The Leader of the Pack

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Jacob Chandler, wagon master for the Smith & Hardin wagon train bound for California, was riding ahead when he saw a naked white man staked to the ground over a red ant hill.

His whole body was swollen with bites and burnt by the relentless July sun. Jacob rode up to him and dismounted from his horse warily, casting a practiced eye around the scene for any sign of danger. At first, when he bent over the man he thought he was dead. There were no apparent signs of life. But when he stood up, the man’s eyes suddenly opened and he groaned.

Taking a canteen of water from his horse, he bent over him and cut the rope holding his hands and tilted it slightly so a tiny stream poured out onto his cracked lips. After cutting the restraints from his feet he went over to his horse and pulled out some clothes from his saddlebag. It was an effort dressing him because he was uncooperative and delirious. By the time he finished the wagon train’s lead wagon, with old man Hardin and his family, pulled into view bringing a cloud of dust with them.

Jacob asked what the leaders wanted to do with the man he found, who was unconscious again and propped up against a boulder. There was no doubt they’d help him, it was just a matter of pulling straws to see whose wagon he would get a ride in. Once that was settled, they carried the stranger to Andrew Carter’s wagon. He was a bachelor carpenter who traveled with his brother and his wife. There was room for one more.

Later that night, after the wagon’s were circled, and sentries posted, Andrew Carter watched the stranger slowly regain consciousness. The stranger was stretched out and Andrew was sitting on a wooden pail when he came to.

“How ya feelin’ pilgrim?” Andrew asked.

“Right poorly, I’d say.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jesse…Jesse Stewart.

“Where ya from?”

“Ohio originally,” he answered as he struggled to sit up.

“I recon ya ran into some unfriendly Injuns,” Andrew observed.

“Sioux, I think. Maybe Blackfoot.”

“It’s one, or da other. Those tribes don’t cotton to each other. That’s what Jacob our scout said when we entered this territory. How’d ya end up so badly?” Andrew asked while dipping a ladle into a bucket of water and offering it to him.

Jesse sipped the water before answering. “My pard and I were looking for gold.

“Hereabouts?”

“No. We were heading for California and got ambushed. They kilt Dan outright. Scalped him and cut him up badly, so his ancestors wouldn’t recognize him. Had some fun with me. Sure grateful to you folks for savin my hide.”

“It was the Christian thing to do Mr. Stewart. Would you like to get up and stretch some?”

“I believe I will.

Andrew watched Jesse crawl out and stand up outside. He seemed steady enough. He followed him when he started into the brush, then thought better of it. He was probably taking a piss. A man don’t like being bothered when he’s doing that he realized.

He looked up into the clear sky and the half-moon. A wolf howled, sending shivers down his spine. Another answered its plaintive cry.

The next morning Jacob, Andrew, his brother Robert and his wife Daphne, and Jesse were drinking coffee around a campfire.

“You lost everything then?” Daphne said to Jesse.

“Yes mam. My horse, mule an supplies. Nearly my life too, cept you folks saved it.”

“Just you and your brother were traveling to California? Seems kinda risky,” Jacob observed while puffing on a cigar.

“We thought we could move faster than some wagon train,” Jesse admitted. “Didn’t really recon how sneaky those redskins were, I guess.”

Days turned to weeks, as the slow-moving wagon train lumbered on. Every night wolves howled nearby. It was Andrew who noticed that the wolves began following them when they took Jesse in. He didn’t say anything at first. What could he say? Maybe he hadn’t noticed their nightly cries before. He pondered on it and didn’t share his uneasiness with anyone. Jesse was a good man who readily volunteered to help with any task. Whether it was fixing a wagon wheel or standing guard at night, he proved to be a valuable asset to the expedition. Everyone seemed to like him.

As the wagon train prepared to draw up for the night in a narrow mountain pass, Indians attacked! Drivers tried to get their teams into a circle but the attack was coming from all angles. For nearly an hour the sound of gun fire and screams echoed in the pass. The attackers finally left as darkness descended upon the carnage. The survivors went about moving the still functioning wagons into a circle. The terrified cries of women and children pierced the chilly night as the men went about fortifying their defenses. The dead were drug to one side, outside the circle, and hastily buried in a mass grave. The wounded were treated. They posted double guards that night. In the chaos, Jesse disappeared. He wasn’t among the dead or wounded. Jacob and Andrew figured he ran away or was taken captive by the Indians.

That night there was a full moon.

It was just after midnight when the sentries alerted the wagon’s inhabitants that something strange was happening. The wolves sounded louder and more savage. They heard distant screams of surprise and horror. In the distance they could see flames skipping across the prairie like devils. Strong winds carried the flames east. Away from the wagon train.

In the early mornings hours before dawn Andrew woke up and peeked out from the canvas. He thought he heard something. Then he saw the strangest thing he’d ever seen! A man wolf was standing upright and motioning for the packs of wolves – there must have been hundreds as he watched their eyes glitter, to go south. His hairy arm waved and the wolves slipped off into the dawn yipping playfully.

Then the man wolf fell to the ground and writhed about until it’s hair was gone and only a naked Jesse remained. Just before the transformation was complete, Andrew pulled his head inside the wagon and took a deep breath. He had a weird feeling that the Indians weren’t going to bother them anymore.

As It Stands, it seems man-wolves can be as loyal as a pack of dogs.