They were now climbing up the wooded slope on the western side of the river. The crust of the frozen snow was strong enough to bear them; and as it was not glazed, but covered with an inch of hoar-frost, it retained the imprint of their feet with distinctness. They were obliged to carry their skees, on account both of the steepness of the slope and the density of the underbrush. Roads and paths were invisible under the white pall of the snow, and only the facility with which they could retrace their steps saved them from the fear of going astray. Through the vast forest a deathlike silence reigned; and this silence was not made up of an infinity of tiny sounds, like the silence of a summer day when the crickets whirr in the treetops and the bees drone in the clover-blossoms. No; this silence was dead, chilling, terrible. The huge pine-trees now and then dropped a load of snow on the heads of the bold intruders, and it fell with a thud, followed by a noiseless, glittering drizzle. As far as their eyes could reach, the monotonous colonnade of brown tree-trunks, rising out of the white waste, extended in all directions. It reminded them of the enchanted forest in "Undine," through which a man might ride forever without finding the end. It was a great relief when, from time to time, they met a squirrel out foraging for pine-cones or picking up a scanty living among the husks of last year's hazel-nuts. He was lively in spite of the weather, and the faint noises of his small activities fell gratefully upon ears already ap-palled by the awful silence. Occasionally they scared up a brace of grouse that seemed half benumbed, and hopped about in a melancholy manner under the pines, or a magpie, drawing in its head and ruffling up its feathers against the cold, until it looked frowsy and disreputable.
"Biceps," whispered Ralph, who had suddenly discovered something interesting in the snow, "do you see that?"
"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.