Read CHAPTER VI - THE KING WOLF of The Keepers of the Trail A Story of the Great Woods , free online book, by Joseph A. Altsheler, on

When the two chiefs, Alloway and the smaller force, were driven into the great camp, Henry turned aside into the forest and felt that he had done well.  All the fanciful spirit of the younger world created by the Greeks had been alive in him that night.  He had been a young Hercules at play and he had enjoyed his grim jokes.  He was not only a young Hercules, he was a primeval son of the forest to whom the wilderness was a book in which he read.

He went back a little on their path, and he marked where the European leader had fallen twice through sheer weariness or because he could not see well enough in the dusk to evade trailing vines.  A red thread or two on a bush showed that he had torn his uniform in falling, and the young woods rover laughed.  He could not recall another such gratifying night, one in which he had served his own people and also had annoyed the enemy beyond endurance.

He went deep into the forest, hiding his trail as usual, and lay down in a covert to rest, while he ate some of the venison that he had left.  Here he saw again his friends of the little trails, with which he was so familiar.  The shy rabbits were creeping through the bushes and instinctively they seemed to have no fear of him.  Two little birds not ten feet over his head were singing in intense rivalry.  Their tiny throats swelled out as they poured forth a brilliant volume of song, and Henry, lying perfectly still, looked up at them and admired them.  It would have required keen eyes like his to have picked them out, each of whom a green leaf would have covered, but he saw them and recognized them as friends of his.  He did not know them personally, but since all their tribe were his comrades they must be so too.

Although he was one of mighty prowess with the rifle, and a taker of game, Henry always felt his kinship with the little people of the forest.  No one of them ever fell wantonly at his hands.  The gay birds in their red or blue plumage and all the soberer garbs between, were safe from him.  It seemed that they too at times recognized him as a friend since he would hear the flutter of tiny wings over his head or by his ear, and see them pass in a flash of flame, or of blue or of brown.

Those old tales of Paul floated once more through his mind.  He had no doubt that Paul was right.  The Biblical six thousand years might be six million years as men thought of them now.  And he knew himself, from his own eye, that huge monsters, larger than any that lived now, did roam the earth once.  He had seen their bones in hundreds at the Big Bone Lick, where they had come to get the salty water scores of thousands of years ago.  It seemed to him then that in those days men and the little animals and the little birds must have been allies against the monsters.  Here, in the woods so far from civilization, this friendship must be continued.  The light wind which so often sang to him through the leaves sprang up and joined its note to that of the birds.  The fierce, wild spirit that had made him haunt the flying trail the night before, and that had sent the tomahawk so deep, departed.  He felt singularly friendly to all created beings.

Lying on his back and looking upward into the green roof, Henry listened to the forest concert.  The two over his head were still singing with utmost vigor, but others had joined.  From all the trees and bushes about him came a volume of song, and the shadow of no swooping hawk or eagle fell across the sky to disturb them.

He had a little bread in his pouch, and he threw some crumbs on the grass a few feet away.  The hand and arm that had cast them sank by his side, remained absolutely still and he waited.  The wonder that he was wishing so intensely came to pass.  A bird, brown and tiny, alighted on the grass and pecked one of the crumbs.  Beyond a doubt, this was a bold bird, a leader among his kind, an explorer and discoverer.  He had never seen a crumb before, but he picked up one in his tiny bill and found it good.  Then he announced the news to all the world that could hear his voice, and there was much fluttering of small wings in the air.

More birds, red, green, yellow and brown, settled upon the grass and began to pick the crumbs eagerly.  It was new food, but they found it good.  Nor did they pay any attention to the great figure in buckskin dyed green lying so near and so still.  The instinct given to them in place of reason, which warned them of the presence of an enemy, gave them no such warning now, because there was none against which they could be warned.

Henry always believed that the birds felt his kinship that morning, or perhaps it was the crumbs that drew them to a friend and gave them hearts without fear.  One of them, perhaps the original bold explorer, seeking vainly for another crumb, hopped upon his bare hand as it lay in the grass, but feeling its warmth flew away a foot, hung hovering a moment or two, then came back and took a peck.

It was not sufficient to hurt Henry’s toughened hand, and exerting the great strength of his will over his body he continued to lie perfectly motionless.  The bird, satisfied that this food was beyond his powers, stood motionless for a few moments, then flapped his wings two or three times to indicate that he was a prince and an ornament of the forest, and began to pour forth the fullest and deepest song that Henry had yet heard.

It gave him a curious thrill as the bird, perched on his hand, and extended to his utmost, sang his song.  The other birds having finished all the crumbs stood chirping and twittering in the grass.  Then, as if by a given signal, all of them, including the one on Henry’s hand, united in a single volume of song and flew up into the crevices of the green roof.  He felt that a serenade had been given to him, one that few human kings ever enjoyed.  The little flying people of the forest had united to do him honor, and he was pleased, hugely pleased.

They were hidden from him now in the green leaves, but where the sky was clear he saw a sudden, dark shadow against the blue.  He sprang up in an instant and raised his rifle.  But it was too late for the eagle to stop.  The heavy figure with the tearing beak and claws swooped downward, and there was silence and terror among the green leaves.  But before the eagle could clutch or rend, Henry’s rifle spoke with unerring aim, and the body fell to the ground dead.

He was sorry.  He did not like his morning party to be broken up in such a manner, and for his guests to be disturbed and frightened.  Nor was it wise to fire his rifle in that neighborhood.  But he had acted on an impulse that he did not regret.  He looked at the beak and claws of the dead eagle and he was glad that he had shot him.  The fierce bird had broken up his forest idyl, and knowing that he could stay no longer he set off at a great pace, again curving about in a course that led him somewhat toward the house in the cliff.

He crossed several trails and he became rather anxious.  Doubtless they were made by hunters, because the Indians while they remained at the great camp would eat prodigiously, and bands would be continually searching the forest for buffalo and deer.  It was from these that the chief danger came.  He suspected also that their proximity had compelled Shif’less Sol and the others to keep close within their little shelter.  He doubted whether he could reach them that day.

The need of rest made itself felt at last, and, hiding his trail, he crept into another small but very dense thicket.  He felt that he was within a lair and his kinship with bird and beast was renewed.  No wolf or bear could lie snugger in its den than he.

He put his rifle by his side, where he could reach it in a second, and was soon asleep.  A prowling bear came into the far edge of the thicket, sniffed the man-smell and went away, not greatly alarmed, but feeling that it was better, in case of doubt, to avoid the cause of the doubt.  Two Indians, carrying the cloven body of a deer, passed within three hundred yards of the sleeping youth, but they saw no trail and went on to the camp with the spoils of the hunt.

Henry slept lightly, but a long time.  The forest quality was still strong within him.  Although his sleep had all its restoring power, the lightest noise in the undergrowth near him would have awakened him.  But he slept on through the morning, and into the afternoon.

A second party of savage hunters passed, five men carrying wild turkeys, and they too did not dream that the enemy whom they dreaded so much lay near.  They had left the camp only that morning, and, the warriors arriving from the river, had told before they left how they had been pursued all through the night by one upon whom the Evil Spirit had descended.  Even in the day they would have avoided this being, and the old medicine men who were in the camp were making charms to drive him away.

It was the most brilliant part of the afternoon now.  Nevertheless they looked with a tinge of superstitious terror at the forests.  The highly imaginative mind of the Indian, clothes nearly all things with personality, and for them an evil wind was blowing.  The events of the preceding night had been colored and enlarged by those who told them.  One or two had seen the form, gigantic and flaming-eyed, that had hung upon their trail, and these warriors, fearing that they too might see it, and in the open day, hung close as they bore their load of turkeys back to the camp.

Henry did not awake until the west was growing dim, and then after the fashion of the borderers he awoke all at once, that is, every nerve and faculty was alive at the same time.  Nothing had invaded his haunt in the brushwood.  His keen eyes showed him at once that no bush had been displaced, and, with his rifle ready, he walked out into the opening.

He must get back into the little fortress that night.  He had been gone so long that Shif’less Sol and the others, although having the utmost confidence in his powers, would begin to worry about him.  Yet he knew that it was unwise to approach the place until night came.  Delay was all the more necessary, because while he saw on the northern horizon the smoke from the great camp, he saw also a smaller smoke rising from another camp nearer their fortress.  It was so near, in truth, that the four must find it necessary to hide close within the walls.

The second smoke aroused Henry’s apprehension.  Perhaps a portion of the camp had been moved forward merely to be nearer water or for some kindred reason, but that did not keep it from being nearer the stone fortress, nor from impeding his entrance into it.  Yet he believed that he could slip past.  His skill had triumphed over greater tests.

After dark he began his journey, buoyant and strong from his long sleep, and continued his wide circuit intending to approach his destination from the west.  Distance did not amount to much to the borderer, and his long, easy gait carried him on, mile after mile.

It was another night, brilliant with moon and stars, and Henry was able to see the larger trail of smoke still traced on the northern horizon.  His sense of direction was perfect, but he looked up now and then at the smoky bar, always keeping it on his right, and three or four hours after sunset he began to curve in towards his friends.  The country into which he had come was similar in character to that which he had left, heavy forest, rolling hills and many creeks and brooks.  He had never been in that immediate region before, and he judged by the amount of game springing up before him that it had not been visited by anybody in a long time.  It was always a cause of wonder to him that a region as large as Kentucky, four fifths the size of all England, should be totally without Indian inhabitants.

The fact that Indians from the North and Indians from the South were said to fight there when on their hunting expeditions, and that hence they preferred to leave it as a barrier or neutral ground, did not wholly account for the fact to him.  Farther north and farther south the Indians occupied all the country and fought with one another, but in this beautiful and fertile land there was no village, and not even a stray lodge.

He had often asked himself the reason, and while he was asking it he came to a long low mound, covered with trees of smaller growth than those in the surrounding forest.  At first he took it for a hill just like the others, but its shape did not seem natural, and, despite the importance of time he looked again, and once more.  Then he walked a little way up the mound and his moccasined foot struck lightly against something hard.  He stooped, and catching hold of the impediment pulled from the earth a broken piece of pottery.

It seemed old, very old, and wishing to rest a little, Henry sat down and gazed at it.  The Indians of the present day could not possibly have made it, and it was impossible also that any white settler or hunter could have left it there.  He dropped the fragment and rising, looked farther, finding two more pieces buried almost to the edge, but which his strong hands pulled out.  They seemed to him of the same general workmanship as the others, and he surmised that the long mound upon which he was standing had been thrown up by the hand of man.

What was inside the mound?  Perhaps the skeletons of men dead a thousand years or more, men more civilized than the Indians, but gone forever, and leaving no trace, save some broken pieces of pottery.  Possibly the Indians themselves had destroyed these people, and they did not come here to live because they feared the ghosts of the slain.  But it was no question that he could solve.  He would talk about it later with Paul and meanwhile he must find some way to reach the others.

He threw down the pottery and left the hill, but, as he swung swiftly onward, the hill and its contents did not disappear from his mind.  He had a strange sense of mystery.  The new land about him might be an old, old land.  He had never thought of it, except as forest and canebrake, in which the Indians had always roamed, but evidently it was not so.  It was strange that races could disappear completely.

But as he raced on, the feeling for these things fell from him.  He was not so much for the past as Paul was.  He was essentially of the present, and, dealing with wild men in a wild country, he was again a wild man himself.  Among the Indians at the great camp or about it there was not one in such close kinship with the forest as he.  Despite danger and his anxiety to reach his comrades, he felt all its beauty and majesty, in truth fairly reveled in it.

He noticed the different trees, the oaks, the elms, the maples, the walnuts, the hickories, the sycamores, the willows at the edges of the stream, the dogwoods, and all the other kinds which made up the immeasurable forest.  They were in the early but full foliage of spring, and the light wind brought odors that were like a perfumed breath.

It was past midnight, when he stopped to enjoy again the fine flavor of his kingdom.  Then he suddenly lay flat among the dead leaves of the year before, and thrust forward the barrel of his rifle.  He had heard a footfall, the footfall of a moccasin, not much heavier than the fall of a leaf, and every nerve and faculty within him was concentrated to meet the new danger.

The sound had come from his right, and raising his head just a little he looked, but saw nothing, that is nothing new in the waving forest.  Yet Henry was sure that a man was there.  His ear would not deceive him.  Doubtless it was a stray hunter or scout from the bands, and, while he did not fear him, he was annoyed by the delay.  It might keep him from reaching his comrades that night.

He waited a long time, using all the patience that he had learned, and he began to believe that his ear after all might have deceived him.  Perhaps it had been merely a rabbit in the undergrowth, but while he was debating with himself he heard a faint stir in the bush, and he knew that it was made by a man seeking a new position.

Then his intuition, the power that came from an extreme development of the five senses, reinforced by will, gave him an idea.  Still lying on his back he uttered the lonesome howl of the wolf, but very low.  He waited a moment or two, eager to know if his intuition had told him truly, and back came the wolf’s low but lone cry.  He gave the second call and the cry of the wolf came in like answer.

Then he stood up with rifle at trail and walked boldly forward.  A tall figure, rifle also at trail, emerged from the bush and advanced to meet him.  Two hands met in the strong clasp of those who had shared a thousand dangers and who had never failed each other.

“I thought when I made the call that it would be you, Sol,” said Henry.

“An’ I knowed it must be you, Henry,” said the shiftless one, showing his double row of shining white teeth, “’cause you’re the only one in the woods who kin understan’ our signals.”

“And that means that Paul, Long Jim and Tom are safe in the cave.”

“When I left two nights ago, hevin’ gone back thar after we separated, they wuz safe, but whether they are now I can’t tell.  Decidin’ that they wuz foulin’ the water too much, part o’ the band has moved up to a place mighty close to our own snug house.  They don’t know yet that the hole in the wall is thar, but ef they stay long they’re boun’ to run acrost it.  That’s why I’ve come out lookin’ fur you, an’ mighty glad I am that I’ve found you.  I’d a notion you’d take this circuit, after doin’ all the deviltry you’ve done.”

The shiftless one’s mouth parted in a wide grin of admiration.  The two rows of white teeth shone brightly.

“Henry,” he said, “you’re shorely the wild catamount o’ the mountains.”


“Well, I’m somethin’ o’ a scout an’ trailer, ez you know, an’ that ain’t no boastin’.  I’ve been hangin’ ‘roun’ the Injun camp, an’ they’re terrible stirred up.  An evil sperrit has been doin’ ’em a power o’ harm an’ I know that evil sperrit is you.  Ef it wuzn’t fur them cannon on which they build such big hopes the chiefs would take all their warriors and go home.  But the white men are urgin’ ’em on.  Henry, you’re shorely the king o’ these woods.  How’d you stir ’em up so?”

Henry modestly told him all that he had done, and the shiftless one chuckled again and again, as proud of his comrade’s deeds as if he had done them himself.

“But the Indians will march against Kentucky?” said Henry.  “You don’t doubt that, do you?”

“Yes, they’ll go.  Hevin’ brought the cannon so fur they won’t turn back, but mebbe we kin hold ’em a while longer.  There are tricks an’ tricks, an’ we kin work some o’ ’em.”

“And it’s our object to stop those cannon.  Unless they have ’em we can beat the Indians off as we did last year, even if they are led by the English.”

“So we kin, Henry, an’ we’ll git them guns yet.  Scoutin’ ‘roun’ thar camp I learned enough to know that you’ve broke up thar plan o’ tryin’ to carry ’em part o’ the way by the river.  You must hev done mighty slick work thar, Henry.  The warriors are plum’ shore now that river is ha’nted.  It’s all the way through the woods now fur them cannon, an’ the English will hev to use the axes most o’ the time.”

“Then we’ll be going back as fast as we can.  I want to tell you again, Sol, that your face was mighty welcome.”

“I ain’t no beauty,” grinned the shiftless one, “but them that’s bringin’ help do be welcome when they come.  That’s the reason you looked so pow’ful well to me, Henry, ‘cause I wuz gettin’ mighty lonesome, prowlin’ ‘roun’ in these woods all by myself, an’ no comp’ny to call, ’cept them that would roast me alive when they’d j’in me.”

“The cliff is straight north, isn’t it?”

“Jest about.  But thar’s an Injun band in the way.  They’re jerkin’ a lot o’ venison fur the main camp, but bein’ ez you’ve stirred ’em up so they’re keepin’ a mighty good watch too.  You know we don’t want no fights, we jest want to travel on ez peaceful ez runnin’ water.”

“That’s so, Sol, but it means a much farther curve to the west.”

“Then we’ve got to take it.  It ain’t hard for you an’ me.  We’ve got steel wire for muscles in our legs, and the night is clear, cool an’ life-givin’.  Paul hez talked ’bout parks in the Old World, but we’ve got here a bigger an’ finer park than any in Europe or Asyer, or fur that matter than Afriker or that new continent, Australyer.  An’ thar ain’t any other park that hez got so many trees in it ez ourn, or ez much big game all fur the takin’.  Now lead on, Henry, an’ we’ll go to our new home.”

“No, you lead, Sol.  I’ve been on a big strain, an’ I’d like to follow for a while.”

“O’ course you would, you poor little peaked thing.  I ought to hev thought o’ that when I spoke.  Never out in the woods afore by hisself an’ nigh scared to death by the trees an’ the dark.  But jest you come on.  I’ll lead you an’ I won’t let no squirrel or rabbit hurt you neither.”

Henry laughed.  The humor and unction of the shiftless one always amused him.

“Go ahead, Sol,” he said, “and I’ll promise to keep close behind you, where nothing will harm me.”

Thus they set off, Sol in front and Henry five feet away, treading in his footsteps.

“There wuz a time when I’d hev been afraid o’ the dark,” said Shif’less Sol, whose conversational powers were great.  “You’ve been to the Big Bone Lick, an’ so hev I, an’ we’ve seen the bones o’ the monsters that roamed the earth afore the flood, a long time afore.  I wouldn’t hev believed that such critters ever tramped around our globe ef I hadn’t seen their bones.  I come acrost a little salt lick last night ­we may see it in passin’ afore mornin’ ­but thar wuz big bones ‘roun’ it too.  I measured myself by ’em an’ geewhillikins, Henry, what critters them wuz!  Ef I’d been caught out o’ my cave after night an’ one o’ them things got after me I’d hev been so skeered that I’d hev dropped my stone club ’cause my hands trembled so, my teeth would hev rattled together in reg’lar tunes, an’ I’d hev run so fast that I’d only hev touched the tops o’ the hills, skippin’ all the low ones too, an’ by the time I reached the mouth o’ my cave, I’d be goin’ so swift that I’d run clear out o’ my clothes, leavin’ ’em fur the monster to trample on an’ then chaw up, me all the while settin’ inside the cave safe, but tremblin’ all over, an’ with no appetite.  Them shore wuz lively times fur our race, Henry, an’ I guess we did a pow’ful lot o’ runnin’ an’ hidin’.”

“It was certainly time to run, Sol, when a tiger eight feet high and fifteen feet long got after you, or a mammoth or a mastodon twenty feet high and fifty feet long was feeling around in the bushes for you with a trunk that could pick you up and throw you a mile.”

“Henry, ef we wuzn’t in a hurry I’d stop here an’ give thanks.”

“What for?”

“‘Cause I didn’t live in them times, when the beast wuz bigger an’ mightier than the man.  I guess stone caves that run back into mountains ‘bout a mile wuz the most pop’lar an’ high-priced.  Guess those boys an’ gals didn’t go out much an’ dance on the green, ez they do back East.  I’d a heap ruther hunt the buff’ler than that fifteen foot tiger o’ yours, Henry.”

“So had I, Sol.  If those beasts were living nowadays we wouldn’t be roaming through the forest as we are now.  We have only the Indians to fear.”

“An’ thar’s a lot about them to be afeard of at times, ez you an’ me know, Henry.”

“If we keep on this curve, Sol, about what time do you think we ought to reach the boys?”

“Afore moonrise, jest about when the night is darkest, ‘less somethin’ gits in the way.  Here’s another branch, Henry.  Guess we’d better wade in it a right smart distance.  You can’t ever be too keerful about your trail.”

The branch, or brook, as it would have been called in older communities, was rather wide, about six inches deep and flowing over a smooth, gravelly bed.  It was flowing in the general direction in which they wished to go, and they walked in the stream a full half mile.  Then they emerged upon the bank, careless of wet feet and wet ankles, which they knew would soon dry under severe exercise, and continued their swift journey.

The curiosity of the shiftless one about the primeval world had passed for the time, and like Henry he was concentrating all his energy and attention upon the present, which was full enough of work and danger.  He and the young Hercules together made a matchless pair.  He was second only to Henry in the skill and lore of the wilderness.  He was a true son of the forest, and, though uneducated in the bookish sense, he was so full of wiles and cunning that he was the Ulysses of the five, and as such his fame had spread along the whole border, and among the Indian tribes.  Hidden perhaps by his lazy manner, but underneath that yellow thatch of his the shiftless one was a thinker, a deep thinker, and a nobler thinker than the one who sat before Troy town, because his thoughts were to save the defenseless.

“Henry,” he said, “we’re followed.”

Henry glanced back, and in the moonlit dusk he saw a score of forms, enlarged in the shadows, their eyes red and their teeth bare.

“A wolf pack!” he exclaimed.

“Shore ez you live,” replied the shiftless one.  “Reckon they’ve been follerin’ us ever since we left the branch.  Mebbe they never saw men afore an’ don’t know nothin’ ‘bout guns that kill at a distance, an’ ag’in mebbe they’ve been driv off thar huntin’ grounds by the warriors, an’ think we kin take the place o’ their reg’lar game.”

“Anyway I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I. Look at that old fellow in the lead.  Guess he’s called a giant among ’em.  I kin see the slaver fallin’ from his mouth.  He’s thinkin’ o’ you, Henry, ’cause there’s more meat on you than there is on me.”

“I don’t know about that.  You’d make a fine dish for the table of the wolf king.  Roasted and served up whole they’d save you for the juicy finish, the last gorgeous touch to the feast.”

“Don’t talk that way, Henry.  You make me shiver all over.  I ain’t afeard o’ a wolf, but ef I didn’t hev a rifle, an’ you wuzn’t with me, I’d be plum’ skeered at them twenty back thar, follerin’ us lookin’ at us an’ slaverin’.”

The shiftless one shook his fist at the king wolf, an enormous beast, the largest that they had ever seen in Kentucky.  The whole troop was following them, their light feet making no noise in the grass and leaves, but their red eyes and white teeth always gleaming in the moonlight.  They were showing an uncommon daring.  Lone hunters had been killed and eaten in the winter by starving wolves, but it was seldom that two men in the spring were followed in such a manner.  It became weird, uncanny and ominous.

“I know what’s happened,” said the shiftless one suddenly.  “I kin tell you why they follow us so bold.”

“What’s the reason, Sol?”

“You know all them ’normous tigers and hijeous monsters we’ve been talkin’ ‘bout, that’s been dead a hundred thousan’ years.  Thar souls comin’ down through other animals hev gone straight into our pack o’ wolves thar.  They ain’t wolves really.  They’re big tigers an’ mammoths an’ sech like.”

“I’m not disputing what you say, Sol, because I don’t know anything about it, but if it wasn’t for raising an alarm I’d shoot that king wolf there, who is following us so close.  I can tell by his eyes that he expects to eat us both.”

“What kind o’ tigers wuz it that Paul said lived long ago, an’ growed so monstrous big?”


“Then that king wolf back thar wuz the king o’ the saber-toothed tigers in his time.  He wuz twelve feet high and twenty-five feet long an’ he could carry off on his shoulder the biggest bull buffaler that ever wuz, an’ eat him at a meal.”

“That would have been a good deal of a dinner, even for an emperor among saber-toothed tigers.”

“But I’m right about that wolf, Henry.  I kin see it in his eye, an’ them behind him are nigh ez bad.  They wuz all saber-toothed tigers in thar time.  I reckon that in thar wolf souls or tiger souls, whichever they be, they expect to eat us afore day.  I’d like pow’ful well to put a bullet atween the eyes o’ thar king ­jest ez you said you would, Henry.”

“But it’s not to be thought of.  Sound would travel far on a still night like this, and the warriors might be within hearing.  It’s hard on the nerves, but we’ve got to stand it.”

They hoped that the wolves would drop the trail soon, but their wish did not come true.  However they twisted and turned, whether they went slow or fast, the sinister pack was always there, the king wolf a foot or so in advance, like the point to the head of an arrow.  Often the flickering shadows exaggerated him to twice his usual size, and then in truth he suggested his saber-toothed predecessor of long, long ago.

“This is becomin’ pow’ful w’arin’ to the nerves, Henry,” said the shiftless one.  “I’d ruther hev a clean fight with a half-dozen warriors than be follered this way.  It teches my pride.  I’ve got a mighty lot o’ pride, an’ it hurts me awful to hev my pride hurt.”

“Because we don’t shoot or do anything I think they’ve assumed that we’re powerless to fight.  Still, there is something about the human odor that deters ’em.”

“S’pose you’re right, but I’m goin’ to try a trick.  When you see me stumble, Henry, you go right on, till I’m eight or ten feet behind you.”

“All right, Sol, but don’t stumble too much.”

“I ain’t likely to do it at sech a time.  Look out, now!  Here I stumble!”

He caught his foot in a root, plunged forward, almost fell, recovered his balance slowly and with apparent difficulty.  Henry ran on, but in a half minute he turned quickly.  With a horrible snarl and yelp the king wolf sprang, and the others behind him sprang also.  Henry’s rifle leaped to his shoulder, and then the king wolf jumped away, the others following him.

The shiftless one rejoined Henry and they ran a little faster.  His face was pale and one or two drops of perspiration fell from it.  His breath was longer than mere flight would make it.

“I ain’t goin’ to try that ag’in, Henry,” he said.  “No more foolin’ with sudden death.  He’s shorely the big tiger, the biggest o’ them all that wuz.  Why, when I stumbled he leaped like lightnin’.  I didn’t think anythin’, not even a wolf, could be so quick.”

“The rifle frightened them off.  They didn’t know what it was, but they were afraid it had something to do with wounds and death.  Still, they’re running a little closer to us than they were.  That’s about all that’s come of your experiment, Sol.”

“I ain’t goin’ to try it over ag’in, Henry, but it shorely begins to look ez ef we’d hev to use the bullets on ’em.  I don’t think anythin’ else will stop ’em.”

“A little while longer, Sol, and they may abandon the chase.  We must hold our fire just as long as possible.  A shot may bring a cloud of the red hornets about us.”

The shiftless one was silent.  He knew as well as Henry that a shot was unwise.  They were bearing back now toward the stone fortress and the Indian camps, and the forests near might be full of warriors.  Yet it was a tremendous strain upon one’s nerves to be followed in such a manner.  The wolves had come so close now that they could hear the light pad of their feet.  Once Shif’less Sol picked up a stone and hurled it at the king wolf.  The great shaggy beast leaped aside, but it struck a wolf behind him, drawing an angry snarl, in which all the wolves joined.

Henry felt relief when they gave tongue, although the snarl was not loud.  Hitherto they had pursued in total silence, which he had deemed unnatural and that angry yelp made them real wolves of the forest again.

“About how far would you say it is now to the cave?” he asked the shiftless one.

“Three or four miles, but with our lope it won’t take us long to cover it.  What hev you got in mind, Henry?”

“I think we’ve got to kill the king wolf.  I didn’t think so a little while ago, but they follow us hoping that some accident, a fall perhaps, will make us their prey.”

“Do it then, Henry, an’ take all the chances.  I’m growin’ mighty tired o’ bein’ follered by wolves that are re’ly tigers.  After you shoot, we’ll turn to the left an’ run ez hard ez we kin.”

Henry whirled suddenly about and raised his rifle.  The king wolf, as if divining his purpose, sheered to one side, but he was confronting the deadliest marksman in the woods.  The muzzle of Henry’s rifle followed him, and when he pulled the trigger the bullet crashed through the great beast’s skull.

When the king wolf fell dead the others stopped, stricken with terror, but from a point to the east came the long thrilling note of the war whoop.  The warriors had heard the shot, and, knowing they would come swiftly to its sound, Henry and the shiftless one, turning due west, ran with amazing speed through the forest.