THE CAMP IN THE SNOW
By WILLIAM MURRAY GRAYDON
Copyrighted, 1902, by STREET & SMITH
The Camp in the Snow
CHAPTER PAGE I. A MERCILESS ENEMY. 5 II. INTO THE WILDERNESS. 12 III. A DOUBLE PERIL. 19 IV. THE FIRST DEER. 27 V. THE FACE IN THE TREES. 34 VI. BESIEGED BY WOLVES. 42 VII. THROUGH THE ICE. 48 VIII. MR. RAIKES OF PORTLAND. 55 IX. THE GREAT STORM. 62 X. A GREAT DISASTER. 69 XI. UNDER THE SNOWDRIFT. 74 XII. DECOYED TO DANGER. 80 XIII. THE LAST OF THE CATAMOUNT. 86 XIV. A HERD OF DEER. 93 XV. A SUCCESSFUL BATTLE. 100 XVI. ON THE TRAIL. 106 XVII. FOUND AND LOST. 111 XVIII. HAMP'S PERIL. 119 XIX. BOGLE SHOWS HIS HAND. 126 XX. BRICK'S DEFENCE 134 XXI. PLUNGED UNDER GROUND. 141 XXII. AN UNEXPECTED ALLY. 148 XXIII. BACK TO FREEDOM. 155 XXIV. A STRUGGLE FOR LIFE. 161 XXV. TORTURED INTO SUBMISSION. 168 XXVI. AVAILABLE PRISONER. 174 XXVII. THROUGH THE WOODS. 182 XXVIII. SPARWICK LAYS DOWN THE LAW. 189 XXIX. A MIDNIGHT DISCOVERY. 195 XXX. DRIVEN TO DEATH. 202 XXXI. A FRIEND IN NEED. 209 XXXII. JERRY'S JOURNEY. 216 XXXIII. A TREACHEROUS PLOT. 222 XXXIV. A VIAL OF CHLOROFORM. 229 XXXV. A PERILOUS RIDE. 235 XXXVI. CONCLUSION. 240
A MERCILESS ENEMY.
"All tickets, please!"
The blue-uniformed conductor, with a lantern under his arm, and his punch in hand, entered the smoking-car of the Boston express.
It was between seven and eight o'clock on the night of the tenth of December. The train was speeding eastward through the wintry landscape of the State of Maine.
Among the passengers in the smoking-car was a well-dressed lad of eighteen, with a ruddy face, and gray eyes in which was a lurking gleam of humor.
Just across the aisle sat a middle-aged man with a clean-shaven, cadaverous face and rusty black clothes. He was reading a small book, and seemed to be absorbed in its pages.
As the conductor drew near, the lad fumbled hurriedly in his pockets. He turned them inside out, one after another. He looked on the floor, on the seat, in the folds of his clothing.
"Your ticket, sir."
The conductor had been standing by the seat for a full minute.
"I—I must have lost it," replied the lad. "Just my beastly luck! You know that I had one, for you clipped it twice."
The conductor stared coldly.
"Find it, or pay your fare," he answered.
The lad put his hand into the breast pocket of his cape coat. He whipped out a handkerchief, and a bulky pocketbook. The latter flew across the aisle and under the next seat, where it burst open.
The clerical-looking man stooped and picked it up.
"Permit me," he said, handing it back with a low bow.
"Much obliged," answered the owner. "Hello! there's a wad of bills missing. It must have fallen out."
The clerical-looking man pretended not to hear. He turned toward the window and went on reading. The conductor and the lad peered under the neighboring seats. They saw no trace of the money. The other passengers looked on with interest.
"Lift your feet, sir," said the conductor, sharply, as he tapped the clerical passenger's arm.
The man obeyed with an air of injured innocence, and the roll of bank notes was instantly seen.
"Quite an accident," he protested. "I was not aware that my foot was on the money."
"Of course not," sneered the conductor.
"No insults, sir," replied the other, in a dignified tone. "Here is my card. I am a missionary from the South Seas. My name is Pendergast."
The conductor waved aside the proffered card.
"I see you are reading Hoyle's Games," he remarked, sarcastically. "Is that the text-book you use among your heathen?"
The missionary looked discomfited for an instant.
"I have been perusing this evil work with horror," he replied. "Some worldly sinner left it on the seat. Perhaps it is yours, sir?"
The conductor reddened with anger, and some of the passengers laughed aloud. The missionary folded his hands with a smile of triumph, and looked out of the window.
Meanwhile the lad had restored the roll of bills to his pocketbook, and in one of the compartments of the latter he found the missing ticket. As the conductor took it he leaned over and said:
"Keep an eye on that rascal yonder. He's no more a missionary than you or I."
Then he hurried on to the next car.
A few moments later scattered lights appeared through the frosty windows, and finally the vague outlines of houses and streets.
"Bangor!" shrieked the brakeman.
The announcement created a stir and bustle among the passengers. The train soon rolled into a lofty station. The lad gathered up his traps, hurriedly left the car, pressed through the crowd, and gained the lighted street.
Here he paused for a moment, remembering the conductor's warning. But he could see nothing of the clerical-looking individual, though he carefully scanned the passers.
"I've seen the last of that chap," he muttered. "Perhaps he was a missionary, after all. Well, I can't lose any more time here. Thanks to Tom Fordham, I've got my bearings pretty straight. I'll bet Tom wishes he was with me now. I fancy I can see him grinding away at old Herodotus by lamplight."
With a smile that showed his white teeth, he strode down the street of Maine's most thriving port and lumber town. He entered the Penobscot House, a block and a half from the depot.
He gave his luggage to a bellboy, and wrote his name on the register:
"Brick Larkins, New York City."
The clerk looked at the inscription and smiled.
"Done it again, have I?" exclaimed the lad. "Brick is only a nickname. Shall I write it James?"
"Let it stand," replied the amused clerk. "Will you have supper, Mr. Larkins?"
"Thanks, but I have dined on the train. Send the traps up to my room, please."
Brick fastened a button or two of his cape-coat, and strolled out of the hotel.
He did not see the missionary standing across the street. If he had he would probably have failed to recognize him, for Mr. Pendergast now wore a tweed steamer-cap, gold glasses, and a short gray overcoat with the collar turned up.
Brick little dreamed that he was being followed as he pushed steadily across town to the banks of the Penobscot River.
Turning parallel with the river, Brick went on until the lights of the town were some distance behind. By the dim glow of the starlit sky he could see that the beach sloped upward to a pretty steep bluff, and that tall stacks of lumber lay in all directions. The sullen slapping of the waves drowned his crunching footsteps.
"It's all as Tom described it," he said, half-aloud, as he paused to look about him. "The dug-out ought to be near by, but I can't see a glimmer of light. Hullo! what's that?"
A sharp sound had fallen on his ear, and he wheeled around in time to see a dusky figure within ten feet of him.
"Hold on there," cried a stern voice. "Stop!"
Brick, having started forward, only ran the faster, and in the darkness he collided with a tall stack of lumber. He grabbed the projecting slabs and climbed to the top.
He was now eight or ten feet from the ground, and looking down he saw his pursuer standing directly beneath.
"No use, my lad," whispered the man. "I've got you safe. Pass down that pocketbook."
With a thrill of surprise, Brick recognized the voice.
"This is nice missionary work, Mr. Pendergast," he replied. "I'm willing to donate five dollars to the heathen if you'll be satisfied with that."
"No chaffing, young feller," growled the ruffian. "I'm not in the missionary line now. If I don't get your pocketbook and watch and chain in about ten seconds, I'll fix you."
Brick hesitated, and glanced toward the distant lights of the town. There seemed no chance of saving his money. An idea struck him, and he said, boldly:
"I've got friends at hand. You're making a big mistake to stay here."
"That bluff won't work," was the cool reply. "There's not a soul within half a mile. Fork it over, quick."
Just then the pile of lumber began to tremble and sway, and down it came with a crash.
Brick escaped injury by an agile leap that landed him on his enemy's back. They went to the ground together, and rolled clear of the avalanche of planks and snow.
The lad was almost a match for his wiry antagonist, and by a desperate effort he tore loose and ran. Pendergast overtook him, and snatched the collar of the cape-coat. Brick twisted out of the heavy garment and sped on. He had the pocketbook buttoned safely under his jacket.
Threats rang behind him. A pistol cracked shrilly, and the ball whistled by his head. He dashed on through the gloom, panting hard for breath, and shouting hoarsely for aid. Nearer and nearer came the crunching footsteps of his enemy.
Unluckily a boat lay right in the path. Brick spied it at such close quarters that he had no time to swerve aside. He pitched roughly over the gunwale and fell inside. The next instant Pendergast was kneeling on him, and shaking him with savage anger.
"I'll fix you," he snarled, as he lifted his shining weapon. "I'll pay you for this."
"Don't!" pleaded Brick.
He threw up his hands, and struggled to ward off the threatened blow.
"Take that," cried the ruffian.
Brick felt a stunning pain, and immediately lost consciousness.
INTO THE WILDERNESS.
Brick struggled back to his senses amid strange surroundings. He was lying on a soft bearskin in a small, picturesquely-furnished room. A wood fire blazed in one corner, and a lamp swung from the ceiling.
Three of the walls of the apartment were of hard, polished clay, ornamented with groups of guns, fishing rods and paddles. The fourth was of heavy timber, and contained a door and a shuttered window. Deer and bear robes covered the floor. Here rested two canvas canoes, and there lay a light cedar skiff.
Two lads stood by the fire. One, about eighteen, was tall and well knit, with dark hair and a swarthy, honest face. The other was shorter and thicker, and possibly a year younger.
"Hullo!" exclaimed Brick, as he pulled himself to a sitting position.
The strangers hastened to his side.
"How do you feel?" asked the elder lad. "I was just going for a doctor."
"I'll be all right pretty soon," replied Brick. "I've got a thumping headache, though."
"And no wonder, with a bruise like that over your eye. Do you remember what happened?"
"Yes," answered Brick, "up to a certain point. But how did I get here?"
"We heard the racket, and ran out with our guns and a lantern. We saw a man jump from a boat down near the water. We chased him a short distance, and he fired at us twice. We found you lying on the bottom with an ugly bruise on your forehead, and between us we got you up here."
"You certainly saved my life," declared Brick, gratefully, "and you saved something else, too. This is what the ruffian was after. You scared him off before he could find it."
He unbuttoned his jacket, and drew out the pocketbook. Then, in a few words, he related the whole adventure to his new friends.
"I'm lucky to escape with a bruise and the loss of my overcoat," he concluded. "It would have been ten times worse but for you fellows."
"Here is your coat," said the younger lad. "We stumbled over it when we were chasing the rascal. Were there any valuables in it?"
"Only a couple of letters from my father," replied Brick, as he went through the pockets of the garment. "By Jove! they're gone, though. The thief will find he's made a valuable haul."
Brick spoke in jest. He little dreamed what use would be made of the stolen letters, or what a harvest of trouble he was destined to reap from their loss.
"I'm feeling considerably better now," he added. "I'm glad of it, for I'll have to be moving soon. It's getting late, and—— Hullo! something just struck me. I believe you're the very chaps I'm looking for. This is a queer go."
The lads exchanged puzzled glances. Possibly they thought that the blow had deranged Brick's mind.
"I'll bet anything your names are Jerry Brenton and Hamp Foster, and this is the dug-out in the bluff," resumed Brick. "Am I right?"
The boys nodded in open-mouthed wonder.
"I'm Jerry Brenton," admitted the elder.
"And Hamp Foster is my name," added his companion, "but I never saw you before."
"Of course you didn't," declared Brick. "Do you fellows remember Tom Fordham, the chap from New York that spent a vacation here two summers ago, and had such jolly times with both of you?"
A light broke on the boys.
"We remember Tom," they exclaimed, with enthusiasm.
"And did you ever hear him talk of his best chum, Brick Larkins?"
"Often," replied Hamp. "But you ain't——"
"Yes, I am, too. I'm Brick Larkins, and I'm awfully glad to meet you fellows. The way I come to be here is this: Tom and I entered Columbia College last fall, and a couple of weeks ago I got into a scrape and was dropped for a term. I wasn't going to spend the time on a lot of musty books, so I concluded I'd come up to Maine, and go deer hunting. My folks are in Europe, and a lawyer down in New York is my guardian as far as money matters go. I'm my own master in other ways, and I've got cash enough to see me through for a while. I understand from Tom that the father of one of you chaps is a guide. I want him to take me into the woods for a few weeks. I'm willing to pay his price, whatever it is."
"I'm the one," replied Jerry, soberly; "but my father is laid up with rheumatism, and won't be able to make any trips this winter."
"I'm awfully sorry," said Brick. "Perhaps I can get another guide. Look here, are you fellows in any trouble? You both look pretty downhearted, if you'll pardon me for saying so."
The boys were reluctant to speak, but Brick finally compelled them to admit that they were in serious trouble, and that they had come to the dug-out that evening to have a quiet talk over the matter.
Two months before Hamp's father had been drowned by the foundering of his lumber barge in a storm. What little money he left was soon spent, and now Hamp had just been thrown out of employment by the closing of the mills in which he worked. Unless he speedily found a new place, his mother and sister would be in actual want.
Jerry was confronted by an equally dismal prospect. He could get no work to do, and money was sorely needed for his sick father. His mother had formerly earned a little by sewing, but her time was now required for the invalid.
Brick pondered the situation for a little while. He could see that the boys were proud, and that it would never do to offer money. At last he hit upon a bright idea.
"Look here," he said, "I'll bet you fellows know as much about the woods as regular guides. Tom always said so, anyway. How is it?"
"Hamp and I have been out with my father a good deal," replied Jerry, modestly. "We've been to Moosehead Lake and Chesumcook."
"And we're pretty fair shots," added Hamp. "We've been in at the death of more than one bear or deer. If it wasn't for our being so young we might get employment as guides. We were talking about that this evening."
"I wouldn't want better guides," declared Brick. "If you fellows will take me into the woods I'll pay each of you fifteen dollars a week, and stand all expenses. Before we start I'll pay in advance for three weeks."
He opened his pocketbook and showed the contents.
"I can easily afford it," he added. "I have nearly five hundred dollars."
The boys were dazzled by this munificent offer. It brought tears to their eyes to think of the relief that money would bring to the afflicted ones at home.
"You're awfully kind," said Jerry, in a tremulous voice. "I'll gladly go if my father will let me. And I'm sure he will."
"I know my mother won't object," added Hamp.
"Then it's as good as settled," declared Brick. "I can hardly wait till we're off. I've been wanting to see the Maine wilderness for years."
"Know much about guns or hunting?" asked Jerry.
"Mighty little," Brick candidly admitted. "I never shot anything bigger than a blackbird in my life. Game don't run loose in New York."
"We'll show you sport enough," promised Hamp. "Just wait till we strike the deer."
The three lads fell to chatting with the freedom of old friends, and Brick quite forgot his aching head.
During the next few days all arrangements were made, and Brick provided himself and companions with a lavish outfit.
Brick had reported his adventure to the police, but without success. Mr. Pendergast had doubtless left the town.
The ground was covered with snow to the depth of half a foot on the crisp December afternoon when the young hunters landed at Katahdin Iron Works—the terminus of the Bangor and Katahdin Iron Works Railroad.
They were now more than one hundred and fifty miles from the coast, and very nearly in the center of Maine.
On the following morning they hired a sledge and driver, and were transported thirty miles northward—to the end of a rugged lumber trail. The next day they pushed ahead on foot, trailing two hand sleds, to which were strapped their provisions, guns, and various needed supplies.
By sundown they reached one of the eastern arms of Moosehead Lake, and built a-temporary lean-to among the rocks and trees. They were now in the actual wilderness, miles and miles from civilization.
A DOUBLE PERIL.
After supper that evening a light snow began to fall, but it ceased at midnight. The increased cold wakened Brick, and while he was searching for an extra blanket he heard a long, wailing cry outside.
The youth was scared almost stupid for a moment. Then he tremblingly lit a lantern, and roused his companions.
The boys peeped through the crevices of the lean-to, but they could see nothing. Twice they heard the dismal sound. It was certainly coming nearer. They seized their guns, and huddled close together.
"What do you suppose it is?" whispered Brick.
"A catamount," replied Jerry, "or Indian Devil, as some call them."
"That's right," added Hamp. "It's going to attack us, too."
"Then be ready to shoot," warned Jerry. "I'll give the word when the time comes."
The brute now seemed to have stopped, though the blood-curdling wail echoed several times on the frosty air.
"I saw a catamount in Central Park once," whispered Brick. "It was an awful-looking creature."
Just then the unseen prowler wailed again. The boys peered anxiously at the snowy open space before the lean-to.
"No wonder the brute is bold," exclaimed Hamp. "There's nothing left of the fire but a couple of hot embers."
"We must build it up right away," declared Jerry. "Come on, you fellows. We'll stick together."
"But won't the catamount jump at us?" asked Brick.
"Not while we have the lantern," assured Jerry. "All wild animals are afraid of fire."
The boys ventured out of the lean-to. They timidly advanced to the fireplace, which was in the center of the glade.
"Where's the wood you brought at bedtime?" asked Jerry. "I don't see it."
"I—I forgot all about it," admitted Hamp. "I was too sleepy to think. I'm awfully sorry."
"Being sorry won't help us now," said Jerry, grimly. "There's not even a stick."
There was silence for a moment. The boys expected nothing less than to be pounced upon by the hungry beast.
"I believe the catamount has sneaked off," declared Hamp. "Give me the lantern, and I'll get some wood. It's my fault that we have none."
"I'll go with you," replied Jerry. "There's a windfall under the roots of that dead pine tree. It's only half-a-dozen yards from here. Come on."
The two lads started, taking their guns and the lantern. They crossed the glade, and vanished in the timber.
Brick was left standing by the fireplace. He was afraid to go after his companions, nor did he like to be alone. He rested his gun on a stone, and stooped over the dying embers of the fire, trying vainly to fan them into a blaze. As he rose to his feet he heard a crackling noise, and was horrified to see a great, dusky animal crouching on the edge of the timber, directly opposite the spot where the boys had disappeared.
The beast's arrival was so unexpected that Brick lost his wits. With a yell he turned and dashed across the glade, and rolled into a copse of bushes.
There he lay, shouting for help at the top of his voice, and expecting to be immediately torn to pieces.
Lusty cries quickly answered him, and trampling footsteps came near. He saw the gleam of the lantern go by, and then a rifle cracked sharply. The next thing he knew Jerry and Hamp were hauling him to his feet.
"Where's the catamount?" he panted. "Did you kill it?"
"Missed," replied Jerry. "I only had a snap shot. The creature bolted into the forest when it saw the lantern. We didn't get here any too soon."
"I thought I was a goner," declared Brick.
His face was pale, and he trembled like a leaf.
Hamp had a great load of wood on his back, and the fire was soon blazing merrily.
The catamount made no sign for ten minutes, and then a wailing cry from far off told that he was retreating.
After waiting a little longer the boys went back to their warm blankets and pine boughs.
They fell asleep very quickly, and it was broad daylight when they got awake. The sun was behind murky gray clouds, and the air was bitterly cold. The snow crunched sharply under foot, and the lake was frozen from shore to shore.
The presence of the catamount in the vicinity decided the boys to hunt a new camping-place.
After breakfasting on bacon and fried potatoes, they packed the sleds and started.
They traveled northward over the ice, following all the bays and indentations of the lake's crooked shore. At noon they stopped for lunch. The cold was something awful.
"It looks as though we were going to have a hard winter," said Jerry when they were on the march again. "It's a good thing that we brought snowshoes, and plenty of extra blankets along."
"I hope we don't see anything more of that catamount," replied Brick. "I suppose there are plenty of them in the woods, though."
"A good many," assented Hamp. "But they don't often trouble hunters. This fellow was extra savage. He must have been hungry."
"They've been known to follow men for days and weeks in bitter weather," said Jerry.
The conversation shifted to another topic, and the boys trudged on for half an hour. Then Brick suddenly gave a sharp cry, and pointed to a spot on the shore, some fifty yards distant.
"I saw the catamount over there," he declared. "It was a big, yellowish-gray animal, and it slipped past that rock into the bushes."
"Sure?" asked Hamp, anxiously.
The boys looked and listened. They were about moving on, when a long, thick-set animal stole out of the forest, and crouched by the edge of the ice. It wailed in a mournful tone, and crept a little nearer. It was as large a catamount as the two Maine lads had ever seen.
"There's a chance," exclaimed Jerry. "Come on. We'll try to get within easy shooting distance of the brute. Three of us can't well miss."
The boys abandoned the sled, and advanced toward shore, with loaded rifles. But before they had taken a dozen steps the catamount turned tail, and vanished in the timber.
"No use," muttered Hamp. "That's a crafty fellow, and he's not going to give us any advantage. He'll stick to us like a leech, though, and some time, when we are off our guard——"
A significant pause ended the sentence.
"What are we going to do about it?" asked Brick. "This knocks all the fun in the head. We won't dare go to sleep at nights."
"We've got to get rid of the brute," replied Jerry, "and I think I know how to do it. What do you say to cutting straight across the lake, and making our camp on the other side? I don't believe the catamount will follow us over miles of open snow and ice."
This suggestion was warmly approved. They headed due west toward the faintly visible forest on the further shore of the lake, a distance of ten or twelve miles.
To keep off the intense cold they ran along on a dog trot. The sleds trailed easily behind them over the patches of crisp snow and glassy ice.
Two hours later the western shore of Moosehead Lake loomed clearly before the young voyagers. They were not half a mile away. They could look right into the dense forest that stretched far away to Canada.
"Got the time, Brick?" asked Jerry.
"Yes; it's just half-past three."
"Well, suppose we push up the lake for another hour. By that time we'll likely strike the sort of a camping-place we want."
The others agreed, and Jerry led them to within twenty yards of the shore. Then they turned northward, and went on at a rapid trot.
About half a mile ahead a spit of rocky and timbered land jutted out from the shore.
"We ought to find a good place behind that," said Hamp.
"No doubt we shall," Jerry added.
"I hope so," declared Brick. "I'm as hungry as a bear. I haven't had such an appetite since the day——"
Brick never finished. He was interrupted by a crashing noise a short distance back in the forest. The sound came rapidly nearer and louder. The boys stopped, and looked at one another in alarm.
"It must be a deer," exclaimed Jerry, "and some animal is chasing it. The wind is blowing this way. We may get a shot."
Crash! out from the forest burst a magnificent buck, with widely-branching antlers. He bounded down the sloping bank, and over the ice. He was panting and exhausted.
Close behind leaped a gaunt, ravenous wolf, flecked with foam and perspiration. Both animals swept out on the lake, making straight at the frightened and amazed boys.
Brick had a sudden attack of buckfever. He stood stupidly still. The others hurriedly grabbed their rifles from the sled. Jerry ran a few steps in front of his companions.
Then, for the first time, the buck saw the lads. He snorted with terror, and tried vainly to check himself on the slippery ice.
Jerry knelt and took aim. He was too excited to be cautious. He pulled trigger at a range of fifteen feet.
The ball failed to reach a mortal part. It hit the buck in the left flank, inflicting a painful wound. The huge animal's terror instantly changed to wrath. With lowered antlers, he dashed full tilt at Jerry.
The lad started to run, but his rifle caught between his legs. He sprawled headlong on the ice. He was right in front of the enraged buck. In a few seconds the cruel hoofs and sharp horns would mangle his body.
At the same instant the wolf, maddened by hunger and passion, veered with a shrill yelp. He leaped savagely upon Hamp's breast, and bore him to the ice.
THE FIRST DEER.
Hamp escaped death by a display of nerve and coolness that was remarkable in one so young.
The wolf, happily, missed the lad's throat. Instead, the white teeth snapped shut on the thick, furry collar of his overcoat. For an instant they stuck there, and this gave Hamp his chance.
With one hand he grabbed the wolf's shaggy breast, and pushed against it; with the other he reached for the long hunting-knife that dangled from his belt. He drew it from the sheath, and plunged it fiercely into the wolf's body.
Twice, thrice the keen blade cut its way deeply through flesh and skin. A vital part was reached at last. With a gurgling cry the brute relaxed its hold, and slipped to one side.
Hamp rolled away from the quivering carcass, and sprang to his feet. His clothes were thickly smeared with blood, but a scratch or two was his sole injury.
Meanwhile, Jerry had shown equal coolness in an equally trying ordeal. It will be remembered that he stumbled right in the path of the advancing buck.
Doubling himself like a ball, he rolled several feet over the smooth ice. An instant later the spot that he had just vacated was struck by the vicious hoofs and antlers. He rolled still further, and staggered to his feet. His rifle was out of reach, and the shelter of the shore was equally so.
"Help! help!" he shouted. "Somebody shoot."
With the vengeful buck still at his heels, he dashed blindly toward Brick.
Then it was that the raw New York lad showed of what sterling stuff he was made.
He made a plucky dash between the two, and struck the savage animal with the stock of his rifle. The blow landed on the antlers, and its only effect was to check the buck for a few seconds. Then Brick and Jerry fled in opposite directions to get out of reach.
The consequence was that the animal now spied Hamp, and went for him with a savage snort. The lad had just put his knife away, and was still a little dazed. But he realized his peril, and knew that he had not time to pick up his rifle. At his top speed he ran blindly over the ice.
Jerry was now out of danger, and his quick wits told him the best thing to do.
"Run faster, Hamp," he cried. "Circle around, and come back this way."
Then he made for his rifle, which lay within several yards.
Hamp heard, and was cheered. By a sudden spurt he increased his speed. He actually gained several feet on the buck. Then, not being able to see behind him, he made a natural error. Had he veered to the right, he would have circled toward Jerry, and given him a shot. Instead, he turned to the left, and bore rapidly down on Brick, who was hardly prepared for the move.
"He's gaining on me," Hamp cried. "Help! help!"
The lad's situation was truly critical. Jerry was some yards away. Moreover, there was something wrong with the hammer of his gun. But Brick made himself ready in time. He slipped a few feet to one side, and lifted his rifle. A brief hesitation, then the trigger fell.
Bang! The shrill report echoed across the lake and through the forest. The buck staggered. His forelegs gave way. With a gasping moan he toppled over, and his life-blood stained the ice.
No words can tell the delight of the young hunters. They cheered until they were fairly hoarse. Hamp drew his knife, and sprang astride of the feebly-struggling animal. By a single pass he slit its throat.
Jerry slapped Brick on the back.
"That was a grand shot," he exclaimed. "I couldn't have done it better myself. It was Hamp's only chance. The hammer of my rifle was clogged with snow."
Brick was almost speechless. He looked at the buck, and then at his companions.
"Did—did I really kill him?" he gasped. "Is he dead?"
"Dead as a door nail," assured Hamp. "See, the ball went in between the foreshoulders. It must have pierced the heart. You've shot the first deer, Brick, and it's something to be proud of."
"I know it is," admitted Brick. "I wish Tom Fordham was here now. He said I'd forget how to shoot when I saw a deer."
"You didn't, though," said Hamp. "You saved my life."
"And mine," added Jerry. "It was a plucky thing to rush in between me and the buck."
"It wasn't much," Brick modestly protested. "You would have done the same for me."
The boys continued the animated discussion, quite heedless of time. The dead wolf was examined with wonder, and they removed the scalp, in order to claim the State bounty. With some difficulty they dragged the buck partly onto one of the hand sleds.
"I want the antlers," said Brick. "I wouldn't go back to New York without them."
"We'll see to that," replied Jerry. "Now, then, if you fellows are ready."
A moment later the march toward the headland was recommenced. The heavily-laden sleds grated over the ice and snow.
Some small animal followed the boys for quite a distance, keeping well out of sight behind the timber. It had a shrill, rasping voice that was very aggravating. Jerry declared it to be a lynx or wolverine, and Hamp agreed with him. A little later something more serious occurred. Three hungry wolves stole out of the forest and down to the ice. They evidently scented the carcass of the deer. They followed the little party persistently, and kept up a mournful howling. Now and then they circled near with swift leaps, only to bound back toward the shore again.
"We must put a stop to this," said Jerry. "Wait a minute."
He discarded his rifle for a shotgun, and, when the trio of scavengers next approached as close as they dared, he gave them both barrels.
It was long-range shooting, but two of the brutes were slightly crippled. All three fled, yelping, to the forest, and disappeared.
Darkness was now creeping rapidly on. Colder and colder came the bitter evening breeze. At times the great stretch of ice-bound lake cracked like a pistol-shot. The boys were anxious to reach their destination before twilight, and they altered their swinging stride to a jog-trot.
At last they gained the jutting headland, and circled around its point. Here, on the shore of the lake, they found choice camping facilities. They picked on a shallow ravine that was comparatively open and ran back into the forest for thirty or forty yards. On three sides it was sheltered by pine and spruce trees, and had an open frontage on the lake.
"This is just the thing to build our cabin against," said Hamp, indicating a weather-worn block of granite that was almost square in shape. "We're in a great neighborhood for hunting and fishing, too."
"The locality is all right," replied Jerry, "but I don't think it's wise to build right in the trough of this ravine. A heavy storm would snow us up, and a thaw would wash us out into the lake."
"No danger of a thaw," declared Hamp, as he blew on his numbed fingers, "and I don't believe we're going to have any big snowstorms, either. You know your father said there were indications of an open winter. Besides, it will take too long to clear a place for building on higher ground. Look how stout the timber is all around us."
"I'm not anything of a woodsman," joined in Brick, "but this hollow looks like a mighty snug place to me."
Jerry allowed himself to be persuaded.
"All right," he said. "We'll take the chances. Pitch in, fellows."
The sleds were unpacked, and the space in front of the rock was quickly cleared of snow, undergrowth, and loose stones.
Armed with sharp axes, the boys felled and trimmed a number of young trees, and, under Jerry's supervision, the lean-to rapidly assumed shape. Nails were freely used to strengthen it. Soft pine boughs were laid a foot deep on the floor, and an extra covering of the same material was put on the roof.
It was dark long before the task was finished, but the boys worked on by lantern light. The exercise made them feel quite warm. It was a proud and happy moment when their labor was done.
The cabin proved snug, and comfortable beyond their expectations. It had a small doorway, that could be closed by buttoning a strip of canvas over it, and the roof sloped at just the right angle.
"We couldn't have more solid comfort if we were at home," declared Jerry. "Not a drop of water can get at us."
"And we've got protection from the wind on three sides," added Hamp. "I feel like going to bed right now."
"Not before supper?" exclaimed Brick, in a tone of such earnest alarm that his companions laughed merrily.
But there was much to do before the meal could be prepared, and no time was wasted. First the traps were carried into the cabin, and arranged in place. Then all three of the boys set to work on the deer, and partially skinned it. They cut off a number of tender steaks, and hung the carcass to the lower limbs of a stout pine tree.
Brick and Jerry gathered a big store of fuel, and built a roaring fire, while Hamp chopped a hole through the ice on the margin of the lake, and brought a pail of water. Half an hour later, when the hungry and tired lads sat around the blazing logs appeasing their appetites with crisp venison, and fried potatoes, and crackers, and steaming coffee, they felt that their happiness was complete. It was past ten o'clock when they crawled into the shanty, and buried themselves between soft boughs and warm blankets. Outside, the logs smoldered and crackled, and the far-away beasts of the forest wailed to the rising moon.
THE FACE IN THE TREES.
The night passed without alarm. In the morning the cold was more intense than ever, and the sky was still overcast with sullen-looking clouds.
During the forenoon the boys put a few extra touches to the cabin, and gathered enough fuel to last for several days. After dinner Brick and Hamp chopped holes through the ice, and caught a number of fat pickerel. Jerry took his gun, and trudged into the woods. He returned with a brace of spruce partridges.
Toward evening the wind shifted to the east, and it grew even colder. The boys put an extra layer of boughs on the cabin floor, and got all their blankets out. The only comfortable part was around the fire.
Just before supper a bird flew out of the forest and over the camp. It alighted in some bushes near the verge of the jutting headland. Jerry snatched his gun, and hurried after it across the ice.
When he reached the spot he saw something that drove the bird entirely from his mind. Nearly a mile down the lake two black specks were visible. They were moving slowly toward the western shore.
Jerry summoned his companions by a cautious shout.
"Bring your field-glasses, Brick," he added.
When the boys arrived, Jerry pointed out the far-away objects. Brick had the glasses—a long-range pair purchased at Bangor. Each took a turn at them.
"Hullo, those things are only men," said Brick, in a tone of relief. "I was afraid they were wild animals."
"They are odd-looking chaps for this neighborhood," replied Jerry. "They ain't dressed like trappers or hunters. They have guns, though, and there's a hand-sled trailing behind them."
"I wish we could make out their faces," said Hamp. "They've come across the lake, just as we did."
"Perhaps they are following us," suggested Brick, uneasily.
"Hardly," replied Jerry. "Where are they now, Hamp?"
"Just climbing the bank. Now they've disappeared in the woods."
And Hamp lowered the glasses, and restored them to Brick.
After some futile discussion of the mystery, the boys went back to camp. It was natural that they should feel a little curious and alarmed. Ruffianly characters are often encountered in the Maine wilderness.
When supper was over the boys cheered up. They washed the dishes, and then built a roaring fire of great logs directly in front of the cabin. With blankets wrapped about their shoulders they sat beside the flames.
All at once Hamp sprang in excitement to his feet. He pointed toward the lower side of the ravine.
"Look!" he cried. "Oh! it's gone now. I saw a face peeping from behind the trees."
"What did the fellow look like?" demanded Jerry.
"I don't know," was the reply. "He was only there for a couple of seconds. He had savage, black eyes, and no mustache or beard. The fire shone right on him."
"Well, we've got to investigate this thing," declared Jerry. "Come on, fellows."
They delayed enough to get their guns and to light a lantern. Then they boldly climbed the bank of the ravine, and poked about among the trees.
But not a trace of the intruder could be found. There were no footprints on the few bare patches of snow.
"Are you sure you weren't mistaken?" asked Jerry.
"Not a bit of it," replied Hamp, indignantly. "I saw the face as plainly as I see yours now."
The boys listened in silence for a moment, and then they made another short search. In all directions were dense thickets of undergrowth. Through this a man on snowshoes might easily have fled without leaving a trail.
"We may as well go back," said Jerry. "We can't find the spy, whoever he was."
For the next half-hour nothing else was talked about. Hamp was positive that he had seen the face, and his companions believed him. All were uneasy and scared. They knew that had the stranger been an honest man he would have shown himself. His spying actions and hasty flight seemed to indicate some evil design.
"We'll have to be on the watch, that's all," said Hamp. "The fellow was probably looking for a chance to steal something."
"I don't believe he'll come back," replied Brick. "He knows by this time that we're not to be trifled with."
About nine o'clock Jerry slipped away on the pretext of getting a drink. He took an ax with him, but instead of pausing to chop the ice he went on to the headland.
Here he quickly climbed a tall pine tree. From its top he could look down the lake and over the surrounding forest. But all was dark and silent. Nowhere was the gleam of a campfire visible.
He concluded that the strangers had pushed on into the wilderness, and were no longer in the vicinity. With a relieved mind he descended from the tree and started back. He was now really thirsty, so he stopped to get a drink.
There were pretty deep shadows around him, for the timbered sides of the ravine kept the glow of the campfire shut in from the ice. He found a spot that had been chopped open at supper time, and was since frozen over to the thickness of several inches. He stooped down, ax in hand.
Just as he dealt the first stroke a low, mewling cry caused him to look up. Out on the lake, and less than twenty feet distant, crouched a long, grayish beast. With stealthy steps it came nearer and nearer, whipping its thin tail over the snow.
Jerry uttered one terrific screech that echoed far and wide through the forest. He flung the ax madly toward the creature, and, without pausing to look behind, dashed for camp at his top speed. The beast was actually in pursuit, but it stopped at a distance of thirty feet, and uttered a yowl of disappointment.
Brick and Hamp had armed themselves, having heard Jerry's first yell of terror. Hamp lifted his rifle, and fired at random. He missed, of course, but the flash and the report scared the savage creature away.
It was a full minute before Jerry could talk intelligibly.
"It would have scared the bravest man alive to be jumped on so suddenly," he declared. "I was kneeling on the ice, and the brute nearly had me. Cracky! I thought I was a goner."
"What was it?" asked Hamp. "A catamount?"
"Yes; the biggest one I ever saw. You can bet he's hungry, and savage, too."
"Do you think it's the same animal that was after us night before last?" asked Brick.
"I reckon so," Jerry admitted, reluctantly. "It must have come across the ice. There's just one thing about it, fellows. If we expect to have any peace we've got to kill the creature."
"That's easier said than done," replied Hamp. "I wish I had taken careful aim when I had the chance. Now the measly varmint will lurk around here all night, and keep us from sleeping."
"We'll do our best to put him to sleep with a bullet," declared Jerry. "Keep a stiff upper lip, Brick. We've got long odds on our side."
"I'm not afraid," Brick protested, stoutly. "I can kill a catamount as easy as a deer if I get the chance."
It was the chance that was wanting, however. Evidently, the beast had no intention of being killed. He was hungry enough to hang onto the forlorn chance of a I meal, but not once did he show himself, though the boys I lay behind the fire for an hour, watching with cocked and I loaded rifles.
"The cunning fellow is lurking close by, you may be sure," said Jerry. "If we watch long enough we'll catch him in the act of snatching the deer."
"It's no fun to sit here in the cold," replied Hamp, as he tossed a log on the fire. "How snug it looks inside the cabin. Confound that catamount!"
"You fellows turn in if you want to," suggested Jerry. "I'll keep guard for a couple of hours."
"No; I'll stick it out with you," replied Hamp.
"And so will I," added Brick.
Half an hour slipped away in silence. The drowsiness of the boys increased. They felt strongly tempted to go to bed, and leave the catamount in possession of the camp.
Suddenly they were startled to hear the dull report of a gun far back in the woods. Another shot followed, and then another.
"Something wrong," exclaimed Hamp. "Those men must be camping within a mile or two of us."
"That's where the racket comes from," admitted Jerry. "I can't account for it, though."
His lips framed the word murder, but he did not utter it.
"I hear something else," declared Brick; "a sort of a roaring noise. It sounds like the wind among the trees."
All listened intently.
"There's no wind," said Jerry, in a puzzled tone, "unless there's a hurricane coming from the west. I know now what it means. It's the howling of wolves, fellows."
No one spoke. The assertion was too plain for denial. Nearer and louder rose the weird, moaning sounds. Howl answered howl. The ravenous scavengers of the forest were out on a night hunt for food.
"Yes, it is wolves," muttered Hamp. "We ought never to have crossed the lake. The bitter weather has driven the pack down from Canada. Those brutes we saw yesterday were part of it."
"Now they're headed this way," declared Jerry. "They must have attacked the camp of those two men, and been driven off. That's what the shooting meant."
"Can't we climb trees?" Brick asked.
"If we do the catamount will likely climb after us," replied Jerry. "Keep cool, fellows. A wolf is a born coward, and hates powder. We'll give the pack a good dose of lead if they molest us. Have your rifles ready."
The boys hurriedly built up the fire with great logs. Then, after a short discussion, they retreated to the cabin.
"This is the safest place," said Hamp, as he barricaded the entrance with one of the sleds. "Tear a hole in that lower wall, Jerry. About as big as your head."
As soon as the opening was made the boys crowded before it. It faced the direction from which the wolves seemed to be approaching, and commanded a view of the buck's dangling carcass.
Closer on the frosty air rang the dismal howling of the wolves. They could be heard scurrying through the undergrowth. The boys waited, nervously fingering their rifles.
Suddenly a great, tawny beast sprang into full view from behind a rock. It was the hungry catamount. With a bound it fastened teeth and claws in the haunch of venison. It pulled it to the ground, and then dragged it lightly to the top of the bluff.
BESIEGED BY WOLVES.
This daring theft was so quickly done and over that the boys had no chance to shoot. The venison could be plainly seen, but only the catamount's ears and tail were visible as he crouched behind it.
"The impudent brute," cried Brick. "That beats everything. We don't want to lose the meat. Shall I try a shot?"
"Better let me," replied Jerry. "I think I see a chance. Keep back a little."
The boys moved aside, and Jerry poked his rifle through the hole. The hammer clicked. Then there was an anxious pause of half a minute.
"What's wrong?" whispered Hamp.
"Can't get a shot," was the reply. "The brute has dropped lower, and won't stir. Wait a bit," Jerry added, as he withdrew the weapon. "You fellows are going to see the liveliest sight of your lives. Here come the wolves, and the catamount is growling like fury. He doesn't intend to let himself be robbed of that venison."
The boys all gathered before the hole, eager to witness the coming struggle. They were too excited to bother much about their own peril.
Now the hungry pack scented the savory meat. The long howls changed to quick, shrill yelps. They were very close.
All at once the flames danced up around the logs. The red glare flashed to the top of the bluff. The catamount had shifted his position, and the boys saw him plainly. His great jaws were open, and his tail lashed the brush angrily.
"What a chance!" whispered Jerry. "I could put a ball right through him."
"Don't spoil the fun," pleaded Brick. "The wolves will make an end of the brute."
"Don't be too sure of that," muttered Hamp.
However, Jerry had no intention of interfering. The opportunity of ridding the boys of a relentless enemy was imprudently allowed to slip by.
An instant later the scene changed. Out from the—forest broke two shadowy gray forms, gaunt and ravenous with hunger. They darted at the venison, snarling defiance. There was a lightning-like bound, and a screech of fury.
For a few seconds the three animals were a shapeless, whirling tangle. Then the catamount tumbled out of the heap, and sprang back to the carcass. One wolf lay dead and mangled on the snow. The other limped into the forest with dismal wails.
But the balance of the pack were close by. Out they leaped in twos and threes, reckless of the firelight. White teeth gleamed and snapped in every crevice of the timber.
The catamount screeched, and quivered for a second attack. Then it altered its purpose. It seized the haunch of venison, and attempted to make off with it.
The wolves took this move for cowardice, and were emboldened. With a chorus of howls they closed in. The struggle that ensued was simply terrific. The catamount seemed to be everywhere at once. Its long, lithe body performed countless revolutions.
"Hurrah!" cried Brick, in great excitement. "This beats the old Roman shows. Do you think the catamount will be killed?"
"Not likely," replied Jerry, "but he'll lose the meat. There are too many against him."
"That's so," exclaimed Hamp. "Look, fellows, look!"
Just then the catamount leaped clear over his circle of tormentors. With a screech of baffled fury he bounded into the bushy limbs of a tall pine tree. He made his way into an adjoining tree, and then vanished.
Three wolves lay struggling in their death agonies on the snow. Here and there limped crippled ones. The rest of the pack sprang at the venison with teeth and claws.
They muttered and yowled as they bit off great mouthfuls. New arrivals came swarming from the forest. Soon more than a score of the gaunt brutes were assembled around the carcass.
The bones of the deer were soon polished cleanly. Then the famished creatures attacked the bodies of their comrades. Tiring of this cannibalistic meal, they swerved to the edge of the glade, sniffed the air for a moment, and came leaping down the bank of the ravine. The patter of their feet was instantly all around the cabin. They brushed against the sides, and scratched at the interstices of the beams, howling and yelping like a troop of demons.
So sudden was the attack that the besieged lads were taken by complete surprise.
"We'll be torn to pieces," cried Brick. "They'll be through the door in a minute."
"No they won't," yelled. Jerry.
He hurled himself against the sled, which had actually begun to move.
"Keep cool, boys," he added. "It's our only chance. Fire away, and make every shot tell."
Then he poked his rifle under the doorway, and pulled the trigger. The report was followed by a yelp of agony. The wolves fell back a little. They had a wholesome fear of firearms.
Jerry reloaded his rifle, and jammed shells into his double-barreled shotgun.
"I'll guard this end," he yelled, hoarsely. "You fellows must take care of that."
"It's an ugly outlook," replied Hamp. "Here are your two guns, Brick. Keep them loaded. We've got four between us—six with Jerry's. But where's the ammunition?"
"Here," and Brick tapped the cartridge belt that was strapped about his waist. "Help yourself, Hamp. Do you think we can pull through?"
There was no chance for reply. Jerry sounded a note of warning as the wolves came leaping at the cabin again.
A gaunt head suddenly shot through the aperture, and a pair of frothy jaws closed with a snap on the sleeve of Hamp's jacket. Brick instantly reversed his rifle, and hit the brute a stunnning blow. The head vanished, and Hamp nervously examined his arm.
"Not a scratch," he muttered. "You hit him just in time, Brick. Now I'll pay the brute for his daring."
He poked his shotgun out, and fired both barrels. Jerry joined in with a rattling fusillade.
"That hit something," he shouted. "Half a dozen of the varmints were scratching at the sled. I thought it would give way."
"We'll beat them off yet," gasped Brick. "Aren't they savage, though? They don't mind the fire a bit. Hullo! there's a paw sticking through. Take that."
"That" was a well-delivered charge of buckshot between the timbers of the cabin. A yelp of agony followed the report.
"Good!" applauded Jerry. "You'll do."
"Keep it up, fellows," yelled Hamp. "Plenty of powder and shot will tell. There, the brutes are falling back a little."
Hamp was right. The scratching at the cabin now ceased. But the hungry pack were loth to abandon their prey. Still they scurried here and there. From the opening the boys could see the sinewy bodies and the gleaming eyes. Above the din of yelps and howls a shriller sound occasionally rose.
It was probably the screech of the worsted catamount.
"Keep all the guns loaded," cautioned Jerry. "I don't believe we'll have to do much more shooting, though. We've taught the wolves a bitter lesson. They know they can't make a meal of us."
But he had barely spoken when a scratching noise was heard overhead. The entire cabin seemed to totter and sway.
"The pack are on the roof," cried Brick. "They must have climbed over the rocks. Everything will be down on us in a minute."
"At least three or four of the brutes are there," declared Hamp. "Just hear them digging. Let's all fire together."
But before a single weapon could be raised the flimsy roof parted in the center with a dull, ripping noise. Through the gap tumbled a heap of snow from the trees above, and then followed a snapping, snarling wolf, landing squarely upon the terrified boys.
THROUGH THE ICE.
Happily, the wolf was not the least frightened member of the party. His plunge through space had been unintentional, and when he rolled off into one corner of the cabin he gave a howl of terror.
Brick and Hamp gathered themselves up from the pine boughs, where the blow had tumbled them. They felt sure that they were lost; they expected to be instantly torn limb from limb.
"Stand aside!" yelled Jerry, as he stepped in front of his companions.
There was no time to shoot, for the wolf had turned in desperation, and was in the act of rushing at his enemies.
Jerry clubbed his rifle and let drive. Thud! the heavy stock landed on the brute's head, and tumbled him over in a heap.
"Hurrah!" shouted Hamp and Brick, in one breath, as they rushed to the attack.
The wolf was a tenacious fellow, and he struggled desperately to rise. Sorely wounded though he was, he actually managed to get upon his feet. Then a charge of buckshot from Jerry's gun, settled him for good and all, and he rolled over lifeless.
The whole affair transpired in about a minute, and the plucky lads next turned their attention to the peril that threatened them from overhead.
Two howling brutes were digging and tearing at the hole in the roof. Their lolling red tongues and white teeth glistened in the firelight. The rest of the pack yelped and scurried around the cabin, as though they knew that the feast would soon be ready.
"We'll fix those fellows, never fear," panted Jerry.
He and Hamp lifted their shotguns, and fired together, straight at the glaring eyes and hungry jaws.
With a yelp of agony one of the brutes rolled from the roof, and crashed heavily to the ground. The other was invisible when the smoke cleared; he must have leaped back upon the rock.
The boys were cheered by their victory. They reloaded their weapons and waited, keeping an eye on all vulnerable spots.
"This will be something worth remembering, if we come through it all right," said Brick.
"Morning can't be many hours off," added Hamp. "The pack will be sure to go then."
But the brave lads were spared the horrors of a further siege. All at once the wolves became strangely silent, and the boys heard a rushing noise far back in the forest, mingled with a chorus of faint howls. The sound came closer, and then veered off in another direction, growing more and more indistinct.
"Listen!" whispered Jerry, holding up a warning finger. "There goes another pack of wolves—after a deer or something. Hear them tear through the forest. I'm glad they're not headed this way."
"So am I," assented Brick. "Hullo! what's up now?"
"The siege," shouted Jerry, and the witticism proved indeed true.
The pack around the cabin gave voice to the fading howls of their kindred, and then scurried off into the forest at full tear.
For a time the lads could scarcely realize their good fortune. Then, with thankful hearts, they pulled the sled away from the door, and crept out.
The fire had burnt low, and they hurriedly stacked it with fresh fuel. Two dead wolves lay in the ravine, and the one inside the cabin made three. The bodies were dragged down the hollow, and pitched into a gully between two rocks.
"Let them lay there for the present," said Jerry. "In the morning I'll take the scalps off. We'll get bounty for them."
Encouraged by the brightness of the fire, the boys crept up the slope, and looked at the picked bones of the deer, and at the wolves that the catamount had killed.
"Pretty clean work," observed Hamp. "I don't care to stay here long, though. The catamount may pounce on us at any minute. There's the tree he jumped into."
"But he's not there now," replied Jerry. "I think he's had enough of this locality, and won't trouble us any more. No danger of the wolves coming back, either."
"There is, if the severe weather keeps up," said Hamp, as they returned to the fire. "It wouldn't be a bad idea to cross the lake again, and do our hunting between Moosehead and Chesumcook. This neighborhood is too near Canada and the home of the wolves for me."
"For me, too," added Brick, uneasily.
"Well, I don't suppose you fellows want to move to-night," declared Jerry. "We can talk about it in the morning. I think I could sleep for twenty-four hours straight ahead now."
"But how about the hole in the roof?" questioned Brick. "It won't do to go to bed and leave that open. The catamount might jump down on us."
"Or it might rain or snow," added Hamp.
"It won't do either," asserted Jerry, "but I'm not so positive about the catamount. It will be only prudent to repair the roof to-night. Come, fellows; it won't take long."
Jerry mounted the rock, and then climbed partly out on the roof. The others procured hatchets and started toward a copse of young timber that lay behind the cabin.
"You'll need another prop or two, won't you?" asked Hamp.
"Yes, one of these is broken," Jerry replied. "Cut it thick."
Hamp chose a likely sapling and began to hack at it. Brick struck in now and then. Upon the roof Jerry rearranged the disordered layers of pine and spruce boughs. The boys anticipated a quick completion of the work and then a much-needed sleep.
The cry came from a pair of lusty and vigorous lungs. Their owner was evidently some distance out on the lake and directly opposite the camp.
Jerry sprang back to the rock, and thence to the ground, landing directly between his companions.
Again the appeal for help rang out, mingled with a blood-curdling screech. Then followed a hoarse, quavering noise that sounded only half human.
"Some one is in peril out there," exclaimed Jerry. "It must be one of those strange men. The catamount has attacked him. We have got to rescue him, fellows."
"And mighty quick, at that," added Hamp. "Come on."
The boys ran back to the cabin, where each grabbed a rifle. Then they sped down the ravine and out on the slippery ice. The strange, unearthly noise was twice repeated before they were twenty feet from land.
"It sounds like a college yell, only a good deal worse," declared Brick.
"I'll bet I know what it is," replied Hamp. "The man has no rifle, and he's trying to scare the catamount off by screeching at it. I've heard of old trappers doing that."
"And it often succeeds, too," said Jerry. "There, the fellow is calling for help again."
"Hold on, we're coming!" shouted Hamp, at the top of his voice.
An answering hail floated back on the wind, and was speedily drowned by an ear-splitting yowl from the catamount.
The boys ran on and on. As yet nothing was visible in the deep gloom ahead.
"I wish we had brought a lantern," panted Hamp.
"Too late to think of that now," replied Jerry. "We've got to face the music in the dark. If it comes to close quarters, I'll shoot at the catamount first. You fellows be ready in case I miss."
A moment later the figure of a man loomed out of the misty gray atmosphere thirty yards in advance of the boys. He was running toward them at full speed, and brandishing a gun.
When the man came a little closer, the pursuing catamount could be seen bounding along behind. Suddenly the man stopped. He turned around and yelled savagely. The beast also stopped, and squatted on the ice.
The boys now came up with the stranger, who welcomed them gladly.
"You are just in time," he panted. "I couldn't have held out much longer. My rifle dropped in the snow, and is good for nothing. Shoot the creature, if you can."
At sight of the rescuers, the catamount had swerved to one side, and was now creeping along in a half circle, evidently afraid to venture nearer.
Jerry took aim—unerringly, as he thought—and pulled the trigger. He missed, however, and when Brick and Hamp fired, with no better success, the beast retreated with great leaps.
"Don't let him get away," yelled Jerry, excitedly. "As long as he's alive, he'll give us trouble. We've got to finish him up now. Come on, fellows."
Off dashed the lad on a run, and Brick and Hamp followed. They skimmed over a dozen yards of ice and then slackened speed. Just ahead was a small, bluish spot, but none noticed it.
"Confound the beast!" exclaimed Jerry. "I never saw anything slide out of sight so quickly."
He ran on for several yards, heedless of his peril. Then he struck the thin shell of ice on an air-hole, and like a flash he vanished from the eyes of his horrified companions.
MR. RAIKES. OF PORTLAND.
The catastrophe was one of appalling swiftness. Brick and Hamp could scarcely realize what had happened. The hole that had swallowed Jerry up yawned at their very feet.
It was less than two feet in diameter, and its edges were jagged. The surface of the deep, blue water went swirling around and around, as though an under-current existed. Doubtless there was one, and it had sucked Jerry far down. He did not reappear, though the boys strained their eyes on the fatal spot. The seconds went by—twenty—half a minute.
Hamp uttered a groan of agony.
"Jerry, Jerry!" he cried aloud.
"Look out!" exclaimed Brick, as he dragged him back. "You'll go in, too. It's all up with poor Jerry. There's no hope—not an atom."
His voice quavered and broke; he dashed a tear from his eye. Hamp was crying, too. Loud sobs burst from his bosom. Just then the stranger reached the spot. He had seen the accident from a distance.
"Which one was it?" he demanded. "Which one? Tell me his name, quick."
It was a strange request, and he spoke in eager, excited tones. But the boys were too much concerned to notice such a trifle.
"It—it was Jerry," sobbed Hamp.
The man's voice and manner showed intense relief.
"Poor fellow," he added. "Nothing can be done to help him. The water is deep, and he must have been carried far under the ice. Where is the catamount—the author of all the mischief?"
This was a heartless question, and the boys were too indignant to reply. At such a moment they would have cared little for a dozen catamounts.
"Oh! oh!" moaned Hamp. "Poor Jerry! What shall we do? What shall we do?"
So complete and hopeless was their despair that what followed seemed at first like a dream. They heard a crackling sound, and then a plaintive cry. It was really Jerry's voice, calling faintly for help from a distance.
Brick was the first to notice a dark blot some twenty feet out on the ice. He rushed toward it with a yell of delight, followed by Hamp and the stranger.
The dark blot was Jerry's head and shoulders. The rim of broken ice fitted close to his armpits, and his outstretched hands were clutching at the glossy surface.
"Help! help!" he cried, in a weak and quavering voice. "I'm going under again, fellows."
"No, you ain't," shouted Hamp. "We'll save you. Hold on a minute."
"Don't go too near by yourself," warned Jerry. "The ice will break."
"That's so," cried Brick, giving one hand to Hamp. The stranger, in turn, took hold of Brick, and thus a triply-strong line was formed. Hamp went forward on his knees until he was able to grasp one of Jerry's hands.
All pulled together. It was a time of terrible suspense. Twice Jerry was almost out of water, and twice the edge of the ice crumbled, letting him slip back.
Fortunately Hamp did not break through. He bravely withstood the strain, and, at last, a mighty effort pulled Jerry out beside him, and he was dragged to a place of safety.
Hamp rubbed his arm.
"I thought the muscles were going to crack," he said. "It was an awful strain. But I would have lost both arms sooner than see you drown, Jerry."
"Better get the lad back to the campfire at once," suggested the stranger.
This was good advice, for Jerry was simply speechless with cold. His face and hands were blue, and he shivered like a leaf as he stood with dripping clothes.
Hamp and Brick took Jerry between them, and away they sped for camp. The stranger followed, and he was close behind the others when they reached the fire. The boys now saw him clearly, for the first time, as he stood in the light of the flames.
The man was about thirty years old, with brown hair and a slight, yellowish mustache. His face was good-humored and rather prepossessing. He wore gray trousers, and a short, but heavy, overcoat was buttoned up to his throat.
"You've got dry clothes for the lad?" he asked.
"Yes; each of us has an extra suit," replied Hamp.
He and Brick bustled in and out of the cabin, and in a brief time they had Jerry attired in dry garments. His lips were still blue, and he shivered as though he had a chill. The boys wrapped him in blankets, and made him sit close up to the fire. Then they heaped on quantities of wood, until the roaring flames were leaping high.
The stranger took a small flask from his pocket and wrenched a metal cup from the end. Into the latter he poured a few drops of a reddish liquor.
"Drink this, lad," he said, handing the cup to Jerry, who drained it hastily and made a wry face.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Brandy, and prime stuff, at that. It's thirty years old."
Jerry shivered to think what the stuff would have tasted like had it been twice as old.
It was just what he needed, however, and in a short time the shivering ceased, and the color came back to his cheeks.
"How do you feel now?" asked Hamp.
"Splendid. It's awfully snug and warm under these blankets. I'll bet you fellows were scared when I went through the ice."
"Well, I should say so," replied Brick. "We never expected to see you again. How did you get to that hole, anyhow?"
"It was presence of mind did that," declared Jerry. "You see, as soon as I broke through, a sort of an under-current sucked me deep down and to one side. I opened my eyes and began to swim. I came up with a bump, and then I knew I was clear under the ice. I saw a gray streak away off in front of me. I knew it must be the light shining through an air-hole, and swam for it. Then I went up head first, and you fellows know the rest. My rifle is at the bottom of the lake, though."
"We've got guns enough without it," replied Hamp. "Don't worry about that. You can be mighty glad that you're not beside the rifle, Jerry."
"It was, indeed, a most marvelous escape," said the stranger. "Had this brave lad been drowned, I should have put the blame upon myself. It was to save me from the catamount that you lads ventured out on the lake."
"I only wish we had killed the brute," grumbled Jerry.
"Yes, it is unfortunate that he got away," admitted the stranger. "But I forget that I have not yet introduced myself. I hope you will overlook my carelessness. My name is Silas Raikes, and I hail from Portland, Maine. I am camping a mile or two from here with a friend. His name is Joe Bogle, and he belongs in Augusta. We are out on a little prospecting expedition."
The boys nodded.
"Some hours ago we were attacked by wolves, but managed to drive them off. When we heard shots a little later, we knew that there must be other campers near by, and that they were in peril. So I left Joe to guard camp, and came to your assistance. But, as it so happened, the tables were turned, and I was the one to need help. My rifle was useless from a fall in the snow, and the catamount very nearly captured me."
"Then we are square all round," said Brick, laughingly. "We're much obliged to you for your good intentions, all the same. If you had come a little sooner, you would have seen some lively times."
He went on to describe in a graphic manner the thrilling events of the night. Mr. Raikes took a keen interest in the tale, and overwhelmed the boys with praise.
"I should be glad to know such brave lads more intimately," he said. "Let me see. Have I forgotten your names already?"
"I guess you never knew them," replied Hamp, with outspoken candor. "My name is Foster, and over there is Jerry Brenton. We are both from Bangor. This fellow is Brick Larkins, and he lives in New York."
"Jim Larkins," corrected Brick, with a roguish look at Hamp.
"Larkins, Larkins," repeated Mr. Raikes, as he thoughtfully rubbed his forehead. "Where have I heard that name? Ah, yes. Surely you are no relative of John Larkins, the wealthy contractor of Lexington avenue, New York?"
"His son, that's all," replied Brick. "Do you know him?"
"I have met him in a business way. And so you are his son? Well, I am glad to make your acquaintance. Your object is hunting, I presume?"
"We started out with that intention," replied Brick, "but so far the wolves and the catamounts and the deer have been hunting us."
The boys laughed, and Mr. Raikes joined in heartily. He took a cigar from Ins pocket and lighted it with a glowing ember.
THE GREAT STORM.
Mr. Raikes proved to be a very affable and genial sort of a man. He chatted with the boys for some time, and asked them a great deal about their plans.
Not once, however, did he refer to the business that had brought himself and Mr. Bogle into the wilderness.
"Isn't this a queer time of the year to go prospecting?" inquired Jerry, during a lapse in the conversation. "I thought summer was the right season."
Mr. Raikes' blue eyes expressed mild surprise, as he turned to the speaker.
"This is just the time for our line of business," he replied; and if he ever spoke the truth in his life, he spoke it then.
"We'll make out all right if the weather holds good," he added, hastily. "I'm a little afraid there's a snow squall coming, though. The air just feels like it. It's not nearly so cold as when I started."
"That's so," exclaimed Hamp. "I can feel it getting warmer."
"You'd think it was downright hot if you were in my place," declared Jerry. "I'm actually sweating."
"That's the best thing for you," said Mr. Raikes, "only don't take cold after it. Well, I must be off. You boys want to sleep, and I suppose Joe is getting anxious about me. Of course, we will see each other again, since we are such near neighbors?"
Without waiting for a reply, Mr. Raikes shouldered his gun and strode down the ravine. The boys shouted good-by after him, and watched until he disappeared in the gloom.
"Not a bad sort of a fellow," commented Brick.
"He has mighty restless eyes," said Hamp. "When they weren't looking at you, they were searching around the camp."
"I noticed that he watched Brick pretty sharply," put in Jerry. "He was a mighty talkative fellow. Come to think of it, he found out everything about us, and didn't tell us a scrap about himself."
Here the discussion of the departed Mr. Raikes ended, for the boys were too sleepy to think of anything else. Brick looked at his watch, and uttered a gasp of surprise.
"Half-past three o'clock. It will soon be morning."
"The roof of the cabin must be fixed before we go to bed," cried Jerry. "It may snow at any time. You fellows will have to manage it, for I won't dare stir about till I get over this sweat."
Brick and Hamp undertook the contract, and, by following Jerry's instructions, they completed the work in a very few minutes. Then they dragged a big log down the ravine and put it on the fire.
The light faded, and dawn came. It was a dreary sort of a dawn, at best, for the weather had changed in a truly terrific manner. At midday the tired boys were still slumbering, blissfully ignorant of the warring elements outside. The afternoon advanced, and it was well toward evening when Brick yawned, stretched himself, and sat up. He looked at his watch.
"Great Scott!" he ejaculated. "After four o'clock! What a sleep we've had!"
Then he noticed a sprinkling of snow on the pine boughs, and saw quite a layer of it in the front corners of the cabin. A loud humming noise was ringing in his ears, and mingled with it was a deep, sonorous roar. Brick threw off the blanket and crawled to the door. He pulled the sled away and partly lifted the flap of canvas. When he saw a solid wall of snow staring him in the face, he uttered a shout that instantly woke his companions.
"Look out, or we'll have a cave-in!" cried Jerry, as he pushed the sled back in place. "Whew! what a storm this is! Just hear the wind roaring!"
"How are we going to see out?" asked Hamp.
For answer, Jerry took an ax and chopped a small, oblong hole in the front wall of the cabin, at the height of five feet from the ground. The boys crowded in front of it and looked out.
To say that they were astonished and alarmed, would but feebly express their feelings. The snow was level with the hole, and lay to the depth of five feet all through the ravine. The air was white with swirling flakes, and the lofty trees to right and left were creaking and groaning in the teeth of a tremendous gale.
Fortunately the storm was blowing from the northeast, and thus the cabin was effectively screened by the upper bank of the ravine. Had it been exposed, even partially, to the gale, it would have been demolished long ago.
Jerry stuffed an old coat into the hole to shut out the bitterly cold air that filtered through.
"This is a pretty ugly fix," he said, gravely. "I hope the storm won't keep up."
"We're snug enough in here, at any rate," replied Hamp.
"And we can stand a long siege," added Brick, who was disposed to be cheerful. To him, a snowstorm suggested only the pleasing excitement of winter sports.
"We are all right as long as the wind don't change," responded Jerry, "but if it does—then good-by to the cabin. The snow itself is not as deep as it looks. The wind blowing over the bank makes a sort of an eddy behind it, and all this snow in the ravine has drifted. It will keep on drifting, too—higher and higher."
"We'll find a way to pull through," said Hamp, confidently. "I don't believe the wind is going to change."
"It may sheer to the east," suggested Brick.
"That is just what I am afraid of," replied Jerry. "But we won't borrow trouble before it comes. We have enough on our hands now."
He pointed to the roof, which was sagging down considerably in the middle. There was evidently a heavy weight of snow on top.
"No way to remedy that," he added. "We can't get up there in such a deep snow. Let's make the best of it, fellows. I'm thankful that I feel well after my cold bath last night."
"If anything happens, those men may help us," suggested Hamp.
"Not likely," replied Jerry. "I'll bet anything they're worse off than we are. Probably they've got nothing to shelter them but a couple of rocks or a flimsy lean-to."
"Then I pity them," declared Brick. "But let's have something to eat, fellows. I'm ravenous."
His companions were equally hungry. All sat down on the straw, and for half a minute no one spoke or moved. An expression that was half serious, half comical, stole over each face.
Then Hamp opened a tin box and took out several dozen biscuit. He unrolled a napkin and disclosed about half a pound of chipped beef. He spread these things significantly in front of his companions. The act was enough to tell the tale.
"I thought so," exclaimed Brick, dismally. "We'll starve, sure. What fools we were to leave everything in the storehouse."
"What confounded fools," echoed Hamp. "But we couldn't have known what was going to happen."
The storehouse, it must be explained, was a triangular hollow between two rocks that stood in the center of the ravine, half-a-dozen yards below the cabin.
Here, snugly covered with one of the sleds, rested most of the provisions—tinned biscuit and meats, potatoes, flour, lard, coffee, pork, and various other articles.
This place had been selected because there was not sufficient room in the cabin.
"We can't keep alive long on this handful of crackers and beef," declared Jerry. "We've got to get at the supplies somehow or other. Light the lantern till we look about us. Where are the matches?"
"In the storehouse," muttered Brick. "The sealed bottle, I mean. But we had a box here last night. I saw it lying in that corner."
Alas! the corner was heaped up with snow, and when Brick dug out the box, it was a sight to be seen. It had been left partly open, and the heads of the matches were one sticky mass.
"Look in your pockets," Jerry fairly shrieked.
Every pocket was quickly searched, but to no purpose. Not a match could be found.
"No light, and hardly any food," muttered Jerry, glaring at the two useless lanterns. "Now we must get to the storehouse. There are no two ways about it. I suppose the snowshoes are with the other traps."
"Yes," said Hamp, dismally.
"If we had them here, we would be all right."
"Can't we dig a tunnel?" suggested Brick.
"That's just what I'm thinking about," replied Jerry. "It might be done, though it will take a long time. The snow is so light that I am afraid a tunnel will cave in."
"Let me try it, anyhow," said Brick. "You'll catch cold if you get into the snow, Jerry."
"I'll attend to the tunneling," asserted Hamp. "I'm used to that sort of thing. Do you remember our snow forts, Jerry?"
"Do your best, old fellow. Everything depends on it. Let's all have a bite to eat first."
As he spoke, a sharp, snapping noise was heard above the roar of the storm. A terrific crash followed. The cabin quivered and reeled, and black darkness shut out the pale gray twilight.
A GREAT DISASTER.
The stunning crash and the succeeding darkness suggested an earthquake to the frightened boys. They dropped down on the boughs and lay there without moving for nearly a minute.
"Any one hurt?" asked Jerry, in a husky tone.
"I'm not," whispered Brick.
"Neither am I," added Hamp. "But we may be killed any minute. I wonder what that was."
"I'll bet I know," exclaimed Jerry. "One of those big pine trees has fallen right across the ravine. Luckily it hit the rock instead of the cabin, and the thick branches are what makes it dark in here."
To prove his assertion, Jerry removed the plug from the hole over the door. Sure enough, a couple of bushy, green limbs were seen protruding from the cabin roof down into the snow.
"It's only the limbs that do that," declared Jerry. "The trunk of the tree is on the rock. If it had fallen a little to this side we would have been crushed like eggshells."
"The cabin is just as firm as ever," said Hamp, as he pressed his weight against one side.
"It's firmer," asserted Brick. "It don't wobble one bit now, and it did before."
"That's because the outspreading branches of the tree are holding it like a vise," said Jerry. "I'll tell you what, fellows, this accident is the best thing that could have happened to us. The cabin is as solid as though it was built on stone, and the roof can't break down now, no matter how deep the snow becomes."
This was undoubtedly true, and the boys were vastly relieved to hear it.
"If we only had the matches and provisions here," said Brick. "Then we would be fixed."
"Yes, we could stand a long siege," assented Jerry. "But we've got to be up and doing. First, we'll have a bite to eat, and then Hamp can tackle the tunnel."
The storm still raged with unabated fury, and the stinging cold air penetrated to the cabin. The boys plugged up the hole, and then sat down to the scanty repast, which was soon over.
"Now for the tunnel," said Hamp.
He removed the sled and gingerly unbuttoned the flap of canvas from the doorway.
The others helped him, and as fast as they removed the snow, they poked it out through the hole above. Finally the excavation was three feet deep, and high enough to admit Hamp on his hands and knees.
"You'll have to stop removing the snow now," said Jerry. "I can't poke any more out, for the drift is up over the hole in the wall."
"All right," replied Hamp, cheerfully, as he crawled into the tunnel. "The snow is so light that I can pack it under me and against the sides. It's nice and warm in here, fellows, but it's dark as pitch. I wish there was a little light."
"You'll have to wish," replied Jerry. "You can strike matches on the way back from the storehouse."
Hamp laughed, and his voice had a hollow, muffled ring.
"Better let me come in and help you," cried Brick.
"No; stay there," responded Hamp. "If two fellows were working, we would surely have a cave-in. I'm getting along all right."
By this time he was five feet from the cabin. On hands and knees he went slowly ahead through the intense darkness. He wore stout buckskin gloves, and carried a slab of bark, with which he patted down the snow in front of him and slapped it against the sides of the tunnel. He could hear, as though from a great distance, the ceaseless roar of the tempest. All was quiet in the cabin, and he dared not call out to his companions, for fear his voice would bring an avalanche of snow into the tunnel.
Yet the lad was in a hazardous situation, and to himself he did not disguise the fact. At any moment might come disaster in the shape of a cave-in or a falling tree. Then, in the darkness, he would have little chance of escape.
He worked forward slowly and bravely. He had a definite plan in mind. Directly out from the cabin door was the fireplace, and two or three feet to the right of this lay a flat stone, on which the boys had frequently sat while cooking the meals. Straight down the ravine from the stone was the storehouse. To reach the latter seemed simple enough, but it was not so easy after all.
Now and then he would throw himself flat, and stretch out his arms and legs to their fullest extent to make sure that the tunnel had no crooks.
At last something occurred that made his heart leap for joy. The slab of bark struck a hard obstacle. Hamp tore eagerly at the snow with both hands. Yes, he had found the fireplace. One by one he lifted the charred embers of wood. Here was the half-consumed log that had ceased to burn when the storm opened. So far the tunnel was just what he had aimed to make it.
In a short time Hamp cleared the space round about him, and flattened the snow down solidly. He was tempted to push straight ahead for the storehouse, but a prudent second thought caused him to abandon the rash design. He turned to the right, and went on with the excavation. Hope made the time pass quickly, and he was surprised when he struck the flat stone. He tunneled clear over it with extreme caution. Then he veered sharply to the left and followed the triangular point of the stone, which he knew pointed straight for the storehouse.
Deeper and deeper grew the tunnel, and soon his feet were quite beyond the stone. He could barely kick it with his heels when he threw himself flat. The goal was now within six or eight feet.
Then came a sudden rumble and whirr, and Hamp felt a weight drop upon the rear part of his body. He knew what had happened, and threw himself convulsively forward. He cleared the fallen snow and then wheeled quickly around. The tunnel had disappeared. The roof had fallen in.
Hamp had no way of telling how far back the blockade extended.
"I'll have to turn back and clear the path," he reflected. "The cave-in surely can't reach farther than the stone. This time I'll make the roof stronger. I can be thankful it didn't drop all over me."
The cleared space around him permitted him to turn slowly on his hands and knees. He described a complete revolution, gently patting the roof overhead to make sure that it was solid.
It was a most stupid thing to do, and when the realization of his folly flashed upon his mind, Hamp felt that he would give much to be able to kick himself. In truth, he had blundered into a most perplexing situation. He had utterly lost his bearings.
For a moment the lad was simply stupid with horror. He had not the least idea in which direction lay the cabin or the storehouse, the upper or the lower side of the ravine.
He was buried under a mighty snowdrift, that might collapse and stifle him at any instant.
UNDER THE SNOWDRIFT.
Hamp knew that his only hope lay in a clear head and a courageous heart. Already the air seemed to be more dense, and he felt a difficulty in breathing.
"One thing certain," he reflected, "I've got about a ghost of a chance of striking either the cabin or the storehouse. If I try to tunnel away from here, there's no telling where I may land. I've got two chances—either to stay here until Brick and Jerry come to rescue me, or to get my bearings by hearing them shout."
The latter commended itself most favorably to Hamp. In spite of the risk of an avalanche, he put his hands to his lips and uttered a piercing yell.
He waited, and tried again.
Now, to his delight, he heard a faint cry. He was not quick enough to locate it, so he shouted once more.
A moment later the answering hail came, but, alas! he could not make sure in what direction.
An agony of despair seized him, and he uttered cry after cry.
Fatal mistake! The loud noise loosened the quivering masses of snow. Hamp felt the walls shake and heard the rustling glide. Throwing out his arms, he fought his way upward through the descending avalanche. Though twice beaten back, he gained an upright position. Had the snow been less light and powdery, he must have been crushed to the ground.
He was now firmly on his feet, but in danger of suffocation. His head was covered. The snow pressed against his mouth and nose. He gasped for breath. He clutched and tore at the weight above him, swinging his arms from side to side. Then the powdery masses slipped to right and left, disclosing a funnel-shaped aperture, through which filtered a current of cold air. Hamp uttered a cry of relief and made the opening larger. The top of the drift was about two feet above his head. He saw the circular patch of murky gray sky through the driving storm. He felt the icy flakes dropping upon his cheeks, and heard the hoarse, deafening hum of the wind. The youth was in no present danger, but otherwise his position was not improved. He could not force a way onward through the drift, nor could he get his head high enough to see where he was.
"It's no go," he muttered. "I'm stuck here like a pig in a poke. Unless I keep mighty still, I'll have another avalanche from the surface."
Just then he heard two lusty shouts, and the voices seemed to come from straight in front of him.
"Hurrah!" he yelled. "Brick! Jerry!"
The response quickly floated back, and at the same instant the wind drove a stinging shower of fine snow into his face.
Hamp wiped the snow off, and was about to utter another shout when he heard a shrill crackling above the din of the storm. As he stared upward he saw the disk of open air suddenly eclipsed by a sheet of blackness. More from instinct than logic, Hamp divined what this meant. Quick as a flash he dived downward with arms and head, and sought to burrow under the drift.
He was none too quick. He heard a dull crash, and felt himself seized by some mighty force and driven roughly against the very ground. There was a considerable weight of loose snow upon him, and when he had beaten it away from his face, his outstretched hands caught hold of something that was solid, but prickly and yielding.
He recognized it as the branch of a pine tree. Then he twisted about and thrust his hands down toward his middle. Here he found the trunk of the tree, resting with no little weight upon his thighs.
No bones were broken, nor was he even badly bruised. But, nevertheless, he was pinned fast. He lay partly on one side, with his head turned in the direction whence the voices of his friends had come.
The canopy of branches above admitted plenty of fresh air, and there was quite an open gap in front of his face. He made a strong effort to drag himself free, but stopped as soon as he found masses of snow dropping down upon him. Then he shouted several times, and heard a faint response. The cries continued at intervals, and now they actually seemed to be coming closer.
"Brick and Jerry are tunneling this way," said Hamp, to himself. "I wonder if they will succeed in reaching me. I didn't tell them how I was going to dig. I only hope they won't get in the same fix that I was in a few minutes ago."
The chance of rescue—slim though it was—cheered him considerably, and gave him patience. He lay quite still, shouting from time to time. There were no longer any responses, but he concluded that the boys were afraid to shout for fear of a cave-in.
Twenty minutes of thrilling suspense slipped away. Then he heard a dull, muffled sound, and a moment later a mass of snow dropped upon his face. He threw out his hands and caught hold of a human arm.
"Brick! Jerry!" he shouted, with delight.
"We're here, old boy," replied Jerry's familiar voice. "Are you hurt?"
"Not a bit. I'm pinned fast, though."
"Well, we'll soon have you out. Brick and I thought you were a goner for sure when that tree fell. The crash sounded just where your voice was."
"It was a close call," replied Hamp. "But how did you get here so soon."
"Why, by your tunnel," said Jerry. "It was open a foot beyond that stone. We dug mighty carefully the rest of the way. That's what kept us so long."
"And now how are we going to get you free?" added Brick.
"I'll tell you," replied Hamp. "In the first place, make the passage wide enough for both of you to kneel side by side."
"It's wide enough now," declared Jerry. "We came through in double file."
"Then take hold of my hands and pull."
The boys followed instructions, and by a long, steady haul they drew Hamp from under the trunk of the tree.
"There, that will do," he cried, as he sat up. "Thank goodness, I can kick as spry as ever. My trousers are torn, but I don't believe I have a scratch. I wouldn't go through this over again for a fortune."
He briefly told the boys his thrilling story, and it made them feel rather shivery.
"We had better go back while the way is open," said Brick. "It will be good-by if we are caught by a cave-in."
"I hate to give up," muttered Hamp, doggedly. "I Started for the storehouse, and I want to reach it."
"But that tree is right in the road now," declared Jerry. "The storehouse is on the other side of it. We can't get through, and it will be a risky thing to try to tunnel around it."
Hamp was not satisfied until he had crawled forward several feet. Then a perfect network of interlacing branches drove him reluctantly back.
"I thought so," said Jerry. "There is only one thing to do, fellows. We must return to the cabin and wait until morning. By then the storm may be over. At any rate, the snow will be more solid and compact, and won't cave in so easily. We will be able to make a tunnel clear around the tree, and get at the storehouse from the lower side."
This was sound logic, and as no one could suggest a better plan, the boys started despondently back through the tunnel, crawling in single file.
They reached the end without mishap, and were heartily glad to find themselves in the snug shelter of the cabin once more.
Brick looked at his watch and wound it up. It was just half-past eight o'clock in the evening. Of course, the boys were not sleepy, and it looked as though they would have to turn night into day. They were savagely hungry, and longingly eyed the cartridge box that held the scanty remnants of their supper. But they put the temptation aside with stern fortitude, knowing that greater need would come with the morning.
All hands prudently exchanged their damp clothes for dry ones, and then huddled together under blankets in a corner of the cabin.
It was four o'clock when the boys finally dropped off to sleep, overcome more by mental than physical exhaustion. They rested soundly, and awoke to find that another day had dawned—dawned hours before, for Brick's watch indicated eleven o'clock. The hands could be barely seen by the meager gray light that filtered through a crevice in the roof.
The storm was over—the wind, part of it, at least. The silence was oppressive. Evidently the drifted snow was piled many feet above the cabin. What scanty light penetrated to the boys filtered through the outspreading branches of the fallen pine.
DECOYED TO DANGER.
The first thing was breakfast. Prudence was no match for ravenous hunger, and the boys greedily devoured the last scrap of food. They even searched the pine boughs for fallen crumbs.
"It don't seem as though I had eaten anything at all," said Brick, mournfully.
"Well, it won't be long till we get a good, square meal," said Jerry. "The snow must be packed pretty hard by this time, so the tunnel won't take so long to dig."
"And there won't be much danger of caving in," added Hamp.
The boys sat talking for a while before they began the great undertaking. Their very lives depended on reaching the storehouse.