Authors: Alexander Key
Even so, Swimmer had his misgivings. But it seemed like a good plan, and there was no time to think of another one. As he searched the trail ahead, looking for a place to carry out the plan, he heard the hound again. It was very close now, and he knew Snake Eyes couldn't be far behind it, if he wasn't actually holding the leash.
That log yonder
, he said urgently to Scruff.
Hide at the end of it, and I will bring the black dog to you
Scruff almost fell behind the great rotting log that edged the trail. Beyond him, entirely unaware of what was happening, Penny was being tugged away by a knowing Ripple. Already they were fading into the mist.
The trap was set. But as Swimmer limped back a few yards to be ready to meet the hound, the swirling mist about him cleared momentarily and the morning sun cut through. Far behind, where the trail dipped down the misty slope, he glimpsed the hound, straining at his leash, coming into view. He could just make out the vague head and shoulders of the man behind it. The man was Snake Eyes, and he seemed to be carrying a club in one hand.
As Swimmer turned, the hound sighted him. It leaped forward with a sudden roar, jerking the leash free. Snake Eyes cursed and lunged after the dog, crying hoarsely, “Kill 'im, Devil! Kill the varmint!”
Devil charged with such speed that Swimmer, who had started back slowly, barely made it to the log. As he sped around the end of it, with the snarling beast almost upon him, Scruff leaped for Devil's neck. But Scruff's wobbly legs were far too slow. He missed the hound entirely, and abruptly Swimmer found himself fighting for his life.
The black hound was fast, powerful, and vicious, and four times Swimmer's weight. Swimmer felt the hot breath and the slash of teeth across his flank and whirled away, turning and snapping. Only his natural quickness saved him from a bloody mauling. As the sun vanished and the mist closed about them again, he darted in and managed to seize one of his enemy's hind legs. Clinging to it grimly and praying for Scruff to make his move, he became aware of Snake Eyes hurrying up the trail, cursing and yelling for Jake and the rifle.
Why didn't Scruff come? In a few more seconds it would be too late.
All at once the black dog was knocked from its feet. Its snarling stopped as Scruffs great jaws clamped upon its neck. Swimmer loosened his hold on the instant and spun about to face Snake Eyes, who was rushing upon him with upraised stick.
At this moment, as Swimmer came face-to-face with his ancient and deadly enemy, all his fear and mounting fury turned into an overpowering force within him that exploded into a scream. It was the terrible cry of his kind that is given only in an extremity. No sound made by a human is even half as piercing or as paralyzing, for it can be heard more than a mile. As Swimmer screamed, he charged with hackles raised, and the stick that might have brained him dropped from nerveless hands. At the same time something unseen streaked from the brush behind Snake Eyes and bit him furiously in the leg.
It hardly needed the extra horror of a killer dog with frightful jaws to break the trapper's nerve. The scream and Ripple's bite had already done that. Snake Eyes gave a strangled cry and fled.
Swimmer found a frightened Penny crouched behind the tree where Ripple had left her.
“Whew!” she breathed in relief, after everything had been explained to her. “IâI thought all the banshees everywhere had suddenly cut loose! And that awful hound; I didn't know a dog could make me so scared. But I can't help feeling sorry for him now, the poor thing.”
“Aw, fiffle,” Swimmer muttered, and added philosophically, “We come and we go. It was his time to go, the rotty scump, and I say good riddance. Now let's find Mr. Owl's place.”
They reached the gap a quarter of an hour later, and came out into bright sunlight. The road was only a few yards away on their right. It wound down, Swimmer saw, past a small, white farmhouse in the little valley below. But the trail also led to the farm, only it went through the woods behind the house.
There was traffic on the road, and Swimmer didn't know what people would think of a runaway girl with two black eyes, in the company of a wild dog with the staggers. Considering that she was being very carefully led by a pair of talking otters, he decided they had better keep to the trail. He just hoped the white farmhouse was Mr. Owl's place.
They reached the farm woods late that morning. After crossing a footbridge over a spring, they wound past a duck pond full of staring ducks and started for the house. Near the kitchen, two brown spaniels appeared suddenly and dashed toward them, barking furiously. Scruff, though he seemed hardly able to stand by now, spoke to them only once, and immediately they knuckled under and became quite friendly.
It was soon evident that no one was at home. Swimmer was still wondering whether this was the right farm when a small truck rolled into the yard, stopped, and a pleasant-faced Indian woman got out carrying a bag of groceries.
He limped over to her and asked hopefully, “Areâare you Miss Owl, ma'am?”
She gasped, nearly dropped the bag, and exclaimed, “Whyâwhy, you must be Swimmer! Father's told me about you. Yes, I'm Mary Owl. What in the worldâ” She stared at Penny. “You have to be Penny Jones! What have those awful people done to you? You poor childâcome right in the house!”
Things happened fast after that.
Penny, though she protested that she was “feeling just fineâwell, not too awful, anyway,” was put to bed immediately and a doctor summoned. Before the doctor could get there, a very worried Clarence and a grim Mr. Hogarth arrived in Mr. Hogarth's car. They had gone to the empty camp, found Penny's owl drawing, and rushed to the farm. Mr. Hogarth was busy taking pictures of Penny's bruises when Mr. Owl returned. After seeing Penny, Mr. Owl went into an immediate huddle with Clarence and Mr. Hogarth. In the middle of this the doctor came.
The doctor turned out to be a blood brother of Mr. Owl. He bandaged Penny's eyes with a Cherokee poultice and made her promise to stay in bed for at least three days under threat of losing her scalp. Afterward he carefully examined Swimmer's leg, then went out to check on Scruff, who had retreated to the barn. It took a word from Clarence before Scruff would let the doctor near him, but after that it was all right.
Miss Owl fixed up a comfortable corner of the barn for Scruff to recuperate in and gave him all the food he could eat. Then she turned the duck pond over to Swimmer and Ripple.
“It's full of sunfish,” she said, “and you can have all of them you want. Just don't give the ducks a bad time.”
And Clarence added, “Whatever you do, don't stray off the farm, or even go too far from the pond. Until Mr. Owl can get some things straightened out, he doesn't want anyone to know you're here.”
After all he had been through, Swimmer wasn't about to leave the farm. As for the pond, it was pure heaven in the beginning. He couldn't help giving the ducks a bad time at first, because it was such fun to play tag with Ripple around the flock, then suddenly pop up in the middle of them, chattering and barking. It almost drove the poor things out of their ever-loving minds. But this grew tame in a day or two. By now Clarence had the van back, and it soon became evident that something was going on.
Penny was aware of it too, and on the fourth morningâher first day outsideâshe hurried down to the pond to find out what Swimmer knew. Her bruises still showed, but the swelling was gone from her eyes, and Swimmer thought she was looking really special in the new clothes Miss Owl had given her.
“But what's Clarence doing?” she said. “Haven't you any idea?”
“How could I? I haven't even seen him since he got the van back. Why don't you ask him?”
“But I did ask him. And you know what he told me? He said, âPenny, just keep your fingers crossed, and do a lot of praying.' Well, I've been praying, but I don't know what for.”
“Well, keep it up,” Swimmer advised. “If Clarence told you that, it's bound to be important.”
Just how important it was, they had to wait a full week to learn. Early one afternoon Penny, closely followed by Scruff, dashed down to the pond and called them. “Hurry!” she cried. “Clarence wants to take us all for a ride.”
As Swimmer crawled into the van he saw that the big keyboard-and-tabs machine had been removed, as well as his old cage. Now it contained only Clarence's sleeping bag and camping equipment. It surprised him when Scruff scrambled in behind Ripple without any urging. “Boy, how you've changed!” he said to the big dog. “A week ago you wouldn't have gone near a car. What's Clarence done to you?”
“Pshaw,” said Clarence. “He knows he's one of the family now. And he's got a job ahead of him.”
“A job?” said Swimmer, uncomprehending. Suddenly he saw what was in Clarence's mind, and he realized the black man was very uneasy about what might happen that afternoon. “Ump!” Swimmer exclaimed. “Why didn't you let me knowâ”
“Are you reading my mind?” Clarence interrupted.
“I sure amâthe whole thing!”
“Then keep your big mouth shut, cross your webbed âfingers,' and pray. Because it may not work.”
Penny, who had started to ask a question, pressed a hand over her lips and held up crossed fingers. She managed to keep silent while the van climbed through the gap and curved down into the forested area. But when Clarence turned into the trout farm entrance, Penny gasped in dismay.
“Whaâwhaâwhat are you going in
“Because it's ours,” Clarence said quietly.
“Yep. Yours and mine and Swimmer's and Ripple's and Scruff's. Scruff's job is the guard department. He's to keep away trappers, bearsâI've always been scared of bearsâand hunters, poachers, skrinks, blattheads, and all kinds of scumpy weasels.”
Penny giggled. “Butâbutâhowâ”
“How'd I get rid of the weasel that was here? Easy. Mr. Owl just showed him some of those pictures Mr. Hogarth took of you, and told him he'd have to be out of here in five days or he'd go to jail for child-beating. I didn't even offer a good price this timeâfigured he didn't deserve it. He went back to that old farm of his, and I'm mighty glad it's in another county.”
“Oh, golly, I just can't believe it!” Penny whispered. “Butâbut what about Welfare? What if they won't let me stay?”
“Pshaw, they haven't anything to say about it now. Mr. Owl's fixed it up so Mr. Hogarth is in charge of you. Swimmer's in the deal too, so you could almost say he's adopted you!”
Penny was speechless for a moment. Suddenly she turned and hugged Swimmer.
“But you've got to keep on praying,” Clarence added uneasily. “There's a lot to be settled yet, and you can't move in till it is.”
“You'll see in a little while.”
Clarence swung into the parking area near the house. Two cars were already there, and as Swimmer followed the others out of the van he saw Mr. Hogarth talking to Mr. Owl by the upper trout pool. Near them was a new card table with some papers on it, and several new chairs that Clarence must have bought.
As he visioned what was coming, and suddenly realized how very much depended on itâespecially for PennyâSwimmer hesitated. He had an awful, sinking sensation that warned him the next hour wasn't going to be any love feast, and that his presence wouldn't improve matters a bit. Unless, of course, he could come up with something positively brilliant that might help to save the situation. But what?
Before he could call up a single top-level thought, he heard another car approaching. From the familiar sound of it he knew that it was old Doc's big chauffeur-driven limousine. Swimmer, with Ripple close behind him, slipped into the cover of the nearest flower bed to give his unwilling brain a little more time. It was well that he did so.
From the moment he stepped from his car, followed by a worried Mr. Tippet, it was obvious that the great Dr. Rufus Hoffman was in a rage. He moved in thunderous silence toward Mr. Owl and Mr. Hogarth, but halfway to the table he stopped and stood glaring at them like a wrathful god.
“Blackmailer!” he rumbled ominously, pointing a quivering finger at Mr. Hogarth. “Threatening me with that devilish column of yours!”
“Right, Doctor.” Mr. Hogarth nodded and smiled. “I'm a blackmailer. But it got you here.”
“And youâ” The quivering finger jabbed at Mr. Owl. “You confounded Cherokee Shylock!”
Mr. Owl nodded, and his black eyes crinkled. “Oh, I've often extracted a pound of flesh, Doctor, but it was always for a deserving client. Don't you feel Swimmer is very deserving?”
“He deserves nothing! I'm fed up with him, and I can do without him. Of all the unmannered, opinionated, backtalkingâ”
“Whyâwhy, he's not anything of the kind!” cried Penny, who had been standing unnoticed to one side, clinging tightly to Scruff. “Swimmer's the nicest, bravest, most unselfishâ”
Dr. Hoffman whirled on her and saw Scruff for the first time. “Great Jupiter!” he gasped and took a step backward. “Hang on to that beast!”
“He won't hurt you if you'll just be nice to people!” Penny snapped.
“Eh? Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“I'm Penny Jones, andâand Swimmer's just adopted me, and I'm here because Clarence has bought the trout farm, and this is where Swimmer and I and the rest of us are going to live.”
“I see.” Dr. Hoffman's voice was icy. “You're that incredible paragon of childhood I've been hearing so much about. And don't tell me Swimmer's adopted you, because animals don't adopt people.”
“He has, too, adopted me!” Penny told him hotly, “and if you don't believe it, just ask Mr. Owl. Andâand that's your whole trouble, you keep thinking of Swimmer as an animal when he's really more of a person. Andâand you ought to be ashamed of yourself for paying that horrible Jules to catch him, 'causeâ'cause that Jules tried his best to kill him, andâandâ”