Boys of the Fort/4
LOST IN THE FOREST.
"I must get away from them!"
This was the one thought which surged through Joe Moore's brain as he dashed from the cave in the mountain. He felt that if he was captured it would go hard with him. Did the desperadoes learn that he had overheard their conversation, they might make his very life pay the forfeit.
Forward he pitched, into the rain and the inky darkness, not knowing in what direction and just then caring but little. His one idea was to put distance between himself and his pursuers.
"Stop!" he heard the men call, and heard the clicking of a pistol hammer. Then he reached some brushwood, and, crouching low, continued to move on. No shot came, for the reason that the desperadoes could not locate him with certainty.
At length Joe reached a clump of trees. Had he not had his hands before him he might have run into them head first. He glided around them, and then continued onward, down a slope leading into a broad belt of timber. Still with his hands before him, he advanced through the undergrowth and between the stately trees for a distance of several hundred feet.
He was now exhausted with running and with fighting the entangling vines, and had to halt to catch his breath. As he came to a stop he listened attentively, to learn if the men were following, but the downpour of rain drowned out every other sound.
Soaked to the skin, hatless, and still short of breath, he went on once more, feeling that he was not yet far enough from the cave for safety. He tried to steer a course in the direction of the cave where he had left Darry and the old scout, but whether he was successful or not he could not tell.
A hundred yards further and Joe came to an other slope, covered with prairie grass. Down this he rolled in the darkness, to bring up in more brush below. Then he climbed out of the hollow at the opposite side, and, reaching a large fallen tree, sat down to rest and think over his situation. The tree lay partly under one with wide-spreading branches, so the boy was somewhat sheltered from the storm.
It must be confessed that Joe's heart sank within him as he reviewed the situation. Where he was he could not tell, nor could he form any definite plan for rejoining his cousin and old Benson. More than this, he was afraid that the desperadoes might come up at any minute and pounce upon him.
But as the minutes slipped by, and he neither saw nor heard anything of those in pursuit, he grew easier. Evidently they had given up the chase.
"I hope they have," was what he thought. "I never want to get so close to them again. They are a hard crowd, if ever there was one. If I can get to the fort and tell Colonel Fairfield of what I've heard, I'll be doing a good thing."
An hour went by slowly, and then Joe looked around to find some means of making himself comfortable for the balance of the night, knowing it would be useless to pursue his course through the forest in the darkness.
"This is camping out with a vengeance!" he muttered grimly. "Darry ought to be along; I guess he'd soon get enough of it. I'll be lucky if I don't fall in with some savage animal."
The thought of wild beasts gave him another shiver, and he concluded to climb into a nearby tree, which was low-drooping and had a spot where several branches made a sort of platform. He was soon up in a comparatively dry place, and here he fell asleep, being too tired to hold his eyes open longer.
When Joe awoke the storm had cleared away and the sun was struggling through the scattering clouds. The forest still dripped with the rain, and with this dripping were mingled the songs of the birds and the hum of insects.
Stiff from the wet, he climbed slowly to the ground and looked around. On every side were the tall trees and the dense undergrowth, shutting off the distant view of everything but a towering mountain to the westward. This was the mountain he and the others had been ascending when the storm had overtaken them.
"I suppose I may as well head in that direction," he mused. "If I can strike the trail that will be something. But I'll have to keep my eyes open, or I may fall into the hands of that Gilroy gang."
He was hungry, but there were no means at hand with which to satisfy the cravings of his stomach, and so he had to move forward without eating.
Getting into the forest had been difficult, but getting out was even more of a task. The underbrush at certain points was positively impassable, and he had to make long detours, which took time and tired him greatly. At noon he was still in the forest, and the mountain seemed as far off as ever.
"I am lost, that is all there is to it!" he burst out with a groan. "I am lost, and perhaps I'll never get out!"
The sun shone down directly on his head, and even though still wet he was glad enough to seek the shelter the stately trees afforded. Here and there he saw some berries of various hues, but they were strange to him, and he did not dare touch them for fear of being poisoned.
Toward the middle of the afternoon he reached a tiny brook, flowing between the rocks, and here he again rested. He reached the conclusion that the brook came down from the mountain side and by following it up he must sooner or later run across the lost trail.
"I'll follow it, anyway," he told himself, and, hungry and footsore, set out along the water course.
Here the walking was somewhat better, for he had no brushwood and vines to tear aside. The brook was clear, and he often saw trout and other fish darting hither and thither. This gave him an idea, and, picking some berries he had seen, he dropped them in. At once some of the fish darted forward and swallowed the berries.
"Hurrah, a good bait!" he cried, and quickly made himself a line out of threads from his clothing. To this he attached a pin bent into shape with infinite care. Then he baited with the berries, and dropped the line in over a rock near a cottonwood.
Hardly had his bait touched the water when a good-sized fish seized it, and in a twinkling he had his catch landed. His heart gave a bound, for here was the material for at least one square meal.
"I'll cook it right away," he told himself, after feeling to see if he had any matches. His hunger was beginning to make him desperate, and he did not much care even if the desperadoes did see his camp-fire.
With some trouble he got together a few sticks of wood and some moss which the sunshine had dried out, and soon he had a respectable blaze between two rocks. With his jackknife he cleaned the fish as best he could, and then broiled it on a green twig. When done the meat was slightly burnt on one side and underdone on the other, but to the half-famished lad nothing had ever tasted sweeter, and he continued to eat until the whole fish was gone.
"Now I feel like myself," he muttered, after washing down the repast with a drink from the brook. "On a pinch that meal ought to last me until to-morrow noon, and surely I ought to find my way back to the others by that time."
With renewed energy he continued his tramp along the brook, often wading in the water when the brushwood on either side was extra thick. He kept his eyes and ears on the alert, but no human being came into sight, and presently a great feeling of loneliness swept over him.
"I'm alone," he whispered to himself. "Alone! I must say I don't like it much," and he hurried on faster than ever.
The sun was shining over the distant mountain when he reached a bend in the brook and came out upon a rocky trail which crossed the water-course at a right angle. As he looked at the trail he was tempted to shout with joy.
"The place we crossed yesterday morning!" he exclaimed. "There is the very spot where we got a drink and watered the horses. Now I ought not to have such a hard time finding the cave."
He got down and examined the trail closely, hoping to discover some hoofmarks. But the heavy rain had washed everything clean. Nevertheless, he felt certain that he was right, and hurried along as fast as his tired limbs permitted.
Leaving the brook, the trail wound in and out along a series of rocks and then through some heavy brushwood and along the edge of a jagged cliff. The cliff was overgrown with heavy vines, which hung down and brushed Joe's head as he passed.
"I can't be more than three or four miles from the cave," thought the boy. "And if I hurry—"
He stopped short, and then gave a cry of terror, and with good reason. He had seen the vines ahead suddenly part, and now there came to view the shaggy head of a black bear. As soon as the beast caught sight of the boy he leaped to the trail and advanced upon him.