The Crucial Moment
by Charles Egbert Craddock
A mere moment seems an inconsiderable factor in lifeonly its
multiplication attaining importance and signifying time. It could never
have occurred to Walter Hoxer that all his years of labor, the
aggregation of the material values of industry, experience, skill,
integrity, could be nullified by this minimum unit of spaceas sudden,
as potent, as destructive, as a stroke of lightning. But after the fact
it did not remind' him of any agency of the angry skies; to him it was
like one of the obstructions of the river engineers to divert the
course of the great Mississippi, a mattress-spur, a thing insignificant
in itself, a mere trifle of woven willow wands, set up at a crafty
angle, against the tumultuous current Yet he had seen the swirling
waves, in their oncoming like innumerable herds of wild horses,
hesitate at the impact, turn aside, and go racing by, scouring out a
new channel, leaving the old bank bereft, thrown inland, no longer the
margin of the stream.
The river was much in his mind that afternoon as he trudged along
the county road at the base of the levee, on his way, all un-prescient,
to meet this signal, potential moment. Outside, he knew that the water
was standing higher than his head, rippling against the thick turf of
Bermuda grass with which the great earthwork was covered. For the river
was bank-full and still risingindeed, it was feared that an overflow
impended. However, there was as yet no break; advices from up the river
and down the river told only of extra precautions and constant work to
keep the barriers intact against the increasing volume of the stream.
The favorable chances were reinforced by the fact of a singularly dry
winter, that had so far eliminated the danger from back-water, which,
if aggregated from rainfall in low-lying swamps, would move up slowly
to inundate the arable lands. These were already ploughed to bed up for
cotton, and an overflow now would mean the loss of many thousands of
dollars to the submerged communities. The February rains had begun in
the upper country, with a persistency and volume that bade fair to
compensate for the long-continued drought, and thus the river was
already booming; the bayous that drew off a vast surplusage of its
waters were overcharged, and gradually would spread out in murky
shallows, heavily laden with river detritus, over the low grounds
bordering their course.
This Jeffrey levee will hold, Hoxer said to himself, as once he
paused, his hands in his pockets, his cap on the back of his red head,
his freckled, commonplace, square face lifted into a sort of dignity by
the light of expert capacity and intelligence in his bluff blue eyes.
He had been muttering to himself the details of its construction: so
many feet across the base in proportion to its height, the width of the
summit, the angle of the incline of its interior slopethe exterior
being invisible, having the Mississippi River standing against it. A
fairly good levee, though an old one, he muttered. I'll bet, though,
Major Jeffrey feels mightily like Noah when he looks at all that water
out there tearing through the country.
His face clouded at the mention of the name, and as he took the
short pipe from his month and stuck it into the pocket of his loose
sack-coat his tread lost a certain free elasticity that had
characterized it hitherto, and he trudged on doggedly. He had passed
many acres of ploughed lands, the road running between the fields and
the levee. The scene was all solitary; the sun had set, and night would
presently be coming on. As he turned in at the big white gate that
opened on a long avenue of oaks leading to the mansion house, he began
to fear that his visit might be ill-timed, and that a man of his
station could not hope for an audience so near the major's dinner-hour.
It was with definite relief that he heard the gentle impact of ivory
balls in the absolute quiet, and he remembered that a certain little
octagonal structure with a conical red roof, in the grounds, was a
billiard-room, for the sound betokened that he might find the owner of
the place here.
He expected to see a group of the Major's quality friends in the
building but as he ascended the steps leading directly to the door, he
perceived that the man he sought was alone. Major Jeffrey was engaged
in idly knocking the balls about in some skilful fancy shots, his cigar
in his mouth, and a black velvet smoking-jacket setting off to special
advantage his dense, snowy hair, prematurely white, his long mustache,
and his pointed imperial. His heavy white eyebrows drew frowningly
together over arrogant dark eyes as he noted the man at the entrance.
Despite Hoxer's oft-reiterated sentiment that he was as good as
anybody and would take nothing off nobody, and cared for no old duck
just because he was rich, he could not speak for a moment as he felt
Major Jeffrey's inimical eyes upon him. He lost the advantage in losing
Did you get my check? Major Jeffrey asked curtly.
Yes, Hoxer admitted; but
The amount was according to contract.
Hoxer felt indignant with himself that he should have allowed this
interpretation to be placed on his presence here; then he still more
resented the conjecture.
I have not come for extra money, he said. That point of the
transaction is closed.
All the points of the transaction are closed, said Major Jeffrey,
ungraciously. There was more than the flush of the waning western sky
on his face. He had already dined, and he was one of those wine-bibbers
whom drink does not render genial, I want to hear no more about it.
He turned to the table, and with a skilful cue sent one ball
caroming against two others.
But you must hear what I have got to say, Major Jeffrey, protested
Hoxer. I built that cross-levee for you to join your main levee, and
done it well.
And have been well paid.
But you go and say at the store that I deviated from the line of
survey and saved one furlong, seven poles, and five feet of levee.
And so you did.
But you know, Major, that Burbeck Lake had shrunk in the drought at
the time of the survey, and if I'd followed the calls for the south of
the lake, I'd had to build in four feet of water, so I drew back a
miteyou bein' in Orleans, where I couldn't consult you, an' no time
to be lost nohow, the river bein' then on the rise, an'
Look here, fellow, exclaimed Major Jeffrey, bringing the cue down
on the table with a force that must have cut the cloth, do you suppose
that I have nothing better to do than to stand here to listen to your
The anger and the drink and perhaps the consciousness of being in
the wrong were all ablaze in the Major's eyes.
The two were alone; only the darkling shadows stood at tiptoe at the
open windows, and still the flushed sky sent down a pervasive glow from
Hoxer swallowed hard, gulping down his own wrath and sense of
injury. Major, he said blandly, trying a new deal, I don't think you
quite understand me.
Such a complicated proposition you are, to be sure!
Hoxer disregarded the sarcasm, the contempt in the tone.
I am not trying to rip up an old score, but you said at Winfield's
storeat the storethat I did not build the cross levee on the
surveyor's line; that I shortened it
So you did.
But as if I had shortened the levee for my own profit, when, as you
know, it was paid for by the pole
You tax me with making a false impression?
An extreme revulsion of expectation harassed Hoxer. He had always
known that Jeffrey was an exception to the general rule of the few
large land-owners in the community, who were wont to conserve and, in
fact, to deserve the pose of kindly patron as well as wealthy magnate.
But even Jeffrey, he thought, would not grudge a word to set a matter
straight that could cost him nothing and would mean much to the
levee-contractor. Though of large experience in levee-building, Hoxer
was new to the position of contractor, having been graduated into it,
so to speak, from the station of foreman of a construction-gang of
Irishmen. He had hoped for further employ in this neighborhood, in
building private levees that, in addition to the main levees along the
banks of the Mississippi, would aid riparian protection by turning off
overflow from surcharged bayous and encroaching lakes in the interior.
But, unluckily, the employer of the first enterprise he had essayed on
his own responsibility had declared that he had deviated from the line
of survey, usually essential to the validity of the construction,
thereby much shortening the work; and had made this statement at
Winfield's storeat the store!
Whatever was said at the store was as if proclaimed through the
resounding trump of fame. The store in a Mississippi neighborhood,
frequented by the surrounding planters, great and small, was the focus
of civilization, the dispenser of all the wares of the world, from a
spool of thread to a two-horse wagon, the post-office, in a manner the
club. Here, sooner or later, everybody came, and hence was the news of
the Bend noised abroad. Hoxer's business could scarcely recover from
this disparagement, and he had not doubted that Jeffrey would declare
that he had said nothing to justify this impression, and that he would
forthwith take occasion to clear it up. For were not Mr. Tompkins and
Judge Claris, both with a severe case of high-water scare, ready to
contract for a joint cross levee for mutual protection from an unruly
Therefore, with a sedulous effort, Hoxer maintained his composure
when the Major thundered again, You tax me with making a false
Not intentionally, Major, but
And who are you to judge of my motives? Told a lie by accident, did
I? Begone, sir, or I'll break your head with this billiard cue!
He had reached the limit as he brandished the cue. He was still
agile, vigorous, and it was scarcely possible that Hoxer could escape
the blow. He dreaded the indignity indeed more than the hurt.
If you strike me, he declared in a single breath, between his set
teeth, before God, I'll shoot you with your own pistol!
It seemed a fatality that a pair in their open case should have been
lying on the sill of the window, where their owner had just been
cleaning and oiling them. Hoxer, of course, had no certainty that they
were loaded, but the change in Jeffrey's expression proclaimed it. He
was sober enough nowthe shock was all sufficientas he sprang to the
case. The younger man was the quicker. He had one of the pistols in his
hand before Jeffrey could level the other that he had snatched. Quicker
to fire, too, for the weapon in Jeffrey's hand was discharged in his
latest impulse of action after he fell to the floor, the blood gushing
from a wound that crimsoned all the delicate whiteness of his
shirt-front and bedabbled his snowy hair and beard.
This was the moment, the signal, fatal, final moment, that the levee
contractor had come to meet, that placed the period to his own
existence. He lived no longer, Hoxer felt. He did not recognize as his
own a single action hereafter, a single mental impulse. It was
something else, standing here in the red gloamingsome foreign entity,
cogently reasoning, swiftly acting. Self-defensewas it? And who would
believe that? Had he found justice so alert to redress his wrongs, even
in a little matter, that he must needs risk his neck upon it? This
Thing that was not himselfno, never more!had the theory of alibi in
his mind as he stripped off his low-cut shoes and socks, thrusting them
into his pockets, leaping from the door, and flying among the dusky
shadows down the glooming grove, and through the gate.
Dusk here, too, on the lonely county road, the vague open expanse of
the ploughed fields glimmering to the instarred sky of a still, chill
night of early February. He did not even wonder that there should be no
hue and cry on his tracksthe Thing was logical! Jeffrey had doubtless
had his pistols carried down from the mansion to him in his den in the
billiard-room, for the avowed purpose of putting the weapons in order.
If the shots were heard at all at the dwelling, the sound was
reasonably ascribed to the supposed testing of the weapons. Hoxer was
conscious that a sentiment of gratulation, of sly triumph, pervaded his
mental processes as he sped along barefoot, like some tramp or outcast,
or other creature of a low station. He had laid his plans well in this
curious, involuntary cerebration. Those big, bare footprints were ample
disguise for a well-clad, well-groomed, well-shod middle-class man of a
skilful and lucrative employ. The next moment his heart sank like lead.
He was followed! He heard the pursuit in the dark! Swift, unerring,
leaping along the dusty road, leaving its own footprints as a testimony
against him. For he had recognized its nature at last! It was his own
doga little, worthless cur, that had a hide like a doormat and a
heart as big as the United Statesa waif, a stray, that had attached
himself to the contractor at the shanties of the construction gang, and
slept by his bed, and followed at his heel, and lived on the glance of
He was off again, the dog fairly winging his way to match his
master's speed. Hoxer could not kill him here, for the carcass would
tell the story. But was it not told already in those tracks in the
dusty road? What vengeance was there not written in the eccentric
script of those queer little padded imprints of the creature's paws.
Fie, fool! Was this the only cur-dog in the Bend? he asked himself,
impatient of his fears. Was not the whole neighborhood swarming with
Despite his reasoning, this endowment that was once himself had been
affrighted by the shock. The presence of the little cur-dog had
destroyed the complacence of his boasted ratiocination. He had only the
instincts of flight as he struck off through the woods when the great
expanse of cultivated lands had given way to lower ground and the wide
liberties of the open swamp, as it was called. This dense wilderness
stretched out on every side; the gigantic growth of gum trees was
leafless at this season, and without a suggestion of underbrush.
The ground was as level as a floor. Generally during the winter the
open swamp is covered with shallow water, but in this singularly
droughty season it had remained with dry feet, according to the
phrase of that country. The southern moon, rising far along its levels,
began to cast burnished golden shafts of light adown its unobstructed
vistas. It might seem some magnificent park, with its innumerable
splendid trees, its great expanse, and ever and anon in the distance
the silver sheen of the waters of a lake, shining responsive to the
lunar lustre as with an inherent lustre of its own. On and on he went,
his noiseless tread falling as regularly as machinery, leaving miles
behind him, the distance only to be conjectured by the lapse of time,
and, after so long, his flagging strength. He began to notice that the
open swamp was giving way in the vicinity of one of the lakes to the
characteristics of the swamp proper, although the ground was still dry
and the going good. He had traversed now and then a higher ridge on
which switch-cane grew somewhat sparsely, but near the lake on a bluff
bank a dense brake of the heavier cane filled the umbrageous shadows,
so tall and rank and impenetrable a growth that once the fugitive
paused to contemplate it with the theory that a secret intrusted to its
sombre seclusions might be held intact forever.
As he stood thus motionless in the absolute stillness, a sudden
thought came to his minda sudden and terrible thought. He could not
be sure whether he had heard aught, or whether the sight of the water
suggested the idea. He knew that he could little longer sustain his
flight, despite his vigor and strength. Quivering in every fibre from
his long exertions, he set his course straight for that glimmering
sheen of water. Encircling it were heavy shadows. Tall trees pressed
close to the verge, where lay here a fallen branch, and there a rotten
log, half sunken in mud and ooze, and again a great tangle of vines
that had grown smiling to the summer sun, but now, with the slow
expansion of the lake which was fed by a surcharged bayou, quite
submerged in a fretwork of miry strands. The margin was fringed with
saw-grass, thick and prickly, and his practised eye could discern where
the original banks lay by the spears thrust up above the surface a
score of feet away. Thus he was sure of his depth as he waded out
staunchly, despite the cruel pricks to his sensitive naked feet. The
little dog had scant philosophy; he squeaked and wheezed and wailed
with the pain until the man, who had no time to kill him nowfor had
he heard aught or naught?picked him up and carried him in his arms,
the creature licking Hoxer's hands in an ecstasy of gratitude, and even
standing on his hind-legs on his master's arm to snatch a lick upon his
In the darksome shadows, further and further from the spot where he
had entered the lake, Hoxer toiled along the margin, sometimes pausing
to listenfor had he heard aught or naught?as long as his strength
would suffice. Then amidst the miry débris of last summer's growths
beneath the recent inundation he sank down in the darkness, the dog
exhausted in his arms.
This was one of those frequent crescent-shaped lakes peculiar to the
region; sometimes, miles in extent, the lacustrine contour is not
discernible to the glance; here the broad expanse seemed as if the body
of water were circular and perhaps three miles in diameter.
Suddenly Hoxer heard the sound that had baffled him hithertoheard
it again andoh, horrible!recognized it at last! The baying of
bloodhounds it was, the triumphant cry that showed that the brutes had
caught the trail and were keeping it. On and on came the iteration,
ever louder, ever nearer, waking the echoes till wood and brake and
midnight waters seemed to rock and sway with the sound, and the stars
in the sky to quake in unison with the vibrations. Never at fault,
never a moment's cessation, and presently the shouts of men and the
tramp of horses blended with that deep, tumultuous note of blood crying
to heaven for vengeance. Far, far, down the lake it was. Hoxer could
see nothing of the frantic rout when the hounds paused baffled at the
water-side. He was quick to note the changed tone of the brutes'
pursuit, plaintive, anxious, consciously thwarted. They ran hither and
thither, patrolling the banks, and with all their boasted instinct they
could only protest that the fugitive took to water at this spot. But
how? They could not say, and the men argued in vain. The lake was too
broad to swimthere was no island, no point of vantage. A boat might
have taken him off, and, if so, the craft would now be lying on the
opposite bank. A party set off to skirt the edge of the lake and
explore the further shores by order of the sheriff, for this officer,
summoned by telephone, had come swiftly from the county town in an
automobile, to the verge of the swamp, there accommodated with a horse
by a neighboring planter. And then, Hoxer, lying on the elastic
submerged brush, with only a portion of his face above the surface of
the water, watched in a speechless ecstasy of terror the hue and cry
progress on the hither side, his dog, half dead from exhaustion,
unconscious in his arms.
The moon, unmoved as ever, looked calmly down on the turmoil in the
midst of the dense woods. The soft brilliance illumined the long, open
vistas and gave to the sylvan intricacies an effect as of silver
arabesques, a glittering tracery amidst the shadows. But the lunar
light did not suffice. Great torches of pine knots, with a red and
yellow flare and streaming pennants of smoke, darted hither and thither
as the officer's posse searched the bosky recesses without avail.
Presently a new sound!a crashing iterationassailed the air. A
frantic crowd was beating the bushes about the margin of the lake and
the verges of the almost impenetrable cane-brake. Here, however, there
could be no hope of discovery, and suddenly a cry arose, unanimously
iterated the next instant, Fire the cane-brake! Fire the cane-brake!
For so late had come the rise of the river, so persistent had been
the winter's drought, so delayed the usual inundation of the swamp,
that the vegetation, dry as tinder, caught the sparks instantly, and
the fierce expedient to force the fugitive to leave his supposed
shelter in the brake, a vast woodland conflagration, was added to the
terror of the scene. The flames flared frantically upward from the
cane, itself twenty feet in height, and along its dense columns issued
forth jets like the volleyings of musketry from serried ranks of
troops, the illusion enhanced by continuous sharp, rifle-like reports,
the joints of the growth exploding as the air within was liberated by
the heat of the fire. All around this blazing Gehenna were swiftly
running figures of men applying with demoniac suggestion torches here
and there, that a new area might be involved. Others were mounted,
carrying flaming torches aloft, the restive horses plunging in frantic
terror of the fiery furnace in the depths of the brake, the leaping
sheets of flame, the tumultuous clouds of smoke. Oh, a terrible fate,
had the forlorn fugitive sought refuge here! Let us hope that no poor
denizen of the brake, bear or panther or fox, dazed by the tumult and
the terror, forgot which way to flee!
But human energies must needs fail as time wears on. Nerves of steel
collapse at last. The relinquishment of the quest came gradually; the
crowd thinned; now and again the sound of rapid hoof-beats told of
homeward-bound horsemen; languid groups stood and talked dully here and
there, dispersing to follow a new suggestion for a space, them
ultimately disappearing; even the fire began to die ont, and the site
of the cane-break had become a dense, charred mass, as far as eye could
reach, with here and there a vague blue flicker where some bed of coals
could yet send up a jet, when at length the pale day, slow and aghast,
came peering along the levels to view the relics of the strange events
that had betided in the watches of the night.
Hoxer had not waited for the light. Deriving a certain strength, a
certain triumph, from the obvious fact that the end was not yet, he
contrived in that darkest hour before the dawn to pull himself into a
sitting posture, then to creep out to the shore. The little dog had
seemed to be dying, but he too experienced a sort of resuscitation, and
while he followed at first but feebly, it was not long before he was at
heel again, although Hoxer was swift of foot, making all the speed he
might toward his temporary home, the shacks that had been occupied by
the construction gang. As he came within view of the poor little
tenements, so recently vacated by the Irish ditchers, all awry and
askew, stretching in a wavering row along the river-bank near the
junction of the levee that he had built with the main line, his eyes
filled. Oh, why had he not gone with the rest of the camp! he demanded
of an untoward fate; why must he have stayed a day longer to bespeak
the correction of an injurious error from that proud, hard man, who,
however, had wrought his last injury on earth! Hoxer was sorry, but
chiefly for his own plight. He felt that his deed was in self-defense,
and but that he had no proof he would not fear to offer the plea at the
bar of justice. As it was, however, he was sanguine of escaping without
this jeopardy. No one had cause to suspect him. No one had seen him
enter the Jeffrey grounds that fatal evening. There had been noised
abroad no intimation of his grievance against the man. He had all the
calm assurance of invisibility as he came to his abode, for a fog lay
thick on the surface of the river and hung over all the land. He did
not issue forth again freshly dressed till the sun was out once more,
dispelling the vapors and conjuring the world back to sight and life.
Nevertheless, he made no secret of having been abroad when an
acquaintance came up the road and paused for an exchange of the news of
But what makes ye look so durned peaked? he broke off, gazing at
Hoxer in surprise.
Hoxer was astonished at his own composure as he replied: Out all
night. I was in the swamp with the posse.
See the fire! They tell me 't wuz more'n dangerous to fire the
brake when the woods is so uncommon dry. I dunno what we would do here
in the bottom with a forest fire.
Pretty big blaze now, sure's ye're born, Hoxer replied casually,
and so the matter passed.
Later in the day another gossip, whose acquaintance he had made
during his levee-building venture, loitered up to talk over the
absorbing sensation, and, sitting down on the door-step of the shack,
grew suddenly attentive to the little dog.
What makes him limp? he demanded abruptly.
But Hoxer had not observed that he did limp.
The acquaintance had taken the little animal up on his knee and was
examining into his condition. Gee! how did he get so footsore?
Following me around, I reckon, Hoxer hazarded. But he saw, or
thought he saw, a change on the stolid face of the visitor, who was
unpleasantly impressed with the fact that the officers investigating
the case had made inquiries concerning a small dog that, to judge by
the prints in the road, had evidently followed the big, barefooted man
who had fled from the Jeffrey precincts after the shooting. A rumor,
too, was going the rounds that a detective, reputed preternaturally
sharp, who had accompanied the sheriff to the scene of action, had
examined these tracks in the road, and declared that the foot-print was
neither that of a negro nor a tramp, but of a white man used to wearing
shoes something too tightly fitting.
The visitor glanced down at the substantial foot-gear of the
contractor, fitting somewhat snugly, and thereafter he became more out
of countenance than before and manifested some haste to get away. Hoxer
said to himself that his anxiety whetted his apprehension. He had given
his visitor no cause for suspicion, and doubtless the man had evolved
none. Hoxer was glad that he was due and overdue to be gone from the
locality. He felt that he could scarcely breathe freely again till he
had joined the gang of Irish ditchers now establishing themselves in a
new camp in the adjoining county, where the high stage of the river
gave him employment in fighting water. He made up his mind, however,
that he would not take the train thither. He dreaded to be among men,
to encounter question and speculation, till he had time to regain
control of his nerves, his facial expression, the tones of his voice.
He resolved that he would quietly drift down the river in a row-boat
that had been at his disposal during his employment here, and join his
force already settled at their destination, without running the
gauntlet of inspection by the neighborhood in a more formal departure.
He had already bidden farewell to those few denizens of the Bend with
whom his associations had been most genial. And I'll clear out now, as
I would have done if nothing had happened.
He said no more of his intention of departure, but when night had
come he fastened the door of the little shanty, in which were still
some of the rude belongings of his camping outfit, with the grim
determination that it should not soon be opened again. How long the
padlock should beat the summons of the wind on the resounding battens
he did not dream!
It was close on midnight when he climbed the steep interior slope of
the levee and stood for a moment gazing cautiously about him. The
rowboat lay close by, for one might embark from the summit of the
levee. It was a cloudy night, without a star. A mist clung to the face
of the waters on the Arkansas side, but on the hither shore the
atmosphere was clear, for he could see at a considerable distance up
the river the fire of a levee-watch, the stage of the water being so
menacing that a guard must needs be on duty throughout the night. The
leaping flames of the fire cast long lines of red and yellow and a sort
of luminous brown far into the river, where the reflection seemed to
palpitate in the pulsations of the current. No other sign of life was
in the night scene, save in the opposite direction, amidst the white
vapors, the gem-like gleam of a steamer's chimney-lights, all ruby and
emerald, as a packet was slowly rounding the neighboring point. Hoxer
could hear the impact of her paddles on the water, the night being so
still. He had seated himself in the middle of the rowboat and laid hold
on the oars when his foot struck against something soft on the bottom
of the craft, partly under the seat in the stern. It was his bundle, he
thought, containing the spoiled clothing that he had worn in the swamp,
and which he intended to sink in mid-stream. His nerve was shaken,
however; he could not restrain a sudden exclamationthis must have
seemed discovery rather than agitation. It was as a signal for
premature action. He was suddenly seized from behind, his arms held
down against his sides, his hands close together. The bundle in the
stern rose all at once to the stature of a man.
The touch of cold metal, a sharp, quick click,and he was captured
and handcuffed within the space of ten seconds.
A terrible struggle ensued, which his great strength but sufficed to
prolong. His wild, hoarse cries of rage and desperation seemed to beat
against the sky; back and forth the dark riparian forests repeated them
with the effect of varying distance in the echoes, till all the sombre
woods seemed full of mad, frantic creatures, shrieking out their
helpless frenzy. More than once his superior muscle sufficed to throw
off both the officers for a moment, but to what avail? Thus manacled,
he could not escape.
Suddenly a wild, new clamor resounded from the shore. In the dusky
uncertainty, a group of men were running down the bank, shouting out to
the barely descried boatmen imperative warnings that they would break
the levee in their commotion, coupled with violent threats if they did
not desist. For the force with which the rowboat dashed against the
summit of the levee, rebounding again and again, laden with the weight
of three ponderous men, and endowed with all the impetus of their
struggle, so eroded the earth that the waves had gained an entrance,
the initial step to a crevasse that would flood the country with a
disastrous overflow. As there was no abatement of the blows of the boat
against the embankment, no reply nor explanation, a shot from the gun
of one of the levee-watch came skipping lightsomely over the water as
Hoxer was borne exhausted to the bottom of the skiff. Then, indeed, the
sheriff of the county bethought himself to shout out his name and
official station to the astonished group on shore, and thus,
bullet-proof under the aegis of the law, the boat pulled out toward the
steamer, lying in mid-stream, silently awaiting the coming of the
officer and his prisoner, a great, towering, castellated object, half
seen in the night, her broadside of cabin lights, and their reflection
in the ripples, sparkling through the darkness like a chain of golden
They left no stress of curiosity behind them; naught in the delta
can compete in interest with the threatened collapse of a levee in
times of high water. Before the rowboat had reached the steamer's side,
its occupants could hear the great plantation-bell ringing like mad to
summon forth into the midnight all available hands to save the levee,
and, looking back presently, a hundred lanterns were seen flickering
hither and thither, far down in the duskno illusion this, for all
deltaic rivers are higher in the centre than their bankswhere the
busy laborers, with thousands of gunny-sacks filled with sand, were
fighting the Mississippi, building a barricade to fence it from the
rich spoils it coveted.
The packet, which, as it happened, was already overdue, had been
telephoned by the officers at her last landing, and a number of men
stood on the guards expectant. Hoxer had ceased to struggle. He looked
up at the steamer, his pallid face and wide, distended eyes showing in
the cabin lights, as the rowboat pulled alongside. Then as the sheriff
directed him to rise, he stood up at his full height, stretched his
manacled hands high above his head, and suddenly dived into deep water,
leaving the boat rocking violently, and in danger of capsizing with the
A desperate effort was made to recover the prisoner, alive or
deadall in vain. A roustabout on the deck declared that in the glare
of the steamer's search-light, thrown over the murky waters, he was
seen to come to the surface once, but if he rose a second time it must
have been beneath the great bulk of the packet, to go down again to the
death awaiting him in the deeps.
On the bank a little dog sat through sunshine and shadow in front of
the door of the shack of the contractor of the levee-construction gang,
and awaited his return with the patient devotion of his kind.
Sometimes, as the padlock wavered in the wind, he would cock his head
briskly askew, forecasting from the sound a step within. Sometimes the
grief of absence and hope deferred would wring his humble heart, and he
would whimper in an access of misery and limp about a bit. But
presently he would be seated again, alertly upright, his eyes on the
door, for the earliest glimpse of the face that he loved. When the
overflow came at last the shacks of the construction gang were swept
away, and the little dog was seen no more.