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CHAPTER XXVI


AFTER DEER


"A rattlesnake!"

"Take care that he doesn't bite you!"

"My, what a big fellow!"

"He is heading this way!"

Such were some of the cries uttered by the young hunters and Sid Todd as all beheld a large-sized snake crawling from a hole under the tree. That it was a rattler there was no doubt.

All leaped back, for the sight momentarily stunned them. But then Dave recovered his presence of mind and blazed away with his shotgun, hitting the reptile in the middle, and inflicting several ugly but not mortal wounds. The rattlesnake gave a hiss, glided under some leafy bushes, and there commenced to sound his rattles.

"He's going to strike!" cried Phil, and as he spoke the shotgun in Sid Todd's hands was discharged. He fired among the leaves, and whether or not he hit the snake, nobody could tell.

"Don't go near him," called out Roger. He hated snakes about as much as he hated anything.

All waited, and while doing so, Dave and Todd took the opportunity to reload. They were just finishing when Phil, chancing to look behind them, uttered a yell that would have done credit to an Apache Indian.

"Look out! One of 'em is behind us!"

The others all took his word for it, and leaped to one side. True enough, a second rattlesnake had appeared, and now a third was coming to light, from under a rock near by.

"It's a den of rattlers!" screamed Sid Todd. "Run for it, boys! No use of trying to kill 'em off! They are too many for us!"

The boys were already running at top speed, and the cowboy joined them. In order to gain the horses, they had to move in a semicircle. When they reached the animals, they found the steeds exceedingly nervous and inclined to bolt.

"Reckon they smell the snakes," was Todd's comment. "A hoss ain't got no use for rattlers—and I ain't nuther," he added, and rode away, with the boys beside him.

"What about the grouse?" asked Phil, mournfully.

"Do you want to go back after them?" questioned Dave, with a grim smile.

"Not for a thousand dollars!"

"Then I guess we'll have to let the snakes have them," went on Dave. "Let us be thankful that we weren't bitten."

"Rattlesnakes is the one drawback to this country," said the cowboy, when they were a safe distance from the reptiles. "I don't mind wild beasts, but I do draw the line on snakes. But there ain't near so many as there used to be, an' some day there won't be any at all."

"After this I am going to beware of holes that look snaky," was Roger's comment. "I think if a rattlesnake got close to me I'd be paralyzed with fright."

As they went on, they kept their eyes open for more game, and just before resting for dinner Dave saw some grouse high up in a tree in a hollow. With caution they advanced, this time on horseback, and all fired together as before. Out of the tree fluttered seven grouse, for they had been close together and the shot had created great havoc. All but one were dead and the seventh was quickly dispatched by Todd.

"We'll have some good eating to-night, after all," said Roger, with a grin. He liked fowl of all kinds.

The stop for dinner was made beside a mountain spring, where the water was icy cold and as clear as crystal. They took their time eating, thus allowing the horses a chance to rest and to crop the nearby grass.

"We have covered about twenty miles," said the cowboy, in reply to a question from Phil.

"Then, if we do as well this afternoon, we'll be forty miles from the ranch by the time we camp to-night."

"We'll not make over ten or twelve miles this afternoon, lad," was the answer. "It will be hard climbing up the hills."

"But harder climbing to-morrow," put in Dave.

"Yes, to-morrow will test the horses, and test you, too," said Todd.

It was very pleasant to rest in the shade after such a long ride in the sun, but the cowboy was anxious to reach a certain camping spot for the night, and so he allowed only three-quarters of an hour for the midday halt.

As soon as they left the spring, the youths realized what was before them. The trail now led constantly upward, and was in parts stony and uncertain. In several places they had to leap brooks of fair size.

"This isn't so nice," remarked Phil, as they came to a halt, to allow the horses to rest after a particularly difficult hill had been climbed.

"Oh, this is nothing to the traveling we'll do tomorrow," answered Sid Todd. "We are only in the foothills now—to-morrow we'll be right in the mountains."

About four o'clock they gained the top of another hill. As they came out in a cleared spot all gazed around with interest.

"Look!" cried Dave, pointing with his hand. "Am I mistaken, or are those deer?"

He was pointing to the top of another hill about half a mile distant. There, outlined against the sky, could be seen a number of animals grazing.

"Deer, my boy!" cried Sid Todd. "A fine lot of 'em, too, or I'm mistaken!"

"Oh, let us go after them!" exclaimed Roger, impulsively.

"I'm willing," answered the cowboy. "But I don't know if you can get any of 'em to-night. It will be a hard climb to where they are. I don't know as we can go all the way on hosses."

"Then we'll go on foot," cried Dave. He was as anxious as his chums to get a shot at the big game.

The cowboy studied the situation for several minutes, meanwhile withdrawing himself and the others to a spot where the distant deer might not see them. Then he led the party down the hill and in the direction of the game.

If traveling had been hard before, it was doubly so now, and the chums realized that to get to where the deer were grazing would be no easy matter. They had to slip and slide over the rocks, and once or twice they reached places where further progress seemed impossible.

"If we get any of those deer, we'll earn them!"

panted Phil, as he half climbed, half slid, over some rocks. "If my horse goes down, I don't know what will happen to me!" he added.

"We'll not go much further on hossback, I'm thinking," answered Todd. "We can't afford to injure our animals."

Between the hills was a small valley and here the cowboy said they had better tether their steeds and leave them.

"Even if we don't get back, they'll likely be safe till morning," he added.

"If we have to remain away all night, we had better take some eating with us," said Phil.

"We sure will," answered Todc, and he gave each of the party something to carry on his back and in his gamebag.

"Now for a climb that is a climb!" cried Dave. "Roger, this puts me in mind of some climbing I did in Norway."

"Were you in Norway?" questioned Sid Todd, curiously.

"Oh, yes, I once went there to find my father," answered Dave.

Before them was a steep incline, covered with stones and a stunted growth of cedars. Up this they went with care, for some of the stones were loose and afforded only an uncertain footing. Once Phil slipped and commenced to roll. He bumped against Dave, and both went flat.

"Grab a tree!" sang out Roger. But there was no need to offer this advance, for Dave had already done so. He saved himself and Phil from rolling further. But a frying-pan the shipowner's son carried broke loose from the pack on his back and went clattering down the rocks to the very foot of the hill.

"For the love of flapjacks, stop that noise!" cried Sid Todd, in a low voice. "Time you get to the top of the hill them deer will be ten miles away!"

"I—I couldn't help it," answered Phil, as he arose and gazed sorrowfully after the frying-pan. "Shall I go back after it?" he asked.

"Where is it?"

"I see it—sticking in the fork of a cedar tree," answered Roger, and pointed out the pan.

"Let it alone—we can get it when we come back," said the cowboy. "Now don't make any more noise, or you won't get no chanct at them deer, mark my words!"

All of the boys understood the importance of keeping quiet, and as they neared the top of the hill where the deer had been discovered, they moved with great caution and spoke only in whispers.

"The wind is blowing toward us, and that's in our favor," said Sid Todd.

"I know it," answered Dave. "Deer can scent a fellow a long way off if the wind is towards them."

The cowboy now took the lead and told the lads not to make a sound that was unnecessary. Thus they covered another hundred yards. Here was a ridge of rocks and beyond the top of the hill.

"They are gone!" murmured Roger, as his eyes discovered that the top of the hill was abandoned.

"I'll crawl forward and take a look," said Todd. "Keep quiet now, or we won't git nuthin'."

The cowboy disappeared over the top of the hill, crawling forward on his hands and knees. He was gone fully ten minutes—a time that to the boys, just then, seemed like an age. They looked to their weapons, to see that the firearms were ready for use.

Presently Dave, who was on the watch, saw Todd arise in a clump of bushes on the other side of the hilltop. He was beckoning for the boys to advance. One hand he held over his mouth, to enjoin silence.

With their hearts beating more rapidly than usual, the three young hunters wormed their way over the top of the hill and joined the cowboy. In silence Todd pointed to a distance below them. There, on a sort of cliff on the hillside, were the deer, ten in number, grazing peacefully.

"Oh, what a shot!" whispered Dave, and his eyes brightened as he swung his gun into position.

"Wait!" said Todd, in a whisper. "I'll take the one on the right. You take the one on the left."

"I'll take the one close to the tree," whispered the senator's son.

"And I'll take the one by the big rock," added Phil.

"All right," agreed the cowboy. "Now, remember, if some are only wounded, shoot at 'em again, any one of you. And be quick, for they'll streak it like greased lightning as soon as the guns go off."

All took aim with care, resting their gun-barrels on the bushes before them. Then the cowboy gave the order to fire.

As if by instinct the deer looked up just as the order to fire was given. They were fairly close to hand and afforded good targets for the hunters. The firearms rang out almost simultaneously, and two of the deer leaped into the air, to fall back dead. The others started to run, some jumping from the top of the cliff to the rocks far below. Again the weapons were discharged, and this time a third deer fell. The fourth was badly wounded and toppled down in a split of the cliff.

"Hurrah! we've got 'em! We've got 'em!" cried Phil, and commenced to leap about in pure joy.

"We've got 'em—to get!" answered Sid Todd. "But you did well—all of you!" he added, admiringly.

"How are we to get down to the cliff?" questioned Roger, anxiously.

"The deer got down—we had better follow their trail," answered Dave.

They made an examination, and presently found a run leading to one end of the cliff. The walking was dangerous and they had to be careful, for fear of going further than intended. But inside of a quarter of an hour all were standing where the deer had stood. They found three of the game dead and quickly put the fourth out of its misery.

"This is worth coming for," declared Dave, with pride.

"It is indeed—even if we don't get anything else," added Phil.

"But we are going to get more," cried Roger, the fever of the hunter taking possession of him. "Just wait till we strike an elk, or a bear!"

"No more hunting this day," sang out Todd. "Time we take care of these animals and make a camp it will be dark."