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It was the old she-wolf Nitka that came running lightly along the dusk. Though she had a great and powerful body, with a weight heavy enough to bear down a grown man, her feet made no sound as they came padding through the trees. She had been a long way, travelling for a kill, because at home the wolf-babies were very hungry and gave her no peace. They were not well-behaved babies at all. Whatever mischief there was in the world seemed to be packed tight into their little furry bodies. They played and fought and worried each other till they grew hungry again, and then they fell upon their mother like the little ravening monsters that they were. But Nitka bore it all patiently, as a kind old mother should, and only gave them a smack occasionally, when their behaviour was beyond everything for naughtiness.
Now, as she came running through the trees she drank in the air thirstily through her long nose. For it was her nose that brought her news of the forest, telling her what creatures were abroad, and whether there was a chance of a kill. This evening the air was full of smells, and heavy with the heat of the long summer day; but many of them were wood smells, tree smells, green smells; not the scent of the warm fur and the warm flesh and the good blood that ran in the warm bodies and made them spill the secret of themselves along the air. And it was this warm, red, running smell for which Nitka was so thirsty, and of which there was so little spilt upon the creeping dusk. Yet now and then a delicate whiff of it would come, and Nitka would sniff harder, swinging her head into the wind. And sometimes it grew stronger and some times weaker, and sometimes would cease altogether, swallowed up in the scent of the things that were green. And then, all of a sudden, the smell came thick and strong, flowing like a stream along the drift of the air.
In the wild, your scent is yourself. What you smell like, that you are. And so, accordingly as the wind blows, you spill yourself, even against your will, either backwards or forwards, on the currents of the air.
Nitka increased her pace, and as she ran the smell grew sweeter and stronger, and made her mad for the kill. It was not long before her sharp eyes gave her sight of a deer feeding in an open glade. Nitka stooped her long body to the earth, and began to stalk her prey. All about her the forest seemed to hold back its breath.
It was no noise which Nitka made which betrayed her presence. She herself came stooping nearer like a shadow on four feet. And as it was up-wind that she came, she spilt herself upon the air backwards, not forwards, to the deer. Yet something there was which seemed to give it warning beyond sound, or sight, or smell.
It stopped feeding, and lifted its head. For a moment or two it stood as still as an image carved in stone; yet, as Nitka knew well, it was the stillness of warm flesh that paused before it fled. She gathered her legs under her for the deadly spring. The deer turned its head quickly, and saw a long grey shadow launch itself through the dusk. It was the last leaping shadow the deer would ever see. For the law of the forest is a stern and unpitying one--the law of Hunger, and the law of Desire.
When Nitka had finished her kill, and satisfied her hunger, she thought of the babies at home. They were too small yet for flesh food, so it was no use carrying any back to them. Nevertheless they would be wanting their supper badly, and she must go and give it to them if she would have any quiet in her mind. So she trotted through the forest, having first buried some pieces of the deer where she would know where to find them.
The cave in which her cubs were waiting was far away, for she had travelled many miles, but her instinct told her how to find it easily again, and she made a straight line for it, loping along towards the hills. She was going down-wind now, and did not catch a scent of the things in front. But as she had had her kill, that did not matter. There was one thought in her old wise head, and that thought was home.
But before she reached it, she lit upon a strange thing. It lay right in her path--a small brown bundle that now and then set up a thin wail. Nitka observed it carefully, then ran round to the leeward of it to pick up its scent the better. With strange things she al ways did this. You never knew what a strange thing might do before your nose could give you warning. As she circled, she came upon another smell which she had smelled before--the scent of man, of which she was afraid. But it was a trail several hours old, and was growing a little stale. Nitka crept up to the peculiar bundle. She sniffed at it hard, then turned it over gently with her paw. As she did so, it stirred a little and whimpered. The smell was the smell of man, but the whimper was that of a cub. Nitka distrusted the smell, but the whimper was good. She was not hungry now, but there were the hungry babies at home. She must not delay any longer. She caught up the bundle by the loose skin that covered it, and started off again.
She had to go more slowly now, because of the bundle, and when at last she reached the cave upon the mountain-side, the night had fallen. Dark though it was, the baby wolves were awake, and ready for a famous meal; but in the odd bundle which their mother dropped inside the mouth of the den they were not interested enough to find out what it was. When they had had their supper they fell fast asleep, and when the rising moon cast a glimmer into the cave, you might have seen an old mother wolf and a family of cubs all snuggled up together and very fast asleep.
But in the morning, when they woke up, there was another cub, a cub whose clothes were not of fur, but of a strange covering which they would have called Indian blanket if they had had any word for such a thing in their furry language. However, they speedily took to worrying this odd blanket; and presently off it came and was found to be no skin at all, but only a loose cover that tore to pieces beautifully, and made you cough when you tried to swallow it. Inside, the baby had another skin that was of a reddish brown and very soft. They began to worry that also, hoping it might come off too, but it stuck fast to what was underneath, as is the way with such skins, being specially prepared to stick, and the baby inside it began to squeal like mad.
For some reason or other, the baby did not bite back again. It just lay on its back, and waved fat arms and legs in the air. That hurt nobody, so the little wolves rolled it over and over, and tried to take pieces out of its arms and legs, and thought it was quite the biggest joke they had had in all their lives. Only the new baby did not have a sense of humour, and refused to enter into the fun. It only squealed louder and louder, and actually squeezed water out of its little eyes!
Then, all at once, without any warning whatever, Nitka put a stop to the fun by cuffing her babies right and left; and so the new baby did not have to cry alone, but was joined by all the little wolves, yelping with fear and pain. So from that time onward they learned slowly that the new baby was not to be bitten just for fun, but was somehow or other a little naked brother who had left his coat behind him in the outside world.
If you had asked Nitka why she had taken the baby’s part, I don’t believe she could have told you. All she knew was that there was a feeling inside her that this odd thing she had found in the forest was to be protected from harm.
That was in the early days of little Shasta’s life. He was so tiny that he soon grew used to the difference between living among the wolves and living among his own kind. And soon he forgot even the dim thing he once remembered, and thought there was no life but the life of the cave where always it was shadowy and cool even in the hottest summer day. And he learned to play with the little wolves, his brothers, and wrestle and box with them, and go tumbling all over the cave floor with never a squeal. Only sometimes when the play seemed to grow too rough, and old Nitka thought he was having a bad time of it, she would rescue him from his playmates, and give everybody a general smacking all round: and then there would be peace for a little time.
So that is how it came to pass that Shasta learnt the language of the wolves, and of the other animals--and indeed for a time knew no other--and understood what they said and thought, and even felt, when there was no need of any words.
And all this knowledge was of great use afterwards, and was the saving of his life, as you shall presently be told.