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Chapter I




The expensively clad man with the rakish grey fedora hat, and one-carat diamond gleaming from his purple foulard tie, who was piloting the black limousine—rather, carefully inching it, with all lights doused—along the dark, tree-enshrouded dirt road that led towards the river, had a grim, determined look on his face. It was made grimmer by the dark spectacles he wore.

The look became even grimmer as he reached out once, and carefully felt the loaded rifle on the seat next to him. He knew he must be now within one hundred feet or so of the river, because the dim light from a camp fire, down on what would be the water’s edge, made a low, faint reddish glow up ahead of him. This was cut off cleanly along its lower margin, indicating the presence of the usual embankment that fringes rivers.

No more than five seconds later he had to bring his car to an abrupt stop, for the camp fire itself appeared some fifty feet off, on the edge of the dark ribbon of water. There was ample space in which to turn the car around and send it back along the same dirt road by which it had come.

Now, sitting in the quiet car, gazing downward at the fire, the man in the rakish grey fedora hat saw the person whom he sought. He came out of the darkness on one side of the fire, quite unaware that the black nose of a car, carrying two extinguished headlights, looked quietly down on him. He held two sticks of wood, which he threw on to the fire, causing it to blaze cheerfully and to light him up considerably.

He was an old negro, one-legged, with a clumsy and obviously hand-fashioned wooden leg strapped to his stump. He was virtually in rags, for the light-coloured shirt above his brown trousers—which were held up by only a single suspender, and that made solely of clothesline—was sufficiently in tatters to show the black skin beneath the gaps.

He was without hat, and his woolly hair was quite grey. He had tiny silver-rimmed spectacles on his eyes, and from the uncertain way in which he groped for a can cooking on the fire it seemed unlikely that he would have seen the car above him even had he looked straight at it. A dozen or so feet behind him, revealed by the flaming up of the fire, could be seen a low, makeshift shack with gravelled roofing material over some small uprights and with tarred paper hangings on the side—something to sleep under, no more. Down at the water’s edge rose and fell a rickety, unpainted boat, which seemed to have a slight list.

There came the sudden sharp, piercing cry of a bird, flying low across the old negro’s head. Probably the bird was frightened by the presence of an automobile in this lonely place, which was three miles from the closest town, and a full quarter of a mile, by this old spur road, from the paved highway to the south. The old negro did not even raise his head at the sound. Probably he was deaf—not stone deaf, perhaps; if he cupped his ear he might be able to hear words shouted at him; but he was almost certainly deaf to the sounds of a car up on the embankment.

So reasoned the man in the car as he reached out to his side—not for the loaded rifle that lay there, but to pick up a pair of field glasses just beyond it. He raised them to his eyes and made an adjustment or two of the screw. In a brief flaring up of the light down below the old negro was shown to be filthy as well as ragged. The front of his tattered shirt could be seen to be smeared with countless stains and drippings. He seemed toothless as well as filthy, too, for his mouth, opening once, so that a tongue could lick his upper lip, showed gums only, and indicated that the stuff cooking in the can must be mush or something of the sort. He looked to be half crazy as well, for he was mumbling away to himself and shaking his head solemnly as if to a real audience.

“Well, this is it, I guess,” the man in the car mused. “The end of a once hopelessly blocked trail! Yonder half-dead, obviously half-crazed, useless wreck—drifter, hobo, what-not else, is the man who calls himself today ‘London Lew Jones.’ Here he is, hidden in the big state of Arkansas, living three miles outside a tiny spit of a town calling itself—of all things—Swollen Creek. At least, he is living there”—the man in the car laughed sinisterly—“at this fair moment of 9:20 P.M. or thereabouts, Monday, the twenty-first day of July, this Year of Our Lord!” He shook his head. “It all goes to show.”

The speaker was evidently in philosophical and ruminative mood—perhaps because of some sort of highly unphilosophical thing or things he would soon have to do—for he continued on in the same strain to himself.

“ ‘Once hopelessly blocked trail’ is right! But, as in all such cases, there shone a light—eventually—in the darkness—a light bringing forth that—”

Here the speaker laughed with almost sardonic triumph.

“—a light bringing forth that a certain individual lived at Catfish Point, on Mud River, three miles out of Swollen Creek, Arkansas at the end of Woodster’s Spur, off Texarkana Highway. He had a wooden leg—and disabilities other! And the name—ah, the name—of—”

Here the man with the field glasses ventured into purely speculative hypothesis.

“Of course,” he said wryly, “I might have gone on—waiting—waiting for him just to cancel himself out of the equation of life—by just dying! And then—but, alas, born to a family of Methuselahs—even if late—who came themselves from Methuselahs—why, it might be the year 2000 before he’ll cancel himself, and then I could—yes, A.D. 2000!—at which time I’ll be considerably cancelled out myself!—and—no, you can’t sit down and ju-u-ust let ti-i-ime work for you—when dealing with Methuselah-blood!”

Here the man with the field glasses must have become intrigued by some irony in the situation, for he went on wryly:

“And the oddest thing of it all is that he doesn’t dream, right now, that a man who, eons ago, was as perfect an actor as ever trod the boards—in stance, costume selection, speech, dialect, gestures, what-not—gazes at him now from this upraised path. A natural histrion, no less, perfect and supreme, is gazing at a one-legged hobo nigger. Supreme irony, that. Irony!”

With which summation of his discourse the man in the car set down the field glasses and took up his rifle. The hinged upper half of the windscreen was up—he had put it up, back when he had turned off the paved highway into the thicket embracing the spur road. All he had to do now was to steady the rifle against the copper-edged lower half of the glass. He trained it on the negro, and waited till the latter might turn either to face him or to show his back. It did not matter which.

The old negro turned. As if by design he turned to face the car. He was beautifully illuminated by the firelight. But it was clear that he faced the car quite unseeingly, with rheumy eyes that had a range of probably ten feet, no more. The way he scratched his woolly—and doubtless lousy—head suggested that a project was being turned about heavily in his mind—some project, perhaps, such as the retrievement of a heavy piece of old river driftwood from somewhere up the side of the embankment, or perhaps of going through the thicket to the highway and thumbing a ‘chaw’ off somebody. What the idea was no one could tell. Nor would anyone—ever tell!

For, as the firelight suddenly flared up brightly due to some tiny chip of dry wood catching fire, the rifle spoke. It gave a single crack, which reverberated hollowly in the lonely region—then was followed by dead silence.

That one shot was sufficient. Almost at its very sound the old negro fell forward on his face, hands outflung. He lay there, quiet.

The sudden flare-up of the fire had died down as quickly as it had arisen.

The man in the car sat on guard in his seat.

“That must have gotten him right in the ticker,” he commented, “For he was bee-oot-ifully lighted by that chip of dry wood flaring up suddenly.”

He reached out now for the field glasses and trained them on the prone figure. The negro still lay absolutely quiet. Not a movement came from him—not a twitch, not a jerk of the legs.

“Yes,” the man nodded, “it was a bull’s eye—to the ticker!”

He set the field glasses down, but remained where he was. He was thinking regretfully of his next step in the night’s drama, and making certain also that nobody would come out of the darkness to investigate what might have eventuated from that single sharp crack. The thing was virtually impossible, however, as the man knew. What with the road coming to a dead-end, the highway so far away, any passing car drowning out any sounds by its own engine, the nearest town three miles up river, and the next one down river four miles—no, nothing would happen from that single crack, he knew. And nothing did.

At last, with a reluctant sigh and a resigned shrug of his shoulders, the man deposited the rifle, which he had cautiously held all this time, on the seat alongside the field glasses, and climbed out of the car. As he got out he reached back inside and took out a musical-instrument case which had been lying there all the time on the floor. It was a canvas affair with leather trimmings, and was quite bulky and rotund where the body of the instrument would repose, showing it plainly and indisputably to be the repository for a mandolin.

Leaving the door of the car swinging open, he made his way, mandolin case in hand, along the edge of the embankment to where a footpath ran down it to the lower ground. Up this very footpath, no doubt, the old black wreck had frequently come, to reach the thicket, either to get firewood or to press on to the outer highway where he could thumb his way into town.

In a trice the man was going down the path. He walked stiffly, because of the slope, but surely. He gained the lower ground and then the immediate region of the fire. Finally he was lowering himself squattingly on his heels at the very side of the prone figure, and feeling it clumsily.

The negro was dead, all right; warm, but dead.

The man, still squatting on his heels, looked around. He tried to peer across the river, but the opposite bank was lost in the haze of the night. Now he looked thoughtfully at the camp fire. Then he rose, mandolin case still held in one hand, stepped over to the fire, and kicked it carefully apart—not out, but apart, so that light still came from it, but not brilliant light.

Returning to the body, and squatting down again, he set his mandolin case down in front of himself, yet close to the body as well. Then, unbuckling its leather fastenings, he prepared to accomplish, by the lesser light now attained, the task for which he had come to this region.

It was all of ten minutes later when he was making his way, mandolin case in hand, back up the footpath, along the higher ground, back to the car. Then he was rounding it, climbing in, drawing the door to, turning on the headlights. Gently he switched on the engine and backed the car off half a dozen feet, turning it expertly to exact right angles of the position in which it had been standing. Then, by a couple more expert manipulations of the wheel and pedals, he reversed its position, and, without a single further second’s delay, started it back along the very tree-shrouded dirt path by which it had come.

As he went, the camp fire abruptly flared up, perhaps because some huge glowing ember suddenly broke up so that one of its outflung pieces set fire to some hitherto unignited pine-knot or oil-impregnated chip of wood. The light revealed an outstretched black arm, its limp black fingers extended towards the fire, and an outflung wooden leg, its tip exactly like the bottom of a great cane.

To this sight, however, the man at the wheel did not cast even a backward glance. Indeed, in but the space of one minute, or even less, he was sliding out of the shadowed road on to the main paved highway, which was quite devoid of any cars or trucks or other sign of life. He turned his car westward and put it into high speed.

“It’ll probably be eight—nine—o’clock tomorrow,” he was shrewdly estimating, “before some passing fisherman spots what’s there. After which—hell will begin to pop. But no matter. Long before then I’ll have reached Chicago—caught a snatch of sleep in a hotel apartment—prepared for my next step—even be out and on my way to—All this if, that is, I turn in this rented car tonight at Hot Springs, and get the nightly ‘Chicago Arthritics’ special ’plane that goes out from there to Cicero airfield, Chi. Yes, I’ll be sleeping in a Chicago hotel tomorrow at dawn, preparing for my next move and—no, let hell pop here tomorrow in Swollen Creek and environs, for I’ve got what I came for—tonight. Which is all that does matter!”

Leaning over, he carefully moved to one side of his foot pedal the mandolin case which he had so carefully brought back to the car—and which contained in its armlike extension one narrow-bladed saw with a shallow metal handle, one pair of rolled-up rubber lineman’s gloves, and one long razor-sharp knife, and held within its rounded segment the black woolly head of London Lew, hobo fisherman!


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