NO HUNTING ALLOWED
WILLIAM R. SCOTT
DAVE had taken his foot off the gas and was coasting to a stop when it happened. WHAM! He ducked and slammed on the
brakes and stared with astonishment at the web of cracks crowfooting out from the chipped hole in the windshield. It looked very much the way he imagined a bullet hole would look.
The bullet if it had been a bullet—could have come from the heavy timber on either side of the road, where the small creek was belted thickly with oak and elm trees interspersed with poplar, and everywhere scarlet clumps of sumac. It didn’t matter where the pellet had come from. The salient point, he decided, was simply this: a guy could get hurt around here. He had no desire to be perforated with lead at this late date. Only a chump would venture into the woods where lurked a careless squirrel hunter, a fool with a gun. “I’ll be moving along,” Dave said to himself, shifting into low gear.
As the car started rolling forward, something whanged into the car door just under his elbow. There had been no sound of a gun being fired. Just the object, traveling at a high rate of speed, smashing against the metal of the door with a
terrific impact. Reacting from instinct, he had slammed on the brakes again, and now he sat there trembling and running through his vocabulary of profanity. He was running out of pungent phrases when he became aware of a wild peal of laughter, coming from the left side of the road.
Dave glared at the scarlet sumac thicket from whence the laughter seemed to emanate and presently he made out the laugher. A crew cut the color of mildewed wheat stubble stuck up out of the sumac—a familiar crew cut, topping a familiar freckled face. Dave let out a mighty roar. That kid! That—that — that kid!
He yanked open the door and lunged out of the car and the sumac quivered with the passing of the crew cut as Leroy Bates, potential public enemy number one, fled from a formidable type of justice. This being no time for meditation, Dave set out in hot pursuit.
Crossing the road and vaulting the three-strand fence, he was not aware that he was clutching his rifle, A part of his mind recorded the fact that on the first tree he passed was a large white placard bearing the information that this was posted land, and No Hunting was Allowed. It scanned not, since Dave was browned off like a piece of Aunt Callie’s toast. Later, of course, he would remember having the rifle in hand as he set out on a vengeance
trail, but he would never be able to recall exactly whether he actually intended using it or not— although for a long time he would secretly believe, with more pleasure than compunction, that he had intended using it.
“I’ll break the little hoodlum’s neck,” he thought as he crashed through the dense sumac. When he reached the bank of the spring-fed gully he stopped and listened for sounds of a ten-year-old gangster running for dear life. There was no sound but the raucous cawing of crows overhead, and poplar leaves rustling in the cool breeze, and a distant baying of hounds. In fact, he decided warily, it was much too quiet. A brooding silence, and somewhere ahead was Leroy Bates, probably hiding. Probably even watching his pursuer with a derisive grin.
* Maybe even drawing a bead—Dave dropped silently into the wash, getting his shoes muddy. He was irritated at the thought of the little ruffian setting up an ambush for him.
Dave bent forward and began advancing silently along the muddy gully beside the shallow brook and it struck a familiar chord in his memory. It took him back several years. Change this wildwood scene to Italy and you’d have any number of places where he’d seen fit to crouch low and work his way forward in stealthy silence.
A bush quivered ahead and to the left and Dave
The kid and the convict had this in common: they were both catastrophes looking for someone to happen to
came, out of the gully swiftly, bent far forward, flitting from tree to concealing tree. Ten yards, twenty yards, and then he skidded to a stop, feeling very foolish.
THE girl registered surprise and then indignation. Recognition flickered in her big brown eyes and scorn curled her lip. “You!” she said succinctly.
“Mildred,” Dave said. “What are you doing out here in the jungle, teacher?”
“It is none of your business,” she said coldly. “And don’t call me teacher. In fact, don’t even speak to me, please.”
“A splendid suggestion,” Dave told her. “However, one question. Which way did he go?”
She was dressed in slacks and a sweater which made her look smaller, in a way, but in another way didn’t. She regarded Dave icily. “Which way did who go?”
“The monster,” Dave said. “That juvenile delinquent you encourage in his budding career of crime. The kid you and the fat cop saved from me day before yesterday. The chief of police’s nephew.”
“Leroy?” She looked at him uncertainly. “Why, I was looking for—” She stared at him with suspicion. “Why do you wish to know?” Suspicion was suddenly replaced by horror. “What are you going to do with that gun? You wouldn’t—oh, my goodness!”
Dave lifted one eyebrow and gave her what he hoped was a sardonic leer. “Oh, wouldn’t I now?” e said. “This time the Keystone Cop isn’t around interfere with justice, teacher. Which way did ? brat go?”
The schoolteacher looked bravely determined, ut not very. “You leave him alone,” she said in a voice that quavered. “You’d better not lay a hand on Leroy, you—you child beater.” She took a breath, an uncertain, gusty breath, and her eyes flashed. “And don’t call Elwood Bates a . . . a Keystone Cop, or fat, or—or—” Her voice
wavered into silence and she stared at him as birds are commonly believed to stare at approaching snakes. With dreadful fascination and a kind of paralysis.
Suddenly Dave didn’t like himself very much for scaring this poor, shapely little schoolma’am. “Aw, shucks, teacher,” he said. “Don’t look at me like that. Listen, I was driving along out there minding my own business, when suddenly—!”
Suddenly something went WHUNK! into the tree above his head and snarled away into the crisp fall atmosphere. Ducking instinctively, he caught a flash of movement from the corner of his eye as Leroy exploded into action off among the
trees. Still crouching, with the chill not yet gone from his spine, he eyed the girl levelly.
“See what I mean, teacher?” he said. Then he took up the chase once more, carrying with him the sound of the girl’s helpless wail.
This time he could hear the brat running up ahead. When he came to the gully there were Leroy’s footprints slithering along the muddy bottom. Dave went down the steep bank and set out grimly along the plain trail. The footprints left the main gully and angled up a uBsidiary gully, a TOW and tortuous dry ditch heavily overhung wil l bushes and weeds and twist ing back toward the ror
Since it had b: m a chilly morning when he left Aunt Callie’s house, Dave had dressed warmly for still hunting, and now, what with all'that running and stuff, be w [ piring freely. He slowed down to a creep as the ditch grew increasingly narrower and presently he was forced to abandon the ditch altogether.
As he climbed out, he was somewhat taken aback to see a man’s head thrust around a tree, watching him in a wide-eyed manner. Furthermore, there was an arm and hand thrust around the tree, and the hand, which trembled visibly, clutched a large pistol.
“Drop that gun and put ’em up,” the man said, his voice quavering.
“Wait a minute, pal,” Dave said, thinking this chap was the owner of the land on which he was trespassing with a gun. “I can explain everything.” He shifted his rifle to his left hand and the man ducked his head behind the tree and started firing the pistol jerkily.
Even after almost four years of civilian life, Dave reacted instantly like a battle-wise soldier. He hit the deck, rolling, and he didn’t stop. A couple of convulsive, clawing leaps and he landed in the bottom of the narrow gully, running. He didn’t stop until he reached the muddy creek bed, where he sprawled against the bank and mopped sweat from his face, breathing heavily.
“My aching back!” he said to himself. “So all right, the guy doesn’t allow hunting.”
He thought about the situation and the more he thought about it the more ridiculous it seemed. Did he want to catch Leroy this bad? No, he didn’t. Chasing Leroy always led to trouble. Like day before yesterday, when the little manic depressive had let the air out. of the tires on Dave’s car, and then had thrown a very ripe egg, missing Dave but not the coupe. Being quick-tempered and impulsive, Dave had chased Leroy right into the schoolhouse and had just grabbed him by the scruff when along came Uncle Elwood and Mildred Noble, both of them aghast. Elwood was especially aghast.
“But even being in jail for chasing Leroy isn’t bad compared to getting shot,” Dave said to himself, “and I will get the heck out of here.” Pairing the thought with the deed, he clambered out of the gully and took to the denser cover of the shrubbery, heading for the road and his car.
Halfway through a clump of sumac, lie stopped abruptly. This time he was gaping into the twin black maw of a sawed-off shotgun held firmly and convincingly in the hands of a dark, unshaven, but withal capable-looking man who was sitting comfortably propped against a rotting stump.
“Drop the peashooter,” the dark, unshaven, but withal capable-looking man suggested quietly, and Dave dropped the peashooter without hesitation. There was that in the man’s narrowed eyes which made dropping the peashooter seem a fine idea at the time.
“Sit down.” Dave sat down, careful to sit away from the peashooter.
“A lot of people out here today,” the man said, leering-or maybe he always smiled that way. “Like a convention, ain’t if, bright-eyes?”
“Why, yes,” Dave said. “I had noticed that myself. You might say it’s congested.”
“I might, but 1 doubt it,” the man said. “You one of the boys from town?” “Not exactly,” Dave
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said. “I’m just visiting my Aunt Callie in town. I might decide to live here permanently, though. You ever eat any Brunswick stew?”
The dark unshaven man assumed a listening attitude. Dave listened too, but all he heard were the crows and the hounds baying. The man eyed Dave again. “Brunswick stew? 1 can’t say I ever ate the stuff, bright-eyes. What’s with Brunswick stew?”
“Aunt Callie makes it with squirrel,” Dave said. “Listen, you own this place, or just work here, or what?”
“Or what,” the dark man said helpfully. One thing about it, Dave knew he wasn’t a squirrel hunter. Who ever heard of hunting squirrels with a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun? Probably this guy worked for the other guy, and they had seen Dave climb over their fence and had come down here to run him in for violating whatever local ordinance pertained to fenceclimbing in posted areas.
“Listen,” Dave said, giving the man what he hoped was a winning smile, “I can explain the whole thing. I’m not actually hunting on your prop—”
The dark man was listening, but not to Dave, and his eyes said shut up. Dave shut up and the dark man rubbed his chin stubble and cocked an ear, but aside from the fact a small breeze rustled poplar leaves again, the sounds were the same as before, crows and hounds. Then, just as Dave was about to go ahead explaining the whole thing in simple, concise terms, there was a new sound. Somebody was stumbling through the underbrush.
Then a female voice with overtones of frustration and wrath said: “Leroy, you answer me! I know you can hear me. You answer me, Leroy!”
“A dame!” the dark man hissed, his black eyebrows going up in surprise. He motioned with his shotgun, which Dave took to mean he should be as silent as the tomb. Then, reaching out to the nearest sumac bush, the dark man shook it vigorously.
With an impatient noise Mildred Noble came thrashing into the sumac covert and pulled up short, with appropriate surprise, at sight of Dave and the man with the scatter-gun. She put a hand to her mouth and stared at them big-eyed, while with her other hand she plucked absently at the eocklebur on her sweater.
“Join us, babe,” the dark man said, moving the gun so that its two ominous black eyes stared at the girl. Dave looked uncertainly from the dark man to the schoolteacher. What was going on here after all! Why should the guy threaten poor, shapely little Mildred Noble?
“Savvy!” Dave exclaimed. “I don’t believe you own this place, or work here, or anything. And you’re no hunter, either. What’s your game?” “Tennis. What’s yours?”
“I’ve got news for you,” Dave said belligerently. “You’re not funny.”
The dark man looked at Mildred Noble, but the scatter-gun resumed its unblinking regard of Dave’s midriff. “He don’t think I’m funny, babe,” the dark man complained. Then he leered at Dave some more. “You got question, bright-eyes?”
“I have,” Dave said, trying to ignore the scatter-gun. “For instance—”
“1 wouldn’t,” the dark man said, and Dave could see muscles twitching in his unshaven cheeks. “You might ask the wrong question and I might not like it.”
“For instance,” Dave said doggedly, “I would like to know—”
“And if 1 didn’t like it, I might shoot
you full of little round holes.” Cheek muscles jumping, the dark man watched Dave sit down again. “How do you feel, bright-eyes?”
Dave said he didn’t feel very curious, come to think of it, and the dark man became interested in Mildred Noble. “What’s your racket, babe?” he wanted to know. “You don’t look like no type to join up with a posse.”
Posse! What posse? A posse was a group of armed men who went out looking for—! Some things clicked into place in Dave’s befuddled brain and he started feeling very unhappy.
He listened glumly as Mildred explained to the dark man about the picnic her class was having and how Leroy had gone off with his slingshot and she couldn’t find him.
The dark man displayed a good deal of interest in the picnic. How far away were the kids and which direction? And didn’t babe think it was careless going off and leaving a bunch of little kids in the woods like that?
Mildred said it was about two hundred yards along the branch, and no she didn’t feel she’d been careless, since she left Olga Miller in charge, Olga being very good at overseeing things, and a year older than the other children.
Dave, looking at the little schoolteacher, decided that she was cute and on the brink of going to pieces. He thought. “As who isn’t?”
The dark man got up and listened, watching Dave and Mildred Noble with flickering eyes. The crows cawed and the hounds bayed nearer, and a car door slammed out about where the guily crossed the road.
“Let’s take a little walk, just the three of us,” the dark man suggested and nobody raised a dissenting voice. “A real careful, quiet walk,” the man in charge added, “without no noise.” Dave got up and broke trail through the sumac for the girl, who was obviously in a daze, which seemed logical enough to him. Any girl who would let herself become engaged to Uncle Elwood must surely be in some kind of a trance. Especially since she wasn’t at all bad-looking. Especially in slacks and sweater.
THEY were very quiet, the three of them. The man with five o’clock shadow brought up in the rear, carrying Dave’s .22 rifle in the crook of his left arm and holding the shotgun in his right hand. When he gave an order his voice was low and flat, but when Dave looked over his shoulder he saw the dark man’s eyes flicking left and right, in a jumpy, furtive manner, and a cold chill invaded the back of Dave’s neck. If somebody yelled boo that guy would very likely start pulling triggers. Dave hoped nobody yelled boo.
They came to the gully, with its shallow stream of water, and the man called a halt while he worked something out in his mind. Dave was trying to work something out in his own mind and kept arriving at the conclusion it would be folly to jump the dark man.
Judging from her expression, Mildred Noble was trying not to think. Poor kid, Dave thought. She was still fooling with the eocklebur in her sweater.
“Let’s go,” the dark man said. Sliding down the bank, Dave noticed the crows had stopped their racket overhead, but the baying of the hounds was louder. He helped Mildred down the steep cut. She was, he discovered, not at all heavy. The dark man came down the bank and stepped into the shallow water.
“Move,” he said. They moved, and he followed them, sloshing through the water. At first Dave thought this was pretty stupid, as how could the guy
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hope to benefit from wet feet, but then he figured maybe it wasn’t stupid after all.
It even made sense when the guy called another halt and requisitioned Dave’s shoes, which looked to be too big for him. After that the man sloshed along in the shallow water in Dave’s shoes with his own soggy ones under his arm. That made plenty of sense to Dave, although he wasn’t happy about going barefoot in the cold mud.
“How much farther to where the kids is?” the dark man asked, and Mildred said she guessed it was about fifty yards, and the dark man said, yeah, he could hear them now, it must be about fifty yards. Then he said climb out of here, so they climbed out of there, Dave once more making himself useful to the teacher. When they had assembled on the lip of the gully the dark man took stock and Dave wondered what would happen if he tried to catch the guy off guard and launch a flying tackle. He would probably keep flying, only with a harp and halo, he decided.
“Straight ahead,” the dark man said at last. They marched off at right angles to the gully, into a grove of trees. In the middle of the heavy growth was a small clearing, open on the gully side, and lying across the far side was a giant, uprooted poplar. It was rotten and almost obscured by bushes and weeds, and where the roots had been torn from the ground there was a hole three or four feet deep and roughly the shape of a bomb crater, partially overhung by the dead roots.
With glittering eyes the dark man examined the hole under the roots. “Okay, babe, call them kids,” he said. Mildred Noble looked at him blankly and he swung the scatter-gun and said call the kids.
It was, Dave thought, almost as if she had been asleep and someone had poured cold water on her face. She shook herself and stared at the dark man, her vagueness gone.
“What are you going to do?” she asked nervously. “Why do you want me to call them?”
“We’re going to have a nice, friendly little picnic,” the dark man said. “If you do like I say, nobody gets hurt. If you don’t do like I say, everybody gets hurt, see.”
“What if I refuse to call the children?” Mildred asked in a voice that tried to be steady and brave but was neither.
“You won’t.” The dark man said, and his voice hung icicles along Dave’s spine. “But if you did I would wrap this gun around your pretty little head and do likewise for bright-eyes here. You figure you’ll call the kids, sister?”
The girl took a deep, unsteady breath and nodded. “All right,” she said. “But you won’t hurt them? You said you wouldn’t hurt anybody if—”
“Like I said, sister, if everybody acts nice nobody gets hurt. Now call them kids.”
What would happen, Dave wondered, if he made a sudden, all-out attack? “You’d miss the picnic,” he told himself. A part of his mind, the decent but under the circumstances foolhardy part, said don’t let her call the kids. But the part that was in charge of self-preservation told him to keep his big yap shut.
Mildred Noble took another deep breath and called the kids. In the silence that followed Dave could hear the dogs. They sounded farther away, and off in a different direction now. That was bad. Maybe the dogs didn’t mean what he had thought they meant. They could be foxhounds, or squirrel dogs, maybe. Also in the
silence the three of them could hear the children’s voices faintly, and then an answer came. Mildred Noble said for the children to bring the picnic lunches and come over here, please. •
Irrelevantly, Dave wondered what had become of Leroy, the little one-man mob. Also he wondered, if not so irrelevantly, if he would ever taste Aunt Callie’s Brunswick stew.
A thin, girlish voice, probably Olga Miller who was good at overseeing things for the teacher, said all right, Miss Noble, and all of the children’s voices sounded in a faint bubbling of laughter and chatter, and Dave’s heart sank rapidly, leaving a cold, quivering vacuum in his chest.
“Okay, now here’s the pitch,” the dark man said. “I’m getting in this hole. You two have the kids lay out the chow in the clearing here. It’s a real picnic, see. It better look like a real picnic when the boys from town get here. Anybody makes a wrong move, or gives the boys a wrong answer, and I’m nervous, see—I’m real jumpy, over here in this hole with my scattergun pointed at all them innocent little kids. I’m liable to turn loose a lot of buckshot, see. Now we don’t want nothing like that to happen, do we?”
Dave shook his head numbly and Mildred Noble stared at the dark man with horror-filled eyes. Dave saw her gaze drop to the man’s terrible sawedoff shotgun, and her knees seemed to buckle and she slumped to the ground with her hands pressed over her mouth and for one awful moment he thought she was going to have hysterics.
“Take it easy, teacher,” he said, gripping her shoulder hard. “Look, I’m not worried. All I’m worried about is catching Leroy and whaling the tar out of him for busting my windshield. Also for letting the air out of my tires and throwing a rotten egg at me. Behave yourself and maybe you can hold him while I lay it on, but good.”
Mildred Noble looked at him and her eyes flashed anger. It was okay, she was sore and disliking him so much it wasn’t likely she would come uncorked.
“Here they come,” the dark man hissed. “Remember what 1 said. 1 got a nervous finger, see. Make it convincing.”
There were maybe fifteen kids, not counting Leroy, who was still missing. Dave was able to spot Olga Miller right away. She was the thin pale girl of about eleven, with bifocals and a stern expression indicating that she would be good at overseeing things.
“Here we are, Miss Noble,” Olga said, and the teacher shivered once, bit her lip, and glanced nervously at Dave before she said: “Very well, children, we’ll spread our lunch right here in this nice shady spot. You must all be very hungry.”
There were some nods, but mostly they looked rebellious. Oh, oh! Dave thought.
Olga Miller carefully examined a watch on her skinny wrist and looked at Mildred with owlish diffidence. “But it’s only eleven o’clock, Miss Noble.”
“Children,” Mildred Noble said, “I have decided we shall eat our lunch early. I have a surprise for you after lunch. It’s a secret, and first we must have our picnic lunch.”
“Oh!” they said. “A surprise!” they said to each other. Dave stopped worrying. She knew how to handle kids. He listened for the hounds, which had completed a half circle now and seemed to be coming nearer from the direction exactly opposite from where he’d first heard them.
“I wonder what them dogs is barking about?” the boy named Lawrence said to nobody in particular, stuffing half a sandwich in his mouth.
“Those dogs,” Mildred Noble said. “Not them, Lawrence. And are barking at, not ¿.s.”
“Aw, shoot,” Lawrence said, reaching for a deviled egg.
Olga Miller brought a basket of sandwiches and bananas and deviled eggs to Miss Noble, who accepted it and passed food to Dave with shaking hands, avoiding his eyes. He took a sandwich, but he knew he’d never be able to swallow it. His throat felt parched and his stomach stood ready to reject anything resembling food.
‘‘Miss Noble, you act like you’re sick or something,” Olga Miller said. “Is it because of that old Leroy?” A wonderful child, Olga, and good at smoothing over awkward moments. “You didn’t find him, did you, Miss Noble, and I’ll bet you just feel sick inside firom woxrying about it, don’t you, Miss Noble?”
Miss Noble drew a shuddering breath and pushed the food away from her. “Yes, Olga,” she said gently. “I’nx wori'ied about Leroy.”
Dave wasn’t worried about Leroy. He was worried about that deadly scatter-gun aimed through the bushes at a dozen innocent kids and a small, helpless girl with big brown eyes and a nice full lower lip that trembled. Also at a guy who was visiting his Aunt Callie and just happened to be looking for something to toss into a stew at the time.
Between curious glances at Dave and his muddy bare feet the kids wex*e busy eating, which, he reflected, was probably one of the rare times when kids wei'e quiet. There was something disturbing in the sound of rhythmic, muffled chewing, and then Dave understood, aixd went all stiff and cold with apprehension. The hounds!
The hounds were suddenly quiet— too quiet. Which to Dave meant they had coxne to the place where the dark man had gone into the water. And the dark man in his hole uixder the uprooted poplar tree would be thinking the same thing, and tensing his already tensed finger on the triggers of that lethal scatter-gun.
“Miss Noble,” Lawrence said through a mouthful of sandwich, “why doesn’t that man have any shoes on?”
Mildred Noble jumped as though the scatter-gun had gone off. “Who?”
“Him,” Lawrence said impatiently. “He ain’t got his shoes on.”
“My feet hurt,” Dave said, swallowing his heart. “I’ve got corns and bunions.”
“Phooey!” Lawrence said, spraying a little food, looking suspiciously at Dave’s bare feet. For an aching moment Dave thought Lawrence was going to come over for a bit of orthopedic investigation and he strained his nervous system listening for the boys from town. The cat was trying to get out of the bag. Then he heard it—the rustle, the muffled tx'amping of feet, a sniff such as a dog might make on a trail gone cold, and low, stealthy voices.
“Miss Noble,” Olga Miller said breathlessly. “Somebody’s coming.”
Somebody was coming all right. It must be a shock to the posse, Dave thought, finding so many footprints other than the ones they wanted to find. And especially the footprints of a woman. A woman had practically no business being inside a dragnet. Unless, of course, she was somebody’s gun moll, in which case she would be authorized personnel.
The sound of low voices and tramping feet came along the gully, whose sides were high enough to hide the men, and then heads began to pop up along the lip of the gully. Astonished, unbelieving eyes stared at the picnickers.
A grey, spare man in a business suit
came up on the bank aud stood spreadlegged, a submachine gun held in the crook of his elbow, looking angry and confused and disgusted. “What are you people doiixg here?” he asked harshly.
“We are having a picnic,” Mildred Noble said meekly. “I am the fourthgrade teacher, and this is the fourth grade, and we are having a picnic.”
The man, who was not local, scowled at Dave. “I am having a picnic, too,” Dave said, trembling. He had an overwhelming sense of being dii'ectly in the line of fire.
At this point Uixele Elwood, puffing and wheezing, came out of the gully and looked at the fourth grade having a picnic. He explained officiously to the grey, spare man that this was the local fourth grade, holding a school picnic without having informed him of its intentions. The grey man made a curt, impatient gesture, whereupon Uncle Elwood mopped his red face and scowled suspiciously at Dave.
“What is he doiixg here, Mildred?” Uncle Elwood wanted to know, pouting a little. A jealous type, Dave reflected, waiting to be explained.
“Him?” the teacher asked. “Why, he just—he was ” She looked at Dave, tossing him the old ball again, and, shivering, Dave said: “1 am
having a picnic.”
“Oh, yeah?” Elwood said, mopping at his neck where it overlapped his collar. “Well, it’s mighty funny to
His gaze took in the fourth grade, which had stopped chewing and was staring openmouthed at the posse. “Savvy -where’s Leroy?”
“He went off in the woods,” Mildred Noble said, “without permission. You
understand, Elwood, I shall have to punish him.”
“Aw, now, Mildred,” Elwood said. “Where’s the harm in it? Boys will be boys.”
“Great jumping jackasses!” the grey man said bitterly. “Listen, miss, did you see a man along here recently? A dark man with a sawed-ofi' shotgun?”
Dave could almost feel Mildred Noble trembling. “No,” she said.
The hard eyes stared at Dave. “Did you?” Dave shook his head, and the grey man regarded the fourth grade in loto. “You kids see such a man?”
Without closing its collective mouth the fourth grade shook its collective head.
“Let’s go,” the grey man said angrily. “He took to the water, so the dogs lost him. He has to come out of the water sometime. We know he’s in here and we know he’s cut off. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go!” The last let’s go was for the benefit of Uncle Elwood, who seemed to waver between a desire to stay here with Mildred and the fourth grade, and a desire not to go looking for a dark man with a sawed-off shotgun. Reluctantly, Elwood followed the grey man into the gully and the trampling feet and low voices moved away.
The fourth grade, enchanted beyond words by the whole affair, slowly resumed its lunching, still gaping at the spot where the posse had appeared so miraculously. Dave’s heart slowly climbed back into place. Then it gave a sickening lurch and plummeted again, for Uncle Elwood was wheezing back into the picture, climbing ponderously over the lip of the gully. A quick glance over his shoulder informed Dave the dark man hadn’t evacuated the hole yet. At any rate the scattergun was still there.
“I figured I better come back and protect you and these kids, in case that guy doubles back or something,” Elwood explained as he panted across to the picnic ground. Dave wanted to yell a warning to someone—he wasn’t quite sure whom. “Besides,” Elwood continued while Dave’s mind kept saying: Go back, you fool, go back! “I got to wondering why this fellow is running around here barefooted this time of the year. It looks mighty funny to me.”
Tongue-tied, Dave sat in a kind of mental paralysis while Elwood came blundering into something that might turn out very disastrously for everybody, especially Elwood. But then Mildred Noble groaned softly, helplessly, and Dave came out of his trance and picked up the nearest object, which happened to be a basket of ham salad sandwiches.
“Have a sandwich, Elwood,” he said. “Here, help yourself. Take two or three.”
Elwood was upon them now, scowling at Dave and mopping at his damp, round face. “Mildred,” he said petulantly, “I don’t understand why he’s here. Don’t tell me he is in the fourth grade. I demand an explan—!”
Uncle Elwood’s attention had been attracted to something behind them, something about where the hole would be, and Uncle Elwood’s damp red features turned bone-white and his pout fell open.
Dave stood up, not thinking about it, and turned around, and he was seeing what Elwood was seeing: a dark trapped expression, with snarling teeth in it, and cold deadly eyes in it, and twitching cheek muscles in it. But Dave saw something more. A movement beyond the dark man, a stubblefield haircut and a freckled face, perched in the low crotch of a poplar tree. And a slingshot with taut rubber.
The dark man, yowling, came erect in the hole and Dave sensed Uncle Elwood’s forward lurch even as he dove through the air, still clutching the basket of sandwiches. The twin cylinders of the gun’s barrels were in Dave’s hand then, and he was twisting and pushing desperately and bringing the basket down on the dark man’s head. The gun jumped twice in his grip as the dark man fired both barrels into the air. Then Dave and the savagely cursing dark man were rolling and twisting in the underbrush.
Deadlocked momentarily, they lurched to their feet, each trying to free an arm, and with a sudden yank Dave got his right arm free and swung, with all of his fear and desperation in it, and the man staggered back from his crashing fist and fell backward into the hole. Dave gathered himself for a leap meaning to apply the boots, forgetting that he wasn’t wearing boots, and all of a sudden something clunked into the side of his head and he wasn’t fighting anybody anymore, he was swimming lazily through dry, inky darkness.
Then, with equal abruptness, he was lying on his back staring up at the sky through autumnal foliage. His head hurt like the devil and when he explored cautiously his fingers found a medium-sized goose egg. He tried to get up, but somebody was holding him down, insistently but not ungently. He closed his eyes and then opened them slowly, trying to bring things into a clear focus, and there was poor, shapely little Mildred Noble, leaning over him. Looking compassionate. Looking tender.
“Am I going to die?” Dave asked.
“Goodness, no,” she said sweetly. “But if you do, I’ll have Leroy expelled.”
“The monster?” Dave said, trying to get his sore head functioning properly. “For taking a pot shot at the gunsel, you mean?”
“No, silly,” Mildred said in a tender, unschoolteacherish way. “Leroy shot you—with Ihis.” She held up a viciouslooking slingshot. “He said it was an accident.”
“It was no accident,” Dave told her, absently taking the slingshot. “What happened to old bristle-chin?”
“They captured him,” she said. “Naturally. And I think you were wonderful.”
“Old Elwood nabbed him, huh?”
Mildred Noble made a noise—an undignified, derisive noise—and registered distaste. “Elwood fainted,” she said. “You knocked the awful man unconscious. They had to throw water on him.”
“On the awful man?”
“On Elwood.” She giggled. “It was ridiculous.”
“I’m sorry I missed that,” Dave said. “By the way, a clerkish-looking guy took pot shots at me somewhat earlier in the day. Would you have the answer to that?”
“Mister Meeker,” the teacher said promptly. “He apologized for shooting at you. He thought you were the man the posse was looking for. He also said from now on he would stay at the bank and let less nervous people go on man hunts.”
“You know everything, teacher,” Dave said admiringly. “Who was the grim old character with the tommy gun?”
Mildred Noble said, “I do wish you'd lapse into English once in a while. That awful man was Mickey Hicks.”
“Currently rated public enemy two or tliree. He escaped from prison last week. Didn’t you know?”
Dave whistled again. “I would be
the last person in the world to pick a fight with a character of that ilk,” he told her, looking around. “Hey, where is everybody?”
Mildred smiled tenderly. “They are all gone,” she said. “I volunteered to stay with you until they could send somebody back with a stretcher. They thought they shouldn’t move you. I sent the children home.”
“Humm,” Dave said thoughtfully. “And Elwood—he’s gone?”
She said especially Elwood, who had probably recovered his aplomb by now and was taking credit for capturing that awful man singlehanded.
“Oh-ho!” Dave said. “You now see Elwood in his true light, huh?”
Mildred blushed. “Let us not discuss it, shall we?”
“Okay,” Dave said. “Shall we discuss what people will say about you and me being out here in the woods all alone?”
“We are not all alone,” Mildred Noble said. “Leroy is over there, eating sandwiches.”
Dave groaned and sat up. “That does it,” he said. “I am no longer a stretcher case. Give me my shoes and we will go back to the wagging tongues of civilization.”
Mildred looked around uncertainly. “They were here a minute ago. I saw them right over—oh!”
Dave followed her gaze. Leroy, casually eating a ham salad sandwich, leaned against a tree and dangled
Dave’s shoes in his hand. Dave imagined he could see a devilish gleam in the little monster’s eyes, even from here.
“Bring me my shoes, kid,” Dave said gently.
Leroy crammed the rest of his sandwich into his mouth, gave Dave a wide grin, and began walking slowly toward the road with Dave’s shoes. He paused long enough to pull a handkerchief out of his right hip pocket and delicately wipe his mouth. Then he set off again, unhurried and deliberate.
Dave picked up the slingshot, drew the rubber back as far as his arm would allow, took careful aim v . . Whop! The projectile made contact with Leroy just east of the handkerchief in his hip pocket and Leroy went into the air, yelling. When he came down to earth he dropped the shoes and lit out through the woods like the proverbial turpentined cat.
Dave scowled at Mildred Noble. “Well?” he said. “Was there anything you wanted to say at this point?”
She stared at him round-eyed, and presently she nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Nice shot.” Then she smiled, and Dave thought it was pretty fetching the way her nose crinkled up when she smiled, and he wondered what it would be like to kiss her.
From the way she was looking at him, still smiling, Dave had a nice warm feeling that it wouldn’t be too long before he found out. it