Boys of the Fort/5

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Joe had never before met a black bear in the open air, but he had seen several in menageries and studied them at a safe distance, and he realized that he was in a perilous position. The bear looked both untamed and fierce and as if nothing would suit him better than to hug the lad to death and eat him up afterward.

Joe did not stand upon the order of his going, but went instantly, running as fast as his tired limbs would permit. After him came the bear, and it was astonishing what good time the beast could make considering his size and his general appearance of clumsiness. Looking over his shoulder, the lad soon saw that the beast was slowly but surely lessening the distance between them.

"Shoo!" he yelled, and waved his arm threateningly, but the bear did not mind in the least. He trotted on until less than two rods separated boy and beast. Then Joe reached some brush and rocks, with a low-hanging tree in their midst, and without stopping to think twice he climbed into the tree and to one of the upper branches.

Hardly had he reached what he thought might prove a temporary place of safety when he realized his mistake. The bear came up the tree after him,—slowly, it is true; but still up,—and this caused Joe's hair to fairly stand upon end.

"I'm a gone one now!" he groaned, and then espied another tree growing not far away. A limb could just be reached, and as the bear almost gained the boy's foot Joe swung himself from the first tree into the second.

As the lad gained a safe spot on the tree limb, the bear, coming to a halt on the branch opposite, set up a growl of rage and disappointment. For a minute he surveyed the situation, then came out on the branch slowly, testing it inch by inch. As it bent down he retreated, letting out a second growl, louder than the other.

Joe was wondering if he could drop to the ground and escape in that manner, when he saw the bear descend and come quickly toward the tree he was on. He watched the beast closely, and waited until it was close to him. Then he made a leap back into the tree from which he had originally come.

Again the bear came out as far as possible on a limb, and again he let out a growl of rage and disappointment. In one way the situation was comical, and Joe might have laughed had he not felt so serious.

"We can keep this up a long time, I reckon," thought the boy. "And as long as you don't try to leap after me I'll be safe."

Finding he could not reach the boy by coming up one tree or the other, the black bear descended slowly to the ground. Then he walked around both trees several times, and at last came to a halt between the two. Here he sank down, as if to rest, but nevertheless kept one eye open and fixed upon Joe.

"He's going on guard! He means to keep me treed!" muttered the boy, and again his heart sank. He remembered a story he had once read, in which a bear had starved a man to death and eaten him afterward. Would Mr. Bruin do so in this case?

He wished he had a pistol, or a hunting-knife, or even a fair-sized stone. But he had nothing except a thin club, which he had cut for himself with his jackknife. This he kept in hand, and also kept the knife open and where he could get at it readily if needed.

Half an hour went by,—a time that to Joe seemed a whole day,—and still the black bear remained between the two trees, dozing with one eye and watching with the other.

The sight of the beast taking it so easy was maddening under the circumstances, and at last the youth cut another club and hurled it down on top of the bear. At once the beast flew up with a roar, and, standing on his hind legs, snapped his teeth at Joe. Then he flew up the tree once more, faster than ever before.

As the bear came up, Joe went higher than before, having seen another friendly limb over his head. He was sorely tempted to reach for the beast with his club, but thought best not to run too much of a risk.

As before, the youth swung to the next tree, and again the bear gave a growl and went down. Then, being near the top of the tree, the lad took a good look around.

In a moment a sight caught his eye which caused his heart to jump with delight. There on the trail were Darry and old Benson, riding along slowly.

"Hi! hi! This way!" he shouted, with all the strength of his lungs. "This way, Darry! This way, Benson!"

He saw his cousin and the guide bring their steeds to a halt and gaze around in wonder. To them the voice appeared to come out of the very air itself.

"It's Joe's voice!" exclaimed Darry. "But I must say I don't see him."

Both gazed around, and at last the scout caught sight of the boy's handkerchief fluttering among the tree branches.

"There he is!" he exclaimed. "But what's he doing up there?"

"This way!" went on Joe, and as they turned in the direction, he added, "Look out for the bear!"

"A bear!" came from Darry. "He must be treed!"

"I reckon you've struck it," muttered Benson, and hastily unslung his rifle, at which Darry did the same. "Follow me, but be on your guard," went on the old scout.

He advanced with caution, his horse lifting his ears sharply as the neighborhood of the trees was gained. Presently the animal came to a sudden halt. At the same moment Benson caught sight of the bear.

"So that's where ye are!" muttered the old scout.

The bear raised himself on his hind legs and let out a growl at the newcomers. Hardly had the sound arose upon the air when Benson's rifle cracked, and a bullet hit the beast in the breast. Down went the animal on all fours, but did not tumble further. Instead, he made a swift bound for the scout's horse.

Crack! It was now Barry's rifle that spoke up, and the bear was hit again, this time in the right front knee. He dropped, but quickly arose, shaking the wounded leg in the air and uttering a tremendous roar of pain and rage.

Neither horse would now stand still, and both danced around so lively that each rider had all he could do to keep his saddle. But even while his steed pranced in this fashion, old Benson managed to draw his pistol, and two additional shots rang out, both hitting the bear in the side. The roars of the beast were now incessant, and the horses threatened to bolt in spite of all the riders could do to stop them.

"Come!" cried the old scout, and turned from the scene. Thinking he meant to go off to reload, Darry followed. But when at a safe distance Benson sprang to the ground and tied his horse to a tree.

"I'd rather finish him afoot," explained the old hunter, and slipped another cartridge into his rifle. You can stay here if you wish."

"Not much!" murmured Darry, and came down also. In a minute he was following the old

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scout. When they came up a second time they found the bear crawling around, roaring in a lower tone. Evidently he was more than half exhausted.

"Another good shot will finish him," sang out Joe, from a bottom limb of the tree. "Why don't you give it to him in the ear?"

"I will," answered the old scout, and circled around, watching his opportunity. At length it came—the rifle cracked sharply, and Bruin fell on his side, to rise no more.

"Hurrah! That's a big haul!" cried Darry, much delighted. "I was wishing we'd get a bear some time while we were out here."

"It's lucky the bear didn't get Joe," remarked Benson. "They generally come up a tree after their victim."

"I jumped from one tree to the other," answered the youth. "But I had quite an exciting time, I can assure you."

"How in the world did you get here?" questioned Darry, as Joe leaped to the ground. "Did you get through to another cave? Benson thought that might be the case."

"That was the case, Darry. And I've had a wonderful adventure, too," added Joe earnestly. Then he told his story, to which the others listened with close attention. When he came to mention Gilroy, Fetter, and Potts, old Benson uttered a low whistle.

"So that gang has turned up again, eh?" muttered the old scout. "This will be news to Colonel Fairfield. I reckon he'll be glad to be put on guard. If the quartermaster was held up it would prove a big loss."

"Is it true that Colonel Fairfield killed this Gilroy's chum?"

"Perhaps he did. The colonel was in that mix-up, and after it was over Dan Hickey was found dead in the bushes. But it was a fair fight, and the desperadoes knew what to expect when they went in for it."

"When does the quartermaster expect to come through with the money?"

"I don't know, Joe. Like as not it will be soon. And that being the case, we had better not lose time here, but get to the fort just as soon as we can," concluded the old scout.