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When the stranger pulled his canoe up to our settlement on Lostman's River, I knew better than to ask him his name. Folks who lived in the Ten Thousand Islands in the year 1906 pretty much minded their own business. In a place where most people were outlaws of one sort or another, it was best to wait and let a man tell you what he wanted you to know.
Quickly, without staring, I took in the details of the man's appearance. He was dressed commonly enough, in shirt, hat, trousers, and galluses, but his clothes were a lot cleaner than those of most folks who came up the river He didn't have the hard look of the plume hunters, who came shooting birds for their fancy feathers, or the smell of the gator skinners, who killed crocodiles and alligators for their hides. He didn't act shifty and jumpy, the way the moonshiners did, most of 'em half crazy from drinking the liquor they made to sell. He wasn't a Seminole Indian or a black man, either. So what was he doing poling way up Lostman's River to where we'd made our home?
"Is this the Alford place?" he called to me, squinting against the sun that was setting behind me.
"No," I answered. I didn't offer the information that the Alford place was about ten miles up the coast and then some, on the Chatham River. I didn't know the Alfords too well, but I didn't know this man at all. Why send them what might be trouble?
"Then I've lost my way," he said, sounding surprised.
I wasn't surprised. Most white folks who happened on our settlement were lost. No map I'd ever heard of could guide a person through the mazes of shell mounds, mangrove keys, hammocks, rivers, creeks, bays, andbackwaters of the Ten Thousand Islands. Only a fool would be out at near dark, trying to find his way without a Seminole guide, unless he'd lived here a long time, as we had.
It sure looked like we had a fool on our hands.
"Mama!" I called. Pa was still out cutting buttonwood. Ordinarily I'd have been with him, but I'd come back early to haul water to the tomato plants.
Mama came out of the house, wiping her hands on her apron, a deep furrow appearing between her eyes at the sight of the stranger. She stood next to me warily, watching as the man pulled his canoe up to our landing. I knew that she, too, was wondering what this man's business was.
"Go on back in the house, Carrie," she called to my little sister, who had appeared at the door.
"But Ty's outside, Mama," Carrie protested, pointing at me. "Why doesn't he have to come in the house, too?"
"Shush!" said Mama, her voice sounding high and worried.
"'Cause I'm thirteen and you're only five," I hollered. Carrie turned, sniffling, and went back into the house, and I felt mean. She didn't understand why a stranger coming made Mama and me act different. She didn't know that we were always scared someone might come here to find Pa and take him away.
"How do, ma'am," the stranger said, walking toward us and tipping his hat to Mama.
"How do you do," said Mama. She was polite, but nothing more.
The man looked me over and apparently decided I was worth a nod. I nodded back.
"My name is Frank Brewer, agent for R. J. Munroe and Company, New York City," he said.
The way he showed his teeth when he smiled made me think of a crocodile. I could tell that we were supposed to know who R. J. Munroe was, but I didn't, and I didn't think Mama did, either. Her hand flew to her mouth at the mention of New York, and I knew that she was now more worried than before.
Frank Brewer looked around. "Nice place you've got here," he said, showing all those teeth again.
"Thank you," Mama murmured.
"Is there a man around the place?" he asked.
What did he think I was? Annoyed, I said, "I'm Tyler MacCauley. And my father is--"
At that moment Pa came into sight, walking around the side of the house, stoop-shouldered and tired. Seeing the stranger, he straightened and walked quickly toward us.
Frank Brewer went through his speech again. Pa was polite, same as Mama, but quiet, waiting to see what the man wanted.
"I was looking for the Alford place," Brewer said.
"It's farther on to the north," Pa answered.
Carrie called from the doorway, "Mama?"
"I'm coming!" Mama called back. With a sharp look at Pa, she said, "Mr. Brewer's come from New York," and she turned and went into the house.
"Well," said the man, "I was going to discuss a business proposition with Luke Alford. But as long as I'm here, maybe you'd like to hear it."
Pa didn't answer, but Frank Brewer kept right on talking, anyway. "You're growing a few vegetables here, I see, but nothing much. Probably just enough for the family, is that right?"
Pa stood quietly.
"You do a little hunting, some fishing to get by. And, from the looks of it, you spend your days out in the swamps cutting buttonwood, sweating like a pig, and getting eaten by the skeeters just like a field hand, am I right?"
Pa looked as if he had turned to stone.
'And you'll haul it out to the nearest trading post--Storter's or Brown's, most likely--and get what? Three dollars a cord, if you're lucky."
Pa's face, already reddened by the south Florida sun, flushed deeper with anger. Couldn't this fool see it...