24. Together Again.
 

It must be confessed that both Tom and Sam were much alarmed by the forward move of the black bear. Up to this instant they had trusted the beast would depart with the fox's carcass, without discovering them. Now it looked as if they were in for a hot fight, and that without delay.

"Get behind the fire!" cried Tom, as soon as he could collect his thoughts.

Sam had the shotgun pointed, and as the bear advanced he pulled the trigger. The charge of shot entered the bear's left shoulder, making a number of painful, but not dangerous, wounds. At once the beast let out a snort of commingled pain and rage.

"You've done it now," came from Tom, and whirled his firebrand, to make it blaze up. "Take a stick, quick!"

Instead of doing this, however, Sam fired a second time, this time hitting the bear in the left hind leg. The beast dropped on all fours and came to a halt while yet twenty yards from them.

By this time Tom had another firebrand, and this he compelled his brother to take, the shotgun being now empty. There was no time to reload the piece, and indeed, neither of the boys knew where to look for ammunition.

More enraged than ever, the bear now advanced again, until only the fire was between him and his intended victims. He had now forgotten about the fox meat, and thought only of getting at the human being who had injured him. He arose once more and let out a loud roar, while his small eyes gleamed maliciously. Had the fire not been in the way he would have rushed upon Sam without further hesitation.

The pulling out of the two large firebrands was causing the fire to burn low, something which was in the bear's favor. The boys almost expected to see the beast leap over the spot, but bruin knew better than to attempt this. He began to circle around the flames, and as he did this, the boys did likewise.

"Shall we run?" panted Sam. He was so agitated he could scarcely speak.

"No--stick to the fire," returned Tom. "Bears hate that. Look out!"

The bear had now started to come around the other way. At once the boys shifted again, until they occupied the position where they had stood when the beast was first discovered. Then the bear dropped down once more, and eyed them in a meditative way.

"He is making up his mind about the next move," said Tom. "I'll try him with something new." And at the risk of burning his hand, he picked up some small brushwood which was blazing fiercely and threw it at their enemy.

The effect was as surprising as it was gratifying. The burning brands struck the beast fairly on the nose, causing him to leap back in terror. Then he uttered a grunt of dissatisfaction, turned, and sped, with clumsy swiftness, up the gully and into the forest beyond.

"He is retreating!" cried Sam joyfully.

"Wait--don't be too sure," returned Tom, and, firebrands still in hand, they watched until the bear was out of sight and they could hear nothing more of him.

"My, but aint I glad he's gone!" said the youngest Rover, with a sigh of relief.

"So am I glad, Sam. I was almost afraid both of us were doomed to be chewed up."

"What shall we do next?"

"I guess we had better get out--as soon as you've reloaded the gun. Wonder where the ammunition is?"

Both instituted a search, and soon a box was brought to light, containing not only ammunition, but also a big hunting knife.

"I'll appropriate the knife," said Tom. "It's not as good as a gun or pistol, but it is better than nothing."

Thus armed they set forth without further delay, fearful that their enemies might return at any moment to recapture them. As the bear had gone up the gully they went down, and they did not come to a halt until they had placed at least quarter of a mile between themselves and the caves. For some distance they kept on a series of bare rocks, thus leaving no trail behind.

"I reckon we are clear of them for the time being," observed Tom, as he came to a halt. "And that being so, the next question is Where are Dick and Mr. Barrow?"

"The best we can do is to try to find Perch River, to my way of thinking," came from Sam. "If we can find that and we stick to it, we'll be sure to land at Bear Pond, sooner or later."

"It seems to me Bear Pond ought to be close at hand," said Tom. "We've seen the bear anyway, if not the pond." And at this both Sam and he gave a short laugh.

An hour later found them tramping along the edge of a cliff overlooking a broad valley, in the center of which was a winding stream almost hidden by the woods on either side.

"Now, if we were only sure that was Perch River, we'd be all right," said Sam. "But unfortunately all rivers look pretty much alike up here."

"We might as well go down to it, anyway," answered his brother. "It's pretty cold up here,"

Finding a break in the cliff they descended, and started through the woods for the watercourse. It was indeed cold, and only their brisk walking kept them warm. A stiff wind was rising, and overhead the branches swayed mournfully.

When they reached the river they came to another halt, not knowing which was up and which was down.

"Guess we had better chop a hole in the ice and see how the water is flowing," suggested Sam.

"Let us walk in this direction," said Tom. "I think this is right, and, anyway, we may soon come to an air-hole, which will save us the trouble of cutting an opening."

As they advanced they had kept a sharp lookout for the Baxter crowd, but so far none of their enemies had put in an appearance.

"Hurrah!" suddenly shouted Tom. "Here's a signal of some sort!"

He pointed ahead, to where Dick and John Barrow had planted their first signal pole. Both made a rush forward, and soon had the cooked meat which had been tied in a cloth and the note pinned on the outside.

"A letter from Dick," said Tom, and read it aloud. "We are on the right track, Sam, and if we only continue to steer clear of Dan Baxter and his gang we'll be safe."

"Dick asks us to fire two shots, a minute apart, as a signal," came from Sam. "I'll do it at once." And without delay he discharged the shotgun, waited sixty seconds, and then discharged it again.

Both listened intently, and from a great distance came back two other shots, also a minute apart.

"They heard the signal!" ejaculated Sam joyfully. "It came from up the river, didn't it?"

"Yes; come on!"

Without stopping to eat the food which had been left for them, the boys hurried forward just as rapidly as their now tired legs would carry them.

They had brought their skates along and these were put on, after which progress was easier. It was now growing dark, and they began to wonder if they would be able to rejoin Dick and Mr. Barrow before nightfall.

"I hope we meet them," said Sam. "I've no fancy for remaining in this open, alone."

"Try another two shots," suggested Tom, after an hour had gone by, and Sam did so. Immediately came answering reports, directly to their left.

"Hullo!" yelled Tom, at the top of his lungs, and Sam at once took up the cry.

"Hullo!" came back faintly. "Tom! Sam! Is that you?"

"Yes. We are on the river!"

"All right!"

The yelling now stopped, and Tom and Sam came to a halt and sat down on a flat rock to wait. Ten minutes passed, when they saw Dick rush into a clearing, followed by John Barrow. As soon as the eldest Rover saw them he waved his hand enthusiastically.

"Where in the world have you been?" came from Dick, as soon as he reached them, and saw that neither was injured. "We've been looking high and low for you."

"We've been prisoners of the enemy," answered Tom. "By the way, have you seen anything of Dan Baxter and his party?"

"No. Do you mean to say Baxter made you prisoners?"

"He and his crowd did."

"How many are there with him?"

"Three men, Bill Harney the guide, Lemuel Husty, and Jasper Grinder."

"Jasper Grinder!" burst out Dick. "Impossible!"

"It is true, Dick. I was as much astonished as you."

"I suppose Baxter promised him a share of the treasure if it was found."

"More than likely. But I don't believe they'll find the treasure."

Tom and Sam soon told their story, to which Dick and John Barrow listened with keen interest. Hardly, however, was the tale finished than the guide urged them to move on.

"It's quite a few miles to camp," he said. "And, unless I am mistaken, it's getting ready for a big fall o' snow."

John Barrow was right about the snow. Less than quarter of an hour later the thick flakes began to fall. Then came a finer snow, which the wind blew around them like so much hard salt.

"We are in for a corker!" cried the guide. "The sooner we git back to our supplies the better it will be for us!"