The morning sun offered little warmth to the backside of the cowboy as he leaned against Monty. He stood resting his elbows on the horse's saddle holding the binoculars tight against his weathered eyes. Culver stared at the high mountain meadows across the shallow valley. He figured he was close to his quarry. The White Wolf might be within rifle range if he could only spot her. Culver had been following the hand-sized paw prints for days, and these tracks were still oozing water from the melting snow.
Groves of aspen, thickets of spruce and pine, slabs of granite, sparse meadows and remnants of winter blizzards covered the valley. The cattle-killing wolf might be anywhere watching Culver at that very moment. He glanced up the draw and took notice of another spring squall curling over the high ridge of the Bitterroots. It could be snowing hard in just a few minutes and Culver did not want to lose this chance. April snowstorms seldom lasted long in Montana, but it could last long enough for White Wolf to slip away unseen. Culver breathed a soft curse and continued to glass the far meadows. That was Culver's job-to catch and kill any wolf that dared survive on the open range. White Wolf had become an evil threat to all livestock. The ranchers petitioned the government and the government sent Culver to eliminate the problem.
Culver was the best wolfer money could buy. He seldom returned from his hunts without the hide of a killer. For White Wolf he held a special hatred: it was his No.4 Newhouse trap that severed three of her toes and left her crippled. She went rogue after that and her bloody carnage was often evident at dawn. Herefords were left hamstrung, unable to walk and bawling in pain. The rancher was forced to end the cow's misery with a bullet to the brain. Sheep were an especially easy target as White Wolf raced among them, slashing their throats with a single snap of her jaws. Ranch house dogs and cats disappeared whenever White Wolf hunted near isolated ranch houses. Once she even killed a mare as it stood in its barn stall. Such was her hatred for the men who hated and crippled her.
Not even Culver's horse was aware of a pair of white ears barely showing above the rock ledge behind Culver. Less than thirty feet separated White Wolf from her stalker. She lay silently, watching the back of the man watching the wrong hillside. She studied the ground and knew that just a few leaps would be needed before she sunk her fangs into the man's throat and ripped it open.
Culver tensed as he felt an uneasiness wash over him. Something was watching him, something close. He knew any sudden movement could invite an attack. His rifle was still in its scabbard on the far side of the saddle. Culver slowly inched his hand towards its stock as Monty grew nervous from the long wait.
A few snowflakes floated down from the steel-gray sky, and then the few became many. The squall hit with full fury and a raging blizzard engulfed the mountainside. White Wolf continued to stare but was startled when the brief blizzard lifted and only the cowboy's horse remained. There was no man to be seen and no rifle in the scabbard. Culver had disappeared behind the shroud of white. Old wolfers, if they were good—and Culver was very good—learned to trust their instincts.
Hunted. Hunter. Hunted again—White Wolf knew fate had betrayed her. She could not run across an open hillside, so close to a man and his rifle. That would invite a barrage of rifle fire and a quick death. She might attack the man if she knew where he lay hidden, or continue to lie on the rock ledge until the man lost patience.
Culver lay in a fold of the granite listening for the slightest sound that might betray the wolf. He waited for a clatter of stones as a nervous wolf darted away. Instead, his ears detected only the rush of errant winds as they crashed and eddied against the unyielding rock. After several minutes Culver slowly raised his head and scanned the hillsides. Nothing had moved. Nothing had changed except for the white blanket the squall left behind. Snow could make for good tracking and offer White Wolf the perfect camouflage.
The wolfer still felt uneasy and confused. He knew something had been—was still—watching him, but he could not locate the wolf. He slowly stood up to survey all 360 directions around him. Monty was the only thing that moved searching for a few sprigs of frozen grass.
White Wolf could not see Culver stand because she herself had slunk low to the ledge. Her keen ears did detect the creaking leather of boots and chaps, even the crunch of small pebbles as the man stood. An eddy of the wind brought her the scent of the horse, the smells of a campfire and sweat in the man's clothes. It was too dangerous to run and attack was out of the question. She lay still and unmoving, like the drifted remnant of a winter blizzard.
Culver's nose might have picked up the wolf's scent had he been another wolf. His ears and eyes were keen despite 58 years of usage. He knew he was close to the white devil, but his rifle was useless without a target. He glanced down at the Winchester he cradled in his arms and half opened the breech to check the brass cartridge in the chamber.
There was movement across the valley. Culver heard the clatter of stone against stone and strained to find the source of the sound. White Wolf heard the sound, too, and lifted her head to focus on an animal walking across the distant hillside. It was Chub, her mate. The gray-mottled male had blundered into the valley searching for ground squirrels. So intense was his hunger that he had forgotten he could also become the hunted.
Culver studied the gray wolf. It wasn't White Wolf but it was a wolf. He knew his .30-30 would be hard pressed to kill any wolf at that range, but maybe. Maybe if Monty did not move, or maybe if Monty moved just enough to attract the hungry wolf in close . . . Culver settled behind the rock and trained rifle sights on the meandering target.
White Wolf stared at the ambush. It was the perfect chance to slink away while Culver was preoccupied with Chub. It was also the perfect chance to attack the hated man from behind.
Monty suddenly shook himself to throw off the melting snow on his back. The unexpected movement instantly riveted three sets of eyes on the chestnut horse. When Culver shifted his stare back towards Chub, White Wolf knew what to do. She coiled her body and sprang from her ledge. In two bounds she was slashing at the horse's throat, her fangs just grazing the skin of the horse. Her jaws snapped shut again and again with an audible clack as the terrified horse jerked backwards to escape the deadly fangs.
Culver whirled to face the melee while he thumbed back the hammer of his rifle. His first shot was poorly aimed and shattered a rock beneath White Wolf. A confused mass of horse and wolf flesh swirled on the slope as Culver levered a fresh cartridge into the breach.
Monty jerked sideways to escape the slashing teeth and the wolf again charged under the horse. There was a crimson explosion as a lead bullet tore open soft flesh and a ragged, red hole appeared in the neck muscle. White Wolf paid no attention to the blood as she dashed beyond the horse and across the open hillside. She was running for her life, never making more than five bounds in a straight line before zig-zagging and dodging behind another boulder.
There was a moment's lull behind the she-wolf, except for a screaming horse and the clank of frantic horseshoes on gray granite. Then there were more explosions as angry bullets splattered and ricocheted on nearby rocks. Culver was shooting wildly as fast as he could pull the trigger. White Wolf was soon out of range, pausing at the ridgeline to survey the bloody carnage she created.
Culver lowered his rifle when he realized both White Wolf and Chub were out of range. Monty was wheezing heavily from the bullet in his neck, desperately gasping for breath while blood pumped out the ragged hole. The great horse collapsed to the ground. Artery and windpipe had been shattered by a bullet and the horse was doomed.
Culver stared at the ridge while the two wolves stared back at him. There was nothing more he could do to the wolves, but there was still one thing to be done. He slowly walked over to where Monty struggled, levered a round into the rifle's chamber and touched the trigger. The little bullet bit deep into the horse's brain, ending its pain and misery. Culver had been forced to kill the only thing he still loved in the world. Now there was another reason to kill the Bitch of the Bitterroots.
White Wolf watched with satisfaction as the old wolfer pulled the trigger on his friend. The man who had crippled her and killed her first mate was now made to suffer. She and Chub were safe to retreat deep into the wilderness. Horseless on the prairie, Culver was no longer a threat.
Culver stared at his dead horse and relived those brief, frantic seconds. His hatred had blinded him and his dear horse had paid the price. He bent over the still warm horse and silently loosened the cinch of his saddle. It was twenty miles to the nearest ranch.
A few snowflakes floated down from the thickening sky. It was springtime in Montana.