" This is the Inch, then ?"
"The same. No' a canny place ava'. There's naething but wraiths here—Popish wraiths, tae. I'll be glad when we're weel awa' frae 't. Hoo's the salmon, sir ?"
"Very well, thank you, Ronald. We might get him now if we had a gaff. Just step into the boat and ask the Minister to lend us his".
Ronald obeyed with alacrity. He had not far to go. This being the Inch, we were only two or three hundred yards from the north-east corner of the loch, and not much more from the Kirkton, a hamlet close by the manse.
The boat gone, the whustler had a chance. If only he had made a rush outwards, he could have snapped the tackle and been free. He did not think of that. Instead, he sauntered to and fro, now and then raising himself so high that I could see his tail slowly waving above the water in the moonlight. It waved sedately, and seemed to be the tail of a tired whustler ; but I had no bigotry on that score. Once, by way of rehearsing the final act, which was to go off in acclaim when Ronald brought the gaff, I tried to persuade him to come ashore. I was not successful. Although the rod bent into a semicircle, the whustler paid no heed. He went on his leisurely way as if nothing at all were happening. I had an uneasy thought that he was recruiting his energies in contemplation of a new campaign, and I longed for the return of the boat.
At length I heard the plash of oars and the sound of excited voices. In a few minutes Ronald and the Minister came ashore. I heard the rattle of a chain, and knew that the boat was being fastened.
"Hold hard, Ronald," I called out.
" I'm coming aboard whenever I can get him round".
" Takin' her oot to sea again!" said Ronald, aghast. " Mercy on us ! what for?"
" To tell you the truth, I don't know. I can't say when we'll get him into the boat; but I am certain we'll never get him into the shore. I've been trying to guide him in ; but he won't come. Once or twice he has gone round and round this place, and then it looked as if I were conducting a circus. You wouldn't have me do that all night—in a cemetery, too ? Besides, Ronald, if he bolts more than fifty yards we're done, for I can't follow him through the loch on my feet. We're safer in the boat".
"Vera weel, sir," Ronald answered, turning away with a sigh : "I'll bring her roond".
We were now in a situation that required tact, skill, rapidity of judgment and of action. The whustler could not be expected to pause in his stroll for our convenience. Thus, the boat had to be " brought round " not a few times, and to not a few places, before we were safely seated.
What was to be done next? I thought it would be well to put off gently and await the strategy of the whustler. That came with decision and energy. Apparently rendered suspicious by noticing that the slight strain on him came from a new quarter, he bolted like a torpedo. Helped a little by the reel giving up the line I had recovered, Ronald made a desperate but successful effort. The wild rush was soon over. Trouble, however, was to come. Obeying some strange instinct, the great fish was making for the Balvaig River, into which Loch Voil pours its excess. Inwardly I rebuked myself for having left the comfortable graveyard. There we might have spent a chill and cheerless night, with little hope that the dawn would herald in a brighter day; but if we were hauled or lured into the river the prospect would be nothing less than disquieting. Had I not read in some scientific book that salmon travel mainly by moonlight, and at a speed which the best of human engines cannot attain ? True, the man of science had been speaking of salmon when running up the rivers; but he had not said that when running down they go with any less celerity. What, then, if the whustler got into the Balvaig, which was in brawling flood from nearly a week of rain ? The river has an almost straight run to the sea. In my startled imagination I beheld our craft, in tow of the whustler, leaving Strathyre within ten minutes; Callander within quarter of an hour. Rushing past Doune, ere long we should cross the romantic Allan Water, and be making full-steam-ahead for the Firth of Forth. Perhaps we might look in at St. Margaret's Hope or at the Port of Leith. There was no finality to the possibilities with which the situation was charged. Once in the North Sea, if we did not turn into Tweed or Tyne, there would be no reason why we should not run up the Thames and make an involuntary appearance before the Terrace of the House of Commons.
It may be that I overestimated the risks suggested by the broad torrent of the Balvaig glittering in the light of the fuliginous moon. I know not. All I know is that when the potentialities of the case burst upon a mind excited by many hours of struggle and high hope I resolved upon an uncompromising measure. Come what might, the whustler must not enter the Balvaig. He must stay in Voil.
"Stop the boat, Ronald," I said, in commanding voice, when, every inch of the line out, I saw the salmon meandering very near a sandbank over which the water of the loch was in motion towards the river.
Then, instead of holding the rod erect, I held it straight out. Followed a game of pull-devil, pull-baker. The real meaning of this phrase was unknown to me; and even now, recalling the events and the emotions of that night, I am not calm enough to be fastidious in philology. The words seem to express what I wish to convey, which is that when the salmon pulled so did I. Above the clean yellow sandbank, in which pebbles were sparkling like diamonds, I saw him poking, poking, poking; moving sideways, about a foot at a time, as if seeking a place at which to dart across the shallows. At length he lost his temper. Ceasing to struggle in what may be called a straightforward manner, he turned a lateral somersault, and rolled over. Now, cantrips of that kind are sometimes an indication that the game is up, and that practically all is over but the gaffing. On this occasion, however, one had to moderate one's transports. I did so by a mental railing of which I now repent. " O, William F. Fisher, of Colorado Springs and the City of London, why, when you were foolin' around Noo York, didn't you buy me one of them tooboolar-steel telescopic poles, calc'lated fit for tarpon, instead of this five-ounce proposition? A Dago, William F.—that's the kind of hairpin You are!" It was touch-and-go with the whustler. Within a time which must have been short though it did not seem so, he rolled himself beyond the point, on the hither side of the sandbank, that was in a straight line with the southern bank of the river, and was once more in the motionless water of the loch. Along the shore he cruised, slowly, silently, and, I think, sadly. He may have been seeking for some definite thing. Ronald and the Minister thought so. On the other hand, he may have been dazed a little, and wandering at random. That was my belief. At any rate, it is not customary for a salmon to move into a brook in spring. That is what the whustler did. Coming to the mouth of a burn not more than three feet wide, he paused a moment as if pondering, and wriggled up.
Ronald pulled the boat ashore, leaped frantically out, squatted down in the mouth of the burn, took a knife from his pocket, and deliberately cut my line.
"Nabbit, nabbit!" he cried. "She's nailed at last!"
"Is he?" I asked, nigh dumb with doubt and amazement.
"Ou, ay," said Ronald in a tone of triumphant certitude. "The Minister couldna' find the gaff—I didna' like to tell ye that a' at aince. But the salmon's richt noo. Ye see, there's a high waterfall no' twenty yairds up among the trees there. She canna' get past that. Neither can she get doon tae the loch again while I sit here, and that I'll do a' nicht. So she'll ha'e to stop in the pool. If the Minister's man will bring me a hay-fork at the scriegh o' day —it winna' be long noo—I'll bring the whustler to the Big Hoose afore breakfast time".
I pondered while lighting my pipe.
Yes: I would allow Ronald to do as he proposed.
On parting for the night the Minister and I arranged to forget about the hayfork. We would be up betimes and go back to the pool unarmed.