Chapter V. A Lively Elk Hunt
 

The storm just passed proved to be the last one for some time to come, and in a week the trails leading from Will's Creek to the eastward became more or less broken. The trail to Fort Bedford was likewise opened, and Sam Barringford made a journey hither and was gone eight days.

The others awaited his return with great interest, but one look at his face when he arrived convinced all that he had failed in his mission.

"Can't find out anything about them twins," he said, getting down to what was in their minds without delay. "The man was seen around Fort Bedford for two days, but he didn't tell his business, and nobody that I talked to had seen the babies nor had they seen him a-talkin' to any wimmen folks."

"Where did he stop overnight?"

"Thet's something I couldn't find out, nuther."

"He must have been an odd sort," observed James Morris.

"Perhaps the twins didn't belong to him at all," suggested Henry. "If they did, why was he ashamed to show 'em?"

Sam Barringford shrugged his shoulders and drew a long breath. "Don't ask me, Henry; it's a clar mystery, thet's wot it is."

Settling himself before the roaring fire, Barringford told his story in detail. He repeated all that the inhabitants at Bedford had told him, but this threw no light on the mystery. Nobody had seen the stranger come into the place and nobody had seen him depart.

"Wonder where he did come from," mused Dave. "He certainly must have come from somewhere."

After that the winter days passed slowly. Sam Barringford remained at the Morris home, occasionally going out alone or with some of the others in quest of game. He was always glad to have Dave and Henry with him, and they were likewise delighted to go, for, as my old readers will remember, Sam Barringford was a famous hunter and rarely came back empty-handed.

One day Henry, who had been out after wild turkeys, came back in a state of mild excitement. He had seen hoofprints which were strange to him, and he wanted Barringford's opinion on them.

"They looked something like a deer's," he said, "but were larger."

"Must have been an elk," answered the old frontiersman. "But I allow as how thar ain't many of them critters around this deestrict."

Henry had come back in the evening, so that the tracks he had discovered were not inspected by Sam Barringford until the following morning. The pair went out accompanied by Dave, and all were armed, and supplied with provisions enough to last two days, if necessary.

The way led up a small hill back of the house and then through a patch of scrub timber--the best having been cut away when the new cabin was built. Beyond the scrub timber was a small cliff of rocks and further still a dense forest, leading to the stream upon which the Morris boys had had such thrilling adventures in the past.

"Here are the tracks," said Henry, when the edge of the forest was gained. "And see, here is another trail made last night, I'll be bound!"

Barringford took his time at examining the hoof-prints in the snow, and at a spot where the sun came down warmly and made the ground slightly soft.

"Reckon I was right," he said. "Ef it ain't an elk, it ain't nuthin I ever seed afore."

"If it is an elk, let us try to bring him down by all means!" cried Henry. "I'd like a pair of elk horns very much."

"The trouble is, he may be miles an' miles away from here by this time," answered Barringford.

"Never mind, let us try it anyway," put in Dave.

All were on snow-shoes--Dave and Henry possessing pairs made for them by White Buffalo years before, and Barringford a pair he had traded in at one of the posts, giving some fox skins in exchange.

"I'm willing, lads," said the old frontiersman. "Even if we don't git the elk, we may stir up something else wuth knocking over."

He led the way directly into the forest, following the tracks of the game with ease. Dave came behind him, while Henry brought up the rear.

All was almost absolutely silent. Occasionally a winter bird circled through the air, or a frightened squirrel ran from a tree branch to his hollow, and twice they caught a fair view of a bunch of rabbits, nibbling at some tender shoots of brushwood. The young hunters could have shot the rabbits with ease, but now they were after larger game, and they knew better than to fire shots which would most likely drive the elk for miles, were the beast within hearing distance.

"How far do you calculate the elk is from here?" asked Dave, after a good mile had been covered.

"That's no easy question to answer, Dave," returned Sam Barringford. "He may have gone two miles and he may have gone ten. We'll have to trust to luck to catch up to him. I don't calkerlate he went far in this deep snow."

Another mile was covered, and they came to a spot where the snow was kicked up in several directions. A rough-barked tree was near by, and on this it was plain to see that the elk had rubbed himself vigorously.

"Thet proves he ain't gone far," said Barringford, almost in a whisper. "He stopped to scratch himself an' then dropped into a walk. Go slow now and keep quiet, an' we may come up to him before you know it."

The old frontiersman's advice was followed, and they turned along the newly-made trail, which now led up to the top of another hill. Here was a good-sized clearing, and Barringford motioned for the others to keep back until he could reconnoiter. They stepped behind some brushwood and each looked to the priming of his musket and to the flint.

Presently Barringford held up his hand and motioned for them to advance, but with caution.

"Reckon I've spotted him, but I ain't sartin," he whispered. "See thet hollow yonder? I think he's back of them bushes an' rocks. We had better spread out a bit."

The others understood, and while Dave went to the right, Henry moved to the left, leaving Barringford to advance as before. The hollow mentioned was nearly quarter of a mile away, yet so sharp were the old frontiersman's eyes that he had noted a peculiar moving of the upper branches of the brushwood before him, as if some large animal was tramping around, browsing on such tender shoots as the snow had not covered.

"If the elk don't go off like a streak, Henry shall have the first shot," Barringford had said, and it was arranged that, all things being favorable, Dave should shoot next, if a second bullet was required. Barringford would hold himself in readiness for the unexpected.

There was a cleared spot to cover, and at a signal from the old frontiersman they advanced across this, being all of a hundred yards from each other, and in something of a semicircle.

They made no noise, and the elk, for such it really was, did not notice them until they were within easy gunshot of where he was feeding. Then up went his head, to scent the air, and with a snort of sudden fear he started away, straight ahead of them.

Bang! it was Henry's weapon that spoke up, the instant he had the game out of range of the bushes. The bullet lodged in the elk's flank and he immediately began to limp. But he did not drop, and now it was Dave's turn to fire. Bang! went the second weapon, and the bullet lodged but a few inches below that sent in by Henry. On went the wounded creature, limping painfully, but still making good time, especially where the snow on the rocks was partly swept away.

"Come on after him!" yelled Henry, reloading with all speed. "I don't think he can get away!"

He had scarcely spoken when Barringford took aim and let drive. Strange as it may seem, the third bullet struck immediately between the other two. The frontiersman had aimed at the other flank, but the elk had jumped to one side, to avoid a hole, just as the hammer of the musket struck the flint.

Henry was running on as fast as his snow-shoes would permit, and having reloaded, Dave and Barringford followed. They were going downhill once more, but now the elk made a turn and darted into a belt of timber lining the river. Reaching the stream, he paused for a moment, looked despairingly at his wounded and bleeding flank, and then started across the ice.

When Henry reached the bank of the stream the elk was pulling himself up the steep bank on the other side. He now offered a fair shot once more and the youth was not slow to take advantage of it. Up came the gun, his gaze moved along the sights, and down came the trigger. But, alas! the flint was an old one and it failed to light the priming. Up came the hammer with an exclamation of impatience, but it was too late--the elk was once more out of sight.

"Why didn't you give him another shot?" demanded Dave, as he rushed up.

"The confounded flint wouldn't strike fire," growled Henry. "That's one of a lot I bought in New York when we were coming home, and they are no good."

"I'll see if I can't give him another," answered his cousin, and tumbled rather than climbed down to the river bank. Barringford came after him, and both crossed the stream and mounted the bank opposite. Here the snow was deep and both went into it headfirst, getting a liberal dose down their sleeves and collars.

"Oh, Columbus! but there's no fun in this!" cried Dave, as he brushed himself off. "Ugh! but that snow down my backbone isn't a bit pleasant!"

"Don't waste time hyer!" cried Barringford almost roughly. It made him angry to think that his first shot had not laid the elk low. "If you want to stay behind, why--"

"Not at all!" interrupted Dave. "I'm with you!" And away he went beside the old frontiersman. Henry had now adjusted a new flint to his musket-lock, and was following across the river as speedily as possible.

The forest was thick before them and they could hear the elk crashing along in a blind fashion, which indicated that he was speedily becoming exhausted. Once they heard him stop, but before they could reach the spot he was off again, at a still slower pace.

"We've got him now," said Barringford grimly. "Might as well slack up and wait for Henry."

He knew that Henry would be much disappointed if he was not in at the death. They slowed up and soon the young hunter came in sight.

"Did the elk get away?" he demanded.

"No, he is just ahead," answered Dave. "Don't you hear him?"

"Sure enough. So you waited for me? I'm glad you did."

Away they went in a bunch, until the elk could be heard less than five rods away. Then came a silence.

"He has turned and is going to fight," cried Barringford, and a moment later they came in sight of the elk, backed up against a clump of walnuts, standing at bay, with dilated nostrils and a gaze of mingled alarm and rage in his large, round eyes.

"He is your game, Henry," said Barringford, and Henry took aim promptly at one of those eyes. The elk made a rush, but he was too late. Bang! went Henry's gun. The game gave a wild leap,--and fell dead in his tracks.