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CHAPTER XXIX


TWO ELK AND A BEAR


"I guess that hunter, whoever he is, will lose that deer," was Dave's comment.

"He won't if he knows how to follow the game up," answered Sid Todd. "That deer was badly wounded, and game can't run far over these rough rocks."

"Wonder who it was?" mused Phil.

"Can't tell that—so many folks come out here to hunt," answered the cowboy. "It might be some ranchman or cowboy, and it might be some city sportsman trying his luck."

"We may fall in with him later," said Dave. "If we do, I hope he proves a nice sort."

"Folks out here usually hunt on their own hook," said Todd.

The cowboy had in mind to pass to the north of the mountain top, and this they did, soon leaving behind the locality where the two deer had been seen. They saw nothing of the party who had fired the two shots.

"I hope he doesn't take us for game and shoot this way," said Roger, who had heard of just such accidents more than once.

"Well, we don't want to mistake him for game either," said Dave. "Whenever you shoot, be sure of what you are shooting at."

"Right you are," cried Sid Todd. "If hunters weren't too hasty there wouldn't be any accidents."

A little over half a mile was covered, and by that time the sun was sinking over the hills to the westward. A suitable spot was selected and the tent was pitched, and they prepared a supper of fish and venison, meat and crackers, washing it down with some chocolate that Roger made.

Early in the morning Sid Todd left the camp, to be gone the best part of two hours. He came back showing his excitement.

"A chance for elk, boys!" he cried. "But you must hurry and do a good bit of tramping."

"Can you walk, Phil?" asked Dave, anxiously.

"Just as well as ever," was the answer, and Phil took a turn around the camp to prove his words.

No time was lost in preparing for the hunt, and in less than ten minutes all were off, having tethered the horses in a spot they deemed safe. Their provisions they tied in skins and hung in the trees, so they might be safe from wild marauders.

It was a hard climb, over the rocks and among the bushes, and once the boys had to call a halt, to catch their breath. But Todd was afraid the elk would take themselves off, so he urged them on as much as possible.

"There were two elk, big fellows, too," he said. "If we don't bag at least one of 'em, we may not get another such chance all the time we are out here."

Presently they came to something of a hollow on the mountain side. Here was a fine spring of sparkling water, and all stopped long enough to get a refreshing drink. It was hot in the sun and all were beginning to perspire freely.

"If we get those elk we'll earn 'em," was Roger's comment.

"Right you are!" panted Phil.

"How much further have we to go?" questioned Dave.

"Not over a quarter of a mile," answered the cowboy. He was still in the lead and he had his eyes on the alert for the first glimpse at the big game.

The boys were pretty well winded when Sid Todd called a halt. They had reached a clump of cedar trees and beyond was an open spot among a number of loose rocks, with patches of rich mountain grass between.

"Gone!" said the cowboy, with a deep sigh.

"Gone!" echoed the three boys, in dismay.

"Yes, gone. They were right out yonder, grazing as peacefully as could be. Now I don't see 'em anywhere," continued the cowboy, mournfully.

"It's too bad!" murmured Dave. "Maybe you would have done better if you had fired on them."

"I wanted you lads to have a chance."

"Perhaps they are still in this vicinity," suggested Roger. "Let us take a look around."

The others were willing, and slowly and cautiously they made their way among the cedars and the big rocks, exposing themselves as little as possible, and speaking only in a whisper. They had the rifles and shotguns ready for action.

Half an hour's search took them to another dent in the mountain side. Here the grass was extra thick and inviting and a spring of water flowed quietly over the rocks.

"That's an ideal spot for a camp," said Phil to Dave, as they halted to view the scene.

Dave did not answer, for he had seen something moving in the bushes close to the water. He pointed in silence, and all gazed in the direction. Slowly a magnificent pair of antlers arose behind the bushes.

"One of the elk!" whispered Sid Todd.

"And there is the other!" came from Roger, and pointed to a rock twenty yards beyond the bushes.

"Now, boys, be careful," directed the cowboy. "This is the chance of your lives. Divide up the game to suit yourselves. I won't shoot unless I see the elk getting away from you."

The chums consulted among themselves, and Roger and Phil decided to aim at the elk nearest to them.

"Then I'll aim at the elk near the rock," said Dave. "I think I've got the best rifle anyway," he added.

All crawled forward, followed by Todd, and thus covered half the distance toward the game. The nearest elk was now less than a hundred yards away.

"They see us!" cried Phil, and hastily raised his firearm, and the others did the same. Then, as the elk bounded away, all three of the young hunters fired.

Both the animals were hit, but neither mortally, and as soon as possible the boys fired a second time. The elk were now together, and a bullet and some shot meant for one hit the other. One of the animals staggered and fell, got up, and staggered again, coming down on the rocks with a loud thud.

"You've got this one!" cried Sid Todd, in triumph. "Go after the other!"

The boys were not loath to do this, and away they went pell-mell, over the grass and around the rocks and bushes. The second elk was limping along, occasionally holding his left hind leg in the air. He did not seem to be going fast, but he dodged in and out among the rocks so quickly that to get another shot at him seemed impossible.

"If we can only get him into the open we'll have him!" cried Dave.

The trail now led down the mountain side and then into a thicket of cedars. As they entered the thicket, Dave gave a yell.

"Look out!"

He leaped to one side and the other lads did the same. A second later the wounded elk rushed almost on them, his antlers lowered as if to crush all in his path. The boys fired as quickly as they could, and hit in the side, the animal swerved and dashed off at a right angle to the course he had been pursuing.

"Phew! but that was a narrow escape!" gasped Phil.

"It's different when the game hunts you, isn't it?" queried the senator's son.

"We must keep our eyes open, and our guns ready," said Dave. "Come ahead, that elk must be pretty hard hit by this time."

Again they went on. They could hear the big game crashing among the cedars. Evidently the elk was in such pain he did not know where to go.

"I see him!" cried Dave five minutes later, and pointed to a rocky elevation ahead. At the foot of the rocks stood the elk, glaring in rage at them. All of the young hunters elevated their firearms, and as they did this the big game charged them full tilt.

Crack! bang! crack! went the weapons, and the elk was halted in his course. He tried to come on, but in vain, and slowly swayed from side to side. Then he tried to retreat, but it was too late. With a snort he went over, kicking up big clods of grass as he did so. Then he gave a shiver and breathed his last.

"We've got him! We've got him!" cried Roger, exultantly, and began to caper about in his joy. "Just think of it, Dave, two elk! Isn't that something to be proud of?"

"I think so," answered Dave, his face beaming.

"I suppose the other elk is dead," said Phil. "But we'd better go back and make sure."

"We don't want to leave this here," said Roger, wistfully. "That other hunter might come along and claim him."

"I'll go back to where we left Todd, and you can watch this elk," said Dave. "I'll ask Todd what we had best do with both animals."

"Can you find the way?" questioned Phil.

"I think so."

Reloading his rifle, Dave set off for the spot where they had left the cowboy and the first elk. For a few minutes he followed the back trail with ease, then, almost before he was aware, he became mixed up and scarcely knew in what direction to turn.

"I suppose I might call out, or fire my rifle," he mused. "But if I do that the others may think I am in trouble."

Looking around carefully, Dave set off once more, and presently reached a spot that looked familiar. On the ground he could see footprints and these he commenced to follow. But in a few minutes he found himself in a thicket he was sure he had never seen before.

"I am mixed up, and no mistake," he murmured, his face falling. "I shouldn't have been so sure of myself at the start. It isn't so easy as one thinks to find a trail among these rocks and bushes. I guess I had better call to Todd, and to the others."

He set up a shout and waited for a reply. None came, and he shouted a second time. Then, from a distance, came a call.

"Well, I didn't think Todd was in that direction," he said to himself. "I am twisted and no mistake."

Again he started off, and this time found himself skirting a series of loose rocks of various sizes. He was going down hill and occasionally loosened a round stone with his foot and sent it crashing to a thicket of cedars below.

A hundred yards were covered when Dave heard the cry again. Now it was plainer, and it sounded a little like a call for help.

"Maybe Todd is in trouble," he mused. "Perhaps that elk got up and attacked him!" And with this thought in his mind he set off on a dog-trot in the direction of the voice he had heard.

It was dangerous among the loose stones, and once Dave went down and rolled over and over, coming pretty close to hitting his face and shooting off his rifle. As he picked himself up he heard a call quite plainly.

"Help! help! Somebody help me!"

"It must be Todd!" burst from the youth's lips, and now, in spite of the danger, he bounded from rock to rock down the slope. The call came from the left, and thither he made his way, halting in dismay as he came out on a little cliff.

At the foot of the cliff he saw the man who had uttered the call for aid. It was Hank Snogger. He was having a fierce face-to-face tussle with a big bear. His gun was on the ground and so was his sombrero, and in his hand he held his hunting knife. As Dave viewed the scene in horror, the bear made a pass with one forepaw and sent the hunting knife whirling from the cowboy's grasp. Then the bear closed in, as if to hug Snogger to death!