Three-toes! One glance at the paw print told Hayes the crippled wolf was back in the Badlands. But how? He had followed the blood trail of the renegade wolf two years before. Although he never found a carcass, Hayes knew that no wolf could survive the loss of so much blood. Three-toes was dead, gone, his bones picked clean by magpies and buzzards. And yet, there in the January snow was the unmistakable track of the killer wolf.
It had been six years since Hayes first studied the track in Deer Creek Canyon. It had been a perfect set—the trap concealed near a lone clump of sagebrush and scented with female wolf urine. No wolf could resist leaving his own scent on the marker without stepping into the trap. When Hayes returned, however, he found only a piece of a wolf. The steel trap had severed one of the big wolf's toes and the legend of Three-toes was born.
From that day forward the black wolf began a legacy of livestock predation. Three-toes became a ghostly devil that plagued ranches with killing orgies and defiant wolf serenades in the night. He was seldom seen in the Montana scrub despite the best efforts of ranchers and government hunters. Hayes had been the only man in Powder River County to even get close to the wolf, and he blamed himself for this scourge that his trap created.
Hayes tipped back his dirty Stetson to survey the ridges around him. Gullies snaked across the landscape. Flats of sagebrush, pine and juniper were scattered across the stark panorama. Broad ridges ended in vertical cliffs where flash floods had eroded the centuries-old volcanic ash. Streaks of yellow, black and saffron dirt lay exposed like a grimy rainbow. The soil became gumbo mud in a light dew, turned powder-dry under the summer sun, and ice-hard in the bitter winters. It was old and barren country, brutal country for anything that dared inhabit it, a country where only the brutal could survive.
When Three-toes studied the movement below, he saw only the horse. A horse without a man was of little concern in a land of livestock, but the wolf had not survived nine years by being unconcerned. All his senses were directed at the horse—eyes strained, nostrils quivered and ears stood erect. The black wolf lay hidden in the shadows of a scrub juniper; he had carefully chosen the hiding place so he could watch for approaching danger. The horse shook itself in the frigid air throwing off a mantle of snow from its back. Only then did Three-toes see the man stand and stare in his direction. A man! A low growl rumbled deep in the throat of the renegade wolf.
Hayes studied the direction of the tracks, but he would have to cross a mile of open sagebrush. He realized the crafty lobo would be watching and would see him long before Hayes was within rifle range. But the tracks were fresh and there may be a chance to ambush the black devil in The Notch. He settled into the saddle atop his Morgan horse and again studied the barren hillsides. Perhaps he could make the wolf nervous and drive him back toward the high country through The Notch.
Three-toes stared at the horse and rider. He had watched men on horses before, but this cowboy touched some deep memory. When the wolf slowly stood up, he remembered. There was a dull pain in his chest where something hot had once stung him. It had been the one time when he had foolishly napped atop a warm rock. A near-miss bullet had shattered the rock on which he lay, sending stone shrapnel slicing into his chest. It stung like a nest of angry hornets. Three-toes lost blood in the hours that followed while the man on the horse tracked him. When he was too weak to run further, the wolf crawled deep into a rose thicket and lay still as death while the cowboy passed by less than twenty feet away. Only after the Big Sky night returned did Three-toes limp away into the refuge of the Rosebud Mountains. The image of a brown horse, the tan hat, the leather chaps and green Mackinaw jacket had been seared into the wolf's brain.
Despite the badger burrows half-hidden in the afternoon shadows, Hayes spurred Monty toward the ranch house. Another 20-below night was coming on as years of frustration, memories of mutilated calves and defiant wolf howls welled up inside Hayes. His fingers were freezing inside his leather gloves, but a little pain was a small price to pay if he could just kill the wolf in the morning.
After the stars appeared in the frigid sky, Three-toes continued trotting away from the man-encounter. Not until he had covered three miles did he slow his pace. In a secluded grove of pine trees the wolf crawled under a rock overhang to rest for the night. A surprised squeak came from beneath the mat of pine needles, and a back-footed mouse disappeared down the wolf's throat. This tidbit would have to do until bigger game could be found.
"Hayes, you can be married or you can hunt wolves, but you can't do both." The cowboy mulled over the words as he rode to the ranch house. His wife had been right, of course, even though the words still stung like the rock shrapnel in Three-toes' chest. He was hunting wolves, and he was without a wife.
* * *
An hour before daylight Hayes saddled Monty in the corral. From the ranch house door, Culver watched the horse and vengeful cowboy. Hayes fumbled with the frozen leather straps.
"Good hunting, Hayes. I hope you get him this time. There'll be a job here when you get back." Culver shivered in the predawn darkness.
"I won't be back till I get him this time, and then I'll stretch his hide on your barn door. He's just a wolf, ain't he?" Hayes threw a smirk at Culver and tied on the saddlebags.
"You're a good man, Hayes. Maybe you can finally get all this behind you."
"Thanks, Culver. I'll see ya when I ride in here with that black devil." With that Hayes swung into the saddle and spurred Monty toward the ranch gate.
Culver watched as horse and rider were swallowed up by the night, listening to the staccato of hoof beats on the frozen ground. He wondered which was worse—a crippled old wolf or a paranoid old wolf hunter.
The heavy tail served its purpose well. Eons of evolution had spawned a tail that protected the wolf like a heavy blanket in the coldest weather. Three-toes snapped awake when a chickadee scratched for its breakfast in the nearby brush. He stretched his legs and rose to his feet, the crippled paw protesting with pain. Except for the small mouse, the wolf had not eaten in ten days.
The January sun had just cleared the horizon when a familiar smell halted the wolf in mid stride. Frozen in the morning air was the faint scent of a cow. He sniffed at the air and quickened his pace toward a white mound. Three-toes quickly uncovered a reddish piece of hide and hair; a winter-killed Hereford lay under a blanket of snow. The famished wolf began tearing at the hide to get at the frozen meat.
Hayes returned to the tracks he had studied the previous day, then stared at the distant Rosebud Mountains. The Notch was the only mountain pass used by man or beast during the winter. Perhaps if he kept the old lobo moving toward the pass, the wolf might get nervous and careless. He jerked the .30-30 from the rifle scabbard and fired two shots into the air, then spurred Mont towards the trail in Deer Creek. The trail would lead him to The Notch. It would take some hard riding but Hayes had to get there before Three-toes.
The black wolf was gnawing on the frozen underbelly when he heard the distant rifle shots roll over the ridges. His head snapped toward the sound while a strip of meat hung from his jaws. He realized danger stalked not far behind. Instinct told him to flee but he chewed frantically at the carcass. If he could only fill his belly and get through The Notch, he would find refuge in the wilderness beyond.
Hayes continued to spur Monty up another steep hillside. Despite the sub-zero atmosphere, Monty was sweating hard and gasping for breath. The big Morgan responded to the spurs in his ribs while the frigid air froze his lungs. Hayes took no notice; the wolf was all that mattered.
Horse and rider entered the pine timber that covered the higher slopes. Droplets of blood oozed from Monty's hide where the steel spurs had cruelly raked the skin. They were near The Notch where Hayes could ambush the rogue wolf, center his sights on the last timber wolf in Powder River County and squeeze the trigger. The wolf would die and this vendetta would end.
Hayes saw the pine deadfall half-buried in the snow. No time to detour around it, he spurred Monty to jump over the log. The weakened horse was exhausted and obeyed the sharp spurs, but he could not clear the fallen tree with its sharp and broken limbs. Blood gushed from the Morgan's chest and stained the snow crimson-he was impaled on one of the sharp spikes. Monty responded in terror and reeled backwards, thrashing wildly to escape the deep pain in its chest. Hayes had no time to kick free of the saddle.
The cowboy's left foot was entangled in the stirrup as the screaming horse began a wild, tumbling fall down the steep hillside. Hayes was thrown around like a rag doll on a string, alternately under and then above the rolling, kicking horse. Screams of a dying horse and a terrified cowboy echoed through Deer Creek Canyon. The mangled horse and rider rolled down the mountainside and smashed against a large yellow pine tree. A foreboding silence returned to the forest.
Three-toes was just nearing The Notch when he heard the terrified screams beyond the ridge crest. The noise rose and fell in volume, muffled by the deep snow. His curiosity aroused, the wolf started toward the sound.
No sound greeted Hayes when he awoke. He had lain unconscious for nearly half an hour. The deep cold had mercifully numbed some of his broken body parts. He was face down in the snow with a dead horse pinning him to the ground. His right arm was free but his left arm was twisted in unnatural angles. Hayes tried to dig himself free and crawl away but he collapsed with a loud groan as shattered leg bones rasped against one another.
The wolf heard the loud groan and was torn between his instinct to run for safety and his curiosity. He warily began stalking down the hill toward the sound.
Hayes drifted between the soothing blanket of shock and the cold reality of consciousness. The mountainside had become a white tomb without sound, without movement. The sun offered its brilliance to the frigid landscape, but there was no warmth in it. Hayes thought of his cowgirl wife of long ago, of the two sons he had fathered, of the rifle in the saddle scabbard with which he might fire signal shots. But all those things were out of reach, separated by years and inches.
Three-toes sniffed the heavy blood trail leading from the windfall to the dead horse. His body tensed like a coiled spring as he slowly stalked down the hillside and circled the carcass.
The wary wolf heard the faint scraping sound of something in the snow before he saw Hayes pinned beneath the horse. The man! Three-toes cowered in the snow fearing he had blundered into some trap. He stared at the feeble movements of the man's hand; it was Hayes futile attempt to drag himself free.
Hayes awoke with a start, but there was only dull pain as the cold and shock engulfed him. When his eyes focused, he was staring directly into the eyes of his black curse. Three-toes! Hayes gasped and tried to yell when he saw the white fangs of the wolf. Tales of men ripped to shreds erupted in his brain. He feebly threw handfuls of snow at the wolf to keep it at bay, but the wolf only sat there staring deep into the hated man.
Three-toes watched the man awaken. He could see the confusion, then the recognition, and finally the terror in the man's eyes. The man was dying, and Three-toes lifted his lips to show his great teeth and massive jaws. It was not a snarl of rage or fear; it was a wolfish smile, an expression of satisfaction.
Hayes collapsed again and for the last time, still staring into the yellow eyes of this black devil. It was the last image he would see.
Three-toes listened to the death-rattle in the man's throat. Cautiously, he stretched forward and sniffed the outstretched hand. The cowboy had been destroyed, but not by the wolf. Hayes' own obsession had done that. Three-toes lifted a hind leg on the pine tree, leaving a liberal dose of his scent to mark his territory. It was time to return to the Rosebud Mountains.