THE LEDGE ON BALD FACE
The Ledge on Bald Face
That one stark naked side of the mountain which gave it its name of Old Bald Face fronted full south. Scorched by sun and scourged by storm throughout the centuries, it was bleached to an ashen pallor that gleamed startlingly across the leagues of sombre, green-purple wilderness outspread below. From the base of the tremendous bald steep stretched off the interminable leagues of cedar swamp, only to be traversed in dry weather or in frost. All the region behind the mountain face was an impenetrable jumble of gorges, pinnacles, and chasms, with black woods clinging in crevice and ravine and struggling up desperately towards the light.
In the time of spring and autumn floods, when the cedar swamps were impenetrable to all save mink, otter, and musk-rat, the only way from the western plateau to the group of lakes that formed the source of the Ottanoonsis, on the east, was by a high, nerve-testing trail across the wind-swept brow of Old Bald Face. The trail followed a curious ledge, sometimes wide enough to have accommodated an ox-wagon, at other times so narrow and so perilous that even the sure-eyed caribou went warily in traversing it.
The only inhabitants of Bald Face were the eagles, three pairs of them, who had their nests, widely separated from each other in haughty isolation, on jutting shoulders and pinnacles accessible to no one without wings. Though the ledge-path at its highest point was far above the nests, and commanded a clear view of one of them, the eagles had learned to know that those who traversed the pass were not troubling themselves about eagles’ nests. They had also observed another thing—of interest to them only because their keen eyes and suspicious brains were wont to note and consider everything that came within their purview—and that was that the scanty traffic by the pass had its more or less regular times and seasons. In seasons of drought or hard frost it vanished altogether. In seasons of flood it increased the longer the floods lasted. And whenever there was any passing at all, the movement was from east to west in the morning, from west to east in the afternoon. This fact may have been due to some sort of dimly recognized convention among the wild kindreds, arrived at in some subtle way to avoid unnecessary—and necessarily deadly—misunderstanding and struggle. For the creatures of the wild seldom fight for fighting’s sake. They fight for food, or, in the mating season, they fight in order that the best and strongest may carry off the prizes. But mere purposeless risk and slaughter they instinctively strive to avoid. The airy ledge across Bald Face was not a place where the boldest of the wild kindred—the bear or the bull-moose, to say nothing of lesser champions—would wilfully invite the doubtful combat. If, therefore, it had been somehow arrived at that there should be no disastrous meetings, no face-to-face struggles for the right of way, at a spot where dreadful death was inevitable for one or both of the combatants, that would have been in no way inconsistent with the accepted laws and customs of the wilderness. On the other hand, it is possible that this alternate easterly and westerly drift of the wild creatures—a scanty affair enough at best of times—across the front of Bald Face was determined in the first place, on clear days, by their desire not to have the sun in their eyes in making the difficult passage, and afterwards hardened into custom. It was certainly better to have the sun behind one in treading the knife-edge pass above the eagles. Joe Peddler found it troublesome enough, that strong, searching glare from the unclouded sun of early morning full in his eyes, as he worked over toward the Ottanoonsis lakes. He had never attempted the crossing of Old Bald Face before, and he had always regarded with some scorn the stories told by Indians of the perils of that passage. But already, though he had accomplished but a small portion of his journey and was still far from the worst of the pass, he had been forced to the conclusion that report had not exaggerated the difficulties of his venture. However, he was steady of head and sure of foot, and the higher he went in that exquisitely clear, crisp air, the more pleased he felt with himself. His great lungs drank deep of the tonic wind which surged against him rhythmically, and seemed to him to come unbroken from the outermost edges of the world. His eyes widened and filled themselves, even as his lungs, with the ample panorama that unfolded before them. He imagined—for the woodsman, dwelling so much alone, is apt to indulge some strange imaginings—that he could feel his very spirit enlarging, as if to take full measure of these splendid breadths of sunlit, wind-washed space.
Presently, with a pleasant thrill, he observed that just ahead of him the ledge went round an abrupt shoulder of the rockface at a point where there was a practically sheer drop of many hundreds of feet into what appeared a feather-soft carpet of treetops. He looked shrewdly to the security of his footing as he approached, and also to the roughnesses of the rock above the ledge, in case a sudden violent gust should chance to assail him just at the turn. He felt that at such a spot it would be so easy—indeed, quite natural—to be whisked off by the sportive wind, whirled out into space, and dropped into that green carpet so far below. In his flexible oil-tanned “larrigans” of thick cow-hide, Peddler moved noiselessly as a wild-cat, even over the bare stone of the ledge. He was like a grey shadow drifting slowly across the bleached face of the precipice. As he drew near the bend of the trail, of which not more than eight or ten paces were now visible to him, he felt every nerve grow tense with exhilarating expectation. Yet, even so, what happened was the utterly unexpected.
Around the bend before him, stepping daintily on her fine hooves, came a young doe. She completely blocked the trail just on that dizzy edge.
Peddler stopped short, tried to squeeze himself to the rock like a limpet, and clutched with fingers of iron at a tiny projection.
The doe, for one second, seemed petrified with amazement. It was contrary to all tradition that she should be confronted on that trail. Then, her amazement instantly dissolving into sheer madness of panic, she wheeled about violently to flee. But there was no room for even her lithe body to make the turn. The inexorable rock-face bounced her off, and with an agonized bleat, legs sprawling and great eyes starting from their sockets, she went sailing down into the abyss.
With a heart thumping in sympathy, Peddler leaned outward and followed that dreadful flight, till she reached that treacherously soft-looking carpet of treetops and was engulfed by it. A muffled crash came up to Peddler’s ears.
“Poor leetle beggar!” he muttered. “I wish’t I hadn’t scared her so. But I’d a sight rather it was her than me!”
Peddler’s exhilaration was now considerably damped. He crept cautiously to the dizzy turn of the ledge and peered around. The thought upon which his brain dwelt with unpleasant insistence was that if it had been a surly old bull-moose or a bear which had confronted him so unexpectedly, instead of that nervous little doe, he might now be lying beneath that deceitful green carpet in a state of dilapidation which he did not care to contemplate.
Beyond the turn the trail was clear to his view for perhaps a couple of hundred yards. It climbed steeply through a deep re-entrant, a mighty perpendicular corrugation of the rock-face, and then disappeared again around another jutting bastion. He hurried on rather feverishly, not liking that second interruption to his view, and regretting, for the first time, that he had no weapon with him but his long hunting-knife. He had left his rifle behind him as a useless burden to his climbing. No game was now in season, no skins in condition to be worth the shooting, and he had food enough for the journey in his light pack. He had not contemplated the possibility of any beast, even bear or bull-moose, daring to face him, because he knew that, except in mating-time, the boldest of them would give a man wide berth. But, as he now reflected, here on this narrow ledge even a buck or a lynx would become dangerous, finding itself suddenly at bay.
The steepness of the rise in the trail at this point almost drove Peddler to helping himself with his hands. As he neared the next turn, he was surprised to note, far out to his right, a soaring eagle, perhaps a hundred feet below him. He was surprised, too, by the fact that the eagle was paying no attention to him whatever, in spite of his invasion of the great bird’s aerial domain. Instinctively he inferred that the eagle’s nest must be in some quite inaccessible spot at safe distance from the ledge. He paused to observe from above, and thus fairly near at hand, the slow flapping of those wide wings, as they employed the wind to serve the majesty of their flight. While he was studying this, another deduction from the bird’s indifference to his presence flashed upon his mind. There must be a fairly abundant traffic of the wild creatures across this pass, or the eagle would not be so indifferent to his presence. At this thought he lost his interest in problems of flight, and hurried forward again, anxious to see what might be beyond the next turn of the trail.
His curiosity was gratified all too abruptly for his satisfaction. He reached the turn, craned his head around it, and came face to face with an immense black bear.
The bear was not a dozen feet away. At sight of Peddler’s gaunt dark face and sharp blue eyes appearing thus abruptly and without visible support around the rock, he shrank back upon his haunches with a startled “Woof!”
As for Peddler, he was equally startled, but he had too much discretion and self-control to show it. Never moving a muscle, and keeping his body out of sight so that his face seemed to be suspended in mid-air, he held the great beast’s eyes with a calm, unwinking gaze.
The bear was plainly disconcerted. After a few seconds he glanced back over his shoulder, and seemed to contemplate a strategic movement to the rear. As the ledge at this point was sufficiently wide for him to turn with due care, Peddler expected now to see him do so. But what Peddler did not know was that dim but cogent “law of the ledge,” which forbade all those who travelled by it to turn and retrace their steps, or to pass in the wrong direction at the wrong time. He did not know what the bear knew—namely, that if that perturbed beast should turn, he was sure to be met and opposed by other wayfarers, and thus to find himself caught between two fires.
Watching steadily, Peddler was unpleasantly surprised to see the perturbation in the bear’s eyes slowly change into a savage resentment—resentment at being baulked in his inalienable right to an unopposed passage over the ledge. To the bear’s mind that grim, confronting face was a violation of the law which he himself obeyed loyally and without question. To be sure, it was the face of man, and therefore to be dreaded. It was also mysterious, and therefore still more to be dreaded. But the sense of bitter injustice, with the realization that he was at bay and taken at a disadvantage, filled him with a frightened rage which swamped all other emotion. Then he came on.
His advance was slow and cautious by reason of the difficulty of the path and his dread lest that staring, motionless face should pounce upon him just at the perilous turn and hurl him over the brink. But Peddler knew that his bluff was called, and that his only chance was to avoid the encounter. He might have fled by the way he had come, knowing that he would have every advantage in speed on that narrow trail. But before venturing up to the turn he had noted a number of little projections and crevices in the perpendicular wall above him. Clutching at them with fingers of steel and unerring toes, he swarmed upwards as nimbly as a climbing cat. He was a dozen feet up before the bear came crawling and peering around the turn.
Elated at having so well extricated himself from so dubious a situation, Peddler gazed down upon his opponent and laughed mockingly. The sound of that confident laughter from straight above his head seemed to daunt the bear and thoroughly damp his rage. He crouched low, and scurried past growling. As he hurried along the trail at a rash pace, he kept casting anxious glances over his shoulder, as if he feared the man were going to chase him. Peddler lowered himself from his friendly perch and continued his journey, cursing himself more than ever for having been such a fool as not to bring his rifle.
In the course of the next half-hour he gained the highest point of the ledge, which here was so broken and precarious that he had little attention to spare for the unparalleled sweep and splendour of the view. He was conscious, however, all the time, of the whirling eagles, now far below him, and his veins thrilled with intense exhilaration. His apprehensions had all vanished under the stimulus of that tonic atmosphere. He was on the constant watch, however, scanning not only the trail ahead—which was now never visible for more than a hundred yards or so at a time—and also the face of the rock above him, to see if it could be scaled in an emergency.
He had no expectation of an emergency, because he knew nothing of the law of the ledge. Having already met a doe and a bear, he naturally inferred that he would not be likely to meet any other of the elusive kindreds of the wild, even in a whole week of forest faring. The shy and wary beasts are not given to thrusting themselves upon man’s dangerous notice, and it was hard enough to find them, with all his woodcraft, even when he was out to look for them. He was, therefore, so surprised that he could hardly believe his eyes when, on rounding another corrugation of the rock-face, he saw another bear coming to meet him.
“Gee!” muttered Peddler to himself. “Who’s been lettin’ loose the menagerie? Or hev I got the nightmare, mebbe?”
The bear was about fifty yards distant—a smaller one than its predecessor, and much younger also, as was obvious to Peddler’s initiated eye by the trim glossiness of its coat. It halted the instant it caught sight of Peddler. But Peddler, for his part, kept right on, without showing the least sign of hesitation or surprise. This bear, surely, would give way before him. The beast hesitated, however. It was manifestly afraid of the man. It backed a few paces, whimpering in a worried fashion, then stopped, staring up the rock-wall above it, as if seeking escape in that impossible direction.
“If ye’re so skeered o’ me as ye look,” demanded Peddler, in a crisp voice, “why don’t ye turn an’ vamoose, ‘stead o’ backin’ an’ fillin’ that way? Ye can’t git up that there rock, ‘less ye’re a fly!”
The ledge at that point was a comparatively wide and easy path, and the bear at length, as if decided by the easy confidence of Peddler’s tones, turned and retreated. But it went off with such reluctance, whimpering anxiously the while, that Peddler was forced to the conclusion there must be something coming up the trail which it was dreading to meet. At this idea Peddler was delighted, and hurried on as closely as possible at the retreating animal’s heels. The bear, he reflected, would serve him as an excellent advance guard, protecting him perfectly from surprise, and perhaps, if necessary, clearing the way for him. He chuckled to himself as he realized the situation, and the bear, catching the incomprehensible sound, glanced nervously over its shoulder and hastened its retreat as well as the difficulties of the path would allow.
The trail was now descending rapidly, though irregularly, towards the eastern plateau. The descent was broken by here and there a stretch of comparatively level going, here and there a sharp though brief rise, and at one point the ledge was cut across by a crevice some four feet in width. As a jump, of course, it was nothing to Peddler; but in spite of himself he took it with some trepidation, for the chasm looked infinitely deep, and the footing on the other side narrow and precarious. The bear, however, had seemed to take it quite carelessly, almost in its stride, and Peddler, not to be outdone, assumed a similar indifference.
It was not long, however, before the enigma of the bear’s reluctance to retrace its steps was solved. The bear, with Peddler some forty or fifty paces behind, was approaching one of those short steep rises which broke the general descent. From the other side of the rise came a series of heavy breathings and windy grunts.
“Moose, by gum!” exclaimed Peddler. “Now, I’d like to know if all the critters hev took it into their heads to cross Old Bald Face to-day!”
The bear heard the gruntings also, and halted unhappily, glancing back at Peddler.
“Git on with it!” ordered Peddler sharply. And the bear, dreading man more than moose, got on.
The next moment a long, dark, ominous head, with massive, overhanging lip and small angry eyes, appeared over the rise. Behind this formidable head laboured up the mighty humped shoulders and then the whole towering form of a moose-bull. Close behind him followed two young cows and a yearling calf.
“Huh! I guess there’s goin’ to be some row!” muttered Peddler, and cast his eyes up the rock-face, to look for a point of refuge in case his champion should get the worst of it.
At sight of the bear the two cows and the yearling halted, and stood staring, with big ears thrust forward anxiously, at the foe that barred their path. But the arrogant old bull kept straight on, though slowly, and with the wariness of the practised duellist. At this season of the year his forehead wore no antlers, indeed, but in his great knife-edged fore-hooves he possessed terrible weapons which he could wield with deadly dexterity. Marking the confidence of his advance, Peddler grew solicitous for his own champion, and stood motionless, dreading to distract the bear’s attention.
But the bear, though frankly afraid to face man, whom he did not understand, had no such misgivings in regard to moose. He knew how to fight moose, and he had made more than one good meal, in his day, on moose calf. He was game for the encounter. Reassured to see that the man was not coming any nearer, and possibly even sensing instinctively that the man was on his side in this matter, he crouched close against the rock and waited, with one huge paw upraised, like a boxer on guard, for the advancing bull to attack.
He had not long to wait.
The bull drew near very slowly, and with his head held high as if intending to ignore his opponent. Peddler, watching intently, felt some surprise at this attitude, even though he knew that the deadliest weapon of a moose was its fore-hooves. He was wondering, indeed, if the majestic beast expected to press past the bear without a battle, and if the bear, on his part, would consent to this highly reasonable arrangement. Then like a flash, without the slightest warning, the bull whipped up one great hoof to the height of his shoulder and struck at his crouching adversary.
The blow was lightning swift, and with such power behind it that, had it reached its mark, it would have settled the whole matter then and there. But the bear’s parry was equally swift. His mighty forearm fended the stroke so that it hissed down harmlessly past his head and clattered on the stone floor of the trail. At the same instant, before the bull could recover himself for another such pile-driving blow, the bear, who had been gathered up like a coiled spring, elongated his body with all the force of his gigantic hindquarters, thrusting himself irresistibly between his adversary and the face of the rock, and heaving outwards.
These were tactics for which the great bull had no precedent in all his previous battles. He was thrown off his balance and shouldered clean over the brink. By a terrific effort he turned, captured a footing upon the edge with his fore-hooves, and struggled frantically to drag himself up again upon the ledge. But the bear’s paw struck him a crashing buffet straight between the wildly staring eyes. He fell backwards, turning clean over, and went bouncing, in tremendous sprawling curves, down into the abyss.
“He was thrown off his balance and shouldered clean over the brink.”
Upon the defeat of their leader the two cows and the calf turned instantly—which the ledge at their point was wide enough to permit—and fled back down the trail at a pace which seemed to threaten their own destruction. The bear followed more prudently, with no apparent thought of trying to overtake them. And Pedler kept on behind him, taking care, however, after this exhibition of his champion’s prowess, not to press him too closely.
The fleeing herd soon disappeared from view. It seemed to have effectually cleared the trail before it, for the curious procession of the bear and Peddler encountered no further obstacles.
After about an hour the lower slopes of the mountain were reached. The ledge widened and presently broke up, with trails leading off here and there among the foothills. At the first of these that appeared to offer concealment the bear turned aside and vanished into a dense grove of spruce with a haste which seemed to Peddler highly amusing in a beast of such capacity and courage. He was well content, however, to be so easily quit of his dangerous advance guard.
“A durn good thing for me,” he mused, “that that there b’ar never got up the nerve to call my bluff, or I might ‘a’ been layin’ now where that onlucky old bull-moose is layin’, with a lot o’ flies crawlin’ over me!”
And as he trudged along the now easy and ordinary trail, he registered two discreet resolutions—first, that never again would he cross Old Bald Face without his gun and his axe; and, second, that never again would he cross Old Bald Face at all, unless he jolly well had to.
Categories: English Literature