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Chapter 12
The Ascent of Aspotogon.—Slippery Slopes.—Treacherous Stones.— Tangled Thickets.—A great Disappointment.—Disgust of the Party.—A refreshing Bath.—Exploring a Cave.—Where are the Buccaneers?—In the Water.——An Alarm.—A terrible Monster.—Fright and Flight.—? Sauve qui peut!—The Monster in Pursuit.—The Agonies of Death.—Bruce ashore.—He turns to give Help.—The others safe.—Tom yet in Danger.— The abhorrent Sight.

THE boys at length had exhausted all their powers of examination, speculation, and conversation, and began to look about for something to do. It was not yet the appropriate time to dig into what they now all called the “mound,” though that would have been the most agreeable thing in the world in their present frame of mind; so they had to think of some other form of active exercise. Phil suggested that they should climb Aspotogon, and the suggestion was at once welcomed. Here they were at its base. They had come to visit it, and they could not be said to have done it, unless they should also reach its summit. So no sooner was the suggestion made than they all prepared to put it in execution.

The place which they chose for the ascent was that open spot already mentioned. Other places were overgrown with a thick forest, with underbrush, and fallen trees. The ascent was somewhat difficult. The slope was steep, and was covered with loose stones that slid at every step. At first, one went behind the other, but after a few paces they found that this could only be done at the imminent risk of their precious limbs, for the stones dislodged by the foremost climber invariably rolled down upon the one following. They therefore avoided going behind any other of the party, and climbed up abreast. At length the slope of sliding stones was traversed, and they reached a place which was covered with the primeval forest. Here the ascent was, if possible, even more toilsome. There was a thick underbrush through which they had to force their way by a process which made their undeniably shabby clothes even more shabby; the ground was very irregular, now sinking into holes, again rising into low mounds; while at intervals they would encounter some fallen tree, over which they had to climb, or else crawl beneath it. Such were the difficulties in the way of their ascent.

These, however, were all happily surmounted, and the whole party at last stood on the summit of Aspotogon. Here a deep disappointment awaited them. They had taken for granted that they would be rewarded by an extensive view. They hoped to overlook the whole of Mahone Bay, to count its three hundred and sixty-five islands, to see the windings of Deep Cove, and speculate upon the operations of the buccaneers. But instead of this they saw—nothing. For the summit of the hill was all overgrown with trees, which shut out the whole view. Such a reward for so much toil excited the deepest disgust.

“And this is Aspotogon!” cried Bruce. “Why, it’s a complete sham.”

“Talk of this place in comparison with Blomidon!” said Arthur. “Why, it’s sacrilege. This place is only a thicket.”

“What nonsense to call it a mountain!” said Tom. “I don’t believe it’s over a couple of hundred feet or so. I know it’s ten times harder to go up Blomidon.”

“Aspotogon’s a humbug,” said Phil. “What do they mean by saying it’s the highest land in Nova Scotia? It’s the most ridiculous nonsense I ever heard in my life. Besides, as to Blomidon—why, the view from that is the finest in America. And what is there here? A parcel of scrubby trees!”

Such being the sentiments of the climbers, it is no wonder that they did not linger long on the summit. There was nothing to keep them there; so they soon descended. The way down, however, was even worse than the way up, especially when they reached the loose stones. For here the stones slid from under their feet at every step, and it was almost impossible to stand upright. Tom and Phil both went down, and a score of big stones rolled about them, and over them, bruising and scratching them; while before them a whole cartload of cobble stones and granite boulders went bounding down towards the cove. The boys tried it a little way, and then took to the trees, where they completed the descent.

On reaching the knoll once more, they all felt tired and hot. Phil proposed a bath, and the proposal was most agreeable to all. In a few moments their clothes were off and they were all in the water.

The water was pleasantly warm. They had not had a bathe for some time, and here it seemed the perfection of bathing. There was no surf; the water was as smooth as glass, and gave the quiet of a lake with the salt water of the sea. Phil was the best swimmer of them all, and struck out boldly to cross the cove. The others followed. On reaching the middle, Phil turned off in another direction, to a point on the shore where he saw a curious rock that looked like a cave.

“Boys,” he cried, “there’s a cave; let’s go and see it.”

He swam on, and the others followed. They soon reached the place, and climbed up over the rough rock, to see what they supposed to be the cave. To their disappointment, it was not a cave at all, but only a slight recess of no depth in particular.

“I thought we might find some traces of the buccaneers,” said Phil, in a tone of vexation. “We’re not in luck to-day.”

“O, yes, we are,” said Tom, cheerfully. “The discovery of that mound is a good deal.”

“Yes; but then there’s that public road,” said Bruce.

“O, we’ll work it yet. Only wait till we get our tent up.”

Once more the boys plunged in the water, and played, and sported, and dived, and floated, and swam this way and that way; now on their backs, and again in their natural positions. At length they began to feel tired, and directed their course towards the shore.

Tom was last, swimming along leisurely enough, and thinking about the mound and its hidden treasure,—as were all the other boys,—when suddenly he became aware of a movement in the water behind him, as of some living thing swimming. It was not any of the boys. They were all ahead; and it could not be Turnbull. It was not a man at all.

In an instant a terrible thought came to him, that sent a pang of dreadful anguish through his inmost soul.

A shark!

That was the thought that flashed into Tom’s mind.

Hastily and fearfully he turned his head, dreading the worst. One glance was enough. That glance froze his very life-blood with utter horror.

There, not more than six or eight yards away, he saw a black muzzle on the surface of the water, pointing straight towards himself,—a muzzle narrow, and black, and horrible. Tom had never seen a shark; but he had read of them, and had seen pictures of them. One look was enough to convince him that this was a shark, who had scented them from afar, perhaps from the outer sea, and was now about to seize his prey.

His brain whirled, and all the scene for an instant swam before his eyes. A half dozen yards! Could he hope to escape? Impossible! Yet, out of utter despair, there came to him the strength of a giant. He struck out with frantic and frenzied vehemence, shouting and screaming to the other boys,—

“A shark! a shark! a sha-a-a-a-a-a-a-ark!!!”

The other boys heard his yells. They looked around and saw all—the ghastly face and staring eyes of Tom, with the horror of his expression, and beyond—the black muzzle. At that sight, there seized them all a terror equal to that of Tom. In any other position they would have sprung to his help. But what help was possible here?

None. They were naked. They were unarmed. They were in the water. Helpless thus, and despairing, there was nothing which any one of them could do, but to swim blindly on. It was an instinct of self-preservation that animated them all. They fled as they would have fled from an earthquake, or a roaring torrent—blindly—in frantic haste.

Not one word more was uttered. Not a sound was heard except the plashing noise of their movements through the water, and the heavy pantings of the exhausted swimmers. Still, though exhausted, not one of them dared to slacken his efforts. Not one of them dared to look around. In Tom’s mind there was the chilling horror of the monster behind, and a curdling dread of that moment when he would be seized. In the minds of the others there was an equal horror of expectation, as they listened to hear the yell from Tom, which might announce that all was over.

Thus they hurried on.

Tom, in his anguish, thought of something that he had once read of about sharks. He had read that the shark is cowardly, and is kept off by splashing in the water—at least for a time; just as a wild beast is deterred by a fire, or a horse is scared by a log at the road-side. At this thought he grasped. It was his only hope. As he swam, he plashed in the water, with all his force, with arms and legs, making it boil and foam all around him. This retarded his progress somewhat; but at any rate, it seemed to prolong his safety, for the monster did not seem inclined to draw nearer.

The moments passed on. They were not far from land,—yet, O, how far that distance seemed to each despairing swimmer! Upon their distance what issues depended! O, that they had thought of the danger in time, or had seen it a little while before!

The moments passed on—moments terrible, full of sickening anguish, of horror intolerable! How long those moments seemed! To Tom each moment was prolonged to the duration of an age, and an age of hideous expectation—expectation of a doom so frightful, so abhorrent, that every nerve tingled, and every fibre of his body quivered. And there, through the noise of the splashings made by his own efforts, he could plainly distinguish the movements of the monster behind. It did not seem nearer, but it was near enough to seize him at any moment. Why did the monster delay? Was it his splashings which deterred it? Tom hoped so, and thrust the water aside with greater energy.

And now he could hear the movement of the monster a little towards his right. It seemed to him that his pursuer was about to close with him, to attack him from another quarter. He remembered reading somewhere that sharks swim around their prey before seizing it. This movement, he thought, was for that purpose. Every moment he expected to see the dread form of that pursuer appearing between him and Phil, who was nearest. But he dared not look to assure himself. There was too much horror in the awful sight. He dared not turn his head to look behind; he dared not turn his eyes even to one side. He could only keep them fixed, with a wide stare, upon vacancy, straight before him.

The moments passed on,—the awful moments, each of which threatens death, when the delay of the impending doom fills the soul with awful suspense; still the monster hesitated to seize his prey. Still Tom’s ears rang with the noise of his pursuer. Still the other boys, as though their tongues were frozen into silence, hurried to the shore. Still they waited, expecting every instant to hear the terrible shriek which should announce the awful doom of Tom. But the doom was still delayed, and still Tom waited, and still the others listened. So they all hastened, till each one’s heart seemed almost ready to burst, through the frenzied energy of his efforts, and the intensity of his emotions. And there, behind them all,—a little on Tom’s right,—the black muzzle advanced over the surface of the water.

In that desperate struggle, when they made such frantic efforts to reach the shore, Bruce happened to be first. The shore to which they were swimming was that which happened to be nearest; not the grassy knoll before mentioned, but a beach covered with gravel, which was intermixed with larger stones. Bushes grew close down to this beach, and beyond these was that road which had so disgusted the boys.

At this place Bruce first arrived. His feet touched bottom. No sooner did he feel the solid ground under his feet, than all his panic left him, all his courage returned, and his presence of mind. Tom’s expected death-yell had not yet burst upon his ear; not yet had his shriek announced the grasp of the monster. There might yet be time to save. In an instant he had thought of what he should do. Plunging through the water, and bounding forward, he soon reached the beach; and then, stooping down, he hastily gathered several large stones. Then he turned, and rushing back a few steps, stood with uplifted arm, taking aim, and preparing to hurl these stones at the monster. At that very moment Arthur reached the place, and turned to look back, standing close by Bruce. Phil was now only a few yards away, swimming in, with horror yet stamped upon his face. Beyond him was Tom, swimming, kicking, plunging, rolling, dashing the water in all directions, and making as much commotion as would have satisfied an ordinary whale. As Tom thus swam on, his despairing glance caught sight of the forms of Bruce and Arthur. There they stood, up to their waists in water—Bruce with uplifted arm, holding an enormous stone, which he was about to throw—while in his other hand were several more stones. Arthur stood by his side.

Tom devoured them with his eyes; and he struggled on, wondering, yet scarcely daring to hope—wondering whether the stone which Bruce was preparing to throw would drive back the monster. To him it seemed that Bruce was delaying for an unaccountable time. Why did he stand idle, when every moment was so precious? Why did he delay to throw? Why did he not do something? Why did he stand there as if rooted to the spot, doing nothing? Was there some new horror? Were the monster’s jaws already opened to seize his prey?

Tom would have cried to Bruce to throw, but he could not speak. Not a sound could he utter. The thought came to him that Bruce was afraid to throw, for fear that the stone might strike him instead of the shark. What matter? Far better to throw, and run the risk. This he would have said, but he could not in that paralysis of horror.

Suddenly a frown came over Bruce’s face—which frown as suddenly faded away, and was succeeded by a blank look, accompanied by an indescribable expression. The same changes passed over Arthur’s face. Tom saw it all, in his despair, and was bewildered. What was this? Were they deserting him? Would they give him up? Impossible!

Yet it seemed as if they would. For suddenly Bruce’s uplifted arm descended, and the stones all dropped into the water. The blank look upon his face was succeeded by one of astonishment, which faded away into various expressions, which successively indicated all the varying shades of vexation, shame, and sheepishness. Arthur’s face was equally eloquent. Had not Tom’s feelings so pre-occupied him, he might have found a study in those two faces; but as it was, he was not in a position to think of such a thing; for these looks and gestures only served to inspire him with greater alarm.

“They can do nothing,” he thought; and the thought brought to his soul a bitterness as of death.

At this moment Phil’s feet touched bottom. He rushed up to Bruce and Arthur, and turned, as they had turned, to look back.

And at the same moment the abhorrent sight appeared to Tom—of the black muzzle shooting through the water close by his right shoulder. Involuntarily he shrunk aside, with the thought that his last hour had come.


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