The Crucial Moment
by Charles Egbert Craddock
A mere moment seems an inconsiderable factor in life—only 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 space—as 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
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 unprescient, 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 rising—indeed, 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 rain-fall 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 over-charged, 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 slope—the 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 mouth 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 the
"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 mite—you
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
"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
store—at the store—that 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
store—at 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 impression?"
"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 now—the shock was all sufficient—as 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 gloaming—some foreign entity, cogently
reasoning, swiftly acting. Self-defense—was 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 himself—no, 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 tracks—the 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
dog—a little, worthless cur, that had a hide like a doormat and a heart
as big as the United States—a 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 his eye.
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 canine dependents?
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 mind—a 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 now—for 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 cheek.
In the darksome shadows, further and further from the spot where he had
entered the lake, Hoxer toiled along the margin, sometimes pausing to
listen—for 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
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 hitherto—heard it
again and—oh, 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 swim—there
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 iteration—assailed 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, then
ultimately disappearing; even the fire began to die out, 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
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 rowboat 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 exclamation—this 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 dusk—no illusion this, for all
deltaic rivers are higher in the centre than their banks—where 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
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 dead—all
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.