Chapter VI. Lost in the Rosebud Range
 

"Whoa, Pink-eye!" muttered the lad, stirring restlessly. "I'll get him next time. Look out, he's charging us. Oh!"

The boy suddenly opened his eyes. The darkness about him was deep and impenetrable and he was conscious of a heavy weight on his chest. What it was, he did not know, and some moments passed before he had recovered sufficiently to form an intelligent idea of what had happened.

All at once he recollected.

"It was the bear," he murmured. "I wonder if I am dead!"

No, he could feel the ground under him, and a rock that his right hand rested on, felt cold and chilling. But what of the pressure on his chest?

Cautiously the lad moved a hand toward the object that was holding him down. His fingers lightly touched it.

Tad could scarce repress a yell.

It was the head of the bear that was resting on him, and he had no idea whether the animal were dead or asleep, awaiting the moment when the lad should stir again to fasten its cruel teeth into his body.

The boy was satisfied, however, that by exerting all his strength he would be able to pull himself away before the beast could awaken, even, providing it were still alive.

First he sought cautiously for his weapon, his fingers groping about over the ground at his right hand. He could not find it. Undoubtedly it had fallen underneath the bear.

Tad determined to mate a desperate effort to escape. He felt as if his hair were standing on end.

With a cry that he could not keep back, the lad whirled over and sprang to his feet. As he did so he leaped away, running with all his might until he had put some distance between himself and the prostrate animal.

Realizing that he was not being followed, Tad brought up sharply and dodged behind a tree. There he stood listening intently for several minutes.

Not a sound disturbed the stillness of the night. The leaves of the trees hung limp and lifeless, for no breeze was stirring.

"I wonder if he's dead," whispered the lad, almost afraid to trust his voice out loud. "Maybe that shot finished him. I must find out somehow."

Tad searched his clothes for matches, finally finding his match safe. Next he sought to gather some sticks with which to make a torch, but the only wood he was able to find was of oak and so green that it would not burn.

"That's too bad," he muttered. "I'll have to try it with the matches."

Lighting one he picked his way carefully toward the place where he had been lying, peering into the shadows ahead of him suspiciously as he went.

"There he is," breathed Tad.

He could faintly make out the figure of the bear lying half on its side as it had been before, the only difference being that the animal's head was stretched out on the ground instead of on the lad's chest.

"I believe he's dead. He must be or he'd have been after me before this," decided the boy. "I 'm going to find out."

Mustering his courage, Tad continued his cautious approach, lighting match after match, shading the flame with his hands so that the light would not get into his eyes and prevent him from seeing anything ahead of him.

It required no little courage for a boy alone in the mountains to walk up to a bear, not knowing whether the animal were dead or alive. Yet when Tad Butler made up his mind to do a certain thing, he persisted until he had accomplished it.

He reached the side of the animal, that is, close enough so that he could get a good view of it.

The bear never moved and Tad drew closer, walking on his toes that he might make no sound. There seemed no other way to make certain except to stir the animal.

"I'll do it," whispered Tad.

Cautiously lighting another match he drew back his left foot and administered a sound kick to the beast's side.

Thinking that the bear had moved under the blow, Tad whirled and ran tittering a loud "Oh!"

He waited, but could hear no sound.

"I believe I am afraid of myself. That bear hasn't stirred at all. I'm going back this time and make sure."

He did. But this time, steeling himself to the task, Tad stood still after he had prodded the beast with his foot again. There was no movement other than a slight tremor caused by the impact of the kick.

"Hurrah, I've shot a bear!" cried the lad in the excess of his excitement. "I wonder what the boys will say. The next question is how am I going to get him back to camp?"

Tad pondered over this problem some moments.

"I know," he cried. "I'll hitch a rope to him and make Pink-eye tow him out. But where is that pony?"

All at once the realization came to him that the pony had thrown him off. That was the last he had seen of Pink-eye.

Tad whistled and called, listening after each attempt without the slightest result.

"He's gone. I've got to find my way back as best I can. The worst of it is I may be a long way from camp, but I guess I can find my way with the compass all right."

The compass, however, was nowhere to be found. The lad went through his pockets twice in search of it.

"Pshaw! Just my luck. I'm as bad at losing things as Chunky is in falling in. I'll get the gun anyway, for the Professor will be provoked if I go back without it. Ah, there it is."

Tad picked up the weapon joyfully.

"I've got something to defend myself with, at least," he told himself. A moment later when he discovered that the weapon held nothing but empty shells, the keen edge of his joy was dulled.

"Well, it's better to pack back an empty gun than no gun at all," he decided philosophically. Let me see, I think we came up that way. They'll build a big fire so I can see it and I ought to be there within half an hour at least."

The lad struck out confidently. He had been lost in the wilderness before, and though he felt a slight uneasiness he had no doubt of his ability to find the camp eventually.

He walked vigorously for half an hour. Then he halted. The same impressive silence surrounded him.

"I think I have been going a little too far to the left," he decided. He changed his course and plodded on methodically again.

Another half hour passed and once more the lad paused, this time with the realization strong upon him that he had lost his way.

Placing both hands to his mouth Tad uttered a long drawn "C-o-o-e-e-e!" He listened intently, then repeated the call.

The sound of his own voice almost frightened him.

"Oh, I'm lost!" he cried, now fully appreciating his position.

The panic of the lost seized him and Tad ran this way and that, plunging ahead for some distance, then swerving to the right or to the left in a desperate attempt to free himself from the endless thicket, bruising his body from contact with the trunks of the trees and cutting his hands as they struck the rocks violently when he fell.

"Tad Butler, you stop this!" he commanded sternly, bringing himself up sharply. "I didn't think you were such a silly kid as to be afraid of the dark." But in his innermost heart the lad knew that it was not the shadows that had so upset him. It was the feeling of being lost in an unknown forest.

Instead of being in the foothills as he had supposed, he was penetrating the fastnesses of the Rosebud Mountains themselves.

"There is no use in my going on like this," he decided finally. "I'll sit down and wait for daylight. That's all I can do. I surely can find my way back to camp when the light comes again."

The next question was where should he go-- where find a safe place to stay until morning. Tad remembered with a start that there were bears in the range. He knew this from his own recent experience. How many other savage beasts there might be in the woods he did not know. He had heard some one speak of mountain lions, and having seen these before, he fervently hoped he might not have another experience with them, unarmed as he was.

"If this gun only were loaded, I should feel better."

After searching around for some time, Tad found a ledge that seemed to rise to a considerable height. Up this he clambered. It would give him a good view in the morning anyway, besides protecting him from any prowling animals that might chance in that part of the forest.

Tad ensconced himself in a slight depression, and with a flat rock for a resting place, leaned back determined to make the best of his position.

A gentle breeze now stirred the foliage above his head and all about him until the sound became a restless murmur, as if Nature were holding council over the lad's predicament.

The lost boy did not so interpret the sounds, however. He made a more practical application of them.

"It's going to rain," he decided wisely, casting a glance above him at the sky, which was becoming rapidly overcast. "And I haven't any umbrella," he added, grinning at his own feeble joke. "Well, I've been wet before. I cannot well be any more so than I was last night. I'll bet the rainwater will be warmer than the waters in the East Fork. If it isn't I'll surely freeze to death."

Fortunately he bad worn his coat when he left the camp, else he would now have suffered from the cold. As it was, he shivered, but more from nervousness than from the chill night air.

"Yoh -- hum, but I'm sleepy," he murmured drowsily. A moment more and his head had drooped to one side and Tad Butler was sleeping as soundly as if tucked away between his own blankets back in his tent in the foothills.