By Joni Johnson Godsy
First published in Ladies Home Journal, November 1924
Reprinted in Zane Grey’s Western Magazine, February 1951
THE hard-riding cowmen of Adam’s outfit returned to camp, that last day of the fall roundup, weary and brush-torn, begrimed with dust and sweat, and loud in their acclaims against Old Gray, the loafer wolf, notorious from the Cibeque across the black belt of rugged Arizona upland to Mount Wilson in New Mexico.
“Wal, reckon I allowed the Tonto had seen the last of Old Gray’s big tracks,” said Benson, the hawk-eyed foreman, as he slipped the bridle off his horse.
“An’ for why?” queried Banty Smith, the little arguing rooster of the outfit. “Ain’t Old Gray young yet—just in his prime? Didn’t we find four carcasses of full-grown steers he’d pulled down last April over on Webber Creek? Shore he allus hit for high country in summer. What for did you think he’d not show up when the frost come?”
“Aw, Banty, cain’t you savvy Ben?” drawled a long, lean rider. “He was jest voicin’ his hopes.”
“Yep, Ben is thet tender-hearted he’d weep over a locoed calf—if it happened to wear his brand,” remarked Tim Bender, with a huge grin, as if he well knew he had acquitted himself wittily.
“Haw. Haw,” laughed another rider. “Old Gray has shore made some deppredashuns on Ben’s stock of twenty head. Most as much as one heifer.”
“Wal, kid me all you like, boys,” replied Benson, good-naturedly. “Reckon I had no call to think Old Gray wouldn’t come back. He’s done thet for years. But it’s not onnatural to live in hopes. An’ it’s hard luck we had to run acrost his tracks an’ his work the last day of the roundup. Only last night the boss was sayin’ he hadn’t heard anythin’ about Old Gray for months.”
“Nobody heerd of anyone cashin’ on thet five thousand dollars reward for Old Gray’s scalp, either,” replied Banty, with sarcasm.
Thus after the manner of the range the loquacious cowboys volleyed badinage while they performed the last tasks of the day.
Two streams met below the pine-shaded bench where the camp was situated; and some of the boys strode down with towels and soap to attend to ablutions that one washpan for the outfit made a matter of waiting. It was still clear daylight, though the sun had gone down behind a high timbered hill to the west. The blue haze that hung over the bench was not all campfire smoke. A rude log cabin stood above the fork of the streams, and near by the cook busied himself between his chuck wagon and the campfire. Both the cool, pine-scented air and the red gold patches of brush on the hillside told of the late October. The rich amber light of the woods had its reflection in the pools of the streams.
Adams, the boss of the outfit, had ridden over from his Tonto ranch at Spring Valley. He was a sturdy, well-preserved man of sixty, sharp of eye, bronze of face, with the stamp of self-made and prosperous rancher upon him.
“Ben, the boss is inquirin’ aboot you,” called Banty from the bench above the stream.
Whereupon the foreman clambered up the rocky slope, vigorously rubbing his ruddy face with a towel, and made his way to where Adams sat beside the campfire. In all respects, except regarding Old Gray, Benson’s report was one he knew would be gratifying. This naturally he reserved until after Adams had expressed his satisfaction. Then he supplemented the news of the wolf.
“That loafer,” ejaculated Adams, in dismay. “Why, only the other day I heard from my pardner, Barrett, an’ he said the government hunters were trackin’ Old Gray up Mount Wilson.”
“Wal, boss, thet may be true,” responded the foreman. “But Old Gray killed a yearlin’ last night on the red ridge above Doubtful Canyon. I know his tracks like I do my hoss’s. We found four kills today, an’ I reckon all was the work of thet loafer. You don’t need to see his tracks. He’s shore a clean killer. An’ sometimes he kills for the sake of killin’.”
“I ain’t sayin’ I care about the money loss, though that old gray devil has cost me an’ Barrett twenty-five hundred,” replied Adams, thoughtfully. “But he’s such a bloody murderer—the most aggravatin’ varmint I ever —”
“Huh. Who’s the gazabo comin’ down the trail?” interrupted Benson, pointing up the bench.
“Stranger to me,” said Adams. “Anybody know him?”
One by one the cowboys disclaimed knowledge of the unusual figure approaching. At that distance he appeared to be a rather old man, slightly bowed. But a second glance showed his shoulders to be broad and his stride the wonderful one of a mountaineer. He carried a pack on his back and a shiny carbine in his hand. His garb was ragged homespun, patched until it resembled a checkerboard.
“A stranger without a hoss,” exclaimed Banty, as if that were an amazingly singular thing.
The man approached the campfire, and halted to lean the worn carbine against the woodpile. Then he unbuckled a strap round his breast and lifted a rather heavy pack from his back, to deposit it on the ground. It appeared to be a pack rolled in a rubber-lined blanket, out of which protruded the ends of worn snowshoes. When he stepped to the campfire he disclosed a strange physiognomy—the weather-beaten face of a matured man of the open, mapped by deep lines, strong, hard, a rugged mask, lighted by penetrating, quiet eyes of gray.
“Howdy, stranger. Get down an’ come in,” welcomed Adams, with the quaint, hearty greeting always resorted to by a Westerner.
“How do. I reckon I will,” replied the man, extending big brown hands to the fire. “Are you Adams, the cattleman?”
“You’ve got me. But I can’t just place you, stranger.”
“Reckon not. I’m new in these parts. My name’s Brink. I’m a tracker.”
“Glad to meet you, Brink,” replied Adams, curiously. “These are some of my boys. Set down an’ rest. I reckon you’re tired an’ hungry. We’ll have grub soon… Tracker, you said? Now, I just don’t savvy what you mean.”
“I’ve been prospector, trapper, hunter, most everythin’,” replied Brink as he took the seat offered. “But I reckon my callin’ is to find tracks. Tracker of men, hosses, cattle, wild animals—’specially sheep-killen’ silvertips an’ stock-killen’ wolves.”
“Aha. You don’t say?” ejaculated Adams, suddenly shifting from genial curiosity to keen interest. “An’ you’re after that five thousand dollars we cattlemen offered for Old Gray’s scalp?”
“Nope. I hadn’t thought of the reward. I heard of it, up in Colorado, same time I heard of this wolf that’s run amuck so long on these ranges. An’ I’ve come down here to kill him.”
Adams showed astonishment along with his interest, but his silence and expression did not approach the incredulity manifested by the men of his outfit. Banty winked a roguish eye at his comrades; Benson leaned forward with staring eyes and dropping jaw; Tim Bender made covert and significant signs to indicate the stranger had wheels in his head; the other riders were amiably nonplussed as to the man’s sanity. Nothing more than the response of these men was needed to establish the reputation of Old Gray, the loafer wolf. But Brink did not see these indications; he was peering into the fire.
“So—ho. You have?” exclaimed Adams, breaking the silence. “Wal, now, Brink, that’s good of you. We sure appreciate your intent. Would you mind tellin’ us how you mean to set about killin’ Old Gray?”
“Reckon I told you I was a tracker,” rejoined Brink, curtly.
“Hell, man. We’ve had every pack of hounds in two states on the track of that wolf.”
“Is he on the range now?” queried Brink, totally ignoring Adams’s strong protestation.
Adams motioned to his foreman to reply to this question. Benson made evident effort to be serious.
“I seen his tracks less’n two hours ago. He killed a yearlin’ last night.”
At these words Brink turned his gaze from the fire to the speaker. What a remarkable fleeting flash crossed his rugged face. It seemed one of passion. It passed, and only a gleam of eye attested to strange emotion under that seamed and lined mask of bronze. His gaze returned to the fire, and the big hands, that he held palms open to the heat, now clasped each other, in strong and tense action. Only Adams took the man seriously, and his attitude restrained the merriment his riders certainly felt.
“Adams, would you mind tellin’ me all you know about this wolf?” asked the stranger, presently.
“Say, man,” expostulated Adams, still with good nature, “it wouldn’t be polite to keep you from eatin’ an’ sleepin’. We don’t treat strangers that way in this country.”
“Old Gray has a history, then?” inquired Brink, as intent as if he had been concerned with the case of a human being.
“Humph. Reckon I couldn’t tell you all about him in a week,” said the cattleman, emphatically.
“It wouldn’t matter to me how long you’d take,” returned Brink, thoughtfully.
At that Adams laughed outright. This queer individual had not in the least considered waste of time to a busy rancher. Manifestly he thought only of the notorious wolf. Adams eyed the man a long speculative moment, divided between amusement and doubt. Brink interested him. Having had to deal with many and various kinds of men, Adams was not quite prepared to take this stranger as the young riders took him. Adams showed the shrewdness of appreciation of the many-sidedness of human nature. Brink’s face and garb and pack were all extraordinarily different from what was usually met with on these ranges. He had arrived on foot, but he was not a tramp. Adams took keener note of the quiet face, the deep chest, the muscular hands, the wiry body, and the powerful legs. No cowboy, for all his riding, ever had wonderful legs like these. The man was a walker.
These deductions, slight and unconvincing as they were, united with an amiability that was characteristic of Adams, persuaded him to satisfy the man’s desire to hear about the wolf.
“All right, Brink, I’ll tell you somethin’ of Old Gray—at leastways till the cook calls us to come an’ get it… There used to be a good many loafers—timber wolves, we called them—in this country. But they’re gettin’ scarce. Accordin’ to the hunters there’s a small bunch of loafers rangin’ from Black Butte to Clear Creek Canyon. That’s a deer country, an’ we cattlemen don’t run much stock over there. Now an’ then a cowboy will see a wolf track, or hear one bay. But outside of Old Gray we haven’t had much loss from loafers of late years.
“Naturally there are lots of stories in circulation about this particular wolf. Some of them are true. I can’t vouch for his parentage, or whether he has mixed blood. Seven or eight, maybe ten years ago, some trapper lost a husky—one of them regular Alaskan snow-sled dogs—over in the Mazatzels. Never found him. Some natives here claim Old Gray is a son of this husky, his mother bein’ one of the range loafers. Another story is about a wolf escapin’ from a circus over heah in a railroad wreck years ago. I remember well the report told at Winslow. A young gray wolf got away. This escaped wolf might be Old Gray. No one can ever tell that. But both stories are interestin’ enough to think about.
“The name Old Gray doesn’t seem to fit this particular wolf, because it’s misleadin’. He’s gray, yes, almost white, but he’s not old. Bill Everett, a range hand, saw this wolf first. Tellin’ about it he called him an old gray Jasper. The name stuck, though now you seldom hear the Jasper tacked on.
“From that time stories began to drift into camp an’ town about the doin’s of Old Gray. He was a killer. Cowboys an’ hunters took to his trail with cow dogs an’ bear hounds. But though they routed him out of his lairs an’ chased him all over, they never caught him. Trappers camped all the way from the Cibeque to Mount Wilson, tryin’ to trap him. I never heard of Old Gray touchin’ a trap.
“In summer Old Gray lit out for the mountains. In winter he took to the foothills an’ ranges. I’ve heard cattlemen over in New Mexico say he had killed twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of stock. But that was years ago. It would be impossible now to estimate the loss to ranchers. Old Gray played at the game. He’d run through a bunch of stock, hamstringin’ right an’ left, until he had enough of his fun, then he’d pull down a yearlin’, eat what he wanted, an’ travel on.
“He didn’t always work alone. Sometimes he’d have several loafers with him. Two years ago I saw his tracks with at least four other wolves. That was on my pardner’s ranch at Vermajo Park, New Mexico. But Old Gray always was an’ is a lone wolf. He didn’t trust company. Accordin’ to report he’d led off more than one she dog, always shepherds. They never came back. It’s a good bet he led them away, for his tracks were seen, an’ perhaps he killed them.
“The government hunters have been tryin’ to get him, these several years. They don’t tell about this hunt any more. But the forest rangers sometimes make fun at the expense of these predatory game hunters of the government. Anyway, so far as I know, Old Gray has never been scratched. My personal opinion is this. He’s a magnificent wild brute, smarter than any dog. An’ you know how intelligent dogs can be. Well, Old Gray is too savage, too wild, too keen to be caught by the ordinary means employed so far… There, Brink, is the plain blunt facts from a blunt man. If you listened to a lot of the gossip about Old Gray you’d be sure locoed.”
“Much obliged,” replied Brink, with a break in his rapt intensity. “Have you ever seen this loafer?”
“No, I never had the good luck,” replied Adams. “Nor have many men. But Benson, here, has seen him.”
“What’s he look like?” queried Brink, turning eagerly to the foreman.
“Wal, Old Gray is aboot the purtiest wild varmint I ever clapped my eyes on,” drawled Benson, slow and cool, as if to tantalize this wolf hunter. “He’s big—a heap bigger’n any loafer I ever saw before—an’ he’s gray all right, a light gray, with a black ring part round his neck, almost like a ruff. He’s a bold cus, too. He stood watchin’ me, knowin’ darn well he was out of gunshot.”
“Now what kind of a track does he make?”
“Wal, jest a wolf track bigger’n you ever seen before. Almost as big as a hoss track. When you see it once, you’ll never forget.”
“Where did you run across that track last?”
Benson squatted down before the fire, and with his hand smoothed a flat clear place in the dust, on which he began to trace lines.
“Heah, foller up this creek till you come to a high falls. Climb up the slope on the right. You’ll head out on a cedar an’ piñon ridge. It’s red dirt, most all soft. Halfway up this ridge from there you’ll strike a trail. It runs this heah way. Foller it round under the bluff till you strike Old Gray’s tracks. I seen them this mawnin’, fresh as could be. Sharp an’ clean in the dust. He was makin’ for the Rim, I reckon soon after he had killed the heifer.”
By this time all the cowboys were grouped round the central figures. Banty appeared to be the only one not seriously impressed. As to the others, something about Brink and the way he had moved Adams to talk, had inhibited for the moment their characteristic humor.
Brink slowly rose from his scrutiny of the map that Benson had drawn in the dust. His penetrating gaze fixed on Adams.
“I’ll kill your old gray wolf,” he said.
His tone, his manner, seemed infinitely more than his simple words. They all combined to make an effect that seemed indefinable, except in the case of Banty, who grew red in the face. Manifestly Banty took this man’s statement as astounding and ridiculous. The little cowboy enjoyed considerable reputation as a hunter—a reputation that he cherished, and which, to his humiliation, had not been lived up to by his several futile hunts after Old Gray.
“Aw, now—so you’ll kill thet loafer,” he ejaculated, in the most elaborate satire possible for a cowboy. “Wal, Mr. Brink, would you mind tellin’ us jest when you’ll perpetuate this execushun? Shore all the outfits in the Tonto will want to see Old Gray’s scalp. We’ll give a dance to celebrate… Say when you’ll fetch his skin down—tomorrow around sunup, or mebbe next day, seein’ you’ll have to travel on shank’s mare —or possible the day after.”
Banty’s drawling scorn might never have been spoken, for all the intended effect it had on the wolf hunter. Brink was beyond the levity of a cowboy.
“Reckon I can’t say just when I’ll kill Old Gray,” he replied, with something sonorous in his voice. “It might be any day, accordin’ to luck. But if he’s the wolf you all say he is, it’ll take long.”
“You don’t say,” spoke up Banty. “Wal, by gosh, my walkin’ gent, I figgered you had some Injun medicine thet you could put on Old Gray’s tail.”
The cowboys roared. Adams showed constraint in his broad grin. Brink suffered no offense, no sign of appreciating the ridicule. Thoughtfully he bent again to the fire, and did not hear the cook’s lusty call to supper.
“Never mind the boys,” said Adams, kindly, putting a hand on the bowed shoulder. “Come an’ eat with us.”
THE morning sun had not yet melted the hoarfrost from the brush when Brink halted in the trail before huge wolf tracks in the red dust.
“Same as any wolf tracks, only big,” he soliloquized. “Biggest I ever saw —even in Alaska.”
Whereupon he leaned his shiny carbine against a pine sapling, and lifted his pack from his shoulders, all the time with gaze riveted on the trail. Then, with head bent, he walked slowly along until he came to a place where all four tracks of the wolf showed plainly. Here he got to his knees, scrutinizing the imprints, photographing them on his inward eye, taking intent and grave stock of them, as if these preliminaries in the stalking of a wolf were a ritual. For moments he remained motionless, like one transfixed. Presently he relaxed, and seating himself beside the trail, seemed to revel in a strange, tranquil joy.
Brink’s state of mind was a composite of a lifetime’s feelings, thoughts, actions, never comprehensible to him. As a boy of three he had captured his first wild creature—a squirrel that he tamed and loved, and at last freed. All his early boyhood he had been a haunter of the woods and hills, driven to the silent places and the abode of the wild. At sixteen he had run away from school and home; at fifty he knew the west from the cold borders of the Yukon to the desert-walled Yaqui. Through those many and eventful years the occupations of men had held him, but never for long. Caravans, mining camps, freighting posts, towns and settlements, ranches and camps had known him, though never for any length of time. Women had never drawn him, much less men.
Again the solitude and loneliness of the wilderness claimed him; and his eyes feasted on the tracks of a beast commonly supposed to be stronger, keener than any human. Around these two facts clung the fibers of the spell that possessed Brink’s soul.
The October morning seemed purple in the shade, golden in the sun. A profound and unbroken stillness held this vast cedar slope in thrall. A spicy tang, cold to the nostrils, permeated the air. The sheath-barked cedars and the junipers with their lavender-hued berries stretched a patchwork of light and shadow across the trail. Far down, the ridged sweep of timbered country fell. Beyond the black vague depths of the Basin rose the sharp, ragged mountains to the south. Above him towered bold promontories of rock, fringed by green, clearly etched against the blue. Nothing of mankind tainted this loneliness for Brink—nothing save the old, seldom-trodden trail, and that bore the tracks of an enormous wolf, wildest of all American animals.
Brink’s serenity had returned—the familiar state that had ceased at the end of his last pursuit. This huge track was a challenge. But this strange egotism did not appear to be directed toward the hunters and cowboys who had failed on Old Gray’s trail. Rather toward the wolf. The issue was between him and the great loafer. Here began the stalk that for Brink had but one conclusion. The wonderful tracks showed sharply in the dust. Old Gray had passed along there yesterday. He was somewhere up or down those ragged slopes. Cunning as he was, he had to hold contact with earth and rock. He had to slay and eat. He must leave traces of his nature, his life, his habit, and his action. To these Brink would address himself, with all the sagacity of an old hunter, but with something infinitely more—a passion which he did not understand.
“Wal, Old Gray, I’m on your track,” muttered Brink, grimly; and strapping the heavy pack on his broad shoulders, he took up the carbine and strode along the trail.
It pleased Brink to find that his first surmise was as correct as if he had cognizance of Old Gray’s instincts. The wolf tracks soon sheered off the trail. Old Gray was not now a hunting or a prowling wolf. He was a traveling wolf, but he did not keep to the easygoing, direct trail.
On soft ground like this, bare except for patches of brush and brown mats under the cedar and piñon trees, Brink could discern the wolf tracks far ahead. Old Gray was light-footed, but he had weight, and his trail along here was as easy for the keen eyes of the tracker as if he had been traveling on wet ground or snow. Where he did not leave tracks there was a pressed tuft of grass or a disturbed leaf or broken twig or dislodged bit of stone, or an unnatural displacement of the needles under the piñons.
The trail led down over the uneven ridges and gullies of the slope, down into timbered thickets, and on through an increasingly rugged and wild country, to the dark shade of a deep gorge, where the melodious murmur of a stream mingled with the mourn of a rising wind in the lofty pines and spruces. The wolf had drunk his fill, leaving two huge tracks in the wet sand along the brookside. Brink could not find tracks on gravel and boulders, so he crossed the wide bottom of the gorge, and after a while found Old Gray’s trail on the opposite slope. Before he struck it he had believed the wolf was heading for high country.
Brink tracked him over a forested ridge and down into an intersecting canyon, where on the rocks of a dry stream bed the trail failed. This did not occasion the wolf tracker any concern. Old Gray would most likely choose that rugged lonely stream bed and follow it to where the canyon headed out above. Brink, in such cases as this, trusted to his instincts. Many times he had been wrong, but more often he had been right. To this end he slowly toiled up the rough ascent, halting now and then to rest a moment, eyes roving from side to side. It was a steep ascent, and grew rougher, narrower, and more shaded as he climbed. At length he came to pools of water in rocky recesses, where the sand and gravel bars showed the tracks of cattle, bear, and deer. But if Old Gray had passed on up that narrowing canyon he had avoided the water holes.
Patches of maple and thickets of oak covered the steep slopes, leading up to the base of cracked and seamed cliffs, and they in turn sheered up to where the level rim shone black-fringed against the blue. Here the stream bed was covered with the red and gold and purple of fallen autumn leaves. High up the thickets had begun to look shaggy. The sun, now at the zenith, fell hot upon Brink’s head. He labored on to climb out a narrow defile that led to the level forest above.
Here the wind blew cool. Brink rested a moment, gazing down into the colorful void, and across the black rolling leagues to the mountains. Then he strode east along the precipice, very carefully searching for the wolf trail he had set out upon. In a mile of slow travel he did not discover a sign of Old Gray. Retracing his steps, he traveled west for a like distance, without success. Whereupon he returned to the head of the canyon out of which he had climbed, and there, divesting himself of his pack, he set about a more elaborate scrutiny of ground, grass, moss, and rock. He searched from the rim down into an aspen swale that deepened into a canyon, heading away from the rim. He had no reason to believe Old Gray would travel this way, except that long experience had taught him where to search first for tracks. And quite abruptly he came upon the huge footprints of the loafer, made in soft black mud beside elk tracks that led into a hole where water had recently stood.
“Hah,” ejaculated Brink. “You’re interested in that yearlin’ elk… Wal, Old Gray, I’ll let this do for today.”
Brink returned to get his pack, and carried it down into the ravine, to a point where he found clear water. Here he left the pack in the fork of a tree, and climbed out to the level forest, to hunt for meat.
The afternoon was far spent and the warmth of the westering sun soon declined. Brink found deer and wild turkey signs in abundance, and inside of the hour he had shot a two-year-old spike- horn buck. He cut out the haunches and packed them back to where he had decided to camp.
With a short-handled ax he carried in his belt he trimmed off the lower branches of a thick-foliaged spruce and, cutting them into small pieces, he laid them crosswise to serve as a bed. Then he unrolled his pack. The snowshoes he hung on the stub of a branch; the heavy, rubber-covered blanket he spread on the spruce boughs, and folded it so that the woolen side would be under him and over him while he slept. Next he started a large fire of dead sticks.
Brink’s pack of supplies weighed about fifty pounds. He had three sheet-iron utensils, which telescoped together, a tin cup, a spoon, matches, towel, and soap. His food was carried in canvas sacks of varying sizes, all tightly tied. He had coffee, sugar, salt, and the sugar sack was almost disproportionately large. No flour, no butter, no canned milk. The biggest sack contained pemmican, a composite food of small bulk and great nourishing power. The chief ingredients were meat and nuts. This prepared food Brink had learned to rely upon during long marches in Alaska. His next largest sack contained dried apples. By utilizing, when possible, the game meat of the forest Brink expected this supply to last a long time, possibly until he had run down the wolf.
Like those of an Indian on the march, Brink’s needs were few. He prepared his frugal meal, ate it with the relish and gratefulness of a man used to the wilderness. Then before darkness overtook him he cut the fresh deer meat into strips so that it would dry readily.
Twilight found his tasks ended for the day. The melancholy autumn night darkened and stole down upon him, cold and sharp, with threads of cloud across the starry sky. The wind moaned in the black pines above, and seemed to warn of the end of autumn. There was no other sound except the sputter of the campfire.
Brink’s enjoyment lay in spreading his horny palms to the genial heat of the red coals. His attitude was one of repose and serenity. If there was sadness about his lonely figure, it was something of which he had no conscious thought. Brink had only dim remembrance of home and family, vague things far back in the past. He had never loved a woman. He had lived apart from men, aloof even when the accident of life and travel had thrown him into camps or settlements. Once he had loved a dog. Seldom did his mind dwell on the past, and then only in relation to some pursuit or knowledge that came to him from the contiguity of the present task.
He liked the loneliness, the wildness, the solitude. He seemed to be part of them. When a very young boy he had been forced by a stepmother to hate a house. As a child he had been punished at the table, and never in his life afterward could he outgrow hate of a dining room and the fear that had been instilled into his consciousness.
Night settled down black, with but few stars showing through the gathering clouds. Listening and watching and feeling were sensorial habits with Brink. Rain or snow breathed on the chill wind. He hailed the possibility of either with satisfaction. It was through the snow that he meant to track Old Gray to his last lair. When the heat of the fire died out Brink went to his bed, rolled in the blanket, and at once fell asleep.
The cold, raw dawn found him stirring. A blanket of cloud had prevented a white frost on the grass, but there glistened a film of ice on the brook. As the sun came up it brightened a blue-sky, mostly clear. The drift of the thin clouds was from the southwest, and they were traveling fast.
Before the sun had warmed out the shade of the canyon, Brink, with pack on his back and rifle in hand, had taken up Old Gray’s trail. It was easy to follow. The wolf showed a preference for the open canyon, and in many places left plain imprints in the sand. The canyon, running away from the rim, deepened and widened; and its disconnected pools of water at last became a running stream. Elk and deer and turkeys filed before Brink; likewise scattered bands of cattle and an occasional bunch of wild horses.
Evidently the great wolf was not losing time to place distance between him and his last kill. Brink found no more sign of his evincing interest in any tracks. About noon, by which time Brink had trailed the animal fully ten miles down the canyon, seldom losing the tracks for long, Old Gray took to an intersecting canyon, rough-walled and brushy, and soon he went up into the rocks. It took Brink all afternoon to find where the wolf had lain, but Brink would gladly have spent days for such a triumph.
“Aha, you old gray devil,” he soliloquized, as he bent his gaze on a snug retreat under shelving rocks, where showed the betraying impress of feet and body of the wolf. “So you have to sleep an’ rest, huh? Wal, I reckon you can’t get along without killin’ an’ eatin’ too. Old Gray, you’re bound to leave tracks, an’ I’ll find them.”
Brink camped that night under the cliff where Old Gray had slept the day before. Next day he spent much time finding tracks along the water course in this narrow canyon, and succeeding ones that led off to the west. This canyon soon opened out into grassy ovals that appeared to be parks for elks. Brink surprised a herd of eleven, two bulls with enormous spread of antlers, a young bull, several cow elks, and four calves. They trooped up the canyon, trampling the trails and sandy spots. Brink kept on, feeling sure that he had the general direction Old Gray had adopted. This held to the west and slightly northward, which course led toward the wildest country in that section, deep canyons, rough buttes, and matted jungles of pine saplings. Here, according to information Brink had obtained from the cowboys, ranged the last of the timber wolves known to exist in Arizona. It was Brink’s conviction that Old Gray knew the country well.
The band of elks soon climbed out of the canyon. Beyond that point the bare spots showed only old tracks of game. At length Brink came to a beaver dam; and on the very edge of it, deep in the wet mud, showed the unmistakable tracks of the giant wolf. Brink had another of those strange thrills, an inward leaping of blood, somehow savage. From that point Old Gray’s tracks showed in the wet places up and down the banks of the narrow ponds of water. He had been vastly curious about these dams and mounds erected by the beaver. Everywhere he left tracks. But Brink could not find any sign of the wolf’s catching a beaver unawares. The beaver of this colony had been at work that night cutting the aspen trees and dragging boughs and sections of trunks under the water.
Sunset came before Brink had found a track of the wolf leading away from that park. Still, he made camp satisfied with the day. Any day in which he found a single fresh track of this wolf was indeed time well spent. Unless he were extremely lucky, he must lose the trail for days. His hope was that he might keep the general direction Old Gray had taken until the snow began to fall. So far his hope had been more than fulfilled.
The night was clearer and colder than the preceding ones, yet there were thin, ragged clouds sweeping up out of the southwest, and a moaning wind that whined of storm. Late October without rain or snow was most unusual for that latitude. Brink camped near the beaver dam, and the cold windy darkness found him snug in his blanket. During the night he was awakened by a yelping of coyotes, and later by a pattering of sleet on the dry brush. A black cloud was scudding across the sky. It passed with the threatening storm. Morning broke brighter than ever. He began to fear wet weather had been sidetracked indefinitely. But after all there was no good in his being impatient. If he lost Old Gray’s trail on dry ground, sooner or later he would find it again. This three-hundred-mile strip of comparatively low country was the winter range of the great wolf. He had a taste for young cattle. It was unlikely that he would go back into the high altitude of his summer range in the New Mexico mountains.
Brink’s good luck persisted. He discovered Old Gray’s tracks leading up out of the canyon. The direction then was all he could hope for at present, because, naturally, he expected to lose the trail on the hard and dry ridge tops. He did lose it. All signs of the wolf vanished. But Brink had ascertained that Old Gray had traveled almost straight toward the rough country to the northwest. Therefore Brink zigzagged the ridges and canyons for three days without a sign of his quarry’s movements. He wondered if the wolf had made a kill during this period. He traveled into a cut-up country of deep canyons and rock ridges, overgrown with heavy forest. He saw no more elk or bear signs, but deer tracks became as plentiful as cattle tracks in a corral.
Late on the afternoon of that third day, as Brink was hunting for a suitable camp, he came to an open glade in the pine forest. In the center of it was a pond of surface water about an acre in size. Deer tracks both old and fresh were numerous. Brink, after deciding the water was safe to drink, deposited his pack in a likely camp spot amid a thicket of pine saplings, and started to walk round the pond. Before he had gone halfway he encountered wolf tracks, made the night before. They were loafer marks, but not Old Gray’s.
“Wal, wolf tracks cross each other on any range,” decided Brink. “Reckon I’ll take to these… Ahuh. There’s been a couple of loafers here, an’ one of them has a bad foot. Been in a trap, mebbe.”
Brink made camp leisurely. He was getting into wolf country. The sunset shone ominously overcast and threatening. The temperature had moderated and the feeling of frost gave way to dampness. Brink cleared a space in the pine thicket, and erected a shelving lean-to on the windward side. Under this he made his bed. His next move was to gather a goodly store of dry firewood and to pile it under the shelter. After that he cooked his meal, and this time, to his satisfaction, he broiled a young turkey he had shot the day before.
Night settled down like a black blanket, starless and gloomy. The wind moaned louder than usual. Brink soliloquized that the wind was warning Old Gray to leave the country before the fatal snow fell. Brink enjoyed this meal more than any heretofore on this hunt. The wild scene, the somber tarn, the menacing solitude were all to his liking. He was settling into his routine. Contrary to his custom on the preceding nights, he sat up a long time, and whether he had his face to the fire or his back, his palms were always spread to the comforting heat. Brink looked and listened with more than usual attention during this vigil beside the campfire. It appeared that the wind grew more raw, damper.
“Rain or snow sure,” he muttered, and the note boded ill to certain wild denizens of that forestland.
At length drowsiness made his eyelids heavy and he sought his bed under the shelter of pine boughs. Sleep claimed him. He awakened with a feeling that only a moment had elapsed, but he could tell by the dead campfire how misleading this was. Something had roused him.
Suddenly from the dark forest on the cold wind came the deep, wild bay of a hunting wolf. With a start Brink sat up. A quiver ran over him. How intensely he listened. No other wild sound in nature had such power over him. It seemed as if this bay came from a vague dim past. Again it pealed out, but with a sharper note, not greatly different from that of a hunting hound.
“Loafers trailin’ a deer,” said Brink. “Two of them, mebbe more.”
Again he heard the bays, growing farther away, and another time, quite indistinct. After that the weird moaning solitude of the forest remained undisturbed.
Brink lay back in his blanket, but not to sleep. He would lie awake now for a long while. How that wolf bay brought back memories of the frozen northland. All wolves were of the same species. They loved hot blood. It was their savage instinct to feed ravenously off a still-living victim.
Brink imagined he heard deep low bays back in the forest. Always the wind made the sound for which the eager ears were attuned. And even when he was not listening for any particular sound, the wind deceived with its wild cry of beast, its wail of lost humans, its mourning for the dead, its distant approach to a trampling army.
All the same, Brink again suddenly sat up. “Say, have I got a nightmare?” He turned his ear away from the cold wind, and holding his breath, he listened. Did he hear a bay or a moan in the forest? Long he remained stiff, intent.
The wolves had resorted to a trick Brink knew well. The pack had split into several parts, one of which relayed the deer for a time, driving it round while the others rested. In Brink’s experience the trick was common for a pack that had a great leader.
Once again in the succeeding hour Old Gray passed near Brink’s camp, ringing out that hoarse cry of hunger for blood. Long after the sound had rolled through the forest, to die away it lingered on his ears. But it did not come again.
Instead, something happened to Brink which sent a tight cold prickle to his skin. It was the touch of soft misty snow on his face. A tiny seeping rustle, almost indistinguishable, fell about him on the brush. Snow. Cloud and wind and atmosphere had combined in the interest of the wolftracker.
A LOWERING gray dawn disclosed the forest mantled in a wet snow, deep enough to cover the ground and burden the trees. The wind had eased somewhat and was colder, which facts augured for clearing weather. Thin broken clouds moved close to the tops of the loftiest pines.
“Wal, reckon it’s only a skift,” remarked Brink, as his gaze swept the white-carpeted glade, with its round pond of dark water in the center. “But it’s snow, an’ right here my trackin’ begins. If it melts, it’ll leave the ground soft. If it doesn’t, well an’ good.”
Brink was singularly happy. The raw dawn with its changed forest- world would have alienated most men, but he was not that kind of a hunter. The Indian summer days were past. The white banner of winter had been unrolled. Moreover, Old Gray had passed in the night, ringing his wild and unearthly voice down the aisles of the forest. Somehow Brink had no doubt that the hoarse hound-like bay belonged to the wolf he was stalking.
“I know his tracks,” said Brink, “an’ I’ve heard him yelp. Sooner or later I’ll see him. Wal now, that’ll be a sight… But I reckon I’m over reachin’ this good luck.”
A pale light behind the gray clouds in the east marked the rise of the sun. Only a few inches of snow had fallen. As Brink trudged away from his camp, out into the white glade, he was victim to an eagerness and joy extraordinary in a man. But the most driving instinct of his life had been the hunting of animals by the tracks they left. As a boy it had been play; in manhood it had become a means of livelihood; now it was a passion. Therefore he hailed the pure white covering of snow with pleasure and affection.
His educated eyes sought the ground. Here were the tiny footprints of a chipmunk; next the ragged tracks of a squirrel, showing where his tail had dragged; coyote and fox had also visited the pond since the fall of snow. Brink crossed the open glade to enter the forest. A blue jay screeched at him from an oak tree and a red squirrel chattered angrily. Brink passed under a spruce where the little squirrel had already dug for the seed cones he had stored for winter food.
Brink espied the wolf and buck tracks fully fifty yards ahead of him. Soon he stood over them. The tracks had been made before the snow had ceased to fall, yet they were clear enough to be read by the hunter. The buck had been running. Two wolves had been chasing him, but neither was Old Gray. After a long scrutiny of the tracks Brink left them and stalked on deeper into the forest. He crossed the trail of a lynx. What a betrayer of wild beasts was the white snow they loved so well. Brink seemed to read the very thoughts of that prowling hunting cat.
Toward noon the sun came out, lighting up the forest, until it appeared to be an enchanted place of gleaming aisles, of brown- barked trunks and white-burdened branches. Everywhere snow was sliding, slipping, falling from the trees. Rainbows showed through the mist. The aspens with their golden leaves and the oaks with their bronze belied the wintry forest scene. On the snow lay leaves of yellow and red and brown, fallen since the storm. Pine needles were floating down from the lofty pines, and aspen leaves, like butterflies, fluttered in the air. Through the green-and- white canopy overhead showed rifts in the clouds and sky of deep blue. Though the forest was white and cold, autumn yielded reluctantly to winter, squirrels and jays and woodpeckers acclaimed a welcome to the sun.
Brink missed none of the beauty, though his grim task absorbed him. All of the moods of nature were seriously accepted by him. He was a man of the open.
He arrived at last where the buck had reached the end of his tragic race, and by some strange paradox of nature the woodland scene was one of marvelous color and beauty. Over a low swale the pine monarchs towered and the silver spruces sent their exquisite spiral crests aloft. On one side a sheltered aspen thicket still clung tenaciously to its golden fluttering foliage. Maples burned in cerise and magenta and scarlet hues.
Underfoot, however, the beauty of this spot had been marred. Here the buck had been overtaken, pulled down, torn to pieces, and devoured, even to the cracking of its bones. The antlers, the skull, part of the ragged hide were left, ghastly evidences of the ferocity of that carnage. The snow had been crushed, dragged, wiped, and tracked out, yet there were left vestiges soaked by blood. Coyotes had visited the scene, and these scavengers had quarreled over the bones.
As Brink had seen the beauty of the colorful forest, so now he viewed the record of the tragic balance of nature. The one to him was the same as the other. He did not hate Old Gray for being the leader in this butchery of a gentle forest creature.
“Wal now, I wonder how long he’ll trail with this pack of loafers,” he soliloquized. “If I was guessin’ I’d say not long.”
How different from those running wolf tracks he had been following were these leisurely trotting paces that led up to the rough bluffs. Brink calculated they had been made just before dawn. The wolves had gorged. They were heavy and sluggish. At this moment they would be sleeping off that orgy of blood and meat. Brink reached the foot of a very rugged butte, not so high as the adjoining one, Black Butte, which dominated the landscape, but of a nature which rendered it almost insurmountable for man. Manzanita and live oak choked all the interstices between the rugged broken fragments of cliff. Obstacles, however, never daunted Brink.
Brink strode on, keen to find the second trail of wolves, and to settle absolutely the question as to Old Gray’s presence with this marauding band of loafers. There might be two great-voiced wolves on the range. But the track would decide. When at length he encountered the trail he was seeking, abruptly at the top of a low ridge, he stood motionless, gazing with rapt, hard eyes. Two loafers besides Old Gray had chased the buck along here. So there were at least five in the pack.
“I was right,” said Brink, with a deep breath. Old Gray’s tracks in the snow were identical with those he left in the dust. Yet how vastly more potent to Brink. For snow was the medium by which he had doomed the great timber wolf. Without snow to betray him Old Gray would have been as safe as the eagles in their trackless air. This, then, was the moment of exceeding significance to Brink. Here again the test of endurance. All the hunters who had failed on Old Gray’s trail had matched their intelligence with his cunning instinct. The hounds that had chased the wolf had failed because the fleet and powerful animal had outdistanced them and run out of the country. But Brink did not work like other hunters. His idea was the result of long stalking of wild game. And this moment when he gazed down into the huge tracks in the snow was one in which he felt all the tremendous advantage in his favor. Somewhere in a rocky recess or cave Old Gray was now sleeping after the chase and the gorge, unaware of his relentless and inevitable human foe. But Brink was in possession of facts beyond the ken of any wild creature. Perhaps his passion was to prove the superiority of man over beast.
Without a word he set off on the trail so plain in the snow, and as he stalked along he sought to read through those telltale tracks the speed and strength of the buck, the cunning and endurance of the wolves, and all the wild nature suggested therein. Through level open forest, down ridge and over swale, into thickets of maple and aspen, across parks where bleached grass glistened out of the snow, he strode on with the swing of a mountaineer. He did not tire. His interest had mounted until the hours seemed moments.
Cougar tracks, deer tracks, turkey tracks crossed the trail he was following. It swung in a ragged circle, keeping clear of rocks, canyons, and the windfalls where running would be difficult. Brink passed three relay stations where resting and running wolves had met; and at the last of these all five wolves took the trail of the doomed buck. They had chased him all night. Their baying had kept all of them within hearing of each other. The resting relay had cunningly cut in or across at times, thus to drive the buck out of a straightaway race.
Laying aside pack and snowshoes, with rifle in hand he essayed the ascent. Part of the time over rock and the rest through the brush he made his way, wholly abandoning the direction of the wolf trail.
After an hour of prodigious labor Brink reached the base of a low bulging wall of rock, marked by cracks and fissures. The snow was somewhat deeper at this altitude and afforded a perfect medium in which to track animals. Bobcat, lynx, their lairs. And then, around on the windward cougar, fox, and coyote had climbed the bluff. There Brink found the trail of the loafers. The difference between their sagacity and that of the other wild beasts was indicated by their selection of the windy side of the bluff. Brink tracked them toward the dark hole of a den. Upon reaching the aperture he was not in the least surprised to see Old Gray’s tracks leading out. The other loafers were still in the cave. But Old Gray had gotten a scent on the wind, perhaps even in his sleep, and he had departed alone.
“Wal, you bloody loafers can sleep, for all we care,” soliloquized Brink. “Old Gray an’ me have work.”
Somehow Brink took exceeding pleasure in the fact that the great wolf had been too cunning to be holed up by a hunter. This was just what Brink had anticipated. Old Gray was beginning to show the earmarks of a worthy antagonist. Brink thought he was going to have respect and admiration for the loafer.
Brink knelt to study the tracks, and did not soon come to a conclusion.
“Reckon he scented me,” he said, finally. “But I wonder if he suspects he’s bein’ tracked… Wal now, when he learns that.”
The wolf tracker clambered around over the slabs of rock and under the cliffs until he found where Old Gray had started to descend the bluff. Then Brink retraced his steps, finding the return as easy as the climb had been hard. Once more donning his pack, he set out, keeping to the forest where it edged on the rising ground. Before he had gone a mile he encountered Old Gray’s big tracks.
Here Brink sustained a genuine surprise. He had made sure the wolf would head straight for the northwest, instinctively making for the wildest country. But instead the tracks struck into the woods straight as a beeline, and no more were they leisurely.
“Huh. The son-of-a-gun. If he circles I’ll sure take off my hat to him,” said Brink.
With his mountaineer’s stride Brink set off through open forest, downhill, over a few inches of snow, making four miles an hour. Old Gray did not circle. Vastly curious did the hunter become. It looked as if the wolf was making a shortcut for somewhere. If he kept up this course he would soon cross his back trail. Perhaps that was just what Old Gray had in mind. Still, if he suspected he was being pursued, why had he not circled long ago to find what was following his tracks? Brink reflected that there was no absolute telling what a wild animal might do. He had trailed grizzly bears in the snow, and found they had abruptly turned uphill a little way, then had gone back, closer and closer to the lower trail, at last to lie and wait for him in ambush.
A wolf, especially a great loafer like Old Gray, rather enjoyed such a short chase as men and dogs gave him. He could run right away from them. His chief resource was his speed. But Old Gray had not heard the bay of hounds or yell of men or crack of iron- shod hoof on stone. He was very probably suspicious that something new hung in the wind.
Brink warmed to the pursuit, both physically and in his spirit. By and by the thing would narrow down to the supreme test between man and beast. This for Brink was just getting underway; for the wolf it was the beginning of a period of uncertainty.
Toward the middle of the afternoon the sun came out fitfully, warming the glades with color, if not with heat. The snow softened to the extent that at the bottom of Old Gray’s deep tracks it grew dark and wet. The wind lulled, too. Brink did not want a warm spell, even for a day. Still, come what might, he believed, even if the snow did melt, the ground would stay soft until another storm. November had arrived, and at that height of land winter had come.
Old Gray kept to his straight course until halted by the trail he and his loafer allies and Brink and the buck had left in the snow. Here Old Gray had stood in his tracks. Brink imagined he could see the great gray brute, awakening to the scent and trail of man, and their relation to him. Old Gray had crossed and recrossed the trail, trotted forward and back, and then he had left it to continue the straight course at precisely the same gait.
This nonplussed the hunter, who had calculated that the wolf would deliberately set out to find what was tracking him. But there seemed nothing sure here, except that the beast had tarried at this crossing to smell the man tracks.
Brink took comfort in the assurance that the future trail would prove everything. He trudged on as before. A cold drab twilight halted him in dense forest, mostly spruce. He selected one so thick of foliage that the snow had not even whitened the brown mat of needles and cones under it. And here he camped. Making fire, melting snow, and roasting strips of deer meat occupied him till dark, and then he sought his fragrant bed under the spruce.
Next day it snowed intermittently, drizzly and mistily, in some places half filling Old Gray’s tracks. The wolf, soon after leaving the spot where he had crossed the old tracks, had taken to a running lope and had sheered to the east. The hunter had signalized this change by a grim, “Ahuh.”
Brink was seven days in covering the hundred or so miles that Old Gray had run during the day and the night after he had left the den on the bluff. He had run close to the New Mexico line, almost to the foothills of the White Mountains. It beat any performance Brink could recall in his experience. He must have covered the distance in eighteen hours or less; and in his wolf mind, Brink was absolutely certain, he believed he had traveled far beyond pursuit. For then he had abandoned the straight running course for one of a prowling, meandering hunt. But deer tracks were scarce and he had to go down into the range country for a kill.
Three days more of travel for Brink brought him to the spot where Old Gray had pulled down a yearling and had eaten his fill. Coyotes had left the carcass in such condition that Brink could not tell anything from it, except the mere presence and its meaning.
“Nine days behind,” soliloquized Brink. “But it has snowed some, an’ I reckon I’m playin’ on velvet.”
Even the lowland cattle ranges were covered with a thin mantle of snow. Toward the foothills it deepened. Mount Ord and Old Baldy showed pure white in the distance.
Brink strode on, wed to those wolf tracks. Old Gray left a gruesome record of his night marauds. How bold he was. Yet wide apart indeed were his kills. He would travel miles away from the scene of his last attack, up into the high country, where deep snow made it impossible for hounds to follow. Brink found tracks of both dogs and hunters that had taken his trail, only to abandon it. Old Gray had the spirit of a demon. He wrote his size, ferocity, cunning, age, strength, speed, character, and history in his tracks. He was a lone wolf in all the tremendous significance of that name. For him there was no safety in numbers. He ran alone, bold, defiant, vicious. It seemed to Brink that he killed out of wild love for shedding blood. He chased stock to the very corral gates of some rancher, and in one instance he killed a calf in a pasture. His tracks showed that he played at the game of killing. Like a playful dog he cavorted beside his intended victim.
It was impossible for Brink to believe otherwise than that this wolf ran at large with an instinct only second in wildness to the one of killing to eat. Not self-preservation in a sense of aloofness to ranches. He risked his life many times out of sheer wild confidence in his mastery of the ranges. He was lord of that region from mountain to desert. Many years he had been hunted. How infinitely more he must have known of hunters than they knew of him. Man was his enemy. The heritage of hatred, descended from the primal days of mastodon, saber-toothed tiger, and giant wolf, in their antagonism to the arboreal ape that was the parent of man, must have throbbed strong and fierce in Old Gray’s heart. In no other way could Brink read the signs of the wolf tracks. He flaunted his wolfness in the faces of mankind. There was a terrible egotism in his assurance of his superiority. Fear of man he had never yet known. Apparently he was as secure as a swift- winged eagle that kept to the peaks.
Brink bided his time and kept to his methodical trailing. So far all the favorable breaks of fortune had been his. The gradual fall of snow, layer by layer, instead of a sudden heavy blizzard, was especially good for Brink and bad for Old Gray. Winter had come, and snow lay everywhere, even to the slopes of the low country. The deer and turkey had moved down out of the high forests.
Some time late in December the hunter struck Old Gray’s trail in fresh snow that had fallen the day before. The wolf was headed down-country and the tracks had been made in the night.
“So I’ve ketched up with you,” ejaculated the hunter. “An’ that without follerin’ you hard. Wal, I reckon you’ll soon know I’m trackin’ you.”
Brink left the trail, and journeyed half a day down into the range country, and halted at a little hamlet called Pine. Here he replenished his store of provisions. His sack of pemmican he had not yet touched. That he had reserved for the strenuous last lap of this strange race. The kindly and inquisitive Mormons of the village took Brink for a trapper, and assured him there were not many fur bearing animals left.
“Wal, if you tracked round much as I do you’d be surprised how many animals are left,” replied Brink dryly, and went his way.
What Brink was ready for now was to strike the trail Old Gray would break after a kill, when he was making for a high lair to rest and sleep during the day. Brink tracked himself back to the point where he had left the trail of the loafer, and here he camped. During the succeeding week he traveled perhaps fifty miles to and fro across country, striking Old Gray’s tracks several times, heading both ways. The morning came then, as much by reason of Brink’s good judgment as the luck that favored him, when he fell upon a fresh trail, only a few hours old.
The snow lay six inches in depth. By the time Brink had climbed out of the cedars into the pines the snow was three times as deep. Old Gray had navigated it as easily as if it had been grass. Brink trudged slowly, but did not take recourse to his snowshoes.
The winter day was bright, cold and keen, though not biting, and the forest was a solemn, austere world of white and brown and green. Not a bird or a living creature crossed Brink’s vision, and tracks of animals were few and far between. It so happened that there was no wind, an absolutely dead calm, something rather unusual for high altitude at this season. The section of the country contained almost as much park area as forest. It was easy going despite a gradual ascent.
Old Gray traveled at least eighteen miles up and down, mostly up, before he took to a rocky brushy recess. Brink considered the distance at least that far, because he had walked six hours since he struck the trail.
Taking the general direction of Old Gray’s tracks, Brink left them and making a wide detour he approached on the opposite side of this fastness. He encountered no tracks leading out on that side. The wolf was there, or had been there when Brink arrived. Naturally he wanted to see Old Gray, but not nearly so much as he wanted the wolf to see him. There was no sense in trying to surprise the loafer. After a careful survey of the thicketed ridge he chose the quickest way up and scaled it.
As Brink swept sharp sight down over the jumble of boulders and vine-matted thickets, to the saddle of the ridge where it joined another, he espied a gray trotting wolf shape.
It was a quarter of a mile distant. Yet did his eyes deceive him? Not that he might not see a wolf, but that its size was incredible.
Brink let out a stentorian yell, which pealed on the cold air like a blast. The wolf leaped as if he had been shot at. But he did not run. He looked back and up. Then he trotted, nervously and hurriedly, it seemed, peering all around and especially behind, until he attained a bare rise of ridge.
There he stood motionless, gazing up at Brink. But for the background of snow the wolf would have appeared white. He was gray, with a black slash on his neck. Even at that distance Brink clearly made out the magnificence of him, the unparalleled wildness, the something that could be defined only as an imperious and contemptuous curiosity.
Brink uttered another yell, more stentorian than the first, concatenated and mounting, somewhat similar to the Comanche war whoop, which he had heard in all its appalling significance. Brink meant this yell to serve a purpose, so that Old Gray would recognize it again; yet all the same it was an expression of his own passion, a challenge, a man’s incomprehensible menace to a hereditary foe.
Old Gray raised his front feet, an action of grace that lifted his great gray shape into moving relief against the background of snow, and then, dropping back on all fours, he trotted up the ridge, looking backward.
BRINK had long fortified himself to meet the grueling test of this chase —the most doubtful time—the weeks of cold tracking—the ever- increasing distance between him and the great wolf. For when Old Gray espied him that morning he took to real flight. Suspicious of this strange pursuer without horse or dog, he left the country. But as range and mountain, valley and dale, canyon and ridge were all snow covered, he left a record of his movements. His daily and nightly tracks were open pages for Brink to read.
Five weeks, six, seven—then Brink lost count of time. The days passed, and likewise the miles under his snowshoes. Spruce and cedar and piñon, thicket of pine and shelving ledge of rock, afforded him shelter at night. Sunshine or snowstorm were all the same to him. When the fresh snow covered Old Gray’s tracks, which sometimes happened, Brink with uncanny sagacity and unerring instinct eventually found them again. Old Gray could not spend the winter in a cave, as did the hibernating bears. The wolf had to eat; his nature demanded the kill—hot blood and flesh. Thus his very beastliness, his ferocity, and his tremendous activity doomed him in this contest for life with a man creature of a higher species.
His tracks led back to the Cibeque, down into the Tonto Basin, across Hell-Gate, and east clear to the Sierra Ancas, then up the bare snow-patched ridges of the Basin, into the chaparral of juniper and manzanita and mescal, on up the rugged Mazatal range; over it and west to the Red Rock country, then across the pine- timbered upland to the San Francisco Peaks, around them to the north and down the gray bleak reaches of the desert to the Little Colorado, and so back to the wild fastnesses where that winding river had its source in the White Mountains.
What a bloody record Old Gray left. It seemed pursuit had redoubled his thirst for slaughter, his diabolical defiance of the ranches, his magnificent boldness. Perhaps he was not yet sure that there was a tireless step on his trail. But Brink believed the wolf had sensed his enemy, even though he could not scent him. This conviction emanated from Brink’s strange egotism. Yet the wolf had roused to no less than a frenzy of killing, over a wider territory than ever before. Far and wide as he wandered he yet kept within night raid of the cattle range. He must have known the vast country as well as the thicket where he had been whelped.
The time came when the ceaseless activity of the loafer began to tell on even his extraordinary endurance. He slowed up; he killed less frequently; he traveled shorter distances; he kept more to the south slopes and nearer the rangeland. All of which might have attested to the gradual lulling of his suspicions. The greatest of wild animals could not help forget, or at least grow less cautious, when safety day by day wore fear into oblivion. Nevertheless, Brink could never satisfy himself that Old Gray did not think his tracks were haunted.
Thus tracker and fugitive drew closer together. The man driven by an unquenchable spirit, seemed to gather strength from toil and loneliness, and the gradual overtaking of his quarry. The wolf, limited to instinct and the physical power endowed by nature, showed in his tracks an almost imperceptible, yet inevitable decline of strength. Any wolf would wear slower and lighter through a hard winter.
The sun worked higher in the heavens and the days grew longer. The thin crust of snow in exposed places slowly disintegrated until it no longer supported the weight of a wild cat or coyote, deer or wolf. This was the crowning treachery of the snow.
Why did Old Gray stand sometimes in the early morning, leaving telltale tracks on ridges and high points? Why did he circle back and cross his old trail? Brink knew, and the long trail was no more monotonous. The dawn came, too, when he knew the wolf had spied him. That day changed life for Old Gray. He proceeded on what Brink called a serious even track. No burst of speed. No racing out of the country. No running amuck among the cattle, leaving a red tinge on his trail.
Brink halted at sunset under a brushy foothill, dark and shaggy against the cold rose sky. The air was still, and tight with frost. Brink let out his stentorian yell that pealed like a blast of thunder out over the snow-locked scene. The echo clapped back from the hill and rolled away, from cliff to forest wall, and died hollowly in the distance. If Old Gray hid within two miles of where Brink stood, that ominous knell must have reached his ears. Brink, in his mind’s eye, saw the great beast start, and raise his sharp, wild head to listen, and tremble with instinct which had come down to him from the ages. No day since the advent of man on earth had ever seen the supremacy of beast.
The king of the gray wolves became a hunted creature. He shunned the rangelands where the cattle nipped the bleached grass out of the thinning snow. At night, on the cedar slopes, he stalked deer, and his kills grew infrequent. At dawn he climbed to the deep snows of the uplands, and his periods of sleep waxed shorter. Brink’s snowshoes were as seven-league boots. The snow was nothing to him. But Old Gray labored through the drifts. The instinct of the wild animal prompts it to react to a perilous situation in a way that most always is right. Safety for the intelligent wolf did lie away from the settlements, the ranches, and the lowlands, far up in the snowy ridges. Many a pack of hounds and band of horsemen Old Gray had eluded in the deep snows. In this case, however, he had something to reckon with far beyond his ken.
Hunger at length drove Old Gray farther down the south slopes, where he stalked deer and failed to kill as often as he killed. Time passed, and the night came when the wolf missed twice on chances that, not long ago, would have been play for him. He never attempted to trail another deer. Instead he tracked turkeys to their roosts and skulked in the brush until at dawn they alighted. Not often was his cunning rewarded. Lower still he was forced to go, into the canyons, and on the edge of the lowlands, where like any common coyote he chased rabbits. And then his kills became few and far between. Last and crowning proof of his hunger and desperation he took to eating porcupines. How the mighty had fallen. Brink read this tragedy in the tracks in the snow.
For weeks Brink had expected to overtake Old Gray and drive him from his day’s lair. This long-hoped for event at length took place at noon on a cold, bright day, when Brink suddenly espied the wolf on the summit of a high ridge, silhouetted against the pale sky. Old Gray stood motionless, watching him. Brink burst out with his savage yell. The wolf might have been a statue, for all the reaction he showed.
“Huh. Reckon my eyes are tired of this snow glare,” muttered Brink, “but I ain’t blind yet. That’s sure Old Gray.”
The black slash at the neck identified the notorious loafer; otherwise Brink could not have made certain. Old Gray appeared ragged and gaunt. The hunter shaded his eyes with his hand and looked long at his coveted quarry. Man and beast gazed at each other across the wide space. For Brink it was a moment of most extraordinary exultation. He drew a great breath and expelled it in a yell that seemed to pierce the very rocks. Old Gray dropped his head and slunk down out of sight behind the ridge.
On each succeeding day, sooner or later, Brink’s approach would rout the wolf out of covert in rocks or brush, always high up in places that commanded a view of the back trail. The pursuit would continue then, desperate on the part of the wolf, steady and relentless on that of the man, until nightfall. Then Brink would halt in the best place which offered, and, cutting green wood, he would lay pieces close together on the snow and build his little fire of dead sticks or bark upon them. Here he would cook his meager meal. His supplies were low, but he knew they would hold out. And Old Gray would have to spend the night hunting. Not one night in four would he kill meat.
It was early one morning, crisp and clear, cracking with frost, when the sunlight glinted on innumerable floating particles of ice in the air. The snow was soft and deep. Only in shady places on the north side of rocks, ridges, or hills did the crust hold. Blue jays screeched and red squirrels chattered. The sun felt warm on Brink’s cheek. Somehow he knew that spring had come. But here, on the solemn, forested heights, winter held undisputed sway. Old Gray had traveled for days along the south slopes of the Blue Range; with the strange instinct of the wild he had climbed through a pass, and now he was working down on the north side.
Far below Brink saw the black belt of forest, brightened by the open white senecas, little bare parks peculiar to the region. He would see and hear the tumbling streams, now released from their ice-locked fastnesses. Lower still stretched the rangeland, a patchwork of white and black. The air held a hint of spring. Brink smelled it, distinguished it from the cold tang of spruce and pine, and the faint fragrance of wood smoke.
Old Gray was not far ahead. His dragging tracks were fresh. Long had it been since he had stepped lightly and quickly over thin crust. And in the soft snow he waded. He did not leave four-foot tracks, but ragged furrows, sometimes as deep as his flanks. The spruce and fir were dwarfed in size and few in number, growing isolated from one another. Below these straggling trees stood out patches and clumps of forest. Brink plodded on wearily, every step a torture. Only the iron of his will, somehow projected into his worn muscles and bones, kept him nailed to that trail. His eyes had begun to trouble him. He feared snow-blindness, that bane of the mountaineer. His mind seemed to have grown old, steeped in monotonous thoughts of wolf and track.
Upon rounding a thicket of spear-pointed spruce Brink came to a level white bench, glistening like a wavy floor of diamonds in the sunlight.
Halfway across this barren mantle of snow a gray beast moved slowly. Old Gray. He was looking back over his shoulder, wild of aspect, sharp in outline. The distance was scarce three hundred yards, a short range for Brink’s unerring aim. This time he did not yell. Up swept his rifle and froze to his shoulder. His keen eye caught the little circular sight and filled it with gray.
But Brink could not pull the trigger. A tremendous shock passed over him. It left him unstrung. The rifle wavered out of alignment with the dragging wolf. Brink lowered the weapon.
“What’s come—over me?” he rasped out, in strange amaze. Weakness? Exhaustion? Excitement? Despite a tumult in his breast, and a sudden numbness of his extremities, he repudiated each of these queries. The truth held aloof until Old Gray halted out there on the rim of the bench and gazed back at his human foe.
“I’ll kill you with my bare hands,” yelled Brink, in terrible earnestness.
Not until the ultimatum burst from his lips did the might of passion awake in him. Then for a moment he was as a man possessed with demons. He paid in emotion for the months of strain on body and mind. That spell passed. It left him rejuvenated.
“Old Gray, if I shot you it’d prove nothin’,” he called, grimly, as if the wolf could understand. “It’s man ag’in wolf.”
And he threw his rifle aside into the snow, where it sank out of sight. As Brink again strode forward, with something majestic and implacable in his mien, Old Gray slunk out of sight over the rim of the snow bench. When the tracker reached the edge of this declivity the wolf had doubled the distance between them. Downhill he made faster time. Brink stood a moment to watch him. Old Gray had manifestly worn beyond the power to run, but on places where the snow crust upheld his weight he managed a weary trot. Often he looked back over his shoulder. These acts were performed spasmodically, at variance with his other movements, and betrayed him victim to terror. Uncertainty had ceased. There was a monster on his trail. Man. His hereditary foe.
Brink had to zigzag down snowy slopes, because it was awkward and sometimes hazardous to attempt abrupt descents on snowshoes. Again the loafer drew out of sight. Brink crossed and recrossed the descending tracks. Toward the middle of the afternoon the mountain slope merged into a level and more thickly timbered country. Yet the altitude was too great for dense forest. It was a wilderness of white and black, snowy ridges, valleys, swales, and senecas interspersed among strips of forest, patches and thickets of spruce, deep belts of timber.
By the strange perversity of instinct Old Gray chose the roughest travel, the darkest thicket, the piece of wood most thickly obstructed by windfalls. Brink avoided many of these sections of the trail; sometimes he made shortcuts. He did not see the wolf again that day, though he gained upon him. Night intervened.
In the cold, gray dawn, when the ghostly spruces were but shadows, Brink strode out on the trail. There was now a difference in his stride. For months he had tramped along, reserving his strength, slowly, steadily, easily without hurry or impatience. That restraint constituted part of his greatness as a tracker. But now he had the spring of a deer-stalker in his step. The weariness and pang of muscle and bone had strangely fled.
Old Gray’s tracks now told only one story. Flight. He did not seek to hunt meat. He never paused to scent at trail of deer or cat. His tracks seemed to tell of his wild yet sure hope of soon eluding his pursuer.
Before noon Brink again came in sight of the wolf, and did not lose it except when declivities or obstruction came between them. Old Gray passed the zone of snow crust. He walked and waded and wallowed through the deep white drifts. How significant that he gazed backward more than forward. Whenever he espied Brink he forced a harder gait that kept the hunter from gaining.
All afternoon the distance between them varied from four to five hundred yards. At intervals Brink let out his stentorian yell, that now rang with a note of victory. Always it made Old Gray jerk as if he had been stung from behind. It forced him into an action that would have terminated in a leap forward had his strength answered to his wild spirit. Then soon again his strained efforts would sink back to the weary drag through the snow.
When the chill mountain dusk fell Brink abandoned the pursuit for the day and made camp under a thick-branched, tent-like spruce, his favorite kind of place. Here he had to cut the first drooping branches, so that he could obtain head room under the canopy. A rousing fire soon melted the snow down to the ground. It was significant that he broke his rule of eating sparingly. This meal was almost a hearty one. Likewise he returned to his old habit of sitting and standing before his fire, watching the blaze, the red embers, the growing opal ashes. He had no thought aside from the wolf and the surroundings that insulated them. The moon shone brightly down on a cold, solemn mountain world. No wind, no cry of bird or beast, no sound except the crackling of the dying fire. He seemed a part of the wilderness. When he rolled in his blanket he heaved a deep breath, almost a sigh, and muttered, “Tomorrow, mebbe—or sure the day after.”
The next morning was not half gone before Brink caught up with Old Gray. The wolf had not eaten or slept or rested, yet he had traveled scarcely ten miles. But he had lagged along. At sight of the hunter he exhibited the panic of a craven dog. The action of his accelerated pace was like the sinking of his body forward. Then he went on, and for long kept even with his pursuer.
The time came, however, when Brink began almost imperceptibly to gain. Brink’s practiced eye saw it long before the wolf. But at length Old Gray looked back so often that he bumped into brush and trees. Then he seemed hurried into a frenzy which did not in the least augment his speed. He knew his pursuer was gaining, yet even that could not spur his jaded body to greater effort.
The sun set; twilight fell gray and black; dusk mantled the wintry scene; then night followed imperceptibly. But this night the wolf tracker did not abandon the tracks.
Above the cold white peaks a brightness illumined the dark blue sky. It had strange power over the shadows below. They changed, retreated, lightened. The moon rose above the mountain and flooded that lonely solitude with radiance.
The black spear-pointed spruces stood motionless, weird and spectral on the moon-blanched snow. The cliffs loomed gray and obscure. Dead bleached trees shone ghastly in the moonlight. Night, moon, snow, winter, solitude, nature seemed to grip all in a lifeless vice.
But two objects wound slowly across the white spaces. How infinitesimal against that background. An animal pursued by a human. Two atoms endowed with strange spirit down upon which the moon shone in seeming pity.
The hours wore on. The moon soared. The scene changed. A wind mourned out of the north. The spectral spruces swayed against the blue sky. A muffled roar of slipping avalanche rose from a long distance and died away. On the level reaches of snow that bright eye above could see the slow diminishing of space between man and wolf. Five hundred yards—four hundred— three hundred.
The shadows of peaks and cliffs and trees gradually turned to the other side. The moon slanted through the hours, paled and waned, and slanted behind the range. Through the gray gloom and obscurity, pursued and pursuer wended a deviating way, indifferent to Nature and elements and darkness or light.
Dawn was at hand, gray, mysterious, strange, beautiful, as it had broken millions of times in the past. The earth was turning on its axis. The sun was on the rise. In that mountain solitude there brooded the same life and death as had always been there. Five hundred thousand years before this hour the same drama of man and beast might have been enacted.
Yet hardly the same. The cave man fought the cave bear and saber- toothed tiger and giant wolf only to survive. Self-preservation was the primal law. Now only the instinct of the wolf remained the same.
Before man lived in caves he was arboreal; he descended from his abode in trees to walk on his feet and work with his hands, and fight. Through the dim dark ages forward, his instinct, reason, intelligence developed. In his four-footed foes these qualities remained static.
The meaning of that revolved vaguely in Brink’s somber thoughts. But this wolf tracker had no clear conception of the great passion which possessed his soul. When daylight came and he saw Old Gray dragging his gaunt body through the snow, now only a hundred paces distant, he awoke the cold mocking echoes with his terrible yell. And the shock of it appeared to send the wolf staggering off his feet. When the sun tipped the snow-rimmed mountain far above, to bathe the valley in morning glory, Brink was gaining inch by inch.
The end of the long chase was not far off. Old Gray’s heart had broken. It showed in every step he made. Sagging and lame, he struggled through the snow; he wove along and fell and got up to drive his worn-out body to yet another agony. Seldom he gazed back now. When he did turn he showed to Brink a wolf face that seemed extraordinarily to express the unalterable untameableness of the wild. That spirit was fear. If in that instant Old Gray could have suddenly become endowed with all his former strength, he would never have turned to kill his age-long enemy.
Brink’s endurance was almost spent. Yet he knew he would last, and his stride did not materially lessen. Sometimes a haze overspread his eyes and black spots danced in his sight. The pangs of his body were innumerable and almost unbearable. Yet he went on.
What was in his mind? What had driven him to these superhuman exertions? The remote past was with him surely, though he had no consciousness of that. The very marrow of his bones seemed to gather and swell and throb in readiness to burst into a mighty thrill when he had proved that he was stronger than this beast. Often he scooped up a handful of snow to put into his dry mouth. His heart labored heavily with sharp pains, and there was a drumming in his ears. Inch by inch he gained. But he stifled his strange exultation.
The battle must go to the strong—to prove the survival of the fittest. Nature had developed this wolf to the acme of perfection. But more merciless than nature was life, for life had weakness. Man shared this weakness with all animals, but man possessed some strange, sustaining, unutterable, ineradicable power. Brink relied upon it. Old Gray was yielding to it.
The last hour grew appalling. Brink felt on the verge of collapse. Old Gray’s movements were those of a dying creature. The hunter did not gain any more. Over white benches, through spruce thickets, under the windfalls man and beast remained only a few paces apart. Brink could have knocked the wolf over with a club. But he only stretched out a great clutching hand, as if the next moment he could close it round that black-slashed neck.
The solemn day advanced. And from the last slope of mountain in the rangeland below spread out gray and green in the habiliments of spring. The long winter was over. Cattle dotted the pasture lands.
Under Brink’s snowshoes the snow grew wet and soft. Soon he must take them off. But there would be drifts in the black belt of pine forest below. He smelled the tang of the pines, warm, sweet, woody.
The irregular furrow which he trod out with his snowshoes led down over slope and bench to level forest. Under the stately spreading pines the snow swelled into wavy mounds.
Old Gray sank the length of his legs, fell on his side, and lay still.
Soon the wolf tracker stood over him, gaping down.
“Ahuh—Old Gray—you’re done,” he panted huskily.
All that appeared left of magnificence about this wolf was his beautiful gray coat of fur, slashed at the neck with a glossy mark of black. Old Gray was lean and thin. His wild head lay on the snow, with mouth open, tongue protruding. How white and sharp the glistening fangs.
It was nothing new for Brink to see the coward in a beaten wolf. The legend of the ferocity of a trapped wolf was something he knew to be untrue. This notorious loafer, so long a menace to the range, showed in his wonderful gray eyes his surrender to man. The broken heart, the broken spirit, the acceptance of death. Brink saw no fear now—only resignation. And for a moment it halted his propelling rush to violence.
Man and wolf, age-long hereditary foes, alone there in the wilderness. Man the conqueror—man obsessed with the idea that man was born in the image of God. No wolf—no beast had ever been or could ever be man’s equal. Brink’s life had been an unconscious expression of this religion. This last and supreme test to which he had so terribly addressed himself had been the climax of his passion to prove man’s mastery over all the beasts of the field.
Yet, with brawny hand extended, Brink suffered a singular and dismaying transformation of thought. What else did he read in those wild gray eyes? It was beyond him, yet from it he received a chilling of his fevered blood, a sickening sense of futility even in possession of his travail-earned truth. Could he feel pity for Old Gray, blood-drinker of the cattle ranges?
“Ahuh… Reckon if I held back longer—” he muttered, darkly, wonderingly. Then stepping out of his snowshoes he knelt and laid hold of Old Gray’s throat with that great clutching hand.
Brink watched the wild eyes fade and glaze over and set. The long tremble of the wolf in the throes of death was strangely similar to the intense vibrating thrill of the man in his response to the heritage of a primitive day.
IT was springtime down at Barrett’s ranch. The cows were lowing and the calves were bawling. Birds and wet ground and budding orchard trees were proof of April even if there had not been the sure sign of the rollicking cowboys preparing for the spring roundup.
“I’m a-rarin’ to go. Oh, boy!” shouted Sandy McLean.
“Wal, I’m the damndest best cowman that ever forked a hoss,” replied the lean and rangy Juniper Edd, star rider for Barrett.
The shaggy, vicious mustangs cavorted in the corral, and whistled, squealed, snorted, and kicked defiance at their masters.
“Reckon I gotta stop smokin’ them coffin nails. I jest cain’t see,” complained Thad Hickenthorp.
“Aw, it ain’t cigarettes, Hick,” drawled the redheaded Matty Lane. “Your eyes had plumb wore out on Sally Barrett.”
“She’s shore dazzlin’, but thet’s far enough for you to shoot off yore chin,” replied Thad.
“Cheese it, you fellars. Hyar comes the boss,” added another cowboy.
Barrett strode from the ranch house. Once he had been a cowboy as lithe and wild as any one of his outfit. But now he was a heavy, jovial, weather-beaten cattleman.
“Boys, heah’s word from my pardner, Adams,” he said, with satisfaction. “All’s fine an’ dandy over on the Cibeque. You got to rustle an’ shake dust or that outfit will show us up. Best news of all is about Old Gray. They haven’t seen hide nor hair nor track of that wolf for months. Neither have we. I wonder now… Wouldn’t it be dod-blasted good luck if we was rid of that loafer?”
On that moment a man appeared turning into the lane, and his appearance was so unusual that it commanded silence on the part of Barrett and his cowboys. This visitor was on foot. He limped. He sagged under a pack on his shoulder. His head was bowed somewhat, so that the observers could not see his face. His motley garb was so tattered that it appeared to be about to fall from him in bits of rags.
He reached the group of men and, depositing his pack on the ground, he looked up to disclose a placid, grizzled face, as seamed and brown as a mass of pine needles.
“Howdy, stranger. An’ who might you be?” queried Barrett, gruffly.
“My name’s Brink. I’m new in these parts. Are you Barrett, pardner to Adams over on the Cibeque?” he replied.
“Yes, I’m Barrett. Do you want anythin’ of me?”
“I’ve got something to show you,” returned Brink, and kneeling stiff-legged he laboriously began to untie his pack. It was bulky and securely roped. Out of one end of the bundle protruded the frayed points of snowshoes. The cowboys surrounded him and Barrett, curiously silent, somehow sensing the dramatic.
When Brink drew out a gray furry package and unfolded it to show the magnificent pelt of a great loafer wolf the cowboys burst into gasps and exclamations of amaze.
“Ever seen that hide?” demanded Brink, with something subtle and strong under his mild exterior.
“Old Gray,” boomed Barrett.
“I’m a locoed son-of-a-gun if it ain’t,” said Juniper Edd.
“Wal. I never seen Old Gray, but thet’s him,” ejaculated Thad.
“Damn me. It’s shore thet gray devil with the black ruff. Old Gray wot I seen alive more’n any man on the ranges,” added Matty Lane, in an incredulity full of regret.
“Stranger, how’n hell did you ketch this heah wolf?” demanded Sandy McLean.
Brink stood up. Something tame and deceiving fell away from the man. His face worked, his eyes gleamed.
“I walked him to death in the snow,” he replied.
Barrett swore a lusty oath. It gave full expression to his acceptance of Brink’s remarkable statement, yet held equal awe and admiration.
“When? How long?” he queried, hoarsely.
“Well, I started in early last October, an’ I saw the end of his tracks yesterday.”
“It’s April tenth,” exclaimed Barrett. “Tracked—walked Old Gray to death… My God, man, but you look it… An’ you’ve come for the reward?”
“Reckon I’d forgot that,” replied Brink, simply. “I just wanted you to know the loafer was dead.”
“Ah-hum. So that’s why?” returned the rancher, ponderingly, with a hand stroking his chin. His keen blue eyes studied the wolf tracker gravely, curiously. His cowboys, likewise, appeared at the end of their wits. For once their loquaciousness had sustained a check. One by one, silent as owls and as wide-eyed, they walked to and fro around Brink, staring from his sad, lined face to the magnificent wolf pelt. But least of all did their faces and actions express doubt. They were men of the open range. They saw at a glance the manifestations of tremendous toil, of endurance, privation, and time that had reduced this wolf tracker to a semblance of a scarecrow in the cornfield. Of all things, these hardy cowboys respected indomitableness of spirit and endurance of body. They wondered at something queer about Brink, but they could not grasp it. Their need of silent conviction, their reverent curiosity, proclaimed that to them he began to loom incomprehensibly great.
“Never felt so happy in my life,” burst out Barrett. “Come in an’ eat an’ rest. I’ll write you a check for that five thousand… An’ fetch Old Gray’s hide to show my womenfolks. I’ll sure have that hide made into a rug.”
Brink gave a slight start and his serenity seemed to shade into a somber detachment. Without a glance at Barrett he knelt, and folded up the wolf skin and tied it in his pack. But when he arose, lifting the pack to his shoulder, he said:
“Keep your money. Old Gray is mine.”
Then he strode away from the bewildered ranchman and his cowboys.
“Hey. What d’ye mean, rarin’ off that way?” called Barrett, growing red in the face. It was as if his sincerity or generosity had been doubted. “Fetch the wolf hide back hyar an’ take your money.”
Brink appeared not to hear. His stride lengthened, showing now no trace of the limp which had characterized it upon his arrival. The cattleman yelled angrily for him to stop. One of the cowboys let out a kindlier call. But Brink, swinging into swifter strides, remarkable even at that moment to his watchers, passed into the cedars out of sight.