When a Man Schemes
When a Man Schemes
THE least agreeable lady on the Mississippi and its tributaries floated down the Tennessee from the neighborhood of the nitrate plant which has not yet been built at the Mussel Shoals canal and, having skirted along the frontier of Paducah, rounded the big, red heap of sawdust at the lumber mill and ran her shanty-boat to bank in the cabin-boat eddy above the steamboat landing at the wharf.
Her name was Mrs. Crell, and her daughter's name was Claire Belle.
Claire Belle Crell was nineteen years of age, a shapely, light-footed girl, with bright blue eyes, long wavy hair, and the witching type of smile which is called "sorgum 'lasses" as a kind of make-shift, there being in Mississippi nomenclature no adequate description to stir the imagination of those who' do not know sorgum molasses.
What maple sirup is to buckwheat pancakes, what green cane molasses is to hoecake, sorgum molasses is to hot bread—and so a sorgum 'lasses smile is a kind and quality of smile found only in the sorgum 'lasses belt, and in its perfection, on the lips of a girl like Claire Belle.
Mrs. Crell; who was only a day over forty years of age when her blue-cabin, red-hull boat drifted into Paducah river town, was like her daughter in many respects—comely, bright-eyed, and fine-looking—but she was a fond mother, and she was living for just one thing in this world—and that was to bring her daughter up right and protect her from all evil, and do for her all things that a fond mother should do for a good and lovely daughter.
So Mrs. Crell kept a double-barreled shotgun, loaded with nine buckshot to the shell, in the corner behind the kitchen stove, and a fourteen-shot .38-.40 caliber repeating rifle, loaded with only nine shots (to preserve the elasticity of the magazine spring), beside her sewing-table in the living-room.
These weapons were an essential part of the outfit of two fine-looking ladies tripping the rivers, for the farther down the rivers they went the more dangerous were their surroundings.
Paducah, however, is only middling dangerous, as it lies half-way from perfectly safe Pittsburgh to the terrors of Red River old mouth on old Mississip'.
Now Mrs. Crelle saw just one perfectly safe way of taking care of her daughter, Claire Belle—that was to keep every man up the bank, or not less than thirty rods distant in midstream. This was her practise, and for that reason there wasn't a river-man from Pittsburgh, Knoxville, and St. Louis to New Orleans who did not regard the widow as the least agreeable lady on the rivers.
There were some men—no less than a dozen, in fact—who would have had no designs whatever on the daughter if only the widow had been kindly disposed.
There was one old steamboat captain who had retired from the cabin of the packet City of Louisville to become a shanty-boater at his ease, and one fair look at Mrs. Crell had determined him in his own mind that, despite his previous married experience, it was not good for a man to live alone.
Captain Dunlin foresaw no difficulties in his way. What mere shanty-boat lady could possibly resist a genuine steamboat captain, in the splendor of a fine new uniform?
Captain Dunlin strolled down to Mrs. Crell's boat, switching his cane snappily at posies growing on caved-down sod, and approached the lady as she embroidered something or other, sitting on the bow of her boat.
"Good evenin'!" he greeted her, smiling in a way to make an impression.
"What's your business?" she demanded tartly.
"Why—why—that's my boat up there—the white one," he told her. "I 'lowed I'd be sociable—"
"Oh—a shanty-boater!" she sniffed. "This isn't my society day."
Captain Dunlin blinked. He had thirty thousand dollars saved up in good, safe mortgages, and a house rented out in Cincinnati, to which he intended to retire when he should become too old to trip the rivers. To be treated like a common river rat surprised and annoyed him.
He glared, tried to think of a new approach, but gave it up. Then he tramped back up the bank and returned to his pretty little cabin-boat, and sat glowering at the proud and haughty river woman at a distance of one hundred yards.
By and by his countenance relaxed, and he smiled. It was a wicked, steamboat-captain smile. He had not been mate and captain in the local passenger service and river packet business for thirty years for nothing. Besides his money, he had a large sum of experience stored away. Many and many a time he had done the honors to proud women on board his steamboats. He prided himself with knowing something about what he called the sex.
Mrs. Crell had a daughter, and she had no husband—that was river history. The habits of the sex, Captain Dunlin decided, were that if one of them had a daughter, it was for the daughter that she lived. He began to muse on the question of what Mrs. Crell would be like if she didn't have a daughter to look after?
"She'd shore be mighty good-lookin'," Captain Dunlin mused. "But for the rest, she's a female, and that spells onsartinty!"
Captain Dunlin brought to the subject the thoughts of hours. A man who lives on the river in a cabin-boat has long days for thinking. The bitter years when one must toil, jumping to the cracking of one's ideas, give way on a shanty-boat to ease and comfort when the mind picks its own subjects and takes its own time; in developing them.
Captain Dunlin thought of Mrs. Crell, and when she dropped on down the Tennessee, on her way into the lower river to spend the winter, he, too, drifted down—sometimes ahead of her, sometimes behind her, but never many miles distant.
The result was that Mrs. Crell regarded him as a confirmed old river pirate, and she was ready at a moment's notice to seize her clean, bright, efficient firearms and blaze away at him upon the first sign of an overt act.
Now, for three days, as she and her daughter floated toward Paducah, Mrs. Crell was nearly in a panic. Her daughter, less experienced, tried to soothe her mother, but without avail.
Captain Dunlin moored his boat about a mile above Paducah-sawmill, which was probably a wise thing for him to do. Had he landed in the shanty-boat eddy, perhaps Mrs. Crell would have dropped him as he stood at his sweeps, and then, with her daughter as chief witness, proved that he had been annoying, following, and loitering in the vicinity of her boat, evidently with no good or proper designs.
There never was a jury in Paducah who would have convicted Mrs. Crell on the charge of killing Captain Dunlin, whose attentions, however natural, were ominous on the river. It is not fit and meet for any one to drift in pursuit of another shanty-boat—a woman has a right to be nervous, and two women four times as nervous.
Now, Captain Dunlin had a number of friends in Paducah. He knew all the river shippers there, and the more he saw of Mrs. Crell, at a respectful distance, the more he determined to appeal to society and civilization for assistance in the problem which his mind had fixed for his own comfort.
Captain Dunlin went to City Marshal Belliver first; Mr. Belliver scowled at the idea of having anything to do with a subject relating to shanty-boaters, especially river women. To his mind, the question was unworthy of discussion; but for old times' sake, he consented.
The consequence was when Mrs. Crell and Claire Belle went up-town, Deputy Marshal Doscan followed. He spied upon the two until he learned that Mrs. Crell had a sister who lived out at Florence Station, and that they were going there for a few days' visit, leaving their boat in charge of the watchman of the coal fleet, who was a married man and who minded his own business.
So Captain Dunlin waited till the two had taken their departure, and then dropped down to Paducah shanty-boat town and tied in just below the coal fleet watchman's boat.
He found, sitting at the brink of the river-bank on a lump of sawdust, a morose and disconsolate young man. Something in the youth's appearance was familiar, and Captain Dunlin greeted him with a friendly nod.
"Howdy?" he smiled.
"Howdy," the youth replied; and then, with a sudden burst, he asked; "You're off the river, too, aren't you?"
"Why—kinda, you might say. I'm traveling in a skiff."
"No; down the Tennessee—"
"Oh—I saw you up at the Shoals?"
"I ran them," the youth nodded. "They're from the Tennessee, too, in that blue boat."
"That's right. Do you know them?"
The youth rolled his blue eyes up and stared at Captain Dunlin's face.
"Perhaps I do, and maybe' I don't," he ventured at last. "Do you?"
"The old one," Captain Dunlin replied cautiously. "I have what you might call a shotgun range acquaintance with her; too friendly to shoot me at a hundred yards with her thirty-eight, not friendly enough to let me inside of buckshot—"
"Well," the young man grinned, "you are lots better acquainted with her than I am. I'm one of the shoot-on-sight-at-eighty-rods friends of hers."
"Must be she's suspicious of you and—"
"The girl?" the youth grinned, blushing. "Yes, sir."
"Sonny," the captain smiled benevolently, "come with me!"
They went down on the captain's cabin-boat, retired to the galley, and proceeded to start a fire, to put On a coffee percolator.
There they remained, drinking strong percolated coffee and getting acquainted.
"Yes, sir, cap'n." The youth shook his head. "The old woman sure would shoot me on sight. Y'see, two or three times I got to talking with Claire Belle. That was coming down to Decatur, Alabama. You know-where that is. It was just luck, you might say; but I'm a Yankee, kinda looking around, and I saw the girl hunting squirrels up above in the hickories.
"Well, I helped her get two, three grays, and we were real friendly. The old woman hadn't seen me and my skiff, I s'pose. I never thought anything. I walked right down to their boat with her, and say! She give a look, a yell, and jumped for her gun—that's right! Mad! Claire Belle grabbed her, but I had to get to go right there. They pulled out and down the river. I was out of sight after that. Still, I got to see Claire Belle. You see how that was. Awful pretty girl, captain!"
"Takes after her ma," Captain Dunlin mused. "What you going to do?"
"Well, that's what's bothering me, to tell the truth. I'm no tramp, nor river rat, I tell you that. I've swapped and traded along—I pay my way."
"Course, I don't want to ask anything that you aren't willing to tell," Captain Dunlin remarked. "My name's Dunlin—"
"Beg pardon—I'm William Deverts, from Burlington, Vermont."
"I met a real-nice party from Vermont years ago—excursionists on my steamer," Dunlin mused. " Let's see, what was that man's name? Copely—Copenly—"
"The Culbentlys?" Deverts exclaimed. "Why, it was their talking sent me down South to see the country! Dan Culbently and I went to college together—"
"Hum-m—it's a small world, sonny. You're traveling in a skiff?"
"Well, you bring your outfit on board here, and we'll travel down a while. I've been thinking—um-m."
"It's awful kind of. you," Deverts laughed aloud, and then he grew glum again as he added: "I don't know if I'll go any farther. You see—I thought—"
"Mrs. Crells has a sister, Mrs. Threson, out at Florence Station," Captain Dunlin remarked. "She's just gone out there with the girl for a few days. They left the boat for the coal fleet man to watch."
"He told me he'd bought it and they'd gone to Texas."
"Course he said that," Dunlin smiled. "I didn't ask him. I got a friend up-town—ticket-agent on the railroad."
The youth's eyes sparkled.
"Captain," he exclaimed, "I've come five hundred miles looking for you. I had sure lost the trail—"
Both laughed, and they silently shook hands. Then Captain Dunlin raised his sobered countenance and looked the young man squarely in the eyes. For minutes they let their gaze study.
"Of course," Captain Dunlin said at last, "Claire Belle's a fine, clean river girl. They've places enough they could live at up the banks. She's got a farm leased out in her own right—three hundred acres o£ corn land-up in Illinois. Her mother has quite a lot of money, too. They aren't exactly what you'd call society people, but they're river folks of the old kind."
The youth stared at the floor for a long time after that. At last he said, still looking at the floor:
"Well, I haven't any right to talk about anybody; she's a mighty interesting girl. The old woman made me mad, letting strip with her rifle the way she did. I thought she'd get me before I got into a bend in the bank out of sight. I saw the girl two or three times afterward, of course. I meant no harm. Claire's been through school, and she's read lots of books, same as I have. If the old woman hadn't been so darned mean, I'd been good friends. I'm not particular about her feelings now—"
"I'm honorable," the youth retorted.
"Well, we'll be good friends, then," Captain Dunlin smiled.
The two were good friends now. Deverts brought his rowboat up the eddy and made it fast to the stern of Dunlin's cabin-boat. He brought on board the gun cases, folding cot, cooking utensils, suit-cases, grub-box, and other duffel that comprised his outfit, and set them aboard the ample thirty-foot houseboat.
Then they went up-town, and the two met a lot of Dunlin's old-time friends, among whom the young man carried himself like the decent sport he was. Then one of them took Deverts for a ride casually, and they followed the road to Florence Station, as if by accident. There they stopped at the fence corner of a little farm, and the Paducah man patted Deverts on the back.
"There's the Threson place," he said. "We'd better look around. If Mrs. Crell's on guard, why, look out!"
And that evening, when this friend reported confidentially to Captain Dunlin, the old steamboat man smiled with satisfaction.
"Seems to me you take a lot of interest in that kid," the man remarked, "helping him out thataway!"
"I needed help myself one time," Dunlin smiled reminiscently.
Deverts found the Paducah people the most friendly people in the world, and there wasn't an hour of the day or night that he couldn't have commanded an automobile to take a ride out in the country—to Florence Station, say.
He was out there five times in one week—and Captain Dunlin learned that Mrs. Crell had told her sister that if she hadn't come out there, she didn't know what would have happened, a pestering old man having followed her down, and that after river rat had bothered Claire Belle almost to death.
Captain Dunlin winced a little when he heard himself called an "old man." It was the doubt in his campaign, the strategy that he was playing which no one dreamed of him.
One day Deverts, his face blushing and his voice trembling, said to his partner:
"Claire Belle and I—you see, she—we've thought it all over, and we've looked at it careful. We won't have any better chance than that right now—I thought—she thought we could get married and beat it down the river. By and by, when her mother's good and lonesome, why, she'll take us back any time."
"Good boy!" Captain Dunlin cried out. "I knew you'd do it! Claire Belle's the nicest girl on the river—best blood there is, too! Why, her mother's one of the old Trent-Legerna family."
"My folks 'll be rearing," the'^youth puzzled. "You see, mother had a girl picked out for me, and my sisters had another one. Gee! You ought to have seen them! Why, Claire Belle's—"
"She's the kind we grow down here," Captain Dunlin chuckled. "And when you're ready, here's this boat! Take it! Drop down the river, and round a month or two you tow back up here with it, or I'll meet you down to Memphis. I'll write to New Madrid to you, and you write there, too, and if anything happens I'll kind of let you know."
"Why—I couldn't think of taking your home—"
"Tut, tut!" the captain laughed. "You're a son after my own heart!"
Lightly as he said it, the captain's heart thumped.
Two days later the Crells had made up their minds to return to the cabin-boat in Paducah eddy on the following Monday. On Saturday afternoon Claire Belle casually strolled down the road to visit a neighbor, and she entered a five-passenger automobile and rode into Paducah. Captain Dunlin had planned the details. Within three hours Mr. and Mrs. William Deverts had floated down under the railroad bridge below Paducah and were on their way into the Mississippi in Captain Dunlin's boat.
"That's all right!" he protested to the last. "I'm going to live up the bank a while, anyhow. This is a good excuse!"
No sooner was the cabin-boat clear of the bank, Claire Belle having packed and removed her things from the blue cabin-boat, than Captain Dunlin went out to the Threson place in a fast car belonging to one of his many friends. At the peach farm he tumbled out of the machine and rushed up to the house.
"Is Mrs. Crell here?" he demanded, and as that woman emerged from the sitting-room onto the broad veranda, her face hardened angrily. He gave the storm no time to break, continuing: "Madam, I saw your daughter going by in an automobile in Paducah, this afternoon, with a young man I happen to know is a skiff traveler down the Tennessee—Deverts by name."
"What?" Mrs. Crell cried out, her mother's heart in agony. "With him? Oh, quick! What shall I do?"
"I'd better—if I'd known-" The old schemer shook his head. "I'll telephone to some people there. The city marshal's a friend of mine!"
He telephoned to the city marshal, to the mayor, to the county sheriff. He called up the county judge and the city judge. Between calls, he turned to the trembling and frantic mother.
"Be calm!" he told her. "They'll telephone word around. They'll have every road watched from Cairo to Louisville, and they can't get away."
"Oh, but my daughter!" Mrs. Crell wept.
Captain Dunlin took full charge of the matter. He discovered the owner of the automobile by use of his intuition and his friends.
"We'll go find him, and see what he says!" Captain Dunlin declared.
And forthwith he bundled Mrs. Crell into the waiting automobile, and they were rushed by a begoggled man through the dust to Paducah. There they raced from place to place, from headquarters to county-court, and in the county clerk's office they found, spread down on the records, that a license had been granted for the marriage of Claire Belle Crell and William Deverts.
"Married—oh, I'm so glad—the wretch!" Mrs. Crell choked, beginning to sob.
Then Captain Dunlin took her to the home of old friends of his, and the wife condoned with the mother who had lost her daughter, and Captain Dunlin told how he happened to recognize the girl's face, and knowing that Mrs. Crell was sister of the Florence Station Thresons, and that some one had said she was out there, and knowing how careful she was of her daughter, he had instantly surmised that perhaps something was wrong, especially as he knew about young Deverts following the Crells down the river, pestering them all the time.
"You know how river people talk," Captain Dunlin said to Mrs. Crell, who blinked and dabbed her handkerchief in her eyes as she admitted how kindly Captain Dunlin had been in looking after the matter.
"I—I don't know how I can ever thank you, captain." She shook her head. "After me taking all the care of that girl the way I did—to have her treat me this way! No one knows where they've gone!"
"If I'd only known." Captain Dunlin shook his head. "If I'd had the least suspicion about it! You see—that young scoundrel! He played a regular Yankee trick on me—yes, sir! I remember, now, it looked funny. I'd made up my mind to quit the river here at Paducah, and when a man came to me and said he'd buy my boat, I didn't think a thing. I sold it—and now that young scoundrel's into it down the river—"
"What?" Mrs. Crell exclaimed. "Down the river in a shanty-boat?"
"The last I found of them, they'd gone right to the river and gone down in that cabin-boat I sold that man."
The captain of the coal fleet confirmed Captain Dunlin's statement the following day. Claire Belle had been there, taken her things, and departed with them in Captain Dunlirn's boat.
"If I'd suspected anything, Mrs. Crell, I'd sure stopped 'em!" The coal fleet man shook his head.
Mrs. Crell went down on her own boat, and Captain Dunlin accompanied her. She sat in her rocking chair, sobbing. The captain did his best to comfort her.
"Oh, I'll be so lonesome!" she cried. "I'd never dare live alone on the river, and Claire Belle—she deserted me! If she'd only let me know—why—we could have gone along together all right. I'd been—"
She burst into more tears, and Captain Dunlin hitched his armchair around beside the mourning river woman. She wept, and he patted her head and tried to put one arm around her waist, but she shivered herself loose from his soothing time and again.
Nevertheless, Captain Dunlin, having all his years of experience to draw on, established himself on terms of friendliness and with position of comforter for her. She did not know what to do. She could not bring herself to sell the beautiful little boat, which was the easiest one on the sweeps she had ever rowed; yet she could not bring herself to trip down the river alone. Never had she realized how much her daughter had meant to her.
Captain Dunlin saw that as yet Mrs. Crell had not gotten beyond the stage of having lost her daughter. There was no sign that she had reached a frame of mind where he thought it would be safe to begin an active campaign for substituting himself in her affections.
He needed something further—a compelling incident, as it might be called. Looking ahead, he had expected the loss of the daughter would be followed, as a matter of course, by the climax which he had presumed would be inevitable.
Mrs. Crell seemed inconsolable. Captain Dunlin did all that he could think of, as an old friend of the family, to assuage her grief, and for the moment he was greatly encouraged because he had been enabled to become as near as an old friend. He returned to his stopping place on the second evening after the elopement, assured in his own mind that all that was needed was some other happening which would prove to be the compelling incident.
In the morning, when he strolled down to the Paducah shanty-boat eddy, he had a surprise to compare with the time the boiler on the steamboat of which he was mate blew up. Mrs. Crell and her shanty-boat were gone, and the coal fleet man said that she had cast off her lines that morning and departed with the sun shining.
Captain Dunlin caught his breath and blinked. He was speechless. A contingency upon which he had failed to figure had arrived. He was left stranded up the bank, and over and above his astonishment was a lingering and growing doubt as to just the figure he had cut in the affair.
"I don't, know anything about that young Deverts," he admitted to himself; "and likely he's a river pirate or a goldbricker from the Hudson River or the Atlantic Ocean. I think—I don't believe I want to hang around Paducah long enough for any of the boys to get to thinking anything about me—Jee-hosaphat! What have' I done?"
Hoping vainly, he sought the post-office for the mail. He went down-town to the steamboat wharf, and up-town to the River Men's Club, and out to dinner with a friend, and down to the river eddy for a look, and it occurred to him to telephone incognito to the Thresons at Florence Station; and he relieved Mrs. Crell's sister of much worry, for she had begun to wonder what had become of the widow, now that the daughter was gone. She seemed real pleased to think that Mrs. Crell had gone away from that old Captain Dunlin, whom she didn't like the looks of anyhow.
Captain Dunlin, who had impersonated an old friend of the family, hung up the receiver. He swore at women generally and particularly. He felt that he ought to have known better than to admire a woman for her looks instead of her actions. Mrs. Crell had been handy and mean with her guns and rifles, and now he was set up the bank with no boat and the makings of a first-class story of or when some one should suspect the true condition of affairs.
"And I was on the river thirty years—and knowed shanty-boaters!" he muttered to himself, making a gesture of supreme distaste for the part he had been playing. "I bet it was a put-up job!"
Captain Dunlin's boat was one of the best built houseboats on the river, having cost two hundred and fifty dollars painted; the outfit, including some of his most precious mementoes and collections, was of inestimable value. In cold blood, letting those river people trip down the river in it looked like the most insane thing a trustful man had ever done.
Captain Dunlin knew there was one thing he could do, and he did it. As always, there were several boats for sale in the Paducah shanty-boat town eddy, and one of them was a small semi-cruising motor-boat. Captain Dunlin bought it, and put on an outfit that was according to the boat—an oil-stove, folding cot, grub-box, et cetera.
He was a changed man when he started down the Ohio on his way to the Mississippi. There is something about Paducah that alters the career of many a river-man. Men have dropped into that sawmill eddy as mean and sorrowful as ever men could be, and in a day or two their whole outlook on life has changed. Then, again, men have been as cheerful as unpunished sin when they arrived at Paducah, and overnight they've become as ugly as though they had been caught in the act of something that means life imprisonment.
"He's come through Paducah's eddy," excuses anything on the lower river, whether joyousness like a bluejay's, or ugliness like a neighbor's pet dog.
Captain Dunlin had little hope of finding his cabin-boat by this time. He figured that he had been the victim of as clever a con game as ever was played between Pittsburgh and the Passes. Only luck could save him, his boat, and its precious relics. He bought himself a .30-.30 rifle and a .45-caliber automatic, and headed away down for New Madrid, where he and Deverts had agreed to cross letters. His own communication was brief:
I'm double-crossed and I know it. Leave word where you'll be 'long about the middle of November.
"There," he told himself as he deposited the note at Cairo wharf-boat, "that don't show anything but good nature and disappointment."
The little motor-boat was the Watercress, a name that pleased the old riverman. When he rounded the bend and shot down the line between the Mississippi yellow water and the Ohio green, his anger and his grimness fell from him like a mantle.
Paducah had made a changed man of him, but he fought the natural gloominess which such disappointments commonly give a river tripper. Besides, steering a motorboat under power was more like being somebody than, pulling a pair of long oars on a shanty-boat—more like for an old steamboat captain. He had not known before what a pleasure a little motor-boat would be.
So he pounded down the. reaches and bends, and scorned to land in at Putney Bend, where all the first trippers stop to catch their breath after their plunge over the great jumping off place of the hundred thousand miles of river.
He swung down Lucas, Beckwith-Hickman bends and steered jauntily into the chute of Island Eight—which is perhaps as lonesome a chute as there is above Memphis, woods and sand-bars on both sides, and the hint of piracies in the sinister Reelfoot Lake brakes over east in Fulton County, Kentucky.
Whisky boats used to load with moonshine along there, and many a tradition of cold-blooded murder originated between Hickman and Reelfoot Landing—Murrellites, and feuds and produce-boat pirates, and the like.
Captain Dunlin was feeling as jaunty as a card sharp when suddenly he felt and heard the rasping scrape of gravel on the hull of the Watercress. The bow of the boat slid up and up; and though Captain Dunlin threw on all his power, he succeeded merely in driving his boat higher on instead of clear over the bar.
"And me a river captain! And I've run on a reef in a falling river!"
Captain Dunlin stopped his motor and cursed. One consolation was that the river was only at a three-foot stage; and though it might go six feet lower, some time in December there would be a rise, and he could leave his dusty berth again.
"I forgot this danged boat drawed twenty-four inches!" he muttered. "A shanty-boat don't draw-but eight!"
The river fell six inches by dark, and by dawn it was down six more. All the following morning the fall was steady and relentless. Captain Dunlin could see the gravel through the muddy waters. Happily, the Watercress was on an even keel.
He could sit and smoke and think of the hard luck that had followed him clear down on this trip. The wind that blew all day precluded the possibility of a shanty-boater dropping down and perhaps lending him a hand on a Spanish windlass, which might pull the boat off its gravel bed. Night fell, and with it the wind. A passing skiff man said a rise was coming down the Cumberland and Tennessee.
It was a warm evening, without a breath of air. Captain Dunlin smoked a pipeful, watching the shanty-boat lights going by on the short cut through the chute as the migrant river people took advantage of the night calm to be on their way south for the winter. Some of them floated down within a hundred yards or so, and with two or three of these Captain Dunlin held brief interchange.
"Hello! Run aground?" one hailed.
"Yeh!" Dunlin replied. "I'm drawin' twenty-four inches, and there wasn't but fifteen here."
It was the kind of a river night when no one of the river life cares to sleep. Perhaps it is because on such nights a tornado may suddenly burst out of the southwest, or an earthquake of the seven a year New Madrid variety; perhaps it is because one feels the march of river spirits up and down the midstream.
A boat without a light swung into the chute and drifted down. As it approached Captain Dunlin heard some one sobbing—a woman's voice in the dark. As the boat floated abreast of him he hailed, and the crying on the dark boat ceased.
"You're going right down into a gravel lump!" Captain Dunlin warned. "Better pull sharp out!"
He heard quick footsteps in the cabin; and while he cursed people who floated dark, and didn't know whether they were going down chute, reach, or-crossing, to the dismay of steamboat people, he heard the walls of the cabin-boat trembling like sounding boards to the scrape and clatter of gravel.
"There!" he called out. "Now you've run aground. That's what comes of being a darned fool floating at night, no lights and no watch!"
"That any of your business?" a tart voice replied. "If I want to float at night, it's none of your business; and what are you doing there in your boat, if you're not aground? I didn't suppose there'd be lack of water by a motor-boat."
"I'm running out here to calk seams!" he retorted. "That's what I'm here for. I'll be out dry to-morrow, and I'll calk—that's what I'm here for. I suppose you're going to windlass up the bank!"
The woman made no reply, and Captain Dunlin cackled scornfully. He felt a good deal of satisfaction at his display of ready wit, too. His boat would be dry enough to calk a seam anywhere by the following afternoon. He reflected that the cabin-boat on the gravel lump down the reef would be dry, too. He felt something like fighting, in view of his several worries and disappointments.
He turned in for the night feeling a good deal better. In the morning he, slept late, and when he peered out the port eye he saw the cabin-boat careening somewhat on the lump. But at sight of that color his startled gaze saw blue and red; and if he knew boats, that was Mrs. Crell's.
"And I—and I sassed her!" he choked. "A man ain't safe to sass a woman. They never git over it, if you ain't married, and they don't have to!"
He cooked his breakfast without showing himself. He could see Mrs. Crell working in the stern of her boat, with door open, getting her breakfast. Every minute or two she would go out and lean over the side to look at the water. It was still falling. The starboard side was all dry, and the port side was only a few inches under at the stern, while the bow was six inches out of water.
"I got company, such as it is," reflected Captain Dunlin. "She ain't seen who I am yet. I bet I stay close for one while!"
Then he discovered that hi§ water pail was empty, and that meant he must go thirsty or show himself, going down to the bluff reef to draw some water, for there wasn't enough around his boat by this time to fill a tin cup. Instantly his thirst became enormous, and his fear was increased in proportion.
Finally he caught up the rope bucket, and jumped over the far side and started down to the bluff reef.
"Good morning!" a sarcastic voice hailed him, and when he rolled his eyes up the woman continued: "You! Captain Dunlin—eh?"
"Sure!" he replied, for lack of better answer.
"And you let me drift down on this gravel bar!" she turned on him. "You didn't warn me till it was too late! What do you mean, and you sitting there smoking and not hailing to warn me!"
"Well," he replied, hesitating. "You see how it was. I wanted company!"
The handsome face of Mrs. Crell set with quickness of temper that was difficult to face, but Captain Dunlin had just about reached the limit of his patience and good nature. If any one wanted a scrap, all right. He wasn't looking for one, but he had stood about all he was going to and sing low.
"Yes," he continued, "I was willing to have company—if it was the right kind."
"You knew me—and you let me run on a gravel bar!" she cried. "And I thought you was a friend!"
Her voice broke ever so little, and at that sign of her feminine suffering Captain Dunlin saw that he was a brute.
"I didn't notice you were in close enough to hit that lump," he explained. "I heard some one crying—it kind of broke me up a minute, and when I yelled it was too late. I'm looking for that girl of yours —but I hit the bar myself—forgot I was drawing twenty-four inches 'stead of eight!"
"Oh! "she caught her breath. "Aren't we two old fools!"
"Not so old as we might be!'.' he retorted gallantly; adding quickly: "I believe I can rig a Spanish windlass and work you down over that lump. There's deep water in the eddy below it."
"If you could!" she breathed. "I'm just sitting down to breakfast—won't you come have some?"
"Why—why, Mrs. Crell! Sure I will!"
Captain Dunlin had four hundred feet of handy-line on his boat and two three-sheaved blocks. He set his own and Mrs. Crell's mud-hooks down in the deep water, with their heavy lines, using her skiff. Then he rigged the handy-line through the blocks, and having shoveled away the most of the lump under the bow, the two of them set their weight against the haul line and tipped the houseboat over into the shallow water, and it began to slide down the slope of the gravel.
"That's a light boat!" he exclaimed. "We got it coming!"
In less than four hours the little house-boat was afloat again on the chute, and Captain Dunlin coiled his rope on the motor-boat roof to dry it out, while Mrs. Crell cooked dinner.
Mrs. Crell had her mud-hook up on the bar to hold the houseboat from floating away down the chute.
"There's a strong wind blowing," she said and shook her head. "I couldn't float out on the main-river to-day! I've been dropping down nights. It's awful. You've no idea how lonesome it is without that—that girl of mine."
"I've been alone twenty years," Captain Dunlin said sadly, and he, also, shook his head.
"Being alone on a steamboat isn't like being on a shanty-boat!" she replied quickly, and then, Seeing her mistake, she added: "Of course, you've been shanty-boating lately."
Captain Dunlin noticed that there wasn't enough wind on the main river to prevent the floating of a cabin-boat if one really wanted to hurry on. He saw that Mrs. Crell was just plain lonesome—that being alone had gotten on her nerves. It made him feel like a strong, protecting kind of man.
"Couldn't we get the Watercress clear?" she asked.
"There's a fresh coming down the Cumberland," he told her. "Big rain up in Kentucky and Tennessee. It 'll be down about the twentieth."
"That's Saturday," she mused. "Claire Belle dropped me a card, saying she'd write me to New Madrid. I'm anxious—"
"You—you needn't wait on my account!" he exclaimed. "There's nothing—ah! See that water?"
He pointed up the chute. A wave had rolled over a wide, low level of sand. A visible swell came down the chute.
"She's turned—now it's rising again!" he exulted. "That's the Tennessee and Cumberland fresh!"
They were standing in the doorway of the cabin-boat, close together, so close that Captain Dunlin blinked at the sunshine. They stood there a long time in silence. They waited, they said, to see the two other waves that show the turn of the river tide from ebb to flood. As the third wave rolled down. Captain Dunlin's arm slipped around the back of the widow, and tentatively, with great caution, his right hand caught against the apron band.
"Cap'n!" she whispered. "Cap'n!"
"Lawse!" he replied. "I've been—I've been hoping—"
He kissed her, and she buried her face in his shoulder.
"So've I been hoping, cap'n!"
"I've a parson friend at New Madrid," he declared. "We'll get him!"
"Cap'n," she cried suddenly, "you'll have to wade! You'll get your feet wet going to your boat!"
"I don't care if, I have to swim!" he laughed. "Hue-e!"
"Soon's we're afloat—perhaps we'll—perhaps we'll find those children!"
"Sure we will!" Captain Dunlin cried out. "He was going to write me at New Madrid and—"
"Cap'n"—Mrs. Crell started up and away from him—"going to write to you!"
Captain Dunlin blinked. He saw that, by all the tormented luck that had followed him, once more he was caught and twisted and betrayed.
"You—you helped that man steal my girl!" She turned on him, infuriated. "What'd you do that for? What do you mean by that?"
There it was in plain English! Mrs. Crell had her suspicions now. All that she had ever believed of men now proved true. Captain Dunlin saw all his fine hopes going a glimmering before the hot temper of the enlightened widow—and they weren't married yet, and she needn't to get over it, and probably wouldn't.
"Answer me, sir!" she commanded. "What do you mean, getting a poor widow's daughter stole?"
"Why," he grimaced, "I—you see, I—I couldn't get the widow for myself no other way, so I—-so you see, I—"
"Umph!" she sniffed, her lips twitching. She turned away. Captain Dunlin saw in that gesture the fruitlessness of all his efforts and the failure of all his hopes.
But after a time the widow edged around, and returned to look at the river captain.
"Captain," she said meekly, "how do you reckon an old river woman like me happened to hit that gravel lump on a falling river when nothing ever drifts to shore, but sucks out from it?"
"Why—I—why, I hadn't thought!" he gasped. "That's so! How'd it happen?"
"Well, you had to drive your motor, and I had to pull my sweeps—that's all. A fisherman up here said you was aground in the chute," she laughed; "and, captain, I was sure just as lonesome as I said. Lawse! When I saw up to Paducah what game you'd been playing on me, a lonely old widow, I was—I was just boiling! But, captain—sho!"
Captain Dunlin was once more happy.
This time he saw that there was no further cloud to rise between him and his contentment.
At the same time, when he happened to think of it below New Madrid afterward, and when his wife reminded him from time to time, he had his doubts as to just how much of a scheme he had played, and how much fate had had to do with his happiness.