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The morning of the wolf hunt came at last. Before six o'clock, Mr. Tucker, four near neighbors, and the two Thompson boys rode out from Errolstrath toward the appointed rendezvous, at the mouth of the Oxhide.

As all dogs work better on an empty stomach, the hounds, Brutus and Bluey, had not been fed that morning, so that their appetites for the chase should be keen.

The little party from the ranche arrived at the mouth of the Oxhide before the contingent from Fort Harker. They did not have to wait many minutes, for they soon saw a cloud of dust on the Smoky Hill trail, and presently the General's four great hounds came bounding along. Closely following them was Custer on a magnificent animal. Colonel Keogh rode his favorite horse, Comanche, which had been wounded in the battle with the Cheyennes, on Mulberry Creek, when the command had a doubtful victory under General Sully. Comanche was destined to become more celebrated a few years later, when he and a single Crow Indian were the sole survivors of the unequal fight with the Sioux under the notorious Sitting Bull. It was there that Custer and all of the famous troopers with him went down to annihilation, in the valley of the Rosebud.

The General and Colonel Keogh greeted the party, and they rode on at a slow pace. They wanted to save the wind of both the horses and dogs, for the supreme moment when the wolves should give them all the excitement they might desire.

About seven miles from Errolstrath, the Smoky Hill makes a grand sweep to the southeast, the curve forming nearly half a circle. Bordering the river at that point is a series of immense limestone bluffs whose scarped sides come down to the water. The plateau which crowns the bluffs is honeycombed with holes, the dens of the big prairie wolf. They intended literally to beard the ferocious beasts there, for the wolf prowls by night and remains in his lair in the daytime. The General, the Colonel, the old trapper, and the boys were in front, while the hounds trailed after the horses, and were not allowed to advance until the word was given for them to do so.

Custer's dogs were of rare breed, and had been presented to him by some English or Scotch nobleman. They were rough in coat, muscular, fleet of foot, and fully able to cope with the biggest wolf that dared tackle them.

The zigzag trail leading to the summit of the high bluff where the business was expected to begin, was reached about half-past seven, and the tedious ascent was commenced. Arriving on the top at a point where a heavy belt of timber skirted the edge toward the river, they all halted to rest a few moments before they went out into the open where the wolves were.

An occasional low growl and a snarl were wafted by the breeze toward them, where they were concealed among the great trees. The hounds listened with ears cocked up, and uttered a whine now and then, as they gazed wistfully into their masters' faces. They were impatient for the fray like the charger who "smelleth the battle afar," but the time had not yet come for them to do their work.

The morning was deliciously cool. The ground was just covered with a slight coating of frost, making friction enough to insure safety for the horses. They would be called upon to do some hard running, and the rough plain where the wolves were, was sandy and treacherous, from the constant digging and scratching of the quarrelsome beasts themselves.

"A perfect day for the fun," said the General, turning to the old trapper, who had dismounted and was cinching his saddle a little tighter.

"Yes, General," replied he, "we could not have a better morning. The wind is just right for the dogs' noses, though I suppose those beautiful hounds of yours run both by scent and sight?"

"They are fine specimens of their species, not very graceful or beautiful, perhaps, but for muscle and endurance, I don't believe that there is a wolf on the plains which can get the better of one of them in a fair fight. They have had several tussles single-handed, but so far have come out without anything more serious than a few scratches. Their jaws are as powerful as a bull dog's, and they hold on with all that animal's tenacity. I look for some fine sport to-day; there will be some lively coursing if we succeed in getting the wolves out of their holes."

"Bluey," said Joe, who was sitting on his pony alongside of Custer, "is a great fighter; he has had three or four tussles with wolves, and came out on top every time. He has the most wonderful shaking powers I ever saw in any dog, and he has whipped two or three bull dogs in the neighborhood. They all give him a wide berth now, whenever they see him coming. Brutus is quite a young hound yet, and although he is good with rabbits, and did some splendid work when we had that fight with the lynx, he has never really shown what he can do. I guess he'll have a chance to show his mettle to-day."

"I advise all of you to cinch up your saddles," suggested the General, "as Mr. Tucker has already done, for you don't want to be tumbled off by a loose cinch. We'll make a break for the wolves in a few minutes; the hounds are uneasy, and I guess our horses are sufficiently rested now."

When the last saddle was cinched up, Custer gave the word "forward," and the party moved out of the timber. The hounds cavorted around when they saw signs of active work, but they were restrained from rushing too far ahead by a word from their masters.

The hunters rode slowly at first, until they had emerged from the timber. They then broke into a lope, separating to a distance of about fifty yards from each other. Custer was on the right, followed by the old trapper and Joe; while Rob and Colonel Keogh with the others of the party brought up the left.

Although they were out of the standing timber, there were a great many fallen trees scattered over the ground, and they were obliged to jump over these, as they could not afford to waste the time to go round.

There was one immense black walnut trunk over which all had gone very easily excepting Colonel Keogh and Rob. When these two reached the obstacle, Rob's buffalo pony took it flying, but as Comanche rose to make the leap, the effort burst the cinch of the saddle, and the Colonel was thrown. He fortunately struck on his feet and held on to the bridle reins, so the animal did not get away. His orderly rushed up, and it did not take more than five minutes to change saddles, and give the Colonel a mount again.

By that time Custer and the others were far in advance, for they had increased their pace as the hounds sighted their quarry. Some were in full cry, the rest silent, according to the habits of their species. A huge wolf had come out of his hole to learn what the thud of the horses' hoofs meant, had seen the dogs, and immediately bristled up ready for battle.

The lean and hungry-looking brute stood motionless, awaiting the arrival of the pack of hounds. The hair along his spine stood erect like a mad cat's, and his tail swelled to twice its normal proportions. They were heading for him with tongues out and their long necks stretched, ready for the impending battle.

In another instant, when the shock came, there was a chaotic whirlwind of wolf, dog, hair, and blood, accompanied by snarls, growls, and squeals. This cyclone of enraged canines was enveloped in a cloud of dust which fairly obscured the combatants for a few seconds; but when it settled there was a dead wolf, literally torn to shreds, and a hound or two limping along, nearly _hors de combat_, after the terrible struggle.

The noise of the fight caused a dozen or more of the denizens of the bluff to crawl out of their dens and look around to learn what was meant by this invasion of their sacred precincts.

Some just poked their heads up, and all you could see were their great ears. Others came up bristling with fight, and some, the cowardly ones, giving one look at the party of horsemen and the pack of hounds, tucked their bushy tails between their legs, and scooted off over the plateau, yelping like whipped curs!

In a moment, spying those wolves that had apparently accepted the wager of battle, the dogs made a grand rush for them, some in pairs, some singly.

General Sheridan owned a magnificent smooth-haired hound, named Cinch, from the fact that round his belly was a dark circle, resembling a saddle-cinch. He was a very powerful animal, and had been brought with the pack by General Custer, on account of his well-known staying qualities. Cinch had selected a monstrous beast, a little larger than himself, as his victim, and forthwith attacked him singly.

The wolf stood firmly at the mouth of his den, awaiting the approach of Cinch with a sort of self-satisfied look, as though he would tear to pieces that civilized specimen of his own genus. With a growl and a snapping of their great white teeth they came together. How the hair did fly as they bit whole mouthfuls out of each other! It was an awful struggle for canine supremacy. Every one of the party abandoned his quarry elsewhere--although Bluey was making a glorious fight with another monster not a hundred yards away, and the rest of the pack were hard at work on a number that had attacked them in concert--to witness the battle royal between Cinch and the largest wolf that they had ever seen.

At last Cinch succeeded in getting a firm hold on his shaggy antagonist's throat. It proved to be a "knock-out," for when Cinch had done with him, the wolf was stretched out dead. The hound himself did not escape without serious wounds. His fore paws were bitten through and through. One of his eyes was badly torn, and great pieces of hide hung in strings from several parts of his body. He was nearly done for, so badly hurt, that the General told one of his orderlies to take the poor dog on the saddle in front of him, and carry him back to the fort for repairs.

They then turned their attention to Bluey. By the time they came up to him he had just finished his antagonist as completely as had Cinch. The wolf was dead, and the old hound was busy licking his own wounds, of which he had many.

The rest of the pack which had been fighting together had killed four, but two of their number had succumbed to the fierce attacks of their opponents, and were dead. Joe and Rob were delighted to know that Bluey and Brutus were all right after the several battles, excepting a few bites which would soon heal.

In taking an inventory of the number of wolves killed by the hounds, they found seven in all. Their hides were so badly torn that they were not worth skinning, so their carcasses were left just where they fell.

It was considered a good morning's work, as it was but eleven o'clock when Cinch had put the finishing touches on his victim. The men were tired after their rough ride, and the hounds slowly followed, tongues out, and many of them limping fearfully. In this way they rode together back to the mouth of the Oxhide, then separated and went to their respective homes.