Honey shuddered and said in a scared whisper, "That poacher might be in the thicket right now listening to every word we say. Let's go, Trixie. He probably has a gun."
And then, as though in proof of her statement, two shots rang out in rapid succession. The blasts were so close by that Susie shied violently. While they had been talking both girls had let the reins go slack, and, almost before they knew it, both horses had bolted and were tearing along the narrow path.
Susie was in the lead and by the time Trixie did gather up the reins, she was out of control. Branches of evergreens slapped Trixie in the face and brought blinding tears of pain to her eyes. She pulled as hard as she could on the curb, yelling, "Whoa! Whoa!" to no avail. Susie flew along as though pursued by a thousand devils. The "devil" in this case was only Starlight, but Trixie guessed that he, too, was panic-stricken. He was following Susie so closely that Trixie knew if the mare suddenly stopped there would be a terrific collision and Honey might be badly hurt. Susie showed no signs of even slowing, but she might stumble on a rock, and then both girls would probably be thrown. To make matters worse, the path wound dizzily through the woods so that instead of galloping in a straight line, Susie kept swerving abruptly, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, so that it was hard for Trixie to keep her seat in the saddle. If only Honey, who was so much more experienced a horsewoman, were in the lead!
But finally, from sheer exhaustion, Trixie guessed, Susie gradually slowed from a dead run to a canter and at last to a trot. As the path widened, Starlight came up so that the girls were now ridingabreast.
"They're under control now," Honey gasped, her face very white, "but where are we?"
"I haven't the foggiest notion," Trixie got out, panting. "Let's stop and see if Bobby's compass will be of any help."
And then they came around a bend and found themselves in a large clearing, and to their amazement, right smack in the middle of it was a rustic cabin. The horses stopped of their own free will, as though they, too, were surprised.
Not far from the cabin was a pit in which were dying embers of a wood fire. Above it hung a black pot, and a mingling of delicious odors from it permeated the air in the clearing.
In an awed silence, the girls dismounted and stared at each other. "Could this be where the poacher lives?" Honey asked.
"I guess so," Trixie said. "But he must have been poaching for a long, long time. That cabin wasn't built in a few days. Look how long it's been taking the boys just to fix the roof of our clubhouse."
They moved over and peered through a window. The interior was neat and clean but sparsely furnished. A bunk was in one corner and in the center of the room there were two homemade chairs and a table. Hanging from the ceiling near the two windows on the opposite side of the cabin were several thick strips about twelve inches long which looked rather like leather.
"Why, it's pemmican," Trixie suddenly cried. "I mean, jerked venison. The Indians used to make it into pemmican. It keeps for months like that and doesn't have to be cooked."
"Venison," Honey cried. "Then those strips must be what's left of that dead deer."
"Maybe," Trixie said. "But I doubt it. That deer is probably still hanging."
With the horses trailing behind them, they went around to the back. "Why, there's a vegetable garden," Trixie cried excitedly. She pointed to some frost-blackened vines. "Tomatoes, pumpkin, squash, and cucumbers. That whole row of flattened tops must be carrots which haven't been dug yet. And there's kale which can stay out all winter. And look. Over there are beets, turnips, and parsnips. They don't have to be brought in until the weather gets very cold."
"Well, poachers aren't gardeners," Honey said. "At least, I don't think they are."
"They could be," Trixie argued. "Whoever lives here is trespassing on your father's property and killing game. That makes him a poacher."
"Maybe when the horses were running they carried us clear out of the preserve," Honey suggested.
Trixie shook her head. "They weren't running in a straight line, remember? That path wound around like a corkscrew. As the crow flies, we can't be very far from the fork in the trail. So we must be still in your father's preserve."
"But where?" Honey demanded. "And since we're not crows, how do you figure we are going to get back to the trail?"
Trixie giggled. "Bobby's compass will tell us where north is and that's the direction we ought to take, but since we can't fly in a straight line, we'll simply have to unwind ourselves."
Honey's lower lip trembled. "I don't know how you can laugh, Trixie. It's getting darker by the minute. You know as well as I do that we're lost and the poacher who lives here has a gun and he's probably on his way home now." She swung up on Starlight's back. "Our only hope, Trixie, is to follow the horses' hoofprints while there's still light enough to see." Honey was right and both girls knew it. She led the way across the clearing and started slowly along the path.
Trixie followed on Susie. After a few minutes she asked, "Are you following the hoofprints? I don't see any, not even Starlight's."
"There aren't any to be seen," Honey said dismally. "The path is nothing but rocks and pine needles and dead leaves. Even an FBI man couldn't find any kind of print on it."
"Well, at least it's a path," Trixie said, trying to sound cheerful. "If we stick to it, we're bound to end up where we started." But Trixie was worried, too. Only a faint yellowish-green light filtered through the evergreen branches now, and soon there would be no light at all.