Authors: Alexander Key
“Oh, I'm good at guessing. Looks like I've finally reached the right place.”
“Rightâright place for what?” Penny asked uncertainly.
“It's a long story,” Clarence said. “Just let me sit down and rest my tired bones a while and I'll tell you.”
Up in the tree, Swimmer was having some difficulty with his emotions. One moment he wanted to rush down happily and greet Clarence, and the very next he wished he could be a thousand miles away. But he couldn't think of going anywhere until his leg mended. And besides, there was Penny.
Could she keep a secret? She'd try, of courseâbut Clarence was one smart cookie.
Do you know the stranger?
, he admitted.
He cared for me when I was a prisoner
Below him Clarence removed the gear from his shoulders and sank down with a sigh. He offered Penny a chocolate bar, which she accepted gratefully. Then he unfolded a map and studied it a few seconds.
“Do you live near here, young lady?”
“I'm not a lady yet. Just call me Penny.”
“Okayâif you'll call me Clarence. Is it a deal?”
She giggled and sat down. “It's a deal.”
“Then here's another chocolate bar to bind it. There's lots more, because it's all I take to eat on a hike. Now, let's see. I'll bet you live at Sykes's trout farm. Is that right?”
“You guessed right again.” She smiled and pointed. “It's up yonder a little way.” She added quickly, “IâI'll have to be going soon, 'cause it's getting late and I'll have to help with supper.”
“Well, I sure don't want you to be late, for I've heard they're sort of ornery. Was it one of them that hit you?”
She nodded. “I'm sure glad Scruff didn't see it, or something terrible would have happened. Whatâwhat were you going to tell me?”
“Did you ever hear of an otter named Swimmer?”
“Swimmer!” she exclaimed, and Scruff's ears perked up and he gave a little bark.
“So you've already found him,” Clarence said slowly. “I knew I'd come to the right place.”
Penny sprang to her feet and cried, “I know all about Swimmer, 'cause I heard it in the news. But I didn't say I'd found him. Youâyou've just been pumping me, an' I'm not going to talk to you any more!”
She turned quickly and started away, her small chin high.
“Wait!” Clarence called. “PleaseâI'm Swimmer's friend. He's in trouble, and I've come to help him.”
Penny stopped. “How do I know you're his friend?”
“You could ask him. I'm the man who used to take care of him. I was driving the van when he ran away.”
“Youâyou just want to catch him an' put him in a cage again!”
“No!” Clarence protested. “But I simply must see him and talk to him. It's important.”
She came back and crouched near the tree again.
“Honest?” she pleaded. “Are you telling me the truth?”
“Honest, cross my heart,” answered Clarence most solemnly and crossed his heart as he spoke.
“Aw'right. But howâhow'd you happen to come straight here?”
“Penny, I didn't come straight here. I've been following my nose ever since Swimmer ran away. First thing I did was go to the Forest Service office and get a map. Soon as I saw Otter Creek here, and saw that it ran through forest preserve all the way to the river, something buzzed in my head. Ever get that funny feeling in your head when you know something's true, even though you can't prove it?”
“Sure, lots of times. Well, two or three, anyway.”
“Well, that's how it was with me. Something buzzed in my head. There had to be a reason, I said, why a creek was named Otter instead of Eagle or Bear or ninety other names. You see?”
“Of course!” Penny exclaimed. “It's because otters have always come to it. And they come to it because there's something about it they like. Big pools, crawfish â¦”
“Right. And after taking a good look at that first stream where he escaped, I figured it wouldn't be long before Swimmer left it for better water. So this morning early I drove to Otter Creek Bridge downstream, left the van there, and started hiking upstream.”
“Why, that's miles and
“And no distance at all by road,” Clarence muttered. “If I'd just started up here first â¦ But no matter. I didn't find fresh otter signs till I reached the beaver pond around the bend yonder. But the freshest signs of all are right here on that rock. See?”
Clarence pointed to the neatly clipped tails and fins near the water. “You were watching somebody you know eat a trout not twenty minutes ago. Was it Swimmer?”
“Itâit was Willow and Ripple. I brought them some fish.”
“But Swimmer was here too, wasn't he?”
“IâIâplease, don't ask me.”
“But I've got to see him, Penny.”
“I can't help it. IâI shouldn't say another word about him untilâuntil I have his permission. It wouldn't be fair.”
“That means you've already seen him and talked to him. Right?”
“Yâyes,” Penny said faintly.
Up in the tree, Swimmer clung grumpily to his perch, a little upset by Clarence's questioning. Old slick tongue! he thought. He'll get every blatted thing out of her.
Suddenly Penny said, “If you don't intend to take him back with you,
have you got to see him?”
“Because I'm worried about him,” Clarence admitted. “I'm worried sick. He doesn't belong here, Penny. He's become civilized. He's not used to being out like this. It would be so easy for him to catch pneumonia and die. And I keep feeling he's hurt. It was stormy when he left the van, and I thought the door slammed on him. If he's hurt, I ought to get him to a vet â¦”
Clarence stopped, then asked, “Is he hurt, Penny?”
“Aâa little,” she faltered.
“Heâheâhe's got a broken leg,” she burst out. And at the shocked look on Clarence's face, she added in a rush, “But I fixed it! I'm real good at that. Well, pretty good, anyway. I put a bark splint all around it, and that's a lot better'n what a vet would do. There wasn't anything else wrong with him 'cept that he was awfully hungry, 'cause it's so hard for him to catch food. So I gave him the biggest fish I could find, then introduced him to Willow and Ripple. They'll take care of him and show him the best places to hide.”
She paused for breath, adding quickly, “So you see, he's going to be perfectly all right. You needn't worry about him at all.”
going to be all right!” Clarence exclaimed, getting unsteadily to his feet. “By this time tomorrow there'll be men out looking all over the place for Swimmer. Doc Hoffman's promised a big reward to anyone who finds him. On top of that he's hiring the best hunter and trapper in the mountains. That fellow will trail him straight here with a bloodhound.”
“Butâbut that doesn't mean he'll be caught.”
“Why, sakes alive, with a broken leg Swimmer won't have a chance. He might even be killed. That trapper's a brute!”
“But how can anyone find him in the creek if he stays hidden? Won't they think he's gone on downstream?”
“Lordy, I hope so.” Clarence snapped his fingers worriedly. “I don't know what to do. Seems like there ought to be a safer place for him than here. Honestly, the best thing would be for me to take him back to Doc Hoffman's lab. Then he wouldn't get hurt again, and Iâ”
“Now, don't get me wrong,” Clarence hastened to say. “I wouldn't take him anywhere against his willânot after the way he saved my neck the other night.” There followed an account of the van's near-accident. Clarence continued, “I've been looking after Swimmer ever since I retired from the army. He's about the only family I've got. It sure upsets a person â¦” He looked at her curiously. “How'd you manage to find him?”
“I didn't find him. He found me.”
“Say that again?”
“That's how it was. It happened after Weaver Sykes hit me, and I was wishing I was dead, 'cause I didn't have anywhere to go or anyone to talk toâand that's when Swimmer came up and started to sympathize. He knew exactly how I felt.”
“It didn't throw you when he started to talk?”
“Goodness, no. I always thought Ripple could talk if only I had time to teach her. Anyway, it was wonderful to find a friend. Otters are ever so much nicer than people. IâI just wish I were one.”
“Penny,” Clarence said slowly. “You're a mighty special person, and you share a big secret with me.”
“We're the only ones in the world who know that Swimmer can talk.”
“Yeah. And we're going to keep it a secret. If Doc Hoffman knew it, he'd throw a fit. And Miss Primmâthat's his teacherâwhy, she'd fall through the floor. As for everybody else â¦”
Clarence shook his head. “Penny, I don't know what to do, but if we work together, maybe we can figure out something. Er, how far is it to the bridge by road?”
“ 'Bout two miles.”
“That's too far to hike this evening, the way I feel. Guess I'd better camp here tonight and bring the van around in the morning. You know that old timber road on the left, just before you reach the trout farm?”
“Sure. But you can't go far on it.”
“It doesn't matter. I just want to park the van out of sight. Say, when I was cruising around yesterday, trying to get the country straight in my mind, I had a quick look at the trout farm. Mighty pretty little placeâbut how come that Sykes bunch is running it?”
“They just inherited it,” Penny said. “But I'm afraid the bank's going to get it soon.”
“I think they borrowed too much money to buy cars and things, and now they can't pay it back. IâI'll sure hate to leave, 'cause I'll never see my friends again.”
“Oh, maybe you will.”
“I don't see howâunless I run away and take my friends with me.”
“That's an interesting idea,” Clarence said slowly. “Let's think about it. It's about sundown, so you'd better get on back to the house. I don't want to see you with another black eye tomorrow.”
For a minute after Penny and Scruff had gone, Swimmer remained by the hole, digesting what he had heard. It gave him an entirely new view of things. Finally, after Clarence had moved out of sight, he crept painfully back to the floor of the hollow.
Willow and Ripple looked at him curiously. Thoughts flashed between them.
Is it safe outside now?
It is safe. The black man is still there, but he is my friend
Then we will go and play in the pools until dark. We wish you could come with us. It's always more fun when three can play together
Swimmer told them it would be many days before he could play.
But I'll follow you out
, he added.
I must talk to my friend
He was so tired and full of hurts that he hated even to move again. But after a few minutes to build up his gumption, he forced himself into the water and surfaced by one of the rocks under the tree.
Clarence was somewhere downstream. Faintly above the sound of the creek, Swimmer could hear him calling, “Swimmer? Where are you, Swimmer? Please come out!”
Swimmer's first inclination was to paddle down to Clarence with the current. But on second thought he climbed out over the rocks and began limping slowly along the game trail that followed the stream.
Before many more hours, sure as day and night, some gloopy hound would pick up his scent at the other creek and follow it here. It would be downright stupid to allow the scent to stop at the beech tree. To leave a good false trail, of course, he would have to swim back to the tree. But that was a detail he could worry about later.
Suddenly he caught sight of Clarence in an open spot ahead. He tried to call out, but at that instant something seemed to go wrong with his throat. He couldn't even manage a froggy squawk. But Clarence turned, evidently attracted by the tinkling of the bell. There was a gasped “Glory be!” and he came on the run.
It was really great to have old Clarence make such a fuss over him. The splinted leg came in for a world of attention. “Yessir,” said Clarence, nodding, “that Penny, she did a mighty fine job on you! She's a wonderful kid. I had a long talk with her. If you'd just come a little earlierâ”
“Oh, I heard you,” Swimmer admitted. “IâI heard all you said.”
“I was up in a hollow tree, and I eavesâeavesâwhat's the blatted word?”
“That's right. I eavesdropped. I couldn't help it. Iâ”
“You didn't have to hide, for Pete's sake! Why didn't you come out?”
“Because I knew what you were thinking. You were thinking, dong ding it, that the best place for me was back at the lab, and I was afraidâ”
the best place for you,” Clarence insisted. “But I'll never take you there unless you're willing to go.”
“What about your job?”
Clarence chuckled. “Doc hit the ceiling when I phoned him you'd escaped. He told me never to come back unless I brought you with me. Pshaw, I don't need a job. I'm a retired army sergeant with a pension. Anyway, you've upset the applecart, and Doc's having a howling tizzy. He's offering a big reward for you.”
“Twenty thousand dollars.”
Swimmer had little regard for money and he was not impressed. “Aw, fiffle!” he muttered, like a disgusted gnome. “He paid seven times that for a galumping horse that can't do anything but look pretty in a picture.”