Read CHAPTER V of Wild Oranges , free online book, by Joseph Hergesheimer, on ReadCentral.com.

In the morning Halvard proposed a repainting of the engine.

“The Florida air,” he said, “eats metal overnight.” And the ketch remained anchored.

Later in the day Woolfolk sounded the water casks cradled in the cockpit, and, when they answered hollow, directed his man with regard to their refilling. They drained a cask. Halvard put it on the tender and pulled in to the beach. There he shouldered the empty container and disappeared among the trees.

Woolfolk was forward, preparing a chain hawser for coral anchorages, when he saw Halvard tramping shortly back over the sand. He entered the tender and, with a vicious shove, rowed with a powerful, vindictive sweep toward the ketch. The cask evidently had been left behind. He made the tender fast and swung aboard with his notable agility.

“There’s a damn idiot in that house,” he declared, in a surprising departure from his customary detached manner.

“Explain yourself,” Woolfolk demanded shortly.

“But I’m going back after him,” the sailor stubbornly proceeded. “I’ll turn any knife out of his hand.” It was evident that he was laboring under an intense growing excitement and anger.

“The only idiot’s not on land,” Woolfolk told him. “Where’s the water cask you took ashore?”

“Broken.”

“How?”

“I’ll tell you fast enough. There was nobody about when I went up to the house, although there was a chair rocking on the porch as if a person had just left. I knocked at the door; it was open, and I was certain that I heard someone inside, but nobody answered. Then after a bit I went around back. The kitchen was open, too, and no one in sight. I saw the water cistern and thought I’d fill up, when you could say something afterward. I did, and was rolling the cask about the house when this—loggerhead came out of the bushes. He wanted to know what I was getting away with, and I explained, but it didn’t suit him. He said I might be telling facts and again I mightn’t. I saw there was no use talking, and started rolling the cask again; but he put his foot on it, and I pushed one way and he the other—”

“And between you, you stove in the cask,” Woolfolk interrupted.

“That’s it,” Poul Halvard answered concisely. “Then I got mad, and offered to beat in his face, but he had a knife. I could have broken it out of his grip—I’ve done it before in a place or two—but I thought I’d better come aboard and report before anything general began.”

John Woolfolk was momentarily at a loss to establish the identity of
Halvard’s assailant.

He soon realized, however, that it must be Nicholas, whom he had never seen, and who had blown such an imperative summons on the conch the night before. Halvard’s temper was communicated to him; he moved abruptly to where the tender was fastened.

“Put me ashore,” he directed. He would make it clear that his man was not to be interrupted in the execution of his orders, and that his property could not be arbitrarily destroyed.

When the tender ran upon the beach and had been secured, Halvard started to follow him, but Woolfolk waved him back. There was a stir on the portico as he approached, the flitting of an unsubstantial form; but, hastening, John Woolfolk arrested Lichfield Stope in the doorway.

“Morning,” he nodded abruptly. “I came to speak to you about a water cask of mine.”

The other swayed like a thin, grey column of smoke.

“Ah, yes,” he pronounced with difficulty. “Water cask—”

“It was broken here a little while back.”

At the suggestion of violence such a pitiable panic fell upon the older man that Woolfolk halted. Lichfield Stope raised his hands as if to ward off the mere impact of the words themselves; his face was stained with the thin red tide of congestion.

“You have a man named Nicholas,” Woolfolk proceeded. “I should like to see him.”

The other made a gesture as tremulous and indeterminate as his speech and appeared to dissolve into the hall. John Woolfolk stood for a moment undecided and then moved about the house toward the kitchen. There, he thought, he might obtain an explanation of the breaking of the cask. A man was walking about within and came to the door as Woolfolk approached.

The latter told himself that he had never seen a blanker countenance. In profile it showed a narrow brow, a huge, drooping nose, a pinched mouth and insignificant chin. From the front the face of the man in the doorway held the round, unscored cheeks of a fat and sleepy boy. The eyes were mere long glimmers of vision in thick folds of flesh; the mouth, upturned at the corners, lent a fixed, mechanical smile to the whole. It was a countenance on which the passage of time and thoughts had left no mark; its stolidity had been moved by no feeling. His body was heavy and sagging. It possessed, Woolfolk recognized, a considerable unwieldy strength, and was completely covered by a variously spotted and streaked apron.

“Are you Nicholas?” John Woolfolk demanded.

The other nodded.

“Then, I take it, you are the man who broke my water cask.”

“It was full of our water,” Nicholas replied in a thick voice.

“That,” said Woolfolk, “I am not going to argue with you. I came ashore to instruct you to let my man and my property alone.”

“Then leave our water be.”

John Woolfolk’s temper, the instinctive arrogance of men living apart from the necessary submissions of communal life, in positions—however small—of supreme command, flared through his body.

“I told you,” he repeated shortly, “that I would not discuss the question of the water. I have no intention of justifying myself to you. Remember—your hands off.”

The other said surprisingly: “Don’t get me started!” A spasm of emotion made a faint, passing shade on his sodden countenance; his voice held almost a note of appeal.

“Whether you ‘start’ or not is without the slightest significance,” Woolfolk coldly responded.

“Mind,” the man went on, “I spoke first.”

A steady twitching commenced in a muscle at the flange of his nose. Woolfolk was aware of an increasing tension in the other, that gained a peculiar oppressiveness from the lack of any corresponding outward expression. His heavy, blunt hand fumbled under the maculate apron; his chest heaved with a sudden, tempestuous breathing. “Don’t start me,” he repeated in a voice so blurred that the words were hardly recognizable. He swallowed convulsively, his emotion mounting to an inchoate passion, when suddenly a change was evident. He made a short, violent effort to regain his self-control, his gaze fastened on a point behind Woolfolk.

The latter turned and saw Millie Stope approaching, her countenance haggard with fear. “What has happened?” she cried breathlessly while yet a little distance away. “Tell me at once—”

“Nothing,” Woolfolk promptly replied, appalled by the agony in her voice. “Nicholas and I had a small misunderstanding. A triviality,” he added, thinking of the other’s hand groping beneath the apron.