Charles Roberts.

The Ledge on Bald Face



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The body lay with face and shoulder and one leg and arm in a deep, stagnant pool by the roadside. The head was covered with black, clotted blood from a knife-wound in the neck. Close by, in the middle of the road, lay a stout leather satchel, gaping open, and quite empty. Two small memorandum books, one shut and the other with white leaves fluttering, lay near the bag. Though the roadway at this point was dry and hard, it bore some signs of a struggle, and toward the edge of the water there were several little, dark, caked lumps of puddled dust.

Blackstock first examined the road minutely, all about the body, but the examination, even to such a practised eye as his, yielded little result. The ground was too hard and dusty to receive any legible trail, and, moreover, it had been carelessly over-trodden by the game-warden and his son. But whether he found anything of interest or not, Blackstock's grim, impassive face gave no sign.

At length he went over to the body, and lifted it gently. The coat and shirt were soaked with blood, and showed marks of a fierce struggle. Blackstock opened the shirt, and found the fatal wound, a knife-thrust which had been driven upwards between the ribs. He laid the body down again, and at the same time picked up a piece of paper, crumpled and blood-stained, which had lain beneath it. He spread it open, and for a moment his brows contracted as if in surprise and doubt. It was one of the order forms for "Mother, Home and Heaven."

He folded it up and put it carefully between the leaves of the note-book which he always carried in his pocket.

Stephens, who was close beside him, had caught a glimpse of the paper, and recognized it.

"Say!" he exclaimed, under his breath. "I never thought o' him!"

But Blackstock only shook his head slowly, and called the big black dog, which had been waiting all this time in an attitude of keen expectancy, with mouth open and tail gently wagging.

"Take a good look at him, Jim," said Blackstock.

The dog sniffed the body all over, and then looked up at his master as if for further directions.

"An' now take a sniff at this." And he pointed to the rifled bag.

"What do you make of it?" he inquired when the dog had smelt it all over minutely.

Jim stood motionless, with ears and tail drooping, the picture of irresolution and bewilderment.

Blackstock took out again the paper which he had just put away, and offered it to the clog, who nosed it carefully, then looked at the dead body beside the pool, and growled softly.

"Seek him, Jim," said Blackstock.

At once the dog ran up again to the body, and back to the open book. Then he fell to circling about the bag, nose to earth, seeking to pick up the elusive trail.

At this point the crowd from the village, unable longer to restrain their eagerness, surged forward, led by Hawker, and closed in, effectually obliterating all trails. Jim growled angrily, showing his long white teeth, and drew back beside the body as if to guard it.

Blackstock stood watching his action with a brooding scrutiny.

"What's that bit o' paper ye found under him, Tug?" demanded Hawker vehemently.

"None o' yer business, Sam," replied the deputy, putting the blood-stained paper back into his pocket.

"I seen what it was," shouted Hawker to the rest of the crowd. "It was one o' them there dokyments that the book agent had, up to the store. I always said as how 'twas him."

"We'll ketch him!" "We'll string him up!" yelled the crowd, starting back along the road at a run.

"Don't be sech fools!" shouted Blackstock. "Hold on! Come back I tell ye!"

But he might as well have shouted to a flock of wild geese on their clamorous voyage through the sky. Fired by Sam Hawker's exhortations, they were ready to lynch the black-whiskered stranger on sight.

Blackstock cursed them in a cold fury.

"I'll hev to go after them, Andy," said he, "or there'll be trouble when they find that there book agent."

"Better give 'em their head, Tug," protested the warden. "Guess he done it all right. He'll git no more'n's good for him."

"Maybe he did it, an' then agin, maybe he didn't," retorted the Deputy, "an' anyways, they're jest plumb looney now. You stay here, an' I'll follow them up. Send Bob back to the Ridge to fetch the coroner."

He turned and started on the run in pursuit of the shouting crowd, whistling at the same time for the dog to follow him. But to his surprise Jim did not obey instantly. He was very busy digging under a big whitish stone at the other side of the pool. Blackstock halted.

"Jim," he commanded angrily, "git out o' that! What d'ye mean by foolin' about after woodchucks a time like this? Come here!"

Jim lifted his head, his muzzle and paws loaded with fresh earth, and gazed at his master for a moment. Then, with evident reluctance, he obeyed. But he kept looking back over his shoulder at the big white stone, as if he hated to leave it.

"There's a lot o' ordinary pup left in that there dawg yet," explained Blackstock apologetically to the game-warden.

"There ain't a dawg ever lived that wouldn't want to dig out a woodchuck," answered Stephens.

III

The black-whiskered stranger had been overtaken by his pursuers about ten miles beyond Brine's Rip, sleeping away the heat of the day under a spreading birch tree a few paces off the road. He was sleeping soundly – too soundly indeed, as thought the experienced constable, for a man with murder on his soul.

But when he was roughly aroused and seized, he seemed so terrified that his captors were all the more convinced of his guilt. He made no resistance as he was being hurried along the road, only clinging firmly to his black leather case, and glancing with wild eyes from side to side as if nerving himself to a desperate dash for liberty.

When he had gathered, however, a notion of what he was wanted for, to the astonishment of his captors, his terror seemed to subside – a fact which the constable noted narrowly. He steadied his voice enough to ask several questions about the murder – questions to which reply was curtly refused. Then he walked on in a stolid silence, the ruddy colour gradually returning to his face.

A couple of miles before reaching Brine's Rip, the second search party came in sight, the Deputy Sheriff at the head of it and the shaggy black form of Jim close at his heels. With a savage curse Hawker sprang forward, and about half the party with him, as if to snatch the prisoner from his captors and take instant vengeance upon him.

But Blackstock was too quick for them. The swiftest sprinter in the county, he got to the other party ahead of the mob and whipped around to face them, with one hand on the big revolver at his hip and Jim showing his teeth beside him. The constable and his party, hugely astonished, but confident that Blackstock's side was the right one to be on, closed protectingly around the prisoner, whose eyes now almost bulged from his head.

"You keep right back, boys," commanded the Deputy in a voice of steel. "The law will look after this here prisoner, if he's the guilty one."

"Fur as we kin see, there ain't no 'if' about it," shouted Hawker, almost frothing at the mouth. "That's the man as done it, an' we're agoin' to string 'im up fer it right now, for fear he might git off some way atween the jedges an' the lawyers. You keep out of it now, Tug."

About half the crowd surged forward with Hawker in front. Up came Blackstock's gun.

"Ye know me, boys," said he. "Keep back."

They kept back. They all fell back, indeed, some paces, except Hawker, who held his ground, half crouching, his lips distorted in a snarl of rage.

"Aw now, quit it, Sam," urged one of his followers. "'Tain't worth it. An' Tug's right, anyways. The law's good enough, with Tug to the back of it." And putting forth a long arm he dragged Hawker back into the crowd.

"Put away yer gun, Tug," expostulated another. "Seein's ye feel that way about it, we won't interfere."

Blackstock stuck the revolver back into his belt with a grin.

"Glad ye've come back to yer senses, boys," said he, perceiving that the crisis was over. "But keep an eye on Hawker for a bit yet. Seems to 'ave gone clean off his head."

"Don't fret, Tug. We'll look after him," agreed several of his comrades from the mill, laying firmly persuasive hands upon the excited man, who cursed them for cowards till they began to chaff him roughly.

"What's makin' you so sore, Sam?" demanded one. "Did the book agent try to make up to Sis Hopkins?"

"No, it's Tug that Sis is making eyes at now," suggested another. "That's what's puttin' Sam so off his nut."

"Leave the lady's name out of it, boys," interrupted Blackstock, in a tone that carried conviction.

"Quit that jaw now, Sam," interposed another, changing the subject, "an' tell us what ye've done with that fancy belt o' yourn 'at ye're so proud of. We hain't never seen ye without it afore."

"That's so," chimed in the constable. "That accounts for his foolishness. Sam ain't himself without that fancy belt."

Hawker stopped his cursing and pulled himself together with an effort, as if only now realizing that his followers had gone over completely to the side of the law and Tug Blackstock.

"Busted the buckle," he explained quickly. "Mend it when I git time."

"Now, boys," said Blackstock presently, "we'll git right back along to where poor Jake's still layin', and there we'll ask this here stranger what he knows about it. It's there, if anywheres, where we're most likely to git some light on the subject. I've sent over to the Ridge fer the coroner, an' poor Jake can't be moved till he comes."

The book agent, his confidence apparently restored by the attitude of Blackstock, now let loose a torrent of eloquence to explain how glad he would be to tell all he knew, and how sorry he was that he knew nothing, having merely had a brief conversation with poor Mr. Sanderson on the morning of the previous day.

"Ye'll hev lots o' time to tell us all that when we're askin' ye," answered Blackstock. "Now, take my advice an' keep yer mouth shet."

As Blackstock was speaking, Jim slipped in alongside the prisoner and rubbed against him with a friendly wag of the tail as if to say:

"Sorry to see you in such a hole, old chap."

Some of the men laughed, and one who was more or less a friend of Hawker's, remarked sarcastically:

"Jim don't seem quite so discriminatin' as usual, Tug."

"Oh, I don't know," replied the Deputy drily, noting the dog's attitude with evident interest. "Time will show. Ye must remember a man ain't necessarily a murderer jest because he wears black side-lights an' tries to sell ye a book that ain't no good."

"No good!" burst out the prisoner, reddening with indignation. "You show me another book that's half as good, at double the price, an' I'll give you – "

"Shet up, you!" ordered the Deputy, with a curious look. "This ain't no picnic ye're on, remember."

Then some one, as if for the first time, thought of the money for which Sanderson had been murdered.

"Why don't ye search him, Tug?" he demanded. "Let's hev a look in that there black knapsack."

"Ye bloomin' fool," shouted Hawker, again growing excited, "ye don't s'pose he'd be carryin' it on him, do ye? He'd hev it buried somewheres in the woods, where he could git it later."

"Right ye are, Sam," agreed the Deputy. "The man as done the deed ain't likely to carry the evidence around on him. But all the same, we'll search the prisoner bime-by."

By the time the strange procession had got back to the scene of the tragedy it had been swelled by half the population of the village. At Blackstock's request, Zeb Smith, the proprietor of the store, who was also a magistrate, swore in a score of special constables to keep back the crowd while awaiting the arrival of the coroner. Under the magistrate's orders – which satisfied Blackstock's demand for strict formality of procedure – the prisoner was searched, and could not refrain from showing a childish triumph when nothing was found upon him.

Passing from abject terror to a ridiculous over-confidence, he with difficulty restrained himself from seizing the opportunity to harangue the crowd on the merits of "Mother, Home, and Heaven." His face was wreathed in fatuous smiles as he saw the precious book snatched from its case and passed around mockingly from hand to hand. He certainly did not look like a murderer, and several of the crowd, including Stephens, the game-warden, began to wonder if they had not been barking up the wrong tree.

"I've got the idee," remarked Stephens, "it'd take a baker's dozen o' that chap to do in Jake Sanderson that way. The skate as killed Jake was some man, anyways."

"I'd like to know," sneered Hawker, "how ye're going to account for that piece o' paper, the book-agent's paper, 'at Tug Blackstock found there under the body."

"Aw, shucks!" answered the game-warden, "that's easy. He's been a-sowin' 'em round the country so's anybody could git hold of 'em, same's you er me, Sam!"

This harmless, if ill-timed pleasantry appeared to Hawker, in his excitement, a wanton insult. His lean face went black as thunder, and his lips worked with some savage retort that would not out. But at that instant came a strange diversion. The dog Jim, who under Blackstock's direction had been sniffing long and minutely at the clothes of the murdered man, at the rifled leather bag, and at the ground all about, came suddenly up to Hawker and stood staring at him with a deep, menacing growl, while the thick hair rose stiffly along his back.

For a moment there was dead silence save for that strange accusing growl. Hawker's face went white to the lips. Then, in a blaze, of fury he yelled!

"Git out o' that! I'll teach ye to come showin' yer teeth at me!" And he launched a savage kick at the animal.

"JIM!! Come here!" rapped out the command of Tug Blackstock, sharp as a rifle shot. And Jim, who had eluded the kick, trotted back, still growling, to his master.

"Whatever ye been doin' to Jim, Sam?" demanded one of the mill hands. "I ain't never seen him act like that afore."

"He's always had a grudge agin me," panted Hawker, "coz I had to give him a lickin' once."

"Now ye're lyin', Sam Hawker," said Blackstock quietly. "Ye know right well as how you an' Jim were good friends only yesterday at the store, where I saw ye feedin' him. An' I don't think likely ye've ever given Jim a lickin'. It don't sound probable."

"Seems to me there's a lot of us has gone a bit off their nut over this thing, an' not much wonder, neither," commented the game-warden. "Looks like Sam Hawker has gone plumb crazy. An' now there's Jim, the sensiblest dog in the world, with lots more brains than most men-kind, foolin' away his time like a year-old pup a-tryin' dig out a darn old woodchuck hole."

Such, in fact, seemed to be Jim's object. He was digging furiously with both forepaws beneath the big white stone on the opposite side of the pool.

"He's bit me. I'll kill him," screamed Hawker, his face distorted and foam at the corners of his lips. He plucked his hunting-knife from its sheath, and leapt forward wildly, with the evident intention of darting around the pool and knifing the dog.

But Blackstock, who had been watching him intently, was too quick for him.

"No, ye don't, Sam!" he snapped, catching him by the wrist with such a wrench that the bright blade fell to the ground. With a scream, Hawker struck at his face, but Blackstock parried the blow, tripped him neatly, and fell on him.

"Hold him fast, boys," he ordered. "Seems like he's gone mad. Don't let him hurt himself."

In five seconds the raving man was trussed up helpless as a chicken, his hands tied behind his back, his legs lashed together at the knees, so that he could neither run nor kick. Then he was lifted to his feet, and held thus, inexorably but with commiseration.

"Sorry to be rough with ye, Sam," said one of the constables, "but ye've gone crazy as a bed-bug."

"Never knowed Sam was such a friend o' Jake's!" muttered another, with deepest pity.

But Blackstock stood close beside the body of the murdered man, and watched with a face of granite the efforts of Jim to dig under the big white stone. His absorption in such an apparently frivolous matter attracted the notice of the crowd. A hush fell upon them all, broken only by the hoarse, half-smothered ravings of Sam Hawker.

"'Tain't no woodchuck Jim's diggin' for, you see!" muttered one of the constables to the puzzled Stephens.

"Tug don't seem to think so, neither," agreed Stephens.

"Angus," said Blackstock in a low, strained voice to the constable who had just spoken, "would ye mind stepping round an' givin' Jim a lift with that there stone!"

The constable hastened to obey. As he approached, Jim looked up, his face covered thickly with earth, wagged his tail in greeting, then fell to work again with redoubled energy.

The constable set both hands under the stone, and with a huge heave turned it over. With a yelp of delight Jim plunged his head into the hole, grabbed something in his mouth, and tore around the pool with it. The something was long and whitish, and trailed as he ran. He laid it at Blackstock's feet.

Blackstock held it up so that all might see it. It was a painted Indian belt, and it was stained and smeared with blood. The constable picked out of the hole a package of bills.

For some moments no one spoke, and even the ravings of Hawker were stilled.

Then Tug Blackstock spoke, while every one, as if with one consent, turned his eyes away from the face of Sam Hawker, unwilling to see a comrade's shame and horror.

"This is a matter now for jedge and jury, boys," said he in a voice that was grave and stern. "But I think you'll all agree that we hain't no call to detain this gentleman, who's been put to so much inconvenience all on account of our little mistake."

"Don't mention it, don't mention it," protested the book agent, as his guards, with profuse apologies, released him. "That's a mighty intelligent dawg o' yours, Mr. Blackstock."

"He's sure done you a good turn this day, mister," replied the Deputy grimly.

III. The Hole in the Tree
I

It was Woolly Billy who discovered the pile – notes and silver, with a few stray gold pieces – so snugly hidden under the fishhawk's nest.

The fish-hawk's nest was in the crotch of the old, half-dead rock-maple on the shore of the desolate little lake which lay basking in the flat-lands about a mile back, behind Brine's Rip Mills.

As the fish-hawk is one of the most estimable of all the wilderness folk, both brave and inoffensive, troubling no one except the fat and lazy fish that swarmed in the lake below, and as he is protected by a superstition of the backwoodsmen, who say it brings ill-luck to disturb the domestic arrangements of a fish-hawk, the big nest, conspicuous for miles about, was never disturbed by even the most amiable curiosity.

But Woolly Billy, not fully acclimatized to the backwoods tradition and superstition, and uninformed as to the firmness and decision with which the fish-hawks are apt to resent any intrusion, had long hankered to explore the mysteries of that great nest. One morning he made up his mind to try it.

Tug Blackstock, Deputy-Sheriff of Nipsiwaska County, was away for a day or two, and old Mrs. Amos, his housekeeper, was too deaf and rheumatic to "fuss herself" greatly about the "goings-on" of so fantastic a child as Woolly Billy, so long as she knew he had Jim to look after him. This serves to explain how a small boy like Woolly Billy, his seven-years-and-nine-months resting lightly on his amazingly fluffy shock of pale flaxen curls, could be trotting off down the lonely backwoods trail with no companion or guardian but a big, black dog.

Woolly Billy was familiar with the mossy old trail to the lake, and did not linger upon it. Reaching the shore, he wasted no time throwing sticks in for Jim to retrieve, but, in spite of the dog's eager invitations to this pastime, made his way along the dry edge between undergrowth and water till he came to the bluff. Pushing laboriously through the hot, aromatic-scented tangle of bushes, he climbed to the foot of the old maple, which looked dwarfed by the burden of the huge nest carried in its crotch.

Woolly Billy was an expert tree-climber, but this great trunk presented new problems. Twice he went round it, finding no likely spot to begin. Then, certain roughnesses tempted him, and he succeeded in drawing himself up several feet. Serene in the consciousness of his good intentions, he struggled on. He gained perhaps another foot. Then he stuck. He pulled hard upon a ragged edge of bark, trying to work his way further around the trunk. A patch of bark came away suddenly in his grip and he fell backwards with a startled cry.

He fell plump on Jim, rolled off into the bushes, picked himself up, shook the hair out of his eyes and stood staring up at a round hole in the trunk where the patch of bark had been.

A hole in a tree is always interesting. It suggests such possibilities. Forgetting his scratches, Woolly Billy made haste to climb up again, in spite of Jim's protests. He peered eagerly into the hole. But he could see nothing. And he was cautious – for one could never tell what lived in a hole like that – or what the occupant, if there happened to be any, might have to say to an intruder. He would not venture his hand into the unknown. He slipped down, got a bit of stick, and thrust that into the hole. There was no result, but he learnt that the hole was shallow. He stirred the stick about. There came a slight jingling sound in return.



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