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The White Wolf by Zoe Meyer

 

The Little Vermilion, placid river of the plains, has its source in an ice-cold spring high up among the ledges of old Scarface where, after a sheer drop of fifty feet, the young river goes on its way a brawling, turbulent mountain stream. In a cave so close to the cataract that the entrance was often screened by a curtain of mist, a pair of wolf cubs first saw the light of day. It was a wild and savage spot for a home, one that befitted the mate of Gray Wolf, leader of the pack.

In their early infancy the cubs were appealing balls of gray down, rolling and tumbling about on the rocky floor of their cave much in the manner of young animals the world over. And, like other young animals, when they first essayed to walk, their legs had a treacherous way of doubling up beneath them and, without warning, letting them down on the hard floor of the cave. In a remarkably short time, however, they gained control over these unruly members and were ready to begin the training which would qualify them for membership in the pack.

From the first, one of the cubs gave promise of being no ordinary wolf. Long white hairs appeared among the down upon his back and sides, growing more and more numerous until, when the cub was half grown, they made a coat of pure white. The first time his mother returned from her hunting to see him standing in the sunlight at the mouth of the den, she stopped several yards away, looking at him keenly and half suspiciously. The moment he discovered her presence the cub ran to meet her with a glad whine of recognition and her look changed. From that time on, she accepted him without question.

The white cub grew fast, and as he grew, the wild and savage nature of his surroundings seemed to creep into his blood and become a part of him. His baby growl was drowned by the ceaseless roar of the falls, but as his voice grew stronger and fuller it took on the deep note of the cataract. Long before his brother, he learned to pounce upon the luckless grasshopper or cricket which appeared near the cave and to hold it down with his fore-paws while he crunched it with relish. From grasshoppers he progressed to mice, and from mice to rabbits, until he came to depend but little upon the spoils of the mother wolf's hunting.

One night, when he was little more than half grown, the cub awakened to find his mother absent at her hunting. The moonlight at the entrance to the cave called him and he trotted out. Save for the thunder of the falls, the night was very still. He stood upon the ledge before the cave, looking down upon the wilderness, mysterious and alluring in the moonlight, and the sight affected him strangely.

Suddenly there came to his ears a long-drawn howl. At the sound, indescribably lonely and wild, the hair rose upon the back of the young wolf and his eyes gleamed. It was the summons of the leader to the pack and, though the cub knew nothing of its meaning, his heart instinctively thrilled to it.

There was a moment of silence. Then, from far diverging points, the cry was taken up as the various members of the pack rallied to the call of their leader. The cub's heart swelled with a new and strange emotion. The next moment, high on his rocky ledge, he lifted his muzzle to the moon and sent out his own answer. The call was lost in the roar of the cataract, but from that night the white cub felt his kinship with the pack of which he was one day to become the leader.

[Illustration: High on his rocky ledge he lifted his muzzle to the moon.]

Time passed, and the white cub was no longer a cub but a grown wolf, unexcelled for fleetness of foot and strength of muscle. His mother and the other cub had long since joined the pack, but for some reason the white wolf kept to himself. When the rallying call reached his ears on a still winter night, it ran like fire through his veins; yet he did not answer the call and morning invariably found him curled up in the old den, high on the shoulder of Scarface. Occasionally he was sighted by a lone hunter who returned to the settlements with tales of the great white wolf of the mountain, tales which grew from lip to lip until the animal had attained gigantic proportions. And still the white wolf traveled alone.

Then one night, when the wilderness lay in the merciless grip of winter, and famine stalked the trails, the white wolf joined the pack. It came about in this wise.

Gray Wolf, leader of the pack, had taken up the trail of a lynx. In an encounter between the two, the latter would scarcely have been a match for the big wolf; but it chanced that soon after Gray Wolf sprang to the attack, the mate of the lynx appeared and joined the fray. Thus the wolf became the victim of a double set of raking claws and sharp teeth. He fought savagely but the claws of the male lynx gashed him horribly from beneath, while its mate bit and tore from above.

The double punishment was too much for the wolf. Exhausted and bleeding, he raised his voice in the rallying call of the pack. As the call rang out over the silent wood the lynxes, knowing that they would soon be hopelessly outnumbered, sprang clear. With great leaps they vanished among the shadows of the forest, lost to sight even before the foremost wolf appeared.

Thus when the members of the pack had gathered, they found, not the game which they had anticipated, but only their leader, sorely wounded. The winter had been a hard one, with food unusually scarce. The gaunt bodies of the wolves gave evidence of their fast and their tempers had become very uncertain. Accordingly the sight and smell of blood, though that of one of their own number, almost drove them to a frenzy.

Gray Wolf, quickly perceiving the attitude of the pack, drew himself painfully to a sitting posture on a large flat rock and from this vantage point glared at his followers who had hitherto been obedient to his will. And though he was old and wounded, the pack quailed for a time before his glance. His advantage could not last, however. The others soon grew restless, the circle of dark forms tightening in a menacing way about the rock upon which the old leader crouched. Then a young wolf who had long chafed under the leadership of Gray Wolf, sprang for a throat hold.

Gray Wolf's mate was absent. There was none to defend him and, though he would not have given up easily, there could have been but one ending to the fight had not a strange interruption occurred. The young wolf was suddenly hurled backward as from a catapult, his neck being broken as he struck the ground, while upon the rock beside the old leader appeared a great white wolf, fangs bared and eyes glowing with savage fire. For a moment the pack stood aghast. Never had such a wolf been seen in all the Little Vermilion country. With tails between their legs they retreated to a safe distance where they paused, uncertain whether to stay or to flee.

The white wolf, however, turned scornfully from them and looked down at the wounded leader. Gray Wolf did not cower, nor did his staunch heart fail him. He tried to rise, but the movement started the flow of blood afresh and the next moment he sank back dead. The white wolf gazed at him; then, standing upon the rock, he raised his muzzle to the stars and sent out a long mournful howl which carried over miles of dark wilderness and seemed the very embodiment of the night and the solitude. Without a sound the pack slunk away, scattering to the four winds just as the first streaks of dawn appeared in the east.

A short time later the white wolf might have been seen before the entrance to his den, high among the ledges. He stood as if carved from the rock at his back, while the sky grew rosy with the gleams of the rising sun which drove the darkness before them and made rainbows of the mist that shrouded the cataract. Before the sun itself appeared above the horizon, the wolf had vanished into the dark cave.

Dusk of the following day found him once more abroad. He descended the mountain and swiftly threaded the wilderness until he came to the rock upon which Gray Wolf had perished. Here he stationed himself and as darkness fell, he proudly raised his head, sending out over the wilderness a full, deep-throated rallying-call, the like of which the forest had never known. Lesser creatures of the wilderness shivered with fear, cowering in their burrows for some time before daring to venture forth.

One of the lynxes which had so severely wounded the old leader heard the challenge and, though it struck fear into even his savage heart, he stole soundlessly forward until he could see the beast upon the rock. But at sight of the snow-white wolf he shrank back in utter terror and attempted to steal away.

Unfortunately for him the eyes of the white wolf had pierced his hiding-place and in a moment he was hurled from his feet by the force of the attack. The lynx fought but feebly, seemingly benumbed by the strange apparition, and in a few minutes his limp form was stretched upon the ground. As for his mate, she too cowered before the sight of the white wolf and fled afar, never to return. So was Gray Wolf avenged and his avenger, once more mounting the rock, sent his cry of victory echoing over the wilderness.

Now the wolves began to arrive, settling themselves in a ring about the great rock where the new leader stood silent, staring out over the heads of the pack. When all had arrived, as if at some signal they fell hungrily upon the body of the lynx which in a very short time was devoured. Only the big white wolf stood aloof.

Without question the pack accepted the new leadership. That same night they started northward, led by the white wolf, traveling always with the tireless lope which enables their kind to cover great distances. Thus they came out upon the edge of the barrens, a vast, treeless country which few care to penetrate during the snows of winter. Nothing moved in all its white expanse and the silence of death hung over it. Yet without hesitation the white wolf trotted out upon it and the pack followed, only a few hanging back in the shelter of the pines.

Ten minutes later the faith of the pack in their leader was justified. Not far away a gray blur drifted across their path and vanished, hidden by the curtain of snow which had begun to fall. It was a caribou herd, that drifting band which in midwinter is at once the hope and the despair of the larger flesh-eating animals. Wandering as they do at will, none can foretell their movements; yet the white wolf had led his pack unerringly through mile after mile of snowy forest, straight to the path of the herd.

The sight brought fresh courage to the famished wolves and they did not stop to question the wisdom or the instinct which had led them. They soon overtook the herd, but instead of charging into it, a proceeding which would have caused the caribou to bolt at a pace that would have left the wolves hopelessly behind, they followed silently and with apparent indifference. Nevertheless they kept a close watch upon the deer, singling out one who had been wounded before, and was showing signs of weakening. This animal soon lagged and was cunningly separated from the herd, thus falling an easy prey to the wolves. Another was treated in the same manner before the savage appetites were satisfied and the wolves turned back to the woods.

For a time good fortune seemed to travel with the pack, but, as February dragged by and gave place to March, the most bitter month of all in the wilderness, the wolves once more grew gaunt and famished. This time the white wolf led them, not to the far north, but to the south in the direction of the settlements.

Late afternoon of a bitter March day found Dave Lansing, hunter and trapper, returning from a trip to the nearest town after supplies. He was plodding along the snowy trail, his eyes upon the ground and his thoughts far afield, when a distant, long-drawn howl caused him to raise his head. Dave knew that howl. It was the call of a wolf and, though armed, it filled him with uneasiness. He did not believe that the wolves would attack a man in daylight, but night was coming rapidly and he was some miles from his cabin. For a moment he considered turning back and spending the night with the Hermit, but his heart revolted at the thought. Dave was never one to show the white feather and he pushed resolutely on, though he quickened his steps.

For a time the woods were very still. With his cabin almost within sight, the trapper had begun to breathe more freely when suddenly the howl was repeated, this time so close that he stopped in dismay. A moment later he saw them coming, flitting silently along his trail or from tree to tree, like gray shadows of the coming night.

There would not be time to reach his cabin. Muttering angrily, Dave kicked off his snowshoes and drew himself into the branches of the nearest tree. He was just in time, for he had scarcely drawn up his feet when the pack closed in. His snowshoes were quickly demolished while the man could only look on, angry but helpless. Then the wolves sat down in a circle in the snow and looked hungrily up at him.

“Yes, look at me!” Dave remarked, shaking his fist at the pack. “Think you've got me, don't you? Well, you just wait.”

He brought his ever-ready rifle into position and looked about for the leader, thinking that if he could be killed, the pack would disband. For a time he hesitated, unable to determine which wolf it might be; then he stared, forgetting his discomfort in his astonishment. Among the pack had suddenly appeared a snow-white wolf, the like of which the trapper, in all his years in the wilderness, had never beheld, though it was said that a tribe of them was to be found in the far north. Here was the white wolf about whom so many stories had been told, stories to which he had listened unbelieving.

For a moment he could only stare in admiration at the powerful animal; then the hunter's instinct asserted itself and he fired. So quickly did the wolf swerve that the eye of the hunter could not perceive the movement. Dave only knew that he had missed, he, the best marksman in all the Little Vermilion country! Again he fired, but the bullet embedded itself harmlessly in a tree.

This was too much for the hunter. Here was no wolf. He felt sure that the bullets had reached their mark, yet the beast was unharmed. Dave was a mighty hunter but, like most ignorant people, he was superstitious. He had often heard tales of the loup-garou, or witch wolf, whom no bullet could kill. With a hand that trembled slightly he laid his gun across his knees, deciding not to waste his bullets.

He had settled himself for a long cold wait in his tree when, without a sound, the white wolf turned and trotted swiftly away into the forest, the whole pack following. The trapper stared after them, unable to believe his eyes. Fearing an ambush, he waited for some time; then as the wolves did not reappear, he lowered himself cautiously from the tree and set out once more for his cabin, minus his snowshoes and greatly perplexed at the mystery. Dave could not know that the keener nose of the white wolf had scented a deer at no great distance and so had led the pack to the safer game.

Now began a time of annoyance for the farmers at the borders of the wilderness. Sheep and pigs were killed and devoured, and now and then a cow. Many had seen the wolf pack and a few had glimpsed the big white leader, but, although scores of shots had been fired, apparently none had reached the mark. So the fame of the white wolf grew, and many, like Dave Lansing, were inclined to the belief that the leader at least was gifted with supernatural powers. Traps and poison, no matter how cleverly concealed, he uncovered or avoided with an uncanny wisdom, while he continued to take toll of the farmers' flocks and herds.

The Hermit in his lonely cabin heard the tales, which lost nothing in the telling, and though he knew them to be greatly exaggerated, he wished ardently for a sight of the big wolf. The beast's cunning and courage had aroused his admiration. Pal was kept strictly within bounds, and when his master went into the woods he carried a weapon which, however, would never be used save in self-defense.

One day the Hermit's wish was granted and he came face to face with the white wolf not far from the clearing. The beast suddenly appeared among the trees, not many paces distant, and the two stood staring curiously at each other. The Hermit made no move to draw his gun and the wolf, on his part, seemed to know that no harm was intended, for he showed no sign either of fear or antagonism. He stood for a long minute gravely regarding the man; then he turned and trotted away without a backward glance and with no sign of haste. The Hermit did not know that for days the wolf had secretly followed him and found him to be harmless.

Spring came at last, and when the snow had given place to the new, eager life of the forest, and food was once more abundant, the pack turned northward to the wilds. It was never seen again, but the fame of the big white wolf lived in the minds of the farmers, and stories of his prowess and cunning were handed down long after the wolf had passed to the Happy Hunting Grounds of his tribe.

 
 
 

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