THE WOLF HUNTERS
A Tale of Adventure in the Wilderness
BY JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
To my comrades of the great northern wilderness, those faithful companions with whom I have shared the joys and hardships of the "long silent trail," and especially to Mukoki, my red guide and beloved friend, does the writer gratefully dedicate this volume
I The Fight in the Forest II How Wabigoon Became a White Man III Roderick Sees the Footprint IV Roderick's First Taste of the Hunter's Life V Shots in the Wilderness VI Mukoki Disturbs the Ancient Skeletons VII Roderick Discovers the Buckskin Bag VIII How Wolf Became the Companion of Men IX Wolf Takes Vengeance Upon His People X Roderick Explores the Chasm XI Roderick's Dream XII The Secret of the Skeleton's Hand XIII Snowed In XIV The Rescue of Wabigoon XV Roderick Holds the Woongas at Bay XVI The Surprise at the Post
With his rifle ready Rob approached the fissure (Frontispiece) Knife—fight—heem killed! The leader stopped in his snow-shoes
THE WOLF HUNTERS
THE FIGHT IN THE FOREST
Cold winter lay deep in the Canadian wilderness. Over it the moon was rising, like a red pulsating ball, lighting up the vast white silence of the night in a shimmering glow. Not a sound broke the stillness of the desolation. It was too late for the life of day, too early for the nocturnal roamings and voices of the creatures of the night. Like the basin of a great amphitheater the frozen lake lay revealed in the light of the moon and a billion stars. Beyond it rose the spruce forest, black and forbidding. Along its nearer edges stood hushed walls of tamarack, bowed in the smothering clutch of snow and ice, shut in by impenetrable gloom.
A huge white owl flitted out of this rim of blackness, then back again, and its first quavering hoot came softly, as though the mystic hour of silence had not yet passed for the night-folk. The snow of the day had ceased, hardly a breath of air stirred the ice-coated twigs of the trees. Yet it was bitter cold—so cold that a man, remaining motionless, would have frozen to death within an hour.
Suddenly there was a break in the silence, a weird, thrilling sound, like a great sigh, but not human—a sound to make one's blood run faster and fingers twitch on rifle-stock. It came from the gloom of the tamaracks. After it there fell a deeper silence than before, and the owl, like a noiseless snowflake, drifted out over the frozen lake. After a few moments it came again, more faintly than before. One versed in woodcraft would have slunk deeper into the rim of blackness, and listened, and wondered, and watched; for in the sound he would have recognized the wild, half-conquered note of a wounded beast's suffering and agony.
Slowly, with all the caution born of that day's experience, a huge bull moose walked out into the glow of the moon. His magnificent head, drooping under the weight of massive antlers, was turned inquisitively across the lake to the north. His nostrils were distended, his eyes glaring, and he left behind a trail of blood. Half a mile away he caught the edge of the spruce forest. There something told him he would find safety. A hunter would have known that he was wounded unto death as he dragged himself out into the foot-deep snow of the lake.
A dozen rods out from the tamaracks he stopped, head thrown high, long ears pitched forward, and nostrils held half to the sky. It is in this attitude that a moose listens when he hears a trout splash three-quarters of a mile away. Now there was only the vast, unending silence, broken only by the mournful hoot of the snow owl on the other side of the lake. Still the great beast stood immovable, a little pool of blood growing upon the snow under his forward legs. What was the mystery that lurked in the blackness of yonder forest? Was it danger? The keenest of human hearing would have detected nothing. Yet to those long slender ears of the bull moose, slanting beyond the heavy plates of his horns, there came a sound. The animal lifted his head still higher to the sky, sniffed to the east, to the west, and back to the shadows of the tamaracks. But it was the north that held him.
From beyond that barrier of spruce there soon came a sound that man might have heard—neither the beginning nor the end of a wail, but something like it. Minute by minute it came more clearly, now growing in volume, now almost dying away, but every instant approaching—the distant hunting call of the wolf-pack! What the hangman's noose is to the murderer, what the leveled rifles are to the condemned spy, that hunt-cry of the wolves is to the wounded animal of the forests.
Instinct taught this to the old bull. His head dropped, his huge antlers leveled themselves with his shoulders, and he set off at a slow trot toward the east. He was taking chances in thus crossing the open, but to him the spruce forest was home, and there he might find refuge. In his brute brain he reasoned that he could get there before the wolves broke cover. And then—
Again he stopped, so suddenly that his forward legs doubled under him and he pitched into the snow. This time, from the direction of the wolf-pack, there came the ringing report of a rifle! It might have been a mile or two miles away, but distance did not lessen the fear it brought to the dying king of the North. That day he had heard the same sound, and it had brought mysterious and weakening pain in his vitals. With a supreme effort he brought himself to his feet, once more sniffed into the north, the east, and the west, then turned and buried himself in the black and frozen wilderness of tamarack.
Stillness fell again with the sound of the rifle-shot. It might have lasted five minutes or ten, when a long, solitary howl floated from across the lake. It ended in the sharp, quick yelp of a wolf on the trail, and an instant later was taken up by others, until the pack was once more in full cry. Almost simultaneously a figure darted out upon the ice from the edge of the forest. A dozen paces and it paused and turned back toward the black wall of spruce.
"Are you coming, Wabi?"
A voice answered from the woods. "Yes. Hurry up—run!"
Thus urged, the other turned his face once more across the lake. He was a youth of not more than eighteen. In his right hand he carried a club. His left arm, as if badly injured, was done up in a sling improvised from a lumberman's heavy scarf. His face was scratched and bleeding, and his whole appearance showed that he was nearing complete exhaustion. For a few moments he ran through the snow, then halted to a staggering walk. His breath came in painful gasps. The club slipped from his nerveless fingers, and conscious of the deathly weakness that was overcoming him he did not attempt to regain it. Foot by foot he struggled on, until suddenly his knees gave way under him and he sank down into the snow.
From the edge of the spruce forest a young Indian now ran out upon the surface of the lake. His breath was coming quickly, but with excitement rather than fatigue. Behind him, less than half a mile away, he could hear the rapidly approaching cry of the hunt-pack, and for an instant he bent his lithe form close to the snow, measuring with the acuteness of his race the distance of the pursuers. Then he looked for his white companion, and failed to see the motionless blot that marked where the other had fallen. A look of alarm shot into his eyes, and resting his rifle between his knees he placed his hands, trumpet fashion, to his mouth and gave a signal call which, on a still night like this, carried for a mile.
At that cry the exhausted boy in the snow staggered to his feet, and with an answering shout which came but faintly to the ears of the Indian, resumed his flight across the lake. Two or three minutes later Wabi came up beside him.
"Can you make it, Rod?" he cried.
The other made an effort to answer, but his reply was hardly more than a gasp. Before Wabi could reach out to support him he had lost his little remaining strength and fallen for a second time into the snow.
"I'm afraid—I—can't do it—Wabi," he whispered. "I'm—bushed—"
The young Indian dropped his rifle and knelt beside the wounded boy, supporting his head against his own heaving shoulders.
"It's only a little farther, Rod," he urged. "We can make it, and take to a tree. We ought to have taken to a tree back there, but I didn't know that you were so far gone; and there was a good chance to make camp, with three cartridges left for the open lake."
"That's all, but I ought to make two of them count in this light. Here, take hold of my shoulders! Quick!"
He doubled himself like a jack-knife in front of his half-prostrate companion. From behind them there came a sudden chorus of the wolves, louder and clearer than before.
"They've hit the open and we'll have them on the lake inside of two minutes," he cried. "Give me your arms, Rod! There! Can you hold the gun?"
He straightened himself, staggering under the other's weight, and set off on a half-trot for the distant tamaracks. Every muscle in his powerful young body was strained to its utmost tension. Even more fully than his helpless burden did he realize the peril at their backs.
Three minutes, four minutes more, and then—
A terrible picture burned in Wabi's brain, a picture he had carried from boyhood of another child, torn and mangled before his very eyes by these outlaws of the North, and he shuddered. Unless he sped those three remaining bullets true, unless that rim of tamaracks was reached in time, he knew what their fate would be. There flashed into his mind one last resource. He might drop his wounded companion and find safety for himself. But it was a thought that made Wabi smile grimly. This was not the first time that these two had risked their lives together, and that very day Roderick had fought valiantly for the other, and had been the one to suffer. If they died, it would be in company. Wabi made up his mind to that and clutched the other's arms in a firmer grip. He was pretty certain that death faced them both. They might escape the wolves, but the refuge of a tree, with the voracious pack on guard below, meant only a more painless end by cold. Still, while there was life there was hope, and he hurried on through the snow, listening for the wolves behind him and with each moment feeling more keenly that his own powers of endurance were rapidly reaching an end.
For some reason that Wabi could not explain the hunt-pack had ceased to give tongue. Not only the allotted two minutes, but five of them, passed without the appearance of the animals on the lake. Was it possible that they! had lost the trail? Then it occurred to the Indian that perhaps he had wounded one of the pursuers, and that the others, discovering his injury, had set upon him and were now participating in one of the cannibalistic feasts that had saved them thus far. Hardly had he thought of this possibility when he was thrilled by a series of long howls, and looking back he discerned a dozen or more dark objects moving swiftly over their trail.
Not an eighth of a mile ahead was the tamarack forest. Surely Rod could travel that distance!
"Run for it, Rod!" he cried. "You're rested now. I'll stay here and stop 'em!"
He loosened the other's arms, and as he did so his rifle fell from the white boy's nerveless grip and buried itself in the snow. As he relieved himself of his burden he saw for the first time the deathly pallor and partly closed eyes of his companion. With a new terror filling his own faithful heart he knelt beside the form which lay so limp and lifeless, his blazing eyes traveling from the ghastly face to the oncoming wolves, his rifle ready in his hands. He could now discern the wolves trailing out from the spruce forest like ants. A dozen of them were almost within rifle-shot. Wabi knew that it was with this vanguard of the pack that he must deal if he succeeded in stopping the scores behind. Nearer and nearer he allowed them to come, until the first were scarce two hundred feet away. Then, with a sudden shout, the Indian leaped to his feet and dashed fearlessly toward them. This unexpected move, as he had intended, stopped the foremost wolves in a huddled group for an instant, and in this opportune moment Wabi leveled his gun and fired. A long howl of pain testified to the effect of the shot. Hardly had it begun when Wabi fired again, this time with such deadly precision that one of the wolves, springing high into the air, tumbled back lifeless among the pack without so much as making a sound.
Running to the prostrate Roderick, Wabi drew him quickly upon his back, clutched his rifle in the grip of his arm, and started again for the tamaracks. Only once did he look back, and then he saw the wolves gathering in a snarling, fighting crowd about their slaughtered comrades. Not until he had reached the shelter of the tamaracks did the Indian youth lay down his burden, and then in his own exhaustion he fell prone upon the snow, his black eyes fixed cautiously upon the feasting pack. A few minutes later he discerned dark spots appearing here and there upon the whiteness of the snow, and at these signs of the termination of the feast he climbed up into the low branches of a spruce and drew Roderick after him. Not until then did the wounded boy show visible signs of life. Slowly he recovered from the faintness which had overpowered him, and after a little, with some assistance from Wabi, was able to place himself safely on a higher limb.
"That's the second time, Wabi," he said, reaching a hand down affectionately to the other's shoulder. "Once from drowning, once from the wolves. I've got a lot to even up with you!"
"Not after what happened to-day!"
The Indian's dusky face was raised until the two were looking into each other's eyes, with a gaze of love, and trust. Only a moment thus, and instinctively their glance turned toward the lake. The wolf-pack was in plain view. It was the biggest pack that Wabi, in all his life in the wilderness, had ever seen, and he mentally figured that there were at least half a hundred animals in it. Like ravenous dogs after having a few scraps of meat flung among them, the wolves were running about, nosing here and there, as if hoping to find a morsel that might have escaped discovery. Then one of them stopped on the trail and, throwing himself half on his haunches, with his head turned to the sky like a baying hound, started the hunt-cry.
"There's two packs. I thought it was too big for one," exclaimed the Indian. "See! Part of them are taking up the trail and the others are lagging behind gnawing the bones of the dead wolf. Now if we only had our ammunition and the other gun those murderers got away from us, we'd make a fortune. What—"
Wabi stopped with a suddenness that spoke volumes, and the supporting arm that he had thrown around Rod's waist tightened until it caused the wounded youth to flinch. Both boys stared in rigid silence. The wolves were crowding around a spot in the snow half-way between the tamarack refuge and the scene of the recent feast. The starved animals betrayed unusual excitement. They had struck the pool of blood and red trail made by the dying moose!
"What is it, Wabi?" whispered Rod.
The Indian did not answer. His black eyes gleamed with a new fire, his lips were parted in anxious anticipation, and he seemed hardly to breathe in his tense interest. The wounded boy repeated his question, and as if in reply the pack swerved to the west and in a black silent mass swept in a direction that would bring them into the tamaracks a hundred yards from the young hunters.
"A new trail!" breathed Wabi. "A new trail, and a hot one! Listen! They make no sound. It is always that way when they are close to a kill!"
As they looked the last of the wolves disappeared in the forest. For a few moments there was silence, then a chorus of howls came from deep in the woods behind them.
"Now is our chance," cried the Indian. "They've broken again, and their game—"
He had partly slipped from his limb, withdrawing his supporting arm from Rod's waist, and was about to descend to the ground when the pack again turned in their direction. A heavy crashing in the underbrush not a dozen rods away sent Wabi in a hurried scramble for his perch.
"Quick—higher up!" he warned excitedly. "They're coming out here—right under us! If we can get up so that they can't see us, or smell us—"
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when a huge shadowy bulk rushed past them not more than fifty feet from the spruce in which they had sought refuge. Both of the boys recognized it as a bull moose, though it did not occur to either of them that it was the same animal at which Wabi had taken a long shot that same day a couple of miles back. In close pursuit came the ravenous pack. Their heads hung close to the bloody trail, hungry, snarling cries coming from between their gaping jaws, they swept across the little opening almost at the young hunters' feet. It was a sight which Rod had never expected to see, and one which held even the more experienced Wabi fascinated. Not a sound fell from either of the youths' lips as they stared down upon the fierce, hungry outlaws of the wilderness. To Wabi this near view of the pack told a fateful story; to Rod it meant nothing more than the tragedy about to be enacted before his eyes. The Indian's keen vision saw in the white moonlight long, thin bodies, starved almost to skin and bone; to his companion the onrushing pack seemed filled only with agile, powerful beasts, maddened to almost fiendish exertions by the nearness of their prey.
In a flash they were gone, but in that moment of their passing there was painted a picture to endure a lifetime in the memory of Roderick Drew. And it was to be followed by one even more tragic, even more thrilling. To the dazed, half-fainting young hunter it seemed but another instant before the pack overhauled the old bull. He saw the doomed monster turn, in the stillness heard the snapping of jaws, the snarling of hunger-crazed animals, and a sound that might have been a great, heaving moan or a dying bellow. In Wabi's veins the blood danced with the excitement that stirred his forefathers to battle. Not a line of the tragedy that was being enacted before his eyes escaped this native son of the wilderness. It was a magnificent fight! He knew that the old bull would die by inches in the one-sided duel, and that when it was over there would be more than one carcass for the survivors to gorge themselves upon. Quietly he reached up and touched his companion.
"Now is our time," he said. "Come on—still—and on this side of the tree!"
He slipped down, foot by foot, assisting Rod as he did so, and when both had reached the ground he bent over as before, that the other might get upon his back.
"I can make it alone, Wabi," whispered the wounded boy. "Give me a lift on the arm, will you?"
With the Indian's arm about his waist, the two set off into the tamaracks. Fifteen minutes later they came to the bank of a small frozen river. On the opposite side of this, a hundred yards down, was a sight which both, as if by a common impulse, welcomed with a glad cry. Close to the shore, sheltered by a dense growth of spruce, was a bright camp-fire. In response to Wabi's far-reaching whoop a shadowy figure appeared in the glow and returned the shout.
"Mukoki!" cried the Indian.
"Mukoki!" laughed Rod, happy that the end was near.
Even as he spoke he swayed dizzily, and Wabi dropped his gun that he might keep his companion from falling into the snow.
HOW WABIGOON BECAME A WHITE MAN
Had the young hunters the power of looking into the future, their camp-fire that night on the frozen Ombabika might have been one of their last, and a few days later would have seen them back on the edges of civilization. Possibly, could they have foreseen the happy culmination of the adventures that lay before them, they would still have gone on, for the love of excitement is strong in the heart of robust youth. But this power of discernment was denied them, and only in after years, with the loved ones of their own firesides close about them, was the whole picture revealed. And in those days, when they would gather with their families about the roaring logs of winter and live over again their early youth, they knew that all the gold in the world would not induce them to part with their memories of the life that had gone before.
A little less than thirty years previous to the time of which we write, a young man named John Newsome left the great city of London for the New World. Fate had played a hard game with young Newsome—had first robbed him of both parents, and then in a single fitful turn of her wheel deprived him of what little property he had inherited. A little later he came to Montreal, and being a youth of good education and considerable ambition, he easily secured a position and worked himself into the confidence of his employers, obtaining an appointment as factor at Wabinosh House, a Post deep in the wilderness of Lake Nipigon.
In the second year of his reign at Wabinosh—a factor is virtually king in his domain—there came to the Post an Indian chief named Wabigoon, and with him his daughter, Minnetaki, in honor of whose beauty and virtue a town was named in after years. Minnetaki was just budding into the early womanhood of her race, and possessed a beauty seldom seen among Indian maidens. If there is such a thing as love at first sight, it sprang into existence the moment John Newsome's eyes fell upon this lovely princess. Thereafter his visits to Wabigoon's village, thirty miles deeper in the wilderness, were of frequent occurrence. From the beginning Minnetaki returned the young factor's affections, but a most potent reason prevented their marriage. For a long time Minnetaki had been ardently wooed by a powerful young chief named Woonga, whom she cordially detested, but upon whose favor and friendship depended the existence of her father's sway over his hunting-grounds.
With the advent of the young factor the bitterest rivalry sprang up between the two suitors, which resulted in two attempts upon Newsome's life, and an ultimatum sent by Woonga to Minnetaki's father. Minnetaki herself replied to this ultimatum. It was a reply that stirred the fires of hatred and revenge to fever heat in Woonga's breast. One dark night, at the head of a score of his tribe, he fell upon Wabigoon's camp, his object being the abduction of the princess. While the attack was successful in a way, its main purpose failed. Wabigoon and a dozen of his tribesmen were slain, but in the end Woonga was driven off.
A swift messenger brought news of the attack and of the old chief's death to Wabinosh House, and with a dozen men Newsome hastened to the assistance of his betrothed and her people. A counter attack was made upon Woonga and he was driven deep into the wilderness with great loss. Three days later Minnetaki became Newsome's wife at the Hudson Bay Post.
From that hour dated one of the most sanguinary feuds in the history of the great trading company; a feud which, as we shall see, was destined to live even unto the second generation.
Woonga and his tribe now became no better than outlaws, and preyed so effectively upon the remnants of the dead Wabigoon's people that the latter were almost exterminated. Those who were left moved to the vicinity of the Post. Hunters from Wabinosh House were ambushed and slain. Indians who came to the Post to trade were regarded as enemies, and the passing of years seemed to make but little difference. The feud still existed. The outlaws came to be spoken of as "Woongas," and a Woonga was regarded as a fair target for any man's rifle.
Meanwhile two children came to bless the happy union of Newsome and his lovely Indian wife. One of these, the eldest, was a boy, and in honor of the old chief he was named Wabigoon, and called Wabi for short. The other was a girl, three years younger, and Newsome insisted that she be called Minnetaki. Curiously enough, the blood of Wabi ran almost pure to his Indian forefathers, while Minnetaki, as she became older, developed less of the wild beauty of her mother and more of the softer loveliness of the white race, her wealth of soft, jet black hair and her great dark eyes contrasting with the lighter skin of her father's blood. Wabi, on the other hand, was an Indian in appearance from his moccasins to the crown of his head, swarthy, sinewy, as agile as a lynx, and with every instinct in him crying for the life of the wild. Yet born in him was a Caucasian shrewdness and intelligence that reached beyond the factor himself.
One of Newsome's chief pleasures in life had been the educating of his woodland bride, and it was the ambition of both that the little Minnetaki and her brother be reared in the ways of white children. Consequently both mother and father began their education at the Post; they were sent to the factor's school and two winters were passed in Port Arthur that they might have the advantage of thoroughly equipped schools. The children proved themselves unusually bright pupils, and by the time Wabi was sixteen and Minnetaki twelve one would not have known from their manner of speech that Indian blood ran in their veins. Yet both, by the common desire of their parents, were familiar with the life of the Indian and could talk fluently the tongue of their mother's people.
It was at about this time in their lives that the Woongas became especially daring in their depredations. These outlaws no longer pretended to earn their livelihood by honest means, but preyed upon trappers and other Indians without discrimination, robbing and killing whenever safe opportunities offered themselves. The hatred for the people of Wabinosh House became hereditary, and the Woonga children grew up with it in their hearts. The real cause of the feud had been forgotten by many, though not by Woonga himself. At last so daring did he become that the provincial government placed a price upon his head and upon those of a number of his most notorious followers. For a time the outlaws were driven from the country, but the bloodthirsty chief himself could not be captured.
When Wabi was seventeen years of age it was decided that he should be sent to some big school in the States for a year. Against this plan the young Indian—nearly all people regarded him as an Indian, and Wabi was proud of the fact—fought with all of the arguments at his command. He loved the wilds with the passion of his mother's race. His nature revolted at the thoughts of a great city with its crowded streets, its noise, and bustle, and dirt. It was then that Minnetaki pleaded with him, begged him to go for just one year, and to come back and tell her of all he had seen and teach her what he had learned. Wabi loved his beautiful little sister beyond anything else on earth, and it was she more than his parents who finally induced him to go.
For three months Wabi devoted himself faithfully to his studies in Detroit. But each week added to his loneliness and his longings for Minnetaki and his forests. The passing of each day became a painful task to him. To Minnetaki he wrote three times each week, and three times each week the little maiden at Wabinosh House wrote long, cheering letters to her brother—though they came to Wabi only about twice a month, because only so often did the mail-carrier go out from the Post.
It was at this time in his lonely school life that Wabigoon became acquainted with Roderick Drew. Roderick, even as Wabi fancied himself to be just at this time, was a child of misfortune. His father had died before he could remember, and the property he had left had dwindled slowly away during the passing of years. Rod was spending his last week in school when he met Wabigoon. Necessity had become his grim master, and the following week he was going to work. As the boy described the situation to his Indian friend, his mother "had fought to the last ditch to keep him in school, but now his time was up." Wabi seized upon the white youth as an oasis in a vast desert. After a little the two became almost inseparable, and their friendship culminated in Wabi's going to live in the Drew home. Mrs. Drew was a woman of education and refinement, and her interest in Wabigoon was almost that of a mother. In this environment the ragged edges were smoothed away from the Indian boy's deportment, and his letters to Minnetaki were more and more filled with enthusiastic descriptions of his new friends. After a little Mrs. Drew received a grateful letter of thanks from the princess mother at Wabinosh House, and thus a pleasant correspondence sprang up between the two.
There were now few lonely hours for the two boys. During the long winter evenings, when Roderick was through with his day's work and Wabi had completed his studies, they would sit before the fire and the Indian youth would describe the glorious life of the vast northern wilderness; and day by day, and week by week, there steadily developed within Rod's breast a desire to see and live that life. A thousand plans were made, a thousand adventures pictured, and the mother would smile and laugh and plan with them.
But in time the end of it all came, and Wabi went back to the princess mother, to Minnetaki, and to his forests. There were tears in the boys' eyes when they parted, and the mother cried for the Indian boy who was returning to his people. Many of the days that followed were painful to Roderick Drew. Eight months had bred a new nature in him, and when Wabi left it was as if a part of his own life had gone with him. Spring came and passed, and then summer. Every mail from Wabinosh House brought letters for the Drews, and never did an Indian courier drop a pack at the Post that did not carry a bundle of letters for Wabigoon.
Then in the early autumn, when September frosts were turning the leaves of the North to red and gold, there came the long letter from Wabi which brought joy, excitement and misgiving into the little home of the mother and her son. It was accompanied by one from the factor himself, another from the princess mother, and by a tiny note from Minnetaki, who pleaded with the others that Roderick and Mrs. Drew might spend the winter with them at Wabinosh House.
"You need not fear about losing your position." wrote Wabigoon. "We shall make more money up here this winter than you could earn in Detroit in three years. We will hunt wolves. The country is alive with them, and the government gives a bounty of fifteen dollars for every scalp taken. Two winters ago I killed forty and I did not make a business of it at that. I have a tame wolf which we use as a decoy. Don't bother about a gun or anything like that. We have everything here."
For several days Mrs. Drew and her son deliberated upon the situation before a reply was sent to the Newsomes. Roderick pleaded, pictured the glorious times they would have, the health that it would give them, and marshaled in a dozen different ways his arguments in favor of accepting the invitation. On the other hand, his mother was filled with doubt. Their finances were alarmingly low, and Rod would be giving up a sure though small income, which was now supporting them comfortably. His future was bright, and that winter would see him promoted to ten dollars a week in the mercantile house where he was employed. In the end they came to an understanding. Mrs. Drew would not go to Wabinosh House, but she would allow Roderick to spend the winter there—and word to this effect was sent off into the wilderness.
Three weeks later came Wabigoon's reply. On the tenth of October he would meet Rod at Sprucewood, on the Black Sturgeon River. Thence they would travel by canoe up the Sturgeon River to Sturgeon Lake, take portage to Lake Nipigon, and arrive at Wabinosh House before the ice of early winter shut them in. There was little time to lose in making preparations, and the fourth day following the receipt of Wabi's letter found Rod and his mother waiting for the train which was to whirl the boy into his new life. Not until the eleventh did he arrive at Sprucewood. Wabi was there to meet him, accompanied by an Indian from the Post; and that same afternoon the journey up Black Sturgeon River was begun.
RODERICK SEES THE FOOTPRINT
Rod was now plunged for the first time in his life into the heart of the Wilderness. Seated in the bow of the birch-bark canoe which was carrying them up the Sturgeon, with Wabi close behind him, he drank in the wild beauties of the forests and swamps through which they slipped almost as noiselessly as shadows, his heart thumping in joyous excitement, his eyes constantly on the alert for signs of the big game which Wabi told him was on all sides of them. Across his knees, ready for instant use, was Wabi's repeating rifle. The air was keen with the freshness left by night frosts. At times deep masses of gold and crimson forests shut them in, at others, black forests of spruce came down to the river's edge; again they would pass silently through great swamps of tamaracks. In this vast desolation there was a mysterious quiet, except for the occasional sounds of wild life. Partridges drummed back in the woods, flocks of ducks got up with a great rush of wings at almost every turn, and once, late in the morning of the first day out, Rod was thrilled by a crashing in the undergrowth scarcely a stone's throw from the canoe. He could see saplings twisting and bending, and heard Wabi whisper behind him:
They were words to set his hands trembling and his whole body quivering with anticipation. There was in him now none of the old hunter's coolness, none of the almost stoical indifference with which the men of the big North hear these sounds of the wild things about them. Rod had yet to see his first big game.
That moment came in the afternoon. The canoe had skimmed lightly around a bend in the river. Beyond this bend a mass of dead driftwood had wedged against the shore, and this driftwood, as the late sun sank behind the forests, was bathed in a warm yellow glow. And basking in this glow, as he loves to do at the approach of winter nights, was an animal, the sight of which drew a sharp, excited cry from between Rod's lips. In an instant he had recognized it as a bear. The animal was taken completely by surprise and was less than half a dozen rods away. Quick as a flash, and hardly realizing what he was doing, the boy drew his rifle to his shoulder, took quick aim and fired. The bear was already clambering up the driftwood, but stopped suddenly at the report, slipped as if about to fall back—then continued his retreat.
"You hit 'im!" shouted Wabi. "Quick-try 'im again!"
Rod's second shot seemed to have no effect In his excitement he jumped to his feet, forgetting that he was in a frail canoe, and took a last shot at the big black beast that was just about to disappear over the edge of the driftwood. Both Wabi and his Indian companion flung themselves on the shore side of their birch and dug their paddles deep into the water, but their efforts were unavailing to save their reckless comrade. Unbalanced by the concussion of his gun, Rod plunged backward into the river, but before he had time to sink, Wabi reached over and grabbed him by the arm.
"Don't make a move—and hang on to the gun!" he warned. "If we try to get you in here we'll all go over!" He made a sign to the Indian, who swung the canoe slowly inshore. Then he grinned down into Rod's dripping, unhappy face.
"By George, that last shot was a dandy for a tenderfoot! You got your bear!"
Despite his uncomfortable position, Rod gave a whoop of joy, and no sooner did his feet touch solid bottom than he loosened himself from Wabi's grip and plunged toward the driftwood. On its very top he found the bear, as dead as a bullet through its side and another through its head could make it. Standing there beside his first big game, dripping and shivering, he looked down upon the two who were pulling their canoe ashore and gave, a series of triumphant whoops that could have been heard half a mile away.
"It's camp and a fire for you," laughed Wabi, hurrying up to him. "This is better luck than I thought you'd have, Rod. We'll have a glorious feast to-night, and a fire of this driftwood that will show you what makes life worth the living up here in the North. Ho, Muky," he called to the old Indian, "cut this fellow up, will you? I'll make camp."
"Can we keep the skin?" asked Rod. "It's my first, you know, and—"
"Of course we can. Give us a hand with the fire, Rod; it will keep you from catching cold."
In the excitement of making their first camp, Rod almost forgot that he was soaked to the skin, and that night was falling about them. The first step was the building of a fire, and soon a great, crackling, almost smokeless blaze was throwing its light and heat for thirty feet around. Wabi now brought blankets from the canoe, stripped off a part of his own clothes, made Rod undress, and soon had that youth swathed in dry togs, while his wet ones were hung close up to the fire. For the first time Rod saw the making of a wilderness shelter. Whistling cheerily, Wabi got an ax from the canoe, went into the edge of the cedars and cut armful after armful of saplings and boughs. Tying his blankets about himself, Rod helped to carry these, a laughable and grotesque figure as he stumbled about clumsily in his efforts. Within half an hour the cedar shelter was taking form. Two crotched saplings were driven into the ground eight feet apart, and from one to the other, resting in the crotches, was placed another sapling, which formed the ridge-pole; and from this pole there ran slantwise to the earth half a dozen others, making a framework upon which the cedar boughs were piled. By the time the old Indian had finished his bear the home was completed, and with its beds of sweet-smelling boughs, the great camp-fire in front and the dense wilderness about them growing black with the approach of night, Rod thought that nothing in picture-book or story could quite equal the reality of that moment. And when, a few moments later, great bear-steaks were broiling over a mass of coals, and the odor of coffee mingled with that of meal-cakes sizzling on a heated stone, he knew that his dearest dreams had come true.
That night in the glow of the camp-fire Rod listened to the thrilling stories of Wabi and the old Indian, and lay awake until nearly dawn, listening to the occasional howl of a wolf, mysterious splashings in the river and the shrill notes of the night birds. There were varied experiences in the following three days: one frosty morning before the others were awake he stole out from the camp with Wabi's rifle and shot twice at a red deer—which he missed both times; there was an exciting but fruitless race with a swimming caribou in Sturgeon Lake, at which Wabi himself took three long-range shots without effect.
It was on a glorious autumn afternoon that Wabi's keen eyes first descried the log buildings of the Post snuggled in the edge of the seemingly unending forest. As they approached he joyfully pointed out the different buildings to Rod—the Company store, the little cluster of employees' homes and the factor's house, where Rod was to meet his welcome. At least Roderick himself had thought it would be there. But as they came nearer a single canoe shot out suddenly from the shore and the young hunters could see a white handkerchief waving them greeting. Wabi replied with a whoop of pleasure and fired his gun into the air.
"It's Minnetaki!" he cried. "She said she would watch for us and come out to meet us!"
Minnetaki! A little nervous thrill shot through Rod. Wabi had described her to him a thousand times in those winter evenings at home; with a brother's love and pride he had always brought her into their talks and plans, and somehow, little by little, Rod had grown to like her very much without ever having seen her.
The two canoes swiftly approached each other, and in a few minutes more were alongside. With a glad laughing cry Minnetaki leaned over and kissed her brother, while at the same time her dark eyes shot a curious glance at the youth of whom she had read and heard so much.
At this time Minnetaki was fifteen. Like her mother's race she was slender, of almost woman's height, and unconsciously as graceful as a fawn in her movements. A slightly waving wealth of raven hair framed what Rod thought to be one of the prettiest faces he had ever seen, and entwined in the heavy silken braid that fell over her shoulder were a number of red autumn leaves. As she straightened herself in her canoe she looked at Rod and smiled, and he in making a polite effort to lift his cap in civilized style, lost that article of apparel in a sudden gust of wind. In an instant there was a general laugh of merriment in which even the old Indian joined. The little incident did more toward making comradeship than anything else that might have happened, and laughing again into Rod's face Minnetaki urged her canoe toward the floating cap.
"You shouldn't wear such things until it gets cold," she said, after retrieving the cap and handing it to him. "Wabi does—but I don't!"
"Then I won't," replied Rod gallantly, and at Wabi's burst of laughter both blushed.
That first night at the Post Rod found that Wabi had already made all plans for the winter's hunting, and the white youth's complete equipment was awaiting him in the room assigned to him in the factor's house—a deadly looking five-shot Remington, similar to Wabi's, a long-barreled, heavy-caliber revolver, snow-shoes, and a dozen other articles necessary to one about to set out upon a long expedition in the wilderness. Wabi had also mapped out their hunting-grounds. Wolves in the immediate neighborhood of the Post, where they were being constantly sought by the Indians and the factor's men, had become exceedingly cautious and were not numerous, but in the almost untraveled wilderness a hundred miles to the north and east they were literally overrunning the country, killing moose, caribou and deer in great numbers.
In this region Wabi planned to make their winter quarters. And no time was to be lost in taking up the trail, for the log house in which they would pass the bitterly cold months should be built before the heavy snows set in. It was therefore decided that the young hunters should start within a week, accompanied by Mukoki, the old Indian, a cousin of the slain Wabigoon, whom Wabi had given the nickname of Muky and who had been a faithful comrade to him from his earliest childhood.
Rod made the most of the six days which were allotted to him at the Post, and while Wabi helped to handle the affairs of the Company's store during a short absence of his father at Port Arthur, the lovely little Minnetaki gave our hero his first lessons in woodcraft. In canoe, with the rifle, and in reading the signs of forest life Wabi's sister awakened constantly increasing admiration in Rod. To see her bending over some freshly made trail, her cheeks flushed, her eyes sparkling with excitement, her rich hair filled with the warmth of the sun, was a picture to arouse enthusiasm even in the heart of a youngster of eighteen, and a hundred times the boy mentally vowed that "she was a brick" from the tips of her pretty moccasined feet to the top of her prettier head. Half a dozen times at least he voiced this sentiment to Wabi, and Wabi agreed with great enthusiasm. In fact, by the time the week was almost gone Minnetaki and Rod had become great chums, and it was not without some feeling of regret that the young wolf hunter greeted the dawn of the day that was to see them begin their journey deeper into the wilds.
Minnetaki was one of the earliest risers at the Post. Rod was seldom behind her. But on this particular morning he was late and heard the girl whistling outside half an hour before he was dressed—for Minnetaki could whistle in a manner that often filled him with envy. By the time he came down she had disappeared in the edge of the forest, and Wabi, who was also ahead of him, was busy with Mukoki tying up their equipment in packs. It was a glorious morning, clear and frosty, and Rod noticed that a thin shell of ice had formed on the lake during the night. Once or twice Wabi turned toward the forest and gave his signal whoop, but received no reply.
"I don't see why Minnetaki doesn't come back," he remarked carelessly, as he fastened a shoulder-strap about a bundle. "Breakfast will be ready in a jiffy. Hunt her up, will you, Rod?"
Nothing loath, Rod started out on a brisk run along the path which he knew to be a favorite with Minnetaki and shortly it brought him down to a pebbly stretch of the beach where she frequently left her canoe. That she had been here a few minutes before he could tell by the fact that the ice about the birch-bark was broken, as though the girl had tested its thickness by shoving the light craft out into it for a few feet. Her footsteps led plainly up the shelving shore and into the forest.
Rod called loudly and listened. There was no response. As if impelled by some presentiment which he himself could not explain, the boy hurried deeper into the forest along the narrow path which Minnetaki must have taken. Five minutes—ten minutes—and he called again. Still there was no answer. Possibly the girl had not gone so far, or she might have left the path for the thick woods. A little farther on there was a soft spot in the path where a great tree-trunk had rotted half a century before, leaving a rich black soil. Clearly traced in this were the imprints of Minnetaki's moccasins. For a full minute Rod stopped and listened, making not a sound. Why he maintained silence he could not have explained. But he knew that he was half a mile from the Post, and that Wabi's sister should not be here at breakfast time. In this minute's quiet he unconsciously studied the tracks in the ground. How small the pretty Indian maiden's feet were! And he noticed, too, that her moccasins, unlike most moccasins, had a slight heel.
But in a moment more his inspection was cut short. Was that a cry he heard far ahead? His heart seemed to stop beating, his blood thrilled—and in another instant he was running down the path like a deer. Twenty rods beyond this point the path entered an opening in the forest made by a great fire, and half-way across this opening the youth saw a sight which chilled him to the marrow. There was Minnetaki, her long hair tumbling loosely down her back, a cloth tied around her head—and on either side an Indian dragging her swiftly toward the opposite forest!
For as long as he might have drawn three breaths Rod stood transfixed with horror. Then his senses returned to him, and every muscle in his body seemed to bound with action. For days he had been practising with his revolver and it was now in the holster at his side. Should he use it? Or might he hit Minnetaki? At his feet he saw a club and snatching this up he sped across the opening, the soft earth holding the sound of his steps. When he was a dozen feet behind the Indians Minnetaki stumbled in a sudden effort to free herself, and as one of her captors half turned to drag her to her feet he saw the enraged youth, club uplifted, bearing down upon them like a demon. A terrific yell from Rod, a warning cry from the Indian, and the fray began. With crushing force, the boy's club fell upon the shoulder of the second Indian, and before he could recover from the delivery of this blow the youth was caught in a choking, deadly grip by the other from behind.
Freed by the sudden attack, Minnetaki tore away the cloth that bound her eyes and mouth. As quick as a flash she took in the situation. At her feet the wounded Indian was half rising, and upon the ground near him, struggling in close embrace, were Rod and the other. She saw the Indian's fatal grip upon her preserver's throat, the whitening face and wide-open eyes, and with a great, sobbing cry she caught up the fallen club and brought it down with all her strength upon the redskin's head. Twice, three times the club rose and fell, and the grip on Rod's throat relaxed. A fourth time it rose, but this time was caught from behind, and a huge hand clutched the brave girl's throat so that the cry on her lips died in a gasp. But the relief gave Rod his opportunity. With a tremendous effort he reached his pistol holster, drew out the gun, and pressed it close up against his assailant's body. There was a muffled report and with a shriek of agony the Indian pitched backward. Hearing the shot and seeing the effect upon his comrade, the second Indian released his hold on Minnetaki and ran for the forest. Rod, seeing Minnetaki fall in a sobbing, frightened heap, forgot all else but to run to her, smooth back her hair and comfort her with all of the assurances at his boyish command.
It was here that Wabi and the old Indian guide found them five minutes later. Hearing Rod's first piercing yell of attack, they had raced into the forest, afterward guided by the two or three shrill screams which Minnetaki had unconsciously emitted during the struggle. Close behind them, smelling trouble, followed two of the Post employees.
The attempted abduction of Wabi's sister, Rod's heroic rescue and the death of one of the captors, who was recognized as one of Woonga's men, caused a seven-day sensation at the Post.
There was now no thought of leaving on the part of the young wolf hunters. It was evident that Woonga was again in the neighborhood, and Wabi and Rod, together with a score of Indians and hunters, spent days in scouring the forests and swamps. But the Woongas disappeared as suddenly as they came. Not until Wabi had secured a promise from Minnetaki that she would no longer go into the forests unaccompanied did the Indian youth again allow himself to take up their interrupted plans.
Minnetaki had been within easy calling distance of help when the Woongas, without warning, sprang upon her, smothered her attempted cries and dragged her away, compelling her to walk alone over the soft earth where Rod had seen her footsteps, so that any person who followed might suppose she was alone and safe. This fact stirred the dozen white families at the Post into aggressive action, and four of the most skillful Indian track-hunters in the service were detailed to devote themselves exclusively to hunting down the outlaws, their operations not to include a territory extending more than twenty miles from Wabinosh House in any direction. With these precautions it was believed that no harm could come to Minnetaki or other young girls of the Post.
It was, therefore, on a Monday, the fourth day of November, that Rod, Wabi and Mukoki turned their faces at last to the adventures that awaited them in the great North.
RODERICK'S FIRST TASTE OF THE HUNTER'S LIFE
By this time it was bitter cold. The lakes and rivers were frozen deep and a light snow covered the ground. Already two weeks behind their plans, the young wolf hunters and the old Indian made forced marches around the northern extremity of Lake Nipigon and on the sixth day found themselves on the Ombabika River, where they were compelled to stop on account of a dense snow-storm. A temporary camp was made, and it was while constructing this camp that Mukoki discovered signs of wolves. It was therefore decided to remain for a day or two and investigate the hunting-grounds. On the morning of the second day Wabi shot at and wounded the old bull moose which met such a tragic end a few hours later, and that same morning the two boys made a long tour to the north in the hope of finding that they were in a good game country, which would mean also that there were plenty of wolves.
This left Mukoki alone in camp. Thus far, in their desire to cover as much ground as possible before the heavy snows came, Wabi and his companions had not stopped to hunt for game and for six days their only meat had been bacon and jerked venison. Mukoki, whose prodigious appetite was second only to the shrewdness with which he stalked game to satisfy it, determined to add to their larder if possible during the others' absence, and with this object in view he left camp late in the afternoon to be gone, as he anticipated, not longer than an hour or so.
With him he carried two powerful wolf-traps slung over his shoulders. Stealing cautiously along the edge of the river, his eyes and ears alert for game, Mukoki suddenly came upon the frozen and half-eaten carcass of a red deer. It was evident that the animal had been killed by wolves either the day or night before, and from the tracks in the snow the Indian concluded that not more than four wolves had participated in the slaughter and feast. That these wolves would return to continue their banquet, probably that night, Mukoki's many experiences as a wolf hunter assured him; and he paused long enough to set his traps, afterward covering them over with three or four inches of snow.
Continuing his hunt, the old Indian soon struck the fresh spoor of a deer. Believing that the animal would not travel for any great distance in the deep snow, he swiftly took up the trail. Half a mile farther on he stopped abruptly with a grunt of unbounded surprise. Another hunter had taken up the trail!
With increased caution Mukoki now advanced. Two hundred feet more and a second pair of moccasined feet joined in the pursuit, and a little later still a third!
Led on by curiosity more than by the hope of securing a partnership share in the quarry, the Indian slipped silently and swiftly through the forest. As he emerged from a dense growth of spruce through which the tracks led him Mukoki was treated to another surprise by almost stumbling over the carcass of the deer he had been following. A brief examination satisfied him that the doe had been shot at least two hours before. The three hunters had cut out her heart, liver and tongue and had also taken the hind quarters, leaving the remainder of the carcass and the skin! Why had they neglected this most valuable part of their spoils? With a new gleam of interest in his eyes Mukoki carefully scrutinized the moccasin trails. He soon discovered that the Indians ahead of him were in great haste, and that after cutting the choicest meat from the doe they had started off to make up for lost time by running!
With another grunt of astonishment the old Indian returned to the carcass, quickly stripped off the skin, wrapped in it the fore quarters and ribs of the doe, and thus loaded, took up the home trail. It was dark when he reached camp. Wabi and Rod had not yet returned. Building a huge fire and hanging the ribs of the doe on a spit before it, he anxiously awaited their appearance.
Half an hour later he heard the shout which brought him quickly to where Wabi was holding the partly unconscious form of Rod in his arms.
It took but a few moments to carry the injured youth to camp, and not until Rod was resting upon a pile of blankets in their shack, with the warmth of the fire reviving him, did Wabi vouchsafe an explanation to the old Indian.
"I guess he's got a broken arm, Muky," he said. "Have you any hot water?"
"Shot?" asked the old hunter, paying no attention to the question. He dropped upon his knees beside Rod, his long brown fingers reaching out anxiously. "Shot?"
"No—hit with a club. We met three Indian hunters who were in camp and who invited us to eat with them. While we were eating they jumped upon our backs. Rod got that—and lost his rifle!"
Mukoki quickly stripped the wounded boy of his garments, baring his left arm and side. The arm was swollen and almost black and there was a great bruise on Rod's body a little above the waist. Mukoki was a surgeon by necessity, a physician such as one finds only in the vast unblazed wildernesses, where Nature is the teacher. Crudely he made his examination, pinching and twisting the flesh and bones until Rod cried out in pain, but in the end there was a glad triumph in his voice as he said:
"No bone broke—hurt most here!" and he touched the bruise. "Near broke rib—not quite. Took wind out and made great deal sick. Want good supper, hot coffee—rub in bear's grease, then be better!"
Rod, who had opened his eyes, smiled faintly and Wabi gave a half-shout of delight.
"Not so bad as we thought, eh, Rod?" he cried. "You can't fool Muky! If he says your arm isn't broken—why, it isn't, and that's all there is to it. Let me bolster you up in these blankets and we'll soon have a supper that will sizzle the aches out of you. I smell meat—fresh meat!"
With a chuckle of pleasure Mukoki jumped to his feet and ran out to where the ribs of the doe were slowly broiling over the fire. They were already done to a rich brown and their dripping juice filled the nostrils with an appetizing odor. By the time Wabi had applied Mukoki's prescription to his comrade's wounds, and had done them up in bandages, the tempting feast was spread before them.
As a liberal section of the ribs was placed before him, together with corn-meal cakes and a cup of steaming coffee, Rod could not suppress a happy though somewhat embarrassed laugh.
"I'm ashamed of myself, Wabi," he said. "Here I've been causing so much bother, like some helpless kid; and now I find I haven't even the excuse of a broken arm, and that I'm as hungry as a bear! Looks pretty yellow, doesn't it? Just as though I was scared to death! So help me, I almost wish my arm was broken!"
Mukoki had buried his teeth in a huge chunk of fat rib, but he lowered it with a great chuckling grunt, half of his face smeared with the first results of his feast.
"Whole lot sick," he explained. "Be sick some more—mighty sick! Maybe vomit lots!"
"Waugh!" shrieked Wabi. "How is that for cheerful news, Rod?" His merriment echoed far out into the night. Suddenly he caught himself and peered suspiciously into the gloom beyond the circle of firelight.
"Do you suppose they would follow?" he asked.
A more cautious silence followed, and the Indian youth quickly related the adventures of the day to Mukoki—how, in the heart of the forest several miles beyond the lake, they had come upon the Indian hunters, had accepted of their seemingly honest hospitality, and in the midst of their meal had suffered an attack from them. So sudden and unexpected had been the assault that one of the Indians got away with Rod's rifle, ammunition belt and revolver before any effort could be made to stop him. Wabi was under the other two Indians when Rod came to his assistance, with the result that the latter was struck two heavy blows, either with a club or a gun-stock. So tenaciously had the Indian boy clung to his own weapon that his assailants, after a brief struggle, darted into the dense underbrush, evidently satisfied with the white boy's equipment.
"They were of Woonga's people, without a doubt," finished Wabi. "It puzzles me why they didn't kill us. They had half a dozen chances to shoot us, but didn't seem to want to do us any great injury. Either the measures taken at the Post are making them reform, or—"
He paused, a troubled look in his eyes. Immediately Mukoki told of his own experience and of the mysterious haste of the three Indians who had slain the doe.
"It is certainly curious," rejoined the young Indian. "They couldn't have been the ones we met, but I'll wager they belong to the same gang. I wouldn't be surprised if we had hit upon one of Woonga's retreats. We've always thought he was in the Thunder Bay regions to the west, and that is where father is watching for him now. We've hit the hornets' nest, Muky, and the only thing for us to do is to get out of this country as fast as we can!"
"We'd make a nice pot-shot just at this moment," volunteered Rod, looking across to the dense blackness on the opposite side of the river, where the moonlight seemed to make even more impenetrable the wall of gloom.
As he spoke there came a slight sound from behind him, the commotion of a body moving softly beyond the wall of spruce boughs, then a curious, suspicious sniffing, and after that a low whine.
Wabi's command came in a tense whisper. He leaned close against the boughs, stealthily parted them, and slowly thrust his head through the aperture.
"Hello, Wolf!" he whispered. "What's up?"
An arm's length away, tied before a smaller shelter of spruce, a gaunt, dog-like animal stood in a rigid listening attitude. An instant's glance, however, would have assured one that it was not a dog, but a full-grown wolf. From the days of its puppyhood Wabi had taught it in the ways of dogdom, yet had the animal perversely clung to its wild instincts. A weakness in that thong, a slip of the collar, and Wolf would have bounded joyously into the forests to seek for ever the packs of his fathers. Now the babeesh rope was taut, Wolf's muzzle was turned half to the sky, his ears were alert, half-sounding notes rattled in his throat.
"There is something near our camp!" announced the Indian boy, drawing himself back quickly. "Muky—"
He was interrupted by a long mournful howl from the captive wolf.
Mukoki had jumped to his feet with the alertness of a cat, and now with his gun in his hand slunk around the edge of the shelter and buried himself in the gloom. Roderick lay quiet while Wabi, seizing the remaining rifle, followed him.
"Lie over there in the dark, Rod, where the firelight doesn't show you up," he cautioned in a low voice. "Probably it is only some animal that has stumbled on to our camp, but we want to make sure."
Ten minutes later the young hunter returned alone.
"False alarm!" he laughed cheerfully. "There's a part of a carcass of a red deer up the creek a bit. It has been killed by wolves, and Wolf smells some of his own blood coming in to the feast. Muky has set traps there and we may have our first scalp in the morning."
"Where is Mukoki?"
"On watch. He is going to keep guard until a little after midnight, and then I'll turn out. We can't be too careful, with the Woongas in the neighborhood."
Rod shifted himself uneasily.
"What shall we do—to-morrow?" he asked.
"Get out!" replied Wabi with emphasis. "That is, if you are able to travel. From what Mukoki tells me, and from what you and I already know, Woonga's people must be in the forests beyond the lake. We'll cut a trail up the Ombabika for two or three days before we strike camp. You and Muky can start out as soon as it is light enough."
"And you—" began Rod.
"Oh, I'm going to take a run back over our old wolf-trail and collect the scalps we shot to-day. There's a month's salary back there for you, Rod! Now, let's turn in. Good night—sleep tight—and be sure to wake up early in the morning."
The boys, exhausted by the adventures of the day, were soon in profound slumber. And though midnight came, and hour after hour passed between then and dawn, the faithful Mukoki did not awaken them. Never for a moment neglecting his caution the old Indian watched tirelessly over the camp. With the first appearance of day he urged the fire into a roaring blaze, raked out a great mass of glowing coals, and proceeded to get breakfast. Wabi discovered him at this task when he awoke from his slumber.
"I didn't think you would play this trick on me, Muky," he said, a flush of embarrassment gathering in his brown face. "It's awfully good of you, and all that, but I wish you wouldn't treat me as if I were a child any longer, old friend!"
He placed his hand affectionately upon the kneeling Mukoki's shoulder, and the old hunter looked up at him with a happy, satisfied grin on his weather-beaten visage, wrinkled and of the texture of leather by nearly fifty years of life in the wilderness. It was Mukoki who had first carried the baby Wabi about the woods upon his shoulders; it was he who had played with him, cared for him, and taught him in the ways of the wild in early childhood, and it was he who had missed him most, with little Minnetaki, when he went away to school. All the love in the grim old redskin's heart was for the Indian youth and his sister, and to them Mukoki was a second father, a silent, watchful guardian and comrade. This one loving touch of Wabi's hand was ample reward for the long night's duty, and his pleasure expressed itself in two or three low chuckling grunts.
"Had heap bad day," he replied. "Very much tired. Me feel good—better than sleep!" He rose to his feet and handed Wabi the long fork with which he manipulated the meat on the spits. "You can tend to that," he added. "I go see traps."
Rod, who had awakened and overheard these last remarks, called out from the shack:
"Wait a minute, Mukoki. I'm going with you. If you've got a wolf, I want to see him."
"Got one sure 'nuff," grinned the old Indian.
In a few minutes Rod came out, fully dressed and with a much healthier color in his face than when he went to bed the preceding night. He stood before the fire, stretched one arm then the other, gave a slight grimace of pain, and informed his anxious comrades that he seemed to be as well as ever, except that his arm and side were very sore.
Walking slowly, that Rod might "find himself," as Wabi expressed it, the two went up the river. It was a dull gray morning and occasionally large flakes of snow fell, giving evidence that before the day was far advanced another storm would set in. Mukoki's traps were not more than an eighth of a mile from camp, and as the two rounded a certain bend in the river the old hunter suddenly stopped with a huge grant of satisfaction. Following the direction in which he pointed Rod saw a dark object lying in the snow a short distance away.
"That's heem!" exclaimed the Indian.
As they approached, the object became animate, pulling and tearing in the snow as though in the agonies of death. A few moments more and they were close up to the captive.
"She wolf!" explained Mukoki.
He gripped the ax he had brought with him and approached within a few feet of the crouching animal. Rod could see that one of the big steel traps had caught the wolf on the forward leg and that the other had buried its teeth in one of the hind legs. Thus held the doomed animal could make little effort to protect itself and crouched in sullen quiet, its white fangs gleaming in a noiseless, defiant snarl, its eyes shining with pain and anger, and with only its thin starved body, which jerked and trembled as the Indian came nearer, betraying signs of fear. To Rod it might have been a pitiful sight had not there come to him a thought of the preceding night and of his own and Wabi's narrow escape from the pack.
Two or three quick blows of the ax and the wolf was dead. With a skill which can only be found among those of his own race, Mukoki drew his knife, cut deftly around the wolf's head just below the ears, and with one downward, one upward, and two sidewise jerks tore off the scalp.
Suddenly, without giving a thought to his speech, there shot from Rod,
"Is that the way you scalp people?"
Mukoki looked up, his jaw fell—and then he gave the nearest thing to a real laugh that Rod ever heard come from between his lips. When Mukoki laughed it was usually in a half-chuckle, a half-gurgle—something that neither Rod nor Wabi could have imitated if they had tried steadily for a month.
"Never scalped white people," the old Indian shot back. "Father did when—young man. Did great scalp business!"
Mukoki had not done chuckling to himself even when they reached camp.
Scarcely ten minutes were taken in eating breakfast. Snow was already beginning to fall, and if the hunters took up their trail at once their tracks would undoubtedly be entirely obliterated by midday, which was the best possible thing that could happen for them in the Woonga country. On the other hand, Wabi was anxious to follow back over the wolf-trail before the snow shut it in. There was no danger of their becoming separated and lost, for it was agreed that Rod and Mukoki should travel straight up the frozen river. Wabi would overtake them before nightfall.
Arming himself with his rifle, revolver, knife, and a keen-edged belt-ax, the Indian boy lost no time in leaving camp. A quarter of an hour later Wabi came out cautiously on the end of the lake where had occurred the unequal duel between the old bull moose and the wolves. A single glance told him what the outcome of that duel had been. Twenty rods out upon the snow he saw parts of a great skeleton, and a huge pair of antlers.
As he stood on the arena of the mighty battle, Wabi would have given a great deal if Rod could have been with him. There lay the heroic old moose, now nothing more than a skeleton. But the magnificent head and horns still remained—the largest head that the Indian youth, in all his wilderness life, had ever seen—and it occurred to him that if this head could be preserved and taken back to civilization it would be worth a hundred dollars or more. That the old bull had put up a magnificent fight was easily discernible. Fifty feet away were the bones of a wolf, and almost under the skeleton of the moose were those of another. The heads of both still remained, and Wabi, after taking their scalps, hurried on over the trail.
Half-way across the lake, where he had taken his last two shots, were the skeletons of two more wolves, and in the edge of the spruce forest he found another. This animal had evidently been wounded farther back and had later been set upon by some of the pack and killed. Half a mile deeper in the forest he came upon a spot where he had emptied five shells into the pack and here he found the bones of two more wolves. He had seven scalps in his possession when he turned back over the home trail.
Beside the remains of the old bull Wabi paused again. He knew that the Indians frequently preserved moose and caribou heads through the winter by keeping them frozen, and the head at his feet was a prize worth some thought. But how could he keep it preserved until their return, months later? He could not suspend it from the limb of a tree, as was the custom when in camp, for it would either be stolen by some passing hunter or spoiled by the first warm days of spring. Suddenly an idea came to him. Why could it not be preserved in what white hunters called an "Indian ice-box"? In an instant he was acting upon this inspiration. It was not a small task to drag the huge head to the shelter of the tamaracks, where, safely hidden from view, he made a closer examination. The head was gnawed considerably by the wolves, but Wabi had seen worse ones skillfully repaired by the Indians at the Post.
Under a dense growth of spruce, where the rays of the sun seldom penetrated, the Indian boy set to work with his belt-ax. For an hour and a half he worked steadily, and at the end of that time had dug a hole in the frozen earth three feet deep and four feet square. This hole he now lined with about two inches of snow, packed as tight as he could jam it with the butt of his gun. Then placing in the head he packed snow closely about it and afterward filled in the earth, stamping upon the hard chunks with his feet. When all was done he concealed the signs of his work under a covering of snow, blazed two trees with his ax, and resumed his journey.
"There is thirty dollars for each of us if there's a cent," he mused softly, as he hurried toward the Ombabika. "That ground won't thaw out until June. A moose-head and eight scalps at fifteen dollars each isn't bad for one day's work, Rod, old boy!"
He had been absent for three hours. It had been snowing steadily and by the time he reached their old camp the trail left by Rod and Mukoki was already partly obliterated, showing that they had secured an early start up the river.
Bowing his head in the white clouds falling silently about him, Wabi started in swift pursuit. He could not see ten rods ahead of him, so dense was the storm, and at times one side or the other of the river was lost to view. Conditions could not have been better for their flight out of the Woonga country, thought the young hunter. By nightfall they would be many miles up the river, and no sign would be left behind to reveal their former presence or to show in which direction they had gone. For two hours he followed tirelessly over the trail, which became more and more distinct as he proceeded, showing that he was rapidly gaining on his comrades. But even now, though the trail was fresher and deeper, so disguised had it become by falling snow that a passing hunter might have thought a moose or caribou had passed that way.
At the end of the third hour, by which time he figured that he had made at least ten miles, Wabi sat down to rest, and to refresh himself with the lunch which he had taken from the camp that morning. He was surprised at Rod's endurance. That Mukoki and the white boy were still three or four miles ahead of him he did not doubt, unless they, too, had stopped for dinner. This, on further thought, he believed was highly probable.
The wilderness about him was intensely still. Not even the twitter of a snow-bird marred its silence. For a long time Wabi sat as immovable as the log upon which he had seated himself, resting and listening. Such a day as this held a peculiar and unusual fascination for him. It was as if the whole world was shut out, and that even the wild things of the forest dared not go abroad in this supreme moment of Nature's handiwork, when with lavish hand she spread the white mantle that was to stretch from the border to Hudson Bay.
As he listened there came to him suddenly a sound that forced from between his lips a half-articulate cry. It was the clear, ringing report of a rifle! And following it there came another, and another, until in quick succession he had counted five!
What did it mean? He sprang to his feet, his heart thumping, every nerve in him prepared for action. He would have sworn it was Mukoki's rifle—yet Mukoki would not have fired at game! They had agreed upon that.
Had Rod and the old Indian been attacked? In another instant Wabi was bounding over the trail with the speed of a deer.
MYSTERIOUS SHOTS IN THE WILDERNESS
As the Indian youth sped over the trail in the direction of the rifle-shots he flung his usual caution to the winds. His blood thrilled with the knowledge that there was not a moment to lose—that even now, in all probability, he would be too late to assist his friends. This fear was emphasized by the absolute silence which followed the five shots. Eagerly, almost prayerfully, he listened as he ran for other sounds of battle—for the report of Mukoki's revolver, or the whoops of the victors. If there had been an ambush it was all over now. Each moment added to his conviction, and as he thrust the muzzle of his gun ahead of him, his finger hovering near the trigger and his snow-blinded eyes staring ahead into the storm, something like a sob escaped his lips.
Ahead of him the stream narrowed until it almost buried itself under a mass of towering cedars. The closeness of the forest walls now added to the general gloom, intensified by the first gray pallor of the Northern dusk, which begins to fall in these regions early in the afternoon of November days. For a moment, just before plunging into the gloomy trail between the cedars, Wabi stopped and listened. He heard nothing but the beating of his own heart, which worked like a trip-hammer within his breast. The stillness was oppressive. And the longer he listened the more some invisible power seemed to hold him back. It was not fear, it was not lack of courage, but—
What was there just beyond those cedars, lurking cautiously in the snow gloom?
With instinct that was almost animal in its unreasonableness Wabi sank upon his knees. He had seen nothing, he had heard nothing; but he crouched close, until he was no larger than a waiting wolf, and there was a deadly earnestness in the manner in which he turned his rifle into the deeper gloom of those close-knit walls of forest. Something was approaching, cautiously, stealthily, and with extreme slowness. The Indian boy felt that this was so, and yet if his life had depended upon it he could not have told why. He huddled himself lower in the snow. His eyes gleamed with excitement. Minute after minute passed, and still there came no sound. Then, from far up that dusky avenue of cedars, there came the sudden startled chatter of a moose-bird. It was a warning which years of experience had taught Wabi always to respect. Perhaps a roving fox had frightened it, perhaps the bird had taken to noisy flight at the near tread of a moose, a caribou, or a deer. But—
To Wabi the soft, quick notes of the moose-bird spelled man! In an instant he was upon his feet, darting quickly into the sheltering cedars of the shore. Through these he now made his way with extreme caution, keeping close to the bank of the frozen stream. After a little he paused again and concealed himself behind the end of a fallen log. Ahead of him he could look into the snow gloom between the cedars, and whatever was coming through that gloom would have to pass within a dozen yards of him. Each moment added to his excitement. He heard the chatter of a red squirrel, much nearer than the moose-bird. Once he fancied that he heard the striking of two objects, as though a rifle barrel had accidentally come into contact with the dead limb of a tree.
Suddenly the Indian youth imagined that he saw something—an indistinct shadow that came in the snow gloom, then disappeared, and came again. He brushed the water and snow from his eyes with one of his mittened hands and stared hard and steadily. Once more the shadow disappeared, then came again, larger and more distinct than before. There was no doubt now. Whatever had startled the moose-bird was coming slowly, noiselessly.
Wabi brought his rifle to his shoulder. Life and death hovered with his anxious, naked finger over the gun trigger. But he was too well trained in the ways of the wilderness to fire just yet. Yard by yard the shadow approached, and divided itself into two shadows. Wabi could now see that they were men. They were advancing in a cautious, crouching attitude, as though they expected to meet enemies somewhere ahead of them. Wabi's heart thumped with joy. There could be no surer sign that Mukoki and Rod were still among the living, for why should the Woongas employ this caution if they had already successfully ambushed the hunters? With the chill of a cold hand at his throat the answer flashed into Wabigoon's brain. His friends had been ambushed, and these two Woongas were stealing back over the trail to slay him!
Very slowly, very gently, the young Indian's finger pressed against the trigger of his rifle. A dozen feet more, and then—
The shadows had stopped, and now drew together as if in consultation. They were not more than twenty yards away, and for a moment Wabi lowered his rifle and listened hard. He could hear the low unintelligible mutterings of their conversation. Then there came to him a single incautious reply from one of the shadows.
Surely that was not the English of a Woonga! It sounded like—
In a flash Wabi had called softly.
In another moment the three wolf hunters were together, silently wringing one another's hands, the death-like pallor of Rod's face and the tense lines in the bronzed countenances of Mukoki and Wabigoon plainly showing the tremendous strain they had been under.
"You shoot?" whispered Mukoki.
"No!" replied Wabi, his eyes widening in surprise. "Didn't you shoot?"
Only the one word fell from the old Indian, but it was filled with a new warning. Who had fired the five shots? The hunters gazed blankly at one another, mute questioning in their eyes. Without speaking, Mukoki pointed suggestively to the clearer channel of the river beyond the cedars. Evidently he thought the shots had come from there. Wabi shook his head.
"There was no trail," he whispered. "Nobody has crossed the river."
"I thought they were there!" breathed Rod. He pointed into the forest. "But Mukoki said no."
For a long time the three stood and listened. Half a mile back in the forest they heard the howl of a single wolf, and Wabi flashed a curious glance into the eyes of the old Indian.
"That's a man's cry," he whispered. "The wolf has struck a human trail. It isn't mine!"
"Nor ours," replied Rod.
This one long howl of the wolf was the only sound that broke the stillness of approaching night. Mukoki turned, and the others followed in his trail. A quarter of a mile farther on the stream became still narrower and plunged between great masses of rock which rose into wild and precipitous hills that were almost mountains a little way back. No longer could the hunters now follow the channel of the rushing torrent. Through a break in a gigantic wall of rock and huge boulders led the trail of Rod and Mukoki. Ten minutes more and the three had clambered to the top of the ridge where, in the lee of a great rock, the remains of a fire were still burning. Here the old Indian and his companion had struck camp and were waiting for Wabigoon when they heard the shots which they, too, believed were those of an ambush.
A comfortable shelter of balsam had already been erected against the rock, and close beside the fire, where Mukoki had dropped it at the sound of the shots, was a large piece of spitted venison. The situation was ideal for a camp and after the hard day's tramp through the snow the young wolf hunters regarded it with expressions of pleasure, in spite of the enemies whom they knew might be lurking near them. Both Wabi and Rod had accepted the place as their night's home, and were stirring up the fire, when their attention was drawn to the singular attitude of Mukoki. The old warrior stood leaning on his rifle, speechless and motionless, his eyes regarding the process of rekindling the fire with mute disapprobation. Wabi, poised on one knee, looked at him questioningly.
"No make more fire," said the old Indian, shaking his head. "No dare stay here. Go on—beyond mountain!"
Mukoki straightened himself and stretched a long arm toward the north.
"River go like much devil 'long edge of mountain," he continued. "Make heap noise through rock, then make swamp thick for cow moose—then run through mountain and make wide, smooth river once more. We go over mountain. Snow all night. Morning come—no trail for Woonga. We stay here—make big trail in morning. Woonga follow like devil, ver' plain to see!"
Wabi rose to his feet, his face showing the keenness of his disappointment. Since early morning he had been traveling, even running at times, and he was tired enough to risk willingly a few dangers for the sake of sleep and supper. Rod was in even worse condition, though his trail had been much shorter. For a few moments the two boys looked at each other in silence, neither attempting to conceal the lack of favor with which Mukoki's suggestion was received. But Wabi was too wise openly to oppose the old pathfinder. If Mukoki said that it was dangerous for them to remain where they were during the night—well, it was dangerous, and it would be foolish of him to dispute it. He knew Mukoki to be the greatest hunter of his tribe, a human bloodhound on the trail, and what he said was law. So with a cheerful grin at Rod, who needed all the encouragement that could be given to him, Wabi began the readjustment of the pack which he had flung from his shoulders a few minutes before.
"Mountain not ver' far. Two—t'ree mile, then camp," encouraged Mukoki. "Walk slow—have big supper."
Only a few articles had been taken from the toboggan-sled on which the hunters were dragging the greater part of their equipment into the wilderness, and Mukoki soon had these packed again. The three adventurers now took up the new trail along the top of one of those wild and picturesque ridges which both the Indians and white hunters of this great Northland call mountains. Wabigoon led, weighted under his pack, selecting the clearest road for the toboggan and clipping down obstructing saplings with his keen-edged belt-ax. A dozen feet behind him followed Mukoki, dragging the sled; and behind the sled, securely tied with a thong of babeesh, or moose-skin rope, slunk the wolf. Rod, less experienced in making a trail and burdened with a lighter pack, formed the rear of the little cavalcade.
Darkness was now falling rapidly. Though Wabigoon was not more than a dozen yards ahead, Rod could only now and then catch a fleeting vision of him through the gloom. Mukoki, doubled over in his harness, was hardly more than a blotch in the early night. Only the wolf was near enough to offer companionship to the tired and down-spirited youth. Rod's enthusiasm was not easily cooled, but just now he mentally wished that, for this one night at least, he was back at the Post, with the lovely little Minnetaki relating to him some legend of bird or beast they had encountered that day. How much pleasanter that would be! The vision of the bewitching little maiden was suddenly knocked out of his head in a most unexpected and startling way. Mukoki had paused for a moment and Rod, unconscious of the fact, continued on his journey until he tumbled in a sprawling heap over the sled, knocking Mukoki's legs completely from under him in his fall. When Wabi ran back he found Rod flattened out, face downward, and Mukoki entangled in his site harness on top of him.
In a way this accident was fortunate. Wabi, who possessed a Caucasian sense of humor, shook with merriment as he gave his assistance, and Rod, after he had dug the snow from his eyes and ears and had emptied a handful of it from his neck, joined with him.
The ridge now became narrower as the trio advanced. On one side, far down, could be heard the thunderous rush of the river, and from the direction of the sound Rod knew they were near a precipice. Great beds of boulders and broken rock, thrown there by some tumultuous upheaval of past ages, now impeded their progress, and every step was taken with extreme caution. The noise of the torrent became louder and louder as they advanced and on one side of him Rod now thought that he could distinguish a dim massive shadow towering above them, like the precipitous side of a mountain. A few steps farther and Mukoki exchanged places with Wabigoon.