The boys, however, stepped so softly upon the dry leaves that the rustling could be heard but a short distance, and they talked in such low voices that they might have passed close to a camp of Indians without discovery.
And then, too, no matter how great their interest in what they said, they were always on the alert. They glanced from side to side, just as Jack Gedney did when walking along the path between his home and that of his friends.
For a time the wood was quite open, so that they were able to travel with little trouble. Now and then came breaks in their conversation, caused by the big tree trunks around which they had to pass. Then, too, the undergrowth was so dense that they sometimes involuntarily dropped into Indian file, and advanced in silence. In other parts of Kentucky there were long stretches of cane-brake so close that an Indian has passed within four feet of the fugitive for whom he was hunting without seeing him.
Young George Burton suffered more than the others from the running vines, which were not always seen. Some of these wound along the ground, like fine wire, and, catching in front of his ankle, did not break, but threw him forward on his hands and knees. He had so slight a distance to fall that it did not hurt him, and he joined the others in laughing over his slips. But all the same, it was anything but pleasant.
"Hurrah, here is a path!" called out Will, who was several steps in advance of the rest.
"I wonder what it means?" said Jack, as he and George hurried up beside him.
All three, however, quickly saw the explanation. It was a track made by animals in going to and from one of the "salt licks," as they are called, which are quite common in many parts of that section.
You know how fond animals are of salt. Well, there are spots in the country which I am telling you about where the water which oozes upward through the ground is so salt that, if left alone, it makes quite a deposit of that mineral. The wild beasts soon find it out, and lick the ground, so as to get the salt. The spaces sometimes cover hundreds of square feet, where the earth has been made as smooth as a planed board by the tongues of the different creatures in their quest for salt.
In some places the salt is so plentiful that the settlers used to gather there and spend days in getting it ready for domestic use. Daniel Boone was once engaged in doing this when he was captured by Indians, and kept a prisoner for a long time.
From some of the salt licks you might have seen the paths of wild beasts radiating outward, until, as the animals fell away from the trails, they were gradually lost in the wilderness.
"We shall be likely to find some game there," was the remark of Jack, after the three had stood several minutes looking down at the ground, where the imprints of hoofs and feet were so numerous that none of them could be identified.
"That's what we have come into the woods for," replied Will, with a laugh.
"Yes, though you know that in Kentucky we are apt to find spots where there are more wild beasts than we can get along with comfortably."
"I wonder how far off the lick is," said George, looking along the path, which the eye could trace for several rods.
"There is but one way of finding out," replied his brother; "and that is to follow the trail to the lick."
Jack gazed in the other direction, where the trail could be seen for a greater distance before it wound out of sight.
"The path is so plain," he said, "that I don't believe the lick can be far off."
"If we should come here early in the morning we should be likely to find more of them."
"I don't think we shall have much trouble in finding enough to keep us busy, and to give you another trial with that fine gun of yours."
Since there was reason for believing they would soon meet some of the animals of which they were talking, the boys were wise enough to act like the young hunters they claimed to be.
Will took the lead, Jack coming next, with George in the rear, all walking close together.
"Keep your eyes open," was the unnecessary advice of Jack to their leader, "for we don't want you to fall over some beast before we see him."
"You needn't fear for me," was the confident reply of Will; "and don't you forget that some of them may be coming from the other way."
"George must attend to them," said Jack, glancing over his shoulder at the youngest member of the party, who also looked behind him on hearing the remark.
"This blanket, strapped like a knapsack behind my shoulders, is handy," remarked George, with a laugh. "If a painter would only use his paws on it he wouldn't hurt me much."
"A painter ain't so foolish as that," said Jack. "He knows too well how to get at a fellow of your size to waste any time in tearing up blankets."
"'Sh! here comes something!" exclaimed Will, in a hushed voice, stopping short, and motioning to the others to do the same.
A second later the leader stepped quickly from the path, and ran a few paces to a large tree, behind which he screened himself. The others quickly did the same, for, as you may well know, the large trunks were so handy that it was an easy thing to do.
Brief as was the time taken, it was enough to bring into sight the animal whose approach Will had learned by the sound of his feet upon the solid ground.
The huge bushy head of a bull bison loomed into sight, as he ambled along the trail at a leisurely gait, on his return from his dessert of salt. He looked frightful enough when viewed from the front, and it is probable that he would have charged upon the whole party of boys had they tried to stop him; but he is an animal little feared by the hunter, and not one of the three boys felt the least misgiving on the approach of the big beast.
His action showed that he had not observed the young hunters as they dodged from his path, and therefore they were the bolder in peeping from behind their shelter.
A moment after the bull came in sight, another was seen to be walking a short distance behind him. Then another and another appeared, until seven were counted, walking along the trail in their lazy fashion.
Nothing would have been easier for the boys than to have dropped three of the animals in their tracks. As each one reached his fore leg forward he exposed a portion of his body through which a bullet could have been sent directly into his heart.
Not a shot, however, was fired. There was not enough danger in bringing down this kind of game to suit the boys, who wanted something of a more exciting nature. They therefore allowed the beasts to pass by unharmed, though Jack resolved to give them a scare.
In darting among the trees to find a hiding-place, George ran in front of Jack, so that the latter was thrown a few paces to the rear of the brothers. Just as the fine-looking bull came opposite, Jack, leaving his gun leaning against the tree, dashed out, threw up both hands, and shouted.
He expected that the startled animal would plunge away at the top of his speed, but he did not.
Those who were following the leader flung up their heads each with a snort, and ran off among the trees; but the leader, stopping short, looked inquiringly at the youngster, as though trying to learn his species. Then he, too, uttered a snort, and dropping his big head, charged straight at the boy.
It would be putting it very mildly to say that Jack was surprised. When he saw his danger he was less than a dozen paces from the beast, which crashed like a steam-engine through the bushes, undergrowth, and among the trees.
"My gracious!" gasped the lad, wheeling about like a flash, and breaking for shelter; "shoot him, boys, or it's all up with me!"
Jack, however, proved his readiness of resource by making a running leap at a large limb, a short distance away. Seizing it with both hands, he pulled himself out of reach, just as the bull thundered past beneath him.
The brute was trammelled in his movements by the trees, else he would have been likely to overtake the boy before he could secure the refuge.
Seeing that his victim had escaped, the bison looked up at him with an angry snuff, then turned slowly about and made his way back to the path, leaving his companions to do as they chose.
Jack wondered why, brief though the incident was, his friends had not fired at the bull, who charged him with such fury; but when from his perch he looked around for them, he understood very well why they held their peace.
Seeing the beast depart, the brothers stepped from behind the respective trees that had sheltered them. Both were still shaking with laughter to such an extent that they could hardly stand, and they could not have aimed a gun at the bison had he been within a rod of them.
Jack was inclined to lose his temper when, after scowling at them for a full minute, he saw no signs of a decrease in their mirth. But by-and-by he began to see the ludicrous side of the picture, and he too broke into laughter. Dropping lightly to the ground, he caught up his rifle, and joining his friends, said-
"I started out to scare that old bull, but it looks as though he scared me."
"I should say he did, and-"
But Will dropped back against the tree, his brother doing the same, and both unable to speak another word.
Jack coolly sat down on the ground, saying-
"When you have finished we'll go on."
There is nothing which does a person more good than a hearty fit of laughter. That being so, it is safe to say that the Burton brothers never before had so much good done them.
The end, however, soon came, and shaking themselves together, as may be said, the three came back to the trail, along which they continued their way towards the lick.
They took the same order as before, and all were on the alert. Now and then Jack noticed the shoulders of their leader shaking in a way that told him he was laughing again over the figure cut by Jack when he set out to scare the bull. After a time this ceased altogether.
It was yet quite early in the day, and the boys expected when night came to be a long way from their friends. They would have felt themselves poor hunters if they did not spend a night in the woods, even though within easy reach of home; and since Mr. Burton had given his boys permission to stay a couple of nights in camp, it could be set down as a certainty that they would do so.
The experience of the young hunters on their jaunt through the Kentucky woods proved not only of the most stirring kind, but it was marked by a number of adventures the like of which they had never known or heard of before. Indeed, it may be said that this feature began with Jack's fight with the panthers the night before, when, instead of meeting only one, he ran against two. Of itself this was not so remarkable, but it was the first instance known to him.
The boys naturally felt confidence in themselves, for they were three in number, and each had a good gun. Surely they ought to be more than enough for anything in the nature of a wild animal; and yet, when they least expected it, they ran into a peril of which none of them dreamed.
"My gracious!" suddenly exclaimed Will, turning short around; "here comes a hundred bears!"
Now it is not to be supposed that there was anything like the number which the lad in his excitement declared, but what he did see was enough to terrify any one.
Lumbering along the trail, directly towards them, was a black bear of large size, and there were two at least behind him. These three were discovered at the same moment, and the unusual sight led Will to believe that it was only the head of a procession coming from the salt lick a long distance away.
"Let's take to the trees," said Will, leading the way into the wood. "It won't do to fight all them."
"Hold on," replied Jack, standing his ground. "I didn't come out to hunt game, and then run away from it when found."
"You were the first one to do it, though," retorted Will. "You can stay if you want to, but I don't."
George followed his brother, but Jack, true to his word, stood his ground, ready to meet the bear.
It looked to the young hunters as though they had struck the popular hour for the visitors to the salt lick. They were no more than fairly rid of the bisons when they were met by three bears, that showed no wish to yield the path to them. It was this fact that led Will and George to take to their heels while Jack Gedney held his ground.
Now, it was the season of the year, as I have said, when the bears are generally in good condition. You know that they are what are called hibernating animals-that is, they spend most of the winter in sleep, during which their nourishment is the fat of their own bodies, though it is claimed that each sucks his fore paw. It is in the spring, when the bears come forth from their winter's sleep, that they are lean, fierce, and dangerous. In the autumn they are in such comfortable form that they will not go far out of their way to harm any one, unless he first provokes them.
Jack did not mean to fight the three bears single-handed. He was impatient when he saw that there was just one apiece, and that his two friends had fled.
"You're my game," said Jack to himself, drawing his gun to his shoulder and aiming at the foremost.
The latter was less than twenty yards away when he observed the lads. He halted and raised his pig-like snout, while the others, some distance to the rear, lumbered forward, not seeing the cause that had checked their leader.
I must do the brothers credit, however, by making haste to say that they had run but a short distance when both stopped as if by one accord.
"This won't do," said the elder; "if Jack makes a fight with the bears we must help him."
"That's what I think," added George, who, as he faced about, raised the flint of his gun.
The sight was a stirring one. There stood Jack with his gun at his shoulder, and pointed at the front of the savage-looking beast that had paused, as if from curiosity, and was looking at him. Close behind were the other two brutes, swinging along in their awkward fashion, indifferent to the drama that must open within the next few moments.
Both Will and George could have sent a bullet into the body of the leading bear without stirring from where they stood, had they been so minded, but one or two causes restrained them.
it was clear that, so to speak, the foremost brute belonged to Jack himself, and he might well take offence if they should open on him before it was seen that their help was needed.
Then, too, the instant the first one should be disposed of, the others would demand attention. The crack of the rifle, and the fall or struggles of the brute, would tell his companions what had taken place, even though Bruin is one of the most stupid of animals. Jack's gun having been fired, it was more than likely that he would be unable to re-load it in time to make defence against the others. He would have to leave them, therefore, for his comrades to dispose of. They knew that Jack would be able to take care of his special charge unless some slip took place. And that slip did take place. The young hunter observed, while his eye was running along the sights of his rifle, that a small limb or twig, no thicker than his finger, reached across the trail between him and the bear, so that it was in the exact line of his fire.
While ordinarily this would have made no difference to the swift-speeding bullet, yet the lad was wise enough to wait until the bear had advanced far enough to shift the line out of the way. This was the cause of the brothers thinking that Jack held his aim a long time.
At the instant of firing, however, a slight puff of wind stirred the leaves and moved the twig, so that the stem bowed again across the path of the bullet.
The consequence was that the ball was turned just enough out of its course to wound instead of killing the brute. It chipped its way through a corner of the skull without making a fatal hurt, though it was one that roused all the fury of the enormous beast.
Will and George, who were closely watching events, were sure that Jack had killed Bruin, who reared on his hind legs and swung his paws as if trying to draw the supposed splinters from his flesh. Then, instead of toppling over like a small mountain, he made straight for the young man who he well knew had caused his hurt.
Jack Gedney, like his young friends, was astonished at this proof that he had made a failure. He stood for a moment, waiting for the royal game to fall to the ground, but the vigour of the beast told plainly enough that there was a dangerous amount of life left in him.
Unfortunately, this alarming truth did not break upon Jack until the beast was on him. He knew better than to try to re-load his gun, but hastily clubbing it, he swung it back over his shoulder, and brought the stock down on the head of the bear with the utmost strength he could command.
It may be said that the blow for one of the boy's years was powerful, but it did no more harm when it landed on the iron-like skull of Bruin than if it had been a feather-duster. Instead of striking squarely, it glanced with such force that the weapon flew twenty feet out of the hands of the owner.
By this time, as you may well suppose, Will and George discovered the peril of their friend, and hastened to his rescue; but the seconds passed fast, and the bear had reared for the purpose of seizing Jack, whose blow was descending before the brothers brought their own guns to their shoulders and fired.
They had no time to run closer or to make their aim as effective as they wished, but they sent both bullets into the big black body that rose in front of the brave boy. The result was what you can well understand: Bruin was hit hard, but for a time at least he was as strong as ever, while his rage was the more intensified.
He reached out both ponderous paws to seize Jack, who, had he been caught, would have received a hug sufficient to crush all the bones in his body to a pulp; but with a dexterity and coolness wonderful in one of his years, he dropped down, so that the paws clasped vacancy over his head, and, darting to one side, he made a dash to the nearest sapling.
When the animal turned to see what had become of his victim, he observed him dashing off in a full run. Heavy and clumsy as is the bear, he is capable of considerable speed, and the one of which I am telling you dropped upon all fours, swung around, and made after the boy with astonishing dexterity.
It need not be said that Jack did not let the grass grow under his feet. Fortunately, indeed, for him that he did not have far to run before he flung his arms and legs about a small tree, up which he began travelling with desperate energy.
As it was, his pursuer was so close, that when he reared again, and reached upward with his paws, his long sharp nails rattled against one of Jack's shoes. The boy jerked up both feet as though he had felt the fangs of a rattlesnake, and one more hitch took him beyond reach of the brute.
The bear found not one, but two boys, who would serve equally well as substitutes for the one that had just escaped him. Will stood less than fifty feet away, hastily ramming a bullet into his rifle, while George was a little farther to the right, busy at the same thing. Bruin decided that the lad who was the nearer of the two would serve him best, so he straightway went after him.
No one could hold the hug of a bear in greater dread than did Will Burton. Had he coolly stood still, and kept on re-loading his gun, it is likely he would have had it ready to fire before the beast reached him; but, as the boy expressed it, he was taking no such chances. He whirled on his heel, and followed the example of Jack, with a suppleness fully equal to his.
One of the hardest things for a man or boy to do is to climb a tree with a gun in hand. Much as Will wanted to keep his weapon, so as to use it when perched above the reach of his enemy, he did not dare to try to do so. He threw it from him, and even then the pursuit was so close that he escaped by a chance as narrow as that of Jack himself.
From his perch in the sapling the latter saw all this, which, you must remember, took place in a very brief time. The two elder boys of the little company had been treed by a huge bear, and neither of them had his gun with which to defend himself. It was clear that much now depended on George, the youngest of the company.
"Don't let him see you," called Jack. "Keep out of sight until your gun is loaded, and then make your aim sure."
George did not reply, through fear of attracting the notice of the bear, but he was doing his duty like a hero. During the fracas between Bruin and Will he had dodged behind the trunk of a tree large enough to screen his body, and then gave his whole attention to re-loading his weapon.
Now and then he peeped forth, taking care to show as little of himself as possible. What he saw encouraged him to hope that he would be able to do all that was expected of him.