At that moment the note of an Alpine horn was heard; but it was impossible to determine how far it was away; for the echo took up the note and flung it back and forth with clear and strong reverberations from mountain to mountain.
"It is Brumle-Knute who is calling us," said Thore the Hound. "The dairymaid must have released him. Shall we answer?"
"Never," cried the chief, proudly; "I forbid you to answer. Here we have our heroic deed in sight, and I want no one to spoil it. If there is a coward among us, let him take to his heels; no one shall detain him."
There were perhaps several who would have liked to accept the invitation; but no one did. Skull-Splitter, by way of diversion, plumped backward into the brook, and sat down in the cool pool up to his waist. But nobody laughed at his mishap; because they had their minds full of more serious thoughts. Wolf-in-the-Temple, who had climbed up on a big moss-grown boulder, stood, gun in hand, and peered in among the bushes.
"Boys," he whispered, "drop down on your bellies--quick."
All, crowding behind a rock, obeyed, pushing themselves into position with hands and feet. With wildly beating hearts the Vikings gazed up among the gray wilderness of stone and underbrush, and first one, then another, caught sight of something brown and hairy that came toddling down toward them, now rolling like a ball of yarn, now turning a somersault, and now again pegging industriously along on four clumsy paws. It was the prettiest little bear cub that ever woke on its mossy lair in the woods. Now it came shuffling down in a boozy way to take its morning bath. It seemed but half awake; and Skull-Splitter imagined that it was a trifle cross, because its mother had waked it too early. Evidently it had made no toilet as yet, for bits of moss were sticking in its hair; and it yawned once or twice, and shook its head disgustedly. Skull-Splitter knew so well that feeling and could sympathize with the poor young cub. But Wolf-in-the-Temple, who watched it no less intently, was filled with quite different emotions. Here was his heroic deed, for which he had hungered so long. To shoot a bear--that was a deed worthy of a Norseman. One step more--then two--and then--up rose the bear cub on its hind legs and rubbed its eyes with its paws. Now he had a clean shot--now or never; and pulling the trigger Wolf-in-the-Temple blazed away and sent a handful of shot into the carcass of the poor little bear. Up jumped all the Sons of the Vikings from behind their stones, and, with a shout of triumph, ran up the path to where the cub was lying. It had rolled itself up into a brown ball, and whimpered like a child in pain. But at that very moment there came an ominous growl out of the underbrush, and a crackling and creaking of branches was heard which made the hearts of the boys stand still.
"Erling," cried Wolf-in-the-Temple, "hand me your gun, and load mine for me as quick as you can."
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the head of a big brown she-bear became visible among the bushes. She paused in the path, where her cub was lying, turned him over with her paw, licked his face, grumbled with a low soothing tone, snuffed him all over and rubbed her nose against his snout. But unwarily she must have touched some sore spot; for the cub gave a sharp yelp of pain and writhed and whimpered as he looked up into his mother's eyes, clumsily returning her caresses. The boys, half emerged from their hiding-places, stood watching this demonstration of affection not without sympathy; and Skull-Splitter, for one, heartily wished that the chief had not wounded the little bear. Quite ignorant as he was of the nature of bears, he allowed his compassion to get the better of his judgment. It seemed such a pity that the poor little beast should lie there and suffer with one eye put out and forty or fifty bits of lead distributed through its body. It would be much more merciful to put it out of its misery altogether. And accordingly when Erling the Lop-Sided handed him his gun to pass on to the chief, Skull-Splitter started forward, flung the gun to his cheek, and blazed away at the little bear once more, entirely heedless of consequences. It was a random, unskilful shot, which was about equally shared by the cub and its mother. And the latter was not in a mood to be trifled with. With an angry roar she rose on her hind legs and advanced against the unhappy Skull-Splitter with two uplifted paws. In another moment she would give him one of her vigorous "left-handers," which would probably pacify him forever. Ironbeard gave a scream of terror and Thore the Hound broke down an alder-sapling in his excitement. But Wolf-in-the-Temple, remembering that he had sworn foster-brotherhood with this brave and foolish little lad, thought that now was the time to show his heroism. Here it was no longer play, but dead earnest. Down he leaped from his rock, and just as the she-bear was within a foot of the Skull-Splitter, he dealt her a blow in the head with the butt end of his gun which made the sparks dance before her eyes. She turned suddenly toward her new assailant, growling savagely, and scratched her ear with her paw. And Skull-Splitter, who had slipped on the pine needles and fallen, scrambled to his feet again, leaving his gun on the ground, and with a few aimless steps tumbled once more into the brook. Ironbeard, seeing that he was being outdone by his chief, was quick to seize the gun, and rushing forward dealt the she-bear another blow, which, instead of disabling her, only exasperated her further. She glared with her small bloodshot eyes now at the one, now at the other boy, as if in doubt which she would tackle first. It was an awful moment; one or the other might have saved himself by flight, but each was determined to stand his ground. Vikings could die, but never flee. With a furious growl the she-bear started toward her last assailant, lifting her terrible paw. Ironbeard backed a few steps, pointing his gun before him; and with benumbing force the paw descended upon the gun-barrel, striking it out of his hands.