by John G. Neihardt
THROUGH the quiet night, crystalline with the pervading spirit of
the frost, under prairie skies of mystic purple pierced with the
glasslike glitter of the stars, fled Antoine.
Huge, and hollow-sounding with the clatter of the pinto's hoofs,
hung the night above and about, lonesome, empty, bitter as the soul of
him who fled.
A weary age of flight since sunset! And now the coming of midnight
saw the thin-limbed, long-haired pony slowly losing its nerve, rasping
in the throat, tottering.
With pitiless, spike-spurred heels the rider hurled the beast on
into the empty night.
"G'wan, you blasted cayuse, you over-grown wolf-dog, you
pot-bellied shonga! Keep up that tune; I'm goin' somewheres! What'd I
steal you fer? Pleasure? Ho, ho, ho! I reckon! Pleasure for the
Suddenly rounding a bank of sand, the pinto sighted the broad,
ice-bound river, a stream of glinting silver under the stars. Sniffing
and crouching upon its haunches at the sudden glow that dwindled a
gleaming thread into the further dusk, the jaded beast received a
series of vicious jabs from the spike-spurred heels. It groaned and
lunged forward again, taking with uncertain feet the glaring path
ahead, and awakening a dull, snarling thunder in the under regions of
Slipping, struggling, doing its brute best to overcome fatigue, the
pinto covered the ice.
"Doin' a war-dance, eh?" growled the man with bitter mirth; and
gouging the foaming, bloody flanks of the animal: "G'wan! Set up that
tune; I want fast music, 'cause I'm goin' somewheres — don't know
where — out there in the shadders. Come here, will you? Take that and
that and that! Now, will you kick the scen'ry back'ards? By the — "
The cries of the man were cut short as he shot far over the pommel,
lunging headlong past the pinto's head, and striking with head and
shoulders upon the ice.
When he stopped sliding, he lay very still for a few moments. Then
he groaned, sat up, and found that the bluffs and the river and the
stars and the universe in general were whirling giddily — himself the
With uncertain arms he reached out, endeavoring to check the
sickening motion of things by sheer force of his powerful hands. He was
thrown down like a weakling wrestling with a giant. Then he lay still,
cursing in a whisper, trying to balance the disturbed universe, until
the motion passed.
With great care, Antoine raised himself upon his elbows and gazed
about with a foolish grin.
Then he remembered — remembered that he was hunted; that he was an
outcast, a man of no race; remembered dimly, and with a leer, a portion
of a long series of crimes; remembered that the last was
horse-stealing, and that some of the others concerned blood.
And as he remembered, he felt with horrible distinctness the lariat
tightening about his neck — the lariat that the men of Cabanne's
trading-post were bringing on fleet horses, nearer, nearer, nearer
through the silent night.
Antoine shuddered and got to his feet, looming huge against the
star-sprinkled surface of the ice as he turned a malevolent face down
trail and listened for the beat of hoofs.
There was only the dim, hollow murmur that has its habitation at
the heart of silence.
"Got a long start," he observed with the chuckle of a man whom
desperation has made careless. "Hello!"
A pale, semicircular glow, like the flare of a burning straw-stack
a half a night's journey over the hills, had grown up at the horizon of
the east. And as the man stared, still in a maze from his recent fall,
the moon heaved an arc of tarnished silver above the mystic rim of sky,
flooding with new light the river and the bluffs. The man stood
illumined — a big brute of a man; heavy-limbed, massive-shouldered,
with the slouching stoop and alert air of the habitual skulker.
The refugee moved uneasily, as though he had suddenly become
visible to a lurking foe. He glanced nervously about him, fumbled at
the butt of a six-shooter at his belt, then catching sight of the
blotch of huddled dusk that was the fallen pinto, the meaning of his
situation flashed upon him.
"That cussed cayuse! Gone and done hisself, like as not! The whole
creation's agin me!"
He made for the pinto, snarling viciously, as though its exhausted,
lacerated body were the visible self of the inimical universe. He
grasped the reins and jerked them. The brute groaned and let its weary
head fall heavily upon the ice.
Antoine began kicking the pinto in the ribs, bringing forth groans
"Oh, you won't get up, eh? Agin me, too, eh? Take that and that and
that! I wished you was everybody in the world and hell to wunst; I'd
make you beller, now I got you down! Take that, and pass in!"
With a roar of anger, he fell upon the pinto, swearing, striking,
kicking. But the pony only groaned faintly. Its outworn limbs could no
longer support its body.
WHEN Antoine had exhausted his rage, he got up, gave the pony a
farewell kick upon the nose, and started off at a dog-trot across the
ice toward the bluffs beyond.
Ever and anon he stopped and whirled about with hand at ear. He
heard only the sullen murmur of the silence, broken occasionally by the
whine and pop of the ice and the plaintive, bitter wail of coyotes
somewhere in the hills, like the heart-broken cry of the lonesome
prairie yearning for the summer.
"Oh, I wouldn't howl if I was you!" muttered Antoine,
apostrophizing the coyotes. "I wished I was a coyote or a gray wolf,
knowin' what I do. I'd be a man-killer and a cattle-eater, I would. And
then I'd have people of my own. Wouldn't be no cussed half-breed, a
runnin' from his kind. Oh, I wouldn't howl if I was you!"
He proceeded at a swinging trot across the half-mile of ice and
halted under the bluffs. He listened intently. A far sound had grown up
in the hollow night, as if from the bottom of a deep well.
It was the clatter of hoofs far away, but clear in faintness, for
the cold snap had made the frozen prairie a vast sounding-board.
A light snow had fallen the night before, and the moonlit trail of
the refugee stood out upon it as clear as a wagon-track.
Antoine felt the pitiless pinch of the approaching lariat as he
listened. Then his accustomed bitter weariness of life came upon him.
"What's the use in me runnin'? What am I runnin' to? Nothin' —
only more of the same I'm runnin' from; lonesomeness and hunger and the
like of that. Gettin' awake, stiff and cold and half-starved, and
cussin' the daylight 'cause it's agin me like everything else, and
gives me away. Sneakin' around till dark, eatin' when I can, like a
dern gray wolf; then goin' to bed agin a snow-drift, like as not,
hopin' it'll never get day. But it always does!
"It's all night somewheres, I reckon, spite of what the
missionaries says. That's fer me — night always! No comin' day, no
gettin' up; some place to hide in always."
He walked on with head dropped forward upon his breast, skirting
the base of the bluffs, now seemingly oblivious of the sound of hoofs
that grew momently more distinct.
As he walked he was dimly conscious of passing within a foot of the
dark mouth of a hole running back into the clay of a bluff. He
proceeded until he found himself again at the edge of the river,
staring down into a broad black fissure in the ice, caused, doubtless,
by the dash of the current crossing from the other side.
A terrible, dark, alluring thought seized him. Here was the place
— the doorway to that place where it was always night!
Why not go in?
There would be no more running away, no more hiding, no more hatred
of men, no more lonesomeness and hunger. Here was the place! He stepped
forward, and stooped to gaze down into the door of night.
The rushing waters made a dismal, moaning sound. He stared,
transfixed. Yes, he would go!
Suddenly a shudder ran through his whole body. He gave a quick
exclamation of terror.
"No! No! Not there!"
He leaped back and raised his face to the skies. How kind and good
to look upon was the sky! He gazed about — it was so fair a world! How
good it was to breathe! He longed to throw his great brute arms about
creation and clutch it to him, and hold it, hold it, hold it!
The distant and muffled confusion of sound had grown into a series
of sharp, distinct, staccato notes. The outlaw's pursuers were now no
farther than a mile away. They would soon reach the river.
With the quick instinct of the hunted beast, Antoine grasped the
means of safety. He remembered the hole in the bluff. His footprints
led to the ice-fissure. He decided that none should lead away. He could
not be pursued under ice.
Stooping, so that he could look between his legs, he began
retracing his steps backward, placing his feet with infinite care where
they had fallen before. Thus he came again to the hole in the clay
bluff, and disappeared. A jutting point of sandstone had kept the quiet
snow from falling at the mouth of the hole. The man left no trail as he
entered on hands and knees.
When he had entered, he stopped and listened. He could now hear
distinctly the sharp crack of hoofs upon the ice and the pop and
thunder of the shaken surface.
"Here's some luck for me, anyhow," mused Antoine.
HE crawled on into the nether darkness of the hole, which grew more
spacious as he proceeded.
As he crawled, the sound of pursuing hoofs grew dimmer. Antoine
half forgot them. His keen sense had caught the peculiar musty odor of
animal life. He felt a stuffy warmth in his nostrils as he breathed.
Suddenly out of the dark ahead there grew up two points of
phosphorescent light. Antoine fell back upon his haunches with a low
growl of surprise. Years of wild, lonesome life had made him more beast
The lights slowly came closer, growing more brilliant. There was a
harsh, rasping growl and a sound of sniffing.
Antoine waited until the contracting pupils of his eyes could grasp
the situation with more distinctness.
"Can't run," he muttered. "Lariat behind; somethin' growlin' in
front. It's one more fight, and here goes fer my damnedest. Rather die
mad and fightin' than jump into cold water or stick my head through a
Then, of a sudden, came a sharp, savage yelp, and Antoine's cheek
was ripped open with a stroke of gnashing teeth!
He felt for an instant the hot breath of the beast, the trickle of
hot blood on his cheek; and then the last of the human in him passed.
He growled and hurled the body of his enemy from him with a swing of
his bearlike paw.
The dark hole echoed a muffled howl of anger, and in an instant the
two rolled together in the darkness. The man had forgotten his
six-shooter. It was a primitive struggle — the snapping of jaws, the
grating of hoarse throats that labored with angry breath, snarls,
At last the man knew it was a wolf he fought. He reached for its
throat, but felt his hand caught in a hot, wet, powerful trap of teeth.
He grasped the under jaw with a grip that made his antagonist howl with
pain. With his other hand he felt about in the darkness, groping for
He found it; seized it with a viselike clutch; shut his teeth and
threw all the power of his massive frame into the struggle.
Slowly, slowly, the struggles of the wolf became weaker. The lean,
hairy form fell limply, and the man laughed with guttural mirth, for he
Then again he felt the trickle of blood upon his cheek, the ache of
his bitten hand. His anger returned with double fury. He kicked the
limp body as he lay panting beside it, never releasing his grip.
Suddenly he ceased kicking; he forgot his conquered enemy for the
moment. There were sounds.
He heard the thump, thump of hoofs passing his place of refuge.
Then they ceased. A sound of confused voices came dimly. Then after a
while the hoofs passed again, and there was a distinct voice that said:
"Saved hangin', anyway." The hoofs grew dimmer, and Antoine knew by the
hollowness of the sound that his pursuers had begun to recross the
He again gave his attention to the wolf. It lay very still; it
seemed dead. A feeling of supreme comfort came over Antoine. He had
fought and conquered, and now he was weary but safe. He laid his head
upon the body for a pillow.
HE awoke, feeling a soft, warm rasping on his wounded cheek. A
faint light came in at the entrance of the place; it was morning. In
his sleep Antoine had moved his head near to the mouth of the wolf. And
now, utterly conquered, bruised, unable to rise, the brute was feebly
licking the blood from the man's face.
A sense of mastery made the man inclined to be kind to a fellow
being for once. He was safe, and something had caressed him, although
it was only a beaten wolf.
"You pore devil!" said Antoine, with a sudden softness in his
voice. "I done you up, didn't I? But you hain't so bad, I guess. But if
I hadn't done you, I'd got done myself. Hurt much, you pore devil, eh?"
He stroked the side of the animal, making it cry out with pain.
"Pretty sore, eh? Well, as long as I'm bigger'n you, I'll be good
to you, I will. I ain't so bad, am I? You treat me square and you won't
never get no bad deals from the half-breed. Mind that, I tell you.
"Let me hunt you up a name. Susette! That's it — Susette! You're
Susette now. I hain't got no people, so I'm a wolf, and my name's
Antoine. Antoine and Susette — sounds good, don't it?
"Say, I know as much about bein' a gray wolf as you do! Can't show
me nothin' about sneakin' and hidin' and fightin'! Say, old girl,
hain't I a pretty good fighter? Oh, I know I am, all right! And when
you need it ag'in you're goin' to get it strong, Susie. Mind that!
"Hain't got nothin' to eat about the house, have you? Then, bein'
head of the family, I'm goin' huntin'. Don't you let no other wolf come
'round here; you know me! I'll wear his hide when I get back, if you
And he went out.
Before noon Antoine returned bringing three jack-rabbits, having
shot them with his six-shooter.
"Well, Susette," said he, "got any appetite?"
He passed his hand over the wolf's snout caressingly. The wolf
flinched in fear, but the man continued the caress until she licked his
"Now we're friends, and we can live together peaceable, can't we?
Took a big family row, though. Families needs stirrin' up now and then,
He skinned a rabbit and with his knife cut off morsels of meat.
"Here, Susette, I'm goin' to fill your hide first, 'cause you've
been so good since the row. There, that's it! Eat! Does me good to see
you eat, pore, sick Susette!"
The wolf took the morsels from his hand, and a look that was almost
tame came into her eyes. When she had eaten the better part of a
rabbit, Antoine skinned another and had a meal of raw flesh.
Then he sat down beside her and stroked her nose and neck and
flanks. There was an air of home about the place. He was safe and
sheltered, had a full stomach, and there was a creature near that
showed him kindness, although it had been won by a beating.
"Susette," he said in a soft voice, as he stroked the wolf, "don't
get mean ag'in when you get well. I want to live quiet and like
somethin' fer wunst. If you'll be good, I'll see that you get enough
eatin'. Oh, I'll get you rabbits and antelope and birds, and you won't
need to hunt nor run about whinin' with your belly flappin' together.
"And I know how to make fire — somethin' you don't know, wise as
you be — and I'll keep you warm, and pet you lots. Is it a bargain?
All you need to do is be just good, keepin' your teeth out'n my cheek.
"I've been lonesome always. I hain't got no people. Do you know who
your dad was? Neither do I; we're in the same boat there. Some French
trader was mine, I guess. My mother's an Omaha.
"Wagah peasha — bad white man — that's what the Omahas called me
ever since I was a little feller. And the white men says, 'darned
Injun.' And where am I? Hangin' on the edge of things — gettin' orn'ry
and nasty and bad. I've stole horses and killed people and cussed fer
days, Susette. And I want to rest. I want to love somethin'! I don't
care what; somethin' that'll just let me. Cabanne's men down at the
post would laugh to hear Antoine sayin' that. But I do. I want to love
"I tried to, wunst. Her name was Susette, same as your'n. She was a
trader's daughter — a pretty French girl. That was before I was very
bad. I talked sweet to her, and she liked it. But the old man Lecroix
— that was her dad — he showed me the trail, and he says: 'Go that
way, and go fast, you damn Injun!'
"I went, Susette, but I made him pay, I did. I saw him on his back,
after that, a grinnin' up at the stars. And since then I hain't cared
much. I killed several in my time, and I called 'em all Lecroix!
"Be a good girl, Susette, and I'll stick to you. I'm a good fighter
and a good grub-hunter, too. I learned all that easy."
He continued caressing the wolf, and she licked his hand when he
stroked her muzzle.
DAYS passed, the winter deepened, the heavy snows came. Antoine
nursed his bruised companion back to strength. Through the bitter
nights he kept a fire burning in front of the hole.
The depth of the snow made it improbable that any would learn of
his whereabouts; and the news must have spread from post to post that
Antoine, the outlaw half-breed, had drowned himself in the ice-fissure
in order to escape hanging.
The man had used all his ammunition, and his six-shooter had become
useless. So, with the skill of an Indian, he wrought a bow and arrows.
He made snow-shoes, and continued to hunt, keeping the wolf in meat
until she grew strong and fat with the unaccustomed luxurious life.
Also, she became very tame. During her weakness, the man had subdued
her fierceness. When the snow crusted, the two went hunting together,
Susette trotting at Antoine's heels like a dog.
One evening in late December, when the low moon threw a shaft of
cold silver into the mouth of the lair, Antoine lay huddled in his
furs, listening to the dirgelike calls of the wolves, wandering inward
from the vast night. Susette also listened, sitting upon her haunches
beside the man, with her short ears pricked forward.
When the far-away cries of her kinspeople arose into a compelling
major sound, dying away into the merest shadow of a pitiful minor, she
switched her tail uneasily, shuffled about nervously, sniffing and
Then she began pacing with an eager swing up and down the place to
the opening and back, sending forth the long cry of kinship whenever
she reached the mouth of the lair.
"Night's cold, Susette," said Antoine; "'tain't no time fer
huntin'. Hain't I give you enough to eat?"
He caught the wolf, and by main force held her down beside him. She
snarled savagely and snapped her jaws together, struggling out of his
arms and going to the opening, where she cried into the stillness;
whereat the answer of her kind floated back in doleful chorus.
"Don't go!" begged the man; "Susette, my pretty Susette! I'd be so
Finally, as the chorus died, the wolf gave a loud yelp and rushed
into the pale night.
A great passion seized Antoine. He leaped from his furs and ran out
after the wolf. She fled with a rapid, swinging trot over the
scintillating snow toward the concourse of her people. The man fled
after, slipping, falling, getting up, running, and ever the wolf
widened the glittering stretch of snow between them.
To Antoine, the ever-widening space of glinting coldness vaguely
typified the barrier that seemed growing between him and his last
"Susette, oh, Susette!" he cried at last, breathless and exhausted.
His cry was dirgelike, even as the wolves'; thin and sharp — the voice
of the old world-ache.
She had disappeared in the dusk of a ravine. Antoine, huddled in
the snow with his face upon his knees, sobbed unmanfully into the
AT last, with slow and faltering step, he returned to his lair. He
threw himself down upon the floor of the cave and cursed the world —
cursed everything in it, individually and generally; and then he cursed
"It's some other wolf," he hissed; "some other gray dog she's goin'
to see! Oh, darn him! Darn his gray hide! I'll kill her, if she ever
He took out his knife and began whetting it viciously upon his
"I'll cut her into strips and eat 'em! Wasn't I good to her?
Couldn't I have killed her? Oh, I'll cut her into strips, I will!"
He whetted his knife for an hour, cursing through his teeth. At
last his anger grew into a foolish madness. He hurled himself upon the
bunch of furs beside him and made himself imagine that they were
Susette. He set his teeth into them; he crushed them with his hands.
Then, in the impotence of his anger, he fell upon his face and sobbed
himself to sleep.
Strange visions passed before him. Again he killed Lecroix, and saw
the dead face grinning at the stars. Again he sat in his mother's lodge
and wept because he was a stranger. Again he was fleeing, fleeing,
fleeing from a leather noose that hung above him like a black cloud,
and circled and lowered and raised and lowered, until it swooped down
upon him and closed about his neck.
With a yell of fright he awoke from his nightmare. His head
throbbed, his mouth was parched.
At last day came in sneakingly through the opening — a dull,
melancholy light and with it came Susette, sniffing, with the bristles
of her neck erect.
"Susette! Susette!" cried the man joyfully.
He no longer thought of killing her. He seized her in his arms; he
kissed her frost-whitened muzzle.
She received his caresses with disdain; whereat he redoubled his
acts of fondness. He fed her and petted her as she ate; then the
bristles on her neck dropped. She nosed him half fondly. And Antoine,
manlike, was glad again. He contented himself with touching the frayed
hem of the garment of Happiness.
He ate nothing that day. He said to himself: "I won't hunt till
it's all gone; she can have it all." He was afraid to leave Susette; he
was afraid to take her with him again into the land of her people.
Antoine was jealous.
All day he was kind to her with pitiful kindness. He whispered
softly into her ear:
"Susette, I hain't a goin' to be jealous no more. You've been a bad
girl, Susette; don't do it again. I won't be mean, less'n you let him
come skulkin' around here."
The next morning Antoine did not get up. He felt sore and
exhausted. By evening his heart was beating like a hammer. His head
ached and swam; his burning eyes saw strange, uncertain visions.
"Susette," he called, "I ain't feelin' right. Come here and let me
touch you again."
NIGHT was falling, and Susette sat sullenly apart, listening for
the call of her people. She did not go to him. All night the man tossed
After a lingering age of delirious wanderings, dizzy flights from
huge, pitiless pursuers, he became conscious of the daylight. He raised
his head feebly and looked about the den. Susette was gone.
A fury of jealousy came upon Antoine. She had gone again to find
that other wolf; he felt certain of this. He tried to arise, but the
fever had weakened him so that he lay impotent, torn alternately with
anger and longing.
Suddenly a frost-whitened snout was thrust in at the opening.
It was Susette. The man gave a feeble cry of joy, and his eyes were
filled with a soft light. Susette entered, sniffing strangely and
switching her tail as she came. At her heels came another gray wolf —
a male — larger-boned, lanker, with more powerful jaws. He whined and
moved his tail nervously at sight of the man.
Antoine lay staring at the intruder.
"So that's him!" thought the man. "I wisht I could git up!"
The gray intruder approached him with a sinuous movement of the
tail. His jaws grinned hideously with long, sharp teeth displayed. The
rage of hunger was in his eyes, fixed steadily upon the sick man.
Antoine stared into the eyes of his enemy, already crouching for
the spring. On a sudden, a strange exhilaration seized him. He seemed
to be drinking in the essence of life from the pitiless stare of his
adversary. His great limbs, devitalized but a moment before, now
tingled to the extremities with a surging of the wine of life. His
eyes, which the fever had burned into the dulness of ashes, flamed
again with the eager lust of fight.
He raised himself upon his haunches, and with the lifting of a
sneering lip that disclosed his grinding teeth, he gave a cry that was
both a snarl and a sob.
In that moment these many centuries of artificial life were as a
vanished dream. From the long-slumbering dust of the prehistoric
cave-man came a giant spirit to steel the sinews of its far-removed and
Antoine met the impetuous spring of the intruding wolf with a
downward blow of his fist, and sprang upon his momentarily worsted foe.
Never before in all his bitter, pariah life had he fought as now he
fought for the possession of his last companion. His antagonist, bigger
than Susette, was the survivor of many moonlight battles to the death
in the frozen, foodless wilderness of hills.
Antoine struggled not as a man; he was now merely the good,
glorious fighting beast — masterful, primitive, the taker of his own.
Lacerated by the snapping of powerful jaws, bleeding from his face and
hands, the man felt that he was winning. With a whining cry he
succeeded in fixing his left hand upon the hairy throat, crushed the
wolf down upon his back, and, using prodigious strength, began to press
the fingers of his right hand under the protruding lower ribs. He would
tear them out! He would thrust his hand in among the vitals of his foe!
All the while Susette, whining and wagging her tail nervously,
watched the struggle with glowing eyes, and waited for the sign of the
victor. But at this juncture she arose with a threatening sway of the
head, approached the two cautiously, then hurled herself into the
encounter. She leaped with a savage yelp upon him who had long been her
The man's grip suddenly relaxed. He fell back and threw out his
arms, into which once more there came the weakness of the fever.
"Susette!" gasped Antoine; "I was always good to you! I — — "
His cry was choked into a wheeze. Susette had gripped him by the
throat, and the two were upon him.
She had gone back to the ways of her kind, and the man was an