The Ledge on Bald Face
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"Hev ye got any reel idee to come an' go on, Tug?" demanded Long Jackson at last, blowing a long, slow jet of smoke from his lips, and watching it spiral upwards across a bar of light just over his head.
"I hev," said Blackstock.
"An' air ye sure it's a good one – good enough to drag us 'way out here on?" persisted Jackson.
"I'm bankin' on it," answered Blackstock.
"An' so's Jim, I'm thinkin'," suggested MacDonald, tentatively.
"Jim's idee an' mine ain't the same, exackly," vouchsafed Blackstock, after a pause, "but I guess they'll come to the same thing in the end. They're fittin' in with each other fine, so fur!"
"What'll ye bet that ye're not mistaken, the both o' yez?" demanded Jackson.
"Yer wages fur the whole summer!" answered Blackstock promptly.
Long looked satisfied. He knocked the ashes out of his pipe and proceeded to refill it.
"Oh, ef ye're so sure as that, Tug," he drawled, "I guess I ain't takin' any this time."
For a couple of hours after sunset the party continued to follow the trail, depending now entirely upon Jim's leadership. The dog, revived by his rest and his master's cold-water treatment, limped forward at a good pace, growling from time to time as a fresh pang in his wound reminded him anew of his enemy.
"How Jim 'pears to hate that bear!" remarked Big Andy once.
"He does that!" agreed Blackstock. "An' he's goin' to git his own back, too, I'm thinkin', afore long."
Presently the moon rose round and yellow through the tree-tops, and the going became less laborious. Jim seemed untiring now. He pressed on so eagerly that Blackstock concluded the object of his vindictive pursuit, whatever it was, must be now not far ahead.
Another hour, and the party came out suddenly upon the bank of a small pond. Jim, his nose to earth, started to lead the way around it, towards the left. But Blackstock stopped him, and halted his party in the dense shadows.
The opposite shore was in the full glare of the moonlight. There, close to the water's edge, stood a little log hut, every detail of it standing out as clearly as in daylight. It was obviously old, but the roof had been repaired with new bark and poles and the door was shut, instead of sagging half open on broken hinges after the fashion of the doors of deserted cabins.
Blackstock slipped a leash from his pocket and clipped it onto Jim's collar.
"I'm thinkin', boys, we'll git some information yonder about that bear, ef we go the right way about inquirin'. Now, Saunders, you go round the pond to the right and steal up alongshore, through the bushes, to within forty paces of the hut. You, Mac, an' Big Andy, you two go round same way, but git well back into the timber, and come up behind the hut to within about the same distance. There'll be a winder on that side, likely.
"When ye're in position give the call o' the big horned owl, not too loud. An' when I answer with the same call twice, then close in.But keep a good-sized tree atween you an' the winder, for ye never know what a bear kin do when he's trained. I'll bet Big Andy's seen bears that could shoulder a gun like a man! So look out for yourselves. Long an' Jim an' me, we'll follow the trail o' the bear right round this end o' the pond – an' ef I'm not mistaken it'll lead us right up to the door o' that there hut. Some bears hev a taste in regard to where they sleep."
As noiselessly as shadows the party melted away in opposite directions.
The pond lay smooth as glass under the flooding moonlight, reflecting a pale star or two where the moon-path grudgingly gave it space.
After some fifteen minutes a lazy, muffled hooting floated across the pond. Five minutes later the same call, the very voice of the wilderness at midnight, came from the deep of the woods behind the hut.
Blackstock, with Jackson close behind him and Jim pulling eagerly on the leash, was now within twenty yards of the hut door, but hidden behind a thick young fir tree. He breathed the call of the horned owl – a mellow, musical call, which nevertheless brings terror to all the small creatures of the wilderness – and then, after a pause, repeated it softly.
He waited for a couple of minutes motionless. His keen ears caught the snapping of a twig close behind the hut.
"Big Andy's big feet that time," he muttered to himself. "That boy'll never be much good on the trail."
Then, leaving Jim to the care of Jackson, he slipped forward to another and bigger tree not more than a dozen paces from the cabin. Standing close in the shadow of the trunk, and drawing his revolver, he called sharply as a gun-shot – "Dan Black."
Instantly there was a thud within the hut as of some one leaping from a bunk.
"Dan Black," repeated the Deputy, "the game's up. I've got ye surrounded. Will ye come out quietly an' give yerself up, or do ye want trouble?"
"Waal, no, I guess I don't want no more trouble," drawled a cool voice from within the hut. "I guess I've got enough o' my own already. I'll come out, Tug."
The door was flung open, and Black Dan, with his hands held up, stalked forth into the moonlight.
With a roar Jim sprang out from behind the fir tree, dragging Long Jackson with him by the sudden violence of his rush.
"Down, Jim, down!" ordered Blackstock. "Lay down an' shut up." And Jim, grumbling in his throat, allowed Jackson to pull him back by the collar.
Blackstock advanced and clicked the handcuffs on to Black Dan's wrists. Then he took the revolver and knife from the prisoner's belt, and motioned him back into the hut.
"Bein' pretty late now," said Blackstock, "I guess we'll accept yer hospitality for the rest o' the night."
"Right ye are, Tug," assented Dan. "Ye'll find tea an' merlasses, an' a bite o' bacon in the cupboard yonder."
As the rest of the party came in Black Dan nodded to them cordially, a greeting which they returned with more or less sheepish grins.
"Excuse me ef I don't shake hands with ye, boys," said he, "but Tug here says the state o' me health makes it bad for me to use me arms." And he held up the handcuffs.
"No apologies needed," said MacDonald.
Last of all came in Long Jackson, with Jim. Blackstock slipped the leash, and the dog lay down in a corner, as far from the prisoner as he could get.
In a few minutes the whole party were sitting about the tiny stove, drinking boiled tea and munching crackers and molasses – the prisoner joining in the feast as well as his manacled hands would permit. At length, with his mouth full of cracker, the Deputy remarked:
"That was clever of ye, Dan – durn' clever. I didn't know it was in ye."
"Not half so clever as you seein' through it the way you did, Tug," responded the prisoner handsomely.
"But darned ef I see through it now," protested Big Andy in a plaintive voice. "It's just about as clear as mud to me. Where's your wings, Dan? An' where in tarnation is that b'ar?"
The prisoner laughed triumphantly. Long Jackson and the others looked relieved, the Oromocto man having propounded the question which they had been ashamed to ask.
"It's jest this way," explained Blackstock. "When we'd puzzled Jim yonder – an' he was puzzled at us bein' such fools – ye'll recollect he sat down on his tail by that boot-print, an' tried to work out what we wanted of him. I was tellin' him to seek Black Dan, an' yet I was callin' him back off that there bear-track. He could smell Black Dan in the bear-track, but we couldn't. So we was doin' the best we could to mix him up.
"Well, he looked up into the big maple overhead. Then I saw where Black Dan had gone to. He'd jumped (that's why the boot-print was so heavy), an' caught that there branch, an' swung himself up into the tree. Then he worked his way along from tree to tree till he come to the cave. I saw by the way Jim took on in the cave that Black Dan had been there all right. For Jim hain't got no special grudge agin bear. Says I to myself, ef Jim smells Black Dan in that bear trail, then Black Dan must be in it, that's all!
"Then it comes over me that I'd once seen a big bear-skin in Dan's room at the Mills, an' as the picture of it come up agin in my mind, I noticed how the fore-paws and legs of it were missin'. With that I looked agin at the trail, as we went along Jim an' me. An' sure enough, in all them tracks there wasn't one print of a hind-paw. They were all fore-paws. Smart, very smart o' Dan, says I to myself. Let's see them ingenious socks o' yours, Dan."
"They're in the top bunk yonder," said Black Dan, with a weary air. "An' my belt and pouch, containin' the other stuff, that's all in the bunk, too. I may's well save ye the trouble o' lookin' for it, as ye'd find it anyways. I was sure ye'd never succeed in trackin' me down, so I didn't bother to hide it. An' I see now ye wouldn't 'a' got me, Tug, ef it hadn't 'a' been fer Jim. That's where I made the mistake o' my life, not stoppin' to make sure I'd done Jim up."
"No, Dan," said Blackstock, "ye're wrong there. Ef you'd done Jim up I'd have caught ye jest the same, in the long run, fer I'd never have quit the trail till I did git ye. An' when I got ye – well, I'd hev forgot myself, mebbe, an' only remembered that ye'd killed my best friend. Ef ye'd had as many lives as a cat, Dan, they wouldn't hev been enough to pay fer that dawg."
V. The Fire at Brine's Rip Mills
When pretty Mary Farrell came to Brine's Rip and set up a modest dressmaker's shop quite close to the Mills (she said she loved the sound of the saws), all the unattached males of the village, to say nothing of too many of the attached ones, fell instant victims to her charms. They were her slaves from the first lifting of her long lashes in their direction.
Tug Blackstock, the Deputy-Sheriff, to be sure, did not capitulate quite so promptly as the rest. Mary had to flash her dark blue eyes upon him at least twice, dropping them again with shy admiration. Then he was at her feet – which was a pleasant place to be, seeing that those same small feet were shod with a neatness which was a perpetual reproach to the untidy sawdust strewn roadways of Brine's Rip.
Even Big Andy, the boyish young giant from the Oromocto, wavered for a few hours in his allegiance to the postmistress. But Mary was much too tactful to draw upon her pretty shoulders the hostility of such a power as the postmistress, and Big Andy's enthusiasm was cold-douched in its first glow.
As for the womenfolk of Brine's Rip, it was not to be expected that they would agree any too cordially with the men on the subject of Mary Farrell.
But one instance of Mary's tact made even the most irreconcilable of her own sex sheath their claws in dealing with her. She had come from Harner's Bend. The Mills at Harner's Bend were anathema to Brine's Rip Mills. A keen trade rivalry had grown, fed by a series of petty but exasperating incidents, into a hostility that blazed out on the least occasion. And pretty Mary had come from Harner's Bend. Brine's Rip did not find it out till Mary's spell had been cast and secured, of course. But the fact was a bitter one to swallow. No one else but Mary Farrell could have made Brine's Rip swallow it.
One day Big Andy, greatly daring, and secure in his renovated allegiance to the postmistress, ventured to chaff Mary about it. She turned upon him, half amused and half indignant.
"Well," she demanded, "isn't Harner's Bend a good place to come away from? Do you think I'd ought to have stopped there? Do I look like the kind of girl that wouldn't come away from Harner's Bend? And me a dress-maker? I just couldn't live, let alone make a living, among such a dowdy lot of women-folk as they've got over there. It isn't dresses they want, but oat-sacks, and you wouldn't know the difference, either, when they'd got them on."
The implication was obvious; and the women of Brine's Rip began to allow for possible virtues in Miss Farrell. The post-mistress declared there was no harm in her, and even admitted that she might almost be called good-looking "if she hadn't such an awful big mouth."
I have said that all the male folk of Brine's Rip had capitulated immediately to the summons of Mary Farrell's eyes. But there were two notable exceptions – Woolly Billy and Jim. Both Woolly Billy's flaxen mop of curls and the great curly black head of Jim, the dog, had turned away coldly from Mary's first advances. Woolly Billy preferred men to women anyhow. And Jim was jealous of Tug Blackstock's devotion to the petticoated stranger.
But Mary Farrell knew how to manage children and dogs as well as men. She ignored both Jim and Woolly Billy. She did it quite pointedly, yet with a gracious politeness that left no room for resentment. Neither the child nor the dog was accustomed to being ignored. Before long Mary's amiable indifference began to make them feel as if they were being left out in the cold. They began to think they were losing something because she did not notice them. Reluctantly at first, but by-and-by with eagerness, they courted her attention. At last they gained it. It was undeniably pleasant. From that moment the child and the dog were at Mary's well-shod and self-reliant little feet.
As summer wore on into autumn the dry weather turned to a veritable drought, and all the streams ran lower and lower. Word came early that the mills at Harner's Bend, over in the next valley, had been compelled to shut down for lack of logs. But Brine's Rip exulted unkindly. The Ottanoonsis, fed by a group of cold spring lakes, maintained a steady flow; there were plenty of logs, and the mills had every prospect of working full time all through the autumn. Presently they began to gather in big orders which would have gone otherwise to Harner's Bend. Brine's Rip not only exulted, but took into itself merit. It felt that it must, on general principles, have deserved well of Providence, for Providence so obviously to take sides with it.
As August drew to a dusty, choking end, Mary Farrell began to collect her accounts. Her tact and sympathy made this easy for her, and women paid up civilly enough who had never been known to do such a thing before, unless at the point of a summons. Mary said she was going to the States, perhaps as far as New York itself, to renew her stock and study up the latest fashions.
Every one was much interested. Woolly Billy's eyes brimmed over at the prospect of her absence, but he was consoled by the promise of her speedy return with an air-gun and also a toy steam-engine that would really go. As for Jim, his feathery black tail drooped in premonition of a loss, but he could not gather exactly what was afoot. He was further troubled by an unusual depression on the part of Tug Blackstock. The Deputy-Sheriff seemed to have lost his zest in tracking down evil-doers.
It was nearing ten o'clock on a hot and starless night. Tug Blackstock, too restless to sleep, wandered down to the silent mill with Jim at his heels. As he approached, Jim suddenly went bounding on ahead with a yelp of greeting. He fawned upon a small, shadowy figure which was seated on a pile of deals close to the water's edge. Tug Blackstock hurried up.
"You here, Mary, all alone, at this time o' night!" he exclaimed.
"I come here often," answered Mary, making room for him to sit beside her.
"I wish I'd known it sooner," muttered the Deputy.
"I like to listen to the rapids, and catch glimpses of the water slipping away blindly in the dark," said Mary. "It helps one not to think," she added with a faint catch in her voice.
"Why should you not want to think, Mary?" protested Blackstock.
"How dreadfully dry everything is," replied Mary irrelevantly, as if heading Blackstock off. "What if there should be a fire at the mill? Wouldn't the whole village go, like a box of matches? People might get caught asleep in their beds. Oughtn't there to be more than one night watchman in such dry weather as this? I've so often heard of mills catching fire – though I don't see why they should, any more than houses."
"Mills most generally git set afire," answered the Deputy grimly. "Think what it would mean to Harner's Bend if these mills should git burnt down now! It would mean thousands and thousands to them. But you're dead right, Mary, about the danger to the village. Only it depends on the wind. This time o' year, an' as long as it keeps dry, what wind there is blows mostly away from the houses, so sparks and brands would just be carried out over the river. But if the wind should shift to the south'ard or thereabouts, yes, there'd be more watchmen needed. I s'pose you're thinkin' about your shop while ye're away?"
"I was thinking about Woolly Billy," said Mary gravely. "What do I care about the old shop? It's insured, anyway."
"I'll look out for Woolly Billy," answered Blackstock. "And I'll look out for the shop, whether you care about it or not. It's yours, and your name's on the door, and anything of yours, anything you've touched, an' wherever you've put your little foot, that's something for me to care about. I ain't no hand at making pretty speeches, Mary, or paying compliments, but I tell you these here old sawdust roads are just wonderful to me now, because your little feet have walked on 'em. Ef only I could think that you could care – that I had anything, was anything, Mary, worth offering you – "
He had taken her hand, and she had yielded it to him. He had put his great arm around her shoulders and drawn her to him, – and for a moment, with a little shiver, she had leant against him, almost cowered against him, with the air of a frightened child craving protection. But as he spoke on, in his quiet, strong voice, she suddenly tore herself away, sprang off to the other end of the pile of deals, and began to sob violently.
He followed her at once. But she thrust out both hands.
"Go away. Please don't come near me," she appealed, somewhat wildly. "You don't understand —anything."
Tug Blackstock looked puzzled. He seated himself at a distance of several inches, and clasped his hands resolutely in his lap.
"Of course, I won't tech you, Mary," said he, "if you don't want me to. I don't want to do anything you don't want me to —never, Mary. But I sure don't understand what you're crying for. Please don't. I'm so sorry I teched you, dear. But if you knew how I love you, how I would give my life for you, I think you'd forgive me, Mary."
Mary gave a bitter little laugh, and choked her sobs.
"It isn't that, oh no, it isn't that!" she said. "I – I liked it. There!" she panted. Then she sprang to her feet and faced him. And in the gloom he could see her eyes flaming with some intense excitement, from a face ghost-white.
"But – I won't let you make me love you, Tug Blackstock. I won't! – I won't! I won't let you change all my plans, all my ambitions. I won't give up all I've worked for and schemed for and sold my very soul for, just because at last I've met a real man. Oh, I'd soon spoil your life, no matter how much you love me. You'd soon find how cruel, and hard, and selfish I am. An' I'd ruin my own life, too. Do you think I could settle down to spend my life in the backwoods? Do you think I have no dreams beyond the spruce woods of Nipsiwaska County? Do you think you could imprison me in Brine's Rip? I'd either kill your brave, clean soul, Tug Blackstock, or I'd kill myself!"
Utterly bewildered at this incomprehensible outburst, Blackstock could only stammer lamely:
"But – I thought – ye kind o' liked Brine's Rip."
"Like it!" The uttermost of scorn was in her voice. "I hate, hate, hate it! I just live to get out into the great world, where I feel that I belong. But I must have money first. And I'm going to study, and I'm going to make myself somebody. I wasn't born for this." And she waved her hand with a sweep that took in all the backwoods world. "I'm getting out of it. It would drive me mad. Oh, I sometimes think it has already driven me half mad."
Her tense voice trailed off wearily, and she sat down again – this time further away.
Blackstock sat quite still for a time. At last he said gently:
"I do understand ye now, Mary."
"You don't," interrupted Mary.
"I felt, all along, I was somehow not good enough for you."
"You're a million miles too good for me," she interrupted again, energetically.
"But," he went on without heeding the protest, "I hoped, somehow, that I might be able to make you happy. An' that's what I want, more'n anything else in the world. All I have is at your feet, Mary, an' I could make' it more in time. But I'm not a big enough man for you. I'm all yours – an' always will be – but I can't make myself no more than I am."
"Yes, you could, Tug Blackstock," she cried. "Real men are scarce, in the great world and everywhere. You could make yourself a master anywhere – if only you would tear yourself loose from here."
He sprang up, and his arms went out as if to seize her. But, with an effort, he checked himself, and dropped them stiffly to his side.
"I'm too old to change my spots, Mary," said he. "I'm stamped for good an' all. I am some good here. I'd be no good there. An' I won't never resk bein' a drag on yer plans."
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