Chapter XXV. A Cave and a Bear

"Hullo, here's something new!" thought Dick, as he gathered himself up. Bush and boy had rolled downward for a distance of a dozen feet. He found himself on a rocky floor that was almost level. The cave was ten to twenty feet wide, and so high that in the gloom he could not see the ceiling.

Luckily the boys had with them the waterproof match safes which had proved so handy in Africa, and now Dick brought out the one he carried and lit a match. The bush that had given way was dry, and soon he made of it quite a respectable torch. Satisfied that the cave had no side branches in which he might become lost, he resolved to push into it, in the hope that another opening might present itself, leading to the cliff where the accident had occurred.

The cave was dry and dusty, not a particle of water being anywhere visible. As he walked along he came across some dead leaves and then some small tree branches. These gave him much encouragement, for how could they have gotten into the place if there was no entrance from the mountain side?

Dick had advanced a distance of several hundred yards when he came to a turn to the right, and from this point the bottom of the cave sloped gradually upward. He also made out a glimmer of light, but it was so far off that nothing was to be seen distinctly.

Much encouraged, he pushed on faster than ever, until a line of rocks barred his further progress. He was about to climb the rocks when a growl from a distance caused him to pause.

What was it? With bated breath Dick listened until the growl was repeated. The walls of the cave took it up, and it was repeated over and over again until lost in the distance.

"A bear -- or something just as bad!" thought the youth. "Now what's to do?"

He crouched down on the rocks and sat as still as death for fully five minutes. But no further growl reached him, and then he plucked up courage enough to scramble up the rocks, which led to a flooring considerably higher than that over which he had been traveling.

Hurrah! It was the light of day ahead, and Dick could scarcely suppress a shout of joy. But the growl still hung in his mind, and though he went forward it was as silently as a cat and with eyes strained first in one direction and then in another. He was glad he still had the torch, for he remembered that the majority of wild beasts are afraid of a light. It had burned rather low, but by swinging it around he soon started up the blaze.

And now he could see the cave entrance distinctly, less than two hundred feet off. It was low and wide, and there were several bushes growing around it. He started on a run, and as he did so the growl sounded out again, this time almost directly beside him.

He turned swiftly and beheld two glaring eyeballs bent upon him, from the gloom of a hollow on one side of the cave. Whether or not the bear was preparing to leap upon him he could not say, but he jumped like lightning and then tore on as if the demon of the bottomless pit was after him.

The bear was following! Dick knew this without looking behind. The animal was heavy and clumsy, yet it covered the ground with an agility that was surprising. It was hungry, not having tasted meat for several days, and now thought it saw the prospect of a fine meal ahead.

"Back!" yelled Dick, but the animal paid no attention. The boy was running as never before, yet the bear kept drawing closer, until Dick almost felt its hot breath on his neck. He trailed the torch behind him and the beast fell back several paces.

The opening was now gained, and the youth ran out on the mountain side, which was covered with stubble and rocks. Glancing hastily around, Dick saw one rock that was both small and rather high and scrambled to the top of this.

The bear gained the mouth of the cave and looked out suspiciously. Then, as it discovered the boy on the rock, it let out another growl, more terrifying than any which had gone before. Slowly it trotted toward Dick, and then began a circle of the rock, as if to determine whether or not the ground was clear for an attack.

The boy still held the torch, but it was burnt nearly to the end and was in danger of going out every minute. Besides, in the sunshine it did not look half as formidable as it had in the gloomy cave.

Suddenly the bear reared itself up on its hind legs and advanced straight for the rock. At this movement Dick's heart seemed to stop beating. Yet he managed to let out one long scream for help. Then as the bear came still nearer, he thrust the torch end directly into the brute's face.

Of course the animal fell back, and down went the torch on the rocks below, and Dick was now utterly defenseless. The bear appeared to know this, and let out a growl of satisfaction, as though it had its next meal already within its grizzly grasp.

Bang! It was the report of a gun not over a hundred yards away, and the bear dropped to all fours and shook its head wildly. Bang! came another report, and now the bear screamed with pain and fell over on its side. Dick looked behind him in amazement and beheld a stranger on horseback. The stranger had just emptied his double-barreled rifle, and now he came riding up with his pistol in his hand. The bear tried to rise up to meet him, but was too seriously wounded already, and a shot at close range finished the brute's misery.

"Well, young fellow, reckon you was in a putty tight fix?" remarked the stranger, after he had made certain that the animal was dead.

"I was in a tight fix," answered Dick, with a shiver. "You came in the nick of time, and I owe you a good deal for it."

"That's all right--I never go back on a bar if I git a chance at him. But how in thunder came you in such a fix in the fust place?" went on the horseman, who was at least six feet four in height--and about as thin a man as Dick had ever seen.

"It's a long story, sir," was the cautious response. "May I ask who it is that has saved me?"

"Wall, my right handle are James Carson," was the answer. "But them as knows me well callers calls me Slim Jim, and it's good enough fer the likes o' a shadder like me, too, I calkerlate. An' who might you be?"

"I am Dick Rover. I was with my two brothers and an old miner named Jack Wumble when I slipped off my horse into the river over there and nearly lost my life. But I managed to crawl out, and in climbing up the mountain side found yonder cave and came through to this end. In the cave I found the bear and he followed me to here. You know the rest."

"Wall! wall! You have had a narrow escape, youngster, an' no disputin' the p'int. Ef I hadn't a-come as I did, thet air bar would have chawed ye up in no time."

"I know it, Mr. Carson. Your kind --"

"Whoopee, Rover, don't go fer to mister me, or I'll be sorry I killed the bar for ye. I'm plain Slim Jim to all as knows me -- Slim Jim the hunter an' trapper. I've spent forty year on these mountains, an' like ez not I'll spend forty more, ef the good Lord allows me to live thet long. An' whar do ye calkerlate your brothers and Jack Wumble air now?"

"I'm sure I don't know. One of my brothers, Tom, got lost and I and Sam and Wumble were looking for him when I had the mishap. Do you know Jack Wumble?"

"Fer sartin I do -- knowned him when he war mining up on the ole Bumble Bee Creek, ez he called it."

"Indeed!" cried Dick. "Then perhaps you knew my father, Anderson Rover? He used to be in partnership with a man named Kennedy."

"Knew him -- o' course I knew him, lad! An' so you air his son, hey? Wall! wall! shake!" And Slim Jim, as he preferred to be called, thrust forth a hand that was as hard as a piece of horn. But he had a soft heart, and Dick soon learned that he was as much to be trusted as was Jack Wumble.

"I'll do my best to set ye right, lad," said the old hunter, after he had listened to the details of Dick's story. "I think I know about the spot whar ye took the tumble."

Before leaving the vicinity Slim Jim set to work and cut the pelt off the bear and hung it up. He also cut away some of the choicest of the meat.

"It's a pity to leave any o' it behind," he observed. "Some poor folks a-starvin' to deth in the city, an' thar's a meal fer a hundred!"

It was well along in the afternoon when they started, Dick riding behind the old hunter. He felt that he could tell Slim Jim about their mission, and he mentioned how the Baxters were watching them and trying to outwit them.

"I remember thet Baxter, too," said the old hunter. "Wumble kin tell ye how we come nigh to makin' him do a dance on nuthin' onct. I'll take your part agin him every time, hear me!" And his openness showed that he meant what he said.