Gilbert’s Encounter with the Timber-Wolf

When we had examined all the beautiful things the room contained, or made pretense of doing so—for I was ever interested in Constance to the exclusion of other matters—she pointed with a show of pride to the battered head of an animal fastened above the door by which we had entered, exclaiming:
“See, Gilbert, where papa’s put the horrid thing! I can never look at it without a shudder.”
“It’s ugly enough, I’m sure,” I answered; “but what is it?”
“Surely you ought to know, if any one,” she answered, taking hold of my hand and leading me close to the object.
“It’s so cut up one can’t tell whether it’s the head of a pig or a panther,” I answered.
“It’s neither; but you’re only making believe, Gilbert?”
“No; but I never saw anything half so ugly.”
“Oh, fie! how stupid you are, or make out to be.”
“Well, what is it? I can’t guess,” I answered, but in no hurry to have her tell me, so sweet was her voice and so entrancing her contention.
“Well, I’ve a good mind not to tell you, but it’s the head of the wolf you killed. Papa had it mounted just as it was brought from Wild Plum; and it grows more ugly every day, I think,” she answered, scowling at the hideous thing.
“I’d never have known it, it’s so shrunken and wrinkled,” I answered, gazing at the object with new interest.
“Then you remember, do you?” she asked, coming close to my side, as if it were still alive.
Yes, I remembered the wolf well enough, but most because it concerned Constance, and had, besides, so much to do with her father’s kindness to me then and always. On this account it is proper I should tell you the story; and though it may seem out of the ordinary and improbable now, it was not so regarded at the time. For you must know that in the early days the panther and bear and many other savage animals made their homes undisturbed in the depths of the great forests of Illinois, and among the first recollections of my childhood were the cries, sometimes fierce, but more often doleful, of the wolves about our home. Our situation indeed in respect to such visits was peculiar, for from the plain that lay on one side there came the gray or prairie wolf, and from the forest opposite, his fierce brother, the black or timber wolf. The first was a cowardly brute, hardly above a chicken in courage, and given to pilfering about the stables and hen-houses, though sometimes venturing as far as the kitchen if there was anything it could steal. The timber-wolf was larger, and when hungry would attack animals ten times its size. Indeed, when famished, it did not fear man, and in this way numbers of the early settlers lost their lives. In the summer and fall, when food was plentiful, it rarely visited us, but in the late winter its cries at night were so common as hardly to attract attention.
Thus it was one day in the early spring, when the grasses were fairly started and the trees beginning to sprout, or only the laggards slept, as loth to waken now as they were quick to go to sleep in the early autumn. The day being warm and fair, Constance and I had ventured into the great forest, not far, indeed, but apart, the foliage shutting us off from view. At such times the thing that delighted her most was to run in and out among the trees, as children from the city always take pleasure in doing when visiting the country. In this way we had become separated for a moment, when suddenly there came to me from out the still woods a quick and agonizing cry. It was Constance’s voice, and something to chill one’s blood. Nor has a long life sufficed to still its vibrations, and often in the night it awakens me now, with the same dread as when I heard it in that afternoon in my far-off youth. Starting up in affright, I let fall the basket I carried, but retained in some unconscious way the small ax I had in my hand, my father’s gift, and this fortunately, as it afterward turned out. Listening, and the cry being repeated, I hastened in the direction whence it came, but as I advanced it receded, faster and faster, until after a little while it came to me only plaintively, and then not at all. Hurrying forward, I after a time reached an opening in the forest, and doing so beheld on the opposite side a huge wolf, gaunt with hunger, carrying Constance in his mouth, with high uplifted head, as if her weight were nothing. Nor was it much to speak of, for she was but a child, and delicate as the lilies that bobbed and curtsied in the black pond on the edge of the great woods. At sight of the wolf I stopped, so benumbed with fear that I could neither move nor cry aloud, and thus I stood with open mouth, without any sense whatever, doing nothing. What could I do? The house was now far away, and only women there, and if I sought them it would be too late. While thus unable to think or act, I caught sight of the weapon I held, and with it courage returned to my heart—not much, to be sure, but enough. Something might be done with so good a weapon, and with the thought I hastened across the opening and plunged into the forest, following the direction the wolf had taken. After running some distance without response to my cries or finding any clew to guide me, I stopped again, filled anew with fear and dreadful forebodings. Surely she was lost, and her life a prey to the savage beast that bore her away. At the thought, taking fresh courage, I plunged ahead, and now into the very heart of the forest, thinking this the direction the animal would be most like to take. Thus minutes like hours passed, as I struggled forward through the dense undergrowth, but neither hearing nor seeing aught of her I sought. Worn out at last, I sank down in despair, tears blinding my eyes. Beyond, the great forest stretched away unbroken to the far west, receding ever to lower and lower levels, there to meet noiseless, half-hidden creeks or black, impassable swamps. Throughout its great expanse, and as a cover for the wild beasts that frequented its depths, dense undergrowth grew, and resplendent as in a garden. So much I knew from my father, who had penetrated its vast solitudes, and at another time I should have been stirred by its solemn splendor; but now it had neither beauty nor variety, revealing only darkness and terror, wherein a hideous tragedy lay concealed. Such were my thoughts as, after some moments’ resting to gain new breath, I struggled to my feet and started afresh, but now without any purpose other than to follow aimlessly on. Going forward in this way, I came at last upon an opening in the trees, and there, a few feet off, and in the interval of the forest, I beheld the wolf, with tongue outstretched and bloodshot eyes, standing at bay. As I came into the cleared space, the animal raised himself erect and turned his fierce countenance on me as if inviting attack. This I did not think to offer, but losing all consciousness, I rushed forward, crying, “Constance! Constance!” Thus I reached the animal, and it not moving, I raised my weapon and struck it full in the face. The blow was not hard, for I was weak and dead with fear; but the brute not attacking me in return, and blood following the stroke, I struck again and again, sometimes missing altogether, but more often hitting my mark. Whether the animal was exhausted by its long flight, or surprised into fear by my quick attack, I do not know, but that it was dazed I must believe, for it made no effort to attack me, but stood sullenly before Constance’s body, neither advancing nor receding. Finally, my blows growing weak, and the animal making as if it would spring upon me, I struck it again, and now with the strength of both my arms, full in the face. At this, as if grievously hurt, or else losing all courage, it gave a mournful cry, and turning, darted into the forest. Seeing this, and my strength being gone and my heart numb with fear, I fell forward unconscious beside Constance’s prostrate body.
When I came to, my head was pillowed in her lap and she was stroking my hair, kissing me the while as if to bring back the color to my face, calling, now in a fever of fright and then again plaintively and coaxingly:
“Gilbert! Gilbert! My Gilbert!”
Feeling her soft breath on my face, I feigned unconsciousness, loth to move; and thus I lay for a while, not stirring, nor conscious of any reason why I should. Then the thought of the wolf came back to me, and I sprang up, terror-stricken lest the animal should return, alone or with its fellows, as these fierce brutes were sometimes known to do when crazed with hunger.
“Quick, Constance! We must be off before the brute returns,” I cried, taking hold of both her hands. To my appeal, however, she returned no answer, but sat still, her face, torn and bleeding, turned imploringly toward mine. “You’re hurt!” I exclaimed, filled with fear; “but come! I can carry you, and it’s not far”; and stooping I raised her in my arms as easily as I would a child.
“No, I’m not hurt, Gilbert,” she answered, trembling and clinging about my neck; “but I thought you were dead, and your springing up frightened me as much as the presence of the wolf.”
“Are you sure you’re not hurt in any way?” I asked, looking at her scared face and torn garments, not believing she could have got off so easily.
“Yes—and you?” she answered, peering into my face.
“I’m all right; but how could you have escaped so easily?” I asked, in wonder.
“I don’t know, for I knew nothing after the first moment till I found you lying beside me,” she answered, disengaging herself from my arms.
“See where the brute held you,” I answered, pointing with a shaking hand to the marks of its teeth in the heavy woolen frock she wore.
“If my dress had been lighter, he might not have been able to carry me off at all,” she answered. “But where is the beast, Gilbert? And see, you are covered with blood, too!”
“Come! We must leave here as quickly as we can. The wolf didn’t have any more courage than a sheep, and ran away; but he may come back with the pack, if they’re near by,” I answered, looking about uneasily.
“How can you find the way, Gilbert? No one has ever been so far as this before, I know,” she replied, scanning the dark trees as we hurried forward.
“It’s no great distance, and I could find my way blindfolded,” I answered, confidently; and so, guided by the sun, and this happily, we at last reached the edge of the forest just as the night was coming on. Here my mother, who had become alarmed at our long absence, was awaiting us, and as we came into view, she ran forward, crying:
“My children! My children! How could you frighten me so!” When, however, she had come near to where we were, and saw the blood on my garments, she stopped and came nigh to falling, but recovering herself, hurried forward and clasped me in her arms, exclaiming: “My son! my son! What dreadful thing has happened to you?”
Nor would she move or release me till we had told her the story from beginning to end. Then, kissing us, she put her arms about our bodies and led us to the house, and there kept us by her side until my father came home and heard the story. He, more used to danger, embraced us tenderly, and not waiting for a fresh horse to be saddled, mounted the one he had, and taking Constance in his arms, carried her to her home in town. The next day Mr. Seymour came out to Wild Plum with Constance, and together we all visited the spot where the encounter had taken place; but my father, following the animal’s trail by its blood, presently gave a cry, and we, running forward, found him standing over the wolf, which lay dead on the ground.
That is the story, and it was the battered head of the animal, that Mr. Seymour because of some sentiment had preserved, that now stared at us from above the chamber door.
NOTE.—Mr. Gilbert Holmes, in reviewing this part of his life, thought, for some reason, that the story of the timber-wolf should be omitted; but to this Mrs. Holmes would by no means listen, treasuring every word as if it were Gilbert himself and a part of her life. Because of this I have included it as it was told me, and partly, too, because it explains Mr. Seymour’s love for Gilbert as a youth and the great confidence he had in him always. It also illustrates Gilbert’s courage, which was so simple and found expression so naturally when anything called it forth that he was never conscious he possessed it, but always spoke of the fear that oppressed him in the emergencies of life, though it was not fear at all, it was apparent, but merely the agitation of a sensitive nature. For of all men, none ever lived who were more brave than he; and it was said of him, and truly, as a general of cavalry in our great war, that no leader pressed forward with such ardor in the charge, and similarly it was told, none gazed upon the empty saddles after the conflict was over with so sorrowful and pitying a heart.—THE AUTHOR.