The Golden Pears/Chapter 1

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I

DURM CLINCHELL sat on the high bank of the St. Francis River, in the Dark Bend swamps, opposite a little rippling shoal between two long, curving stillwaters. Across from him was a wide, white sand-bar, along the back of which was a growth of willow-trees, and beyond which was the dark brake timber. His feet dangled down the steep, caving bank, and his eyes turned restlessly up and down the river.

Across his lap rested a repeating rifle. On his head was a broad-brimmed black hat. His upper lip was smooth-shaven, while his chin carried a gray rope six inches long and two inches in circumference. His bushy eyebrows were heavier than many a mustache. His eyes were of a stern, pale brown—paler and grimmer than ever just now.

His business there was to kill a man. The man to be killed was Lunmer Andrest, an impudent young pup of a swamp-angel who didn't take Durm Clinchell as seriously as some others did, in spite of all that the old man had done and been in the Dark Bend swamps.

"Now if I hadn't never killed anybody, he would have been excused," Clinchell swore to himself; "but I'd killed fellers before. Men that don't mind their own business has naturally got to be killed up—he knows that!"

"Hands up, Mr. Clinchell!" a stern voice hailed the thinker from behind. "Don't you touch that gun, Mr. Clinchell, or I'll just naturally plumb you through the liver an' lights!"

The old man's hands went up. Andrest had failed to come down the Stillwater in his canoe, to be shot at seventy yards, according to program. He had landed up-stream, around the bend, and crept down a dry bayou. Taking advantage of the soft, swampy ground, he had obtained the bushwhack advantage and caught his enemy unawares.

"Get up!" Andrest ordered. "Let that gun slip onto the bank, or into the river, I don't care which, only don't touch it—no, sir!"

Clinchell did as ordered. He left the rifle lying on the bank and halted ten yards away. Andrest picked it up, and then marched his prisoner along the bank to where a canoe was tied by a bit of trot-line to a snag root in the eddy of the sand-bar at the head of the Stillwater up-stream.

"I 'low I'll take you for a canoe-ride, Mr. Clinchell," the young man observed politely. "You hadn't any call to layway me, and—"

"I told you to keep clear and shet of my gal Sue Belle!" the old man exploded wrathfully. "Didn't I fair-warn ye, and didn't—"

"Sue Belle 'lowed if I didn't get to see her, somebody else would, an' so I just naturally 'lowed I'd get to see her, Mr. Clinchell. You've been disturbin' things round here enough. I'm going to take you down to Deerport and have you bound to keep the peace. Then, if you 'low to shoot me, or kill me up, it 'll be illegal. Get into that canoe, now!"

Old Clinchell choked, but he sat down in the bow of the canoe with his hands clasped across his shins. This was a new experience. He had always surrendered honorably after killing his man, but now he was captured before he could carry out his threat to shoot young Lunmer Andrest.

"Yes, sir!" Andrest continued. "I 'low I'll bond you to keep the peace!"

Accordingly the canoe started down the St. Francis, paddled by Andrest, who had a rifle on each side of him. It was fourteen miles to Deerport, but the trip was made quickly. Durm Clinchell's only possible chance to escape was to upset the canoe, dive deep, and thus elude his captor. The prisoner would have tried it but for a statement made by Andrest at the very start.

"You keep those hip-boots on, Mr. Clinchell!" he had said. "I've took mine off. If you upsot this canoe, with those hip-boots on, they'll suck you right down into the mud, sure. I'm barefooted, an' I'll float. I'll go back up an' marry Sue Belle, an' we'll spend good cotton and gum-log money—yes, sir!"

At that boast old Clinchell's ears turned bright red, and his neck looked sunburnt, for he believed that it was true. He believed a good many things that weren't so, that old St. Francis River plantation-owner. On the other hand, he didn't believe some things that were true. For instance, he never would have credited Sue Belle with saving him from the wrath of Lunmer Andrest.

"Lunmer," she.had declared, "if you git killed, it's your fault; but if my daddy—dear old daddy!—gits shot up, I'll see that you git hung, shore as you're borned! Course I like you, Lunmer, but you mustn't kill my old daddy—no, indeedy!"

"But he's threatening to kill me!" Lunmer protested.

"Suttinly—ain't you tryin' to steal his gal?" she asked blandly. "Wouldn't you want to kill anybody in the world that tried to steal me?"

"Course I would!"

"Then why shouldn't my old daddy want to kill you?" she demanded triumphantly.

"Well, then, I'll—I'll—"

"I don't cyar what you do, s'long's you don't kill my old daddy," she smiled. "And s'long's you don't get killed yourself," she added.

All these things, and more, had led up to the scene when Andrest bushwhacked old Clinchell and started him down to Deerport to put him under bonds to keep the peace.

They went ashore at the Deerport steamboat-landing, and Andrest marched his captive up the clay bank into the main street. Clinchell marched with his hands in the air, for Andrest feared there might be sixshooters and long knives among the old man's garments. He carried the two rifles, one in each hand, ready to drop one and throw the other to his shoulder at the first hostile motion. He would have shot, then, and Clinchell knew it.

On the court-house steps sat Sheriff Ferris, two or three deputies, and County Judge Darkin. Old Clinchell had been tried four times before Judge Darkin, twice on the charge of homicide and twice for disturbing the peace by killing people. All four times Clinchell had been acquitted, his attorney having produced evidence that he had acted in self-defense.

"Well, 'fore the Lord o' gumption, what's this?" Sheriff Ferris demanded. "What has happened?"

"That young ras—"

"Hold on, Mr. Clinchell!" Andrest ordered. "You're my prisoner. If you run and try to escape, I'll shoot the living sunlight through you! Same way if you talk, and try to escape thataway! You understand just what I mean. I won't have no nonsense! That tongue of yourn has let you escape hanging four times, and you cayn't escape me thataway. No, sir! You try to talk yourself leg-loose, an' I'll plug you right through, jes' the same's if you tried to run. You try either way, and I shoot!"

A slow smile spread across Judge Darkin's countenance. He was used to subtle arguments, and he keenly appreciated a distinction that was no difference. Leg-bail it or tongue-bail it—for the first time in his life he saw that point clearly demonstrated. He turned a keen eye on the young man, who stood grimly silent, giving the old planter all the chance in the world to get himself out of the scrape by talking—if he wanted to take that chance.

Old Clinchell blinked. His eyes stared large in surprise. This day was a novel one in his years of experience. He heard the calm voice of Andrest take up the subject of the visit to Deerport.

"Judge Darkin," Andrest began, "I brought this man down here to have him put under the bonds to keep the peace. I hated to kill him. He sure 'lowed to kill me; he's been telling all around that he'd kill me fust chance he had. He hasn't had that chance, not yet. He was sitting on the caving bank, up St. Francis, 'cross from that shell sandbar, waiting, to-day. Like's not he'll lie and say—"

"You mean to say I'd lie?" Old Clinchell turned and burst out with wrath.

"Yes, sir—lie like a coon, like a cottonmouth snake—and I'll shoot you, same's I would a possum, if you don't shet your mouth. He'd lie and say he was watching for a deer. He warn't. He heard say I'd come down St. Francis, 'round Dark Bend, to-day. He was there to git me. I set a trap for him, and there's his rifle. I come to get him put under bonds—"

Judge Darkin shook his head.

"Mr. Clinchell is a very important citizen. Accusations against him must be supported by evidence."

"Yes, sir, o' course, an' I ain't nobody but Lun Andrest. But Mr. Clinchell's anxious to be put under bonds—he sure is! He's going to beg you to put him under bonds—sit down there, Mr. Deputy! Don't try to shuffle around behind me! Understand that? Yes, sir, Mr. Clinchell wants to be put under bonds—don't you, Mr. Clinchell?"

"What? Me want to be put under bonds? Why, you—"

"Hold on, Mr. Clinchell! Let me explain my position. Sit down, Mr. Sheriff! Don't you move around thataway. If you're a friend of Mr. Clinchell's, don't try to get around behind me, for I'm going to kill him fust!"

The young man was grim and angry. His eyes shone with hate. These county officials were Clinchell's friends. Clinchell owned fifty thousand acres of gum and cypress land, and picked a thousand acres of cotton every year. He could kill a man, and no one would say a word beyond seeing that he was tried for homicide and properly acquitted. Andrest was just a poor boy, with few friends and no relatives. He knew what to expect there in the county court of Cypress County.

"Yes, sir," Andrest continued, biting his words into square chunks, "Mr. Clinchell wants to be put under bonds to keep the peace. The reason is, if he don't go under bonds to keep the peace with me, I sure got to kill him, right here in the co't-house square! Then I'll have to shoot the sheriff and the county judge, so's I'll get a fair trial come next court. I'm tellin' you, not makin' no threats, understand. It's ag'in' the law to make threats. If Mr. Clinchell don't want to go under bonds, o' course, I got to protect my life. That's self-defense. Sheriff Ferris heard him say he'd kill me—heard him say it over his dinner-table last Saturday evening. Now didn't you, sheriff?"

The sheriff blinked unhappily. Clinchell was glaring at him, and the county judge was assuming a calmly judicial air.

"You wouldn't say a lady lied, would you, sheriff?" Andrest continued harshly. "I don't allow any man to say a lady lied, Mr. Ferris!"

A look of astonishment supplanted the anger in Clinchell's expression.

"Mr. Clinchell's interested in your not saying a lady lied!" Andrest warned the sheriff. "You heard this man say he'd kill Lunmer Andrest last Saturday, didn't you, sheriff?"

"Yes, sir!" Sheriff Ferris popped out, while old Clinchell turned and looked longingly toward the swamp north of the bayou beyond the town limits.

"There, judge! There, Judge Darkin! There's a plumb honorable witness, sayin' this man threatened to kill me!" Andrest remarked evenly. "I'm not blamin' the sheriff now for not telling this gentleman he was a prisoner, right there, and bringin' him down himself to put him under bonds. I'm just suggestin', though I'm no lawyer, judge, that no common, ornery hundred-dollar bond will restrain this old scoundrel here. You know his record. He's a skinflint, but he never was mean about his lawyer fees or his politics money. He'll be plumb keerful how he vi'lates a real bond, sir!"

"Perhaps you think you can tell this court its duty?" Judge Darkin demanded with real anger.

"No, sir!" Andrest shook his head. "Sit still there, sheriff! I don't tell no judge his duty. But I'd sure hate the name of killin' up a county court for self-defense. You see, a man can protect himself from gettin' killed. If it's one man shootin' at him, all right. If it's one man shootin' and another man tryin' to distract the principles of the affair and mixin' in—same way. If I got to protect myself from the Cypress County gov'ment, after havin' appealed to it for protection, all right, I'm not responsible. I got a case, now, that I could fight right plumb up to the United States Constitution. Government is government, but a gang of murderers is a gang, if one side of it jes' sets the other side, that does the killin', free. That's law. You make that bond respectable and according to what is!"

"Yes, sir," Judge Darkin said. "Deputy, go get the county clerk; tell him to bring peace bonds with him."

By this time a little crowd had gathered around, staring at the scene. They were mostly no-account swamp and bottom-lands people—malaria,l, mosquito-bitten, gallinipper-harassed, and dyspepsia-depressed. They grinned at the predicament of the county government and several of its leading citizens. The leading citizens blushed and tried to be oblivious.

County Clerk Farl appeared with an old-fashioned secretary. The deputy had warned him of the condition of affairs, and he was ready to do his duty, impersonally and according to the court's directions.

"Fill in that bond," Darkin ordered harshly. "Make it—make it for fifty thousand dollars. Killing is murder, and murder has got to stop in this county!"

A gasp of astonishment sounded from the spectators. Clinchell started up.

"Why, who'll go my bond fo' that much?" he demanded.

"I don't know, sir," Judge Darkin replied indifferently. "You let yourself into this thing; now you got to find your way out. If you 'tended to things up there in Dark Bend swamps, it 'd be all right. When they get down here into civilization, the law takes its course!"

Clinchell looked from side to side. He was wealthy—he had hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of property; but at first flush he could think of no way of providing a fifty-thousand-dollar bond to keep the peace.

"It 'll be all right!" he exclaimed hopefully. "I'll sign it!"

"No, sir! You'll go into jail, sir, till there's sureties to satisfy this court!" Judge Darkin replied.

The judge signed the paper and handed it to the sheriff.

"I surrender this man to you, Mr. Sheriff," Andrest said. "Thank you, judge! A man gets desperate when an old scoundrel like this one sets out to shoot him, 'specially when a man knows that there's no court to punish him if he does meanness. I 'lowed the only way to do was get him peace-bonded 'fore we got to shootin'. If that don't do no good, I'll do some bushwhacking—yes, sir! That ain't no threat, sir; it's a promise. Good day, sir!"

"Good day, sir!"

The judge rose to bow. Andrest backed away, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He left Clinchell's rifle on the sidewalk and returned to his canoe. Five minutes later he was paddling up the St. Francis again.

Sheriff Ferris went around to various law-offices with Clinchell who felt that he needed legal advice, hut his requests were not for ways of breaking the force of the peace bond. If that peace bond were set aside by judicial action of any kind, a determined young man with a first-class rifle would be turned loose, too.

What Clinchell wanted was a proper surety for the bond, and this he obtained at last by making out a mortgage on certain timber, which he offered to Danton Lesgar, president of a local bank. With this mortgage for security, the banker went over to the court and signed the paper.

"Say, judge!" Clinchell said, when the formalities had been finished. "Suppose I violate that bond—suppose I shoot that young scoundrel?"

"You forfeit fifty thousand dollars."

"That all?"

"No; it's a serious crime to kill any one when you are under peace bond, especially as you are particularly enjoined in this bond to keep the peace with Lunmer Andrest. If you kill him, you'll sure hang!

"What?"

"Yes, sir. If I'm the judge, you'll be hung!"

"S-s-say—how long is that bond for?"

"One year."

"Then—then it—"

"Expires."

"Then killing wouldn't be so—so—"

"So serious? As an officer of the court, I might suggest to you that what you are talking now will be very strongly corroborative of premeditation, if you kill young Andrest after the bond expires. As a friend, I might urge on you that the young man seems to know what he is about, and if I were a betting man I'd like to put down something on his not being killed by any one."

Clinchell turned and strode away angrily. He picked up the rifle from where Andrest had dropped it and took the trace, his short cut for home in the Dark Bend swamps. As he strode he kicked up dust, and the dust curled up behind him.

When he was far out of hearing, Judge Darkin turned to Sheriff Ferris and asked casually:

"By the way, sheriff, the complainant referred to some lady in the case—said that it would not be discreet to accuse her of prevarication. Might I ask, as a friend, you know, what ladies were present at that dinner where old Clinchell uttered his—indiscretions?"

"I've been trying to remember." Sheriff Ferris shook his head. "There was a yellow girl waiting on the table, and an old mammy sorting out the hot bread and pones and chicken and beef and so on in the fireplace, so's we'd have enough to eat. You see, we were mostly talking business and politics—sho!"

"What's the idea, sheriff?"

"Sue Belle Clinchell—sure as you're borned, judge! That was the only lady there was, and she's pretty! Yes, sir!"

"It occurred to me that perhaps she was the lady." Judge Darkin nodded, pleased with his own powers of deduction. "I was wondering why young Andrest didn't kill the old cuss and be done with it. Now I understand—old man Clinchell's the father of his sweetheart. Um-m!"

"It 'd be mean if you'd killed your wife's daddy." The sheriff shook his head. "She'd be always throwing it in your face!"

"That's so. Wonder what Andrest does to live!"

"He's a trapper—hunter—he don't amount to much."

"No-o, not yet." Judge Darkin nodded. "He had a smart way of talking, though. You know, I'm glad he made us put that peace bond the way we done. Course, old Clinchell would have honored a hundred-dollar bond same's a big one—to save his neck. But fifty thousand—sho! When he thinks it over, he'll sure be plumb proud!"