Owing to their fleetness and the odds they had at the start, the guide and Neal kept far ahead of their comrades. The noise which Bruin made as he lumbered over the pygmy growth, and the charred, rotting timber that littered the ground beneath it, were quiet enough to guide Joe unerringly in the bear’s wake, even when that bulky shape was not distinguishable.
“What’s this?” screeched the woodsman suddenly, as he stumbled upon something at his feet. “By gracious! it’s our keg of m’lasses. He made off with that, and has dropped it out o’ sheer fright, or because he’s weakening. I know I hit him twice when I fired; but he’s not hurt too badly to run, or to fight like a fiend if we come to close quarters. Like as not ’twill be a narrow squeak with us if we tackle him. If you’re scared a little bit, Neal, let up, an’ I’ll finish him alone.”
“Scared!” Neal flung the word back with scorn, as if he was returning a blow. For the life of him he could not bring out another syllable, going at a faster rate than ever he had done in the most stubbornly contested handicap. The strong-winded guide rapped out his sentences as he ran, apparently without waste of breath.
The feverish enthusiasm of the hunter, which he had never felt before, was now alive in Neal. His blood raced through his veins like liquid fire. He had been long enough in Maine to know that in wreaking vengeance on Bruin for many misdeeds he would be acting in the interests of justice. For the black bear is still such a master pest to the settlers who are trying to establish their farms amid the forests where it roams, that the State has outlawed the beast, and pays a bounty for its skin.
Joe thought little about this; for a gentleman whom he had guided early in the summer had lately written to him, offering a price of fifteen dollars for a good bearskin.
Here was the woodsman’s golden opportunity—an opportunity for which he had been thirsting since the receipt of that letter.
[Illustration: “GO IT, OLD BRUIN! GO IT WHILE YOU CAN!”]
He already regarded his triumph over the bear as secure, and its hide as forfeited. He nearly caused Neal Farrar to burst a blood-vessel from the combined effects of struggling laughter and running, when he began to apostrophize the flying foe with grim humor, thus:—
“Go it, old Bruin! Go it while ye can! There ain’t a hair on yer back that b’longs to ye!”
But it soon became evident that the bear couldn’t go on much longer at this breakneck pace. Its pursuers heard its steps with increasing distinctness, and then its labored breathing. They were gaining on it fast.
The brute came into full view about forty yards ahead, as it ascended a slight elevation, crowned with blasted tree trunks.
“I’ll draw bead on him from here,” said Joe, stopping short. “Get ready to fire, lad, if he turns. It’ll take lots o’ lead to finish that fellow.”