For a while they heard shots from time to time, and somehow they brought a certain amount of comfort. It seemed less lonely to know that others were abroad in the forest looking for them, even though they were miles away. But the shots ceased finally, and the brooding mystery of the night settled over and took possession of them. They said little, but sat absorbed each in his own thoughts or listening to the strange sounds and uncanny voices of the night.
A pathetic picture they presented had any one been there to see, huddled together on the old log, their swollen, mud-smeared faces still further distorted by the uncertain flicker of the firelight. A stick snapping off in the darkness produced an answering jump in overwrought nerves, and the sudden scurry of a rabbit brought a startled " What was that?" from Spud.
Presently the physical strain and excitement they had been under began to tell, and despite their strange surroundings both boys began to nod, while the fire died down to glowing embers. It was then that some evil genius prompted a great horned owl to take up his watch on a dead pine not fifty feet away and startle the woodland with his fierce hunting call:
" Whooo-hoo-hoo, whoo-hoo ! "
The sleepers awoke in a panic, frantically clutching each other. "D-d-did you hear that? " whispered Spud, his teeth chattering.
As if in reply again the fierce hunting call rang through the woods :
" Whooo-hoo-hoo, whoo-hoo I "
Billy gave vent to a hysterical little laugh of relief. "Nothin' but an owl," said he as he heaped more wood on the fire. " He certainly got my goat that first time, though. Say, Spud, we're a couple of ninnies to both be sittin' out here asleep. What'd we build that lean-to for ? You turn in there and sleep for a couple of hours and then you watch and Til sleep. Ain't any need of either of us keepin' watch so far as any danger is concerned, I s'pose, for there's nothin' in these woods to harm us, but we ought not to leave the fire burnin' without some one to watch it."
This was sound advice, and Spud stretched out on the fragrant balsam boughs in the lean-to and soon was sound asleep. Billy began his lonely vigil. At first it was easy enough to keep awake. Later an almost irresistible drowsiness took possession of him, and it was only by tramping back and forth or hunting fire-wood within the circle of light from the fire that he managed to keep awake. At the end of two hours he roused Spud, and wearily threw himself in the latter's place on the balsam bed.
It seemed to him that he had hardly closed his eyes when he felt Spud shaking him. " Go 'way," he murmured sleepily. " What you waking me up now for ? "
" It's your turn again to watch," Spud growled, unceremoniously hauling Billy off the boughs.
If it had been hard and lonely work before it was doubly so now. It was past midnight, at the hour when vital forces and courage are at their lowest ebb. Billy was stiff and sore. Every movement was painful. He had never felt so utterly miserable in all his life. As he afterward expressed it, every bit of sand had run out.
He piled fuel on the fire, and then sat down on the log and gave himself over to his misery. How long he had sat there he could not tell when he was brought out of a semi-drowse by a slight noise back of the lean-to. In an instant he was wide awake, straining his ears for a repetition of the sound.
The fire had burned low and the circle of light had narrowed to a faint glow of but a few feet in diameter. Billy held his breath. Had he imagined it? No, there was a rustle of leaves back of the lean-to. Something was moving there. Then there followed a decided and pronounced sniff! Billy felt his scalp prickle as if each individual hair was rising on end. With a wild yell he grabbed a glowing ember from the fire and hurled it in the direction of the sound. There was a startled " whoof," and the sound of a heavy animal lumbering off through the brush.
Spud came tumbling out of the lean-to white and shaky. " For heaven's sake, Billy, what's the matter?" he gasped.
Billy's teeth were chattering so that he. could hardly speak. " I—I—I th-think it wa-was a bear," he finally managed to get out.
" Go on, what you givin' us!" said Spud.
Billy had by now so far recovered himself that ho could give a connected account of what, he had heard, and both agreed that their visitor could have been nothing less than bruin. Needless to say there was no more sloop for either that night They piled fresh fuel on the tire and kept watch together, starting nervously at the smallest sound.
It was with a sigh of profound relief that they noted the gray of dawn stealing through the trees, and with the coming of the light their spirits rose perceptibly.
" What shall wo do now, make a break out of here?"asked Spud when day had fairly broken.
"Not on your tintype!" replied Billy. "I'm lost all I'm goin' to bo. You got busy and build another fire over there about fifty feet When it gets goin' good heap on a lot of green loaves and rotten wood to make a smoke. I'll do the same thing with this fire. There ain't a breath of wind ; those two smokes will go straight up. and you know two smokes means 'lost.' Some one will ho up at the lookout on the top of Old Scraggy the first thing this morning, and he'll see the smokes.
Then he'll get word to camp and a party will come out and find us."
Wise Billy. He had decided upon just the right course of action. After the return of the unsuccessful searching parties Dr. Merriam had spent an anxious night. Before daybreak he had dispatched Seaforth with one of the guides to the top of Old Scraggy. They had seen the signal smokes at once and heliograph ed the location of them to camp. A party led by Big Jim and Louis Woodhull had started immediately, and as soon as they reached the clearing where the boys had begun their bee hunt they saw the smoke lazily curling above the tree tops about a mile beyond.
Firing signal shots and stopping every few minutes to send a whoop ringing through the woods they pushed on and presently, guided by answering whoops from the two victims, found the camp.
" Mother of saints ! " exclaimed Big Jim as he caught a glimpse of the swollen and mud-stained faces of the two boys.
Billy smiled feebly, for the effort was pain-ful. " We found a bee tree," he said.
"Found a bee tree! Found a bee tree!" echoed the guide. " Tears to me thet them bees did some findin' on their own account."
Then seeing what really pitiful condition the two youngsters were in he called an abrupt halt to all jollying by the rescuers and at once prepared for the return to camp. One of the party was sent on ahead to relieve the doctor of his worry, and the rest slowly worked their way out, for Billy was too stiff and sore to hurry much.
At the first brook a halt was made and the faces of the two victims were tenderly bathed and made a little more presentable to enter camp. Billy's volatile spirits were already back to normal. He was full of the bee tree and the bear and already laying plans for getting the honey.
At mention of the bear Big Jim smiled. " Folks thet git lost in th' woods most generally meet up with a bar," he remarked dryly. " Didn't give yer a lock o' his hair fer a soovi-neer, did he, son ? "
Billy tried to make a face at the guide, but winced with pain. " I tell you there was a bear, and he came right up to our lean-to," he sputtered indignantly.
And so they came into camp where in front of the office Dr. Merriam stood gravely awaiting them.