When they drew near the outlet where the waters of the Lower Lake flowed into Lake Winthrop, Thad, happening to look back, managed to discover a canoe skirting the shore some miles distant. From the actions of those in it, they seemed desirous of remaining unnoticed; for they took advantage of every headland that jutted out; and when they had to make across the open, it was done with all possible speed.
Thad did not need to be told who was in that craft. And glancing toward Jim, he understood that the Maine guide had doubtless been aware of the pursuing canoe for some time; because he nodded at the scoutmaster when he caught his eye.
"It's him, is it, Jim?" called out Thad; for the canoes were some thirty feet apart at the time.
"Yep," came the answer, accompanied by an affirmative nod of Jim's head.
"You know him, even at that distance, then?" continued the patrol leader.
"He's workin' the paddle right now," replied the other. "Yuh cain't mistake his way o' swingin' ther spruce blade. Ole Cale hain't gut his ekal at thet in all the State o' Maine."
It was plain to be seen, then, that the giant poacher was on the trail of his detested son-in-law, possibly bent on carrying out his terrible threat; though Thad hoped such might not prove to be the case.
He knew that often these rough men of the woods could appreciate true bravery; and that there might be a chance, however slight, that Old Cale was lost in admiration for the recklessnes that could induce Jim to brave his wrath. What if he had been consumed by a sudden deep curiosity to know what really caused the other to take the risk and come up here? Could he suspect that Little Lina had sent a message to him?
All these things gave Thad occasion for considerable thinking. At the same time he did not mean to lose sight of the main reason for their having come so far from their homes, in order to get some hunting, and camping experience, that would prove valuable to his fellow scouts, anxious to learn all that they could at first hands, of wood-craft.
"I'm glad we were as particular as we were about putting out the very last spark of fire this morning," Thad remarked, as the canoes moved along close to one another.
"Why?" demanded Giraffe, a little suspiciously; for every time that magical word was used he chose to think all eyes must be turned in his direction; just as though he should be placed in the same class with fire.
"Oh! because the wind came up like great guns shortly after we left camp," Thad went on, always ready to point a lesson to those under him; "and from the river, too. Now, if we'd left any fire there, the chances are it would have been picked up, and thrown into the woods. As there was a lot of dry stuff around, you can see how easy a fire starts up here. And when it once gets going, I reckon it can burn some, eh, Allan?"
"If you ever have the good or bad luck to run across a forest afire, while we're up in this section, you'll see a sight that none of you'll soon forget," and he had to cast a meaning glance as he spoke in the direction of the fire worshipper.
But Giraffe only smiled in a satisfied way.
"Talk all you want," he remarked; "but I think I've got that business down fine, now; and to-night, to-night I'm just bound to prove to Bumpus here that the cream is on him. I knew I'd get it sometime."
"Well, don't crow till you're out of the woods," remarked Bumpus, from the bow end of the canoe. "I'm willing to be convinced; and it'll be worth all it costs me just to see you work that puzzle out."
"But you just know I c'n do it, don't you?" persisted Giraffe.
"Won't say," answered the fat boy, obstinately.
"Well, you might as well be counting up your spare cash, because I'm bound to show you at the first chance. It just can't slip away from me much longer; and I reckon I've got it clinched this time," and after that Giraffe would not talk, but seemed to be muttering to himself from time to time, as though he might be repeating a certain formula that he believed to be the winning combination.
They were not trying to make fast time now, because there was really no necessity for doing so. Having arrived on the chain of lakes that, with the St. Johns river, almost makes a great island of the northern portion of Maine, they were bent on enjoying themselves. That meant going into camp at some point where the guides were agreed they might have the best hunting; and from that time on taking toll of the woods' folks as their larder required, wasting nothing, and refraining from hunting when food was not needed.
They were true scouts, and believed in following the uplifting principles that govern the actions of the better class of sportsmen. As Step Hen so often declared, they did not want to be called "game hogs," a term often used to describe the man who flings his catch of bass or trout up on the shore to die, no matter if he is taking ten times what he can use; or who shoots his deer in or out of season, and allows it to lie there, wasted, on the ground, food for the foxes or wolves.
"This country seems to be rather sparsely settled up here?" remarked Thad, after they had been moving along the shore of Lake Winthrop for some time, looking up a desirable camp site.
"In the summer you kin see a tent now an' then, it bein' sum party as wants ter enjy the fishin', which is prime," Eli replied; "but they ain't many folks as keer 'bout stickin' out ther winters hyar. Ye'll admit they must be sum cold, this far up, nigh the Canady border."
"But there must be plenty of game hereabouts, I should guess," Thad went on. "Because, in the first place it has a gamey look to me; and then again, you wouldn't have agreed to come along with Jim here, unless you'd heard good accounts of the region around the Eagle Lakes."
"Jest what I has, though I hain't never be'n all over 'em myself," returned Eli. "But Jim hyar, he was bawn an' fetched up in this kentry; so what he doan't know 'baout hit hain't wuth knowin', I guess, sir."
It was about the middle of the afternoon that Jim declared they had reached the point where their tents should be pitched. Thad noticed that the guide made not the least attempt at trying to hide the camp; indeed, the tents could surely be seen in any direction out on the lake.
This gave him to understand that Jim was not "taking water;" he had come here to this danger ground with the main idea of meeting his irate father-in-law face to face, be the consequences what they might, because his wife had begged him to; and there was as yet no sign of Jim turning out to be what Giraffe called a "quitter."
Everybody soon found plenty to do. The rest had enough pity for Giraffe not to enter any complaint because he seemed to shirk his share of the ordinary labor attending the starting of the camp. They knew he had his hands full in solving what promised to be one of the greatest puzzles he had ever tackled.
And so he was allowed to go off himself, and work his little saw monotonously right along. Now it was the cord that failed to hold; again something else went back on poor Giraffe. But he kept patiently at it, grimly determined; and even the most interested of the lot, Bumpus, with whom the fire builder had laid his little wager, could not but feel a touch of admiration and sympathy when he saw how the tall scout kept at his task as the afternoon slipped away.
When supper was announced Giraffe came in smiling.
"Got it?" demanded Bumpus, eagerly.
"Well, just as good as done," was the cautious reply. "I've mastered a heap of little irritating troubles; and just now the coast seems to be clear. Next time, now, and you'll see something doing."
"One more ribber to cross!" cooed Step Hen. "It's always 'next time,' with Giraffe, you notice, fellows."
But Giraffe was either too tired to argue, or else so confident of a speedy success that he felt he could afford to bide his time. Revenge would be very sweet, after all the chaff the fellows had poured upon his head. He would wait.
The supper tasted unusually fine that night, they all declared. Several of the scouts assisted in its preparation, wishing to show the guides just what knowledge of camp cookery they had picked up in their numerous outings. Even Bumpus superintended the heating of the "canoeist's delight," which turned out to be a hodge-podge, consisting of some left-over corned beef taken from a tin, some corn, and beans with several cold potatoes sliced in the same. And the hungry boys declared the only fault they could find with it was that it disappeared too soon.
But they had an abundance for all hands, even Giraffe admitting that he was satisfied when the meal was over. Then came the several delightful hours of lying around, as close to the cheery blaze as they dared, and having a "good old fashioned powwow," as Step Hen called it.
Jim was quiet; but then he had never been a noisy fellow; and knowing what was on his mind right then, Thad felt that he had plenty of excuse for deep thought.
During a lull in the conversation later on, Bumpus sat upright, and exclaimed:
"There, did any of you hear it again; sure as you live it was the same long-drawn howl we caught on our other trip up the Penobscot region; and Sebattis, as well as all the rest, told us it was a wolf come down across the border from Canada. How about it Eli; was that one just then giving tongue?"
The old guide had not moved an inch; indeed, he seemed to be very little concerned over the strange sound; but he nodded his shaggy head, and made reply:
"Yep, thet war a Canady wolf all right; an' as they hunt in packs thar must be more on 'em raound these diggin's I spect."
THE UPLIFT OF A BOY SCOUT.
They all listened, and heard the far-away howl several more times. Eli even declared that it was not the same beast that gave tongue, but a different one; and this seemed to bear out his statement that the animals usually hunted in packs. If a bunch of them had crossed the St. Johns river, and taken to chasing deer in the forbidden territory of Maine, the tidings would soon spread, and every guide be on the lookout.
"If so be ye run acrost ary wolves, knock 'em over like vermin," Eli remarked, during the discussion of the subject that followed.
"I guess everybody's got his hand raised against the poor old wolf, ain't they?" asked Bumpus; who often felt sorry for the underdog in a fight, no matter if it happened to be a strange cur he had never set eyes on before.
"Why not?" asked Thad, immediately; "when the wolf is no respecter of persons, and will pull down anything that can be used for food? The world over, they are hunted, because they do so much harm. It has always been so from the time the shepherds of Bible times tended their flocks on the hills of Galilee. And as long as living things stay on this old globe, man and wolf will never agree."
"And in every State where they used to run, there has always been declared a fat bounty on wolves," Allan observed. "Why, right now, Maine is paying large sums of money to get rid of her vermin, such as wolves, wildcats, panthers and snakes. I've read that as much as four hundred thousand dollars has been paid out in bounties since nineteen-three."
"Yes," laughed Thad, "and that's where the joke comes in. I read that same article, which was mighty interesting too. It went on to state that some smarties are not content with getting the regular bounty. They grow a gray cat that looks on the order of the wild article—shorten the tail, draw out the claws, and then send in the skin, claiming the six dollars that is paid for each bobcat actually slain within the borders of the State."
It was the turn of old Eli to laugh now.
"I heard tell o' a sharper as cut off the rattles from a lot o' tame snakes he kept shut up, and send 'em in for the bounties each rattle brings; and then he expects his pets ter grow new rattles, which howsumever, I don't guess they kin; but thet air story goes ter show what some men will try an' do ter beat the pore old government people."
"Whew! and I just can't stand for snakes at all," remarked Step Hen. "If ever I felt one touch me, I believe I'd nearly take a fit."
"Ha! let Davy do that!" cried Giraffe, quickly; at which there was a shout that must have made the two guides stare, until the joke was explained to them.
It seemed that once upon a time Davy had been subject to sudden severe cramps in his stomach, that used to double him up like a hinge, and render him incapable of action. His teachers at school had been duly warned, and many an afternoon had Davy been granted leave to go home because of a sudden attack; though it must have departed as suddenly as it came; since he was generally seen flying his kite on that same afternoon. And the cramps never attacked him on a dull, rainy day.
When he joined the scouts Davy, wishing to shirk hard work, had commenced to have these queer cramps; but wise Thad, believing that the other must long ago have outgrown the disorder, and was only shamming, laid down a course of treatment so severe that, singular to relate, Davy had ever since been utterly free from the infliction; which the rest of the boys considered simply wonderful.
And that was why there was a shout, with all eyes turned toward Davy Jones, when by mere accident Step Hen mentioned the word "fit."
But Davy only colored up a bit, and grinned amiably.
"That's a dead issue, fellers, so you needn't stare at me that way," he remarked, composedly. "Never again. Thad cured me right off the reel. 'Nothing like heroic treatment, when all else fails,' he said; and it did the job, clean as a whistle. I never can have a fit again, if I tried."
"You'd better not," remarked Bumpus, solemnly winking his left eye at Step Hen, and significantly touching a good-sized club he had at his side.
But that howling of the wolves, hunting their supper far away, did not keep the boys from enjoying a good night's sleep. Of course there was some sort of watch kept; but those who were not entrusted with the vigil had no reason to bother their heads over it. All night long they slept in absolute safety. If Eli, Jim, Allan and the scoutmaster took turns being on deck, to make sure the camp was not raided, that fact did not keep the other four from slumbering as peacefully as though tucked in their beds at home, and under the parental roof.
Another dawn found them awake, and only too anxious to get a good warm fire started; for the frost was surely around them, and at that early hour it bit severely, too. But they could always depend on Giraffe to coax the wood to do its best in dispelling the cold atmosphere; and soon they were no longer shivering, but fully dressed, and assisted in getting breakfast.
Thad cast his eye upward several times during the progress of the meal.
"You seem to be anxious about something Mr. Scout Master?" remarked Step Hen, who had been highly favored that morning, being chosen to accompany the leader on a hunt for fresh meat; and Step Hen was therefore more interested than the others in what seemed to have aroused the attention of Thad.
"I was wondering whether we mightn't get our first snow-storm before another sundown, that's all," replied the other, with a smile.
"Now, however could you tell that, when everything looks bright, and oh-be-joyful to me up yonder?" burst out the wondering Bumpus.
"Well, there are some things one can know, partly by instinct, and find it pretty hard to explain," Thad went on to say. "I seem to feel a something in the air that says 'snow' as plain as words. It may be just a sort of dampness; but that's the way about it. Then I notice the direction of the wind, which is northwest; and the cut of those few cirrus clouds lying low near the horizon. I can't exactly explain so that you could understand, but if I was asked my opinion, I'd say we'll see the snow flakes flying before many hours."
"How about that?" demanded Step Hen, turning on Eli and Jim.
"He's right, 'cause thar's agoin' ter be summat o' a fall. P'raps 'twon't amount ter much, nobody kin tell that; but it sez snow, all right," the first guide observed, after taking a look all around.
"Me tew," was all Jim said; but he accompanied the words with a vigorous nod in the affirmative, that stood for a lot.
"That settles it," Step Hen declared. "I'm going out prepared for business. Never did like to be snowed under, any way you take it."
"Too bad we ain't got a snow shovel along," remarked Giraffe, sarcastically.
"Oh! you can joke all you want to," snapped back the other; "you're so lofty you needn't mind an ordinary snowfall. If it got up to your chin, you could still manage to stretch that rubber neck of yours around, and feel comfortable. But I ain't in the same class, you see, with my ordinary figure, and short neck. But all I meant to say was, that I'd keep my sweater on under my coat, and stick my woolen gloves in my pockets."
"Loan you my earmuffs if you say the word, Step Hen," spoke up Bumpus.
"Well, now, that's decent of you, Bumpus," the other scout remarked; "but you see, this old corduroy cap of mine has earflaps that can be turned down. It's just a bully thing for a cold, windy day. But after such a generous offer, Bumpus, why, I give you my full permission to turn over your badge. You've begun the day bright and early, by trying to do a generous deed for a comrade."
Of course, what Step Hen referred to was the well-known rule by which the great body of members composing the Boy Scouts' organization of America has been governed, in order to teach the units of each patrol and troop the benefits to be derived from making themselves useful to others.
In the morning every scout is supposed to pin his badge upside-down, on the lapel of his coat; and is not allowed to change its position until he has found an opportunity for helping some one, either by act, or advice that is really useful. It may only be a very simple thing; but it teaches the lad, first of all, the useful attribute of observation; and after that the still more precious one of service. Even though he but assist an old man across a street where vehicles are numerous; or take a market basket from the hands of a housewife, who is staggering homeward under the heavy burden, the effect is the same.
It makes his boyish heart thrill with a satisfaction that develops the trait of generosity; and gives every lad a more manly sensation; for he realizes that small though he may seem, he is of some value to the world.
"Oh!" said Bumpus, blushing, "I guess I hadn't ought to take advantage of such a little thing as that, so's to get my badge turned. I'll find a chance to do something that's more worth while, before the morning's an hour old. And Step Hen, if you bring home the bacon in the shape of a noble six-pronged buck, you must let me take your picture, with your foot on the prize. Why, it will be the most valuable heirloom in your family, years from now. Your great grandchildren will point to it in pride, and tell how you slew the Jabberwock in the woods of Maine."
"Well," grinned Step Hen, "wait till I get the buck. I don't count my chickens before they're hatched. And I hope for one thing—that when we do come back, there's going to be a little peace in the camp; and that our friend Giraffe here, will have solved the riddle that's been worrying him so long. Them's my sentiments."
Giraffe made a mock bow, as he remarked in his most amiable way:
"Much obliged for making that wish, Step Hen; and from present indications I've got a sort of hunch that something is going to happen along them lines. Woke up in the night after having a dream, and it all came to me like a flash, where I'd been making a mistake. And as soon as I get through eating, I'm going to work trying to start things just like I saw in my dream. Oh! I'll get there, sooner or later, by hook or by crook. You never saw me give a thing up yet."
"Hey! what's that?" remarked Davy Jones, quickly. "How about that time you got in old farmer Collins' watermelon patch one night, and hooked a nice big melon he had doctored, so as to teach the boys a lesson. Oh! I know, because I was along with the crowd; and seems to me you gave up everything you owned, during that never-to-be-forgotten hour. I know I did; and I've never eaten a melon since without shivering."
"Say, quit that melancholy subject, won't you?" demanded Bumpus. "I don't like to be reminded of my wicked past, because I've turned over a new leaf since I joined the scouts. Why, you couldn't tempt me now with the biggest grandfather watermelon ever grown. B-r-r! It makes me shake, just to remember some things that happened in those old days, when I went with Giraffe, and Davy Jones, and the rest of that lark-loving crowd."
Half an hour afterwards Thad and Step Hen started out, guns in hand. Knowing that the patrol leader was perfectly at home in the woods, no one bothered about giving them advice; or predicting all manner of direful calamities ahead. Let it snow and blow as it pleased, Thad was enough of a woodsman to know how to make himself comfortable, and get back to the camp on the lake shore in due season.
Of course Bumpus had been more or less disappointed because he did not have an early chance to prove the merits of his new gun, since he had been taking private lessons from one of the guides in the way of handling firearms. But Thad had promised that the fat boy and Giraffe should have the next chance for a hunt; they were canoemates, and seemed often thrown together, perhaps because they represented the "fat and the lean of it," and as Bumpus was fond of saying, "extremes meet."
Half an hour later, and the two young Nimrods had managed to get a couple of miles from the camp. But as yet they had not sighted that wonderful six-pronged buck which Step Hen was to lay low. They walked along about fifty feet apart, Thad generously allowing his companion to be a little in advance of him. This he did really because he wished Step Hen to have the advantage of the first shot; being confident that if the other failed to bring down the game he would still have some show before the deer could vanish from sight.
Then again, it was just as well to have Step Hen in front. He was inclined to be nervous; and some sudden whirr of wings, as a partridge flew out of a nearby thicket, might cause his finger to press on the trigger of his gun a little harder than he intended. Thad believed in being on the safe side, every time.
Step Hen carried a lovely little repeating rifle of the thirty-thirty type; and his ammunition was of the soft-nosed kind, which, as it "mushrooms" on striking, is just as serviceable as a ball three times as large; while Thad had his double-barrel Marlin shotgun, a twelve bore, with buckshot shells meant for big game.
As they were passing through what seemed to be a tangle such as is seldom met with in the pine woods of Maine, where they had to dodge trailing vines, Step Hen, in trying to avoid one that threatened to catch him by the neck, managed to stumble over a log, and go sprawling forward, his gun flying from his grip, but fortunately not going off. But immediately Step Hen commenced to thresh around, as he shouted out:
"Thad! Oh! Thad, hurry up, and help me out of this! My legs are twisted in the vine; and something bit me! I know it must a been a rattlesnake, and I'm a goner!"
STEP HEN'S GREAT LUCK.
"Snakes! well, Step Hen, you're away off, if you think they're ever found out, with the weather as biting as it is right now!" laughed Thad; who sized up the situation instantly, and knew full well there was nothing of the sort the matter with his hunting companion.
"Well, anyway, something gave me a bite, and you can see the blood on my hand right now, Thad," whined Step Hen, crawling once more into view, and looking as though he could not be convinced to the contrary of his statement, just because of a little frost.
He held up his left hand as he spoke. Thad took hold of it, and with those keen eyes of his, managed to grapple with the facts immediately.
"You only managed to strike up against a sliver of wood, and got a splinter in your hand," he declared; "see here, I can show you," saying which he used the nails of his finger and thumb for a forceps, and drew out a little splinter that had pushed under the skin, just far enough to bring a drop or two of blood, and give Step Hen a sharp pain.
"Oh! thank you, Thad!" exclaimed the other, as though vastly relieved. "You see, I just detest all kinds of crawlers the worst kind; and that talk about rattlers, and the bounty paid for their tails, must have been hanging on my mind. When I felt that sudden sharp jab, of course the first thing that flashed into my brain was that I'd tumbled on the nest of a rattlesnake, and he took me for one of the bounty jumpers. But only a sliver of wood—huh, I can stand that easy enough."
"Suck it good and plenty," advised the far seeing Thad. "I always do as soon as I get a cut of any kind, and especially if it's a splinter. Sometimes it keeps you from getting poison in your system, that makes a bad sore."
Step Hen obediently did as he was told. At least he had implicit confidence in the patrol leader, and was ready to follow his advice under the slightest provocation. That was a feather in the cap of Thad Brewster, in that he possessed the full confidence of his comrades. They believed in him, and were never in a state of mutiny concerning the orders he gave, as leader of the Silver Fox Patrol.
Once more the two boys tramped on. Thad thought it might be as well to impart a little useful information concerning the dormant condition of all snakes during winter time; and how many a bunch of the wrigglers he had found, while the cold season was on, looking as though they were frozen stiff.
This information he imparted in almost a whisper as they moved along. When out looking for deer, a muffler on speech is of paramount importance; and knowing all about this, Thad soon relapsed into silence.
"Tell you more some other time, Step Hen," he remarked as a wind-up; "that is, if you care to hear more about snakes. No matter how you dislike the breed, you really ought to know more than you seem to, about their habits. It might be the means of saving you from trouble some fine day, when, by accident, you happen to run across some reptile in the woods. And now we'll forget all that. I'm not going to say another word, unless I have to."
They kept pushing on; and Step Hen began to believe they must be many miles from their starting point; at any rate he began to feel a little heavy-footed, though too proud to mention the fact to Thad. Besides, Step Hen had walked pretty good distances before, and believed that he must soon get what he called his "second wind." After that he would be good for hours, he fancied.
It must have been well on to eleven o'clock when Thad felt his companion nudge him in the back. As he turned to look, Step Hen made a suggestive gesture with his head, and pointed upwards.
There was a dead gray sky above them, and already a few scattered flakes of snow, really the first of the season, were drifting downward, looking like tiny feathers plucked from the downy breast of a snow goose.
Thad simply nodded his head to indicate that he too had observed them; and at the same time he shook his finger toward Step Hen, afraid lest the other might be itching to start a conversation. In fact, this was just what the other scout was hoping to do. This grim silence had begun to work upon his nerves—just walking on and on, with not a blessed sign of the fine buck they expected to get, commenced to pall upon Step Hen, in whom the instincts of a hunter had never been born; although of late he had begun to develop a taste for roaming the woods with a gun over his shoulder. But he had much to learn concerning the secrets that Nature hides from most eyes, but which are as the page of an open book to the favored few.
Step Hen began to twist his head around frequently. At first Thad thought he was developing a new eagerness to discover signs of game; but then he soon saw that the wistful expression on the other's face was brought about by quite a different cause.
To tell the honest truth about it, Step Hen was trying to figure out in his benighted brain just what the cardinal points of the compass might be. It was not that he possessed any alarming interest in proving certain facts Thad and Allan had explained, concerning the fascinating game of learning where the north lay by marks on the trees; the general direction in which they slanted; signs of moss on the north or northwest side of the tree, and various other well proven methods of locating one's self. Oh! nothing of the kind. Step Hen wanted to find out one particular fact. They had started north when leaving camp; and now, if he could only learn that they were heading due south, it would tell him that Thad had swung around, and was facing back home again; and thus he would not be under the painful necessity of informing his companion that he was tired of the useless hunt, when nothing worth while showed up.
And then it happened!
Step Hen happened to have his eyes in the right quarter when suddenly a fine big buck sprang to its feet, and stared at them a second or two, before starting to spring away. They had been heading up into the wind all the time, which was a part of Thad's principle as a true still hunter; and the deer had not known of their presence until the greenhorn happened to step on a small branch, which snapped under his weight.
Possibly Step Hen never really knew just how he did it. Indeed, he afterwards confessed to himself that his ready little rifle just seemed to swing upward to his shoulder by some instinct, which was probably the exact truth; for hunters seldom have time to do any thinking.
He saw that splendid deer standing there before him. Now, Step Hen had often fired a target rifle at just such a picture of a deer as this in the shooting gallery in Cranford. And when he took a hasty aim just behind the shoulder of the startled buck, he was really following out his usual custom of covering the bull's-eye on the artificial deer, so familiar to his boyish eyes.
Bang! went the rifle, as he pressed the trigger.
Thad had his double-barreled gun in readiness, and could have supplemented the shot of Step Hen by pouring in a broadside of small bullets that must have dropped the animal in his tracks. But he refrained, for his instinct seemed to tell him that the missile from Step Hen's little rifle had struck home, as the buck gave a convulsive leap, and pitched over; and Thad knew how much a new beginner in the game delights in the knowledge that he has accomplished the work of bringing down a deer unassisted.
True, the buck managed to scramble to its feet again, and run; but even then the patrol leader held his fire, for he knew that the animal could not go more than a hundred or two feet before it must drop.
"I rung the bell then, Thad; didn't you hear me?" almost shrieked Step Hen, so excited that he never once thought of pumping the exploded cartridge from the firing chamber of his repeating rifle, and sending a fresh one in after it; and then, as the stricken buck scrambled to his feet again, and went off at a wobbling gait the astonished and dismayed Step Hen, who should have been prepared to send in another shot on his own account, actually forgot that he held a rifle calculated to repeat, and wildly besought his chum to fire.
"Oh! there he's going to get away after all, Thad!" he cried, jumping up and down in his excitement; "why don't you blaze away, and knock my buck over? Thad, oh, do let him have it good and hard! There, now he's gone, and we've lost him! It's a shame, that's what it is, when I so nearly got him. And he had six prongs too! Oh, me! oh, my! what tough luck!"
"Don't worry, Step Hen," said Thad, quickly; "that deer can't get away. You shot him to pieces, and he's just bound to drop before five minutes. We'll just follow him up, and find him lying as dead as——"
Just what Thad had in mind as a comparison Step Hen never knew. Perhaps he was going to say "as dead as a door nail," that being a favorite expression among the scouts; or it might be Thad meant to take a little flight into ancient history, and compare the condition of that buck inside of five minutes with the Julius Caesar of olden Roman times. It did not matter.
He was interrupted by a sudden loud explosion. The sound came from the quarter in which the buck had just gone, and could not have been far distant. And even the tenderfoot understood what it meant.
"Oh! listen to that, would you, Thad?" he burst forth with. "There's somebody else hunting up in this neck of the woods, and they've got my fine buck! Now, ain't that the worst thing ever; and just when it began to look as if he ought to belong to me, too; for you said he was hard hit; and I just know I rung the bell with that bullet. And now I reckon it's all off. Oh! why didn't you knock him over when you had the chance, Thad?"
"I sure would if I'd had the least suspicion that there was any other hunter around these diggings," declared Thad, with a frown on his usually smooth brow; for he instantly began to scent trouble. "But come on, let's start along, and see what it all means. Perhaps now old Eli, or Jim may have wandered out to take a little side hunt."
"But anyway, it's my buck, Thad; you said I got him!" grumbled Step Hen, as he started after his leader.
They had no trouble in following in the direction taken by the stricken deer; even Step Hen, upon having his attention directed to the ground by Thad, could readily discern the trail of blood spots that told how the buck had been badly hurt by the shot back of the shoulder.
And less than three minutes later the two scouts came upon a scene that caused Thad to frown; while Step Hen's mouth opened with surprise, even as his eyes were unduly dilated in his intense excitement.
BARE-FACED ROBBERY IN THE MAINE WOODS.
Three men were bending over the dead deer, and all of them carried rifles. They were a rough-looking set, all told; and any one would know at a glance that they could not be city sportsmen, up here in the Maine woods on a hunt; but must belong to the native class of guides, loggers, or possibly something worse.
One of them was in truth a giant; and as soon as Thad set eyes on this individual he knew that his worst fears were about to be realized. This could be no other than the big poacher, Old Cale Martin, the man whom the game wardens seemed to dread like poison, and had never yet dared arrest, though his breaking of the laws had become notorious all through that section where he roamed.
Despite his sensation of acute alarm, Thad surveyed the man with more or less interest and curiosity. He had heard so much about his doings that he would have actually felt a certain degree of disappointment had he gone away from Maine and never met Cale Martin.
Then, what Jim Hasty had told him, added to his desire to look upon the face of Little Lina's awful father.
No doubt Step Hen must also have jumped at some sort of right conclusion with regard to the identity of the three men. The unusual size of the leader was quite enough in itself to tell who they must be.
Thad did not halt long upon sighting the others, but walked forward. Even though poachers, this did not mean that the three men were desperate outlaws by any means. No doubt they walked in and out of the villages in this extreme northern section of the State, and were greeted by those who knew them as fellow guides, though seldom were any of them employed in such a capacity nowadays.
Step Hen tagged at the heels of his chum. He did not know what Thad might be going to do; but although white of face just then, with a sudden fear of trouble, at least Step Hen showed no sign of running away.
The three men looked up as the boys approached. All of them seemed to be grinning, as though amused. But while the big man really looked somewhat as a mastiff might appear to a little terrier, his two companions had a sneer on their dark, evil faces that gave Thad more or less uneasiness.
He knew that while Step Hen was entitled to that fine buck, the chances were his claim would never be considered for a single minute. Might made right in the Maine woods, with men of this stamp.
"Hullo! younkers, lookin' arter yer deer, hey?" remarked the giant, as the boys boldly approached. "Wall, they hain't any, d'ye see? We got a fine leetle buck here as Si fetched down with his big bore cannon; only fur him the deer's been in ther next county afore now, eh, Si?" and the giant as he said this, turned on the man who wore the greasy suit of buckskin, and sported a coonskin cap, after the style of the old-time hunters, now so nearly extinct.
"That's right, Cale, he'd a ben agoin' like two-forty yet, on'y for the ounce of lead I throwed into him on the jump. I guess as haow that leetle pepper box jest tickled him a mite, an' made him feel frisky. Step right up, an' take a look at my buck, ef so be yeou wanter, strangers; I hain't begrudgin' yeou that much conserlation; but doan't yeou be sayin' yeou had any hand in knockin' him over, 'cause I don't stand fur any foolishness, see?"
He looked particularly ugly when saying this last, and Thad knew there was not the slightest shadow of a chance that they would get justice from these fellows. Seeing the sadly wounded deer plunging blindly toward them, Si had fired at the animal, and now they claimed to own the prize!
Well, there was no use trying to make a fuss over it; two boys could hardly expect to overawe three such hardened woods' rangers as these. Nevertheless, for his own satisfaction Thad accepted the rude invitation of Si Kedge to advance closer, so that he could stand over the deer.
Something caught his eye as he looked, and bending down he deftly took the object from the motionless body of the deer, just back of the shoulder, where a patch of blood appeared.
Thad held the object up so that all could see. Even Step Hen recognized it as the mushroomed bullet that had been fired from his rifle. The evidence was as positive and clear as noonday; for that bullet, after spreading out, had bored completely through the body of the buck, and was ready to drop from the other side when it caught the sharp eye of Thad. And that other wound in the neck must have been where the boasted large calibre bullet from Si's big gun had gone, producing only a superficial hurt that would not have seriously inconvenienced the sturdy buck.
"Oh! that's my bullet!" exclaimed Step Hen, hardly comprehending what a storm his words might bring about their ears; "and just as you said, Thad, I hit him in the side where his heart lies. That would have killed him in a short time, I just guess, don't you, Thad?"
But Thad did not make any answer. He was keeping his eyes on the three men, even while dropping the spread-out bullet into his pocket to show it to Eli and Jim and Allan when they returned to camp, as proof that the glory of killing the fine six-pronged buck really belonged to Step Hen.
The giant actually gave a little chuckle. Evidently he admired the nerve shown by this half-grown lad; for like most big men Cale Martin could on occasion, exhibit a sense of generosity toward those smaller than himself.
With just that brief chance to see what the three poachers looked like, Thad was able to size them up along different lines. He believed that Si and Ed were both shallow brained bullies, with revengeful natures; but that Cale Martin, while known as a desperate man, was really more so through his association with such rascals as these, than for any other cause. And Thad chanced to know just why he had doubly earned this reputation for ugliness during the last year or so; Jim Hasty's running away with his little girl, Lina, had been the last straw that broke the camel's back; since it had made Old Cale feel reckless, and as though he cared no longer for anything in this world.
"What d'ye think of that, Si," burst out the other fellow, who had not spoken, up to now; "the pesky critter is aclaimin' as how his friend sent that bullet through ther buck's ribs, w'en we all know 'twar from yer gun."
The shorter poacher gritted his teeth, and looked daggers at Thad. He even made a significant movement with his heavy rifle, which the boy saw was of the repeating pattern, and had the hammer raised at that moment.
"I doan't stand for any sech talk ez that," he declared, with savage energy; "an' ef ther cubs knows what is good fur 'em, they'll turn tail, an' mosey outen this here region some quick. Scat naow! an' be mighty keerful haow yeou start tew claimin' a deer agin, what another man shot. It's sumpin that ain't goin' ter be allowed up here in the woods. I gives yeou fair warnin' tew change base, an' clar out."
"Come on, Thad, let's move along!" exclaimed Step Hen, who was white in the face, and trembling more or less.
Of course, the patrol leader was far too smart to think of trying to defy that ugly lot. At the same time Thad showed no sign of fear as he turned and gave the bully of the woods one sneering look, as though plainly telling him what he thought. Indeed, it seemed to stir the ire of the man who claimed to have killed the deer, for with a snort, he started to throw up his gun, as if bent on threatening mischief, unless the boys ran in a hurry.
But it was the hand of the giant that grasped the gun, and turned it aside.
"Don't ye try it, Si," roared Old Cale. "We done enuff as 'tis, atakin' ther game away from 'em, without layin' a hand on ther hides. But ye'd better skip out, as Si sez, younkers. An' say, wile I think o' it, jest tell thet sneak, Jim Hasty, fur me, thet I'm agoin' ter keep my word 'bout them ears o' his'n. I'll larn him what it means ter defy Old Cale Martin."
For the life of him Thad could not help making some sort of reply to this.
"I'll carry your message, just as you say," he went on; "but let me tell you right here and now, you never made a bigger mistake in your life when you call Jim Hasty a sneak or a coward. Would a coward dare come up here, when he knew how you hated him, and had it in for him? I guess not much. Fact is, Jim's got a message for you; somebody's sent him up here! And he meant to hunt you up, and see you face to face. A coward! Well, I guess not."
And without giving the giant a chance to say another word Thad wheeled, striding away, with the nervous Step Hen at his side, casting many an anxious glance back over his shoulder, as though not quite convinced that the warlike Si might not think it best after all to shoot after them.
But ten minutes later, and the two boys were well away from the spot which had come very near looking upon a tragedy.
"How do you feel about it now?" asked Thad.
"What do you mean?" inquired the other. "I'm as sore as can be about losing my lovely six-pronged buck, and knocked over all by myself, too. Wouldn't I just like to give it to that low-down liar of a Si Kedge, though, for saying that was his bullet, when anybody could see that it came from my rifle? Why, he only pinked the deer in the neck, because I could see the mark. Oh! the thieves, the miserable skunks, to cheat me out of my prize! I'll never, never get over this, Thad!"
"Oh! yes you will, Step Hen," remarked the other, soothingly, for he felt that the bare-faced robbery had been a terrible shock to his companion. "But what I meant when I asked that, was, do you want to head toward camp now; have you had enough hunting for to-day?"
"Now, I know you're saying that, Thad, just to let me down easy," declared the other. "I acknowledge that I was beginning to get tired, up to the time I killed that deer; but it's all passed away now. The excitement did it for me; and I've got my second wind."
"Then you want to keep on hunting?" asked the scoutmaster, feeling that Step Hen was exhibiting considerable grit under the circumstances, and delighted to see this same brought out by the ill turn fortune had given him.
"Sure I do," instantly replied the other. "I'm just wild to get another chance to knock over a six-pronged buck; and now that I know the ropes, it's easy as falling off a log. Looks like this snow ain't agoing to amount to much, after all; and we've got pretty nearly half a day ahead of us yet. So let's keep on for a while. When I get a little tired, we'll stop to eat our snack of grub, when I can rest up, and be ready for another hour or two. But I'm afraid my luck has turned, and we won't sight another deer this blessed day; do you, Thad?"
"We'll hope to, at any rate," replied the other, as he started off again; "and it's that constant expectation of starting up game that makes hunting all it's cracked up to be. So come along, Step Hen; and if we fail to bring in our share of venison it won't be because we lay down too easy. Now for quiet again, remember, and keep a constant lookout ahead."
OVERTAKEN BY DARKNESS.
It must have been a long time after the noon hour when Step Hen did as he had promised, called a halt in order that they might eat their lunch, and take a rest.
As the cold was still with them, though the snow had thus far amounted to but little, Step Hen insisted on starting a small fire, at which they could sit, and be comfortable, while they devoured the food provided for the midday meal.
"You make a fire as quick as the next one, Step Hen," admitted Thad, really meaning what he said, and at the same time wishing to raise the drooping spirits of his hunting mate, who was feeling very sore over the loss of his game.
"Oh! I don't pretend to know much about starting a blaze in half a dozen styles, the way Giraffe's got it down pat," observed the other, smiling a little; "but if you pin me down to going at it the easiest way, with matches, and dead pine cones, why I'm there every time. And say, it does feel some handy, don't it, Thad?"
They sat there, and chatted for quite a long time after they had consumed the last morsel of food. And during that resting spell Step Hen picked up many a crumb of useful knowledge concerning the ways of the woods. Thad did not know all that Allan Hollister had learned through practical experience; but he had made the most of his opportunities when belonging to that other troop of scouts; and never forgot what he learned.
"Let's be agoin' on again," remarked Step Hen, finally, scrambling to his feet, and picking up his little rifle with a new eagerness.
"Feel like another spell of it, eh?" asked the patrol leader, following suit.
"That's what I do," replied the other. "Nothing like a rest, and a bite, when you're pretty near played out. I'm feeling fine and dandy again, and ready for several hours' hard tramping. But something just seems to tell me we'll never again have such a chance to get a six-pronged buck as that. And to think how it should a been just what the boys were telling me to knock over. I wonder now——"
"What?" asked Thad, as his chum came to a sudden stop.
"P'raps you'll say I'm silly if I tell you; but anyhow, here goes, Thad. It just struck me all of a sudden that we might go back to where we lost our deer, and do a little trailing on our own account. Them three fellers wouldn't bother trying to hide their tracks, and chances are they've gone into camp to eat some of that venison by this time, if not sooner."
Thad smiled; he could not help it, upon hearing Step Hen talk in this strain; for only too plainly did he remember how white the other had been, and how even his voice trembled when he spoke, while facing those three poachers.
"And after we've managed to track them to their camp, what then?" he demanded.
Step Hen looked wonderfully brave as he instantly replied:
"Why, we might catch 'em off their guard, and hold 'em up. That deer belongs to me, and I'd just like to have it the worst kind, especially that head, with the six-pronged antlers on it. But if you thought that proposition a little too risky, Thad, why we might conclude to wait around, keeping under cover, till it got plumb dark. Then we could carry off as much of the buck as we could tote, including the head; and them fellers not be any the wiser for it, till it was too late to follow us! How's that?"
Thad nearly had his breath taken away by the boldness of Step Hen's astonishing proposals. He looked at the other, and a smile spread completely across his face. Then he puckered up his lips, and gave a little whistle, that somehow caused Step Hen to turn a bit red in the face.
"Whew!" ejaculated Thad, "I never before suspected what a fire-eater you could be, Step Hen. Why, nothing fazes you, nowadays. I believe you'd be ready to snap your fingers in the faces of a dozen of the worst rascals that ever hid up here in the piney woods of Maine. But I'm afraid that's too risky a job for me to back up, as the leader of the patrol. I feel the burden of responsibility too much to allow it. What could I say to your father and mother if there was no Step Hen to answer to the roll-call, when we mustered out after this Maine hunt? So, on the whole, Step Hen, much as I hate to disappoint you, I'm afraid I'll have to put a damper on your scheme."
"Oh! all right, Thad," quickly remarked the other, with an evident vein of relief in his voice; "I was only telling you what came into my head. You see, that's the way with me; I'm always having these brilliant plans, though my own good sense won't let me try to carry them out. So we'll just continue our old hunt; and hope another buck may heave in sight. But if one does, please let fly the same time I shoot, Thad; because we hadn't ought to take any chances of his getting away. You will, won't you, Thad?"
"Why, yes, I think I'm entitled to a shot by now, Step Hen," replied the other; "seeing that I held back purposely, so as to let you have all the glory of getting that first prize. But as you say, we need venison; and the next time we'll shoot together so's to make sure."
"Good! Then let's be moving, Thad."
Since Step Hen was so set upon doing everything in their power to retrieve the misfortune that had come upon them earlier in the day, by means of which they had lost the first deer, Thad meant to try his level best in order to run across another like prize.
Whenever he saw a piece of ground that looked more than ordinarily promising he would head that way, regardless of distance or direction. Little Thad cared as to whether they were able to return to camp that night or not. He had spent too many nights in the open, not to feel certain that he could manage to be at least fairly comfortable. And then, too, Thad had the hunter's instinct pretty fully developed, and thought little of fatigue when pursuing his favorite sport.
They kept moving in this way until the afternoon began to be pretty well spent. Thad would not think of offering again to head toward the camp on the shore of the lake, so long as Step Hen made no complaint. He could not afford to be outdone by a tenderfoot, and he the patrol leader at that.
Indeed, the gray of evening had commenced to spread around them when, with no more warning than before, they came upon a second buck that had possibly been lying down in the bushes.
The deer sprang away like lightning, and perhaps it was just as well that Step Hen had asked his companion to shoot with him; for the flitting buck made rather a difficult target to hit in that poor light.
So close together did the two lads fire that the reports blended, though the louder bang of the smooth-bore partly drowned the sharper report of the little repeating rifle.
Thad started to run forward, holding his gun in readiness for a second discharge, if such were needed. Step Hen trailed along after him, working desperately with his pump-gun; and like most excitable greenhorns, trying every which way to work the simple mechanism but the right way, in his eagerness to get the weapon in serviceable condition again.
"Oh! did we get him, Thad?" he cried; for possibly the smoke of the double discharge had interfered with his vision, and he did not know whether the deer had dropped, or sped unharmed out of sight, even before the alert Thad could give him the contents of his second barrel.
"Looks like we'll have venison for supper to-night, anyway," laughed Thad.
And then, Step Hen, looking more closely ahead, saw a slight movement on the ground, which he realized must be the last expiring kick of their quarry.
His spirits arose at once, and he gave a wild whoop of joy.
"Bully! bully!" he exclaimed, as he still ran forward after his chum; "we did get him all right, didn't we, Thad? And I'd just like to see any woods' thief try to hook this deer away from us. Don't you let 'em do it, Thad, will you, even if we have to fight for it?"
"Don't worry," said Thad, as they came to a halt over the fallen buck; "we're not going to have any trouble—not from that source, anyway."
If Step Hen had been less excited he might have noticed that the words of his companion seemed to admit of their having trouble of another kind; but just then the tenderfoot was too much wrapped up in other things.
"Oh! that's too bad, Thad!" he remarked.
"What is?" asked the other; "both of us hit him, all right; for there's the place your bullet went in; and these smaller holes show where my buckshot struck."
"But look at his antlers, would you, Thad?" the other went on; "why, this is only a two-year-old, I sure reckon, because he's got only two prongs on his horns."
"Well so much the better for us, when we start to eat him," chuckled Thad; "because the meat'll be just that much more tender, you see."
"Then let's get busy, and cut him up, Thad," Step Hen went on. "Seems to me night's coming right along down on us; and the chances are we'll be awful late getting back to camp."
What Thad really thought he did not take the trouble to mention; but no doubt he had long before then made up his mind that they would never make camp that evening, for he felt that Step Hen must be nearly all in.
He did start to work, however, and with the other to assist in various ways, managed to get the deer cut up, after a fashion. The meat they expected to carry with them, together with the head, which Step Hen would not think of leaving behind, was made up into two packs, so that each of them might carry a fair portion.
By that time it was pitch dark. Indeed, Step Hen had to kindle another little fire of dry pine cones in order that the operation of getting the meat secured might be brought to a finish.
"Wow! just look how dark it is!" exclaimed Step Hen, when finally Thad announced that he was ready to go on, after getting his bearings, which he did easily by sighting the North star, the clouds having very conveniently disappeared, and all present danger of a heavy snowfall vanishing with their going.
Step Hen was rather slow and clumsy about getting his load fastened, and Thad had to assist him. He knew full well what was the matter. The other was really dead tired, and could hardly put one foot before the other without a great effort. He had been artificially kept up by the excitement until the game was secured, and now the reaction was setting in.
They had been slowly moving along for about ten minutes, when from a little distance away there broke out a strange sound that, heard under those peculiar conditions, struck Step Hen as more blood-curdling than he had ever thought it before, when sitting safely in a camp beside a cozy fire, and surrounded by comrades.
It was that same long-drawn howl of the Canada gray wolf; and as he listened to a second answering cry from another quarter, somehow Step Hen found himself shuddering.
BROUGHT TO BAY BY WOLVES.
"Ooh! how awfully queer them howls seem, Thad!" remarked Step Hen, presently, just as the patrol leader expected he would; for he had a pretty good idea as to what was just passing in the mind of the tenderfoot.
"Well, they do sound different somehow, from what they did when we were sitting around the cheery camp-fire, listening to stories told by the guides," Thad admitted. "But then, wolves as a rule are cowardly brutes. They may do a heap of howling, but they seldom show any bravery. Only when in packs are they feared by hunters, away up in the frozen-up parts of Canada, I'm told."
"But, say, don't you think there's a pack around here, right now?" demanded Step Hen, apprehensively.
"What makes you ask that?" the other questioned.
"Why, in the first place, old Eli told us they never came away down here unless in numbers; and then again, Thad, didn't you notice that when one gave tongue over yonder to the right, a second answered him back from the left; and by jinks! listen to that, would you, a third and a fourth, as sure as you live! Say, they're all around us, Thad; they've got us surrounded!"
"Let 'em surround, if it does 'em any good," laughed the other; and if he felt the slightest bit of uneasiness himself on account of those wolfish howls, Thad at least managed to conceal it; because he knew Step Hen was feeling "creepy" enough as it was, without having his alarm augmented by seeing his companion concerned.
"But don't you think they might be able to pull us down just by force of numbers, Thad?" the other went on.
"Oh! there can't be any such bunch of the cowardly brutes around, as all that, I guess, Step Hen. And don't forget, please, that we're armed with weapons calculated to knock the spots out of any gray sneak that ever tried to steal venison won by two husky hunters. Think how you have six bullets in that little gun of yours; and each one ought to count for a wolf, if it came to the worst."
"Oh! there's where I was a fool!" said Step Hen, in a disgusted tone.
"What's that?" demanded his chum, stopping short.
"Why, I never stuck a blessed cartridge in my pocket, you see. Thought the six I had in the magazine of the gun would be good and plenty for all the needs I'd run up against. Now I wish I had the whole hundred along. Just my luck. I'm always losing things, and if it ain't anything else, it must be chances. Think of a hundred dead wolves, and all killed with this great little gun while I sat perched up in the crotch of a nice tree! It makes me sick to think of it, that's what, Thad."
"Are you sure you did put six cartridges in the magazine before we left?" asked the other.
"Well, that's what I meant to do, and I reckon I did, all right; though Giraffe was joking me at the time, and he might have upset my calculations," Step Hen admitted.
"Well, then, suppose you drop your bundle of meat, and take a look," advised Thad. "If it gets to warm quarters it's just as well that you know how many wolves you can account for. Throw them out in one, two, three order, now."
So Step Hen began working the mechanism of his little gun. Not being excited, he was able to do this excellently. With the first cast a cartridge flew out of the rejecting opening; but when he tried to repeat, nothing happened. He looked at the gun blankly, and tried twice more; but with the same result.
"No use," remarked Thad, grimly; "nothing doing, it seems. When you thought you put six cartridges in the magazine, you stopped at three. And just such little mistakes have cost many a hunter his life before now, let me tell you, Step Hen."
"Oh! mercy, what do you mean, Thad?" asked the other, alarmed.
"Why, suppose now, several wolves were rushing at you with open mouths; and when you stood there, feeling able to take care of them all, your gun missed fire, not because it went back on you, but through your silly fault in not making sure it was fed to the limit when you started; things would look kind of gloomy just then, wouldn't they?"
"I'll never go out without being dead sure my magazine is plumb full; and a handful in my pocket besides, catch me again," said Step Hen, solemnly.
"That's a good resolution to make, and see to it that you remember it. But all the same, my boy, it isn't helping us any just now. You've got one bullet, and I advise you to hang on to that to the bitter end. Let me do most of the shooting, if it ever comes to it, which I hope it won't; because I've got a belt full of all sorts of shells, from buckshot to Number Sevens. Now, shall we go on again?"
"Sure," replied Step Hen, cheerfully.
But when he had managed to get his arms through the loops of his bundle, and began to heave it up on his back, he groaned audibly, so that Thad knew full well they would hardly make camp that night, at least not without several rests by the way.
"How far d'ye think it is, Thad?" asked Step Hen a few minutes later, as he dragged along behind the other.
"Well, I can't just tell," replied Thad. "It may be only three miles, and then again perhaps it would tally up twice that. We're going to strike the lake shore by keeping on as we are; but just how far away from camp, gets me. Like as not we can sight their fire, and give the boys a hail that will fetch a canoe for us."
"Whee! wish that blessed canoe was here right now," murmured poor Step Hen.
"You're pretty near at the end of your rope, ain't you?" asked Thad.
"That's right, I acknowledge the corn, Thad. I never was so dead tired in all my life. But I've still got the grit to keep along as far as I c'n put one foot in front of the other."
"Good for you; we'll try it a little further, and see," Thad went on.
He was chuckling to himself even while he spoke; for he knew full well that, although it pleased the tenderfoot to call it "grit," in truth it was fear of those lurking, howling wolves that was driving Step Hen to making these astonishing efforts. After all there is absolutely nothing like fear to make a laggard run like a Marathon sprinter. It has even effected cures in people supposed to be paralyzed, as Thad remembered reading not a great while before.
They continued on for some time longer; but from the increasing puffing and grunting that came from the region where Step Hen was staggering along, it was evident that he was about ready to give up.
"Thad!" he gasped, presently.
"Yes, what is it, Step Hen?"
"Here's a tree," remarked the other; "I mean one that's got limbs near the ground, and not like these other tall ghostly pines that I'd need a lineman's spurs to shin up."
Thad stopped for a minute.
"Well, if you can't walk on any further, Step Hen, say so, and I'll get up something that ought to keep the wolves away; but of course, if you're ready to call quits, why I suppose we'll have to climb up here, and squat like a couple of owls all night."
The prospect evidently did not please Step Hen any too well; besides, he still retained a shred of his former pride. So he bristled up as he made answer, saying:
"Why, of course I c'n go on for quite a distance yet, if you think there's any use of it, Thad. Now, what was you agoin' to do, you said?"
"Under this pine tree, you see, that's been badly used in some storm, there are a lot of branches lying. We can knock off a couple of the ones that look like they might burn pretty well, and use 'em for torches. Let's get busy and see if it'll work."
At any rate it gave Step Hen another chance to rest up, and get his breath. He still clung to that heavy deer's head with its antlers. Step Hen could be a most obstinate fellow when he chose; and having once made up his mind, it was like trying to move the rock of Gibraltar to change it.
After considerable effort, and the wasting of many matches, so as to get the pine cones and needles started into a blaze, on account of the night wind that kept blowing them out as fast as Step Hen lighted them, the torches were finally made an accomplished fact.
"Wave it around some more, and the wind is going to keep it going," advised Thad; "besides, the swinging motion will warn the wolves to keep away, if they don't want to get their old hides singed. Now, if you're feeling fit, we'll make another stab at getting over the ground."
Still Thad knew they would not go far before something else would happen; and he really expected that sooner or later they would have to do battle with the hungry four-footed denizens of the pine woods that had scented their fresh meat, and gave signs of meaning to possess some of it, no matter at what cost.
So Thad bent his mind on figuring out what they had better do if it came down to a halt. He knew that once they went into camp they could build several fires, so as to virtually surround themselves with a circle of flames, across which no wolf that ever lived would have the daring to jump. And consequently Thad did not feel so deeply concerned about how things would come out as his comrade did.
"Did you hear that and wasn't it a nasty snarl, though?" demanded Step Hen after possibly five minutes more had passed.
"Yes, I heard it, and I suppose the beasts are closing in now," Thad replied.
"Closing in! Oh! my gracious! Thad, we had ought to be finding a good tree like that Jim dandy one I wanted to climb, when you said no. These torches ain't agoin' to last much longer; and I don't believe the critters care about 'em anyway. Hadn't we better change the programme, Thad?"
"Well, one thing I object to," the other answered; "after going to all this trouble to get venison, and losing our first deer to those woods' pirates, I don't feel like letting these measly wolves share in this second lot."
"Them's my sentiments exactly, Thad; but tell me how we're agoin' to prevent 'em, won't you? If it comes right down to brass tacks we've just got to think of saving our own lives, first of all, and let the precious meat go. But then, if we found a tree, we might hang it up before climbing among the branches ourselves. Then, while they were jumping, and trying to snatch it down, we could be peppering the bunch like fun."
"Leave it to me, Step Hen; I've got a plan worth two of that; though we might as well stop under this tree to try out; and if it comes to the worst we can climb up. But I don't think it's going to be necessary. Throw down your bundle, now, and get busy. We're going to have a fire, two, three of 'em; and squatting in the middle of the string, we'll just cook us some of this tender young buck, and snap our fingers at Mr. Wolf. If he gets too brash, why, we'll give him a card with our compliments. Hurry up, and get a fire going, while I stand guard over you, Step Hen."
THE FIRE CIRCLE.
"That's me, all right, Thad; I'll have a spark going the quickest ever, if that old wind only holds up a bit. Here's aplenty of loose stuff, to begin with, that I can kick together. Wait till I stick my torch in this crotch of the tree. Just as well to have some light to work by," and as he kept up this running fire of talk, Step Hen was busying himself right swiftly.
For the moment he forgot all his aches and pains, and worked like a Trojan; indeed, no defender of ancient Troy ever had more urgent reason for getting things going than Step Hen thought he did just at that minute.
He used his feet and hands to gather the loose pine needles in a heap; and when he thought he had things fixed to suit him, the next business that engaged his attention was getting the pile to take fire. After that Step Hen said he would be "on Easy Street."
All this while the night wind had been moaning and whistling through the tops of the tall pines, making a mournful kind of music, calculated to add to the uneasiness caused by the savage howls of the hungry wolves from the north. But Step Hen had learned a lesson while lighting his torch, and knew that the wind came in gusts, with short intervals between. By waiting a few seconds after it had started to blow at quite a lively rate, he was able to find a lull; and making the most of his opportunity, he hastily struck his match, and applied it to the dry stuff he had made sure to keep underneath.
But after all he came very near spoiling it; for just at that very second there was a loud howl, so close at hand that Step Hen was impelled to look over his shoulder, under the impression that the wolf pack was even then about to overwhelm him while he bent down, almost defenseless, above the pile of dry stuff.
"It's all right; don't worry!" exclaimed Thad, who was standing guard, with his faithful Marlin gripped tight in his hands; and any wolf that attempted to try conclusions with that reliable little gun would surely regret his temerity.
The flame managed to catch before the wind could come back again to blow it out; and once the connection had been made, the draught only served to make the fire burn the better.
"There, that's done; and now what?" asked Step Hen, whirling around to pick up his own weapon, under the belief that he would feel easier in his mind if in a position to defend himself.
"We've got to extend the fire belt, and make several more like the one you've got going," replied Thad, laying his gun down, so that he might busy himself. "Here are plenty of branches, and all sorts of good burning stuff. If only Giraffe were with us now, wouldn't he be in his glory, though?"
"Well," said Step Hen, slowly; "he might; and again, perhaps Giraffe don't like wolves any better than I do. And he gets so rattled too, whenever he's nervous. I try to take things as cool as anything. What's the use getting excited, when it ain't agoin' to help a single bit. And I know you'll say the same, eh, Thad?"
"You never spoke truer words, Step Hen," replied the scoutmaster, gravely; and yet secretly he was shaking with laughter, because everybody knew that Step Hen was the worst offender in that line the patrol boasted; so that it seemed almost as "good as a circus," Thad afterwards declared, to hear him talk in this way.
They worked diligently, and soon managed to not only extend the fire so as to take in three more points, and thus completely surround the spot where they had dumped the packs of venison; but to secure quite a supply of fuel besides, with which to feed the flames from time to time.
"Now what?" again demanded Step Hen, when he saw that his companion meant to call a halt upon these proceedings.
"Supper is the next thing on the programme," observed Thad. "I feel just like enjoying some of that same venison. It will not only make us feel stronger, but considerably lighten our loads when we take a notion to go on again."
"Count me in on that deal; because, honest Injun now, I'm that empty my stomach feels like it wanted to shake hands with my backbone. Say, this must be a real hunter's feast, Thad. I never went through such an experience as this before. And just listen to the nerve of them rascals, ahowlin' themselves hoarse, just because we object to sharing our grub pile with 'em. D'ye suppose, now, we'll have to knock over a few of the pesky varmints, as old Eli calls 'em."
"I wouldn't be one bit surprised," replied Thad; and the other noticed that he did not move in the least without making sure that his gun was within reach; from which it was evident that Thad had no intention of being caught unprepared, should the hungry wolves make a sudden dash.
Of course Step Hen was next to totally ignorant as to how to cook meat without the frying-pan to which he had been accustomed. And he watched just how Thad did it, closely imitating him.
Taking a stout and fairly long sliver of wood, a small piece of the meat was secured to one end, after which the other point was thrust into the ground in such a position that the meat came pretty near a place where the embers burned red, and glowed invitingly. Presently the heat began to make the meat sizzle, and then it slowly cooked, turning a delightful brown color, and sending out odors that made the boys fairly shiver with eagerness to start eating.
When one piece was considered done, it was quickly eaten by a hungry hunter, and its place taken with a fresh supply.
So the good work went on. Both boys were ravenously hungry, and only small bits could be cooked this way at a time, so that it was pretty much a whole hour before they had fully satisfied their clamorous appetites. And although the meal had been eaten under the strangest conditions of any which he could remember, Step Hen was ready to declare he had enjoyed it immensely.
"But they're gettin' madder and madder all the while, just because we didn't send 'em an invite to our little feast!" declared Step Hen. "Just listen to the critters yawp, would you, Thad? They're buttin' in closer and closer, a foot at a time. And honest now, I reckon there must be all the way from half a dozen to ten thousand of 'em around us."
"That's a pretty good and safe range," laughed the patrol leader; "and I guess you've covered the ground, all right. There are surely half a dozen of 'em, and how many more I wouldn't like to say, because I don't know just how much noise one old wolf can kick up. But don't they sing sweetly, though? Shall we be generous, and throw them out the balance of the venison, to show them how we like their song?"
"Well, I should say, not any," returned Step Hen, after giving his companion a quick glance, as if to see whether he really meant it, or was only joking. "We had too much hard work getting our supply to throw it to the dogs. Let the lazy curs run along, and find some for themselves. Besides, it's too good to think of wasting it. I want the rest of the fellers to taste our venison. Mine went glimmering, and I hope it half choked that villainous crowd. Anyway you vowed it was a whole lot tougher than this haunch; and there's that comfort."
But it was evident that if the hungry animals around heard this decision they refused to pay any attention to it; for instead of decreasing, the howls actually became louder and more insistent, until finally Thad picked up his gun.
"I begin to see that we're going to have a little target practice after all, Step Hen," he remarked, quietly. "When things get so bad that you can see the skulking beasts creeping about your camp, and even catch the glitter of their yellow eyes, it's nearly time to begin to bowl a few of them over, so as to inform the rest that we've got a dead line marked around here."
"You don't say?" answered Step Hen, in an awed tone; "show me one, Thad, please. I'd just like to say I'd seen a wolf, really and truly, for once in my life, outside of a menagerie or a circus."
"All right, then," replied the other; "just follow the line of my finger, and I give you my word that skulking thing in the shadows is a real genuine, Canada wolf. I'm going to prove it to you in a minute or two, by taking a crack at him."
"Oh! now there's two of 'em, Thad, crossing each other's trail. And see there, if that ain't a third, and even a fourth. Why, I believe the woods are full of 'em!"
"You're about right," replied the patrol leader, more seriously than before, the alarmed Step Hen thought. "Here, let's throw a few blazing brands around, to scare 'em off some, while we lift the bundles up among the branches of this tree. Then, if anything should force us to take refuge there, at any rate we wouldn't have to listen to the plaguey things chewing at our grub."
This was accordingly done. When the burning bits of wood were hurled out toward them, the wolves temporarily retreated; but Thad knew full well they would soon crowd back, drawn by the scent of the fresh meat; and besides, he did not like to take the chances of setting the woods afire; just after he, and the balance of the Silver Fox Patrol, had accepted this new test of their abilities in the line of doing a good act as fire wardens.
The two packages of venison were easily hoisted into the tree, Step Hen readily climbing up himself in order to lift them still higher; so that by no possibility could a leaping wolf manage to get his teeth in either bundle.
Step Hen came down again a little unwillingly, Thad saw. It must have seemed good and safe up there, so far removed from the fangs of the encircling wolves; but after the fires had burned completely out, it would prove a pretty cold perch; and for one the young scoutmaster did not yearn to try it, unless every other resort failed them.
"Now watch what happens!" remarked Thad, as the other joined him again, gun in hand; "and remember, only shoot if you have to. I'll hold one barrel in reserve all the time. After I shoot you'll see me get a new shell in the chamber as quick as I can work it. Be ready, now; and watch sharp!"
No need to tell Step Hen that. He was already keyed up to top-notch condition by the excitement that caused his nerves to quiver, and his breath to come in gasps. And yet, if any one had accused the boy of being afraid, he would have at once indignantly denied the imputation. Perhaps he was holding himself sternly in hand; Thad hoped as much; but then some persons have a queer way of showing that they are cool and collected. Step Hen was one, for instance; but if all of us could realize just how we look to our neighbors, we might not feel quite so proud.
Thad had his gun ready for quick work. He only waited until he could glimpse one of those skulking, shadowy forms on the outside border of the light cast by the fire circle. Then he glanced along the barrels of his gun, though instinct enabled him to cover the target better than all this aiming; after which his finger pressed the trigger.
The boom of the gun was instantly succeeded by a series of alarming howls; and then Step Hen was heard shouting exultantly:
"You got him then, Thad! I saw him turn a back somersault. He's a dead one, all right, I tell you, whoop!"
STEP HEN HAS VISIONS OF A FUR COAT.
Thad was already hastily inserting a fresh shell in the left chamber of his little shotgun. He felt fully satisfied that he had done just what Step Hen so vociferously proclaimed, knocked over one of the skulking wolves; but there were more of the same breed around, and presently they would get over the temporary fright caused by the flash of fire, together with the heavy crash, when possibly they might show themselves bolder than ever.
And like a true Boy Scout, Thad Brewster believed in always being prepared. He had really taken that for his motto long before he thought of joining a troop of the scouts; so that much of what he agreed to do when signing the muster roll, lay directly in a line with his own ideas of what a wide-awake boy should be.
"They backed off after that hot reception, Thad," Step Hen went on. "Oh! I hope I'll get a chance to pop over just one of the sneaky beasts. I'd like to say I'd shot a real wolf. Think of me, Step Hen Bingham, who up to a year ago had never gone off camping or hunting, with a bear to my credit, a buck actually knocked over, even if it was stole away from me; and now, as the crowning event of all, I want to get a savage wolf, a real Canada wolf."
"Oh!" said Thad, laughingly; "I don't know that they're different from any other kind they have out on the plains; though perhaps they may be a little larger, and ready to attack a man quicker. But perhaps you'd better take the next good chance then, Step Hen."
"May I, Thad? That's kind of you. Suppose you give me pointers, then, and tell me just when to blaze away. I want to make a dead sure thing of it."
"Of the wolf, you mean, I guess," Thad went on, keeping a bright lookout while he talked. "Well, watch that place where I got my fellow, and I think you'll soon see something moving."
"You must mean the rest will be wanting to make a supper off the critter you killed; is that it, Thad? Are they such cannibals as all that?" asked Step Hen.
"Always said to be," the patrol leader returned, and then quickly added. "Keep on the lookout, and if you see anything moving, tell me. Above all don't waste ammunition by firing recklessly. We're not trying to scare 'em off by noise; every shot ought to count for a wolf."
They lapsed into silence for some little time, during which both boys used their eyes to the best advantage. Several times Step Hen's eagerness caused him to imagine he had caught a glimpse of a moving object; but upon calling the attention of his more experienced comrade to the spot, in every instance Thad had pronounced it a false alarm.
But in the end there came a time when Thad himself saw something move, and as he watched more closely he made positive that it was another wolf creeping up in the direction of the spot where his first victim probably lay.
"Are you all ready, Step Hen?" he asked, quietly.
"Just try me, that's all," came the whispered reply, as the other scout clutched his rifle nervously, and strained his eyes to see what had caught the attention of his chum.
"Then watch that spot where my game kicked the bucket; one of his mates is right now coming to drag the body away, to give it a wolf burial. See him, Step Hen?"
"Yes, yes, and be sure and tell me just when to let him have it, Thad," replied the other, beginning to cover the indistinct moving figure with his ready gun.
"Now, hold on for a bit," Thad cautioned. "I'm going to give the fire here a kick that will make it spring up. Then, when you can be sure you're getting a bead on the slinker, give him Hail Columbia. Watch out, now, old fellow. It's going to be your only chance to bag a genuine wolf from the Canada bush."
Just as Thad had said, the fire burned briskly after he had used the toe of his boot to give it new life; and sure enough, Step Hen could see the outlines of a long, dim figure that seemed to be hugging the ground. He could even catch the odd gleam of the wicked yellow eyes that were doubtless watching their every movement.
With the sharp report of his rifle there was another howl, this time of pain.
"Did I get him, Thad?" cried the marksman, eagerly.
"You hit him, that's certain, because I saw him flop over," replied the other; "and that yelp meant sudden pain, as sure as it stood for anything. But he managed to get off, though possibly he will fall within twenty feet."
"Oh! that's too bad, because his chums'll chew him all up, and I'll never have my nice wolf-skin to get a coat made out of for winter," exclaimed Step Hen; and then, as he was seized by a new thought, he went on: "But Thad, suppose I took a torch and went out there, d'ye think I'd be apt to find him lying on his back? I'd like the worst kind to get hold of him before the rest of the bunch muster up courage enough to come back."