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- Ruth Fielding at Snow Camp - 2/27 -
Ruth had already taken her other hand. With their skates rattling over their shoulders, the trio started back across the field. The bull parted the bushes and came thundering out upon the plain. He swerved to follow them instantly. There could be no doubt that he had seen them, and the bellow he repeated showed that he was very much enraged and considered the three friends his particular enemies.
Ruth glanced back over her shoulder and saw that the angry beast was gaining on them fast. It was indeed surprising how fast the bull could gallop--and he was very terrible indeed to look upon.
"He will catch us! he will catch us!" moaned Helen.
"You girls run ahead," gasped Tom, letting go of his sister's hand. "Maybe I can turn him---"
"He'll kill you!" cried Helen.
"Come this way!" commanded Ruth, suddenly turning to the left, toward the bank of the open creek. The current of this stream was so swift that it had not yet frozen--saving along the edges. The bank was very steep. A few trees of good size grew along its edge.
"We can't cross the creek, Ruthie!" shrieked Helen. "He will get us, sure."
"But we can get below the bank--out of sight!" panted her chum. "Come, Tom! that beast will kill you if you delay."
"It's our caps he sees," declared Master Tom. "That old red cap of Nell's is what is exciting him so."
In a flash Ruth Fielding snatched the red cap from her chum's head and ran on with it toward the bank of the creek. The others followed her while the big bull, swerving in his course, came bellowing on behind.
A SURPRISING APPEARANCE
Helen was sobbing and crying as she ran. Tom kept a few feet behind the girls, although what he could have done to defend them, had the big bull overtaken him, it would be hard to say. And for several moments it looked very much as though Hiram Bassett's herd-leader was going to reach his prey.
The thunder of his hoofs was in their ears. They did not speak again as they came to the steep bank down to the open creek. There, just before them, was an old hollow stump, perhaps ten feet high, with the opening on the creek side. All three of them knew it well.
As Helen went over the bank and disappeared on one side of the stump, Tom darted around the other side. Ruth, with the red cap in her hand, stumbled over a root and fell to her knees. She was right beside the hollow stump, and Helen's cap caught in a twig and was snatched from her hand.
As Ruth scrambled aside and then fairly rolled over the edge of the bank out of sight, the cap was left dangling right in front of the stump. The bull charged it. That flashing bit of color was what had attracted the brute from the start.
As the three friends dived over the bank--and their haste and heedlessness carried them pell-mell to the bottom--there sounded a yell behind them that certainly was not emitted by the bull. Goodness knows, he roared loudly enough! But this was no voice of a bull that so startled the two girls and Tom Cameron--it was far too shrill.
"There's somebody in that tree!" yelled Tom.
And then the forefront of the bull collided with the rotten old stump. Taurus smashed against it with the force of a pile-driver-- three-quarters of a ton of solid flesh and bone, going at the speed of a fast train, carries some weight. It seemed as though a live tree could scarcely have stood upright against that charge, let alone this rotten stump.
The rotten roots gave way. They were torn out of the frozen ground, the stump toppled over, and, carrying a great ball of earth with it, plunged down the bank of the creek.
Tom had clutched the girls by their hands again and the three were running along the narrow shore under shelter of the bank. The bull no longer saw them. Indeed, the shock had thrown him to the ground, and when he scrambled up, he ran off, bellowing and tossing his head, in an entirely different direction.
But the uprooted stump went splash! into the icy waters of the creek, and as it plunged beneath the surface--all but its roots--the trio of frightened friends heard that eyrie cry again.
"It's from the hollow trunk! I tell you, some body's in there!" declared Tom.
But the uprooted stump had fallen into the water with the opening down. If there really was anybody in it, the way in which the stump had fallen served to hold such person prisoner.
Ruth Fielding was as quick as Tom to turn back to the spot where the old stump had been submerged; but Helen had fallen in her tracks, and sat there, hugging her knees and rocking her body to and fro, as she cried:
"He'll be drowned! Don't you see, he _is_ drowned? And suppose that bull comes back?"
"That bull won't get us down here, Nell," returned her brother, laying hold of the roots of the hollow tree and trying to turn it over.
But although he and Ruth both exerted themselves to the utmost, they could barely stir the stump. Suddenly they heard a struggle going on inside the hollow shell; as well, a thumping on the thin partition of wood and a muffled sound of shouting.
"He's alive--the water hasn't filled the hollow," cried Ruth. "Oh, Tom! we must do something."
"And I'd like to know what?" demanded that youth, in great perturbation.
The stump rested on the shore, but was half submerged in the water for most of its length. The unfortunate person imprisoned in the hollow part of the tree-trunk must be partly submerged in the water, too. Had the farther end of the stump not rested on a rock, it would have plunged to the bottom of the creek and the victim of the accident must certainly have been drowned.
"Why don't he crawl out? Why don't he crawl out?" cried Ruth, anxiously.
"How's he going to do it?" sputtered Tom.
"Can't he dive down into the water through the hole in the tree and so come up outside?" demanded the girl from the Red Mill, irritably. "I never saw such a fellow!"
Whether this referred to Tom, or to the unknown, the former did not know. But he recognized immediately the good sense in Ruth's suggestion. Tom leaped out upon the log and stamped upon it. Helen screamed:
"You'll go into the creek, too, Tom!"
"No, I won't," he replied.
"Then you'll make the stump fall in entirely and the man will be drowned."
"No, I won't do that, either," muttered Master Tom.
He stamped upon the wooden shell again. A faint halloo answered him, and the knocking on the inner side of the hollow tree was repeated.
"Come out! Come out!" shouted Tom, "Dive down through the water and get out. You'll be suffocated there."
But at first the prisoner seemed not to understand--or else was afraid to make the attempt.
"Oh, if I only had an axe!" groaned Master Tom.
"If you cut into that tree you might do some damage," said his sister, now so much interested in the prisoner that she got up and came near.
Ruth saw Helen's red cap high up on the bank and she scrambled up and got it, stuffing it under her coat again.
"We'll keep _that_ out of sight," she said.
"If it hadn't been for that old red thing," growled Tom, "the bull wouldn't have chased us in the first place."
But all of them were thinking mainly of the person in the hollow of the old stump. How could they get this person out?
And the answer to that question was not so easily found--as Tom had observed. They could not roll the stump over; they had no means of cutting through to the prisoner. But, suddenly, that individual settled the question without their help. There was a struggle under the log, a splashing of the water, and then a figure bobbed up out of the shallows.
Ruth screamed and seized it before it fell back again. It was a boy-- a thin, miserable-looking, dripping youth, no older than Tom, and with wild, burning eyes looking out of his wet and pallid face. Had it not been for Ruth and Tom he must have fallen back into the stream again, he was so weak.
They dragged him ashore, and he fell down, shaking and chattering, on the edge of the creek. He was none too warmly dressed at the best; the water now fast congealed upon his clothing. His garments would
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