Chapter One: Eleven Black Birds
A flock of huge black birds soared, gathered, then landed one after another in the trees near Maggie. She paused in her walk up the hill, blocked her eyes against the spring sun, and counted.
"'One for sadness, two for mirth,'" Maggie quoted the old rhyme about crows and ravens her mother had taught her. "'Three for marriage, four for birth; five for laughing, six for crying; seven for sickness, eight for dying; nine for silver, ten for gold; eleven for a secret that will never be told.'
"A secret," she whispered to the black Newfoundland dog by her side. She smiled as she thought of her father's warnings about pishogues -- superstitious foolishness. "Everyone in Bonnie Bay has a secret, I'll wager."
The cliff behind Maggie's house rose sharply. At the top it took on the shape of a face peering down into the harbor. Everyone in the little fishing outport called the cliff the quidnunc. Like a quidnunc, or busybody, the rock jutted its chin over the tops of the trees as if straining to see the folk of Bonnie Bay in the British Colony of Newfoundland.
Maggie Wells and her dog, Sirius, were climbing to the top of the quidnunc. Sirius lingered for a moment on Witch's Rock, a ledge on the hillside that overlooked the harbor.
"C'mon, Sirius," Maggie coaxed. "I know you'd love to plunge right into the ocean, but that water is too cold. And now there's a big iceberg in the harbor."
Sirius turned and trudged behind Maggie as she headed up the steep path. From the time he was a pup, Sirius had loved swimming and diving from the wharves along the waterfront. He was always happy to fetch things from the boat for Pa, or to work around the stages -- the long wharves of rough-hewn tree limbs where freshly caught fish were laid out to dry.
When they reached the top of the quidnunc, Maggie sat on the edge of the smooth-faced rock and carefully slid down to a wide, rocky ledge that was carpeted with soft moss. Sirius followed her cautiously. A thicket of sweet-smelling spruce concealed a small cave in the rocks. Sirius waited outside while Maggie crawled into the cave. She found an old baby blanket she had hidden there last fall and some shards of dishes she had used last year for a make-believe kitchen. The blanket was damp and musty, so she brought it out and hung it on a limb to air. I suppose twelve is too old to play copy house, Maggie thought. She set the dishes on a rock next to where Sirius was lying in the sun. "It's kind of sad to grow up, though," she whispered as she scratched her dog's ears.
Suddenly, an unripe berry plopped on her shoulder. Then another berry caught in her long brown braid.
"I know you're there, Vera," Maggie called, looking around.
A curly, blond head poked out from behind a rock on the ledge above. "I followed you and Sirius all the way up here, and you never even saw me." Vera made her way down to Maggie. Her impish grin hardly matched the prim dress and starched white pinafore she wore. It always amazed Maggie that anyone as mischievous as her cousin, Vera, could stay so spotless and neat.
"It's neither ladylike nor Christian to spy on people." Maggie often pretended to scold her cousin as if she were several years younger instead of only a year. "Have you seen the iceberg off Killock Rock Island? It looks just like a church with two steeples."
Vera scrambled back up to the top of the quidnunc and looked to the north, where the iceberg towered high above the cliffs, blocking the narrows where Bonnie Bay opened into the sea.
"It's like a fairy castle," Vera whispered, "with turrets and towers."
"No, it's a church," insisted Maggie, climbing up after Vera. "I wonder if the iceberg that sank the Titanic was as big as that."
"Probably bigger," said Vera. It had only been a couple of months since the sinking of the famous ocean liner off the coast of Newfoundland. It was the biggest news during the spring of 1912, and the girls couldn't stop thinking about the tragedy.
"I'll never go near an iceberg," said Maggie. "It's way too dangerous."
"Look down there on Witch's Rock." Vera pointed. "There's Tamar Rand looking exactly like a witch herself, with her hair all mops and brooms."
"Can she see us?"
"She's looking back at the meadow. I think she's watching her sheep." Vera backed away slightly as if to hide herself from the girl below.
"Oh, Lord," whispered Maggie. "I don't want her to see us when we go back, especially when we have Sirius with us. You know how the Rands hate dogs. Pa says they're trying to make a law that will ban dogs from this whole bay."
"What will you do with Sirius if the law is passed?" asked Vera.
"Pa says we'll have to send him off somewhere, but I have something planned, all right," said Maggie, nodding. "I won't let them take Sirius away from me."
Sirius, who had been dozing on the soft bed of spruce needles, looked up and wagged his tail.
Maggie wound her long braid until it sat like a knot on the top of her head, then let it tumble back down to her waist. She peered below to Witch's Rock. Tamar stood looking out at the sea, her long dress fluttering around her ankles.
"When we go back, we'll walk right by her," said Vera, drawing herself up tall. "Those Rands do not own the quidnunc."
"But they do own most everything else around here," Maggie said. "Our dads fish for old Howard, so it would be best not to cause any trouble."
Howard Rand was the richest man in Bonnie Bay. He had a large herd of sheep, and owned more boats than any of his neighbors. Maggie's father and Vera's father, Maggie's Uncle Norm, worked as fishermen on one of Howard Rand's boats. It was the custom for the owner of a boat to divide the catch of fish with his men. Then the owner would take back some fish from each shareman to help pay toward the costs of running the boat. But old Rand was known to charge unfair costs to his men. That and his sour disposition made him the most disagreeable skipper in Bonnie Bay. However, he had the best boats and fishing gear, and most folks considered it a privilege to work for him.
Maggie climbed back down to the mossy ledge, with Vera and Sirius close behind. She folded her blanket, gathered her china, and crawled into the little cave. Maggie thought about the eleven black birds. A secret that'll never be told. "Remember, you must never, never tell anyone about this cave," she warned Vera, who had followed her inside. "This is our secret. Do you swear?"
Vera held up her right hand. "I swear," she said solemnly.
Maggie hid her blanket and dishes on a stone ledge inside the cave. Then the girls climbed up to the top of the quidnunc and onto the path that took them back to the village. Sirius lumbered along ahead of them, wagging his silky tail.
When they approached Witch's Rock, the girls were frightened by the sound of growling, snarling dogs. Sirius began to bark. Suddenly, a sheep darted out from the bushes, bolting toward the cliff where Tamar was standing. She turned and shrieked as two vicious dogs came after the sheep. The sheep lost its footing on the rocky soil and plummeted off the boulder into the churning water below.
Screaming, Maggie and Vera raced to the edge and looked down. Maggie could see the sheep floating in the water.
"Your dog frightened it!" screamed Tamar, her dark eyes blazing as the two strange dogs bounded out of sight.
Before Maggie could answer, Sirius ran to the edge of the cliff and pawed the air, first with one paw and then the other. Suddenly, he sprang off the rock and down into the sea.
"He'll be killed!" Maggie howled. She peered fearfully over the cliff edge. Sirius's big head was bobbing up and down as he swam toward the sheep. Grabbing hold of the sheep's fleece with his teeth, the dog dragged his heavy burden back to the shore.
"He saved the sheep," Vera said excitedly. "He dove from the cliff to save the sheep."
Tamar scrambled down the path to the beach. "If I had a gun, I'd shoot that dog."
Maggie and Vera followed her to where Sirius was sniffing the lifeless animal.
"It's dead!" Tamar said accusingly. She waggled a finger at Maggie. "You and that dog will pay for this, you can be sure."
"We don't even know those dogs that attacked your sheep," Maggie protested. "My dog tried to save it. He dove all that way into the water to bring it back."
"My poor little sheep. She was about to yean, and I would have had a little lamb." Tears streamed down Tamar's cheeks. "You'll be sorry!" Tamar shook her fist at Maggie and narrowed her eyes. Her sharp features made Maggie think of a witch. "I'll see to it something terrible happens to all of you!"
"That's a right awful thing to say, Tamar!" Maggie snapped. "You know perfectly well that Sirius is a good dog."
"I'm going back and tell my Pa," said Tamar. She ran up the path toward town.
"C'mon," said Maggie as she headed for the road. "Let's go home."
Sirius sniffed at the sheep again. His tail wagged slowly, then he turned and followed Vera.
"That Tamar is a terrible witch," said Maggie angrily, "unjustly accusing Sirius."
"I wonder what she's going to do?" Vera shuddered. "She scares me."
"Pa will take care of it," Maggie said confidently. "He'll make it right with old Howard Rand."
Pa and Ma Wells were at the kitchen table having four o'clock tea when Maggie stomped in breathlessly, Vera and Sirius at her heels.
"Ma! Pa!" she hollered without stopping to take off her shoes. "We're in a lot of trouble. Listen to what just happened."
Vera sat on the floor by the door and unbuttoned her black boots. "That witch, Tamar!" she spit out bitterly. "She's cursed us."
After Maggie and Vera had told their story, Pa asked, "Whose dogs chased the sheep?"
"I don't know," said Maggie. "One was black and the other was spotted. They're not Newfoundlands, like Sirius."
"Maybe they come from Whale's Gulch," Vera said.
"What will old Rand do?" Maggie grabbed her father's arm anxiously. "Will he shoot Sirius?"
"Of course not!" Ma burst out, her red-haired temper flaring.
"Probably the worst that will happen is that Rand will try to charge us the price of the sheep from my share of the fish," said Pa.
"At any rate, you can never tell till after," said Ma. "Try not to worry." She stroked Maggie's head and turned to Vera, who was still on the floor, leaning against Sirius. Ma shook her head. "Vera, don't sit there on the floor, maid. You'll get a draft. You don't look well. Are you all right?"
"I'm all right, Aunt Grace," said Vera, getting to her feet, "except I have a little headache."
"How long have you had a headache?" Ma felt Vera's head. "You're feverish, Vera. You should go home to bed."
"Probably all the excitement," said Pa with a wink at Vera. "That Tamar is enough to give anyone a headache."
"She cursed us." Vera shivered. "Just like a witch. She pointed her finger and said we'd be sorry." Suddenly, her face paled as she looked at something through the window.
Sirius stood up attentively, his head cocked.
Coming through the gate was Howard Rand, his ruddy face flushed with anger. Tamar was running behind him. "You shoot that dog, Papa. You show them they can't kill our sheep."
Maggie gasped. Old Rand was carrying a rifle!
Copyright © 2000 by Joan Hiatt Harlow