The Golden Pears/Chapter 3

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III

The Clinchell plantation occupied a level tract of bottoms more than a thousand acres in extent. On the west side was an old bayou, dry between overflows. On the east side was the St. Francis River. North and south were tupelo and cypress bottoms, covered after every rain with inches of water, and wilderness-grown because they were so low.

The plantation was eight or ten feet higher than any other land for miles around. Formerly it had been a cane-grown ridge, but Clinchell had cleared it, cutting away the timber and rafting it down to Helena. The timber began his fortune; the cotton which he planted among the stumps gave him a steady income, and he extended his claims until he had acquired fifty thousand acres of cypress and gum bottoms, while his cotton-field widened and bore thriftily as the stumps rotted down.

In the days when the Indians mastered the St. Francis bottoms, they had known this cane ridge; and because the Mississippi overflows covered even the cane during the spring and winter tides, they built a dozen mounds, one of which covered more than two acres. The big mound was thirty or thirty-five feet high when Clinchell built a split-board shack on it. He leveled off the tops of the other mounds, and built mule-pens and cattle-pens on them.

When the time came and money in plenty was in his hands, he tore down his old shack cabin, leveled off the big mound, and built a mansion on it. That mansion's foundation was five feet above the highest flood that ever flowed across the St. Francis bottoms from the Mississippi, or down the bottoms out of the Ozarks and other southern Missouri hills.

The foundation was built of stone, brought on barges from a quarry above Cairo, on the Mississippi. At each end was a brick chimney twelve feet wide. The roof was shingled with slate, and no one ever could remember how many thousand feet of black walnut, oak, cypress, and other fine woods went into the floors and ceilings and sides of the Clinchell mansion.

The mansion yard measured eight acres, and contained three smaller mounds, on which house-servant quarters were built. The quarters of the field-hands were away out on the flat land—cabins of logs chinked with lime, standing five or six feet above the level on stout posts.

To this mansion, which had tall white columns in front, green window-blinds, two high stories, and an attic, Clinchell brought the wife of his choice, having killed her other lover in a fair fight over on White River. He installed her with almost regal powers there in his primitive little kingdom of a hundred square miles.

It was many miles from the Clinchell plantation to any other plantation. The St. Francis River was the usual highway in high-water times, and several traces, or wood roads, meandered out from the ridge to the other settlements. One went down to Deerport, one up to the railroad, and other traces led back into the bottoms. These were used by the homesteaders, claim-holders, and fugitives scattered around on little ridges and mounds, which gave promise of being permanently dry land when the big drainage ditches carried off the water that oozed through the levees, fell from bursting clouds, or washed through in waves of overflow when the levees broke.

In thirty years Clinchell had become a rich and elderly widower, and as the father of Sue Belle he was content to let things remain as they were. So far as he knew, there was not a shade of discontent in his whole domain, even Sue Belle preferring the isolated plantation to the town life to which the family income would have entitled them.

"The trouble is those pesterin', no-'count, shiftless young bucks!" old Clinchell told himself as he strode out of Deerport, under bonds to keep the peace with the meanest type of all, a trifling shanty-boater. "That scoundrel—if he hadn't got the drap on me!"

Clinchell shook his shaggy head and gnashed his yellow fangs. He had never been under bonds to keep the peace before. Quite a number of his minor neighbors had been in that position at one time or another. Those who broke the bonds and shot somebody up had had to go to the penitentiary. That was the inevitable result.

Old Clinchell knew that if he made a personal attack on Andrest, public sympathy would be with the shanty-boater, who somehow managed to have a good many friends.

A cold dread had struck his heart when he first discovered, a few weeks before, that Sue Belle—of all girls!—had been friendlying around with the shanty-boater. Three or four silver dollars judiciously passed around among yellow plantation girls had brought him positive information that Sue Belle had actually rowed up the St. Francis River with Lunmer Andrest. They were almost courting, though none of the spies reported that they had actually behaved like lovers.

"They was jes' a talkin' an' paddlin'," one yellow girl declared. "They ain' got to bussin' er squazzin' er thataway."

Old Clinchell had almost had apoplexy at the thought of his Sue Belle kissing or squeezing, or anything like that, with the shiftless shanty-boater, who shipped his own furs and fish, who whistled to all kinds of dicky-birds, who knew all the flowers by their right names, and who squandered his time shucking clam-shells and cutting little images out of knuckle woods. He swore that he would "get shet" of Andrest. He ordered the plantation hands to keep him informed about the shanty-boater's movements. He worked himself up into a fine frenzy of anger and resentment.

Then, one day, the sheriff had happened to drive by, having been hunting a "rewarded" fugitive in some of the cane-brake ridges around the plantation. Old Clinchell had snatched at the opportunity to prepare the way for another killing, to be followed by the formality of a trial according to custom in the county court.

"You see how it is," he told Sheriff Ferris. "I just got to get shet of that young scoundrel. Supposing he should run away with this gal of mine? You see what that would mean. Here I'd be left all alone with just this old plantation and a thousand hands or so—nothing but work, work, work all the rest of my life. What did I bring that gal up for, do you expect?"

"It surely is hard!" Sheriff Ferris shook his head. "Can't you just run him out of the country? You know—scare him?"

"Scare him? Why, that man's such a tarnation fool, you can't scare him. I had two or three sawmill hands go down there a while back, and they was to beat him up good. Well, what happened? He just naturally give those black men the tearin'est, darin'est scare-up they ever had in all their borned days. He shot the ground from under their feet, made 'em dance, made 'em sing, told 'em they had to pray good. They done it, too!"

In spite of himself, old Clinchell laughed grimly.

"You see, I got to do it myself. I hate to, too. A man don't like to kill anybody, not without it's necessary; but I expect this is one of them times." Clinchell sighed. "So I 'low I'll just set on the bank next week and pot him as he draps down. I just wanted to know about next court-week, so if I had to be locked up it wouldn't be too long, and anyhow not till we get that cut on the red-bank section made and the logs skidded up ready for the barges next tide."

"You know it's against the law, killing is," the sheriff had remonstrated feebly.

"Oh, I know about that!" Clinchell had exclaimed. "I'll stand trial, if I'm caught. I don't want no mistake, like it was last time. Why, I was in jail three months, right in picking-time! All because I happened to forget, being so impatient, that court didn't set till come January, and there it was 'long of October. Well, like's not, you'll get to coming up thisaway again directly, 'count of meanness being done!"

Sheriff Ferris stirred uneasily in his chair. Old Clinchell was not like other constituents in Cypress County. He had lived away back in the Dark Bend country so long among his plantation-hands and sawmill-workers, surrounded by fugitives from justice from a dozen States and even foreign countries, that he had grown careless, had grown to depend less and less on the authorities, and more and more on his own firearms.

When he arrived in Deerport the following morning, Sheriff Ferris had talked the matter over with Judge Darkin, who hardly knew what to do about it. The county government was seriously alarmed, in fact, for old Clinchell was growing almost as lawless as some of the bad men around in the swamps who were being hunted for rewards, on charges of murder, and other serious crimes.

It was a great relief—secret, but none the less sincere—when the young shanty-boater turned the tables on the hot-headed old planter and brought him down to put him under bonds to keep the peace. Clinchell couldn't blame them for being trapped into doing their duty; and it was a warning which the old man could not help but take to heart.

"He's got money enough! He don't have to do his own killing!" people laughed when they heard of the matter. "Lawzee, but that young shanty-boater sure has his nerve with him!"

Old Clinchell was so angry that he forgot to hire a livery rig to drive him back to his plantation in the swamps. He stormed along the trace, growling under his breath, and glancing from right to left, as if that would help him to see his way out of the predicament.

Before he arrived home he saw the truth of what people had said—he had money enough not to do his own killing. However, it was not an easy matter to find any one to do meanness as regards young Andrest. Every one knew that Andrest never refused a man a meal, and more than once he had helped the scouters in the dark swamps to get word back to their own people without danger of being traced down and caught for the rewards on their heads.

Perhaps it wasn't killing that young Andrest needed, Clinchell reflected, for killing might bring embarrassment on himself. There were other things less attractive, but equally vindictive, and easier to accomplish. Clinchell stopped at a little cabin on what was called Racer Ridge, and held confab with a lank swamper who sat on a log-end, smoking a home-made cob pipe with a cane stem.

"Well, Jesnie!" he greeted. "You want to do me a favor? Want to earn a week's wages in an hour or two?"

"I shore do!" the smoker replied listlessly and without emotion.

"Well, here's five silver dollars—they're yours, providing. Now listen—you know Andrest's little yellow shanty-boat?"

"Yas, suh."

"Well, Andrest goes away from it real neglectful—takes his fish to River Bridge. So there's a lonesome eddy, and that boat into it. If that boat's tore up, an' what's into it all muxed around—um-m, I'd give ten silver dollars—five now and five when I hear it's done. Understand that?"

"Yas, suh."

"You'd do it?"

"I've no hawd feelings to'd Lun Andrest, suh!"

"You don't have to have. Don't you see, you do it for me! I'm the one has the hard feelings—"

"If I had the hawd feelin's, and wasn't man enough to display 'em myself, I wouldn't ast no other man to show 'em for me!" the swamp man exclaimed angrily and with his first show of feeling.

"Look here! Do you know you built this house on my land?" Clinchell demanded, taken aback by the swamp man's statement.

"Do you know I got a good gun an' it shoots long bullets? If my house ain't left alone I'll know who to shoot!" the swamp man declared emphatically. "I know you, Clinchell—you've done meanness, and you've been hawd with your help and those that ain't done your way. I'm honorable! Lunmer Andrest toted grub to me when I was scoutin'—he knowed I was innocent of killin' Champ Holdun, and he would 'a' swore to it. You never packed no grub to me, and I don't owe you nothin', suh. I'm faithful to my friends, suh!"

"Oh—I plumb forgot, Jesnie. Course Andrest is your friend. You put that five dollars into your pocket—I apologize. A man ought never to step between friends. I 'lowed you were just 'quaintances. You know any one that hasn't any good feehngs toward him? I don't want to make any more mistakes like that."

"Well, now, that's a bird of a longer feather, suh. Course Andrest's a stranger down thisaway, you might say. Course he voted here last 'lection. You know, he kind of argued some with Rip Morlung—"

"That's so, Jesnie! I plumb forgot. I'm obliged to you."

"Rip's not around home now, you know—not lately. I 'low he's scoutin'. He's rewarded since that fuss to the dance—

"Sho! S'posin' I left word?"

"I expect he'd get it—round of Drury's, or thataway."

"I bet he would! Good day, sir!"

"Good day!"

Clinchell took the trace road to Drury's, but before he arrived there he saw Rip Morlung just fading into the dark brake west of the trail.

"Oh, Rip!" he hailed. "I'm friendly! Want to see you a minute on business!"

Rip stopped, turned, and approached the old planter cautiously. At a few yards' distance he stopped, demanding:

"Well, Mr. Clinchell?"

"I got a bad friend I want taught his manners, Rip," Clinchell began. "I understand he's no friend of yourn, too. His name's Andrest, and he's a shanty-boater—"

"I know him! He's purty handy with his tongue, argufying."

"Well, I'll stand the damage if he sues, and I'll provide lawyers if anybody's arrested. I jes' want his boat tore up and set loose down St. Francis. He's—"

"I seen you an' him drapping down in hisn's canoe this mornin', Mr. Clinchell. He had both rifles in the stern. I thought sunthin', but, course it weren't my business—not then it wasn't."

"Yes, Rip—he took me down to Deerport and had me peace-bonded. That's why I'm seeing you. You aren't bonded!"

"No, suh! I never was, nor expect to be. I'll die right to the breech of my gun, a fightin' and a shootin' till I die. I never will be took alive!"

"Then it won't harm you none, and it 'll help you some, if you tear up that boat."

"It 'll help me some?"

"Yes, sir! I got ten silver dollars right here in my pocket now for any man that promises to tear that boat up. I got forty more silver dollars to home for the man that goes and tears it up!"

Clinchell drew a canvas shot-bag from his pocket and extracted from it ten silver dollars, which he stacked like poker-chips and held up for Rip to see.

"I'll shore tear that boat up, Mr. Clinchell!" Rip declared. "Set them onto that gum log there, and I'll go get 'em. Course I trust you, Mr. Clinchell, but when a man's scoutin' he's got to keep every man covered and cayn't take no chances!"

"I understand. Rip!"

Thus the bargain was struck, and Clinchell cut across through the brake toward his plantation. He followed a survey-line a mile east and then a mile north on the mile-square lots. Then he struck a township-line, which he followed till he ran into the Hills Trace, leading straight across through the woods to his plantation.

He was very well satisfied with his bargain. It was said in the Dark Bend swamps that no one ever had the best of old Durm Clinchell for very long. He believed that he was invincible, and was pleased to think that Andrest would not long remain in that territory to pester him and make him fear for his daughter.

On the following day, about noon, a yellow boy told him that a "gemman 'lowed to see 'im," and, sure enough, out in the edge of the brake he found Rip Morlung lurking beyond the dry bayou.

"Sho! You tore that boat up so soon?" Clinchell hailed him.

"I shore have, Mr. Clinchell! I knowed from what you said that you was urgent, so I took it this mornin', when he was up to the railroad with hisn's fish. I shore mussed up that boat—hue-e! I jes' waded into his flour and corn-meal!"

The swamp scouter held up his boots for Clinchell to admire the daubs of wet flour on them.

"Here's the forty dollars I owe you!" the old man said shortly, counting out the silver. "I see you did a good job!"

The fugitive took the money and faded into the swamp again. Clinchell turned back into the open field and, circling around by the cotton-pickers, saw that the crew was working to his satisfaction.

He wanted to laugh at the promptness of his answer to Andrest's temporary success. Still, he could not be sure that he was completely rid of the young shanty-boater until word reached him that Andrest had dropped down past Deerport in the little yellow boat. Sometimes young men did not take hints immediately. Sometimes they waited till something happened directly to them.

At any rate, Andrest would now have something to .think about besides courting around Sue Belle. More and more Clinchell's satisfaction increased as the day wore on, but the following morning he received a telephone message from' Deerport. The sheriff wished to talk to him.

"Hello, sheriff!" he greeted.

"Say, Mr. Clinchell, we got a man down here—feller there's a good reward on, and he was brung in and the reward collected. He says he's a friend of yours, and for me to tell you, and you'll help him out—"

"What's bis name?"

"Rip Morlung—you know, the man that shot Foreman Crust into the Dorlat logging-camps—"

"Rip Morlung! Who come in with him?"

"Why, that Lunmer Andrest—you know—the fellow that—"

"I know!" snapped Clinchell. "What does Rip want?"

"He 'lows he wants a lawyer."

"All right—get him Hep Lester!"

"All right, sir. Course, if he's a friend of yourn—"

"I'll be down before court," Clinchell interrupted. "Thank you—good day!"

Old Clinchell turned away from the telephone with a look of disgust on his face.

"The fool! Course Andrest tracked him—and got five hundred reward!"