"Tallow," says Mark, "have you got the n- n-nerve to swim this lake in the dark?"
"I'd do it in daytime," says I. "It can't be half a mile across, and I could make that like rollin' off a log. But night's a different thing."
I went out and took a look at the lake. It began to look wider to me. That's always the way with things. If you're not going to jump across a hole the hole don't look wide, but just you step up to it ready to jump and it seems to stretch out about twice as big as it was before.
"If I could only have some kind of a mark to steer by-a light or somethin'."
"There's that big h-hemlock,'' says Mark, pointing. "That will s-s-stick up against the sky, and you could head for it."
"Well," says I, "I'll try it, but I'd rather go to an ice-cream festival. It'll be pretty chilly."
"We'll rub lard on you," says Mark.
"Rather have it in pie crust," I says, for the idea of being greased up from top to toe didn't set well on my stomach.
"I've been t-thinkin' things over," says Mark, "and it looks to me like it was our duty to try to get this letter sent to the Japanese minister."
"It's a shame," says I, "that there ain't more swimmers in this crowd. I'll turn into a fish."
"You'd better start about an hour before s-s- sun-up," says Mark. "That will get you safe to shore before daylight. Then strike for the road and wait for s-s-somebody to come along. Give 'em the letter to mail."
"Sure," says I, "and what about comin' back?"
"Better get back as soon's you can. They're l-likely to make some kind of an attack."
"All right," says I, "but I calc'late I'll want to lay around a spell in the sun and rest up."
"Take some t-t-towels with you," says Mark.
"What for? Be as wet as I would."
"Shucks! Use your head. D-d-didn't expect to carry 'em in your mouth, did you? No. Well, just put 'em in a dishpan and float 'em ahead of you. Then you can rub yourself hard and get up circulation. Get you warm in a jiffy."
"Put in my shoes, too," says I. "Climbin' over the rocks ain't good for bare feet."
We didn't see a Japanese before I went to bed, which was pretty early, because I wanted to get in a good sleep. I got it, too. Shouldn't wonder if I'm close to being the world's prize sleeper. Anyhow, I come next to Mark. But he can wake up when he wants to. I never wake up till somebody gets rough with me.
Mark did just that-got rough with me- about three o'clock in the morning, and I turned out in the chilliest morning air you ever felt. It seemed like it would frost-bite you as fast as you got out from under the covers into it. Honest, it was just like sticking your feet into ice-water to shove them out of bed. Right there I lost my ambition to go swimming.
"I guess," says I, "that I've done about all the letter-writin' to the Japanese minister that I need to. I don't owe him any letter."
"'Tis chilly," says Mark, and he grinned and sort of wriggled all over like he enjoyed something.
"I wish it was you goin'," says I. "Maybe you wouldn't giggle so hard."
"Water 'll be warmer t-t-than the air," says he.
"It could do that and still freeze you to death," I says, as cross as two sticks. "Gimme the letter."
I wrapped a blanket around me to keep me alive till I got to the water. Mark had the dishpan all ready with the towels and my shoes tied into it, and the letter under them.
"Now," says he, "git off the end of the island and s-s-slide in cautious. Likely we're bein' watched every second."
I went off alone into the dark and for once I wished I'd never seen Mark Tidd. I wished he hadn't moved to Wicksville, and I wished he wasn't fat, and I wished he didn't stutter. I just wished he wasn't at all. But when I got into the water I felt better. It was surprising how warm and comfortable the water was, after the air. I swam easy and slow till I could get my bearings. It was pretty dark, but not so dark but what I could see the black shape of the old hemlock against the sky. When I had it located I laid low and steered for it.
It was a good long swim, but I had swum distances enough to know better than to tire myself out at the start. I just mogged along, stopping to float every once in a while, and before I knew it I was across. It hadn't been anything. The worst part was the lonesomeness of it and the thought that came a couple of times; what would I do if I got cramps? Ugh!
But I didn't. I made it-and then had to get out into that air again. Wow! Cold? It was as cold as Greenland multiplied by Iceland, with Hudson's Bay thrown in to fill the basket.
You better guess that I grabbed those towels and began to rub myself. I rubbed and scrubbed till the skin was ready to come off like the peel of an orange. But it did warm me just like Mark said it would. After I was tired rubbing I picked out an open space and capered up and down in it. I expect I looked like a luny there in the woods without anything on but a towel tied around the middle of me, and me doing some sort of wild Injun dance all by myself. I almost had to laugh.
Pretty soon it began to grow light and I made for the road, going pretty careful. There was no telling where those Japanese might be. It was lucky I did go careful, too, for I hadn't gone a quarter of a mile before I smelled smoke and in a minute saw the glow of a fire.
Right there I stopped navigation. When I went ahead again it was at quarter speed with my hand on the throttle. You've heard about Injuns and how still they can go through the woods. Well, that morning I beat any Injun Cooper ever read about. I made so little noise that the woods were stiller than if I hadn't been there at all.
The fire was down in a little hollow. I skirted around it, but near enough so I could see who was camping there. It was two Japanese, one asleep, the other watching. I laughed inside. He wasn't doing as good a job of watching as he thought he was. I could have plunked him with my slingshot, and I had half a mind to do it. But common sense came along just then and I made tracks away.
One thing was sure. The Japanese hadn't left us. They were trying to bamboozle us into getting careless, just as Mark had said.
It got lighter and lighter as I went along, and after a while I came to the road. The first thing I did was to find a sheltered place where I could keep out of the breeze, watch the road, and be out of sight. Then I started in to wait.
Waiting is the meanest job in the world. I'd rather do 'most anything else than wait. You keep thinking every minute that what you're waiting for will be along, and then when it don't come you get impatient, and then you get irritable, and then you get mad, and after a long while you just sit there and chaw your knuckles and wish there was somebody to kick.
I'd got to the kicking stage when I heard something coming from away from town. A man was talking.
"Don't yuh stop," he says. "Keep on a- goin'. Jest shove one foot ahead and then foller it with another. If yuh stop agin I calc'late to most take the hide offn you. Whup ! Wiggle your ears if you want to. G'wan, now."
In a minute along came a mule with ears about a foot long. He was a humorous- looking mule, with a sort of twinkle in his eye. He was dragging a two-wheeled thing the like of which I'd never seen before, and in it was the disappointedest-looking man you ever saw. He wasn't a big man, nor a little man. He was just an in-between man. Not only in size, but I guess in everything else. He was shabby, and his hat was battered, and he hadn't shaved for about two weeks. My, but he looked mournful!
All the time he kept talking to his mule, begging him to keep on going and not to stop, till I stepped out in the road and said good morning.
The mule stopped and spread all four legs like he wasn't willing to be pushed in any direction. He looked like something that somebody had braced up so the wind wouldn't blow it down.
"Good mornin'?" says the man, making a question of it. "Good mornin' nothin'. Look what you've up and done. You've stopped my automobeel. Dumbest enjine in this automobeel you ever seen."
"Sorry I stopped him," says I, "but I just had to do it."
The man sighed. "Well, young feller, 'tain't as if I wasn't used to it. It's startin' that hurts my feelin's. Why, when this here automobeel of mine decides to start it s'prises me so I come nigh to fallin' off my seat!"
"No!" says I, like I was astonished.
"Yes," says he. "Honest. D'yuh know, I bought this here outfit to travel in. To git from one place to another place. I kind of had it in mind to make a bid for the job of carryin' mail on the rooral free delivery. That's what I done. So I bought me this here automobeel. Then d'yuh know what I done?"
"No," says I.
"I built me a garage," says he, pronouncing garage as though you spelled it garagh. "Yes, sir. I up and built me one of them garages. Fine one it was, too. Roof on to it and four sides and a door. Got it done. Looked fust class. Then what did I do but run this here automobeel up alongside and show the garage to him." He stopped and rubbed his nose with his sleeve.
"What did he do?" says I.
"Do? Why, young feller, he done what he's doin' now! He reached out with his four hoofs and took a holt of the ground and hung on. Ever try to pull a cat offn your coat when she's a notion she wants to stay with you and sticks her claws into the cloth? To be sure. This here automobeel of mine's jest like that. He hung on to the ground, and would he go in? No, he would not. Not any. That was two weeks ago, and he hain't been in yet. I'm a-goin' to take the advice of a hoss-doctor, that's what I be. The critter's out of his head."
"What did you do with him nights?"
"Jest left him. He liked it. Give this here automobeel of mine his choice between standin' with his legs braced, and eatin' a peck of oats, and he'll pick the standin' every time. Ornery! Jim Sloan says why didn't I point his hind quarters toward the garage and pull the other way. Figgered the contrairiness of the critter 'd cause him to back off and go plumb where I wanted him to. Did it work? Naw. Couldn't fool him. Not a mite. All the movin' he done was sideways. Got a scheme now, though."
"What is it?" says I.
"Goin' to peg him down. Four pegs, one to each leg. Hold him tight. Then I'll git help and move the garage over him. He! he! he! Guess that 'll s'prise him some."
"Better put your garage on wheels so's it 'll be easy to wheel it around," says I. "Then you can push it over him every night."
"Young feller," says the man, "that's a noble idee. It's wuth the money. Glad you stopped me."
"Much obliged," says I. "What I stopped you for was to get you to carry a letter for me. Just drop it in the post-office."
"Any hurry, young feller?"
"Sort of pressin'," says I.
"I'll do my best, but I hain't guaranteein' nothin'. May be a week 'fore I post it. How far you calc'late I live up the road?"
"Haven't any idea," says I.
"Four miles. How long you calc'late I've been gittin' to here?"
"Half an hour," says I.
"Ho ! Half an hour! I swan! Young feller, I've been clost to two days and a night. Started from home that long ago. Spent most of the time beggin' this here automobeel of mine to move. Rests an hour, then gits a move on for a hundred feet, then rests an hour.
Calc'late I'll git to town along 'bout Christmas."
"Well," says I, "that ain't encouragin', but you're the best chance I've got. Here's the letter. And much obliged."
"Welcome," says he. "Wonder if it 'll go. Dumbdest engine ever was in a automobeel."
I went off and left him pulling and hauling at the mule's ears, trying to get him to start. For fifteen minutes I could hear him arguing with the critter, and then I passed out of sight. I'd been gone from the island and the citadel about four hours and a half, I figured.