THE THREE-TOED SHE-WOLF

   Grandfather and grandson lay down to sleep with the setting sun. Bubenchik settled down nearby beneath the weeping willows.
   Arslan lay remembering all that had happened that day, and it seemed to him it was the best day in his whole life. Today he and his grandfather had been true explorers.
   Suddenly the air resounded with the piercing wail of a jackal. Bubenchik's bell tinkled in alarm.
   "Bubenchik! Bubenchik!" Arslan called.
   The kid trotted over to the shelter and lay down beside its young master. Arslan scratched Bubenchik's forehead and turned over on his side. Suddenly his eyes popped open:
   "Grandfather! Are you sure the jackals won't attack us?"
   "No, my little camel-colt! They're a cowardly bunch."
   "But what if wolves come?"
   "Wolves don't attack humans during the summer."
   "Remember the story you told me about the three-toed wolf? Tell it again!"
   "It's late. Tomorrow I'll be waking you up early."
   "But Grandfather!" Arslan pleaded. "Just tell me this one story, and I won't ask for any more."
   "Well, all right then," Rakhim-aga consented. "It all happened a long time ago."
   "How long ago?"
   "I'll tell you. It was back before our settlement had been built. There wasn't any school then, or tractors or automobiles."
   "Or bicycles?"
   "There were no bicycles either. At the time I was attending a special school where everyone, young and old, studied. Back in those years not a single person in our village was able to read and write. The school was located in a neighboring village, and it was a long trek back and forth from home. One day while taking a short-cut home we noticed strange three-toed tracks of what looked to be either a wolf or a large-sized dog. There was no three-toed dog
in our village. Some time later two young lads out pheasant hunting spied a wolves' lair among the reeds."
   "And in the lair were three cubs!" Arslan broke in.
   "Right. The cubs were almost full-grown. The boys were afraid to take them, and went running back to the village. In the time it took for everyone to talk things over and get their things together and their rifles loaded, the she-wolf and her cubs had vanished. But the next day they discovered one of the lambs missing from the pen. Then the following day a ram disappeared and a few more the next."
   "Grandfather! The three-toed she-wolf dragged off ten fattened rams," Arslan chimed in again, correcting the story-teller.
   "Right again, my lad! That's the way it was. They hunted day and night for the she-wolf, but without any success. Later the shepherds came and explained things to the villagers-they should never have attempted to scare the she-wolf. While it had lived near the village, it never touched the domestic livestock; it hunted in the steppe. But the she-wolf was clever. It knew all the approaches to the folds, and when it led its full-grown litter out into the steppe, it began to hunt in the village itself. And it was a skilful huntress."
   "And it was never caught," Arslan stated, concluding Grand-father's story.
   "That's right, lad, they never caught it. And now it's time you went to sleep."
   Arslan tossed about restlessly trying to get comfortable, and then grew quiet. But he wasn't asleep. He had heard a strange crackling noise outside. First it appeared in one spot and then another, as if it were travelling over the ground. Arslan propped himself up on his elbows and peered out into the darkness. No fire was visible. Maybe the jackals were creeping up towards the shelter, or even worse, cunning wolves.
   "Grandpa, do you hear that noise?" Arslan asked.
   "Yes, my lad. Those are melons crackling. They're ripening."
   Arslan smiled, lay back down and, still smiling, was soon sound asleep.