19. Dick And The Wildcat.
 

"Well, it's mighty funny Tom and Sam don't come up."

It was Dick who spoke. He stood in the shelter of a number of walnut trees, and close at hand was John Barrow.

The pair had missed the others ten minutes before, and were now waiting impatiently for their reappearance.

"It can't be as how they missed the trail in this snow," said John Barrow soberly. "Let us shout for 'em."

They set up a shout, and waited impatiently for an answer. But none came, and they called again.

"We had better go back for them," said Dick, his face full, of a troubled look. "I wouldn't have them get lost in this snowstorm for the world."

It was decided to leave the sled where it was, and soon they were hurrying along the back trail. But the snow and wind were against them, and they made slow progress.

"It will not be necessary to relate all the particulars of the next three hours. In vain they looked for Tom and Sam. Not a trace of the missing lads could be discovered.

"This the worst yet!" groaned Dick, as he came to a halt, all out of breath. "I thought, all along, that they were keeping close behind us!"

"I told them to do so," returned the guide.

They had fired several shots, but the reports had failed, as we know, to reach the ears of the missing Rovers. They were now at their wits' end regarding what to do next.

"I'd give a hundred dollars rather than have this happen," went on Dick. "Why, they'll starve to death if they really get lost!"

"Oh, aint you mistaken there, Dick? They have the other sled, remember; and each o' 'em has a gun for to bring down any game as is wanted."

"That's true, and it's one comfort. But there is no telling when they reach civilization again. Why, this forest is about as bad as some places in the far West."

"I believe you there, lad. Well, they've got to make the best o' it. I reckon they'll strike out for the river and come up that to Bear Pond, over the rocks an' rapids an' all."

Supper time found the pair on the river again, four miles below Bear Pond. It was decided that they should camp at that spot for the night.

"We'll build a big camp-fire and keep it a-going," said Dick. "Perhaps they will see it."

"That's an idee," returned John Barrow, and before doing anything else the camp- fire was started, in an open spot along the river bank. Dick saw to it that it blazed up merrily, and kept piling on all the dry brushwood he could find, until the flames shot up fully twenty feet into the air, making the surroundings as bright as day.

For supper they cooked another of the wild turkeys, but it must be confessed that Dick had little appetite for eating. John Barrow noticed it, and he did his best to cheer up the youth.

"Don't worry too much, lad," he said. "Take my word on it, they'll turn up by morning, sure. You've said yourself they've been through putty tryin' times, in Africa out West."

On the way to the river John Barrow had brought down several rabbits and some birds, and these were hung up on the low branches of a nearby tree. They proceeded to make themselves comfortable under this tree, cutting down some cedar branches for a flooring, and banking up some other branches and some snow to keep off the wind.

"I don't think I'll go to sleep," said Dick. "I'm going to keep the fire piled high, so that it will light up as it's doing now."

"Then I'll turn in right away," answered the guide. "It's eight o'clock. You call me at two, and that will be givin' you a fair nap afore daybreak." And so it was agreed.

It did not take John Barrow long to settle himself, and soon he was snoring as peacefully as though lying in his bed at home. Sitting down close to the fire, Dick gave himself up to his thoughts.

And what numerous thoughts they were--of home and of school, of his brothers, and of the Baxters and their other enemies, and of all that had happened since they had first started to go to Putnam Hall. And then he thought of the Lanings and of the Stanhopes, and lingered long over the mental picture of sweet Dora and of what she had last said to him.

"She's just an all-right girl," he said to himself. "Heaven bless her and keep her from any further trouble!"

When the fire showed signs of burning low he arose and piled on more brushwood. There was hardly enough at hand to suit him, and, ax in hand, he started back from the river, to cut more.

He was within fifteen feet of some dense bushes when of a sudden he came to a halt, as he saw a pair of gleaming eyes glaring at him. As soon as he noticed the eyes they disappeared.

"A wild animal," he thought. "Can it be a wolf?"

Retracing his steps to the fire, he caught up his gun and waited. But the animal did not appear, nor did Dick hear any sound save the murmur of the wind through the snow-clad trees.

The youth wondered if he ought to awaken the guide, but finally resolved to let John Barrow sleep. "I ought to be able to take care of one wolf," he reasoned. "I've taken care of worse than that in my time."

Gun in hand, he advanced upon the bushes once more. He expected to see a wolf slink away at any moment, but no beast came to view, and, after walking completely around the growth, he laid down the gun and went to work vigorously with the ax.

Bush after bush was brought down in rapid succession, until in ten minutes Dick calculated he had cut sufficient to last the camp-fire for the rest of the night. Then he lowered the ax and caught up a large bush, to drag it close to the blaze.

As he turned around he met a sight that, for the instant, chilled him to the backbone. There, between the blaze and the tree under which John Barrow was sleeping, crouched a wildcat, a large, fierce-looking creature, with fire-shot eyes and a stubby tail which was moving noiselessly from side by side, as the creature prepared itself to make a leap.

"Gracious! he's going to attack Mr. Barrow!" thought Dick, but even as this flashed over his mind the wildcat made a leap into the tree, close to where hung the game the guide had brought down some hours before.

"Thank goodness, he's only after the meat," thought Dick, and the chill he had experienced passed away. Then, struck with a new idea, he leaped for his gun.

Several twigs of the tree were in the way of getting a good aim, and he had to circle around to the other side before he could get another good view of the wildcat. In the meantime the beast had grabbed up the wild turkey that was left, and clutching it tight in its mouth, started to drop to the snow-covered ground.

Bang! went the gun and the charge of heavy shot took the wildcat in the left flank, making a bad, but not a fatal, wound. The, beast dropped the wild turkey and let out a fearful snarl of rage. Then it saw Dick, gave another snarl, and leaped toward the youth.

The gun was double-barreled, and once more Dick let drive. But he was not overly cool, and the charge merely nipped the beast in its left front leg. It continued to come on, and as it did so Dick commenced to retreat.

"Hi! what's up?" came from John Barrow, and throwing aside his blanket, he leaped to his feet.

"A wildcat!" ejaculated Dick. "Quick! Shoot him!"

"By gosh!" muttered the guide, and blinking in the bright light of the fire, he reached for his rifle, which he had brought along in addition to his shotgun.

By this time the wildcat was close to Dick, and now, watching its opportunity, it leaped upon the youth, trying to bury its claws in Dick's shoulder.

Hardly knowing what to do, Dick brought around the gun barrel and poked it into the open mouth of the wildcat. With a gurgle of pain the beast fell back, but quickly gathered itself for another leap.

"Back!" shouted John Barrow. "Back, and let me git a shot at the critter!"

Dick was perfectly willing to retreat, and started to do so. But the wildcat was too quick for him, and in a twinkle youth and beast were down on the ground together, and the wildcat was trying to reach the boy's throat with its cruel fangs!