Now the first great day in little Shasta’s wolf life was the day when he left the cave for the first time and came out into the open world. He didn’t know why he was to go out, nor what going out really meant. All he knew was that, suddenly, there was a movement of all the cubs towards the place where the light came from, and that it seemed natural for him to follow the movement.
When he crawled outside, the sunlight hit him smack in the face like a hot white hand, and then, when he got over that, the world swam in upon his little brain in the way of a coloured dream. It was a very splendid dream, in which everything was new and strange and beautiful beyond all words to describe. The baby wolf-brothers sat in a row and blinked out at the dream, sniffing at it with their puppy noses because of the instinct within them that even dreams must be smelt if you would find out what they are. And it seemed to them to be a very good dream, smelling of grass and flowers, and of hot rocks, and of the sharp scent which the pine trees loose on the Summer air. And there, on a rising piece of ground, sat the old wolf-mother, also smelling the good world, only that, besides the smell of the trees and rocks, she could distinguish those other odours of living creatures which drift idly down the wind.
Shasta, a little way behind his wolf-brothers, sat down too. When a large curious dream comes it is better to sit and watch what it will do; otherwise, if you begin to walk about in it, you may fall over something, and come to a bad end! So Shasta sat and blinked at the thing, and waggled his fingers and his toes. He smelt at the thing also, and to him, as to the others, it seemed a good and pleasant smell, and he gurgled with delight. The sound he made was so funny that the cubs turned round to see what was happening. But when they saw that it was only the foster-brother being odd as usual, they turned away again and went on smelling at the world.
High up above his head, Shasta saw something very white and hot. It was so dazzling that he couldn’t look up at it for more than a moment at a time, and because the thing hurt his eyes, and set queer round plates dancing in front of them when he looked away, he gave up looking at it. Yet always he was conscious that it was there--the hot white centre to this curious dream. And once he lifted a little hairy hand to give it a cuff for being so hot and silly; only, somehow, the hand didn’t quite reach, and when he tried a little higher, he overbalanced and fell over on his back.
This was a signal for the cubs to rush at him and have a game. So for a long time, Shasta cuffed at them and wrestled with them, and sometimes got the better of them, and sometimes was badly beaten and worried like a rat. Of course neither he nor they had any idea that this delightful scuffling and cuffing was really the beginning of their education, and that their muscles were being trained and their limbs strengthened for their battle with the world when they should be grown up, and babies no longer.
Suddenly, as if by magic, the play stopped dead, with Shasta and the cubs locked in a fierce embrace. Old Nitka never made a sound, nor any outward sign, which ordered the play to cease. Yet in a twinkling the cubs were back into the den, while Nitka had risen from her point of observation, with her eyes set hard to the north. Shasta sat up and stared. The last wolf-brother was wobbling his fat body into the cave’s mouth. Shasta felt, in some odd unexplained way, that he ought to follow, and that it was because Nitka had willed it, that the cubs had gone in. Yet because he was a man-baby, and not a wolf-cub, he stayed where he was and stared at his foster-mother with large and wondering eyes. But Nitka did not look at him. Her eyes were far away over the tops of the spruces and pines--far away to a certain spot where a level rock jutted out from the great “barren” that stretched like a roof along the windy top of the world. If Shasta had followed the direction of Nitka’s eyes, lie would have seen what looked like the form of a large timber-wolf lying crouched upon the rock, with his nose well into the wind. Only Shasta had no eyes for anything but Nitka. He had never seen her look so fierce before. All her great body was stiffened as if with steel springs. Just above her tail her hair was raised, as is the way when a wolf or dog is roused for fight; and in her gleaming eyes, burning like dull coals, there was a green, unpleasant light. Shasta could not tell what ailed his foster mother. Only, in a dim way, he felt that something was amiss. And the feeling made him uncomfortable, as when a grown-up person says nothing to you, but has a slap ready in the hands.
Presently Nitka saw the other wolf slip off the rock and disappear in the spruce scrub at its base. And then, as before, she let her self down, and the bristles flattened above her tail. She seemed to rest in her body, and to give up all her bones to the warmth of the summer afternoon. Near by, the stream fell down the hill-side with a sleepy murmur, and the grasshoppers chirruped in the grass. There was nothing to be seen except, high up in the air, a sweep of slow wings that bore Kennebec, the great eagle, in his solemn circles above the canyon at the foot of the mountain. Kennebec was a mighty person in his own world, as many a wolf and mountain sheep knew to their cost. Many and many a lamb and wolf-cub had gone to the feeding of Kennebec’s children in their dizzy eyrie built among the steeples of the rocks. But as long as Kennebec kept to his own canyon, and did not cast a wicked eye upon her babies, Nitka did not worry about him, and had all her senses on the watch for danger nearer at hand. For in spite of all her look of outward laziness, every nerve that she had, every muscle of her strong body, was ready at a moment’s notice to send her flying at any creature which dared to venture within striking distance of the den.
For a long time nothing happened. Then Nitka growled softly, looking at Shasta as she did so. Now Shasta knew perfectly well that the growl was meant for him. Up to the present he had been disobedient, though he didn’t quite know how. Nitka wished him to return to the cave with the cubs, and Shasta, though he felt some instinct telling him to go, could not understand what it meant, and so remained exactly where he was. And so far Nitka had been very patient. She had simply gone on wanting him to get back into safety, but she had not looked or spoken. The soft growl, rumbling down there in her deep throat, was not a pleasant thing to hear. It sent a thrill down Shasta’s little spine. He began to feel dreadfully uncomfortable, and to wish that he was safe inside the cave. Yet still he did not move, because the man-cub inside his heart was not inclined to bow down before the wolves.
Again Nitka growled, this time louder than before. And to make it more pointed, she looked at Shasta as she growled. He had never seen her look at him like that before. The light in her eyes was not at all agreeable. There was a threat in it, as to what she might do if Shasta did not obey. He began to edge away towards the cave. After he had gone two or three yards he stopped. This behaviour of Nitka was so curious that he wanted to find out what it meant. Something was going to happen. Without in the least knowing what it might be, Shasta felt that something was in the air. But there was no resisting that look in Nitka’s eyes. With a whimpering cry, Shasta scrambled to the entrance of the cave. Once inside the den’s mouth, however, his courage came to him again, and he turned to look back.
As he peeped, he saw the form of a huge grey wolf glide into the open space. Nitka herself was large, but this other wolf was nearly half as big again and much more formidable. His great limbs and deep chest were wonderful to see. Between his shoulders was a dark patch of hair which was thicker than the rest of his coat, and, when the winter came, would become a sort of mane. He stood nearly three feet high at the shoulders--a giant of his breed.
As to Nitka herself, she was plainly in a rage. The hackles on her back were raised; her body was crouched low as if to leap, her limbs were bent under her like powerful springs to send the whole weight of her great body hurling through the air; while, if her eyes had shone threateningly before when she looked at the disobedient Shasta, now they gleamed with a green light that seemed like living flame.
So the two wolves stood facing each other, the huge stranger not seeming to like the look of things, with Nitka snarling defiance at him, and prepared to give her very life in the defence of her cubs.
Shasta, peeping timidly out from the mouth of the cave, felt certain that some terrible thing was about to happen. He was terrified by two things: first, by the mysterious coming of the stranger wolf, then by the awful anger of Nitka, which, if once let loose, must surely tear the new world to pieces, hot white centre and all! Behind him, in the cave, the cubs were motionless and made no sound. They huddled closely together as if they knew, though they could not see it, that, out there in the sunlight, a strange thing was happening with which it would be fatal to interfere. So there they huddled, and pressed their fat furry bodies against each other, and tried to be comforted by each other’s fat and fur.
Then Shasta, looking out boldly, saw a very odd thing. He saw the he-wolf make a step towards Nitka with a sort of friendly whine in his throat, and Nitka, instead of springing at him, remained crouched where she was. And although she kept on growling, and saying the most dreadful things as before, some how or other she seemed less vicious, and the green glare was softening in her eyes. Seeing this, the other wolf grew bolder, and drew closer step by step.
It was a very slow approach, as if the giant he-wolf was fully aware that any sudden action of his would bring Nitka on him like a fury, with those long fangs of hers bared to strike. And then at last the two wolves were so close together that their noses touched. And in this touch of their noses, and the silent conversation which followed, everything was explained and understood, and made clear for the future.
So that was how Shasta saw the return of Shoomoo, the father of his foster-brothers, and Nitka’s lawful mate. After that Shoomoo be came a recognized person in the world who came and went mysteriously, never saying when he was going, nor telling you where when he had come back. Only that did not matter in the least. The really big thing was that when father Shoomoo did come back, he seldom returned empty-handed, or I should say empty-mouthed, since a wolf uses his mouth as a carry-all, instead of his paws.
Return to Top of Page | Contents | Next Chapter