The New Kingdom
he wilderness, too, has its drama—its loves, its tragedies and its triumphs
ARCHIE P. MCKISHNIE
Illustrated by H. E. M. SELLEN
ABOVE the valley, the mountain cedars swept in sable billows to brush the cold, star-dotted sky. Winter had tightened her clutch on the wilderness world. Death had touched the lake which slept in the lap of the valley, holding it beneath a blue-veined hand.
With the deepening of night the cold increased. The northern stars expanded, drew closer to the realm of silence and death. An opal light diffused valley and upland, deepening as it spread, to purple, ochre and silver. Somewhere deep in the locked solitude, the soul of a frost-slain tree freed itself with a report which echoed and re-echoed far along the silent hills.
At the sound, the she-wolf stirred from her shivering sleep and sat erect. Above her, the spruce boughs hung motionless, like cold arrows that menaced; beyond her scant shelter, stretched icy trails which offered nothing to assuage her hunger.
For five days and nights she had been forced to do without food. Runt of the litter, outcast from her pack, she swept now, with pensive eyes, the world of frozen emptiness, a world that held for her only unfriendliness and dangers.
By and by she crept from the spruces and stood, a drooping, lank silhouette against the starlight. Her eyes had lost their pensiveness. In them now, as she gazed steadfastly towards the massed forest far below her, were alertness, suspicion and fear.
As she stood thus, tensed, waiting, from the far heart of the wilderness sounded the fluted cry of her kind.
She shivered and with a whimpering growl took a stiff step forward. Again sounded the call. The she-wolf sank to her haunches and lifted her nose to the stars. But no answering cry issued from her gray throat. She
was an outcast, had been denied that which was her birthright—the right to call, to answer, to hunt with the pack, to gorge or starve with her kind.
With a plaintive whine she turned and sought again the shelter of her scant retreat—a mere handful of spruce boughs that gave little or no protection to her starved body. Gorged with the blood of the kill, she would have curled herself into a ball and slept there, despite the cold; would have forgotten for a space the menace of the hunting pack. But with the winter hunger upon her, sharper than the arrows of frost that pierced her, there was but one sleep which would give her respite, and this sleep she fought with every wild instinct within her.
She knew that to live she must keep moving, must travel the ice-barbed trail to the heavier timber of the slopes. Dangers were there, but this numbing death which reached for her was more to be feared than the fangs of her kind. Some time, she realized, she must go down before the fangs of her stronger fellows; such is the irrevocable law of the wilderness which has no place for the weakling. But that time she would avoid as long as a spark of life stirred within her. And when it came she would die fighting.
Again she crept from the brush and crouched, a cringing atom against the silvery haze of the sky. The cold dome of night pressed upon her. The tree-scarred snows closed in on her, clutching at her very heart with cutting fingers of frost.
She swayed, half sank to the snow, then righted herself and limped painfully a few yards down the slippery slope. The sharp ice reopened the wounds on her feet so that each pad left a smear of red on the slope’s white face. Once, when half-way to the timber which banked sombrely against the stars, she turned and gazed back toward the meagre shelter on the lip of the hill.
But there was no turning back now. The trail led downward in steep descent. Her feet were fast numbing to the punishing ice, and she was spent with hunger. So, with head sagging and tail adroop, she staggered on her way, at times pausing for a brief respite behind some naked bush, or to lift her muzzle in silent supplication to the pitiless sky. But not once did she voice to the night and kindred the cry which stirred in her clogging heart. She was a wolf, littered amid snowy sweeps, hated of all beasts and wilderness people. But in her wild heart was no cringing. Neither man nor beast had ever heard her cry under pain.
On this night in late winter, with its killing cold, greater than the pain of hunger and weakness, which held her back, was another pain—the pain of banishment from her kind and her rightful heritage.
The killing cold would pass some day. The frozen trees would leaf to swishing song. The locked lakes would whiten to murmuring ripples. But always upon her would rest the great loneliness.
TT WAS late night when she dragged her spent body into the forest. Death wras very close upon her—but the chill tree-shadows seemed friendly after the steelblue light of the sweeps. In coming here, she had but obeyed a last impulse. Death ever calls the kindred to
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The New Kingdom
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the embracing darkness when wracked flesh is done with the trekking.
And it was here the grizzled dog wolf found lier, curled into a ball, her brush across lier eyes, upon her the sleep which knows no waking.
The dog was huge and gaunt. His head was massive, his jaws long and heavy, lie was old, perhaps fourteen years of age, for his thick neck ruff matched the snow in hue. Deep wrinkles lay beneath his steadfast eyes. Along his cheeks were the scars of many battles. Some of those scars had been reopened but recently.
His lean flanks were heaving as from a long run. llis heavy brush hung low, as though in cringing acknowledgment that a younger and stronger dog had dethroned him and taken his place beside the bitch leader of the pack.
Now, as he came suddenly upon the gray outcast, he braced his forelegs and stood with stiffened hackles, long fangs bared, a low growl rumbling in his shaggy throat.
But the thing huddled beneath the cedar clump did not move. Stiff-legged the dog-wolf approached her. He bent his head stiffly and sniffed her. His touch stirred the she-wolf from the heavy sleep of death. With her last remaining strength she half rose, and with a snarl slashed weakly out at him. He backed away in silence.
To the wilderness belongs a note which only its own children know or understand. A note as deep and waking as eternity— but soundless. To some it comes in early spring, to others in late autumn, and others still in the time of deep snows. It is a call soft with the softness of things too deep for voicing, sublime with tenderness, as indefinable as the music, and the fastness of the wilderness itself. It is the call of mate to mate.
Well for the little gray outcast that somewhere in the frozen wilderness of hunger and tragedy, that call had sounded on this late winter night. Well for her, too, that on this night the old dog wolf had been deposed by a stronger fellow, else death would have fallen on her quickly, for the scarred wolf was starving too.
Now, he lowered his head and nipped her sharply on one quivering flank. She roused, sat up again and growled. Again he nipped her, and as she began to sag toward the snow, his jaws closed upon the loose skin of her neck. Once, twice, he shook her savagely. She came groggily to her feet then, growling and snapping weakly at the disturber of her dream. The dog paid no attention to her impotent bites. He shook her again and pushed her roughly in front of him.
Gradually, life came back to her numbing body. She realized that one of her kind was with her, the biggest, wildest dog-wolf she had ever beheld in her three years of life. And he commanded that she follow him.
This she longed to do with all her starving heart. Follow him. But true to her breed and sex she refused to do it.
He shook her again until he had fully chastised her stubborn spirit. Then stifflegged, head erect, he moved off into the forest. This time the she-wolf followed him obediently.
It was warmer in the tangled depth of the forest. Something of her old-time strength returned to the little she-wolf as she trailed the gaunt dog. But oh, she was hungry!
It was nearing dawn and the shadows were banking in deeper density about them, when suddenly the dog-wolf paused in his tracks and stood with head lowered. The bitch, too, had caught the scene which had transfixed the old hunter —the unmistakable scent of a rabbit. She, too, stiffened. From her jaws trickled the saliva of anticipation. Then
suddenly the dog unloosed his tensed muscles and leaped.
The startled rabbit catapulted upward and over the dog in a spring that had never failed to fool his enemy. But he had failed to note the lesser of the two gray dangers, and while he was yet in mid air the she-wolf’s jaws snapped upon him.
Ravenously, she devoured her prize. The dog sat down on his haunches and watched her. He might easily have de prived her of her kill—yesterday he would have done so without the slightest compunction. But now upon him was the spell of the forest, a softening of the savage spirit, an instinct to protect the mate bestowed upon him by the Mother of the Silences.
TA A Y broke with a flutter of pale gold ^ banners upon jagged crests of the hills. Within the labyrinth of trees the wolf mates faced each other across the carcass of a doe that had fallen before their combined onslaught.
The she-wolf stood with one slender forepaw on the kill; the dog watched her curiously, his brush asway. His hunger had been assuaged by the first gorging., and on his scarred face now rested an expression of content, such as a housedog wears when the plate has been licked clean and the kitchen fire is warm and ruddy.
He had been forced from his place by a stronger and younger dog who now ran with the pack leader, but he had found a newr mate, and spring was near at hand. And, somewhere, in the valleys of sparser forests, lay a new kingdom.
He dropped belly to earth and watched the other wolf as she tore at the flesh her starving stomach had been so long denied. The cold was no less intense. Within the spruce forest not so much as a frond stirred to the touch of wind. When she could no longer swallow another morsel, the she-wolf dropped in her tracks and was almost instantly asleep.
But the dog arose, and advancing nosed her to wakefulness. She sprang on him, ripping open one of the half-healed wounds on his head. He did not retaliate. Fie shook the blood from his eyes and trotted away from her towards a dense thicket of trees which marked the bank of a stream. Not once did he look back to see if she were following. He had, in that rough touch, communicated to her his wishes. He expected her to obey.
The little gray wolf growled and fumed, but she trailed after him. They entered the thicket, passed through it and on down the steep forested bank to a frozen stream. Across this the dog led her and on up the opposite bank. All the time the forest was thickening. New life stirred within the she-wolf as the smell of fir and balsam assailed her nostrils. She had missed the forest. She had for a time been a prisoner. But now she was free again.
She flashed suddenly like a gray streak past her mate, head low, brush straight out behind. He caught her spirit, followed her in long lopes, his jaws agape with the joy of the game. As they sped, the sound of running water grew up like a whisper, deepened to a murmuring song. They found the cataract which no frost could hope to harness and from a rocky basin at its foot they drank their fill. Then for a moment they lay, breast to breast, their tongues lolling, white steam rising from their furry coats.
C BRING burst suddenly upon the frozen fastness, melting with Chinook tongue the icy bonds of lakes and streams. Then came whispering rains that left in their wake the life and scents of stirring plants.
Her strength renewed by feasting on red flesh, the little she-wolf, raced the runways from timbered ridge to greening
valley, sheer gladness of life and what it held for her in her heart which had starved for so long.
The old dog watched her, always close to her, never for a moment relaxing his vigilance. When weary, she sprawled on the spicy sward, while he stood beside her, gaunt, formidable, but with a strange tenderness in his questioning eyes.
His was much worth the holding—if he could but hold it. He was old, but he was still strong, and great was his guile and his knowledge of things a wolf must know. Never again might he hope to race neck and neck with the leader of a gray host of subjects that wiped life from their path. That part he had played, and would never play again. A younger, stronger dog held the place which once was his. Some night he, too, would go down before a stronger usurper. Such was the law of the solitudes.
He was through with the pack forever. Fourteen glorious springtimes, such as this one now dawning, he had already witnessed. Three, perhaps four more years, and the natural course of his life would slow and sink to sleep, as the stream that crashes its swift course pools at last to slumber beneath the sheltering trees.
It was well. No longer he craved the fierce chase, the battles with his foes, the struggle to hold younger dogs from his throat. He wanted only the peace of the silent wastes, the companionship of a mate who still believed him competent to shape their course.
And all this was his. So with the lengthening days, and lighting skies, the old dog led the little she-wolf down from the heavy forest into a more open territory into which, he knew, the gray killers of his tribe would never venture. So much for his superior wisdom. Some day they, too, would know what he knew, that those sunsprayed valleys spelled for them
greater immunity from the manifold j dangers of their paths. But when this j knowledge came to them, they, too, would be old, weary of the sterner chase and ready to welcome the lone trails.
So, into the greening valley he led his mate, by slow degrees, for no longer did she speed the spicy trails, but followed him silently, her head brushing his flank.
And on a night of moon and soft winds freighted with the scent of waking plants, they came to a huge tree-jam. Here they paused. His red tongue laved her face, no longer snarling, but wistful now, as she lifted it to his. Then with a low whimper, she turned and entered the jam.
All night he lay beside the jam-pile, his eyes fixed steadfastly before him. Towards dawn he arose and passed like a shadow into the denser timber.
A new spring dawn was brushing the skies above the mountains when he returned carrying a dead jack-rabbit in his jaws. And as he stood expectant, his little gray mate crept from the darkness of her retreat and touched his scarred nose with her own.
Perhaps in a language known only to themselves, she whispered the message for which he waited, for slowly his drooping tail began to wag, slowly his jaws opened to release her meal.
And as she sank upon her belly and devoured the kill, his lean body tensed, his strong throat swelled, and lifting his head to the lighting skies, he sent one wild cry of exultation and challenge to the world that had cast him out.
For unto him Nature had bestowed a new lease of life and happiness. He had established a new kingdom which he would rule until the end of his days. Deep within the darkness of the jam-pile were his little blind subjects. Some day one of them must take the leadership which was now his. But that day he would never know.