To what strange work that axe would be put ere night again closed its shutters over granite peaks and evergreen forest, Herb Heal little knew; nor could he have guessed that the coming hours would make the most heart-stirring day of his stirring life. If he could, would he have started out this morning with a happy-go-lucky whistle, softly modulated on his lips, and no more sober burden on his mind than the trail of that moose?
“See there, boys, I told you so,” said Herb, as the party reached the ever-to-be-remembered clump of hemlocks, the beginning of the trail which they were ready to follow up like sleuth-hounds. “There’s plenty of hair; I guess I singed him in two places.”
He pointed to some shaggy clotted locks on the grass at his feet, and then to a small maroon-colored stain beside them.
“Is that blood?” asked Neal.
“Blood, sure enough, though there ain’t much of it. But I’ll tell you what! I’d as soon there wasn’t any. I wish it had been light enough last night for me to act barber, and only cut some hair from that moose, instead of wounding him. It might have answered the purpose as well, and sent him walking.”
“I don’t believe it would have done anything of the kind,” exclaimed Dol. “He was far too red-hot an old customer to bolt because a bullet shaved him.”
“Well, I don’t set up to be soft-hearted like Cyrus here; and I’m ready enough to bag my meat when I want it,” said the woodsman. “But sure’s you live, boys, I never wounded a free game creature yet, and seed it get away to pull a hurt limb and a cruel pain with it through the woods, that I could feel chipper afterwards. It’s only your delicate city fellows who come out here for a shot once a year, who can chuckle over the pools of blood a wounded moose leaves behind him. Sho! it’s not manly.”
A start was now made on the trail, Herb leading, and showing such wonderful skill as a trailer that the English boys began to believe his long residence in the woods had developed in him supernatural senses.
“That moose was shot through the right fore-leg,” he whispered, as the trackers reached the edge of the forest.
“How do you know?” gasped the Farrars.
The woodsman answered by kneeling, bending his face close to the ground, and drawing his brown finger successively round three prints on a soft patch of earth, which the unpractised eyes could scarcely discern.
“There’s no mark of the right fore-hoof,” he whispered again presently; “nothing but that,” pointing to another dark red blotch, which the boys would have mistaken for maroon-tinted moss.
A breathless, wordless, toiling hour followed. Through the dense woods, which sloped steadily upward, clothing Katahdin’s highlands, Herb Heal travelled on, now and again halting when the trail, because of freshly fallen pine-needles or leaves, became quite invisible. Again he would crouch close to the ground, make a circle with his finger round the last visible print, and work out from that, trying various directions, until he knew that he was again on the track which the limping moose had travelled before him.