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The Wolf Slayer by Jonathan F. Kelley

 

In 1800 the most of the State of Ohio, and nearly all of Indiana, was a dense wilderness, where the gaunt wolf and naked savage were masters of the wild woods and fertile plains, which now, before the sturdy blows of the pioneer's axe, and the farmer's plough, has been with almost magical effect converted into rich farms and thriving, beautiful villages.

In the early settlement of the west, the pioneers suffered not only from the ruthless savage, but fearfully from the wolf. Many are the tales of terror told of these ferocious enemies of the white man, and his civilization. Many was the hunter, Indian as well as the Angle-Saxon, whose bones, made marrowless by the prowling hordes of the dark forest, have been scattered and bleached upon the war-path or Indian trail of the back-woods. In 1812-13, my father was contractor for the north-western army, under command of Gen. Wm. Henry Harrison. He supplied the army with beef; he bought up cattle along the Sciota valley and Ohio river, and drove them out to the army, then located at Sandusky. Chillicothe, then, was a small settlement on the Sciota river, and protected by a block house or rude fort, in which the inhabitants could scramble if the Indians made their appearance. My father resided here, and having collected a large drove of cattle, he set out up the valley with a few mounted men as a kind of guard to protect the drove against the prowling minions of Tecumseh.

The third day out, late in the afternoon, being very warm weather, there arose a most terrific thunder-storm; the huge trees, by the violence of the wind and sharp lightning, were uprooted and rent into thousands of particles, and the panic-stricken herd scattered in every direction. I have seen the havoc made in forests through which one of these tornadoes has taken its way, or I should be incredulous to suppose whole acres of trees, hundreds of years old, could be torn up, or snapped off like reeds upon the river side.

The fury of the whirlwind seemed to increase as the night grew darker, until cattle, men and horses, were killed, crippled and dispersed. My father crawled under the lee of a large sycamore that had fell, and here, partly protected from the rain and falling timber, he lay down. I have camped out some, and can readily anticipate the comfort of the old gentleman's situation, and not at all disposed was he to go to sleep mounted upon such guard.

At length the work of destruction and ruin being done, the storm abated, the rain ceased to pour and the winds to wag their noisy tongues so furiously. A wolf howl, and of all fearful howls, or yelps uttered by beasts of prey, none can, I think, be more alarming and terrific to the ear than the wolf howl as he scents carnage. A wolf howl broke fearfully upon the drover's ear as he lay crouched beneath the sycamore. It was a familiar sound, and therefore, and then the more dreadful. The drover carried a good Yeager rifle, knife, and pistols, but a man laden with arms in the midst of a troop of famished wolves, was as helpless as the tempest-tossed mariner in the midst of the ocean's storm. The howl had scarcely echoed over the dark wood, before it was answered by dozens on every side! And as the drover's keen eye pierced the gloom around him, the dancing, fiery glare of the wolf's eyes met his wistful gaze.

The forest now resounded with the maddened banqueting beast, and as the glaring eyes came nearer and nearer, the drover hugged his Yeager tightly, and prepared to defend life while yet it lasted. Suddenly the sharp crack of a rifle was heard, and then a loud scream or cry of terror burst upon the air, a rushing sound, a man pursued by a troop of wolves fled by the drover and his cover; scream after scream rent the air, and the drover knew that a companion had fell a victim to the wolf in his attempt at self-defence. The night was a long one, and thus, among the savage beasts, a fearful one. The report of another rifle again broke upon the ear, and again, and again did the hunting iron speak, and the wolf howl salute it. A pair of eyes glared hurriedly upon the drover, and he could not resist the desire to use his Yeager, and the wolf taking the contents of the rifle in his mouth, rolled over, while a score rushed up to fill his place. Oh! how dreadful must have been the suspense and feelings of the drover as he lay crouched under the old tree, surrounded by this horde of glaring eyes, his ears split with their awful howl, and their hot and venomous breath fairly in his face! But the wolf is a base coward, and will not meet a man eye to eye, and so protected lay the drover, with his clenched teeth and unquivering eye, that the wolf had no chance to attack, but by rushing up to his very front. The red tongue lapped, the fierce teeth were arrayed and the demon eyes glaring, but the drover quailed not, and the cowardly wolf stood at bay. The sharp crack of the distant rifle still smote upon the air and the loud howl still went up over the forest around. The first faint streaks that deck the sky at morn, the fresh breath of coming day caught the keen scent of the bloody prowlers, and they began to skulk off. The drover gave the retreating cowards a farewell shot from his pistols, tumbled a lank, grey demon over, and the wolf howl soon died off in the distance.

Daylight now appeared, and the drover crawled from his lair. His loud whoop! to the disbanded men and drove was answered by the neigh of a horse, who came galloping up, and proved to be his own good hunter, who seemed happy indeed to meet his master. Another whoop-e brought a responsive shout, and finally four men out of the twelve, with seven horses and a few straggling cattle, were mustered. The forest was strewn with torn carcasses of cattle and horses, mostly killed by the falling timber, and partly devoured by the ravenous wolves. A few hundred yards from the tree where the drover lay, was found a few fragments of clothes, the knife and rifle, and a half-eaten body of one of the soldiers. He had fought with the desperation of a mad man, and the dead and crippled wolves lay as trophies around the bold soldier. In a hollow near the river they found a horse and man partly eaten up, and several cattle that had apparently been hotly pursued and torn to death by the rapacious beasts. They started out in search of the spot from whence the drover had heard the firing in the night. They soon discovered the place; at the foot of a large dead sycamore stump, some twelve feet high lay the carcasses of a dozen or twenty wolves. Each wolf had his scalp neatly taken off, and his head elaborately bored by the rifle ball. An Indian ladder, that is, a scrubby saplin', trimmed with footholds left on it, was laying against the old tree, at the top of which was a sort of a rude scaffold, contrived, evidently, by a hunter. At a distance, in a hollow, was seen a great profusion of wolf skulls and bones, but no sign of a human being could there be traced. The party made a fire, and as beef lay plenty around, they regaled themselves heartily, after their night of horror and disaster. Having finished their repast, they separated, each taking different courses to hunt and drive up such of the stray cattle as could be found. My father, whom I have designated as the drover, pursued his way over the vast piles of fallen, tangled timber, leaping from one tree to the other. As he was about to throw himself over the trunk of a mighty prostrate oak, he found himself within two feet of one of the largest and most ferocious wolves that ever expanded its broad jaws and displayed its fierce tushes to the eye of man. Both parties were taken so suddenly by surprise, by this collision, that they seemed to be rooted to the spot without power to move. I have heard of serpents charming birds, said the drover, but I never believed in the theory until I found myself fairly magnetized by this great she-wolf. The wolf stood and snarled with its golden fiery eye bent upon the drover, who never moved his steady gaze from the wolf's face.

There is not a beast in existence that will attack a man if he keeps his eyes steady upon the animal, but will cower and sneak off, and so did the wolf. But no sooner had she turned her head and with a howl started off, than a blue pill from the drover's Yeager split her skull, and brought her career to a speedy termination.

Whoo-ep!

A shout so peculiar to the lusty lungs of the western hunter made the welkin ring again, and as the astonished drover turned towards the shouter, he beheld a sight that proved quite as formidable as the wolf he had just slain.

“Well done, stranger; you're the man for me; I like you. That shot done my heart good, though I was about to do the old she devil's business for ye, seeing as you war sort o' close quartered with the varmint.”

“Thank you,” responded the drover, addressing the speaker, a tall, gaunt, iron-featured, weather-beaten figure, with long grey hair, and a rude suit of wolf-skin clothing, cap and moccasins. He held in his long arms a large rifle, a knife in his belt, and a powder horn slung over his side. He seemed the very patriarch of the woods, but good humored, and with his rough hilarity soon explained his presence there.

“Well, stranger,” said he, “you have had a mighty chance of bad luck yer last night, and I never saw them cursed varmints so crazy afore.”

“Do you live in these parts?” inquired the drover.

“Ha! ha! yes, yes,” replied the hunter. “I live yer, I live anywhar's whar wolf can be found. But you don't know me, I reckon, stranger?”

“I do not,” said the drover.

“Ha! ha! well, that's quare, mighty quare. I thought thar warn't a man this side the blue ridge but what knows me and old kit here, (his rifle.) Well, seeing you are a stranger, I'll just take that old sarpent's top-knot off, and have a talk with ye.”

With this introductory of matters, the hunter in the wolf-skins scalped the wolf, and tucking the scalp in his belt, motioned the drover to follow. He led the way in deep silence some half a mile to a small stream, down which they proceeded for some distance, until they came to a low and rudely-constructed cabin. Here the hunter requested the drover to take a seat on a log, in front of the cabin, while he entered through a small aperture in his hut, and brought forth a pipe, tobacco, and some dried meat. These dainties being discussed, old Nimrod the mean time kept chuckling to himself, and mumbling over the idea that there should be a white man or Ingin this side the blue ridge that didn't know him.

“Ha! ha! well, well, I swar, it is curious, stranger, that you don't know me, me that kin show more Ingin skelps than any white man that ever trod these war paths; me, who kin shoot more wolves and fetch in more of the varmints' skelps in one night than any white man or Ingin that ever trod this wilderness. But I'm gittin' old, very old, forgotten, and here comes a white man clean and straight from the settlements and he don't know me; I swar I've lived to be clean ashamed o' myself.” And with this soliloquy, half to himself and partly addressed to the drover, the old hunter seemed almost fit to cry, at his imaginary insignificance and dotage.

“But, friend,” said the drover, “as you have not yet informed me by what name I may call you—”

Call me, stranger? why I am”—and here his eyes glared as he threw himself into a heroic attitude—“Chris Green, old Chris Green, the wolf slayer! But, God bless ye, stranger, p'r'aps you're from t'other side the ridge, and don't know old Chris's history.”

“That I frankly admit,” replied the drover.

“Well, God bless ye, I love my fellow white men, yes, I do, though I live yer by myself, and clothe myself with the varmints' skins, go but seldom to the settlements, and live on what old kit thar provides me.

“Well, stranger, my history's a mighty mournful one, but as yer unlucky like myself and plenty of business to 'tend to 'fore night, I'll make my troubles short to ye.

“Well, you see about thirty years ago, I left the blue ridge with a party of my neighbors to come down yer in the Sciota country, to see it, and lay plans to drive the cussed red skins clean out of it. Well, the red skins appeared rather quiet, what few we fell in with, and monstrous civil. But cuss the sarpints, there's no more dependence to be put in 'em than the cantankerous wolves, and roast 'em, I always sets old kit talkin' Dutch to them varmints, the moment I claps eyes on 'em. The wolf's my nat'ral inimy—I'd walk forty miles to git old kit a wolf skelp. Well, we travelled all over the valley, and we gin it as our opinion that the Sciota country was the garden spot o' the world, and if we could only defend ourselves 'gainst the inimy we should move right down yer at once. We went back home, and the next spring a hull settlement on us came down yer. My neighbors thought it best for us all to settle down together at Chillicothe, whar a few Ingin huts and cabins war. I had a wife, and son and da'ter; now, stranger, I loved 'em as dearer to me 'nor life or heart's blood itself. Well, the red skins soon began to show their pranks—they stole our cre'ters (horses), shot down our cattle, and made all manner o' trouble for the little settlement. At last I proposed we should build a clever-sized block house, strong and stanch, in which our wimen folks and children, with a few men to guard 'em, could hold out a few days, while a handful o' us scoured Paint hills and the country about, and peppered a few of the cussed red devils. We had been out some four or five days when we fell in with the inimy; it war just about sunset, and the red skins war camped in a hollow close by this spot. We intended to let 'em get through their smoking and stretch themselves for the night, and then squar our accounts with 'em. Stranger, I've lived in these woods thirty years, I never saw such a hurricane as we had yer last night, 'cept once. The night we lay in ambush for the Ingins, six-and-twenty years ago, thar came up a hurricane, the next mornin' eleven of the bodies of my neighbors lay crushed along the bottom yer, and for a hundred miles along the Sciota, whar the hurricane passed, the great walnuts and sycamore lay blasted, root and branch, just as straight as ye'd run a bee line; no timber grow'd upon these bottoms since. Five on us escaped the hurricane, but before day we fell in with a large party of red skins, and we fought 'em like devils; three on us fell; myself and the only neighbor left war obliged to fly to the hills. I made my way to the settlement.

“Stranger, when I looked down from the hills of Paint creek, and saw the block house scattered over the bottom, and not a cabin standin' or a livin' cre'ter to be seen in the settlement of Chillicothe, my heart left me; I become a woman at once, and sot down and cry'd as if I'd been whipped to death.” The old man's voice grew husky, and the tears suffused his eyes, but after a few sighs and a tear, he proceeded:

“Well, you see, stranger, a man cannot always be a child, nor a woman, either; my crying spell appeared to ease my heart amazin'ly. I shouldered old kit here, and down I went to examine things. The hurricane had scattered every thing; the fire had been at work too, but, great God! the bloody wolf had been thar, the settlement was kivered with the bloody bones of my own family and friends; if any had escaped the hurricane, the fire or wolf, the Ingins finished 'em, for I never seen 'em afterwards; I couldn't bear to stay about the place, I'd no home, friend, or kindred. I took to the woods, and swore eternal death to the red skins and my nat'ral inimy, the wolf! I've been true to my word, stranger; that cabin is lined with skelps and ornamented with Ingin top-knots! Look in, ha! ha! see there! they may well call old Chris the Wolf Slayer!

The drover regaled his eyes on the trophies of the old forlorn hunter, and then visited the perch, which was situated close by a “deer lick,” where wolves resorted to fall upon their victims. And from this perch old Wolf Slayer had made fearful work upon his nat'ral inimy the night previous. The old hunter assisted, during the day, to collect such of the scattered drove as yet were alive or to be found; the men came with another of their companions, and the small drove and men left the scene of terror and disaster, wishing a God-speed to the Wolf Slayer.

 
 
 

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