December 1934, Northwestern Montana
A long howl rose above the wind, not far away from the cabin, followed by another. Wendell McCrae got up from the table and shrugged into his coat. He knew what the sound meant. That huge Alaskan wolf was back, the wolf known as the White, who had killed numerous sheep and attacked two ranchers. No one had been able to take a shot at him yet.
Lighting a lantern and grabbing his Winchester, he went out into the snow. Stars filled the vast sky, and his breath frosted in the air.
He stumbled clumsily up the slope in his snowshoes, moving as fast as he could. The bleating of sheep filled the air. Scrambling the last few feet over the deep snow, he swung the lantern's light across the sheep pen.
The ewes milled at the far fence, trembling. In the middle of the pen, crouching over the body of a dead sheep, was a huge wolf, twice the size of an average timber wolf. His ribs showed sharply through his white fur. And the snow beneath him was stained with the blood of Wendell's sheep.
It was the White. The animal lifted his head, and the skin of his nose and mouth wrinkled back in a soundless, menacing snarl. He did not run from the light.
Wendell swallowed hard. This wolf was no ordinary wolf. He set the lantern down carefully and straightened up, but a sudden gust of wind snuffed out the flame. He gasped and groped for the lantern. But as his hand bumped it, he felt it topple and it rolled beyond his reach. There was no use searching for it in the dark. He clutched his rifle tighter, and felt along the fence, following it the short distance to the sheep shed door.
No sound came from the White.
Wendell fumbled for the latch and swung the door open. It creaked loudly, shattering the stillness. A low growl answered. Slipping inside the shed, Wendell reached for the lantern he kept on the wall. Outside, the sheep emitted fearful bleats.
Wendell grabbed the matches from his pocket and tore one off. His hands shook as he lit the lantern and turned up the wick. That wolf was out there threatening his sheep, waiting.... He strode to the other shed door, which led into the pen. Slamming open the door, he thrust himself out as a ring of light sprang from behind him. It lit up the White's eyes as he slowly rose to face Wendell.
Wendell aimed the rifle, his finger on the trigger, but then he stopped.
Something was around the White's neck. The lantern light gleamed on what looked like a rope tightly twisted around the shaggy throat. And he heard, for the first time, the wolf's hoarse, raspy breathing as he stared intently at Wendell.
Wendell studied the White, ready to pull the trigger, but hesitating. Had this wolf, this wild, vicious thing, ever been tame? Could that explain his lack of fear? And did he prey upon the sheep ranches because he was unable to hunt?
The White returned his look. Then he lowered himself to the snow beside the dead sheep, keeping his eyes on Wendell. He was quite thin. Licking the carcass, the wolf began struggling to eat, the constriction of the rope around his throat making it extremely hard for him to swallow.
With a sigh, Wendell lowered the rifle butt to the snow. He realized now that he didn't want to kill this big wolf after all. It would truly be a shame. He was such a magnificent creature, and Wendell's compassion had been stirred at the sight of the wolf's suffering. Was there a chance that the White would let him remove the rope? He wasn't sure if that was even a possibility, but he was determined to try.
Squatting down but keeping his rifle close, he rubbed his hands together to warm them. The wolf had risen again, his gleaming eyes following Wendell's every move.
The sheep were quiet now, except for an occasion baa.
Softly, Wendell began to talk to the white wolf. “That be a tight collar you got there, me lad. Not the sort 'o thing for a wild one like you to be wearing, now. If you'd let me, I could take it off for you. And then you could breathe again. You could eat all you wanted then, for sure. Aye, to your heart's content, laddie.”
He continued talking gently, saying whatever came to mind, but hoping that if the wolf had ever been tame, the sound of Wendell's voice would reassure him.
Ears forward, the White seemed to be listening. Deep growls rumbled low in his throat, and he stood braced tensely, but made no move to attack.
Still murmuring quiet words, Wendell picked up his rifle and walked carefully toward the wolf, who kept growling as he watched. A few yards away, Wendell stopped, squatting down again. This time he stretched out his hand toward the White. Warily, the animal crouched away.
“I'm not going to harm you, me lad,” Wendell spoke soothingly to him. “Come, now.”
Then, cautiously, never ceasing his growling, the wolf took a step forward. He twisted his head to the side and flashed his fangs, and Wendell prayed he would not attack. He waited, his heart pounding. He had never been this close to a wolf before. “Good lad, that's right,” he praised.
Another hesitant step, then another and another. Wendell encouraged softly, and finally, the wolf stood with his nose only inches from Wendell's hand. He seemed to sense that Wendell was not a threat to him, but the deep rumbling in his throat never stopped. He looked almost ready to run, and Wendell didn't try to touch him. He just talked.
The wolf's nostrils trembled. He stretched out his nose and touched Wendell's hand, a cold, moist touch. But he did not flinch, or threaten to attack. He merely sniffed, and his growling died away.
Very slowly, Wendell laid his hand on the furry head. It did not move. He began to gently stroke it. The White quivered all over, and peering up at him, whined. “That's the lad,” Wendell said. “In a wee bit we'll have this collar off.”
Still stroking the thick fur with one hand, he pulled out his knife with the other and gingerly slid it between neck and rope. The white wolf stood perfectly still as Wendell slit the tight fibers. The rope fell to the snow, and the White lowered his head to sniff at it.
“There now, lad. That's gone!” Wendell grinned. “You're not so bad, are you? You just needed someone to help, that's all. Someone to set you free.”