The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 10

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Pulling his young companions from the danger zone on the ledge Abner led the way to the northeast, taking great care to keep under cover.

“It’s no use scouting for ammunition at the camp,” he said. “For if that devil didn’t take all the cartridges they’ve been destroyed by the fire. Lucky we took our blankets and some grub, else we’d sleep pretty cold to-night.”

“Where are we aiming for?” asked Bub, his good-natured face new pale with fear as he remembered Wilson’s warning at the mills—that if Big Nick ever caught him in the woods, where every man was a law unto himself, he would even all scores.

“I want to fetch up Hood Mountain,” said Abner. “The fire warden will have ammunition and once we git that we’ll turn the tables on Mister Nick. But be careful to keep covered. And you,” to Stanley, “do as I do and bend low. If that varmint sees a bush move he’ll plug away at it.”

“Will he follow us?” whispered Stanley, to whom such cold-blooded behavior seemed impossible even in Big Nick.

“Ain’t he tried to kill each of us so far?” returned Abner, talking between his teeth.

“He’ll chase us as long as there is light to follow our trail,” panted Bub. “I wish we could strike some ledge where we’d leave no trail.”

“We can’t take to a ledge till we git a lead on him,” said Abner.

“It is hard work for me to believe he is so bloodthirsty,” declared Stanley, straightening to relieve his cramped muscles. As if to assure him to the contrary a bullet whistled close to his side.

“Keep down and sprint!” commanded Abner, his eyes flaming in helpless anger. “That butcher will chase us till we strike the warden’s. Don’t ye understand his life may be at stake as well as ourn? He intended to have the fire burn us up together with the timber. We didn’t camp up there as he expected when he found we’d taken our blankets and feed. We came back before he got things going nicely and discovered him. Then he knew that once we got clear of the woods and told how he set a fire there wouldn’t be a hand in northern Maine but what would be against him, except as ye allow fer Nace and his gang, what’s urging him on in his deviltry. He’d got to stop us testifying agin him; else someone up here would shoot him on sight, or he’d be taken to the settlement and given a long term of years. He must kill us or always keep in hiding. And he knows the Great Northern Lumber and Paper company has a long arm and will spend no end of money to trail him even to Alberta. It’s our lives or his life or freedom.”

As he flung this chilling information over his stooped shoulder he was rapidly taking a zig-zag course away from the mountain so that he might have more room for his fearful game of hide and seek. More than once as he softly sped along he cast a wistful gaze at the western horizon and prayed for night.

Thoroughly alarmed the two youths hung at his heels, darting along like so many shadows. And each knew that behind them, coming hardly less swiftly, was the bowed form of the half-breed hunter, only now he was hunting men. Far ahead, bathed in shifting shadows at its base, illumined by the setting sun at its top, rose Hood mountain. This was Abner’s objective point, but the three knew it could not be made that night, and each feared that their pursuer would anticipate their purpose and either overtake them or head them off. Again, he could strike his assassin’s blow from a distance. All he would need to complete his murderous purpose was a fleeting glimpse of them as they were forced to cross a clearing. It was to lessen his deadly range of view that Abner sought to take advantage of every natural cover and repeatedly warned his young companions to bend low in running.

Twilight now began to veil the forest with thin shadows and Abner sighed in half relief as he noted the gathering obscurity. They were moving noiselessly now and at a much slower pace. Occasionally some wild thing of the wood sounded a faint alarm as it scuttled away from the silent passerby, but beyond this and the natural calls of the evening woods, peace and quiet brooded over the little drama.

The hermit thrush sweetly began a plaintive recital, oblivious of the straining forms gliding by her little home, but Stanley this time had no room in his thoughts for admiration or reverie.

“Ding them birds!” hoarsely complained Abner as some member of the feathered family took fright at the incautious tread of Stanley and blundered away, leaving a trail of te11-tale sounds.

Somewhere in the rear rang out the clear report of the half-breed’s rifle as he caught the direction of the sound and fired on chance.

“Two can play at that game,” choked Bub, bending as he ran and picking up a rock. Saying this he paused only long enough to hurl the same far off to the right, where its crashing through a clump of trees deceived the half-breed into firing a shot in that direction.

“Ye can’t fool him twice that way,” informed Abner. “He knew the second he pulled the trigger that he’d been fooled. Now he’ll sprint a little to git nearer and end it.”

The last three words caused cold shivers to race up and down Stanley’s spine. He recalled Bub’s words, to the effect that they would find it exciting in the woods, and he regretted his boastful assertion that no situation could be too intense for him. The job with the loading gang appealed to him now as being exceedingly attractive and even the persecution of Gilvey was softened down to a mild annoyance. How secure had been the boarding-house, how kindly the daily associations at the mill.

“Bub” he groaned, “I’m scared about to death.”

“I’m scareder than you are,” confessed Bub, with a painful catch in his voice.

“Stop chattering and save yer wind fer running,” commanded Abner, suddenly turning into some spruce and darting away at right angles.

For several minutes the three made good time, as the spruce was a portion of a mixed growth, one of those isolated islands of trees that had never known the blow of an axe. Despite the semi-darkness the fugitives could proceed at full speed, the aisles stretching roomy and clear before them. It had one drawback, however; it led towards the northern shoulder of Mt. Jim, and Abner did not care to be penned up against the mountain. Accordingly he soon turned again into the more tangled growth, where if the path was rougher and the pace slower it still allowed of progress in the right direction. If it had been any but Big Nick the veteran cruiser would have lost him long before this. But Nick, like Noisy Charlie, was not to be deceived by the ordinary deceptions of a woodsman and hounded his prey most skillfully.

“Can’t we stop and hide somewhere?” panted Stanley, his heart drumming painfully against his ribs.

“Not yet,” replied Abner’s low voice. “We must take every advantage of the darkness. Even Old Nick, let alone his child in the rear, can’t foller us once it gits black. Thank the Lawd the moon won’t come up till about two o’clock in the morning and being a new one won’t give much light.”

A lynx screamed at Stanley’s right and with a smothered cry he leaped violently and with much noise from his course. Almost instantly the quietude of the forest was shattered by the menacing crack of the rifle.

“Do that once or twice more and we’ll stop running forever,” warned Abner, with a sob in his voice. “I heard that piece of lead.”

“We’ve lost all the ground we’d gained,” reproached Bub in a whimpering tone. “He’ll just cut right across and save all the twisting and turning we’ve made.”

“I was startled,” muttered Stanley, pressing a hand to his aching side.

“No matter what happens, ye’ve only got Nick to fear,” warned Abner.

“Let’s stop and hide and pounce upon him as he passes,” desperately suggested Stanley.

Bub exclaimed impatiently, “Do you suppose he’d pass? He’d stalk us as he would a deer and shoot us down from a distance. When we hide it must be where he won’t think of passing.”

“Now move slowly and quietly for yer lives,” cautioned Abner in a whisper. “Take hold of Bub’s hand so ye won’t stumble, Reddy, and lift yer feet clear of the ground.”

With this warning he began leading the way towards the west, moving with painful deliberation. Stanley, keyed up to the highest tension, suddenly found he had eyes in his feet and no dead limb, or stone, was disturbed by him as he crept along close to Bub.

“He’s making for the ledges,” murmured Bub.

It was still early evening, and, although the outlines of the surrounding mountains were plainly visible against the sky, darkness now completely smothered the lower stretches of woods and the trio had no fear of detection in walking upright. As Bub had surmised Abner was making for the heaped up boulders that marked the beginning of the mountain. Knowing that it would be impossible to proceed much farther without a breathing spell he selected this rough environment as affording the best hiding place and the most secure retreat if they should be discovered.

Now lichen covered rocks warned them they had reached the foundations of the gloomy heights above, and moving more by instinct than by any of his senses Abner twisted and turned among the ever growing boulders until he was brought up by a towering ledge. Skirting along the base of this he suddenly halted and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

“I’ve found what I expected, a small cave,” he whispered. “Now if there ain’t any of Stanley’s bears inside we’ll take a little rest. Both of ye stand in the opening, ’cause I’ve got to strike a light, if only for a second. And it won’t do to let Nick see a glimmer.”

Crowding close behind him to mask the twinkling point of flame the boys waited anxiously. Stanley firmly expected to hear a roar and be run down by an infuriated bear. Since his experience with the cubs he had associated all holes in rocks with gleaming eyes and infuriated black forms.

However, he was now destined to be gratefully disappointed, for immediately after the tiny scratching sound the match was extinguished and Abner invited, “Come in. He couldn’t git us in here in a million years. The passage turns almost at right angles and there’s just enough room for comfort.”

“Then we’ve beaten him,” joyously exclaimed Stanley, crowding forward and throwing himself on the rocky floor and indulging in the luxury of stretching out at full length.

“Not so loud and fast,” growled Abner. “He can’t git us in here, but if he knows we’re here we can’t git out. It’s like being cornered in a checker game, when ye have the double corner and t’other feller has a king and ye keep moving back and forth. Only, it’s worse, ’cause we’ve got to git out.”

“But why can’t we stay here till he gets tired, or believes we have escaped?” protested Stanley.

“Water,” briefly replied Abner.

“It’s only a matter of hours when you’d face all the Nicks in the woods for the sake of getting a drink,” supplemented Bub, gloomily.

“I was hoping we could remain,” lamented Stanley.

“We must dig out as soon as the moon rises. If Nick is as cute as I give credit fer being he’ll suspect some such trick and instead of trying to find us in the dark he’ll push right ahead to the foot of Hood Mountain and as soon as it begins to git light will beat back, trying to head us off.”

“Then we’ve let him get between us and our only place of refuge,” muttered Stanley.

“We’ve had to step aside and let him git between and us and the fire warden’s, if that’s what ye mean,” mumbled Abner.

“I never expected to run into anything like this,” declared Stanley.

“My son, you mean you’ve found it exciting enough,” soberly suggested Bub.

“Why! it’s ridiculous,” complained Stanley. “It’s as bad as the old days of Indian warfare. We’ll be scalped the next thing we know.”

“It wouldn’t pay to bother with my head covering,” sourly returned Abner. “But scalping, or no scalping, I’m going to eat. Lawd! what fools we was we didn’t take along more grub.”

Bub unrolled the provisions and by the sense of touch alone enumerated, “Bread, bacon and coffee. We have no water to make coffee with and if we had we would not dare build a fire. I haven’t reached the point yet where I care for uncooked bacon. That brings us down to bread. What would you like for lunch, Mister Whitten?”

“Ye just stop that funning,” growled Abner. “To think of being chased and shot to pieces and not be allowed to eat.” '

“I’m waiting to take your order, Mister Whitten,” politely informed Bub.

“Quit, or I’ll larrup ye,” angrily commanded Abner, to whom the need of food now outweighed all dangers. “Gimme a piece of bread.”

“And you, Mister Malcolm?” persisted Bub.

Despite his fears Stanley was forced to smile in a ghastly fashion and reached out a groping hand for his portion of the rations.

“We not only will be shot and die of thirst, but we’ll starve to death,” whispered Stanley to Bub between mouthfuls of the dry crust.

“No woodsman will starve in the woods,” returned Bub in an undertone. “That is, if he is allowed to forage for food. He might starve in the city if he didn’t have any money, but there’s always stuff to eat and keep alive on in the woods.”

“But what if he can’t kill any game or catch any fish?” moodily inquired Stanley.

“Then he can live on rock lichens, or reindeer lichens,” murmured Bub. “There’s lots of nourishment in them. One of the Arctic explorers saved his life by eating reindeer lichens; Franklin, I believe. You’ll find them everywhere in the woods. Rock lichens are on rocks of course. Funny how nature starts in the minute there’s a rock heap and tries to cover it up with lichens. Then after it’s covered up the mosses creep in and then after they’ve decayed enough you get a little soil and a bird drops a seed and up comes a tree. Then there’s roots and berries in their season, and, O lots of things a fellow can keep a-going on. As for water, a woodsman will find it almost anywhere and if he can’t he’ll use the Indian cucumber. I was lost a week upon the Musquacook once without any provisions, but I wagged along and didn’t lose any flesh to speak of. On the last day, I remember, I knocked over a booby—”

“Can’t ye find something besides partridge to gossip about?” groaned Abner. “I vum! to hear ye makes my mouth water so I fergit I’m thirsty. If I was back at the settlement I’d order a hundred dollars’ wurth of ham’n eggs.”

“I’d have a reg’lar hotel dinner,” enthusiastically declared Bub. “I’d start in with soup and fish and then have roast beef, rare, with green corn on the cob and all the fixings, same’s I had in Portland once, and at the end I’d call for pie and—”

“Quit it, ye young torment! Quit it, or I’ll lambast ye; I may be shot by Big Nick, but I vum! I won’t submit to being tortured by any younker.”

“What was the hardest time you ever had, Abner?” mischievously asked Bub, nudging Stanley.

“It was when I had to make a soup out of a crow,” gloomily replied Abner. “Crows ain’t poison, but they was never intended fer polite fodder. The first day it tasted good, ’cause I was starving. But on the fourth day I begin to git weary of it. And on the fifth—Say, ye young scallywag, didn’t I tell ye up on the Allagash never to ask fer that yarn agin?”

“These rocks are getting hard,” remarked Stanley, now somewhat recovered from his recent exertions.

“Might be a good plan if ye’d spread down yer blankets,” sarcastically observed Abner. “I did.”

Stanley blushed under the cover of the darkness and silently unrolled his blankets. It had not occurred to him to soften his couch by their means.

“If you had a nice fat sandwich I wonder if you’d have to be told to eat it,” snickered Bub.

“I say, quit talking about food,” sternly commanded Abner. “I remember once I went to a circus in Bangor and the hotel people charged me seventy-five cents for a meal and I ate nothing but pertaters, and pertaters was then selling fer fifty cents a bushel. What d’ye think of that fer a swindle? I went to the feller behind the desk and told him I wanted enough pertaters to make up a bushel’n a half, seeing as how I’d paid seventy-five cents, and he only laffed at me. No circuses or hotels git any more of my money.”

Bub chuckled at Abner’s inability to abandon the very subject that tortured him to think of. Stanley, less mercurial than the other, remained silent, his thoughts running along the dramatic events of the last few hours. As silence fell on the trio each began to read the story told by the night sounds. To Stanley the chorus was more beautiful than ever, while the wilder and more unwholesome notes failed to incite the old fear. He passed over the shriek of the great horned owl with a frown, as he would try to ignore a discord in an otherwise sweet melody.

To Abner and Bub the night songs and voices were of practical worth. The lynx had missed his prey and was screaming in rage. The porcupine, fearless beneath his panoply of spears, was one of the few wood folks who did not bother to practice secrecy, and the sprawling step and crackling limbs emanated from his nocturnal prowlings and did not evidence the presence of a bear. The veteran and Bub interpreted each sound with mechanical ease. Then Abner, half rising, touched Bub lightly.

Bub returned the signal and held his breath.

“What do you hear?” murmured Stanley in Abner’s ear, his heart renewing its thumping as he sensed the others’ rigid apprehension.

“It’s what we don’t hear,” murmured Abner. “Be absolutely silent for yer life. Something has stopped the birds’ songs.”

Outside, the moon was beginning to scatter a faint glow over the scene. With a warning pressure for them to remain quiet Abner silently made his way to the opening. Then reaching back he touched Bub’s leg. The youth as noiselessly joined him. In front a huge rock out the sky-line. On top of this was the vague figure of a man.