Alan Douglas.

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



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Elmer did not make any reply in words, but the satisfied glance he gave the speaker was eloquent enough. Truth to tell he was well pleased with the change that was working in Lil Artha. At one time the tall scout had shown signs of becoming so infatuated with hunting that quite a savage desire to slay things had begun to manifest itself in his disposition. Already had the mild influence of Uncle Caleb begun to make itself felt.

Zack Arnold would not be the only one benefitted by contact with the owner of the cabin. Some of the scouts would return home with new ideas concerning things. Already Elmer could see where this midwinter holiday trip was going to repay them a dozen-fold for all it cost. He was satisfied with the promising results, and would not have had things different, could the choice be his for the taking.

While they were gone Zack had tidied up the cabin after a rude fashion, considering that he did not know much about keeping things looking nice in the first place, and had only one arm to work with in the second. But it was the fact that he was beginning to take a decided interest in things that pleased Uncle Caleb, who was not slow to commend his thoughtfulness, and Elmer could see the glow that flashed into the eyes of the big guide, telling that he had already begun to desire to do that which would commend itself to his kind benefactor.

"And it's going to be all right," Elmer told himself, as he lay down later in his bunk, watching the two men who were still sitting by the fire, talking about the habits of animals, for Zack having been a guide all his life was brimfull of such lore; "he's got Zack going, and nothing can stop him now. It must give a fellow a mighty nice feeling to know that he's changed such a life, and for better things. But if we only knew all that has happened in Uncle Caleb's past I reckon we'd find that this is just one little incident in a long string."

And that night neither Elmer nor Lil Artha dreamed of keeping watch because of the presence of so desperate a character as Zack Arnold under the same roof that sheltered them. Indeed, so greatly had their opinions changed that they would have been willing to put considerable trust in the loyalty of the rough guide. His very face did not seem one-half so repulsive, now that it no longer showed the marks of passion and pain. In fact, Elmer could see where in good time Zack might turn out to be a pretty fair looking sort of a man; for once when he allowed a smile to cross his face he was rather attractive.

So the night wore away, and another day dawned. The boys, knowing that their vacation was moving swiftly along, and feeling that they must crowd everything possible into the few remaining days, had laid out a plan of campaign that would make this a busy period. And Uncle Caleb was ready to join them in any undertaking that had for its object the satisfying of their desire for rollicking fun, or their education along the line of a more intimate acquaintance with the little woods folks in whom he took such a decided interest.

CHAPTER XVI
GOOD-BY TO THE SNOW FOREST

It happened that very afternoon Lil Artha met with an adventure that stirred his red blood at quite a lively rate, and for a little time caused quite a lively excitement around the vicinity of the cabin.

Elmer, Toby and George had gone off with Uncle Caleb to investigate some freak of Nature in which the old scientist was interested.

Lil Artha at the time was suffering from a chafed heel, and thought the long walk through the deep snow was more than he cared to undertake; so he had promised to remain home and look after preparations for supper.

As it was too early to think of commencing that job, he had wandered forth for a little stroll, not meaning to go far away from the cabin. Of course such a thing as danger never once appealed to the boy; and with those new thoughts concerning hunting and destroying animal life in possession of his mind, he certainly was not going to shoulder his shotgun, which he had left in a corner of the cabin.

In the midst of his wandering he suddenly heard a strange scratching sound that gave him a thrill. Looking up in the quarter from which it seemed to come, Lil Artha was astonished to see a pair of yellow eyes glaring down at him, and recognize the gray coat of a ferocious wildcat.

He instantly jumped at the conclusion that this must be the mate of the animal they had killed after it had forced an entrance into the cabin, to steal Uncle Caleb's smoked meat, and then savagely attacked them. Yes, there could be no doubt about it; and the cat was evidently of a mind to spring upon him, and through means of its terrible claws seek to have revenge for the loss of its mate. Some feline instinct doubtless told the beast that this boy must have been concerned in the death of the partner of its joys and sorrows, which we happen to know was the actual truth.

Lil Artha's first thought was to turn and sprint for the safety of the cabin as fast as he could go. Then it struck him as a dangerous thing to turn his back on such a treacherous foe as a wildcat; for there could be no question but what the animal would immediately make its leap, and land on his shoulders.

Lil Artha realized that the best thing for him to do was to keep his face turned toward his four-footed enemy. If only now he could pick up a suitable cudgel he might be able to give a decent account of himself; but to struggle with that terror of the snow forest, with only his bare hands, did not please him at all.

He shot a hasty glance all around him. The snow happened to have blown away in that particular spot, where one of the boys had been chopping fuel; and there Lil Artha discovered just the sort of stick he believed he could wield to good advantage in keeping his feline foe at bay.

Giving a wild shout, in hopes of alarming the beast more or less, he sprang toward the coveted trophy, with outstretched hand. And when his eager fingers closed about the end of the three-foot club Lil Artha felt considerably better.

It appeared, though, that his work was cut out for him. The cat actually leaped directly for him, and never would the boy forget how terrible the sight of that flying figure passing through space appeared to his excited mind.

By a nimble jump to one side Lil Artha managed to avoid contact with the extended claws of the cat; and the disappointed animal, upon landing in a heap, instantly whirled around and again sprang toward him. This time the boy struck with his club, and managed to knock his assailant over, though the now thoroughly aroused animal seemed more determined to get at him than ever.

So the battle raged, Lil Artha all the while shouting at the top of his lungs, though he hardly knew what for, since his chums and Uncle Caleb were more than a mile distant, and could hardly hear him at best.

He fought with all the dexterity he could command. When he struck at the raging beast he knew that should he manage to make a miss nothing could keep him from having the cat fasten itself on his breast, tearing and biting with fury. Time and again did he bring that good club against the hairy form of his enemy, and send the wildcat bowling over; but it surely had the nine lives such tough animals are usually credited with, for on every occasion it managed to once more regain its feet, and crippled as it may have been come stubbornly straight at him again.

Lil Artha was getting winded, just as he might have been after knocking a dozen tremendous fouls, when playing in a hotly contested game of baseball. He felt a cold chill pass over him as he began to wonder whether he might not be tired out by this beast that seemed never to know when to give in; and what might not happen then?

Once more he had brought his stick against the creeping cat with such good will that the animal was knocked fully six feet away; but to his despair it immediately recovered, and started back toward him.

Just then Lil Artha heard a loud report, and saw the cat roll over in a heap. As the relieved scout looked in the direction from whence that shot had come he saw Zack Arnold standing there, his face drawn and white with pain; for in handling Lil Artha's gun so as to relieve the boy of his fierce antagonist he must have given his broken arm a severe wrench, that for the moment made him feel sick and faint.

And Lil Artha, seeing how things were, threw an arm about the big guide, weak by reason of his pain, and helped him back to the cabin. After that Lil Artha forgot that he had expressed any doubt concerning the reformation of Zack Arnold. The guide had proved his change of heart by that action; and it would serve to cement the bonds of the new friendship that had sprung up between him and Uncle Caleb, as well as the old scientist's boyish guests.

Later on, when the others returned from their trip, the boys full of the interesting things they had seen, great was their surprise to hear how Lil Artha had been concerned in a stirring adventure. The report of the gun had been wafted to their ears, but of course they expected that it was only Lil Artha doing a little hunting on his private account near the cabin, though Uncle Caleb did not fancy the boy taking any such liberties with his familiar four-footed friends.

They all had to go out and examine the body of the dead wildcat, remarking that if anything it surpassed its mate in the way of ferocity, and blind recklessness, in attacking a human being without any particular provocation, and in broad daylight at that.

"I'm sorry it had to be," remarked Uncle Caleb, with a sigh, "for I expected to have considerable enjoyment later on in trying to get these cats to play photographer for themselves; but no one is to blame in either instance. If attacked by such a fierce creature I myself would shoot to kill without any hesitation. After its mate was destroyed I suppose this one would never have given me any peace. And at any rate it afforded Zack a chance to prove that he was not ungrateful; which after all is the best part of the whole affair, barring your escape from being clawed, Lil Artha. Are you sure the claws or teeth of the cat didn't scratch you the least bit, because in that case I'd want to take due precautions. Blood poisoning might set in if the cuts were neglected, all depending on the condition of your own blood."

The tall scout had examined his hands and face thoroughly before the others of the party returned home, for he was not wholly ignorant concerning the possible results that sometimes follow wounds received through carnivorous animals. He knew that Elmer always made it a practice to carry with him a small phial of permanganate of potassium, to be freely used as a wash in such cases, as calculated to cleanse the wound of all foreign matter, and neutralize any poison that might come from contact with claws impregnated with it.

He assured the anxious woodsman that he had escaped even the slightest scratch, and could consider himself especially fortunate, in which the other heartily agreed with him.

Again did they spend another happy evening around the cheery fire. As the flames glowed and crackled they coaxed Uncle Caleb to tell more incidents connected with his explorations in faraway Thibet, when he was the first white man to enter the Forbidden City and interview the Head Llama, whose existence had up to that time been pretty much of a sealed mystery to the civilized world.

Another peaceful night followed, and then came dawn again. This was to be their nest to last day in the snow forest, because on the second morning they must prepare to turn their faces toward home again, seek the little station, signal to a passing train, and be carried back to familiar scenes.

In many ways all of them would be sorry when the time for separation arrived; and so they had planned to do divers things during these two days, which it was sincerely hoped would turn out pleasant ones. The weather had moderated, and even a thaw set in late the preceding day, but as the wind whipped around once more into the northwest the surface of the snow became covered with a sheet of ice that was almost thick enough to bear the weight of a small boy.

Toby was wild with eagerness to be shown how to use those wonderful snow-shoes which Uncle Caleb had given him for a present; and so the old woodsman showed him just how to attach them to his toes, so as to leave the balance of the foot free to bend at his will, though really Elmer had explained this thing to Toby before.

Under the guiding care of first Uncle Caleb, and when he grew tired, of Elmer on the old scientist's snow-shoes, Toby was enabled to perform quite creditably, and in the end felt that he knew fairly well how to spin over the ice-crusted drifts in a way that would hardly have shamed those Canadian cousins of his who belonged to the famous Teuque Bleue Snow-shoe Club up in Montreal, and wrote him such glowing accounts of the long trips they took over Mount Royal, and into the bush, in the dead of winter.

The boys had not forgotten how they had been almost reduced to a diet of musquash at the time Lil Artha so fortunately shot his deer; and upon invitation from Elmer, who was genuinely desirous of learning whether the dish could be as palatable as some hunters and Indians declared, Uncle Caleb told them they could get a number of the little animals with the glossy fur, and he himself promised to prepare the stew.

Well, they ate it, and George even came in for a second helping, but on the whole it was the consensus of opinion that they did not really hanker after "musquash," which might please some palates, and serve as a means to ward off actual starvation, but did not seem to appeal to them very strongly. All of which was fortunate indeed for the furry denizens of the marsh, because there would be no further loud calls for a repetition of the dish.

The last day was pretty much taken up with seeing all they could of Uncle Caleb and trying to grasp the results of his labors in the cause of science and natural history. Each of the boys was given a sheaf of prints to carry back with him, many of them most interesting revelations concerning the hidden lives of the four-footed neighbors of Uncle Caleb, whose habits were so little known to the average person. And even George admitted that he would not have missed what he had learned while up in the great snow forest, with this observing relative of Toby for a good deal. It had broadened his knowledge of many things, and given him a much higher estimate of human nature in seeing how kindness had won the game over an evil desire for revenge.

It was all settled, and Zack Arnold was going to stay there as the side partner of Uncle Caleb. He did not appear like the same man when on that last morning he shook each one of the four scouts by the hand and hoped he would see them again. There was a look on his face that surprised George and Lil Artha, who at one time had expressed themselves so strongly to the effect that they did not believe any good could ever come out of so tough a customer.

"I'll never say that again, as long as I live!" George admitted, later on; "after this I'm going to look for the spark of good in every hard case, instead of only seeing the evil."

"I sure have had a lesson I'll never forget," added Lil Artha; "and when you get right down to facts that Zack Arnold isn't such a bad fellow either. What he don't know about the woods you could put in a thimble; and I can see that after Uncle Caleb has had him with him six months he's going to turn out something more than half-way decent."

Fortunately they did not meet with another snow storm while on the homeward road but on arriving at the little station they had only to await the train. The same little urchin from whom they had received the false information grinned at them. Lil Artha was for giving him the drubbing he richly deserved; but Elmer counselled differently.

"After all it was a lucky thing he gave us the wrong directions," he told the other scouts. "We have had a whole lot of experiences that would never have come to us otherwise. And then you shot that fine young buck, remember, Lil Artha. So, taking pattern from Uncle Caleb, suppose we wash the incident from the slate."

And what did Lil Artha do but approach the grinning urchin, and actually thank him for the trouble he had taken to direct them, stating that they had had the "time of their lives," and tossing him a silver quarter as a reward for his being so solicitous about their welfare. The last thing they saw as the train carried them away was that country boy standing there, staring at the coin he held in one hand while he scratched his head in perplexity and evidently wondered what it all meant. So Lil Artha had taken a page from the diary of Uncle Caleb, and applied the kind-hearted old scientist's methods to his own case.

The four scouts reached home in safety, and with plenty to interest those of their comrades of the troop who had not been along. It is to be hoped that at some not far distant day in the future we may be permitted to chronicle still further of the happenings that came the way of Elmer, Toby, Lil Artha, George, and others belonging to the Hickory Ridge Troop of Boy Scouts.

THE END

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