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Big John Wallace
Chapter 5

THERE were now many open spaces in the forest, ever widening as the work of clearing and burning went on. New families came into our section and built their cabins and set about the task of making land. Roads grew up where narrow Indian trails had been, fortified in low boggy places by huge logs, so that the oxen in teaming might have solid footing. These roads were called corduroys.

A log store stood at the Jades cross-roads; there were three blacksmith shops in the Settlement now, and a public house known as the “Bee Hive” made its appearance at what was known as Walnut Curve, to offer hospitality to man and beast. Beneath a huge, badly-painted bee-hive, these words stood out to catch the eye of the traveller:

“Within our hive we’re all alive;
Good whiskey makes us funny;
If you are dry, come in and try
The flavor of our honey.”

It was at this inn that I first met a man named Jake Hood, a trapper and hunter, who, having heard of the wealth of pelts to be had for the garnering in our district, had with his family moved up from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and built a cabin on the pine-forested point of land which separated Lake Erie from Round Water Bay.

I had always been fond of hunting, and thinking that I might make a few dollars during the Winter seasons, trapping, and hoping this man Hood might be ’willing to give me advice in the matter, on learning that he came every Saturday afternoon to the Bee Hive, I accordingly made it my business to go to that place and meet him.

Bob McDonald was to have accompanied me, but at the last minute decided otherwise, so I set off alone through the Spring dusk, my old flint-lock under my arm, and Snarl—a quarter wolf dog, given me by Chief Sturgeon of the Indian tribe who made the Point their home—at my heels.

It was a dark night and raining, and the trail I followed was a lonely on? enough to suit even a lover of loneliness, but, although I was fond of the deep forest and spent every spare moment I could find in probing its mysteries, I had learned the unwisdom of venturing into it at any length at night. Wolves were plentiful and, when in packs, often dangerous. But I had heard that this trapper Hood possesed a new kind of gun called a rifle, which fired a single ball instead of the leaden pellets, known as shot, used in our old flint-locks, and I was anxious to see and handle it. Besides, there were the questions bearing on trap-setting which I desired to ask this man.

It was dark when I arrived at the inn. The yellow candlelight glowed through the oiled deer-skin tacked across the windows, and the smell of savoury venison stew was wafted through the rain-laden air to greet me.

I opened the door and stepped inside.

At a crude table sat a big, black-bearded man dressed in flannel shirt, buckskin coat and trousers of heavy material, which were tucked into boots reaching well above his knees. He was pouring liquor from a black bottle into a tin cup, and paused in his act to throw me a quick, suspicious look.

I suppose my great size must have astounded him, for as he gazed at me, the cup tipped and the liquor splashed to the floor.

“You must be John Wallace,” he said, setting bottle and cup down on the table, and I fancied I discerned a cunning look come into his eyes. He stood up, swaying a little, for he was partly drunk.

“And you,” I returned, coming forward, “are Jake Hood, the trapper, I came over, hoping to see you to-night.”

“And what could John Wallace, whose strength, I am told, equals that of an ox, and whose brain, I have no doubt, does also, want of me?” he asked, swaggering, and winking at Tom Bandy, the inn-keeper, who stood just inside the tap-room.

“Courtesy, for one thing, my friend,” I replied, “and answers to a civil question or two bearing on trapping, if you so will.”

“Why, if that be all,” he answered, after a moment’s frowning consideration, and I thought with something of relief in his tones, “I have no objection to answering civil questions, even although,” he added, “they come from an over-grown lout of a farmer.”

I laughed good-naturedly, and sat down opposite him at table. And it was then I saw for the first time, seated beside the grate with her face to the flames, a young woman dressed in buckskin shirt and jerkin. As I stared, I fear somewhat rudely, she turned and I saw a piquant face lit by starry eyes of brown; and when she smiled, as she did upon discerning my confusion, I suppose, behind red lips I saw the flash of even, salt-white teeth.

“My daughter Nance,” spoke Hood proudly. “Come here, lass.”

She arose obediently and, coming over stood at the end of the table.

“Here,” cried Hood, rising and pushing her down on his stool, “John Wallace would try his hand at trapping, it seems, and would ask certain information concerning the setting of traps, and where. She will answer your questions, John Wallace,” he did, turning to me. “Nance is a more skilful trapper than I am even. My tongue is too thick at present to be forced into doing duty; besides, I desire a word or two with weasel, Bandy yonder, whose eyes are red and weak—like his grog.”

He lurched across the floor and drew the inn-keeper into a room beyond the bar.

The girl looked at me and now that she was closer, under the yellow glut of the candles I could discern a certain hardness in her eyes and a recklessness in her face. She was attractive, no doubt of that, and I felt a little ill at ease before her direct gaze.

“I have seen you before, John Wallace,” she said. “Once when you were hunting on the hardwood ridge that follows the bay, you passed me so close that I could have reached out and touched you. With you was another; a tall youth, much handsomer than you. He carried a wild turkey and whistled a strange tune as he followed you. This was the tune.” And puckering her red lips, she warbled, soft as a nest-building blackbird, a bar or two of the old song, “Bonny Dundee.”

“That was Bob McDonald,” I cried, “and the song you have whistled is the one his father best loves to play on the pipes.”

“Bah!” she shivered, “I hate 'the sound of those screeching bag-pipes. Give me the fiddle, or soft notes of a guitar, John Wallace.”

She looked at me quickly, the smile gone from her face.

“Do you know Gypsy Dan?” she asked, her eyes searching my face.

I shook my head. “I have seen him,” I answered.

“Aye,” she nodded, “and if report is true, you have more than seen him. Is it so, I wonder—as my father says—that all men are fools, and the greater and stronger they are—the greater fools?”

“Why, as to that,” I laughed, “I daresay they are.”

“Why,” she asked, “did you shame Gypsy Dan before his followers? Surely, John Wallace, that was the act of a fool.” “To have allowed him to do what he thought of doing, would have been the act of a coward,” I answered.

She leaned back and laughed softly at my words. “Oho,” she sneered, “the kisses of Flora McDonald are not for Gypsy Dan, it would seem. Then who will claim them? You?”

I was silent.

She glanced over her shoulder to make sure we were alone; then she placed her hand on my arm.

“John Wallace,” she said earnestly, “Gypsy Dan intends to do you harm; beware of him. He is bad, lawless; and he has cut-throats in his band who would not stop at murder.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked, for her words gave me some concern.

“No matter how I know,” she answered, with a toss of her dark head. “I make it my business to know everything.”

“Well,” I answered, “be that as it may, I will have to take my chances. Let’s forget Gypsy Dan and talk about trapping.” She caught her breath, and the arched brows above her eyes met in a frown. “John Wallace,” she spoke, as though to herself, “you are either very brave or very stupid.”

“I know I am stupid,” I confessed, “and I greatly doubt if I am brave; but I do not believe in crossing my bridges until I come to them. If I am to have trouble with this Gypsy Dan .... ”

Just here there sounded the scuffle of feet and sound of voices outside. The door burst open and into the room trooped a number of men. At their head was Gypsy Dan.

His black eyes swept the dimly illumined space, lighting as they fell on Nance Hood, then on to where I sat watching him. Immediately his thin lips lost their smile and the nares of his nose rose and fell like a pointer dog’s on stand.

“Why, John the Ox,” he sneered, bowing low, “this is indeed a pleasure.”

“One I cannot say I share,” I returned, kicking back my stool and standing up.

“Tut, tul” he cried, removing his hat and shaking it free of water drops, for by now it was raining steadily outside. “Tut, tut, my brave John. Surely it is not in your ox’s heart to pluck me up and hurl me into oblivion this night, as you did so cunningly before. Nay, John, if you must exert your strength, pick up yon cask of ale and set it on the table, so that we may all gather about and drink a toast to Gypsy Dan and his merry men.”

A loud laugh from his fellows followed his sally; and as on that night when he had offered insult to Flora McDonald, I felt the strange pricking of the skin and a tightening of the muscles at this man’s sneering words.

“As to that, Gypsy Dan,” I said, taking a step forward, “I am of a mind to oblige you either way you prefer. It will cost me no more effort to throw you through yonder window than it will to place this barrel on the table. I am willing to serve.”

“I very much doubt if you are capable of doing either,” he shrugged, “but I am willing to concede, providing you can lift the cask of ale to the table, that—barring accidents—you might hurl me through yonder window.”

At this I laid hold of the barrel and, tipping it so as to get one hand beneath its bottom, I lifted it to the table, which groaned and swayed beneath its weight.

“Well doije, Big John!” cried Gypsy Dan. “I could have sworn you were not man enough to stir that cask. What ho!” he shouted, pounding the table with his fist, “landlord, where are you? Bring glasses and a spigot. A farm ox would drink to the health of the red deer of the green wood!”

From the inner room crept the inn-keeper, blinking his red-rimmed eyes like a smoke-molested owl. Even to one as stupid as myself, it was apparent that he and Gypsy Dan had met before. I saw a look of understanding pass between them.

Close on Bandy’s heels came Jake Hood. His drink-befuddled mind seemed to sense only that a band of strangers had entered and that ale was to be served all round; but as Gypsy Dan spoke again, I saw him start and, with a little shiver, draw himself erect. He stood staring .at the captain of the motley crew; then, striding across to where his daughter sat at the table, he seized her arm, and picking up his gun, which stood in a corner near the door, led her out into the night.

Two of the men made as though to follow, but Gypsy Dan called them back. There was a dark scowl on his face as he stepped close and, without a word, felled each of them with a blow of his clenched fist.

“Now,” he said, sweeping the others of his band with flashing eyes, “let it be understood once more that what I desire done, I will order done.”

He swung about and faced me. “John Wallace,” he asked quietly, “are you willing to forget the unpleasantness between us? Will you drink with me and my men?”

Now, let me say here, it was never my nature to hold anger or ill-feeling toward any man. I could not bring myself to like this man; I could not trust him; and yet he made me a simple and manly request, and it occurred to me that if I consented to meet him on common ground, as he proposed, he might be less inclined to carry on his depredations against the farmers of our Settlement.

“Will you drink a mug of ale with us, John Wallace?” he asked again.

“Gladly,” I answered.

Immediately, with hoarse shouts and laughter the gang gathered about the table. I took the cup which Bandy filled with the amber fluid and lifted it high.

“A toast!” I cried. “Here’s to the man who fights bravely, be he gypsy or land-maker.”

A cheer went up and we drank.

“Another toast!” cried Gypsy Dan, and the mugs were refilled.

He raised the foaming cup, and a deep silence fell upon the group.

Then in a voice I would never have guessed was his, so gentle and tender were the tones, he said:

“To the sweetest and fairest creature of the hardwoods, Flora McDonald!”

There was the crash of splintering pottery as unconsciously my grip tightened on the mug in my hand. I peered through the smoky light at Gypsy Dan. And I think had I glimpsed a sneer on his face, I would have killed him with my bare hands. But there was no sneer there; only a rapt expression of one who sees a vision. And I hated him at that moment, for in his eyes was the light of a power which ever from the world’s beginning has drawn the souls of women out of themselves, and I knew that even my great strength would not be sufficient to hold sweet Flora McDonald from him.

Bandy had placed another cup in my hand. And now I raised it, and like one who faces a steep cliff yet has no other track to follow, I drank, and snatching up my gun and cap, went out into the storm.

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