The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 18

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

THE TWO SMOKES


For the second time in his life Stanley experienced the sensation of being pursued by an implacable foe. To Bub all was well as long as he could maintain his lead; not so for his companion. The very knowledge that the cool, mysterious depths of the forest contained a man grimly following his trail unnerved the city bred youth in a degree, and although he believed Big Nick could not discover their escape for some time, yet he repeatedly glanced over his shoulder as if expecting to see the evil face. He began to appreciate how the rabbit must have felt when chased by the lynx.

Bub quickly understood his friend’s mental plight and seizing him by the shoulder he whirled him about and drew him down on to a decayed log.

“What is it?” asked Stanley in a perturbed voice.

“Nothing; except we will wait here till you get your nerve back,” calmly replied Bub, carefully shaping the handle of his club more to his liking.

“But we are wasting valuable time, precious time,” expostulated Stanley, starting to rise.

“We’re wasting time when you keep peeking back over your shoulder,” said Bub. “We’ll rest till you’re the same Mister Malcolm that had brains enough to hide the strip of beech bark and who was more level-headed than I was when we were tied up in camp. Now, my son, take this to heart: you are just as safe here, now, as that young spruce. Our danger doesn’t commence till Nick learns the truth.”

“But we should use that time in escaping,” protested Stanley.

“Not the way you’ve been escaping,” sharply corrected Bub. “You’re not escaping when you leave a swath of broken bushes, upturned stones, and heavy footprints in every dead log you come to. Look back there for fifteen feet. It looks as if a cyclone had passed here. Why, even a cow could follow us. Now, if you’re going on in that way, we might as well wait here and put up a fight before we’re exhausted.”

“I’ll be more careful,” promised Stanley, humbly.

“You think, then, you are ready to go on in a sane manner?” queried Bub.

Stanley smiled in a sickly fashion, and Bub slowly closed his knife and rose to his feet. “All right; we’ll strike off. A quarter of a mile between us and Nick, after we’ve moved carefully, is better than ten miles of that kind of blazing.” And he pointed in huge disgust at the obvious traces of their flight.

“To begin with,” continued Bub, “we’ll turn at right angles and double back towards Flat-top. Nick will follow us to this point on the run and will take it for granted we were pointed down stream, as we were. After we’ve gone back a half a mile we’ll turn again and go in our original direction, perhaps following the stream quite closely.”

Having learned his little lesson Stanley pressed his lips together firmly and endeavored to imitate his companion’s deliberate mode of traveling. To his relief he soon found the old fear deserting him and it was seldom that he looked back.

Although seeming to proceed aimlessly Bub in reality was exercising all the tricks of his craft, just as he would wish Abner to know he was doing. He bowed low and passed under, not through, obstructing boughs and dry limbs. He stepped over, not on, the decaying logs, and his feet were careful not to leave a stone with the moss side downward. When encountering a small dead pool he took great care to skirt it at a sufficient distance to leave no footprints. After an hour of this kind of work he threw himself on a carpet of pine needles for a brief rest.

“How much farther do we go in this direction?” inquired Stanley.

“Only a short way. Just as soon as we clear this growth and find some hard wood I’ll climb a tree and get our bearings more exactly. Mister Nick will be puzzled, I opine, to decide where we vanished to.”

“He may think we made a broad trail purposely,” suggested Stanley.

“I hope so; he’ll be giving us credit for more brains than we possess,” grinned Bub. “No matter what he thinks it won’t help him any when it comes to picking up our trail.”

Emerging from the black growth Bub quickly climbed a large beech and studied the country for fully a minute in silence. When he descended he briskly announced, “No smoke anywhere. I’ve come a bit farther north than I had intended to, but not enough to make any great difference. We’re quite near the river. In fact, I’m striking it too high up. If I thought there was any chance of finding a rifle in the scoundrels’ camp by the river I’d rick cruising over there and making a try.”

“They wouldn’t leave their guns behind,” opposed Stanley, who had no desire to encounter the villains.

As they were leaving the hard wood growth both experienced a fright when a flying squirrel passed over their heads in gliding from a maple to a stunted oak.

Bub looked sheepish as he apologized, “It’s no wonder it scared you, but I ought not to have budged an inch. Guess I jumped three feet.”

“I could look over your head, so I must have jumped higher,” consoled Stanley. “The squirrel reminds me I haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday noon. I’m faint.”

Bub puckered his brows thoughtfully and admitted, “I feel empty under the belt, too. Wonder if you could manage to eat raw partridge?”

“No, no,” protested Stanley, making a face.

“Then you can stand it a while longer. A man isn’t starving till he can eat raw meat.”

“I could eat with a relish a whole partridge if we had it and it was cooked,” insisted Stanley.

“Most any man could,” smiled Bub. “Perhaps we could run the risk of a small blaze at that. I could pick out some sticks that would make practically no smoke. Now, keep quiet and we’ll see if we don’t run across a booby.” And he fingered his club eagerly.

Not many rods had been passed before Bub suddenly let his club fly and then darted after it with a low cry of triumph. He had knocked over a fine cock and by the time Stanley joined him he was finishing cleaning the bird.

“Now for a blaze, a very small one,” he rejoiced. “Hi! not the pine. I’ve told you once that pine is a smoker. Let me do it while you cut some green sticks, alders will do, for toasting forks.”

Under his careful manipulation a small bed of coals soon awaited their game. By the aid of several rocks he arranged the sticks so as to allow the divided bird to broil over the coals.

“We could hold them easier and cook the meat better,” criticised Stanley.

“We could if we were to be here,” agreed Bub. “But now that dinner is cooking we’ll move back into the woods and hide up. Then if any of the blood-thirsty rascals should creep up to the fire they wouldn’t find us at home. That clump of cedar bushes will do, only be careful and not dig up the ground with your boots when you crawl under.”

To Stanley’s impatient mind it seemed that they had waited many minutes before Bub gave the signal to emerge. “You stay here,” he whispered and I’ll fetch the dinner. Then we can eat as we walk along.”

In a short time Bub was back, triumphantly carrying the half-cooked partridge on a piece of birch bark. “Sorry we haven’t any napkins,” whimsically apologized the cook.

“If I had one I’d eat it,” declared Stanley. “Please give me my share.”

“There you are, my son, only don’t bolt your victuals,” cautioned Bub.

Stanley examined his portion with his nose wrinkling in disgust. “Why, it’s covered with ashes,” he complained. “And part of it isn’t cooked at all.”

“It is rather rare in spots,” admitted Bub, taking a mouthful. “But it will keep us alive for a while. By this time to-morrow you’d be glad to eat the whole bird, feathers and all. Why don’t you try? Things are never as bad as they look.”

“This is; it’s worse,” grimaced Stanley, nibbling at a charred morsel. “Why! Bub, it doesn’t taste like the other partridge. Are you sure it isn’t some poisonous bird?”

Bub chuckled heartily. “It’s because it isn’t seasoned. It is fresh, I’ll confess. If we had a little salt it would help it along wonderfully.”

“I can’t eat any of it,” decided Stanley, about to toss it away.

“Yes, you can,” drawled Bub. “Think I‘m going to kill game out of season, build a fire and run the risk of being murdered only to have you find fault with my cooking? Eat, my son. ”

Stanley obeyed, smiling faintly, and found that while the fowl was fresh it was not impossible as food and before he knew it he had devoured all the meat that even hinted at being cooked.

“If we’re at liberty by nightfall I’ll broil you a squirrel. It’ll go better,” encouraged Bub.

“Or we might catch some fish,” eagerly added Stanley.

“You’re planning out a regular hotel dinner,” condemned Bub. “Besides, a fresh water fish, with no seasoning, is about the freshest thing you ever tackled. It’s worse than partridge, for the bird lives on buds and the like and are sort of gamy even when eaten without salt. But a fish is just wishywashy. There isn’t any expression to unseasoned fish.”

More tree climbing now followed, Bub examining the direction of their camp as well as the ground ahead. “Not that I expect to see any signs of Nick,” he explained, “but there might be one chance in a thousand that I could spy him on a ledge or in a tree.”

“Will he climb trees?” cried Stanley.

“I never patented the idea,” grinned Bub. “You must realize, my son, that by this time Mister Nick is very busy trying to find us.”

“In other words we are again in the zone of danger,” sighed Stanley.

“Yes, if you mean by that we are being hunted,” replied Bub. Then in deep admiration, “My, but I wish I could talk as you do, Stan. An education is a wonderful thing.”

“You have improved a million per cent already,” encouraged Stanley, speaking most sincerely.

“Do you really think so?” eagerly pressed Bub.

“I know so,” returned Stanley, firmly. “You are as well educated as I am—better. You had certain loose habits of speech because you have lived with careless men. But you have no idea how you have dropped that habit. By the time we reach the mills you’ll be giving me pointers.”

Bub scornfully refuted this, but was immensely pleased, nevertheless. The ground now began to descend and Bub’s face took on a worried look. “I hate to strike a swamp, or even moderate low land,” he explained as he caught Stanley’s inquiring eyes. “At this time of the year it will be wet and leave a trail like an open book. Wait, I’ll climb a tree and see if there’s a way around it.”

He studied both sides of their course long and earnestly, but was compelled to announce: “The swamp runs from the river far inland. If not for meeting Nick we could beat back and go around it on the ridge. But that is too much of a risk and we must chance it straight ahead.”

“We could take to the river. We have the canoe,” reminded Stanley.

“Yes, if we wanted to escape from this region. But we’re out to find Abner,” said Bub.

“Never for a moment did I think of leaving here till we had found him,” warmly declared Stanley. “I thought we might take to the canoe and drop down below the swamp.”

Bub shook his head. “No go,” he discouraged. “They’d pick us off inside of a mile after we'd landed, for they’re hugging the shore to keep Abner inland. Our only chance with the canoe would be to wait for night and try to shoot down in the darkness. Chances are we’d be spilled at that.”

Lack of food and loss of sleep, together with their steady flight through the woods, was now beginning to tell painfully on both and mid-day found each little inclined to talk and walking doggedly.

At last Stanley gave a low cry of relief and threw himself on his face at the edge of the swamp.

“Hi, what are you up to?” demanded Bub, in a low voice. And he pulled his companion back.

“I want a drink. I’m all parched up,” said Stanley. “For the last few hours all I could think of was springs of clear cold water.”

“That’s nothing,” sniffed Bub. “I’ve been doing the same thing, only I thought of it in rivers. But you mustn’t drink this.”

“Is it poison?” asked Stanley, his face falling.

“Not poison,” returned Bub. “The waters in Maine are not poison, not any of them. But this isn’t what you’d call wholesome. It wouldn’t kill you, but it might make you sick. Of course there isn’t as much chance for that as there is later in the season, but we’d better drink of the best so long as we can.”

“But where is the best?” eagerly inquired Stanley, still eying the silent pool lovingly.

“Right here, after I’ve put in my filter plant,” explained Bub, beginning to dig a hole near the swamp.

“A well, eh?” mused Stanley. “Will you have time to finish it?”

“It’ll be done in a minute. Here, take the stick and go at it. Then I’ll spell you. I won’t try to polish it off as I would if we were to stop here.”

Their united efforts soon resulted in quite an excavation and Stanley was surprised to see it fill with water. Only the water was muddy; and he observed, “That’s worse than the other. I’d rather drink from this little stream that’s trickling away.”

“That little stream is filling our well,” replied Bub. “The original water won’t kill you, but it would be like drinking a menagerie. Now we’ll bail this out.” And using his hat he soon emptied his small cistern.

Stanley was again surprised to observe the hole fill up with much clearer water, water that looked inviting. And without waiting for it to settle he leaned over and drank deeply.

“The first thing about Maine water,” informed Bub, after refreshing himself, “is that it’s cool. That helps a lot. And I never heard of any spring or stream up here that by nature is dangerous to drink. Of course a river is filled with typhoid fever germs where city sewers empty into it, but any stream that’s not been poisoned by man will never poison man in this state. Now, let’s be going.”

Nearly two hours were consumed in crossing the swamp, the youths often floundering up to their waists. Bub evidenced a fear of striking a deep hole and warned Stanley they must keep within helping distance of each other. Stanley replied with stories of quicksands he had read and Bub ’s apprehension was increased to a high pitch before firmer footing announced they were leaving the mud and muck.

“Ain’t we a sight?” puffed Bub, as he halted and scraped the mire from his legs.

“I’ll wait till my mud dries,” shrewdly decided Stanley. “Then it will come off easier. I guess Big Nick could follow that part of our trail all right.”

“It will close up as smooth as ever in a short time,” said Bub. “Now, we’ll enjoy decent going.”

“I’m thirsty, awfully thirsty,” muttered Stanley. “But I don’t want to delay long enough to dig another well.”

“We won’t have to,” cheered Bub. “Up there I see an Indian cucumber plant that’ll answer nicely.” And he pointed ahead into the woods.

Stanley curiously examined the slender stem, some two feet in height and girdled with leaves surmounted by more leaves and blue berries.

“See, it grows horizontally,” said Bub, pulling it up. “Try it.” Stanley did so eagerly and found it deliciously cooling. Bub found several more and before proceeding they had quenched their thirst.

“You can always find it in low woods,” reminded Bub. “You fix it up with salt and pepper and serve it with trout and it’s better than the real cucumber for me.”

“What a wonderful place is the wood,” murmured Stanley. “And what a wonderful thing is nature. I never realized until I came to Maine that one could get food in the wilderness unless he shot or caught it.”

“In other words you never stopped to realize that everything we eat and wear springs from nature,” smiled Bub. “That’s because you’ve lived in the city, where everything you see is artificial. Your druggist sells you some medicine, which may be nothing more or less than this little Canadian snake root, which finds a ready market.” And he pulled up a small plant and held it at arm’s length. “Back there at the swamp we made our way through the northern scouring rush, those three and four-footers you got so impatient with. A city chap coming up here to camp out would probably bring along soaps and scouring powders, not knowing that that rush is one of the best scourers and polishers you can find or buy. Why Stanley, the woods and fields are just filled with plants and herbs that will cure you of sickness or keep you from starving. We used beech leaves for your sprain after using the professor’s liniment. The leaves alone would have fixed you all right. Now say you had inflammation; then we’d used that plant over there. It’s nothing but common mullen, and you can always find it in an open spot. Noisy Charlie could doctor you for almost any illness just from what he knows of plants.”

“I take off my hat to the Maine woods,” humbly declared Stanley. “Instead of being a play-ground, or a lumber center I can now appreciate they are the backbone of the state. Everything depends upon them; water, food and clothing. But while I’ve been day-dreaming over this endless fairy-book you’ve been opening for me I’m reminded now to ask, What of Nick?”

Bub frowned. “It’s time I was thinking of him,” he admitted. “Wait till I shin up this tree. I can get a good look at our back trail.”

Swarming up the trunk he paused but a second before he quickly slid back again. “I saw something move the rushes on the edge of the swamp,” he whispered, his eyes suddenly dilating. “Let’s leg it.”

“Now, wait a bit, Mr. Thomas,” calmly commanded Stanley. “We’ll leg it, as you so elegantly put it, only after we’ve decided where we are going and why we are going. Be calm, my son, and get back your nerve before rushing away.”

“It’s Nick, I know it is,” hurriedly whispered Bub, for some strange reason changing places with Stanley and now becoming the one to be calmed and encouraged. “He’ll kill both of us.”

“Possibly,” agreed Stanley, surprised at himself as he failed to find any symptoms of nervousness in his system. “But he won’t bag us while we are madly dashing in line with his gun. We’ll have something to say about dying.” Then sharply, “Come, get yourself together. Brace up!”

“Stanley, you’re the better man of the two, even in the woods,” earnestly declared Bub, squaring his shoulders and setting his jaw. “You were nervous because it was new to you. You conquered that feeling. It was old to me and I pitied you; then I turn around and give way to it. I’m worse than a coward.”

“Honestly, Bub, I believe that if I’d started in to show the white feather you’d have been as you were this morning,” soothed Stanley. “When one’s down the other is up, it seems.”

“I had no business to lose my nerve,” bitterly cried Bub. “Come, let’s be moving. We’ll have to double to the east and leave no trail. If he picks up the traces where we quit the swamp he’ll believe we are striking dead ahead.”

The afternoon sun was now casting long shadows across every opening while the warm rays occasionally caressed their backs as they silently fled before it. Tattling crows overhead cawed derisively at the two bowed figures and seemed to take a malicious delight in keeping pace with them and calling out to other wild kin that here were fugitives.

“Big Nick will know where we are because of those blamed crows,” growled Stanley.

Bub halted and sounded the note of the owl and the nuisance faded away, only the sullen flapping of their wings indicating their course.

“If you could only drive all enemies away as easily,” panted Stanley.

“Whew! Let’s rest,” said Bub, wiping the sweat from his brow. “If I’d known I was to be chased all over northwestern Maine by murderers I’d asked Hatton to raise my pay two dollars a week. I think it’s worth it.” And he grinned lamely.

“How much daylight will we have?” anxiously asked Stanley.

“In the woods here it will get dark early. Out of the woods we’d have the sun till about seven thirty-three. Then we have the moon till past midnight.”

“Do we travel, or do we camp?”

“We’ll take one more try from a tree top for the campfire of those scoundrels,” slowly decided Bub. “Then we might as well rest up and cook some boobies. We can’t get through to-morrow without food. And this chasing through the woods doesn’t help us to find Abner.”

“I don’t see as we can stand much chance of finding him unless he’s captured and his captors’ smoke tells where he is,” pondered Stanley.

Bub nodded an affirmation and slouching his hat over his tired eyes staggered forward. As the black growth was interrupted by a patch of budding red maples he turned and frankly confessed, “I’m ashamed to say it; but I’m that tuckered I wish you’d do the climbing. All you have to do is to shin up to the branches, then get up as far as they’ll hold you and sweep the horizon, first for a smoke, then for mountains. We’ve heard no guns and I hardly think Abner has been caught.”

“He had no food and if Big Nick got on his trail he would have no chance to eat or drink,” reminded Stanley. “I fear he’s too old to last out against Nick. Anyway, I’ll do the climbing.”

Arriving at the top Stanley first examined the back trail, despite Bub’s warning to look first for a smoke. He was thrown into a tumult to notice a rustling in the top of a maple a few rods back, and then sheepishly realized it was nothing but the wind.

Turning his eyes to the west he found that the low hanging sun blinded him till he learned the trick of properly shading his eyes.

“I can see nothing,” he called down to Bub.

“Then descend,” directed Bub.

“Hold! As I live, I can make out a thin streamer of smoke!”

“Point in which direction,” cried Bub.

“Directly in the path of the setting sun,” informed Stanley. “That is why I did not make it out at first.”

“Hurry, hurry. We must make for it and learn the true situation,” urged Bub.

“Why, Bub, I can make out two streamers of smoke, very near together, yet distinct. Ah! one is dying out now. Now there is only one.”

“Hump yourself, Stan! They’ve caught Abner!” yelled Bub, regardless of any danger in the rear. “They’ve nailed him and he’s managed to start a blaze near their campfire, hoping we’d see it. It’s the two smokes, meaning he’s in trouble. They caught him at it and put out his smoke. But they were not quite quick enough. Now, my son, if ever you hustled and acted the part of a woodsman now is the time for you to distinguish yourself.”

“Take the lead,” grimly directed Stanley, tightening his belt to the last notch. “You’ll find me at your heels. We’ll rescue Abner, or give ourselves up as prisoners.”