Alan Douglas.

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



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"But, uncle, we've got a little surprise for you, see?" and as he spoke Toby suddenly held up the silver fox, which act caused the other to smile broadly; "we were directed wrong by a boy, who must have had a grouch against all scouts; and so we got lost; and then that storm caught us; but we were hunting around for some sign of your cabin when we came on this fox caught in a trap, and with his leg nearly cut off. Elmer said he'd soon be gone, leaving only a paw behind; so he knocked him on the head, and then said we'd better wait here till you came. Is it a real silver black fox, Uncle?"

"And are the skins worth as much as fifteen hundred dollars, sir?" asked George, as though he could never rest again until he had settled that bothersome matter in his mind.

"Yes to both questions, boys," replied the scientist; "this skin may be worth anywhere from a thousand dollars to twenty-five hundred, according to how it is graded; and I'm delighted that you had the good sense to save it for me."

CHAPTER X
POSSESSION NINE POINTS OF THE LAW

"I hope you're satisfied now, George, about that pelt?" Lil Artha whispered to the doubting scout, as they stepped back, after shaking hands with the scientist, who was examining his prize with considerable delight; not that Uncle Caleb needed the money he would likely receive for the skin, if he chose to dispose of it; but it was something worth while to be able to say he had taken one of those rare little, and much sought after animals, a silver fox.

"Y-e-s, I s'pose it must be so, if he says they're so valuable," George admitted, but in a way that told how slow he was to take stock in such a fairy tale; so that later on Lil Artha, finding Uncle Caleb had certain articles that had been published in connection with the wonderful prices paid for silver fox skins in the open London market, took pains to see that the doubter read them, and was finally convinced.

"Nothing else would have fetched me out after such a great snow storm," the recluse told them, presently; "only I was anxious about this trap. You see, I knew all about the ways of mink and foxes, and also how they often gnaw a foot off in order to get free. It would have given me a bad feeling to come here and find that owing to my delay, and the little animal's hunger, as well as pain, it had done that same thing, and was gone. The forepaw of a silver fox isn't worth much, only to make the disappointed trapper say things he'd be ashamed to have any one else hear."

"Then we're all glad we got here in good time to nip that little escape in the bud, Uncle," said Toby.

"And as my cabin is more than a mile off, with the going pretty poor, perhaps we'd better be setting out for the same right away," remarked the scientist. "I can give a pretty good guess that you've been having some rough times, and will be glad of a shelter to-night. As for myself, I'll be happy indeed to have you with me. It does get pretty lonely at times, even though I'm deeply interested in my hobby of taking flashlight pictures of the small animals hereabout.

I've even perfected an arrangement so that lots of times they snap off their own pictures; as you'll see later on when we get to work."

"We've only got a few days to spend up here with you, Uncle Caleb," ventured Toby; "and we must see all there is in a hurry. We've just about got tired of roughing it in the snow, and a change to cabin life will set us up again."

"Then let's start right away, if you boys think you can hold out for lunch until we fetch up at my place. The return journey shouldn't take nearly as long as it did to come up here, because we can avoid plenty of pitfalls I fell into. How about that plan, Toby?"

"Whenever you're ready, Uncle, let us know," replied the scout. "Can I carry the fox for you; and how about this trap? Perhaps after catching your prize you won't want to leave it around again. If that's so let me take care of it for you?"

"Well, from the looks of things, it seems to me each one of you has enough to tote right now," chuckled the elderly man; "while I have nothing except my rifle. I'm a pretty hardy sort of an old chap, and able to carry my share of the burdens still; so if you don't mind, Nephew Toby, I'll look after both the trap and the silver fox."

Which he calmly proceeded to do; and they discovered afterwards that Uncle Caleb had an iron constitution, being able to do as much as any grown-up of their acquaintance, possibly barring the strong man of the circus, who could bend iron bars across his knee, and allowed an anvil to be pounded on his chest.

It appeared that Elmer had not been far out of the way when he determined on the direction from which they might expect the trapper to come. His figuring this out on the merits of the fact that their shots had not gone against the wind, had a great deal to recommend it, as Uncle Caleb admitted when he heard how scout tactics had been employed.

"I've been wanting to hear a whole lot more about what Boy Scouts do," he told them, as they trudged cheerfully along; "and while we sit before the fire evenings, you must explain everything to me. From the little I know about it up to date I'm inclined to believe they've at last gotten hold of a very big idea, and one that's going to be of far more lasting benefit to American boys than any other scheme ever thought of in their connection."

"And so far as I'm concerned, sir," replied Elmer, modestly, "I'll be only too glad to give you all the information I can scare up. Our folks believe the same way you do, and as the Hickory Ridge Troop of Boy Scouts has been working for some few moons now, we feel that we've shown what a great improvement belonging to the organization has made in a good many fellows."

"Why, here's George for instance," said Lil Artha, maliciously; "a short time ago his people were worried because he didn't seem to eat half enough; and now he wants the dinner bell to be jangling all day long. That's one of the changes it's made; and I could name others, sir, almost as remarkable."

Even George himself had to join in the general laugh this remark from the long-legged scout brought out.

"I guess you're something of a joker, Arthur," observed Uncle Caleb, turning to smile at the other.

"That's what they all say about me," complained Lil Artha, "that I'm a joke, a freak; as if I could help it that my legs grew at the expense of my body. But so long as I have the brains to go along with them why should I care whether school keeps or not? What our scout master doesn't tell you, we'll try and fill in; because there are heaps of things connected with our trials and victories of the past that Elmer might fight shy of on account of a false modesty. We have to blow his horn for him, you see, sir?"

"And I wager you blow it right well, too," observed Uncle Caleb.

"Oh! I manage to get some kind of music out of it, even if I'm not the regular bugler of the troop. He's Mark Cummings, and he's away from town right now. But how much further do we have to go before we strike your shack, sir?"

"Not over a third of a mile at the most," came the reassuring reply, that caused the tired boys to pluck up new hope, and in a way gird themselves afresh for the fray.

They had left the marsh behind long ago. Elmer knew from this that its border could not be a very desirable place to camp during the spring or summer, when it was apt to be more or less overflowed, and there was danger of malaria if one persisted in sleeping with fogs abounding frequently of nights.

Now that their troubles seemed all behind them, some of the scouts could look about and even admire the scenery by which they found themselves surrounded. Elmer could at least, and he found many interesting things to hold his attention as they journeyed along, following in a general way the trail which Uncle Caleb had made in coming from his cabin to the spot where he had left the fox trap, in hopes of snaring the silver black which he knew used that section of the woods.

Every now and then their pilot would point out some object that was associated with certain events in the past. Here he had met with a black bear unexpectedly, and managed to snap off a picture of the surprised Bruin while the animal reared up on his hind legs; and then retreated. A little further on and he showed them where the fire had once caught him in a trap; and how he only escaped a serious singeing by discovering a cleft among the rocks, where he managed to crawl in, and lie until the danger was over. Then there was the tree into which he had been chased by a pack of wild dogs that seemed to have taken a strange dislike for all human beings, and which he had only dispersed after killing several of their number.

All these things were especially interesting to the scouts. They had met with not a few thrilling like adventures in their own experience, during their several camping trips to the woods; though these might sound tame after hearing of what strange happenings Uncle Caleb had experienced.

Toby saw that George raised his eyebrows each time he heard some interesting narrative from the recluse. He was a little afraid the doubter might express himself in his usual skeptical fashion, and demand further proof to back these tales up before he could give them unqualified approval; but fortunately George had a little too much good sense to commit such an indiscretion; it might go all very well when dealing with boys of his own age, but he did not have the nerve to tell an elderly man, and a professor at that, he doubted his word.

"He's got to be broken out of that bad habit," Toby was telling himself, every time he felt his heart apparently in his throat with apprehension lest George make a nuisance of himself; "and seems to me his chums ought to be the ones to do the thing up brown for George. What a nice fellow he'd be if only it wasn't for his everlasting sneering, and letting you feel he thought you were bluffing him!"

Meanwhile Elmer was studying Uncle Caleb. He quickly came to the conclusion that he would like the other very much indeed. He appeared to be a wonderfully well-read man, with a fund of information on every subject. Besides this, there was a quizzical gleam in his eyes that told the scout master the other was fond of humor, and could enjoy a joke, providing it was not along the lines of practical ones that hurt too deeply.

He was also a master of science, and no doubt had made a name for himself long before he forsook the haunts of men, to spend peaceful months here in the wilderness, studying the ways of the little creatures whose realm he had invaded.

Still, Uncle Caleb was a peaceful man. He never claimed to be a sportsman, and would not use his gun save as a means of absolute necessity, if attacked by some dangerous wild beast; or else as a means of procuring needed fresh meat, which did not happen very often, since he was inclined to be a vegetarian, and had all his supplies hauled up here by wagon twice a year.

All these things Elmer learned by degrees, and the more he came to know of this remarkable old uncle of Toby's the better he liked him. This business of "shooting" things with a snapshot camera, especially by flashlight and at night-time, had always appealed more or less to Elmer; and he rejoiced to know that he was to be thrown in the company of one who had been more or less successful in obtaining wonderfully faithful pictures of the small swamp and woods animals.

The boys soon began to cast anxious glances ahead, for it was not very pleasant work carrying all the stuff they had brought along with them to the forest; and besides, the best part of the deer Lil Artha had bagged so luckily for himself and friends – particularly George.

"I don't see any sign of a cabin there, do you, George?" Lil Artha remarked in an aside to the other, who chanced to be puffing along at his elbow, and grunting after his customary style, though no more weary than the other three boys.

"No, and d'ye know I'm beginning to think there may be no cabin after all, that's what," replied George, stubbornly. "Of course Uncle Caleb has one somewhere or other; but he may have gotten mixed up in his bearings, you see; and right now how do we know whether we're heading right or wrong?"

"Well, if you don't take the cake for seeing the wrong side of everything," Lil Artha told him. "Of course there's a cabin, and we must be getting close to it as we stand now. About the old gentleman making a blunder, and wandering off, don't you know we've been following his out track all the while. And say, what's that you can glimpse through this little opening in the woods – in a direct line with these two birch trees, tell me that now, George, you old humbug of a grumbler?"

Thereupon George, only too willing to be convinced, took a long look, and then slowly admitted that he might have been too hasty.

"It does look a little like a shack roof, Lil Artha, and p'raps I hadn't ought to have spoken like I did; but even now that may be a fooler. Just wait and let's make sure before we holler."

In another five minutes all doubt with regard to this was ready to vanish even from that wavering mind of George, because they could plainly see one end of what seemed to be a pretty substantial log cabin, with a broad chimney running up the back, fashioned of slabs, and hardened mud that no doubt resembled flint.

It seemed to be an ideal snug retreat for a man who wanted to get away from the world, and enjoy himself after his own fancy. Here Uncle Caleb had come for years, and his visits to the haunts of civilization had been few and far between. As time passed on they threatened to cease altogether, for he found more real happiness here than he could among mankind, struggling constantly in pursuit of the mighty dollar, and pushing others down in trying to climb.

"How do you like the looks of it?" asked the owner of the cabin, with a touch of pardonable pride in his voice; for he had gone to considerable trouble in order to make the place attractive; and even though mounds of snow covered everything around, the boys could see that he had some conveniences, such as ordinary loggers' camps could hardly boast.

"It strikes me as a pretty sight," Elmer candidly admitted; "and I don't blame you, sir, for keeping up here. I should think you'd feel lonesome sometimes, though?"

"I do, and used to have a friend spend part of the season with me," acknowledged the scientist; "but last fall he married, and went to Europe, so that up to now I've been all alone, and your coming will be doubly welcome as a break in the monotony of the thing."

"But, Uncle, if as you say you are alone, who could that have been I just saw at that little window?" asked Toby.

"I certainly saw something moving inside there, too," Lil Artha asserted, beginning to display something of excitement, as he waited for the other to explain what already began to take on some of the elements of a dark mystery.

Uncle Caleb looked earnestly at the window they mentioned. It was a small affair, and as they afterwards discovered stood just above the kitchen table, also used during meal-time, since it was the only contrivance of its kind in the cabin.

"I don't happen to see anything there now, boys," he went on to say; "but after all it wouldn't surprise me very much. A very large wildcat has been hovering near my cabin for a week now. I've tried to get a picture of the beast several times, but all I managed to secure has been a rolling ball of fur for one, two glaring eyes for another, and the end of a stubby tail for a third. Now, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if that smart old cat has been watching me, and saw when I went off some time ago. Prowling around it must have climbed on the roof, and then finding it could back down the throat of the chimney, that's what he's done."

"Whoop!" cried Lil Artha, "a wildcat in possession, and has to be kicked out before we can use those bunks. Get your gun ready, Elmer, and we'll ambush the sinner."

CHAPTER XI
THE CHIMNEY JUMPER

"Hold on, Lil Artha, don't rush things so fast!" called out Toby.

"Because this isn't our cabin, and before you knock over the uninvited guest it might be just as well to ask permission from the owner," added Elmer.

All eyes were of course turned on Uncle Caleb, although, according to the mind of the impulsive Lil Artha, there was only one thing that could be done, which was to suddenly open the door, and when the wildcat rushed out give him a shot.

"I've been trying to get a picture of that cat so long," Uncle Caleb told them, "that I'd really be very much disappointed now if he met with his fate, and I had to go without a snapshot, even though a distant one, to remember him by."

"It might be arranged," suggested Elmer, quietly.

"Put your trust in our scout master, sir, and you won't be disappointed," Lil Artha went on to say, meanwhile looking curiously toward Elmer, as though wondering what sort of plan he could have conceived on the spur of the moment.

"Tell us how, Elmer?" George demanded, at the same time eying the cabin with a dubious manner, as though he half believed the boys who said they had seen something through the small window must have deceived themselves.

"Why, if the beast came down through the chimney, it strikes me he ought to know enough to go out the same way if alarmed enough," was what Elmer told them.

"A good idea, my boy!" declared Uncle Caleb, "and if I had everything ready, with my little pocket camera focussed on the chimney, I suppose I could snap him off as he climbed out. Now I'll fix that up right away, and when I'm ready I'll sing out. After that some of you can bang on the door, and start shouting, which should be enough to alarm the cat and make it think of scampering out the way it came in."

He was as good as his word. Pushing forward until he was within thirty feet of the cabin, with a good view of the rude chimney-top, and the light in the right quarter to promise a good picture, Uncle Caleb waved his hand to the others.

"All ready here, boys!" he exclaimed after he had fixed himself.

Elmer had spoken to Lil Artha and Toby, who were delegated to be the attacking squad. George and the scout master accompanied Uncle Caleb, the latter holding his gun in readiness.

"Remember," said Elmer, in a tone that every one could easily hear, "there is to be no shooting unless it becomes necessary. If the cat attacks us we'll have to defend ourselves. If it chooses to go about its business we don't expect to bother it any. Get that, Lil Artha?"

The tall scout replied that he did, though he looked disappointed, as though this thing of sparing so ferocious a varmint as a wildcat just because some one wanted to catch a few pictures of the beast from time to time, did not appeal very much to his sense of the fitness of things. To Lil Artha the cat was without the pale of the law, because it destroyed all sorts of useful things, from young partridges, rabbits and squirrels to domestic fowls; and he knew there never was a time that any State in the Union ever attempted to bar its hunters from killing every bobcat they could find, the more the merrier.

"Then start your racket!" Elmer told the two who were standing close to the cabin door.

Upon thus getting orders Lil Artha and Toby began to immediately make all the noise they could. They pounded on the door with their fists, together with the butt end of Lil Artha's gun; and the jargon of talk they put up was enough to drive any ordinary cat distracted.

Toby even partly opened the door – just a few inches for he did not want to make the acquaintance of that cat at close quarters – and banged it shut again, meanwhile sending a whoop through the slit. It must have been a brave animal that could have stood out against all that combination of sounds.

Through the small opening Toby had glimpsed something that made him have a chilly sensation along the region of his spine. He had caught sight of the intruder. The cat was an exceptionally large one, and it stood there in the middle of the floor, its hair bristling with fury, and its eyes glaring like yellow balls. No wonder Toby slammed that door so speedily, while his whoop ended in a yell. He almost thought he could hear the heavy thud as the springing cat landed against the door close to his head.

That may have only been his imagination working overtime, and inspired by the one glimpse he had obtained of the fierce beast. He fancied as much himself later on, when in a condition to survey the sequence of events calmly.

While Toby and Lil Artha continued to whoop things up another shrill outcry, this time from George, stilled their clamor.

"Oh! there he is coming out of the chimney, Elmer!" was what George shrieked in his excitement, and afterwards the others laughed when they made mention of the fact that for once George did not seem to doubt the evidence of his eyes, or say that he thought it might be the cat he saw.

"I've got him!" added Uncle Caleb, who doubtless must have managed to work his snapshot camera instantly, though no one heard the "click" of the flying shutter on account of all the other sounds that were arising.



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