Kings in Exile - Part 5

Part 5

At last, as if considering himself utterly alone, the great wolf opened his jaws, stretched back his neck, and began howling his shrill, terrible serenade to the moon. As soon as he paused, came far-off nervous barkings and yelpings from dogs who hated and trembled in the scattered clearings. But no wolf-howl made reply. The pack, for all the sign they gave, might have vanished off the earth. And Kane wondered what strong command from their leader could have kept them silent when all their ancient instincts bade them answer.

As if well satisfied with his music, the great wolf continued to beseech the moon so persistently that at last Kane lost patience. He wanted more variety in the programme. Muttering, "I'll see if I can't rattle your fine composure a bit, my friend!" he raised his rifle and sent a bullet whining over the wolf's head. The wolf c.o.c.ked his ears slightly and looked about carelessly, as if to say, "What's that?"

then coolly resumed his serenade.

Nettled by such ostentatious nonchalance, Kane drove another bullet into the snow within a few inches of the wolf's forefeet. This proved more effective. The great beast looked down at the place where the ball had struck, sniffed at it curiously, got up on all fours, and turned and stared steadily at Kane for perhaps half a minute. Kane braced himself for a possible onslaught. But it never came. Whirling lightly, the Gray Master turned his back on the disturber of his song, and trotted away slowly, without once looking back. He did not make directly for the cover, but kept in full view and easy gunshot for several hundred yards. Then he disappeared into the blackness of the spruce woods. Thereupon the yellow mongrel, emerging from his shelter behind Kane's legs, pranced about on the snow before him with every sign of admiration and relief.

But Kane was too puzzled to be altogether relieved. It was not according to the books for any wolf, great or small, to conduct himself in this supercilious fashion. Looking back along the white bed of the brook, the path by which he must return, he saw that the sinking of the moon would very soon involve it in thick shadow. This was not as he wished it. He had had enough of fishing. Gathering up his now frozen prizes, and strapping the bag that contained them over his shoulder, so as to leave both hands free, he set out for home at the long, deliberate, yet rapid lope of the experienced snowsh.o.e.r; and the yellow dog, confidence in his companion's prowess now thoroughly established, trotted on heedlessly three or four paces ahead.

Already the shadow of the woods lay halfway across the bed of the brook, but down the middle of the strip of brightness, still some five or six paces in breadth, Kane swung steadily. As he went, he kept a sharp eye on the shadowed edge of his path. He had gone perhaps a mile, when all at once he felt a tingling at the roots of his hair, which seemed to tell him he was being watched from the darkness. Peer as he would, however, he could catch no hint of moving forms; strain his ears as he might, he could hear no whisper of following feet.

Moreover, he trusted to the keener senses, keener instincts, of the dog, to give him warning of any furtive approach; and the dog was obviously at ease.

He was just beginning to execrate himself for letting his nerves get too much on edge, when suddenly out from the black branches just ahead shot a long, spectral shape and fell upon the dog. There was one choked yelp--and the dog and the terrible shape vanished together, back into the blackness.

It was all so instantaneous that before Kane could get his rifle up they were gone. Startled and furious, he fired at random, three times, into cover. Then he steadied himself, remembering that the number of cartridges in his chamber was not unlimited. Seeing to it that his axe and knife were both loose for instant action, he stopped and replenished his Winchester. Then he hurried on as fast as he could without betraying haste.

As he went, he was soon vividly conscious that the wolves--not the Gray Master alone, but the whole pack also--were keeping pace with him through the soundless dark beyond the rim of the spruces. But not a hint of their grim companioning could he see or hear. He felt it merely in the creeping of his skin, the elemental stirring of the hair at the back of his neck. From moment to moment he expected the swift attack, the battle for his life. But he was keyed up to it. It was not fear that made his nerves tingle, but the tense, trembling excitement of the situation. Even against these strange, hidden forces of the forest, his spirit felt sure of victory. He felt as if his rifle would go up and speak, almost of itself, unerringly at the first instant of attack, even before the adversary broke into view. But through all the drawn-out length of those last three miles his hidden adversaries gave no sign, save that once a dead branch, concealed under the snow, snapped sharply. His rifle was at his shoulder, it seemed to him, almost before the sound reached his ear. But nothing came of it. Then a panic-mad rabbit, stretched straight out in flight, darted across the fast narrowing brightness of his path. But nothing followed. And at last, after what seemed to him hours, he came out upon the open pastures overlooking Burnt Brook Settlement. Here he ran on a little way; and then, because the strain had been great, he sat down suddenly upon a convenient stump and burst into a peal of laughter which must have puzzled the wolves beyond measure.

After this, though well aware that the Gray Master's inexplicable forbearance had saved him a battle which, for all his confidence, might quite conceivably have gone against him, Kane's interest in the mysterious beast was uncompromisingly hostile. He was bitter on account of the dog. He felt that the great wolf had put a dishonor upon him; and for a few days he was no longer the impartial student of natural history, but the keen, primitive hunter with the blood-l.u.s.t hot in his veins. Then this mood pa.s.sed, or, rather, underwent a change. He decided that the Gray Master was, indeed, too individual a beast to be just snuffed out, but, at the same time, far too dangerous to be left at liberty.

And now all the thought and effort that could be spared from his daily duties at the Cross-Roads were bent to the problem of capturing the great wolf alive. He would be doing a service to the whole Quah-Davic Valley. And he would have the pleasure of presenting the splendid captive to his college town, at that time greatly interested in the modest beginnings of a zoological garden which its citizens were striving to inaugurate. It thrilled his fancy to imagine a tin placard on the front of a cage in the little park, bearing the inscription--




After a few weeks of a.s.siduous trapping, however, Kane felt bound to acknowledge that this modest ambition of his seemed remote from fulfilment. Every kind of trap he could think of, that would take a beast alive, he tried in every kind of way. And having run the whole insidious gamut, he would turn patiently to run it all over again. Of course, the result was inevitable, for no beast, not even such a one as the Gray Master, is a match, in the long run, for a man who is in earnest. Yet Kane's triumph, when it blazed upon his startled eyes at last, was indirect. In avoiding, and at the same time uncovering and making mock of, Kane's traps, the great wolf put his foot into another, a powerful bear-trap, which a cunning old trapper had hidden near by, without bait. The trap was secured to a tree by a stout chain--and rage, strain, tear as he might, the Gray Master found himself snared. In his silent fury he would probably have gnawed off the captive foot, for the sake of freedom. But before he came to that, Kane arrived and occupied his attention fully.

Kane's disappointment, at finding the splendid prize in another trap than his own, was but momentary. He knew his successful rival would readily part with his claims, for due consideration. But he was puzzled as to what should be done in the immediate emergency. He wanted to go back home for help, for ropes, straps, and a muzzle with which he had provided himself; but he was afraid lest, in his absence, the trapper might arrive and shoot the captive, for the sake of the pelt and the bounty. In his uncertainty he waited, hoping that the trapper might come soon; and by way of practice for the serious enterprise that would come later, as well as to direct the prisoner's mind a little from his painful predicament, Kane began trying to him with a coil of heavy cord which he carried.

His efforts in this direction were not altogether successful, but the still fury which they aroused in the great wolf's breast doubtless obscured the mordant anguish in his foot. One terrific leap at his enemy, resulting in an ignominious overthrow as the chain stopped him in mid-air, had convinced the subtle beast of the vanity of such tactics. Crouching back, he eyed his adversary in silence, with eyes whose hatred seemed to excoriate. But whenever the running noose at the end of the cord came coiling swiftly at his head, with one lightning snap of his long teeth he would sever it as with a knife. By the time Kane had grown tired of this diversion the cord was so full of knots that no noose would any longer run.

But at this point the old trapper came slouching up on his snowshoes, a twinkle of elation in his shrewd, frosty, blue eyes.

"I reckon we'll show the varmint now as how he ain't no _loup-garou_!"

he remarked, lightly swinging his axe.

But Kane hastily intervened.

"_Please_ don't kill him, Dave!" he begged. "_I_ want him, bad!

What'll you take for him?"

"Just as he stands?" demanded the old trapper, with a chuckle. "I ain't a-goin' to deliver the goods to yer door, ye know!"

"No," laughed Kane, "just as he stands, right here!"

"Well, seein' as it's you, I don't want no more'n what his pelt'ld fetch, an' the bounty on his nose," answered the trapper.

"All right," said Kane. "You wait here a bit, will you, an' keep him amused so's he won't gnaw his paw off; an' I'll run back to the Cross-Roads and get some rope and things I guess I'll be needing."

When he got back with rope, straps, a big mastiff-muzzle, and a toboggan, he found Dave in a very bad humor, and calling the watchful, silent, crouching beast hard names. In his efforts to amuse himself by stirring that imperturbable and sinister quiet into action, he had come just within the range of the Gray Master's spring. Swift as that spring was, that of the alert backwoodsman was just swift enough to elude it--in part. Dave's own hide had escaped, but his heavy jacket of homespun had had the back ripped clean out of it.

But now, for all his matchless strength, courage, and craft, the Gray Master's game was played out. The fickle Fates of the wild had p.r.o.nounced against him. He could not parry two flying nooses at once.

And presently, having been choked for a few moments into unconsciousness, he awoke to find himself bound so that he could not move a leg, and his mighty jaws imprisoned in a strange cage of straps and steel. He was tied upon the toboggan, and being dragged swiftly through the forest--that free forest of which he had so long felt himself master--at the heels of his two conquerors. His only poor consolation was that the hideous, crunching thing had been removed from his bleeding paw, which, however, anguished cruelly for the soothing of his tongue.


During the strenuous and dangerous weeks while Kane was gaoler to his dreaded captive, his respect for the grim beast's tameless spirit by no means diminished; but he had no shadow of misgiving as to the future to which he destined his victim. He felt that in sending the incomparable wolf to the gardens, where he would be well cared for, and at the same time an educative influence, he was being both just and kind. And it was with feelings of unmixed delight that he received a formal resolution of grat.i.tude from the zoological society for his valued and in some respects unique donation.

It was about a year and a half later that Kane had occasion to revisit the city of his Alma Mater. As soon as possible he hurried to inspect the little gardens, which had already marched so far towards success as to be familiarly styled "The Zoo." There were two or three paddocks of deer, of different North American species--for the society was inclined to specialize on the wild kindreds of native origin. There were moose, caribou, a couple of bears, racc.o.o.ns, foxes, porcupines, two splendid pumas, a rather flea-bitten and toothless tiger, and the Gray Master, solitary in his cage!

A sure instinct led Kane straight to that cage, which immediately adjoined the big double cage of the pumas. As he approached, he caught sight of a tall, gray shape pacing, pacing, pacing, pacing to and fro behind the bars with a sort of measured restlessness that spoke an immeasurable monotony. When he reached the front of the cage, Kane saw that the great wolf's eyes were noting nothing of what was about him, but dim with some far-off vision. As he marked the look in them, and thought of what they must be remembering and aching for, his heart began to smite him. He felt his first pang of self-reproach, for having doomed to ignominious exile and imprisonment this splendid creature who had deserved, at least, to die free. As he mused over this point, half angrily, the Gray Master suddenly paused, and his thin nostrils wrinkled. Perhaps there still clung about Kane's clothes some scent of the spruce woods, some pungent breath of the cedar swamps. He turned and looked Kane straight in the eyes.

There was unmistakable recognition in that deep stare. There was also, to Kane's sensitive imagination, a tameless hate and an unspeakable but dauntless despair. Convicted in his own mind of a gross and merciless misunderstanding of his wild kindreds, whom he professed to know so well, he glanced up and saw the painted placard staring down at him, exactly as he had antic.i.p.ated----




The sight sickened him. He had a foolish impulse to tear it down and to abase himself with a plea for pardon before the silent beast behind the bars. But when he looked again, the Gray Master had turned away, and was once more, with indrawn, far-off vision in his eyes, pacing, pacing, pacing to and fro. Kane felt overwhelmed with the intolerable weariness of it, as if it had been going on, just like that, ever since he had p.r.o.nounced this doom upon his vanquished adversary, and as if it would go on like that forever. In vain by coaxing word, by sharp, sudden whistle, by imitations of owl, loon, and deer calls, which brought all the boys in the place admiringly about him, did he strive to catch again the attention of the captive. But not once more, even for the fleeting fraction of a second, would the Gray Master turn his eyes. And presently, angry and self-reproachful, Kane turned on his heel and went home, pursued by the enthusiasm of the small boys.

After this, Kane went nearly every day to the little "Zoo"; but never again did he win the smallest hint of notice from the Gray Master. And ever that tireless pacing smote him with bitterest self-reproach. Half unconsciously he made it a sort of penance to go and watch his victim, till at last he found himself indulging in sentimental, idiotic notions of trying to ransom the prisoner. Realizing that any such attempt would make him supremely ridiculous, and that such a dangerous and powerful creature could not be set free anywhere, he consoled himself with a resolve that never again would he take captive any of the freedom-loving, tameless kindreds of the wilderness. He would kill them and have cleanly done with it, or leave them alone.

One morning, thinking to break the spell of that eternal, hopeless pacing by catching the Gray Master at his meals, Kane went up to the gardens very early, before any of the usual visitors had arrived. He found that the animals had already been fed. The cages were being cleaned. He congratulated himself on his opportune arrival, for this would give him a new insight into the ways of the beasts with their keepers.

The head-keeper, as it chanced, was a man of long experience with wild animals, in one of the chief zoological parks of the country. Long familiarity, however, had given him that most dangerous gift, contempt. And he had lost his position through that fault most unforgivable in an animal keeper, drunkenness. Owing to this fact, the inexperienced authorities of this little "Zoo" had been able to obtain his services at a comparatively moderate wage--and were congratulating themselves on the possession of a treasure.

On this particular morning, Biddell was not by any means himself. He was cleaning the cage of the two pumas, and making at the same time desperate efforts to keep his faculties clear and avoid betraying his condition. The two big cats seemed to observe nothing peculiar in his manner, and obeyed him, sulkily, as usual; but Kane noticed that the great wolf, though pacing up and down according to his custom, had his eyes on the man in the next cage, instead of upon his own secret visions. Biddell had driven the two pumas back through the door which led from the open cage to the room which served them for a den, and closed the door on them. Then, having finished his duties there, he unfastened the strong door between this cage and that of the Gray Master, and stepped through, leaving the door slightly ajar.

Biddell was armed, of course, with a heavy-p.r.o.nged fork, but he carried it carelessly as he went about his work, as if he had long since taught the sombre wolf to keep at a distance. But to-day the wolf acted curiously. He backed away in silence, as usual, but eyed the man fixedly with a look which, as it seemed to Kane, showed anything rather than fear. The stiff hair rose slightly along his neck and ma.s.sive shoulders. Kane could not help congratulating himself that he was not in the keeper's place. But he felt sure everything was all right, as Biddell was supposed to know his business.

When Biddell came to the place where the wolf was standing, the latter made way reluctantly, still backing, and staring with that sinister fixity which Kane found so impressive. He wondered if Biddell noticed.

He was just on the point of speaking to him about it, through the bars, when he chanced to glance aside to the cage of the pumas.

Biddell, in his foggy state of mind, had forgotten to close an inner door connecting the two rooms in the rear. The pumas had quietly pa.s.sed through, and emerged again into their cage by the farther entrance. Catching sight of the door into the wolf's cage standing ajar, they had crept up to it; and now, with one great noiseless paw, the leader of the two was softly pushing it open.

Kane gave an inarticulate yell of warning. No words were needed to translate that warning to the keeper, who was sobered completely as he flashed round and saw what was happening. With a sharp command he rushed to drive the pumas back and close the gate. But one was already through, and the other blocked the way.

At this tense instant, while Kane glanced swiftly aside to see if any help were in sight, the Gray Master launched himself across the cage.

Kane could not see distinctly, so swiftly did it happen, whether the man or the intruding puma was the object of that mad rush. But in the next second the man was down, on his face, with the silent wolf and the screeching puma locked in a death grapple on top of him.

[Ill.u.s.tration: "Then the second puma pounced."]

Horrified, and yelling for help, Kane tore at the bars, but there was no way of getting in, the door being locked. He saw that the wolf had secured a hold upon the puma's throat, but that the great cat's claws were doing deadly work. Then the second puma pounced, with a screech, upon the Gray Master's back, bearing him down.

At this moment Biddell rolled out from under the raving, writhing heap, and staggered to his feet, bleeding, but apparently uninjured.