As he followed the big fellow out onto the platform Walter felt his cheeks burn at this wholesale condemnation of his treasured books, one of which, " A Complete Guide to Woodcraft," was at that moment within easy reach in the top of his duffle bag. Despite his natural admiration for this big guide, to whom the mountains, lakes and woods were as an open book, and his unbounded delight in having made a good impression, Walter was not yet willing to overthrow his former idols for this new one, and he was independent enough to stand by his opinions until convinced that he was wrong.
" Have you ever read any of them, Mr. Everly?" he inquired courteously.
"Me? Read them books?" Big Jim's laugh rolled out infectiously. " What would I read 'em for, sonny? I've seen some o' them book-writers in th' woods, and thet's enough fer me. Lordy!" and again Jim's hearty laugh rolled forth.
Walter laughed a little too, but deep in his heart he resolved that he would yet show Big Jim that there was some good in the despised books. To change the subject he inquired about the low-browed owner of the axe back by the fire.
"Him? Why, thet's Red Pete, a French canuck with some Indian in him, an* th' meanest man in th' mountains," replied Big Jim.
The mist had begun to burn off. Even as they watched they saw it roll in great tattered masses up the side of the opposite mountain. With the coming of the sun Walter was able to take note of his surroundings, and his eager eyes drank in the scene so strange to him but so familiar to his companion. It was one of those few moments which come to all of us, when we experience sensations which so impress themselves upon the memory that never are they forgotten. Walter felt a thrill that made him tingle from head to foot and, from sheer delight, clinch his hands till the nails nearly bit into the flesh. Since he was big enough to read " Deerslayer " and " The Pathfinder" and Captain Mayne Reid's fascinating tales of adventure in forest and on the plains he had lived in an imaginary world of his own —a wonderful world, where he penetrated vast wildernesses, voyaged on great rivers and climbed snow-capped mountains. Now he was really in the great woods ; his dreams were coming true in a measure.
Indeed, it was a scene to stir any red-blooded boy. A gentle breeze, moving across an unsuspected lake, rolled before it great billowing masses of vapor. The sun, just rising above the eastern hills, drew the mist swiftly up the mountainsides in broken, detached masses that eddied, separated, came together and in an incredibly short time dissipated in thin, clear air, till naught remained save in the deepest hollows not yet penetrated by the sun's rays. Walter drew a long breath.
" Oh ! " he gasped, and again, " Oh ! "
Big Jim looked at him curiously, while a sincere liking twinkled in his blue eyes.
" Never see a sunrise in th' mountains afore, did yer, sonny?" he asked. " Jes* yer wait till yer see a sunup from th' top of old Baldy, and watch forty lakes throw off their night clothes all at once."
Sordid enough was the scene now revealed close at hand in the clear morning light, the ulcer of so-called civilization, to be seen wherever man has pushed the outposts of commercialism into the great forests. A dozen log houses and a few ugly frame buildings, the latter unpainted for the most part, but with one a glaring red and another a washed-out blue, clotted an irregular clearing on either side of the railroad. Close by, the tail of a log jam choked a narrow river, while the tall iron stack of a sawmill towered above the rough board roof that afforded some protection to the engine and saws. Off to the right glistened the end of a lake of which the river was the outlet, its margin a mass of stark, drowned timber. The peculiar odor of wet sawdust filled the air. A sawdust road threaded its way among the scattered buildings, and all about were unsightly piles of slabs, heaps of bark and mill waste.
But to Walter it was all fascinating. The sky-scrapers of his native city seemed not half so wonderful as these moss and clay chinked cabins. He pinched himself to make quite sure he was awake, that it was all real. An engine and single dingy coach were backing down a siding.
" Thar's our train, son," said his companion. "Better stow yer duffle aboard. It won't pull out for half an hour, and then it'll be a twenty-minute run over t' Upper Lake. I want to see Tim Mulligan over yonder t' th* store, but I'll join yer on th' train."
Taking the hint, Walter put his duffle aboard the train beside the pack basket of his friend, and then, to kill time, started out to form a closer acquaintance with the town. From most of the houses thin columns of smoke and the odor of frying bacon or pork proclaimed that breakfast was being prepared. Occasionally he had glimpses of weary-faced women in faded calico gowns. One, standing in the doorway of her cabin, was barefooted. A frowzy-headed, dirty-faced little urchin stared at him from the shelter of her skirts. The men he met were for the most part rough, good-natured fellows, dressed in the flannel shirt of the woods, their trousers thrust into high, laced, hobnailed boots. Several nodded kindly or exchanged a " howdy " with the bright-faced boy.
On his way back, as he neared a cabin somewhat apart from the others, he heard voices in angry dispute. Turning a corner of the cabin he was just in time to see a boy of about his own age, but a good head taller, strike a vicious blow at a whimpering hunchback. In a flash Walter confronted the astonished young ruffian, eyes flashing and fists doubled.
" You coward !99 he shouted. " You miserable coward, to strike a boy smaller than yourself, and a cripple ! "
For an instant the other stared. Then his face darkened with an ugly scowl, and he advanced threateningly.
" Get out av here ! This ain't any av your business, ye city dude! " he growled.
" I'll make it my business when you hit a little fellow like that," replied Walter, edging between the bully and his victim.
" Want ter foight? " demanded the other.
"No, I don't," said Walter, " but I want you to leave that little chap alone."
" Huh, yez do, do yez ?" responded the other, and rushing in he aimed an ugly blow at Walter's face. The fight was on.
And just here the young ruffian was treated to the greatest surprise of his bullying career. Instead of crushing his slight antagonist as he had contemptuously expected to, he lunged into empty space. The next instant he received a stinging blow fairly on the nose. For a moment he gasped from sheer surprise, then, with a howl of pain and rage, he rushed again.
To all appearances it was a most unequal match. The young backwoodsman was not only taller, but was heavy in proportion ; his muscles were hardened by work and rough outdoor life in a sawmill village, and hard knocks had toughened him as well. In contrast, the city boy seemed slight and hopelessly at a disadvantage. But underneath that neat khaki jacket was a well-knit, wiry frame, and muscles developed in the home gymnasium. Moreover, Walter's father believed in teaching a boy to take care of himself, and it was not for nothing that Walter had taken lessons in boxing and wrestling.
As before, he avoided the rush by lightly side-stepping, driving in a vigorous left to the ear and following this with a right which raised a lump just under his opponent's left eye. The latter backed away. Then he came in again, but more cautiously. He was beginning to respect this elusive antagonist who hit so hard, yet managed to get away untouched. It was all so new in his experience that he was utterly at a loss to know what to expect.
Round and round they circled, each watching for an opening. Suddenly Walter took the offensive. As he started to rush he slipped in the wet sawdust. His opponent saw his advantage and swung hard, but Walter caught the blow on his right forearm, and the next instant they were locked in a clinch. This was what the bully wanted. Now he would throw his antagonist and, once he had him down, that would end the battle, for his ethics knew no quarter for a fallen foe.
But again he reckoned without his host. Scientific wrestling was an unheard-of art to the young giant, while in the home gymnasium Walter had twice won the championship for his weight. For a few minutes they swayed this way and that, then Walter secured the lock he was trying for, there was an instant of straining muscles, then the bully was pinned flat on his back.
A big hand fell on Walter's shoulder. " Son," said Big Jim, " I hate t' break into yer morning exercise, but you an' me hev an engagement at Upper Lake, and we've got jes' two minutes t' ketch thet train."
Walter jumped up at once, and then held out his hand to the discomfited bully. " Will you shake?" he asked.
To the surprise of the delighted onlookers the fallen terror of the village arose and in a manly way, though sheepishly, shook the outstretched hand, for at heart he had the right stuff in him.
" Ye licked me fair an* square," he mumbled. " Oi wish ye'd show me some av thim thricks."
" I will if I ever have a chance. You ought • to be a Boy Scorft," shouted Walter as he and Big Jim sprinted for the train.