The Preposterous Adventures of Swimmer (6 page)

BOOK: The Preposterous Adventures of Swimmer
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“It's a palomino,” said Clarence, “and Doc thinks he looks pretty riding it. But you miss the point, old pal. To a poor guy who's never seen much money, twenty thousand dollars is a whale of a wad. Up in this country it'll look like a million. By tomorrow these mountains will be crawling with folks carrying everything from nets to pitchforks. Lord help any poor otter they happen to see!”

“I'll be safe. I'm with friends. We've a great place to hide.”

“Yeah?” Clarence cocked a shrewd eye at him. “It wouldn't be back yonder under that big old beech tree, would it?”

“Oops! How'd you guess?”

“Pshaw, I was raised in the country. The tree looked like a good place, and those trout fins near it were a dead giveaway.” Clarence scowled. “We'll have to get rid of those fins. And maybe I'd better go back and make camp under the tree—at least until we've figured out the best thing to do. It'll sort of throw people off if they find me camping there.”

“What about this dratted bell and harness? Can you get 'em off for me?”

“Not without tools. It'll have to wait till I bring the van over in the morning.”

Swimmer glanced uneasily at the creek. Here the water was racing down into another big pool, frothing white in places where it smashed against rocks. How could he ever fight his way back to the tree against all that rush of water? Yet he hadn't gone half as far as he should to leave a decent false trail.

He explained his problem to Clarence. “We're both sort of beat,” he said. “But if I can make it as far as the beaver pond, will you carry me back to the beech tree?”

Clarence groaned, but nodded. “It's a deal, old pal.”

5

He Sees an Old Enemy

W
ith the coming of night it was pleasant to be back in the snug den, with Willow and Ripple near, and Clarence dozing in a sleeping bag just outside. He couldn't hear Clarence, but he was very much aware of his comforting presence; occasionally he could even catch the faint odor of woodsmoke from the small campfire as it drifted past the hole above. A cricket chirped near the hole, and back in the unexplored chambers under the tree he could hear the faint squeaks and rustlings of tiny rodents. All other sounds were lost in the steady crash and rush of the stream.

Gradually the aching in his leg subsided, and he slept. But it was a troubled sleep, filled with vague dreams that became more unpleasant as the dawn approached. He awoke suddenly, and found that all the contentment he had known earlier had fled. In its place was uneasiness.

Just below him the tunnel of water leading outside was turning from black to blue, and a thin shaft of greenish light was filtering down from the hole above. He knew without having to look that Clarence was gone. At the same instant he was aware that Willow and Ripple were watching him, and that they shared his uneasiness.

Is there danger?
they asked.

Not yet
, he replied.
It is far away, but I feel it coming
.

Now he could feel the uncertainty in Willow. The den was important to her. It had always been her main refuge, and her children had been born here. But if trouble were on the way, wouldn't it be better to leave?

Do you know of a better hiding place?
he asked.

The creek has many places to hide, but this is the best. It has another entrance
.

Swimmer hadn't even thought of such a possibility. The other entrance, he learned, was downstream in what may once have been a woodchuck burrow, though various other creatures had been known to use it.

Then we will stay here
, he told them.
Soon strangers will come, searching. We must be very careful not to be seen, or even to leave a sign of ourselves around
.

He wondered how he was going to manage about food. But maybe after he got rid of the bell and harness, he would be able to move a little faster and snag an occasional horny-head chub. They weren't as quick as trout. And there were the cases of canned fish that were always carried for him in the van. Clarence had promised to bring some tins of tuna, after the van was driven around from the bridge. That would be a big help, of course, except that he couldn't expect Clarence to be on hand every time he got hungry.

A bit enviously he watched Willow slip into the water and dart out into the brightening pool to catch her breakfast. Ripple started to follow, but paused before him and playfully tapped his bell. Again, at its tinkling, she gave the little sound of delight that was so much like Penny's laughter. Impulsively, she touched her nose to his and darted outside.

Swimmer was still tingling from that touch when Ripple returned, bringing two fish, one in her mouth and the other firmly grasped in her nimble “hands.” She placed the larger fish before him and settled down beside him to eat the other.

Swimmer overflowed with an emotion he had never felt before, and his heart went out to her.

Penny did not appear that morning, nor did Clarence return. Swimmer's uneasiness grew. According to his figuring—and he had a flawless sense of time to go with his abhorred training in mathematics—Clarence should have been back before the sun was three hours high. That was making all sorts of allowances, like an extra fifteen minutes to climb to the county road that went past the trout farm, plus an extra half hour to hike to the bridge.

But when Clarence did not appear by noon, Swimmer twisted worriedly in his harness and came to an unhappy conclusion: The delay was caused by something unforeseen and decidedly unpleasant.

It was less than an hour later that a new feeling of danger sent him up to keep watch at his peephole. He was hardly settled when Willow and her daughter slipped back into the den with the news that several young humans and a dog were approaching.

Swimmer almost groaned when he heard a familiar yapping. Presently Tattle dashed past, hard upon a scent. Behind him, carrying his gun, came Weaver Sykes. With him were two gangling youths armed with some sticks, a gunny-sack, and a piece of rope.

“Yeah, Pa claims all this land down here,” Weaver Sykes was saying as they paused under the tree. “But I reckon he won't mind your hunting if it's an otter you're after—that is, as long as you don't hunt upstream from here. He wouldn't like that.”

“But what about the reward?” the taller youth asked. “If we catch the critter, reckon he'd want us to give 'im part of the money?”

“Reward? Who said anything about a reward? How much is it?”

“Well, we heard at church this morning it was twenty thousand dollars. But right off folks figgered that was a mistake, an' that somebody'd just put the decimal point in the wrong place. They said that more'n likely it was two thousand. But that's plenty.”

“Two thousand dollars for a danged dirty fish-stealin' varmint?” Weaver exclaimed. “Why, anybody who'd pay that is clean out'n his cotton-pickin' mind!”

“But, Weaver, it's a famous otter. They say it even wears a silver harness an' a bell.”

“I don't care what it wears. It's still a danged varmint an' it ain't worth
that
much.”

“Shucks, nobody said it was. But you know them rich flatlanders. They'd pay anything for something they want.”

“Reckon you're right,” Weaver admitted. “But how come you're looking here for the varmint? They say it escaped 'way across the ridge on Red Dog Creek.”

“Aw, there ain't no fish in Red Dog. An' the warden says a traveling otter always leaves the lower part of it an' heads this way.” The youth turned and started down to the water's edge. “C'mon, Joe. There's a mess of holes around here. If I poke the critter out, you gotta be ready to bop 'im on the head. You gonna help us, Weaver?”

“No,” Weaver muttered. “Daggone! Two thousand dollars! I better tell Pa about this.” He moved away suddenly and began to run back the way he had come.

Tattle returned a moment later, but instead of following Weaver, the dog began leaping about the tree, yapping in a frenzy.

Oh, blatts! Swimmer thought despairingly. It was my trail he was following all the time. Now, he's trying to find out if I'm here. That sneaky little hunk of buzzard bait!

Down at the creek's edge one of the hunters cried, “Shaddup, you fool dog! You tryin' to scare everything away?”

“Mebbe he's tryin' to tell us there's something in the tree,” the other said.

They waded over and began thrusting their sticks down under the roots. Almost immediately they found the underwater entrance to the den, but the exploring sticks could reach no farther than a rock around which the passageway curved.

“If anything was here,” grumbled one, “it got scared away earlier.” He pointed to the remains of Clarence's fire. “Somebody camped there last night. We'd better go on down the creek.”

The two hurried away. But Tattle remained, yapping, snarling, and finally breaking into an urgent high-pitched barking that could be heard for a great distance.

At the sound of it Swimmer chilled. As soon as Weaver or his father became aware of that telltale barking, they'd come on the run and there would be real trouble. At the thought of what could happen to Willow and Ripple, his lips drew back in a snarl and the hair began to rise on his neck. He crept down from his perch.

I must get rid of the nuisance
, he told Ripple.

I will help you
, she said instantly.

Thoughts flashed between them. His bell was the main problem. Because of it he couldn't make an attack until the last possible instant, when the dog was within easy reach. Nor must they touch the ground and leave a fresh scent for other dogs to find.

We will make a game of it
, she said.
I will attract his attention. You do the rest
.

So it became a game. Ripple swam out first and flashed into the current, moving and turning with a grace and speed that no fish could equal. Swimmer followed slowly and crept with the utmost stealth to the edge of a pebbly spot just beyond the largest rock. Here he flattened in the shadow, with only his face above the surface. At a glance he might have been only a part of the rock itself.

Now Ripple darted in close and spun about in the shallows chirruping gaily. Tattle saw her on the instant, and for a second his mouth hung open as if he could not believe his eyes. Then he dashed down to the pebbly spot, snarling.

A wiser dog than Tattle, even if he had been twice the size, would have hesitated at the water's edge and would not have taken another step. For in the water, as Swimmer well knew, an otter is supreme. Nothing could have touched Ripple, so she was entirely without fear as she paused in the shallows and laughed. This infuriated Tattle, and he made the mistake of his life—he sprang into the shallows after her.

Swimmer had been hoping for this. Instantly, with all the power he could force into his three good legs, he lunged for Tattle's throat.

Unfortunately his harness caught on a spur of rock, throwing him off-balance. He missed the throat entirely but was quick enough to sink his teeth into a leg. It was sufficient. Tattle had time only for a frightened shriek before he was jerked down into deep water.

Swimmer held on grimly and let the swift current carry them downstream. The dog struggled violently at first, then its motions became feeble.

Suddenly from Ripple, who was circling easily around them, came the thought:
Do not kill
.

In Swimmer's private opinion, Tattle was much too low and contemptible a creature to be allowed to live, and something told him he would regret it if he let the nuisance go. But it was not his nature to kill for the sake of killing. He had subdued his enemy, and that was enough.

He thrust Tattle to the surface and nudged him over to a gravelbar at the edge of the creek. Choking and half drowned, the dog struggled to rise. Failing, it tremblingly crawled away on its belly.

Swimmer turned and tried to follow Ripple upstream, but made poor progress until she returned and helped him. They made a game of it, and suddenly it was great fun just to be alive and able to battle the current, and, for a little while, the fact of a broken leg didn't matter in the least.

But as they finally surfaced at the flat rock near the den, all the threat of man's world could be felt again, stronger than ever.

An anxious Penny was waiting on the rock.

“What happened?” she asked quickly. “I heard Tattle barking, then he made an awful sound …”

“Aw, we had to give the scumpy weasel a ducking,” Swimmer admitted. “He wouldn't shut up. But I don't think he'll bother us for a while now.”

“Oh, dear, I hope not. I haven't much time. Come close and I'll try to cut off that harness.” As she spoke she took pliers and a hacksaw from the same bag she had used yesterday and went determinedly to work on one of the shoulder links. “Keep watch, everybody,” she panted. “Scruff's not with me, and Mr. Sykes is liable to be down here any minute. We just can't let him catch us.”

Presently she paused a moment and gasped, “Golly, I didn't know silver was so hard to cut! Looks like I'll never get it apart.” She went back to work, and added, “Weaver and his pa are making a big dip net to catch you—I mean they think they can catch you with it, only they don't know anything about otters. Mr. Sykes is so excited over the reward he's about to bust a seam. Is it really two thousand dollars?”

“It's twenty thousand,” Swimmer said gloomily.


Twenty
thousand!” she gasped. “But—but—I can't believe—”

“Aw, fiffle, what's twenty thousand? Don't you think I'm worth more?”

“But of course you are! If you want to look at it that way, I mean. Only I can't. There's something so scary and awful about money, and the way it can make nice things ugly. Was it Mr. Green—Clarence—who told you about the reward?”

BOOK: The Preposterous Adventures of Swimmer
3.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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