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CHAPTER III THE LONELY CAMP

A lynx may be only a cat, but a cat that is the size of a young tiger, with all a tiger's ferocity, is no pleasant opponent at any time. Add to naturally aggressive tendencies the fact that her baby has cried out in pain, and you have an angry mother-fiend that takes a deal of seeking to find her equal in fierceness.

In this case the lynx had been watching the young hunters with one eye for some time from her shelter among the leaves of the overhanging maple. She had been keeping the other eye upon her offspring, having an idea that the humans might endanger its safety; and, when she heard the cry of pain, she simply dropped from her branch right upon Holden's back, fixing her claws in his coat and snapping furiously at his neck.

Luckily the boy's hunting-coat was of tough[Pg 22] buckskin, and when the lynx set her teeth in the collar she imagined that she was wreaking vengeance upon flesh and blood. And the sound she made was enough to chill the marrow.

Arnold had heard the scream and his chum's cry of surprise at the sudden assault. But he did not understand it at first. He surmised vaguely that it was nothing more than sympathetic rejoicing at his successful shot that had toppled a fine buck antelope in the grass.

However, second thoughts quickly dispelled the first surmise, for he heard Holden calling upon him in evident trouble.

"Bob! Come quickly! There's something on my back, and I can't get at it!"

Bob dashed into the long grass as the shortest route. But before he had crossed the slough Alf had managed to free himself from one sleeve of his coat, and had got the lynx beneath him.

Now it was a hand-to-hand fight. The claws of the animal seemed to be everywhere. They struck with lightning swiftness, and the teeth snapped like steel gins. In fact, the boy's opponent was simply a mass of fur and claws—nothing that could be gripped, but everything that could wound.[Pg 23]

"Don't shoot!" exclaimed Alf, as his friend appeared with gun half raised in his hands. "You can't get a clean shot at her—ugh! the brute! She's clawed my shoulder!"

It was a fierce struggle while it lasted.

Hot and panting, Alf fought to get a grip of the creature's throat. She, on her part, seemed to divine his purpose, and battled successfully to prevent him.

The combatants rolled over. The lynx was uppermost, and she made a vicious snap at the boy's face. But the quick head-turn of a trained boxer avoided that snap, and the sharp white teeth met in the lad's coat collar, slightly grazing his neck.

Alf gave a cry of pain.

That was too much for Bob, who snatched his hunting-knife from its sheath, and threw himself upon the enemy.

One plunge of the blade in the animal's side made it yell like a thing possessed. Then Bob dug his thumbs into the lynx's neck and pressed his fingers into its throat, pulling towards him with all his might, to drag the animal from his friend.

The knife was still sticking in the wound, and[Pg 24] as the lynx felt another enemy above her, she momentarily turned her attention to the one above, while she struck with her claws to deliver herself from the fingers that were choking her.

That was Alf's chance. He plucked at the hunting-knife, and plunged it into the wild animal with three rapid thrusts.

Then followed another scream more wild and blood-curdling than the rest. It was a death-cry; for in a moment more Bob stood up, holding a limp body by the neck.

Holden slowly rose from his bed of broken willows, and he grinned as he regarded his clothes—especially the jacket, that hung from his left arm like the evening dress of a Weary Willie.

"Rather the worse for wear and tear!" he remarked with comical ruefulness.

"Which? The clothes or yourself?" questioned Bob, as he threw the lynx's carcase to one side.

"I guess it's the clothes more than anything else. There's a lot of blood about, but that's the lynx's more than mine."

In truth the lad was a strange spectacle, for hardly an inch of his clothes had not been visited by claws or teeth. The boy himself was covered[Pg 25] with dust and dirt, while crimson patches of blood completed a picture that was both humorous and pathetic.

Fortunately, both the boys were able to look at the matter from the former point of view. Physical damage was not severe. There was a scratch on Alf's shoulder. Arnold examined it carefully, but decided that no danger was likely to follow, since the claws had passed through the leather jacket before touching the flesh. As a precaution against blood-poisoning, he insisted upon sucking the wound, after which he bound it with a handkerchief.

"That will be all right, I expect," he said, as the operation was completed. "I don't think we need worry about the other scratches."

"There would have been more—worse ones, probably—if you hadn't turned up," said Alf. "I couldn't get at the beast any way. She seemed to have claws like a porcupine's quills."

"And she knew jolly well how to use them. Do you think she's worth skinning?"

The dead lynx was examined.

"I don't think the hide is worth the trouble," commented Holden. "It's a bit ragged in any case, and the hunting-knife did not improve it.[Pg 26] But I'll take the tail as a memento. What about the antelope?"

"Oh, I got him all right. He's lying somewhere in the grass."

"Good!" exclaimed Alf delightedly. He had soon recovered from the exhaustion of the fight. "That will surprise the paters when they return to grub. And say! I'm as hungry as a hawk. Let's get back to camp. It must be getting on for noon by this time."

"Half-past ten. That's all," remarked Bob, as he looked at his watch. "Time drags when the appetite's healthy. I vote we leave the antelope where it is for the present, and shoot a few chicken for dinner. It would be a pity for us to try skinning the animal. We might spoil it altogether. I dare say father will do it for us afterwards."

"What about wolves?" questioned Alf.

"Yes, I hadn't thought of them. But I don't think there's much chance of wolves coming in the daytime. It would be safe enough until night."

"Right you are," agreed Alf. "First for the tail of my lynx, and then a bee-line for the camp."

Retracing their path by the buffalo trail, the[Pg 27] boys were soon on the home journey again. Five prairie chicken were bagged on the way, and soon the hunters were once more at the camp-ground.

Of course Holden's first move was to strip, plunge into the river, and then robe himself in garments that were less like a rag-picker's bundle. Meantime, Arnold set to work lighting a fire and preparing the chicken for roasting on wooden spits, as their camping experience had taught them.

By midday the meal was in readiness. The birds were cooked, "biscuits" were baked in the camp-oven, the fragrant smell of coffee was issuing from a billy-tin, and all preparations completed to welcome the elder hunters.

But time went past, and there was no sign of a canoe on the river.

"I wonder if they have missed their way?" remarked Alf, to whom the waiting was a trial, considering inside calls and tempting odours.

"I don't think that's likely," said Bob. "Your dad and mine are both old backwoodsmen. I'm beginning to think something has happened——"

"An accident?"

"Possibly. But of course we can't tell. But[Pg 28] it isn't like them to be late when they promised to be back by noon."

"But then, if an accident has happened to one, the other could always come back and let us know," Alf answered; and his chum returned—

"That's just what I've been thinking. I don't want to frighten you, old man, but I can't help thinking that something has gone wrong with both."

"Perhaps it's the canoe. It might have got damaged. They were exploring new water, you know."

Bob nodded.

"As likely as not. In that case they'll come back by land, and that would take some time, as, of course, they would go much quicker by water. We'll wait a little longer, and if they don't arrive we'd better have our grub. They'll turn up later."

The boys waited as patiently as possible, but ultimately, with no sign of the travellers, they were obliged to dine alone; though the meal was not eaten with customary cheerfulness, for both the boys shared forebodings of troubles to come.

The day wore on, and still no signs of the wanderers, while the anxiety of the boys rapidly increased. And when night came, without bringing[Pg 29] any news to allay concern, they then began to decide that some serious accident must have taken place.

Until late into the hours of darkness the two lads sat by the camp-fire, starting hopefully at each sound from the forest or river—ready to believe that any whisper of Nature must be the sound of a reassuring messenger.

How different it was from their usual little camp-fire gatherings! At such times they were wont to loll about while reciting the many incidents of the day just gone, and planning fresh exploits for the morrow. Even last night they had thus sat and planned the expedition that had ended in adding a heavier gloom to the night.

The fire-flies flickered their tiny lamps, the night-hawks shrieked as they swooped from the heavens, the owls hooted their dismal cries, and the wolves wailed in the distance as they fought over the remains of the antelope that had been left to them.

It must have been near midnight when Bob broke an unusually long spell of silence.

"Well, old boy," he said, with forced brightness, "I guess the best thing we can do is to turn in. They won't be back to-night, that's certain."[Pg 30]

"Yet—one might come. I wouldn't like to be asleep if—if there was any call, you know."

"Then we'll take it turn about—two hours asleep, two hours watch," was the elder boy's practical suggestion. "Besides, very likely we are worrying ourselves without need. Anything may have happened to keep them from returning—not even an accident, as we've been supposing. One never knows what may take place in the backwoods, and—and perhaps they were forced to wait till morning."

Bob knew, and Alf knew as well, that it was but a plucky attempt to look at fears in the best light—an effort to convince both against their conviction that their evil forebodings were groundless.

But Alf was not easily convinced.

"I am sure that nothing except accident could have happened to prevent at least your father or mine from returning to camp. They would know that we should be worried. And no matter how far they went by canoe in the morning, there has been plenty of time to walk the distance. I can't help thinking that they came upon tracks of the moose, as they wanted, and——"

"Hush," interrupted Bob kindly. "Don't let[Pg 31] your imagination run away with you like that, old man. Besides, you know what good shots both our fathers are. They know the ways of most big game. No; I can't think that you are right. Such an accident might happen to one—even the finest trapper; but, to both—believe me, it's out of the question. Now, turn in like a good chap. I'll take first watch."

"You'll wake me as soon as the two hours are up?" pressed Alf, reluctant to leave the watch when he might have first sign of news.

"Yes, I'll waken you. Don't worry about that. You are tired as a dog as it is—what with fighting lynxes and other excitements. In two hours you'll find that I'll be too ready for sleep to let you doze a second over time."


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