23. The Black Bear.
 

"Somebody is coming!" ejaculated Sam. "I hope it is Dick, with Mr. Barrow!"

"So do I," returned Tom.

Without saying a word more, Jasper Grinder ran from the inner cave and joined Baxter and the guide. His face was pale, and he was evidently much disturbed.

Soon Baxter and his party were outside, and the Rover boys heard them moving up and down the gully. Several minutes passed, and then came a gunshot, followed by another.

"I hope they are not firing on Dick or Mr. Barrow," said Sam, with something of a shudder.

"I guess not," returned his brother. "If they were, we'd probably hear shots in return."

An hour went by, and then Dan Baxter and the others came back, the guide carrying several rabbits and a large fox. The rabbits were skinned and kept for eating, and the fox was skinned and the carcass thrown away.

Tom and Sam had expected Jasper Grinder to return to them, but if the former teacher desired to do this, he was prevented by Dan Baxter, who kept his companions close by him, around the fire.

Slowly the time went by until darkness was upon them. The fire was kept up, but Baxter screened it as much as possible, so that the glare might not penetrate to the forest beyond the gully and prove a beacon to guide Dick and John Barrow to the spot.

The boys were tired out, and soon Sam sank to sleep, with his hands still tied to the tree roots. Tom tried to keep awake, but half an hour later he, too, was in dreamland.

When the Rovers awoke it was not yet morning. All was dark around them, for the fire had burnt low. Sam roused up first, with a severe pain in his wrists and ankles, where his bonds were cutting him.

"Oh, my wrists!" he groaned, and his voice caused Tom to start.

"Is that you, Sam?"

"Yes. My wrists are almost cut in two!"

"The same here. I've slept like a rock, too."

"Is it morning yet?"

"I'm sure I don't know."

"What's going on in there?" came from Dan Baxter, as he leaped to his feet and caught up a gun.

"We are suffering from cuts of the ropes," said Tom. "It was an outrage to compel us to sleep in this fashion, tied up like mummies!"

"Oh, shut up!" growled Baxter, and then began to poke the fire. Soon it was blazing as readily as before, and then the light found its way into the inner cave, so that Sam and Tom could see each other once more.

Breakfast for the two prisoners was a slim affair of crackers, rabbits' bones, and water. Tom asked for coffee, but Baxter would not give it to them.

"You'll get no luxuries from me," growled the bully. "Be thankful that you aren't being starved."

While they were eating, Baxter and his companions held a low, but animated, conversation. "We'll try it, anyway," Tom heard Baxter say, and that was all the Rovers heard. As soon as the meal was finished the party took up some of their traps and their firearms.

"Now, then, we are going out for a while," said Dan Baxter, coming up to the prisoners. "Take my advice and don't try to escape in the meantime. If you do, and we catch you, it will go hard with you; let me tell you that!"

"Are you going to leave us tied up?" questioned Tom dubiously.

"Certainly."

"Some wild animal may come in here and chew us up."

"We'll leave the fire burning--that will keep 'em away," returned the bully.

He would say no more, and in a few minutes he and his companions were gone and the Rover boys were left to themselves.

"Now what?" asked Sam, after all had been silent for at least ten minutes.

"Don't ask me," replied Tom disconsolately. "We're in a pickle, and no mistake. Are your hands as tight as ever?"

"Yes, and my wrists hurt so I feel like screaming with pain."

"Baxter is a brute, if ever there was one. However, I think I can get my left hand free," went on Tom suddenly.

"Good, Tom! Do so by all means."

Tom worked away with vigor. The pain was intense, but he bore it manfully. At last his hand was free.

"Hurrah! so far so good!" he cried lowly. "Now for the other hand."

But this was not so easy, for the knots were hard ones and broke his finger nails dread-fully.

"If only I could get at them with my teeth," he observed, "I'd soon chew them apart."

But he could not bend around, and so had to content himself with working away as before. Soon his fingers grew numb and he had to desist.

"Too bad, but I can't make it!" he groaned.

"Wait a while and give your fingers a rest," returned Sam.

He had begun work on his own fetters, but try his best could make no material progress. The ropes had cut through the skin in two places and from these spots the blood was flowing freely.

Two hours went by, and to the boys it seemed an age. Tom had tried his best to free himself, and now the cords were gradually loosening up.

"I've got it at last!" he cried presently. "Just wait." And a little later the bonds dropped to the ground. But the work had caused his finger tips to bleed.

With his hands free, Tom set to work free his feet, and this was not so difficult, although it also took time. Both boys were now hungry once more, and reckoned that it was well past the noon hour.

"I'll set you free, and then we'll look around for something to eat," said Tom.

"Hadn't we better get out as soon as we can?" asked his brother. "Remember, they may come back at any moment, and we are no match for them."

"It will take but a minute to pick up something, if it's around, Sam. Besides, we have got to have something in our stomachs before we set off to hunt up Dick and Mr. Barrow."

As soon as Sam was freed they rah to the outer cave. Here, on some tree-roots overhead, hung a number of traps, including a knapsack containing crackers and cheese, and close by it was a portion of rabbit, left over from the morning repast.

"Just what we want!" cried Tom. "Now, if we only had a gun----"

He broke off short, as a crashing outside greeted their ears. The noise continued several seconds, then ceased abruptly.

"What do you suppose that was?" questioned Sam. "It can't be our enemies returning."

"No, I think it was some wild animal--perhaps a wildcat."

Both looked around for some weapon with which to defend themselves, and Sam caught sight of a double-barreled shotgun standing in a corner of the cave. He ran for this, and as he did so the crashing outside was continued.

"I see something under the brushwood!" whispered Tom, peeping out. "Something big and black."

"It's a bear!" cried Sam, a minute later. "A black bear! And he is coming this way!"

Both boys were astonished and bewildered, for they had not been looking for such a big beast as this. Sam clutched the shotgun tightly, while Tom ran to the fire and picked up the biggest brand he could hold.

The bear advanced to the center of the gully and looked up and down suspiciously. Then he sniffed the air.

"He smells the carcass of the fox that lies outside," whispered Tom.

"Well, he must smell us, too, Tom. It's a wonder he doesn't run. Mr. Barrow said bears up here were generally shy."

"I reckon he is pretty hungry. Here he comes for the fox meat now."

Tom was right. The bear was advancing with great care, sniffing the snow-covered ground at every step. Once or twice he raised his head, as if preparing to rum at the first sign of alarm.

"I'd like to bring him down!" whispered Sam.

"You can't do it with the shotgun, Sam. Be quiet! We can be thankful if he takes the fox meat and leaves us alone."

At last the bear reached the carcass. The two boys expected he would snatch it up instantly and run away, but they were mistaken. The bear sniffed it from end to end, and walked all around it.

"He's afraid of a trap, or something like that," whispered Tom. "They are pretty cute."

At last the bear seemed satisfied, and he took the carcass up in his mouth and started to walk off with it. But, instead of turning up or down the gully, he came closer to the cave!

"My gracious, he's coming this way!" cried Sam. "Look out, Tom!"

His voice was so loud that the black bear heard it plainly. The beast immediately dropped the fox meat and stood up on his hind legs. Then he gave a roar of disappointment; thinking, probably, that the boys had set a bait to catch him.

"He don't like the situation," began Tom, when he gave a yell and clutched his brother by the arm. And small wonder, for with rapid strides the black bear was making for them, as though to chew them both up!