XI. The Old Hunter
 

I ran till I got a stitch in my side, and then slowed down to a dog-trot. The one thing to do was to get a long way ahead of my pursuers, for surely at the outset they would stick like hounds to my trail.

A mile or more below the gorge I took to the stream and waded. It was slippery, dangerous work, for the current tore about my legs and threatened to upset me. After a little I crossed to the left bank. Here the slope of the canyon was thick with grass that hid my tracks. It was a long climb up to the level. Upon reaching it I dropped, exhausted.

"I've--given them--the slip," I panted, exultantly. . . . "But--now what?"

It struck me that now I was free, I had only jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire. Hurriedly I examined my Winchester. The magazine contained ten cartridges. What luck that Stockton had neglected to unload it! This made things look better. I had salt and pepper, a knife, and matches-- thanks to the little leather case--and so I could live in the woods.

It was too late for regrets. I might have freed Dick somehow or even held the men at bay, but I had thought only of escape. The lack of nerve and judgment stung me. Then I was bitter over losing my mustang and outfit.

But on thinking it all over, I concluded that I ought to be thankful for things as they were. I was free, with a whole skin. That climb out of the gorge had been no small risk. How those bullets had whistled and hissed!

"I'm pretty lucky," I muttered. "Now to get good and clear of this vicinity. They'll ride down the trail after me. Better go over this ridge into the next canyon and strike down that. I must go down. But how far? What must I strike for?"

I took a long look at the canyon. In places the stream showed, also the trail; then there were open patches, but I saw no horses or men. With a grim certainty that I should be lost in a very little while, I turned into the cool, dark forest.

Every stone and log, every bit of hard ground in my path, served to help hide my trail. Herky-Jerky very likely had the cowboy's skill at finding tracks, but I left few traces of my presence on that long slope. Only an Indian or a hound could have trailed me. The timber was small and rough brush grew everywhere. Presently I saw light ahead, and I came to an open space. It was a wide swath in the forest. At once I recognized the path of an avalanche. It sloped up clean and bare to the gray cliffs far above. Below was a great mass of trees and rocks, all tangled in black splintered ruin. I pushed on across the path, into the forest, and up and down the hollows. The sun had gone down behind the mountain, and the shadows were gathering when I came to another large canyon. It looked so much like the first that I feared I had been travelling in a circle. But this one seemed wider, deeper, and there was no roar of rushing water.

It was time to think of making camp, and so I hurried down the slope. At the bottom I found a small brook winding among boulders and ledges of rock. The far side of this canyon was steep and craggy. Soon I discovered a place where I thought it would be safe to build a fire. My clothes were wet, and the air had grown keen and cold. Gathering a store of wood, I made my fire in a niche. For a bed I cut some sweet-scented pine boughs (I thought they must be from a balsam-tree), and these I laid close up in a rocky corner. Thus I had the fire between me and the opening, and with plenty of wood to burn I did not fear visits from bears or lions. At last I lay down, dry and warm indeed, but very tired and hungry.

Darkness closed in upon me. I saw a few stars, heard the cheery crackle of my fire, and then I fell asleep. Twice in the night I awakened cold, but by putting on more firewood I was soon comfortable again.

When I awoke the sun was shining brightly into my rocky bedchamber. The fire had died out completely, there was frost on the stones. To build up another fire and to bathe my face in the ice-water of the brook were my first tasks. The air was sweet; it seemed to freeze as I breathed, and was a bracing tonic. I was tingling all over, and as hungry as a starved wolf.

I set forth on a hunt for game. Even if the sound of a shot betrayed my whereabouts I should have to abide by it, for I had to eat. Stepping softly along, I glanced about me with sharp eyes. Deer trails were thick. The bottom of this canyon was very wide, and grew wider as I proceeded. Then the pines once more became large and thrifty. I judged I had come down the mountain, perhaps a couple of thousand feet below the camp in the gorge. I flushed many of the big blue grouse, and I saw numerous coyotes, a fox, and a large brown beast which moved swiftly into a thicket. It was enough to make my heart rise in my throat. To dream of hunting bears was something vastly different from meeting one in a lonely canyon.

Just after this I saw a herd of deer. They were a good way off. I began to slip from tree to tree, and drew closer. Presently I came to a little hollow with a thick, short patch of underbrush growing on the opposite side. Something crashed in the thicket. Then two beautiful deer ran out. One bounded leisurely up the slope; the other, with long ears erect, stopped to look at me. It was no more than fifty yards away. Trembling with eagerness, I leveled my rifle. I could not get the sight to stay steady on the deer. Even then, with the rifle wobbling in my intense excitement, I thought of how beautiful that wild creature was. Straining every nerve, I drew the sight till it was in line with the gray shape, then fired. The deer leaped down the slope, staggered, and crumpled down in a heap.

I tore through the bushes, and had almost reached the bottom of the hollow when I remembered that a wounded deer was dangerous. So I halted. The gray form was as still as stone. I ventured closer. The deer was dead. My bullet had entered high above the shoulder at the juncture of the neck. Though I had only aimed at him generally, I took a good deal of pride in my first shot at a deer.

Fortunately my pen-knife had a fair-sized blade. With it I decided to cut out part of the deer and carry it back to my camp. Then it occurred to me that I might as well camp where I was. There were several jumbles of rock and a cliff within a stone's-throw of where I stood. Besides, I must get used to making camp wherever I happened to be. Accordingly, I took hold of the deer, and dragged him down the hollow till I came to a leaning slab of rock.

Skinning a deer was, of course, new to me. I haggled the flesh somewhat and cut through the skin often, my knife-blade being much too small for such work. Finally I thought it would be enough for me to cut out the haunches, and then I got down to one haunch. It had bothered me how I was going to sever the joint, but to my great surprise I found there did not seem to be any connection between the bones. The haunch came out easily, and I hung it up on a branch while making a fire.

Herky-Jerky's method of broiling a piece of venison at the end of a stick solved the problem of cooking. Then it was that the little flat flask, full of mixed salt and pepper, rewarded me for the long carrying of it. I was hungry, and I feasted.

By this time the sun shone warm, and the canyon was delightful. I roamed around, sat on sunny stones, and lay in the shade of pines. Deer browsed in the glades. When they winded or saw me they would stand erect, shoot up their long cars, and then leisurely lope away. Coyotes trotted out of thickets and watched me suspiciously. I could have shot several, but deemed it wise to be saving of my ammunition. Once I heard a low drumming. I could not imagine what made it. Then a big blue grouse strutted out of a patch of bushes. He spread his wings and tail and neck feathers, after the fashion of a turkey-gobbler. It was a flap or shake of his wings that produced the drumming. I wondered if he intended, by his actions, to frighten me away from his mate's nest. So I went toward him, and got very close before he flew. I caught sight of his mate in the bushes, and, as I had supposed, she was on a nest. Though wanting to see her eggs or young ones, I resisted the temptation, for I was afraid if I went nearer she might abandon her nest, as some mother birds do.

It did not seem to me that I was lost, yet lost I was. The peaks were not in sight. The canyon widened down the slope, and I was pretty sure that it opened out flat into the great pine forest of Penetier. The only thing that bothered me was the loss of my mustang and outfit; I could not reconcile myself to that. So I wandered about with a strange, full sense of freedom such as I had never before known. What was to be the end of my adventure I could not guess, and I wasted no time worrying over it.

The knowledge I had of forestry I tried to apply. I studied the north and south slopes of the canyon, observing how the trees prospered on the sunny side. Certain saplings of a species unknown to me had been gnawed fully ten feet from the ground. This puzzled me. Squirrels could not have done it, nor rabbits, nor birds. Presently I hit upon the solution. The bark and boughs of this particular sapling were food for deer, and to gnaw so high the deer must have stood upon six or seven feet of snow.

I dug into the soft duff under the pines. This covering of the roots was very thick and deep. I made it out to be composed of pine-needles, leaves, and earth. It was like a sponge. No wonder such covering held the water! I pried bark off dead trees and dug into decayed logs to find the insect enemies of the trees. The open places, where little colonies of pine sprouts grew, seemed generally to be down-slope from the parent trees. It was easy to tell the places where the wind had blown the seeds.

The hours sped by. The shadows of the pines lengthened, the sun set, and the shade deepened in the hollows. Returning to my camp, I cooked my supper and made my bed. When I had laid up a store of firewood it was nearly dark.

With night came the coyotes. The carcass of the deer attracted them, and they approached from all directions. At first it was fascinating to hear one howl far off in the forest, and then to notice the difference in the sound as he came nearer and nearer. The way they barked and snapped out there in the darkness was as wild a thing to hear as any boy could have wished for. It began to be a little too much for me. I kept up a bright fire, and, though not exactly afraid, I had a perch picked out in the nearest tree. Suddenly the coyotes became silent. Then a low, continuous growling, a snapping of twigs, and the unmistakable drag of a heavy body over the ground made my hair stand on end. Gripping my rifle, I listened. I heard the crunch of teeth on bones, then more sounds of something being dragged down the hollow. The coyotes began to bark again, but now far back in the forest.

Some beast had frightened them. What was it? I did not know whether a bear would eat deer flesh,, but I thought not. Perhaps timber-wolves had disturbed the coyotes. But would they run from wolves? It came to me suddenly--a mountain-lion!

I hugged my fire, and sat there, listening with all my ears, imagining every rustle of leaf to be the step of a lion. It was long before the thrills and shivers stopped chasing over me, longer before I could decide to lie down. But after a while the dead quiet of the forest persuaded me that the night was far advanced, and I fell asleep.

The first thing in the morning I took my rifle and went out to where I had left the carcass of the deer. It was gone. It had been dragged away. A dark path on the pine-needles and grass, and small bushes pressed to the ground, plainly marked the trail. But search as I might, I could not find the track of the animal that had dragged off the deer. After following the trail for a few rods, I decided to return to camp and cook breakfast before going any farther. While I was at it I cut many thin slices of venison, and, after roasting them, I stored them away in the capacious pocket of my coat.

My breakfast finished, I again set out to see what had become of the remains of the deer. In two or three places the sharp hoofs had cut lines in the soft earth, and there were tufts of whitish-gray hair elsewhere. A hundred yards or more down the hollow I came to a bare spot where recently there had been a pool of water. Here I found cat tracks as large as my two hands. I had never seen the track of a mountain-lion, but, all the same, I knew that this was the real thing. What an enormous brute he must have been! I cast fearful glances into the surrounding thickets.

It was not needful to travel much farther. Under a bush well hidden in a clump of trees lay what now remained of my deer. A patch of gray hair, a few long bones, a split skull, and two long ears--no more! Even the hide was gone. Perhaps the coyotes had finished the job after the lion had gorged himself, but I did not think so. It seemed to me that coyotes would have scattered the remains. Those two long ears somehow seemed pathetic. I wished for a second that the lion were in range of my rifle.

The lion was driven from my mind when I saw a troop of deer cross a glade below me. I had to fight myself to keep from shooting. The wind blew rather strong in my face, which probably accounted for the deer not winding me.

Then the whip-like crack of a rifle riveted me where I stood. One of the deer fell, and the others bounded away. I saw a tall man stride down the slope and into the glade. He was not like any of the loggers or lumbermen. They were mostly brawny and round-shouldered. This man was lithe, erect; he walked like athletes I had seen. Surely I should find a friend in him, and I lost no time in running down into the glade. He saw me as soon as I was clear of the trees, and stood leaning on his rifle.

"Wal, dog-gone my buttons!" he ejaculated. "Who're you?"

I blurted out all about myself, at the same time taking stock of him. He was not young, but I had never seen a young man so splendid. Hair, beard, and skin were all of a dark gray. His eyes, too, were gray--the keenest and clearest I had ever looked into. They shone with a kindly light, otherwise I might have thought his face hard and stern. His shoulders were very wide, his arms long, his hands enormous. His buckskin shirt attracted my attention to his other clothes, which looked like leather overalls or heavy canvas. A belt carried a huge knife and a number of shells of large caliber; the Winchester he had was exceedingly long and heavy, and of an old pattern. The look of him brought back my old fancy of Wetzel or Kit Carson.

"So I'm lost," I concluded, "and don't know what to do. I daren't try to find the sawmill. I won't go back to Holston just yet."

"An' why not, youngster? 'Pears to me you'd better make tracks from Penetier."

I told him why, at which he laughed.

"Wal, I reckon you can stay with me fer a spell. My camp's in the head of this canyon."

"Oh, thank you, that'll be fine!" I exclaimed. My great good luck filled me with joy. "Do you stay on the mountain?"

"Be'n here goin' on eighteen years, youngster. Mebbe you've heerd my name. Hiram Bent."

"Are you a hunter?"

"Wal, I reckon so, though I'm more a trapper. Here, you pack my gun."

With that he drew his knife and set to work on the deer. It was wonderful to see his skill. In a few cuts and strokes, a ripping of the hide and a powerful slash, he had cut out a haunch. It took even less work for the second. Then he hung the rest of the deer on a snag, and wiped his knife and hands on the grass.

"Come on, youngster," he said, starting up the canyon.

I showed him where the carcass of my deer had been devoured.

"Cougar. Thar's a big feller has the run of this canyon."

"Cougar? I thought it was a mountain-lion."

"Cougar, painter, panther, lion--all the same critter. An' if you leave him alone he'll not bother you, but he's bad in a corner."

"He scared away the coyotes."

"Youngster, even a silver-tip--thet's a grizzly bear--will make tracks away from a cougar. I lent my pack of hounds to a pard over near Springer. If I had them we'd put thet cougar up a tree in no time."

"Are there many lions--cougars here?"

"Only a few. Thet's why there's plenty of deer. Other game is plentiful, too. Foxes, wolves, an', up in the mountains, bears are thick."

"Then I may get to see one--get a shot at one?"

"Wal, I reckon."

From that time I trod on air. I found myself wishing for my brother Hal. I became reconciled to the loss of mustang and outfit. For a moment I almost forgot Dick and Buell. Forestry seemed less important than hunting. I had read a thousand books about old hunters and trappers, and here I was in a wild mountain canyon with a hunter who might have stepped out of one of my dreams. So I trudged along beside him, asking a question now and then, and listening always. He certainly knew what would interest me. There was scarcely a thing he said that I would ever forget. After a while, however, the trail became so steep and rough that I, at least, had no breath to spare for talking. We climbed and climbed. The canyon had become a narrow, rocky cleft. Huge stones blocked the way. A ragged growth of underbrush fringed the stream. Dead pines, with branches like spears, lay along the trail.

We came upon a little clearing, where there was a rude log-cabin with a stone chimney. Skins of animals were tacked upon logs. Under the bank was a spring. The mountain overshadowed this wild nook.

"Wal, youngster, here's my shack. Make yourself to home," said Hiram Bent.

I was all eyes as we entered the cabin. Skins, large and small, and of many colors, hung upon the walls. A fire burned in a wide stone grate. A rough table and some pans and cooking utensils showed evidence of recent scouring. A bunch of steel traps lay in a corner. Upon a shelf were tin cans and cloth bags, and against the wall stood a bed of glossy bearskins. To me the cabin was altogether a most satisfactory place.

"I reckon ye're tired?" asked the hunter. "Thet's some pumpkins of a climb unless you're used to it."

I admitted I was pretty tired.

"Wal, rest awhile. You look like you hadn't slept much."

He asked me about my people and home, and was so interested in forestry that he left off his task of the moment to talk about it. I was not long in discovering that what he did not know about trees and forests was hardly worth learning. He called it plain woodcraft. He had never heard of forestry. All the same I hungered for his knowledge. How lucky for me to fall in with him! The things that had puzzled me about the pines he answered easily. Then he volunteered information. From talking of the forest, he drifted to the lumbermen.

"Wal, the lumber-sharks are rippin' holes in Penetier. I reckon they wouldn't stop at nothin'. I've heered some tough stories about thet sawmill gang. I ain't acquainted with Leslie, or any of them fellers you named except Jim Williams. I knowed Jim. He was in Springer fer a while. If Jim's your friend, there'll be somethin' happenin, when he rounds up them kidnappers. I reckon you'd better hang up with me fer a while. You don't want to get ketched again. Your life wasn't much to them fellers. I think they'd held on to you fer money. It's too bad you didn't send word home to your people."

"I sent word home about the big steal of timber. That was before I got kidnapped. By this time the Government knows."

"Wal, you don't say! Thet was pert of you, youngster. An' will the Government round up these sharks?"

"Indeed it will. The Government is in dead earnest about protecting the National Forests."

"So it ought to be. Next to a forest fire, I hate these skinned timber tracts. Wal, old Penetier's going to see somethin' lively before long. Youngster, them lumbermen--leastways, them fellers you call Bud an' Bill, an' such--they're goin' to fight."

The old hunter left me presently, and went outside. I waited awhile for him, but as he did not return I lay down upon the bearskins and dropped to sleep. It seemed I had hardly closed my eyes when I felt a hand on my arm and heard a voice.

"Wake up, youngster. Thar's two old bears an' a cub been foolin' with one of my traps."

In a flash I was wide awake.

"Let's see your gun. Humph! pretty small--38 caliber, ain't it? Wal, it'll do the work if you hold straight. Can you shoot?"

"Fairly well."

He took his heavy Winchester, and threw a coil of thin rope over his shoulder.

"Come on. Stay close to me, an' keep your eyes peeled."