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CHAPTER XX


AN ENCOUNTER WITH WOLVES


"Well, this is certainly a strange Christmas day!"

It was Dave who spoke. He stood in the doorway of a small log hut, gazing anxiously out at the landscape before him.

He was in the very heart of Norway, and on every side loomed the mountains with their covering of ice and snow. Just behind the hut was a patch of firs, the only trees growing in that vicinity. In front was what in summer was a mountain torrent, now a mass of irregular ice, the hollows filled with snow.

The party had arrived at this place the night before, after four days of almost constant traveling. But here a blinding snowstorm had brought them to a halt, the driver of the sleigh refusing to trust himself and his turnout on the mountain trail beyond.

"It is a bad road," said he to Granbury Lapham, in Norwegian. "A slip and a slide and we should all be killed. We must wait until the storm is over." And so they put up at this hut by the roadside, and the horses were stabled in a cow-shed in the rear.

The four days of traveling in the heart of Norway had been full of interest to Dave and Roger. They had passed through half a dozen towns and as many more villages, and had met not a few people on the road, some dressed like ordinary Europeans and others in the bright-colored clothing of their forefathers. They had had "all kinds of meals, mostly bad," as Dave declared, and both boys longed for some "United States cooking," as Roger said. But one thing pleased them—wherever they slept the beds were good and the rooms as clean as wax.

Up to the day previous they had heard a number of times about the scientific expedition, which was said to be just ahead. But then somebody had sent them astray, and in trying to get on the right road they had been caught in the snowstorm and been forced to take to the shelter as described.

"Too bad, Dave; especially when you hoped to meet your father by Christmas," said Roger. "But shut the door—it is too cold for comfort out there."

"I opened it to get a whiff of fresh air,—it's vile inside, when the cooking is going on—they use so much fat for frying."

The hut was the property of a sturdy mountaineer, who possessed half a dozen cows and a large flock of sheep. He was a big fellow, all of six feet four inches high, with yellowish hair and bright blue eyes. He was generally good-natured, but the boys once saw him give his oldest son a box on the ear that sent the youngster rolling over and over on the floor.

"He's got a hand on him like a ham," remarked the senator's son. "I shouldn't want him to strike me."

"Most of these Norwegian mountain folks are big and strong," said Granbury Lapham. "I fancy the puny ones die off young."

"What do they do for a living? They can't farm much around here," said Dave.

"They raise sheep, goats, and cows, and a good many of them are wood-choppers. Norwegian lumber is a great thing in the market, and of late years the paper mills are after wood-pulp, which they get from the small growth. Along the coast nearly all the Inhabitants are fishermen."

The family of the hut-owner consisted of his wife and seven children. For Christmas dinner there were a hare potpie, carrots and onions, and a pudding with honey sauce. The children had a Christmas tree, brought in by their father from the forest, and this was decorated with fancy-colored papers, and rings, stars and animals, all made of a kind of ginger and spice dough and baked by the housewife. There were a few presents, and the boys and Granbury Lapham added to these by giving the children each a small silver piece, which delighted them hugely.

"I'll wager they are having a fine dinner at the Wadsworth home," said Dave, with a sigh. In his mind's eye he could see Jessie, his Uncle Dunston, and all the others, making merry around the board.

"Don't mention it, Dave," answered his chum. "We generally have a bang-up time, too."

"What I miss most of all is my plum-pudding, don't you know," remarked Granbury Lapham. "I've had plum-pudding for Christmas ever since I was a baby."

"I'd like to know how my father is faring."

"And my brother," added the Englishman.

"Well, we are bound to catch up to them soon, so don't let us worry about it any more," said the senator's son, cheerfully.

The mountaineer was something of a huntsman, and showed the boys his shotgun, a weapon they considered rather antiquated, yet one capable of doing good service.

"He says he once brought down a bear with that gun," said Granbury Lapham. "It must have been at close quarters, for, as I understand it, a Norway bear is a pretty tough creature to kill."

"Do they have many wild animals up here?" questioned Roger, with interest.

"They have, besides bears, a good many wolves, some lynxes, and also red deer, reindeer, hares, and a variety of small animals."

"We must go out hunting before we leave Norway!" cried Roger, who liked the sport very much.

"All right, I'm willing," answered Dave. "But I should like to find my father first," he added, hastily.

"Oh, of course."

The evening of Christmas Day was spent in watching the children around the decorated tree, which was lit up with a dozen or more tiny candles, of home production. Then the boys turned in and Granbury Lapham followed.

About the middle of the night came a great disturbance, and in a minute the household was in an uproar. They heard the mountaineer call to his wife, and then, lantern in hand, he rushed outside and toward the sheepfold, back of the cow-shed.

"Some wolves have gotten among the sheep," explained Granbury Lapham, after a few words with the woman of the hut. "The man is going after them with his gun."

"Let us see if we can aid him!" exclaimed Roger, and slipped on such of his clothing as he had taken off. He had a loaded pistol in his pocket.

"If you go out, I'll go too," answered Dave, and followed his chum to the rear of the hut. He, too, had a pistol, purchased before going on the journey in the sleigh, and now he looked to see that the weapon was in condition for use.

Outside, they heard the mountaineer calling loudly, although they could not make out what was being said. There was a commotion in the sheepfold and also in the cow-shed. Then came a crashing sound, and from the cow-shed came one of the horses.

"Hullo! one of the horses is running away!" cried Dave. "This won't do at all! Whoa! Whoa, there!"

But the steed did not whoa—evidently not understanding such a command! On it went, around the corner of the hut and along the snowy trail. The sleigh driver was up and after It, and set off on a labored run, cracking a whip as he went.

"I see a wolf!" cried Roger. The beast had just left the sheepfold and was carrying something in its mouth. Evidently it was nearly famished, or it would never have stopped to carry off such a burden.

"It's a sheep!" said Dave.

As he spoke, the senator's son fired, and the bullet from his pistol hit the wolf in the side. The beast staggered for a second and then kept on, still carrying the sheep in its strong teeth.

"He's game, that's sure," said Dave, and now he, too, fired, running forward as he did so. Then came the roar of the shotgun from the sheepfold and out came another wolf, followed presently by a third. The fourth and last of the pack was instantly killed by the mountaineer, who literally, at close range, blew the animal's head off.

Dave's shot caused the wolf with the sheep to falter, and presently it dropped its burden and limped away for the nearest patch of firs. As it did this the second and the third wolf ranged up by the side of the two young Americans. Roger fired three shots in succession and Dave fired twice, but the animals were so quick that but little damage was done. One beast was hit in the tail and the other in the shoulder, and this made them extremely ugly.

Granbury Lapham had come out, but was at the sheepfold with the mountaineer. As a consequence the two boys faced the two wolves alone. One was sniffing at the body of the dead sheep, and now it essayed to raise the carcass up.

"He's going to run off with that sheep!" cried Roger.

"Not if I know it!" answered Dave, and rushing closer, he took the best aim the night afforded and blazed away. The wolf dropped the carcass, gave a vicious snarl, and turned abruptly.

"Look out!" yelled the senator's son, and scarcely had he spoken when the wolf was at Dave's very feet, glaring ferociously into the youth's face. Dave wanted to fire at the animal, but only a click of the hammer followed the pulling of the pistol's trigger.

It was a moment of peril, but Roger came to the rescue. Not to hit his chum, he ran around to the wolf's side and blazed away twice in rapid succession. This was too much for the wolf, and with only a grunt it rolled over and stretched out dead.

"Good for you, Roger!" said Dave. "If you hadn't—— Look out, here come the other wolf!"

Dave was right: undaunted by the death of its mate, the last wolf—the largest of the pack of four—had leaped up through the snow and darkness. It was so hungry that the smell of blood maddened it beyond all endurance. It leaped so close to Dave it brushed his legs, then grabbed the sheep and began to drag the carcass rapidly through the snow.

"He's game, I must say!" cried Roger, and reloaded his pistol, while Dave did the same. Then came a shout from the sheepfold and the mountaineer put in an appearance, followed by Granbury Lapham.

The man of the place was angry, for three of his best sheep had been killed. He blazed away as soon as he saw the wolf, but his aim was poor, and the snow, blown up by a sudden wind, almost hid the beast from sight. Then the Englishman fired, hitting the wolf in the right hind leg. The animal whirled savagely, dropped the sheep, gave a snarl of rage, and suddenly confronted Roger.

"Get back, you!" yelled the senator's son, and fired point-blank at the wolf. He hit only one ear, and in a twinkling the wolf was on his breast, trying his best to get at Roger's throat.