"Well, since you haven't even a load in your gun, that would be too risky a game for you to play, Step Hen, and just for an old wolf-skin at that. Perhaps we've given 'em such a bad scare now that the rest of the pack may skip out, and leave us in peace. Then in the morning you'd find your chap, all right."
"Listen! there's something crashing through the bushes right back of us, Thad!" exclaimed Step Hen, a minute later, though his companion knew it before he spoke. "Sounds like an elephant might be coming down on us; but they don't have such animals up here in the Maine woods, do they? Just hear the racket he keeps making Thad; whatever do you suppose we're up against now?"
"That's a two-legged elephant, then, Step Hen," he remarked. "Fact is, we're going to have company, for that's a man pushing through the brush, and making all the noise he can, so as to scare the wolves away, and at the same time keep us from firing on him." Then raising his voice, Thad called out: "Hello, there!"
"Thet you, Thad?" came an answering call.
"Hurrah! it's Old Eli!" exclaimed Step Hen, readily recognizing the voice of the guide. "This way, Eli; we're having a healthy old time knocking over some of your Canada wolves. Each got one so far, but I reckon the rest of the pack must a lit out when they heard you coming. I see you now, Eli; and mighty glad you dropped in on us. Where did you spring from anyway; don't tell me we're as near the camp as that."
Eli came up, with a wide grin on his face.
"Oh! camp about mile and a half down lake," he remarked, as he gravely shook hands with each hunter in turn. "We saw light of fire over point, and think it might be you boys; so I paddled canoe across here. It ain't jest five minits walk 'cross this strip ter the lake. So ye got sum o' the critters, did ye?"
"Thad, can't we look up that one I shot now; I'd just hate to lose him, you know?" begged Step Hen.
"Why, I suppose it would be safe for all of us to go out," returned the patrol leader. "Here, pick up something that will burn, and come along."
They found Thad's victim without any trouble, but the second one was not within range of the light from their torches. But poor anxious Step Hen begged so piteously to be allowed to extend the search "just a little further," that Thad did not have the heart to say no. And a minute later, after they had gone forward twice as far as Thad had at first intended, Step Hen gave a gurgling cry.
"Looky there, Thad, what's that thing lying over yonder? Seems to me mighty like a dead one. Yes, sir, that's what it is, as sure as I'm Step Hen Bingham. Oh! how terrible he looks, even when stretched out there, and gone up the flue. My wolf, too. What a fine coat he's got, and as gray as they make 'em. Say, won't I just cut a swell when I wear that out in a sleigh with Sue Baker; and every time she rubs the sleeve she'll say: 'And just to think that you shot this savage old wolf all by yourself, Step Hen; oh! what a brave fellow you are!'"
It was a second dead wolf, sure enough. The little repeating rifle had, as usual, given a good account of itself, and the stricken beast had only been able to drag himself a little distance away, before giving up.
Both animals were dragged over to the fires, and then Eli set to work taking off the skins with a rapidity that told of long experience along the trapping line.
"No use aluggin' these critters over ter the canoe, and then ter camp," Eli had announced. "Ther two skins'll make a purty good coat, I guess naow. An' so ye gut a pack o' prime venison to tote home as well, hev ye? Thet's good. My mouth's jes' made up fur a steak; an' the boys'll feel tickled ter death when they sees yer."
Step Hen was a little nervous at leaving the fire zone, especially since Eli and Thad insisted on putting out every spark before departing, according to the law of the State; but then he managed to carry one torch, and with that to serve them, they took up their line of march.
It was not so very far to the edge of the lake. Thad laughed, and said the joke was on him; because, when they halted he really believed they were a couple of miles away from water. If he had known the shore was so near by he would have managed to coax the tired Step Hen to trudge on just a little further, so as to camp with the water covering one side, and bringing that much security; not to speak of the chances for signaling to the home camp by means of the code which he and Allan, as Boy Scouts, understood.
But it was all right now, and Step Hen felt quite merry over the chance of being taken comfortably to the camp by means of the canoe.
Eli did the paddling, and the two weary lads just snuggled down in the boat, feeling that they had had a great day of it, all told. The presence of the venison, as well as the wolf-skins, would be positive proof as to the reliability of their astonishing story; should there be any skeptic around. And then Thad had the wonderful mushroomed bullet that had killed that six-pronged buck; so that as they narrated the first adventure that had come their way, they could produce evidence to back up the story.
Their coming was greeted by more or less enthusiasm, although the boys had evidently been coached by Allan not to be too vociferous, as they were in a country where timid game abounded, and it was poor policy to frighten away the quarry they had come so far to secure.
Step Hen forgot all his weariness as he found himself being shaken by the hand again and again, while he and Thad told the tale of their day's outing. It was nice to play the hero part once in a while, and more than ever did Step Hen feel that life had become more worth living than ever, since he joined the Cranford troop of Boy Scouts. But for that he would never have discovered what splendid things there were to be met with in the great forests; and the spirit of the hunter and the fisherman, which had lain dormant in his nature, might never have been awakened.
And while the hour was rather late, all of the boys insisted on tasting a small piece of the deer meat brought in by the two successful Nimrods.
THE FOX FARMER.
"Say, this is the greatest venison I ever tasted!" declared Bumpus, after he had disposed of his share, and sighed to think that the rules of the game debarred him from having a second piece; because they had had a bumper supper only a few hours before.
"Just dandy!" added Giraffe, who was in the same class as his fat campmate, and would have been only too glad for an invitation to "cut, and come again."
"Oh!" exclaimed Step Hen, suddenly, "I reckon we've got to congratulate you, Giraffe."
"Me? Er, what d'ye mean, Step Hen?" replied the tall scout, at the same time beginning to look a trifle confused.
"Why, you know you told us we'd be surprised when we got back," the other went on to say, a little maliciously; "and I reckon you've gone and done it at last; and now you're ready to show us just how easy it works."
Bumpus could not refrain for the life of him from giving a sarcastic chuckle, which of course added to the evident embarrassment of Giraffe; who, however assumed a serious air upon making his reply.
"Well,—er—not exactly, Step Hen. I've got her figgered out all right, in my mind, so that in the morning I c'n go ahead, and work out the details. I calculate a short half hour ought to see me wind up in just a blaze of glory. But just yet it's a toss-up who the ice-cream's going to be on, Bumpus or me."
"Oh! I ain't worrying even a little mite," asserted the confident Bumpus.
"Well, you wait and see!" declared Giraffe, defiantly. "You don't all know what I've got up my sleeve. The feller that laughs last laughs loudest, they say. And I give you all fair warning that's going to be me."
Meanwhile Thad managed to get in close touch with Jim Hasty. When the others were joking, and having a merry time, he was wondering how the guide's little affair had been working out.
Many hours had passed since he had seen Jim, and he wondered whether the latter could have had any further communication from Old Cale, or even run across the father of his wife in the pine woods.
Jim was looking a little more serious than ever; but so far as Thad could discover there was nothing about him to indicate that he had been in violent collision with an enemy. And there were both his ears in their proper places; which fact might be taken as positive proof that the giant poacher had at least so far not attempted to carry out his terrible threat.
Jim seemed to know what was passing through the boy's mind; for he smiled faintly, and shook his head in the negative.
"Nothing new happened, then, Jim?" questioned the patrol leader.
"Naw. I hain't been far from camp the hull blessed day; an' consequently never had no chanct tew run up against Pa Martin," replied the other. "But I'm more sot than ever tew see him face tew face, afore I quits this here region. It's jest gut tew be done, else I wudn't hev ther nerve tew face Little Lina agin. She made me promise; an' by thunder! nawthin' hain't agoin' tew skeer me off. If he doan't hunt me out, by ding! I'll take a turn at hit, an' find Cale Martin myself, ef so be I gotter tramp all the way tew his shack, wich I knows on'y tew well."
"Good for you, Jim!" said Thad, admiringly; "but I suppose you understand what risk you're taking in trying that game? From all I've heard about Cale Martin, he's surely a terror; and then the threat he made about your ears would be enough to scare most men away."
Jim drew a long breath as he answered this.
"Lot's o' people doan't know Ole Cale like I does. He hain't so black nor they jes' paints him. Them game wardens is afeerd o' him, and they piles all kinds o' things on his shoulders thet he hain't no business to kerry."
"Yes, I've heard before about giving a dog a bad name, and then he has to bear the sins of the whole neighborhood," remarked Thad. "There is never a sheep killed but that Dog Tray is the guilty one. And so you think Cale isn't altogether so bad as we've heard?"
"He's a big man, and he's gut an' orful temper; but it's them tew critters he goes with thet's the wust cases. They jest draw him inter slick games, Cale, he'd never think o' tryin', left by hisself. But we heerd as haow he's struck a new thing, if so be he on'y knows enuff ter keep it agoin', an' shakes them other fellers. An' if anybody kin make a success o' fox raisin', I jest guess Cale is ther man, 'cause he knows all erbout the slick little varmints from A ter Z."
"Fox raising?" exclaimed Thad, at once deeply interested. "Tell me about that, Jim. Seems like it ought to be worth while listening to."
"Why," said Jim, apparently only too well pleased to say something in favor of the big and reckless parent of his little wife; "yer see, thar's a company as hes been formed away daown in Bosting, tew raise foxes o' all kinds, jest tew git the pelts. I s'pose yew knows as haow them skins air agittin' more valerable every blessed year. More people tew wear furs, an' less animals tew give 'em. Why, thar was twelve hundred dollars paid fur a black fox pelt jest last Spring; an' I seen the check with my own eyes."
"Yes," Thad went on, deeply interested. "I've understood that tremendous prices were being paid out for that scarce skin; but is Cale meaning to try and raise black or silver foxes for the market? I was told by several people that they considered the silver fox only a freak, and that they would never breed true to species. How about that, Jim?"
"I've allers hed an ijee thet way myself," returned the short guide, scratching his head in a reflective manner; "but Cale, he thinks the other way; an' Cale, he sure knows more about foxes in a day than I wud in a year. Wall, we done heard as haow he hed made a contrack with this company fur a number o' years, tew act as manager o' ther farm. It's in another part o' ther State; an' when Cale, he leaves here arter a leetle while, he never 'spects tew come back again. Wouldn't be surprised naow if he hed a few foxes over tew ther old shack as he means tew kerry away with him when he quits up here."
"But do you suppose he'll stick to those two tough characters, and keep them with him in his new job? Won' they queer his game with the company, Jim?"
"Wall, I doan't know, of course, what his plans be, but Cale, he's a great feller tew keep his word; an' if so be he's told this company as he'll run things straight jest believe me they ain't agoin' tew be no place for them two poachers around his fox farm. He'd run 'em off with his gun mighty quick. Yes, Cale keeps his word; an' thet's what makes me a leetle bit shy 'bout bein' able tew convince him tew leave my ears whar they belongs. But Lina, bless her, sez as haow he jest cain't hold aout, when he hears what I gotter tell him; an' Lina, she orter know."
Thad admired the man more than ever. Just because of his faith in Lina, here was Jim ready to put his head in the lion's mouth, so to speak. Thad suspected that he might be carrying some very important intelligence to the bearded giant of the pine woods; but whatever it was, Jim did not take the trouble to enlighten him; and Thad did not really think he had any business to ask.
After that Jim seemed to lapse into silence, and seeing that he did not appear anxious to continue the talk along lines that concerned his personal matters, the scoutmaster turned to the others again.
The hour was now getting rather late, and while those who had remained in camp during much of the day might not be unusually tired, Step Hen gave signs of falling asleep by the fire. Several times his head gave a lurch to one side, so that presently Giraffe caught him roughly by the arm.
"See here, d'ye want to take a header square into the blaze, Step Hen?" he demanded, as the other opened his eyes, and looked sleepily at him. "I like fires as well as anybody, but excuse me from getting roasted in one. Don't you think he ought to be sent to bed, Mr. Scoutmaster? He's so logy right now, that the chances are ten to one he'll climb in, and wrap the blanket around his head instead of his feet. Seems like you'll have to appoint a dry-nurse to look after the poor baby, or else he may freeze to death in the night."
But Step Hen did not wait for any permission to retire. He just crept away, and vanished under the folds of the second tent, which he shared with Thad and Davy Jones.
Indeed, the others were that sleepy they declared they would not be long in following his example. Thad himself was the first to get up and stretch.
"It's late, fellows, and we ought to be turning in, if we want to be good for anything to-morrow. And remember, that if this sort of thing keeps up, we're going to change the programme, and let every scout have a share in keeping sentry duty, working in couples. It doesn't seem exactly fair that when Eli and Jim have to work all day with the paddles, or in any other way, they ought to spend half the night standing guard. Hello! there's Eli right now, coming in on the trot, as if he had some news for us. What's up, Eli?"
The old guide had been down to the shore of the lake to take a look at the canoes; and he was plainly bringing some sort of news, if they could judge from his hasty steps; and the look of concern on his dark face.
"Canoe comin' along daown yonder; mout be Cale's agoin' ter pay us a visit," he remarked; and his words aroused the sleepy boys as thoroughly as though they had been ducked with a bucket of ice-water.
They all hastened to step off toward the shore. Bumpus even picked up his gun, possibly under the belief that there might be a speck of war on the horizon. Jim looked a trifle uneasy, but there was a grimness in the way he shut his jaws together that told of his set purpose to face the music somehow or other, before leaving this country of the Eagle Lakes.
"There it comes!" announced Giraffe, in a half whisper, as he pointed to the left.
They could soon all make out the dim, shadowy canoe that was stealing along, some little distance from the shore, and evidently bent on passing the camp.
"I kin jest make out two fellers in her," said Eli, who had sharp eyes.
"I reckon one of them must be Old Cale, then; he seems to be shadin' his eyes with his hand, alookin' toward our fire, and us astandin' here," Giraffe went on to say, though no one could be really positive, because the light was so poor.
The canoe passed by in this spectral fashion. There was no hail from those who sat in the boat, one using the paddle with the usual dexterity of a Maine guide; and of course none of the scouts thought of calling out, knowing who and what the voyagers were.
"I suppose that was Old Cale in the bow?" remarked Thad, after the canoe had faded away.
"An' he was alookin' fur me, I kinder guess," said Jim, mournfully; at the same time, as if mechanically raising a hand to feel of his ears.
A STARTLING AWAKENING.
It was about four o'clock on the following afternoon when the three canoes containing the boys of the Silver Fox Patrol, accompanied by their two guides, drew up once more on the lake shore, and preparations for going into camp were hastily commenced, since night would soon be upon them.
Jim had selected this site for their last camp on this lake. When they left it, they intended going through the rest of the chain, and then seeking the railroad, with the idea of starting homeward again.
And Thad wondered whether, in picking out this camp, Jim might not have had an eye to his own affairs. Perhaps it was not many miles away from the shack of Cale Martin, the man who had been logger, trapper, guide, and was now about to turn his superior knowledge concerning foxes into a profitable channel, and raise them for their valuable furs.
Thad hoped that for the sake of Jim's peace of mind he might carry out his plan before they broke camp here. And secretly he was determined that, should the guide decide to take a chance at finding Old Cale at home, he would not be averse to accompanying Jim across country to the place where Little Lina used to live, before she ran away with Jim.
Despite his positive conviction that he was really on the eve of succeeding with his fire-making, by the aid of his little bow, and the twirling stick, Giraffe had failed to accomplish what he expected that morning. Why, he hardly ate any breakfast, so engrossed had he been in his "fiddling" as Bumpus contemptuously called it, whenever he saw the tall scout working that clumsy little bow. But as usual, some little thing went wrong that spoiled the whole combination; and of course fire did not reward the hard labor Giraffe put in.
He looked so bitterly disappointed that even Bumpus did not have the heart to taunt him; though as a rule the fat boy could be depended on to do his share of such.
But then, it had been arranged that Giraffe and Bumpus were to go out on a hunt on the following day, all by themselves, and without even a guide along. Giraffe had boasted so often now, that he felt himself fully competent to look after himself when adrift in the woods, that Thad thought it might be a good thing to give him the chance. And there was Bumpus, eager to make use of his new gun; nothing would please him better than to accompany the tall scout.
Of course neither Thad, nor any one else for that matter, ever suspected that they would bag any game, unless it might be a few half-tame partridges, that would sit on a limb, and wait to be knocked over. Indeed, Thad was of the opinion that in the end the two bold Nimrods might even get lost, and have to be searched for.
But then, they would unquestionably leave a plain trail that the guides could pick up without great trouble; and the experience would be worth much to both Giraffe and Bumpus. They were really getting too "scrappy" in their dealings with each other; and a little spice, such as must accompany losing themselves in the woods, and being dependent on each other entirely, might draw them together, Thad thought, and make them appreciate each other more.
As they sat around the blaze that night, after they had partaken of a generous supper, Thad purposely led the conversation to the subject of fires in the woods. Allan had told of some experiences he met with some years back, and of course both guides were able to supplement this with stirring yarns that thrilled the blood of the young listeners.
"And I reckon, now, Eli?" Thad went on, after the guide had finished what he had to tell; "that you never saw the pine woods in better condition for a fire than they are right now?"
"Thet air a fact," replied the other, emphatically. "Dry as tinder, an' ef we doan't git sum snow mighty soon, I guess as haow ther'll be thousands o' acres o' vallerable land burned over afore Thanksgivin' time."
"Yeou must a seen sum lands thet hed be'n burned, on ther way up on ther train," interjected Jim, breaking his long silence; "an' yeou kin understan' jest how lonesum they 'pears like, with ther tall pines astandin' thar like flagpoles, black, and withaout ary limb; er else alayin' in windrows on ther ground. Allers makes me feel bad tew see sech things."
"And the game deserts a burned tract, too," declared Allan.
"It sure dew," Jim went on, with a shake of the head. "Yew never seen a more desolate region than sech a burned territory. Everybody moves aout quick as they can; fact is, most on 'em hes gut ther houses burned, an' doan't hev ter kerry much away with 'em. I hopes as haow it'll snow er rain right soon, so's tew save miles an' miles o' woodland."
"And the fire wardens have their work cut out for them at this season of the year, you can easily believe," observed Allan.
"Wonder now if we'll see a real genuine forest fire while we're up here," remarked Giraffe, with considerable interest. "My! but she must look great to see them pines aflamin' up like big torches. Now, you needn't give me that look, Thad, because I haven't forgot my promise, an' I ain't acarryin' a single match along with me day after day. But if somebody else sets fire to the woods, I have as good a right to look as the next one, ain't I?"
"Of course you have, Giraffe," replied the scoutmaster, relieved, because this overpowering passion on the part of the tall boy had given him many anxious minutes since coming into Maine.
"Lots of these fires come after the loggers have done their work," Allan volunteered. "You see, they leave a tremendous amount of stuff behind; all the limbs and branches of the trees they have cut down, as they are only after the main stem; so when this gets nice and dry, after a year or so, and a fire starts, with a brisk wind to whip it, what follows is more than I can describe. I saw one such fire, and we only escaped with our lives by the quick wit of a logger along with the party."
"What did you do, Allan?" asked Bumpus, eagerly. "You know, I'm goin' out with Giraffe to-morrow, and if we did meet up with a forest on fire, I couldn't run like he can, with his long legs; so I'd like to know another way to give the old fire the go-by. Please explain how you cheated it. Why, Allan, it might save my life too, for all you know."
"Glad to hear that you're interested, Bumpus," answered the other readily. "And I think every one of you ought to know about it. When you're out hunting, try and keep the location of any stream you happen to pass, in your mind. Then in case of being beset by fire, make your way there, and get in, up to your neck. You're going to be safe there, every time. If it gets hot, duck under, and cool off. I'll sure never forget the time I had; but then I hope none of you will ever have to hunt for a stream, or that you'll even see a forest fire when up here, no matter how much Giraffe wants to look on one."
Giraffe had dropped out of the circle, and apparently some idea had just flashed into his mind connected with his pursuit of that slippery contract, whereby he expected sooner or later to make fire come, after the fashion of the far away islanders of the Pacific.
No one paid much attention, for they were heartily sick of seeing him sawing away with his little bow, wasting so much time, most of them thought; though Thad for his part was secretly pleased to see that the tall scout stuck at his apparently hopeless job; with a persistence that must win out in the end.
Thad had been explaining just what the new system of standing sentry was to be. Each of the scouts would have his turn, even Bumpus being called on, though his partner was to be old Eli. There being eight of them, their fixed posts would not run much over an hour and a half each; and it was to be expected that the boys might receive more or less benefit from having to assume some of the responsibility of the camp's security.
Bumpus had been yawning for some time; and presently, taking advantage of a lull in the conversation the fat boy clumsily gained his feet, and made a lunge for the nearest tent, in which he was supposed to sleep.
No one was really surprised to see Bumpus trip, and go floundering to the earth, for he frequently got his legs twisted, and did that; but when there was a shout of consternation, and the tall form of Giraffe bounded erect they realized that Bumpus had actually fallen over his chum, not noticing him, because his eyes were so heavy with sleep.
"Oh! Giraffe, excuse me, please!" he remarked, as he rolled over, and sat up. "I give you my word I didn't know you were there. I was rubbing my eyes, because they felt so hot and tired, lookin' into the fire so long. Hope I didn't hurt you any?"
"Hurt me," grumbled Giraffe; "I wouldn't care for that so much, even if you'd broken a rib or two in my side; but to think that you'd upset me just when I was agoin' to make it burst out into a nice little flame! Why, she was smokin' to beat the band when you knocked it all into a cocked hat by bustin' my bow; an' now I'll have to sit up another hour makin' a new one. It's always the way. I'm havin' the toughest luck ever was, about that business; but I can hang on, like a bulldog to the seat of your trousers when you're gettin' over the fence. I'm game, all right. I'm agoin' to get that, if it takes a leg."
But his bow, he found, could be easily repaired, as it was only the cord that had been broken. And half an hour later everybody in camp was sound asleep, saving Thad and Allan, who had taken the first watch, so as to sit there, and talk in whispers; for the patrol leader wanted to tell his chum all about Jim's case, because he felt so great an admiration for the short guide.
When their turn had expired, according to the little nickel watch Thad carried, they woke up Eli, who, with Bumpus was to take the next spell; in turn they were expected to arouse Step Hen and Davy Jones, to be followed by Jim and Giraffe; and this would finish the night, as daylight must arrive while the last named were on duty.
Thad was a good sleeper, although as a rule the slightest thing of an unusual nature aroused him. He believed that the camp would be well watched, and when he lay down did not allow himself to get to thinking of anything to the contrary, for fear that if his brain once got to working, he might lie awake for a long time.
He had a dim recollection of the two boys who occupied the tent with him, Step Hen and Davy, creeping out, when Eli summoned them. Then came an uncertain length of time, which Thad could never measure; for he was sound asleep when it seemed to him some one was shouting something in his dreams. He sat up, and bumped his head on some object that had fallen out of place; but he was now fully awake, and felt a thrill when he heard real shouts outside, in the voices of Step Hen and Davy Jones:
"Hey, everybody get busy here! The whole camp's on fire, and the wind driving it into the woods like hot-cakes! Hurry up! Hurry up, everybody!"
FIGHTING THE FLAMES.
Out of the tent crawled Thad, utterly regardless of the fact that he was not altogether warmly clad for a cold night. And what met his eyes when he reached the open was enough to excite him still further.
The wind was blowing pretty stiffly, and the fire had already jumped into the brush surrounding the camp. If given its head for even a short time it seemed bound to get started in the dead pine needles; and once it spread there, all the desperate efforts of a dozen fire-fighters would be wasted.
Several figures could be seen, bounding here and there, and slashing at the red flames with anything they could get hold of that would answer to bring about a halt in their spread.
Of course these must be the late guardians of the sleeping camp, who were now shouting so strenuously, and begging the rest of the campers to come to their aid—Step Hen and Davy Jones; besides, there were the guides, hard at work, having been aroused with the first cries; for they still persisted in sleeping under a rude shelter they had made out of branches and weeds.
Thad rushed into the fray, and began to do his very utmost to keep the dreaded fire in check. He saw that the others were also crawling forth, Bumpus, Giraffe and Allan, all occupants of the first tent. And realizing the importance of concerted action, they lost not a second in getting busy.
Bumpus, in particular, was a sight to behold, and had he been less busy Thad felt that he must have doubled up with laughter to see him. He persisted in donning a most stunning red-checked suit of pajamas; for being so stout he did not suffer from the cold as much as some of the others. And as his simple heart was wrapped up in the business that just then engaged his full attention, Bumpus was prancing around, looking more like a clown from the circus than anything Thad could think of. But all the same the fat boy fought, tooth and nail, at the spreading fire. He had on his shoes, as had the others, so that he could jump on the creeping flames when all else failed; and using an extra piece of canvas that sometimes had done duty as a tent floor, Bumpus sailed into the fray like a hurricane.
Indeed, they were all as busy as beavers for a short time. Every scout seemed to feel that it would be a lasting disgrace on the name of the Silver Fox Patrol if that fire got away into the woods. They had assumed the responsibilities of assistant fire wardens; and it would be a sorry joke indeed if, instead of putting out a conflagration they themselves were the cause of one that swept the whole adjacent territory.
"Give it thunder!" shouted Giraffe, as he threshed wildly at every head of fire he could see near his boundary of action.
"Hit him again, boys!" shrilled Bumpus, as he continued to do his great act of working with both hands and feet at the same time, all serving to quench the threatening flames.
But Step Hen and Davy were strangely silent, though they worked as hard as any one. They knew that they were to blame for all the trouble; for they had slept on their post, and with this sad result.
Finally success came to the hard working scouts, and their allies, the two guides. The fire was completely routed, bag and baggage, before it managed to get a good foothold in the dry woods. And perspiring as though it were the good old summer time, the boys hastened to get more clothes on them, for fear of catching cold.
The fire was resurrected, and they sat down to have a powwow.
"Oh! you needn't all look at us that way," grunted Step Hen. "We're guilty, all right. Knock us all you want to, because I just guess now we deserve it. But we never meant to go to sleep there by the fire, did we, Davy?"
"Well, I should say not," replied the other culprit, looking quite dejected. "We kept atellin' each other that we mustn't sleep right along; and then to think that after all we did drop off, and both together."
"First thing I remember," said Step Hen, as if resolved, after pleading guilty, to open up, and throw himself on the mercy of the court; "I heard a queer crackling noise, and openin' my eyes, my stars! the whole world seemed like it was afire. I gave Davy a punch in the side, and then jumped for it. We thought at first we could get her under control; then I saw it was no go, for the old fire kept extendin' all the while. So I started to wake you all, and Davy, he joined in. After that Eli and Jim joined us, and then the rest of you came. And believe me, fellers, Davy and me'll never forget it. You did handsome by us, and we've been saved from disgrace that would have sent us into an early grave, hey, Davy?"
"Just so," grunted the other, who was licking several burns he had received on his bare hands during the fierce little engagement just ended, though he made no complaint, seeming to think he had gotten off pretty easily, considering the serious offense of which he had been guilty, that of sleeping on his post, and which might have cost him his life in war times, had he been a soldier.
Thad noticed this fact, and quietly getting out some salve he carried for just such occasions forced Davy to let him attend to his hurts, though the other insisted that they "did not amount to much, anyway."
"How do you think it started?" Giraffe asked, and in so doing he really voiced the thoughts of everybody.
"Huh! I reckon that's an easy one to answer," replied Step Hen, promptly. "Anybody c'n see at just a single look that the wind must have picked up a live coal from the fire, and carried it into a bunch of stuff to leeward. After that it was fanned, till it spread wider and wider. That was going on while Davy and me snoozed away like a pair of sillies. No use talking, boys, I'm ashamed of myself; and let me tell you, it'll be a long time before I ever go to sleep on duty again—not if I have to keep jabbing a pin into my leg every minute or so, to make me jump."
"Does that explanation go, Thad?" asked Bumpus, still breathing hard after his recent violent exertions.
"Well, it looks that way, for the fire was actually to leeward of the camp when I first saw it," answered the patrol leader; but there must have been something in his manner rather than his speech that caught the attention of Giraffe.
"But you ain't quite satisfied, are you, Thad?" he remarked, pointedly. "You just keep athinkin' that perhaps it wasn't an accident after all? Am I right, now?"
"Wow! what does that kind of talk stand for?" burst out Bumpus. "Are you hinting that it was all a part of a dark scheme to burn us out of camp?"
"Wait till Eli and Jim come back," Thad went on. "You've noticed that they're not with us right now. Fact is, they took the lantern, and went off about the time we were finishing our dressing. But before they went, Jim gave me to understand what they had some reason to suspect."
"The work of big Cale Martin and his crowd? Is that what you're aiming to tell us, Thad?" demanded Giraffe.
"Here they come!" was all Thad said.
"Oh! my, I thought you meant the game poachers!" exclaimed Bumpus, who had made a half movement in the direction of his gun, standing conveniently near.
The two guides joined the circle around the fire. Eli held his hands out to the blaze, as though they felt cold in that nipping night air. Jim simply caught the inquiring eye of the scoutmaster, and immediately nodded his head in the affirmative. And Thad knew from that they had surely made some sort of important discovery.
"What is it, Jim?" he asked.
"They've been around here; we found ther tracks lots o' places," came the reply.
"Do you mean Cale and Si and Ed?" asked the other.
"On'y Si and Ed," answered Jim. "Cale he wa'n't thar 'tall. We'd sized up his big tracks ef he'd be'n. They was two men in thet canoe larst night, ye seen; wall them must a be'n ther lot as fired the brush. I guess as haow Cale, he muster gone back tew his shack by naow."
"But what on earth could they expect to get by burning us out?" demanded Bumpus.
"Fust place they never oxpected tew burn ther camp," observed Jim; "ef they hed, doan't yew believe they'd agone tew windward tew start thet blaze? Wall, they hed a game wuth tew o' thet up ther sleeve."
"Tell us what it was, Jim," urged Thad, though he himself had already jumped to a conclusion in the matter.
"I guess as haow they thort we'd hev tew make off a long distance away frum the camp tew fight the fire; an' then they'd hev plenty o' time tew clean her aout; but yeou see, we didn't get fur away 'tall, so they hed all ther work fur nawthin'. But them tracks was as plain as anything, wa'n't they, Eli?" Jim went on.
"They be," was the conclusive testimony of the older guide; and every one of the scouts understood that Eli had set the seal of his approval on all that Jim had said.
It was certainly very unpleasant to realize that they were objects of desire on the part of even a pair of unscrupulous scamps, granting that big Cale Martin had retired from the combination. The boys seemed to get more indignant the longer they discussed the situation.
There was Bumpus, usually so mild and peaceful, fairly palpitating with a desire to draw a bead upon those two unprincipled rascals.
"We don't stand for much nonsense from outsiders, do we fellers?" he appealed to the other five. "Once before on this trip some bad men thought to get fresh with the Silver Fox Patrol. You all know what happened to Charley Barnes, the leader of that bunch of yeggs that broke into the bank. Didn't we make the capture though, and astonish Sheriff Green? And ain't we going to get ever so much money for recovering the stolen stuff? Well, that's what's going to happen to those husky chaps if they get too gay with us. They'd better go slow. If they can read, they'll see we're marked 'dangerous, handle with care!'"
"Yes," said Giraffe, "we'll just have to get busy, and hand these sillies over to the head game warden. They're trying to interfere with our having the time of our lives up here in Maine; and we don't stand for anything like that."
None of them felt like getting back to their blankets in a hurry, after all that scare; so they just sat there around the fire, some of them with the blankets thrown over their shoulders, and compared notes all along the line; for what the guides had just told concerning the scheme of the unprincipled poachers filled the scouts with both indignation and anger.
And more than one of them resolved that when his time came to watch, he would make sure to keep a loaded gun close to his hand, to be used to give the prowlers the fright of their lives.
WHEN EVEN A COMPASS FAILED THEM.
"What would you do, Bumpus," said Step Hen, after a while, "if you couldn't find a creek to wade in, with the fire all around you?"
"Well, d'ye know, I was just athinkin' about that same thing," replied the fat scout, who had thrown a blanket around him, and not bothered dressing; and as he sat there on a log he looked somewhat like a lazy Indian.
"I hope you came to some conclusion," observed Giraffe; "because, if we happen to run across a conflagration to-morrow, when we're out hunting, it'll be some comfort to me to know, when I'm spinning along, that you're snug and safe behind, and not being devoured by the flames."
"Well, the only thing I could think of," Bumpus went on, soberly; "seeing that a feller can't sprout wings right away when he needs the same; nor hatch up an aeroplane to carry him out of the danger zone—the only thing for me to do would be to hunt around for a woodchuck's hole, and push in, feet first."
There was a laugh at that remark, which seemed to surprise Bumpus, for he looked with elevated eyebrows at each of the others in turn.
"You seem to think I'm joking," he remarked, as if offended by the levity.
"Well," continued Giraffe, "in the first place you'd possibly find a heap of trouble discovering a woodchuck's hole in these Maine woods, especially when you were in a big hurry; and then again, fancy the kind of woodchuck that had a hole of a size to accommodate you, Bumpus Hawtree!"
The fat boy sighed.
"That's what I get all along the line," he declared. "There ain't no place in all this world for a feller that's nearly as round as he is tall. I tell you I'm goin' to find some way of getting rid of all this superabundance of flesh, if I have to walk it off by taking tremendous tramps. Some people tell me it c'n be done by going hungry a week or two at a time; but what's the use of living if you can't eat, that's what? So I'm in a peck of trouble. Won't somebody tell me what to do?"
Of course, with such an open invitation, they hastened to accomodate him; and if poor Bumpus tried even a part of the numerous joking plans offered for his consideration, he would soon have no need for either food or energy, since they would, as he declared, be "putting his wooden overcoat on him."
Finally, however, the boys began to slip back once more into the tents, all but Giraffe, who was to finish the night with Jim; although there was hardly another hour now before daylight.
"Just suits me, boys!" declared the tall scout, as he prepared to sit out his turn as sentry; "you see, I can be thinking over that knotty problem I've just got to figure out before we leave this part of the country. And I've an idea that I'm getting mighty warm on that proposition now. Would sure had it dead to rights, only for clumsy Bumpus tumbling over me."
But no one paid much attention to what Giraffe was saying; they had by now grown so accustomed to hearing him always promising great things by "to-morrow" that it "went in one ear, and came out of the other," Davy Jones said.
When the morning came, the camp became a scene of activity. While some of the party were busily engaged cooking a good breakfast—and it needed a lot to satisfy the healthy appetites of six growing boys, not to mention two husky guides,—others were examining the tracks that had been found after the fire.
And it was the universal opinion that two prowlers had indeed started the fire with the idea that the inmates of the camp, rushing out to fight its spread, might get so far away that it would leave the way open for the thieves to make a sweep of any valuables left unguarded in that exciting hour.
Bumpus and Giraffe were making all their preparations looking to their "sallying forth," as the latter termed it, "like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of old, determined to do wonderful things." Thad saw that they felt as if they knew it all; and he realized that in such a case advice was not desired, so he said nothing about what they ought to take. If they forgot anything, they must do without, and next time think again.
Presently the two waved their hands merrily to their chums, and started forth. Bumpus looked like a well-laden, led animal as he trotted along at the heels of the tall scout, who was to do the piloting of the expedition.
"Don't keep supper for us if we're late," airily called back Bumpus. "We may get further away than we can manage in one day, and have to camp alone, like Thad and Step Hen did. And if some of them old wolves pay us a visit, they'll wish they hadn't. Giraffe is toting his old heavy weight rifle; and here I am with my new double-barreled gun, and fifty shells. Ketch me gettin' caught like Step Hen did, with a few charges for my trusty weapon. Good-bye, fellers! See you later!"
"Good-bye, and good luck!" called out Davy Jones, waving his cap three times to represent his idea as to the right kind of a send-off.
The hunters got along very well for several miles, though Giraffe was forever forging protests from Bumpus.
"What d'ye take me for, Giraffe?" he would exclaim, as he caught up with the waiting leader, and wiped the perspiration from his brow, despite the fact that the day was pretty cold. "You know I ain't built on the same lines as you; and in a case of this kind, the one that c'n go faster just has to accommodate himself to the pace of the slow one. You're the hare, and I'm like the poor old tortoise; but please remember that the turtle came in winner after all in the race. Not always to the swift, you know, does the race go. I may beat you out in the long run, with the endurance test. If I've got anything at all, it's grit."
"Yes, you will," sneered Giraffe; but after the third stop he did moderate his speed considerably; perhaps he was beginning to get a little tired himself, and did not feel unwilling to draw in a peg or two.
At noon they ate a cold lunch, for they had come upon certain tracks that told Giraffe there had been an animal of some kind there—he wished he knew how to tell what species it belonged to, and just how long ago the tracks had been made.
"And mark me, Bumpus," he said impressively, "I'm going to learn all those kind of things right away, as soon as I can take my mind off this pesky fire puzzle. I c'n see how handy it is to be able to read signs when you're off huntin'. Why, when we start to follerin' these here tracks, after we've eaten our grub, how on earth do we know whether they were made a week ago; or if some cow broke loose from a backwoods home up here, and wandered this way. A nice pair of chumps we'd be, wouldn't we, if we went and shot up a pet cow, and had to pay damages? I reckon the boys'd never got over the joke."
"That's just what I was thinking myself, Giraffe," agreed the other, as he sat down beside the tall scout on a fallen tree, and took out the lunch from his haversack, for he had carried it all morning, and Giraffe had let him, too; "if we're going in for this scouting business, we ought to swallow the whole business. Now, as for learning things connected with the woods, where could you find any fellers better qualified to put us straight than we've got in Thad and Allan? What one don't know, the other sure does. I'm bound to learn the game. Owning this dandy gun has given me a new idea. I used to say 'oh! what's the use of bothering, when you've got somebody else to do your thinking for you?' But now I begin to see that you can't always depend on others. Right here is a case in point."
As their minds ran about in the same channel the two boys managed to get along splendidly. Their little differences of the past were, for the time being at least, quite forgotten; and they seemed drawn toward each other as two comrades should be.
But both began to complain because thus far neither of them had had occasion to make use of their gun. If this was a game country, why was it two such industrious hunters did not get a crack at something, whether a deer, a moose, or even a fox—anything would have been welcome as a change from the monotony.
Perhaps Giraffe would have been surprised if told that he and the puffing Bumpus made quite too much noise to prevent any wary and timid deer from staying within a quarter of a mile of them. And also that often they were doing their hunting "down the wind," so that their scent at such times was carried to the nostrils of the suspicious game long before the hunters came in sight.
Finally they came across some partridges, and Bumpus managed to bag a couple with two shots from his new gun. He was greatly elated by the success attending his efforts, even though Giraffe did mention something about the birds insisting on remaining on the branch of that tree so long that they must either have been frozen there, or else wanted to commit suicide.
"Well, they came to the right place, then," said Bumpus, sturdily, as he crammed new shells in his gun; "I'm the feller to help every partridge and deer pass over the divide, that feels like going. Bring on your game; now we're going some!"
But as the afternoon began to wane they had a shot at nothing else, though once Giraffe became excited, and declared he had caught a glimpse of a deer making off in the distance.
"Now, ain't it a shame," he went on to say, "how that deer just knew we were coming? Seems like somebody went ahead with a trumpet, and announced that two hunters were on the trail. After that they all hike out. But seems to me it's getting some cold right now, Bumpus. My fingers begin to tingle."
"Told you to wear the old mitts Step Hen offered you, but you sneered at the idea. I'm feeling pretty cold myself, considerin' that I'm on the move all the time. Say, where are we anyhow, and how far from the camp?"
Giraffe looked blankly at Bumpus.
"Here's the compass, and we c'n see which way is north, all right. Then east is off that way on the right, south around yonder, and west here. But where in the dickens is that camp, south, north or east? Honest, Bumpus, I don't know!"
"No more do I, Giraffe," replied the other. "And d'ye know, this makes me think of that Injun that got lost, and was found, half starved, by some white men; but he was too proud to admit his little shortcoming; so when they asked him if he hadn't kinder managed to get twisted in his bearings, he slaps his breast with his hand, take a pose like this, and says he: 'Injun not lost; wigwam lost; Injun here!' And we're like that Injun, Giraffe; oh! no, we're not lost one little bit, because we know we're here. But I just can't amble on any longer. Suppose we stop and camp. These partridges will taste prime. Yum! yum, can't get at 'em too soon to please me. Get busy, and light a fire, Giraffe; that's your part of the contract always."
"I sure will, if you give me a few matches, Bumpus," replied the other, wearily dropping his heavy rifle, that began to feel like a ton of lead.
"Matches! Why, you're the fire-maker; and I thought you'd take care of that part of the business!" exclaimed Bumpus, looking a little alarmed.
"Why, what a silly you can be, Bumpus; don't you know I promised Thad never to carry a single match around with me? And now, look what a fix we're in, lost in the Maine woods, with night coming on, and gettin' colder every minute; and not a single match to start a fire with. I see our finish all right. When they find us some days from now, we'll be just frozen stiff, that's what!"
The two tenderfeet looked at each other, but there was no smile on either face now; for affairs had assumed too serious a phase to admit of merriment.
GIRAFFE TRIES FOR THE FOURTEENTH TIME.
"Whatever can we do, Giraffe?" asked Bumpus, presently, after he had sighed several times, in a most forlorn way.
"Oh!" remarked the other, making out to be little concerned about the matter, although his manner did not deceive the fat boy in the least, for he knew Giraffe was worried greatly; "there are lots of things we can do, all right; but you see the trouble is, Bumpus, they ain't agoin' to help out much."
"We're in a tough hole, all right," grunted the other, disconsolately.
"Talk about Thad and Step Hen camping out;" Giraffe went on to say, "why their troubles couldn't be mentioned in the same breath with ours, and you know it. They had aplenty of matches along, and could get all the blaze they wanted."
"And say, think of having the best part of a fine young buck to cook!" burst out Bumpus, with another groan. "As for us, we've got the game all right; but however can we get down to eating partridges that ain't ever even been near a fire."
"Quit talkin' of eating, Bumpus; you fairly set me wild," declared the tall boy, rubbing his empty stomach, as though its calls were growing more insistent with a knowledge that they must pass unheeded now.
"Then you must be hungry?" suggested Bumpus.
"Hungry ain't no name for it," Giraffe replied. "That's always the way, I've been told. When there ain't no water, a feller feels as if his tongue was stickin' to the roof of his mouth. And Bumpus, bein' hungry ain't the very worst of it, either!"
The fat boy sat up, and looked at his companion in misery as though startled.
"What you mean, Giraffe, by slingin' that scare into me; I'd like to know what's worse than starvin' to death in a single night?" he demanded.
"Oh! shucks! don't you worry about that," the other went on, with a sneer. "Not so much chance of our comin' to such an end in so short a time. But there is real danger around us, Bumpus."
"Say, do you mean about them wolves?" exclaimed Bumpus, with a tremble in his voice.
"That's just what I do mean," came the reply "When they tackled our comrades, why they were bold as anything, even if the boys did have a fire burning all the time. Think of how we're up against it, without a single match to start a blaze."
"Then there's only one thing for us to do, Giraffe."
"Suppose you tell me what that is?" demanded the tall scout.
"Climb a tree," replied Bumpus, promptly.
Giraffe made an impatient gesture.
"Of course we could do that, as a last resort, Bumpus; but the chances are, if we did, we'd freeze before morning!" he declared. "I've heard old hunters say that of all the agony they ever endured, being kept in a tree all night was the worst. Feel in your pockets again, Bumpus; try everywhere, and see if you can only scare up one single match. If you did, we'd be mighty careful not to waste it, I tell you. This is a case of 'my kingdom for a match!'"
So the fat scout commenced a systematic search, Every single pocket did he feel in with trembling fingers, while his comrade watched his face anxiously, knowing that it was likely to indicate the success or failure of the search.
When he saw a sudden grin come upon that broad countenance Giraffe felt like bursting out into a yell of joy.
"Got one, haven't you Bumpus?" he exclaimed, eagerly. "That was a bully good idea of mine after all, you see, having you look again. Say, won't we be careful of that one precious match, though? And won't we have the fine dry stuff all ready to kindle, as soon as I strike it. You must let me handle things, Bumpus, because, you know, I'm more used to—what's the matter with you? Don't tell me it ain't a match after all? Oh! thunder!"
Bumpus had slowly drawn his hand out of his pocket, and held some object up between his forefinger and his thumb. It was about the length of a match, but had a sharpened point, instead of a blunt head.
"A—a miserable toothpick that I just dropped into my pocket when we ate that dinner at the restaurant!" groaned the wretched Bumpus, staring first at the offending object, and then turning a piteous face toward his comrade.
Giraffe managed to rise to the occasion. Perhaps he remembered that Thad had really committed the other into his charge; and that it was to him the scoutmaster would look to give a good account of the expedition. And then again, Bumpus was so shocked by the series of calamities which had befallen them that he looked almost ready to collapse.
So Giraffe drew himself up, and assumed a confidence that he was far from feeling.
"Don't take on so, Bumpus," he went on to say, almost cheerily. "It may not be so very bad, after all. Don't let's forget that we're scouts; and must keep a stiff upper lip whenever things turn out wrong. We'll just do the best we can; and I reckon it'll all come out right in the end. It nearly always does, you know."
At least his words and manner had some effect on the almost exhausted fat boy, who brightened up more or less.
"Now, that's nice of you talking that way, Giraffe," he said. "You're the right kind of a chum to have in time of trouble. But say, ain't it gettin' cold though? Is that why you're slapping your arms around so?"
"Try it, and see how quick you feel warmer, Bumpus," replied the other, with the patronizing air of one who is superior in knowledge, and willing to impart all he knows; "you see, the violent action starts the heart to beating nearly twice as fast as it does ordinarily; and that pumps the blood harder, so it gets to the very end of your extremities. That's what Thad says, anyhow; and it sure enough works."
So, for a minute or two both lads kept up a strenuous exercise, though it was too much for poor Bumpus, who presently stopped.
"Feel better, don't you?" demanded Giraffe imperiously.
"A whole lot; but doin' that has one bad point, I find," said Bumpus.
"As how?" asked his companion.
"Why, it keeps on making you all the hungrier; exercise always has that effect on me. Why, Giraffe, I feel like I could eat a whole ham right now."
"Didn't I tell you to let up on that style of talk; you're just making me groan inside every time you speak of eatin'. We ought to be tryin' our level best to better our condition."
"But I don't know anything that would help us, Giraffe; so it's up to you to get us out of this ugly hole. Perhaps we might use a shell from my gun, and by taking out most of the powder, snap it off, and start a fire going."
Strange to say, Giraffe did not seem to take to the idea, simple though it was; and later on commended by Thad and Allan, when they heard about the trouble. The fact was, Giraffe had suddenly remembered something.
"You leave it to me, and see if I don't pull out a trick worth while," he remarked mysteriously; and Bumpus saw him turn aside to get down on his knees.
For some time the fat boy sat there, apparently lost in bitter reflections. Now and then he would give a start, and look around him hastily, after which he would heave a great sigh, or else groan dismally. From this it might be assumed that Bumpus was allowing himself to dwell upon many a glorious supper he had devoured in the company of his Boy Scout chums; and just then he was enjoying things the best he knew how, he would remember the desolation that confronted himself and Giraffe.
Then he would pick up one of the two partridges that had fallen to his new Marlin ten bore, look critically at it, feel the meat on the plump breast; and then shake his head, as though the idea of having to turn cannibal, and devour the game raw did not appeal at all to him.
On one occasion, when he aroused himself from this abstraction he became conscious of a strange humming sound.
"What you doin' there, Giraffe?" he demanded, as the noise certainly proceeded from the spot where his chum was down on his hands and knees.
"Why, you see," replied the other, slowly, "I fetched my little bow and fire-makin' outfit along with me, thinkin' I might have a chance to try a scheme I got in my head. I'm gettin' right into it now, because I want to start business before it's real plumb dark!"
But far from reassuring the dejected Bumpus, these words only made him grunt. Had he not watched Giraffe working away for dear life with that miserable little outfit a dozen times, and always with the same result—getting perilously near success, but always missing it by a hair's breadth?
What chance did they have of securing the much desired fire, if all depended on Giraffe succeeding in inducing that twirling stick to generate enough heat to throw off a spark that would catch in the dry tinder? None at all. It was only a hollow mockery. Some smart scouts might be able to do the little trick; but up to now it had baffled the skill of Giraffe. Why, even Thad had lost pretty much all hope of his ever succeeding, Bumpus suspected; and believed that the only good thing about the tall scout's labors was his persistence.
So, shaking his head again dolefully, Bumpus allowed himself to once more figure out a bill of fare that he would like to commence on, if he only had the good fortune to sit down at a table in a first-class restaurant. It seemed to give him untold satisfaction just to imagine the heaping platters that were being brought before him in rapid succession. Why, in his vivid imagination he could almost get the delicious odors of the various dishes that had long been favorites with him; particularly the liver and bacon and fried onions. Oh! how tantalizing to suddenly arouse himself with a start, to look around at the rapidly darkening scene of those lonely pine woods, and hear, instead of the waiter's cheery voice, only that continual grinding sound, as the boy with the never-give-up nature kept sawing away with his miserable little bow; and the poor stick kept whirling back and forwards with a violent motion, in the socket that held one end.
In the estimation of Bumpus, that was coming down from the sublime to the ridiculous. He had little confidence in all this labor of Giraffe; though goodness knows, that if ever success would prove a boon to a couple of stranded hunters caught in the darkness of a wintry night, with not a match in their possession, it was then.
THE LONG VIGIL OF A SCOUT.
It really looked to Bumpus as though sooner or later they must come to climbing a tree, no matter how cold they found it on such a perch. And as it would presently be dark, since night was rapidly coming on, he wondered whether he would not be showing good judgment in selecting the proper kind of a tree, while there was enough light to see by.
But before he started to look around him, he thought it worth while to ascertain how his companion was doing; although to tell the truth Bumpus did not have the slightest hope of any good news.
"Ain't you gettin' anywhere yet, Giraffe?" he asked, as he rose clumsily, and wearily to his feet; for his short legs felt very stiff after resting so long.
The other gave a grunt as he replied:
"Oh! don't bother me with such silly questions, Bumpus. You make me think of that story of Blue Beard, where the old feller's a waitin' for his last wife to come down, and get her head taken off; and she keeps callin' to her sister, who's in the lookout tower: 'Sister Ann, Sister Ann, don't you see anything comin'?'"
"But I want to know before I—" began Bumpus, when the other interrupted him.
"You will know all right, if I get it. But you keep away from me, Bumpus. Once before, you fell all over me, just when I was on the point of grabbing a spark. If you know what's good for you, keep clear of me now. I'm desperately in earnest, I tell you. So be warned, Bumpus!"
The fat scout realized that if he knew what was good for him he had better give Giraffe a wide berth while he was strumming away with his "old fiddle," as some of the boys sneeringly described the fire outfit that continually refused to "fire" even a little bit.
"I'm going to look for a good tree," he said.
"All right, go, and climb up in it, good and hard," Giraffe answered pettishly; "but unless you want to get lost, don't you dare go out of sight of this place. Call if you lose sight of me, Bumpus, d'ye hear? I don't want Thad to say I didn't keep an eye on you; but this is a business that must be attended to."
All the while he was sawing away as if his very life depended upon bringing the ordeal to a successful termination; and possibly Giraffe thought it did.
So Bumpus began to look around him.
He realized that the tall pines were rather out of the question so far as affording them a chance to climb up; and that he must find some tree of a different type, with low branches.
It was not hard to find such a retreat in the shape of a thick hemlock, with its glossy green foliage that had such a delightful scent. Bumpus knew it well, because on numerous occasions the scouts had plucked masses of similar "browse," to make the ground feel easier where they slept.
If they had to climb a tree as a last resort, this hemlock would offer all the advantages they wished. Why, Bumpus could even remember how Eli had told of an adventure that had befallen him along somewhat similar lines; and how in order not to fall from his perch in the crotch of a tree, he tied himself there by means of some stout cord he happened to have along.
Bumpus felt all through his pockets again, and was grievously disappointed not to discover a hank of fishing cord.
"Seems like I'm just out of everything that a feller's apt to want when he gets in a bad pickle like this," he grumbled. "Ketch me bein' in such a hole again. Why, I'm goin' to make it the point of my life to always carry a plenty of matches along; and a line that would be strong enough to hold a feller, if I had to use it. How would Jim fished up his gun, and shot them wolves, like he told us, if so be he didn't tear his shirt into strips, an' made a rope, with a loop at the end, to slip over the end of his rifle lyin' on the ground. Next time I get the chance I'm goin' to fix a nice clothes line, and wrap it around me every time I go out in the woods. Never know how handy such things might come in. Wonder how Giraffe's gettin' along with his sawin'? But I don't dare say another word, or he'll be so mad he might break his silly old bow on my back."
He walked toward the spot where he could see the dim figure of the industrious fire worshipper bending low over at his labor.
Again Bumpus sank down to the ground; although he was shivering with the cold, he did not dare swing his arms around as before, lest it make him remember how hungry he was.
Sitting there, he listened to the breeze sighing among the branches of the pines; and to his excited mind it was actually laughing at the predicament of the wretched chums.
Something else came stealing to his hearing, something that made Bumpus suddenly sit up, hold his breath, and strain his senses trying to locate the direction from which it seemed to spring, and at the same time guess the nature of the sound.
"I wonder now, was that a wildcat growling?" he asked himself.
The thought was so disquieting, owing to the gathering gloom, that he could not help reaching out his hand toward the heavy Marlin that he had temporarily laid on the ground near by.
While the sound, whatever it may have been, was not repeated, so far as Bumpus could tell, still he felt far from satisfied about it. What if the sly old cat was at that very moment creeping up on them? For all they knew, it might be close by just then, "inching" its way along, just as he had watched a tame Tabby do at home, when trying to steal upon a sparrow it wanted for its dinner.
Bumpus became quite nervous over the thought. He drew back the hammers of his double-barrel, and began to look around him. All sorts of stories that he had heard told from time to time about these bobtailed cats of the pine woods, with their cousin, the lynx, that had tassels on its ears, now floated before his mind. Naturally they did not tend to ease the strain under which he was laboring; for where he had before only imagined he could see one pair of yellow eyes staring at him from out the gloom, he now began to see them everywhere.
Why, the woods must be full of the creatures, and they were going to set upon the unfortunate scouts, to make a meal for that cold night. And another thing gave Bumpus great uneasiness; there was no use of trying to get away from this army of "yellow-eyes" by climbing that hemlock; since cats were as much at home in any kind of tree as on the ground.
No wonder Bumpus shivered now, with something more than the cold air. They were certainly up against it, good and hard; and if ever they saw Thad and the rest of the scouts again, how happy they should be.
Why didn't Giraffe quit his fooling with that silly old bow, and take to thinking up some scheme that was worth while? It seemed the height of foolishness for him to be wasting all his time with that ridiculous fire-making dodge, that never could be done anyway. Bumpus was almost tempted to stumble forward, and pretend to fall over his kneeling figure, just to upset things, and make Giraffe come to his proper senses. He would, only he was a little afraid that the tall scout might be so furious that he would do something violent; for he was getting "awful touchy" on the subject of making a fire in that way.
"If I could only make dead sure of one of them yellow eyes, I'd like to knock the beast over," Bumpus was muttering to himself; and then he rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, as if trying to see better, after which he said disconsolately: "It ain't no use, they just keep dancin' all around me. P'raps there ain't any cats there at all. P'raps I'm just imaginin' things, like my dad used to say I did, when they put me to bed in the dark, tellin' me the angels was all around me, an' wouldn't let anything hurt me; but pretty soon, when the skeeters got busy, I let out a whoop, and told 'em the angels was bitin' me something awful. P'raps if I shut my eyes I'd feel better."
But when he started to try this, Bumpus found that it would not work. The agony of not being able to see created new fancies in his mind, much more dreadful than those that had gone before.
And so the anxious scout crouched there, not far from his industrious chum, gripping his gun tightly in both hands, and breathing stertorously as he twisted his fat neck around from side to side. He was trying to figure out a line of action to be followed in case the worst came to pass; and be it said to his credit that Bumpus was resolved to die game, as became a true scout.
At any rate, Giraffe could not keep up that silly business much longer. Either he would just have to give over through complete exhaustion; or else his "bally bow," as Bumpus liked to call it, would break, as it had a faculty for doing when the cord became weakened from constant friction.
Bumpus only wished that time would hurry along, for he wanted Giraffe to forget about his fad, and turn his attention to a more sensible way of getting fire. Now, there must be a way of snapping an emptied shell into a little pile of tinder, and catching the spark in some manner.
He tried to figure out how it could be done; but Bumpus never was very bright with regard to details, for they confused him; so that he was soon floundering about like a fish out of water; or a boy who did not know how to swim, when he gets beyond his depth.
Why, it was real dark, and he could just barely make out the crouching figure of Giraffe; but that everlasting humming sound still kept up, until Bumpus thought it would set him crazy.
Now Bumpus started on a new tack. He tried to imagine the delight of his companion if only he could suddenly remember having thrust a little box of safety matches into his haversack before starting out; but he knew it was useless to look, for he had certainly done nothing of the sort.
Then, all of a sudden, Bumpus was given an electric shock, when Giraffe let out a shrill whoop; for with his mind so filled by visions of armies of wildcats all ready to pounce upon them by and by, Bumpus was in a condition to be startled.
He scrambled to his knees, and half raised his gun to his shoulder, under the full belief that the crisis so long dreaded was at last upon them, and they would have to fight desperately for their very lives.
THE LITTLE FIRE BOW DOES ITS WORK AT LAST.
"Oh! what is it, Giraffe?" exclaimed Bumpus, in a quavering voice.
"I told you I c'd do it! On'y gimme time, and I'll figger the old thing out, I said; and I have!" cried the exultant Giraffe.
"Why, it's burnin'!" gasped the other, staring at the tiny flame that was playing hide-and-seek in the midst of the dry tinder that had so long awaited its coming.
"Sure it is; anybody with one eye could see that!" Giraffe sent back, about as happy a fellow as the sun ever shone on, because his long endurance test had in the end met with such grand success. "Hey! what's the matter, Bumpus? Get a move on, and collect some stuff to add to this, before the thing goes out on me. Lively, boy, lively with you, while I shield it with my hands!"
He hugged the little blaze with his body and hands while Bumpus, dropping the now useless gun, eagerly gathered a lot of dry pine needles, and made a pile of them close to his chum.
"Oh! glory! Bully for you, Giraffe! You're the scout who can stick to a thing like a plaster. Don't it look good, though?" cried the shorter lad; but the fire-maker would not let him loiter.
Presently there was no longer any dread of the fire burning out; and both of the scouts could get busy collecting fuel. Dead branches were in demand, and fortunately enough, there happened to be plenty of the same close by, so that without much effort they were able to get quite a heap near the fire.
"Now let's sit down, and warm up a bit," suggested Bumpus; although truth to tell, he was at that moment perspiring from his recent exertions.
"And if you want to talk about eating now, Bumpus, you're quite welcome," the taller scout went on to say, with a grin; "because there's something to it. We've got the birds, and we've got the fire to cook 'em by. Who said I couldn't start a fire by sawin' at my fiddle till I burst a blood vessel? Wasn't it Davy Jones? Well, you c'n just tell him for me, next time you see him, Bumpus, that he was all wrong. Why, it's just as easy as fallin' off a log; er, that is, after you know how."
"Shall we start in plucking the feathers off these birds, Giraffe?"
"Might as well, if we mean to eat 'em; and speakin' for my own feelings I want to say that a partridge'd go mighty well about now. Yum! yum! get busy with one, and I'll tackle the other."
Both boys knew how to do the job of plucking the birds, and soon had the feathers flying.
Both of them were feeling a thousand per cent better than before; and Bumpus even hummed as he worked. Giraffe's thoughts very naturally kept along the line of his recent triumph. He had labored so long, and against such a handicap, that he might well be excused for feeling proud of his success.
"Good little bow!" he muttered; "you did the business, all right, didn't you? The trouble was, I didn't just know how to handle you; but I've got it down pat now, and I'll never forget again, never. Wonder what the boys'll say when they hear about it? And Bumpus, it came in right pat, didn't it?"
"I should say it did, Giraffe," replied the other, enthusiastically; "when we didn't have a single match, night here, cold as the dickens, wolves howling pretty soon, and no way of cooking these plump partridges. Why, if you'd gone and arranged all the particulars, I don't believe you could a had it hit us at a better time. It's just great, that's what."
"And the cream is on you, Bumpus."
"Shucks! who cares for that? Why, a little while ago I'd given all the spending money I expect to get as my share of the rewards for returnin' those lost bank papers, for just one little penny box of matches. Why, I'll be only too happy to treat the whole crowd six times over, after this. There, my bird's done, Giraffe."
"Same here; and now how are we agoin' to cook 'em?" the other scout remarked.
Bumpus looked at him rather blankly.
"That's so," he observed, "we ain't got a sign of a frying-pan, have we?"
"But there must be a way of cooking 'em by keeping the birds close to the fire. All old hunters cook their game that way. And don't you remember, Bumpus, Thad and Step Hen took sticks, and stuck 'em in the ground, with chunks of venison on the other end. Step said it was just prime. Well, what's to hinder our trying that same old game?"
"But the partridges are too big and heavy; they won't ever cook through?" objected the fat scout, doubtfully.
"All right; I guess now we can manage to slice the same in half," Giraffe continued, hopefully. "I've done the job for my folks at home, more'n a few times, when they wanted to broil a Spring chicken for some sick person. We'll have our game broiled, Bumpus, see?"
"Sure we will; and while you're about it, with that big-bladed knife of yours, Giraffe, give mine a rip down the back, so I c'n split it open. It's easy to see you know how. Thad and Allan ain't got so very much on you, when it comes to doin' things."
By this artful flattery did Bumpus manage to get his bird divided. He spread it out carefully, and then started a hunt for the long sticks, by means of which the bird was to be held in a proper position before the hot fire.
After considerable waste of energy, they finally managed, after a fashion, to get the birds placed so that they received a fair portion of the heat that came out of the fire. Several times the sticks either broke, or else failed to hold properly, so that the game fell into the ashes, to be hastily rescued, and wiped off before again being put over the fire.
The minutes dragged, and to the hungry scouts it seemed as though the two partridges had tantalized them long enough. They gave forth an odor that was positively appetizing; and finally Giraffe just could not stand it another minute.
"Say, they must be done by now," he remarked, eying his bird ravenously.
"They look pretty brown," remarked Bumpus, "though that may come from the scorching they got each time they dipped in the red-hot ashes. But I feel just like you do, Giraffe; and if you say the word, it's a go."
At that the tall scout started to savagely tear at one-half of his bird; and not to be outdone the other boy copied his example. Perhaps at home they would have complained long and loudly because the cook had sent food to the table only half done; but then circumstances alter cases; and sitting there by their lonely camp-fire under the pines and hemlocks, those two boys munched away, and nodded toward each other in a suggestive way, that told how much they were enjoying it.
What if the meat was far from being well cooked, did not those who knew say that game should never be browned; and as for the gray ash that still clung to the outside of each bird, why, the wood was sweet and clean that it came from; and every fellow has to eat his peck of dirt sometime or other, they understood.
And so they kept persistently at it until nothing but the bones remained of the two partridges; and each boy was sighing because, like Alexander of old, there were no more worlds to conquer.
"That was just prime!" declared Bumpus; "and to think that I shot the dandy birds too; so you owe your fine supper to me, Giraffe."
"I do, eh?" chuckled the other. "How about the fire, tell me that? How'd them same birds tasted raw? You wouldn't have liked 'em as much, I reckon. So, you see, after all, Bumpus, honors are about even; you supplied the game, and I fixed up the fire. Better call it a drawn battle, and end it."
"All right, just as you say; but the only trouble I can see is they wasn't near big enough to fit in with my capacity. There's a vacuum still under my belt; even if I don't feel faint any longer."
"Oh! I guess we can hold out now till morning," said Giraffe. "Then we'll take our bearings again, and make another start for the camp. And p'raps some of them might just be out looking for us right now; and seeing this bright fire, they'll head this way. So we'll act like we're havin' the time of our lives; and don't you ever go and let on that we felt scared even a little bit, hear now?"
Bumpus, having a little pride of his own, readily promised. Besides, now that they had partaken of a very good supper, and had that bright and cheery fire to keep them company during the remainder of the cold night, things looked vastly different; so that it was hard to believe he had ever shivered and groaned as he contemplated their forlorn condition.
They sat there, talking about various things, for quite a little time. Once or twice Bumpus fancied he heard some sort of sound in the woods that caused him to send a quick glance toward where he had laid his "trusty Marlin" down; but then, as Giraffe did not seem to pay any attention to the noise, he soon forgot it.
But there came a time when both of them plainly heard a cough.
Giraffe grinned, and nodded his head.
"The boys are comin' all right," he said, as if pleased; "just like I said they'd be apt to do. Now, just sit where you are, Bumpus, and make out to be as happy as a king. We'll make 'em believe we're quite at home at this sort of thing; and the only thing we're sorry for is that we can't offer 'em a nice hot bird apiece. Look pleasant, now."
Presently they caught what sounded like the low murmur of voices, and they seemed to be approaching too. It did not occur to the two scouts that the parties were coming from a direction opposite to the camp where their chums had been left; partly because they had not the remotest idea where that same camp lay.
Now they could hear the swishing of bushes, as though the newcomers were not very particular about how they walked. Then it must be Step Hen or Davy Jones who made all the noise, because they were greenhorns, and did not know how to walk noiselessly.
"I c'n see 'em comin'," remarked Bumpus, who happened to be sitting in a position that allowed of his using his eyes.
"Remember, now, what I told you; just be feelin' as fine as silk, as if this camp business was an old story with us," and to further the deception Giraffe started to stretch his arms, and yawn at a tremendous rate.
Bumpus did not answer; and thinking this a little strange the tall scout turned his eyes that way. He discovered that Bumpus was staring as though his eyes would almost pop out of his head. That, of course, made Giraffe twist his long neck half way around, so that he might share in what had aroused his companion to such a state of excitement.
And Giraffe also experienced a decided thrill when he saw two men come half staggering into camp, who from their looks he knew must be Si Kedge and Ed Harkness, the rough and lawless game poachers and bullies of the pine woods.
The two poachers were undoubtedly partly under the influence of liquor; for the boys could see that they did not walk as straight as they should have done. Besides, their eyes looked red, and there were other evidences of drunkeness, familiar to Giraffe and Bumpus, who had often seen drunken men.
This made the situation the more critical, because in this condition men often do things that they might hesitate to attempt if not under the influence of strong drink.
They halted not far from the fire, and looked at the two scouts sitting there.
"On'y two boys arter all, Si," remarked the one they supposed was Ed Harkness, as he swayed slightly to and fro, while coming to a halt. "I guessed as haow yuh must a be'n mistook w'en yuh said it mout be ther hull outfit. Les sit down, Si, an' make us tuh hum."
Fitting the action with his words he dropped on the ground, and held out a pair of red and trembling hands to the fire. His companion still stood there, glaring at the two boys, just as though they had done something to offend him. Plainly Si Kedge was something of a pine wood's bully; and he thought it good policy to cow Giraffe and Bumpus right at the start, so as to take the spirit out of them.
Indeed, Bumpus looked so white and frightened that it encouraged the man to follow up his half-conceived idea.
"Say, whaz yuh doin' here? Where's the rest o' the bunch? Know me? I'm Si Kedge, an' I'm a bad man to rile; so don't get gay now. Got anythin' to eat 'raound here?"
Bumpus cast a quick, apprehensive glance toward his companion. His one prevailing idea just then was that they ought to get up, and skip out as lively as they could, leaving their nice fire for the two rough woodmen to enjoy. As far as he could see, neither of the men seemed to possess any firearm; at least they certainly did not carry guns, as might be expected.
But Bumpus saw something in the face of his chum that told him Giraffe was not thinking of giving up that hard earned fire. He had worked too long to get it, to desert the comfortable camp, just because two half drunken fellows chanced to wander that way.
Bumpus saw more than that. Giraffe had his big old rifle across his knees. He must have reached out his hand and secured it, while his chum was still staring at the unpleasant couple who had invaded their camp.
That gave the fat boy an idea, following which he too reached for his gun, though not making any show of it, for fear of arousing a storm.
"We've been hunting, and got twisted in our bearings; so we thought it best to go into camp," Giraffe started to say, trying to keep his voice from wabbling, as it seemed to be trying its best to do. "And as for grub, we haven't got a single bite along with us."
"They lies, Si!" burst out the second man; "'case I kin see a heap o' bones clost ter whar they is settin', like they'd be'n eatin' some game."
"We have," replied Giraffe; "we knocked over a couple of birds, but they wasn't half enough to satisfy us."
"Huh! got any licker?" went on Si, still eying the boys steadily with that half threat in his bloodshot eyes, that Giraffe knew meant trouble, sooner or later, so that he almost instinctively allowed his thumb to draw back the hammer of his big bore rifle.
"We never use it; and on that account don't carry a drop along with us," he answered.
"I guess naow, ther foolin' yuh, Si!" broke in the fellow who was sitting down. "And looky thar, d'ye see they gut guns? Them's w'at we needs ther wust kind, sense Cale Martin took ours away, w'en he sez as haow we're that drunk we'd git inter trouble with 'em. Bring me thet double-barrel. Allers did say as haow I'd like tuh own a scattergun, tuh use on pa'tridge. D'ye hear me?"
Bumpus looked to Giraffe. He was unable to grapple with the situation himself; but perfectly willing to do whatever his chum directed. Had the tall boy told him to step over, and present the poacher with his nice new Marlin ten-bore, Bumpus no doubt would have done it without a murmur.
"Get the hammers raised," was what Giraffe said instead.
"Gee! are you agoin' to fight?" muttered Bumpus; but obeying instantly.
The poacher who had made the demand made a move as though half tempted to get up and enforce his words; but seemed to think better of it.
"I'll step over, an' tackle yuh arter I got my hands warm, see ef I don't," he remarked.
Bumpus breathed again, for he had thought that the crisis was upon them. He saw that Si Kedge had also stepped closer to the fire, and thrust out his hands, as if not averse to taking some of the cold tingle out of them by the application of warmth.
"What we goin' to do, Giraffe?" whispered Bumpus.
"Stand up for our rights, that's what," replied the other, in about the same style of voice. "They ain't going to chase me out of this camp, not if I know it."
"But they're ugly, and mean to give us trouble," urged the alarmed Bumpus.
"You mean they think they are," returned Giraffe, grinding his teeth, as if by that method he could infuse his soul with more of the fighting spirit that was required to grapple with the situation. "When they start to making a rough house here somebody's liable to get hurt. And as we hold guns, and they ain't got any, you c'n easy see who it's apt to be."
"All right, Giraffe; tell me what to do, that's all; because you see, I'm that rattled I just can't think for myself."
"Keep as cool as you can, Bumpus, and it'll all come out right. If we can't handle a pair of fellers as unsteady as they are, it'll be some queer."
"But if they keep right along comin' at us?" queried the other, anxiously.
"Then shoot!" replied Giraffe, savagely, between his teeth.
"Right at 'em?" gasped the shorter scout.
"Oh! aim at their legs, like I'll do," returned Giraffe. "We'd hadn't ought to do anything worse than that. But mark me, Bumpus, when they see we mean business, they won't dare come far."
Giraffe was still very white, but his eyes shone with resolution. He had made up his mind just how he ought to act under the circumstances; and being exceedingly stubborn by nature it would require something little short of an earthquake to make him change now.
Meanwhile the two men had been muttering between themselves on the other side of the fire. What they were talking about the boys did not know; but doubtless it must have had something to do with the nice guns which they expected were so soon to fall into their possession; for neither of them could imagine that these two city boys, as they deemed the scouts, would dare defy them, once they ordered them to lay the guns on the ground.
"Be ready!" whispered Giraffe again, and thus unconsciously repeating the motto of the organization to which both of them belonged, for preparedness is the cardinal virtue in every Boy Scout.
The two poachers had evidently managed to map out some scheme by means of which they expected to overawe the lads, and secure everything they chanced to have about them, which was worth taking.
Bumpus could see that they were about to get upon their feet, and this must mean they intended to force conclusions. He shot one last look at Giraffe, to imbibe some artificial courage, if such a thing were possible; and he saw that while the thin face of his chum looked ghastly white, it at the same time showed a pair of set jaws, and back of it gleaming eyes that told of a resolute spirit. And somehow the very realization that Giraffe could be brave gave the fat scout the consolation he sought.
He had followed out the injunction of the other, and both hammers of his Marlin ducking gun were drawn back, while his forefinger toyed with the trigger of the right barrel.
Yes, the two men were about to start trouble, for already had the one they knew to be Si Kedge gained his feet, as he seemed a little more spry than his partner in wickedness.
Bumpus saw that he was starting to go around the fire in such a way that it must be Giraffe who would have to look after him; while the second scoundrel, Ed Harkness, fell to his lot.
He elevated his gun a little, so that he could throw it to his shoulder in the wink of an eyelid, if necessary. Then he waited for the turn of events.
"We're acomin' 'raound tuh see yuh, kids," called out Si Kedge, in a thick and meant to be threatening tone; "an' see tuh it yuh don't give us any trouble; er it'll be the wuss fur ye. Stand up, an' make us a present o' them fine traps yer holdin'. It ain't right thet boys shud be kerryin' guns, w'ile men goes without. Go on, Ed; what yuh standin' back fur?"
Ed knew. He did not like the way that double-barreled gun was aiming in his direction. The two boys had hastily climbed to their feet at the proper instant; and both of them were now standing there, presenting their guns, but not in the fashion Si had intended when he gave the order, for they were "muzzle to the front."
"Just stand where you are, both of you!" said Giraffe, in a low but threatening voice. "I've got a bead on you, Si Kedge, and if you want to see how well I can shoot this big-bore gun, just take two more steps forward. Bumpus, got that other coward covered, have you?"
"You're right, I have!" sang out the fat scout, trying to appear as bold as if the whole thing might be only a little comedy that he was enjoying immensely; when, to tell the honest truth, Bumpus could feel his fat knees striking each other just like he had seen the telegraph operator pound the key of his instrument; but if his gun wabbled, the fact was hardly apparent to the man he was trying to keep covered.
It was certainly a fine tableau, that would often come back to the memories of those two lads in future days. But while they seemed to be holding the fort, so to speak, Giraffe knew only too well that they were up against two desperate characters, and that if they slipped just one cog, it might have a different ending than the one they wished to see.
What to do with the two men, now that they had thrown down the gage of battle, and virtually made them prisoner, was a puzzle that Giraffe had to solve. But his success thus far gave him courage to go at the new difficulty with resolution. And Bumpus, content to bask in the glory of his chum's more aggressive nature, gave promise of proving himself a good scout, obedient to the one in authority over him and capable of doing his little part in the game.
CAPTURING THE GAME POACHERS.
"Don't yuh shoot, younker!" called out Si Kedge, when, on advancing just one more step, he found himself confronted by the rifle held by Giraffe, who had his cheek laid down on the stock, as though he were taking aim.
"I won't, if you do just what I tell you!" said the scout, growing bolder when he saw that a sudden spasm of alarm had taken possession of the poacher, as he realized the conditions confronting him.
"Wat yuh want us tuh do?" asked Si.
"Throw up your hands, in the first place, and be quick about it!" commanded the scout, thinking that was the proper thing to demand; because, in every account he had ever read of such events, the one who held the gun always gave that order.
Si Kedge did as he was told, but only after a vast amount of hard language.
"You too!" Bumpus managed to call out; for since his comrade had shown the way, he did not find it quite so difficult to follow.
"Ther up, doan't yuh see, ez far ez I kin git 'em!" complained Ed Harkness; and then seeing the fat boy elevating his gun, he made out to duck, under the evident impression that Bumpus might be tempted to pull trigger, and fill him full of bird shot. "Keep thet gun daown thar, kid; I don't like ther way yuh handles ther same. Yuh got us fur keeps; an' we ain't squealin', is we, Si?"
Giraffe thought fast. If they allowed these two men to go free, the chances were they would hang around, and try to give them all the trouble they could during the night that was now well upon them. And the idea of letting them remain there by the fire without being put under bonds, never occurred to the boy. He knew neither of them could be trusted further than they could be seen; that was stamped on their ugly faces, and the shifty look in their evil eyes.
There was really only one thing to do, and that was to make them prisoners. Once that had been accomplished, at least they might pass a peaceful night; and then in the morning, if the humor seized them, it would be just as easy to let the men go as to keep them.
But how on earth were they to tie the two men up? It looked like a hard proposition, and Giraffe had to cudgel his brains with considerable gusto before he was able to produce any result. But it dawned upon him finally that if the men were compelled to lie flat on their faces on the ground, and place their hands behind them, Bumpus might straddle each in turn, and fasten their wrists, while he, Giraffe threatened with the guns.
"Listen to me," he said, with the air of a commander giving his final orders on the field of battle; "Both of you have got to lie down on your faces, and put your hands behind your back; do you understand?"
"Be yuh agoin' tuh tie us up?" asked Si, his face as black as a thundercloud.
"Just that, and nothing more," replied Giraffe, resolutely. "You think that because we're only two boys that we'll stand for a heap; but that's where you're away off your base. Get busy now, and down on your marrowbones, both of you!"
"Air yuh agoin' tuh let us go free in the mornin'?" asked Ed Harkness, already on his knees, for he wished to placate that uneasy fat boy, who kept raising his gun again and again, as though anxious to press the trigger just a little harder all the time.
"If you don't give us any trouble, we might; because so far as we're concerned we're not up here to help the game warden arrest you fellows. Lie down now, or else we'll have to help you!"
This was a ferocious threat for Giraffe to make; and doubtless he would have been exceedingly loth to put it into operation; but then the case was a desperate one, and required a remedy of like nature.
Even such a fire-eater as Si Kedge "threw up the sponge," as Bumpus put it, and knuckled down to the half grown tyrant. Perhaps he realized that in his half boozy condition he was in no shape to grapple with the dilemma by which he and his companion found themselves faced. What with their hands tied by the fact of their guns having been taken by Cale Martin, they were perfectly helpless. And two firearms held in the hands of a couple of determined boys can be just as dangerous as if grown men had them.