Charles Roberts.

The Ledge on Bald Face



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The cock was acquainted with squirrels, and thought less than nothing of them. Ignoring the loud chatter, he tip-toed around the cabin, dejected but still inquisitive. Returning at length to the doorway, he peered in, craning his neck and uttering a low kr-rr. Finally, with head held high, he stalked in. The place was empty, save for a long bench with a broken leg and a joint of rust-eaten stove-pipe. Along two of the walls ran a double tier of bunks, in which the lumbermen had formerly slept. The cock stalked all around the place, prying in every corner and murmuring softly to himself. At last he flew up to the highest bunk, perched upon the edge of it, flapped his wings, and crowed repeatedly, as if announcing to the wilderness at large that he had taken possession. This ceremony accomplished, he flew down again, stalked out into the sunlight, and fell to scratching among the chips with an air of assured possession. And all the while the red squirrel kept on hurling shrill, unheeded abuse at him, resenting him as an intruder in the wilds.

Whenever the cock found a particularly choice grub or worm or beetle, he would hold it aloft in his beak, then lay it down and call loudly kt-kt-kt-kt-kt-kt, as if hoping thus to lure some flock of hens to the fair domain which he had seized. He had now dropped his quest, and was trusting that his subjects would come to him. That afternoon his valiant calls caught the ear of a weasel – possibly the very one which he had seen in the morning trailing the panic-stricken rabbit. The weasel came rushing upon him at once, too ferocious in its blood-lust for any such emotions as surprise or curiosity, and expecting an easy conquest. The cock saw it coming, and knew well the danger. But he was now on his own ground, responsible for the protection of an imaginary flock. He faced the peril unwavering. Fortunately for him, the weasel had no idea whatever of a fighting-cock's method of warfare. When the cock evaded the deadly rush by leaping straight at it and over it, instead of dodging aside or turning tail, the weasel was nonplussed for just a fraction of a second, and stood snarling. In that instant of hesitation the cock's keen spur struck it fairly behind the ear, and drove clean into the brain. The murderous little beast stiffened out, rolled gently over upon its side, and lay there with the soundless snarl fixed upon its half-opened jaws. Surprised at such an easy victory, the cock spurred the carcase again, just to make sure of it. Then he kicked it to one side, crowed, of course, and stared around wistfully for some appreciation of his triumph. He could not know with what changed eyes the squirrel – who feared weasels more than anything else on earth – was now regarding him.

The killing of so redoubtable an adversary as the weasel must have become known, in some mysterious fashion, for thenceforward no more of the small marauders of the forest ventured to challenge the new lordship of the clearing.

For a week the cock ruled his solitude unquestioned, very lonely, but sleeplessly alert, and ever hoping that followers of his own kind would come to him from somewhere. In time, doubtless, his loneliness would have driven him forth again upon his quest; but Fate had other things in store for him.

Late one afternoon a grizzled woodsman in grey homespun, and carrying a bundle swung from the axe over his shoulder, came striding up to the cabin. The cock, pleased to see a human being once more, stalked forth from the cabin door to meet him. The woodsman was surprised at the sight of what he called a "reel barn-yard rooster" away off here in the wilds, but he was too tired and hungry to consider the question carefully. His first thought was that there would be a pleasant addition to his supper of bacon and biscuits. He dropped his axe and bundle, and made a swift grab at the unsuspecting bird. The latter dodged cleverly, ruffed his neck feathers with an angry kr-rr-rr, hopped up, and spurred the offending hand severely.

The woodsman straightened himself up, taken by surprise, and sheepishly shook the blood from his hand.

"Well, I'll be durned!" he muttered, eyeing the intrepid cock with admiration. "You're some rooster, you are! I guess you're all right. Guess I deserved that, for thinkin' of wringin' the neck o' sech a handsome an' gritty bird as you, an' me with plenty o' good bacon in me pack. Guess we'll call it square, eh?"

He felt in his pocket for some scraps of biscuits, and tossed them to the cock, who picked them up greedily and then strutted around him, plainly begging for more. The biscuit was a delightful change after an unvarying diet of grubs and grass. Thereafter he followed his visitor about like his shadow, not with servility, of course, but with a certain condescending arrogance which the woodsman found hugely amusing.

Just outside the cabin door the woodsman lit a fire to cook his evening rasher and brew his tin of tea. The cock supped with him, striding with dignity to pick up the scraps which were thrown to him, and then resuming his place at the other side of the fire. By the time the man was done, dusk had fallen; and the cock, chuckling contentedly in his throat, tip-toed into the cabin, flew up to the top bunk, and settled himself on his perch for the night. He had always been taught to expect benefits from men, and he felt that this big stranger who had fed him so generously would find him a flock to preside over on the morrow.

After a long smoke beside his dying fire, till the moon came up above the ghostly solitude, the woodsman turned in to sleep in one of the lower bunks, opposite to where the cock was roosting. He had heaped an armful of bracken and spruce branches into the bunk before spreading his blanket. And he slept very soundly.

Even the most experienced of woodsmen may make a slip at times. This one, this time, had forgotten to make quite sure that his fire was out. There was no wind when he went to bed, but soon afterwards a wind arose, blowing steadily toward the cabin. It blew the darkened embers to a glow, and little, harmless-looking flames began eating their way over the top layer of tinder-dry chips to the equally dry wall of the cabin.

*****

The cock was awakened by a bright light in his eyes. A fiery glow, beyond the reddest of sunrises, was flooding the cabin. Long tongues of flame were licking about the doorway. He crowed valiantly, to greet this splendid, blazing dawn. He crowed again and yet again, because he was anxious and disturbed. As a sunrise, this one did not act at all according to precedent.

The piercing notes aroused the man, who was sleeping heavily. In one instant he was out of his bunk and grabbing up his blanket and his pack. In the next he had plunged out through the flaming doorway, and thrown down his armful at a safe distance, cursing acidly at such a disturbance to the most comfortable rest he had enjoyed for a week.

From within the doomed cabin came once more the crow of the cock, shrilling dauntlessly above the crackle and venomous hiss of the flames.

"Gee whizz!" muttered the woodsman, or, rather, that may be taken as the polite equivalent of his untrammelled backwoods expletive. "That there red rooster's game. Ye can't leave a pardner like that to roast!"

With one arm shielding his face, he dashed in again, grabbed the cock by the legs, and darted forth once more into the sweet, chill air, none the worse except for frizzled eyelashes and an unceremonious trimming of hair and beard. The cock, highly insulted, was flapping and pecking savagely, but the man soon reduced him to impotence, if not submission, holding him under one elbow while he tied his armed heels together, and then swaddling him securely in his coat.

"There," said he, "I guess we'll travel together from this out, pardner. Ye've sure saved my life; an' to think I had the notion, for a minnit, o' makin' a meal offen ye! I'll give ye a good home, anyways, an' I guess ye'll lick the socks offen every other rooster in the whole blame Settlement!"

IV
THE MORNING OF THE SILVER FROST

The Morning of the Silver Frost

All night the big buck rabbit – he was really a hare, but the backwoodsmen called him a rabbit – had been squatting on his form under the dense branches of a young fir tree. The branches grew so low that their tips touched the snow all round him, giving him almost perfect shelter from the drift of the storm. The storm was one of icy rain, which everywhere froze instantly as it fell. All night it had been busy encasing the whole wilderness – every tree and bush and stump, and the snow in every open meadow or patch of forest glade – in an armour of ice, thick and hard and glassy clear. And the rabbit, crouching motionless, save for an occasional forward thrust of his long, sensitive ears, had slept in unwonted security, knowing that none of his night-prowling foes would venture forth from their lairs on such a night.

At dawn the rain stopped. The cold deepened to a still intensity. The clouds lifted along the eastern horizon, and a thin, icy flood of saffron and palest rose washed down across the glittering desolation. The wilderness was ablaze on the instant with elusive tongues and points of coloured light – jewelled flames, not of fire, but of frost. The world had become a palace of crystal and opal, a dream-palace that would vanish at a touch, a breath. And indeed, had a wind arisen then to breathe upon it roughly, the immeasurable crystal would have shattered as swiftly as a dream, the too-rigid twigs and branches would have snapped and clattered down in ruin.

The rabbit came out from under his little ice-clad fir tree, and, for all his caution, the brittle twigs broke about him as he emerged, and tinkled round him sharply. The thin, light sound was so loud upon the stillness that he gave a startled leap into the air, landing many feet away from his refuge. He slipped and sprawled, recovered his foothold, and stood quivering, his great, prominent eyes trying to look in every direction at once, his ears questioning anxiously to and fro, his nostrils twitching for any hint of danger.

There was no sight, sound, or scent, however, to justify his alarm, and in a few seconds, growing bolder, he remembered that he was hungry. Close by he noticed the tips of a little birch sapling sticking up above the snow. These birch-tips, in winter, were his favourite food. He hopped toward them, going circumspectly over the slippery surface, and sat up on his hindquarters to nibble at them. To his intense surprise and disappointment, each twig and aromatic bud was sealed away, inaccessible, though clearly visible, under a quarter inch of ice. Twig after twig he investigated with his inquiring, sensitive cleft nostrils, which met everywhere the same chill reception. Round and round the tantalizing branch he hopped, unable to make out the situation. At last, thoroughly disgusted, he turned his back on the treacherous birch bush and made for another, some fifty yards down the glade.

As he reached it he stopped short, suddenly rigid, his head half turned over his shoulder, every muscle gathered like a spring wound up to extreme tension. His bulging eyes had caught a movement somewhere behind him, beyond the clump of twigs which he had just left. Only for a second did he remain thus rigid. Then the spring was loosed. With a frantic bound he went over and through the top of the bush. The shattered and scattered crystals rang sharply on the shining snow-crust. And he sped away in panic terror among the silent trees.

From behind the glassy twigs emerged another form, snow-white like the fleeting rabbit, and sped in pursuit – not so swiftly, indeed, as the rabbit, but with an air of implacable purpose that made the quarry seem already doomed. The pursuer was much smaller than his intended victim, very low on the legs, long-bodied, slender, and sinuous, and he moved as if all compacted of whipcord muscle. The grace of his long, deliberate bounds was indescribable. His head was triangular in shape, the ears small and close-set, the black-tipped muzzle sharply pointed, with the thin, black lips upcurled to show the white fangs; and the eyes glowed red with blood-lust. Small as it was, there was something terrible about the tiny beast, and its pursuit seemed as inevitable as Fate. At each bound its steel-hard claws scratched sharply on the crystal casing of the snow, and here and there an icicle from a snapped twig went ringing silverly across the gleaming surface.

For perhaps fifty yards the weasel followed straight upon the rabbit's track. Then he swerved to the right. He had lost sight of his quarry. But he knew its habits in flight. He knew it would run in a circle, and he took a chord of that circle, so as to head the fugitive off. He knew he might have to repeat this manoeuvre several times, but he had no doubts as to the result. In a second or two he also had disappeared among the azure shadows and pink-and-saffron gleams of the ice-clad forest.

For several minutes the glade was empty, still as death, with the bitter but delicate glories of the winter dawn flooding ever more radiantly across it. On a sudden the rabbit appeared again, this time at the opposite side of the glade. He was running irresolutely now, with little aimless leaps to this side and to that, and his leaps were short and lifeless, as if his nerve-power were getting paralysed. About the middle of the glade he seemed to give up altogether, as if conquered by sheer panic. He stopped, hesitated, wheeled round, and crouched flat upon the naked snow, trembling violently, and staring, with eyes that started from his head, at the point in the woods which he had just emerged from.

A second later the grim pursuer appeared. He saw his victim awaiting him, but he did not hurry his pace by a hair's-breadth. With the same terrible deliberation he approached. Only his jaws opened, his long fangs glistened bare; a blood-red globule of light glowed redder at the back of his eyes.

One more of those inexorable bounds, and he would have been at his victim's throat. The rabbit screamed.

At that instant, with a hissing sound, a dark shadow dropped out of the air. It struck the rabbit. He was enveloped in a dreadful flapping of wings. Iron talons, that clutched and bit like the jaws of a trap, seized him by the back. He felt himself partly lifted from the snow. He screamed again. But now he struggled convulsively, no longer submissive to his doom, the hypnotic spell cast upon him by the weasel being broken by the shock of the great hawk's unexpected attack.

But the weasel was not of the stuff or temper to let his prey be snatched thus from his jaws. Cruel and wanton assassin though he was, ever rejoicing to kill for the lust of killing long after his hunger was satisfied, he had the courage of a wounded buffalo. A mere darting silver of white, he sprang straight into the blinding confusion of those great wings.

He secured a hold just under one wing, where the armour of feathers was thinnest, and began to gnaw inwards with his keen fangs. With a startled cry, the hawk freed her talons from the rabbit's back and clutched frantically at her assailant. The rabbit, writhing out from under the struggle, went leaping off into cover, bleeding copiously, but carrying no fatal hurt. He had recovered his wits, and had no idle curiosity as to how the battle between his enemies would turn out.

The hawk, for all her great strength and the crushing superiority of her weapons, had a serious disadvantage of position. The weasel, maintaining his deadly grip and working inwards like a bull-dog, had hunched up his lithe little body so that she could not reach it with her talons. She tore furiously at his back with her rending beak, but the amazingly tough, rubbery muscles resisted even that weapon to a certain degree. At last, securing a grip with her beak upon her adversary's thigh, she managed to pull the curled-up body out almost straight, and so secured a grip upon it with one set of talons.

That grip was crushing, irresistible, but it was too far back to be immediately fatal. The weasel's lithe body lengthened out under the agonizing stress of it, but it could not pull his jaws from their grip. They continued inexorably their task of gnawing inwards, ever inwards, seeking a vital spot.

The struggle went on in silence, as far as the voices of both combatants were concerned. But the beating of the hawk's wings resounded on the glassy-hard surface of the snow. As the struggle shifted ground, those flapping wings came suddenly in contact with a bush, whose iced twigs were brittle as glass and glittering like the prisms of a great crystal candelabrum. There was a shrill crash and a thin, ringing clatter as the twigs shattered off and spun flying across the crust.

The sound carried far through the still iridescent spaces of the wilderness. It reached the ears of a foraging fox, who was tiptoeing with dainty care over the slippery crust. He turned hopefully to investigate, trusting to get a needed breakfast out of some fellow-marauder's difficulties. At the edge of the glade he paused, peering through a bush of crystal fire to size up the situation before committing himself to the venture.

Desperately preoccupied though she was, the hawk's all-seeing eyes detected the red outlines of the fox through the bush. With a frantic beating of her wings she lifted herself from the snow. The fox darted upon her with a lightning rush and a shattering of icicles. He was just too late. The great bird was already in the air, carrying her deadly burden with her. The fox leapt straight upwards, hoping to pull her down, but his clashing jaws just failed to reach her talons. Labouring heavily in her flight, she made off, striving to gain a tree-top, where she might perch and once more give her attention to the gnawing torment which clung beneath her wing.

The fox, being wise, and seeing that the hawk was in extremest straits, ran on beneath her as she flew, gazing upwards expectantly.

The weasel, meanwhile, with that deadly concentration of purpose which characterizes his tribe, paid no heed to the fact that he was journeying through the air. And he knew nothing of what was going on below. His flaming eyes were buried in his foe's feathers, his jaws were steadily working inwards toward her vitals.

Just at the edge of the glade, immediately over the top of a branchy young paper-birch which shot a million coloured points of light in the sunrise, the end came. The fangs of the weasel met in the hawk's wildly throbbing heart. With a choking burst of scarlet blood it stopped.

Stone dead, the great marauder of the air crashed down through the slim birch-top, with a great scattering of gleams and crystals. With wide-sprawled wings she thudded down upon the snow-crust, almost under the fox's complacent jaws. The weasel's venomous head, covered with blood, emerged triumphant from the mass of feathers.

As the victor writhed free, the fox, pouncing upon him with a careless air, seized him by the neck, snapped it neatly, and tossed the long, limp body, aside upon the snow. He had no use for the rank, stringy meat of the weasel when better fare was at hand. Then he drew the hawk close to the trunk of the young birch, and lay down to make a leisurely breakfast.

V
JIM, THE BACKWOODS POLICE DOG

I. How Woolly Billy Came to Brine's Rip
I

Jim's mother was a big cross-bred bitch, half Newfoundland and half bloodhound, belonging to Black Saunders, one of the hands at the Brine's Rip Mills. As the mills were always busy, Saunders was always busy, and it was no place for a dog to be around, among the screeching saws, the thumping, wet logs, and the spurting sawdust. So the big bitch, with fiery energy thrilling her veins and sinews and the restraint of a master's hand seldom exercised upon her, practically ran wild.

Hunting on her own account in the deep wilderness which surrounded Brine's Rip Settlement, she became a deadly menace to every wild thing less formidable than a bear or a bull moose, till at last, in the early prime of her adventurous career, she was shot by an angry game warden for her depredations among the deer and the young caribou.

Jim's father was a splendid and pedigreed specimen of the old English sheep-dog. From a litter of puppies of this uncommon parentage, Tug Blackstock, the Deputy Sheriff of Nipsiwaska County, chose out the one that seemed to him the likeliest, paid Black Saunders a sovereign for him, and named him Jim. To Tug Blackstock, for some unfathomed reason, the name of "Jim" stood for self-contained efficiency.

It was efficiency, in chief, that Tug Blackstock, as Deputy Sheriff, was after. He had been reading, in a stray magazine with torn cover and much-thumbed pages, an account of the wonderful doings of the trained police-dogs of Paris. The story had fired his imagination and excited his envy.

There was a lawless element in some of the outlying corners of Nipsiwaska County, with a larger element of yet more audacious lawlessness beyond the county line from which to recruit. Throughout the wide and mostly wilderness expanse of Nipsiwaska County the responsibility for law and order rested almost solely upon the shoulders of Tug Blackstock. His chief, the Sheriff, a prosperous shopkeeper who owed his appointment to his political pull, knew little and thought less of the duties of his office.



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