The Ledge on Bald Face
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And the bear, chained to the gate-post and devouring her pancakes-and-molasses, thrilled her with a sense of "furrin parts." In fact, there was no other house at Brine's Rip where Tony and his bear were made more warmly welcome than at Mrs. Amos'. The only member of the household who lacked cordiality was Jim, whose coolness towards Tony, however, was fully counter-balanced by his interest in the bear. Towards Tony his attitude was one of armed neutrality.
On the fourth evening after the arrival of Tony and Beppo, Jim discovered a most tempting lump of meat in the corner of Mrs. Amos' garden. Having something of an appetite at the moment, he was just about to bolt the morsel. But no sooner had he set his teeth into it than he conceived a prejudice against it. He dropped it, and sniffed at it intently. The smell was quite all right. He turned it over with his paw and sniffed at the under side. No, there was nothing the matter with it. Nevertheless, his appetite had quite vanished. Well, it would do for another time. He dug a hole and buried the morsel, and then went back to the house to see what Woolly Billy and Mrs. Amos were doing.
A little later, just as Mrs. Amos was lighting the lamps in the kitchen, the rattling of a chain was heard outside, followed by the whimpering of Beppo, who objected to being tied up to the gate-post when he wanted to come in and beg for pancakes. Woolly Billy ran to the door and peered forth into the dusk. After a few moments Tony entered, all his teeth agleam in his expansive smile.
He had a little bag of bon-bons for Woolly Billy – something much more fascinating than peppermints – which he doled out to the child one by one, as a rare treat. And for himself he wanted a cup of tea, which hospitable Mrs. Amos was only too eager to brew for him. Jim, seeing that Woolly Billy was too interested to need his company, got up and went out to inspect the bear.
Tony was in gay spirits that evening. In his broken English, and helping out his meaning with eloquent gestures, he told of adventures which made Woolly Billy's eyes as round as saucers and reduced Mrs. Amos to admiring speechlessness. He made Mrs. Amos drink tea with him, pouring it out for her himself while she hobbled about to find him something to eat. And once in a while, at tantalizing intervals, he allowed Woolly Billy one more bon-bon.
There was a chill in the night air, so Tony, who was always politeness itself, asked leave to close the door. Mrs. Amos hastened also to close the window. Or, rather, she tried to hasten, but made rather a poor attempt, and sat down heavily in the big arm-chair beside it.
"My legs is that heavy," she explained, laughing apologetically. So Tony closed the window himself, and at the same time drew the curtains. Then he went on talking.
But apparently his conversation was less interesting than it had been. There came a snore from Mrs. Amos' big chair. Tony glanced aside at Woolly Billy, as if expecting the child to laugh.But Woolly Billy took no notice of the sound. He was fast asleep, his fluffy fair head fallen forward upon the red table-cloth.
Tony looked at the clock on the mantel-piece. It was not as late as he could have wished, but he had observed that Brine's Rip went to bed early. He turned the lamp low, softly raised the window, and looked out, listening. There were no lights in the village, and all was silence save for the soft roar of the Rip. He extinguished the lamp, and waited a few moments till his eyes got quite accustomed to the gloom.
At length he picked up the slight form of Woolly Billy (who was now in a drugged stupor from which he would not awake for hours), and slung him over his left shoulder. In his right hand he grasped his short bear-whip, with its loaded butt. He stepped noiselessly to the door, listened a few moments, and then opened it inch by inch with his left hand, standing behind it, and grasping the whip so as to be ready to strike with the butt. He was wondering where the big black dog was.
The door was about half open, when a black shape, appearing suddenly, launched itself at the opening. The loaded butt came crashing down – and Jim dropped sprawling across the threshold.
From the back of the bear Tony now unfastened a small pack, and strapped it over his right shoulder. Then he unchained the great beast noiselessly, and led it off to the waterside, to a spot where a heavy log canoe was drawn up upon the beach. He hauled the canoe down, making much disarrangement in the gravel, launched it, thrust it far out into the water, and noted it being carried away by the current. He had no wish to journey by that route himself, knowing that as soon as the crime was discovered, which might chance at any moment, the telephone would give the alarm all down the river.
Next he undid the bear's chain, and took off its muzzle, and threw them both into the water, knowing that when freed from these badges of servitude the animal would wander further and more freely. At first the good-natured creature was unwilling to leave him. Its master, from policy, had always treated it kindly, and fed it well, and it was in no hurry to profit by its freedom.
However, the man ordered it off towards the woods, enforcing the command by a vigorous push and a stroke of the whip. Shaking itself till it realized its freedom, it slouched away a few paces down stream, then turned into the woods. The man listened to its careless, crashing progress.
"They'll find it easy following that trail," he muttered with satisfaction.
Assured that he had thus thrown out two false trails to distract pursuers, the man now stepped into the water, and walked up stream for several hundred yards, till he reached the spot which served as a ferry landing. Here, in the multiplicity of footprints, he knew his own would be indistinguishable to even the keenest of backwood eyes. He came ashore, slipped through the slumbering village, and plunged into the woods with the assurance of one to whom their mysteries were an open book.
He was shaping his course – by the stars at present, but by compass when it should become necessary – for an inlet on the coast, where there would be a sturdy fishing-smack awaiting him and his rich prize. All was working smoothly – as most plans were apt to work under his swift, resourceful hands – and his hard lips relaxed in triumphant self-satisfaction. One of the most accomplished and relentless of the desperadoes of the Great North-West, he had peculiarly enjoyed his pose as the childlike Tony.
For hour after hour he pushed on, till even his untiring sinews began to protest. About the edge of dawn Woolly Billy awoke, but, still stupid with the heavy drugging he had received, he did not seem to realize what had happened. He cried a little, asking for Jim, and for Tug Blackstock, and for Mrs. Amos, but was pacified by the most trivial excuses. The man gave him some sweet biscuits, but he refused to eat them, leaving them on the moss beside him. He hardly protested even when the man cut off his bright hair, and proceeded to darken what was left with some queer-smelling dye.
When the man undressed him and proceeded to stain his face and his whole body, he apparently thought he was being got ready for bed, and to certain terrible threats as to what would happen if he tried to get away, or to tell any one anything, he paid no attention whatever. He went to sleep again in the middle of it all.
Satisfied with his job, the man lay down beside him, knowing himself secure from pursuit, and went to sleep himself.
Meanwhile, after lying motionless for several hours, where he had dropped across the threshold, Jim at last began to stir. That crashing blow, after all, had not fallen quite true. Jim was not dead, by any means. He staggered to his feet, swayed a few moments, and then, for all the pain in his head, he was practically himself again. He went into the cottage, tried in vain to awaken Mrs. Amos in her chair, hunted for Woolly Billy in his bed, and at last, realizing something of what had happened, rushed forth in a panic of rage and fear and grief, and remorse for a trust betrayed.
It was a matter of a few minutes to trail the party down to the waterside. Then he darted off after the bear. The latter, grubbing delightedly in a rotten stump, greeted him with a friendly "Woof." A glance and a sniff satisfied Jim that Woolly Billy was not there, and his instinct assured him that the bear was void of offence in the whole matter. He knew the enemy. He darted back to the waterside, ran on up stream to the ferry-landing, picked up the trail of Tony's feet, followed it unerringly through the confusion of other footprints, and darted silently into the woods in pursuit.
At daybreak an early riser, seeing the door of Mrs. Amos' cottage standing open, looked in and saw the old lady still asleep in her chair. She was awakened with difficulty, and could give but a vague account of what had happened. The whole village turned out. Under the leadership of Long Jackson, the big mill-hand who constituted himself Woolly Billy's special guardian in Blackstock's absence, the "Dago" and bear were traced down to the waterside.
Of course, it was clear to almost every one that the "Dago" – who was now due for lynching when caught – had carried Woolly Billy off down river in the vanished canoe. Instantly the telephones were brought into service, and half-a-dozen expert canoeists, in the swiftest canoes to be had, started off in pursuit. But the more astute of the woodsmen – including Long Jackson himself – held that this river clue was a false one, a ruse to put them off the track. This group went after the bear.
In an hour or two they found him. And very glad to see them he appeared to be. He was getting hungry, and a bit lonely. So without waiting for an invitation, with touching confidence he attached himself to the party, and accompanied it back to the village. There Big Andy, who had always had a weakness for bears, took him home and fed him, and shut him up in the back yard.
In the meantime Jim, travelling at a speed that the fugitive could not hope to rival, had come soon after daybreak to the spot where the man and Woolly Billy lay asleep.
He arrived as soundlessly as a shadow. At sight of his enemy – for he knew well who had carried off the child, and who had dealt that almost fatal blow – his long white fangs bared in a silent snarl of hate. But he had learnt, well learnt, that this man was a dangerous antagonist. He crouched, stiffened as if to stone, and surveyed the situation.
His sensitive nose prevented him from being quite deceived by the transformation in Woolly Billy's appearance. He was puzzled by it, but he had no doubt as to the child's identity. Having satisfied himself that the little fellow was asleep, and therefore presumably safe for the moment, he turned his attention to his enemy.
The man was sleeping almost on his back, one arm thrown above his head, his chin up, his brown, sinewy throat exposed. That bare throat riveted Jim's vengeful gaze. He knew well that the man, though asleep and at an utter disadvantage, was the most dangerous adversary he could possibly tackle.
Step by step, so lightly, so smoothly, that not a twig crackled under his feet, he crept up, his muzzle outstretched, his fangs gleaming the hair rising along his back. When he was within a couple of paces of his goal, the sleeper stirred slightly, as if about to wake up, or growing conscious of danger. Instantly Jim sprang, and sank his fangs deep, deep, into his enemy's throat.
With a shriek the sleeper awoke, flinging wide his arms and legs convulsively. But the shriek was strangled at its birth, as Jim's implacable teeth crunched closer. The great dog shook his victim as a terrier shakes a rat. There was a choked gurgle, and the threshing arms and legs lay still.
Jim continued his savage shaking till satisfied his foe was quite dead. Then he let go, and turned his attention to Woolly Billy.
The child was sitting up, staring at him with round eyes of question and bewilderment.
"Where am I, Jim?" he demanded. Then he gazed at the transformation in himself – his clothes and his stained hands. He saw his old clothes tossed aside, his curls lying near them in a bright, fluffy heap. He felt his cropped head. And then his brain began to clear. He had a dim memory of the man cutting his hair and changing his clothes.
Upon his first glimpse of the man, lying there dead and covered with blood, he felt a sharp pang of sorrow. He had liked Tony. But the pang passed, as he began to understand. If Jim had killed Tony, Tony must have been bad. It was evident that Tony had carried him off, and that Jim had come to save him. Jim was licking his face now, rapturously, and evidently coaxing him to get up and come away.
He flung his arms around Jim's neck. Then he saw the biscuits. He divided them evenly between himself and Jim, and ate his portion with good appetite. Jim would not touch his share, so Woolly Billy tucked them into his pocket. Then he got up and followed where Jim was trying to lead him, keeping his face averted from the terrible, bleeding thing sprawled there upon the moss. And Jim led him safely home.
When Tug Blackstock, two days later, returned from his visit to Exville, he brought news which explained why a certain gang of criminals had planned to get possession of Woolly Billy. The child had fallen heir to an immense property in England, and an ancient title, and he was to have been held for ransom. From that moment Blackstock never let him out of his sight, until, with a heavy heart, he handed him over to his own people.
Thereafter, as he sat brooding on a log beside the noisy river, with Jim stretched at his feet, Tug Blackstock felt that Brine's Rip, for the lack of a childish voice and a head of flaxen curls, had lost all savour for him. And his thoughts turned more and more towards the arguments of a grey-eyed girl, who had urged him to seek a wider sphere for his energies than the confines of Nipsiwaska County could afford.
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