Alan Douglas.

Storm-Bound: or, A Vacation Among the Snow Drifts



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CHAPTER I
ON THE WRONG TRACK

"Elmer, do you believe we're really on the right track, or have we lost our bearings in this everlasting snow forest?"

"Ask me something easy, please, Lil Artha!"

"Well, I didn't like the looks of that sassy kid who was so eager to have you make a map from what he told us."

"Struck me he grinned too much, boys, as sure as my name's George Robbins. I'm beginning to smell a rat, and think he played a low-down trick on us."

"That is, George, you mean he purposely gave us the wrong directions, and that instead of heading straight for the winter cabin of Toby's jolly Uncle Caleb we're away off our base?"

"Looks like it to me, that's all I've got to say," muttered the boy who had called himself George, at the same time glancing apprehensively at the snow-clad woods surrounding them on all sides.

"Me too!" added the fourth member of the little heavily-laden party, and whose good-natured face usually screwed itself up in an odd series of wrinkles whenever he spoke with such an effort.

"Well," remarked the boy called Elmer, whose last name was Chenowith, and upon whose decisions the others seemed to depend considerably, as though he might be a leader among them; "let's rest up a bit here, and look the matter squarely in the face. Perhaps we can figure out where we've gone wrong, and start on a new course."

These four well-grown lads were all dressed in the well-known khaki suits that designate Boy Scouts the wide world over. Of course they wore heavy woolen sweaters in addition, for the time was just after Christmas, and Old Winter had taken a notion to set in unusually early that year.

They belonged to the Hickory Ridge Troop of Boy Scouts, which lively town was situated many miles to the south of the place where we discover the quartette up against a puzzling question.

Toby Jones had an old uncle who was not only a scientific man, but who loved the Great Outdoors so much that of late he had come to spend most of his time at his lonely cabin in the forest. Here in the summer he studied, and experimented to his heart's content; while during the winter he set traps, and took wonderful photographs of the snowbound woods, as well as of the fur-bearing little animals that made their homes there.

The idea had struck Toby that with some of his best chums he surprise this jolly Uncle Caleb, who was a well-known professor among scientists. Many times the boy had received a warm invitation to run up and visit the old gentleman, as well as fetch a friend or two along, but until this winter Toby had somehow never entertained the idea of doing so.

Once it took hold of him, and he became wildly enthusiastic over it. When he mentioned the scheme to Elmer, as well as two other scouts, they fell in with it so quickly that the plans were soon arranged.

Accordingly, immediately after Christmas the four lads had taken a train for the north, and about noon dropped off at a lonely station, where the operator was a new hand, and had never even heard of Uncle Caleb, so that the boys hardly knew which way to turn.

Just then they happened to run across a lanky boy with a grinning face, whom Elmer "pumped," with the result that they were directed to follow certain landmarks, turn ever so many times until they came to a frozen creek, up which if they headed a mile they would discover the cabin they sought.

They had been following that same frozen stream more than two hours, and there was not the slightest sign of anything in the way of a shack or cabin. In fact, it looked as though they had managed to tramp into the very heart of what seemed to be a trackless forest. In every direction stretched that never ending array of tall and little trees, each snow splashed; for there were several inches of the white feathery covering on the ground, what Elmer called fine "tracking snow;" if only they had been hunting game instead of a shelter.

Though all of the scouts kept constantly on the alert they had failed to detect the first sign of human presence. Not a shout or a gunshot had they heard; in vain had they searched the snowy ground for the welcome trail of a trapper going to or coming home after visiting his line of snares.

No wonder then that some of the boys had begun to believe they were tricked by that glib-tongued native lad, who had chuckled so disagreeably as he accepted the silver quarter Elmer thrust in his grimy palm.

All of them bore heavy loads. For the most part these consisted of extra clothes of course for use in case of extreme cold weather; but two of them also carried guns; and Toby had strapped on his pack a pair of snow-shoes his uncle had once presented to him, but which the boy had never found a good chance to use, though he hoped the time had now arrived for putting them to some service.

"I've been trying to figure things out," Elmer told them, as they sat down on a log to rest, while trying to decide which way they should turn; "and while I'm liable to be mistaken just as much as anybody else, I really think we'd have a better chance to find that cabin, or run across some sign of Toby's uncle, if we quit following this creek bed, and turned sharply to the right."

Now Elmer was not only the leader of the Wolf Patrol when at home, but had long ago qualified for the position of assistant scout master of the troop. When the regular scout master, a young man named Mr. Roderic Garrabrant, chanced to be absent, which frequently happened, the boys looked to Elmer to guide and direct them.

Consequently the three who were now in his company had come to look for great things from their chum; and Elmer often found it a difficult task to satisfy their expectations. And so it was he had in the start given them to understand that he could make mistakes as well as the next one, and they must not think him infallible.

As usual everybody seemed ready to fall in with his suggestion but George, who had a contrary streak in his make-up, and was always ready with objections and questions and serious shakings of the head. They called him "Doubting George," but grown people would long ago have dubbed him a pessimist, because he was always seeing the gloomy side of things, and wanting to be doubly convinced.

"But it seems to me," he started to say, "that we may be jumping out of the fryingpan into the fire if we do that. How do we know the cabin lies to the right?"

"We don't," replied Elmer, without manifesting any feeling over his opinion being questioned, for he knew George of old, and in fact would have been considerably surprised if the other had not put up what Toby called a "kick."

"Would you like to direct us, George?" asked the tall scout, whose name was Arthur Stansbury, but whom his schoolmates had in a spirit of fun long ago dubbed "Lil Artha," which ridiculous nick-name clung to him like a leech to this day, although he was fully a head above any of the other fellows.

"Oh! excuse me from taking that responsibility on my shoulders," George hastened to say, looking almost alarmed; "if I did, and happened to guess wrong, I'd never hear the end of it."

"So you admit that it'd have to be a guess, do you?" pursued Lil Artha mercilessly; "well, on the part of Elmer he's tried to reason the old thing out, and both Toby'n me feel that we can't do better than try what he says. I only hope the walking's better than it's been along this frozen creek, where the ice is too slippery for us to make use of the same. Why didn't we think to fetch our skates along?"

"I did think of it," Toby told him; "but it meant more weight to our packs; and then from what Uncle Caleb's told me about the lay of the country up here, I couldn't figure out how we'd find any use for skates where there was only swamp, marsh, and mebbe a few little crooked creeks nearly always covered with a foot of snow. So I fetched these bully snow-shoes instead. Don't I hope I'll have a chance to skim over the snow on the same, if we're lucky enough to get a heavy fall while up here."

"Perhaps we may get a storm before we're ready for it," observed Elmer drily, as he shot a dubious glance up at the gray sky that had such an ominous look.

Lil Artha jumped to his feet, showing signs of some excitement.

"Hey! let's be on the hike, fellows!" he exclaimed; "if a storm dropped on top of us right now it wouldn't do a thing to us, p'raps. We haven't got only enough grub for a single day. I guess matches are about the only thing we're heavy on, because we expected to eat our meals in Uncle Caleb's cabin most of the time."

"Well, matches are good things to have up here in the snow woods," remarked Elmer, who was an exact contrast to George in that he always saw the silver lining of the cloud, whereas the other scout could not get beyond the pall.

"You bet they are," Lil Artha went on to say, as he shouldered his pack, which he had arranged in regular Adirondack fashion, with a band across his forehead to assist in sustaining the weight; "though for that matter, if we went shy of the same I reckon you could depend on me to get fire by making a little bow, and sawing the same on a pointed stick, South Sea Islander way. I've done it more'n once, though I never seem able to depend on my cunning. Something goes wrong so often; or else I'm in too big a hurry, and spoil everything. But if you're ready lead off, Elmer. We'll trip along in your tracks, and keep it up for another hour anyway. That rest did us all a heap of good."

The four scouts kept pushing on steadily. Elmer in the van continued to maintain a bright lookout for any sign of footprints in the snow that would give them encouragement, though as time passed, and he failed to find any such, the rosy hopes with which they had started began to gradually fade away.

Of course the others also kept their eyes about them, in hopes of sighting a lone cabin, or discovering smoke rising amidst the trees. Hope died hard, and only George grumbled when more than half an hour had crept on without their running upon the first sign that would mean success.

Once Elmer had pointed out to them the tracks of a fox, and of course being true scouts, they were all greatly interested in examining the trail, and speculating on whether it had been of the ordinary red variety, or a gray animal, perhaps one of those silver-black foxes, the pelt of which is often valued at as much as fifteen hundred dollars.

Elmer had settled this question by picking up a hair he found caught on the split end of a branch that grew low down, and which the body of the fox, as well as his brushy tail, must have scraped as he slipped past. It was plainly a red hair, and even George could not find any cause for disputing that evidence, though he was far from happy, and in a fit mood for argument if the occasion arose.

Several other times Elmer pointed to the unmistakable track of a bounding rabbit, and had they had more time at their disposal the boys would have liked nothing better than to follow these, so as to figure out what was chasing bunny to induce him to take such enormous jumps. But the fact of their being astray in that unknown forest, with night not far away, and a heavy snow-storm brooding over them, rather discouraged them from turning aside from the main thing that engaged their attention, which of course was the finding of the trapper's cabin.

Nobody paid the least attention to George when they heard him grunting away in the rear, because George would not have been happy unless he was miserable, strange though that may sound. There is generally a boy built after that fashion in every crowd of scouts. As a rule he has some good qualities that make his friends forgive his bad ones, and finally they get so accustomed to his grumblings that they pay little attention to them. In fact George's complainings had little more effect on his boon companions than so much water poured on a duck's back would. It amused him to grunt and object, and hurt them very little, so what was the sense of making any trouble?

Another fifteen minutes crept along. There did not seem to be any particular change in things, except that the light was showing signs of failing, and perhaps George stumbled more frequently, for he was not as spry on his feet when carrying a pack as the other fellows.

"Don't seem to be over this way either, Elmer," suggested Lil Artha, finally.

"That's right, Uncle Caleb's cabin appears to be as hard to locate as a needle in a haystack," admitted the leader of the Wolf Patrol, cheerily; as though it would have to be something more than this to discourage him, because he had made it his business in life to always look at the bright side of things; and knew that no matter how gloomy the prospect might be it could seem much worse.

"That settles it!" came abruptly from George in the rear.

"What's the matter with you back there; stubbed your toe again? We'll have to make a scout litter and carry you the rest of the way, if you keep on falling over every old log there is," Lil Artha told him, severely.

"'Tain't that this time, mind you," the delinquent one answered back, with a triumphant grin; "but what's the use trying to poke along any further? Might as well be killed for a sheep as a lamb, any day. This place looks like it'd make a good camp for to-night."

"Camp?" echoed Toby.

"Sure thing!" snapped George. "We're all tuckered out, and as hungry as wolves in the dead of winter; night's comin' on right fast; and then if you take a look you'll see that it's begun to snow!" and as the others did glance hastily up they discovered the first few big flakes commence to sail lazily down!

CHAPTER II
A STRANGE PLACE TO CAMP

"I'm surprised at you saying it's going to snow, George," Lil Artha remarked, as he turned on the doubting scout; "because it'd be more like you to tell us ten flakes didn't make a storm, and that anyway there was always a chance of it giving us the go-by. Guess you're tired, and want to snuggle down close to a warm fire, which would explain why you give in so easy-like."

"Just as you please, so long as we do camp," replied the other, as he began to undo the straps that secured his hamper to his back.

"Keep still, fellows!" said Elmer, in a husky whisper; "I honestly believe I saw a bevy of partridges fly up in a tree over yonder," and as he dropped his pack lightly to the ground, he gripped the trusty little twelve-bore Marlin double-barreled shot-gun which he had owned for a number of years, and occasionally found a use for.

"Oh! partridges, fat partridges, and me as hungry as a bear!" gasped Toby; but Elmer had already quitted his chums, and was making his way toward the point he had indicated with his hand.

They watched him with considerable eagerness, and waited to see what luck attended his stalking action.

"Since it looks like we'd have to spend a night here, like the Babes in the Wood," Lil Artha was saying in a whisper, "it'd be real nice if Elmer could only bag four plump birds for our supper! Let's hope he gets a string of the same in range, and makes a double with each shot."

"Honest Injun! I think I could devour four myself, without half trying," Toby assured them, rubbing the pit of his stomach as though to call their attention to the fact that it was an aching void.

"Huh! you mightn't even get the smell of a single one cooking," George warned him; "because I've been told partridges are wary old birds, even up here, where they light in the trees after being flushed, instead of going off with a whirr of their wings, like they do down our way."

"There, he's going to let drive!" said Lil Artha, who, being something of a hunter himself, had been closely observing the progress of Elmer all this time.

"Good luck to his pot-shot!" muttered Toby.

Two reports were heard in quick succession. Then Elmer was seen to hastily run forward, at the same time managing to reload his gun.

"He got one, anyhow!" cried Toby, exultantly; "that fixes me all right. There, he has grabbed another up off the ground. Bully for Elmer! He knows how to work the game, all right. What! another bird? Oh! George, if only he had killed four you might have had one, the same as the rest of us!"

"Well, I like your nerve," said George, indignantly; "why should I be singled out to get left, tell me that, Toby?"

"Keep quiet, George, and don't get riled so easy," Lil Artha told him, "because, as sure as you live he's hurrying over to pick a fourth bird up. What d'ye think of that for great luck, now? Four hungry scouts, and a fat partridge for each. I think it's a splendid introduction to Uncle Caleb's pet game preserve, don't you all?"

"He must have knocked over three with that right barrel," ventured Toby; "like as not they were all sitting along a limb when he fired, and then he picked that last one when they were on the wing, remembering that George would have to go hungry, or only suck the racks, if he didn't get another."

When Elmer rejoined them he was wearing a smile of contentment such as usually adorns the face of a successful sportsman.

"Couldn't have been better any way you fixed it, fellows," he told them. "There they sat, in a row, and you never saw a prettier sight. I just hated to do such a thing, but even scouts can be forgiven for shooting game when they're adrift in an unknown snow forest, and hungry in the bargain."

"I should say they could," Lil Artha added, forcibly, "and lots of other times in the bargain. But these birds are as plump as any I've ever seen. Just feel of the fat breasts, will you? Makes my mouth water, thinking how fine they'll go with our coffee and crackers. How fortunate we thought to bring a few things along in case Uncle Caleb might run short on rations. Plenty of coffee, a little tea, some sugar, a can of condensed milk, crackers, cheese, a pound of bacon, and a package of self-raising flour for flapjacks. We ought to subsist for a whole day on that bill of fare, don't you think?"

"And as we've got our guns along," interposed Lil Artha, "with more or less of game around us, what's the use of worrying? For one I'm meaning to take things as they come, and squeeze what fun I can out of the same."

"That's the stuff!" said Toby, and Elmer nodded his approval; only skeptical George remained silent, for he was feeling of his partridge and with a frown on his brow that made Toby hasten to assure him the bird was a real one, and not such as he may have seen in his dreams.

Already Elmer was casting about to see where they had better locate their camp. It was easy to say this would be for only one night, but how did they know? The threatening storm might swoop down with such force that it would virtually imprison them for a much longer stay. And so he considered it worth while to do the best possible while they had any choice of situation.

Elmer had had considerable experience, having spent a year up on a Canadian cattle ranch and wheat farm owned by an uncle, Elmer's father having been given charge of the property. There the boy had learned dozens of things that were apt to prove valuable to any one in the woods. Besides, he had made it a practice to pick up information wherever he went by asking questions, investigating for himself, and constantly increasing his stock of knowledge.

Looking in every quarter he presently decided that since they carried no tent, and it would be no easy task to make a brush shelter, their best move was to settle down in the lee of one of those cavities formed when a hurricane had toppled a number of giant trees over, with their roots, and the earth attached to the same, standing fully eight feet in the air.

There was a little choice about the matter, and Elmer picked out the one best suited to screen them from the northwest wind. The snow would surely come from that direction, and having a windbreak might mean considerable.

"Drop everything here, boys, and let's hustle to collect all the wood we can find. Don't stop short of darkness, because maybe we'll have to keep a fire going for several days. Just drag it handy, so we'll know where to find it, even if the snow comes two feet deep!"

"Whew! I sure hope it don't get us that way to start with," said Toby; "and us not knowing whether Uncle Caleb's shack is to the north, east or west. Don't I wish we'd run across him in the woods, and were toasting our shins alongside a fire in his comfy little place right now! Um! But the snow's coming faster than she was, fellows!"

"The more reason we should get busy," Elmer told him.

At that they started energetically to "make hay while the sun shone," as Lil Artha said, though he must himself have been convinced that the comparison was hardly a good one, judging from the grimace he gave when casting his eyes upward toward the leaden sky that frowned down upon them like a dome.

Fortunately there was no lack of wood handy. This had doubtless been one reason why Elmer had decided on pitching the camp where he did. Those fallen trees had in crashing to the ground broken many large limbs off, and all that was necessary for the campers to do was to drag these, one after another, to a convenient striking distance from the hole in which they intended spending the night.



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