The Bungalow Boys North of Fifty-Three
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But the jump fell short. With a savage snarl of disappointment, the great gray wolf fell back, while Sandy, with the strength of desperation, clambered upward among the rocks.
CHAPTER XXV – HEMMED IN BY WOLVES
Panting, almost at the limit of his strength, with torn hands and rent garments, the lad clambered upward among the rocks. They had seemed large at a distance. Now they appeared to be veritable mountains of boulders. But they were rough and afforded a fair foothold, except where windblown snow had obscured their surfaces and made them slippery and treacherous.
After five minutes of climbing, Sandy rested for a time and paused to look down below him. The wolves were apparently taken aback by his successful evasion of their fangs. The leaders were seated on their gaunt haunches gazing hungrily up at him, while behind them the rest of the pack moved uneasily about. The boy could see the steam of their hot breaths as they panted, their red tongues lolling far out and their sharp, tiger-like teeth exposed.
Their wicked little yellow eyes were fixed steadfastly upon the boy, who looked down upon them from the shoulder of a great rock. He was safe for the time being, and Sandy took advantage of the respite to rally his faculties.
Although he was temporarily secure from the pack, his position was still about as bad as it could be. He was practically marooned on the rocky island in the snows until the pack should see fit to withdraw, or until some other game drew their attention from him.
Without letting his eyes stray from the wolves for more than a second at a time, Sandy took stock. He had his rifle, hunting knife and some twenty cartridges, besides those in the magazine of his rifle, twelve in number. Of his lunch there was left some baking powder bread, a small quantity of cold deer meat and some salt and pepper.
It was little enough for the protracted siege that he might have to stand on the rocky pile, but scanty though the provision was, he was glad of the foresight that had made him save it for a snack on his way home. Besides the articles mentioned, the boy had his matches and a compass, and that was all.
But the next minute he realized that even his matches were gone. In his frantic climb, the nickel, water-proof case in which the precious lucifers were carried had dropped from his pocket. Looking down after the discovery of his loss, he saw the glint of the little metal cylinder lying on the snow at the foot of his haven of refuge.
To recover it was out of the question. The wolves grimly stood guard over it as if fully understanding its value to the human creature on the rocks. As Sandy looked at the wolves, the great snow rangers stared straight back at him with an uncanny steadiness. He seemed to read their message in their flaming yellow orbs.
“There is no hurry. We can wait. As well to-morrow as now.”
Sandy clambered yet higher. At his first move the leaders, as if by concerted action, flung themselves tooth and nail at the rocky escarpment confronting them.
The pack, snarling and yapping with chagrin, were hurled back from the stony fortress like waves from a pier.Sandy observed this with satisfaction. His place of refuge appeared to be impregnable. The wolves’ only chance lay in starving him out. And with a bitter pang Sandy realized that unless help arrived or he was able to frighten them off, the creatures stood a good chance of accomplishing this.
It was odd that the emergency which might have unmanned much stronger minds than Sandy’s should not have had the effect of reducing him to despair. But this was not so. The Scotch lad possessed in him a strain of indomitable blood. Like his ancestors, who sought refuge in the rocks and caves of the highlands during the stormy periods of Scotland’s history, the boy, terrible though his position was and fraught with menace, yet kept up his sturdy courage.
In fact, the danger of his position appeared to lend him nerve which he might have lacked under less trying conditions. It is often so. Human nature has a habit of rising to emergencies. Dangers and difficulties are often the anvils upon which men and boys are tried to see if they be of the true metal.
The wolves, with supernatural patience, resumed their positions of waiting, following their futile attack on the rocky wall that faced them. But Sandy saw that although they appeared indifferent to him, they yet had an eye to his every movement.
He tried the experiment of raising an arm or swinging a leg as if he were about to move again. Instantly every sharp-nosed head was raised in an attitude of deep attention. To those wolves there was but one interesting object in the whole of that dreary expanse of snow, and that was Sandy McTavish.
“I’ve got to do something,” thought Sandy desperately. “Before long it will be getting dusk.”
He couldn’t help giving a shudder as he thought of this. The idea of spending a night in the freezing cold with those silent, tireless watchers below him shook his courage badly. He concluded to try the effect of a few shots among the pack. Possibly, if he could kill the leaders, the rest might become alarmed and leave him.
He raised his rifle and singled out the great, gray wolf that appeared to be commander-in-chief of the creatures. This was a huge animal with bristling hackles who was covered with wounds and scars received no doubt in defending his title of leader of the pack.
Sandy took careful aim between the wolf’s blazing yellow eyes that shone in the gathering dusk like signal lamps. He pulled the trigger and a blaze and a sharp crack followed. Mingled with them was the death cry of the big gray wolf.
He leaped fully four feet into the air and came down with a crash. Before the breath was out of his gaunt body the pack was upon him, tearing, rending and fighting. When the mass of struggling, famine-stricken wolves surged apart again, Sandy saw that a few bloodstains on the snow and some bones in the mouths of the stronger of the wolves were all that remained of the leader of the pack.
A king among them when alive, the dead wolf had been to his followers nothing more than so much meat. Their cannibal feast being disposed of, except that here and there a wolf crunched a bone, the animals resumed their vigil.
Twice, three times more, did Sandy fire; but each time with the same result.
He dared not waste more ammunition. He must conserve what he had left for emergencies, in case it came down to a fight for his very life.
For the first time since he had gained a place of comparative safety the boy gave way utterly. He sank his head in his hands and despair rushed over him like a wave.
CHAPTER XXVI – THE BACK TRAIL
It is now time to return to Tom, Jack and their companion, old Joe Picquet. It will be recalled that we left them in a most precarious and startling situation.
From a man apparently sick unto death, the gray, pitiable figure on the cot had been suddenly changed to a vicious, spiteful enemy, as vindictive and apparently as dangerous as a rattlesnake. The very swiftness of the change had taken them so utterly by surprise that, as the rifles of his three followers were trained upon them, our trio of friends were deprived of speech.
Old Joe was the first to recover his faculties. With his eyes blazing furiously from his weather-beaten face, he emitted a roar of rage.
The vials of his wrath were directed against the small gray man – Peabody Dolittle, as he had called himself.
“Boosh! You beeg ras-cal!” he cried. “You beeg liar as well as teef, eh? What you wan’ us do now – eh?”
“Nothing but to give up those skins you took from me and then vamoose,” came the quiet rejoinder from the little gray man, who had lost his Yankee dialect and drawl and who was now on his feet fully dressed except for a coat.
“And if we won’t?” exclaimed Tom, retaining a firm grip on the black fox skin.
He was resolved to keep it at all hazards.
“Why, then,” rejoined the other, with a vindictive snarl, “we shall have to adopt harsh measures. You may consider yourselves my prisoners.”
“Non! Not by a whole lot!”
The angry, half choked cry was from old Joe Picquet. Beside himself with fury at the thought of the cunning fraud the man had worked upon them, he flung himself forward as if he meant to tear him to pieces.
Tom’s arm jerked him back.
“Don’t do anything like that, Joe,” he counseled; and then to the gray man, “I suppose your sickness was just a dodge to keep us here till your companions could arrive.”
“Just what it was, my young friend,” amiably agreed the rascal. “As a guesser of motives you are very good – very good, indeed.”
One of the new arrivals stepped forward and whispered something to his leader, who nodded. Then he spoke:
“Of course, I shall have to ask you to give up your weapons,” he said.
Old Joe Picquet fumed and fussed, but there was nothing for it but to obey. In the presence of such a force, and with the disadvantage under which they labored, there was nothing else to be done. With the best grace they could, they gave up their weapons, which the little gray man, with a smile of satisfaction, took into his possession.
“Pity you didn’t heed the ghostly warning I gave you,” said he to the boys, with a grin, “you’d be in a better position than you are now. But after all, it will teach you never again to interfere with the Wolf.”
They had nothing to reply to this speech; but at the rascal’s next words their anger broke out afresh.
“Are you going to give up those skins, or do we have to take them from you?”
As he spoke he did a significant thing. He lightly tapped with his finger tips the rifle stock of the man next to him. It was a quiet hint, yet a sufficient one.
“We are in your power right now; but perhaps before long the tables will be turned,” said Tom. “Take the skin that you stole, and – ”
“Say no more, my young friend. You are wise beyond your years. Flem,” this to a squat-figured, evil-looking fellow with a shack of sandy hair, who was one of the trio whose arrival had caused our friends so much trouble, “Flem, hand me that black fox skin. I went to some trouble to secure it. I propose to keep it.”
“As long as you can, you ought to add,” muttered Jack, under his breath.
As for Picquet, he, like Tom, remained silent. There was really nothing to be said. Without a word he booted the skins he had recovered from the fur robber’s loot across the floor. One of the Wolf’s men picked them up.
By this time it was almost dark within the tent. But from the red-hot stove there emanated quite a glow which showed up the evil countenances of the boys’ captors in striking relief. Except for their leader, the Wolf, whose soft tones and retiring manners would have made anyone pick him out for anything but what he was, they were a repulsive looking crew.
It was clear enough to Tom now that they were in the power of men who made a regular business of fur robbing, and a thoroughly prosperous one, too. He felt an intense disgust for them. Knowing as he did the hardships of a trapper’s life, the long tramps through the freezing snows, the isolation and the loneliness of the existence, he thought, with angry contempt, of the meanness of men who would rob the rightful owners of such hard-earned trophies.
“Feel pretty sore at me, don’t you?” asked the Wolf, who had been eying the boy narrowly.
“Not so sore as disgusted,” shot out Tom. “I’ve seen some mean wretches in my time, but a man who will deliberately – ”
“Be careful there, young fellow. Don’t get too fresh,” warned one of the Wolf’s men.
“I consider that you have got off pretty easily,” rejoined the Wolf, seemingly unruffled. His tones were as calm and retiring as ever. “I might have sent your dog team scurrying off into the wilderness without you, and then left you to get back as best you could without provisions or blankets. Instead of that, I’m going to do you a kindness. I shall set you free with your sled.”
“And our rifles?” asked old Joe.
“I’m afraid I must keep them. You are altogether too capable to be trusted with such weapons.”
“I know who I’d like to make a target of,” muttered Jack.
“So I shall have to retain your rifles. They are fine weapons and I am glad to have them. And now, gentlemen, under those terms we shall bid you good night.”
“We’ll see you again some time – Boosh! – an’ when we do – nom d’un nom d’un chien!” exclaimed Joe, shaking his fist toward the heavens.
“I hardly think it likely that you will ever see me again,” was the little gray man’s rejoinder. “We have made enough to leave the Yukon for good and all – ”
“For the good of all, I guess you mean,” muttered the sharp-tongued Jack under his breath.
Luckily for him, perhaps, the other did not hear him, or appeared not to. Half an hour later, inwardly raging, but without the means to act on their impulses, the two boys and the old man were out on the snow crust harnessing up the dog-team.
Over them stood the Wolf’s henchmen. As they “hit the trail” in the same direction as that whence they had come, they heard a harsh laugh and a shouted good night.
Both sounds came from the Wolf’s tent, the Wolf who had tricked and trapped them as a climax to their long pursuit.
CHAPTER XXVII – FACING DEATH
As the shades of night began to close in upon him, Sandy found himself still in the same position. From time to time one or another of the pack would hurl itself against the rocky islet in the snow waste, only to be remorselessly thrown back by the impact.
But for the most part the creatures sat silent and motionless, content to watch and wait for the harvest that they seemed sure would come to them in time.
After his fit of despair Sandy had once more rallied his energies and devoted his really active and brave mind to devising some means of passing the night, that it now appeared certain he must spend on the great rock pile.
Above him, growing in a rift, were the remains of some stunted balsams, the seeds of which had probably blown thither from the woods whence the wolves had issued. He stared at the melancholy, twisted, dried-up stumps of vegetation for some time before any idea concerning them came into his head. Then all at once he realized that here at least was the means for fire and warmth.
But hardly had this idea occurred to him, when he recollected something that made his heart sink to a lower level than before. He had no matches. The little nickeled box that held them lay at the foot of the rocks too well guarded by the wolves for him to make an effort to reach it. And yet he knew that he must have fire in the night or perish.
It was quite a while before a retentive memory helped him out. Then he recalled having heard some time before from an old trapper a method of fire-making without matches. The operation was simplicity itself and yet Sandy doubted if he could make it succeed.
The plan was simply this: to remove from a cartridge the bullet and part of the powder; then to place the cartridge in the gun as usual and fire into a pile of dry kindling. The sparks and flame from the powder were supposed to furnish the necessary start to the blaze, which could then be enlarged by blowing.
“At any rate, I might try it,” thought Sandy. “If I don’t make it go I stand a good chance of freezing. But if I do – ”
He stopped short. While he had been turning these matters over in his mind he had climbed up to the ridge on which grew the withered, dead balsams.
Now that he had gained it, he saw that beyond the gnarled, wind-twisted stumps was a considerable rift in the rocks. How far in it went he did not, of course, know. But it appeared that it ought to make a snug refuge from the rigors of the almost arctic cold.
Further exploration showed that the rift was quite a cave. It was not very high, but appeared to run back a considerable distance. Sandy hailed its discovery with joy. If he could light a fire back within the rift it would be practicable to keep it warm.
The thought of warmth, light and a good fire was comforting, even though for the present it existed only in the imagination. Sandy set to work on the withered balsams with his hunting knife. The wood was dry and dead and cut easily. Soon he had quite a pile of it dragged back into the rift.
As he worked he almost forgot the perils of his situation. For the present the biting cold which, as the sun grew lower, was more and more penetrating, turned his thoughts from his present miseries to the delights to come of warmth and comfort.
Having collected his pile and stacked it till it almost reached the roof of the rift, Sandy thought it was time to see if there was any merit in the old trapper’s recipe for starting a fire in the wilderness without matches. With his blade he stripped off patches of dry bark from the dead timber and shredded it until it was an easily inflammable mass, like excelsior.
Having done this, he collected his kindling and then piled the sticks crosswise in the form of a tower, so that when his fire was started he would be sure of a good draft. Then, with his knife, he extracted a bullet from a cartridge, poured a little of the powder upon the kindling and then slipped the half emptied shell into his rifle.
When this much of his preparations had been completed he was ready for the final test. He aimed the rifle carefully at his kindling pile, selecting a place where he had previously sprinkled the grains of powder. Then he pulled the trigger.
A muffled report and a shower of sparks from the muzzle followed, but to the boy’s disappointment, the kindling did not catch fire. The only result of his experiment, so far, was a suffocating smell of gunpowder.
But Sandy did not come of a stock that gives in easily.
“I must try it again,” he said to himself, thinking of his great countryman, Robert Bruce, and perhaps likening himself in the cave besieged by his enemies to that national hero.
Only in Sandy’s case there was no spider, as in the legend, to give him an example of perseverance. It was far too cold for spiders, as the boy reflected, with a rueful grin; and then he doubted if even Bruce’s foes were more remorseless or deadly than the ones awaiting him outside the rock masses, piled in the snow desert like an island in a vast ocean of white.
He prepared another cartridge, sprinkling more powder on his kindling. This time there arose a puff of flame and smoke from the pile as soon as he fired the rifle. Casting his weapon aside, Sandy threw himself down on his knees by the fire.
He began puffing vigorously at the smoldering place where the burning powder had landed.
A tiny flame crept up, licked at the kindling, grew brighter and seized upon some of the larger sticks piled above.
Five minutes later Sandy was warming himself at a satisfying blaze. As the smoke rolled out of the rift and upward in the darkening gloom the patient watchers outside set up a savage howl.
“Ah, howl away, you gloomeroons,” muttered Sandy, in the cheerful glow inside the rift. “I’ve got you beaten for a time, anyhow. And noo let’s hae a bite o’ supper.”
With a plucky grimace, as though to defy fate, Sandy spread out on the rock floor his stock of food. It looked scanty, pitifully so, when considered as the sole provision against starvation that the boy had with him in his rock prison – for such it might be fitly called.
“'Tis nae banquet,” and the Scotch lad wagged his head solemnly. “It would make a grand feed for a canary bird.”
He paused a minute, and then:
“But be glad you hae it, Sandy McTavish, you ungrateful carlin. You’re lucky not to have to make a supper off scenery; and, after all, you are nae sae hungry as yon wolves, judging by their voices.”
CHAPTER XXVIII – THE TRAP
It was a dispirited enough party that, under the stars, retraced its way from the camp of the little gray man, who at first, seeming so harmless and helpless, had turned out to be so venomous and vindictive. Tom and Jack had little to say.
The case was different with old Joe Picquet. He cried out aloud to the stars for vengeance on the Wolf. He abused his name in English, French and every one of half a dozen Indian dialects.
“Oh, what’s the use,” said Tom at length, interrupting a diatribe. “The fellow had the whip hand of us from the moment we let ourselves be taken in by believing he really was sick and helpless.”
“Think of that wood we chopped,” muttered Jack, with a groan.
Jack was not a lover of that form of exercise which is taken with the assistance of an axe. He felt like joining old Joe’s lamentations as he thought of the vigor with which he had worked to relieve the seemingly sick man’s necessities.
“It is a good lesson to us,” went on Tom, “although it has been a mighty costly one. If we hadn’t shilly-shallied about that tent we would have been well on our way with the stolen skins by this time.”
“No use crying over spilt milk,” counseled Jack. “It is done now and can’t be undone. Wonder if we will ever see those rascals again?”
“Impossible to say. If only we could get to a trading post or a station we might raise a posse and take after them. In this part of the country it is a mighty bad offense to steal skins.”
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