The Scotch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins
VIII. The Poachers
While all these things were happening, Angus Niel had returned from his errand across the little lake, and was making his way slowly toward home, following the course of the stream. As he came near the fall he stopped and sniffed. There was certainly a most appetizing smell of bacon in the air!
"It can't be!" he said aloud to himself. He sniffed again, and his face turned purple with rage. "Meat," he snorted, "as I live! The bold rascals! Poaching in broad daylight and cooking their game right under my nose!" It wasn't under his nose at all, of course, for the rock was far above him, and it wasn't game either.
"I'll soon cure them of that trick," he muttered, as he climbed silently over the rocks and gazed searchingly about. It was not long before he caught sight of a thin curl of blue smoke rising from the top of the rock.
"Aha!" he growled under his breath, "I've got you now, my bold gentlemen! I'll teach you to flaunt your thefts in the face of the Laird's own gamekeeper, once I get my hands on you!" At once he began nosing about the rocks in search of the path by which the poachers had climbed the cliff.
Meanwhile Sandy and Jock had found the sprays of the Evergreen Pine and were on their way back to the cave with them, when Jock suddenly seized Sandy by the arm and ducked down behind a boulder. There, not a hundred feet away, stood Angus Niel gazing up at the top of the rock! His back was toward them, and the noise of the waterfall had drowned out the sound of voices, or they surely would not have escaped his notice. As it was, they slipped behind the fall, whisked into the hole, and began climbing the secret stair like two frightened squirrels. An instant later they startled Alan and Jean, who were in the cave, by dashing in after them on all fours.
"What on earth is the matter?" cried Jean.
"Matter, indeed!" gasped Jock, out of breath. "Angus Niel is down there, and he's seen the smoke! He almost saw us, but we just gave him the slip and got by."
"Keep out of sight, all of you," commanded the Chief, "and leave him to me."
The obedient Clan flattened themselves against the back of the cave, while Alan crept to the edge of the rock on his stomach like a lizard, and, lying there, was able to peep through the thick screen of leaves and see what was going on below. The gamekeeper was still scrambling over the rocks and looking, as Alan said afterward, "for all the world like a dog who had lost the trail and was trying to find it again."
As the look-out was well screened, Alan soon allowed the rest of the Clan to join him, and Angus Niel little guessed, as he prowled about over the rocks, that every move was watched from above. Despairing of finding the path, he decided at last to get up a tree and make an observation. He selected a large pine which grew near the cave and began to climb.
So long as he stood on the ground, the children knew it was impossible for Angus to see them, but when he began to climb, they scuttled back into the cave as fast as they could go.
Climbing is hard work for a fat man, and the gamekeeper found himself covered with pitch before he had gone more than halfway up, but he puffed on in spite of difficulties and at last reached a point from which he could look directly across the surface of the rock, but from which the cave was entirely hidden behind a projection in the wall of the cliff.
Angus saw what he supposed to be the whole shelf of the rock, and he saw that there was no one there. He could see the fire and the frying-pan, the egg shells lying about, and even the portion of bacon that Jean had not cooked. They were all in full view, but apparently the poachers had gone away into the woods, leaving their airy camp deserted. There was no one there; of that he felt, certain.
"I'll just give'em a surprise," thought the gamekeeper to himself. "If they found a way up, I can, too. I'll help myself to a snack of that bacon, and if they come back and find me--well, I have my gun with me and I don't like being interrupted at my meals."
He backed down the tree like a fat cat, and made a desperate search for the path, and this time he actually succeeded in finding it. He chuckled to himself as he plunged into the passage and began to climb. He had gone about a third of the way up, when he reached the narrowest point of the channel and tried to force himself through, but the space was so small that no matter how much he tried, he could not get by. His gun was in his way too, but he could not leave it below, as that would be putting it into the hands of the poachers if they should return too soon.
In vain he twisted and squirmed, he could get no farther, and moreover he was afraid the gun might go off by accident in his struggles. When he found that he could not possibly go up, he decided to go down; but he found, to his horror, that he couldn't do that either. There he stuck, and an angrier man than Angus Niel it would have been hard to find. A projecting rock punched him in the stomach, and when he pressed back against the rock behind him, to free himself, he scraped the skin off his back. Casting prudence to the winds, he howled with pain and rage, and the sound, carried up through the narrow passage, echoed in the cave like the roar of a lion.
The children, meanwhile, had kept in hiding, and when they heard these blood-curdling sounds, they at first did not know what caused them, because, of course, they could not see what was happening below, but they knew very soon that they were not made by a wild animal because wild animals do not swear.
"It's Angus, stuck in the secret stairway," Alan said, smothering his laughter. "He's too fat to get through!" He crept to the edge and peeped down the hole. There, far below, he could see the top of Angus's head and the muzzle of his gun.
The Chief was a boy of great presence of mind. He backed hastily away from the hole and ran to the fall, snatching up the pan as he passed. This he filled with water and, rushing back, he instantly sent a small deluge down upon the head of the hapless Angus.
The gamekeeper was dumbfounded by this new attack. Had he not with his own eyes seen that the rocky shelf was empty? How, then, could this thing be? He rolled his eyes upward, but there was no one in sight. He had heard all his life tales of witches and water cows, of spells cast upon people by fairies, of their being borne away by them into mountain caverns and held as prisoners for years and years; and he made up his mind that such a fate had now befallen him.
Firmly convinced that he was the victim of enchantment, he became palsied with terror, arid began to plead with the unseen tormentors who he believed held him in thrall. "Only leave me loose, dear good little people," he howled, "and I'll never, never trouble you more!"
At this point Alan, shaking with mirth, sent down another panful of water, and Angus, redoubling his efforts, wrenched himself free, scraping off quantities of skin as he did so. They could hear him scuttling down the secret stair as fast as his legs would carry him, and when he emerged below, they watched him hurry away through the forest, casting fearful glances over his shoulder as he ran. Alan made a hollow of his two hands and sent after him a wild note, like the wailing of a banshee.
"Angus Niel, Angus Niel," rose the piercing note, "bring back my beautiful stag, my stag that lived by the tarn!"
As the sound reached his ears, Angus redoubled his speed, and they could hear him crashing through the underbrush as if the devil himself were really at his heels.
When the sounds died away in the distance, the Rob Roy Clan rolled on the floor of the cave with laughter.
"There!" said Alan, as he sat up and wiped his eyes. "That'll fix Angus Niel! We've scared him out of a year's growth, and he'll never dare meddle with this place again. Come on, now. It's time to go home, but to-morrow we'll come back and fix this place up in a way that would make Robinson Crusoe green with envy."
They carefully put water on the ashes of their fire, stuck the sprigs of Evergreen Pine in their bonnets, and sped down the secret stairway and home.