Authors: Alexander Key
“I dunno, an' I don't care,” Snake Eyes growled. “He jest better stay shut of me.” He raised his voice and called, “Find 'im, Devil!”
The hound came back, nose to the ground and sure of itself now. Swinging around the tree, it went down to the pebbly area at the water's edge and began to bay.
“I knowed it,” Snake Eyes growled. “He seen the critter last night, right there. Git your stick, Jake, an' poke around in them roots yonder. Could be a hole back under 'em.”
Swimmer's none-too-high spirits began to spiral downward as Jake, clad in hip boots, entered the water and waded around the rocks to the base of the tree. Using a long, green stick, he began prodding between the roots.
Jake found the opening, but when his stick touched the granite obstruction around which the passageway curved, he shook his head. “Ain't nothin' here.”
Snake Eyes swore. “It's got to be close by. There's a heap o' holes around, so start workin' downstream an' I'll work up.”
The day gradually brightened. Presently the sun climbed above the eastern ridge and bright shafts of light streamed through the crowding trees.
By the timekeeping portion of Swimmer's brain, it was exactly nine o'clock when matters took a turn for the worse and things began to happen. First, from somewhere on the other side of the tree, he heard a small, timid voice calling his name.
“Swimmer? Oh, Swimmer, where are you?”
It was Penny, and she didn't sound quite like herself. Snake Eyes and Jake were both working on the other side of the creek at the moment, so he called as softly as he could with his gnome voice, “Right here, Penny. Over your head.”
Penny, closely followed by a watchful Scruff, came into view. She glanced up, and now he saw that both sides of her face were discolored by bruises.
“Hey, what's happened to you?” he asked. “I thought you'd be in school today.”
“IâI didn't really want to go,” she said. “So I laid out.”
“Huh? Laid out?”
“That's what the kids at my school say when they skip class. Everything around here is soâso upset and all, that when I saw the school bus coming I just couldn't get on it. And I hated for people to see me, 'cause I look so awful. Mr. Sykes caught me last night and bopped me, and Iâ”
“The dirty skrink! Whereâ”
“It happened in the house, where I didn't think it would,” she hastened to explain. “And somehow Scruff knew itâand though I'd told him never to come near the place, he came anyway and made a terrible fuss at the door like he was going to break in. Golly, he sure scared everybody! But he was smart enough to leave before they could shoot him. First thing this morning Mr. Sykes and Weaver got their guns and went out to hunt him. They're still scared, they don't know whether he's just a wild dog orâor something worse â¦”
She gave a small giggle and added, “But as I was saying, with everything the way it is, I just couldn't go to school today. So I went and found Scruff, then I thought I'd better have a look at Clarence's van, just in case we had to hide in it later. Only, the van isn't where he said he'd leave it, andâand I can't even find Clarence. Isâis something wrong?”
“Looks like everything's wrong,” Swimmer grumbled. “The van's in the garage with a broken axle, and Clarence has gone to town with Mr. Owl, that Indian lawyer. Don't ask me why. And here I am up a tree, practically trappedâYou'd better hide! I hear Mr. Tippet coming.”
“Oh, I don't mind Mr. Tippet, but maybe I'd better get Scruff out of sight, just in case.”
As she turned away her lip trembled, and she dabbed at one swollen eye with the back of her hand. “IâI don't see why things have to be the way they are,” she said almost plaintively. “Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all go off somewhere? I mean, just you and me and Clarence and Scruff and Willow and Ripple andâandâ”
“That's a whumptious idea,” Swimmer admitted, and mentally added Miss Primm to the list, as well as the mynah bird and the white mouse. He was beginning to miss all three of them.
It was at this moment, when he realized how he felt and considered what Penny had said, that the seed of a brilliant plan began to sprout in the back of his head.
Swimmer was so taken with his plan that he failed to see Penny leave and was only barely aware that Snake Eyes had crossed back to this side of the creek, and was approaching to meet Mr. Tippet.
“Well, Jules,” he heard Mr. Tippet say sharply, “what's the score this morning?”
“We kinda narrowed it down,” Snake Eyes growled. “That critter ain't a hundred feet from where we're standing. More likely fifty. My dog Devil seen 'im last night, right yonder in the water.”
“You're sure of that?”
“I know Devil. When he acts a certain way, he's seein' what he's after.”
“Then why can't you find him?” Mr. Tippet demanded. “What's the delay?”
Snake Eyes spat. “Either he's in a skunk hole under the bank yonder, or he's in a den somewhere under this tree. That skunk hole's got skunks in it. Gittin' 'im out's gonna be a problem.”
“Swimmer wouldn't crawl in with skunks, would he?” said Mr. Tippet, aghast.
Snake Eyes spat again. “Might. But it's just as big a problem if he's denned up under the tree with a family of otters, which I kinda figger he is.”
“I fail to understand you, Jules.”
“Pshaw. When I find the right spot, an' stake a net over the entrance, I'll gas the critters out. But when a heap of 'em hit the net at the same time, like they will, I won't be able to handle 'emâunless I quiet 'em fast with a club.”
“Jules, this is a wildlife sanctuary. It's against the law to kill anything here.”
Snake Eyes spat for the third time and turned away in disgust. “I don't pay no mind to the law. You want that fool critter caught, I'll have to do it my way.” He nodded to the waiting Jake and muttered, “Let's have another look at them roots. I got a feelin' we missed something.”
Swimmer almost groaned when he saw the two men wade into the creek and begin probing about the root tangle again. This time he had no doubt whatever that the entrance would be found. But how soon? It was almost too much to hope that he could stick it out here till Clarence returned, but he was resolved to stay as long as possible and not leave the tree until the last possible moment. When that moment came, Ripple and her mother knew exactly what to do. They would hurry into the side tunnel, and he would follow and try to close it behind him with dirt and stones. After that he'd have to sort of play it by ear. With any sort of luck they might be able to return to their den and forget the beaver pond.
Below him Mr. Tippet unlimbered his walkie-talkie and made contact with Dr. Hoffman.
“We have it narrowed down, Doctor, There are some, ah, difficulties, but I think everything will be under control by noon.”
“See that it is, Tippet,” came that well-known voice from some unknown quarter, possibly a motel room. “I want this thing settled. Let me speak to Clarence.”
“Sir, Clarence isn't here. I haven't seen him since last evening. He told me he was going to camp here last night, but when I returned this morning there was no sign of him.”
“Confound him! He's been acting very strangely ever since Swimmer ran away.”
“Indeed, he has, sir! And he'll have some explaining to doâPardon me, sir, but here comes that fellow Sykes from the trout farm.”
Raising his voice, Mr. Tippet demanded, “Sykes, what about that last trap? Have you found it yet?”
Grady Sykes, shotgun in hand, swung into view under the tree. Close behind him, limping a little, came Tattle.
“Dang the trap!” Grady Sykes spat out. “I ain't got no time to fool with that now. There's a big varmint of a wild dog on the loose. He tried to break in my house last night!”
“What's this?” exclaimed Mr. Tippet. “A wild dog? Why, I've never heard of such a thing!”
“We got 'em in these mountains,” Grady Sykes told him. “They're worse'n wolves. This un's the biggest an' the meanest I ever seen. Came right up on the porch an' tried to bust down the door!”
Both Snake Eyes and his helper stopped their search and climbed up on the bank. “You say a wild dog tried to bust in your house last night?” Snake Eyes shook his head in disbelief.
“But that's exactly what happened!” Grady Sykes insisted. “My whole family seen it.”
“What'd he look like?”
“Just like a big yeller wolf. He slammed agin the door, snarling an' carrying on something terrible. Plum' mad he was!”
“Was he frothing at the mouth?”
“Sure, he was frothing! The porch light was on, an' I seen 'im plain as day from the side window. I run an' got my gun, an' fore I could even raise it he took off like a flash an' was gone.”
“Then he warn't mad,” said Snake Eyes. “He was just smart.”
“If he warn't mad, he was sure tetched or had a worm in the brain! I never seen a varmint carry on an' act so killing mean! I tell youâ”
He was suddenly interrupted by a new voice that demanded, “Sykes, just what were you doing when that dog tried to break into the house?”
Swimmer's attention had been on Tattle, who was nosing suspiciously through the brush, and he had failed to notice the newsman approaching quietly from the rear. The newsman was a graying man with a protruding jaw and heavy shoulders. Swimmer remembered that yesterday Mr. Tippet had called him Mr. Hogarth, almost with respect.
“Dang it, I was minding my own business,” Grady Sykes spat out in answer to the newsman's question. “How come youâ”
“Do you call it your business to beat a helpless girl so badly that she's ashamed to be seen in public?”
“Who says I beat her?”
say it!” Mr. Hogarth's jaw went forward a little farther. “I've pictures I took yesterday to prove it. I've another I took this morning that explains the dog. Shall I tell you why that dog tried to break in last night?”
“No, blast you! Just because you bought the paper in town, you needn't think you can stick your danged nose in everybody's business. You mess with meâ”
“You bloody fool, don't you realize that dog was trying to protect Penny last night? He's her friend. If you ever put a finger on her again and he catches you at it â¦”
Grady Sykes paled. Slowly, with the back of his hand, he wiped tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth. His lips moved soundlessly as he fumbled for words.
In the sudden silence the only sound was a sharp bark from Tattle, who was tugging at something bright in the bushes. Swimmer saw what it was on the instant. In despair he watched the brown mongrel drag the object across the ground and drop it at his master's feet.
Grady Sykes picked it up and stared at it. Abruptly Mr. Tippet snatched it from him.
“Whyâwhyâmy word! This is Swimmer's bell and harness!”
The newsman came closer and touched the dangling end of the chain. “Odd,” he murmured. “Looks like it's been cut.”
“Yeah,” growled Snake Eyes, extending a grimy paw to the harness. “It's been cut. With a hacksaw.”
“With a hacksaw!” Grady Sykes cried hoarsely. With both hands he grabbed the harness from Mr. Tippet and held it up. His face darkened and the silver bell tinkled as his hands began to shake. He cursed. “I knowed she was up to something when I caught her with that hacksaw. She found that danged varmintâan' she let 'im go!
She let 'im go!
Throwed all that reward money away!”
He cursed again and hurled the harness to the ground. “When I git my hands on that worthless girlâ”
“You touch Penny again,” Mr. Hogarth warned, “and you're going to get killed.”
Swimmer's uneasy eyes swung back to Tattle. The brown dog had trotted to the base of the tree. It looked up at him knowingly and suddenly began to shatter the morning with its sharp triumphant yapping.
Instantly Grady Sykes jerked around. A corner of his twisted mouth curled upward. “By jingo!” he cried. “Tattle's found the varmint! He's holed up in the tree. I'm gonna cut that danged tree down!”
“You ain't cuttin' nothin' down,” Snake Eyes told him. “I know where the critter isâI trailed 'im here. I been hired to catch the critter, an' I aim to do it, but I don't aim to have you around gittin' in my way. Y'hear?”
From somewhere in the distance, faintly, Swimmer became aware of Weaver's voice calling, “Pa! Where are you? Pa! The bank wants you to phone 'em right away. It's important!”
Grady Sykes seemed to freeze. Then slowly he turned and started back up the creek trail. With every step he moved a little faster until finally he was running.
The idea that had sprouted in the back of Swimmer's ever-restless brain was still growing in spite of unpleasant interruptions and the uncertainties of the moment. Occasionally he allowed it to come forward for a quick study, then back it went to sizzle some more on a rear burner. Just how it might fit in with the idea in the back of Clarence's mind he wasn't quite sure. He wasn't sure, in fact, just what
in the back of Clarence's mind, for Clarence himself had been a little hazy about it when he left. But there'd been a glimpse of several ingredients, of which the main ones were Mr. Owl and Clarence's savings through the years. Then there was the bank.
Because the bank was an ingredient, Swimmer had watched the departure of Grady Sykes with considerable interest. Now it gave him momentary satisfaction to watch Snake Eyes drive the yapping Tattle away before going back into the creek to continue the search. Over by the boulders, camera ready for any possible action, Mr. Hogarth was talking to Mr. Tippet about Penny.
“You see,” the newsman was saying, “I'd parked my car up there at the end of a logging road and taken a shortcut down here, or I never would have run into her. First thing I knew I heard a growl. I thought it was a bear, then I saw this big rascal of a dog ready to tear me apart. Behind him was Penny, sitting on a rock, looking like the world had come to an end. Her face was a mess, both eyes nearly swollen shut â¦