The Ledge on Bald Face
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His experienced eye told him in a moment that the river was impassable for him at this point. He dashed on up-stream for another couple of hundred yards, and then, where a breadth of comparatively slack water beneath a long ledge extended more than half-way across, he plunged in, undaunted by the clamour and the jumping, boiling foam.
Swimming mightily, he gained a point directly above the sand spit. Then, fighting every inch of the way to get across the terrific draft of the main current, he was swept downward at a tremendous speed. But he had carried out his plan. He gained the shallow side channel, splashed down it, and darted up the sand spit with a menacing growl at the bear across the sluice.
At the sound of that harsh growl close to his ears the little one woke up and raised his head. Seeing Jim, big and black and dripping, he thought it was the bear. With a piercing scream he once more hid his face in his hands, rigid with horror. Puzzled at this reception, Jim fell to licking his hands and his ears extravagantly, and whining and thrusting a coaxing wet nose under his arms.
At last the little fellow began to realize that these were not the actions of a foe. Timidly he lowered his hands from his face, and looked around. Why, there was the bear, on the other side of the water, tremendous and terrible, but just where he had been this ever so long. This creature that was making such a fuss over him was plainly a dog – a kind, good dog, who was fond of little boys.
With a sigh of inexpressible relief his terror slipped from him. He flung his arms about Jim's shaggy neck and buried his face in the wet fur. And Jim, his heart swelling with pride, stood up and barked furiously across at the bear.
Tug Blackstock, standing in the stern of his canoe, plied his pole with renewed effort. Reaching the spit he strode forward, snatched the child up in his arms, and passed his great hand tenderly through that wonderful shock of whitey-gold silken curls. His eyes were moist, but his voice was hearty and gay, as if this meeting were the most ordinary thing in the world.
"Hullo, Woolly Billy!" he cried. "What are you doin' here?"
"Daddy left me here," answered the child, his lip beginning to quiver. "Where's he gone to?"
"Oh," replied Tug Blackstock hurriedly, "yer dad was called away rather sudden, an' he sent me an' Jim, here, to look after you till he gits back. An' we'll do it, too, Woolly Billy; don't you fret."
"My name's George Harold Manners Watson," explained the child politely.
"But we'll just call you Woolly Billy for short," said Tug Blackstock.
II. The Book Agent and the Buckskin Belt
A big-framed, jaunty man with black side-whiskers, a long black frock coat, and a square, flat case of shiny black leather strapped upon his back, stepped into the Corner Store at Brine's Rip Mills.
He said: "Hullo, boys! Hot day!" in a big voice that was intentionally hearty, ran his bulging eyes appraisingly over every one present, then took off his wide-brimmed felt hat and mopped his glistening forehead with a big red and white handkerchief.Receiving a more or less hospitable chorus of grunts and "hullos" in response, he seated himself on a keg of nails, removed the leather case from his back, and asked for ginger beer, which he drank noisily from the bottle.
"Name of Byles," said he at length, introducing himself with a sweeping nod. "Hot tramp in from Cribb's Ridge. Thirsty, you bet. Never drink nothing stronger'n ginger pop or soft cider. Have a round o' pop on me, boys. A1 pop this o' yours, mister. A dozen more bottles, please, for these gentlemen."
He looked around the circle with an air at once assured and persuasive. And the taciturn woodsmen, not wholly at ease under such sudden cordiality from a stranger, but too polite to rebuff him, muttered "Thank ye, kindly," or "Here's how," as they threw back their heads and poured the weak stuff down their gaunt and hairy throats.
It was a slack time at Brine's Rip, the mills having shut down that morning because the river was so low that there were no more logs running. The shrieking saws being silent for a little, there was nothing for the mill hands to do but loaf and smoke. The hot air was heavily scented with the smell of fresh sawdust mixed with the strong honey-perfume of the flowering buckwheat fields beyond the village. The buzzing of flies in the windows of the store was like a fine arabesque of sound against the ceaseless, muffled thunder of the rapids.
The dozen men gathered here at Zeb Smith's store – which was, in effect, the village club – found it hard to rouse themselves to a conversational effort in any way worthy the advances of the confident stranger. They all smoked a little harder than usual, and looked on with courteous but noncommittal interest while he proceeded to unstrap his shiny black leather case.
In his stiff and sombre garb, so unsuited to the backwoods trails, the stranger had much the look of one of those itinerant preachers who sometimes busy themselves with the cure of souls in the remoter backwoods settlements. But his eye and his address were rather those of a shrewd and pushing commercial traveller.
Tug Blackstock, the Deputy Sheriff of Nipsiwaska County, felt a vague antagonism toward him, chiefly on the ground that his speech and bearing did not seem to consort with his habiliments. He rather liked a man to look what he was or be what he looked, and he did not like black side whiskers and long hair. This antagonism, however, he felt to be unreasonable. The man had evidently had a long and tiring tramp, and was entitled to a somewhat friendlier reception than he was getting.
Swinging his long legs against the counter, on which he sat between a pile of printed calicoes and a box of bright pink fancy soap, Tug Blackstock reached behind him and possessed himself of a box of long, black cigars. Having selected one critically for himself, he proffered the box to the stranger.
"Have a weed?" said he cordially. "They ain't half bad."
But the stranger waved the box aside with an air at once grand and gracious.
"I never touch the weed, thank you kindly just the same," said he. "But I've nothing agin it. It goes agin my system, that's all. If it's all the same to you, I'll take a bite o' cheese an' a cracker 'stead o' the cigar."
"Sartain," agreed Blackstock, jumping down to fetch the edibles from behind the counter. Like most of the regular customers, he knew the store and its contents almost as well as Zeb Smith himself.
During the last few minutes an immense, rough-haired black dog had been sniffing the stranger over with suspicious minuteness. The stranger at first paid no attention whatever, though it was an ordeal that many might have shrunk from. At last, seeming to notice the animal for the first time, he recognized his presence by indifferently laying his hand upon his neck. Instead of instantly drawing off with a resentful growl, after his manner with strangers, the dog acknowledged the casual caress by a slight wag of the tail, and then, after a few moments, turned away amicably and lay down.
"If Jim finds him all right," thought Blackstock to himself, "ther' can't be much wrong with him, though I can't say I take to him myself." And he weighed off a much bigger piece of cheese than he had at first intended to offer, marking down his indebtedness on a slate which served the proprietor as a sort of day-book. The stranger fell to devouring it with an eagerness which showed that his lunch must have been of the lightest.
"Ye was sayin' as how ye'd jest come up from Cribb's Ridge?" put in a long-legged, heavy-shouldered man who was sprawling on a cracker box behind the door. He had short sandy hair, rapidly thinning, eyes of a cold grey, set rather close together, and a face that suggested a cross between a fox and a fish-hawk. He was somewhat conspicuous among his fellows by the trimness of his dress, his shirt being of dark blue flannel with a rolled-up collar and a scarlet knotted kerchief, while the rest of the mill hands wore collarless shirts of grey homespun, with no thought of neckerchiefs.
His trousers were of brown corduroy, and were held up by a broad belt of white dressed buckskin, elaborately decorated with Navajo designs in black and red. He stuck to this adornment tenaciously as a sort of inoffensive proclamation of the fact that he was not an ordinary backwoods mill hand, but a wanderer, one who had travelled far, and tried his wits at many ventures in the wilder West.
"Right you are," assented the stranger, brushing some white cracker crumbs out of his black whiskers.
"I was jest a-wonderin'," went on Hawker, giving a hitch to the elaborate belt and leaning forward a little to spit out through the doorway, "if ye've seed anything o' Jake Sanderson on the road."
The stranger, having his mouth full of cheese, did not answer for a moment.
"The boys are lookin' for him rather anxious," explained Blackstock with a grin. "He brings the leetle fat roll that pays their wages here at the mill, an' he's due some time to day."
"I seen him at Cribb's Ridge this morning," answered the stranger at last. "Said he'd hurt his foot, or strained his knee, or something, an' would have to come on a bit slow. He'll be along some time to-night, I guess. Didn't seem to me to have much wrong with him. No, ye can't have none o' that cheese. Go 'way an' lay down," he added suddenly to the great black dog, who had returned to his side and laid his head on the stranger's knee.
With a disappointed air the dog obeyed.
"'Tain't often Jim's so civil to a stranger," muttered Blackstock to himself.
A little boy in a scarlet jacket, with round eyes of china blue, and an immense mop of curly, fluffy, silky hair so palely flaxen as to be almost white, came hopping and skipping into the store. He was greeted with friendly grins, while several voices drawled, "Hullo, Woolly Billy!" He beamed cheerfully upon the whole company, with a special gleam of intimate confidence for Tug Blackstock and the big black dog. Then he stepped up to the stranger's knee, and stood staring with respectful admiration at those flowing jet-black side-whiskers.
The stranger in return looked with a cold curiosity at the child's singular hair. Neither children nor dogs had any particular appeal for him, but that hair was certainly queer.
"Most an albino, ain't he?" he suggested.
"No, he ain't," replied Tug Blackstock curtly. The dog, detecting a note of resentment in his master's voice, got up and stood beside the child, and gazed about the circle with an air of anxious interrogation. Had any one been disagreeable to Woolly Billy? And if so, who?
But the little one was not in the least rebuffed by the stranger's unresponsiveness.
"What's that?" he inquired, patting admiringly the stranger's shiny leather case.
The stranger grew cordial to him at once.
"Ah, now ye're talkin'," said he enthusiastically, undoing the flap of the case. "It's a book, sonny. The greatest book, the most interestin' book, the most useful book – and next to the Bible the most high-toned, uplifting book that was ever written. Ye can't read yet, sonny, but this book has the loveliest pictures ye ever seen, and the greatest lot of 'em for the money."
He drew reverently forth from the case a large, fat volume, bound sumptuously in embossed sky-blue imitation leather, lavishly gilt, and opened it upon his knees with a spacious gesture.
"There," he continued proudly. "It's called 'Mother, Home, and Heaven!' Ain't that a title for ye? Don't it show ye right off the kind of book it is? With this book by ye, ye don't need any other book in the house at all, except maybe the almanack an' the Bible – an' this book has lots o' the best bits out of the Bible in it, scattered through among the receipts an' things to keep it all wholesome an' upliftin'.
"It'll tell ye such useful things as how to get a cork out of a bottle without breakin' the bottle, when he haven't got a corkscrew, or what to do when the baby's got croup, and there ain't a doctor this side of Tourdulac. An' it'll tell ye how to live, so as when things happen that no medicines an' no doctors and no receipts – not even such great receipts as these here ones" (and he slapped his hand on the counter) "can help ye through – such as when a tree falls on to ye, or you trip and stumble on to the saws, or git drawn down under half-a-mile o' raft – then ye'll be ready to go right up aloft, an' no questions asked ye at the Great White Gate.
"An' it has po'try in it, too, reel heart po'try, such as'll take ye back to the time when ye was all white an' innocent o' sin at yer mother's knee, an' make ye wish ye was like that now. In fact, boys, this book I'm goin' to show ye, with your kind permission, is handier than a pocket in a shirt, an' at the same time the blessed fragrance of it is like a rose o' Sharon in the household. It's in three styles o' bindin', all reel handsome, but – "
"I want to look at another picture now," protested Woolly Billy. "I'm tired of this one of the angels sayin' their prayers."
His amazing shock of silver-gold curls was bent intently over the book in the stranger's lap. The woodsmen, on the other hand, kept on smoking with a far-off look, as if they heard not a word of the fluent harangue. They had a deep distrust and dread of this black-whiskered stranger, now that he stood revealed as the Man-Wanting-to-Sell-Something. The majority of them would not even glance in the direction of the gaudy book, lest by doing so they should find themselves involved in some expensive and complicated obligation.
The stranger responded to Woolly Billy's appeal by shutting the book firmly. "There's lots more pictures purtier than that one, sonny," said he. "But ye must ask yer dad to buy it fer ye. He won't regret it." And he passed the volume on to Hawker, who, having no dread of book-agents, began to turn over the leaves with a superior smile.
"Dad's gone away ever so far," answered Woolly Billy sadly. "It's an awfully pretty book." And he looked at Tug Blackstock appealingly.
"Look here, mister," drawled Blackstock, "I don't take much stock myself in those kind of books, an' moreover (not meanin' no offence to you), any man that's sellin' 'em has got to larn to do a sight o' lyin'. But as Woolly Billy here wants it so bad I'll take a copy, if 'tain't too dear. All the same, it's only fair to warn ye that ye'll not do much business in Brine's Rip, for there was a book agent here last year as got about ha'f the folks in the village to sign a crooked contract, and we was all stung bad. I'd advise ye to move on, an' not really tackle Brine's Rip fer another year or so. Now, what's the price?"
The stranger's face had fallen during this speech, but it brightened at the concluding question.
"Six dollars, four dollars, an' two dollars an' a half, accordin' to style of bindin'," he answered, bringing out a handful of leaflets and order forms and passing them round briskly. "An' ye don't need to pay more'n fifty cents down, an' sign this order, an' ye pay the balance in a month's time, when the books are delivered. I'll give ye my receipt for the fifty cents, an' ye jest fill in this order accordin' to the bindin' ye choose. Let me advise ye, as a friend, to take the six dollar one. It's the best value."
"Thanks jest the same," said Blackstock drily, pulling out his wallet, "but I guess Woolly Billy'd jest as soon have the two-fifty one. An' I'll pay ye the cash right now. No signin' orders fer me. Here's my name an' address."
"Right ye are," agreed the stranger cordially, pocketing the money and signing the receipt. "Cash payments for me every time, if I could have my way. Now, if some o' you other gentlemen will follow Mr. Blackstock's fine example, ye'll never regret it – an' neither will I."
"Come on, Woolly Billy. Come on, Jim," said Blackstock, stepping out into the street with the child and the dog at his heels. "We'll be gittin' along home, an' leave this gentleman to argy with the boys."
Jake Sanderson, with the pay for the mill-hands, did not arrive that night, nor yet the following morning. Along toward noon, however, there arrived a breathless stripling, white-faced and wild-eyed, with news of him. The boy was young Stephens, son of Andy Stephens, the game-warden. He and his father, coming up from Cribb's Ridge, had found the body of Sanderson lying half in a pool beside the road, covered with blood. Near at hand lay the bag, empty, slashed open with a bloody knife. Stephens had sent his boy on into the Settlement for help, while he himself had remained by the body, guarding it lest some possible clue should be interfered with.
Swift as a grass fire, the shocking news spread through the village. An excited crowd gathered in front of the store, every one talking at once, trying to question young Stephens. The Sheriff was away, down at Fredericton for a holiday from his arduous duties. But nobody lamented his absence. It was his deputy they all turned to in such an emergency.
"Where's Tug Blackstock?" demanded half a dozen awed voices. And, as if in answer, the tall, lean figure of the Deputy Sheriff of Nipsiwaska County came striding in haste up the sawdusty road, with the big, black dog crowding eagerly upon his heels.
The clamour of the crowd was hushed as Blackstock put a few questions, terse and pertinent, to the excited boy. The people of Nipsiwaska County in general had the profoundest confidence in their Deputy Sheriff. They believed that his shrewd brain and keen eye could find a clue to the most baffling of mysteries. Just now, however, his face was like a mask of marble, and his eyes, sunk back into his head, were like points of steel. The murdered man had been one of his best friends, a comrade and helper in many a hard enterprise.
"Come," said he to the lad, "we'll go an' see." And he started off down the road at that long loose stride of his, which was swifter than a trot and much less tiring.
"Hold on a minute, Tug," drawled a rasping nasal voice.
"What is it, Hawker?" demanded Blackstock, turning impatiently on his heel.
"Ye hain't asked no thin' yet about the Book Agent, Mister Byles, him as sold ye 'Mother, Home, an' Heaven.' Mebbe he could give us some information. He said as how he'd had some talk with poor old Jake."
Blackstock's lips curled slightly. He had not read the voluble stranger as a likely highwayman in any circumstances, still less as one to try issues with a man like Jake Sanderson. But the crowd, eager to give tongue on any kind of a scent, and instinctively hostile to a book agent, seized greedily upon the suggestion.
"Where is he?" "Send for him." "Did anybody see him this mornin'?" "Rout him out!" "Fetch him along!" The babel of voices started afresh.
"He's cleared out," cried a woman's shrill voice. It was the voice of Mrs. Stukeley, who kept the boarding-house. Every one else was silent to hear what she had to say.
"He quit my place jest about daylight this morning," continued the woman virulently. She had not liked the stranger's black whiskers, nor his ministerial garb, nor his efforts to get a subscription out of her, and she was therefore ready to believe him guilty without further proof. "He seemed in a powerful hurry to git away, sayin' as how the Archangel Gabriel himself couldn't do business in this town."
Seeing the effect her words produced, and that even the usually imperturbable and disdainful Deputy Sheriff was impressed by them, she could not refrain from embroidering her statement a little.
"Now ez I come to think of it," she went on, "I did notice as how he seemed kind of excited an' nervous like, so's he could hardly stop to finish his breakfus'. But he took time to make me knock half-a-dollar off his bill."
"Mac," said Blackstock sharply, turning to Red Angus MacDonald, the village constable, "you take two of the boys an' go after the Book Agent. Find him, an' fetch him back. But no funny business with him, mind you. We hain't got a spark of evidence agin him. We jest want him as a witness, mind."
The crowd's excitement was somewhat damped by this pronouncement, and Hawker's exasperating voice was heard to drawl:
"No evidence, hey? Ef that ain't evidence, him skinnin' out that way afore sun-up, I'd like to know what is!"
But to this and similar comments Tug Blackstock paid no heed whatever. He hurried on down the road toward the scene of the tragedy, his lean jaws working grimly upon a huge chew of tobacco, the big, black dog not now at his heels but trotting a little way ahead and casting from one side of the road to the other, nose to earth. The crowd came on behind, but Blackstock waved them back.
"I don't want none o' ye to come within fifty paces of me, afore I tell ye to," he announced with decision. "Keep well back, all of ye, or ye'll mess up the tracks."
But this proved a decree too hard to be enforced for any length of time.
When he arrived at the place where the game-warden kept watch beside the murdered man, Blackstock stood for a few moments in silence, looking down upon the body of his friend with stony face and brooding eyes. In spite of his grief, his practised observation took in the whole scene to the minutest detail, and photographed it upon his memory for reference.
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