“Why, good gracious!” he cried. “Here’s another trail! Now, where on earth does this lead to? I don’t see any spotted trees”—looking carefully about—“but it’s a well-beaten track, a regular plain path, where people have been walking. It must lead to our camp. I’ll follow it up, anyhow. That will be better than dodging around here until I get ‘wheels in my head,’ as Uncle Eb says he did once when he lost his way in the woods, and kept wandering round and round in a circle.”
Puffing with excitement and revived hope, the boy started off on this new trail, which he blessed at first—oh, how he blessed it!—as if it had been a golden clew to lead him out of his difficulty. To be sure, it was not a blazed trail; there were no notches in the trees, but the ground showed distinct signs of being frequently and recently travelled over. Though footprints were not traceable, moss, earth, and in some places the forest undergrowth of dwarfed bushes, were thoroughly pressed and trodden.
Dol never doubted but that it was a human trail, a track continually used by some woodsman; but he thought that the unknown traveller, whoever he was, must have agile legs and a taste for athletics, for many times he had to hoist himself, his gun, and the ducks over some big windfall which lay right across the way. The dead quackers he pitched before him, fearing that by the time he got back to camp—if ever he did?—their flesh would be too bruised to look like respectable meat; for he was obliged to have one hand free to help him in scrambling over each fallen tree.
Once or twice this strange trail led him through thickets where the bushes grew so high as to lash his face. He came to regard slippery, projecting roots and rough stones, which galled his feet, protected only by the thin soles of his moccasins, as matters of course. His wind decreased, and his blessings ceased. Yet he followed on, walking, walking, interminably walking, with now and again an interval of climbing or stumbling headlong, accompanied by ejaculations of thankfulness that his gun was not loaded.
His breath came in hot, strangling gasps, the veins in his head were swollen and stinging like whipcords, there was a dull, pounding noise in his ears, and a drumming at his heart. He confessed that he was thoroughly “winded” when he had been following the trail for nearly two hours, so he seated himself upon a withered stump beside it to rest.
He had relinquished the idea that the track would bring him out near Uncle Eb’s camp. Had it led thither, he would have rejoined his comrades long before this. His only hope now was that by patiently following it on he might reach the camp of some other traveller, or the lonely log cabin of a pioneer farmer. He had heard of such farm-settlements being scattered here and there on forest clearings.