THE afternoon sun was hot, far too hot for wood chopping, Randy Dare decided as he scowled at the cordwood piled against the wall of his log shack home. Absently, the boy curled his toes around a fair-sized chip, lifted it, then set it down again. That was one advantage of going barefoot—you had an extra set of fingers on your feet.
An oveny, resinous smell rose in whiffs from the wood, scorching his brown face and making all the strength run out of him. For days he had been living in a weird, unfamiliar world, shrouded in smoke from a forest fire to the north; but a strong wind from the south had blown away the acrid stuff, and as Randy sank down listlessly on the chopping block, his eye roved over a limpid lake, up the forested shoulders of the near Rockies and on beyond to the jagged crests of the giants of a farther range. Over the colorful scene a bald-headed eagle winged clear-cut against the blue sky with its galleons of scudding white clouds; but the exquisite beauty of the valley in which he lived had little appeal to Randy. His mind was elsewhere—at the adjoining ranch, to be precise—where against the barn wall lay a scarred and battered bicycle belonging to his chum, Peanuts Smith. Night and day Randy’s thoughts were there, and now he heaved a sigh that was born of his heart’s torment of longing. “Shucks!” he whimpered, “I’ll never get a bike,” and in search of comfort he sought the laden gooseberry bushes.
Randy seldom had any money, but the lack of it had never worried him so acutely before. There had been other ways to acquire things. Trading, for instance. When he had wanted a knife so badly, he had traded an ancient acetylene miner’s lamp for a real beauty that had filled his mother with cute apprehension. In turn he had traded the knife for a fountain pen, the pen for skates, the skates for an electric motor with battery, the motor and battery for skis, and finally the skis for his rabbits, Billy and Peter. Sure, a fellow could get almost anything by trading—anything except a bike, which he wanted so terribly. Pressing the fat yellow berries against his lips he squirted the juice into his mouth, then economically scrunched the skins. How could a fellow get a bike when he had nothing valuable enough to swap for it? How? Hitherto Randy had had a sneaking feeling buried deep in his brain that he could get anything he wanted, if only he wanted it enough. Now, for the first time in all his thirteen years he doubted. In fact, he went further; he despaired, and frankly owned defeat.
From his pocket he drew a page torn out of a mail order catalogue and then glumly studied the beautiful machine pictured there. If only he had thirty dollars! Thirty dollars! And his only way of getting pocket money was by selling gopher tails to the local golf club of Invermont for two and a half cents each. The bigger sums he earned for odd jobs of gardening and wood splitting had to pay for boots and pants, the Dares being temporarily embarrassed financially.
The earning of thirty dollars by gopher trapping was going to take an appalling length of time and trouble. The gopher is a prolific little beast, but Randy doubted if the few around at present could multiply themselves into a whole thirty dollars worth in time to let him buy a bike this season. Still, shucks, he wouldn’t give up! Right away he’d count the tails that reposed in his Sunday pants’ pocket.
FOR a youngster who was too tired to chop wood, he made good time over to the shack and climbed in through the open window. (It was bread-baking day, and if his mother saw him she would begin hollering for wood.) After a good rummage he located the pants, thrust confident fingers into the hind pocket—and grasped emptiness. His tails were gone. Gone!
Caution forgotten, he leapt like a startled jack-in-the-box into the kitchen.
“Mother! Where are my gopher tails?”
Mrs. Randolph Dare was a small person, still young and rather pretty in a tired way, and much harassed by misfortune and the primitive mode of life entailed by their present quarters. She now bounced a mound of dough from the breadmixer on to the baking board before she answered defiantly: “I put them on the shelf in the shed.”
“Mother! Moth-er! And you know the cat swipes them from there! I’ll—I’ll kill that blamed cat! A—moth-er! Peanuts’ mother never cares what he does or where he goes, an’ he can keep gopher tails in his pockets for months if he likes, for all she cares.”
Mrs. Dare slapped a lump of dough into its appointed pan and glared ominously at her son.
“Mother, how’ll I ever get my bike if you yank my tails outta my pockets and then let the cat play with them and lose them? An’ lookit, she went off with my crow heads—did me outta that bounty money, too! How can a fellow ever get a bike if you won’t let him save?”
“If you would buy boots . . .”
“Aw, but I want a bike!” Gloomily Randy salvaged some raw dough out of the mixer and ate it.
“But our bills, child! What will the store people say if they see you flying around on a bicycle? No, it’s impossible. I wish you could have a bike, but you just can’t. Besides, you mightn’t be able to ride one.”
“I can ride Peanuts’ bike better’n he can,” her son assured her succinctly. “And its saddle doesn’t stay on,” he added incautiously.
“Randy! You’ve been riding a bike! And one that isn’t safe! Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Randy, I—I can’t stand your doing dangerous things.” Mrs. Dare’s voice rose to a wail and her eyes dwelt reproachfully upon her only son, who was almost as tall as herself, though some of his baby teeth still showed beside his beautiful big second set. Gently she ruffled his chestnut hair and gazed, frankly idolatrous, into the dear, eager brown eyes of him. “Randy, I forbid you to ride a bike that isn’t safe!” Her lips trembled. “I—I wish you wouldn’t be such a runagate. I wish you’d be a nice, quiet boy for a change, and be content to stay here with me. There’s lots to amuse you, what with your pigeons and the rabbits and the rat.”
“But . .” Randy bit back the words desperately. How was he to tell her that he had traded Billy and Peter, the rabbits, and Monte, the rat, to Peanuts for a day’s loan of the coveted bike? Randy had something of the diplomat in his make-up, and he felt that the present moment was far from auspicious for the announcement. At the very thought of the bike to be his all day tomorrow a surge of joy thrilled clean through him! He’d manage his mother somehow. But he wouldn’t try just now. No, not just now. Sure, she would give in—he’d get around her somehow.
“Want any water?” he asked suddenly. “An’, good gosh, you’re outta wood!”
THE herring drawn across the trail served its purpose. Mrs. Dare’s attention was diverted and the boy swung jubilantly toward the low doorway, but as he turned his mother’s voice arrested him. “Randy Dare,” she fairly screeched, “you’ve torn your pants again!”
“Have I?” Randy’s tone betokened innocence, but his hand went unerringly to the spot where his bare skin showed. “I thought I heard something rip when I got on to . . ” He stopped, conscious of a precipice yawning before him.
“When you got on to the saddle that won’t stay put,” she finished grimly. “Well, I don’t know what we are going to do. I have no money for new pants.”
“Aw, these are fine.” Randy pushed the torn flap back into place and slunk off to the woodpile. Wham! Crack! Carefully he stood the chunks of wood on end, upslung the axe, then down, with the little twist that sent the heavy logs flying apart. When he had enough stove pieces, he stopped to wipe his sweat-beaded face and to study the white pall in the north. The fire was still going strong, he concluded. Suddenly an idea gripped him, a glorious solution of all his troubles. He would get a job, by gosh! A real job! Jack Peters had gone fire-fighting at the Summit yonder, and he was as big as Jack, if not as old; so why shouldn’t he go, too? Perhaps they would put him to work in the cookshack as flunkey or bull-cook, but at that it would be all right. Plenty of grub there. He piled the sticks of chopped wood along his arm and went indoors all aglow. “Mother!”
“I’ve thought up a grand plan.”
She smiled at him. Now what bee had this troublesome miracle of hers got in his bonnet? “Yes?” she prompted, adoring the slim length of him and the wide-set clever eyes under the chestnut curls.
“I’m goin’ to try for an all-the-time job for a while.”
“You aren’t old enough.” She shook her head with a wistful smile.
“Oh, do let me go, mother. I can go fire-fighting, or flunkeying in the kitchen, you know, if I’m too young for the fire lines. I could help you pay the bills and maybe get some money saved for my bike. Think how I could help you if I had a bike! Think how easily we’d get our goods from Invermont! Think of the way I’d save on boots!”
But there was no answering response in his mother’s face. “You are not going near the fire!” she said sternly. “I won’t have you go and get burned up.”
“Aw, shucks, I won’t get burned up! I’m not a baby! Here we are in debt ’cause father is sick and has to be away from home for a while, an’ I can’t do nothin’ ’cause you won’t let me. Mother, you’re awful! Peanuts Smith’s mother would let him go if he wanted to.”
“She would still have five boys left,” Mrs. Dare reminded him quietly.
“Well, what about it?” demanded Randy. “If I take a job, that doesn’t mean that I’m goin’ to die, does it?”. “N-no! But I won’t hear of you going so far away.”
“Are you scared to be left alone?” Randy enquired after a crestfallen silence. There was no atom of defiance or sauciness in his tone, only a great sympathy, as if he were the parent and she the child.
MARY DARE restrained a hysterical impulse to burst into tears. Things were too hard altogether! She couldn’t bear to let Randy go near the fire, nor could she bear to be left alone. Unimaginable horrors would paralyze her in the quiet night times. And yet—if she held Randy back all the time he would grow to hate her. All his life she had been holding on to him desperately, trying to keep him from harm. All his life he had been pulling away with all his might. He had gone his own boy’s way anyhow. You couldn’t keep a duck from water, nor Randy, the runagate, from risking his neck ten times a day. A great weariness of the prolonged battling engulfed her.
“Get your job, son,” she said suddenly. “The money will be a wonderful help.”
For a moment Randy was stunned by his victory. He couldn’t leave his mother to lug water and wage war on fence-breaking cattle! How had he ever come to think of it anyway? Oh, yes, the bike! But his impulsiveness had carried him too far, much too far. He longed to retreat, but saw no way for its accomplishment.
“You’re a sport, mother!” he said, with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. “I’ll borrow Peanuts’ bike and ride over tomorrow to the Summit. Truly, mom, it’s an absolutely safe bike.”
Mrs. Dare nodded. The moment he mentioned borrowing the bike suspicion leapt into her mind that Randy, the little runagate, had “worked” her again. She studied the handsome lad with a cold, searching eye. Was she weak? Was she wise? She did not know. But she did know that she was dead tired of clucking at her duckling to leave the water alone.
NEXT morning Randy woke to a mood of anguished indecision. Conscience bade him stay at home and take care of his mother, while the lure of the day’s biking and the opportunity to earn money argued that he set off to the Summit. In the end he decided to go. He would have the day’s biking, and there was always the possibility that he might not get the job. Having settled the immediate problem on hand, Randy’s spirits rose, and when he kissed his mother good-by he was his usual jaunty self, though not quite jaunty enough to risk telling her of the trading of Billy and Peter, whom she greatly cherished.
At his call the rabbits came hopping trustfully, and a peculiar, uncomfortable feeling assailed Randy at the pit of his stomach. He hated to part with them. Gently he lifted Peter, the larger bunny, and nestled his chin on the glossy black ears. Peter had grown enormously, Randy reflected as he caressed the rabbit’s overflowing proportions. All of a sudden a blinding thought struck him. “By Gosh, Peter! You’re going to have kittens—I mean rabbits!” he exclaimed ecstatically. Yes, undoubtedly! And he had traded him—her—to Peanuts! But it wasn’t too late yet to keep her. No, by gum, he’d give up the biking. But the job! What about the job? After the way he had argued and pleaded he simply had to take the blamed job, and unless he borrowed the bike and went out to the fire he had no hopes of landing anything else. Randy sat in torment, bitterly conscious that he himself had pulled his happy ordinary everyday life crashing about his ears. Well, one thing was sure, he would make another trade with Peanuts, but Peter and Billy stayed. Back into the hutch he bundled them and turned to get Monte the pack-rat.
Gingerly he lifted the lid of a box covered with the opened sides of coal oil tins—Monte ate his way out of everything else. There, in a corner among hay, the evil-smelling little rodent lay curled in a tight circle, utterly adorable, with his bushy tail over his nose. Randy gritted his teeth. How the dickens could a fellow give away Monte, who sat up on his hind legs and ate cake out of a fellow’s fingers. But Peanuts had to have something, so Randy laid desperate fingers upon the tiny creature, yanked him out of the cosy nest and popped him into a small box. “An’ don’t you eat your way outta that, or I’ll give you a bat on the nose!” he warned his pet, and set off whistling—but blinking and sniffing a bit, too. Yep, a fellow could land in a heck of a jackpot if he pulled too many strings at once. Sniff. Blink.
THE horrible fear that his mother would be afraid to stay alone assailed him again. And what if she fell sick? She was subject to bronchitis—how long would she last, working in the rain? He swung on his heel to go back, then pride turned him round again.
Peanuts met him as he climbed the last fence. “Where’s the rabbits,” he queried. “You not goin’ bikin,’ eh?”
“Here’s the rat,” Randy parried, “and you’ve had the lend of my fishing reel for a week. That’s a good enough trade for just one day on your blamed old bike.”
“Aw, go on!” Peanuts retorted angrily. “You said the rabbits, too. But I tell you, I’ll trade you the bike for today for the reel and the rat.” Monte was not to be resisted!
“Done!” agreed Randy.
The moment he felt himself pedalling, the old intoxication engulfed him. With his hair blown straight up on end, his cheeks flushed, he wheeled on, exalted, crazy with delight. By gosh! A fellow just had to have a bike. He just couldn’t live without one! Randy, bouncing recklessly on the loose saddle, wanted to yell and whoop, to urge the machine on as one would a horse. His baby teeth showed beside his big new ones as he drew great breaths and laughed aloud. Holy mackinaw! Wasn’t she a buzzer, this old bus! Whoa, there! Not too fast with that tricky saddle. Whoopee!
THE south wind still held, keeping the air free from smoke, so that the pungent odor of fields of flaming black-eyed Susans smote Randy’s nostrils. On, on, he wheeled, drunk with happiness, half hoping, half fearing to meet one of the great, noisy trucks that would be speeding to and from the fire camps.
After the fifth mile down the lovely valley he turned off into a pass, up a road that only recently had been graded out of the old pack-horse trail. The scenery grew more rugged, tall peaks hemming him closely, so that he glanced up apprehensively at the gigantic boulders among the patches of stunted pines. Alders and poplars lined the road itself, while clusters of white elderberry blossom gleamed here and there against the weather-beaten rocks that had tumbled from the heights above. Any moment Randy expected to see a deer or a black bear. “Yippy-yip-yip-yoho!” he shouted to the flawless blue sky, and wished he could dive headfirst into it, as into cold water.
At the end of the eighth mile he calmed down enough to notice the little things—the sparrowhawks that teetered on the tips of small trees, bushes trampled flat by a bear, the glacial silt that greyed a boiling mountain torrent. He wanted to get off that tricky saddle and stretch his legs a bit, but he didn’t like the look of that flattened brush—maybe it would be wiser to wait till he reached a more open part of the road. He began the descent a of a steep little hill with a sharp turn at the bottom. All aboard, boys? Let ’er go! Now to put the brake on before he got to the corner, for he had been flung off that no-account saddle twice before at just such a turn. Steady now! Gently he pedalled round the curve between steep, rocky sides—only to come to disaster as the bend revealed something, a huddled man or a sack, lying in the way. Randy, already a little nervous and tired, swerved too suddenly, whereupon the treacherous saddle immediately bucked him off.
MORE shaken and startled than hurt, Randy sat up in some alarm as a groan broke the stillness. At the same moment the huddle began to move, and Randy’s mouth fell agape with amazement as he observed it to resolve itself into a very fat man around whose neck were draped sides of bacon and big hams, strung together on one main cord. A roll of Hudson Bay blankets lay in the small brush that began where the rock-strewn hillsides melted into a tiny green Alpine meadow. But if Randy was astounded at the encounter, not so the fat man. He seemed to accept the boy as part of the scenery.
“Hello!” said Randy, trying to fit a name to the vaguely familiar face. Tully ... Torry . . . Toby! Yes, Toby, that was it. He was Toby Taylor, part-time miner, part-time hunter and trapper, and all-the-time booze-fighter, who was frequently to be seen on the streets of Invermont.
“What you doin’ here, Toby?”
“I dunno!” Groan.
“What you doin’ with all the hams and bacon round your neck?”
The fat man attempted to turn his eyes upon his strange necklace. “I dunno!” he repeated.
“Good gosh! You’ve got a lump of raw meat in the sack, too!” commented Randy.
Toby shuddered as his eyes followed the boy’s pointing finger to the wet, bloodstained sack. He groaned with greater intensity.
Randy battled with a desire to roll on his back and kick his heels in the air in gales of laughter! Yet he did not want to hurt Toby’s feelings, so he averted his eyes, got to his feet and lifting the bike, wheeled it backward and forward, tried the pedals and brake. Mercifully the machine was all right, so he pushed it to one side of the road and leaned it against some saplings that grew among the boulders.
Toby, meantime, paid not the slightest attention to him, but sat staring vacantly and groaning. Now he raised his heavy eyes, bulging like a dead minnow’s, and enquired thickly: “How many miles to Invermont?”
“Eight,” said Randy cheerfully.
Groan. “How many to Elk Meadow Crossing?”
A moan of keener anguish announced that Toby was plumbing the depths.
“Which way are you going?” asked Randy.
“Which way did you come?”
“Well, where did you get the hams?”
“They’re not mine!” denied Toby with some show of spirit.
“And the blankets?”
“I—I think they are mine. But I dunno where I got the hams. Lend a hand, boy. You’re the Dare kid, ain’t you? Lend a hand, lad, and take the blamed things off me.”
Almost bursting with the effort to keep a solemn face, Randy lifted the sides of bacon and the hams and stacked them at the foot of the tumbled rocks beside the bicycle. Next he salvaged the roll of blankets, and then turned to pull or prod Toby off the road in case one of the trucks going to or coming from the fire should butt in on their party.
“I think the blankets are mine,” Toby was ruminating. “Yep, my blankets. But I dunno where I got them blasted hams, unless—by heck, I’ve got it now—I must of fell off that truck goin’ to the fire camp at the Summit. I was drunk, Randy. But I seem to mind that Tony Veran came and got me on the street at Invermont, an’ I thought I’d go and have a look-see fer a devil of a cranky cougar the boys wanted me to tree. Then Lady—you know Lady, the best cougar dog in the country—she went and had pups under the livery barn floor, so I guess I went without my dog. Yep, I must ’a’ gone with that old fool, Tony, anyways. An’ a heck of a ride he give me, lad. Fine way to kill a man, lett’n him fly off’n a truck at a corner, an’ kill himself with sides of beef and hams.” Toby wiped away an alcoholic tear.
Randy gave a good tug and got Toby to his knees, where he swayed drunkenly. “Whoa, there!” the patient admonished. “Easy a sec. Now pull.” The boy braced his slim body and pulled and steadied Toby’s great bulk till the man straightened upright.
“No bones broke, anyways,” said Toby heavily, “but oh, boy, how I do ache! I’ll take the hide off’n Tony Veran fer this. Him an’ his blasted cuttin’ round corners on two wheels.”
RANDY kept a firm hold of his companion until he got him settled in some lush grass in the shade. Then he retrieved the red, knobby sack and tossed it down on some small brush. To his immense surprise a polished stock of wood leapt into sight as he did so. “Gosh! A gun!” he whooped. Instantly he had it up and was sighting along it, the muzzle pointing fair and square at Toby.
“Put it down, darn your hide!” roared the frightened man, almost sobered by the shock. “It’s loaded!”
“Oh, is it yours?” asked Randy, disappointed.
“You bet your sweet life it is. An’ I ain’t pinin’ to have my head blown off. Put it down!”
“All right! All right!” Randy agreed impatiently, “but I kin shoot. Let me try this one, eh? Pete Manchez’ gun is the same as dad’s, an’ he let me use his—until I finished up all dad’s cartridges. I got to buy some more, too, before the old man comes home. I bet Pete’s gun is better’n this Winchester,” he added critically.
“Go ahead an’ try the gun!” growled Toby, highly offended. “Shoot, you young devil, and let’s see what you kin do but talk.”
Something made a shiver run up Randy’s spine. He swung this way and that uneasily, peering about him, searching among the saplings and boulders.
“Ha! Ha!” mocked Toby, his fat stomach heaving again.
“’Tain’t that. I’m not afraid to shoot. I’ve shot a rifle like this before, often, honest,” said Randy gravely. “But there’s something around here, an’ I can’t see what it is. I’ve bin hearin’ queer little noises. Kinda swishy noises. I feel as if something’s watching. Don’t you?”
“Nope,” said Toby, beautifully serene.
“I’ve heard a twig snap several times. Any deer about?”
“All kinds o’ critters, son, take an occasional stroll down this way. ’Most anything from a weasel to a moose. You are gettin’ into big game country here. But never mind that just now, lad. There ain’t anythin’ in sight. Let’s see you shoot. Ain’t that a rum bottle shinin’ over by that old camp fire yonder? Pot it, lad, and then we’ll go over and see how you done and get some water outta the crik beyont. Come on now, lad.”
Still Randy hesitated. “I feel as if something, as if eyes were boring into my back,” he whimpered, “but I can’t find ’em.” His voice rose to a whine.
“Aw, quit your foolin’!” Toby eyed nim with disgust. “Lady would give warnin’. An’ after this, talk more respectful of a weepon you’re scared to shoot.”
“Lady is back in Invermont with her pups!” the boy reminded him, fidgeting nervously. There was something that he couldn’t see, and Toby wouldn’t believe him. Maybe it was a bear—but no, there wasn’t thick enough cover to hide a bear. Randy’s eagle eyes roved to right and left of him. Nothing.
THEN a glint, or a movement, drew his eyes upward and suddenly he caught his breath with a sharp intake, and his whole body tensed into rigidity. A terrible agony of fear widened his staring eyes, which were fixed upon a lichen-patched boulder high above and sloping back from Toby’s head. At last he had found the boring eyes. Terrible eyes; savage, murderous eyes. Cruelty incarnate lay ready to spring down at them in the form of a great tawny cat that crouched, tail spasmodically twitching. Its lips were drawn back in a blood-chilling snarl, so that Randy plainly saw two broken fangs that were of a dirty, spotty grey. In a blinding revelation Randy guessed that this was “the cranky devil of a cougar” that Toby was goin’ to tree, but the boy’s tongue was jammed against his palate and not a word of warning could he utter. During that agony-brimmed second, not a muscle, gripped in numbing paralysis, would obey him, till convulsive shudders began to rack the belly and hindlegs of the cat. Randy well knew what those twitchings meant—they meant swift and horrible death for himself and Toby—and suddenly a surge of anger and a fierce desire to fight back, to fight, to hurt, to kill, ran through his palsy like an antidote. The leaden weights fell off his arms, and, as calmly as if he had been about to pot the rum bottle, he raised the rifle and with a grim zest fired at the soft, furred chest just as the cat, sensing the boy’s lust to kill, hurtled down.
Randy had a fleeting glimpse of tawny fur, great curved claws distended into talons, and those broken spotty fangs, as the furious bulk came straight for his face. Like a baby hiding its head from the unknown dreadful, Randy jumped sideways, his arms over his eyes to fend off those too cruel claws. His cringing flesh waited the rip he knew must come. A pit of blackness yawned, he stumbled over the bloody sack of meat, and just as he went down an agony seared his thigh. The rifle slipped out of his nerveless fingers. He slumped forward on his face, bumping his nose against the stock. Bright red blood dripped into the grass and down his chin, and beaded up quickly where his bare flesh showed through a new rip in the patched pants. Randy lay very still, but before the claws of death could tear again, the balked lion suddenly somersaulted in its death throes. With a bullet in its heart it had merely grazed the boy with one tremendous paw, and by the time Toby, deathly white and trembling like a jelly, had staggered over to the lad, the great cat was lying on its back, its tawny paws impotently clawing the air. Feebler and feebler convulsions announced the ebbing power in those once lightning quick, steel-strong muscles, till, racked only by great tremblings, the cougar lay on its side quietly, the broken teeth bared in an appalling grin of hate.
WHEN Randy came to his senses, a figure in a dark uniform and Stetson hat was bending over him. “He’s coming round,” said a gruff voice out of the tight uniform jacket.
“Thank God for that!” Toby was frankly sobbing, the while his podgy fingers futilely raked the lad’s hair back from his forehead. “When I saw that blood on his face I thought he was a goner.”
Randy’s mind groped to get its bearings. Impatiently he pushed away a cold cloth from his nose, which hurt abominably.
“Boys are tough! He’s all right!” said the gruff voice, which belonged to Laurie, of the Mounties, who had been attracted to the spot by the sound of the shot. “His leg is torn a bit,” he added, “but just a deepish scratch.” He ripped the already torn garment the better to see the wound.
“Here! Don’t you tear my pants!” snarled Randy, sitting up onesidedly and very much alive. “I get heck enough about torn pants. Good gosh!” he ejaculated in awe as he caught sight of the dead mountain lion. “Then I got him after all. Golly, I thought he got me.”
“When that there yalla beast came caterwauling and clawing down out o’ nowheres, right atween us, I thought for sure I’d got the D.T’s again and was seeing cougars instid o’ sky-blue elephunts and pink snakes,” Toby admitted heavily. “Here’s a car,” he added. “Darned if it isn’t Toby Veran at last!”
At the sight of the Mountie removing bandages and antiseptic from a kit in the sidecar of his motor bicycle, the obviously worried driver of the oncoming truck shouted: “Hello there! Who’s hurt? You all right, Toby? Holy Pete, man, but you give me a scare. What’s happened?”
“We’ve bin darn near killed by a big cat,” Toby told him witheringly. “An’ all your fault.”
“I swear I never missed you nor the hams from the back till I drew up at Elk Meadow Crossin’!” bleated Tony. “Is the kid tore up much?”
“Naw!” Randy answered. “I don’t want no bandages.”
“You fell off the truck, Toby, eh?” queried Laurie, inexorably ripping Randy’s pants a little more and carrying on with his first-aid work. “You and the kid going out to the fire?”
“Nope, I came gunnin’ for this fellow,” said Toby, pointing to the dead cougar. “But I was too drunk to know that the tables was turned and he was out layin’ for me. I figure the fire at the Summit drove him down hereabouts, an’ the smell o’ this sackful o’ meat acted as bait. Look at his spotty, broken teeth! Look at the size of him! He’s an old fellow, and maybe none too able to make a kill.”
“I’ll bet he accounted for a pile of deer last winter,” argued the Mountie dryly. “Say, that was some shot!” he added admiringly. “Mostly luck, I guess, but look there—up through the ribs and into the heart, I bet.”
“Let me see,” Randy slipped from the ministering fingers and gloated over the carcass. “Can I have him to keep?” he asked Laurie. “I want him for a rug for mother.”
“Sure, kid! He’s yours! Put him on the back of your bike and beat it home to bed.”
“Put this on the back of your bike, too!” With a grin Toby pushed the stock of the gun at him. “You’ve sure earned it.”
Randy fairly gaped at him. “I . . . Thanks ever so much, Toby . . . but mother doesn’t know I can fire a gun. Thanks again, Toby, but I daren’t take it home. As it is, mother’ll be hoppin’ mad at me bashing my nose and tearing up more clothes. Wait though, Toby! I’ve changed my mind.” The boy trembled with excitement. “Here, I’ll accept your gun, thanks. Now, it’s mine.” He took the weapon. “And now, Toby, I’ll trade you my gun for a box of cartridges to fit dad’s gun. Hardware store at Invermont sells ’em.”
“Done!” roared Toby, “It’s a go! All the bloomin’ cartridges and shells you want to fit anybody’s gun you kin lay your paws on.” He clinched the bargain with a slap on the back that set Randy’s swollen nose bleeding again.
KID, you ought to go home to bed!” Laurie’s voice was gruff but kindly. “What you doin’ up here anyway?”
“Lookin’ for a job.”
“At the fire?” asked Veran. “They got all the boys they kin use.”
“Aw, heck.” Randy was worn out and hardly knew what he was doing, or saying. Certainly he cared nothing about the job at present, only craving sleep, hours and hours of sleep, days of sleep. He swayed dizzily on his feet.
“I wonder you’d go to the fire when there’s a good job goin’ beggin’ in Invermont,” drawled Laurie.
“What job?” demanded Randy, opening his heavy eyes.
“I was in Invermont this mornin’,” Laurie said casual, “and Ted Lawson, my brother-in-law, told me he was up to his ears in work and goin’ to get a boy to help during vacation time.”
Randy turned his aching body stiffly. “I’m goin’ home,” he announced. “Right now. I gotta get a job, ’cause a fellow needs a bike . . . this one here belongs to Peanuts Smith. I want a job anyway, ’cause we’re broke.”
“Well, don’t forget, Randy, that there are forty dollars due you—bounty money on this kittycat,” Laurie growled.
“Forty dollars!” yelped Randy, sleepiness and pain shocked away for the nonce.
“Forty smackers, son! What you goin’ to buy? New pants and ginger pop?”
“Heck, no!” whooped the boy, hopping palely but joyfully on one leg. “I’m goin’ to buy new pants and a bike!” “Lend a hand!” roared Toby happily. “Up with Randy’s kittycat on the truck here! I’ll skin and dress the hide fer you, kid, fer I ain’t goin’ out to my shack till I get my nerves settled with some of the real stuff at Invermont. Come on an’ cel’brate, everybody!”
“Not in this truck!” Tony Veran leapt forward in alarm. “Them men at the fire camps are outta grub, an’ I gotta get a load to them. I threw off the rest of the stuff at the Crossin’, but this meat is for supper.”
Laurie fastidiously lifted the gory sack, and laid it on a canvas in his sidecar. Next he slung in the bacon and hams. “Push off!” he growled. “I’ll look out for the Summit men. Take the kid first to the doctor, in case of poisoning from the claws, and then home.”
They settled him comfortably in the truck with his head pillowed upon some of Toby’s blankets, the “kittycat” and the bike to one side of him. Tony, much subdued, drove the truck as carefully as if it had been a pram, while Toby, dead sober, solemnly played the role of nurse.
Lying utterly content, Randy pondered upon the miraculous way in which his tangled affairs had been straightened out. He shut his eyes, the better to think. He could still stay at home and look after his mother! And Peter was goin’ to have kittens! And mother wouldn’t fuss very long about his gettin’ hurt, ’cause the rug would take up her attention. And his bike! Oh, bliss! He opened his sleepy eyes again.
The afternoon sun glinted like bits of silver on the leaves. The trees began to blur, one into another. He reached over and prodded the yielding flesh of the cougar. Yes, it was real. Forty dollars bounty! For-ty dol-lars ! Bi-ke! For-ty dol-lars Bi-ke! He fitted the words to the rattle of the truck. His nose hurt a bit . His leg stung , . But heck, what about it? . . . Let the old cat have all his gopher tails. What did he care now?