little I can do for you! But that fellow?”
“I told him what was what. I told him it was my trapping country. He expected to find you there alone. He must have heard or seen—”
“A tall man, long legs and long body? Yes—I saw him across the lake. He came out to drink, quickly like a lone wolf afraid of the day. Well?”
“I ordered him out of the country, back over the north divide of the Singing Birds. He promised. He had to or— Well, he said he would. If you ever see him you must shoot him on sight, Pretty Shells? I mean it. He’s bad.”
“I’m glad you were there,” she nodded. “That hardware is all traps, No. 5’s, which Wool-Head sent you. He’ll be gone a week. He said for you to get busy. Yesterday the pack killed three hundred sheep over in the junipers east of Tribulation. On Lop-Ear the reward is a thousand dollars. On the other five, five hundred each. The Sheep and Cattle Growers’ Association are going to pay your wages and expenses. They said tell you to go the limit!”