In the semi-darkness of daybreak a boy of fourteen jumped from a Pullman sleeper and slipped a quarter into the hand of the dusky porter who handed down his luggage.
" You are sure this is Upper Chain ? " he inquired.
" 'Spects it is, boss, but I ain't no ways sho'. Ain't never been up this way afore," replied the porter, yawning sleepily.
The boy vainly strove to pierce the night mist which shrouded everything in ghostly gray, hoping to see the conductor or a brake-man, but he could see barely half the length of the next Pullman. A warning rumble at the head of the long train admonished him that he must act at once; he must make up his mind to stay or he must climb aboard again, and that quickly.
The long night ride had been a momentous event to him. He had slept little, partly from the novelty of his first experience in a sleeping car, and partly from the excitement of actually being on his way into the big north woods, the Mecca of all his desires and daydreams. Consequently he had kept a fairly close record of the train's running time, dozing off between stations but waking instantly whenever the train came to a stop. According to his reckoning he should now be at Upper Chain. He had given the porter strict orders to call him twenty minutes before reaching his destination, but to his supreme disgust he had had to perform that service for the darkey. That worthy had then been sent forward to find the conductor and make sure of their whereabouts. Unsuccessful, he had returned just in time to hand down the lad's duffle.
Now, as the preliminary jerk ran down the heavy train, the boy once more looked at his watch, and made up his mind. If the train was on time, and he felt sure that it was, this was Upper Chain, the junction where he was to change for the final stage of his journey. He would stay.
The dark, heavy sleepers slowly crept past as the train gathered way, till suddenly he found himself staring for a moment at the red and green tail lights. Then they grew dim and blinked out in the enveloping fog. He shivered a bit, for the first time realizing how cold it was at this altitude before daybreak. And, to be quite honest, there was just a little feeling of loneliness as he made out the dim black wall of evergreens on one side and the long string of empty freight cars shutting him in on the other. The whistle of the laboring locomotive shrieked out of the darkness ahead, reverberating with an eery hollowness from mountain to mountain. Involuntarily he shivered again. Then, with a boyish laugh at his momentary loss of nerve, he shouldered his duffle bag and picked up his fishing-rod.
" Must be a depot here somewhere, and it's up to me to find it," he said aloud. " Wonder what I tipped that stupid porter for, anyway ! Dad would say I'm easy. Guess I am, all right. Br-r-r-r, who says this is July ? "
Trudging along the ties he soon came to the end of the string of empties and, a little way to his right, made out the dim outlines of a building. This proved to be the depot. A moment later he was in the bare, stuffy little waiting-room, in the middle of which a big stove was radiating a welcome warmth.
On a bench at one side sat two roughly-dressed men, who glanced up as the boy entered. One was in the prime of vigorous manhood. Broad of shoulder, large of frame, he was spare with the leanness of the professional woodsman, who lives up to the rule that takes nothing useless on the trail and, therefore, cannot afford to carry superfluous flesh. The gray flannel shirt, falling open at the neck, exposed a throat which, like his face, was roughened and bronzed by the weather.
The boy caught the quick glance of the keen blue eyes which, for all their kindly twinkle, bored straight through him. Instinctively he felt that here was one of the very men his imagination had so often pictured, a man skilled in woodcraft, accustomed to meeting danger, clear-headed, resourceful—in fact just such a man as was Deerslayer, whose rifle had so often roused the echoes in these very woods.
The man beside him was short, thick-set, black-haired and mare-browed. His skin was swarthy, with just a tinge of color to hint at Indian ancestry among his French forebears. He wore the large check mackinaw of the French Canadian lumberman. Against the bench beside him rested a double-bladed axe. A pair of beady black eyes burned their way into the boy's consciousness. They were not good eyes ; they seemed to carry a hint of hate and evil, an unspoken threat. The man, taking in the new khaki suit of the boy and the unsoiled case of the fishing-rod, grunted contemptuously and spat a mouthful of tobacco juice into the box of sawdust beside the stove. The boy flushed and turned to meet the kindly, luminous eyes of the other man.
" If you please, is this Upper Chain ? " he inquired.
"Sure, son," was the prompt response. ' Reckon we must hev come in on th' same train, only I was up forward. Guess you're bound for Woodcraft Camp. So'm I, so let's shake. My name's Jim Everly—'Big Jim' they call me—and I'm goin' in t' guide fer Dr. Merriam th' rest o' th' summer and try to teach you youngsters a few o' th' first principles. What might yer name be an' whar be yer from ?"
" Walter Upton, but the boys mostly call me 1 Walt.' My home is in New York," replied the boy.
" Never hit th* trail t' th' big woods afore, did yer?" inquired the big guide, rising to stretch.
" No," said Walter, and then added eagerly : " But I've read lots and lots of books about them, and I guess I could most find my way along a trail even if I am a city tenderfoot. I've paddled a canoe some, and I know all about the habits of wild animals and how to build a fire and-"
" Son," interrupted Big Jim, " stop right thar! Forget it—all this rot you've been a-readin'. Woodcraft never yet was larned out o' books, and it never will be. I reckon you an' me are goin't' hitch up together fine, an' when yer go back t' yer daddy this fall yer'll be able t' take him out in th' tall timbers an' show him a few stunts what ain't down in th' program o' city schools, but what every cottontail born in the north woods larns the second day he gets his eyes open. Now yer jes' fergit all this stuff yer've been a-readin' and stick t' me; we'll git along fine. I'll make a woodsman o' yer yer dad will be proud o'. Let's have a look outside t' see how the weather is."