The Preposterous Adventures of Swimmer (13 page)

BOOK: The Preposterous Adventures of Swimmer
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“Chocolate? Say, I'll bet those rascals didn't give you any supper, and I know you didn't have any lunch. Lordy me! Two chocolate bars coming up, and there'll be tea and tuna fish as soon as we make camp.”

Clarence fumbled in his knapsack, produced the chocolate, and said, “We'll wait while you eat one bar now, then we'd better move on and find our camp. Swimmer, you lead the way, and I'll follow behind Penny. Er, Penny, can you see by holding one eye open with your fingers?”

She tried it while she munched chocolate. “Oh, I can see just fine by doing that. Well, good enough, anyway.”

When they were ready to go, Clarence gave Penny his flashlight and followed close behind her, holding Scruff on his shoulder with one arm, and using his stick to brace himself as he moved along. Swimmer wound in and out between the crowding trees and ledges of rock, trying to pick the easiest path. Every few yards he stopped and waited while Ripple, with a corner of the tarpaulin in her mouth, guided Penny's feet around protruding roots that might have tripped her.

The main sound of the night was the steady roar of the creek far down on the left. But presently Swimmer could make out a new sound of water, a soft splashing this was, directly ahead. Yet with their slow progress it was long minutes before they reached the thicket of evergreens hiding the tiny stream.

Clarence placed Scruff on the ground and briefly explored the thicket. Finally he moved Scruff inside to an open spot under a ledge, gathered twigs and dry hemlock needles, and soon had a fire going.

“Nice place,” he said approvingly, as he unrolled his sleeping bag. “Out of sight and out of the wind. Okay, Penny, give me your tarp, and hop in the bag.”

“B-b-but I can't take your sleeping bag!” she protested. “Besides, I'm not a bit c-c-cold. Well, not very m-m-much, anyway.”

“Aw, fiffle,” said Swimmer. “Do as he tells you before he bops you.”

She giggled, drew off the piece of tarpaulin, and slid quickly into the bag.

Clarence set a small pan of water to heat on the fire, then took several cans of tuna fish from his knapsack. Opening one, he gave it to Penny along with a fork and a paper napkin.

“Eat it slowly,” he ordered, “and save the napkin. We'll need it to help clean things afterward.” He looked at Swimmer and Ripple. “How about you two? Are you hungry?”

“We had trout earlier,” Swimmer said. “And there are crawfish here if we want 'em.”

“That's good,” said Clarence. “We've only a few cans left. We'll save one for Scruff, and divvy up the rest for breakfast.”

It suddenly came to Swimmer that though Clarence himself hadn't eaten since morning, he was going to make do with a chocolate bar and save the fish for Penny and the others. As he watched Clarence bathe Penny's eyes, using a cloth moistened with some of the water he was boiling for tea, he realized how deeply concerned the man was about all of them. At the bottom of his worry was the broken-down van.

“Clarence,” he asked presently, “are you planning to hike to town in the morning?”

“I'm figuring on it. It's a three-hour hike, and I want to be there by the time things open. If the van isn't fixed, I'll rent a car—or buy an old one if I have to. I couldn't do it Sunday, and there wasn't time to do it today. You see, old pal, we've got to have transportation. Without it …”

Clarence paused. Penny, who had been propped against him while he bathed her swollen face, had fallen asleep. In her exhaustion she had not even finished her can of fish. Clarence made her comfortable for the night in the sleeping bag and shook his head.

“Poor kid,” he muttered. “She's had all she can take.” He turned and studied Scruff, who had not yet moved, then stretched out by the fire on Penny's scrap of tarpaulin.

“I don't like it, Swimmer,” Clarence confided. “If Scruff were okay, I wouldn't worry. But somehow I hate to go off and leave all of you here.”

“Aw, nobody's going to find us,” Swimmer told him, trying to sound more convincing than he felt.

“Oh, I'm sure they won't, but it's just how I feel. I keep feeling I ought to wait till Penny's had a good rest, then all of us should start out for Mr. Owl's place. But that doesn't make sense. I haven't the least idea where Mr. Owl lives, except that it's over the gap somewhere. It could be twenty miles from here.

“Besides,” Clarence went on, “he's not due back till late tomorrow. His daughter keeps house for him, but I understand she's away too. So that's out. Town's the best bet. Penny might be in no shape to walk tomorrow, or Scruff either. What we need is a car.”

“You could be right,” Swimmer admitted. “But somehow I make out better with feelings than with thoughts.”

Ripple chose this moment of uncertainty in Clarence to go over and clasp his long black hand between her small webbed ones.

“Cla-wence,” she said, almost as if she were a small bright child. She tried to go on, but the words would not come.

“Hey!” Clarence whispered in delight. “How'd you learn to say my name?”

“She catches on fast,” Swimmer said proudly. “I told you she was bright as a chickadee. She's trying to tell you not to decide on anything tonight. You're always wiser in the morning.”

“I hope she's right,” Clarence told him. He frowned at the mist creeping about them, then built up the fire and stretched out again to sleep.

But no one slept soundly that night save Penny and Scruff. Both were still dead to the world when Clarence got up hours later, piled more wood on the fire, and put on water for tea. The mist was almost solid about them now, and Clarence said little until he was ready to go.

At that moment Scruff lifted his head and tried to rise.

“Easy,” said Clarence, patting him happily, then he opened one of the cans of tuna he had been saving. “Here's your breakfast, old boy. Help Swimmer and Ripple hold down the fort, and I'll be back as soon as possible.”

It wasn't until the black man had vanished in the mist, and his footsteps could no longer be heard, that Swimmer became aware of an unpleasant truth: Clarence had made the wrong decision.

10

He Makes a Deal

S
wimmer did not question the way he felt. It came from a sudden sense of danger that he could not have explained. Though it had neither sound nor scent, the danger was out there, surely, and he knew that Clarence should have waited until daylight. As soon as they could see through the mist, it would be much better if they all tried to find Mr. Owl's place.

Uneasily he waited while the darkness grayed. The mist did not worry him. Instead, he hoped it would thicken and remain through the morning, for it might be a protection.

It was almost daylight when Penny stirred. Abruptly she sat up in the sleeping bag, a frightened look on her face. Instantly Scruff moved over beside her and thrust his cold nose against her cheek. The frightened look vanished.

“Oh, Scruff!” she cried and threw her arms around him. “I—I didn't know where I was for a moment. Golly, I'm so glad you're all right!”

“He's not quite all right, yet,” Swimmer said. “He tells me he's got a whumper of a headache, and he's kind of wobbly besides. I told him what happened, and he says he's sorry he didn't finish off Tattle, but he'd just got his teeth into the scump when the lights went out.”

“That poor silly Tattle,” she said. “He was just trying to do his duty.”

“Duty my eye!” Swimmer grumbled. “He's a scumpy weasel, and I wish I'd drowned 'im when I had the chance.” He paused and studied her earnestly. “How—how do you feel this morning?”

“Oh, I'm just fine.”

Judging by her looks, Swimmer didn't think fine was the right word. “But your eyes,” he went on. “Can you see all right?”

“I—I think so. But I can tell better after I wash my face at the spring. Where's the flashlight?”

Swimmer almost groaned. If her eyes were any better, she wouldn't need the flashlight now.

“Clarence took it, so he could find his way to the road,” he explained. “He's hiking to town to get the van if it's fixed, or maybe a car, or something.”

“Oh.” Penny was silent a moment. At last she said uneasily, “I—I hope he gets back soon.”

Swimmer knew Clarence couldn't possibly return for hours and hours—unless, of course, he was lucky enough to find Mr. Hogarth right away and get his help. But Swimmer had an unpleasant feeling that Mr. Hogarth was also away somewhere, like Mr. Owl, and that this wasn't going to be the most pleasant of days for any of them.

He watched Ripple go up to Penny and take her hand. “Pen-ny,” she managed to say slowly. “I … help …”

Penny gave a little cry of delight and hugged Ripple. “I knew you could talk if you tried!”

Swimmer said, “She's trying to tell you she'll take you to the spring, and—and lead you when we leave …”

“L-leave?” Penny faltered. “You think we'd better leave here?”

“I sure do. Just as soon as we can.”

Even as he spoke he could hear the distant cough and mutter of the trapper's hound. It was so very faint he doubted that Penny was aware of it, but he knew Ripple was, as well as Scruff. In the heavy mist the sound might have been difficult to locate, but he did not have to guess that it came from the area of the beech tree. This was the hour when Snake Eyes would slip down there unseen to gas the den.

While Penny hurriedly bathed her eyes at the spring, Swimmer wondered what Snake Eyes would do when he found the den empty. Of course, he'd depend on the hound to find a trail. And when there wasn't any trail …

Suddenly Swimmer went cold. He hadn't left a trail that the black dog could follow, but he'd forgotten what a mountain mist could do. It could blot everything from sight and hide you—but as it crept past, damp and clinging, it could pick up your scent and carry it along for a great distance.

The mist was drifting in the general direction of the beech, and it wouldn't be long before the hound became aware of his scent. No matter how faint and uncertain it was at first, the hound would surely recognize it and try to follow it to its source.

Swimmer fretted over this and waited impatiently while Penny returned from the spring. With Ripple's help, she located the remaining cans of fish and began struggling with the can opener. It gave him a sinking sensation to realize that her eyes were no better than they had been last night. To see at all she was forced to hold her eyelids apart with her fingers as Clarence had told her to do.

Somehow she got the cans open and the contents divided between the four of them. They had barely started to eat when Swimmer heard the hound again. It seemed closer this time.

Penny bit her lip. “Was—was that a dog I heard?”

“Yes,” Swimmer muttered unhappily. “It was that dirty trapper's hound. Hurry and eat!”

“Oh, dear! Mr. Sykes is just mean, but that man frightens me. There's something awful about him. Do—do you think he'll come up here?”

“He sure will if his dog gets my scent. He hates my gizzard. Penny, do you know where Mr. Owl lives?”

“I—I've never been to his place, but I think it's the first farm over the gap.”

“Then let's go there. We'd better start now before it's too late. Ripple will lead you to the road.”

“Wait,” said Penny. “If Clarence comes and finds we've gone—” She stood gnawing on her lower lip a moment, then suddenly stooped and fumbled through the ashes of the fire. Swimmer saw her pick up a charred stick. Carefully holding one eye open, she used the stick to draw the outline of an owl upon a flat rock beside the sleeping bag.

“That ought to do it,” she said and clutched the scrap of tarpaulin about her as Ripple started to lead her away. “But let's not go to the road,” she added. “Mr. Sykes may be looking for me there. I—I once saw an old trail up here somewhere that the lumbermen used. It'll take us to the gap.”

Scruff knew about the trail and soon found it for them. It was overgrown and little traveled save by deer, but the going was much easier on it. Now Penny was able to move without stumbling and falling.

With every forward step Swimmer felt better. They were beginning to climb now, and he knew the gap couldn't be too far away. If they could reach it and cross it, even if they had to go the rest of the way on the road …

But his hopes went tumbling as he heard, somewhere in the mist behind them, a single short low bark from the hound. It was nowhere near the creek, and it told him as plainly as words could that his scent had been discovered. He could almost hear Snake Eyes saying, “Go find 'im, Devil!”

He knew Penny heard the dog too, for she paused a moment to listen, then spoke urgently to Ripple and plunged on, trying to move faster. But it was lost effort. She had taken only a few steps when she stumbled and fell. Scruff, who had been leading the way, stopped and stood swaying as if it were all he could do to stay on his feet.

In his sudden despair Swimmer's leg, which never seemed to bother him when things were going right, began to throb miserably. They are bound to catch up with us soon, he thought. What are we going to do?

The answer came. He must fight the black hound while the others went on. There was no other way.

Swimmer had no sooner made his decision when he realized that Scruff had picked up his thought.
You are crippled
, Scruff told him.
The black dog is too big for you to kill. But I can do it easily
.

You have been hurt
, Swimmer said.
You are not able to fight
.

It will not be a fight
, Scruff reminded him.
My legs are uncertain, but my jaws are strong. Bring him close to my jaws, and I will kill in an instant
.

And to Swimmer's mind came a picture of the way Scruff killed. It was not by the throat, as he had supposed, but with a single savage snap that broke the victim's neck. Only a creature as large and powerful as Scruff would be capable of such a feat.

BOOK: The Preposterous Adventures of Swimmer
9.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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