Pete tossed Dog a piece of gristle from his buffalo steak. Actually, most of the steak was gristle, but hungry as he was, Pete Nolan figured on eating at least some of the 'aged' meat no matter the wear and tear on his teeth.
Dog swallowed the chunk down, licked his chops, wagged his tail and begged, with those huge soft eyes the color of pitch and oh so expressive. Pete Nolan sighed, sawed off another large hunk of steak and handed it down to his friend.
"I'm a beaten man," he admitted, though the thought was followed by a grin.
"Lonely a place as this is, I'm thinkin' it's best to keep the only friend I got content. I'd hate for you to run off on me." Pete reached down and scratched Dog behind one ear. The tell-tale thumping of a furry tail told Nolan Dog felt the same way – exactly.
Pete got to his feet and picked up an old branding iron, using it to stoke the fire in the pot-bellied stove, the only source of heat in the small cabin. Outside, the wind howled across the vast Nebraska plains, sounding like so many lost and wailing souls as it drove the snow before it in blinding sheets, leaving Nolan wondering why in hell he picked this spot to winter over. But then it was his place, his own ranch, poor as it was at the moment. Someday it would be a grand spread with prime beeves and good horses. He'd see to that.
In spite of the heat put out by the stove and its buffalo chip fire, Nolan shivered. He was used to being alone. As a scout on Gil Favor's trail drives, loneliness was part and parcel of his job, but this lonely feeling was different. After all, tonight was Christmas Eve and no man should be alone on so important a day.
Dog growled, tearing Pete away from his feelings of absolute isolation. He wasn't alone at all. He had a friend and this friend was giving fair warning. Something or someone was out there, out in the foul weather, in the wind and blowing snow. Pete felt a rush of apprehension. He reached for the rifle tilted against the wall and as quietly as possible, levered a round into the chamber.
Dog moved to the door in slow motion, each step placed just so, gaze welded to whatever it was lurking outside as if he could see through wood and into the beyond, hackles raised and teeth bared.
Pete moved past Dog and placed his ear to the door, closing his eyes as he concentrated on hearing what the dog heard. At first it was useless, the wind shrieking all the louder as if to hamper the man's efforts. But Nolan was nothing if not patient. Living with his Indian wife's family taught him that. He shut out all sounds save that which did not belong and finally he heard it – a human voice, screaming for help. A terrible sound.
Dog pushed past him, scratching at the door, whining, almost insane with the need to get outside. Pete lay the rifle aside, grabbed up a coil of rope and tied it around the animal's neck leaving a long tail for a leash. He shrugged into his heavy coat, pulled his hat down over his ears, picked up the rifle in one hand and Dog's leash in the other and pushed open the door.
"Go! Go on, Dog!"
Dog plunged into the knee deep snow nearly pulling Pete off his feet before Nolan got into the rhythm of the big animal's long strides. Through blinding snow the dog led the man, deeper and deeper into the night and farther and farther from the cabin and safety.
Out of breath and needing to get his bearings, Pete forced Dog to stop. He listened.
"Come on, mister. Tell me you're alive."
A yell echoed across the plains, this time close, very close. Without instruction, Dog took the initiative and pushed toward it, Pete close on his heels.
The sight before him was straight out of hell – blood everywhere, a stark contrast to the white snow. Pete dropped Dog's rope. "Stay close," he ordered. He put the rifle to his shoulder and fired. The horse, ravaged by wolves, died instantly.
But what of the man, the horse's rider? Pete was afraid to look, afraid of what he might find, yet he pushed on, aided by Dog's keen senses.
Dog led him to the lone cluster of trees on the north side of Pete's property. The sound of wolves broke through the howling of the wind, their frantic yips and yowls alerting Pete to the fact the predators had cornered their prey.
He ordered Dog to sit and stay, and by the tone of his master's voice, the intelligent animal knew Pete meant business. Dog sat and stayed, though his body quivered with the want of the chase.
Pete squinted into the squall. Half a dozen dark forms leaped and cavorted around the base of the largest of the trees, an ancient oak, weathered and clinging to life. Pete took aim and fired, scoring a hit. He chambered another round and fired again, another hit. The remaining wolves lit out, swallowed up by the storm.
Pete walked cautiously to the cluster of trees. Both wolves lay dead in the snow, their jaws slathered with saliva and blood. He hoped he wasn't too late to help the poor pilgrim treed by the pack.
He peered up into the branches of the oak. A dark silhouette clung precariously to the tree's trunk some twenty feet above the ground.
"It's okay, mister. You can come down now."
The silhouette remained unmoving and silent. Pete tried again, louder this time. "It's okay, mister! Come down!"
As if a switch had been thrown, the snow stopped and Pete's voice thundered in the sudden stillness. He felt pretty foolish, but the silhouette kept its silent counsel. Dog barked and Pete jumped.
"Damn it, Dog!"
The canine ran toward Pete trailing his leash behind him. In wild abandon he clambered around Pete's legs, barking up at the person in the tree, but not barking in a threatening way. Dog's tongue lolled from his mouth and his eyes lit up with friendly recognition.
Pete watched as Dog now attempted to climb the tree, to no avail, but the effort was there none-the-less as the animal scrambled and scratched at the trunk with front paws, his back paws finding no purchase.
Pete shook his head. "Come down, mister or my dog's gonna come up and get you!"
"Pete? That you?"
The voice, timid and shaky and small, was unrecognizable to Nolan, at first.
"It's Pete," Nolan replied. "Who's askin'?"
As if in answer, a branch snapped and the silhouette crashed to the ground, barely missing Pete and Dog in its headlong tumble to earth. Pete reached out, tugging a woolen scarf back from the man's face. Before he could make heads or tails of the person's identity, Dog leaped into the fray, covering the unidentified fallen object's face with wet, welcoming kisses.
Nolan pulled the happy canine aside and finally got a look at the man whose life he, and Dog, had saved.
Pete dropped the rifle to the ground and pulled the startled and delighted Mushy Mushgrove up and into a bear hug, lifting the youngster off his feet in the process.
"You hurt?" Pete put Mushy down and started to look him over, concerned for the young man's welfare. After all, he'd come close to being killed by wolves and the fall from the tree couldn't have felt good, but he needn't have worried. Mushy grinned broadly.
"Oh, I'm okay, Mr. Nolan!"
The grin faded, replaced by a deep frown. "My horse, though…them wolves…."
Pete picked up the rifle, dusting the snow from it before laying it across one arm. "I'm afraid he's dead. I shot him, Mushy. I had to."
Mushy nodded in that knowing, accepting way of his. "I understand, Mr. Nolan."
The grin returned as Mushy remembered why he'd come so far from his Kansas home and in such bad weather. "Happy Christmas, Mr. Nolan! A friend shouldn't be alone on Christmas so I decided to come see you. Brought a present, too."
Mushy reached inside his coat and pulled out a poorly wrapped brown paper package. He extended the gift to Pete.
Nolan traded Mushy the rifle for the package, with only a hint of concern at handing the youngster the loaded weapon. With care Pete untied the string and tore a small hole in the paper. He peered inside. For the life of him he couldn't tell what the package had contained before it and Mushy made the twenty foot drop from the tree to the ground. Unlike the youthful Mr. Mushgrove, the contents did not fare well.
Mushy's grinned broadened. "Cookies, Mr. Nolan! Mr. Wishbone made you Christmas cookies!"
Pete broke into a grin. The grin turned into a smile and the smile rumbled into a full blown laugh. "Cookies! Nothin' I like more at Christmas than some a Wishbone's cookies!"
Mushy seemed a bit confused at Pete's laughter until Nolan slung one arm about his shoulders. "Nothin' I like more except the company of a good friend!"
Mushy nodded and smiled. Dog, not wanting to be left out of things put his front paws onto Pete's chest and laughed into his master's face causing Pete to correct his previous statement. "Nothin' I like more at Christmas than some a Wishbone's cookies and the company of two good friends!"