For the introduction and chapter one, click here.
Now, it may be wondered why every Littledonian would be so ready to trust the testimony of an untried youth. After all, might not Vincent have merely seen a large dog? He certainly had never seen a wolf before this day, only heard the harrowing stories about them.
How then could he identify a wolf, except by the vague stories which made them out as oversized dogs? But then to distinguish between a large dog and a true wolf became a mere matter of interpretation. Why had nothing like those ideas passed the mind of any Littledonian?
Nothing more appeals to credulity than service upon the greatest fears and the deepest indignation. Nothing more assures belief than the very outrageousness of the matter. And if the wolf turned out to be a large dog, then little harm was done but for a trifle wasted time and energy. Safer, then, to track the beast down and be sure.
Tramping out on the road, the band spoke little. Each man held his weapons before him, gripped like their very lives. Vincent had his whittling knife. His father had a broad hammer. Mr. Lawson, Mr. Warwick, and Mr. Merritt all had swords passed down from their ancestors. Mr. Cartwright had an iron-tipped pike. The younger Warwick had a knife of his own, while Mr. Lawson had a decent bow for hunting stags, though he was most often known to root out hares and rabbits with his swift greyhound, Rosie.
As they strode away the nearby hills, the morning mists settled down, leaving the grass dewed and the air cleared. The clouds above were breaking up, letting down a few castings of sunlight there and elsewhere, though rarely at whatever place was currently here.
Nearly a league out, Samuel Yates came along, on his way into Littledon. Mr. Yates was a younger man. His farm was not much farther, and no doubt his wife there caring for their child, born only a few months earlier.
The men hailed him.
“Hallo, there!” Mr. Yates answered, waving his worn hat, surprised at the vision of seven men travelling in company. “What’s all this about, then?”
“Wolves!” replied the younger Warwick vigorously.
“Ah, more wolves?” Mr. Yates gripped a patch of his coat covering his belt, where surely rested a good knife. “Whose flock were they at?”
“Weren’t at a flock ‘at we know of,” answered, Mr. Merritt.
Mr. Warwick spoke, “Vincent Conn caught glimpse of a wolf. Lone, we think.”
“And hope,” added the baker, Mr. Lawson. “You haven’t seen it, have ye?”
“I should say I haven’t!” declared Mr. Yates with anxiety boiling in his tone. “Where abouts did this happen t’be, Vincent?”
Answered the boy, “Maybe five hundred paces past your farm, sir.”
“Shall you join us, Yates?” asked Mr. Cartwright.
Mr. Yates turned his eyes back up the road, and gave that great consideration. Alas, he had been on his way to visit the town physician, seeking a salve that could soothe a fever in his minikin daughter.
It was roundly agreed by all that Mr. Yates had better see to the medicine. He did ask, nearly demand, that the men make haste and locate this wolf, or at least keep an eye on his plot. Men such as these needed no request to take upon obligations so noble. Reassured, Mr. Yates bade the men good luck, and departed.
Past the Yates farm, Vincent soon identified the place where he had seen the wolf, collecting the length of chain up from where it had fallen. The only sign of it was left in the mud, in the form of tracks larger than those of a dog. The mere size of the prints brought a renewed fear to the men. No dog they’d ever seen could make such impressions.
Being the best hunter among the men, Mr. Lawson was tasked with interpreting the tracks and following them. The tracks immediately led onto the roadway, which yielded less and made tracking more difficult. By the mess of prints running over each other in circles, likely the wolf had sniffed at the ground where Vincent had turned and fled.
With several good turns of his own and hard staring at the ground, Mr. Lawson was able to identify which direction the wolf had gone. The men all followed, heading directly for the Yates farm. Not a single word was uttered, out of concern for Mrs. Yates and the wee girl.
In the stories, it seemed that wolves could do near anything; scratch their way past doors, leap through windows, and all manner of devilish tricks. One legend claimed a wolf came down a chimney and leapt at a family from their fireplace, even as logs burned upon it. Many doubted the tale, but who could know?
Nearly to the farmhouse and grim as ever, sight was caught of the beast. It was larger than any dog, and it looked fierce and pointy, more bones than the usual muscle of dogs. And in its teeth was a snowy white lamb, crimson where its blood stained the wool.
The wolf saw the party and froze in its tracks, only a dozen paces away. Its hackles raised and a guttural growl somehow escaped around the dead lamb. Its breath misted in the chilly air, near enough to smoke in appearance.
All frozen, the men stared at the beast in terror. Its eyes were horrible as it sized them up. They nearly seemed to glow as red coals, bloody and thirsty in a mixture that rattled together the bones of each man.
Then a strange thing happened. The wolf turned and made ready to sprint off into a stand of trees. No longer scalded by those hideous, hateful eyes, the men quickly regained their faculties.
“Quick!” shouted someone, but Mr. Lawson was too fast for the wolf.
Nocked already by the first bound of the animal, he loosed an arrow which caught it farther back than a sure kill. Still, it was a marvelous shot, which managed to bring the wolf to a stop, being that the arrow moved about as the animal did, giving it much pain.
It dropped the lamb and tumbled to the ground in a rage, howling and yelping and scrabbling all about in the mud and grass and blood. Fearful of approaching the ferocious efforts all a blur of teeth and claws, the men watched with a terror.
The wolf made efforts to snatch the arrow in its chops, managing only to increase its agonies as its writhing moved the shaft all the more about its belly. The vision and the noise was worse than any nightmare the stories had ever incited.
But at last, regaining enough of his wits, Mr. Cartwright pushed elbow into Mr. Lawson. He gave command, “Finish it off, then!”
Mr. Lawson took his time aiming with this arrow and waited until the wolf paused for a shaving of a moment. This shot was sure, claiming the animal and quieting its clamors.
Over the whole valley spread an eerie stillness.