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CHAPTER XXVII


THE MOUNTAIN LION


"What are we to do with so much venison?" questioned the senator's son. "We can't eat it, and it seems a shame to allow it to go to waste."

"I wish we could send some to the ranch," said Dave. "I'd like the girls to know how lucky we have been the first day out."

"If you wanted to stay here and camp for a day, I could take some of the game to the ranch," said Sid Todd.

"But it is such a ride," argued Phil. "We don't want to impose on good nature."

"I won't mind the ride. But can you boys take care of yourselves while I am gone?"

"To be sure we can," answered Dave.

"Then I'll take three of the deer with me and come back as soon as I can. One deer will be all you will need," answered Sid Todd.

To get the deer from the cliff they had to use a long lariat the cowboy had brought with him. By this means the game was hoisted to the hilltop. Then they "toted" their loads down to where they had left their horses.

"I'll take two of the hosses, if you don't mind," said the cowboy, and it was agreed that he should take Dave's animal along with his own. He decided to start for the ranch that night, stating he would camp at the spot where they had had dinner.

The boys found a locality that pleased them, and there erected the tent and started a campfire. The frying-pan had been recovered from where it had landed and restored to the outfit. Before leaving them, Todd showed the boys how to skin the deer and cut up the meat.

For a little while after they were left alone the chums felt somewhat lonely. They piled the wood on the fire, thereby creating a lively blaze, and fixed themselves a substantial meal of venison steak, flapjacks and coffee, and took their time over the repast. By the time they had finished, night had fallen over the hills and mountains, and one by one the stars showed themselves in the heavens.

"This certainly is Lonesomehurst!" was the comment of the shipowner's son, as he gazed around the camp. "When you really get to think of it, it gives one the shivers!"

"Then don't think about it," answered Dave. "Let us be cheerful and tell ghost stories. I know a dandy story—about four travelers who were murdered in some lonely mountains by brigands, and——"

"You shut up!" cried Roger. "Don't you want a fellow to sleep to-night?"

"But I thought you wanted me to tell a story," went on Dave, innocently.

"I don't want to listen to such a story as that!"

"Nor do I!" added Phil. "Let's talk about schooldays, and the last game of football, or baseball, or something like that."

"If only the other fellows were here," murmured Dave. "Shadow Hamilton, and Buster Beggs, and Polly Vane, and Luke Watson, and——"

"Luke could give us a tune on his banjo," put in the senator's son.

"Yes, and Shadow would tell funny stories, not ghost stories," added Phil.

"We'll have a story or two to tell, when we get back to Oak Hall," continued Dave. "I wish we could have had one of the deer stuffed for the museum."

"Too late now. But maybe we'll get another," answered Phil.

All of the boys were tired, yet it was nearly ten o'clock before any of them felt like turning in. As the night wore on. the place seemed to become more lonely.

"Might as well go to bed," said Dave, at last. "We need a good rest."

"Anybody going to stay on guard?" asked the senator's son.

"Do you think it necessary, Roger?"

"I don't know."

"What do you say, Phil?"

"I am too sleepy now to remain on guard," answered Phil. "You can do so if you wish."

"Oh, what cheek!" murmured Roger. "All right, we'll all turn in and chance it."

"Let's fix the fire first," said Dave. "A blaze usually helps to keep away wild beasts."

"Oh, if any come, I reckon the horses will give us warning," said Phil. "We can tie them close by." And this plan was carried out.

Some cedar boughs had been strewn on the floor of the tent, and on these the chums laid down, and did their best to go to sleep. Dave dropped off first, and was presently followed by Roger. But Phil was restless and turned from one side to the other.

"Oh, pshaw! why can't I sleep?" murmured the shipowner's son to himself in disgust, and then out of curiosity he looked at his watch. By the glare from the campfire he saw that it was nearly one o'clock.

He was just straightening out again when a peculiar rustling among the horses caught his ears. He listened for a moment, then sat up straight.

"Something doesn't suit them," he reasoned. "Wonder what it can be?"

He hesitated, then turned over on his hands and knees and crawled to the opening of the tent and peered around outside. The campfire had burned rather low, so that objects a short distance away were indistinct. He saw that the horses were huddled together and had their heads turned toward a clump of bushes at one side of the shelter.

"Something must be over yonder," reasoned the youth. "Wonder if I had better arouse the others?"

He looked at Dave and Roger. Both were sleeping so peacefully Phil hated to disturb them. He reached for his gun and looked out again.

There was a brushing aside of the clump of bushes and a pair of eyes glared forth, glistening brightly in the firelight. The eyes were those of some wild beast, but what, Phil could not tell.

The animal was not looking at Phil, but at the carcass of the deer, which had been hung up in a low tree not far from the clump of bushes. Stealthily the animal came into the opening, and with the ease of a cat, leaped into the tree.

"It's a wildcat—or something like it," thought Phil, and raised his gun to fire. Then of a sudden he commenced to shake from head to foot, so that to aim was entirely out of the question. He had what is commonly called among hunters "buck fever," a sudden fear that often overtakes amateur hunters when trying to shoot at big game.

"Oh, what a fool I am!" the boy told himself, and tried vainly to steady his nerves. He hit the front tent pole with his foot, making considerable noise.

"What's the matter?" cried Dave, waking and leaping to his feet. "What are you doing, Phil?"

"Noth—nothing," stammered the shipowner's son. "I—I—there is something in the tree!" And then, raising his gun, Phil banged away blindly.

The echo of the shot was followed by an unearthly scream from the tree, and Phil and Dave saw the wild animal slip down from a branch and then try to regain its footing. Then Dave caught up one of the rifles and blazed away, and the beast dropped to the ground, where it twisted and snarled and yelped in a fashion that served to drive the horses frantic.

"What's going on?" cried Roger, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "Who is shooting?" And he got up and felt around in a haphazard manner for a gun.

"Wild animal outside—I don't know what it is," answered Dave.

Roger joined the others, and blazed away at the beast, and more snapping and snarling followed. The animal rolled clear over the fire, scattering the burning brands in all directions. Then it rolled among the horses. One steed after another kicked at it, and a flying hoof sent it against the tree with a thud. Then it lay quiet.

"Must be dead," said Dave, after a pause.

"Don't go near it!" screamed Phil.

"I won't—not yet," answered Dave. "We'll fix up the fire first." And he kicked the dying embers together and put more wood on the blaze. While he did this, Phil and Roger watched the huddled-up form at the foot of the tree. The horses still snorted and did their best to get away.

"I guess it is dead after all," said Phil, after he had poked the beast with a stick. "Wonder what it can be?"

"Looks a little like a big wildcat," said Roger.

"I know what it is," answered Dave, after all were certain the beast was dead and they had dragged it over to the fire. "It's a cougar, or mountain lion, one of the worst wild beasts to be found in the West."

"Then it's no wonder I got scared when first I saw it," said Phil. "My, what a powerful animal! And it must weigh fifty or sixty pounds."

"All of that, Phil.

"Is this the beast some call a panther or painter?" asked Roger.

"Yes, Roger. I was reading about them in a natural history, and the cougar, mountain lion, puma, panther, and painter are all the same beast. Years ago they were common all over the United States, but now they are to be found only in the Far West and in the South. I think we can count it a big feather in our cap that we killed a cougar."

"Do you think he was going to attack us?" asked the senator's son, with a shiver.

"He was after the deer. But there is no telling what he might have done. I am glad he is dead. Phil, it was lucky you heard the beast."

"Talk about excitement!" cried the shipowner's son. "I rather think we are getting it! Rattlesnakes, deer, and a panther, all in one day and night!"

"That is certainly piling it on some," admitted Dave. "But to-morrow may pass without a thing doing."

"More than likely," returned Roger. "Things always happen in bunches, you know."

The boys examined the cougar with interest. It was about four and a half feet in length and not unlike a young lion in appearance. It had been hit in the face and in the forelegs, and had died hard. Evidently it had hoped to carry off the slain deer while the young hunters slept.

"A cougar has been known to carry off a little child," said Dave. "They are very crafty as well as brave, and will attack both a horse and a man. I think we can count ourselves lucky to come out of this fight without a scratch."

"No more sleeping for me without a guard," said Roger. "Let us take turns at staying up and looking after the fire and the horses." And to this the others readily agreed.

Morning found them still tired out and willing enough to rest. They got a late breakfast and tethered the horses in a new spot, and cut sufficient firewood to last for twenty-four hours. Nobody thought of doing anything until after lunch, and then Roger suggested they try their hand at fishing in a mountain brook which ran down between the two hills.

"All right," answered Dave. "But do you think we ought to leave the camp all alone?"

"Oh, I don't think anybody will hurt it in the daylight," answered the senator's son.

They had to tramp about a quarter of a mile to reach the stream and then an equal distance to gain a spot that looked suited to their purpose. Phil was the first to throw in, and was rewarded almost immediately by a bite.

"This looks as if it was worth while," said Dave, and baited up. Fish were there in plenty, and for an hour the boys amused themselves to their hearts' content. By that time each had a string of fifteen to twenty mountain brook trout of fair size.

"We'll have a dandy fish supper!" cried Roger, smacking his lips.

"It will be a change from the venison, and I'll be glad of it," returned Dave.

"I am going to try my luck for a short while up the stream," called out Phil, who was some distance away from the others.

"Don't go too far," said Dave. "I am going to rest here," and he threw himself on the grass, and Roger followed his example.

The two boys left behind rested for the best part of half an hour. Then, thinking it was time for Phil to rejoin them, they called their chum's name.

No answer came back, and, walking up the stream a short distance, Dave repeated the call. Still there was no reply.

"That's queer," he told Roger. "I wonder why he doesn't reply?"

"I am sure I don't know," said the senator's son. "Let us look for him." And both started after Phil, wondering what could be wrong.