17. An Unexpected Discovery.
 

"Tom, we have missed it!"

"It looks like it, Sam."

"What we took for the river wasn't the river at all. We must be a mile or two out of the way."

"There is nothing to do but to go back," was the dismal response.

"Don't you think we might strike the river without going back?"

"We might, and then again we might not. I hardly feel like taking the risk--in this blinding snow."

With heavy hearts the brothers turned the sled around and proceeded on the back trail, if such the way may be called. As a matter of fact, the snow had covered their footprints completely.

The wind was now rising again, and it blew directly into their faces. Alarmed more than ever, on this account, they pushed oh until poor Sam was almost winded.

"I--I can't go on so fast, no use in trying!" he panted. "I feel ready to drop!"

"I'm fagged out myself," responded Tom. "But, Sam, we can't afford to rest here."

"I know that, but I've got to get my wind back somehow. The wind seems to be awfully strong."

They rested for several minutes, and then pushed on again, Tom dragging the sled alone. It was a bitter journey, and both would have given a good deal to have been with Dick and the guide once more.

"We missed it when we didn't keep up with them in the first place," was Tom's comment. "However, there's no use in crying over spilt milk, as the saying goes. We must make the best of it."

"There isn't any best," grumbled Sam. "It's all worst!" And then Tom laughed, in spite of the seriousness of the situation.

At last they gained the spot where they had first struck the brook, and here they halted again.

"The worst of it is, there is no telling how far this brook runs before it empties into the Perch River," observed Tom. "We may have to go two or three miles out of our way."

"We may as well climb up the hill again, Tom, and try to follow one of those trails."

"Perhaps you are right."

They talked the matter over and at last began to climb the hill, now more difficult than before, since the snow was several inches deeper. It took a long while to gain the top, and still longer to find the spot where they had left the trail.

"Here we are," said Tom, resting on a fallen tree which marked the locality. "Now the all-important question is, which way next?"

"Tom, I believe we are getting lost," came from Sam, in a dismal tone.

"I don't think we're getting lost, Sam; we are lost, no two ways about it. We've got to keep our eyes open and our wits about us, or we'll be getting into a first-class mess."

"It must be almost noon," went on the youngest Rover, and pulled out his watch. "Phew! Half-past twelve!"

"Thought I was hungry. Is there anything in this load good to eat?"

"I don't know. Let us look and see. We can't go on, hungry."

They unstrapped the load and examined it. There were blankets there and some camp utensils, and a box containing crackers, cheese, and chipped beef.

"Crackers and cheese will do on a pinch," said Tom. "Come, we mustn't lose more time than is necessary."

Yet eating and resting was very pleasant, and they spent the best part of half an hour under the sheltering limbs of a big cedar tree. Both were dry, but eating snow did not seem to quench their thirst. The wind increased as they ate, but the snow now came down more lightly.

They decided to strike out on something of a trail running to the northwest. It was hard work hauling and carrying the sled over the rocks and through the bushes, and they often had to halt for breath.

"There goes something!" cried Tom presently. "Sam, did you see it?"

"I saw something, but it disappeared before I could make out what it was."

The object had crossed their path a hundred feet ahead of them. Now it reappeared somewhat closer, and both boys saw that it was a lean and hungry- looking wolf.

"A wolf!" cried Sam.

"Wonder if I hadn't better shoot him," said Tom, unslinging his gun.

"Better save your powder, Tom. I don't believe he'll attack us--at least not while it is light."

"A shot might bring an answering signal from Dick," went on Tom suddenly. "What fools we have been, not to think of that before!"

The wolf kept hidden and Tom did not shoot, expecting to see the beast reappear at any instant. On they went, keeping an eye on the bushes and trees on both sides of them. Once they heard the patter of the wolf's feet on a stretch of bare rocks, but that was all.

"I'll fire a shot, anyway," said Tom at last, and aimed in the direction where they had heard the sounds last. To his intense surprise a yelp and a snarl followed.

"Great Caesar! I hit him after all," began Tom, and then leaped back. "Look out, Sam, he's coming for us!"

Tom was right. The wolf, wounded in the left flank, had suddenly appeared. His eyes blazed with pain and fury, and he made as if to spring upon the boys.

Tom was in front of the sled and Sam behind it. With a quick leap Tom cleared the load and took up a position beside the youngest Rover.

The wolf made the leap, but stopped short on the top of the load. As he prepared to spring again Tom swung his gun around by the barrel and hit the wolf a smart rap on the head. The animal rolled over on the ground.

"Shoot him, Sam!"

"I will, if I can!" came from Sam, who had now unslung his gun. Taking a quick aim, he fired.

The shot proved a good one, for it took the wolf directly in the neck, just as he was scrambling to rise. Again he gave a yelp, and then began to turn over and over in his intense pain. Of a sudden he leaped up and landed on Tom's shoulder.

For the instant poor Tom thought his last moment had come. But as the beast landed Sam struck it with his gun, and down it went once more, snarling viciously. Then it rolled and tossed until some brush was gained, when it managed to hide itself and crawl away, seriously, if not mortally, wounded.

"He's gone!" came from Sam.

"Well, don't go after him," panted Tom. "Let him go and welcome. I never want to see him again."

"Nor I."

Both reloaded with all haste--having learned years before that it is foolish to remain in the wilds with an empty firearm. Then they waited, to see if the wolf would return.

"Hark!" cried Sam. "Did you hear that shot, Tom?"

"I did. I think it came from that direction." And Tom pointed with his hand.

"I think so myself. It must be Dick or Mr. Barrow, firing."

"More than likely. Let us follow up the shot."

They listened, but no more shots followed, and then they went on, over a stretch which was comparatively smooth and free from brushwood. But though they covered a quarter of a mile they saw nothing either of the river or of their lost companions.

"We're getting lost more than ever," groaned Sam. "I declare I haven't the least idea where we are."

"I'm going to fire another shot," answered his brother, and proceeded to do so.

Both listened with strained ears, and soon an answering shot came back, slightly to the left of the path they had been pursuing.

"Thank fortune, we are getting closer!" cried Sam. "Come on!"

As worn out as they were, they resumed the dragging of the sled through the snow. Once Sam had suggested they abandon the load, but Tom would not hear of this, for he knew they could not very well do without this portion of the outfit.

The wind was blowing heavily, and high overhead they heard the tree-tops creak ominously. Once in a while a tree branch would unload itself, sending down a great mass of snow on their heads. But they pushed on, determined to rest no more until the others of the party should be sighted.

Presently they came to a clearing overlooking a small pond and a stream beyond. At first Tom imagined that this was the pond they had left but a short while before, but a second look showed him that the locality was an entirely new one to them.

"My gracious, Tom! Get out of sight!" came in an excited whisper from Sam, and he pulled his brother down behind a clump of bushes, and then dragged the sled after him.

"What do you see?" demanded Tom.

"Look across the pond. As sure as you are born, there are Dan Baxter and Jasper Grinder. We've been following them instead of Dick and Mr. Barrow!"