The Murderer (Parker Butler)
By Ellis Parker Butler
IN New Hampshire, where the nose is considered a more important organ of speech than the mouth, Cleft Mountain forms one side of Green-fly Valley for several miles. On the other side of the valley the upward incline is less abrupt, a series of hills rising one after another until the whole aggregation reaches a height deserving the name given it—Woody Mountain. Through the valley Green-fly Brook meanders, in some places tumultuously, in others less so, but always hurrying and always noisily. When the water is high in the brook, the mere rush of the liquid fills the air with sound; when it is lower, the brook tears and frets itself over and against the rocks and boulders of the stream. It is a pleasant sound.
A road winds up the valley—the Green-fly Valley Road—following the easiest course, which is close to the stream for the greater part of the way. In the whole valley there are but eight houses, typical farmhouses of the region, except that one of them has a sleeping-porch built on the west side. This is where Henry K. Hidge lived during his summers. He was a city man; the other houses in the valley were occupied by farm-people, good neighbors and kindly folk, lending each other hay when the winters were hard and long, scraping a miserable living from the rock-bestrewn soil and doing as they would be done by. They were mostly old people: the boys and girls went away as soon as they could. No one blamed them.
THE Green-fly Brook was a famous trout-stream. In the spring, when the first green-flies began to flutter over the brook, the trout fishermen came up from the city, and from far and near, to fish the stream. There were two months of good fishing, and when the water continued high in the brook, the fishing was good all summer. The anglers boarded at the farmhouses, and the money they left was often the difference between hardship and comfort for the old couples that lived in the Valley. Henry K. Hidge was one of those who came up every spring for the fishing. He had been coming some twenty years, boarding for his week or so with the Jed Rascoms and fishing their stream, when Jed had his leg broken by a tree he was felling. It was a bad fracture; he had to go to the city to a hospital. The leg had to be rebroken and set again. It knit slowly. There was a big hospital-bill.
Henry K. Hidge went to see the old man at the hospital and found him fretting over the bill. He took a second mortgage on Jed Rascom's farm and loaned him three hundred dollars. The next year Jed's daughter Mary married Joe Carter, down the Valley, and the wedding took place while Henry K. Hidge was at the farmhouse. Hidge sent down to the city for a box of real roses, and Mary carried them when she was married. Two years later, when the second mortgage came due, Henry K. Hidge foreclosed and took over the farm. He was well pleased. It cost him just half what he considered it worth.
He posted the stream—putting up legally worded warnings against poaching—and refused to let anyone fish it. Joe Carter and Mary went West.
THE taste of individual possession, and the knowledge that trout-brooks were yearly rising in value, whetted the appetite of Henry K. Hidge. He allowed old Jed and his wife to live on the farm, and in exchange required them to board him free of charge. He ousted them from the best bedroom and gave them one in a shed addition. They were expected to live in the bedroom and the kitchen. They could take no more boarders during the fishing-season. They were very poor, and growing more feeble each year, of course. Hidge spent the entire summer at the farm.
He had become an old man himself. He fished little and allowed no one to fish his part of the brook. He only desired the trout to increase and multiply, so that he could get a top price when he was ready to sell.
When he was in the Valley he wore his oldest clothes. He looked worse than any farmer in the region, tramping over the road with his bent shoulders, supporting himself with a hickory club. He would stand for hours looking at one of his neighbors' farms—thinking, thinking, thinking! He was trying to figure out a way to get the farm and the brook that went with it, for as little as possible. One by one, the farms went info his clutches. As he acquired them, he posted the stream. He closed the stream to outside fishermen. The yearly trips to Green-fly Valley stopped. The Valley had never been prosperous; it became a place of poverty.
Emanuel Carter, Joe's father, alone held out. He was the only man on the brook who could offer fishing to those who came, and there is no question that his brook was overfished. He was an old, old man, and his wife was an old, old woman, but it was their pride that they had never been obliged to call on Joe for assistance. They had many angler boarders each season, and the south field was still the best field in the valley. The hay Emanuel cut on the south field permitted him to winter ten head of cows, and he sold the milk to the dairy.
OLD Emanuel was the gentlest of men. His hair was almost gone; the little he had hung about his ears in white wisps. His eyes were a watery and faded blue. He was a good man and had always been an honest man, never unduly self-seeking. Now he was much broken, but he was still big of heart. He could not remember having ever done an unkind act. He was one of those God should care for, if He takes care of any mortal. It was a striking contrast to see old Emanuel and old Henry K. Hidge standing side by side as they often stood, the one so gentle and guileless and the other keen-faced, grasping, an old, toothless wolf of a man.
They were often together because Henry K. Hidge often took his hickory club in his hand and tramped up to Carter's. For years he had been trying to coax, beguile or snare Emmanuel Carter into selling his brook and his farm. He wanted the brook, and he wanted the south field. The reason was this: he owned all the brook in the Valley except the stretch owned by Carter, and that stretch cut Hidge's brook directly in the middle. Hidge, grown old and one-idea-ed, thought of nothing but getting Carter's place away from him. He now owned more brook than any one man would want to fish; he saw that he could get twice or three times as much for his brook if he could connect the two parts by adding Carter's piece. Then he could sell it for a club. And the south field was the one and only place for the club-house. He was like a spider in his web, waiting and waiting and always ready to spring. He pretended friendship—no affection—for Emanuel. He sought him almost daily and talked and talked and talked. He always talked about buying Carter's place. Emanuel always refused. He did it gently, but his answer was always the same: "When me and Ma goes, Joe can do what he wants. I'll keep it for Joe."
JOE did not write often; some people do not. Hidge wrote to Joe. Then Joe did write to his father. It was a lovingly affectionate letter. He said he was doing pretty well and hoped to make a visit home in a year or so, bringing Mary and the baby Emanuel had never seen. He said Hidge had written him and had told him he had offered him to lease the Carter stretch of brook from Emanuel.
"You and Ma have never told me how feeble you are getting," said Joe in his letter, "and it almost makes me sick to think of working away there, fussing with boarders just like you used to. I think you ought to lease the brook to Mr. Hidge. He gave me some figures, and they look all right to me. What you'd lease the brook for would net you almost as much as you get from the boarders, and as long as you have the south field and can keep the cows, you'll be all right. I'd feel better in my mind if you would lease the brook."
So Emanuel leased the brook, and old Hidge grinned like a wolf. He drew up the lease himself, and Emanuel signed it. It was for only five years. At the end of the period, Emanuel thought, he would not renew it. He would have the property free and unincumbered by lease or mortgage to hand down to Joe. He signed the lease one Saturday when the hay was ready to cut. Monday he was going to begin cutting hay on the south meadow.
The south meadow was shaped like a half moon. Along the straight side ran the brook, edging the meadow. Beyond the brook was the road, and beyond the road the farmhouse and barns of Emanuel Carter. Clear across the meadow, on the semicircle that formed the other side of south meadow, stood one big elm tree, and under it the grass grew soft and thick. From this edge of the meadow the bank arose, steep and sheer. At some time, long past, the brook must have taken this longer course, running around the meadow instead of across the shorter side, and it h&d left the hillside a mere declivity of raw earth. On this nothing grew except, here and there, a rank weed. In places large stones or boulders protruded, half unburied, and at the top, seventy feet above the meadow, there was a fringe of young beech and birch, quivering aspen and sapling maple.
Under the big elm it was cool, even on the hottest days. When the air was stagnant elsewhere it seemed to move in this one spot, and here old Emanuel had rigged a small seat. He sat there when he had nothing to do. He was standing there, placing a jug of spring-water in the shade before he began mowing the meadow, on the Monday morning after the signing of the lease. His scythe leaned against the tree. As he stood there, he saw Henry K. Hidge come out of the Carter gate.
There was no bridge across the brook. The passing and repassing of Emanuel's team and wagon had worn a rough road that dipped into the brook and up again on the narrow side, but the brook was low and he had thrown a couple of logs across, and on these Henry K. Hidge crossed. He walked through the high grass of the meadow. Emanuel waited for him.
"Good morning, Emanuel," he said.
"Good morning, Henry K.," said Emanuel.
"I saw you over here in the meadow." said Henry K. "and I felt sort of curious. I wondered how you got over here."
"Why, same as usual, Henry K.," said Emanuel. "I drove over through the brook. There aint no other way that I know of."
"I guess there aint!" said Henry K., his smile ending and his mean little eyes glittering. "I guess there aint! And I guess you know as well as I do, Emanuel Carter, that you aint got no more right to cross that brook than I have to burn down your house. I leased that brook, with every right, and for five years it's my brook. You trespassed when you came across it, and you'll trespass when you go back; back I'll allow you to go, this one time, but never again! I've been waiting for this! You thought you were sharp, Emanuel, but I'm sharper. Now will you sell me this meadow and the brook?"
Old Emanuel put his hand against the tree, and his mouth fell open. He said not a word. His hand touched the handle of his scythe. He stared at Henry K. Hidge, and for the first time in fifty years hot, burning anger and resentment surged through him. It made his hands shake and his limbs tremble.
"You old idiot!" said Henry K. Hidge. "I've got you, and I'm going to make you holler! You get back to your house while I'm good-natured, but if you try to cross the brook with a load of hay, I'll have the law on you. I've got you! Your meadow aint worth taxes to you. You've got to sell it to me."
For a minute old Emanuel grasped the handle of the scythe, and then he let his head fall and he wept. He was an old man, too old. He turned his back on Henry K. Hidge and trudged across the meadow, leaving his scythe leaning against the tree. He crossed the brook and went, bent and trembling, into his house. That week he sold the south meadow and the brook, with a rod on the roadside, to Henry K. Hidge. It was all he could do. He could not reach the meadow to harvest the hay. His boarders had no more brook to fish and would come no more. Without the hay, he could not feed his cows. He sat all day on his little porch and gazed across the brook at the south meadow.
THE next spring, in June, Joe Carter sold his Western farm and came home, bringing his wife and the baby. He had done well and could afford to visit the old folks before he looked about for a new place. He was shocked to see how Emanuel had failed and how listless and worn his mother had become. One glance at the rainswept cow-yard told him there had been no cattle in it for many months. He saw that the south meadow had not been cut. He saw all this even before be entered the house.
"What does all this mean, Father?" he asked, and standing there on the porch, old Emanuel told the story of Henry K. Hidge's shrewdness.
"The hound! The miserable hound!" cried Joe, and his face reddened with anger. Mary still held the baby, coated and with its little white bonnet with a white ribbon rose. Old Mrs. Carter stood, her thin hands toying with the baby's plump hands, and a tremulous smile on her lips. Joe looked from the kindly old man to the age-stricken woman, his mother; and rage made his blood boil. What man dared do this thing to this gentle, age-worn man? What hound—what devil?
He looked across and saw Henry K. Hidge walking across the south meadow. He saw Hidge reach the elm tree and slowly, as an old man does, ease himself down on the soft grass under the tree.
"The hound!" he cried again, and swung open the kitchen door and entered the house. At the far side of the kitchen, on a stag's antlers, lay the shotgun. He jerked it down and snapped it open and saw that the shells were in the breech. They saw him a moment later. He had left by the front door and was hurrying across the road.
The brook was high where it passed the house, but above, there must be a bridge of some sort, since Henry K. Hidge had been able to cross to the south meadow. Joe turned up the road, walking rapidly.
Mrs. Carter wrung her hands and cried, moaning softly. Emanuel stood, his jaw fallen and his hands limp.
"Here, take baby!" cried Mary. "Joe will murder him. He's gone to murder him."
SHE thrust the baby into the old woman's hands and ran. She did not run up the road toward Joe, but down the road. She knew the brook well. Down the road, the road left the brook, and a hill lay between it and the brook, and there was an overhanging tree that had fallen, making a bridge high above the brook, reaching across to the hill that curved back of south meadow. She ran. She climbed up the wet hillside. The tree was still there, but it was a birch and had rotted. Through the bark the decayed wood protruded in flakes. She crawled out upon it. It held her, and she got across. She ran, fighting her way through the birch and beech, the aspen and maple, keeping as close as she dared to the top of the declivity that edged the south meadow. Now and then, through the openings, she could see Henry K. Hidge resting under the elm tree. She reached the top of the bank immediately above him.
"Mr. Hidge! Mr. Hidge!" she called, but the roaring of the brook drowned her voice. The old man was intent on a map of his brook property. He had had an offer, and he was trying to decide how much he ought to stand out for. Mary shouted again, but he did not hear. She grasped a small birch and leaned out over the raw bank.
Joe had crossed the brook and she saw him coming down the meadow. She looked down the bank. It was steep, but she felt she must dare the descent to save her baby from being a murderer's child, to save her husband from being a murderer and to save Henry K. Hidge, because he had given her roses for her wedding. She put her foot on a projecting boulder and tried her weight upon it.
From its socket in the moist, sandy clay the boulder moved. It turned over slowly, as if reluctant to leave the bed where it had reposed for thousands of years. Then with a rush it bounded down the raw side of the hill, and Mary cried out and drew herself back. Old Hidge looked up. He began to scramble to his feet; turned over on his hands and knees, raised one hand as if to ward off the great stone that seemed about to crush him. It passed him with hardly an inch to spare. A foot nearer, and it would have crushed his head like an eggshell. Mary saw it. Joe saw it and came running. When he reached Henry K. Hidge, the old man was dead. The boulder, in passing had struck the handle of Emanuel's rusty scythe, and the blade, falling, had pierced him through and through.
WHO was the murderer? Mary, who sent the boulder on its way? Or Joe, who had been the cause of Mary's attempt to save Hidge? Or Emmanuel who placed the scythe against the tree? Or Hidge himself, who by his overreaching had began it all? Or the glacier that a million years ago dropped the boulder where it lay? Or God, Who, times without number, brings retribution to men in the hour of their unclean triumph?
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1937, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 85 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.