When Robert left the camp, he had no definite intention, save that he would skirt round the base of a low hill, about a mile away, and return to camp within an hour or two. He hoped to come across some sort of game; a brace of grouse, at least, of which there are several varieties in British America. His Winchester rifle had half a dozen cartridges in it, and Robert was a good shot. He had no fear of missing a partridge or ptarmigan at 30 yards with a single ball.
The forest floor was encumbered with fallen and decayed logs, into whose crumbling sides he sank so often that his progress was slow. There was very little undergrowth to impede his way, however, and within half an hour he reached sharply rising ground, which told him he was at the foot of the hill he had seen from camp.
Up to this point he had kept within hearing of the stream, but now he turned off at right angles, thinking he would walk 15 minutes and then retrace his steps. Before he had advanced far in this new direction, he found himself following a sort of trail. Indeed, it was almost a beaten path in the woods.
“Ah,” said Rob to himself, with some dissatisfaction, “we have struck civilization again! Here’s a regular route for fur-traders, I’ve no doubt. Ah well,” he soliloquized as he sauntered lazily along the path, ” I might as well—halloo!”
He stopped and examined a track that was plainly outlined in a patch of mud. It was shaped like the print of a huge human foot, 14 inches long at the very least. Robert had not “trailed” from the Hudson’s Bay settlements for nothing. He knew that no man had left that footprint. It was undoubtedly the track of a bear, and an enormous one, too; possibly a grizzly.
The boy’s heart beat so hard that it seemed as if he must stifle. The “sign” was fresh. It certainly was not half an hour old, for the water was still oozing into it from the sides.
Should he go on? The ambition of Robert’s life just now was to shoot a grizzly, but he knew the danger to a single hunter if he should meet one of these terrible brutes alone.
It flashed across the boy’s mind at the same moment that the trail he was following was very closely connected with that peculiar track. It was no hunter’s at all. It was one of the famous “bear-roads,” for which the great Northwest is noted, and which thread the densest forests in every direction.
Only six charges in that rifle! But the temptation was too great. Robert concluded at least to follow the path cautiously for a short distance. Perhaps he could come upon his shaggy game unexpectedly. Perhaps he could stalk him!
With these thoughts passing swiftly through his mind, he examined the lock of his rifle carefully, assured himself that the cartridges were in place, and, stooping over like an old hunter, advanced softly along the trail.
At every slightest sound in the forest his heart gave an answering thump; but no bear appeared. He was beginning to think of turning back toward the camp when a curious noise fell upon his ears. It was a succession of dull blows, like that of a farmer driving a stake into the ground.
A sudden turn of the path brought him unexpectedly upon a singular scene. About a hundred yards away, the trail was blocked by a huge, dark form. It stood about four feet high and was covered with long, shaggy fur of a dirty brown color. Robert recognized the animal at once, although it was back to him. It was the Brown Bear, Ursus arctos, of the cold countries. It was with a feeling half chagrin and half relief that the boy knew in a moment it was no grizzly before him. That it was, on the other hand, his very ugliest and most formidable relative south of the Arctic Circle was equally certain.
But what was the occasion of the bear’s quiet attitude? A glance along the path explained matters. Directly facing the bear stood an old bull moose, his spreading antlers touching the boughs on each side of the path. The big fellow was not standing at his full height. His head was slightly lowered, his eyes fixed intently on those of his near neighbor. Neither of the animals paid the slightest attention to the newcomer.
There seemed to be no good reason why there should be a quarrel. There was plenty of room, with a little squeezing, for a bear and a moose, even if both, as was the case, were larger than the average, to pass each other comfortably. But neither of them thought of yielding an inch; they glared silently at each other, like two teamsters who have unexpectedly met in a narrow alley. Neither one would back out, that was settled.
The moose raised one of his great hoofs and struck it upon the ground several times, making moss and mud fly, while his eyes seemed fairly to flash fire. His long, ungainly head drooped lower; it was evident that affairs were reaching a crisis, and Robert concluded it was time to act.
An old hunter would have walked backward softly to the turn in the path, and then run for his life, leaving the two forest princes to fight it out as they pleased. Unfortunately, the boy did no such thing. He raised his rifle, sighted a spot in the very center of the moose’s broad breast, and fired.
At the very same instant, the latter made up his mind to knock that bear into small bits, and bounded forward. The bear was watching for this and rose on his haunches to meet his antagonist. So it happened that the rifle ball, instead of doing its work as was intended, merely scored the bear’s right shoulder and inflicted a slight wound on the flank of the moose.
Both the brutes were startled by the heavy report of the gun, and enraged by the sting of the ball. The impetus of the big “horned horse” was so great that he could not stop himself, but struck the bear squarely on the snout, causing Bruin to roll over backward with the moose on top of him.
The two huge creatures scrambled to their feet and simultaneously caught sight of Robert, who pluckily drew a bead on the brown, struggling mass, and fired a second time, with as little apparent result as before.
Then he started for the nearest tree, which, luckily for him, was a good-sized spruce, with two or three boughs, or stubs of them, close to the ground.
He had to drop his rifle, and indeed had no time to spare, for by a common impulse both the late enemies rushed against their common foe.
Robert drew a long breath as he seated himself, not very comfortably, on a stout branch some 20 feet from the ground. To his relief, the bear concluded that his honor had been vindicated, and ambled off on his “road” at a swift pace, which took him out of sight in two minutes.
Not so the big moose. Pawing the ground and snorting fiercely, he continued to charge up and down under the tree, until at last, perceiving that his hated assailant was for the time out of his reach, he sullenly commenced a slow walk to and fro, like a sentinel on guard duty, now and then casting vindictive glances into the evergreen boughs overhead.
Three rifle shots came echoing faintly through the woods, but Robert could not reply. He had given his party no idea of where he was going. Plainly his position was a disagreeable one, not to say positively dangerous.
What was to be done?
Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of “Treed By a Moose,” an excerpt from Willis Boyd Allen’s The Red Mountain of Alaska, published 1889.