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CHAPTER II DEER-STALKING
The boys did not find that time hung heavily on their hands when left to their own devices.

The two tents that marked the camp at Crane Creek were pitched on a grassy slope that led down to the Athabasca's dancing waters. This had been their camp-ground for several days after a desultory hunting pilgrimage from Loon Portage—the last town where they had left railways and civilisation. Having penetrated northwards into a region that was apparently remote from attacks of the plough and beyond the sound of the rancher's whoop, it was determined to make this a headquarters for a couple of months or so. Sport in much variety had already been found. Moose-tracks had been seen in the vicinity, and it had been with the hope of practically substantiating the discovery that the two elders had started off that morning.[Pg 14]

The boys' first consideration was that of dinner.

"Let's go into the woods and see what we can find!" Bob Arnold suggested to his chum, after they had watched the canoe disappear round a bend of the river. "There's only the carcase of a prairie chicken left in the larder. That won't be much to satisfy our paters when they come back."

"And we'll want to tackle a small morsel ourselves," added Holden. "I've never had such an appetite in my life until I came West. There's something inside me that is always calling out: 'Grub! Grub! Give me grub!'" And the boy sniffed the pine-scented air with relish, as a hungry street gamin sniffs the fragrance of a cook-shop.

Bob laughed as he strolled back to the tents and stuck a tin dipper into a wooden pail near by for a draught of cold water that had lately been taken from a moss-bordered spring.

"You're a freak of Nature; that's what you are, Alf. Two months ago you were as thin and white as a sheet of paper, and even Saturday's school resurrection-pie failed to tempt you. Now you are the colour of a redskin, and nothing is safe from your teeth!"

"I'll not deny that I'm sometimes a bit peckish,"[Pg 15] returned the younger boy, entering one of the tents and filling a cartridge belt, which he proceeded to buckle round his waist. Then he remarked with twinkling eyes: "Say! Mustn't the fellows at St. Wenford's be green with envy if they think of themselves swotting away in class while we're having the time of our lives in the backwoods? They'll all be back by this time, for the school was only to be closed for seven weeks, the doctor said. Lucky thing fever is—in some ways."

"In some ways—perhaps," repeated Bob in an undertone that had much seriousness in it, as he followed his friend's example in preparing for the hunt. "But it didn't seem very lucky—to me—when—when your dad was sent for, post-haste, that night. It didn't seem the best of luck then—to me, I mean."

"Nor to me," added Alf with equal seriousness. Both boys sighed at the memory, and then the younger resumed light-heartedly: "I tell you what it was, Bob, I was thoroughly riled with that fever. We always meant to be chums for the rest of our lives, just like our dads; and it put my back up to find the fever trying to upset our plans. That's what did it. Once I got the[Pg 16] spirit of fight into me, I knocked the stuffing out of the old fever!"

"That you did!" laughed Arnold. "The doctors said they never saw anything like your recovery, once you set to work. Well, I'm fixed up for shooting. Are you all right? Better take hunting-knives. They come in handy."

"And a repeating rifle, in case of big game. One will be enough; we can take turns in carrying it."

"All aboard. I'll just see that the camp-fire is properly stamped out, and then we'll set off."

In a short time all preparations were completed, and the two boys were ready to enjoy a morning's adventure in any form that it chose to offer.

Having hopes that something bigger than duck or chicken might reward their efforts, the chums immediately struck inwards through the bush, following an old trail from a buffalo wallow that was the ancient path of those bovines when they sought water to drink or mud to wallow in when the mosquitoes were troublesome.

Beyond chipmunks, gophers, and a single jack-rabbit (the latter falling to Bob's gun), nothing was met to tempt powder for some time. Then they reached a large "slough" that in[Pg 17] early spring would be a small lake, though now it was filled with long blue grass and wild lavender. Here the boys paused as they examined the clearing.

"It's a likely-looking place for rattlesnakes," Bob remarked. "It hardly seems probable that—— What's that?—Over there in the centre?" The speaker's voice had suddenly dropped to an excited undertone as he pointed to a couple of small dark marks that peeped above long grass and might have been the ends of a broken branch.

Alf stared keenly for a few moments.

"I thought I saw them move——"

"So did I. Wait a minute and we'll make sure."

Keeping as still as statues, the boys waited in silence with both pairs of eyes steadily fixed upon the dark objects, and the pulses of each gave a sudden jump, for then the points moved and sank among the long grass.

"Antelope! Those are horns!" decided Alf, to which Bob returned, with a sly dig at his chum's ribs—

"'Horns?' Antlers, you old duffer! We're not hunting cows!"[Pg 18]

"Same thing," was the retort. "Horns or antlers both mean deer in these parts." Next the boy gave a slight start. "Say! I thought I heard the branches moving above my head!"

The young hunters turned to look upwards among the dense leaves of a gigantic maple tree whose lower branches were matted with twining convolvulus and other wild creepers.

"A bird or a chipmunk," was Bob's decision. "In any case, whatever it is, this antelope comes first. We are both at windward, though I guess he hasn't scented us yet on account of the long grass. But I think it would be better if we got round to the lee-side and waited for him to rise."

"How would it be if I were to stay here, in case he comes this way?" Alf suggested. "You could take the rifle——"

"A good idea. No, you keep the rifle," amended Bob, falling in with the suggestion. "If I get to lee, I'll be near enough to do damage with the breech-loader. If I fail, you'll have the longer sight with the rifle."

"All right," said Holden. "I'll wait just where I am behind this red willow. I'll not fire until I'm certain that your gun is out of it."[Pg 19]

"Good. I'm off," responded Bob, and immediately he started a cautious creeping journey in the shelter of the bush, in hopes of reaching the lee-side of the slough without attracting the attention of the animal that was apparently resting in innocent bliss among the cool blue grass.

During his silent guard Alf a second time thought that he heard a rustling above his head. But, following former experience, he thought that the sound was due to nothing more than a flying squirrel at the most, and he did not allow his eyes to be diverted from the spot where the signs of the antelope had last been seen.

By and by he at last caught sight of his chum. Bob had reached the farther end of the oval slough, and had risen to show himself. He waved his arm to announce his position before creeping down to the grass. Holden answered the signal, and rose to be ready for emergencies. But, as he moved his right foot, he stepped upon something soft, whereupon he was startled by a cry like that of a kitten. He gave a swift glance downwards, and saw that he had inadvertently trodden on something small and furry which was now expressing pain by means of shrill infantile wails.[Pg 20]

But his attention was immediately diverted by the sight of a dark body starting up from the long grass in the slough. At the same instant he heard the sharp crack of Arnold's gun. Alf darted the butt of his rifle to his shoulder, to be in readiness for an emergency shot; but, before the position was attained, something launched down upon him from the trees—bearing him forwards into the willow bush, while the forest echoed with the snarls of an infuriated wild beast.


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