The Swamp Bridge
Sudden death, a baffling mystery and a shrill cry which heralded the dread summons of fate
WILLIAM GEORGE HARDY
COUNTRY folk,” decided Stevejis irritably, “are terribly standoffish.”
He shifted uncomfortably on the steps of the village store, uncertain what to do. His presence, he felt, was casting a constraint on the knot of Saturday-night loungers. They were an interesting group to him, new in appearance and ways of thought to his city-bred experience. Some of them, old men in open-necked shirts and drooping, sombrero-like straw hats, were veterans of the days before automobiles and radio sets; others were young bucks from the back concessions, resplendent in hard collars and bright yellow shoes. Yet all of them, he sensed, were at one in their air of suspicious watchfulness toward himself. It puzzled him, this did, for he himself was accustomed to easy camaraderie with half-acquaintances, to casual good-fellowship with the world at large. He did not, could not, understand that curious half-wild instinct which makes the people of a country community so distrustful toward the city-bred stranger and so contemptuous until he has proved himself.
But if he could not comprehend their attitude, he did not fail to perceive it. It had been expressed in a dozen ways since his coming. Take to-night, for example. He had stepped out cheerily from the store and spoken heartily to the group. An awkward silence had greeted him, and he had sat down with a hot uncomfortable feeling of being laughed at. Even yet, with slow conversation cropping out in desultory fashion, he still imagined that they were on guard against him. It worried and annoyed him.
“Four weeks I’ve been here,” he reflected, “trying to get a foothold and whom do I know? One or two who’ve had to have me in to prescribe, and Pop Cummings.” His eyes took in the vague outline of the village centenarian. “And that’s because I board with him. But the rest of them. I might as well be a bump on a log.”
“ ‘Be a good mixer,’ ” he recalled the advice of an old practitioner, “I’d like to have the chance. But as it is. I’m like a puppy trying to make friends with a Saint Bernard. It can’t be because I’m educated. Look at Jesse Hilton; he’s justice of the peace and coroner, and yet he gets along with them. But then he was brought up here, and I’m an outsider. Guess that’s the reason why they’re always on guard. I wish something would happen to shake them up, so’s I could see inside them; see what they’re really like. Or, if I could do something. Damn it all, I only want to be friendly!”
A thud of horses’ hoofs and rattle of wheels broke into his train of thought. A vehicle was pounding furiously toward the corner from the parsonage hill. Stevens realized that the loungers had stiffened to attention, and then into the path of light flung from the store window across the street careened a crazy democrat. A moment it hung there on two wheels, then righted itself, and dashed, madly driven, into the darkness to the south. There had been but a glimpse of it, but in that momentary view, Stevens caught an impression of a sensitive mare, ears laid back straining desperately forward and of the driver, a great hulk of a man, sitting impassive in the seat. The click-clack of the horse’s hoofs began to die into the distance.
As the sound faded, the rigidity of the group began to relax. Over to the left, Banky Hicks struck a light for his pipe, and in the flash of it the young doctor noted the grim saturnine outline of his weather-beaten face. Then from the lower step a voice drawled slowly:
“There goes old man Granger agin! Sure drives like Jehu, don’t he?”
“Hell-bent for election,” agreed another. “Someday, he’ll run suthin’ dowm!”
“ ’T wouldn’t be the first time,” Stevens felt a tingling shock at the undisguised bitterness of the voice. “Jarge Granger,” the speaker had risen and turned to face the group. “Jarge Granger. He ought to have his gizzard sliced, he did.”
A moment he stood there, almost at bay it seemed, facing the silent group on the steps. Then the fire seemed to leave him, and without another word he turned and clumped off down the street, his straw hat flopping disconsolately on his slouched shoulders.
There was something pathetic about him, Stevens felt.
And more to this incident than met the eye. He had come in, as it were, in the middle of the act. It was all that he could do to restrain himself from turning to Pop Cummings and asking him about the little man and the reason for his bitterness.
But the doctor had already learned that there was no surer way of closing the mouths of these people. Just now, he suspected, they had forgotten him; were off their guard. He waited, and his patience was rewarded.
“Who’s that feller anyways?” a young farmer from the north was inquiring. “I don’t rightly recall seein’ him afore.”
“Pete Munn.” Pop Cummings took it upon himself to reply. “He’s been diggin’ county ditch down Scugog way.”
“Sure has it in for Granger,” the farmer suggested.
“Shouldn’t wonder,” Cummings stopped to chuckle, then explained,
“Jarge run his old woman down.” He puffed at his pipe a moment in an exasperating fashion, then went on:
“Thirty years cum next July it was. I remember as if ’twas yestiddy. Walkin’ hum from meetin’ they was down by Webster’s an’ old Jarge cummin’ down the hill like the old ’un hisself. Drivin’ like mad, he was, an’ lashin’ and sa win’ at the mare. No wonder the critter rared. An’ her under the hoofs. She never cum to agin.”
He paused again, felt assured by the silence and added:
“Pete was well nigh crazy. Kept ravin’ at Granger and sayin’ he’d do fer him. Been sayin’ it thirty years now. Jumped at him once, too, he did. But Jarge didn’t care much. Jes’ pounded him to a jelly an’ pushed out that old lower lip of his’n an’ said some folks was alius gittin’ in the way. A rough un Jarge is!”
He stopped and no one else proffered a word. The subject was run out. After a decent interval Dicky Rich remarked, “Anybody hear what alsack’s ter bring?” The hum of slow conversation began again. But Stevens, sitting there, forgotten, hugged himself, confident that he had seen into these folk for once. Secretly, he determined to get old Cummings to tell him more about this incident. There would be a chance later on, for in his own home Pop Cummings was not uncommunicative. In the meantime, he felt it was time for him to go. He got up, noted the renewed silence of the group, and left with a good night that seemed to him to fall into a well of space. Over his head, as he went up the quiet street, the maple leaves stirred softly in the night breeze and his own footfalls sounded alarmingly loud. His mind was still busying itself with those two, with Munn and Granger. It fastened on his mind the bitterness the little man must hold toward the man who had killed his wife and laughed about it.
He paused at Cumming’s gate to consider it. “Wouldn’t be so bad if he could get even,” he reflected, “even if it was just beating the big fellow up. But as it is, he shot his bolt, I suppose, that time he did tackle him. And since then—thirty years hating a man he doesn’t dare to touch. Funny how the big and powerful can get away with things in this world! That little fellow will never get justice—
unless he sticks a knife into Granger or something; Ob well—•”
He opened the gate and went up the walk to the house.
/'AUT in the half light of the crescent moon,'Granger’s mare was pounding along. Already, the vehicle had turned from the Little Britain Highway on to a side road and even in the dim light it would be seen that the character of the country was changing. The village, on the highroad between Toronto and Lindsay, was modern enough. American tourists in big cars buzzed through it or stopped with a bright flash of color and town-bred superiority to be fleeced at Jerkin’s garage. A Temperance Hotel with a bar for 4.4, a bank and a village store filled three sides of the corner. From the other, a dozen party telephone lines radiated into the country. Half o the villagers, and most of the prosperous farmers nearby drove cars and owned gramaphones. Even an occasional radio set had crept in. A great change from twenty-five years before and a still greater one from the pioneer days of half or three-quarters of a century ago. Yet even in the village itself, those of the older generation, under the overlay of new habits and luxuries, kept their old ways of thinking, while a few short concessions away, in the region in which Granger lived, the clock would have seemed to the tourist, or to Doc Stevens, moved back in a bewildering way.
Here, in a little nook between crossing high-roads and Lake Scugog, lived the backwash of the farmers. The moon swinging out from behind a cloud showed Granger, if he had cared to look, their ramshackle barns and decrepit log houses, showed, too, pine-root fences casting grotesque and twisted shadows, and patches of woodland looming dark and mysterious in the distance. On Granger’s right, ran a continuous line of this distant woodland, marking the -sluggish and swamp-lined course of Oakwood creek toward Scugog, and his next turn on to the side road leading to his farm, led him straight toward it. As the road reached it, the track dipped down between two lines of shrubs, and an instant later the mare’s feet sounded hollow on the planks of the swamp bridge A crazy old structure, long past its time, it stretched drunkenly for a hundred feet, swaying under the passage of the rig. Over the light hand-rails, breast-high and serving rather as a danger signal then a barrier, Granger caught a glimpse of the sullen gleam of the stagnant water, deep and dangerous here, lined by a dark, desolate line of reeds and cat-tails.
“Deep enough and more to drown.a man,” he thought, and unconsciously tightened his grip on the reins. At the strain on her mouth, the mare half broke in her rapid trot and Granger, cursing explosively, like a volcano blowing out a blob of lava, lashed her with the whip straight down. Just as her wild leap forward brought her tender mouth sharp on to the tightly drawn bit, Granger’s ears took in a wild unearthly screech, coming it seemed, from the very floor of the bridge. He jerked back on the lines, and the mare, as startled as he, reared straight up, swerved in an effort to turn about, crashed through the handrails and dragging the rig with her went hurtling over the side, falling in a confused tangle and with a great splash into the sullen water.
The mare squealed horribly, that shrill, almost human, cry of a horse in mortal terror, and began threshing about madly. In that tangle of harness and buggy and reeds there was no chance for either of them. Gradually, the struggling and the snorting ceasing, and only a few ripples and the rim of a wheel sticking up crazily above the water, served to mark the scene of the tragedy.
A marsh hen squawked in the swamp: up-stream there was a little plash as a muskrat took to the water and the whole primitive spirit of the place seemed to take possession once more, to chuckle in satisfied fashion over the tribute paid to it. Then, and not till then, a watcher might have seen a shape, grayish white in the darkness, climb out from under the bridge and, shaking not from chilliness alone, speed its way, half-crouched, with rapid padding steps across the bridge.
/^LIMBING out of ^ Cumming’s Ford,
Stevens began to walk with him, and the sententious Jess Hilton down the slope to the foot of the swamp bridge. The events of the morning had left him with a feeling of unreality. This sudden death of Granger had come so patly on his musings of the night before—almost like a judgment, he thought, his mind unconsciously borrowing a phrase from Cummings.
And then there was his daughter. It was she who had found her father and had ’phoned the news to Hilton. An amazing woman,
Stevens had gathered, as dour as her father and the only person who had ever stood up to him. She had lived out there along with him for years—save for a half-wit boy who worked for them and went about, folks whispered, in mortal terror of both — doing the housework and laboring in the fields like a man.
“Strong as a horse Min is,” Cummings had said admiringly.
There could be no
highdV praise. Almost legendary she was, and legendary, too, in another way.
“Lose a critter,” Cummings had remarked, lowering his voice, and glancing sideways at Weldon, “an’ Min’ll find it fer yer.”
“A remarkable person,” Stevens had decided. “But no more so that her father.”
It didn’t seem real to him, the existence of such people, and his feeling of unreality was heightened by the amazingly primitive nature of the country on the way out. Like a step backward in time it was, and this feeling that a century was being lopped off came upon him still more emphatically as he and his companions moved forward between the willows which masked the approach to the bridge and closed behind them. It was like stepping into a different world when they emerged into the clearing at the foot of the bridge.
All behind, and on either side, was untouched swamp land with willows and scrubby cedars and an occasional elm. In front, began the hundred-foot span of the bridge, flimsily supported by a single timber pier. On either side of it, lay a sea of tangled reeds and cat-tails, set in sodden and spongy ground, steaming moistily in the hot July sun and breaking farther out, Stevens could see, to admit the passage of the slow-moving stream. Then it began again, thick and impenetrable. A world by itself, and Stevens, with that sensitiveness to untouched nature so often found in the city-dweller, had for the moment no eyes for a knot of men gathered with ropes and a team of
horses on a little oasis of firm ground at one side of the spring of the bridge. Beyond them the reeds were broken down.
“That must be where he is,” Stevens said to himself, and then his consciousness suddenly took in the presence of a woman there, tall angular, calico sun-bonnet shading a bony hard-featured face.
“Why, there’s Min Granger!” Cummings exclaimed, and the young doctor felt amazed and yet, somehow, abashed at her presence.
“She must have nerves of ironf” he thought, “coming to help get her father out.”
Yet, he noticed that, after the first exclamation, Cummings and Hilton took her presence as natural enough, noticed, too, that she was included in the conversation which started when they came up while he himself was, as always wich these country folks, left once more on the fringe of it.
A little bitterly he moved away from the others and, his mind reverting to that broken spot among the reeds, started along the shaking bridge to the spot where the splintered handrail bore mute evidence to the tragedy Stopping there, he looked, fascinated, over the edge at the smashed cat-tails. He could make out a wheel sticking up, crazily askew, amongst them, and the outline of a horse’s head. Behind it, in the water, was an indistinguishable blur. He shuddered a little.
“A messy death,” he reflected. “Poor beast.”
And Granger? Somehow his mind went back to Munn and the wife the old Scotchman had run down.
“Serves Granger right in a way,” he felt; “but it’s too bad the beast had to suffer.” He turned his eyes away after a moment and gazed about him once more.
“Just the place for old Granger to come to his end,” he decided. “This spot, it’s primitive, untouched nature. Death, ruthless and uncompromising, it seems to breathe that. And all the more because it’s masked. Look at that oily stream and those white water lilies. Flowers for Granger’s funeral! And he was lust as ruthless. Yes, without Munn he’s got his deserts.”
The sound of footsteps aroused him and he turned to see Hilton and the woman advancing towards him. At closer view, there was a tense, tightlipped look about her, and her eyes, deepsunk in bony hollows, had a fanatical light in them.
“What do they want?” he wondered Hilton’s first words did not enlighten him.
“Well, they’re going to start, doctor,” he vouchsafed, nodding back to the knot of men. “But before they do—” he moved to the edge and stood silently regarding the spot where Granger was— “before they do,” he went on, “I wish you’d look down there.” Stevens looked.
“See anything funny about it?” Hilton asked “No,” said Stevens, straining his attention upon it. “No, I don’t.” “Well, Min here mentioned it to me first. And now I see for myself. Granger was driving home, wasn’t he? And his home is there,” said Weldon pointing across the creek. “Yet that mare’s head is facing Oakwood way, the way he come from. And che rig is behind it.”
Continued on page 47
Continued from page 15
Stevens looked again. The coroner was right. The horse was facing toward Oakwood.
“Still he might have been coming back,” he ventured.
“What fer?” Min broke in, harsh and sharp. “S’pose he’d forgot suthin’, the store ’ud be closed by the time he’d git back. Nor the mare couldn’t have turned in the water, neither, for see,”—she took a stride to the edge and swept her arm toward the water—“that mare’s too close in ter the bridge. If she’d fallen over cornin’ home and then turned she’d be farther down. No, she was facin’ Oakwood way when she went off.” She paused from her vehemence and her sharp-featured face seemed to harden and her eyes to dull. “There’s suthin’ funny about it all,” she concluded.
Hilton was casual in his question: “Got any ideas about it, Min?”
“I don’t know,” she went on, still with that vacant look on her face, as if she were trying to visualize the right before when Granger’s vehicle had come thudding to the bridge. “I don’t know. I can’t see it yet. But Dad never druv over hisself. He couldn’t have. Not the way the rig is. The mare she turned. And over they went. Over they went,” she repeated. “But why?—why?”
Hilton hazarded a suggestion. “Likely something scared the mare.”
“Or somebody,” she caught him up, her voice faster. “Somebody with a grudge agin Dad. And that,”—her voice slowed again, “that can’t be nobody but Pete Munn.”
Hilton shook his head: “No, Min,” he said soothingly. “No. You’re barking up the wrong tree. Pete Munn couldn’t of been here. He was in Oakwood last night. ’ ’ Min looked at him a long moment while
light seemed to flow in and fill up the caverns of her eyes again.
“What I bin sayin’?” she asked.
“That Pete Munn did this,” replied Hilton a little impatiently, gesturing to the water. “And I was just saying that you’re wrong. Pete was in Oakwood all last night.”
“No matter where he was,” she answered him, eyes blazing. “If I said he done it, he done it.” She clenched her hand and took a step toward Hilton. “I’ll have it out of him,” she said, her voice a deeper timbre, “if I have ter cut it out.”
Stevens shrank back a little at the threat, but Hilton spoke apologetically.
“All right, Min,” he agreed. “If you say so, we’ll tackle Munn. And you can come along. But let’s go up to the house, now. We can talk it over there.”
“Before Dad’s out?” she questioned, “No, I’m goin’ ter give a hand at that.” She turned and strode back along the bridge, Hilton and Stevens following her.
TT WAS a toilsome business getting Granger out. The men splashed about, looping ropes around the horse and buggy, striving to get a hold. But, finally, the whole equipage was brought to solid ground. Steven’s part of the business was soon over, and he was glad to get it done. He was still too young a doctor not to feel a little squeamish at the staring eyes and bloated body, at the grim grip of the dead man’s hands on the horse’s reins. Death by drowning was clear enough. He gave his verdict and stood up watching with intense interest Min standing by stolidly, while her father’s body was huddled into the back seat of Cumming’s car. There was no sign of grief on her face, no tears, nothing but that locked tensity of face.
“If Munn ever fell into her hands,” he thought. “Or whoever she imagined killed her father, I’d pity him.”
He watched the car drive off with its ghastly freight, and then began to plod with Hilton after it.
FAARKNESS had fallen before Cummings started his car back to Oakwood. It had been a busy day, Stevens felt. He had imagined that they would be on the road back soon after noon. But that was not the method of these country folk. Hilton had pottered around, seemingly in aimless fashion, with now and then a question that appeared to Stevens irrelevant, and Min had never left them, not even when the undertaker came and started on his gruesome ministrations. The whole thing seemed more and more unreal to Stevens. The bare unpainted house in which Granger had lived, the stuffy parlor, with its hideous chromes and staring enlarged portraits, into which the dead man had been carried, the isolation of the whole place, had weighed upon him. He felt more than mere physical weariness. He was tired with that fatigue that comes when the mind has taken on too many disturbing impressions.
There had been that idiot laborer, too, with his senseless laughing and shouting and a peculiar piercing kind of a shriek rising to a weird crescendo—an imitation of the wild cat whistle just come into fashion on the threshing-engines, Hilton had told him. Stevens had felt a physical shrinking from it, from the thin inhuman note the half-wit took such pleasure in repeating. And then the way the poor imbecile had cowered whenever Min came near him. It had suggested much to Stevens and he had imagined Granger taking out his spleen on him and, like Munn, the poor idiot could not retaliate. He had been glad when, at dusk, the poor fellow had slipped away and disappeared.
As for Min Granger, she was sitting beside him now as they came to the swamp bridge, silent as ever. Keenly conscious of her presence, although sitting as far from her as he could, he sensed that her whole mind was fixed on facing Munn, on taxing him with her father’s death. Murder; it seemed so out of the normal life of the peaceful country village to which they were going. Yet, near Min, he felt no doubt that Granger had not come to his end through natural means. To-morrow, he realized, he would laugh at his suspicions. But here in the darkness with the trees looming ghastly in the lights of the car and a night breeze soughing about them, things took on a different hue. Violence seemed somehow more natural, even more fitting, as an end to a man of Granger’s stamp. As he meditated on this, the first planks of the swamp bridge creaked under their vehicle and Cummings pushed the pedal forward into low gear. Eerie the spot looked in the halflight, eerie and ghostly. Stevens felt the weirdness of the place, felt again the brooding impression of its primitiveness upon him.
“About this time, Granger went over,” he thought and shuddered a little. “I wonder how Min—
The question died in his mind. A piercing shriek had come, with the suddenness of an earthquake, from under their feet. The auto swerved as Cummings wrenched at the wheel, skidded and came to a dead stop, splintering through the handrail and one front wheel hanging over the verge.
“The old un,” he heard Cummings gasp, and then he was on the bridge, making for the jutting pier that held it up, while his other self wondered at him. He was frightened, horribly frightened, but a power beyond himself seemed to drive him over the edge of the bridge on to the structure beneath. Under the floor, between it and the pier, there was a space on each side of the supporting beam. There, he saw a vague blob of white, reached out shrinkingly toward it, touched wet flesh and heard the silly aimless laugh of the half-wit. The shriek placed itself. It was the half-wdt’s wild cat yell. His terror fell away as a garment dropped and he pulled the half-resisting form out, and on to the bridge into the lights of the car.
“I’ve got him, Mr. Hilton,” he exclaimed. “Here’s what killed Granger.”
THERE was one inarticulate cry from Min and then, like a blazing fury, she was upon them. The boy twisted in Stevens’ grasp, almost escaped, and, failing, huddled down into a cowering mass while the doctor tried to fend the woman off. He was breathless when Hilton pulled her away, breathless and bruised, and then astounded as he heard her, after an instant of fierce struggling, say to Hilton: “Lemme go, Jesse. I’ll leave him be,” and saw Hilton obey. He braced himself for a second attack, but none came. Instead Min Granger moved forward and spoke to the half-wit.
“Here, Tim,” she said sharply. The idiot jumped. “Stop that, you fool you,” she barked at him. “I’m not goin’ ter hurt you,” and the boy stopped and stood still, quivering. “I’m not goin’ ter hurt you,” she repeated. “Not if yer’ll tell me what you were up to last night. Do you hear me? What were you up to last night?”
“It waan’t my fault, Min,” gasped the boy. “Not my fault. ’T were Pete Munn put it inter my head.”
“Pete Munn!” There was a note of triumph in her voice. “And what did Pete Munn tell you ter do?”
“Nuthin’, Min, nuthin’. He jes’ said how I skeered him with that ingin whistle”; the imbecile’s mind went off on the new track. “Like a wile cat it is,” he said ecstatically. “Like a wile cat. Jes’ lissen.” He threw back his head and
screeched, ending on that thin, eerie, inhuman note. “I’ll bet I skeered ole Granger,” he confided happily. “Out of hiß wits, I’ll bet.”
Stevens stood amazed, his confused thoughts gradually taking shape. “So,” he reflected, “Munn did get his revenge. And all unknowingly, the half-wit too— if Granger was cruel to him. But behind it all—” he glanced around him, and in the moonlight the sullen stream and the dark lines of shrubbery bordering it seemed to become a presence, regarding him quietly yet pitilessly. “Behind it all was nature, untouched, merciless, knowing none of our silly sentimentalities.”
With a start he came to himself.
“What’ll I do with the boy?” he asked.
“pLAIN as a pikestaff,” said Cum1 mings to the group at the corner store. “That there idjut makes that row right under the mare’s feet. An’ Granger goin’ hell-fer-leather. An’ up the mare stands and swerves an’ tries ter turn, and over she flops. Granger never had a chance. An’ next night that half wit goes ter wait fer another rig. Gave us a skeer, he did. All’cept the doc. Quick as a flash he were an’ grabbed the rascal.”
He nodded approvingly and Stevens flushed with pleasure. The silence of ihe group was no longer hostile. At his side old Banky Hicks pulled out a plug of dirty tobacco.
“Chaw?” he asked.