The Ledge on Bald Face
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Woolly Billy withdrew the stick and thought for a moment. He reasoned that a thing that jingled was not at all likely to bite. He dropped the stick and cautiously inserted his hand to the full length of his little arm. His fingers grasped something which felt more or less familiar, and he drew forth a bank-note and several silver coins.
Woolly Billy's eyes grew very round and large as he stared at his handful. He was sure that money did not grow in hollow trees. Tug Blackstock kept his money in an old black wallet. Woolly Billy liked money because it bought peppermints, and molasses candy, and gingerpop. But this money was plainly not his. He reluctantly put it back into the hole.
Thoughtfully he climbed down. He knew that money was such a desirable thing that it led some people – bad people whom Tug Blackstock hated – to steal what did not belong to them. He picked up the patch of bark and laboriously fitted it back into its place over the hole, lest some of these bad people should find the money and appropriate it.
"Not a word, now, not one single word," he admonished Jim, "till Tug comes home. We'll tell him all about it."
It was five o'clock in the sleepy summer afternoon, and the flies buzzed drowsily among the miscellaneous articles that graced the windows of the Corner Store. The mills had shut down early, because the supply of logs was running low in the boom, and no more could be expected until there should be a rise of water. Some half-dozen of the mill hands were sitting about the store on nail-kegs and soap-boxes, while Zeb Smith, the proprietor, swung his long legs lazily from the edge of the littered counter.
Woolly Billy came in with a piece of silver in his little fist to buy a packet of tea for Mrs. Amos. Jim, not liking the smoke, stayed outside on the plank sidewalk, and snapped at flies. The child, who was regarded as the mascot of Brine's Rip Mills, was greeted with a fire of solemn chaff, which he received with an impartial urbanity.
"Oh, quit coddin' the kiddie, an' don't try to be so smart," growled Long Jackson, the Magadavy river-man, lifting his gaunt length from a pile of axe-handles, and thrusting his fist deep into his trousers' pocket. "Here, Zeb, give me a box of peppermints for Woolly Billy. He hain't been in to see us this long while."
He pulled out a handful of coins and dollar bills, and proceeded to select a silver bit from the collection. The sight was too much for Woolly Billy, bursting with his secret.
"I know where there's lots more money like that," he blurted out proudly, "in a hole in a tree."
During the past twelve months or more there had been thefts of money, usually of petty sums, in Brine's Rip Mills and the neighbourhood, and all Tug Blackstock's detective skill had failed to gain the faintest clue to the perpetrator. Suspicions there had been, but all had vanished into thin air at the touch of investigation.Woolly Billy's amazing statement, therefore, was like a little bombshell in the shop.
Every one of his audience stiffened up with intense interest.
One swarthy, keen-featured, slim-waisted, half-Indian-looking fellow, with the shapely hands and feet that mark so many of the Indian mixed-bloods, was sitting on a bale of homespun behind Long Jackson, and smoking solemnly with half-closed lids. His eyes opened wide for a fraction of a second, and darted one searching glance at the child's face. Then he dropped his lids slowly once more till the eyes were all but closed. The others all stared eagerly at Woolly Billy.
Pleased with the interest he had excited, Woolly Billy glanced about him, and shook back his mop of pale curls self-consciously.
"Lots more!" he repeated. "Big handfuls."
Then he remembered his discretion, his resolve to tell no one but Tug Blackstock about his discovery. Seeking to change the subject, he beamed upon Long Jackson.
"Thank you, Long," he said politely. "I love peppermints. An' Jim loves them, too."
"Where did you say that hole in the tree was?" asked Long Jackson, reaching for the box that held the peppermints, and ostentatiously filling a generous paper-bag.
Woolly Billy looked apologetic and deprecating.
"Please, Long, if you don't mind very much, I can't tell anybody but Tug Blackstock that."
Jackson laid the bag of peppermints a little to one side, as if to convey that their transfer was contingent upon Woolly Billy's behaviour.
The child looked wistfully at the coveted sweets; then his red lips compressed themselves with decision and resentment.
"I won't tell anybody but Tug Blackstock, of course," said he. "An' I don't want any peppermints, thank you, Long."
He picked up his package of tea and turned to leave the shop, angry at himself for having spoken of the secret and angry at Jackson for trying to get ahead of Tug Blackstock. Jackson, looking annoyed at the rebuff, extended his leg and closed the door. Woolly Billy's blue eyes blazed. One of the other men strove to propitiate him.
"Oh, come on, Woolly Billy," he urged coaxingly, "don't git riled at Long. You an' him's pals, ye know. We're all pals o' yourn, an' of Tug's. An' there ain't no harm at all, at all, in yer showin' us this 'ere traysure what you've lit on to. Besides, you know there's likely some o' that there traysure belongs to us 'uns here. Come on now, an' take us to yer hole in the tree."
"Ye ain't agoin' to git out o' this here store, Woolly Billy, I tell ye that, till ye promise to take us to it right off," said Long Jackson sharply.
Woolly Billy was not alarmed in the least by this threat. But he was so furious that for a moment he could not speak. He could do nothing but stand glaring up at Long Jackson with such fiery defiance that the good-natured mill-hand almost relented. But it chanced that he was one of the sufferers, and he was in a hurry to get his money back. At this point the swarthy woodsman on the bale of homespun opened his narrow eyes once again, took the pipe from his mouth, and spoke up.
"Quit plaguin' the kid, Long," he drawled. "The cash'll be all there when Tug Blackstock gits back, an' it'll save a lot of trouble an' misunderstandin', havin' him to see to dividin' it up fair an' square. Let Woolly Billy out."
Long Jackson shook his head obstinately, and opened his mouth to reply, but at this moment Woolly Billy found his voice.
"Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" he screamed shrilly, stamping his feet and clenching his little fists.
Instantly a heavy body was hurled upon the outside of the door, striving to break it in.
Zeb Smith swung his long legs down from the counter hurriedly.
"The kid's right, an' Black Dan's right. Open the door, Long, an' do it quick. I don't want that there dawg comin' through the winder. An' he'll be doin' it, too, in half a jiff."
"Git along, then, Woolly, if ye insist on it. But no more peppermints, mind," growled Jackson, throwing open the door and stepping back discreetly. As he did so, Jim came in with a rush, just saving himself from knocking Woolly Billy over. One swift glance assured him that the child was all right, but very angry about something.
"It's all right, Jim. Come with me," said Woolly Billy, tugging at the animal's collar. And the pair stalked away haughtily side by side.
Tug Blackstock arrived the next morning about eleven. Before he had time to sit down for a cup of that strenuous black tea which the woodsmen consume at all hours, he had heard from Woolly Billy's eager lips the story of the hole in the tree beneath the fish-hawk's nest. He heard also of the episode at Zeb Smith's store, but Woolly Billy by this time had quite forgiven Long Jackson, so the incident was told in such a way that Blackstock had no reason to take offence.
"Long tried hard," said the child, "to get me to tell where that hole was, but I wouldn't. And Black Dan was awful nice, an' made him stop botherin' me, an' said I was quite right not to tell anybody till you came home, coz you'd know just what to do."
"H'm!" said the Deputy-Sheriff thoughtfully, "Long's had a lot of money stole from him, so, of course, he wanted to git his eyes on to that hole quick. But 'tain't like Black Dan to be that thoughtful. Maybe he hasn't had none taken."
While he was speaking, a bunch of the mill-hands arrived at the door, word of Blackstock's return having gone through the village.
"We want to go an' help ye find that traysure, Tug," said Long Jackson, glancing somewhat sheepishly at Woolly Billy. A friendly grin from the child reassured him, and he went on with more confidence:
"We tried to git the kiddie to tell us where 'twas, but wild steers wouldn't drag it out o' him till you got back."
"That's right, Long," agreed Blackstock, "but it don't need to be no expedition. We don't want the whole village traipsin' after us. You an' three or four more o' the boys that's lost money come along, with Woolly Billy an' me, an' the rest o' you meet us at the store in about a couple o' hours' time. Tell any other folks you see that I don't want 'em follerin' after us, because it may mix up things – an' anyways, I don't want it, see!"
After a few moments' hesitation and consultation the majority of the mill-hands turned away, leaving Long Jackson and big Andy Stevens, the blue-eyed giant from the Oromocto (who had been one of the chief victims), and MacDonald, and Black Saunders, and Black Dan (whose name had been Dan Black till the whim of the woodsmen turned it about). Blackstock eyed them appraisingly.
"I didn't know as you'd bin one o' the victims too, Dan," he remarked.
"Didn't ye, Tug?" returned Black with a short laugh. "Well, I didn't say nawthin about it, coz I was after doin' a leetle detective work on me own, an' mebbe I'd 'ave got in ahead o' ye if Woolly Billy here hadn't 'a' been so smart. But I tell ye, Tug, if that there traysure's the lot we're thinkin' it is, there'd ought ter be a five-dollar bill in it what I've marked."
"H'm!" grunted the Deputy, hastily gulping down the last of his tea, and rising to his feet. "But Woolly Billy an' me and Jim's a combination pretty hard to git ahead of, I'm thinkin'."
As the party neared the bluff whereon the tree of the fish-hawk's nest stood ragged against the sky, the air grew rank with the pungent odour of skunk. Now skunks were too common in the region of Brine's Rip Mills for that smell, as a rule, to excite any more comment than an occasional disgusted execration when it became too concentrated. But to-day it drew more than passing attention. MacDonald sniffed intently.
"It's deuced queer," said he, "but I've noticed that there's always been a smell of skunk round when anybody's lost anything. Did it ever strike you that way, Tug?"
"Yes, some!" assented the Deputy curtly.
"It's a skunk, all right, that's been takin' our money," said big Andy, "ef he don't carry his tail over his back."
Every one of the party was sniffing the tainted air as if the familiar stench were some rare perfume – all but Jim. He had had an encounter with a skunk, once in his impulsive puppy days, and the memory was too painful to be dwelt upon.
As they climbed the slope, one of the fish-hawks came swooping down from somewhere high in the blue, and began circling on slow wings about the nest.
"That cross old bird doesn't like visitors," remarked Woolly Billy.
"You wouldn't, neether, Woolly Billy, if you was a fish-hawk," said Jackson.
Arrived at the tree, Woolly Billy pointed eagerly to a slightly broken piece of bark a little above the height of the Deputy's head.
"There's the hole!" he cried, clapping his hands in his excitement as if relieved to find it had not vanished.
"Keep off a bit now, boys," cautioned Blackstock. Drawing his long hunting-knife, he carefully loosened the bark without letting his hand come in contact with it, and on the point of the blade laid it aside against the foot of the trunk.
"Don't any of you tech it," he admonished.
Then he slipped his hand into the hole, and felt about.
A look of chagrin came over his face, and he withdrew his hand – empty.
"Nothin' there!" said he.
"It was there yesterday morning," protested Woolly Billy, his blue eyes filling with tears.
"Yes, yes, of course," agreed Blackstock, glancing slowly around the circle of disappointed faces.
"Somebody from the store's been blabbin'," exclaimed Black Dan, in a loud and angry voice.
"An' why not?" protested Big Andy, with a guilty air. "We never said nawthin' about keepin' it a secret."
In spite of their disappointment, the millhands laughed. Big Andy was not one to keep a secret in any case, and his weakness for a certain pretty widow who kept the postoffice was common comment. Big Andy responded by blushing to the roots of his blonde hair.
"Jim!" commanded the Deputy. And the big black dog bounded up to him, his eyes bright with expectation. The Deputy picked him up, and held him aloft with his muzzle to the edges of the hole.
"Smell that," he ordered, and Jim sniffed intently. Then he set him down, and directed him to the piece of bark. That, too, Jim's nose investigated minutely, his feathered tail slowly wagging.
"Seek him," ordered Blackstock.
Jim whined, looked puzzled, and sniffed again at the bark. The information which his subtle nose picked up there was extremely confusing. First, there was the smell of skunk – but that smell of skunk was everywhere, dulling the keenness of his discrimination. Then, there was a faint, faint reminiscence of Woolly Billy. But there was Woolly Billy, at Tug Blackstock's side. Certainly, there could be no reason for him to seek Woolly Billy. Then there was an elusive, tangled scent, which for some moments defied him. At last, however, he got a clue to it. With a pleased bark – his way of saying "Eureka!" – he whipped about, trotted over to big Andy Stevens, sat down in front of him, and gazed up at him, with tongue hanging and an air of friendly inquiry, as much as to say: "Here I am, Andy. But I don't know what Tug Blackstock wants me to seek you for, seein' as you're right here alongside him."
Big Andy dropped his hand on the dog's head familiarly; then noticing the sudden tense silence of the party, his eyes grew very big and round.
"What're you all starin' at me fer, boys?" he demanded, with a sort of uneasy wonder.
"Ax Jim," responded Black Dan, harshly.
"I reckon old Jim's makin' a mistake fer once, Tug," drawled Long Jackson, who was Andy's special pal.
The Deputy rubbed his lean chin reflectively. There could be no one more above suspicion in his eyes than this transparently honest young giant from the Oromocto. But Jim's curious action had scattered to the winds, at least for a moment, a sort of hypothesis which he had been building up in his mind. At the same time, he felt dimly that a new clue was being held out to him, if he could only grasp it. He wanted time to think.
"We kin all make mistakes," he announced sententiously. "Come here, Jim. Seek 'im, boy, seek 'im." And he waved his hand at large.
Jim bounced off with a joyous yelp, and began quartering the ground, hither and thither, all about the tree. Big Andy, at a complete loss for words, stood staring from one to another with eyes of indignant and incredulous reproach.
Suddenly a yelp of triumph was heard in the bushes, a little way down towards the lake, and Jim came racing back with a dark magenta article in his mouth. At the foot of the tree he stopped, and looked at Blackstock interrogatively. Receiving no sign whatever from his master, whose face had lit up for an instant, but was now as impassive as a hitching-post, he stared at Black Dan for a few seconds, and then let his eyes wander back to Andy's face. In the midst of his obvious hesitation the Oromocto man stepped forward.
"Durned ef that ain't one o' my old mittens," he exclaimed eagerly, "what Sis knit fer me. I've been lookin' fer 'em everywheres. Bring it here, Jim."
As the dog trotted up with it obediently, the Deputy intervened and stopped him. "You shall have it bime-by, Andy," said he, "ef it's yourn. But jest now I don't want nobody to tech it except Jim. Ef you acknowledge it's yourn – "
"Of course it's mine," interrupted Andy resentfully. "An' I want to find the other one."
"So do I," said Blackstock. "Drop it, Jim. Go find the other mitt."
As Jim went ranging once more through the bushes, the whole party moved around to the other side of the tree to get out of the downpour of the noon sun. As they passed the magenta mitten Black Dan picked it up and examined it ostentatiously.
"How do ye know it's yourn, Andy?" he demanded. "There's lots of magenta mitts in the world, I reckon."
Tug Blackstock turned upon him.
"I said I didn't want no one to tech that mitt," he snapped.
"Oh, beg pardon, Tug," said Dan, dropping the mitt. "I forgot. 'Spose it might kind o' confuse Jim's scent, gittin' another smell besides Andy's on to it."
"It might," replied the Deputy coolly, "an' then agin, it mightn't."
For a little while every one was quiet, listening to Jim as he crashed about through the bushes, and confidently but unreasonably expecting him to reappear with the other mitten. Or, at least, that was what Big Andy and Woolly Billy expected. The Deputy, at least, did not. At last he spoke.
"I agree with Mac here, boys," said he, "that there may be somethin' more'n skunk in this skunk smell. We'll jest look into it a bit. You all keep back a ways – an' you, Long, jest keep an eye on Woolly Billy ef ye don't mind, while I go on with Jim."
He whistled to the dog, and directed his attention to a spot at the foot of the tree exactly beneath the hole. Jim sniffed hard at the spot, then looked up at his master with tail drooping despondently.
"Yes, I know it's skunk, plain skunk," agreed the Deputy. "But I want him. Seek him, Jim —seek him, boy."
Thus reassured, Jim's tail went up again. He started off through the bushes, down towards the lake, with his master close behind him. The rest of the party followed thirty paces or so behind.
The trail led straight down to the lake's edge. Here Jim stopped short.
"That skunk's a kind o' water-baby," remarked Long Jackson.
"Oh, do you think so?" queried Woolly Billy, much interested.
"Of course," answered Jackson. "Don't you see he's took to the water? Now, yer common, no-account skunk hates wettin' his fur like pizen."
The Deputy examined the hard, white sand at the water's edge. It showed faint traces of moccasined feet. He pursed his lips. It was an old game, but a good one, this breaking a trail by going into the water. He had no way of deciding whether his quarry had turned up the lake shore or down towards the outlet. He guessed at the latter as the more likely alternative.
Jim trotted slowly ahead, sniffing every foot of ground along the water's edge. As they approached the outlet the shore became muddy, and Jackson swung Woolly Billy up on to his shoulder. Once in the outlet, the foreshore narrowed to a tiny strip of bare rock between the water and an almost perpendicular bank covered with shrubs and vines. All at once the smell of skunk, which had been almost left behind, returned upon the air with fresh pungency. Blackstock stopped short and scanned the bank with narrowed eyes.
A second or two later, Jim yelped his signal, and his tail went up. He sniffed eagerly across the ribbon of rock, and then leapt at the face of the bank.
The Deputy called him off and hurried to the spot. The rest of the party, much excited, closed up to within four or five paces, when a wave of the Deputy's hand checked them.
"Phew!" ejaculated Black Dan, holding his nose. "There's a skunk hole in that there bank. Ye'll be gittin' somethin' in the eye, Tug, ef ye don't keep off."
Blackstock, who was busy pulling apart the curtain of vines, paid no attention, but Long Jackson answered sarcastically:
"Ye call yerself a woodsman, Dan," said he, "an' ye don't know that the hole where a skunk lives don't smell any. Yer reel skunk's quite a gentleman and keeps his home always clean an' tidy. Tug Blackstock ain't a-goin' to git nawthin' in the eye."
"Well, I reckon we'd better smoke," said Black Dan amiably, pulling out his pipe and filling it. And the others followed his example.
Blackstock thrust his hand into a shallow hole in the bank quite hidden by the foliage. He drew out a pair of moccasins, water-soaked, and hurriedly set them down on the rock. For all their soaking, they reeked of skunk. He picked up one on the point of a stick and examined it minutely. In spite of all the soaking, the sole, to his initiated eye, still bore traces of that viscous, oily liquid which no water will wash off – the strangling exudation of the skunk's defensive gland. It was just what he had expected. The moccasin was neat and slim and of medium size – not more than seven at most. He held it up, that all might see it clearly.
"Does this belong to you, Andy Stevens?" he asked.
There was a jeer from the group, and Big Andy held up an enormous foot, which might, by courtesy, have been numbered a thirteen. It was a point upon which the Oromocto man was usually sensitive, but to-day he was proud of it.
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