But at last, after a futile year of flight, he accepted the inevitable and elected to remain at the cottage where first he had killed the rabbit and slept by the spring. Even after that, a long time elapsed before the man and woman succeeded in patting him. It was a great victory, for they alone were allowed to put hands on him. He was fastidiously exclusive, and no guest at the cottage ever succeeded in making up to him. A low growl greeted such approach; if any one had the hardihood to come nearer, the lips lifted, the naked fangs appeared, and the growl became a snarl – a snarl so terrible and malignant that it awed the stoutest of them, as it likewise awed the farmers’ dogs that knew ordinary dog- snarling, but had never seen wolf-snarling before.
He was without antecedents. His history began with Walt and Madge. He had come up from the south, but never a clew did they get of the owner from whom he had evidently fled. Mrs. Johnson, their nearest neighbor and the one who supplied them with milk, proclaimed him a Klondike dog. Her brother was burrowing for frozen pay-streaks in that far country, and so she constituted herself an authority on the subject.
But they did not dispute her. There were the tips of Wolf’s ears, obviously so severely frozen at some time that they would never quite heal again. Besides, he looked like the photographs of the Alaskan dogs they saw published in magazines and newspapers. They often speculated over his past, and tried to conjure up (from what they had read and heard) what his northland life had been. That the northland still drew him, they knew; for at night they sometimes heard him crying softly; and when the north wind blew and the bite of frost was in the air, a great restlessness would come upon him and he would lift a mournful lament which they knew to be the long wolf-howl. Yet he never barked. No provocation was great enough to draw from him that canine cry.
Long discussion they had, during the time of winning him, as to whose dog he was. Each claimed him, and each proclaimed loudly any expression of affection made by him. But the man had the better of it at first, chiefly because he was a man. It was patent that Wolf had had no experience with women. He did not understand women. Madge’s skirts were something he never quite accepted. The swish of them was enough to set him a-bristle with suspicion, and on a windy day she could not approach him at all.
On the other hand, it was Madge who fed him; also it was she who ruled the kitchen, and it was by her favor, and her favor alone, that he was permitted to come within that sacred precinct. It was because of these things that she bade fair to overcome the handicap of her garments. Then it was that Walt put forth special effort, making it a practice to have Wolf lie at his feet while he wrote, and, between petting and talking, losing much time from his work. Walt won in the end, and his victory was most probably due to the fact that he was a man, though Madge averred that they would have had another quarter of a mile of gurgling brook, and at least two west winds sighing through their redwoods, had Wait properly devoted his energies to song-transmutation and left Wolf alone to exercise a natural taste and an unbiassed judgment.
“It’s about time I heard from those triolets”, Walt said, after a silence of five minutes, during which they had swung steadily down the trail. “There’ll be a check at the post-office, I know, and we’ll transmute it into beautiful buckwheat flour, a gallon of maple syrup, and a new pair of overshoes for you.”
“And into beautiful milk from Mrs. Johnson’s beautiful cow,” Madge added. “To-morrow’s the first of the month, you know.”
Walt scowled unconsciously; then his face brightened, and he clapped his hand to his breast pocket.
“Never mind. I have here a nice beautiful new cow, the best milker in California.”
“When did you write it?” she demanded eagerly. Then, reproachfully, “And you never showed it to me.”
“I saved it to read to you on the way to the post-office, in a spot remarkably like this one,” he answered, indicating, with a wave of his hand, a dry log on which to sit.
A tiny stream flowed out of a dense fern-brake, slipped down a mossy-lipped stone, and ran across the path at their feet. From the valley arose the mellow song of meadow-larks, while about them, in and out, through sunshine and shadow, fluttered great yellow butterflies.
Up from below came another sound that broke in upon Walt reading softly from his manuscript. It was a crunching of heavy feet, punctuated now and again by the clattering of a displaced stone. As Walt finished and looked to his wife for approval, a man came into view around the turn of the trail. He was bare-headed and sweaty. With a handkerchief in one hand he mopped his face, while in the other hand he carried a new hat and a wilted starched collar which he had removed from his neck. He was a well-built man, and his muscles seemed on the point of bursting out of the painfully new and ready-made black clothes he wore.
“Warm day,” Walt greeted him. Walt believed in country democracy, and never missed an opportunity to practise it.
The man paused and nodded.
“I guess I ain’t used much to the warm,” he vouchsafed half apologetically. “I’m more accustomed to zero weather.”
“You don’t find any of that in this country,” Walt laughed.
“Should say not,” the man answered. “An’ I ain’t here a-lookin’ for it neither. I’m tryin’ to find my sister. Mebbe you know where she lives. Her name’s Johnson, Mrs. William Johnson.”
“You’re not her Klondike brother!” Madge cried, her eyes bright with interest, “about whom we’ve heard so much?”
“Yes’m, that’s me,” he answered modestly. “My name’s Miller, Skiff Miller. I just thought I’d s’prise her.”
“You are on the right track then. Only you’ve come by the foot- path.” Madge stood up to direct him, pointing up the canyon a quarter of a mile. “You see that blasted redwood? Take the little trail turning off to the right. It’s the short cut to her house. You can’t miss it.”
“Yes’m, thank you, ma’am,” he said. He made tentative efforts to go, but seemed awkwardly rooted to the spot. He was gazing at her with an open admiration of which he was quite unconscious, and which was drowning, along with him, in the rising sea of embarrassment in which he floundered.
“We’d like to hear you tell about the Klondike,” Madge said. “Mayn’t we come over some day while you are at your sister’s? Or, better yet, won’t you come over and have dinner with us?”
“Yes’m, thank you, ma’am,” he mumbled mechanically. Then he caught himself up and added: “I ain’t stoppin’ long. I got to be pullin’ north again. I go out on to-night’s train. You see, I’ve got a mail contract with the government.”
When Madge had said that it was too bad, he made another futile effort to go. But he could not take his eyes from her face. He forgot his embarrassment in his admiration, and it was her turn to flush and feel uncomfortable.
It was at this juncture, when Walt had just decided it was time for him to be saying something to relieve the strain, that Wolf, who had been away nosing through the brush, trotted wolf-like into view.
Skiff Miller’s abstraction disappeared. The pretty woman before him passed out of his field of vision. He had eyes only for the dog, and a great wonder came into his face.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” he enunciated slowly and solemnly.
He sat down ponderingly on the log, leaving Madge standing. At the sound of his voice, Wolf’s ears had flattened down, then his mouth had opened in a laugh. He trotted slowly up to the stranger and first smelled his hands, then licked them with his tongue.