The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 11

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For several moments the man and the youths remained motionless, their eyes focused on the grim silhouette. They had no doubt but what it was Big Nick, and a sinister phase of his pose was the manner in which he held his rifle, as if prepared to shoot at a second’s notice.

Gently edging backwards Abner indicated for the youths to follow him. Then he softly whispered, “In some way he is led to believe we turned in this direction. I had expected he’d make for the mountain and try to cut us off in the morning.”

“What are we to do?” murmured Bub, all of his good humor deserting him as he pictured the silent form on the rock.

“We’ll lie low for a bit, but we must git out of here before the moon crawls any higher,” replied Abner.

“Does he know we are near here?” asked Stanley, expecting every moment to have the half-breed creep into the narrow passage.

“He’s puzzled,” said Abner. “He doesn’t think we are where we can see him, else he wouldn’t stand up there on that rock. Yet he believes he is on our trail.”

Stanley’s teeth chattered at the boldness of his thought, and he said, “Let’s sneak out and get near enough to jump him. I’m tired of being chased as if I were a poor wild thing.”

“That’s it; let’s take the lead. He won’t be looking for it and we’ll never get a chance at him in the day time,” urged Bub, whose fears were driving him desperate.

“Younkers, I opine ye’ve got the right of it. It’s now or never,” agreed Abner, beginning to steal back to the opening.

But the first stealthy glimpse revealed the half-breed had disappeared. He might be within a few feet of the hiding place, but he was no longer on the rock.

“These ledges will be losing some of their darkness in a little while,” reminded Bub, to whom the faintly illumined rock piles appeared to be bathed in brightest light.

“And Big Nick can see like a cat in the night,” regretted Abner. “Yas, I guess we’d better be moving. For if he really believes we’re hid up ’round here he’ll stick till he starves us out. If we can git to the woods we can worm our way quite a distance before daylight.”

“Shall I lead the way?” asked Bub.

“No, sirree! Let yer Uncle Abner take the lead,” replied the veteran, slowly thrusting his head from the opening.

Fortunately the ledge at this point was overhanging and no rays of moonlight had succeeded as yet in penetrating to the mouth of the cave. But a few feet from the ledge was an open space of some fifty feet which must be crossed before the ink-like depths of the woods could be gained. The average man would have been able to see nothing in the gloom, but Abner knew Big Nick’s keen eyes would ferret them out in a twinkling of the eye should they move carelessly across this danger belt.

His instructions were few and emphatic. He was to lead off with Stanley second and Bub drawing up the rear. Each was to move in keeping with Abner’s cautious advance and at the slightest signal from him each was to remain motionless.

The fifty feet seemed to require a century to traverse in Stanley’s estimation. Once when about half way of the distance Abner touched Stanley’s head and came to a top. Stanley immediately repeated the signal to Bub, and the three might have been so many pieces of rock, scattered over the ledge. Stanley felt an almost irresistible impulse to yell out and make one try for the woods. A stick snapped on their immediate left and with painful carefulness Stanley turned his head. He was positive he could detect the glitter of the half-breed’s eyes and was as equally sure that they had been discovered. Still Abner made no move forward and Stanley next feared that the thumping of his heart would be heard by the enemy and betray their position. The glittering eyes, in the meanwhile, ascended a tree and the youth knew it was but some creature seeking a refuge like themselves, or else hunting victims like Big Nick.

A second stick snapped, ever so lightly and the three knew it must be Nick’s moccasined step. It evidenced one thing to Abner; the half-breed was abandoning some of his caution, evidently believing his prey was not in that vicinity. Then something like a shadow floated from the spruce, became fixed to the face of the ledge, remained immovable, then detached itself and stole forward.

With a shiver of relief Abner advanced a notch. If they had waited but a few moments they would have been penned up in the cave. Then the old man began to move more swiftly. He remembered their lunch. Should the half-breed enter their late hiding place he would be sure to discover the bread crumbs. It was absolutely necessary for the three to reach the shelter of the woods before their pursuer emerged from the cave.

The youths quickly caught the old man’s thought because of his haste to gain cover. Stanley figured it out only in a partial manner, but Bub was quick to weigh the situation. He pushed Stanley gently to indicate the need of speed, and then tapped him warningly, fearing the inexperience of his friend would divulge their presence. But for once Stanley made no blunders and followed Abner’s snake-like movements with the utmost care. Now the leader was half beneath the boughs of a spruce when Bub pressed Stanley’s leg as if to halt him. The signal was instantly telegraphed to Abner and the old man promptly abided by Bub’s judgment and became motionless. Bub had heard a pebble rattle behind him and knew it announced the approach of Nick.

Stanley’s heart pounded fiercely and his lungs seemed to be filled with fire. He sought to hold his breath and then was compelled to exhale. He was positive he had betrayed his friends to the common foe and hugged closer into the rock and awaited the fatal shot.

But nothing happened, and at last Bub gave the signal to advance, and with infinite care the last few feet were left behind and the three friends found themselves crouching in Stygian darkness.

“He knows we were here but a short time ago,” Abner whispered between the two bowed heads. “He knows we couldn’t have moved far without making a noise. Remember, a single sound will mean a shot. Now follow me.”

With the same deliberation Abner felt his way through the forest. Never once did his foot descend so that even Stanley behind him could hear it. Once their way was blocked by a mass of alders, and Abner retraced his steps towards the foe until both Stanley and Bub began to feel an icy tickling about the roots of the hair.

Fully a half an hour passed before Abner came to a halt and drew them close to him. “I think I heard a rustle off to the left. It might have been some bird, or animal, but I believe it is Nick. If so, he is moving parallel to us and will weave back and forth in an effort to cover considerable territory. I’d strike directly away from him if not for drawing away from Hood mountain. When morning breaks, as it will very soon, I want to be within reach of it. On the other hand, if we go straight ahead we stand a chance of his catching up with us.”

“I say go ahead,” whispered Bub.

“My vote is the same,” added Stanley.

“All right,” murmured Abner. “Ye have a say in it as much as I do. As there ain’t any best way it’s toss up a cent which is the best thing to do.”

“If worst comes to worst we could start a back fire and burn him out,” suggested Stanley.

“The very thing,” urged Bub, eagerly. “Once we put a wall of flame and smoke between us he will be so busy saving his own bacon that he won’t think of chasing us. Couldn’t it be done, Abner?”

“It might, if he didn’t shoot while we was starting it,” admitted Abner; “but these ain’t my trees to burn.”

“Surely you’d burn them to save our lives,” softly exclaimed Stanley.

“I’d burn every one in Maine to save the lives of ye two,” assured Abner. “But I wouldn’t burn ’em to save my own skin. I ain’t got no right to.”

“Then you won’t burn them to save mine,” firmly declared Stanley.

“Nor mine,” cheerfully added Bub.

“I’d do it in a second to save ye, only I fear it wouldn’t work,” said Abner. “But let’s leave it be till we see where we’re at. See the East is beginning to show a streak of grey.”

“I can’t see it,” murmured Stanley.

“I can,” said Bub. “Soon you’ll hear some birds sound the first morning note. Then the whole chorus will break out, and then up comes the sun and along comes old Nick.”

The unexpected finale caused a flicker of a smile on Stanley’s set lips and he nodded approvingly at Bub’s undismayed spirit.

Very shortly the eastern horizon took on patches of grey in places, but so gradually that Stanley could not trace the change at first. Then without any warning a shaft of yellow shot through the somber mass and quickly became old gold, as if some giant smith were heating it red hot. Then a fan of glorious radiance flickered to the zenith and the sun was about to say “good morning.”

Taking advantage of the first streak of light Abner wheeled slowly about to get his bearings. He frowned at discovering he had wandered outside of his intended line of approach and must beat back would he reach the warden’s abode before nightfall.

“Why not let us separate, each making for the top of the mountain,” suggested Stanley, lowering his eyes.

“What is the matter?” asked Abner suspiciously.

“Why do you stand on one foot?” demanded Bub, giving him a twirl.

“By jing! he’s sprained his ankle and is trying to git us to go and quit him,” savagely announced Abner.

Stanley tried to defend himself, saying he knew he could make the mountain as quickly as either of the others, and concluded by declaring his ankle hurt him only a little. Abner apparently heard nothing that he said, but, forcing him to sit, quickly removed the high boot and examined the sore member. To his great joy he found it was only a minor strain and ripping a strip from his blanket soon had it bandaged in workman-like manner.

“There! that’ll last till we reach the warden’s if ye favor it,” pronounced Abner. “And don’t suggest any more of these self-sacrificing games agin. I expect ye two to stick by me and ye must expect us two to stand by ye; else there ain’t no truth in the woods and no good in a woodsman.”

“Lean on my shoulder as much as you can,” invited Bub. “Now let’s put the best foot forward.”

This time Abner made the youths lead the way while he brought up the rear. He knew the danger was behind them and he trusted to Bub to pick a quiet trail now that the morning light was filtering through the trees to help them. And as Bub had said the full galaxy of forest singers now, tuned up and broke into one marvelous harmony in which, unlike the evening festival, naught but love notes were heard.

But even with the dawning light the fugitives’ progress continued slow, Stanley’s ankle acting as a brake on their flight. Each knew that the half-breed was taking two steps to their one and must soon be abreast if not in advance of them. Once he reached high ground and scrutinized the low lands with his keen gaze he could not fail to detect their approach, while to intercept them would be an easy task.

The fatigue of the previous day and night was beginning to tell also on Abner’s hardy frame. The average man of his years would think only of taking his ease and it was a wonderful accomplishment in the city bred boy’s estimation that the veteran could so long defy exhaustion and set the pace for the elastic Bub. Incidentally, it was another lesson for him to ponder over—what nature can and will do for those who do not desert her.

As he became dulled to the danger ever dogging their heels Stanley found himself admiring the autumnal effect presented by the reddish glow on scattered maples, now half in bud. Isolated patches of hard wood trees were ever giving an atmosphere of October to the landscape, only to be contradicted at the next step by the delicate light green of birch and elm.

“Hi! go ’round the knoll; not up over it,” warned Abner in a low voice, as Bub was mechanically breasting a slight rise.

Bub blushed at the rebuke, for like Stanley his wits had been deadened by weariness and familiarity with the situation.

“I don’t think he’s behind us,” he feebly defended, but obeying the old man’s order.

“Wait a minute and we’ll try and find out,” muttered Abner, creeping to the top of the knoll and cautiously gaining a coign of vantage. After a few moments he softly invited, “Crawl up ’side of me, but keep low. Now watch that small opening back there and look sharp.”

The youths did as directed, the small area being dimly discernible. With straining eyes they looked, until Stanley could imagine all sorts of forms and figures crossing the little glade. Then all three were cast in a rigid mould as a dark blotch swiftly crept from cover to cover.

“Come,” said Abner briefly. “I was hoping he was farther to the west. In looking back I picked out that opening as the one spot where he might show up if he was directly behind us.”

Gritting his teeth Stanley sought to forget his lame ankle and resolutely accommodated his steps to the now rapid advance of his companions. Hood mountain seemed as far away as ever and the youth knew that under the most favorable circumstances its summit could not be conquered till afternoon.

“Let’s have a drink,” said Abner, leading the way to a bubbling stream.

Several precious minutes were spent in this refreshment but each felt new strength as he rose to continue the journey.

Then Stanley forgot about his ankle, his whole system seemed benumbed and he stalked along with the mechanical gait of an automaton. He gazed neither to the right or left, nor did he hear the matutinal chorus about him. It seemed as if he was walking in a dream, the forms of his two companions being vague and unreal. Nor did he sense any fear.

Abner was quick to observe his condition and nudged Bub slyly. So long as the youth could walk, so long would they lead him along, but the veteran cruiser had seen men walk like this before, after being lost in the woods, and he knew what the result must be.

It came suddenly. Stanley dropped in his tracks and while not unconscious was thoroughly indifferent to the pleadings of his friends.

For nearly an hour the three remained in the covert, waiting for him to emerge from his lethargy. Finally he seemed to sense that he was holding the others back, and, shaking himself, advised, “You two go on ahead. It’s the best thing for all of us. I’m done up and must rest. If you leave me you can make the warden’s in double quick time, procure some ammunition and come back for me. Nick couldn’t find me in a year. “I’ll just remain quiet and rest.”

“We can’t leave you,” whimpered Bub.

“It’s the only way you can help me,” stoutly insisted Stanley.

Abner rubbed his chin thoughtfully and was silent for a few moments. Then to Bub’s surprise and Stanley’s joy he decided, “It’s the only thing to do. Nick will pass him by. We’ll blaze our trail with a little noise so he’ll follow us on the trot; then we’ll race him for the mountain. And once I git my hand on a cartridge—Wal!”

“Do you want my knife?” asked Bub, hungry to do something for Stanley.

“No; cut me a stout cudgel,” replied Stanley.

“I’ll fix ye a daisy,” said Abner, assailing an oak bough. This he deftly trimmed into a formidable club and then shaking Stanley’s hand turned abruptly away.

“I hate like sin to do it,” sobbed Bub. “Why can’t I stay with you?”

“No! no! If you would help, go,” urged Stanley. “If Nick caught a glimpse of Abner making it alone he would know we two were back here. If he sees the two he will take it for granted I am with you, or near you. Believe me, Bub, I run less danger than you do.”

A low whistle from Abner warned Bub he must be going, and silently wringing his friend by the hand he darted silently away.

Stanley’s resting place was an ideal one for concealment. A circle of stunted growth completely masked his bed of moss, and one might pass within two feet of him and not suspect his presence. With a sigh of relief he turned his back towards the rising sun and closed his eyes. He could not tell what aroused him; it could not have been a noise, he dreamily told himself, and yet some influence had jolted him from a dreamless slumber. As his wits cleared he was conscious of a feeling of fear. He remained motionless and sought to interpret it. He had read of people becoming uneasy when stared at by unseen eyes. It was like that, and yet different. He did not feel as if someone were watching him, but he did sense an immediate danger. His inner self had warned him to mount guard against some evil.

It seemed as it must be at his very side and it was with much quaking and apprehension that he slowly turned his head and swept the circuit of his small retreat. He was alone.

He sighed softly in relief and then began to believe that the danger must be just on the other side of the bushes. He even picked out the point from which the evil influence seemed to radiate, and with the utmost caution moved his head in that direction. The boughs effectually screened the outside world, except as his head, resting on the moss, allowed his feverish eyes to peer out beneath them. Within a few inches of his nose were a pair of moose-hide moccasins, but not like those worn by Noisy Charlie. As one fascinated he stared at the immovable footgear. Then he closed his eyes, fearing the impact of his gaze would arouse the owner of the feet into a realization that one of his intended victims was near.

There was something so sinister in the absolute quiet of the figure outside, something so animal—like in its suspicious rigidity, that Stanley knew the half-breed sensed his presence but did not know where to look for him. Something certainly had stayed his pursuit of Abner and Bub. Some sixth sense, perhaps possessed by aboriginal people as well as animals, was telling him he was not alone in that little space. And Stanley held his breath till it seemed his lungs would burst.

Possiby his deep exhalation might have revealed him to his enemy if the half-breed had not changed his position just as the pent-up air was released. Then the youth opened his eyes and gazed again. As Nick shifted his position Stanley could now see up to his waist, his view including the butt of the rifle resting under the right arm, as the barrel lay in the left hand, ready for instant use.

Edging back Stanley noiselessly rose to a sitting posture and grasped his club. As desperation gave him a false courage he found himself desiring to meet the climax and have it over with. He felt as if he must give a loud cry and spring forth and grapple with the bronzed figure. He mechanically recalled how in his childhood, when playing hide and seek, his nerves got the best of him in his hiding place and he would rush into the arms of the seeker before his retreat had been suspected. He felt the same impulse now and hit his lip in holding himself back.

At last as the tensity of waiting grew upon him he gradually rose to his feet, forced to stand only half erect that his head might escape the roof of his bower.

A furious anger began to fill his heart, incited by fear. He was like a lynx cornered, desperate enough to face any odds, and his fingers grew benumbed as they strained in clutching the cudgel.

Although his movements had made no noise that he could sense Nick whirled about quickly, his eyes flaming as they swept each bush and tree. Something was warning the half-breed that he, too, was in danger, and he raised the rifle to shoot.

With a wild desire to know the worst Stanley gently picked a pencil from his pocket and taking advantage of an opening in his roof flipped it upward and outward. In striking it made a slight sound, and as quick as a flash the half-breed fired in that direction.

With a maddened roar Stanley leaped from his hiding place and before the half-breed could shift his weapon the heavy club descended and knocked him staggering into the bushes. Then, yelling loud in his frenzy Stanley dashed away in the direction taken by his companions. It was not until he had covered a half a mile did he realize he had lost the opportunity of disarming his foe.