THE JACK-KNIFE MAN
By Ellis Parker Butler
Author Of "Pigs Is Pigs," "The Confessions Of A Daddy," Etc.
Illustrated By Hanson Booth
New York The Century Co.
Whose heart has held many children.
Transcriber's Note: Chapter VI is succeeded by Chapter VIII without
a designated intervening Chapter VII. DW
I. THE JACK-KNIFE MAN
PETER LANE GEORGE RAPP, the red-faced livery-man from town, stood with
his hands in the pockets of his huge bear-skin coat, his round face
glowing, looking down at Peter Lane, with amusement
corners of his eyes.
"Tell you what I'll do, Peter," he said, "I'll give you thirty-five
dollars for the boat."
"I guess I won't sell, George," said Peter. "I don't seem to care to."
He was sitting on the edge of his bunk, in the shanty-boat he had spent
the summer in building. He was a thin, wiry little man, with yellowish
hair that fell naturally into ringlets: but which was rather thin on top
of his head. His face was brown and weather-seamed. It was difficult
to guess just how old Peter Lane might be. When his eyes were closed
he looked rather old-quite like a thin, tired old man-but when his eyes
were open he looked quite young, for his eyes were large and innocent,
like the eyes of a baby, and their light blue suggested hopefulness and
imagination of the boyish, aircastle-building sort.
The shanty-boat was small, only some twenty feet in length, with a short
deck at either end. The shanty part was no more than fifteen feet long
and eight feet wide, built of thin boards and roofed with tar paper.
Inside were the bunk--of clean white pine--a home-made pine table, a
small sheet-iron cook-stove, two wooden
pegs for Peter's shotgun, a
shelf for his alarm-clock, a breadbox, some driftwood for the stove, and
a wall lamp with a silvered glass reflector. In one corner was a tangle
of nets and trot-lines. It was not much of a boat, but the flat-bottomed
hull was built of good two-inch planks, well caulked and tarred. Tar was
odor. Peter bent over his table, on which the wheels and
springs of an alarm-clock were laid in careful rows.
"Did you ever stop to think, George, what a mighty
clock like this is for a man like I am?" he asked. "Yes, sir, a tin
clock like this is a grand thing for a man like me. I can take this
clock to pieces, George, and mend her, and put her together again, and
when she's mended all up she needs mending more than she ever did. A
clock like this is always something to look forward to."
"I might give as much as forty dollars for the boat," said George Rapp
"No, thank you, George," said Peter. "And it ain't only when you 're
mending her that a clock like this is interesting. She's interesting all
the time, like a baby. She don't do a thing you'd expect, all day long.
I can mend her right up, and wind her and set her right in the morning,
and set the alarm to go off at four o'clock in the afternoon, and at
four o'clock what do you think she'll be doing? Like as not she'll be
pointing at half-past eleven. Yes, sir! And the alarm won't go off until
half-past two at night, maybe. Why I mended this clock once and left two
wheels out of her--"
"Tell you what I'll do, Peter," said Rapp, "I'll give _fifty_ dollars
for the boat, and five dollars for floating her down to my new place
down the river."
"I'm much obliged, but I guess I won't sell," said Peter nervously. "You
better take off your coat, George, unless you want to hurry away.
That stove is heating up. She's a wonderful stove, that stove is. You
wouldn't think, to look at her right now, that she could go out in a
minute, would you? But she can. Why, when she wants to, that stove can
start in and get red hot all over, stove-pipe and legs and all, until
it's so hot in here the tar melts off them nets yonder--drips off 'em
like rain off the bob-wires. You'd think she'd suffocate
me out of here,
but she don't. No, sir. The very next minute she'll be as cold as ice.
For a man alone as much as I am that's a great stove, George."
"Will you sell me the boat, or won't you?" asked Rapp.
"Now, I wish you wouldn't ask me to sell her, George," said Peter
regretfully, for it hurt him to refuse his friend. "To tell you the
honest truth, George, I can't sell her because it would upset my plans.
I've got my plans all laid out to float down river next spring, soon as
the ice goes out, and when I get to New Orleans I'm going to load this
boat on to a ship, and I'm going to take her to the Amazon River, and
trap chinchillas. I read how there's a big market for chinchilla skins
right now. I'm goin' up the Amazon River and then I'm goin' to haul the
boat across to the Orinoco River and float down the Orinoco, and then--"
"You told me last week you were going down to Florida next spring and
shoot alligators from this boat," said Rapp.
Peter looked up blankly, but in a moment his cheerfulness
"If I didn't forget all about that!" he began. "Well, sir, I'm glad I
did! That would have been a sad mistake. It looks to me like alligator
skin was going out of fashion. I'd be foolish to take this boat all
the way to Florida and then find out there was no market for alligator
skins, wouldn't I?"
"You would," said Rapp. "And you might get down there in South America
and find there was no market for chinchillas. It looks to me as if the
style was veering off from chinchillas already. You'd better sell me
the boat, Peter."
"You know I'd sell to you if I would to anybody, George," said Peter,
pushing aside the works of the clock, "but this boat is a sort of home
to me, George. It's the only home I 've got, since Jane don't want me
'round no more. You're the best friend I've got, and you've done a lot
for me--you let me sleep in your stablewhenever
I want to, and you give
me odd jobs, and clothes--and I appreciate
it, George, but a man don't
like to get rid of his home, if he can help it. I haven't had a home I
could call my own since I was fourteen years old, as you might say, and
I'm going on fifty years old now. Ever since Jane got tired havin' me
'round I've been livin' in your barn, and in old shacks, and anywheres,
and now, when I've got a boat that's a home for me, and I can go
traveling in her whenever
I want to go, you want me to sell her. No, I
don't want to sell her, George. I think maybe I'll start her down river
to-morrow, so as to be able to start up the Missouri when the ice goes
"I thought you said Amazon a minute ago," said Rapp.
"Well, now, I don't know," said Peter soberly. "The fevers they catch
down there wouldn't do my health a bit of good. Rocky Mountain air
is just what I need. It is grand air. If I can get seventy or eighty
dollars together, and a good rifle or two, I may start next spring. I
always wanted to have a try at bear shootin'. I've got sev'ral plans."
"And somehow," said Rapp, who knew Peter could no more raise seventy
dollars than freeze
the sun, "somehow you always land right back in
Widow Potter's cove for the winter, don't you? She'll get you yet,
Peter. And then you won't need this boat. All you got to do is to ask
Peter pushed the table away and stood up, a look of trouble in his blue
"I wish you wouldn't talk like that, George," he said seriously. "It
ain't fair to the widow to connect up my name and hers that way. She
wouldn't like it if she got to hear it. You know right well she
don't think no more of me than she does of any other river-rat or
shanty-boatman that hangs around this cove all summer, and yet you keep
saying, 'Widow, widow, widow!' to me all the time. I wish you wouldn't,
George." He opened the door of his shanty-boat and looked out. The cove
in which the boat was tied was on the Iowa side of the Mississippi, and
during the summer it had been crowded
with a small colony of worthless
shanty-boatmen and their ill-kempt wives and children, direly poor and
afflicted with all the ills that dirt is heir to. Here, each summer,
they gathered, coming from up-river in their shanty-boats and floating
on downriver just ahead of the cold weather in the fall. All summer
their shanty-boats, left high and dry by the receding high water of the
June flood, stood on the parched mud, and Peter looked askance on all of
them, dirty and lazy as they were, but somehow--he could not have told
you why--he made friends with them each summer, lending them dimes that
were never repaid, helping them set their trot-lines that the women
might have food, and even aiding in the caulking of their boats when his
own was crying to be built.
All summer and autumn Peter had been building his shanty-boat, rowing
loads of lumber
in his heavy skiff from the town to the spot he had
chosen on the Illinois shore, five miles above the town. He had worked
on the boat, as he did everything for himself, irregularly and at odd
moments, and the boat had been completed but a few days before George
Rapp drove up from town, hoping to buy it. Peter believed he loved
solitude and usually chose a summer dwelling-place far above town, but
if he had gone to the uttermost
solitudes of Alaska he would have found
some way of mingling with his fellow-men and of doing a good turn to
He never dreamed he was associating with the worthless
yet, somehow, he spent a good part of his time with them. They were
there, they were willing
to accept aid of any and all kinds, and on his
occasional trips to town Peter passed them. This was enough to draw
him into the entanglement of their woes, and to waste thankless days on
them. Yet he never thought of making one of their colony. He would row
the two miles to reach them, but he rowed back again each evening. It
was because he was better at heart, and not because he thought he was
better, that he remained aloof to this extent. In his own estimation
ranked himself even lower than the shanty-boatmen, for they at least had
the social merit of having families, while he had none. His sister Jane
had told him many times just how worthless
he was, and he believed it.
He was nothing to anybody--he felt--and that is what a tramp is.
Once each week or so Peter rowed to town to sell the product of his
jack-knife and such fish as he caught. He was not an enthusiastic
fisherman, but his jack-knife, always keen and sharp, was a magic tool
in his hand. When he was not making shapely boats for the shanty-boat
kids, or whittling for the mere pleasure of whittling, his jack-knife
kitchen spoons and other small household articles, or
net-makers' shuttles, out of clean maplewood, and these, when he went to
town, he peddled from door to door. What he could not sell he traded for
coffee or bacon at the grocery
With the coming of cool weather and the "fall rise" of the river the
shanty-boat colony left the cove, to float down-river ahead of the
frost, and Peter hurried
of his boat that he might float
it across to the cove. Rheumatism often gave him a twinge in winter and
when the river was "closed" the walk to town across the ice was cold
and long. The Iowa side was more thickly
populated, too, for the Iowa
"bottom" was narrow, the hills coming quite to the river in places,
while on the Illinois side five or six miles of untillable "bottom"
stretched between the river and the prosperous
hill farms. The Iowa side
offered opportunities for corn-husking and wood-sawing and other
odd jobs such as necessity sometimes drove Peter to seek. These
opportunities were the reasons Peter gave himself, but the truth was
that Peter loved people. If he was a tramp he was a sedentary tramp, and
if he was a hermit
he was a socialistic
hermit. He liked his solitudes
This early November day Peter had brought his shanty-boat across the
river to the cove. A fair up-river breeze
and his rag of a sail had
helped him fight the stiff current, but it had been a hard, all-day pull
at the oars of his skiff, and when he had towed the boat into the cove
and had made her fast by looping his line under the railway track that
skirted the bank, he was wet and weary. His tin breadbox was empty and
he had but a handful
of coffee left, but he was too tired to go to town,
and he had nothing to trade if he went, and he knew by experience that
to a farmer--even to Widow Potter--meant wood-sawing, and he
was too tired to saw wood. But he was accustomed to going without a meal
now and then, and there being nothing else to do, he tightened his belt,
made a good fire, took off his shoes, and dissected his alarm-clock. He
was reassembling it when George Rapp arrived.
George Rapp was a bluff, hearty, loud-voiced, duck-hunting liveryman.
He ran his livery-stable for a living and, like many other men in the
Mississippi valley, he lived for duck-hunting. He owned the four best
duck dogs in the county. He had traded a good horse for one of them.
Although George Rapp would not have believed it, it was a blessing
he could not hunt ducks the year around. The summer and winter months
gave him time to make money, and he was making all he needed. Some of
he had just paid for a tract of low, wooded
the section where ducks were most plentiful
in their seasons. The land
was swamp, for the most part, and all so low that the river spread
over it at every spring "rise" and often in the autumn. It was cut by a
slough (or bayou, as they are called farther south) and held a rice lake
which was no more than a widening of the slough. This piece of property,
far below the town, Rapp had bought because it was a wild-duck haunt,
and for no other reason, and after looking it over he wisely
that a shanty-boat moored in the slough would be a better hunting
than one built on the shore, where it would be flooded once, or perhaps
twice a year, the river leaving a deposit
of rich yellow mud and general
dampness each time. But Peter would not sell his boat, and Peter's boat,
new, clean and sturdy
of hull, was the boat Rapp wanted.
"I wish you wouldn't talk that way about the widow, George," said Peter,
looking out of the open door. The liveryman's team was tied to a fence
at the foot of the hills, and between the road and the railway tracks
that edged the river a wide corn-field extended. A cold drizzle half hid
where Widow Potter's low, white farmhouse, with its green
shutters, stood in the midst of a decaying apple orchard. "I wisht the
widow lived farther off. There ain't no place like this cove to winter
a boat, and when I'm here I've got to saw wood for her, and shuck corn,
and do odd jobs for her, and then she lights into me. I don't say I'm
any better than a tramp, George, but the way the widow jaws at me, and
the things she calls me, ain't right. She thinks I'm scum--just common,
scum! So that's all there is to that."
"Oh, shucks!" said George Rapp.
But Peter believed it. For five years the Widow Potter had kept a
jealous eye on Peter Lane. Tall and thin, penny-saving and hard-working,
she had been led a hard life by the late Mr. Potter, who had been
something rather worse than a brute, and since death had removed
Mr. Potter the widow had given Peter Lane the full benefit of her
experienced tongue whenever
opportunity offered. It was her way of
showing Peter unusual
attention, but Peter never suspected that when she
glared at him and told him he was a worthless, good-for-nothing loafer
and a lazy, paltering, river-rat, and a no-account, idling vagabond
she was showing him a flattering
partiality. He knew she could make him
squirm. It was Love-in-Chapped-Hands, but Mrs. Potter herself did not
know she scolded Peter because she liked him. She counted him as a poor
stick, of little account
to himself or to any one else, but what her
mind could not, her heart did recognize--that Peter was Romance. He was
a whiff of something that had never come into her life before; he was a
gentleman, a chivalrous
gentleman, a gentleman down at the heel, but a
true gentleman for all that.
"The way me and her hates each other, George, is like cats and dogs,"