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CHAPTER X A DEATH-TRAP
"Wake up! Do you want to sleep all your senses away?"

It seemed but an hour after the tired boys had laid down their heads that the above words were bellowed through the opening in the tent.

Bob sat up and rubbed his eyes.

Yes, it was really morning. There was no doubt about that, for the sun was pouring into the tent in a warm stream, the birds were filling the woods with music, and the perfume of Nature was creeping all around them.

One entire end of the tent had been thrown open to reveal these delights, and when Arnold opened his eyes he saw the gigantic figure of his Scottish host doing its best to fill the space. There was a good-humoured smile on the man's face—a smile that betokened a heart of the largest dimensions.[Pg 104]

Bob soon roused his chum, who was buried in a blanket.

"What's the matter?" questioned the latter, as he unrolled from the coverings.

"Can you not smell it?" demanded Mackintosh.

"Fried bacon and coffee—yes—ripping!" was the reply as Alf began to move, being inspired to haste by the odour that proceeded from the camp-fire beyond the tent, where Haggis was busy cooking.

Mackintosh gave a snort of assumed contempt.

"Bacon and coffee! Who thinks o' bacon and coffee on a morning like this? Fegs! but have you no' ears for the birds, nor nostrils for the scents of Nature? Man, but I'd sooner have a sniff o' the backwoods——"

"Than a mouthful of bacon? Not I," chimed in Alf merrily, at which the man laughed heartily as he turned on his heel.

"I'm thinking that there's very little poetry in a hungry stomach," he said. "Well, 'get a gait on.' You'll find a wash-hand basin behind the tent, and breakfast'll be ready when you are."

The boys needed no second bidding, and it was not many minutes before they were ready to[Pg 105] show how well they could appreciate the half-breed's culinary art.

While the lads were breakfasting, Mackintosh and Haggis busied themselves with striking the tent and packing the rest of the camp outfit upon the single pack-horse that accompanied the naturalist's wanderings. The two men had already fed at an earlier hour, and had stowed away most of their belongings in preparation for the journey.

"We'll be making straight for the Silver Lake, where the hanky was found," explained Mackintosh as they set off. "Haggis'll maybe pick up tracks there that'll be o' use to us." And so a northerly route was taken—crossing an arm of the Athabasca, and then following a course through the woods under the unerring guidance of the half-breed.

Towards noon the Scotsman called a halt, as he pointed to a small clearing through which ran a small stream of clear water.

"This'll no' be a bad place for us to eat our dinner, lads," he said. "If you'll unpack the mare and tether her, Haggis, we can see aboot the fire and the meat."

"Don't you think it would be well if we were[Pg 106] to shoot something?" suggested Bob. "You see, we don't know where we may have to go yet, and game may be scarce. There seemed to be any amount of it on the way here. It would be as well to save what we have in hand."

"A good thought," returned Mackintosh approvingly. "Let's see what the pair o' you can do wi' your guns while Haggis and I are setting things to rights."

"I'll go one way and you the other, Bob, and see which of us will have the best bag in half an hour!" said Alf, with the eager delight of a friendly competition in prospect.

"Right you are," agreed Arnold heartily, "You go to the right; I'll take the left, and in half an hour we'll meet again at the camp and compare notes."

With a few words of friendly chaffing as to which would be the more successful, the chums parted. Each was determined that his gun should prove a superior Nimrod's skill, and both were stirred to high spirits by the excitement of the quest.

It must not be a matter for surprise that the boys could take such pleasure in the diversions of the moment, even recollecting the serious[Pg 107] nature of the mission on which they had embarked with the original Skipper Mackintosh. The truth was that, once having been convinced that the absent men were indeed alive, the weight of anxiety was greatly lifted by that knowledge. As we are already aware, their fathers were men who had had many a backwoods adventure in their youth. They were well capable of taking care of themselves according to the circumstances in which they were placed. Hence the chief anxiety now was to hasten a meeting, when they would learn aright the cause of the elders' absence; and, though they could not conjecture what that cause could be, they felt assured that accident (in the ordinary sense of the word) was not the reason. Ordinary accidents of the hunt were not likely to meet two such experienced sportsmen at one time; and if one had suffered the other would have found means to communicate the fact ere this. The boys felt assured that to some other cause the matter must be attributed, and so they were fairly at ease in their minds, though, of course, anxious to hasten the time when the mystery would be explained.

Thus it was that when the opportunity occurred[Pg 108] for this diversion in the form of a little friendly rivalry, each set off in the highest of spirits.

Holden at once plunged into the thickest part of the bush at the back of the little camp-ground. Arnold decided to follow the downward course of the stream, in the hope that it might lead to a lake or pool where duck might fall to his lot.

Pushing his way through the scrub that bordered the running water, Bob went some distance without any success. Then he heard the sound of a gun some way to the rear, and he smiled to himself, as he thought that his chum had already commenced operations.

Spurred on by the thought, the boy hastened his steps, and increased his vigilant scrutiny of the bush for the first signs of game. But luck did not come his way for some time, and his anxiety not to be beaten in the contest led his feet farther than the half-hour's limit merited.

It was not until he had tramped a mile or more that Bob realised how quickly the time had passed. It was disappointing to have to return empty-handed to the camp, especially since he had heard Alf's gun crack twice again. At the same time, if there were no creatures to be shot, he could not be reproached for his lack of success.[Pg 109]

With a rueful grimace and a laugh of amusement at his own failure, the boy was just turning to retrace his steps, when suddenly the bush rustled at his side, and a brown body leapt into the air as if it had been shot from a catapult.

"Antelope!" Bob exclaimed with delight, and quick as a flash of light the butt of his gun darted to his shoulder and the woods resounded with the explosion of a cartridge.

It was a quick aim and not too good, for the animal disappeared in the farther bush, and the cracking of twigs told the young hunter that the quarry was yet active.

"This is worth waiting for," said Bob to himself, as he rushed forward in pursuit. "A dozen of Alf's prairie chicken will not be equal to an antelope—if I get him!"

There was much in that little "if," for evidently the deer was far from being disabled, since it had so rapidly made distance between itself and the hunter.

Nothing daunted, Bob hurried on, replacing the used cartridge as he ran, and easily following the tracks that the animal had made in its dash for liberty.

Bob's pulses were thrilling with excitement,[Pg 110] but his nerves were the real hunter's nerves that can be steady even when excitement runs highest. He gripped his gun firmly, and with eyes scaled to see each tremor of a leaf he followed the track with the dogged purpose of one who meant to capture.

Time and distance were unheeded now. All the boy's senses were converged towards one aim, and for the time being he was oblivious to all other distractions. Suddenly he stopped in the very midst of a pace, as if he were suddenly changed into a statue of marble; for at no great distance, he saw the deer standing at the edge of what seemed to be a natural paddock of green grass. The animal had paused in its flight, and was now sniffing the air with head raised, to discover if it were still pursued.

It was worth gun-shot.

Cautiously Bob raised his weapon without even moving from the strained position in which he had stopped at first glimpse of the game. It would be useless for him to approach closer, for the least disturbance of the bush would be discovered, and a few leaps would carry the deer across that stretch of green turf, and thence—probably beyond all chance of recovery.[Pg 111]

Bob took a careful sight this time. Then he fired. Instantly the deer sprang upwards into the air, gave two marvellous leaps forward, and then fell in a lifeless heap right in the centre of the paddock.

Bob gave a cry of exultation and ran forwards towards his bag. So excited was he now that he did not notice how the turf shivered under his feet when first he stepped upon the edge of the clearing. He had no thoughts for aught else but the triumph of his stalking. But suddenly, when he was within a few yards of the deer, he felt one foot sink beneath him. For a moment he did not give the incident any serious thought, but placed his other foot a little beyond, where the turf seemed firmer. But the next step sunk deeper than the first, and at each effort to release the one the other sunk farther.

Then a cold sweat broke out all over the lad's body. He realised the plight that he was in, for the green sward was no more than a thin covering of turf that concealed a great muskeg—a lake of liquid mud such as has been known to swallow men, horses—nay, even a herd of buffalo, without leaving a trace of the hapless victims that have disappeared within that ever-hungry throat.[Pg 112]

Bob stood still in horror at his terrible discovery.

He looked round him. There was not a sign of anything that might aid him—not a log, not so much as a twig. Nothing was at hand but the grass that a moment before had looked so fresh and alluring, but which now seemed to suggest all that was ugly and treacherous. Even the slain deer was already beginning to yield to the suction from beneath.

If ever Bob was near to utter despair, it was at that moment. He was over the ankles in mud, and he could feel himself gradually sinking, while the slimy mass seemed to cling to his limbs and drag him downwards with irresistible force.

Once he thought that he might be safer if he lay upon his face, but he quickly banished that suggestion when he saw that the prostrate position of the deer did not impede its certain destruction. He scarce dared to breathe, since every movement of a muscle hastened the work of the muskeg.

Down, down he sank. The mud crept to his knees and gradually began to ascend his thighs.

It seemed to be only a matter of time—another hour, perhaps less—and the tragedy would end.[Pg 113]

Yet he tried to be brave. He tried to brace himself to face the trial like a man, though it is hardly to be wondered at that he felt hope quickly leaving him, as inch by inch he sunk into that horrible green death-trap.

Then, just as suddenly as if a voice had spoken to him from the very grass at his feet, there flashed into his mind the words that the good old Scot had spoken by the camp-fire the previous night—

"There's a Hand that could guide the frailest birch-bark through Niagara."

Bob remembered, and hope sprang up in his heart with a bright-burning flame. Yet his faith was severely tested, as the mud crept up, up—now to his hips, then slowly advancing beyond his waist, until at last it was embracing his chest in a cold grip.


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