Three Young Ranchmen/Chapter 25

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CHAPTER XXV.


Fighting a Wolverine


"I think we had better make a fire," suggested Allen, after the horses had been tied up in a place that was comparatively dry.

"Right ye air, Allen," returned Watson. "Pervidin' we can find some firewood."

"Here is a tree branch," said Noel, pointing it out in a dark corner of the cavern. "But we may have some trouble in breaking it up."

"Ho! ho!" laughed Watson. "It's easy ter see ye ain't very strong. We'll break thet up in a jiffy; eh, Slavin?"

"What do ye want?" growled the prisoner.

"Want ye ter help break up some firewood."

"Me?"

"Persackly, Slavin. Reckon as how ye want ter git as warm as anybody. Wall, ye kin start in by doin' some work."

Slavin demurred but his protest was unavailing and soon he and Watson were breaking up the large part of the tree branch, Noel looking on in wonder and Allen assisting on the smaller portions.

"My, but you are strong," said Noel, in open admiration. "I'd give a good deal for your muscles."

"Ye'll get the same, if ye stay out hyer long enough," answered Watson. "It's the mountain air as does it."

"Oh, come, Watson, you know you are extra strong," put in Allen. "Why, he can do some wonderful things when he wants to." To this Watson made no reply, but the grin on his face showed that he appreciated the compliment.

Soon they had a roaring fire, which threw grotesque shadows on the cavern walls. All drew closer to enjoy the warmth, and they prepared a meal to which even Slavin did full justice.

They questioned the prisoner closely and he said he felt certain he was on the right trail. But he was shy about saying more. He was wondering if the coming night would offer any opportunity of escaping.

"I'll get away if I can," he thought. "And if so I must lose no time in warning Mangle and Nodley. If I don't they'll be running into a trap, and my share of that stolen money will be lost."

After the meal Allen and Watson remained near the entrance to the cave, to talk over the situation and speculate upon what the day following would bring forth.

Slavin wanted to join them, but Allen ordered him back.

"You go back to the fire," he said. "If you want to go to sleep you may do so."

"Don't trust me even yet, do ye?" muttered the prisoner.

"I do not."

"Ye're rather hard on a chap wot is trying ter do ye a good turn."

"It remains to be seen if it is a good turn or not, Slavin. You may be putting up a job on us."

"No, I swear it's all right, Winthrop. Ye'll find everything jest as I told ye."

"Perhaps. But you go back to the fire," and Slavin went back, but with a look on his face that rivaled the black clouds in the heavens outside.

Soon the prisoner was curled up close to the fire and he closed his eyes as if in slumber, but he kept as wide awake as before.

While Allen and Watson were talking at the entrance to the cavern, Noel, out of idle curiosity, procured a torch from the camp fire and went on a tour of observation.

The cavern proved to be a narrow and rambling affair, being nothing more or less than a split in the mountain side. The floor was uneven and back from the entrance arose in a series of rough steps.

Up these steps climbed the young man until he had gained a position fully fifty feet above the mouth of the cavern.

At a great distance he heard the falling of water, as the rain swept over some rocks at a rear entrance to the cavern.

Curious to see where the cavern led to he continued his climbing until the light of the camp fire was left far behind.

His torch was burning low but he whirled it into a blaze and went on once more.

Occasionally he slipped, for the rocks were now wet, but this did not daunt him.

At last he reached a spot where the water was flowing in a miniature waterfall. There was an opening over his head but it was out of reach.

"This must be a pretty place in the daylight," he mused. "What grand scenery on every hand throughout this State!"

Of a sudden more than the usual amount of water came down and some of it hit the torch, extinguishing it instantly.

"Confound the luck," he murmured, and felt in his pocket for a match.

While he was searching for the article, he heard a strange noise overhead, close to the waterfall.

He listened and the noise was followed by the unmistakable growl of a wild beast.

A wolverine had strayed close to the waterfall and had slipped on the rocks to a shelf below.

For a few seconds the ferocious beast clung to the ledge, then slipped again and landed at Noel's feet!

The wolverine is one of the most ferocious beasts to be met with anywhere. It is not unlike the bear in general make-up, but has a more pointed head and a bushy tail. It is said that, generally speaking, a wolverine will not eat anything else if it can get meat.

As soon as the wolverine smelled the presence of a human being he let out a growl that seemed to strike to Noel's very backbone.

Letting the match he had pulled from his pocket drop, the young man felt for his pistol and brought forth the weapon with all possible speed.

Bang! The weapon was discharged and the bullet clipped the wolverine on the left side of the head. Then with a snarl that was almost a scream, the ferocious animal hurled itself upon Noel.

"Help! help!" cried the young man.

He felt that he was in an exceedingly perilous position and that assistance was absolutely necessary. In the darkness he thought he had been attacked by a mountain bear.

The wolverine managed to reach his shoulder, but Noel made a quick twist and freed himself. Then the young man fired a second shot.

The wolverine was now hit in the side, but the wound was far from fatal or even serious, and it only made the creature scream louder. With blazing eyes and gleaming teeth, it crouched low and prepared to spring for Noel's throat.

The young man knew that almost all wild beasts are fearful of fire but he did not know how the beast before him regarded water. Yet as he fired a third shot he stepped close up to the rocks, so that the water from the fall might pour over his person.

The third report echoed throughout the cavern as loudly as had the others, while the bullet flew a foot over the wolverine's head. Then the savage beast made a second leap at Noel and caught the young man by the arm. The weight of the animal made Noel lose his balance, and man and wolverine rolled over on the cavern floor together.