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CHAPTER XVIII HOT ON THE TRAIL
It was a happy meeting for the two chums after the exciting events that each had experienced. But it was rather sad, all the same; for even in their joy at finding how both had come through their trials with but little damage, they could not but regret the tragic end to poor Red Fox.

"He was a high-tempered chap," said Arnold, when he had listened to his friend's story. "All the same, he must have had some good in him, since he was so completely changed at the end."

"He seemed sorry enough," Alf rejoined. "And I must say that I feel wretchedly sorry about the whole thing. In a way it was my fault—making the remarks that I did. It never occurred to me that he would understand a word——"

"As apparently he did. However, it can't be[Pg 191] helped now. No doubt he had some evil purpose all along, or he wouldn't have come to us with that lie about being sent by your father and mine."

"At the same time it has taught me a lesson," said Alf. "I guess I'll keep my opinions to myself next time, when they are so uncomplimentary."

"Just as well," Bob agreed seriously. Then, turning to the dead Indian: "We've got to lay that poor redskin to rest. I wonder how we are to manage it!"

"We can't dig——"

"And we can't leave the body uncovered. The wolves would work mischief in no time."

"How would it be if we were to lay him in that little hollow and cover him with big stones?" suggested Holden. "There are plenty of boulders about, and we could easily cover him with branches first, with stones on the top, to keep off the animals."

"Right," Bob said; and together the lads gently raised the Indian's body and placed it in a little flower-scented hollow that, after all, was a fitting bed to receive the royal dead—quite as fitting as a dark pit. Then they cast maple[Pg 192] branches over it, and carried boulders until a substantial mound was raised.

And when all was completed as well as they were able to do it, instinctively both lads knelt beside the grave and prayed for a few minutes in silence. And the birds overhead sang their hymns to unite in the service—happy songs of gladness they sang, that seemed to convey to the boys' hearts the grand lesson of all funeral services—that death is not all sadness, for we know of the joy that follows.

There was nothing more to be done now but to return to camp. Mackintosh had probably returned by this time, and he or Haggis would be able to guide to the Dacotah village on the urgent errand. So the broncho was caught. It had never wandered far after the recovery from its fright, which was probably due to the sudden appearance of a wolf in the scrub; and before long the chums were on the home trail, taking it in turn to ride the horse.

Camp was reached about noon, and the boys were greeted at the tent by the Scot.

"Where in the world have you two laddies been?" he immediately questioned. "Here's Haggis and me (to say no' a word about[Pg 193] Bannock) returned at breakfast-time to find no' a single body at the camp. No' that time has been wasted, for we would have rested till dinner in any case. But it's foolish tiring yoursels like this when there's hard work before you. Pleasure is all very well——"

"We've been on no pleasure trip," interrupted Alf, with a sad smile. "It has been anything but pleasure to Arnold and me."

Thereupon Holden immediately launched into the story of his adventure and his chum's—a tale that was listened to with silent surprise both by Mackintosh and the half-breed, who had come out from the tent and stood attentively apart.

"Well, well," the Scotsman commented at the close, "these are stirring times for you boys. There's no' a bit o' doot aboot that." Then he added seriously: "But I'm thinking we'll no' be able to wait here ower long. We must set oot at once. I ken something o' this Indian legend o' water-spirits, and I ken something o' Indian ways as well. There's evil things that will be doing if we canna stop them."

"Did you find out anything while you were away with Haggis?" questioned Bob.

"A bit. We found the tracks o' boots as well[Pg 194] as moccasins, and we followed far enough to learn that they had gone to the Dacotah village. Then we came back to fetch you laddies. And I found four grand specimens for my collection! Real fine they are—such as will make my brither entomologists in Edinburgh open their eyes as big as Duddingston Loch when they see them. But there—I must be daft to be thinkin' o' moths at such a time. See, Haggis! Hurry on wi' the denner! We'll be striking the camp, for we must mak' straight for Pleasant Valley wi'oot delay."

The speaker was all bustle and hurry now, and as the boys followed to render assistance, Bob asked—

"Pleasant Valley? But did you not say that they were at the Dacotah village?"

"Of course I did. But I said were, not are. Did you no' attend to what your freend said—that Red Fox told him that Mighty Hand would leave for Pleasant Valley by another sun? That's the day."

"Oh, I see. Then you mean to go there direct?"

"Exactly. I ken something o' that Pleasant Valley. There's no' a verra pleasant look aboot it noo—a desert o' a place—all crags and sand,[Pg 195] wi' just a pickle o' trees. It's a branch arm o' the Athabasca, and has been a torrent at some flood-time—the time that probably started the legend. But there's no' been ony stream flowing there in the recollection o' living man. But"—and the naturalist was predominant for the instant—"there are rare kinds o' hawk moth to be found in that same desert! You'll be seeing the value o' my phosphorus invention before another couple of nights are out."

The boys laughed as the man's enthusiasm came suddenly uppermost, to the exclusion of (to their minds) a subject of more vital importance.

"I do believe, Skipper, that you would sooner capture a rare beetle than be a Napoleon!" laughed Bob, to which the naturalist replied with scorn, as he indicated the lads to take the opposite end of the tent to roll—

"Beetle? What do you take me for—a coleopterist? Ma conscience, laddie, these insects are no interest to me. I wouldn't touch one with a pair o' tongs. It's moths and butterflies for Skipper Mackintosh—the dainty fluttering things that are like bits o' sunshine and beams o' the moonlight. Beetle? Speak not to me the name o' thae things o' darkness!"[Pg 196]

The tent was rolled and most of the other adjuncts to the camp were collected and deftly stowed on the back of the pack-horse with the neatness of expert campers. Then a hasty cold meal was taken while Mackintosh delivered his plans.

"Now, boys, listen to me. I've got to be your captain in this journey, for you'll admit that I know best. Well, I've prepared food enough for three of us for two days. Each will carry his own. Then you've got a pair o' guns and a rifle between you. That's all that you'll need. I've got my own rifle and a revolver, in case o' accidents, though I'm hoping there'll be no need for the like o' that. Now we'll start off at once. There's no straight road from here for Pleasant Valley, but it's through bog and bush where the horse canna get wi' its burden. But it'll make four or five hours' difference to us other than by the round-about way. So Haggis'll take the pack-horse. Ay, he'll be better o' Bannock, too. Dogs are often useless creatures in an expedition that might mean creeping and hiding. Bannock's no' that bad-mannered; but he loves hunting, and a wolf might tempt him."

"How far is it to this Pleasant Valley, as it is called?" asked Holden.[Pg 197]

"Aboot fifteen mile as we will travel, twenty at the least by the path Haggis'll follow. Oh, ay, Haggis'll be all right. There's no fear o' him not turning up aboot midnight. He's no' quite ceevilised yet, for he canna mind a' the words o' 'Auld Lang Syne' and 'Rule Britannia.' But he's ceevilised enough to be dependable. You wait at the Old Crossing till we turn up, Haggis!"

"Right, boss," answered the half-breed, who seldom spoke more than two words at a time if he could avoid doing so, and he immediately rose up to make the final arrangements for his departure.

"Then there's no more to be said," the Scotsman concluded. "It's start right away; keep a brave heart and a steady foot foremost, and we'll no' be that far from our friends come nightfall."

Skipper Mackintosh had spoken nothing but the truth when he said that the direct trail was not one that a laden pack-horse could travel with ease, far less speed.

The earlier portion of the march was easy enough. But after about an hour's walking through the bush the travellers reached a mile[Pg 198] of bogland, across which a path could only be found by stepping cautiously from one grassy hummock to another. Even then the surface of the moss shivered for yards around, and the mud between the tufts oozed, as if its mouth were watering to swallow up the trio.

"Feel for every step before you put your weight on it!" the naturalist instructed. He, of course, had taken the foremost position of leader. "If you want to disappear quicker than you did in yon muskeg, Master Bob, you can set the tip o' your big toe in yon mud, and you'll travel as quick as electricity."

This part of the journey was certainly fatiguing, but the travellers kept up good hearts by pleasant banter and dogged determination.

Reaching solid ground again, there was another easier spell of bush tramping. Then the trail began the ascent of a hill—a rocky, loose-bouldered slope that could only be traversed by a narrow path that somewhat resembled a strip of ribbon on the side of a house.

Up they went, higher and higher each step, with the sharp slope to the left and a sheer declivity of loose stones at the right.

Once Alf slipped, and the stone against which[Pg 199] he tripped went leaping down the slope without stopping, until it was lost to sight some three hundred feet or more below.

"Which of you two laddies is the one that's danced down the hillside?" questioned Mackintosh, without seeming to look round. His voice was pleasant, but he had taken a quick glance backwards all the same, and his face had paled a little. That was but his kindly way of cheering the boys and helping them to keep their nerves in hand.

After a time the climbing ceased. It was now a level path, though it was none the less ready to trap the unwary, as it twisted round spurs and crossed little ravines. Then suddenly the travellers became aware of a sound like that of a small cataract.

Mackintosh stopped, and as they listened they were able to tell that the sound was one that proceeded from the continuous rolling of innumerable stones that were being propelled down the hillside at no great distance.

"What on earth is it?" questioned Alf, and at the same moment the man pointed towards a cloud of dust that had rounded a spur ahead of them—a cloud that was advancing rapidly in[Pg 200] their direction to the accompaniment of loud bleating.

"A herd of mountain sheep on the stampede," was the Skipper's immediate verdict.

"Sheep? Coming towards us?" exclaimed Bob, and as the words were spoken there could be seen amid the dust a lot of woolly animals tearing frantically along the narrow path, throwing the stones from beneath their feet, while now and then one would stumble and roll down the slope as though it had been shot from a cannon.

The noise was bewildering as it echoed among the barren hills and rocks.

"See! There's a black animal chasing them!" exclaimed Holden excitedly.

"A bear," said Mackintosh with grim calmness, as he rapidly slung his repeating rifle into readiness, an example that the boys quickly followed.

"What's to be done?" Bob questioned. Frankly he had not the remotest notion how to meet such an emergency, for it was impossible to climb upwards, as it was equally impossible to descend, while to retire along the path would only be to postpone the threatening disaster for a few minutes.[Pg 201]

"Come! Follow me quickly; but be careful," Mackintosh suddenly ordered, he himself hastening forward as the boys followed.

At this position the side of the hill bent to the left in the form of a horseshoe, so that it was quite easy from where the three adventurers stood to throw a stone across the intervening chasm to the path at the other side.

Mackintosh led the way until he had reached the first spur; then he told the boys to wait.

"Keep your hands steady and your guns ready, boys," he said. "I'm going along a bit to shoot down the leaders, if it may be; you empty your rifle and a round or two o' shot into yon bear. They'll all be opposite us on the other side in a few minutes. A steady nerve will do it; so, if ever you were cool in your born days, this is the day to be coolest."

Without waiting for further remark from either side, the man then hastened some yards along the path and took up a position where he could kneel and steady his gun arm on a boulder, and hardly had the several positions been taken up when with roar and clatter and cloud the stampede rounded the opposite hill-spur.

Crack! went the Scotsman's repeater. Crack![Pg 202] crack! And down tumbled three sheep, two of which rolled over the slope, leaving one to bar the way in the path. The others took the downward plunge. Crack! crack! crack! The rifle spoke rapidly and surely, as each bullet found a billet in a different animal.

The race was checked, but not yet effectually, though the Skipper had now more time to pick off the leaders as they scrambled over their brethren—only to fall victims to the sharp-shooter and help to build up a barrier to impede the others.

It was now a terrible sight of animals in desperation.

There were a hundred mountain sheep at least, and they were scrambling in a dense mass, trying vainly to advance—fighting, struggling, tumbling down the slope in mad confusion. Now and then one would have a momentary success and almost cross the barrier; then the deadly rifle would again send its message—and the barrier would be raised by one victim more.

Meantime, faithful to their charge, the boys kept their attention to the rear of the herd, but the dust was so dense that they could barely discern the hindmost animals.[Pg 203]

Then Bob suddenly exclaimed—

"Look out!"

But Alf had been equally ready. A rifle and a gun darted up to each boy's shoulder at the same instant; a simultaneous explosion came like one from both weapons. Then followed a roar like a miniature thunder-peal, and a brown grizzly was seen to shoot down the declivity in pursuit of the poor sheep that he had driven to destruction in such numbers.

"Bravo!" shouted Mackintosh, letting go his feelings in a wild whoop of exultation. "A grand shot, lads!"

"I guess his day's work is done," returned Alf quietly, though he was none the less delighted with his own and his chum's success.

Finding that the fierce pursuit had ceased, the few remaining sheep turned on the retreat, since they found it impossible to advance farther. Then the adventurers proceeded on their way, though they, in their turn, found it impossible to pass the barrier, and some time had to be expended in carefully tumbling the carcases down the slope. But soon the work was successfully accomplished, and the path once more clear to permit the three comrades to pursue their urgent course.


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