Then he turned to me.
“You’ll not be hurt if–“
“Don’t you speak to me!” I burst out. It was on my lips to tell him of the letter to Washington, but somehow I kept silent.
“Leslie,” went on Buell, “I’ll overlook your hittin’ me an’ let you go if you’ll give me your word to keep mum about this.”
Dick did not speak, but looked at the lumberman with a dark gleam in his eyes.
“There’s one thing, Buell,” said Stockton. “Jim Williams is wise. You’ve got to look out for him.”
Buell’s ruddy face blanched. Then, without another word, he waved his hand toward the slope, and, wheeling his horse, galloped down the trail.
IX. TAKEN INTO THE MOUNTAINS
We climbed to another level bench where we branched off the trail. The forest still kept its open, park-like character. Under the great pines the ground was bare and brown with a thick covering of pine-needles, but in the glades were green grass and blue flowers.
Once across this level we encountered a steeper ascent than any I had yet climbed. Here the character of the forest began to change. There were other trees than pines, and particularly one kind, cone-shaped, symmetrical, and bright, which Dick called a silver spruce. I was glad it belonged to the conifers, or pine-tree family, because it was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. We climbed ridges and threaded through aspen thickets in hollows till near sunset. Then Stockton ordered a halt for camp.
It came none too soon for me, and I was so exhausted that I had to be helped off my mustang. Stockton arranged my blankets, fed me, and bathed the bruise on my head, but I was too weary and sick to be grateful or to care about anything except sleep. Even the fact that my hands were uncomfortably bound did not keep me awake.
When some one called me next morning my eyes did not want to stay open. I had a lazy feeling and a dull ache in my bones, but the pain had gone from my head. That made everything else seem all right.
Soon we were climbing again, and my interest in my surroundings grew as we went up. For a while we brushed through thickets of scrub oak. The whole slope of the mountain was ridged and hollowed, so that we were always going down and climbing up. The pines and spruces grew smaller, and were more rugged and gnarled.
“Hyar’s the canyon!” sang out Bill, presently.
We came out on the edge of a deep hollow. It was half a mile wide. I looked down a long incline of sharp tree-tips. The roar of water rose from below, and in places a white rushing torrent showed. Above loomed the snow-clad peak, glistening in the morning sun. How wonderfully far off and high it still was!
To my regret it was shut off from my sight as we descended into the canyon. However, I soon forgot that. I saw a troop of coyotes, and many black and white squirrels. From time to time huge birds, almost as big as turkeys, crashed out of the thickets and whirred away. They flew swift as pheasants, and I asked Dick what they were.
“Blue grouse,” he replied. “Look sharp now, Ken, there are deer ahead of us. See the tracks?”
Looking down I saw little, sharp-pointed, oval tracks. Presently two foxes crossed an open patch not fifty yards from us, but I did not get a glimpse of the deer. Soon we reached the bottom of the canyon, and struck into another trail. The air was full of the low roar of tumbling water. This mountain-torrent was about twenty feet wide, but its swiftness and foam made it impossible to tell its depth. The trail led up-stream, and turned so constantly that half the time Bill, the leader, was not in sight. Once the sharp crack of his rifle halted the train. I heard crashings in the thicket. Dick yelled for me to look up the slope, and there I saw three gray deer with white tails raised. I heard a strange, whistling sound.
On going forward we found that Bill had killed a deer and was roping it on his pack-horse. As we proceeded up the canyon it grew narrower, and soon we entered a veritable gorge. It was short, but the floor was exceedingly rough, and made hard going for the horses. Suddenly I was amazed to see the gorge open out into a kind of amphitheatre several hundred feet across. The walls were steep, and one side shelved out, making a long, shallow cave, In the center of this amphitheatre was a deep hole from which the mountain stream boiled and bubbled.
“Hyar we are,” said Bill, and swung out of his saddle. The other men followed suit, and helped Dick and me down. Stockton untied our hands, saying he reckoned we would be more comfortable that way. Indeed we were. My wrists were swollen and blistered. Stockton detailed the Mexican to keep guard over us.
“Ken, I’ve heard of this place,” said Dick. “How’s that for a spring? Twenty yards wide, and no telling how deep! This is snow-water straight from the peaks. We’re not a thousand feet below the snow-line.”
“I can tell that. Look at those Jwari pines,” I replied, pointing up over the wall. A rugged slope rose above our camp-site, and it was covered with a tangled mass of stunted pines. Many of them were twisted and misshapen; some were half dead and bleached white at the tops. “It’s my first sight of such trees,” I went on, “but I’ve studied about them. Up here it’s not lack of moisture that stunts and retards their growth. It’s fighting the elements–cold, storm-winds, snowslides. I suppose not one in a thousand seedlings takes root and survives. But the forest fights hard to live.”
“Well, Ken, we may as well sit back now and talk forestry till Buell skins all he wants of Penetier,” said Dick. “It’s really a fine camping-spot. Plenty of deer up here and bear, too.”
“Dick, couldn’t we escape?” I whispered.
“We’re not likely to have a chance. But I say, Ken, how did you happen to turn up? I thought you were going to hop on the first train for home.”
“Dick, you had another think coming. I couldn’t go home. I’ll have a great time yet–I’m having it now.”
“Yes, that lump on your head looks like it,” replied Dick, with a laugh. “If Bud hadn’t put you out we’d have come closer to licking this bunch. Ken, keep your eye on Greaser. He’s treacherous. His arm’s lame yet.”
“We’ve had two run-ins already,” I said. “The third time is the worst, they say. I hope it won’t come. . . . But, Dick, I’m as big–I’m bigger than he is.”
“Hear the kid talk! I certainly ought to have put you on that train–“
“What train?” asked Stockton, sharply, from our rear. He took us in with suspicious eyes.
“I was telling Ken I ought to have put him on a train for home,” answered Dick.
Stockton let the remark pass without further comment; still, he appeared to be doing some hard thinking. He put Dick at one end of the long cave, me at the other. Our bedding was unpacked and placed at our disposal. We made our beds. After that I kept my eyes open and did not miss anything.
“Leslie, I’m going to treat you and Ward white,” said Stockton. “You’ll have good grub. Herky-Jerky’s the best cook this side of Holston, and you’ll be left untied in the daytime. But if either of you attempts to get away it means a leg shot off. Do you get that?”
“All right, Stockton; that’s pretty square of you, considering,” replied Dick. “You’re a decent sort of chap to be mixed up with a thief like Buell. I’m sorry.”
Stockton turned away at this rather abruptly. Then Bill appeared on the wall above, and began to throw down firewood. Bud returned from the canyon, where he had driven the horses. Greaser sat on a stone puffing a cigarette. It was the first time I had taken a good look at him. He was smaller than I had fancied; his feet and hands and features resembled those of a woman, but his eyes were live coals of black fire. In the daylight I was not in the least afraid of him.
Herky-Jerky was the most interesting one of our captors. He had a short, stocky figure, and was the most bow-legged man I ever saw. Never on earth could he have stopped a pig in a lane. A stubby beard covered the lower half of his brick-red face. The most striking thing about Herky-Jerky, however, was his perpetual grin. He looked very jolly, yet every time he opened his mouth it was to utter bad language. He cursed the fire, the pans, the coffee, the biscuits, all of which he handled most skillfully. It was disgusting, and yet aside from this I rather liked him.
It grew dark very quickly while we were eating, and the wind that dipped down into the gorge was cold. I kept edging closer and closer to the blazing campfire. I had never tasted venison before, and rather disliked it at first. But I soon cultivated a liking for it.
That night Stockton tied me securely, but in a way which made it easy for me to turn. I slept soundly and awoke late. When I sat up Stockton stood by his saddled horse, and was giving orders to the men. He spoke sharply. He made it clear that they were not to be lax in their vigilance. Then, without a word to Dick or me, he rode down the gorge and disappeared behind a corner of yellow wall.
Bill untied the rope that held Dick’s arms, but left his feet bound. I was freed entirely, and it felt so good to have the use of all my limbs once more that I pranced round in a rather lively way. Either my antics annoyed Herky-Jerky or he thought it a good opportunity to show his skill with a lasso, for he shot the loop over me so hard that it stung my back.
“I’m all there as a roper!” he said, pulling the lasso tight round my middle. The men all laughed as I tumbled over in the gravel.
“Better keep a half-hitch on the colt,” remarked Bud.
So they left the lasso fast about my waist, and it trailed after me as I walked. Herky-Jerky put me to carrying Dick’s breakfast from the campfire up into the cave. This I did with alacrity. Dick and I exchanged commonplace remarks aloud, but we had several little whispers.
“Ken, we may get the drop on them or give them the slip yet,” whispered Dick, in one of these interludes.
This put ideas into my head. There might be a chance for me to escape, if not for Dick. I made up my mind to try if a good chance offered, but I did not want to go alone down that canyon without a gun. Stockton had taken my revolver and hunting-knife, but I still had the little leather case which Hal and I had used so often back on the Susquehanna. Besides a pen-knife this case contained salt and pepper, fishing hooks and lines, matches–a host of little things that a boy who had never been lost might imagine he would need in an emergency. While thinking and planning I sat on the edge of the great hole where the spring was. Suddenly I saw a swirl in the water, and then a splendid spotted fish. It broke water twice. It was two feet long.
“Dick, there’s fish in this hole!” I yelled, eagerly.
“Shouldn’t wonder,” replied he. “Sure, kid, thet hole’s full of trout– speckled trout,” said Herky-Jerky. “But they can’t be ketched.”
“Why not?” I demanded. I had not caught little trout in the Pennsylvania hills for nothing. “They eat, don’t they? That fish I saw was a whale, and he broke water for a bug. Get me a pole and some bugs or worms!”
When I took out my little case and showed the fishing-line, Herky-Jerky said he would find me some bait.
While he was absent I studied that spring with new and awakened eyes. It was round and very deep, and the water bulged up in great greenish swirls. The outlet was a narrow little cleft through which the water flowed slowly, as though it did not want to take its freedom. The rush and roar came from the gorge below.
Herky-Jerky returned with a long, slender pole. It was as pliant as a buggy-whip, and once trimmed and rigged it was far from being a poor tackle. Herky-Jerky watched me with extreme attention, all the time grinning. Then he held out a handful of grubs.
“If you ketch a trout on thet I’ll swaller the pole!” he exclaimed.
I stooped low and approached the spring, being careful to keep out of sight.
“You forgot to spit on yer bait, kid,” said Bill.
They all laughed in a way to rouse my ire. But despite it I flipped the bait into the water with the same old thrilling expectancy.
The bait dropped with a little spat. An arrowy shadow, black and gold, flashed up. Splash! The line hissed. Then I jerked hard. The pole bent double, wobbled, and swayed this way and that. The fish was a powerful one; his rushes were like those of a heavy bass. But never had a bass given me such a struggle. Every instant I made sure the tackle would be wrecked. Then, just at the breaking-point, the fish would turn. At last he began to tire. I felt that he was rising to the surface, and I put on more strain. Soon I saw him; then he turned, flashing like a gold bar. I led my captive to the outlet of the spring, where I reached down and got my fingers in his gills. With that I lifted him. Dick whooped when I held up the fish; as for me, I was speechless. The trout was almost two feet long, broad and heavy, with shiny sides flecked with color.
Herky-Jerky celebrated my luck with a generous outburst of enthusiasm, whereupon his comrades reminded him of his offer to swallow my fishing pole.
I put on a fresh bait and instantly hooked another fish, a smaller one, which was not so bard to land. The spring hole was full of trout. They made the water boil when I cast. Several large ones tore the hook loose; I had never dreamed of such fishing. Really it was a strange situation. Here I was a prisoner, with Greaser or Bud taking turns at holding the other end of the lasso. More than once they tethered me up short for no other reason than to torment me. Yet never in my life had I so enjoyed fishing.
By-and-by Bill and Herky-Jerky left the camp. I heard Herky tell Greaser to keep his eye on the stew-pots, and it occurred to me that Greaser had better keep his eye on Ken Ward. When I saw Bud lie down I remembered what Dick had whispered. I pretended to be absorbed in my fishing, but really I was watching Greaser. As usual, he was smoking, and appeared listless, but he still held on to the lasso.
Suddenly I saw a big blue revolver lying on a stone and I could even catch the glint of brass shells in the cylinder. It was not close to Bud nor so very close to Greaser. If he should drop the lasso! A wild idea possessed me–held me in its grip. just then the stew-pot boiled over. There was a sputter and a cloud of steam, Greaser lazily swore in Mexican; he got up to move the stew-pot and dropped the lasso.
When he reached the fire I bounded up, jerking the lasso far behind me. I ran and grabbed the revolver. Greaser heard me and wheeled with a yell. Bud sat up quickly. I pointed the revolver at him, then at Greaser, and kept moving it from one side to the other.
“Don’t move! I’ll shoot!” I cried.
“Good boy!” yelled Dick. “You’ve got the drop. Keep it, Ken, keep it! Don’t lose your nerve. Edge round here and cut me loose. . . . Bud, if you move I’ll make him shoot. Come on, Ken.”
“Greaser, cut him loose!” I commanded the snarling Mexican.
I trembled so that the revolver wabbled in my hand. Trying to hold it steadied, I squeezed it hard. Bang! It went off with a bellow like a cannon. The bullet scattered the gravel near Greaser. His yellow face turned a dirty white. He jumped straight up in his fright.
“Cut him loose!” I ordered.
Greaser ran toward Dick.
“Look out, Ken! Behind you! Quick!” yelled Dick.
I beard a crunching of gravel. Even as I wheeled I felt a tremendous pull on the lasso and I seemed to be sailing in the air. I got a blurred glimpse of Herky-Jerky leaning back on the taut lasso. Then I plunged down, slid over the rocks, and went souse into the spring.
Down, down I plunged, and the shock of the icy water seemed to petrify me. I should have gone straight to the bottom like a piece of lead but for the lasso. It tightened around my chest, and began to haul me up.
I felt the air and the light, and opened my eyes to see Herky-Jerky hauling away on the rope. When he caught sight of me he looked as if ready to dodge behind the bank.
“Whar’s my gun?” he yelled.
I had dropped it in the spring. He let the lasso sag, and I had to swim. Then, seeing that my hands were empty, he began to swear and to drag me round and round in the pool. When he had pulled me across he ran to the other side and jerked me back. I was drawn through the water with a force that I feared would tear me apart. Greaser chattered like a hideous monkey, and ran to and fro in glee. Herky-Jerky soon had me sputtering, gasping, choking. When he finally pulled me out of the hole I was all but drowned.
“You bow-legged beggar!” shouted Dick, “I’ll fix you for that.”
“Whar’s my gun?” yelled Herky, as I fell to the ground.
“I lost–it,” I panted.
He began to rave. Then I half swooned, and when sight and hearing fully returned I was lying in the cave on my blankets. A great lassitude weighted me down. The terrible thrashing about in the icy water had quenched my spirit. For a while I was too played out to move, and lay there in my wet clothes. Finally I asked leave to take them off. Bud, who had come back in the meantime, helped me, or I should never have got out of them. Herky brought up my coat, which, fortunately, I had taken off before the ducking. I did not have the heart to speak to Dick or look at him, so I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
It was another day when I awoke. I felt all right except for a soreness under my arms and across my chest where the lasso had chafed and bruised me. Still I did not recover my good spirits. Herky-Jerky kept on grinning and cracking jokes on my failure to escape. He had appropriated my revolver for himself, and he asked me several times if I wanted to borrow it to shoot Greaser.
That day passed quietly, and so did the two that followed. The men would not let me fish nor move about. They had been expecting Stockton, and as he did not come it was decided to send Bud down to the mill; in fact, Bud decided the matter himself. He warned Greaser and Herky to keep close watch over Dick and me. Then he rode away. Dick and I resumed our talk about forestry, and as we were separated by the length of the cave it was necessary to speak loud. So our captors heard every word we said.
“Ken, what’s the difference between Government forestry out here and, say, forestry practiced by a farmer back in Pennsylvania?” asked Dick.
“There’s a big difference, I imagine. Forestry is established in some parts of the East; it’s only an experiment out here.”
Then I went on to tell him about the method of the farmer. He usually had a small piece of forest, mostly hard wood. When the snow was on he cut firewood, fence-rails, and lumber for his own use in building. Some seasons lumber brought high prices; then he would select matured logs and haul them to the sawmill. But he would not cut a great deal, and he would use care in the selection. It was his aim to keep the land well covered with forest. He would sow as well as harvest.
“Now the Government policy is to preserve the National Forests for the use of the people. The soil must be kept productive. Agriculture would be impossible without water, and the forests hold water. The West wants people to come to stay. The lumberman who slashes off the timber may get rich himself, but he ruins the land.”
“What’s that new law Congress is trying to pass?” queried Dick.
I was puzzled, but presently I caught his meaning. Bill and Herky-Jerky were hanging on our words with unconcealed attention. Even the Mexican was listening. Dick’s cue was to scare them, or at least to have some fun at their expense.
“They’ve passed it,” I replied. “Fellows like Buell will go to the penitentiary for life. His men’ll get twenty years on bread and water. No whiskey! Serves ’em right.”
“What’ll the President do when he learns these men kidnapped you?”
“Do? He’ll have the whole forest service out here and the National Guard. He’s a friend of my father’s. Why, these kidnappers will be hanged!”
“I wish the Guard would come quick. Too bad you couldn’t have sent word! I’d enjoy seeing Greaser swing. Say, he hasn’t a ghost of a chance, with the President and Jim Williams after him.”
“Dick, I want the rings in Greaser’s ears.”
“What for? They’re only brass.”
“Souvenirs. Maybe I’ll have watch-charms made of them. Anyway, I can show them to my friends back East.”
“It’ll be great–what you’ll have to tell,” went on Dick. “It’ll be funny, too.”
Greaser had begun to snarl viciously, and Herky and Bill looked glum and thoughtful. The arrival of Bud interrupted the conversation and put an end to our playful mood. We heard a little of what he told his comrades, and gathered that Jim Williams had met Stockton and had asked questions hard to answer. Dick flashed me a significant look, which was as much as to say that Jim was growing suspicious. Bud had brought a store of whiskey, and his companions now kept closer company with him than ever before. But from appearances they did not get all they wanted.
“We’ve got to move this here camp,” said Bud.
Bud and Bill and Herky walked off down the gorge. Perhaps they really went to find another place for the camp, for the present spot was certainly a kind of trap. But from the looks of Greaser I guessed that they were leaving him to keep guard while they went off to drink by themselves. Greaser muttered and snarled. As the moments passed his face grew sullen.
All at once he came toward me. He bound my hands and my feet. Dick was already securely tied, but Greaser put another lasso on him. Then he slouched down the gorge. His high-peaked Mexican sombrero bobbed above the rocks, then disappeared.
“Ken, now’s the chance,” said Dick, low and quick. “If you can only work loose! There’s your rifle and mine, too. We could hold this fort for a month.”
“What can I do?” I asked, straining on my ropes.
“You’re not fast to the rock, as I am. Rollover here and untie me with your teeth.”
I raised my head to get the direction, and then, with a violent twist of my body, I started toward him; but being bound fast I could not guide myself, and I rolled off the ledge. The bank there was pretty steep, and, unable to stop, I kept on like a barrel going down-bill. The thought of rolling into the spring filled me with horror. Suddenly I bumped hard into something that checked me. It was a log of firewood, and in one end stuck the big knife which Herky-Jerky used to cut meat.
Instantly I conceived the idea of cutting my bonds with this knife. But how was I to set about it?
“Dick, here’s a knife. How’ll I get to it so as to free myself?”
“Easy as pie,” replied he, eagerly. “The sharp edge points down. You hitch yourself this way–That’s it—good!”
What Dick called easy as pie was the hardest work I ever did. I lay flat on my back, bound hand and foot, and it was necessary to jerk my body along the log till my hands should be under the knife. I lifted my legs and edged along inch by inch.
“Fine work, Ken! Now you’re right! Turn on your side! Be careful you don’t loosen the knife!”
Not only were my wrists bound, but the lasso had been wrapped round my elbows, holding them close to my body. Turning on my side, I found that I could not reach the knife–not by several inches. This was a bitter disappointment. I strained and heaved. In my effort to lift my body sidewise I pressed my face into the gravel. “Hurry, Ken, hurry!” cried Dick. “Somebody’s coming!”
Thus urged, I grew desperate. In my struggle I discovered that it was possible to edge up on the log and stick there. I glued myself to that log. By dint of great exertion I brought the tight cord against the blade. It parted with a little snap, my elbows dropped free. Raising my wrists, I sawed quickly through the bonds. I cut myself, the blood flowed, but that was no matter. jerking the knife from the log, I severed the ropes round my ankles and leaped up.
“Hurry, boy!” cried Dick, with a sharp note of alarm.
I ran to where he lay, and attacked the heavy halter with which he had been secured. I had cut half through the knots when a shrill cry arrested me. It was the Mexican’s voice.
“Head him off! He’s after your gun!” yelled Dick.
The sight of Greaser running toward the cave put me into a frenzy. Dropping the knife, I darted to where my rifle leaned across my saddle. But I saw the Mexican would beat me to it. Checking my speed, I grabbed up a round stone and let fly. That was where my ball-playing stood me in good stead, for the stone hit Greaser on the shoulder, knocking him flat. But he got up, and lunged for the rifle just as I reached him.
I kicked the rifle out of his band, grappled with him, and down we went together. We wrestled and thrashed off the ledge, and when we landed in the gravel I was on top.
“Slug him, Ken!” yelled Dick, wildly. “Oh, that’s fine! Give it to him! Punch him! Get his wind!”
Either it was a mortal dread of Greaser’s knife or some kind of a new-born fury that lent me such strength. He screeched, he snapped like a wolf, he clawed me, he struck me, but he could not shake me off. Several times he had me turning, but a hard rap on his head knocked him back again. Then I began to bang him in the ribs.
“That’s the place!” shouted Dick. “Ken, you’re going to do him up! Soak him! Oh-h, but this is great!”
I kept the advantage over Greaser, but still he punished me cruelly. Suddenly he got his snaky hands on my throat and began to choke me. With all my might I swung my fist into his stomach.
His hands dropped, his mouth opened in a gasp, his face turned green. The blow had made him horribly sick, and he sank back utterly helpless. I jumped up with a shout of triumph.
“Run! Run for it!” yelled Dick, in piercing tones. “They’re coming! Never mind me! Run, I tell you! Not down the gorge! Climb out!”
For a moment I could not move out of my tracks. Then I saw Bill and Herky running up the gorge, and, farther down, Bud staggering and lurching.
This lent me wings. In two jumps I had grabbed my rifle; then, turning, I ran round the pool, and started up the one place in the steep wall where climbing was possible. Above the yells of the men I heard Dick’s piercing cry:
I sent the loose rocks down in my flight. Here I leaped up; there I ran along a little ledge; in another place I climbed hand and foot. The last few yards was a gravelly incline. I seemed to slide back as much as I gained.
“Come back hyar!” bawled Bill.
Crack! Crack! Crack . . . The reports rang out in quick succession. A bullet whistled over me, another struck the gravel and sent a shower of dust into my face. I pitched my rifle up over the bank and began to dig my fingers and toes into the loose ground. As I gained the top two more bullets sang past my head so close that I knew Bill was aiming to more than scare me. I dragged myself over the edge and was safe.
The canyon, with its dense thickets and scrubby clumps of trees, lay below in plain sight. Once hidden there, I would be hard to find. Picking up my rifle, I ran swiftly along the base of the slope and soon gained the cover of the woods.
XI. THE OLD HUNTER
I ran till I got a stitch in my side, and then slowed down to a dog-trot. The one thing to do was to get a long way ahead of my pursuers, for surely at the outset they would stick like hounds to my trail.
A mile or more below the gorge I took to the stream and waded. It was slippery, dangerous work, for the current tore about my legs and threatened to upset me. After a little I crossed to the left bank. Here the slope of the canyon was thick with grass that hid my tracks. It was a long climb up to the level. Upon reaching it I dropped, exhausted.
“I’ve–given them–the slip,” I panted, exultantly. . . . “But–now what?”
It struck me that now I was free, I had only jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire. Hurriedly I examined my Winchester. The magazine contained ten cartridges. What luck that Stockton had neglected to unload it! This made things look better. I had salt and pepper, a knife, and matches– thanks to the little leather case–and so I could live in the woods.
It was too late for regrets. I might have freed Dick somehow or even held the men at bay, but I had thought only of escape. The lack of nerve and judgment stung me. Then I was bitter over losing my mustang and outfit.
But on thinking it all over, I concluded that I ought to be thankful for things as they were. I was free, with a whole skin. That climb out of the gorge had been no small risk. How those bullets had whistled and hissed!
“I’m pretty lucky,” I muttered. “Now to get good and clear of this vicinity. They’ll ride down the trail after me. Better go over this ridge into the next canyon and strike down that. I must go down. But how far? What must I strike for?”
I took a long look at the canyon. In places the stream showed, also the trail; then there were open patches, but I saw no horses or men. With a grim certainty that I should be lost in a very little while, I turned into the cool, dark forest.
Every stone and log, every bit of hard ground in my path, served to help hide my trail. Herky-Jerky very likely had the cowboy’s skill at finding tracks, but I left few traces of my presence on that long slope. Only an Indian or a hound could have trailed me. The timber was small and rough brush grew everywhere. Presently I saw light ahead, and I came to an open space. It was a wide swath in the forest. At once I recognized the path of an avalanche. It sloped up clean and bare to the gray cliffs far above. Below was a great mass of trees and rocks, all tangled in black splintered ruin. I pushed on across the path, into the forest, and up and down the hollows. The sun had gone down behind the mountain, and the shadows were gathering when I came to another large canyon. It looked so much like the first that I feared I had been travelling in a circle. But this one seemed wider, deeper, and there was no roar of rushing water.
It was time to think of making camp, and so I hurried down the slope. At the bottom I found a small brook winding among boulders and ledges of rock. The far side of this canyon was steep and craggy. Soon I discovered a place where I thought it would be safe to build a fire. My clothes were wet, and the air had grown keen and cold. Gathering a store of wood, I made my fire in a niche. For a bed I cut some sweet-scented pine boughs (I thought they must be from a balsam-tree), and these I laid close up in a rocky corner. Thus I had the fire between me and the opening, and with plenty of wood to burn I did not fear visits from bears or lions. At last I lay down, dry and warm indeed, but very tired and hungry.
Darkness closed in upon me. I saw a few stars, heard the cheery crackle of my fire, and then I fell asleep. Twice in the night I awakened cold, but by putting on more firewood I was soon comfortable again.
When I awoke the sun was shining brightly into my rocky bedchamber. The fire had died out completely, there was frost on the stones. To build up another fire and to bathe my face in the ice-water of the brook were my first tasks. The air was sweet; it seemed to freeze as I breathed, and was a bracing tonic. I was tingling all over, and as hungry as a starved wolf.
I set forth on a hunt for game. Even if the sound of a shot betrayed my whereabouts I should have to abide by it, for I had to eat. Stepping softly along, I glanced about me with sharp eyes. Deer trails were thick. The bottom of this canyon was very wide, and grew wider as I proceeded. Then the pines once more became large and thrifty. I judged I had come down the mountain, perhaps a couple of thousand feet below the camp in the gorge. I flushed many of the big blue grouse, and I saw numerous coyotes, a fox, and a large brown beast which moved swiftly into a thicket. It was enough to make my heart rise in my throat. To dream of hunting bears was something vastly different from meeting one in a lonely canyon.
Just after this I saw a herd of deer. They were a good way off. I began to slip from tree to tree, and drew closer. Presently I came to a little hollow with a thick, short patch of underbrush growing on the opposite side. Something crashed in the thicket. Then two beautiful deer ran out. One bounded leisurely up the slope; the other, with long ears erect, stopped to look at me. It was no more than fifty yards away. Trembling with eagerness, I leveled my rifle. I could not get the sight to stay steady on the deer. Even then, with the rifle wobbling in my intense excitement, I thought of how beautiful that wild creature was. Straining every nerve, I drew the sight till it was in line with the gray shape, then fired. The deer leaped down the slope, staggered, and crumpled down in a heap.
I tore through the bushes, and had almost reached the bottom of the hollow when I remembered that a wounded deer was dangerous. So I halted. The gray form was as still as stone. I ventured closer. The deer was dead. My bullet had entered high above the shoulder at the juncture of the neck. Though I had only aimed at him generally, I took a good deal of pride in my first shot at a deer.
Fortunately my pen-knife had a fair-sized blade. With it I decided to cut out part of the deer and carry it back to my camp. Then it occurred to me that I might as well camp where I was. There were several jumbles of rock and a cliff within a stone’s-throw of where I stood. Besides, I must get used to making camp wherever I happened to be. Accordingly, I took hold of the deer, and dragged him down the hollow till I came to a leaning slab of rock.
Skinning a deer was, of course, new to me. I haggled the flesh somewhat and cut through the skin often, my knife-blade being much too small for such work. Finally I thought it would be enough for me to cut out the haunches, and then I got down to one haunch. It had bothered me how I was going to sever the joint, but to my great surprise I found there did not seem to be any connection between the bones. The haunch came out easily, and I hung it up on a branch while making a fire.
Herky-Jerky’s method of broiling a piece of venison at the end of a stick solved the problem of cooking. Then it was that the little flat flask, full of mixed salt and pepper, rewarded me for the long carrying of it. I was hungry, and I feasted.
By this time the sun shone warm, and the canyon was delightful. I roamed around, sat on sunny stones, and lay in the shade of pines. Deer browsed in the glades. When they winded or saw me they would stand erect, shoot up their long cars, and then leisurely lope away. Coyotes trotted out of thickets and watched me suspiciously. I could have shot several, but deemed it wise to be saving of my ammunition. Once I heard a low drumming. I could not imagine what made it. Then a big blue grouse strutted out of a patch of bushes. He spread his wings and tail and neck feathers, after the fashion of a turkey-gobbler. It was a flap or shake of his wings that produced the drumming. I wondered if he intended, by his actions, to frighten me away from his mate’s nest. So I went toward him, and got very close before he flew. I caught sight of his mate in the bushes, and, as I had supposed, she was on a nest. Though wanting to see her eggs or young ones, I resisted the temptation, for I was afraid if I went nearer she might abandon her nest, as some mother birds do.
It did not seem to me that I was lost, yet lost I was. The peaks were not in sight. The canyon widened down the slope, and I was pretty sure that it opened out flat into the great pine forest of Penetier. The only thing that bothered me was the loss of my mustang and outfit; I could not reconcile myself to that. So I wandered about with a strange, full sense of freedom such as I had never before known. What was to be the end of my adventure I could not guess, and I wasted no time worrying over it.
The knowledge I had of forestry I tried to apply. I studied the north and south slopes of the canyon, observing how the trees prospered on the sunny side. Certain saplings of a species unknown to me had been gnawed fully ten feet from the ground. This puzzled me. Squirrels could not have done it, nor rabbits, nor birds. Presently I hit upon the solution. The bark and boughs of this particular sapling were food for deer, and to gnaw so high the deer must have stood upon six or seven feet of snow.
I dug into the soft duff under the pines. This covering of the roots was very thick and deep. I made it out to be composed of pine-needles, leaves, and earth. It was like a sponge. No wonder such covering held the water! I pried bark off dead trees and dug into decayed logs to find the insect enemies of the trees. The open places, where little colonies of pine sprouts grew, seemed generally to be down-slope from the parent trees. It was easy to tell the places where the wind had blown the seeds.
The hours sped by. The shadows of the pines lengthened, the sun set, and the shade deepened in the hollows. Returning to my camp, I cooked my supper and made my bed. When I had laid up a store of firewood it was nearly dark.
With night came the coyotes. The carcass of the deer attracted them, and they approached from all directions. At first it was fascinating to hear one howl far off in the forest, and then to notice the difference in the sound as he came nearer and nearer. The way they barked and snapped out there in the darkness was as wild a thing to hear as any boy could have wished for. It began to be a little too much for me. I kept up a bright fire, and, though not exactly afraid, I had a perch picked out in the nearest tree. Suddenly the coyotes became silent. Then a low, continuous growling, a snapping of twigs, and the unmistakable drag of a heavy body over the ground made my hair stand on end. Gripping my rifle, I listened. I heard the crunch of teeth on bones, then more sounds of something being dragged down the hollow. The coyotes began to bark again, but now far back in the forest.
Some beast had frightened them. What was it? I did not know whether a bear would eat deer flesh,, but I thought not. Perhaps timber-wolves had disturbed the coyotes. But would they run from wolves? It came to me suddenly–a mountain-lion!
I hugged my fire, and sat there, listening with all my ears, imagining every rustle of leaf to be the step of a lion. It was long before the thrills and shivers stopped chasing over me, longer before I could decide to lie down. But after a while the dead quiet of the forest persuaded me that the night was far advanced, and I fell asleep.
The first thing in the morning I took my rifle and went out to where I had left the carcass of the deer. It was gone. It had been dragged away. A dark path on the pine-needles and grass, and small bushes pressed to the ground, plainly marked the trail. But search as I might, I could not find the track of the animal that had dragged off the deer. After following the trail for a few rods, I decided to return to camp and cook breakfast before going any farther. While I was at it I cut many thin slices of venison, and, after roasting them, I stored them away in the capacious pocket of my coat.
My breakfast finished, I again set out to see what had become of the remains of the deer. In two or three places the sharp hoofs had cut lines in the soft earth, and there were tufts of whitish-gray hair elsewhere. A hundred yards or more down the hollow I came to a bare spot where recently there had been a pool of water. Here I found cat tracks as large as my two hands. I had never seen the track of a mountain-lion, but, all the same, I knew that this was the real thing. What an enormous brute he must have been! I cast fearful glances into the surrounding thickets.
It was not needful to travel much farther. Under a bush well hidden in a clump of trees lay what now remained of my deer. A patch of gray hair, a few long bones, a split skull, and two long ears–no more! Even the hide was gone. Perhaps the coyotes had finished the job after the lion had gorged himself, but I did not think so. It seemed to me that coyotes would have scattered the remains. Those two long ears somehow seemed pathetic. I wished for a second that the lion were in range of my rifle.
The lion was driven from my mind when I saw a troop of deer cross a glade below me. I had to fight myself to keep from shooting. The wind blew rather strong in my face, which probably accounted for the deer not winding me.
Then the whip-like crack of a rifle riveted me where I stood. One of the deer fell, and the others bounded away. I saw a tall man stride down the slope and into the glade. He was not like any of the loggers or lumbermen. They were mostly brawny and round-shouldered. This man was lithe, erect; he walked like athletes I had seen. Surely I should find a friend in him, and I lost no time in running down into the glade. He saw me as soon as I was clear of the trees, and stood leaning on his rifle.
“Wal, dog-gone my buttons!” he ejaculated. “Who’re you?”
I blurted out all about myself, at the same time taking stock of him. He was not young, but I had never seen a young man so splendid. Hair, beard, and skin were all of a dark gray. His eyes, too, were gray–the keenest and clearest I had ever looked into. They shone with a kindly light, otherwise I might have thought his face hard and stern. His shoulders were very wide, his arms long, his hands enormous. His buckskin shirt attracted my attention to his other clothes, which looked like leather overalls or heavy canvas. A belt carried a huge knife and a number of shells of large caliber; the Winchester he had was exceedingly long and heavy, and of an old pattern. The look of him brought back my old fancy of Wetzel or Kit Carson.
“So I’m lost,” I concluded, “and don’t know what to do. I daren’t try to find the sawmill. I won’t go back to Holston just yet.”
“An’ why not, youngster? ‘Pears to me you’d better make tracks from Penetier.”
I told him why, at which he laughed.
“Wal, I reckon you can stay with me fer a spell. My camp’s in the head of this canyon.”
“Oh, thank you, that’ll be fine!” I exclaimed. My great good luck filled me with joy. “Do you stay on the mountain?”
“Be’n here goin’ on eighteen years, youngster. Mebbe you’ve heerd my name. Hiram Bent.”
“Are you a hunter?”
“Wal, I reckon so, though I’m more a trapper. Here, you pack my gun.”
With that he drew his knife and set to work on the deer. It was wonderful to see his skill. In a few cuts and strokes, a ripping of the hide and a powerful slash, he had cut out a haunch. It took even less work for the second. Then he hung the rest of the deer on a snag, and wiped his knife and hands on the grass.
“Come on, youngster,” he said, starting up the canyon.
I showed him where the carcass of my deer had been devoured.
“Cougar. Thar’s a big feller has the run of this canyon.”
“Cougar? I thought it was a mountain-lion.”
“Cougar, painter, panther, lion–all the same critter. An’ if you leave him alone he’ll not bother you, but he’s bad in a corner.”
“He scared away the coyotes.”
“Youngster, even a silver-tip–thet’s a grizzly bear–will make tracks away from a cougar. I lent my pack of hounds to a pard over near Springer. If I had them we’d put thet cougar up a tree in no time.”
“Are there many lions–cougars here?”
“Only a few. Thet’s why there’s plenty of deer. Other game is plentiful, too. Foxes, wolves, an’, up in the mountains, bears are thick.”
“Then I may get to see one–get a shot at one?”
“Wal, I reckon.”
From that time I trod on air. I found myself wishing for my brother Hal. I became reconciled to the loss of mustang and outfit. For a moment I almost forgot Dick and Buell. Forestry seemed less important than hunting. I had read a thousand books about old hunters and trappers, and here I was in a wild mountain canyon with a hunter who might have stepped out of one of my dreams. So I trudged along beside him, asking a question now and then, and listening always. He certainly knew what would interest me. There was scarcely a thing he said that I would ever forget. After a while, however, the trail became so steep and rough that I, at least, had no breath to spare for talking. We climbed and climbed. The canyon had become a narrow, rocky cleft. Huge stones blocked the way. A ragged growth of underbrush fringed the stream. Dead pines, with branches like spears, lay along the trail.
We came upon a little clearing, where there was a rude log-cabin with a stone chimney. Skins of animals were tacked upon logs. Under the bank was a spring. The mountain overshadowed this wild nook.
“Wal, youngster, here’s my shack. Make yourself to home,” said Hiram Bent.
I was all eyes as we entered the cabin. Skins, large and small, and of many colors, hung upon the walls. A fire burned in a wide stone grate. A rough table and some pans and cooking utensils showed evidence of recent scouring. A bunch of steel traps lay in a corner. Upon a shelf were tin cans and cloth bags, and against the wall stood a bed of glossy bearskins. To me the cabin was altogether a most satisfactory place.
“I reckon ye’re tired?” asked the hunter. “Thet’s some pumpkins of a climb unless you’re used to it.”
I admitted I was pretty tired.
“Wal, rest awhile. You look like you hadn’t slept much.”
He asked me about my people and home, and was so interested in forestry that he left off his task of the moment to talk about it. I was not long in discovering that what he did not know about trees and forests was hardly worth learning. He called it plain woodcraft. He had never heard of forestry. All the same I hungered for his knowledge. How lucky for me to fall in with him! The things that had puzzled me about the pines he answered easily. Then he volunteered information. From talking of the forest, he drifted to the lumbermen.
“Wal, the lumber-sharks are rippin’ holes in Penetier. I reckon they wouldn’t stop at nothin’. I’ve heered some tough stories about thet sawmill gang. I ain’t acquainted with Leslie, or any of them fellers you named except Jim Williams. I knowed Jim. He was in Springer fer a while. If Jim’s your friend, there’ll be somethin’ happenin, when he rounds up them kidnappers. I reckon you’d better hang up with me fer a while. You don’t want to get ketched again. Your life wasn’t much to them fellers. I think they’d held on to you fer money. It’s too bad you didn’t send word home to your people.”
“I sent word home about the big steal of timber. That was before I got kidnapped. By this time the Government knows.”
“Wal, you don’t say! Thet was pert of you, youngster. An’ will the Government round up these sharks?”
“Indeed it will. The Government is in dead earnest about protecting the National Forests.”
“So it ought to be. Next to a forest fire, I hate these skinned timber tracts. Wal, old Penetier’s going to see somethin’ lively before long. Youngster, them lumbermen–leastways, them fellers you call Bud an’ Bill, an’ such–they’re goin’ to fight.”
The old hunter left me presently, and went outside. I waited awhile for him, but as he did not return I lay down upon the bearskins and dropped to sleep. It seemed I had hardly closed my eyes when I felt a hand on my arm and heard a voice.
“Wake up, youngster. Thar’s two old bears an’ a cub been foolin’ with one of my traps.”
In a flash I was wide awake.
“Let’s see your gun. Humph! pretty small–38 caliber, ain’t it? Wal, it’ll do the work if you hold straight. Can you shoot?”
He took his heavy Winchester, and threw a coil of thin rope over his shoulder.
“Come on. Stay close to me, an’ keep your eyes peeled.”
The old hunter walked so swiftly that I had to run to keep up with him. The trail led up the creek, now on one side, again on the other, and I was constantly skipping from stone to stone. The grassy slopes grew fewer, and finally gave way altogether to cracked cliffs and weathered rocks. A fringe of pine-trees leaned over the top with here and there a blasted spear standing out white.
“I had my trap set up thet draw,” said Hiram Bent, as he pointed toward an intersecting canyon. “Just before I waked you I was comin’ along here, an’ I heered an all-fired racket up thar, an’ so I watched. Soon three black bears come paddlin’ down, an’ the biggest was draggin’ the trap with the chain an’ log. Then I hurried to tell you. They can’t be far.”
“Are they grizzlies?” I asked, trying to speak naturally.
“Nope. Jest plain black bears. But the one with the trap is a whopper. He’ll go over four hundred. See the tracks? Looks like somebody’d been plowin’ up the stones.”
There were deep tracks in the sand, and broad furrows, and stones overturned, and places where a heavy object had crushed the gravel even and smooth.
The old hunter kept striding on, and I wondered bow he could go so fast without running. Presently we came to where the canyon forked. Hiram started up the right-hand fork, then suddenly stopped, and, turning, began to go back, carefully examining the ground.
“They’ve split on us,” he explained. “The ole feller with the trap went up the right-hand draw, an’ the mother an’ cub took to the left. Now, youngster, can you keep your nerve?”
“I think so.”
“Wal, you go after the ole feller. You can’t miss him, an’ he won’t be far. You’ll hear him bellerin’ long before you git to him, though he might lay low, so you steer clear of big boulders an’ thickets. Kill him, an’ then run back an’ take up this draw. The she bear is cute an’ may give me the slip, but if she doesn’t climb out soon I’ll head her off. Hurry on, now. Keep your eye peeled, an’ you’ll be safe as if you were to home.”
With that he disappeared round the corner of stone wall where the canyon divided. I wheeled and went to the right. This wing of the canyon twisted and turned and was full of stones. A shallow sheet of water gleamed over its colored bed of gravel. The walls were straight up, and, in places, bulged outward. I flinched at every turn in the canyon; but, with rifle cocked and thrust forward, I went on. The cracks in the walls, the boulders and pieces of cliff that obstructed my path, and the occasional thickets– all made me halt with careful step and finger on the trigger. I followed the splashes on the stones, which told me that the bear had passed that way. As I went cautiously on I felt a tightening at my throat. The light above grew dimmer. When I stopped to listen it was so silent that I heard only the pounding of my heart and my own quick breathing. I pressed on and on, going faster all the time not that I felt braver, but I longed to end the suspense. Suddenly the silence was broken by a threatening roar. It swept down on me, swelling as it continued, and it seemed to fill the canyon. It shook my pulses, it urged me to flight, but I could not move. Then as suddenly it ceased.
For a long moment I stood still, with no idea of advancing farther. The clinking of a chain seemed to release my cramped muscles. Very cautiously I peered around a projecting corner of wall. There sat a huge black bear on his haunches holding up a great steel trap which clutched one of his paws. It was such a strange sight that my fear was forgotten. There was something almost human in the way the bear looked at that trap. He touched it gingerly with his free paw, and nosed it. I crept up close to the corner of stone and looked around again. The bear was now close to me. I saw the heavy chain and the log to which it was attached. He looked at trap and log in a grave, pathetic way, as if trying to reason about them. Then he roused into furious action, swinging the trap, dragging the log, and bellowing in such a frightful manner that I dodged back behind the wall.
But this sudden change in the bear, this appalling roar with its note of pain, awakened me to his suffering. When the noise stopped and I looked again, the bear was a sight not to be forgotten. He showed a helpless, terrible fear of the steel-jawed thing on his foot. He dropped down on the sand with a groan, and there was a despairing look in his eyes.
This made me forget my fear, and I had only one thought–to put him out of his misery. When I leveled my rifle it was as steady as the rock beside me. Aiming just below his ear, I pressed the trigger. The dull report re-echoed from wall to wall. The bear lurched slightly, and his head fell upon his outstretched paws. I waited, ready to shoot again upon the slightest movement, but there was none.
With rifle ready I cautiously approached the bear. As I came close he seemed larger and larger, but he showed no signs of life. I looked at the glossy black fur, the flecks of blood on the side of his head where my bullet had entered, the murderous saw-teeth of the heavy trap biting to the bone, and the cruelty of that trap seemed to drive from me all pride of achievement. It was nothing except mercy to kill a trapped crippled bear that could not run or fight. Then and there I gained a dislike for trapping animals.
The crack of the old hunter’s rifle made me remember that I was to hurry back up the other canyon, so I began to run. I bounded from stone to stone, dashed over the sand-bars, jumped the brook, and went down that canyon perhaps in far greater danger of bodily harm than when I had gone up.
But when I turned the corner it was another story. The first canyon had been easy climbing compared to this one. It was narrow, steep, and full of dead pines fallen from above. Running was impossible. I clambered upward over the loose stones, under the bridges of pines, round the boulders. Presently I heard a shout. I could not tell where it came from, but I replied. A second call I identified as coming from high up the ragged canyon side, and I started up. It was hard work. Certainly no bears or hunter had climbed out just here. At length, sore, spent, and torn, I fell out of a tangle of brush upon the edge of the canyon. Above me rose the swelling mountain slope thickly covered with dwarf pines.
“This way, youngster!” called the old hunter from my left.
A few more dashes in and out of the brush and trees brought me to a fairly open space with not much slope. Hiram Bent stood under a pine, and at his feet lay a black furry mass.
“Wal, I heerd you shoot. Reckon you got yourn?”
“Yes, I killed him. . . . Say, Mr. Bent, I don’t like traps.”
“Nary do I–for bears,” replied he, shaking his gray head. “A trapped bear is about the pitifulest thing I ever seen. But it’s seldom one ever gits into trap of mine.”
“This one you shot must be the old mother bear. Where’s the cub? Did it get away?”
“Not yet. Lookup in the tree.”
I looked up the black trunk through the network of slender branches, and saw the bear snuggling in a fork. His sharp ears stood up against the sky. He was most anxiously gazing down at us.
“Wal, tumble him out of thar,” said Hiram Bent.
With a natural impulse to shoot I raised my rifle, but the cub looked so attractive and so helpless that I hesitated.
“I don’t like to do it,” I said. “Oh, I wish we could catch him alive!”
“Wal, I reckon we can.”
“How?” I inquired, eagerly, and lowered my rifle.
“Are you good on the climb?”
“Climb? This tree? Why, with one hand. Back in Pennsylvania I climbed shell-bark hickory-trees with the lowest limb fifty feet from the ground. . . But there weren’t any bears up them.”
“You must keep out of his way if he comes down on you. He’s a sassy little chap. Now take this rope an’ go up an’ climb round him.”
“Climb round him?” I queried, as I gazed dubiously upward. “You mean to slip out on the branches and go up hand-over-hand till I get above him. The branches up there seem pretty close–I might. But suppose he goes higher?”
“I’m lookin’ fer him to go clean to the top. But you can beat him to it– mebbe.”
“Any danger of his attacking me–up there?”
“Wal, not much. If he hugs the trunk he’ll have to hold on fer all he’s worth. But if he stands on the branches an’ you come up close he might bat you one. Mebbe I’d better go up.”
“Oh, I’m going–I only wanted to know what to expect. Now, in case I get above him, what then?”
“Make him back down till he reaches these first branches. When he gets so far I’ll tell you what to do.” I put my arm through the coil of rope, and, slinging it snugly over my shoulder, began to climb the pine. It was the work of only a moment to reach the first branch.
“Wal, I reckon you’re some relation to a squirrel at thet,” said Hiram Bent. “Jest as I thought the little cuss is climbin’ higher. Thet’s goin’ to worry us.”
It was like stepping up a ladder from the first branch to the fork. The cub had gone up the right-hand trunk some fifteen feet, and was now hugging it. At that short distance he looked alarmingly big. But I saw he would have all he could do to hold on, and if I could climb the left trunk and get above him there would be little to fear. How I did it so quickly was a mystery, but amid the cracking of dead branches and pattering of falling bark and swaying of the tree-top I gained a position above him.
He was so close that I could smell him. His quick little eyes snapped fire and fear at once; he uttered a sound that was between a whine and a growl.
“Hey, youngster!” yelled Hiram, “thet’s high enough–’tain’t safe–be careful now.”
With the words I looked out below me, to see the old hunter standing in the glade waving his arms.
“I’m all right!” I yelled down. “Now, how’ll I drive him?”
“Break off a branch an’ switch him.”
There was not a branch above me that I could break, but a few feet below was a slender, dead limb. I slid down and got it, and, holding on with my left arm and legs, I began to thrash the cub. He growled fiercely. snapped at the stick, and began to back down.
“He’s started!” I cried, in glee. “Go on, Cubby–down with you!”
Clumsy as he was, he made swift time. I was hard put to keep close to him. I slipped down the trunk–holding on one instant and sliding down the next. But below the fork it was harder for Cubby and easier for me. The branches rather hindered his backward progress while they aided mine. Growling and whining, with long claws ripping the bark, he went down. All of a sudden I became aware of the old hunter threshing about under the tree.
“Hold on–not so fast!” he yelled.
Still the cub kept going, and stopped with his haunches on the first branch. There, looking down, he saw an enemy below him, and hesitated. But he looked up, and, seeing me, began to back down again. Hiram pounded the tree with a dead branch. Cubby evidently intended to reach the ground, for the noise did not stop him. Then the hunter ran a little way to a windfall, and came back with the upper half of a dead sapling. With this he began to prod the bear. Thereupon, Cubby lost no time in getting up to the first branch again, where he halted.
“Throw the noose on him now–anywhere,” ordered the hunter. “An’ we’ve no time to lose. He’s gittin’ sassier every minnit.”
I dropped the wide loop upon Cubby, expecting to catch him first time. The rope went over his bead, but with a dexterous flip of his paw he sent it flying. Then began a duel between us, in which he continually got the better of me. All the while the old hunter prodded Cubby from below.
“You ain’t quick enough,” said Hiram, impatiently.
Made reckless by this, I stepped down to another branch directly over the bear, and tried again to rope him. It was of no use. He slipped out of the noose with the sinuous movements of an eel. Once it caught over his ears and in his open jaws. He gave a jerk that nearly pulled me from my perch. I could tell he was growing angrier every instant, and also braver. Suddenly the noose, quite by accident, caught his nose. He wagged his head and I pulled. The noose tightened.
“I’ve got him!” I yelled, and gave the rope a strong pull.
The bear stood up with startling suddenness and reached for me.
“Climb!” shouted Hiram,
I dropped the rope and leaped for the branch above, and, catching it, lifted myself just as the sharp claws of the cub scratched hard over my boot.
Cubby now hugged the tree trunk and started up again.
“We’ve got him!” yelled Hiram. “Don’t move–step on his nose if he gets too close.”
Then I saw the halter had come off the bear and had fallen to the ground. Hiram picked it up, arranged the noose, and, holding it in his teeth began to limb after the bear. Cubby was now only a few feet under me, working steadily up, growling, and his little eyes were like points of green fire.
“Stop him! Stand on his head!” mumbled Hiram, with the rope in his teeth.
“What!–not on your life!”
But, reaching up, I grasped a branch, and, swinging clear of the lower one, I began to kick at the bear. This stopped him. Then he squealed, and began to kick on his own account. Hiram was trying to get the noose over a bind foot. After several attempts he succeeded, and then threw the rope over the lowest branch. I gave a wild Indian yell of triumph. The next instant, before I could find a foothold, the branch to which I was hanging snapped like a pistol-shot, and I plunged down with a crash. I struck the bear and the lower branch, and then the ground. The fall half stunned me. I thought every bone in my body was broken. I rose unsteadily, and for a moment everything whirled before my eyes. Then I discovered that the roar in my ears was the old hunter’s yell. I saw him hauling on the rope. There was a great ripping of bark and many strange sounds, and then the cub was dangling head downward. Hiram had pulled him from his perch, and hung him over the lowest branch.
“Thar, youngster, git busy now!” yelled the hunter. “Grab the other rope– thar it is–an’ rope a front paw while I hold him. Lively now, he’s mighty heavy, an’ if he ever gits down with only one rope on him we’ll think we’re fast to chain lightnin’.”
The bear swung about five feet from the ground. As I ran at him with the noose he twisted himself, seemed to double up in a knot, then he dropped full-stretched again, and lunged viciously at me. Twice I felt the wind of his paws. He spun around so fast that it kept me dancing. I flung the noose and caught his right paw. Hiram bawled something that made me all the more heedless, and in tightening the noose I ran in too close. The bear gave me a slashing cuff on the side of the head, and I went down like a tenpin.
“Git a hitch thar–to the saplin’!” roared Hiram, as I staggered to my feet. “Rustle now–hurry!”
What with my ringing head, and fingers all thumbs, and Hiram roaring at me, I made a mess of tying the knot. Then Hiram let go his rope, and when the cub dropped to the ground the rope flew up over the branch. Cubby leaped so quickly that he jerked the rope away before Hiram could pick it up, and one hard pull loosened my hitch on the sapling.
The cub bounded through the glade, dragging me with him. For a few long leaps I kept my feet, then down I sprawled.
“Hang on! Hang on!” Hiram yelled from behind.
If I had not been angry clear through at that cub I might have let go. He ploughed my face in the dirt, and almost jerked my arms off. Suddenly the strain lessened. I got up, to see that the old hunter had hold of the other rope.
“Now, stretch him out!” he yelled.
Between us we stretched the cub out, so that all he could do was struggle and paw the air and utter strange cries. Hiram tied his rope to a tree, and then ran back to relieve me. It was high time. He took my rope and fastened it to a stout bush.
“Thar, youngster, I reckon thet’ll hold him! Now tie his paws an’ muzzle him.”
He drew some buckskin thongs from his pocket and handed them to me. We went up to the straining cub, and Hiram, with one pull of his powerful hands, brought the hind legs together.
“Tie ’em,” he said.
This done, with the aid of a heavy piece of wood he pressed the cub’s head down and wound a thong tightly round the sharp nose. Then he tied the front legs.
“Thar! Now you loosen the ropes an’ wind them up.”
When I had done this he lifted the cub and swung him over his broad back.
“Come on, you trail behind, an’ keep your eye peeled to see he doesn’t work thet knot off his jaws. . . . Say, youngster, now you’ve got him, what in thunder will you do with him?”
I looked at my torn trousers, at the blood on my skinned and burning hands, and I felt of the bruise on my head, as I said, grimly: “I’ll hang to him as long as I can.”
XIII. THE CABIN IN THE FOREST
Hiram Bent packed the cub down the canyon as he would have handled a sack of oats. When we reached the cabin he fastened a heavy dog-collar round Cubby’s neck and snapped a chain to it. Doubling the halter, he tied one end to the chain and the other to a sturdy branch of a tree. This done, he slipped the thongs off the bear.
“Thar! He’ll let you pet him in a few days mebbe,” he said.
Our captive did not yet show any signs of becoming tame. No sooner was he free of the buckskin thongs than he leaped away, only to be pulled up by the halter. Then he rolled over and over, clawing at the chain, and squirming to get his head out of the collar.
“He might choke hisself,” said Hiram, “but mebbe he’ll ease up if we stay away from him. Now we’ve got to rustle to skin them two bears.”
So, after giving me a hunting-knife, and telling me to fetch my rifle, he set off up the canyon. As I trudged along behind him I spoke of Dick Leslie, and asked if there were not some way to get him out of the clutches of the lumber thieves.
“I’ve been thinkin’ about thet,” replied the hunter, “an’ I reckon we can. Tomorrow we’ll cross the ridge high up back of thet spring-hole canyon, an’ sneak down. ‘Pears to me them fellers will be trailin’ you pretty hard, an’ mebbe they’ll leave only one to guard Leslie. More’n thet, the trail up here to my shack is known, an’ I’m thinkin’ we’d be smart to go off an’ camp somewhere else.”
“What’ll I do about Cubby?” I asked, quickly.
“Cubby? Oh, thet bear cub. Wal, take him along. Youngster, you don’t want to pack thet pesky cub back to Pennsylvania?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I reckon it ain’t likely you can. He’s pretty heavy. Weighs nearly a hundred. An’ he’d make a heap of trouble. Mebbe we’ll ketch a little cub–one you can carry in your arms.”
“That’d be still better,” I replied. “But if we don’t, I’ll try to take him back home.”
The old hunter said I made a good shot at the big bear, and that he would give me the skin for a rug. It delighted me to think of that huge glossy bearskin on the floor of my den. I told Hiram how the bear had suffered, and I was glad to see that, although he was a hunter and trapper, he disliked to catch a bear in a trap. We skinned the animal, and cut out a quantity of meat. He told me that bear meat would make me forget all about venison. By the time we had climbed up the other canyon and skinned the other bear and returned to camp it was dark. As for me, I was so tired I could hardly crawl.
In spite of my aches and pains, that was a night for me to remember. But there was the thought of Dick Leslie. His rescue was the only thing needed to make me happy. Dick was in my mind even when Hiram cooked a supper that almost made me forget my manners. Certainly the broiled bear meat made me forget venison. Then we talked before the burning logs in the stone fire- place. Hiram sat on his home-made chair and smoked a strong-smelling pipe while I lay on a bearskin in blissful ease. Occasionally we heard the cub outside rattling his chain and growling. All of the trappers and Indian fighters I had read of were different from Hiram Bent and Jim Williams. Jim’s soft drawl and kind, twinkling eyes were not what any book-reader would expect to find in a dangerous man. And Hiram Bent was so simple and friendly, so glad to have even a boy to talk to, that it seemed he would never stop. If it had not been for his striking appearance and for the strange, wild tales he told of his lonely life, he would have reminded me of the old canal-lock tenders at home.
Once, when he was refilling his pipe and I thought it would be a good time to profit from his knowledge of the forests, I said to him:
“Now, Mr. Bent, let’s suppose I’m the President of the United States, and I have just appointed you to the office of Chief Forester of the National Forests. You have full power. The object is to conserve our national resources. What will you do?”
“Wal, Mr. President,” he began, slowly and seriously, and with great dignity, “the Government must own the forests an’ deal wisely with them. These mountain forests are great sponges to hold the water, an’ we must stop fire an’ reckless cuttin’. The first thing is to overcome the opposition of the stockmen, an’ show them where the benefit will be theirs in the long run. Next the timber must be used, but not all used up. We’ll need rangers who’re used to rustlin’ in the West an’ know Western ways. Cabins must be built, trails made, roads cut. We’ll need a head forester for every forest. This man must know all that’s on his preserve, an’ have it mapped. He must teach his rangers what he knows about trees. Penetier will be given over entirely to the growin’ of yellow pine. Thet thrives best, an’ the parasites must go. All dead an’ old timber must be cut, an’ much of thet where the trees are crowded. The north slopes must be cut enough to let in the sun an’ light. Brush, windfalls rottin’ logs must be burned. Thickets of young pine must be thinned. Care oughten be taken not to cut on the north an’ west edges of the forests, as the old guard pines will break the wind.”
“How will you treat miners and prospectors?”
“They must be as free to take up claims as if there wasn’t no National Forest.”
“How about the settler, the man seeking a home out West?” I went on.
“We’ll encourage him. The more men there are, the better the forester can fight fire. But those home-seekers must want a home, an’ not be squattin’ for a little, jest to sell out to lumber sharks.”
“What’s to become of timber and wood?”
“Wal, it’s there to be used, an’ must be used. We’ll give it free to the settler an’ prospector. We’ll sell it cheap to the lumbermen–big an’ little. We’ll consider the wants of the local men first.”
“Now about the range. Will you keep out the stockmen?”
“Nary. Grazin’ for sheep, cattle, an’ hosses will go on jest the same. But we must look out for overgrazin’. For instance, too many cattle will stamp down young growth, an’ too many sheep leave no grazin’ for other stock. The bead forester must know his business, an’ not let his range be overstocked. The small local herders an’ sheepmen must be considered first, the big stockmen second. Both must be charged a small fee per head for grazin’.”
“How will you fight fire?”
“Wal, thet’s the hard nut to crack. Fire is the forest’s worst enemy. In a dry season like this Penetier would burn like tinder blown by a bellows. Fire would race through here faster ‘n a man could run. I’ll need special fire rangers, an’ all other rangers must be trained to fight fire, an’ then any men living in or near the forest will be paid to help. The thing to do is watch for the small fires an’ put them out. Campers must be made to put out their fires before leaving camp. Brush piles an’ slashes mustn’t be burned in dry or windy weather.”
Just where we left off talking I could not remember, for I dropped off to sleep. I seemed hardly to have closed my eyes when the hunter called me in the morning. The breakfast was smoking on the red-hot coals, and outside the cabin all was dense gray fog.
When, soon after, we started down the canyon, the fog was lifting and the forest growing lighter. Everything was as white with frost as if it had snowed. A thin, brittle frost crackled under our feet. When we, had gotten below the rocky confines of the canyon we climbed the slope to the level ridge. Here it was impossible not to believe it had snowed. The forest was as still as night, and looked very strange with the white aisles lined by black tree trunks and the gray fog shrouding the tree-tops. Soon we were climbing again, and I saw that Hiram meant to head the canyon where I had left Dick.
The fog split and blew away, and the brilliant sunlight changed the forest. The frost began to melt, and the air was full of mist. We climbed and climbed–out of the stately yellow-pine zone, up among the gnarled and blasted spruces, over and around strips of weathered stone. Once I saw a cold, white snow-peak. It was hard enough for me to carry my rifle and keep up with the hunter without talking. Besides, Hiram had answered me rather shortly, and I thought it best to keep silent. From time to time he stopped to listen. Then when he turned to go down the slope be trod carefully, and cautioned me not to loosen stones, and he went slower and yet slower. From this I made sure we were not far from the springhole.
“Thar’s the canyon,” he whispered, stopping to point below, where a black, irregular line marked the gorge. “I haven’t heerd a thing, an’ we’re close. Mebbe they’re asleep. Mebbe most of them are trallin’ you, an’ I hope so. Now, don’t you put your hand or foot on anythin’ thet’ll make a noise.”
Then he slipped off, and it was wonderful to see how noiselessly he stepped, and how he moved between trees and dead branches without a sound. I managed pretty well, yet more than once a rattling stone or a broken branch stopped Hiram short and made him lift a warning hand.
At last we got down to the narrow bench which separated the canyon-slope from the deep cut. It was level and roughly strewn with boulders. Here we took to all fours and crawled. It was easy to move here without noise, for the ground was rocky and hard, and there was no brush.
Suddenly I fairly bumped into the hunter. Looking up, I saw that he had halted only a few feet from the edge of the gorge where I had climbed out in my escape. He was listening. There was not a sound save the dull roar of rushing water.
Hiram slid forward a little, and rose cautiously to look over. I did the same. When I saw the cave and the spring-hole I felt a catch in my throat.
But there was not a man in sight. Dick’s captors had broken camp; they were gone. The only thing left in the gorge to show they had ever been there was a burned-out campfire.
“They’re gone,” I whispered.
“Wal, it ‘pears so,” replied Hiram. “An’ it’s a move I don’t like. Youngster, it’s you they want. Leslie’s no particular use to them. They’ll have to let him go sooner or later, if they hain’t already.”
“What’ll we do now?”
“Make tracks. We’ll cut back acrost the ridge an’ git some blankets an’ grub, then light out for the other side of Penetier.”
I thought the old hunter had made rapid time on our way up, but now I saw what he really meant by “making tracks.” Fortunately, after a short, killing climb, the return was all down-hill. One stride of Hiram’s equalled two of mine, and he made his faster, so that I had to trot now and then to catch up. Very soon I was as hot as fire, and every step was an effort. But I kept thinking of Dick, of my mustang and outfit, and I vowed I would stick to Hiram Bent’s trail till I dropped. For the matter of that I did drop more than once before we reached the cabin.
A short rest while Hiram was packing a few things put me right again. I strapped my rifle over my shoulder, and then went out to untie my bear cub. It would have cost me a great deal to leave him behind. I knew I ought to, still I could not bring myself to it. All my life I had wanted a bear cub. Here was one that I had helped to lasso and tie up with my own hands. I made up my mind to hold to the cub until the last gasp.
So I walked up to Cubby with a manner more bold than sincere. He had not eaten anything, but he had drunk the water we had left for him. To my surprise he made no fuss when I untied the rope; on the other hand, he seemed to look pleased, and I thought I detected a cunning gleam in his little eyes. He paddled away down the canyon, and, as this was in the direction we wanted to go, I gave him slack rope and followed.
“Wal, you’re goin’ to have a right pert time, youngster, an’ don’t you forget it,” said Hiram Bent.
The truth of that was very soon in evidence. Cubby would not let well enough alone, and he would not have a slack rope. I think he wanted to choke himself or pull my arms out. When I realized that Cubby was three times as strong as I was I began to see that my work was cut out for me. The more, however, that he jerked me and hauled me along, the more I determined to hang on. I thought I had a genuine love for him up to the time he had almost knocked my head off, but it was funny how easily he roused my anger after that. What would have happened had he taken a notion to go through the brush? Luckily he kept to the trail, which certainly was rough enough. So, with watching the cub and keeping my feet free of roots and rocks, I had no chance to look ahead. Still I had no concern about this, for the old hunter was at my heels, and I knew he would keep a sharp lookout.
Before I was aware of it we had gotten out of the narrow canyon into a valley with well-timbered bottom, and open, slow rising slopes. We were getting down into Penetier. Cubby swerved from the trail and started up the left slope. I did not want to go, but I had to keep with him, and that was the only way. The hunter strode behind without speaking, and so I gathered that the direction suited him. By leaning back on the rope I walked up the slope as easily as if it were a moving stairway. Cubby pulled me up; I had only to move my feet. When we reached a level once more I discovered that the cub was growing stronger and wanted to go faster. We zigzagged across the ridge to the next canyon, which at a glance I saw was deep and steep.
“Thet’ll be some work goin’ down that!” called Hiram. “Let me pack your gun.”
I would have been glad to give it to him, but how was I to manage? I could not let go of the rope, and Hiram, laden as he was, could not catch up with me. Then suddenly it was too late, for Cubby lunged forward and down.
This first downward jump was not vicious–only a playful one perhaps, by way of initiating me; but it upset me, and I was dragged in the pine-needles. I did not leap to my feet; I was jerked up. Then began a wild chase down that steep, bushy slope. Cubby got going, and I could no more have checked him than I could a steam-engine. Very soon I saw that not only was the bear cub running away, but he was running away with me. I slid down yellow places where the earth was exposed, I tore through thickets, I dodged a thousand trees. In some grassy descents it was as if I had seven-league boots. I must have broken all records for jumps. All at once I stumbled just as Cubby made a spurt and flew forward, alighting face downward. I dug up the pine–needles with my outstretched hands, I scraped with my face and ploughed with my nose, I ate the dust; and when I brought up with a jolt against a log a more furious boy than Ken Ward it would be bard to imagine. Leaping up, I strove with every ounce of might to hold in the bear. But though fury lent me new strength, he kept the advantage.
Presently I saw the bottom of the canyon, an open glade, and an old log-cabin. I looked back to see if the hunter was coming. He was not in sight, but I fancied I heard him. Then Cubby, putting on extra steam, took the remaining rods of the slope in another spurt. I had to race, then fly, and at last lost my footing and plunged down into a thicket.
There farther progress stopped for both of us. Cubby had gone down on one side of a sapling and I on the other, with the result that we were brought up short. I crashed through some low bushes and bumped squarely into the cub. Whether it was his frantic effort to escape, or just excitement, or deliberate intention to beat me into a jelly I had no means to tell. The fact was he began to dig at me and paw me and maul me. Never had I been so angry. I began to fight back, to punch and kick him.
Suddenly, with a crashing in the bushes, the cub was hauled away from me, and then I saw Hiram at the rope.
“Wal, wal!” he ejaculated, “your own mother wouldn’t own you now!” Then he laughed heartily and chuckled to himself, and gave the cub a couple of jerks that took the mischief out of him. I dragged myself after Hiram into the glade. The cabin was large and very old, and part of the roof was sunken in.
“We’ll hang up here an’ camp,” said Hiram. “This is an old hunters’ cabin, an’ kinder out of the way. We’ll hitch this little fighter inside, where mebbe he won’t be so noisy.”
The hunter hauled the cub up short, and half pulled, half lifted him into the door. I took off my rifle, emptied my pockets of brush and beat out the dust, and combed the pine-needles from my hair. My hands were puffed and red, and smarted severely. And altogether I was in no amiable frame of mind as regarded my captive bear cub.
When I stepped inside the cabin it was dark, and coming from the bright light I could not for a moment see what the interior looked like. Presently I made out one large room with no opening except the door. There was a tumble-down stone fireplace at one end, and at the other a rude ladder led up to a loft. Hiram had thrown his pack aside, and had tied Cubby to a peg in the log wall.
“Wal, I’ll fetch in some fresh venison,” said the hunter. “You rest awhile, an’ then gather some wood an’ make a fire.”
The rest I certainly needed, for I was so tired I could scarcely untie the pack to get out the blankets. The bear cub showed signs or weariness, which pleased me. It was not long after Hiram’s departure that I sank into a doze.
When my eyes opened I knew I had been awakened by something, but I could not tell what. I listened. Cubby was as quiet as a mouse, and his very quiet and the alert way he held his ears gave me a vague alarm. He had heard something. I thought of the old hunter’s return, yet this did not reassure me.
All at once the voices of men made me sit up with a violent start. Who could they be? Had Hiram met a ranger? I began to shake a little, and was about to creep to the door when I heard the clink of stirrups and soft thud of hoofs. Then followed more voices, and last a loud volley of curses.
“Herky-Jerky!” I gasped, and looked about wildly.
I had no time to dash out of the door. I was caught in a trap, and I felt cold and sick. Suddenly I caught sight of the ladder leading to the loft. Like a monkey I ran up, and crawled as noiselessly as possible upon the rickety flooring of dry pine branches. Then I lay there quivering.
XIV. A PRISONER
It chanced that as I lay on my side my eye caught a gleam of light through a little ragged hole in the matting of pine branches. Part of the interior of the cabin, the doorway, and some space outside were plainly visible. The thud of horses had given place to snorts, and then came a flopping of saddles and packs on the ground. “Any water hyar?” asked a gruff voice I recognized as Bill’s. “Spring right thar,” replied a voice I knew to be Bud’s.
“You onery old cayuse, stand still!”
From that I gathered Herky was taking the saddle off his horse.
“Here, Leslie, I’ll untie you–if you’ll promise not to bolt.”
That voice was Buell’s. I would have known it among a thousand. And Dick was still a prisoner.
“Bolt! If you let me loose I’ll beat your fat head off!” replied Dick. “Ha! A lot you care about my sore wrists. You’re weakening, Buell, and you know it. You’ve got a yellow streak.”
“Shet up!” said Herky, in a low, sharp tone. A silence followed. “Buell, look hyar in the trail. Tracks! Goin’ in an’ comin’ out.”
“How old are they?”
“I’ll bet a hoss they ain’t an hour old.”
“Somebody’s usin’ the cabin, eh?”
The men then fell to whispering, and I could not understand what was said, but I fancied they were thinking only of me. My mind worked fast. Buell and his fellows had surely not run across Hiram Bent. Had the old hunter deserted me? I flouted such a thought. It was next to a certainty that he had seen the lumbermen, and for reasons best known to himself had not returned to the cabin. But he was out there somewhere among the pines, and I did not think any of those ruffians was safe.
Then I heard stealthy footsteps approaching. Soon I saw the Mexican slipping cautiously to the door. He peeped within. Probably the interior was dark to him, as it had been to me. He was not a coward, for he stepped inside.
At that instant there was a clinking sound, a rush and a roar, and a black mass appeared to hurl itself upon the Mexican. He went down with a piercing shriek. Then began a fearful commotion. Screams and roars mingled with the noise of combat. I saw a whirling cloud of dust on the cabin floor. The cub had jumped on the Mexican. What an unmerciful beating he was giving that Greaser! I could have yelled out in my glee. I had to bite my tongue to keep from urging on my docile little pet bear. Greaser surely thought he had fallen in with his evil spirit, for he howled to the saints to save him.
Herky-Jerky was the only one of his companions brave enough to start to help him.
“The cabin’s full of b’ars!” he yelled.
At his cry the bear leaped out of the cloud of dust, and shot across the threshold like black lightning. In his onslaught upon Greaser he had broken his halter. Herky-Jerky stood directly in his path. I caught only a glimpse, but it served to show that Herky was badly scared. The cub dove at Herky, under him, straight between his legs like a greased pig, and, spilling him all over the trail, sped on out of sight. Herky raised himself, and then he sat there, red as a lobster, and bawled curses while he made his huge revolver spurt flame on flame.
I could not see the other men, but their uproarious mirth could have been heard half a mile away. When it dawned upon Herky, he was so furious that he spat at them like an angry cat and clicked his empty revolver.
Then Greaser lurched out of the door. I got a glimpse of him, and, for a wonder, was actually sorry for him. He looked as if he had been through a threshing-machine.
“Haw! haw! Ho! ho!” roared the merry lumbermen.
Then they trooped into the cabin. Buell headed the line, and Herky, sullenly reloading his revolver, came last. At first they groped around in the dim light, stumbling over everything. Part of the time they were in the light space near the door, and the rest I could not see them. I scarcely dared to breathe. I felt a creepy chill, and my eyesight grew dim.
“Who does this stuff belong to, anyhow?” Buell was saying. “An’ what was thet bear doin’ in here?”
“He was roped up–hyar’s the hitch,” answered Bud.
“An’ hyar’s a rifle–Winchester–ain’t been used much. Buell, it’s thet kid’s!”
I heard rapid footsteps and smothered exclamations.
“Take it from me, you’re right!” ejaculated Buell. “We jest missed him. Herky, them tracks out there? Somebody’s with this boy–who?”
“It’s Jim Williams,” put in Dick Leslie, cool-voiced and threatening.
The little stillness that followed his words was broken by Buell.
“Naw! ‘Twasn’t Williams. You can’t bluff this bunch, Leslie. By your own words Williams is lookin’ for us, an’ if he’s lookin’ for anybody I know he’s lookin’ for ’em. See!”
“Buell, the kid’s fell in with old Bent, the b’ar hunter,” said Bill. “Thet accounts fer the cub. Bent’s allus got cubs, an’ kittens, an’ sich. An’ I’ll tell you, he ain’t no better friend of ourn than Jim Williams.”
“I’d about as soon tackle Williams as Bent,” put in Bud.
Buell shook his fist. “What luck the kid has! But I’ll get him, take it from me! Now, what’s best to do?”
“Buell, the game’s going against you,” said Dick Leslie. “The penitentiary is where you’ll finish. You’d better let me loose. Old Bent will find Jim Williams, and then you fellows will be up against it. There’s going to be somebody killed. The best thing for you to do is to let me go and then cut out yourself.”
Buell breathed as heavily as a porpoise, and his footsteps pounded hard.
“Leslie, I’m seein’ this out–understand? When Bud rode down to the mill an’ told me the kid had got away I made up my mind to ketch him an’ shet his mouth–one way or another. An’ I’ll do it. Take thet from me!”
“Bah!” sneered Dick. “You’re sca’red into the middle of next week right now. . . . Besides, if you do ketch Ken it won’t do you any good-now!”
But Dick shut up like a clam, and not another word could be gotten from him. Buell fumed and stamped.
“Bud, you’re the only one in this bunch of loggerheads thet has any sense. What d’you say?”
“Quiet down an’ wait here,” replied Bud. “Mebbe old Bent didn’t hear them shots of Herky’s. He may come back. Let’s wait awhile, an’, if he doesn’t come, put Herky on the trail.”
“Good! Greaser, go out an’ hide the hosses–drive them up the canyon.”
The Mexican shuffled out, and all the others settled down to quiet. I heard some of them light their pipes. Bud leaned against the left of the door, Buell sat on the other side, and beyond them I saw as much of Herky as his boots. I knew him by his bow-legs.
The stillness that set in began to be hard on me’. When the men were moving about and talking I had been so interested that my predicament did not occupy my mind. But now, with those ruffians waiting silently below, I was beset with a thousand fears. The very consciousness that I must be quiet made it almost impossible. Then I became aware that my one position cramped my arm and side. A million prickling needles were at my elbow. A band as of steel tightened about my breast. I grew hot and cold, and trembled. I knew the slightest move would be fatal, so I bent all my mind to lying quiet as a stone.
Greaser came limping back into the cabin, and found a seat without any one speaking. It was so still that I heard the silken rustle of paper as he rolled a cigarette. Moments that seemed long as years passed, with my muscles clamped as in a vise. If only I had lain down upon my back! But there I was, half raised on my elbow, in a most awkward and uncomfortable position. I tried not to mind the tingling in my arm, but to think of Hiram, of Jim, of my mustang. But presently I could not think of anything except the certainty that I would soon lose control of my muscles and fall over.
The tingling changed to a painful vibration, and perspiration stung my face. The strain became unbearable. All of a sudden something seemed to break within me, and my muscles began to ripple and shake. I had no power to stop it. More than that, the feeling was so terrible that I knew I would welcome discovery as a relief.
“Sh-s-s-h!” whispered some one below.
I turned my eyes down to the peep-hole. Bud had moved over squarely into the light of the door. He was bending over something. Then he extended his hand, back uppermost, toward Buell. On the back of that broad brown hand were pieces of leaf and bits of pine-needles. The trembling of my body had shaken these from the brush on the rickety loft. More than that, in the yellow bar of sunlight which streamed in at the door there floated particles of dust.
Bud silently looked upward. There was a gleam in his black eyes, and his mouth was agape. Buell’s gaze followed Bud’s, and his face grew curious, intent, then fixed in a cunning, bold smile of satisfaction. He rose to his feet.
“Come down out o’ thet!” he ordered, harshly. “Come down!”
The sound of his voice stilled my trembling. I did not move nor breathe. I saw Buell loom up hugely and Bud slowly rise. Herky-Jerky’s boots suddenly stood on end, and I knew then he had also risen. The silence which followed Buell’s order was so dense that it oppressed me.
“Come down!” repeated Buell.
There was no hint of doubt in his deep voice, but a cold certainty and a brutal note. I had feared the man before, but that gave me new terror.
“Bud, climb the ladder,” commanded Buell.
“I ain’t stuck on thet job,” rejoined Bud.
As his heavy boots thumped on the ladder they jarred the whole cabin. My very desperation filled me with the fierceness of a cornered animal. I caught sight of a short branch of the thickness of a man’s arm, and, grasping it, I slowly raised myself. When Bud’s black, round head appeared above the loft I hit it with all my might.
Bud bawled like a wounded animal, and fell to the ground with the noise of a load of bricks. Through my peep-hole I saw him writhing, with both hands pressed to his head. Then, lying flat on his back, he whipped out his revolver. I saw the red spurt, the puff of smoke. Bang!
A bullet zipped through the brush, and tore a hole through the roof.
I felt a hot, tearing pain in my arm.
“Stop, you black idiot!” yelled Buell. He kicked the revolver out of Bud’s hand. “What d’you mean by thet?”
In the momentary silence that followed I listened intently, even while I held tightly to my arm. From its feeling my arm seemed to be shot off, but it was only a flesh-wound. After the first instant of shock I was not scared. But blood flowed fast. Warm, oily, slippery, it ran down inside my shirt sleeve and dripped off my fingers.
“Bud,” hoarsely spoke up Bill, breaking the stillness, “mebbe you killed him!”
Buell coughed, as if choking.
“What’s thet?” For once his deep voice was pitched low. “Listen.”
Drip! drip! drip! It was like the sound of water dripping from a leak in a roof. It was directly under me, and, quick as thought, I knew the sound was made by my own dripping blood.
“Find thet, somebody,” ordered Buell.
Drip! drip! drip!
One of the men stepped noisily.
“Hyar it is–thar,” said Bill. “Look on my hand. . . . Blood! I knowed it. Bud got him, all right.”
There was a sudden rustling such as might come from a quick, strained movement.
“Buell,” cried Dick Leslie. in piercing tones, “Heaven help you murdering thieves if that boy’s killed! I’ll see you strung up right in this forest. Ken, speak! Speak!”
It seemed then, in my pain and bitterness, that I would rather let Buell think me dead. Dick’s voice went straight to my heart, but I made no answer.
“Leslie, I didn’t kill him, an’ I didn’t order it,” said Buell, in a voice strangely shrunk and shaken. “I meant no harm to the lad. . . . Go up, Bud, an’ get him.”
Bud made no move, nor did Greaser when he was ordered. “Go up, somebody, an’ see what’s up there!” shouted Buell. “Strikes me you might go yourself,” said Bill, coolly.
With a growl Buell mounted the ladder. When his great shock head hove in sight I was seized by a mad desire to give him a little of his own medicine. With both hands I lifted the piece of pine branch and brought it down with every ounce of strength in me.
Like a pistol it cracked on Buell’s head and snapped into bits. The lumberman gave a smothered groan, then clattered down the ladder and rolled on the floor. There he lay quiet.
“All-fired dead–thet kid–now, ain’t he?” said Bud, sarcastically. “How’d you like thet crack on the knob? You’ll need a larger size hat, mebbe. Herky-Jerky, you go up an’ see what’s up there.”
“I’ve a picture of myself goin’,” replied Herky, without moving.
“Whar’s the water? Get some water, Greaser,” chimed in Bill.
From the way they worked over Buell, I concluded he had been pretty badly stunned. But he came to presently.
“What struck me?” he asked.
“Oh, nothin’,” replied Bud, derisively. “The loft up thar’s full of air, an’ it blowed on you, thet’s all.”
Buell got up, and began walking around.
“Bill, go out an’ fetch in some long poles,” he said.
When Bill returned with a number of sharp, bayonet-like pikes I knew the game was all up for me. Several of the men began to prod through the thin covering of dry brush. One of them reached me, and struck so hard that I lurched violently.
That was too much for the rickety loft floor. It was only a bit of brush laid on a netting of slender poles. It creaked, rasped, and went down with a crash. I alighted upon somebody, and knocked him to the floor. Whoever it was, seized me with iron hands. I was buried, almost smothered, in the dusty mass. My captor began to curse cheerfully, and I knew then that Herky-Jerky had made me a prisoner.
XV. THE FIGHT
Herky hauled me out of the brush, and held me in the light. The others scrambled from under the remains of the loft, and all viewed me curiously.
“Kid, you ain’t hurt much?” queried Buell, with concern.
I would have snapped out a reply, but I caught sight of Dick’s pale face and anxious eyes.
“Ken,” he called, with both gladness and doubt in his voice, “you look pretty good–but that blood. . . . Tell me, quick!”
“It’s nothing, Dick, only a little cut. The bullet just ticked my arm.”
Whatever Dick’s reply was it got drowned in Herky-Jerky’s long explosion of strange language. Herky was plainly glad I had not been badly hurt. I had already heard mirth, anger, disgust, and fear in his outbreaks, and now relief was added. He stripped off my coat, cut off the bloody sleeve of my shirt, and washed the wound. It was painful and bled freely, but it was not much worse than cuts from spikes when playing ball. Herky bound it tightly with a strip of my shirt-sleeve, and over that my handkerchief.
“Thar, kid, thet’ll stiffen up an’ be sore fer a day or two, but it ain’t nothin’. You’ll soon be bouncin’ clubs offen our heads.”
It was plain that Herky–and the others, for that matter, except Buell– thought more of me because I had wielded a club so vigorously.
“Look at thet lump, kid,” said Bud, bending his head. “Now, ain’t thet a nice way to treat a feller? It made me plumb mad, it did.”
“I’m likely to hurt somebody yet,” I declared.
They looked at me curiously. Buell raised his face with a queer smile. Bud broke into a laugh.
“Oh, you’re goin’ to? Mebbe you think you need an axe,” said he.
They made no offer to tie me up then. Bud went to the door and sat in it, and I heard him half whisper to Buell: “What ‘d I tell you? Thet’s a game kid. If he ever wakes up right we’ll have a wildcat on our hands. He’ll do fer one of us yet.” These men all took pleasure in saying things like this to Buell. This time Buell had no answer ready, and sat nursing his head. “Wal, I hev a little headache myself, an’ the crack I got wasn’t nothin’ to yourn,” concluded Bud. Then Bill began packing the supplies indoors, and Herky started a fire. Bud kept a sharp eye on me; still, he made no objection when I walked over and lay down upon the blankets near Dick.
“Dick, I shot a bear and helped to tie up a cub,” I said. And then I told him all that had happened from the time I scrambled out of the spring-hole till I was discovered up in the loft. Dick shook his head, as if he did