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THE UNVANQUISHED

By Wilbur S. Peacock

DEVIL watched the man below. A thin trickle of smoke plumed from the cabin's chimney, rising straight and true into the chill air, and its odor excited Devil as it always did, somehow familiar, as though he had known it in the past.

He watched, sleek fur tight to his great body, and frosty breath slid from his black nostrils and dissipated in the air. A low rumble pulsed in his throat, and he licked his chops, dull hate spreading in his eyes.

This was the hunter, below, the implacable being who had slain most of the pack with his traps and his poisons and his guns; and Devil watched him silently, trying to fathom his purpose in such a slaughter. He was as vicious as Taug, the black wolf, but more deadly, for Taug must fight close at hand while the man killed at a distance.

Devil growled again, and then began to inch backward from the ridge, back down, plume held low. The ringing blows of the hunter's axe lifted high, and each blow was like a deadly warning to the half-wolf.

He stood at last, almost three feet at the shoulders, heavy with the strength of the malemute bitch which had been his mother and deadly fast with the instinctive skill and instincts of the prowling wolf which had sired him. He was sleek and deadly and he walked with the pride of the unvanquished.

He heard the cry then, winging from far away, and dread touched his mind. He began to run, instinct flicking him to speed without thinking, long legs reaching out in the racing stride which none in the land could match.

He heard the cry again and knew it was from one of his pups. A growl of pure hate surged in his throat, and he flattened in his stride, rippling muscles coiling and knotting within his supple skin. Snow spurted from each driving foot, and the wind whipped the breath from his nostrils even before it could chill.

He went about the copse of snow-clad balsam, and when a rabbit bounced in terror out of concealment, he gave no heed, hunger held in thrall by the danger signal which sounded so eerily in his mind.

He dropped down the side of the mountain, slipping from rock to rock with agile ease, and then fled through the earth-notch toward the place where he and his mate had their hidden den. The muted cries of snarling rage were clearer now, and he knew this was Taug who waited ahead.

He slipped, coming into the second valley, and then caught his balance, and his whine of anger went ahead, flipping Taug about at the den's mouth, mouth still bloody with his slaughter. Taug looked up and then whirled away, dancing stiffly, taking a final slash at the ruptured body of one pup which lay almost at his feet. Fleeta, Devil's mate, showing white teeth through a crimson-stained muzzle and guarded the whimpering third pup with fierce defiance.

Devil sent his snarling challenge across the snow and then went driving in. Twice he had fought Taug, and twice neither had won. Devil was the faster, but Taug was heavy, and neither could upset the balance. But now, with two of his pups dead in the bloody snow, Devil was more than a match for the black wolf, and so Taug turned before they met and raced down the valley toward the trees.

THERE was no fear in him, only caution, and he turned his head to peer back as he ran, pink tongue lolling from his mouth. He was like a black shadow slipping across the blinding-white snow, and when at last he disappeared into the trees, it was as though one shadow had flowed into another.

Devil raced the last few yards to his den, his challenge whipping after the fleeing Taug. Then he came to a plunging stop and the whining in his throat was a keening for the dead.

Two pups were dead, mangled incredibly by Taug's slashing teeth, their baby mouths gaping in crude caricature of defensive rage. They lay as they had fallen, three steps from the den's mouth, their soft bodies torn beyond belief.

Fleeta lay at the den's mouth, still huddling over the last pup. One eye was gone...

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