XIII. The Cabin in the Forest
 

Hiram Bent packed the cub down the canyon as he would have handled a sack of oats. When we reached the cabin he fastened a heavy dog-collar round Cubby's neck and snapped a chain to it. Doubling the halter, he tied one end to the chain and the other to a sturdy branch of a tree. This done, he slipped the thongs off the bear.

"Thar! He'll let you pet him in a few days mebbe," he said.

Our captive did not yet show any signs of becoming tame. No sooner was he free of the buckskin thongs than he leaped away, only to be pulled up by the halter. Then he rolled over and over, clawing at the chain, and squirming to get his head out of the collar.

"He might choke hisself," said Hiram, "but mebbe he'll ease up if we stay away from him. Now we've got to rustle to skin them two bears."

So, after giving me a hunting-knife, and telling me to fetch my rifle, he set off up the canyon. As I trudged along behind him I spoke of Dick Leslie, and asked if there were not some way to get him out of the clutches of the lumber thieves.

"I've been thinkin' about thet," replied the hunter, "an' I reckon we can. Tomorrow we'll cross the ridge high up back of thet spring-hole canyon, an' sneak down. 'Pears to me them fellers will be trailin' you pretty hard, an' mebbe they'll leave only one to guard Leslie. More'n thet, the trail up here to my shack is known, an' I'm thinkin' we'd be smart to go off an' camp somewhere else."

"What'll I do about Cubby?" I asked, quickly.

"Cubby? Oh, thet bear cub. Wal, take him along. Youngster, you don't want to pack thet pesky cub back to Pennsylvania?"

"Yes, I do."

"I reckon it ain't likely you can. He's pretty heavy. Weighs nearly a hundred. An' he'd make a heap of trouble. Mebbe we'll ketch a little cub--one you can carry in your arms."

"That'd be still better," I replied. "But if we don't, I'll try to take him back home."

The old hunter said I made a good shot at the big bear, and that he would give me the skin for a rug. It delighted me to think of that huge glossy bearskin on the floor of my den. I told Hiram how the bear had suffered, and I was glad to see that, although he was a hunter and trapper, he disliked to catch a bear in a trap. We skinned the animal, and cut out a quantity of meat. He told me that bear meat would make me forget all about venison. By the time we had climbed up the other canyon and skinned the other bear and returned to camp it was dark. As for me, I was so tired I could hardly crawl.

In spite of my aches and pains, that was a night for me to remember. But there was the thought of Dick Leslie. His rescue was the only thing needed to make me happy. Dick was in my mind even when Hiram cooked a supper that almost made me forget my manners. Certainly the broiled bear meat made me forget venison. Then we talked before the burning logs in the stone fire- place. Hiram sat on his home-made chair and smoked a strong-smelling pipe while I lay on a bearskin in blissful ease. Occasionally we heard the cub outside rattling his chain and growling. All of the trappers and Indian fighters I had read of were different from Hiram Bent and Jim Williams. Jim's soft drawl and kind, twinkling eyes were not what any book-reader would expect to find in a dangerous man. And Hiram Bent was so simple and friendly, so glad to have even a boy to talk to, that it seemed he would never stop. If it had not been for his striking appearance and for the strange, wild tales he told of his lonely life, he would have reminded me of the old canal-lock tenders at home.

Once, when he was refilling his pipe and I thought it would be a good time to profit from his knowledge of the forests, I said to him:

"Now, Mr. Bent, let's suppose I'm the President of the United States, and I have just appointed you to the office of Chief Forester of the National Forests. You have full power. The object is to conserve our national resources. What will you do?"

"Wal, Mr. President," he began, slowly and seriously, and with great dignity, "the Government must own the forests an' deal wisely with them. These mountain forests are great sponges to hold the water, an' we must stop fire an' reckless cuttin'. The first thing is to overcome the opposition of the stockmen, an' show them where the benefit will be theirs in the long run. Next the timber must be used, but not all used up. We'll need rangers who're used to rustlin' in the West an' know Western ways. Cabins must be built, trails made, roads cut. We'll need a head forester for every forest. This man must know all that's on his preserve, an' have it mapped. He must teach his rangers what he knows about trees. Penetier will be given over entirely to the growin' of yellow pine. Thet thrives best, an' the parasites must go. All dead an' old timber must be cut, an' much of thet where the trees are crowded. The north slopes must be cut enough to let in the sun an' light. Brush, windfalls rottin' logs must be burned. Thickets of young pine must be thinned. Care oughten be taken not to cut on the north an' west edges of the forests, as the old guard pines will break the wind."

"How will you treat miners and prospectors?"

"They must be as free to take up claims as if there wasn't no National Forest."

"How about the settler, the man seeking a home out West?" I went on.

"We'll encourage him. The more men there are, the better the forester can fight fire. But those home-seekers must want a home, an' not be squattin' for a little, jest to sell out to lumber sharks."

"What's to become of timber and wood?"

"Wal, it's there to be used, an' must be used. We'll give it free to the settler an' prospector. We'll sell it cheap to the lumbermen--big an' little. We'll consider the wants of the local men first."

"Now about the range. Will you keep out the stockmen?"

"Nary. Grazin' for sheep, cattle, an' hosses will go on jest the same. But we must look out for overgrazin'. For instance, too many cattle will stamp down young growth, an' too many sheep leave no grazin' for other stock. The bead forester must know his business, an' not let his range be overstocked. The small local herders an' sheepmen must be considered first, the big stockmen second. Both must be charged a small fee per head for grazin'."

"How will you fight fire?"

"Wal, thet's the hard nut to crack. Fire is the forest's worst enemy. In a dry season like this Penetier would burn like tinder blown by a bellows. Fire would race through here faster 'n a man could run. I'll need special fire rangers, an' all other rangers must be trained to fight fire, an' then any men living in or near the forest will be paid to help. The thing to do is watch for the small fires an' put them out. Campers must be made to put out their fires before leaving camp. Brush piles an' slashes mustn't be burned in dry or windy weather."

Just where we left off talking I could not remember, for I dropped off to sleep. I seemed hardly to have closed my eyes when the hunter called me in the morning. The breakfast was smoking on the red-hot coals, and outside the cabin all was dense gray fog.

When, soon after, we started down the canyon, the fog was lifting and the forest growing lighter. Everything was as white with frost as if it had snowed. A thin, brittle frost crackled under our feet. When we, had gotten below the rocky confines of the canyon we climbed the slope to the level ridge. Here it was impossible not to believe it had snowed. The forest was as still as night, and looked very strange with the white aisles lined by black tree trunks and the gray fog shrouding the tree-tops. Soon we were climbing again, and I saw that Hiram meant to head the canyon where I had left Dick.

The fog split and blew away, and the brilliant sunlight changed the forest. The frost began to melt, and the air was full of mist. We climbed and climbed--out of the stately yellow-pine zone, up among the gnarled and blasted spruces, over and around strips of weathered stone. Once I saw a cold, white snow-peak. It was hard enough for me to carry my rifle and keep up with the hunter without talking. Besides, Hiram had answered me rather shortly, and I thought it best to keep silent. From time to time he stopped to listen. Then when he turned to go down the slope be trod carefully, and cautioned me not to loosen stones, and he went slower and yet slower. From this I made sure we were not far from the springhole.

"Thar's the canyon," he whispered, stopping to point below, where a black, irregular line marked the gorge. "I haven't heerd a thing, an' we're close. Mebbe they're asleep. Mebbe most of them are trallin' you, an' I hope so. Now, don't you put your hand or foot on anythin' thet'll make a noise."

Then he slipped off, and it was wonderful to see how noiselessly he stepped, and how he moved between trees and dead branches without a sound. I managed pretty well, yet more than once a rattling stone or a broken branch stopped Hiram short and made him lift a warning hand.

At last we got down to the narrow bench which separated the canyon-slope from the deep cut. It was level and roughly strewn with boulders. Here we took to all fours and crawled. It was easy to move here without noise, for the ground was rocky and hard, and there was no brush.

Suddenly I fairly bumped into the hunter. Looking up, I saw that he had halted only a few feet from the edge of the gorge where I had climbed out in my escape. He was listening. There was not a sound save the dull roar of rushing water.

Hiram slid forward a little, and rose cautiously to look over. I did the same. When I saw the cave and the spring-hole I felt a catch in my throat.

But there was not a man in sight. Dick's captors had broken camp; they were gone. The only thing left in the gorge to show they had ever been there was a burned-out campfire.

"They're gone," I whispered.

"Wal, it 'pears so," replied Hiram. "An' it's a move I don't like. Youngster, it's you they want. Leslie's no particular use to them. They'll have to let him go sooner or later, if they hain't already."

"What'll we do now?"

"Make tracks. We'll cut back acrost the ridge an' git some blankets an' grub, then light out for the other side of Penetier."

I thought the old hunter had made rapid time on our way up, but now I saw what he really meant by "making tracks." Fortunately, after a short, killing climb, the return was all down-hill. One stride of Hiram's equalled two of mine, and he made his faster, so that I had to trot now and then to catch up. Very soon I was as hot as fire, and every step was an effort. But I kept thinking of Dick, of my mustang and outfit, and I vowed I would stick to Hiram Bent's trail till I dropped. For the matter of that I did drop more than once before we reached the cabin.

A short rest while Hiram was packing a few things put me right again. I strapped my rifle over my shoulder, and then went out to untie my bear cub. It would have cost me a great deal to leave him behind. I knew I ought to, still I could not bring myself to it. All my life I had wanted a bear cub. Here was one that I had helped to lasso and tie up with my own hands. I made up my mind to hold to the cub until the last gasp.

So I walked up to Cubby with a manner more bold than sincere. He had not eaten anything, but he had drunk the water we had left for him. To my surprise he made no fuss when I untied the rope; on the other hand, he seemed to look pleased, and I thought I detected a cunning gleam in his little eyes. He paddled away down the canyon, and, as this was in the direction we wanted to go, I gave him slack rope and followed.

"Wal, you're goin' to have a right pert time, youngster, an' don't you forget it," said Hiram Bent.

The truth of that was very soon in evidence. Cubby would not let well enough alone, and he would not have a slack rope. I think he wanted to choke himself or pull my arms out. When I realized that Cubby was three times as strong as I was I began to see that my work was cut out for me. The more, however, that he jerked me and hauled me along, the more I determined to hang on. I thought I had a genuine love for him up to the time he had almost knocked my head off, but it was funny how easily he roused my anger after that. What would have happened had he taken a notion to go through the brush? Luckily he kept to the trail, which certainly was rough enough. So, with watching the cub and keeping my feet free of roots and rocks, I had no chance to look ahead. Still I had no concern about this, for the old hunter was at my heels, and I knew he would keep a sharp lookout.

Before I was aware of it we had gotten out of the narrow canyon into a valley with well-timbered bottom, and open, slow rising slopes. We were getting down into Penetier. Cubby swerved from the trail and started up the left slope. I did not want to go, but I had to keep with him, and that was the only way. The hunter strode behind without speaking, and so I gathered that the direction suited him. By leaning back on the rope I walked up the slope as easily as if it were a moving stairway. Cubby pulled me up; I had only to move my feet. When we reached a level once more I discovered that the cub was growing stronger and wanted to go faster. We zigzagged across the ridge to the next canyon, which at a glance I saw was deep and steep.

"Thet'll be some work goin' down that!" called Hiram. "Let me pack your gun."

I would have been glad to give it to him, but how was I to manage? I could not let go of the rope, and Hiram, laden as he was, could not catch up with me. Then suddenly it was too late, for Cubby lunged forward and down.

This first downward jump was not vicious--only a playful one perhaps, by way of initiating me; but it upset me, and I was dragged in the pine-needles. I did not leap to my feet; I was jerked up. Then began a wild chase down that steep, bushy slope. Cubby got going, and I could no more have checked him than I could a steam-engine. Very soon I saw that not only was the bear cub running away, but he was running away with me. I slid down yellow places where the earth was exposed, I tore through thickets, I dodged a thousand trees. In some grassy descents it was as if I had seven-league boots. I must have broken all records for jumps. All at once I stumbled just as Cubby made a spurt and flew forward, alighting face downward. I dug up the pine--needles with my outstretched hands, I scraped with my face and ploughed with my nose, I ate the dust; and when I brought up with a jolt against a log a more furious boy than Ken Ward it would be bard to imagine. Leaping up, I strove with every ounce of might to hold in the bear. But though fury lent me new strength, he kept the advantage.

Presently I saw the bottom of the canyon, an open glade, and an old log-cabin. I looked back to see if the hunter was coming. He was not in sight, but I fancied I heard him. Then Cubby, putting on extra steam, took the remaining rods of the slope in another spurt. I had to race, then fly, and at last lost my footing and plunged down into a thicket.

There farther progress stopped for both of us. Cubby had gone down on one side of a sapling and I on the other, with the result that we were brought up short. I crashed through some low bushes and bumped squarely into the cub. Whether it was his frantic effort to escape, or just excitement, or deliberate intention to beat me into a jelly I had no means to tell. The fact was he began to dig at me and paw me and maul me. Never had I been so angry. I began to fight back, to punch and kick him.

Suddenly, with a crashing in the bushes, the cub was hauled away from me, and then I saw Hiram at the rope.

"Wal, wal!" he ejaculated, "your own mother wouldn't own you now!" Then he laughed heartily and chuckled to himself, and gave the cub a couple of jerks that took the mischief out of him. I dragged myself after Hiram into the glade. The cabin was large and very old, and part of the roof was sunken in.

"We'll hang up here an' camp," said Hiram. "This is an old hunters' cabin, an' kinder out of the way. We'll hitch this little fighter inside, where mebbe he won't be so noisy."

The hunter hauled the cub up short, and half pulled, half lifted him into the door. I took off my rifle, emptied my pockets of brush and beat out the dust, and combed the pine-needles from my hair. My hands were puffed and red, and smarted severely. And altogether I was in no amiable frame of mind as regarded my captive bear cub.

When I stepped inside the cabin it was dark, and coming from the bright light I could not for a moment see what the interior looked like. Presently I made out one large room with no opening except the door. There was a tumble-down stone fireplace at one end, and at the other a rude ladder led up to a loft. Hiram had thrown his pack aside, and had tied Cubby to a peg in the log wall.

"Wal, I'll fetch in some fresh venison," said the hunter. "You rest awhile, an' then gather some wood an' make a fire."

The rest I certainly needed, for I was so tired I could scarcely untie the pack to get out the blankets. The bear cub showed signs or weariness, which pleased me. It was not long after Hiram's departure that I sank into a doze.

When my eyes opened I knew I had been awakened by something, but I could not tell what. I listened. Cubby was as quiet as a mouse, and his very quiet and the alert way he held his ears gave me a vague alarm. He had heard something. I thought of the old hunter's return, yet this did not reassure me.

All at once the voices of men made me sit up with a violent start. Who could they be? Had Hiram met a ranger? I began to shake a little, and was about to creep to the door when I heard the clink of stirrups and soft thud of hoofs. Then followed more voices, and last a loud volley of curses.

"Herky-Jerky!" I gasped, and looked about wildly.

I had no time to dash out of the door. I was caught in a trap, and I felt cold and sick. Suddenly I caught sight of the ladder leading to the loft. Like a monkey I ran up, and crawled as noiselessly as possible upon the rickety flooring of dry pine branches. Then I lay there quivering.