The Ledge on Bald Face
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"Ye'll hev to play Cinderella, Tug, an' find out what leetle foot it fits on to," suggested MacDonald.
The Deputy fished again in the hole. He drew forth a magenta mitten, dropped it promptly, then held it up on the point of his stick at arm's length. It had been with the moccasins. Big Andy stepped forward to claim it, then checked himself.
"It's a mite too strong fer me now," he protested. "I'll hev to git Sis to knit me another pair, I guess."
Blackstock dropped the offensive thing beside the moccasins at his feet, and reached once more into the hole.
"He ain't takin' no risks this time, boys," said Blackstock. "He's took the swag with him."
There was a growl of disappointment. Long Jackson could not refrain from a reproachful glance at Woolly Billy, but refrained from saying the obvious.
"What are ye goin' to do about it, Tug?" demanded Black Dan. "Hev ye got any kind of a reel clue, d'ye think, now?"
"Wait an' see," was Blackstock's noncommittal reply. He picked up the moccasins and mitten again on the point of his stick, scanned the bank sharply to make sure his quarry had not gone that way, and led the procession once more down along the rocky shore of the stream. "Seek him," he said again to Jim, and the dog, as before, trotted on ahead, sniffing along by the water's edge to intercept the trail of whoever had stepped ashore.
The party emerged at length upon the bank of the main stream, and turned upwards towards Brine's Rip. After they had gone about half a mile they rounded a bend and came in sight of a violent rapid which cut close inshore. At this point it would be obviously impossible for any one walking in the shallow water to avoid coming out upon dry ground. Tug Blackstock quickened his pace, and waved Jim forward.
A sharp oath broke from Black Dan's lips.
"I've been an' gone an' left my 'baccy-pooch behind, by the skunk's hole," he announced. And grumbling under his breath he turned back down the shore.
Blackstock ran on, as if suddenly in a great hurry. Just where the shallow water ended, at the foot of the rapid, Jim gave his signal with voice and tail. He raced up the bank to a clump of bushes and began thrashing about in them.
"What d'ye suppose he's found there?" asked Big Andy.
"Scent, and lots of it. No mistake this time," announced MacDonald. "Hain't ye caught on to Jim's signs yet?"
"Jim," said the Deputy, sharply but not loud, "fetch him!"
Jim, with nose in air instead of to the ground, set off at a gallop down the shore in the direction of the outlet.
The Deputy turned about.
"Dan," he shouted peremptorily. "Come back here. I want ye!"
Instead of obeying, Black Dan dashed up the bank, running like a deer, and vanished into the bushes.
"I knew it! That's the skunk, boys. Go home, you Billy!" cried Blackstock, and started after the fugitive. The rest followed close on his heels.But Jackson cried:
"Ye'd better call off Jim quick. Dan's got a gun on him."
The Deputy gave a shrill whistle, and Jim, who was just vanishing into the bush, stopped short. At the same instant a shot rang out from the bushes, and the dog dropped in his tracks with a howl of anguish.
Blackstock's lean jaws set themselves like iron. He whipped out his own heavy "Colt's," and the party tore on, till they met Jim dragging himself towards them with a wounded hind-leg trailing pitifully.
The Deputy gave one look at the big black dog, heaved a breath of relief, and stopped.
"'Tain't no manner o' use chasin' him now, boys," he decreed, "because, as we all know, Dan kin run right away from the best runner amongst us. But now I know him – an' I've suspicioned him this two month, only I couldn't git no clue —I'll git him, never you fear. Jest now, ye'd better help me carry Jim home, so's we kin git him doctored up in good shape. I reckon Nipsiwaska County can't afford to lose Mr. Assistant-Deputy Sheriff. That there skunk-oil on Dan's moccasins fooled both Jim an' me, good an' plenty, didn't it?"
"But whatever did he want o' my mitts?" demanded Big Andy.
"Now ye air a sap-head, Andy Stevens," growled MacDonald, "ef ye can't see that!"
IV. The Trail of the Bear
The Deputy-Sheriff of Nipsiwaska County had spent half an hour at the telephone. In the backwoods the telephone wires go everywhere. In that half-hour every settlement, every river-crossing, every lumber-camp, and most of the wide-scattered pioneer cabins had been warned of the flight of the thief, Dan Black, nicknamed Black Dan, and how, in the effort to secure his escape, he had shot and wounded the Deputy-Sheriff's big black dog whose cleverness on the trail he had such cause to dread. As Tug Blackstock, the Deputy-Sheriff, came out of the booth he asked after Jim.
"Oh, Black Dan's bullet broke no bones that time," replied the village doctor, who had tended the dog's wound as carefully as if his patient had been the Deputy himself. "It's a biggish hole, but Jim'll be all right in a few days, never fear."
Blackstock looked relieved.
"Ye don't seem to be worryin' much about Black Dan's gittin' away, Tug," grumbled Long Jackson, who was not unnaturally sore over the loss of his money.
"No, I ain't worryin' much," agreed the Deputy, with a confident grin, "now I know Jim ain't goin' to lose a leg. As for Black Dan's gittin' away, well, I've got me own notions about that. I've 'phoned all over the three counties, and given warnin' to every place he kin stop for a bite or a bed. He can't cross the river to get over the Border, for I've sent word to hev every bridge an' ferry watched. Black Dan's cunnin' enough to know I'd do jest that, first thing, so he won't waste his time tryin' the river. He'll strike right back into the big timber, countin' on the start he's got of us, now he's put Jim out of the game. But I guess I kin trail him myself – now I know what I'm trailin' – pretty nigh as well as Jim could. I've took note of his tracks, and there ain't another pair o' boots in Brine's Rip Mills like them he's wearin'."
"And when air ye goin' to start?" demanded Long Jackson, still inclined to be resentful.
"Right now," replied Blackstock cheerfully, "soon as ye kin git guns and stuff some crackers an' cheese into yer pockets. I'll want you to come along, MacDonald, an' you, Long, an' Saunders, an' Big Andy, as my posse. Meet me in fifteen minutes at the store an' I'll hev Zeb Smith swear ye in for the job. If Black Dan wants to do any shootin', it's jest as well to hev every thin' regular."
There were not a few others among the mill-hands and the villagers who had lost by Black Dan's cunning pilferings, and who would gladly have joined in the hunt. In the backwoods not even a murderer – unless his victim has been a woman or a child – is hunted down with so much zest as a thief. But the Deputy did not like too much volunteer assistance, and was apt to suppress it with scant ceremony. So his choice of a posse was accepted without protest or comment, and the chosen four slipped off to get their guns.
As Tug Blackstock had foreseen, the trail of the fugitive was easily picked up. Confident in his powers as a runaway, Black Dan's sole object, at first, had been to gain as much lead as possible over the expected pursuit, and he had run straight ahead, leaving a trail which any one of Blackstock's posse – with the exception, perhaps, of Big Andy – could have followed with almost the speed and precision of the Deputy himself.
There had been no attempt at concealment. About five miles back, however, in the heavy woods beyond the head of the Lake, it appeared that the fugitive had dropped into a walk and begun to go more circumspectly. The trail now grew so obscure that the other woodsmen would have had difficulty in deciphering it at all, and they were amazed at the ease and confidence with which Blackstock followed it up, hardly diminishing his stride.
"Tug is sure some trailer," commented Jackson, his good humour now quite restored by the progress they were making.
"Jim couldn't 'a' done no better himself," declared Big Andy, the Oromocto man.
And just then Blackstock came abruptly to a halt, and held up his hand for his followers to stop.
"Steady, boys. Stop right where ye are, an' don't step out o' yer tracks," he commanded.
The four stood rigid, and began searching the ground all about them with keen, initiated eyes.
"Oh, I've got him, so fur, all right," continued Blackstock, pointing to a particularly clear and heavy impression of a boot-sole close behind his own feet. "But here it stops. It don't appear to go any further."
He knelt down to examine the footprint.
"P'raps he's doubled back on his tracks, to throw us off," suggested Saunders, who was himself an expert on the trails of all the wild creatures.
"No," replied Blackstock, "I've watched out for that sharp."
"P'raps he's give a big jump to one side or t'other, to break his trail," said MacDonald.
"No," said Blackstock with decision, "nor that neither, Mac. This here print is even. Ef he'd jumped to one side or the other, it would be dug in on that side, and ef he'd jumped forrard, it would be hard down at the toe. It fair beats me!"
Stepping carefully, foot by foot, he examined the ground minutely over a half circle of a dozen yards to his front. He sent out his followers – all but Big Andy, who, being no trailer, was bidden to stand fast – to either side and to the rear, crawling like ferrets and interrogating every grass tuft, in vain. The trail had simply stopped with that one footprint. It was as if Black Dan had dissolved into a miasma, and floated off.
At last Blackstock called the party in, and around the solitary footprint they all sat down and smoked. One after another they made suggestions, but each suggestion had its futility revealed and sealed by a stony stare from Blackstock, and was no more befriended by its author.
At last Blackstock rose to his feet, and gave a hitch to his belt.
"I don't mind tellin' ye, boys," said he, "it beats me fair. But one thing's plain enough, Black Dan ain't here, an' he ain't likely to come here lookin' for us. Spread out now, an' we'll work on ahead, an' see ef we can't pick up somethin'. You, Big Andy, you keep right along behind me. There's an explanation to everything– an' we'll find this out afore along, or my name's Dinnis."
Over the next three or four hundred yards, however, nothing of significance was discovered by any of the party. Then, breaking through a dense screen of branches, Blackstock came upon the face of a rocky knoll, so steep, at that point, that hands and feet together would be needed to climb it. Casting his eyes upwards, he saw what looked like the entrance to a little cave.
A whistle brought the rest of the party to his side. A cave always holds possibilities, if nothing else. Blackstock spread his men out again, at intervals of three or four paces, and all went cautiously up the steep, converging on the entrance. Blackstock, in the centre, shielding himself behind a knob of rock, peered in.
The place was empty. It was hardly a cave, indeed, being little more than a shallow recess beneath an overhanging ledge. But it was well sheltered by a great branch which stretched upwards across the opening. Blackstock sniffed critically.
"A bear's den," he announced, stepping in and scrutinizing the floor.
The floor was naked rock, scantily littered with dead leaves and twigs. These, Blackstock concluded, had been recently disturbed, but he could find no clue to what had disturbed them. From the further side, however – to Blackstock's right – a palpable trail, worn clear of moss and herbage, led off by a narrow ledge across the face of the knoll. Half a dozen paces further on the rock ended in a stretch of stiff soil. Here the trail declared itself. It was unmistakably that of a bear, and unmistakably, also, a fresh trail.
Waving the rest to stop where they were, Blackstock followed the clear trail down from the knoll, and for a couple of hundred yards along the level, going very slowly, and searching it hawk-eyed for some sign other than that of bear. At length he returned, looking slightly crestfallen.
"Nawthin' at all but bear," he announced in an injured voice. "But that bear seems to have been in a bit of a hurry, as if he was gittin' out o' somebody's way – Black Dan's way, it's dollars to doughnuts. But where was Black Dan, that's what I want to know?"
"Ef you don't know, Tug," said MacDonald, "who kin know?"
"Jim!" said the Deputy, rubbing his lean chin and biting off a big "chaw" of "black-jack."
"Jim's sure some dawg," agreed MacDonald. "That was the only fool thing I ever know'd ye to do, Tug – sendin' Jim after Black Dan that way."
Blackstock swore, softly and intensely, though he was a man not given to that form of self-expression.
"Boys," said he, "I used to fancy myself quite a lot. But now I begin to think Nipsiwaska County'd better be gittin' a noo Deputy. I ain't no manner o' good."
The men looked at him in frank astonishment. He had never before been seen in this mood of self-depreciation.
"Aw, shucks," exclaimed Long Jackson presently, "there ain't a man from here to the St. Lawrence as kin tech ye, an' ye know it, Tug. Quit yer jollyin' now. I believe ye've got somethin' up yer sleeve, only ye won't say so."
At this expression of unbounded confidence Blackstock braced up visibly.
"Well, boys, there's one thing I kin do," said he. "I'm goin' back to git Jim, ef I hev to fetch him in a wheelbarrow. We'll find out what he thinks o' the situation. I'll take Saunders an' Big Andy with me. You, Long, an' Mac, you stop on here an' lay low an' see what turns up. But don't go mussin' up the trails."
Jim proved to be so far recovered that he was able to hobble about a little on three legs, the fourth being skilfully bandaged so that he could not put his foot to the ground. It was obvious, however, that he could not make a journey through the woods and be any use whatever at the end of it. Blackstock, therefore, knocked together a handy litter for his benefit. And with very ill grace Jim submitted to being borne upon it.
Some twenty paces from that solitary boot-print which marked the end of Black Dan's trail, Jim was set free from his litter and his attention directed to a bruised tuft of moss.
"Seek him," said Blackstock.
The dog gave one sniff, and then with a growl of anger the hair lifted along his back, and he limped forward hurriedly.
"He's got it in for Black Dan now," remarked MacDonald. And the whole party followed with hopeful expectation, so great was their faith in Jim's sagacity.
The dog, in his haste, overshot the end of the trail. He stopped abruptly, whined, sniffed about, and came back to the deep boot-print. All about it he circled, whimpering with impatience, but never going more than a dozen feet away from it. Then he returned, sniffed long and earnestly, and stood over it with drooping tail, evidently quite nonplussed.
"He don't appear to make no more of it than you did, Tug," said Long Jackson, much disappointed.
"Oh, give him time, Long," retorted Blackstock. Then —
"Seek him! Seek him, good boy," he repeated, waving Jim to the front.
Running with amazing briskness on his three sound legs, the dog began to quarter the undergrowth in ever-widening half-circles, while the men stood waiting and watching. At last, at a distance of several hundred yards, he gave a yelp and a growl, and sprang forward.
"Got it!" exclaimed Big Andy.
"Guess it's only the trail o' that there b'ar he's struck," suggested Jackson pessimistically.
"Jim, stop!" ordered Blackstock. And the dog stood rigid in his tracks while Blackstock hastened forward to see what he had found.
"Sure enough. It's only the bear," cried Blackstock, investigating the great footprint over which Jim was standing. "Come along back here, Jim, an' don't go foolin' away yer time over a bear, jest now."
The dog sniffed at the trail, gave another hostile growl, and reluctantly followed his master back. Blackstock made him smell the boot-print again. Then he said with emphasis, "Black Dan, Jim, it's Black Dan we're wantin'. Seek him, boy. Fetch him."
Jim started off on the same manoeuvres as before, and at the same point as before he again gave a growl and a yelp and bounded forward.
"Jim," shouted the Deputy angrily, "come back here."
The dog came limping back, looking puzzled.
"What do you mean by that foolin'?" went on his master severely. "What's bears to you? Smell that!" and he pointed again to the boot-print. "It's Black Dan you're after."
Jim hung upon his words, but looked hopelessly at sea as to his meaning. He turned and gazed wistfully in the direction of the bear's trail. He seemed on the point of starting out for it again, but the tone of Blackstock's rebuke withheld him. Finally, he sat down upon his dejected tail and stared upwards into a great tree, one of whose lower branches stretched directly over his head.
Blackstock followed his gaze. The tree was an ancient rock maple, its branches large but comparatively few in number. Blackstock could see clear to its top. It was obvious that the tree could afford no hiding-place to anything larger than a wild-cat. Nevertheless, as Blackstock studied it, a gleam of sudden insight passed over his face.
"Jim 'pears to think Black Dan's gone to Heaven," remarked Saunders drily.
"Ye can't always tell what Jim's thinkin'," retorted Blackstock. "But I'll bet it's a clever idea he's got in his black head, whatever it is."
He scanned the tree anew and the other trees nearest whose branches interlaced with it. Then, with a sharp "Come on, Jim," he started towards the knoll, eyeing the branches overhead as he went. The rest of the party followed at a discreet distance.
Crippled as he was, Jim could not climb the steep face of the knoll, but his master helped him up. The instant he entered the cave he growled savagely, and once more the stiff hair rose along his back. Blackstock watched in silence for a moment. He had never before noticed, on Jim's part, any special hostility toward bears, whom he was quite accustomed to trailing. He glanced up at the big branch that overhung the entrance, and conviction settled on his face. Then he whispered, sharply, "Seek him, Jim." And Jim set off at once, as fast as he could limp, along the trail of the bear.
"Come on, boys," called Blackstock to his posse. "Ef we can't find Black Dan we may as well hev a little bear-hunt to fill in the time. Jim appears to hev a partic'lar grudge agin that bear."
The men closed up eagerly, expecting to find that Blackstock, with Jim's help, had at last discovered some real signs of Black Dan. When they saw that there was still nothing more than that old bear's trail, which they had already examined, Long Jackson began to grumble.
"We kin hunt bear any day," he growled.
"I guess Tug ain't no keener after bear this day than you be," commented MacDonald. "He's got somethin' up his sleeve, you see!"
"Mebbe it's a tame b'ar, a trained b'ar, an' Black Dan's a-ridin' him horseback," suggested Big Andy.
Blackstock, who was close at Jim's heels, a few paces ahead of the rest, turned with one of his rare, ruminative laughs.
"That's quite an idea of yours, Andy," he remarked, stooping to examine one of those great clawed footprints in a patch of soft soil.
"But even trained b'ar hain't got wings," commented MacDonald again. "An' there's a good three hundred yards atween the spot where Black Dan's trail peters out an' the nearest b'ar track. I guess yer interestin' hipotheesis don't quite fill the bill – eh, Andy?"
"Anyways," protested the big Oromocto man, "ye'll all notice one thing queer about this here b'ar track. It goes straight. Mostly a b'ar will go wanderin' off this way an' that, to nose at an old root, er grub up a bed o' toadstools. But this b'ar keeps right on, as ef he had important business somewhere straight ahead. That's just the way he'd go ef some one was a-ridin' him horseback."
Andy had advanced his proposition as a joke, but now he was inclined to take it seriously and to defend it with warmth.
"Well," said Long Jackson, "we'll all chip in, when we git our money back, an' buy ye a bear, Andy, an' ye shall ride it up every day from the mills to the post office. It'll save ye quite a few minutes in gittin' to the post office. It don't matter about yer gittin' away."
The big Oromocto lad blushed, but laughed good-naturedly. He was so much in love with the little widow who kept the post office that nothing pleased him more than to be teased about her.
For the Deputy's trained eyes, as for Jim's trained nose, that bear-track was an easy one to follow. Nevertheless, progress was slow, for Blackstock would halt from time to time to interrogate some claw-print with special minuteness, and from time to time Jim would stop to lie down and lick gingerly at his bandage, tormented by the aching of his wound.
Late in the afternoon, when the level shadows were black upon the trail and the trailing had come to depend entirely on Jim's nose, Blackstock called a halt on the banks of a small brook and all sat down to eat their bread and cheese. Then they sprawled about, smoking, for the Deputy, apparently regarding the chase as a long one, was now in no great hurry. Jim lay on the wet sand, close to the brook's edge, while Blackstock, scooping up the water in double handfuls, let it fall in an icy stream on the dog's bandaged leg.
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