Before our family claimed this parcel, back when the town wasn’t but a rotted livery and an inn with a single bed, where you paid extra for the planks to set between you and the other guests who shared it with you—back then, a fella could make a wage as a wolfer. That’s what Grandpa Milton done. He come out here on a wagon, and when he looked West and saw there wasn’t any end to it, he thought he might as well turn around and head back to Pennsylvania. But he couldn’t find a one person facing East he could hitch himself to, so he stayed put.
He set snares for them wolves. Most others would poison them, but Grandpa Milton didn’t have the money for that. He had a single wire to start with, and a wooden stave from a wheel he’d use to put them down. The first pelt he sold brought him a single dollar, though it was worth twice that, and after a season he’d made enough to buy him his own wagon to go wherever his heart desired, but something made him stay. I never did learn what it was.
It wasn’t ‘til I started having dreams about wolves that I was told how Grandad got his start. At first, they didn’t make much sense to me, those dreams, and there didn’t seem much reason to them. I’d find myself in something like a den, or laying out on the plain with a couple of pups trying their best to suckle. Once I ate alongside a female I understood to be my sister, but as you know, I ain’t got one in waking life. Those dreams were coming night after night until finally I said something over dinner, and that’s when I was told about Grandpa Milton and his wolfing club.
“He kept it leaning in the corner,” Pop told me, pointing with the greasy prongs of his fork. “Blood gave it a patina as dark as mahogany. A pretty-lookin’ stick, considering. I haven’t a clue where it went to.”
After that, the dreams came to an end, but now sleep itself came harder and harder. It began with me waking at two in the morning, and then after only a couple hours of sleep. Then I was lurching out of sleep after ten or twenty minutes, as though someone had prodded me awake. It took a week or so of that before I was a complete mess, slumping around like a half-dead steer, knocking into walls and tipping over chairs. One night, after a thirteen-minute doze, I became so furious I wrenched the bed off the floor and over on its side. And if you can believe it—the wolfing club, there it was, nailed in a broken gap in the bed slats.
Sure that it was the cause of my troubles, I took a pry bar and removed it.
But for the raggedy-edged hole the nails had left, the club was smooth. It was heavier than it looked to be, and I wondered if that was from all the wolf blood it had drunk and put away deep within its grain. I sat and stared at it for a long while, with my lids sagging down my eyeballs, and then I fell asleep.
I didn’t wake for fourteen hours.
When finally I rose, with the day’s light angling in and warming my outstretched toes, the wolfing club was gone. I dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen to wrangle a late breakfast or maybe a cold cup of coffee, and the club was there, leaning in its corner. Pop had plenty to say to me being a late riser, but he didn’t know a thing about how the club found its way home. Mama hadn’t noticed and didn’t much care. Somehow, someway, that ol’ wolfing club had grown a pair of legs of its own, I guessed. That next night, I propped a chair up under my bedroom door knob. I didn’t feel much like taking chances with a thing like that in the house.
That was the same night Grandpa Milton came to me.
He had moved the chair to the foot of my bed, where the moonlight coming in the powdery window didn’t nary touch him as he sat there looking over me. I didn’t recognize him when first my eyes opened, but after a moment of terror, I could see the slant of his shoulders and knew it to be him, though he was dark and shadowy. When he saw me wake, he straightened and lifted his arm as though to point at me. In the moonlight, his hand became a bloody wolf’s paw. It dripped a line of arrow-like spots on my coverlet.
The next morning, I made kindling out of that wolfing club and buried its ashes in a shallow pit out back. I never had no wolf dreams seep up and into my head after that, and Grandad stayed good and dead. But some nights I stop and have to listen to the distant, howling wind, wondering if maybe some ol’ wolf might be living out his lonely life thinking the bounty is still being paid out. It ain’t ever a wolf, though, just an echo riding a breeze over the endless plain.