The sanguinary instinct--the fever for killing, which every boy inherits from savage ancestors--had left Ralph, before he had pulled the knife from the bleeding wound. A miserable feeling of guilt stole over him. He never had shot an elk before; and his father, who was anxious to preserve the noble beasts from destruction, had not availed himself of his right to kill one for many years. Ralph had, indeed, many a time hunted rabbits, hares, mountain-cock, and capercaillie. But they had never destroyed his pleasure by arousing pity for their deaths; and he had always regarded himself as being proof against sentimental emotions.
"Look here, Biceps," he said, flinging the knife into the snow, "I wish I hadn't killed that bull."
"I thought we were hunting for poachers," answered Albert, dubiously; "and now we have been poaching ourselves."
"By Jiminy! So we have; and I never once thought of it," cried the valiant hunter. "I am afraid we are off my father's preserves too. It is well the deputy sheriffs are not abroad, or we might find ourselves decorated with iron bracelets before night."
"Well, I can't tell. It's in the blood, I fancy. The moment I saw the track and caught the wild smell, I forgot all about the poachers, and started on the scent like a hound."
The two boys stood for some minutes looking at the dead animal, not with savage exultation, but with a dim regret. The blood which was gushing from the wound in the breast froze in a solid lump the very moment it touched the snow, although the cold had greatly moderated since the morning.
"I suppose we'll have to skin the fellow," remarked Ralph, lugubriously; "it won't do to leave that fine carcass for the wolves to celebrate Christmas with."
"All right," Albert answered, "I am not much of a hand at skinning, but I'll do the best I can."