Kings in Exile - Part 11

Part 11




Not, like his grim ancestors for a thousand generations, in some dark cave of the hills was he whelped, but in a narrow iron cage littered with straw. Two brothers and a sister made at the same time a like inauspicious entrance upon an alien and fettered existence. And because their silent, untamable mother loved too savagely the hereditary freedom of her race to endure the thought of bearing her young into a life of bondage, she would have killed them mercifully, even while their blind baby mouths were groping for her b.r.e.a.s.t.s. But the watchful keeper forestalled her. Whelps of the great gray timber wolf, born in captivity, and therefore likely to be docile, were rare and precious. The four little sprawlers, helpless and hungrily whimpering, were given into the care of a foster-mother, a sorrowing brown spaniel b.i.t.c.h who had just been robbed of her own puppies.

When old enough to be weaned, the two brothers and the sister, st.u.r.dy and sleek as any wolf cubs of the hills, were sold to a dealer in wild animals, who carried them off to Hamburg. But "Lone Wolf," as Toomey, the trainer, had already named him, stayed with the circus. He was the biggest, the most intelligent, and the most teachable cub of the whole litter, and Toomey, who had an unerring eye for quality in a beast, expected to make of him a star performer among wolves.

Job Toomey had been a hunter and a trapper in the backwoods of New Brunswick, where his instinctive knowledge of the wild kindreds had won him a success which presently sickened him. His heart revolted against the slaughter of the creatures which he found so interesting, and for a time, his occupation gone, he had drifted aimlessly about the settlements. Then, at the performance of a travelling circus, which boasted two trained bears and a little trick elephant, he had got his cue. It was borne in upon him that he was meant to be an animal trainer. Then and there he joined the circus at a nominal wage, and within six months found himself an acknowledged indispensable. In less than a year he had become a well-known trainer, employed in one of the biggest menageries of America. Not only for his wonderful comprehension and command of animals was he noted, but also for his pose, to which he clung obstinately, of giving his performances always in the homespun garb of a backwoodsman, instead of in the conventional evening dress.

"Lone Wolf!" It seemed a somewhat imaginative name for the prison-born whelp, but as he grew out of cub-hood his character and his stature alike seemed to justify it. Influenced by the example of his gentle foster-mother, he was docility itself toward his tamer, whom he came to love well after the reticent fashion of his race. But toward all others, man and beast alike, his reserve was cold and dangerous.

Toomey, apparently, absorbed all the affection which his lonely nature had to spare. In return for this singleness of regard, Toomey trained him with a firm patience which never forgot to be kind, and made him, by the time he was three years old, quite the cleverest and most distinguished performing wolf who had ever adorned a show.

He was now as tall as the very tallest Great Dane, but with a depth of shoulder and chest, a punishing length and strength of jaw, that no dog ever could boast. When he looked at Toomey, his eyes wore the expression of a faithful and understanding follower; but when he answered the stares of the crowd through the bars of his cage, the greenish fire that flamed in their inscrutable depths was ominous and untamed. In all save his willing subjection to Toomey's mastery, he was a true wolf, of the savage and gigantic breed of the Northwestern timber. To the spectators this was aggressively obvious; and therefore the marvel of seeing this sinister gray beast, with the murderous fangs, so submissive to Toomey's gentlest bidding, never grew stale.

In every audience there were always some spectators hopefully pessimistic, who vowed that the great wolf would some day turn upon his master and tear his throat. To be sure, Lone Wolf was not by any means the only beast whom the backwoodsman had performing for the delectation of his audiences. But all the others--the lions, the leopards, the tiger, the elephant, the two zebras, and the white bear--seemed really subdued, as it were hypnotized into harmlessness.

It was Lone Wolf only who kept the air of having never yielded up his spirit, of being always, in some way, not the slave but the free collaborator.

Ordinarily, in spite of the wild fire smouldering in his veins, Lone Wolf was well enough content. The show was so big and so important that it was accustomed to visit only the great centres, and to make long stops at each place. At such times his life contained some measure of freedom. He would be given a frequent chance of exercise, in some secure enclosure where he could run, and jump, and stretch his mighty muscles, and breathe deep. And not infrequently--after dark as a rule--his master would snap a ma.s.sive chain upon his collar, and lead him out, on leash like a dog, into the verdurous freshness of park or country lane. But when the show was on tour, then it was very different. Lone Wolf hated fiercely the narrow cage in which he had to travel. He hated the harsh, incessant noise of the grinding rails, the swaying and lurching of the trucks, the dizzying procession of the landscape past the barred slits which served as windows to his car.

Moreover, sometimes the unwieldy length of the circus train would be halted for an hour or two on some forest siding, to let the regular traffic of the line go by. Then, as his wondering eyes caught glimpses of shadowed glades, and mysterious wooded aisles, and far-off hills and horizons, or wild, pungent smells of fir thicket and cedar swamp drew in upon the wind to his uplifted nostrils, his veins would run hot with an uncomprehended but savage longing for delights which he had never known, for a freedom of which he had never learned or guessed. At such times his muscles would ache and quiver, till he felt like dashing himself blindly against his bars. And if the halt happened to take place at night, with perhaps a white moon staring in upon him from over a naked hill-top, he would lift his lean muzzle straight up toward the roof of his cage and give utterance to a terrible sound of which he knew not the meaning, the long, shrill gathering cry of the pack. This would rouse all the other beasts to a frenzy of wails and screeches and growls and roars; till Toomey would have to come and stop his performance by darkening the cage with a tarpaulin. At the sound of Toomey's voice, soothing yet overmastering, the great wolf would lie down quietly, and the ghostly summons of his far-ravaging fathers would haunt his spirit no more.

After one of these long journeys, the show was halted at an inland city for a stop of many weeks; and to house the show a cl.u.s.ter of wooden shanties was run up on the outskirts of the city, forming a sort of mushroom village flanked by the great white exhibition tents.

In one of these shanties, near the centre of the cl.u.s.ter, Lone Wolf's cage was sheltered, along with the cages of the puma, the leopard, and the little black Himalayan bear. Immediately adjoining this shanty was the s.p.a.cious open shed where the elephants were tethered.

That same night, a little before dawn, when the wearied attendants were sleeping heavily, Lone Wolf's nostrils caught a strange smell which made him spring to his feet and sniff anxiously at the suddenly acrid air. A strange reddish glow was dispersing the dark outside his window. From the other cages came uneasy mutterings and movements, and the little black bear, who was very wise, began to whine. The dull glow leaped into a glare and then the elephants trumpeted the alarm.

Instantly the night was loud with shoutings, and tramplings, and howlings, and rushings to and fro. A cloud of choking smoke blew into Lone Wolf's cage, making him cough and wonder anxiously why Toomey didn't come. The next moment Toomey came, with one of the keepers, and an elephant. Frantically they began pushing and dragging out the cages. But there was a wind; and before the first cage, that of the puma, was more than clear of the door, the flames were on top of them like a leaping tiger. Panic-stricken, the elephant screamed and bolted. The keeper, shouting, "We can't save any more in this house.

Let's git the lions out!" made off with one arm over his eyes, doggedly dragging the heavy cage of the puma. The keeper was right. He had his work cut out for him, as it was, to save the screeching puma.

As for Toomey, his escape was already almost cut off. But he could not endure to save himself without giving the imprisoned beasts a chance for their lives. Dashing at the three remaining cages, he tore them open; and then, with a summons to Lone Wolf to follow him, he threw his arms over his face and dashed through the flames.

The three animals sprang out at once into the middle of the floor, but their position seemed already hopeless. The leopard, thoroughly cowed, leaped back into his cage and curled up in the farthest corner, spitting insanely. Lone Wolf dashed at the door by which Toomey had fled, but a whirl of flame in his face drove him back to the middle of the floor, where the little bear stood whimpering. Just at this moment a ma.s.sive torrent of water from a fire engine crashed through the window, drenching Lone Wolf, and knocking the bear clean over. The beneficent stream was whisked away again in an instant, having work to do elsewhere than on this already doomed and hopeless shed. But to the wise little bear it had shown a way of escape. Out through the window he scurried, and Lone Wolf went after him in one tremendous leap just as the flames swooped in and licked the floor clean, and slew the huddled leopard in its cage.

Outside, in the awful heat, the alternations of dazzling glare and blinding smoke, the tumult of the shouting and the engines, the roar of the flames, the ripping crash of the streams, and the cries of the beasts, Lone Wolf found himself utterly confused. But he trusted, for some reason, to the sagacity of the bear, and followed his s.h.a.ggy form, bearing diagonally up and across the wind. Presently a cyclone of suffocating smoke enveloped him, and he lost his guide. But straight ahead he darted, stretched out at top speed, belly to the ground, and in another moment he emerged into the clear air. His eyes smarting savagely, his nose and lips scorched, his wet fur singed, he hardly realized at first his escape, but raced straight on across the fields for several hundred yards. Then, at the edge of a wood, he stopped and looked back. The little bear was nowhere to be seen. The night wind here blew deliciously cool upon his face. But there was the mad red monster, roaring and raging still as if it would eat up the world. The terror of it was in his veins. He sprang into the covert of the wood, and ran wildly, with the one impulse to get as far away as possible.

Before he had gone two miles, he came out upon an open country of fields, and pastures, and farmyards, and little thickets. Straight on he galloped, through the gardens and the farmyards as well as the open fields. In the pastures the cattle, roused by the glare in the sky, stamped and snorted at him as he pa.s.sed, and now and then a man's voice yelled at him angrily as his long form tore through flowerbeds or trellised vines. He had no idea of avoiding the farmhouses, for he had at first no fear of men; but at length an alert farmer got a long shot at him with a fowling-piece, and two or three small leaden pellets caught him in the hind quarters. They did not go deep enough to do him serious harm, but they hurt enough to teach him that men were dangerous. Thereupon he swerved from the uncompromising straight line of his flight, and made for the waste places. When the light of the fire had quite died out behind him, the first of the dawn was creeping up the sky; and by this time he had come to a barren region of low thickets, ragged woods, and rocks thrusting up through a meagre, whitish soil.

Till the sun was some hours high Lone Wolf pressed on, his terror of the fire now lost in a sense of delighted freedom. By this time he was growing hungry, and for an instant the impulse seized him to turn back and seek his master. But no, that way lay the scorching of the flames.

Instead of turning, he ran on all the faster. Suddenly a rabbit bounded up, almost beneath his nose. Hitherto he had never tasted living prey, but with a sure instinct he sprang after the rabbit. To his fierce disappointment, however, the nimble little beast was so inconsiderate as to take refuge in a dense bramble thicket which he could not penetrate. His muzzle, smarting and tender from the fire, could not endure the harsh p.r.i.c.kles, so after prowling about the thicket for a half-hour in the wistful hope that the rabbit might come out, he resumed his journey. He had no idea, of course, where he wanted to go, but he felt that there must be a place somewhere where there were plenty of rabbits and no bramble thickets.

Late in the afternoon he came upon the fringes of a settlement, which he skirted with caution. In a remote pasture field, among rough hillocks and gnarled, fire-scarred stumps, he ran suddenly into a flock of sheep. For a moment he was puzzled at the sight, but the prompt flight of the startled animals suggested pursuit. In a moment he had borne down the hindermost. To reach for its throat was a sure instinct, and he feasted, with a growing zest of savagery, upon the hot flesh. Before he realized it, he was dragging the substantial remnant of his meal to a place of hiding under an overhanging rock.

Then, well content with himself, he crept into a dark thicket and slept for several hours.

When he awoke, a new-risen moon was shining, with something in her light which half bewildered him, half stung him to uncomprehended desires. Skulking to the crest of a naked knoll, he saw the landscape spread out all around him, with the few twinkling lights of the straggling village below the slopes of the pasture. But not for lights, or for villages, or for men was his concern. Sitting up very straight on his gaunt haunches, he stretched his muzzle toward the taunting moon, and began to sound that long, dreadful gathering cry of his race.

It was an unknown or a long-forgotten voice in those neighborhoods, but none who heard it needed to have it explained. In half a minute every dog in the settlement was howling, barking, or yelping, in rage or fear. To Lone Wolf all this clamor was as nothing. He paid no more attention to it than as if it had been the twittering of sparrows.

Then doors opened, and lights flashed as men came out to see what was the matter. Clearly visible, silhouetted against the low moon, Lone Wolf kept up his sinister chant to the unseen. But presently, out of the corner of his eye, he noted half a dozen men approaching up the pasture, with the noisy dogs at their heels. Men! That was different!

Could it be that they wanted him? All at once he experienced a qualm of conscience, so to speak, about the sheep he had killed. It occurred to him that if sheep belonged to men, there might be trouble ahead.

Abruptly he stopped his serenading of the moon, slipped over the crest of the knoll, and made off at a long, tireless gallop which before morning had put leagues between himself and the angry villagers.

After this he gave a wide berth to settlements; and having made his first kill, he suddenly found himself an accomplished hunter. It was as if long-buried memories had sprung all at once to life,--memories, indeed, not of his own but of his ancestors',--and he knew, all at once, how to stalk the shy wild rabbits, to run down and kill the red deer. The country through which he journeyed was well stocked with game, and he fed abundantly as he went, with no more effort than just enough to give zest to his freedom. In this fashion he kept on for many days, working ever northward just because the wild lands stretched in that direction; and at last he came upon the skirts of a cone-shaped mountain, ragged with ancient forest, rising solitary and supreme out of a measureless expanse of wooded plain. From a jutting shoulder of rock his keen eyes noted but one straggling settlement, groups of scattered clearings, wide apart on the skirts of the great hill. They were too far off to mar the vast seclusion of the height; and Lone Wolf, finding a cave in the rocks that seemed exactly designed for his retreat, went no farther. He felt that he had come into his own domain.


The settlers around the skirts of Lost Mountain were puzzled and indignant. For six weeks their indignation had been growing, and the mystery seemed no nearer a solution. Something was slaughtering their sheep--something that knew its business and slaughtered with dreadful efficiency. Several honest dogs fell under suspicion, not because there was anything whatever against their reputations, but simply because they had the misfortune to be big enough and strong enough to kill a sheep if they wanted to, and the brooding backwoods mind, when troubled, will go far on the flimsiest evidence.

Of all the wrathful settlers the most furious was Brace Timmins. Not only had he lost in those six weeks six sheep, but now his dog, a splendid animal, half deerhound and half collie, had been shot on suspicion by a neighbor, on no better grounds, apparently, than his long legs and long killing jaws. Still the slaughtering of the flocks went on with undiminished vigor. And a few days later Brace Timmins avenged his favorite by publicly thrashing his too hasty neighbor in front of the cross-roads store. The neighbor, pounded into exemplary penitence, apologized, and as far as the murdered dog was concerned, the score was wiped clean. But the problem of the sheep killing was no nearer solution. If not Brace Timmins' dog, as every one made prudent haste to acknowledge, then whose dog was it? The life of every dog in the settlement, if bigger than a wood-chuck, hung by a thread, which might, it seemed, at any moment turn into a halter. Brace Timmins loved dogs; and not wishing that others should suffer the unjust fate which had overtaken his own, he set his whole woodcraft to the discovery of the true culprit.

Before he had made any great progress, however, on this trail, a new thing happened, and suspicion was lifted from the heads of all the dogs. Joe Anderson's dog, a powerful beast, part sheep-dog and part Newfoundland, with a far-off streak of bull, and the champion fighter of the settlements, was found dead in the middle of Anderson's sheep pasture, his whole throat fairly ripped out. He had died in defence of his charges, and it was plainly no dog's jaws that had done such mangling. What dog indeed could have mastered Anderson's "Dan"?

"It's a bear, gone mad on mutton," p.r.o.nounced certain of the wise ones, idling at the cross-roads store. "Ye see as how he hain't _et_ the dawg, noways, but jest bit him to teach him not to go interferin'

as regards sheep."

"Ye're all off," contradicted Timmins, with authority. "A bear'd hev'

tore him an' batted him an' mauled him more'n he'd hev' bit him. A bear thinks more o' usin' his fore paws than what he does his jaws, if he gits into any kind of an onpleasantness. No, boys, our unknown friend up yonder's a _wolf_, take my word for it."

Joe Anderson snorted, and spat accurately out through the door.

"A _wolf_!" he sneered. "Go chase yerself, Brace Timmins. I'd like to see any wolf as could 'a' done up my Dan that way!"

"Well, keep yer hair on, Joe," retorted Timmins, easily. "I'm a-goin'

after him, an' I'll show him to you in a day or two, as like as not!"

"I reckon, Joe," interposed the storekeeper, leaning forward across the counter, "as how there be other breeds of wolf besides the sneakin' little gray varmint of the East here, what's been cleaned out of these parts fifty year ago. If Brace is right,--an' I reckon he be,--then it must sure be one of them big timber wolves we read about, what the Lord's took it into His head to plank down here in our safe old woods to make us set up an' take notice. You better watch out, Brace. If ye don't git the brute first lick, he'll git you!"

"_I'll_ watch out!" drawled Timmins, confidently; and selecting a strong, steel trap-chain from a box beside the counter, he sauntered off to put his plans in execution.

These plans were simple enough. He knew that he had a wide-ranging adversary to deal with. But he himself was a wide ranger, and acquainted with every cleft and crevice of Lost Mountain. He would find the great wolf's lair, and set his traps accordingly, one in the runway, to be avoided if the wolf was as clever as he ought to be, and a couple of others a little aside to really do the work. Of course, he would carry his rifle, in case of need, but he wanted to take his enemy alive.

For several arduous but exciting days Timmins searched in vain alike the dark cedar swamps and the high, broken spurs of the mountain.

Then, one windless afternoon, when the forest scents came rising to him on the clear air, far up the steep he found a climbing trail between gray, shelving ledges. Stealthy as a lynx he followed, expecting at the next turn to come upon the lair of the enemy. It was a just expectation, but as luck would have it, that next turn, which would have led him straight to his goal, lay around a shoulder of rock whose foundations had been loosened by the rains. With a kind of long growl, rending and sickening, the rock gave way, and sank beneath Timmins' feet.

Moved by the alert and unerring instinct of the woodsman, Timmins leaped into the air. Both high and wide he sprang, and so escaped being engulfed in the ma.s.s which he had dislodged. On the top of the ruin he fell, but he fell far and hard; and for some fifteen or twenty minutes after that fall he lay very still, while the dust and debris settled into silence under the quiet flooding of the sun.

At last he opened his eyes. For a moment he made no effort to move, but lay wondering where he was. A weight was on his legs, and glancing downward, he saw that he was half covered with earth and rubbish. Then he remembered. Was he badly hurt? He was half afraid, now, to make the effort to move, lest he should find himself incapable of it.

Still, he felt no serious pain. His head ached, to be sure; and he saw that his left hand was bleeding from a gash at the base of the thumb.

That hand still clutched one of the heavy traps which he had been carrying, and it was plainly the trap that had cut him, as if in a frantic effort to escape. But where was his rifle? Cautiously turning his head, he peered around for it, but in vain, for during the fall it had flown far aside into the thickets. As he stared solicitously, all at once his dazed and sluggish senses sprang to life again with a scorching throb, which left a chill behind it. There, not ten paces away, sitting up on its haunches and eying him contemplatively, was a gigantic wolf, much bigger, it seemed to him, than any wolf had any right to be.

Timmins' first instinct was to spring to his feet, with a yell that would give the dreadful stranger to understand that he was a fellow it would not be well to tamper with. But his woodcraft stayed him. He was not by any means sure that he _could_ spring to his feet. Still less was he sure that such an action would properly impress the great wolf, who, for the moment at least, seemed not actively hostile. Stillness, absolute immobility, was the trump-card to be always played in the wilderness when in doubt. So Timmins kept quite still, looking inquiringly at Lone Wolf. And Lone Wolf looked inquiringly at him.