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The winter, contrary to their expectations, was not a severe one. The family had been used to the long, dreary, cold months of a New England winter, and were agreeably surprised when April arrived with its sunny skies, delicious breezes, and wild flowers covering the prairies.

One morning, when his father was just starting for the little village of Ellsworth, six miles distant, for a load of lumber, Rob asked him to buy some hooks and lines.

"Father," said he, "Oxhide Creek is just full of bull-pouts, perch, cat and buffalo fish. Joe and I want to go fishing to-day, if you return in time."

Mr. Thompson told the boys that he would not forget them, and as he drove off, they took their spades to dig in the garden as their father had directed them to do while he was away.

Both Joe and Rob worked very industriously, anxious to make the time slip away until their father's return, when, if he was satisfied with what they had done, they knew he would let them go fishing.

Just before twelve o'clock Mr. Thompson came back. The boys had worked for more than three hours, but it seemed only one to them, so quickly does time glide along when we are engaged in some healthful labor.

When Mr. Thompson saw how faithfully his boys had worked, he told them, as he handed to each a line and some hooks, they might have the afternoon to themselves and go fishing if they wished to, but must wait until they had taken the lumber off the wagon and eaten their dinner.

The boys were all excitement at the idea of going fishing. When they sat down to dinner they hurried through it, asked to be excused, and went out and unloaded the lumber before their father had done eating.

When they returned to the house and told their father they had unloaded the boards and run the wagon under the shed, he said they might go, but were to be sure to return in time to do the chores.

They took a spade from the tool-shed and an old tomato can their mother had given them, and started for the creek, where in the soft, black soil of its banks they dug for white grubs for bait. They were not very successful, however. They turned over almost as much soil as they had dug in the garden that morning, but found only three or four worms; not enough to take out on their excursion. They were disgusted for a few moments, fearing that they would have to give up their fishing, so stood staring at each other, their faces filled with disappointment.

At last an idea struck Rob. He said:--

"I'll tell you what we'll do, Joe. I read in one of father's books the other day about the Indians out in Oregon catching trout with crayfish. It said that the savages commence to fish far up at the head of the stream, lifting, as they walk down, the flat stones under which the little animals hide themselves. They look like small lobsters, only they are gray instead of green. Then they break them open and use the white meat for bait. The book said they catch more trout in an hour than a white man will in a week with all his flies, bugs, and fancy rigging."

"Let's try 'em for luck," answered Joe. "I don't know whether there are any crayfish in the Oxhide, but we can go and find out; and if there are, I guess cat and perch will bite at 'em as well as trout."

"All right," said Rob, the look of disappointment instantly vanishing from his face as he listened to his brother's suggestion. "But I tell you, Joe," continued he, "we've got to have poles. You go up to that bunch of willows yonder," pointing with the old can he held in his hand, to the bunch of willows growing as thick as rushes on a little island in the creek, about an eighth of a mile from where he stood; "and here, Joe, take my line and hooks, too. Fix yours and mine all ready for us, while I go and hunt for the crayfish. I know where they are; I saw a whole lot crawling in the water near the house the other day."

The two brothers then separated,--Joe, jack-knife in hand, going toward the willows, and Rob to the creek with the tomato can.

As soon as Rob arrived at the bank of the stream, he took off his boots and stockings, rolled his trousers above his knees, tied the can around his neck with a string, and waded in. The creek was not at all deep, and the water as clear as crystal. He could see shoals of perch dart ahead of him, and many bull-pouts rush under the shadow of the bank as he waded toward the island of willows. In the bed of the creek were hundreds of flat rocks; some that he could easily lift, others so large that he could not budge them.

The first stone he turned over had three of the coveted crayfish hidden under its slimy bottom, and excited at his luck, he quickly caught them. So many were there as he lifted stone after stone, that he soon filled the tomato can, and by that time he had arrived at the willows. Joe was anxiously waiting for him with two handsome rods, at least ten feet long, the lines already attached and the hooks nicely fastened to their ends.

"Golly! Rob, you must have had awful good luck," said Joe, as he looked at the can full of struggling crayfish.

"Pshaw!" answered Rob. "Why, Joe, I could have got a bushel of 'em; the Oxhide was just swimming with 'em."

"Let's go to that little lake that was so nice where we went swimming last autumn," suggested Joe. "I know there are lots of cats in there; big ones, too."

"All right, Joe," said Rob, as he commenced to put on his stockings. When he had got his boots on, the two boys walked briskly toward the so-called lake, which was a mere widening of the creek, forming quite a large sheet of water, where they arrived in about seven minutes. It was a very delightful spot. The whole surface of the water was shaded by the gigantic limbs of great elms a hundred years old, growing on its margin, and all around the edge was a heavy mat of buffalo grass, soft as a carpet.

It required only a dozen seconds or so for the boys to unwind their lines, bait the hooks, seat themselves on the cushioned sod, and cast the shining white meat in the water.

There they anxiously waited for results, as the catfish is not game like the trout, but is slow and deliberate in all its movements. The trout rushes at anything that touches the surface of the water, but the catfish carefully investigates whatever comes within reach of its great jaws, before it opens its ugly mouth to take it in.

In a few minutes, Rob felt a tremendous tugging at his line, and in another instant he skilfully landed a large channel cat on the grass at his feet.

"Look, Joe, look! see what a big one I've caught," said Rob, as he dexterously extracted the hook from the creature's great mouth, and then held the fish at arm's length so that his brother could have a good look at it.

Rob's catch weighed at least four pounds, and no wonder he was delighted at such success, as it showed considerable skill to land a fish of that size.

Joe had not yet had a nibble, and a shade of disappointment began to creep over his face when suddenly, just as he was about to go over to examine his brother's catch more closely, he was nearly jerked off his feet by a tremendous pull at his own line. He recovered himself immediately, and by dint of a hard struggle, hauled in a cat that was almost as big again as that which Rob had caught.

It was Joe's turn to yell now; he held up the big fish as high as he could,--its tail touched the ground even then,--and sung out:--

"I say, Rob, just look at this, will you? Yours is only a minnow alongside of mine. When you go fishing, why don't you catch something like this?"

Unfortunately, at the instant he was so wild with excitement, he stood on the very edge of the bank, and so absorbed was he in the contemplation of the great fish, that his foot slipped and both he and the cat were thrown into the water at the same moment. The cat made a terrible lunge forward when it found itself once more in its native element, and before you could say "Jack Robinson," was out of sight.

If ever disgust was to be seen on a boy's face, that face was Joe Thompson's; he only glanced at the water, did not say a word; his feelings were too sad for utterance.

Rob looked over at his brother and sarcastically said, as he held up his cat and stroked it:--

"I say, Joe, who's got the biggest fish now?"

In an instant he saw that he had touched Joe in a tender spot; he was a very sensitive boy, so Rob quickly added: "Well, never mind, Joe. You remember what mother often says to us, 'There is as good a fish in the sea as was ever caught,' and I'll bet there's just as big cats in here as the one you lost. Try again, Joe, but stand away from the edge of the water with the next one you haul out."

Joe, thus encouraged and comforted, sat down again in his old place, threw his line to try once more, and in the excitement soon forgot his misfortune.

In less than three hours the boys caught more than a dozen apiece, none so large, however, as that which escaped from Joe. It was now nearly six o'clock, the sun was low in the heavens, and as they had as many fish as they could conveniently carry, they decided to go home. Arriving there in a short time, they at once went to work at their chores. Their customary evening's task was to drive the cows into the corral, feed the horses and their own ponies, and bring water from the spring for their mother, so that it should be handy when she rose in the morning.

While Joe and Rob were at their work, their father cleaned some of the fish, which their mother then cooked for supper, and they certainly tasted to the young anglers better than ever did fish before. While at the table they related every little incident that had befallen them on this their first angling expedition in the new country.

After that very successful excursion the brothers sometimes spent whole mornings or portions of the afternoons at some place on the creek or river, when the work on the ranche was not pushing, and so expert did they become with hook and line, that the family was never at a loss for a supply of fish during the proper seasons.

Joe was a close observer of nature, and he very quickly learned the habits of all the animals, birds, and fish that were common to the region where he lived. Being the eldest son, too, he was intrusted with a small but excellent rifle and a shot-gun which his father bought one morning in the village, on the fifteenth anniversary of his birthday. He would get up very early in the morning and with his pony and the hounds have many a lively chase after the little cottontail rabbit or the larger "jack," improperly so called, for it is really the hare. The rabbit burrows in the ground, while the jack-rabbit does not, but makes his nest on the top, in a bunch of grass, or in the holes in the rocky ledges of the bluffs that fringe nearly every stream on the great plains. Out on the open prairies the grouse congregated in large flocks at certain seasons, and in every covert in the woods the quail could be found. Joe had really handled a gun long before he left Vermont, but the superior chance for practice out on the ranche soon made him a magnificent shot; consequently the table at the ranche was never without game if the family desired it.

Beside the smaller game I have mentioned, there were immense herds of buffalo and antelope, and in some places in the deep woods was the only long-tailed specimen of the genus felis on the continent,--the cougar, or panther. All the wildcats, so called, are lynxes, with short tails. With one of the first mentioned Joe once had a severe tussle, which nearly proved disastrous to him. It happened in this way.

One afternoon in November shortly after the cabin was finished and the family had moved in, he was out on the range with his father's horse, the Spencer carbine, and about twenty rounds of ammunition. Even at that early stage of his life at Errolstrath he was always careful never to ride far away from home, without taking a gun with him; for he was always sure to see something in the shape of game worth killing for the table; and as its main support in that particular very soon depended on his prowess as a hunter, he was always on the lookout.

Joe had ridden a long way from the cabin. He had really forgotten how far away he was and was becoming very thirsty, for the day had been warm, so he commenced to hunt for water.

He was riding along the bank of the Smoky Hill in the thickest of the timber which grows on its banks, and by certain signs he had studied since he had lived on the ranche, knew that he was near some springs, though he had never been in that vicinity before.

He got off his horse, slipped the loop of the bridle-rein over his left arm, slung the carbine across his right shoulder, and cautiously walked on. There was, of course, no trail or path at the base of the bluffs along which he was travelling, so he stopped at the mouth of every ravine he came to, hoping to find a pool of water, or to discover some hidden spring whose source was high up among the great rocks that towered above his head.

Presently he arrived at a depression in the earth in the bottom of a gully, evidently made by the claws of some animal, for beside those marks were the imprint of foot-tracks. Joe intuitively guessed they were those of a panther, as he had been told by the old trapper, Tucker, that that animal knows by instinct when the water is near the surface, and scratches with his claws until he reaches it. Joe knew, too, that the panther was not a very large one; his footprints were too small; so he did not feel at all alarmed at their sight. On the contrary, boy-like, he was delighted at the idea of a possible tussle with one of the dreadful creatures, and he thought that if he could succeed in killing it he would add another feather to his cap by taking its hide home.

Joe felt himself equal to a possible struggle. He knew that he was fully armed, and at once examined his carbine, took out the knife which he always carried in his belt for skinning, and finding everything in perfect order, he was really anxious to find the animal that had been digging for water only a little while before his arrival at the spot.

A few rods further on, in the same ravine, he saw a little pool of water, evidently clear and cool, and after looking cautiously all around him, dipped the rim of his hat into the pool before him and indulged in a long drink of the delicious fluid. Then after having satisfied his thirst, he stood still for a few moments undecided as to what course he should pursue.

 "With one vigorous thrust of his knife he struck the animal's heart."

He concluded that if he was to remain and fight the panther if the animal made his appearance, it would be best to tie his horse to a sapling a short distance from the pool. After doing this he placed a fresh cartridge in his carbine and walked slowly on, following the beast's tracks, which had grown plainly visible a few paces from the edge of the water, and which soon led him into a rocky cañon.

Joe came in sight of the panther much sooner than he expected. As he was turning the sharp projecting corner of a mass of rocks which formed the walls of a ravine, there was the panther sitting on a shelf of sandstone, not forty feet away from him. He was busy licking his paws cat-fashion, his ears cocked as if listening, and his small green eyes turned toward the intruder, but evidently not much concerned at the sight of his greatest enemy, man.

Joe was rather taken aback at first, but as the brute was only a little over half-grown, and appeared so indifferent to his presence, he uncocked his carbine, which he had a moment before hastily cocked, and both boy and panther stood quietly gazing at each other for ten seconds before either made any demonstration.

Presently the panther rose and turned sideways toward Joe, and edging up toward the top of the ledge, gave vent to a low growl, and showed a beautiful set of long, sharp teeth, evidently intending to let Joe know that he wasn't afraid of him. This movement on the part of the panther somewhat excited Joe, and cocking his carbine again, he deliberately took aim at the place where the heart of the beast should be, as the animal had now turned its left side toward the young hunter. Quick as a flash Joe pulled the trigger, but the ball glancing upward, only grazed the end of the beast's shoulder-blade and shattered it, the panther at the same instant tumbling over on its side. This made Joe yell with delight, for he thought he had killed it at the first shot.

The panther lay on the ground only for about ten seconds when the aspect of affairs for Joe was suddenly changed. The brute staggered to its feet, and, maddened with rage and pain, made for the boy. Although the beast was evidently very lame from the effect of the shot, Joe saw to his amazement that he was far from dead, and for a moment his usual presence of mind forsook him, and he made a bolt for his horse, feeling that the dreadful animal was close to him.

In his fright he dropped his carbine, but in another moment was on his horse, who, on being so unceremoniously mounted, and seeing the panther, gave a wild snort and a desperate kick which sent Joe heels over head to the ground, and then dashed down the trail for home!

Joe was now all alone, on foot, and with nothing but his knife to defend himself from the attack of the panther, who was almost upon him as he got up from the ground after having been so hurriedly tossed from his saddle. Although the panther was lame and bleeding profusely, he waddled along as best he could toward Joe, his mouth wide open and his great jaws covered with froth in his rage. Joe was somewhat bruised by his fall, and seeing very quickly that he could not escape a tussle with the beast, made up his mind that he would fight him to the best of his ability. There was no other chance, for the panther was now upon him, trying to get at him so that he could claw and bite at his leisure. But Joe, who had now gained his normal coolness, turned deliberately, and facing the savage brute, whose hot breath he could feel, with one vigorous thrust of his knife he struck the animal's heart and fortunately killed him instantly.

In the close struggle the panther was so near Joe, that in his death throes, having fallen right on top of the boy, his sharp claws tore the sleeve of his coat off and scratched a goodly piece of flesh from his arms, as with one convulsive shudder the ferocious animal had rolled over dead.

There was never a more delighted boy than Joe, despite his really painful wounds, and rising with some difficulty to his feet, he went back for his carbine, and returned with it to the dead panther. He picked up his knife which had fallen on the ground when the fatal thrust was given, deftly skinned him, suspended the beautiful hide to a limb of a cottonwood tree to keep the wolves from it, and then turned away and followed his trail towards the ranche. Of course, in a little while he began to grow stiff in his arms from the severity of his wounds, and not knowing exactly how far he was from the cabin, he was disturbed, not so much for himself as at the thought that when the riderless horse arrived there it would alarm his parents.

Joe was correct in his conjectures. As the horse dashed up to the stable without his rider, both his father and mother were terribly frightened. They plucked up courage, however, and immediately saddling another horse, led back on his own trail the one Joe had ridden, and soon came up to where Joe was resting at the side of a large spring, and suffering considerably with the pain caused by his wounds.

They all arrived at the cabin by sundown, with the skin of the panther, Joe's father having gone back to the tree where the boy had hung it. That was a red-letter day in Joe's young life. He had to tell again and again how he happened to come on the panther and his awful fight with the enraged creature.

Joe soon recovered under the devoted nursing of his mother; his arm healed nicely, but a good-sized scar was left where the panther had dug its sharp claws into the flesh. The hide was smoke-tanned, and for many years afterward adorned the floor at the foot of his mother's bed.