Charles Roberts.

The Ledge on Bald Face



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The eagle had no mind to await them. He had had enough of wonders, and the call in his heart had suddenly grown clear and intelligible. Mounting still upward till he felt the air growing thin beneath his wing-beats, he headed northwards as fast as he could fly. He had no more interest now in the amazing panorama which unrolled beneath him, in the thundering and screaming flights of shell which sped past in the lower strata of the air. He was intent only upon gaining the wild solitudes of which he dreamed. He marked others of the monsters which he so dreaded, journeying sometimes alone, sometimes in flocks, but always with the same implacable directness of flight, always with that angry and menacing hum which, of all the sounds he had ever heard, alone had power to shake his bold heart. He noticed that sometimes the sky all about these monsters would be filled with sudden bursts of fleecy cloud, looking soft as wool; and once he saw one of these apparently harmless clouds burst full on the nose of one of the monsters, which instantly flew apart and went hurtling down to earth in revolving fragments. But he was no longer curious. He gave them all as wide a berth as possible, and sped on, without delaying to note their triumphs or their defeats.

At last the earth grew green again below him. The monsters, the smoke, the shells, the flames, the thunders, were gradually left behind, and far ahead at last he saw the sea, flashing gold and sapphire beneath the summer sun. Soon – for he flew swiftly – it was almost beneath him. His heart exulted at the sight. Then across that stretch of gleaming tide he saw a dim line of cliffs – white cliffs, such cliffs as he desired.

But at this point, when he was so near his goal, that Fate which had always loved to juggle with him decided to show him a new one of her tricks. Two more monsters appeared, diving steeply from the blue above him. One was pursuing the other. Quite near him the pursuer overtook its quarry, and the two spat fire at each other with that strident rap-rap-rapping sound which he so disliked. He swerved as wide as possible from the path of their terrible combat, and paid no heed to its outcome. But, as he fled, something struck him near the tip of his left wing.

The shock went through him like a needle of ice or fire, and he dropped, leaving a little cloud of feathers in the air above to settle slowly after him. He turned once completely over as he fell. But presently; with terrific effort, he succeeded in regaining a partial balance. He could no longer fully support himself, still less continue his direct flight; but he managed to keep on an even keel and to delay his fall. He knew that to drop into the sea below him was certain death. But he had marked that the sea was dotted with peculiar-looking ships – long, narrow, dark ships – which travelled furiously, vomiting black smoke and carrying a white mass of foam in their teeth, Supporting himself, with the last ounce of his strength, till one of these rushing ships was just about to pass below him, he let himself drop, and landed sprawling on the deck.

Half stunned though he was, he recovered himself almost instantly, clawed up to his feet, steadied himself with one outstretched wing against the pitching of the deck, and defied, with hard, undaunted eye and threatening beak, a tall figure in blue, white-capped and gold-braided, which stood smiling down upon him.

*****

"By Jove," exclaimed Sub-Lieutenant James Smith, "here's luck: Uncle Sam's own chicken, which he's sent us as a mascot till his ships can get over and take a hand in the game with us: Delighted to see you, old bird: You've come to the right spot, you have, and we'll do the best we can to make you comfortable."

III
COCK-CROW

Cock-Crow

He was a splendid bird, a thoroughbred "Black-breasted Red" game-cock, his gorgeous plumage hard as mail, silken with perfect condition, and glowing like a flame against the darkness of the spruce forest.

His snaky head – the comb and wattles had been trimmed close, after the mode laid down for his aristocratic kind – was sharp and keen, like a living spearpoint. His eyes were fierce and piercing, ready ever to meet the gaze of bird, or beast, or man himself with the unwinking challenge of their full, arrogant stare. Perched upon a stump a few yards from the railway line, he turned that bold stare now, with an air of unperturbed superciliousness, upon the wreck of the big freight-car from which he had just escaped. He had escaped by a miracle, but little effect had that upon his bold and confident spirit. The ramshackle, overladen freight train, labouring up the too-steep gradient, had broken in two, thanks to a defective coupler, near the top of the incline a mile and a half away. The rear cars – heavy box-cars – had, of course, run back, gathering a terrific momentum as they went. The rear brakeman, his brakes failing to hold, had discreetly jumped before the speed became too great. At the foot of the incline a sharp curve had proved too much for the runaways to negotiate. With a screech of tortured metal they had jumped the track and gone crashing down the high embankment. One car, landing on a granite boulder, had split apart like a cleft melon. The light crate in which our game-cock, a pedigree bird, was being carried to a fancier in the nearest town, some three score miles away, had survived by its very lightness. But its door had been snapped open. The cock walked out deliberately, uttered a long, low krr-rr-ee of ironic comment upon the disturbance, hopped delicately over the tangle of boxes and crates and agricultural implements, and flew to the top of the nearest stump. There he shook himself, his plumage being disarrayed, though his spirit was not. He flapped his wings. Then, eyeing the wreckage keenly, he gave a shrill, triumphant crow, which rang through the early morning stillness of the forest like a challenge. He felt that the smashed car, so lately his prison, was a foe which he had vanquished by his own unaided prowess. His pride was not altogether unnatural.

The place where he stood, preening the red glory of his plumage, was in the very heart of the wilderness. The only human habitation within a dozen miles in either direction was a section-man's shanty, guarding a siding and a rusty water tank. The woods – mostly spruce in that region, with patches of birch and poplar – had been gone over by the lumbermen some five years before, and still showed the ravages of the insatiable axe. Their narrow "tote-roads," now deeply mossed and partly overgrown by small scrub, traversed the lonely spaces in every direction. One of these roads led straight back into the wilderness from the railway – almost from the stump whereon the red cock had his perch.

The cock had no particular liking for the neighbourhood of the accident, and when his fierce, inquiring eye fell upon this road, he decided to investigate, hoping it might lead him to some flock of his own kind, over whom he would, as a matter of course, promptly establish his domination. That there would be other cocks there, already in charge, only added to his zest for the adventure. He was raising his wings to hop down from his perch, when a wide-winged shadow passed over him, and he checked himself, glancing upwards sharply.

A foraging hawk had just flown overhead. The hawk had never before seen a bird like the bright figure standing on the stump, and he paused in his flight, hanging for a moment on motionless wing to scrutinize the strange apparition. But he was hungry, and he considered himself more than a match for anything in feathers except the eagle, the goshawk, and the great horned owl. His hesitation was but for a second, and, with a sudden mighty thrust of his wide wings, he swooped down upon this novel victim.

The big hawk was accustomed to seeing every quarry he stooped at cower paralysed with terror or scurry for shelter in wild panic. But, to his surprise, this infatuated bird on the stump stood awaiting him, with wings half lifted, neck feathers raised in defiant ruff, and one eye cocked upwards warily. He was so surprised, in fact, that at a distance of some dozen or fifteen feet he wavered and paused in his downward rush. But it was surprise only, fear having small place in his wild, marauding heart. In the next second he swooped again and struck downwards at his quarry with savage, steel-hard talons.

He struck but empty air. At exactly the right fraction of the instant the cock had leapt upwards on his powerful wings, lightly as a thistle-seed, but swift as if shot from a catapult. He passed straight over his terrible assailant's back. In passing he struck downwards with his spurs, which were nearly three inches long, straight, and tapered almost to a needle-point. One of these deadly weapons found its mark, as luck would have it, fair in the joint of the hawk's shoulder, putting the wing clean out of action.

The marauder turned completely over and fell in a wild flutter to the ground, the cock, at the same time, alighting gracefully six or eight feet away and wheeling like a flash to meet a second attack. The hawk, recovering with splendid nerve from the amazing shock of his overthrow, braced himself upright on his tail by the aid of the one sound wing – the other wing trailing helplessly – and faced his strange adversary with open beak and one clutching talon uplifted.

The cock, fighting after the manner of his kind, rushed in to within a couple of feet of his foe and there paused, balanced for the next stroke or parry, legs slightly apart, wings lightly raised, neck feathers ruffed straight out, beak lowered and presented like a rapier point. Seeing that his opponent made no demonstration, but simply waited, watching him with eyes as hard and bright and dauntless as his own, he tried to provoke him to a second attack. With scornful insolence he dropped his guard and pecked at a twig or a grass blade, jerking the unconsidered morsel aside and presenting his point again with lightning swiftness.

The insult, however, was lost upon the hawk, who had no knowledge of the cock's duelling code. He simply waited, motionless as the stump beside him.

The cock, perceiving that taunt and insolence were wasted, now began to circle warily toward the left, as if to take his opponent in the flank. The hawk at once shifted front to face him. But this was the side of his disabled wing. The sprawling member would not move, would not get out of the way. In the effort to manage it, he partly lost his precarious balance. The cock saw his advantage instantly. He dashed in like a feathered and flaming thunderbolt, leaping upwards and striking downwards with his destroying heels. The hawk was hurled over backwards, with one spur through his throat, the other through his lungs. As he fell he dragged his conqueror down with him, and one convulsive but blindly-clutching talon ripped away a strip of flesh and feathers from the victor's thigh. There was a moment's flapping, a few delicate red feathers floated off upon the morning air, then the hawk lay quite still, and the red cock, stepping haughtily off the body of his foe, crowed long and shrill, three times, as if challenging any other champions of the wilderness to come and dare a like fate.

For a few minutes he stood waiting and listening for an answer to his challenge. As no answer came, he turned, without deigning to glance at his slain foe, and stalked off, stepping daintily, up the old wood-road and into the depths of the forest. To the raw, red gash in his thigh he paid no heed whatever.

Having no inkling of the fact that the wilderness, silent and deserted though it seemed, was full of hostile eyes and unknown perils, he took no care at all for the secrecy of his going. Indeed, had he striven for concealment, his brilliant colouring, so out of key with the forest gloom, would have made it almost impossible. Nevertheless, his keenness of sight and hearing, his practised and unsleeping vigilance as protector of his flock, stood him in good stead, and made up for his lack of wilderness lore. It was with an intense interest and curiosity, rather than with any apprehension, that his bold eyes questioned everything on either side of his path through the dark spruce woods. Sometimes he would stop to peck the bright vermilion bunches of the pigeon-berry, which here and there starred the hillocks beside the road. But no matter how interesting he found the novel and delicious fare, his vigilance never relaxed. It was, indeed, almost automatic. The idea lurking in his subconscious processes was probably that he might at any moment be seen by some doughty rival of his own kind, and challenged to the great game of mortal combat. But whatever the object of his watchfulness, it served him as well against the unknown as it could have done against expected foes.

Presently he came to a spot where an old, half-rotted stump had been torn apart by a bear hunting for wood-ants. The raw earth about the up-torn roots tempted the wanderer to scratch for grubs. Finding a fat white morsel, much too dainty to be devoured alone, he stood over it and began to call kt-kt-kt, kt-kt-kt, kt-kt-kt, in his most alluring tones, hoping that some coy young hen would come stealing out of the underbrush in response to his gallant invitation. There was no such response; but as he peered about hopefully, he caught sight of a sinister, reddish-yellow shape creeping towards him behind the shelter of a withe-wood bush. He gulped down the fat grub, and stood warily eyeing the approach of this new foe.

It looked to him like a sharp-nosed, bushy-tailed yellow dog – a very savage and active one. He was not afraid, but he knew himself no match for a thoroughly ferocious dog of that size. This one, it was clear, had evil designs upon him. He half crouched, with wings loosed and every muscle tense for the spring.

The next instant the fox pounced at him, darting through the green edges of the withe-wood bush with most disconcerting suddenness. The cock sprang into the air, but only just in time, for the fox, leaping up nimbly at him with snapping jaws, captured a mouthful of glossy fail feathers. The cock alighted on a branch overhead, some seven or eight feet from the ground, whipped around, stretched his neck downwards, and eyed his assailant with a glassy stare. "Kr-rr-rr-eee?" he murmured softly, as if in sarcastic interrogation. The fox, exasperated at his failure, and hating, above all beasts, to be made a fool of, glanced around to see if there were any spectators. Then, with an air of elaborate indifference, he pawed a feather from the corner of his mouth and trotted away as if he had just remembered something.

He had not gone above thirty yards or so, when the cock flew down again to the exact spot where he had been scratching. He pretended to pick up another grub, all the time keeping an eye on the retiring foe. He crowed with studied insolence; but the fox, although that long and shrill defiance must have seemed a startling novelty, gave no sign of having heard it. The cock crowed again, with the same lack of result. He kept on crowing until the fox was out of sight. Then he returned coolly to his scratching. When he had satisfied his appetite for fat white grubs, he flew up again to his safe perch and fell to preening his feathers. Five minutes later the fox reappeared, creeping up with infinite stealth from quite another direction. The cock, however, detected his approach at once, and proclaimed the fact with another mocking crow. Disgusted and abashed, the fox turned in his tracks and crept away to stalk some less sophisticated quarry.

The wanderer, for all his fearlessness, was wise. He suspected that the vicious yellow dog with the bushy tail might return yet again to the charge. For a time, therefore, he sat on his perch, digesting his meal and studying with keen, inquisitive eyes his strange surroundings. After ten minutes or so of stillness and emptiness, the forest began to come alive. He saw a pair of black-and-white woodpeckers running up and down the trunk of a half-dead tree, and listened with tense interest to their loud rat-tat-tattings. He watched the shy wood-mice come out from their snug holes under the tree-roots, and play about with timorous gaiety and light rustlings among the dead leaves. He scrutinized with appraising care a big brown rabbit which came bounding in a leisurely fashion down the tote-road and sat up on its hindquarters near the stump, staring about with its mild, bulging eyes, and waving its long ears this way and that, to question every minutest wilderness sound; and he decided that the rabbit, for all its bulk and apparent vigour of limb, would not be a dangerous opponent. In fact, he thought of hopping down from his perch and putting the big innocent to flight, just to compensate himself for having had to flee from the fox.

But while he was meditating this venture, the rabbit went suddenly leaping off at a tremendous pace, evidently in great alarm. A few seconds later a slim little light-brownish creature, with short legs, long, sinuous body, short, triangular head, and cruel eyes that glowed like fire, came into view, following hard upon the rabbit's trail. It was nothing like half the rabbit's size, but the interested watcher on the branch overhead understood at once the rabbit's terror. He had never seen a weasel before, but he knew that the sinuous little beast with the eyes of death would be as dangerous almost as the fox. He noted that here was another enemy to look out for – to be avoided, if possible, to be fought with the utmost wariness if fighting should be forced upon him.

Not long after the weasel had vanished, the cock grew tired of waiting, and restless to renew the quest for the flock on which his dreams were set. He started by flying from tree to tree, still keeping along the course of the tote-road. But after he had covered perhaps a half-mile in this laborious fashion, he gave it up and hopped down again into the road. Here he went now with new caution, but with the same old arrogance of eye and bearing. He went quickly, however, for the gloom of the spruce wood had grown oppressive to him, and he wanted open fields and the unrestricted sun.

He had not gone far when he caught sight of a curious-looking animal advancing slowly down the path to meet him. It was nearly as big as the rabbit, but low on the legs; and instead of leaping along, it crawled with a certain heavy deliberation. Its colour was a dingy, greyish black-and-white, and its short black head was crowned with what looked like a heavy iron-grey pompadour brushed well back. The cock stood still, eyeing its approach suspiciously. It did not look capable of any very swift demonstration, but he was on his guard.

When it had come within three or four yards of him, he said "Kr-rr-rr-eee!" sharply, just to see what it would do, at the same time lowering his snaky head and ruffing out his neck feathers in challenge. The stranger seemed then to notice him for the first time, and instantly, to the cock's vast surprise, it enlarged itself to fully twice its previous size. Its fur, which was now seen to be quills rather than fur, stood up straight on end all over its head and body, and the quills were two or three inches in length. At this amazing spectacle the cock involuntarily backed away several paces. The stranger came straight on, however, without hastening his deliberate steps one jot. The cock waited, maintaining his attitude of challenge, till not more than three or four feet separated him from the incomprehensible apparition. Then he sprang lightly over it and turned in a flash, expecting the stranger to turn also and again confront him. The stranger, however, did nothing of the kind, but simply continued stolidly on his way, not even troubling to look round. Such stolidity was more than the cock could understand, having never encountered a porcupine before. He stared after it for some moments. Then he crowed scornfully, turned about, and resumed his lonely quest.

A little farther on, to his great delight, he came out into a small clearing with a log cabin in the centre of it. A house! It was associated in his mind with an admiring, devoted flock of hens, and rivals to be ignominiously routed, and harmless necessary humans whose business it was to supply unlimited food. He rushed forward eagerly, careless as to whether he should encounter love or war.

Alas, the cabin was deserted! Even to his inexperienced eye it was long deserted. The door hung on one hinge, half open; the one small window had no glass in it. Untrodden weeds grew among the rotting chips up to and across the threshold. The roof – a rough affair of poles and bark – sagged in the middle, just ready to fall in at the smallest provocation. A red squirrel, his tail carried jauntily over his back, sat on the topmost peak of it and shrilled high derision at the wanderer as he approached.



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