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A Pair of Poachers by Ralph Henry Barbour

 

 

Tom Pierson strode briskly down the hill, fishing-rod in hand. As long as he had been in sight of the school he had skulked in the shadow of the hedges, for he knew that Satterlee 2d was looking for him, and the society of that youth was the last thing he desired at present. For Satterlee 2d possessed the highly erroneous idea that the best way to catch trout was to make as much noise as possible and to toss sticks and pebbles into the brook. And so Tom, a devout disciple of Izaak Walton, preferred to do without his chum when he went fishing.

The time was a quarter after four of a late May afternoon. Tom had tossed the last book into his desk and slammed the lid just fifteen minutes before. From the school-hall he had sneaked to the dormitory, and secured his rod, line, and flies. Even as he had descended warily by means of the fire-escape, he had heard the voice of Satterlee 2d calling his name in the corridor. He had reached the brook path undetected by dodging from dormitory to school-hall and from school-hall to engine-house, and so to the protecting shadows of the high hedge that marked the western limit of the school-grounds. Most of the other two dozen pupils of Willard’s were down on the field, busy with balls and bats. But no form of athletics appealed to Tom Pierson as did angling, and to-day, with the white clouds chasing one another across the blue sky and the alder-bordered brook in sight, he was almost happy. Almost, but not quite; for even at sixteen life is not always clear of trouble. Tom’s trouble was “Old Crusty.” If it were not for “Old Crusty,” he thought gloomily, as he swung his pole through the new grass, he would be quite happy.

“Old Crusty’s” real name, you must know, was Professor Bailey: he was one of the two submasters; and as for being old, he was in truth scarce over forty—a good ten years younger than Doctor Willard, the head master, to whom, for some reason, the fellows never thought of referring as “Old Willard.” Professor Bailey and Tom had never, from the first, got on at all well together. The professor believed Tom quite capable of mastering mathematics as well as others of his form, and had scant patience for the boy’s sorry performances. Tom believed that “Old Crusty” dealt more severely with him than with the rest—in short, to use his own expression, that the professor “had it in for him.” One thing is certain: the more the submaster lectured Tom and ridiculed his efforts before the class, the more he kept him in after school, the less Tom knew of mathematics, and the wider grew the breach between pupil and teacher.

In all other studies Tom was eminently successful, and there is no doubt but that with a better understanding between him and the submaster the former would have made a creditable showing in the science that was at present the bane of his life. But, as it was, Tom hated “Old Crusty” with a great hatred, while the submaster felt for Tom a large contempt, if not an absolute aversion. And it must be acknowledged that Tom gave him sufficient cause.

A great deal of this passed through Tom’s mind as he descended the path and reached the shelter of the low-spreading alders that marked the course of the brook. But, with the sound of the bubbling water in his ears, he put trouble behind him. Laying aside his coat, he fitted his split-bamboo rod, and studied the sky and the pool before him. Then he chose a rather worn brown fly, and cast it gently into the center of the limpid basin. Above him the branches almost met, and he knew from experience that if he hooked a trout he would have to play him down-stream before he could land him. Ten minutes passed, but, save for the inquiring nibble of a sunfish or similar small fry, he found no encouragement. The sun went behind a large cloud, and Tom changed his fly for a bright red-and-gray one. But even that failed to entice the trout. He grew impatient, for the school rules required him to be back in bounds by half past five. Presently he drew in his line, donned his coat, and made his way noiselessly down-stream. When he had gone some ten yards, creeping from bank to rock and from rock to bank again, not without more than once filling his scuffed shoes with water, he came to a fence, the rails of which reached straight across the stream, which here narrowed to a rocky cascade. On the trunk of a big willow at one side there was a board. On the board was the legend:

PRIVATE PROPERTY

TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED

TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW

Tom winked at the sign, and climbed the fence. He did it so nimbly and expeditiously as to suggest a certain amount of experience. In truth, Tom had crossed that fence before, not once but several times, since the trout had commenced to bite that spring. If it will make his conduct appear any less heinous, it may be said in his behalf that he always gave a fair trial to that part of the brook within the school-grounds, and only when success failed him there did he defy the law and become a trespasser on the estate of Fernwood. It would be interesting to know whether old Father Walton always respected “No trespassing” signs. Whether he did or did not, he appears to have left as a heritage to his followers a special code of morals where forbidden property is concerned; for often a man who will hold the theft of an apple from a roadside orchard in utmost horror will not hesitate to extract a fish from a neighbor’s brook and bear it off in complacent, untroubled triumph. If I have dealt at undue length upon this subject, it is because, for the sake of my hero, I wish the reader to view such amateur poaching as his with as lenient an eye as possible.

Fernwood held one widely celebrated pool, from which, even when all of the other pools refused to give up a single fish, the practised angler could invariably draw at least a trio of good-sized trout. Toward this ideal spot Tom Pierson, making his way very quietly that he might not disturb and so cause unnecessary trouble to a couple of very alert gardeners, directed his steps. Once, in spite of care, his line became entangled, and once he went to his knees in the icy water. Yet both these mishaps but whetted his appetite for the sport ahead. When he had gained a spot a dozen yards up-stream from the big pool, he paused, laid aside pole-rod and paraphernalia, and crept cautiously forward to reconnoiter. If, he argued very plausibly, discovery was to fall to his lot, at least it were better to be found guiltless of fishing-tackle. He crouched still lower, as, over by a clump of dead willows within the school bounds, he espied through the trees the jauntily appareled Satterlee briskly whipping the surface of the brook with unsportsmanlike energy and apparent disregard of results. Tom, however, knew himself to be unobserved, so felt no fear from that source. But just as the dark waters of the pool came into sight between the lapping branches, a sound, close at hand and unmistakable as to origin, caused his heart to sink with disappointment. There would be no fishing for him to-day, for some one was already at the pool. The soft click of a running-reel came plainly to his ears.

He paused motionless, silent, and scowled darkly in the direction of the unseen angler. Then he went forward again, peering under the leaves. At least he would know who it was that had spoiled his sport. Three steps—four; then he suddenly stood upright and gasped loudly. His eyes opened until they seemed about to pop out of his head, and he rubbed them vigorously, as though he doubted their evidence. After a moment he again stooped, this time sinking almost to his knees, and never heeding the icy water that well-nigh benumbed his immersed feet. On the farther side of the broad pool, in plain sight, stood “Old Crusty!”

He was hatless and coatless, and palpitant with the excitement of the sport. His lean and somewhat sallow face was flushed above the prominent cheek-bones, and his gray eyes sparkled brightly in the gloom of the clustering branches. He stood lithely erect, the usual studious stoop of the shoulders gone for the time, and, with one hand firmly grasping the butt of his rod and the other guarding the reel, was giving every thought to the playing of a big trout that, fly in mouth, was darting and tugging until the slender basswood bent nearly double. As Tom looked, surprised, breathless with the excitement of his discovery, the fish shot under the shelter of an overhanging boulder, weary and sulky, and the angler began slowly to reel in his line. Inch by inch came the trout, now without remonstrance, now jumping and slashing like ten fishes, yet ever nearing the captor and the landing-net. It was a glorious battle, and Tom, forgetting all else, crept nearer and nearer through the leaves until, hidden only by a screen of alder branches, he stood at the up-stream edge of the basin. At length, resisting heroically, fighting every inch of the way, the trout was drawn close in to the flat rock where stood his exultant captor. The latter reached a hand softly out and seized the landing-net. Then, kneeling on the brink of the pool, with one leg, he made a sudden dip; there was an instant of swishing, then up came net and trout, and——

At the end of the pool there was a terrifying splash, a muttered cry, and Tom, forgetful of his precarious footing, sat down suddenly and forcibly on a stone, his legs up to the knees in water. The landing-net dropped from the angler’s hand, and the trout, suddenly restored to his element, dashed madly off, while the reel screeched loudly as the line ran out. The professor, white of face, stared amazedly at Tom. Tom stared defiantly, triumphantly back at the professor. For a long, long minute the two gazed at each other across the sun-flecked water. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, “Old Crusty” stooped and recovered his rod. When he again faced the boy there was a disagreeable expression about his mouth.

“Well, Pierson,” he said as he wound up his line, “you’re better at playing the spy than at studying your lessons, it seems.”

The blood rushed into Tom’s face, but he held his tongue. He could well afford to pass the insult, he argued with savage triumph; “Old Crusty” was in his power. He had only to inform Dr. Willard, and, beyond a doubt, the submaster’s connection with the school would terminate instantly. The head master held poaching to be the deadliest of sins, and poaching on Fernwood especially heinous. That his enemy was poaching, that he did not hold permission to whip the big pool, was evident from the confusion into which Tom’s sudden entry on to the scene had thrown him. Yes, “Old Crusty” could vent his anger to his heart’s content; for, when all was said, Tom still held the whip-hand. But then the enormity of the crime with which he had been charged struck Tom with full force, like a blow in the face. At Willard’s, as at all schools, spying, like tale-bearing, was held by the pupils to be something far beneath contempt. And “Old Crusty” had called him a spy! The blood again dyed the boy’s face, and he clambered to his soaking feet and faced the submaster angrily.

“It’s a lie!” he said hotly. “I was not spying. I didn’t follow you here.”

The submaster raised his eyebrows incredulously.

“Is that the truth?” he asked.

“I don’t lie,” answered Tom, with righteous indignation, glaring hatred across the pool.

“Ah,” said the other. “In that case I beg your pardon. I retract my remark, Pierson.”

The line was again taut, and now, apparently indifferent to the boy’s presence, he began to play the trout once more, warily, slowly. Tom looked on from his rock, the intensity of his anger past. He was forced to acknowledge that “Old Crusty” had at least apologized honestly and fairly; he wished he hadn’t: somehow, he felt at a disadvantage. And there was the enemy proceeding with his wicked sport for all the world as though Tom did not hold his fate in his hand, as it were! Tom swelled with indignation.

“I suppose you know you’re poaching?” he asked, presently, breaking the long silence. The submaster did not turn his head; he merely drew his brows together as though in protest at the interruption. Tom scowled. What a hardened criminal “Old Crusty” was, to be sure!

The trout had but little fight left in him now, and his journey back across the pool was almost without excitement. Only when he felt the imminence of the shore did he call upon his flagging strength and make one last gallant struggle for liberty. To such purpose did he battle then, however, that the man at the rod was forced to play out a yard or so of line. Tom’s interest was again engaged, and, much against his inclination, he had to acknowledge that “Old Crusty” was a master angler. And with that thought came another and a strange one, and it was just this:

“Why,” he asked himself, “if he can be as wonderfully patient with a trout as all that, why can’t he be a little patient with me?”

Suddenly, with the trout almost under the bank, the angler paused and looked about him, at a loss. Tom instantly divined his quandary; the landing-net was floating on the surface of the pool fully three yards distant. Tom grinned with malicious satisfaction for a moment; but then——

“Will you take the rod a minute?” asked “Old Crusty,” just as though there was no enmity between them. “I’ll have to get that net somehow.”

Tom looked from the net to his soaking shoes and trousers. There was but one thing to do.

“I’ll get it,” he answered. “I’m wet already.”

He threw aside coat and hat, and waded in. The professor watched him with expressionless face. Tom secured the runaway net, and came out, dripping to his armpits, at the submaster’s side. But when he offered the net the other only asked anxiously:

“Do you think you can land him? The leader’s almost cut through, and I’m afraid to bring him in any farther.”

Tom hesitated, net in hand.

“That will be all right,” continued the other; “I promise you I’ll never tell that you had a hand in it.”

Tom flushed.

“I wasn’t thinking of that,” he said. “Hold him steady, and I’ll get him.”

He knelt on the rock and looked for the trout. It was nearly two yards away and well under the water. He put one foot over the edge and groped about until he found a support for it below the surface. But even then his arm was too short to get the net to the fish.

“Can’t you coax him in another foot?” he asked anxiously.

“I’ll try,” answered “Old Crusty.” “If the line will hold——”

He wound gingerly. The gleaming sides of the trout came toward the surface. Tom reached out with the net, slipped it quietly into the pool, and moved it toward the prey.


Tom moved the net toward the prey.

“Now!” whispered the professor, intensely.

Up came the landing-net, and with it, floundering mightily and casting the glittering drops into the air, came the captive.

“Well done!” cried the professor, laying aside his rod. Praise from an enemy is the sweetest praise of all, and Tom’s heart gave a bound. The professor seized the trout, took it from the net, and, laying it upon the bank, removed the hook from its gasping mouth. Then, with a finger crooked through its gill, he held it admiringly aloft.

“Isn’t he a beauty?” he asked.

“You bet!” replied Tom, in awestruck tones. “The biggest I ever saw in this stream. Must be two pounds and a half, sir?”

“Well, two pounds easily,” answered “Old Crusty,” shutting one eye and hefting his troutship knowingly.

“What will you do with him?” asked Tom.

The other smiled. For answer he knelt again on the rock, and, removing his hold, allowed the fish to slide from his open palms back into the pool. Tom’s eyes grew round with surprise. The trout, after one brief moment of amazement quite as vast as the boy’s, scuttled from sight. Tom turned questioning eyes upon the professor. The latter shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

“I don’t want him; he would be of no use to me, Pierson. All I want is the joy of catching him.”

He turned, donned his hat and coat, and began to wind up his line, examining the frayed leader critically. Tom began to feel uncomfortable; it seemed to him that the truce should be at an end now, and that he ought to take his departure. But he didn’t; he merely stood by and watched. Presently the professor turned to him again, a rather rueful smile on his lips.

“Pierson,” he said, “what are you going to do with me now that you’ve caught me here where poachers and trespassers are forbidden?”

Tom dropped his gaze, but made no answer. The submaster thrust the sections of his rod into a brown leather case and slipped his fly-book into his coat pocket. Then he said suddenly:

“Look here, Pierson, I’m going to ask a favor of you: don’t say anything about this to the doctor, please.”

Tom’s momentary qualm of pity disappeared. “Old Crusty” was begging for mercy! The boy experienced the glow of proud satisfaction felt by the gladiator of old when, his foot on the neck of the vanquished opponent, he heard the crowded Colosseum burst into applause. But with the elation of the conqueror was mingled the disappointment of one who sees the shattering of an idol. “Old Crusty” had been to him the personification of injustice and tyranny; but never once had Tom doubted his honesty or courage. An enemy he had been, but an honored one. And now the honesty was stripped away. “Old Crusty” had not the courage to stand up like a man and take his punishment, but had descended so low as to beg his enemy to aid him in the cowardly concealment of his crime! And this man had dared to call him a spy! Tom gulped in an effort to restrain his angry indignation.

And all the while he had been looking across the pool, and so was not aware that the submaster had been studying his face very intently, or that the submaster’s lips held a queer little smile oddly at variance with the character of a detected criminal at the mercy of his enemy.

The detected criminal continued his specious pleading.

“You see, Pierson,” he said, “there’s just one thing that can happen to a person in my position convicted of poaching, and that’s discharge. Of course you don’t recognize much difference between discharge and resignation; but I do: the difference is apparent when it comes to obtaining a new position. A discharged instructor is a hopeless proposition; one who has resigned may, in the course of time, find another place. And so what I ask you to do is to keep quiet and give me time to resign.”

“Oh!” said Tom. His faith in mankind was reestablished. He had misjudged the enemy. After all, “Old Crusty” was worthy of his hatred. He was very glad. But before he could find an answer the other went on:

“If I were a younger man, Pierson, my chances would be better. But at my time of life losing my position means a good deal. You must see that. And—could you give me until to-morrow evening?”

Tom nodded without looking up. He wanted to say something, he didn’t at all know what. But the elation was all gone, and he felt—oh, miserably mean!

“Thank you,” said the submaster, pleasantly. “And now I think we’d best go home. You should get those wet clothes off as soon as possible.” He looked at his watch. “I had no idea it was so late,” he muttered. “We’ll have to hurry.” He moved off along the edge of the stream, and Tom recovered coat and hat and followed. He didn’t feel happy. His thoughts were fixed on matters other than his footing, and more than once he went into the brook. Presently he broke the silence.

“Are you going to—resign, sir?”

“Doesn’t that seem best, Pierson?”

“I—I don’t know,” muttered Tom. There was another silence, lasting for a few yards. Then, “I—I wish you wouldn’t, sir,” he said with a gulp.

“Eh?” The submaster paused, turned, and faced him in surprise. “What’s that, Pierson?”

Tom cleared his throat.

“I said—I wished you wouldn’t; resign, you know.”

“What do you mean?” asked the other. “Do you want to have me discharged, or——”

“No, sir, I don’t,” answered the boy, getting his voice back. “I—I’m not going to tell at all, sir—ever!”

“How’s that?” asked the submaster, in puzzled tones. “You don’t like me the least bit in the world, my boy; in fact, I’m not sure you don’t hate me heartily. Doesn’t it strike you that you’ve got your chance now? Get rid of me, Pierson, and there’ll be no mathematics—for a while.”

“I don’t want to get rid of you,” muttered Tom, shamefacedly. “I—I didn’t like you: you’d never let me; you’ve always been as hard on me as you could be. I can get those lessons—I know I can!—if you’ll only not be down on me. I did hate you, sir”—he looked up with a gleam of the old defiance—“but I don’t any longer.”

“Why?” asked “Old Crusty,” after a moment, very quietly and kindly. Tom shook his head.

“I don’t know—exactly. I guess because you’re a good trout fisher, and you begged my pardon, and—and you treated me like—like—” He faltered and came to a pause, at a loss for words. But the other nodded his head as though he understood.

“I see,” he muttered. Then, “Look here, Pierson,” he said, “I see that I’ve been mistaken about you; I’ve been greatly at fault. I tell you so frankly; and—I’m sorry. If I were going to remain I think you and I would get on a lot better together.”

“Yes, sir,” answered Tom, eagerly. “And—and couldn’t you stay, sir?”

The other was silent a moment, looking smilingly at the boy’s bent head. At length, “If I should accept of your—ah—mercy, Pierson, it would have to be understood that there was no bargain between us. I think we’d get on better, you and I, but I wouldn’t buy your silence. If you ever needed a wigging or any other punishment I’d give it to you. Would you agree to that?”

“I don’t want any old bargain, sir,” Tom cried. “And I’ll take the punishment. I’m—I’m not a baby!”

“Good! Shake hands. Now let us hurry home.”

“Yes, sir, but—just a minute, please.” Tom darted into the wood and came back with his rod and flies. He did not try to conceal them, but he looked sheepishly up into the submaster’s face. This was a study of conflicting emotions. In the end amusement got the better of the others, and he viewed Tom with a broad smile.

“And so there is a pair of us, eh?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” answered Tom. The submaster laughed softly and put one hand companionably upon the boy’s shoulder.

“Pierson,” he said, “suppose you and I agree to reform?”

“All right, sir.”

“No more poaching, eh? After this we’ll stick to our own preserves.”

“Yes, sir. I’m willing if you are.”

“Because, after all, we can’t improve on that trite old proverb which says that honesty is the best policy, can we?”

“No, sir,” Tom responded.

They left the thicket together and began the ascent of the meadow hill. Twilight was gathering, and a sharp-edged crescent of silver glowed in the evening sky above the tower of the school-hall. It was the submaster who broke the silence first.

“And yet there are fine trout in the big pool,” he said, musingly.

Tom sighed unconsciously. “Aren’t there, though?” he asked.

“I took one out one day last spring that weighed nearly three pounds,” continued the submaster.

Tom sighed again. “Did you?” he asked dolefully.

“Yes; and—look here, Pierson, tell me, how would you like to fish there as often as you wanted through the trout season?”

“I’d like it!” answered Tom, briefly and succinctly, wishing, nevertheless, that the submaster wouldn’t pursue such a harrowing subject.

“Would you? Well, now, I haven’t the least doubt in the world but that I can obtain permission for you. Mr. Greenway is a friend of mine, and while he wouldn’t care to allow the whole school to go in there, I’m certain that——”

“A friend of yours?” gasped Tom. “Then—then——”

The submaster smiled apologetically as he replied:

“No, Pierson, I wasn’t poaching.”

Tom stared in amazement and dismay.

“But—but you said——”

“No, I didn’t say it, but I allowed you to think it; and I plead guilty to a measure of deceit. But I think you’ll forgive it, my boy, because it has led to—well, to a better understanding between us. Don’t you think it has?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Tom, wondering but happy.

“Good; and— Hello, there’s the bell!” cried the submaster. “Let’s run for it!”

And they did.