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The old elk walked up the knoll where the long wind blew. The wolves followed.
The elk realized what was happening, but he didn’t know it was only a part of something that had been going on since life began.
He didn’t know that it was because of these wolves or their kindred that he had been strong, brave, and free-running all his past years. For it was the wolves who kept the elk herds in shape by weeding out the weak, the old, and the inept.
Now his time had come, and the wolves were there. He no longer had the speed to outrun them nor the get-about to outfight them, and there were four wolves working as a team, not one of them weighing less than a hundred pounds and two of them nearly twice that.
All he had going for him was his wisdom, and so far he was making a fair country try in getting himself to a place where he could make a stand. You could see, plain as the snow on the mountains yonder, that he was heading for the rocks where he could get his back to the wall.
His trouble was that wolves, like Indians, are patient. They had hunted elk before, had seen all of this happen many times, and they knew they were going to get that elk.
They didn’t know about me. Coming up as I had, they’d caught no wind of me, nor could they guess it was my work they were doing. For I was figuring on having most of that elk myself.
When a man has been on the run and hasn’t had a bite in three days, he’s ready to eat an elk—head, hoofs, and horns—all by himself. Trouble was, I’d no way of killing an elk … or anything else, really, and if those wolves got the idea I was as bad off as I was they might take right in after me.
A lobo is too smart to harry a man unless he’s down and well-nigh helpless. They don’t like the man smell, which always means trouble, but a wolf is born with a keen sense of something ready for the kill … which I was. Up to a point, I was.
My feet were raw and bloody, the flesh churned into a bloody mess by running over the broken rock, gravel, and stubble of the desert. My body was worn with hunger, thirst, and exhaustion to a point where I could scarcely walk. But there was that inside me, whatever it was that made me a man, that was a whole long way from being whipped.
The wolves could smell blood, they could smell a festering wound, but could they smell the heart of a man? The nerve that was in him?
That elk sprinted for the rocks and the wolves taken in after him, wary of his hoofs, shy of the vicious drive of those forefeet that could stab and cut a wolf to a cripple. The horns didn’t worry them too much, but a wolf is a shrewd hunter and wants to lose no hide for his meal.
My instinct is for mountains. The Sacketts of our branch were mountain people, hill folk from Tennessee, and when trouble showed it was our way to take to the hills again. At least until we got our second wind. That was why I pointed toward the mountains yonder.
Ever since I’d got shut of those Jicarilla Apaches I’d been heading for the hills, but they hadn’t left me much to go on. I was making no complaints. If they still had me by this time I’d be dead … or wishing I was.
Somebody back yonder stirred up a pack of trouble and those Apache warriors had taken off like somebody’d set their breechclouts afire, leaving me with the squaws.
Now squaws are no bargain. They take to torturing with genuine pleasure. Thing was, when the warriors taken off they also took all the ponies in camp, so I just cut loose and started to run.
The squaws came close to catching me, with my hands tied and all. But I was a long-legged man, barefooted and stark naked and knowing what would happen if they caught me. When the warriors returned they taken after me, too.
By that time I was afar off and had gotten my hands free, and was just beginning to run. All that day and into the night I ran … maybe fifty miles … but an Apache is like a hound on the trail. So they were back yonder coming after me, and if I didn’t get something to eat I was a finished man.
The elk had got the rock behind him and turned to fight, but for the time those wolves were just a-setting there, looking at him, their tongues hanging out.
There was scattered cedar where I lay, and I kept my eyes open for a club, a-wishing all the time for Galloway to show up. But for all I knew he was miles away down in New Mexico.
Worming my way along the ground, I got closer to the wolves. It wasn’t going to do me a sight of good to come up on them until they’d made their kill. I was sorry for the elk, but it was no use. If this bunch didn’t get him the next would.
Sure enough, when I was still sixty, seventy yards away that elk turned too far after one wolf and another one slipped in behind and hamstrung him. The elk went down, making a game fight of it, but he had no chance. About that time I got to my knees, yelled, and threw a rock into their midst.
You never seen the like. That rock lit close to one big wolf with a cropped ear and he jumped like he’d been hit. Maybe sand from the ground stung him. Anyway, they turned to stare at me, waving my arms and yelling.
They backed up as I rose to my feet and started slowly toward them. I was holding two stones and I could fling passing well, so I let drive again and had the luck to hit one on the leg.
He jumped and yelped, so I flung the other and they backed up, getting the smell of me now. If those wolves taken a notion I was in as bad shape as I was I’d have had no more chance than the elk, but wolves have always feared man and these were no exception.
Just then I saw a dead cedar, limbs all spread like something had dropped in the middle of them. I picked up a branch longer than my arm and about as thick as my wrist and started on.
The wolves taken off.
They ran off a ways and I limped up to the elk. It was dead.
The wolves stopped a hundred yards or so off and sat down to watch. They hadn’t given up by a long shot, but there was a whole lot about me that troubled them.
Naked as I was, I must have looked uncommonly white to them, and that was all wrong according to their notion of men. And they could smell the blood from my feet and maybe the festering that was there. One of the wolves had gone over where I’d been lying and was smelling around to see what his hillside newspaper would tell him. I could guess he was reading a lot out there that I wished he didn’t know.
Yet I had a good club in my hands, my back to a cliff, and meat enough to feed me into health again if I could get it cut up. I also needed that hide.
The rock against which the elk had chosen to make his stand was about thirty feet high and sloped off another twelve feet or so that was mostly broken rock. Some of it was obsidian.
I found myself a good chunk of the right length and began chipping away at it with another rock. I’d seen Indians make arrowheads and when a boy back in the mountains had sometimes made small hunting arrows for my own bow. The Cherokees we grew up around showed us how.
What I wanted now was a knife, and I began chipping away. Those wolves weren’t about to leave that much meat, but my chipping made them wary, as wild animals are of anything strange.
After I’d worked awhile on the knife I picked up some dried wood and put it together where it would be handy. My knife was still not in the shape I wanted, but it had a cutting edge and with it I started skinning the elk. When I had peeled back enough of the hide I cut two pieces off and tied them around my feet with strips of the same hide. Even looking at the condition of my feet made my stomach turn over with fear, for they were bloody, torn, and shapeless. But the covering of wet hide made it easier to stand on them and using my club for a cane, I began to hobble around.