One more tack through alder copse and juniper jungle--hard indeed, and terribly vexatious--and he saw with delight the great open slope, covered with an unbroken surface of glittering snow. The sun (which at midwinter is but a few hours above the horizon) had set; and the stars were flashing forth with dazzling brilliancy. Ralph stopped, as he reached the clearing, to give Biceps an opportunity to overtake him; for Biceps, like all marine animals, moved with less dexterity on the dry land.
"Ralph," he whispered breathlessly, as he pushed himself up to his companion with a vigorous thrust of his skee-staff, "there are two awful chaps close behind us. I distinctly heard them speak."
"Fiddlesticks," said Ralph; "now let us see what you are made of!
Don't take my track, or you may impale me like a roast pig on a spit. Now, ready!--one, two, three!"
"Hold on there, or I shoot," yelled a hoarse voice from out of the underbrush; but it was too late; for at the same instant the two boys slid out over the steep slope, and, wrapped in a whirl of loose snow, were scudding at a dizzying speed down the precipitous hill-side. Thump, thump, thump, they went, where hidden wood-piles or fences obstructed their path, and out they shot into space, but each time came down firmly on their feet, and dashed ahead with undiminished ardor. Their calves ached, the cold air whistled in their ears, and their eyelids became stiff and their sight half obscured with the hoar-frost that fringed their lashes. But onward they sped, keeping their balance with wonderful skill, until they reached the gentler slope which formed the banks of the great river. Then for the first time Ralph had an opportunity to look behind him, and he saw two moving whirls of snow darting downward, not far from his own track. His heart beat in his throat; for those fellows had both endurance and skill, and he feared that he was no match for them. But suddenly--he could have yelled with delight--the foremost figure leaped into the air, turned a tremendous somersault, and, coming down on his head, broke through the crust of the snow and vanished, while his skees started on an independent journey down the hill-side. He had struck an exposed fence-rail, which, abruptly checking his speed, had sent him flying like a rocket.
The other poacher had barely time to change his course, so as to avoid the snag; but he was unable to stop and render assistance to his fallen comrade. The boys, just as they were shooting out upon the ice, saw by his motions that he was hesitating whether or not he should give up the chase. He used his staff as a brake for a few moments, so as to retard his speed; but discovering, perhaps, by the brightening starlight, that his adversaries were not full-grown men, he took courage, started forward again, and tried to make up for the time he had lost. If he could but reach the sheriff's house before the boys did, he could have them arrested and collect the informer's fee, instead of being himself arrested and fined as a poacher. It was a prize worth racing for! And, moreover, there were two elks, worth twenty-five dollars apiece, buried in the snow under logs. These also would belong to the victor! The poacher dashed ahead, straining every nerve, and reached safely the foot of the steep declivity. The boys were now but a few hundred yards ahead of him.
"Hold on there," he yelled again, "or I shoot!"
He was not within range, but he thought he could frighten the youngsters into abandoning the race. The sheriff's house was but a short distance up the river. Its tall, black chimneys could he seen looming up against the starlit sky. There was no slope now to accelerate their speed. They had to peg away for dear life, pushing themselves forward with their skee-staves, laboring like plough-horses, panting, snorting, perspiring. Ralph turned his head once more. The poacher was gaining upon them; there could be no doubt of it. He was within the range of Ralph's rifle; and a sturdy fellow he was, who seemed good for a couple of miles yet. Should Ralph send a bullet over his head to frighten him? No; that might give the poacher an excuse for sending back a bullet with a less innocent purpose. Poor Biceps, he was panting and puffing in his heavy wraps like a steamboat! He did not once open his mouth to speak; but, exerting his vaunted muscle to the utmost, kept abreast of his friend, and sometimes pushed a pace or two ahead of him. But it cost him a mighty effort! And yet the poacher was gaining upon him! They could see the long broadside of windows in the sheriff's mansion, ablaze with Christmas candles. They came nearer and nearer! The church-bells up on the bend were ringing in the festival. Five minutes more and they would be at their goal. Five minutes more! Surely they had strength enough left for that small space of time. So had the poacher, probably! The question was, which had the most. Then, with a short, sharp resonance, followed by a long reverberation, a shot rang out and a bullet whizzed past Ralph's ear. It was the poacher who had broken the peace. Ralph, his blood boiling with wrath, came to a sudden stop, flung his rifle to his cheek and cried, "Drop that gun!"