This was what Lad's scent and hearing,--and perhaps something else,--had warned him of, in that instant of the wind's eddying shift. And this was the scene he looked down upon, now, from the ravine-lip, five feet above.
The collie brain,--though never the collie heart,--is wont to flash back, in moments of mortal stress, to the ancestral wolf. Never in his own life had Sunnybank Lad set eyes on a wildcat. But, in the primal forests, wolf and bob-cat had perforce met and clashed, a thousand times. There they had begun and had waged the eternal cat-and-dog feud, of the ages.
Ancestry now told Lad that there is perhaps no more murderously dangerous foe than an angry wildcat. Ancestry also told him a wolf's one chance of certain victory in such a contest. Ancestry's aid was not required, to tell him the mortal peril awaiting this human child who had so grievously and causelessly tormented him. But the great loyal heart, in this stark moment, took no thought of personal grudges. There was but one thing to do,--one perilous, desperate chance to take; if the child were to be saved.
Such a leap could readily have carried it across double the space which lay between it and Cyril. But not one-third of that space was covered in the lightning pounce.
From the upper air,--apparently from nowhere,--a huge shaggy body launched itself straight downward. As unerringly as the swoop of an eagle, the down-whizzing bulk flew. It smote the leaping wildcat, in mid-flight.
A set of mighty jaws,--jaws that could crack a beef-bone as a man cracks a filbert,--clove deep and unerringly into the cat's back, just behind the shoulders. And those jaws flung all their strength into the ravening grip.
A squall,--hideous in its unearthly clangor,--split the night silences. The maddened cat whirled about, spitting and yowling; and set its foaming teeth in the dog's fur-armored shoulder. But before the terrible curved claws could be called into action, Lad's rending jaws had done their work upon the spine.
To the verge of the narrow ledge the two combatants had rolled in their unloving embrace. Its last lurch of agony carped the stricken wildcat over the edge and out the ninety-foot drop into the ravine. Lad was all-but carried along with his adversary. He clawed wildly with his toes for a purchase on the smooth cliff wall; over which his hindquarters had slipped. For a second he hung, swaying, above the abyss.