In Loren Estleman’s 1981 novel, “The Wolfer,” Asa North is known as the best wolfer in the Idaho Territory, if not in all of the West. He lives, travels and hunts alone, and understands wolves far better than he does people. He shows up in towns infrequently and only to restock his supplies and collect his bounties. On one of these trips, he meets a young reporter, R.G. Fulwider, who is visiting from the East and wants to find a story that will capitalize on his newspaper’s subscribers’ love of anything “Western.”
Asa North wants little to nothing to do with anything human, and certainly nothing to do with a tenderfoot reporter, but Fulwider is relentless and convinces North to take him on a trip. This trip has North hunting Black Jack, a wolf credited with almost human-like intelligence and cunning, and with having killed hundreds of cattle. The bounty placed on Black Jack is enough to make a working man wealthy and so attracts a variety of less-than-ethical men who will stop at nothing to collect the bounty.
Fulwider and North are soon the hunted as well as the hunters, fighting for their lives against the elements and those who would readily kill more than just wolves for the bounty. Through all this, North remains focused on Black Jack, and Fulwider is left to grow up quickly and learn the ways of the West, good and bad, in short order, or die.
Loren Estleman is prolific Western writer with almost 30 Western novels to his name, including his well-received “Page Murdock” series. I recently had a chance to meet and spend a little time with Loren. He was an absolute delight and generous with his time and advice.
“The Wolfer” was actually a difficult book for me to read, which I think it was intended to be. The heartless way in which the wolves are hunted down, even the pups having their necks rung for the bounty, is challenging to read for any who love wild animals. And yes, I recognize the problem the ranchers faced and am not suggesting it shouldn’t have been done, just that it was not easy to read.
A last note. While reading “The Wolfer,” it was hard to imagine that Estleman was not a fan of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Replace Captain Ahab with Asa North and Moby Dick with Black Jack and you have “The Wolfer.” North, like Ahab, pursues his prey with an intensity and focus that far outweighs the intrinsic value of the prize, both men willing to risk their lives — and the lives of others — to achieve their goal or, perhaps more accurately, obsession.