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- On the Trail of Pontiac - 6/40 -
Annapolis, or Philadelphia," put in James Morris. "Certain it is they belong somewhere."
They had now come to the end of their search and, as there seemed nothing more to do, prepared to return home. The ground was too hard to permit of the burial of the remains of the stranger, and they were placed between some rocks, with other rocks over them, to keep off the wild beasts. Then Joseph Morris marked the nearest tree with a large cross and a question mark--a common sign of those days, showing that somebody unknown had met death in that vicinity.
When the Morris cabin was again reached they found the babies wide awake and cooing contentedly. Mrs. Morris had dressed them up as best she could, and she was holding one while Rodney held the other. Little Nell was dancing around the floor in wild delight.
"Oh, I just love those babies so much!" cried the little miss. "I want mamma to keep them, if nobody comes to take them away."
"Don't want to send them to the poorhouse, then?" questioned her father quizzically.
"To the poorhouse?" she repeated scornfully. "No, indeed!"
"What a fate for such darlings!" murmured Mrs. Morris. "No, Joseph, hard as times may be, I cannot consent to send these little ones away to live on charity, even if the authorities were willing to take them--which I doubt."
"Never fear, Lucy, I do not intend to be hard on the twins. And you must remember, Sam here has a claim on them."
"Oh, Uncle Sam," began little Nell--she often called him uncle--"won't you please let me keep the babies?"
The question was so gravely put the old frontiersman had to laugh outright. "A great question truly," he made answer. "And I don't know if they are mine yet."
"But if nobody calls for them--"
Barringford scratched his head.
"In thet case, I reckon as how I'll have to adopt 'em. Don't see nuthin' else to do."
"One thing is certain, they shall stay here for the present," said Mrs. Morris, and that important question settled, she turned over the baby she held to Dave, while she bustled about to prepare a late dinner.
A LIVELY ELK HUNT
The storm just passed proved to be the last one for some time to come, and in a week the trails leading from Will's Creek to the eastward became more or less broken. The trail to Fort Bedford was likewise opened, and Sam Barringford made a journey hither and was gone eight days.
The others awaited his return with great interest, but one look at his face when he arrived convinced all that he had failed in his mission.
"Can't find out anything about them twins," he said, getting down to what was in their minds without delay. "The man was seen around Fort Bedford for two days, but he didn't tell his business, and nobody that I talked to had seen the babies nor had they seen him a-talkin' to any wimmen folks."
"Where did he stop overnight?"
"Thet's something I couldn't find out, nuther."
"He must have been an odd sort," observed James Morris.
"Perhaps the twins didn't belong to him at all," suggested Henry. "If they did, why was he ashamed to show 'em?"
Sam Barringford shrugged his shoulders and drew a long breath. "Don't ask me, Henry; it's a clar mystery, thet's wot it is."
Settling himself before the roaring fire, Barringford told his story in detail. He repeated all that the inhabitants at Bedford had told him, but this threw no light on the mystery. Nobody had seen the stranger come into the place and nobody had seen him depart.
"Wonder where he did come from," mused Dave. "He certainly must have come from somewhere."
After that the winter days passed slowly. Sam Barringford remained at the Morris home, occasionally going out alone or with some of the others in quest of game. He was always glad to have Dave and Henry with him, and they were likewise delighted to go, for, as my old readers will remember, Sam Barringford was a famous hunter and rarely came back empty-handed.
One day Henry, who had been out after wild turkeys, came back in a state of mild excitement. He had seen hoofprints which were strange to him, and he wanted Barringford's opinion on them.
"They looked something like a deer's," he said, "but were larger."
"Must have been an elk," answered the old frontiersman. "But I allow as how thar ain't many of them critters around this deestrict."
Henry had come back in the evening, so that the tracks he had discovered were not inspected by Sam Barringford until the following morning. The pair went out accompanied by Dave, and all were armed, and supplied with provisions enough to last two days, if necessary.
The way led up a small hill back of the house and then through a patch of scrub timber--the best having been cut away when the new cabin was built. Beyond the scrub timber was a small cliff of rocks and further still a dense forest, leading to the stream upon which the Morris boys had had such thrilling adventures in the past.
"Here are the tracks," said Henry, when the edge of the forest was gained. "And see, here is another trail made last night, I'll be bound!"
Barringford took his time at examining the hoof-prints in the snow, and at a spot where the sun came down warmly and made the ground slightly soft.
"Reckon I was right," he said. "Ef it ain't an elk, it ain't nuthin I ever seed afore."
"If it is an elk, let us try to bring him down by all means!" cried Henry. "I'd like a pair of elk horns very much."
"The trouble is, he may be miles an' miles away from here by this time," answered Barringford.
"Never mind, let us try it anyway," put in Dave.
All were on snow-shoes--Dave and Henry possessing pairs made for them by White Buffalo years before, and Barringford a pair he had traded in at one of the posts, giving some fox skins in exchange.
"I'm willing, lads," said the old frontiersman. "Even if we don't git the elk, we may stir up something else wuth knocking over."
He led the way directly into the forest, following the tracks of the game with ease. Dave came behind him, while Henry brought up the rear.
All was almost absolutely silent. Occasionally a winter bird circled through the air, or a frightened squirrel ran from a tree branch to his hollow, and twice they caught a fair view of a bunch of rabbits, nibbling at some tender shoots of brushwood. The young hunters could have shot the rabbits with ease, but now they were after larger game, and they knew better than to fire shots which would most likely drive the elk for miles, were the beast within hearing distance.
"How far do you calculate the elk is from here?" asked Dave, after a good mile had been covered.
"That's no easy question to answer, Dave," returned Sam Barringford. "He may have gone two miles and he may have gone ten. We'll have to trust to luck to catch up to him. I don't calkerlate he went far in this deep snow."
Another mile was covered, and they came to a spot where the snow was kicked up in several directions. A rough-barked tree was near by, and on this it was plain to see that the elk had rubbed himself vigorously.
"Thet proves he ain't gone far," said Barringford, almost in a whisper. "He stopped to scratch himself an' then dropped into a walk. Go slow now and keep quiet, an' we may come up to him before you know it."
The old frontiersman's advice was followed, and they turned along the newly-made trail, which now led up to the top of another hill. Here was a good-sized clearing, and Barringford motioned for the others to keep back until he could reconnoiter. They stepped behind some brushwood and each looked to the priming of his musket and to the flint.
Presently Barringford held up his hand and motioned for them to advance, but with caution.
"Reckon I've spotted him, but I ain't sartin," he whispered. "See thet hollow yonder? I think he's back of them bushes an' rocks. We had better spread out a bit."
The others understood, and while Dave went to the right, Henry moved to the left, leaving Barringford to advance as before. The hollow mentioned was nearly quarter of a mile away, yet so sharp were the old frontiersman's eyes that he had noted a peculiar moving of the upper branches of the brushwood before him, as if some large animal was tramping around, browsing on such tender shoots as the snow had not covered.
"If the elk don't go off like a streak, Henry shall have the first shot," Barringford had said, and it was arranged that, all things being favorable, Dave should shoot next, if a second bullet was required. Barringford would hold himself in readiness for the unexpected.
There was a cleared spot to cover, and at a signal from the old frontiersman they advanced across this, being all of a hundred yards from each other, and in something of a semicircle.
They made no noise, and the elk, for such it really was, did not notice them until they were within easy gunshot of where he was feeding. Then up went his head, to scent the air, and with a snort of sudden fear he started away, straight ahead of them.
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