"Je-rusalem!" ejaculated Albert, with thoughtless delight, "it is a hoof-track!"
"Hold your tongue, you blockhead," warned his friend, too excited to be polite, "or you'll spoil the whole business!"
"But you asked me," protested Albert, in a huff.
Again the report of a shot tore a great rent in the wintry stillness and rang out with sharp reverberations.
"We've got them," said Ralph, examining the lock of his rifle. "That shot settles them."
"If we don't look out, they may get us instead," grumbled Albert, who was still offended.
Ralph stood peering into the underbrush, his eyes as wild as those of an Indian, his nostrils dilated, and all his senses intensely awake. His companion, who was wholly unskilled in woodcraft, could see no cause for his agitation, and feared that he was yet angry. He did not detect the evidences of large game in the immediate neighborhood. He did not see, by the bend of the broken twigs and the small tufts of hair on the briar-bush, that an elk had pushed through that very copse within a few minutes; nor did he sniff the gamy odor with which the large beast had charged the air. In obedience to his friend's gesture, he flung himself down on hands and knees and cautiously crept after him through the thicket. He now saw without difficulty a place where the elk had broken through the snow crust, and he could also detect a certain aimless bewilderment in the tracks, owing, no doubt, to the shot and the animal's perception of danger on two sides. Scarcely had he crawled twenty feet when he was startled by a noise of breaking branches, and before he had time to cock his gun, he saw an enormous bull-elk tearing through the underbrush, blowing two columns of steam from his nostrils, and steering straight toward them. At the same instant Ralph's rifle blazed away, and the splendid beast, rearing on its hind legs, gave a wild snort, plunged forward and rolled on its side in the snow. Quick as a flash the young hunter had drawn his knife, and, in accordance with the laws of the chase, had driven it into the breast of the animal. But the glance from the dying eyes--that glance, of which every elk-hunter can tell a moving tale--pierced the boy to the very heart! It was such a touching, appealing, imploring glance, so soft and gentle and unresentful.
"Why did you harm me," it seemed to say, "who never harmed any living thing--who claimed only the right to live my frugal life in the forest, digging up the frozen mosses under the snow, which no mortal creature except myself can eat?"