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   Chapter 7 A SABLE ISLAND WINTER.

The Wreckers of Sable Island By J. Macdonald Oxley Characters: 13643

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"Well now, look here, mates," Ben continued; "fair and square's the word between us, ain't it? If I choose to take a notion to these two here, it's my own lookout, and it's not for any other chap to be interfering with me, any more than I'd be after wanting your things, eh?"

They were beginning to see what he was driving at now, and one of them said, with a sort of sneer,-

"You're not afraid of any one wanting your boy, or his dog either, are you?"

"Not exactly," answered Ben; "but what I've on my mind is this: seeing they're my property, I don't want any one to meddle with them or give them any trouble-that's only fair, ain't it?"

"Fair enough, Ben; but what are you going to do with the boy when we leave here?" asked one. And there was a murmur of assent to the question.

"That'll be all right, mates," replied Ben promptly. "I'll be surety that he doesn't get us into any trouble. You just leave that to me, and I'll warrant you I'll get him away from us quiet enough. What do you say, mates?"

Although by dint of bluster and brutality Evil-Eye had forced his way to a sort of leadership among the wreckers, there was really none of them with so much influence as Ben. With the exception of Evil-Eye they were all now quite ready to accept his assurances of Eric not proving a source of trouble, and to consent to his remaining with them. Evil-Eye growled and grumbled a good deal, but could get nobody to heed him; and Ben, satisfied that he had carried his point, and that Eric and Prince were safe, took his seat again, and lit his pipe for a good smoke. He was perfectly sincere in promising that Eric would not get his associates into any trouble. He certainly never imagined what would be the result of his taking him under his protection. Could he have had a peep into the future, perhaps he would have hesitated before becoming his champion. As it was, he gave himself no concern upon the point.

Eric felt wonderfully relieved at the result of his protector's appeal. It settled his position among his strange, uncongenial companions. They might take no notice of him if they chose-indeed, that was just what he would prefer-but they had, at all events, not only recognized but consented to his presence, and this took a great load off his mind.

Although his objections had been ignored by his companions, Evil-Eye was by no means disposed to give up altogether his designs upon Eric. There were two reasons why he hungered for the boy's life. It was against his principle of dead men telling no tales that he should be spared; and, again, he hated Ben, and the mere fact of his being interested in Eric was quite sufficient to cause the innocent lad to get a share of that hatred.

In the days that followed, Eric could not fail to be conscious of the frequency with which the ruffian's one eye was turned upon him, and of the hyena-like look with which it regarded him. Happy for him was it that there was a restraining influence which kept that awful look from finding its way into fitting deed.

Though they did not distinctly recognize any leader-their motto being each man for himself, and one as good as another-the wreckers regarded Ben with a respect accorded no other member of the motley crew. This was in part due to his great size and strength, and in part to his taciturn, self-contained ways, which prevented any of that familiarity that so quickly breeds contempt.

Evil-Eye feared Ben no less than he hated him, and dared not openly attempt anything against him, although the fire of his fury burned hotly within his breast. In this fear of Ben, much more than in the decision of the other wreckers, lay Eric's safety. Ere long, this defence was strengthened in a manner most strange, startling, and happily most effective.

A week of almost incessant stormy weather had compelled the wreckers to spend most of their time in the hut. Finding the hours hang heavy on their hands, many of them had sought solace in drink, of which the Francis's fine stock of wines and liquors furnished an unstinted supply. No one drank more deeply than Evil-Eye. Day after day was passed in a state alternating between coarse hilarity and maudlin stupor; Ben, on the other hand, hardly touched the liquor, contenting himself with sipping a little at his meals. It was well, indeed, that he should be so moderate, for his cool head and strong hand were in demand more than once to prevent serious conflicts among his intoxicated companions.

Eric, in spite of the stormy weather, kept as much out of doors as possible. He preferred the buffeting of the wintry winds to the close atmosphere of the hut, foul with oaths, and reeking with tobacco and spirits.

Evil-Eye's carouse had continued several days. Early one night, after he had fallen into a sottish sleep upon his bunk, and the others had, later on, one by one turned in for the night, leaving the room in a silence broken only by the heavy breathing and stertorous snoring of the sleepers, the whole hut was suddenly aroused by an appalling yell from Evil-Eye. Starting up, his companions saw him, by the light of a moonbeam that strayed in through one of the portholes, rise to his feet with an expression of the most frantic terror upon his hideous countenance, as he shrieked at the top of his voice,-

"I will-I swear I will-if you'll only let me alone!"

Then, throwing up his arms, he fell over, foaming, in a fit.

For some minutes the hut was a scene of wild confusion as its bewildered inmates, so suddenly aroused from their sleep, stumbled about in the darkness trying to find out what was the matter. But Ben, who was not easily frightened, soon restored order by striking a light, and showing that whatever may have been the matter with Evil-Eye, there was certainly no real cause for alarm. Thereupon, with many a growl at him for disturbing their night's rest, most of them grumblingly went back to sleep.

A few thought it worth while to see what was the matter with Evil-Eye, and of these Ben took command. Little as he loved the ruffian, he could not find it in his heart to let him die for lack of a little care. So, under his direction, the struggling man was lifted out upon the floor. His face was splashed with water, while his arms and legs were chafed by rough hands. In a little while the patient's struggles grew less violent, the purple hue left his face, and his breathing became more natural. Presently, with a great sigh, he fell into a heavy sleep, from which he did not awake for many hours.

Although pestered with questions upon his return to consciousness as to the cause of his strange behaviour, he refused to give any reason. But there were two changes in him too noticeable not to excite the remark of his associates-he was much more moderate in the use of w

ine, taking care not to drink to excess; and his attitude toward Eric became curiously different. Instead of regarding him with his former look of hungering hatred, he now seemed to have a feeling of dread. He shrank from being near him, avoiding him in every possible way; treating him, in fact, much as a dog would a man who had been especially cruel to him.

Ben and Eric at once noted the change, and were well pleased at it. Some time after, they learned the cause. It seemed that the evening Evil-Eye had acted so strangely he had been awakened from his drunken sleep about midnight by a startling vision.

It was the form of a tall man in a military uniform dripping with sea-water and soiled with sand. On his face was the pallor of death, and his eyes had an awful, far-away expression, as though they were looking through the startled sleeper. Fixing them steadfastly upon Evil-Eye, whose blood seemed to freeze in his veins, he held up his forefinger as if commanding attention, and pointed to the bunk where Eric lay sleeping. At the same time his face took on a threatening look, and his lips moved.

Although no words reached Evil-Eye's ears, he understood. As the spectre stood before him, so intense was his terror that it broke the spell which locked his lips, and he shrieked out the words already mentioned. He knew no more until, at broad daylight, he found himself weak and miserable in his berth.

Like many men of his kind, Evil-Eye was very superstitious. After the vision he looked upon Eric as being under the protection of some ghostly being that would for ever haunt any one who did him any harm. Henceforth Eric had nothing to fear from him.

Winter on Sable Island is not like winter on the mainland. The Gulf Stream prevents any long continuance of cold. The snow comes in violent storms, and fills the valleys with drifts; but these soon vanish. There is more rain and fog than snow, even in mid-winter; and the herds of wild, shaggy, sharp-boned ponies which scamper from end to end of the island have no difficulty in finding plenty to eat among the grasses which grow rankly in every sheltered spot.

These ponies were a great source of amusement to Eric. But for them and the rabbits, which were even more numerous, the winter, wearisome at best, would have been simply intolerable.

The wreckers had captured a score of the ponies, and broken them in after a fashion. They were kept near the hut, in a large corral built of driftwood, and there were plenty of saddles and bridles.

Now if there was one manly accomplishment more than another upon which Eric prided himself it was his horsemanship. He had been put upon a pony when only five years old, and had been an enthusiastic rider ever since. At Oakdene he had ridden to hounds since he was twice five years of age, and there was not a lad in the county with a firmer seat in the saddle or a more masterful touch of the reins. The saddles and bridles at Sable Island were poor things compared with those he had been accustomed to; and the ponies themselves were about as wicked and vicious as animals of that size could be. But this only lent an additional zest to the amusement of riding them. Their bad behaviour did not daunt Eric in the least. With Ben's assistance a pony would be caught in the corral and saddled, and then off he would go for a long, lively gallop, Prince, as full of glee as himself, barking and bounding along at his side.

Very often Ben would keep him company, for there was an old black stallion of unusual size which seemed equal to the task of bearing his huge frame. Then Eric's happiness was complete, for every day he was growing fonder of the big man who had saved him from a dreadful death, and who now treated him with paternal tenderness.

With the keen wintry air making his cheeks tingle, he would scamper off at full speed for mile after mile, while Ben lumbered along more slowly, thoroughly enjoying the boy's vigour and daring. Then, halting until Ben overtook him, he would canter on quietly.

An amusement of which Eric never tired was chasing the wild ponies, as though he wanted to catch one of them. Climbing one of the sand-hills, he would look about until he sighted a herd grazing quietly in the hollows, and guarded as usual by a touzle-maned stallion of mature years. Making a wide detour, and carefully concealing his approach by keeping the hillocks between himself and the ponies, he would get as near as he possibly could without being seen. If necessary, he dismounted and crept along on his hands and knees, dragging his own pony by the bridle, while Prince followed.

When concealment was no longer possible, he would spring into his saddle, and with wild shouts charge down upon the startled ponies; and they would gallop off in headlong stampede.

One afternoon, while thus amusing himself, he had quite an exciting experience, and rather a narrow escape from injury. He had stampeded a herd of ponies, and picking out a sturdy little youngster as his particular prey, was pressing him pretty closely, when the pony charged straight up the side of a hill. As it was not steep, Eric followed hard after him, taking for granted the slope would be about the same on the other side. Instead of that, the hill fell away abruptly. Over plunged the hunted pony. Unable to check his own animal, full of the spirit of the chase, over plunged Eric too. For a moment both ponies kept their feet; but the treacherous sand giving way beneath them, they rolled head over heels. Eric happily got free from his horse in time to save himself from being crushed underneath it; but when they all reached the bottom in a heap together, he could not escape the frantically pawing hoofs, and one of them struck him such a blow upon the head as to stun him.

When he recovered he found himself lying upon the sand, not a pony in sight, and Prince licking his face with affectionate anxiety. His head ached sharply, and he felt somewhat sore after his tremendous tumble; but not a bone was broken nor a joint sprained. Thankful at having gotten off so well, he made the best of his way back to the hut.

Ben was greatly pleased at the adventure, and regretted he had not been there when ponies, boy, and dog rolled down the hill together.

"You ought to let your friends know when you're going to give a performance like that, my lad," said he, after a hearty laugh. "It's too good to keep to yourself."

"Perhaps you'd like me to repeat it for you," Eric suggested.

"No indeed, Eric. You got off all right that time, but you might break your precious neck the next. How would you like to have a try at a morse? The men tell me they saw a lot of them at the west end this morning; and as you're so fond of hunting, there's something well worth killing."

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