The Ledge on Bald Face
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"You could – you could!" urged Mary almost desperately.
But he turned away, with his lips set hard, not daring to look at her.
"Ef ever ye git tired of it all out there, an' yer own kind calls ye back – as it will, bein' in yer blood – I'll be waitin' for ye, Mary, whatever happens."
He strode off quickly up the shore. The girl stared after, him till he was quite out of sight, then buried her face in the fur of Jim, who had willingly obeyed a sign from his master and remained at her side.
"Oh, my dear, if only you could have dared," she murmured. At last she jumped up, with an air of resolve, and wandered off, apparently aimlessly, into the recesses of the mill, with one hand resting firmly on Jim's collar.
Two days later Mary Farrell left Brine's Rip. She hugged and kissed Woolly Billy very hard before she left, and cried a little with him, pretending to laugh, and she took her three big trunks with her, in the long-bodied express waggon which carried the mails, although she said she would not be gone more than a month at the outside.
Tug Blackstock eyed those three trunks with a sinking heart. His only comfort was that he had in his pocket the key of Mary's little shop, which she had sent to him by Woolly Billy. When the express waggon had rattled and bumped away out of sight there was a general feeling in Brine's Rip that the whole place had gone flat, like stale beer, and the saws did not seem to make as cheerful a shrieking as before, and Black Saunders, expert runner of logs as he was, fell in because he forgot to look where he was going, and knocked his head heavily in falling, and was almost drowned before they could fish him out.
"There's goin' to be some bad luck comin' to Brine's Rip afore long," remarked Long Jackson in a voice of deepest pessimism.
"It's come, Long," said the Deputy.
That same day the wind changed, and blew steadily from the mills right across the village. But it brought no change in the weather, except a few light showers that did no more than lay the surface dust. About a week later it shifted back again, and blew steadily away from the village and straight across the river. And once more a single night-watchman was regarded as sufficient safeguard against fire.
A little before daybreak on the second night following this change of wind, the watchman was startled by a shrill scream and a heavy splash from the upper end of the great pool where the logs were gathered before being fed up in the saws. It sounded like a woman's voice. As fast as he could stumble over the intervening deals and rubbish he made his way to the spot, waving his lantern and calling anxiously. There was no sign of any one in the water. As he searched he became conscious of a ruddy light at one corner of the mill.
He turned and dashed back, yelling "Fire! Fire!" at the top of his lungs. A similar ruddy light was spreading upward in two other corners of the mill.Frantically he turned on the nearest chemical extinguisher, yelling madly all the while. But he was already too late. The flames were licking up the dry wood with furious appetite.
In almost as little time as it takes to tell of it the whole great structure was ablaze, with all Brine's Rip, in every varying stage of d?shabille, out gaping at it. The little hand-fire-engine worked heroically, squirting a futile stream upon the flames for a while, and then turning its attention to the nearest houses in order to keep them drenched.
"Thank God the wind's in the right direction," muttered Zeb Smith, the storekeeper and magistrate. And the pious ejaculation was echoed fervently through the crowd.
In the meantime Tug Blackstock, seeing that there was nothing to do in the way of fighting the fire – the mill being already devoured – was interviewing the distracted watchman.
"Sure," he agreed, "it was a trick to git you away long enough for the fires to git a start. Somebody yelled, an' chucked in a big stick, that's all. An', o' course, you run to help. You couldn't naturally do nothin' else."
The watchman heaved a huge sigh of relief. If Blackstock exonerated him from the charge of negligence, other people would. And his heart had been very heavy at being so fatally fooled.
"It's Harner's Bend all right, that's what it is!" he muttered.
"Ef only we could prove it," said Blackstock, searching the damp ground about the edges of the pool, which was lighted now as by day. Presently he saw Jim sniffing excitedly at some tracks. He hurried over to examine them. Jim looked up at him and wagged his tail, as much as to say, "So you've found them, too! Interesting, ain't they!"
"What d'ye make o' that?" demanded Blackstock of the watchman.
"Boy's tracks, sure," said the latter at once.
The footprints were small and neat. They were of a double-soled larrigan, with a low heel of a single welt.
"None of our boys," said Blackstock, "wear a larrigan like that, especially this time o' year. One could run light in that larrigan, an' the sole's thick enough to save the foot. An' it's good for a canoe, too."
He rubbed his chin, thinking hard.
"Yesterday," said the watchman, "I mind seein' a young half-breed, he looked like a slip of a lad, very dark complected, crossin' the road half-a-mile up yonder. He was out o' sight in a second, like a shadder, but I mind noticin' he had on larrigans – an' a brown slouch hat down over his eyes, an' a dark red handkerchief roun' his neck. He was a stranger in these parts."
"That would account for the voice, like a woman's," said Blackstock, following the tracks till they plunged through a tangle of tall bush. "An' here's the handkerchief," he added triumphantly, grabbing up a dark red thing that fluttered from a branch. "Harner's Bend knows somethin' about that boy, I'm thinkin'. Now, Bill, you go along back, an' don't say nothin' about this, mind! Me an' Jim, we'll look into it. Tell old Mrs. Amos and Woolly Billy not to fret. We'll be back soon."
He slipped the leash into Jim's collar, gave him the red handkerchief to smell, and said, "Seek him, Jim." And Jim set off eagerly, tugging at the leash, because the trail was so fresh and plain to him, and he hated to be held back.
The trail led around behind the village, and back to the river bank about a mile below. There it followed straight down the shore. It was evident to Blackstock that his quarry would have a canoe in hiding some distance further down. There was no time to be lost. It was now almost full daybreak, and he could follow the trail by himself. After all, it was only a boy he had to deal with. He could trust Jim to delay him, to hold him at bay. He loosed the leash, and Jim bounded forward at top speed. He himself followed at a leisurely loping stride.
As he trotted on, thinking of many things, he took out the red handkerchief and examined it again. He smelt it curiously. His nose was keen, like a wild animal's. As he sniffed, a pang went through him, clutching at his heart. He sniffed again. His long stride shortened. He dropped into a walk. He thought over, word by word, his conversation with Mary that night beside the mill. His face went grey. After a brief struggle he shouted to Jim, trying to call him back. But the eager dog was already far beyond hearing. Then Blackstock broke into a desperate run, shouting from time to time. He thought of Jim's ferocity when on the trail.
Meanwhile, the figure of a slim boy, very light of foot, was speeding far down the river bank, clutching a brown slouch hat in one hand as he ran. He had an astonishing crop of hair, wound in tight coils about his head. He was panting heavily, and seemed nearly spent. At last he halted, drew a deep sigh of relief, pressed his hands to his heart, and plunged into a clump of bushes. In the depth of the bushes lay a small birch-bark canoe, carefully concealed. He tugged at it, but for the moment he was too weary to lift it. He flung himself down beside it to take breath.
In the silence, his ears caught the sound of light feet padding down the shore. He jumped up, and peered through the bushes. A big black dog was galloping on his trail. He drew a long knife, and his mouth set itself so hard that the lips went white. The dog reached the edge of the bushes. The youth slipped behind the canoe.
"Jim," said he softly. The dog whined, wagged his tail, and plunged in through the bushes. The youth's stern lips relaxed. He slipped the knife back into its sheath, and fondled the dog, which was fawning upon him eagerly.
"You'd never go back on me, would you, Jim, no matter what I'd done?" said he, in a gentle voice. Then, with an expert twist of his lithe young body, he shouldered the canoe and bore it down to the water's edge. One of his swarthy hands had suddenly grown much whiter, where Jim had been licking it.
Before stepping into the canoe, this peculiar youth took a scrap of paper from his shirt pocket, and an envelope. He scribbled something, sealed it up, addressed the envelope, marked it "private," and gave it to Jim, who took it in his mouth.
"Give that to Tug Blackstock," ordered the youth clearly. Then he kissed the top of Jim's black head, pushed off, and paddled away swiftly down river. Jim, proud of his commission, set off up the shore at a gallop to meet his master.
Half-a-mile back he met him. Blackstock snatched the letter from Jim's mouth, praising Heaven that the dog had for once failed in his duty. He tore open the letter. It said!
Yes, I did it. I had to do it. But you could have saved me, if you'd dared– for I do love you, Tug Blackstock. – MARY.
A month later, a parcel came from New York for Woolly Billy, containing an air-gun, and a toy steam-engine that would really go. But it contained no address. And Brine's Rip said that Tug Blackstock had been bested for once, because he never succeeded in finding out who burnt down the mills.
VI. The Man with the Dancing Bear
One day there arrived at Brine's Rip Mills, driving in a smart trap which looked peculiarly unsuited to the rough backwoods roads, an imposing gentleman who wore a dark green Homburg hat, heavy, tan, gauntletted gloves, immaculate linen, shining boots, and a well-fitting morning suit of dark pepper-and-salt, protected from the contaminations of travel by a long, fawn-coloured dust-coat. He also wore a monocle so securely screwed into his left eye that it looked as if it had been born there.
His red and black wheels labouring noiselessly through the sawdust of the village road, he drove up to the front door of the barn-like wooden structure, which staggered under the name, in huge letters, of the CONTINENTAL HOTEL. There was no one in sight to hold the horse, so he sat in the trap and waited, with severe impatience, for some one to come out to him.
In a few moments the landlord strolled forth in his shirt-sleeves, chewing tobacco, and inquired casually what he could do for his visitor.
"I'm looking for Mr. Blackstock – Mr. J. T. Blackstock," said the stranger with lofty politeness. "Will you be so good as to direct me to him?"
The landlord spat thoughtfully into the sawdust, to show that he was not unduly impressed by the stranger's appearance.
"You'll find him down to the furder end of the cross street yonder," he answered pointing with his thumb. "Last house towards the river. Lives with old Mrs. Amos – him an' Woolly Billy."
The stranger found it without difficulty, and halted his trap in front of the door. Before he could alight, a tall, rather gaunt woodsman, with kind but piercing eyes and brows knitted in an habitual concentration, appeared in the doorway and gave him courteous greeting.
"Mr. Blackstock, I presume? The Deputy Sheriff, I should say," returned the stranger with extreme affability, descending from the trap.
"The same," assented Blackstock, stepping forward to hitch the horse to a fence post. A big black dog came from the house and, ignoring the resplendent stranger, went up to Blackstock's side to superintend the hitching. A slender little boy, with big china-blue eyes and a shock of pale, flaxen curls, followed the dog from the house and stopped to stare at the visitor.
The latter swept the child with a glance of scrutiny, swift and intent, then turned to his host.
"I am extraordinarily glad to meet you, Mr. Blackstock," he said, holding out his hand. "If, as I surmise, the name of this little boy here is Master George Harold Manners Watson, then I owe you a debt of gratitude which nothing can repay. I hear that you not only saved his life, but have been as a father to him, ever since the death of his own unhappy father."
Blackstock's heart contracted. He accepted the stranger's hand cordially enough, but was in no hurry to reply. At last he said slowly:
"Yes, Stranger, you've got Woolly Billy's reel name all O.K. But why should you thank me? Whatever I've done, it's been for Woolly Billy's own sake – ain't it, Billy?"
For answer, Woolly Billy snuggled up against his side and clutched his great brown hand adoringly, while still keeping dubious eyes upon the stranger.
The latter took off his gloves, laughing amiably.
"Well, you see, Mr. Blackstock, I'm only his uncle, and his only uncle at that. So I have a right to thank you, and I see by the way the child clings to you how good you've been to him. My name is J. Heathington Johnson, of Heathington Hall, Cramley, Blankshire. I'm his mother's brother. And I fear I shall have to tear him away from you in a great hurry, too."
"Come inside, Mr. Johnson," said Blackstock, "an' sit down. We must talk this over a bit. It is kind o' sudden, you see."
"I don't want to seem unsympathetic," said the visitor kindly, "and I know my little nephew is going to resent my carrying him off." (At these words Woolly Billy began to realize what was in the air, and clung to Blackstock with a storm of frightened tears.) "But you will understand that I have to catch the next boat from New York – and I have a thirty-mile drive before me now to the nearest railway station. You know what the roads are! So I'm sure you won't think me unreasonable if I ask you to get my nephew ready as soon as possible."
Blackstock devoted a few precious moments to quieting the child's sobs before replying. He remembered having found out in some way, from some papers in the drowned Englishman's pockets or somewhere, that the name of Woolly Billy's mother, before her marriage, was not Johnson, but O'Neill. Of course that discrepancy, he realized, might be easily explained, but his quick suspicions, sharpened by his devotion to the child, were aroused.
"We are not a rich family, by any means, Mr. Blackstock," continued the stranger, after a pause. "But we have enough to be able to reward handsomely those who have befriended us. All possible expense that my nephew may have been to you, I want to reimburse you for at once. And I wish also to make you a present as an expression of my gratitude – not, I assure you, as a payment," he added, noticing that Blackstock's face had hardened ominously. He took out a thick bill-book, well stuffed with banknotes.
"Put away your money, Mr. Johnson," said Blackstock coldly. "I ain't taking any, thank you, for what I may have done for Woolly Billy. But what I want to know is, what authority have you to demand the child?"
"I'm his uncle, his mother's brother," answered the stranger sharply, drawing himself up.
"That may be, an' then again, it mayn't," said Blackstock. "Do you think I'm goin' to hand over the child to a perfect stranger, just because he comes and says he's the child's uncle? What proofs have you?"
The visitor glared angrily, but restrained himself and handed Blackstock his card.
Blackstock read it carefully.
"What does that prove?" he demanded sarcastically. "It might not be your card! An' even if you are 'Mr. Johnson' all right, that's not proving that Mr. Johnson is the little feller's uncle! I want legal proof, that would hold in a court of law."
"You insolent blockhead!" exclaimed the visitor. "How dare you interfere between my nephew and me? If you don't hand him over at once, I will make you smart for it. Come, child, get your cap and coat, and come with me immediately. I have no more time to waste with this foolery, my man." And he stepped forward as if to lay hands on Woolly Billy.
Blackstock interposed an inexorable shoulder. The big dog growled, and stiffened up the hair on his neck ominously.
"Look here," said Blackstock crisply, "you're goin' to git yourself into trouble before you go much further, my lad. You jest mind your manners. When you bring me them proofs, I'll talk to you, see!"
He took Woolly Billy's hand, and turned towards the door.
The stranger's righteous indignation, strangely enough, seemed to have been allayed by this speech. He followed eagerly.
"Don't be unreasonable, Mr. Blackstock," he coaxed. "I'll send you the documents, from my solicitors, at once. I'm sure you don't want to stand in the dear child's light this way, and prevent him getting back to his own people, and the life that is his right, a day longer than is necessary. Do listen to reason, now." And he patted his wad of bank-notes suggestively.
But at this stage, Woolly Billy and the big dog having already entered the cottage, Blackstock followed, and calmly shut the door. "You'll smart for this, you ignorant clod-hopper!" shouted Mr. Heathington Johnson. He clutched the door-knob. But for all his rage, prudence came to his rescue. He did not turn the knob. After a moment's hesitation he ground his heel upon the doorstep, stalked back to his gig, and drove off furiously. The three at the window watched his going.
"We won't see him back here again," remarked the Deputy. "He wasn't no uncle o' yours, Woolly Billy."
That same evening he wrote to a reliable firm of lawyers at Exville, telling them all he knew about Woolly Billy and Woolly Billy's father, and also all he suspected, and instructed them to look into the matter fully.
Several weeks went by, and the imposing stranger, as Blackstock had anticipated, failed to return with his proofs. Then came a letter from the lawyers at Exville, saying that they had something important to communicate, and Blackstock hurried off to see them, planning to be away for about a week.
On the day following his departure, to the delight of all the children and of most of the rest of the population as well, there arrived at Brine's Rip Mills a man with a dancing bear. He was a black-eyed, swarthy, merry fellow, with a most infectious laugh, and besides his trained bear he possessed a pedlar's pack containing all sorts of up-to-date odds and ends, not by any means to be found in the very utilitarian miscellany of Zeb Smith's corner store.
He talked a rather musical but very broken lingo that passed for English, flashing a mouthful of splendid white teeth as he did so. He appeared to be an Italian, and the men of Brine's Rip christened him a "Dago" at once. There was no resisting his childlike bonhomie, or the amiable antics of his great brown bear, which grinned through its muzzle as if dancing to its master's merry piccolo were its one delight in life. And the two did a roaring business from the moment they came strolling into Brine's Rip.
"Tony" was what the laughing vagabond called himself, and his bear answered to the name of Beppo. Business being so good, Tony could afford to be generous, and he was continually pressing peppermint lozenges upon the rabble of children who formed a triumphal procession for him wherever he moved. When Tony's eyes first fell on Woolly Billy, standing just outside the crowd, with one arm over the neck of the big black dog, he was delighted.
"Com-a here, Bambino, com-a quick!" he cried, holding out some peppermints. Woolly Billy liked him at once, and adored the bear, but was too shy, or reserved, to push his way through the other children. So Tony came to him, leading the bear. Woolly Billy stood his ground, with a welcoming smile. The big black dog growled doubtfully, and then lost his doubts in curious admiration of the bear, which plainly fascinated him.
Woolly Billy accepted the peppermints politely, and put one into his mouth without delay. Then, with an apologetic air, the Italian laid one finger softly on Woolly Billy's curls, and drew back at once, as if fearing he had taken a liberty.
"Jim likes the bear, sir, doesn't he?" suggested Woolly Billy, to make conversation.
"Everybody he like-a ze bear. Him vaira good bear," asserted the bear's master, and laughed again, giving the bear a peppermint. "An' you one vaira good bambino. Ze bear, he like-a you vaira much. See, he shak-a you ze hand – good frens now."
Encouraged by the warmth of his welcome, the Italian had from the first made a practice of dropping in at certain houses of the village just at meal times – when he was received always with true backwoods hospitality. On Woolly Billy's invitation he had come to the house of Mrs. Amos. The old lady, too rheumatic to get about much out of doors, was delighted with such a unique and amusing guest. To all he said – which, indeed, she never more than half understood – she kept ejaculating. "Well, I never!" and "Did ye ever hear the likes o' that?"
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