The Wolf

Part 24 of the Ranch Days series.

By Maz McCoy

A wolf howled and Jed Curry swivelled his body around in the saddle searching the night for the predator.

"It's a ways off yet," Marty said as he rode through the thicket into view.

Kid pulled the collar of his jacket tight around his neck, keeping his eyes focussed on the darkness, and then slowly turned to face the man easing his horse towards him.

"Makes the cows nervous."

"Not jus' the cows," Marty observed with a smile.

"Jus' don't want a stampede is all."

They sat side by side on their horses, hands resting on the saddle horns, listening to the lowing as the cattle settled themselves for the night. Hooves scuffed softly on sun baked dirt as the moonlit animal silhouettes moved before them.

"I heard you talkin' to 'em," Marty said, then added before the boy could deny it, "It's good. Some folk sing to 'em. I've never been one to croon to a cow myself but a little gentling goes a long way, 'specially when there's wolves about."

"I jus' tell 'em it's all quiet and stuff. That they've no need to worry about the wolves."

"I heard. Heard 'em answering you back too."

"They don't…"

"They sure do! What d'ya think all that lowing and mooing is if it ain't answering you back?" Jed didn't have an answer. Marty turned his head to face the boy. "Ain't nothin' wrong with talking to cows, kid. There's nothin' wrong with you hearin' 'em answer you back either." Jed smiled. "It's when they start makin' sense you gotta worry." Marty gave him a wink and kicked his horse into the night.

"They got another two calves last night," Jeff Collins announced as he walked into the campsite. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat on his forehead away with the back of his hand. Standing by the chuck wagon, Henry handed him a cup of coffee which Collins took with a nod of gratitude. Lost in thought Jeff studied his boots. Suddenly his head came up. "Nathan!"

The younger man lay on his bedroll, his hat covering his face, his socked feet sticking out from beneath a blanket. "Hmmn?"

"Nathan, get over here I need to talk to you."

Nathan pushed up the brim of his hat with one finger. "I've been up all night Boss, can't somebody else do it?"

"You don't know what I want yet. Get over here!"

With an exaggerated sigh Nathan threw back his blanket and grabbed his boots. He shot the ranch foreman a glare as he tipped each boot up in turn and batted the sole. When nothing fell out he tugged on first the right and then the left. He stood, scratched his back, bent his head to the left and then to the right removing the kinks from his neck then headed towards Jeff Collins.

"Nice o' you to finally join me," Collins grumbled when Nathan took the coffee Jeff handed him.

"What do you want me to do?" Nathan blew on the steaming liquid then took a sip.

"Get rid of the wolves."

"Just like that?" Nathan yawned and scratched his stubbled jaw.

"Exactly like that. You and Marty take Heyes and the kid. Bring me back some wolf pelts to sell and I might just donate the money to your wedding fund."

Nathan met Jeff's gaze. "Yeah?" he asked in surprise.

"Yeah. Anyone fool enough to get married on what you earn needs all the help they can get. Although, I reckon I'll hand it over to Annabelle, that way we can be sure you don't lose it all at poker before the wedding day."

"I wouldn't do that!" Nathan's indignation made Jeff smile. He rested a hand on his friend's shoulder.

"Just go get 'em Nathan. We're losing too many cows."

"I know you're only sending me out there 'cos you wanna get back to the Bar T in case that brother of yours has started sweet talkin' Rosalind." Nathan noted the look on Jeff's face, as he adjusted his seat in the saddle, and smiled. "You hadn't thought of that, had ya?"

"No, I hadn't, but thanks for putting that thought into my head. Real nice of ya," Collins scowled.

Nathan chuckled. "Well, he is a good looking fella. Hurt too. You know how a woman loves to nurse a man."

Jeff glared up at him. "Do you want to ride drag?"

"Not particularly."

"Then shut up!"

"Getting to you, huh?"

"Yeah!"

"You got nothin' to worry about, Boss. The crazy woman loves you."

"I hope you're right."

Nathan studied his friend's face. The man was genuinely worried. He leaned over his horse's neck so only Jeff would hear. "You're not really worried Bobby'll try to steal her from you are you?"

"I don't know. He did it…" Jeff stopped himself.

"What?"

The foreman shook his head and sighed. "He did it once before."

"He stole your woman?" Nathan's mouth dropped open as a thought suddenly hit him. "Not your wife?"

"No!" Jeff looked around, checking no one had overheard them. "It was before I was married. He didn't steal her, she chose him over me. I just…I guess his being here makes me nervous."

"You ever tell him that?"

"No!" Jeff looked at Nathan as if he'd just suggested he run naked across the prairie.

"Then maybe you should." Nathan sat up, adjusted the reins in his hand, and then checked that Jed and Heyes were ready. "He's your brother, Jeff, if he's a good one, he'll understand." He nodded to Collins before leading the hunting party away from the camp.

Jeff watched them go wishing Nathan had kept his thoughts to himself.

"Nathan, can I ask you something?" Jed Curry pulled his horse alongside.

"You just did."

"Huh?"

The corners of Nathan's mouth creased. "What is it, kid?"

"Can I ask you about..?" Jed reconsidered what he wanted to say. "It's just something Heyes said, about the rules."

Nathan suppressed a smile. He had a feeling he knew where this conversation was headed. "Rules?"

"Yeah." Jed looked back at where Heyes rode side by side with Marty bending the older man's ear about something. "You know the rules between men and women? Heyes said there were rules about proposin' and stuff. I figured as you just proposed you'd know what the rules were. Heyes said there was nothin' in the rules about proposin' in private so I figured you musta known the rules when you did it 'cos we were all there when you proposed but then you did go down on one knee and I knew about that rule but I figure there must be other rules I don't know about so I thought you could…"

"Whoa! Pause for breath will ya?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah," Jed smiled. "Sorry."

Nathan smiled back. "First off, there ain't no rules as far as I know about where you propose to a woman. You just have to do it right. Go down on one knee and ask her to marry you. I guess you should take her hand but make sure you washed yours first."

Jed nodded enthusiastically. This was just the sort of information he needed. "What else?"

"I don't think there is anything else. If you want a girl to marry you, you have to ask her."

"What about her Pa?"

"I didn't wanna marry her Pa."

"No, I meant…"

"Annabelle doesn't have one here for me to ask but you should ask his permission first if she has a Pa."

"What if he doesn't give it?"

Nathan looked at Jed. "You got someone in mind to ask?" Jed didn't reply. Nathan's tone softened. "Jed, when the time comes you'll know what to do and say. If she means that much to you, you'll just know but if you've got your heart set on Miss Emily, I'd tell you to think again."

"I don't wanna marry her!" The anger in Jed's voice gave his true thoughts away.

"She has her heart set on William Brody, Jed."

"I know!" Jed met Nathan's gaze.

"When she comes back I wouldn't be surprised to hear Mister Culver announce their engagement."

"I was just askin' is all." He turned his horse and rode on ahead.

"You been dwelling on what Nathan said, ain'tcha?" Bill stated as he released the rope from around the calf's neck. He watched as it got to its feet and found its mother amongst the herd. He turned to look up at the foreman who was holding the reins of Bill's horse.

"Shut up, Bill."

"I knew it. As soon as I heard what he said about your brother, I knew it was gonna gnaw at you until we got back to the ranch." He pulled himself into the saddle and Jeff handed him the reins. "You wanna talk about it?"

"Nope."

"Yeah, but you do wanna talk about it, I can tell."

"What I'd really like is for everyone to stay out of my business." He met Bill's gaze. "But that's not gonna happen is it?"

"On the Bar T?" Bill shook his head. "No chance."

"JEDIDIAH! DON'T YOU MOVE, BOY!"

When his Pa spoke to him in that tone, Jed Curry knew to do as he was told or take the consequences. He stood perfectly still. This time the consequences were all too obvious.

"Pa?"

"Step slowly back towards me."

Jed took one step and then another backwards.

"Keep coming. Nice and slow."

His mouth dry, Jed did as he was told, all the time not taking his eyes off the large, grey wolf that stood ten feet away.

"Nice and easy son. That's right. Nice and easy."

The animal watched them. His eyes focused more on the man than his cub. The wolf bared his teeth, saliva dripping from his long canines. Jed froze.

"Keeping walking, Jed."

"Pa, he's…"

"Don't you disobey me, boy."

Jed continued to walk backwards and then, suddenly, he felt hands grab him and he was shoved, protectively, behind his father's back. With his son out of immediate danger, Curry could concentrate on the animal in front of him. Throwing his arms wide he shouted and roared.

"GET OUTTA HERE YOU MANGY BEAST! GO ON! SCRAM!" Taken aback by the man's sudden movements the wolf backed off. "GO ON! GET!"

Curry threw his hands in the air again shouting and waving. He picked up a stone and hurled it at the animal. A few moments later, man and boy watched the wolf disappear into the distance. Knowing they were finally safe, Curry let out the breath he'd been holding turned to his son and crouched down in front of him.

"Are you okay?" He searched the blue eyes for the truth.

"Yes, sir." Jed swallowed nervously trying not to show how scared he'd been.

"'Course you are." Curry ruffled his son's blond hair. "Had me frightened to death though." Surprised, Jed looked at his father, and then waited. "C'mere." Jed fell into his father's open arms as the man hugged his youngest son tight. That had been a close call, too darn close. He'd been a fool to leave his rifle leaning against the tree when they spotted the family of beavers playing in the pond. When he saw Jed facing that wolf his heart practically stopped.

"Do we hafta tell Ma?"

Curry laughed as he held his son at arm's length. "She'll skin me alive when she finds out."

"I won't say nothin'."

"I know you won't. However, we need to warn folks that there are wolves about and I don't want your Ma or the girls wandering out here alone."

"Least she won't tan your hide, like she does mine."

Curry smiled. "Son, your mother has different ways of keeping me in my place."

"Like what?"

Curry turned away so his son wouldn't see him smile. "You'll find out when you're older."

"Jed? Jed?" Sitting on a large boulder, the blond boy turned away as Han approached from the campsite. "You okay?"

"Sure."

Heyes watched Jed wipe the back of his hand across his eyes. He let his friend compose himself and then drew closer.

"Something wrong?"

"Nah. S'nothin'."

Heyes sat down beside him and looked at his friend's moist eyes.

"Don't look like nothing." Jed didn't reply. "You left camp pretty early."

"Just needed some air."

"Well there's enough of that up here." Heyes looked out across the valley as the sun rose over the distant hills. He'd grumbled when Collins had told Heyes and Jed to accompany Marty and Nathan on the hunt for the wolves. However, the fresh air and time away from the herd was a pleasant break from riding trail every day. Back in camp there were three wolf pelts slung over the back of their mule. Marty was a crack shot with his rifle. He'd promised Jed a shot at the next wolf they found. Maybe that was why..? Heyes looked at his friend. "You sure nothin's wrong?"

"Had a bad dream, that's all." Unexpectedly Jed's eyes filled with tears and he wiped them away having no intention of blubbing like a baby in front of his friend. "Just about a wolf."

Heyes had a feeling he knew exactly which wolf that was.

Jed stood up. "Don't tell the others. I don't want them to think I…er."

"Nah."

"Best forgotten."

"Yeah."

Heyes didn't say anything. He didn't see how he'd get the words past the lump in his throat. So the friends sat in companionable silence each with his own memories.

"Hey boys, d'you want breakfast or what?" Nathan called from beside the fire.

"Be right there!" Heyes pushed off the rock. He took a few steps towards the camp then turned to look back at Jed. "You coming?"

Jed wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "Sure. Just give me another minute, okay?"

"Okay."

Jed jumped off the rock as Heyes headed back. He adjusted his gun in its holster and flexed his fingers. He drew the gun fast, spun it several times on his finger, and then dropped it back into the holster. He was getting better every day. He wondered what his Pa would think. Would he be proud that his son could defend himself? Or would he be horrified to see his boy strapping a gun to his leg like the gunfighters they'd seen in town? Jed looked up at the sky but received no answer. With a heavy sigh he headed back to camp.

"I reckon that's the last of 'em," Nathan said as he knelt beside the body of a mature female wolf.

"I hope so." Jed opened his pack and searched for the skinning tools. He hated this part. His hand fell on the hilt of a knife. Oh boy.

Nathan ran a hand over the animal's body. She was a beautiful creature and despite their theory that the pack had been attacking the cattle because they were short on food, her coat was in excellent condition. She was still warm. He hated having to kill a healthy animal. Heyes and Marty had followed the tracks of another wolf over the ridge and they had heard a single shot just before they spotted their own quarry. Hopefully this was the last of the pack and they could get back to the Bar T. His bunk at the ranch was a darn sight more comfortable than the hard ground they'd been sleeping on for the past few nights and he was due a couple of days in town. He smiled at the thought of spending those days with Annabelle. He sighed. Best get this done. What was keeping Jed?

"What's the hold up, kid?" Nathan looked up to see Jed facing him and frozen to the spot. His brow furrowed. "Jed? What's...?" And then he heard the unmistakable snarl somewhere behind him. "How many?"

The boy didn't answer. Jed was a good kid, tough and willing to have a go at most things. Nathan had never seen him look so scared before. Dammit! He spoke through gritted teeth as his hand moved slowly to the gun at his side. "How. Many?"

"Two." The words came out as little more than a whisper.

"Where?"

"Behind you…" A deep throated snarl cut him off.

"Where abouts?" Nathan's hand connected with the butt of his gun and he curled the fingers comfortingly around it.

With lips pulled back over their pink gums, the wolves' sharp canines were revealed. Teeth, that even now dripped saliva.

"One's directly…" Jed took a step forward and the animals did the same. He stopped.

"Where's the second one?" Nathan finally met Jed's eyes. The boy was terrified. "Jed, where's the second one?"

"One at your six o'clock, one at eight." Jed's hand slid slowly towards his own gun.

"You reckon you can take the one at eight?" No answer. "Jed?"

"Yeah."

"Don't shoot me, okay?"

Jed tried to smile but he couldn't make his mouth move. He clasped the handle of his gun. "Tell me when."

Nathan nodded. "NOW!"

The man drew and spun at the same time as the boy pulled his own weapon. Jed aimed between the wolf's yellow eyes and, as he squeezed the trigger, the animal pounced. Two gunshots shattered the silence, there was a yelp and the wolf stumbled then lay unmoving on the ground. Jed finally took a breath. In the same moment Nathan had hit his own target. His bullet caught the animal in the shoulder. Nathan's wolf righted itself and lunged at the man before he had the chance to aim again. He fired a second and third shot as the wolf ploughed into him, knocking the breath from his body as he hit the ground. Jed turned and aimed but…? What was wolf and what was Nathan? Nathan kicked hard; the wolf yelped then lunged at his lower half. His kicked out batting wildly but the animal had him by the left leg and was shaking him hard.

Jed was breathing fast as he aimed and fired. There was another yelp, followed by silence and then Nathan's cries of pain.

"Nathan!" Jed dropped onto his knees beside his friend and…There was so much blood.

Nathan's hand covered the wound on his lower left leg but the blood was pumping between his fingers. His mouth was open, his breathing came in fast gulps and there was fear, Jed couldn't believe it but there was fear in Nathan's eyes. Nathan pulled at his bandana and wrapped it around his leg. He tried to tie it but his hands were shaking. Jed knocked Nathan's hands away from the bite wound and tied the cloth around his leg before pulling tight.

"AHHHHHHH!" Nathan cried, not bothering to hide the pain it caused him. His face went pale and he collapsed back on the ground, staring wide eyed at the sky. Still his blood pulsed into the dirt. Jed removed his own bandana and tied it over the other one. He wiped sweat from his brow unwittingly smearing his friend's blood across his face as he did so. "Jed," Nathan croaked.

"Yeah?" Jed leaned in closer as his friend muttered something. A bloody hand grabbed the front of his shirt.

"Tell Annabelle, I'm….sorry."

"What?" Jed didn't understand. Why was he thinking about Mrs Eldon when they had to stop the bleeding?

"Tell her, I'm sorry. Jed, promise me…you'll tell her." All Jed could hear was the deep rhythmic gasps of Nathan's breathing and his repeated apologies to his fiancée. The boy pushed down on the soaked bandana applying pressure, trying to stop the flow of life from his friend. "Jed…Tell her…Jed…" Nathan's eyes closed.

And there was silence.

"Nathan?" Jed turned terrified eyes on the older man's face. Nathan's breathing…stopped? "NATHAN?"

Twigs snapped behind him and he spun, his gun aimed and he came face to face with Heyes and Marty.

"Whoa, boy! Point that thing at someone else," Marty instructed as he threw up his hands and then seeing the man lying on the ground moved quickly towards them. Marty pushed Jed aside.

"What happened?" Heyes asked, not taking his eyes from the blood smeared across Jed's face. "You all right?"

"Wolf got him." Heyes had seen the dead animals as soon as they broke through the trees. "I shot it but it got him first." Jed turned back to the wounded man.

"Is he…?" Heyes couldn't finish his question.

"Not yet." Marty pulled off his bandana, and then held out his hand towards Heyes. "Give me yours." Heyes swiftly complied and Marty wrapped them firmly around Nathan's bleeding leg. Finally the bleeding seemed to slow. "We need to get him back to a doctor fast. Heyes you ride into town and tell the doc what's happened so he can be ready for us." He glanced back at Nathan's leg and the amount of blood on the ground. "You best get Mrs Eldon too."

"I will." Heyes turned and ran back to where the horses were tied. Moments later they heard a horse take off along the trail.

"What can I do?" Jed asked. His eyes fell on Nathan's face; he was deathly pale, his eyes closed.

"Right now? I guess you could pray."

They sat on a bench outside the doctor's office. Jed, his hands and face still smeared with Nathan's blood, Marty his shirt stained red from where he'd carried his friend. Heyes stood with his hips resting against a hitching rail, silently watching them. Jed's eyes were focussed way beyond the boardwalk he stared at. There was a haunted look on his face, a look Heyes had seen before on one particular day.

"Do you think he'll hafta do it?" the boy asked.

"Doc said it was bad," Marty stated. "Said he was going into shock."

"But what would he do if they…" He didn't want to have to say the words. He took a deep breath. "If they cut off his leg?" He'd had to ask Heyes what the word amputate meant. He hadn't like the answer.

"It's the same leg he broke in that fall," Heyes had reminded him.

"I reckon he'll learn to limp," Marty stated doing well to hide the emotion in his voice.

"They can do amazing things for people with only one leg these days," Heyes informed them helpfully. "I read about this man in New York City who…"

"We don't need to know, Heyes," Marty told him and for once the dark-haired young man knew when to stop talking.

The door to the doctor's office opened and Annabelle Eldon walked out into the sunshine. The men got swiftly to their feet and she gave them a weak smile not bothering to hide the tear stains on her face.

"How's he doin', ma'am?" Marty asked.

"He's still with us." She twisted a white handkerchief around and around in her hands.

"Did the doc..?" Jed couldn't say it but she knew what he had meant to ask.

Annabelle shook her head. "No. He still has his leg. Doc, says he'll do all he can to save it." Her legs gave way and she crumpled onto the bench Marty had just vacated.

Marty crouched down in front of her. "Take a few deeps breaths girl; you look like you need 'em."

"I could still lose him." Her eyes met the man's and she was surprised when he nodded. Everyone had been telling her that everything was going to be all right. It was oddly refreshing to have someone acknowledge the truth.

"You could," Marty agreed. "But knowing how much he loves you, I reckon the minute he heard your voice he changed his mind about going anywhere soon."

"I hope you're right, Marty, I hope you're right, because I have no idea how I'd survive without him." Her eyes filled with tears. "What will I do if I lose him?"

End of Part 24

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