“I should say about fifteen thousand,” replied Holcomb.
“Only fifteen thousand, eh?”
For an instant he paused and looked out over the sweep of forest, with the gaunt trees standing like sentinels. Then he raised his hands above his head and in a half-audible voice murmured:
“My God, what freedom! I’ll turn in now if you don’t mind, Billy.”
And so ended the banker’s first day in the wilderness.
All through the night that followed Sam Thayor slept soundly on his spring bed of fragrant balsam, oblivious to the Clown’s snoring or the snapping logs burning briskly in the stove, his head pillowed on his boots wound in his blanket. Beneath the canopy of stars the torrent roared and the great trees whined and creaked, their shaggy tops whistling in the stiff breeze. Not until Hite laid his rough hand on his shoulder and shook him gently did he wake to consciousness.
“Breakfus’s most ready,” announced the trapper cheerfully.
Thayor opened his eyes; then, with a start, he sat up, remembering where he was. As he grew accustomed to the light he caught a glimpse outside of Billy and the Clown busy over the frying pan, and the steaming pail of coffee. Its fragrance and the pungent smoke from the fire now brought him fully awake.
“How’d ye sleep, friend?” inquired Hite, his weather-beaten face wrinkled in a kindly grin.
“How did I sleep?” returned the millionaire smiling; “like a top—really I don’t know; I don’t remember anything after Holcomb covered me up.”
“Breakfast!” shouted the Clown from without.
“Wait’ll I git ye some fresh water,” said the trapper, tossing the soapy contents of a tin basin into the sun and returning with it re-filled. “Thar, dip yer head into that, friend—makes a man feel good, I tell ye, on a frosty mornin’.” Then lowering his voice to a whisper he added: “The old dog’s sot on gittin’ an early start; he’s mighty pertickler ’bout it. The old feller’s been up ’long ’fore daylight. He told me he never seen no nicer mornin’ for a hunt. If we don’t git a deer ’fore noon you kin have all that’s on my plate.” There was a confident gleam in the old man’s eyes—an enthusiasm that was contagious.
The gray head of the millionaire went into the tin basin with a will. Big Shanty Brook, that morning, was as cold as ice. He rubbed his face and neck into a glow, combing his hair as best he could with his hands. He was as hungry as a wolf. Thayor was now beginning to understand their unwillingness to accept pay for their services.
Breakfast over, the four struck into the woods in single file, en route for their runways, Hite taking the lead, the old dog trotting at the Clown’s heels in silence, Holcomb bringing up the rear.
“Now, friend,” began Hite in a low tone to Thayor, “you’d better come with me, I presume; and, Billy, we’ll go slow so’s you’ll have time to git down to whar that leetle brook comes into Big Shanty.” And the banker and the trapper, followed by the dog, struck off to the left, up the densely wooded side of the mountain.