The Golden Pears/Chapter 2

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II

Lunmer Andrest, as soon as he was around the bend up the St. Francis, sank his paddle deep in the pale-green Stillwater and drove his sassafras-log canoe swiftly upstream. It was a long, beautiful canoe. The outside and bottom were as smooth as polished oak, and the inside was cut out as accurately and smoothly as it could be planed. There had been a bend in the log that enabled the adz-man and chiseler to give the bow and stern a pointed rise of beautiful shape.

From the head of Lake Nicormy to the foot of Crowley Ridge, at Helena, where the St. Francis empties into the Mississippi, there was not a prettier canoe than Lunmer Andrest's.

"Lunmer jes' natcherly has an eye for pretty tricks!" some one had said.

"No man ever was wuth shucks who run to posies an' red birds an' pretty tricks!" old Clinchell had growled in reply.

"Course some men that's real practical sets store by pretty women," Si Hed Jesnie suggested slyly.

"Sho!" grunted Clinchell angrily, and yet feeling a kind of compliment at that. Old Clinchell did have a hard time trying to keep all kinds of men from bothering his girl, Sue Belle.

A man with an eye for pretty tricks had no business with the daughter of an eminently practical citizen like old Durm Clinchell. If Andrest had only been able to see himself as other people saw him, he would have understood the condition; but he told himself that of all the pretty tricks in the Dark Bend bottoms, Sue Belle Clinchell was the finest. On her side, for reason or whimsy of her own. Sue Belle Clinchell seemed to favor the trapper and fisherman who lived in a little yellow shanty-boat in one of the long, half-moon eddies of the St. Francis River.

Andrest drove his fine canoe up-stream to his home stillwater. As he rounded the last turn on the way, he saw his little yellow house-boat resting under the huge, outswung branches of a monster gum-tree. The leaves of the gum were pale yellow, too. Fat red squirrels were romping in the neighboring trees, and back in the woods young wild gobblers were trying to give weight to their gobbling practise.

High overhead, a flock of wild geese lettered the sky as they flew southward. The tree-tops, the mid-height branches, the shrubs next to the ground, were alive with migrating birds—warblers, wrens, thrushes, and such like. A swarm of robins left a narrow sand-bar with a roar like a tornado, their wings beat the air so swiftly and there were so many thousands of them.

With his eye for beautiful things, Lunmer Andrest lost few details of the scene of his home eddy. He had dropped down Little River out of the back country of New Madrid several years before. He had floated with spring and winter tides till he found the Dark Bend swamps, and they satisfied his need for fish, game, and fur. He could find beauty anywhere, except in the great city country up on the Ohio, from which he had fled.

Now, having run his canoe to the stern of his cabin-boat, he walked the length of the craft, caught the trot-line at the bow, made it fast to a timber-head of the houseboat, and stepped upon the deck. The fact that he could walk fifteen feet along a polished bottom sassafras canoe without upsetting it, without even thinking that he was doing anything unusual, indicated his skill and long practise in such craft.

He stopped on the house-boat deck and looked at the scene for which he had such fond regard—the unspoiled swamp wilderness with its birds and beasts, the river with its limestone green, the sky with its soft radiance.

"If men would only leave a man alone!" Andrest sighed. "I'm peaceable; I mean harm to no one; but they just won't leave a man alone!"

With an angry gesture, he flung open the door of his cabin and entered. The day had been a trying one. He had looked forward to it for sixty hours or so with distaste amounting almost to dread; but old Clinchell had become unbearable, and it had been necessary to bring the questions at issue to a head.

"I got out of it better'n I had any right to expect." Andrest shook his head doubtfully. "I 'lowed I'd sure have to kill him or somebody, but the politicians down to Deerport seemed to understand. They was real reasonable. Like as not they knowed I meant what I said. Perhaps they're tired of old Clinchell's meanness theirselves. I got him under bond, anyhow. Now, if he kills me, there ain't no self-defense or legality to it nohow, and it 'll cost the old scoundrel fifty thousand dollars. He'd just as soon pay two-three thousand dollars in lawyers' fees and court troubles for killin' a man, but fifty thousand's different. I bet it wouldn't be any satisfaction killin' a no-'count shanty-boater if you forfeit fifty thousand dollars. It wouldn't be to me, I know that!"

"Wu-hoo!"

A voice sounded from up the bank. The morose depression vanished from Andrest's countenance. That voice was sweeter than any bird's to his ear, and he knew some lovely singing birds. He sprang to the bow deck and up the bank. His face was alight with smiles. His eyes were shining with happiness.

At the top of the bank he looked the half-circle around, but saw no one. He laughed aloud.

"Hoo-wu!" he replied and then ran out in a half-circle to accept the challenge.

Sure enough, he found tracks, and following these in the soft wood loam he traced their maker into a crevice in a cottonwood-tree that was seven feet in diameter. He went right into the hollow, and immediately there was a shrill squeal.

Backing out, Andrest was followed by a young woman, hardly more than a girl. She looked him fairly in his blue eyes and demanded:

"Well, sir?"

"He's bonded!"

"Then he cayn't kill you!" she exclaimed. "And you didn't get to shoot him?"

"I just got the drop on him, and I took him down to Deerport—"

"And Judge Darkin bonded him?"

"He sure did."

"But he's friendly to daddy!"

"He bonded him," Andrest insisted. "Course the sheriff 'lowed he'd heard old—your daddy say he'd kill me."

"Why didn't he he? He never let on but lie before!" she demanded.

"I asked him did he want to tell me a lady lied. Then he said your daddy 'lowed to get me."

"You—you asked him that?" she demanded, her face blank with surprise. "Sho! And there's folks that 'lowed you—you warn't quite bright!"

Andrest grinned sheepishly.

"I just wanted to know!" she exclaimed. "Good day, sir!"

She turned and fled into the big timber. Unhitching a mule, she mounted and soon disappeared.

Andrest looked after her long after she had been lost to his view in the dark woods. It was friendly of her to come and see him there. She always had been friendly to him. Sometimes he wondered at that—the daughter of a rich old planter, who might have been friendly with any young man in the St. Francis bottoms, where there were young men of the quality kind.

He was under no illusions regarding his position. Clinchell had been bested personally, but the old man would now work his schemes indirectly. Andrest knew that his troubles had but just begun.

Only one sure escape was open to him, and that was flight. He could drop down St. Francis into old Mississip', and there would be slight chance of old Clinchell chasing him farther. That meant abandoning the beautiful forest river, fleeing from the wonderful Dark Bend swamps, and leaving Sue Belle Clinchell for some other young man to get. If he went, she would properly despise him; if he remained, he must fight—fight bushwhacking enemies and bought assailants.

Lunmer Andrest could have cried for vexation—could have shed tears, the evidence of the poetry in his soul. Practical people do not weep, but those who love things of beauty know the welling of tears into their eyes. The sign of emotion is no sign of weakness, however; and if he would have preferred peace, he did not flinch from fighting through lack of courage.

He entered his cabin-boat and cleaned his firearms. He had several, each according to certain needs. He had a little twenty-two-caliber repeater, which served to kill squirrels, rabbits, and similar small game. He had a heavy small-bore rifle, good for wild turkeys, wild geese, deer, and other large swamp game. He had a repeating shotgun which brought down wild fowl in full flight—ducks of many kinds, as well as feather birds. In addition to these was a pair of automatic pistols, which he now cleaned and worked with extra pains.

The side-arms were a sign of the jeopardy of the swamps. Many people could get along without them. Men who minded their own business, who courted no women and troubled no neighbor's hogs, who kept far within the bounds of peace and good nature, need carry no pocket or holster guns. But the moment there was a chance of trouble, only the foolhardy would refrain from packing a pocket-shooter night and day.

Andrest put on his wide belt and slipped the automatics into the holsters. The holsters were hidden by his coat. The weight was troublesome, but that was one of the penalties of being prepared for emergency.

What would old Clinchell do? That was the question uppermost in Andrest's mind. He could think of a good many ways in which an attack might be made, but he could not guess from what direction it was likely to come, and he spent a wakeful and uneasy night.

In the morning he set forth in his skiff to pull his hoop-nets. He had the traps in pools in several river stillwaters, and in two deep-water lakes which he discovered back in the brake. When he had raised the nets, he had more than a hundred pounds of fish. He rowed them up to River Bridge, to ship them in a coffee-bag to a Memphis commission merchant. The station-agent handed him an envelope containing payment for the fish shipped two days before—six dollars and a few cents.

"I hear you met up with old Clinchell?" the agent questioned covertly.

"Oh, yes!" Andrest nodded, smiling. "We 'lowed to go to Deerport. It's all right now."

"You say it is?" The agent looked wonderingly. "No, sir; don't you believe it! Old Clinchell's jes' bound to be mean and trifling. Course he won't do anything hisself; but you watch out, Mr. Man! If I had that old man rearing down on me, you know what I'd do? I'd light out'n this Dark Bend district so quick I'd make dust o' mud; I would indeedy!"

"It's a free country!" said Andrest, but he shook his head as he returned down the embankment to his skiff.

As he rowed down-stream he reckoned up his money. An idea had come into his head. Sue Belle was fond of him, and he wondered if he could persuade her to elope with him. He doubted if she would go with a shanty-boater down the Mississippi to live. She was the daughter of a rich old planter—an only child.

One great question was the amount of money available. When one courts the daughter of a thousand-acre cotton-picker, the thought of money bids him pause. The problem of escape and pursuit, the strangeness of the lower river—none of these things worried Andrest. He guessed that Sue Belle would go when they were ready; but he had only a little money, hardly enough to keep the girl in the kind of clothes she wore. One suit, she had mentioned casually, cost forty-eight dollars in Memphis. That wasn't any too good for her, but Andrest's best suit cost eleven dollars and a half, and his work suit had cost two dollars and sixty cents by mail.

Andrest reckoned his whole fortune at just eighteen hundred and twenty dollars, including five dollars of his day's receipts. The rest of his money was buried in demijohns back in the swamp by a certain tree. The shanty-boater did not know how to put his savings out at interest, and he never had dared to ask questions that might awaken the suspicions of the bad men who lurked in the Dark Bend swamps.

Some of them, their neighbors said, would kill a man for fifty dollars—with pleasure, and without conscience. They had killed men for less than that. Andrest's face grew grave as he faced the probability that old Clinchell would consider this means of "losing" his enemy.

When he rounded the river turn in sight of his landing, he looked ahead to where his cabin-boat had been moored. The yellow craft was nowhere in sight. He quickened his stroke, ran down to the landing, and gave a startled look around.

Sure enough, there were the tracks of strange rubber boots. Some one had cast off the lines and set the boat adrift. Perhaps it had been set on fire and allowed to burn down to the water's edge. Perhaps it had been sunk in a deep stillwater; perhaps it was just chopped up and broken to pieces.

With wrath in his heart, Andrest pulled down-stream. Somewhere down the river he would find traces of the little yellow house-boat. As he rowed he realized what was in store for him.

"Old Clinchell's just goin' to pester me!" he told himself. "He's hired those swamp-angels that's scouting around to torment me and trouble my livin'!"

Sure enough, three miles down-stream, as he rounded a bend in sight of Culler's Shoals, he discovered his floating home aground in the little rapid. When he ran alongside with his skiff and looked into it, he found his suspicions corroborated.

A pirate had robbed the boat, spoiling what he could not conveniently carry away. The pretty interior was littered up with flour and corn-meal; the slab of bacon was gone. Andrest's woolen blankets had been cut into shreds; the mosquito-bars over the windows were slit and broken out, and the pails and crockery were, kicked in or smashed. His shotgun and a heavy revolver were missing.

He had always kept the little boat as neat as soap, water, and little tricks could make it. He had woven pretty mats out of the bright feathers of birds that he killed to eat, and hung them on the walls. He had carved bone-hard chunks of wood into little statues and ornaments, polishing and varnishing them. He always had a few posies in a glass dish on the table.

More than that, he had picked up many mussel-shells in the river and along the sand-bars, and had wired them into little jars, in which he grew pretty ferns and plants of his own. His furniture was all home-made, of heavy, black wood, with home-tanned buckskin seats. His pillows were home-filled with goose-down—not the feathers, but the softest fluffs of down.

All his pretty contrivances were trampled up and mixed in the flour and corn-meal which splashed the floor and walls, the vandal having thrown pails of water into the mess. The pirate's footprints had tracked back and forth as he devastated Andrest's home.

"I got to pack a big shoulder-rifle now!" he told himself emphatically. "I cayn't let that hired scoundrel get away, either. He must have jumped ashore somewhere up this stillwater—I'll get to see where he landed!"

Throwing over an anchor to hold the boat on the shoal in case the water should rise, he rowed up the east bank of the Stillwater to the next shoal above. Then he pulled down the west side, watching the bare ground. Half-way down the Stillwater he found the spot where the man had jumped ashore. The track of the flour and cornmeal on the bank was plain against the clay.

"He's a bad scoundrel!" Andrest told himself. "He's careless about his tracks, an' that shows he's afraid of no man. He 'lows there's no one that dares track him back into his dark corner. I'll see about that! I'll see about old Clinchell hiring him, too!"