Two little boys sat on the fence whittling arrows one fine day. Said one little boy to the other little boy,—
“Let’s do something jolly.”
“All right. What will we do?”
“Run off to the woods and be hunters.”
“What can we hunt?”
“Bears and foxes.”
“Mullin says there ain’t any round here.”
“Well, we can shoot squirrels and snare woodchucks.”
“Haven’t got any guns and trap.”
“We’ve got our bows, and I found an old trap behind the barn.”
“What will we eat?”
“Here’s our lunch; and when that’s gone we can roast the squirrels and cook the fish on a stick. I know how.”
“Where will you get the fire?”
“Got matches in my pocket.”
“I’ve got a lot of things we could use. Let’s see.”
And as if satisfied at last, cautious Billy displayed his treasures, while bold Tommy did the same.
Besides the two knives there were strings, nails, matches, a piece of putty, fish-hooks, and two very dirty handkerchiefs.
“There, sir, that’s a first-rate fit-out for hunters; and with the jolly basket of lunch Mrs. Mullin gave us, we can get on tip-top for two or three days,” said Tommy, eager to be off.
“Where shall we sleep?” asked Billy, who liked to be comfortable both night and day.
“Oh, up in trees or on beds of leaves, like the fellows in our books. If you are afraid, stay at home; I’m going to have no end of a good time.” And Tommy crammed the things back into his pockets as if there were no time to lose.
“Pooh! I ain’t afraid. Come on!” And jumping down Billy caught up his rod, rather ashamed of his many questions.
No one was looking at them, and they might have walked quietly off; but that the “running away” might be all right, both raced down the road, tumbled over a wall, and dashed into the woods as if a whole tribe of wild Indians were after them.
“Do you know the way?” panted Billy, when at last they stopped for breath.
“Yes, it winds right up the mountain; but we’d better not keep to it, or some one will see us and take us back. We are going to be real hunters and have adventures; so we must get lost, and find our way by the sun and the stars,” answered Tommy, who had read so many Boys’ Books his little head was a jumble of Texan Rangers, African Explorers, and Buffalo Bills; and he burned to outdo them all.
“What will our mothers say if we really get lost?” asked Billy, always ready with a question.
“Mine won’t fuss. She lets me do what I like.”
That was true; for Tommy’s poor mamma was tired of trying to keep the lively little fellow in order, and had got used to seeing him come out of all his scrapes without much harm.
“Mine will be scared; she’s always afraid I’m going to get hurt, so I’m careful. But I guess I’ll risk it, and have some fun to tell about when we go home,” said Billy, trudging after Captain Tommy, who always took the lead.
These eleven-year-old boys were staying with their mothers at a farm-house up among the mountains; and having got tired of the tame bears, the big barn, the trout brook, the thirty colts at pasture, and the society of the few little girls and younger boys at the hotel near by, these fine fellows longed to break loose and “rough it in the bush,” as the hunters did in their favorite stories.
Away they went, deeper and deeper into the great forest that covered the side of the mountain. A pleasant place that August day; for it was cool and green, with many brooks splashing over the rocks, or lying in brown pools under the ferns. Squirrels chattered and raced in the tall pines; now and then a gray rabbit skipped out of sight among the brakes, or a strange bird flew by. Here and there blackberries grew in the open places, sassafras bushes were plentiful, and black-birch bark was ready for chewing.
“Don’t you call this nice?” asked Tommy, pausing at last in a little dell where a noisy brook came tumbling down the mountain side, and the pines sung overhead.
“Yes; but I’m awful hungry. Let’s rest and eat our lunch,” said Billy, sitting down on a cushion of moss.
“You always want to be stuffing and resting,” answered sturdy Tommy, who liked to be moving all the time.
He took the fishing-basket, which hung over his shoulder by a strap, and opened it carefully; for good Mrs. Mullin had packed a nice lunch of bread and butter, cake and peaches, with a bottle of milk, and two large pickles slipped in on the sly to please the boys.
Tommy’s face grew very sober as he looked in, for all he saw was a box of worms for bait and an old jacket.
“By George! we’ve got the wrong basket. This is Mullin’s, and he’s gone off with our prog. Won’t he be mad?”
“Not as mad as I am. Why didn’t you look? You are always in such a hurry to start. What shall we do now without anything to eat?” whined Billy; for losing his lunch was a dreadful blow to him.
“We shall have to catch some fish and eat blackberries. Which will you do, old cry-baby?” said Tommy, laughing at the other boy’s dismal face.
“I’ll fish; I’m so tired I can’t go scratching round after berries. I don’t love ’em either.” And Billy began to fix his line and bait his hook.
“Lucky we got the worms; you can eat ’em if you can’t wait for fish,” said Tommy, bustling about to empty the basket and pile up their few possessions in a heap. “There’s a quiet pool below here, you go and fish there. I’ll pick the berries, and then show you how to get dinner in the woods. This is our camp; so fly round and do your best.”
Then Tommy ran off to a place near by where he had seen the berries, while Billy found a comfortable nook by the pool, and sat scowling at the water so crossly, it was a wonder any trout came to his hook. But the fat worms tempted several small ones, and he cheered up at the prospect of food. Tommy whistled while he picked, and in half an hour came back with two quarts of nice berries and an armful of dry sticks for the fire.
“We’ll have a jolly dinner, after all,” he said, as the flames went crackling up, and the dry leaves made a pleasant smell.
“Got four, but don’t see how we’ll ever cook ’em; no frying-pan,” grumbled Billy, throwing down the four little trout, which he had half cleaned.
“Don’t want any. Broil ’em on the coals, or toast ’em on a forked stick. I’ll show you how,” said cheerful Tommy, whittling away, and feeding his fire as much like a real hunter as a small boy could be.
While he worked, Billy ate berries and sighed for bread and butter. At last, after much trouble, two of the trout were half cooked and eagerly eaten by the hungry boys. But they were very different from the nice brown ones Mrs. Mullin gave them; for in spite of Tommy’s struggles they would fall in the ashes, and there was no salt to eat with them. By the time the last were toasted, the young hunters were so hungry they could have eaten anything, and not a berry was left.
“I set the trap down there, for I saw a hole among the vines, and I shouldn’t wonder if we got a rabbit or something,” said Tommy, when the last bone was polished. “You go and catch some more fish, and I’ll see if I have caught any old chap as he went home to dinner.”
Off ran Tommy; and the other boy went slowly back to the brook, wishing with all his might he was at home eating sweet corn and berry pie.
The trout had evidently gone to their dinners, for not one bite did poor Billy get; and he was just falling asleep when a loud shout gave him such a fright that he tumbled into the brook up to his knees.
“I’ve got him! Come and see! He’s a bouncer,” roared Tommy, from the berry bushes some way off.
Billy scrambled out, and went as fast as his wet boots would let him, to see what the prize was. He found Tommy dancing wildly round a fat gray animal, who was fighting to get his paws out of the trap, and making a queer noise as he struggled about.
“What is it?” asked Billy, getting behind a tree as fast as possible; for the thing looked fierce, and he was very timid.
“A raccoon, I guess, or a big woodchuck. Won’t his fur make a fine cap? I guess the other fellows will wish they’d come with us,” said Tommy, prancing to and fro, without the least idea what to do with the creature.
“He’ll bite. We’d better run away and wait till he’s dead,” said Billy.
“Wish he’d got his head in, then I could carry him off; but he does look savage, so we’ll have to leave him awhile, and get him when we come back. But he’s a real beauty.” And Tommy looked proudly at the bunch of gray fur scuffling in the sand.
“Can we ever eat him?” asked hungry Billy, ready for a fried crocodile if he could get it.
“If he’s a raccoon, we can; but I don’t know about woodchucks. The fellows in my books don’t seem to have caught any. He’s nice and fat; we might try him when he’s dead,” said Tommy, who cared more for the skin to show than the best meal ever cooked.
The sound of a gun echoing through the wood gave Tommy a good idea,—
“Let’s find the man and get him to shoot this chap; then we needn’t wait, but skin him right away, and eat him too.”
Off they went to the camp; and catching up their things, the two hunters hurried away in the direction of the sound, feeling glad to know that some one was near them, for two or three hours of wood life made them a little homesick.
They ran and scrambled, and listened and called; but not until they had gone a long way up the mountain did they find the man, resting in an old hut left by the lumbermen. The remains of his dinner were spread on the floor, and he lay smoking, and reading a newspaper, while his dog dozed at his feet, close to a well-filled game-bag.
He looked surprised when two dirty, wet little boys suddenly appeared before him,—one grinning cheerfully, the other looking very dismal and scared as the dog growled and glared at them as if they were two rabbits.
“Hollo!” said the man.
“Hollo!” answered Tommy.
“Who are you?” asked the man.
“Hunters,” said Tommy.
“Had good luck?” And the man laughed.
“First-rate. Got a raccoon in our trap, and we want you to come and shoot him,” answered Tommy, proudly.
“Sure?” said the man, looking interested as well as amused.
“No; but I think so.”
“What’s he like?”
Tommy described him, and was much disappointed when the man lay down again, saying, with another laugh,—
“It’s a woodchuck; he’s no good.”
“But I want the skin.”
“Then don’t shoot him, let him die; that’s better for the skin,” said the man, who was tired and didn’t want to stop for such poor game.
All this time Billy had been staring hard at the sandwiches and bread and cheese on the floor, and sniffing at them, as the dog sniffed at him.
“Want some grub?” asked the man, seeing the hungry look.
“I just do! We left our lunch, and I’ve only had two little trout and some old berries since breakfast,” answered Billy, with tears in his eyes and a hand on his stomach.
“Eat away then; I’m done, and don’t want the stuff.” And the man took up his paper as if glad to be let alone.
It was lucky that the dog had been fed, for in ten minutes nothing was left but the napkin; and the boys sat picking up the crumbs, much refreshed, but ready for more.
“Better be going home, my lads; it’s pretty cold on the mountain after sunset, and you are a long way from town,” said the man, who had peeped at them over his paper now and then, and saw, in spite of the dirt and rips, that they were not farmer boys.
“We don’t live in town; we are at Mullin’s, in the valley. No hurry; we know the way, and we want to have some sport first. You seem to have done well,” answered Tommy, looking enviously from the gun to the game-bag, out of which hung a rabbit’s head and a squirrel’s tail.
“Pretty fair; but I want a shot at the bear. People tell me there is one up here, and I’m after him; for he kills the sheep, and might hurt some of the young folks round here,” said the man, loading his gun with a very sober air; for he wanted to get rid of the boys and send them home.
Billy looked alarmed; but Tommy’s brown face beamed with joy as he said eagerly,—
“I hope you’ll get him. I’d rather shoot a bear than any other animal but a lion. We don’t have those here, and bears are scarce. Mullin said he hadn’t heard of one for a long time; so this must be a young one, for they killed the big one two years ago.”
That was true, and the man knew it. He did not really expect or want to meet a bear, but thought the idea of one would send the little fellows home at once. Finding one of them was unscared, he laughed, and said with a nod to Tommy,—
“If I had time I’d take you along, and show you how to hunt; but this fat friend of yours couldn’t rough it with us, and we can’t leave him alone; so go ahead your own way. Only I wouldn’t climb any higher, for among the rocks you are sure to get hurt or lost.”
“Oh, I say, let’s go! Such fun, Billy! I know you’ll like it. A real gun and dog and hunter! Come on, and don’t be a molly-coddle,” cried Tommy, wild to go.
“I won’t! I’m tired, and I’m going home; you can go after your old bears if you want to. I don’t think much of hunting anyway, and wish I hadn’t come,” growled Billy, very cross at being left out, yet with no desire to scramble any more.
“Can’t stop. Good-by. Get along home, and some day I’ll come and take you out with me, little Leatherstocking,” said the man, striding off with the dear gun and dog and bag, leaving Billy to wonder what he meant by that queer name, and Tommy to console himself with the promise made him.
“Let’s go and see how old Chucky gets on,” he said good-naturedly, when the man vanished.
“Not till I’m rested. I can get a good nap on this pile of hay; then we’ll go home before it’s late,” answered lazy Billy, settling himself on the rough bed the lumbermen had used.
“I just wish I had a boy with some go in him; you ain’t much better than a girl,” sighed Tommy, walking off to a pine-tree where some squirrels seemed to be having a party, they chattered and raced up and down at such a rate.
He tried his bow and shot all his arrows many times in vain, for the lively creatures gave him no chance. He had better luck with a brown bird who sat in a bush and was hit full in the breast with the sharpest arrow. The poor thing fluttered and fell, and its blood wet the green leaves as it lay dying on the grass. Tommy was much pleased at first; but as he stood watching its bright eye grow dim and its pretty brown wings stop fluttering, he felt sorry that its happy little life was so cruelly ended, and ashamed that his thoughtless fun had given so much pain.
“I’ll never shoot another bird except hawks after chickens, and I won’t brag about this one. It was so tame, and trusted me, I was very mean to kill it.”
As he thought this, Tommy smoothed the ruffled feathers of the dead thrush, and, making a little grave under the pine, buried it wrapped in green leaves, and left it there where its mate could sing over it, and no rude hands disturb its rest.
“I’ll tell mamma and she will understand; but I won’t tell Billy. He is such a greedy old chap he’ll say I ought to have kept the poor bird to eat,” thought Tommy, as he went back to the hut, and sat there, restringing his bow, till Billy woke up, much more amiable for his sleep.
They tried to find the woodchuck, but lost their way, and wandered deeper into the great forest till they came to a rocky place and could go no farther. They climbed up and tumbled down, turned back and went round, looked at the sun and knew it was late, chewed sassafras bark and checkerberry leaves for supper, and grew more and more worried and tired as hour after hour went by and they saw no end to woods and rocks. Once or twice they heard the hunter’s gun far away, and called and tried to find him.
Tommy scolded Billy for not going with the man, who knew his way and was probably safe in the valley when the last faint shot came up to them. Billy cried, and reproached Tommy for proposing to run away; and both felt very homesick for their mothers and their good safe beds at Farmer Mullin’s.
The sun set, and found them in a dreary place full of rocks and blasted trees half-way up the mountain. They were so tired they could hardly walk, and longed to lie down anywhere to sleep; but, remembering the hunter’s story of the bear, they were afraid to do it, till Tommy suggested climbing a tree, after making a fire at the foot of it to scare away the bear, lest he climb too and get them.
But, alas! the matches were left in their first camp; so they decided to take turns to sleep and watch, since it was plain that they must spend the night there. Billy went up first, and creeping into a good notch of the bare tree tried to sleep, while brave Tommy, armed with a big stick, marched to and fro below. Every few minutes a trembling voice would call from above, “Is anything coming?” and an anxious voice would answer from below, “Not yet. Hurry up and go to sleep! I want my turn.”
At last Billy began to snore, and then Tommy felt so lonely he couldn’t bear it; so he climbed to a lower branch, and sat nodding and trying to keep watch, till he too fell fast asleep, and the early moon saw the poor boys roosting there like two little owls.
A loud cry, a scrambling overhead, and then a great shaking and howling waked Tommy so suddenly that he lost his wits for a moment and did not know where he was.
“The bear! the bear! don’t let him get me! Tommy, Tommy, come and make him let go,” cried Billy, filling the quiet night with dismal howls.
Tommy looked up, expecting to behold a large bear eating his unhappy friend; but the moonlight showed him nothing but poor Billy dangling from a bough, high above the ground, caught by his belt when he fell. He had been dreaming of bears, and rolled off his perch; so there he hung, kicking and wailing, half awake, and so scared it was long before Tommy could make him believe that he was quite safe.
How to get him down was the next question. The branch was not strong enough to bear Tommy, though he climbed up and tried to unhook poor Billy. The belt was firmly twisted at the back, and Billy could not reach to undo it, nor could he get his legs round the branch to pull himself up. There seemed no way but to unbuckle the belt and drop. That he was afraid to try; for the ground was hard, and the fall a high one. Fortunately both belt and buckle were strong; so he hung safely, though very uncomfortably, while Tommy racked his boyish brain to find a way to help him.
Billy had just declared that he should be cut in two very soon if something was not done for him, and Tommy was in despair, when they thought they heard a far-off shout, and both answered it till their throats were nearly split with screaming.
“I seem to see a light moving round down that way,” cried Billy from his hook, pointing toward the valley.
“They are looking for us, but they won’t hear us. I’ll run and holler louder, and bring ’em up here,” answered Tommy, glad to do anything that would put an end to this dreadful state of things.
“Don’t leave me! I may fall and be killed! The bear might come! Don’t go! don’t go!” wailed Billy, longing to drop, but afraid.
“I won’t go far, and I’ll come back as quick as I can. You are safe up there. Hold on, and we’ll soon get you down,” answered Tommy, rushing away helter-skelter, never minding where he went, and too much excited to care for any damage.
The moon was bright on the blasted trees; but when he came down among the green pines, it grew dark, and he often stumbled and fell. Never minding bumps and bruises, he scrambled over rocks, leaped fallen trunks, floundered through brooks, and climbed down steep places, till, with a reckless jump, he went heels over head into a deep hole, and lay there for a moment stunned by the fall. It was an old bear-trap, long unused, and fortunately well carpeted with dead leaves, or poor Tommy would have broken his bones.
When he came to himself he was so used up that he lay still for some time in a sort of daze, too tired to know or care about anything, only dimly conscious that somebody was lost in a tree or a well, and that, on the whole, running away was not all fun.
By and by the sound of a gun roused him; and remembering poor Billy, he tried to get out of the pit,—for the moon showed him where he was. But it was too deep, and he was too stiff with weariness and the fall to be very nimble. So he shouted, and whistled, and raged about very like a little bear caught in the pit.
It is very difficult to find a lost person on these great mountains, and many wander for hours not far from help, bewildered by the thick woods, the deep ravines, and precipices which shut them in. Some have lost their lives; and as Tommy lay on the leaves used up by his various struggles, he thought of all the stories he had lately heard at the farm, and began to wonder how it would feel to starve to death down there, and to wish poor Billy could come to share his prison, that they might die together, like the Babes in the Wood, or better still the Boy Scouts lost on the prairies in that thrilling story, “Bill Boomerang, the Wild Hunter of the West.”
“I guess mother is worried this time, because I never stayed out all night before, and I never will again without leave. It’s rather good fun, though, if they only find me. I ain’t afraid, and it isn’t very cold. I always wanted to sleep out, and now I’m doing it. Wish poor Billy was safely down and in this good bed with me. Won’t he be scared all alone there? Maybe the belt will break and he get hurt bumping down. Sorry now I left him, he’s such a ’fraid-cat. There’s the gun again! Guess it’s that man after us. Hi! hollo! Here I am! Whoop! Hurrah! Hi! hi! hi!”
Tommy’s meditations ended in a series of yells as loud as his shrill little voice could make them, and he thought some one answered. But it must have been an echo, for no one came; and after another rampage round his prison, the poor boy nestled down among the leaves, and went fast asleep because there was nothing else to do.
So there they were, the two young hunters, lost at midnight on the mountain,—one hanging like an apple on the old tree, and the other sound asleep in a bear-pit. Their distracted mothers meantime were weeping and wringing their hands at the farm, while all the men in the neighborhood were out looking for the lost boys. The hunter on his return to the hotel had reported meeting the runaways and his effort to send them home in good season; so people knew where to look, and, led by the man and dog, up the mountain went Mr. Mullin with his troop. It was a mild night, and the moon shone high and clear; so the hunt was, on the whole, rather easy and pleasant at first, and lanterns flashed through the dark forest like fireflies, the lonely cliffs seemed alive with men, and voices echoed in places where usually only the brooks babbled and the hawks screamed. But as time went on, and no sign of the boys appeared, the men grew anxious, and began to fear some serious harm had come to the runaways.
“I can’t go home without them little shavers no way, ’specially Tommy,” said Mr. Mullin, as they stopped to rest after a hard climb through the blasted grove. “He’s a boy after my own heart, spry as a chipmunk, smart as a young cockerel, and as full of mischief as a monkey. He ain’t afraid of anything, and I shouldn’t be a mite surprised to find him enjoyin’ himself first-rate, and as cool as a coocumber.”
“The fat boy won’t take it so easily, I fancy. If it hadn’t been for him I’d have kept the lively fellow with me, and shown him how to hunt. Sorry now I didn’t take them both home,” said the man with the gun, seeing his mistake too late, as people often do.
“Maybe they’ve fell down a precipice and got killed, like Moses Warner, when he was lost,” suggested a tall fellow, who had shouted himself hoarse.
“Hush up, and come on! The dog is barkin’ yonder, and he may have found ’em,” said the farmer, hurrying toward the place where the hound was baying at something in a tree.
It was poor Billy, hanging there still, half unconscious with weariness and fear. The belt had slipped up under his arms, so he could breathe easily; and there he was, looking like a queer sort of cone on the blasted pine.
“Wal, I never!” exclaimed the farmer, as the tall lad climbed up, and, unhooking Billy, handed him down like a young bird, into the arms held up to catch him.
“He’s all right, only scared out of his wits. Come along and look for the other one. I’ll warrant he went for help, and may be half-way home by this time,” said the hunter, who didn’t take much interest in the fat boy.
Tommy’s hat lay on the ground; and showing it to the dog, his master told him to find the boy. The good hound sniffed about, and then set off with his nose to the ground, following the zigzag track Tommy had taken in his hurry. The hunter and several of the men went after him, leaving the farmer with the others to take care of Billy.
Presently the dog came to the bear-pit, and began to bark again.
“He’s got him!” cried the men, much relieved; and rushing on soon saw the good beast looking down at a little white object in one corner of the dark hole.
It was Tommy’s face in the moonlight, for the rest of him was covered up with leaves. The little round face seemed very quiet; and for a moment the men stood quite still, fearing that the fall might have done the boy some harm. Then the hunter leaped down, and gently touched the brown cheek. It was warm, and a soft snore from the pug nose made the man call out, much relieved,—
“He’s all right. Wake up here, little chap; you are wanted at home. Had hunting enough for this time?”
As he spoke, Tommy opened his eyes, gave a stretch, and said, “Hollo, Billy,” as calmly as if in his own bed at home. Then the rustle of the leaves, the moonlight in his face, and the sight of several men staring down at him startled him wide awake.
“Did you shoot the big bear?” he asked, looking up at the hunter with a grin.
“No; but I caught a little one, and here he is,” answered the man, giving Tommy a roll in the leaves, much pleased because he did not whine or make a fuss.
“Got lost, didn’t we? Oh, I say, where’s Billy? I left him up a tree like a coon, and he wouldn’t come down,” laughed Tommy, kicking off his brown bed-clothes, and quite ready to get up now.
They all laughed with him; and presently, when the story was told, they pulled the boy out of the pit, and went back to join the other wanderer, who was now sitting up eating the bread and butter Mrs. Mullin sent for their very late supper.
The men roared again, as the two boys told their various tribulations; and when they had been refreshed, the party started for home, blowing the tin horns, and firing shot after shot to let the scattered searchers know that the lost children were found. Billy was very quiet, and gladly rode on the various broad backs offered for his use; but Tommy stoutly refused to be carried, and with an occasional “boost” over a very rough place, walked all the way down on his own sturdy legs. He was the hero of the adventure, and was never tired of relating how he caught the woodchuck, cooked the fish, slid down the big rock, and went to bed in the old bear-pit. But in his own little mind he resolved to wait till he was older before he tried to be a hunter; and though he caught several woodchucks that summer, he never shot another harmless little bird.