The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 12

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Unhampered by Stanley the veteran and Bub exercised all their knowledge of woodcraft and held a bee line for the mountain. The very fact that they had been compelled to abandon their companion led them in a degree to cast caution aside and hasten on at top speed to obtain ammunition so that they might return and rescue him. Occasionally Bub ascended a tree with the agility of a squirrel and verified their course. In the black growth this spying out of the land was absolutely necessary, as Abner was intent on striking the mountain at a particular ridge.

After hours of nerve racking work the two came to the first stage of their ascent.

“Go on ahead,” panted Abner. “Ye’re fresher’n I be. Git the cartridges and come back and meet me. I’ll be loafing along here somewhere. Leave yer rifle with me—and scoot!”

Tightening his belt Bub flashed up the ridge, leaping along as if fresh at the task. Abner groaned aloud in sympathy with himself and dropped on a bed of moss at one side.

In an amazing short space of time, considering the distance covered, Bub bounded into view, waving his hands in exultation.

“Gim’me ’em!” snapped Abner, clawing hungrily for the cartridges. Then as he rapidly slipped them into the magazine of both guns he threw back his shoulders and became a new man. The hunted look vanished from his eyes and his mouth straightened in grim determination.

“Now,” he hoarsely announced, slouching his hat forward, “we’ll pay a call to Mister Nick and we’ll present a card for every one he sends to us. Come on, my son.”

“If he has hurt Stanley, I’ll kill him,” savagely declared Bub.

“Quit that!” sharply directed Abner. “’Course he ain’t hurt him. He ain’t even found him. Why! if he has hurt him I’d foller him to Alaska. Now, double quick, or we won’t git to him before night.”

“We won’t be able to return to the warden’s to-night after finding Stanley,” said Bub, breaking into a trot and moving as if it were his first journey in days.

“We don’t want to,” replied Abner. “Now we’re loaded we can go where we will and stay as long as we will. But it’s mighty lucky the warden’s ammunition fits our guns. Else we’d had to borrer his and have only one between us.”

“He’s worried about Stanley and will run a lantern up into a tree, so’s if we want to come back we can hit the trail easy,” informed Bub.

“That Reddy is a good boy,” mused Abner. “Most fellers would have took on and gone crazy at the idea of being left alone out there. But he was the first one to suggest it. He may be green, but he’s got lots of grit.”

“I like him,” said Bub simply.

The next few miles were covered in silence, the steady dog-trot being interrupted only as Bub paused to climb a tree. On these aerial excursions he not only made sure of their course but he also keenly examined the country ahead in an effort to locate the half-breed. In this quest he was much aided by Abner’s field glasses.

The last tree he climbed caused Abner to wax impatient. “Going to stay up there all night?” he sharply inquired.

“Wait! wait!” murmured Bub, his voice trembling with excitement. “Great Scott! Here they come!”

“Who d’ye mean by ‘they’?” hoarsely cried Abner, throwing forward his rifle and fingering the lever nervously.

“It’s Stanley, and he’s running like mad!” shouted Bub, sliding down the trunk with reckless haste. “And a quarter of a mile behind him is Big Nick, his face covered with something like blood.”

“Are they aiming this way?” choked Abner, tearing down a slope.

“Yes,” replied Bub, “but we’d best separate so as to bring them between us. I’ll branch off to the right.” Suiting his action to the word Bub turned at right angles and put several rods between himself and Abner before continuing his onward flight.

Then both were horrified to hear the half-breed’s rifle explode thrice with venomous sharpness.

“The dirty hound is shooting at him,” wailed Abner, straining to increase his already swift gait. “O if he should hit him when we are so near. Shoot, Bub! Shoot! Let him have it the first sight ye git of him, and aim to kill!” yelled Abner, his voice sinking into a snarling sound as he plunged onward and found no elevation from which he could command a view of the race.

His mouth relaxed as Bub’s rifle rang out, for he knew the youth had caught a glimpse of the enemy. Then he came to a hillock, spruce covered, and for the first time was able to take in the situation at the front.

Stanley was running through a fringe of hard wood growth, While the half-breed perilously near was dodging from side to side to get a line on him. Stanley seemed to appreciate the other’s purpose, for he repeatedly leaped aside from a straight course, seeking to put as many trees between him and Nick as possible. The half-breed apparently had paid no attention to Bub’s shot, or else in his lust to kill had not heard it.

“Dodge into the spruce!” yelled Abner, forgetting that the fugitive could not be expected to hear.

But if he could not reach Stanley with his warning he could convey a message to Big Nick. Taking deliberate aim at the bobbing figure he pulled the trigger. Almost at that moment the half-breed half stumbled and this mishap doubtless saved his life. As it was the bullet grazed his head, and with the quickness of a fox he dropped from view. Stanley raced on, now grasping the situation.

A puff of smoke told of Nick’s hiding place as he made one last attempt to reap his vengeance. Instantly Bub’s rifle spit out a round of shots, coming so rapidly that the first explosion seemed to blend with the last. At the same moment Abner exhausted his magazine with similar rapidity, and there was no further response from the common target.

Only pausing to reload Abner and Bub advanced to intercept Stanley. When the latter broke through the last barrier and beheld them, a smile spread over his distorted features and he crumpled up over a fallen tree trunk.

“Loosen his shirt and fan him,” commanded Abner. “I’ll go on and cruise for the Injun. Stay here till I come back.”

For several moments Stanley remained with his eyes closed, breathing spasmodically. Then he gasped, “Much obliged, old man. I was about played out.”

“Don’t talk. Just breathe,” directed Bub, his eyes moist with pity. “When Abner gets back you can tell us all about it. But till then take it easy. And, my son, I think you’ll agree that we’ve had several miles of real old fashioned excitement.”

Stanley nodded his head and tried to grin, but could not muster quite enough energy. Neither spoke until nearly an hour had passed, when a step was heard in the immediate front.

“Who is it?” cried Bub, bending forward, his rifle half raised.

“Abner! Don’t shoot,” cried the old man.

“All right, Mister Whitten. Advance and give the countersign,” humorously replied Bub.

“Where’s our friend?” murmured Stanley.

“Ye ought not to have any friends,” complained Abner. “What in sin possessed ye to keep in that hard wood growth fer? Didn’t ye know it was giving Nick a fine bead on ye, with the leaves only half out? Why didn’t ye dig into the spruce? I vum! If I’d know’d ye was so tarnation foolish I’d just kept on to the warden’s and e’t my supper. As fer Big Nick, I couldn’t find him.”

Stanley rose on his elbow and silently shook the old man’s hand, his eyes beaming his thanks.

“Ye can’t soft soap me that way,” gruffly informed Abner, still retaining his hand. “Bub knows I told him that I’d bet ye wouldn’t have enough sense to stay hid, but would come a mooning along and trying to git killed. Bub will remember what I said. I said ye’d be up to just such a fool trick and that we’d better camp with the warden, git our sleep and fodder and take our time to-morrer in coming back here fer the remains. Bub will—”

“But Bub doesn’t,” grinned that individual. “Why! Stanley, he cleared eighteen feet at every jump in hiking back here to find you.”

“Wal, we both was a-coming some,” grinned Abner, now openly patting Stanley’s hand. “'But, tell us, younker, how the varmint came to jump ye? If I’d thought he was to find ye I’d stuck along and took a chance.”

Stanley then recited the incidents of his slumber and awakening and of his terror in finding Nick’s moccasins near his face.

“Then I remembered how you threw a stone to one side and got him to shoot in the direction of the sound and I did the same trick with my pencil. The minute he fired I let out a yell—and I was awfully scared I am free to admit—and letting out a horrible yell I dashed at him and struck him over the head with the club. It seemed a cold-blooded thing to do, but it was that or nothing. He went back into the bushes as if he’d been hit with an axe, but I didn’t have sense enough to try for his rifle. I think I must have been a bit crazy, for the next thing I know I was running like mad trying to stop screaming. I don’t know how long or how far I raced before realizing what was the matter. Once I got control of myself I proceeded with more caution. But I was about to drop when he fired the last time. That spurred me on. Then came a shot as I thought in front—”

“That was mine. I saw the bushes wriggle and let drive to take up his attention,” proudly informed Bub.

“Well, I hardly dared hope it was either of you. I thought my ears must be playing tricks on me. Anyway, I couldn’t have gone many rods farther when Abner and you gave the grand fusillade. That spurred me up wonderfully.”

“And ye had the nerve to clash with Nick and clout him with the club!” admired Abner, now holding Stanley’s trembling hand in both of his. “O why should a half-breed’s skull be so tough, and why didn’t ye finish him! And to think ye dared jump him! To think ye had brains enough to remember the decoy trick and draw his fire! And to think ye realized it was all necessary before lamming him! Red, I’m proud of ye.”

“But, Mr. Whitten,” remonstrated Stanley, reddening beyond the tinge caused by his exertions; “I did nothing except what I was forced to do. I deserve no credit. I was desperate because I was cornered. I had to do it.”

“No, ye didn’t,” denied Abner, loudly and shaking his head emphatically. “If ye’d been like most city chaps ye’d tried to steal away and got plunked, or ye ’d remained quiet till he found ye. But when ye took him by surprise ye had a second’s advantage. And let me tell ye, younker, it takes a mighty smart woodsman to catch Big Nick a-napping. Noisy Charlie could do it, mebbe, but I couldn’t. Ye had to be as silent as a angleworm in gitting to yer feet, else he’d catched ye, sure. Guess Nick can hear a watch tick a mile.”

“Then he’ll hear his head ring a good long time,” exulted Bub. “His face was covered with blood. You must have hit him an awful crack.”

“Now it’s all over I feel sort of tired,” admitted Abner. “Seems if I hadn’t ate fer a week or slept fer two. Let’s git a little nearer to the ridge and camp fer the night.”

“I can go up to the warden’s and fetch down some food,” volunteered Bub.

“No, sirree!” refused Abner. “Ye’ve made that trip once to-day in record breaking time. We’ll let grub go till to-morrer.”

But to their great joy this proposed fasting was not necessary. For when they neared the mountain they were met by the warden, carrying two baskets of provisions.

“Bub, ye’ve met Professer Carlton, the warden. Professer, this younker is Stanley Malcolm, a city chap, who is trying his best to git killed in the woods.”

The professor warmly shook Stanley by the hand, smiling quizzically at Abner’s brusque introduction. “I feared you would be unable to make my home,” he explained, “and so I’ve taken the liberty to bring down some food.”

“Take all those liberties ye want to so far as I’m consarned, Professer,” earnestly entreated Abner, tearing the coverings from the baskets. “Wal, by the jumping jing!”

“Nothing wrong, I trust,” cried the professor, alarmed at the outcry.

“Nothing wrong,” bellowed Abner, presenting a radiant face. “Why, Red! Why, Bub! Look here!” And he exposed the contents to view. “In all my dreams I never pictered anything better’n a slice of salt pork and a crust of bread. And here, as I live, is fresh biscuit, real ham, pertaters cooked as I never believed they was cooked outside of heaven, and red stuff in jars—”

“That’s jelly,” laughed the professor, winking at the boys. “My daughter had just finished a baking and was able to supply the biscuit. She added the jelly for the invalid. There is some coffee and a coffee-pot.”

“Prob’ly ye’ve had yer supper,” sounded Abner, eying the provisions wolfishly.

“I have and can not partake with you,” said the professor.

“All right; I know ye won’t mind if we pitch in right away,” said Abner, his tone much relieved as he found the food was to be shared by three rather than four.

“And here’s pickles and cheese and a pie,” gasped Bub, exploring the other basket.

“And cake and a whole roast chicken,” added Stanley in amazement. “Why, Professor Carlton, you and your daughter must have thought there were a dozen starving men instead of but three, and surely you must have robbed yourself.”

“Not a bit of it,” assured the professor. “Now I want to see you eat. One of you start a blaze for the coffee and I’ll fetch a pot of water from the spring nearby.”

“I’ll fetch ye in a deer just as soon as I git ‘my nerves settled,” declared Abner, drawing a hamper towards him.

“That will be next fall when the law is off,” reminded the professor.

Abner sniffed disdainfully. “I believe in game laws,” he said, “but if a deer chases me more’n a couple of miles in the spring, a-trying to bite me, why, I shoot in self-defense. And once the deer is shot there’s no reason why the neighbors shouldn’t have a bit of vension.”

“I’m afraid you woodsmen are often attacked by deer,” gravely said the professor.

“Wal, I’ll say this. The same deer never chased me twice,” returned Abner.

“Do you return home to-night?” asked Stanley, much interested in this new acquaintance, who had the polished manners of a true gentleman and the head of a scholar.

“Yes; it’s a stiff, long climb, but my daughter will be waiting,” replied the professor. Then reading the youth’s thoughts he suggested, “But why can’t you all make it, after you’ve refreshed yourselves? My daughter will prepare you an appetizing breakfast.”

“I vum! I’d like to, but I’m too tired,” said Abner.

“I believe she intends to have buckwheat cakes and maple syrup,” mused the professor.

“What!” cried Abner, half rising. “Of course we’ll go. No need of loafing around here. I’d been up there to pay my respects long ago if it wan’t fer these bothersome younkers.”

The professor and the youths smiled broadly at the way in which Abner changed his mind under the influence of promised cakes and syrup, but Bub with a practical eye reminded, “Let’s not forget to send out an alarm about Big Nick.”

“Yes; I’ll telephone the minute we get home,” promised the professor. “His setting the fire is a serious offense in itself; his attempt at cold-blooded murder must be punished, of course. None of you are safe so long as he is at liberty.”

“Do you expect he’ll be picked up?” asked Stanley.

The professor shook his head and regretted, “I am sorry to say I do not believe he will be captured unless it is by chance; that is, not by the wardens. We have to keep a close watch for fires. Only a few are blessed as I am with the company of a daughter, or with any company at all. We are stationed far apart and the half-breed can range at pleasure in and among the mountains without being disturbed. Even if he were seen and pursued he could easily escape. I believe he will make for the north, where he will be less apt to meet either fire or game-warden. And if he does meet one of either the warden might hesitate to attempt his capture unless he caught him at a disadvantage, as to try and fail would mean the warden’s death.”

“That’s so,” sorrowfully agreed Abner; “but let me tell ye something. I’m going to git Big Nick before I quit these woods. Now, let’s eat.”