* * * * *
Dan Golby held up his hand to enjoin silence; in a breath we were as quiet as mice. Then it came again, borne upon the night wind from away somewhere in the darkness toward the mountains, across miles of treeless plain—a low, dismal, sobbing sound, like the wail of a strangling child! It was nothing but the howl of a wolf, and a wolf is about the last thing a man who knows the cowardly beast would be afraid of; but there was something so weird and unearthly in this “cry between the silences”—something so banshee-like in its suggestion of the grave—that, old mountaineers that we were, and long familiar with it, we felt an instinctive dread—a dread which was not fear, but only a sense of utter solitude and desolation. There is no sound known to mortal ear that has in it so strange a power upon the imagination as the night-howl of this wretched beast, heard across the dreary wastes of the desert he disgraces.
Involuntarily we drew nearer together, and some one of the party stirred the fire till it sent up a tall flame, widening the black circle shutting us in on all sides. Again rose the faint far cry, and was answered by one fainter and more far in the opposite quarter. Then another, and yet another, struck in—a dozen, a hundred all at once; and in three minutes the whole invisible outer world seemed to consist mainly of wolves, jangled out of tune by some convulsion of nature.
About this time it was a pleasing study to watch the countenance of Old Nick. This party had joined us at Fort Benton, whither he had come on a steamboat, up the Missouri. This was his maiden venture upon the plains, and his habit of querulous faultfinding had, on the first day out, secured him the sobriquet of Old Pernicketty, which the attrition of time had worn down to Old Nick. He knew no more of wolves and other animals than a naturalist, and he was now a trifle frightened. He was crouching beside his saddle and kit, listening with all his soul, his hands suspended before him with divergent fingers, his face ashy pale, and his jaw hanging unconsidered below.
Suddenly Dan Golby, who had been watching him with an amused smile, assumed a grave aspect, listened a moment very intently, and remarked:
“Boys, if I didn’t know those were wolves, I should say we’d better get out of this.”
“Eh?” exclaimed Nick, eagerly; “if you did not know they were wolves? Why, what else, and what worse, could they be?”
“Well, there’s an innocent!” replied Dan, winking slyly at the rest of us. “Why, they might be Injuns, of course. Don’t you know, you old bummer, that that’s the way the red devils run a surprise party? Don’t you know that when you hear a parcel of wolves letting on like that, at night, it’s a hundred to one they carry bows and arrows?”