When Freckles started for the trail next morning, the shining new specimen-box flashed on his back. The black "chicken," a mere speck in the blue, caught the gleam of it. The folded net hung beside the boy's hatchet, and the bird book was in the box. He walked the line and tested each section scrupulously, watching every foot of the trail, for he was determined not to slight his work; but if ever a boy "made haste slowly" in a hurry, it was Freckles that morning. When at last he reached the space he had cleared and planted around his case, his heart swelled with the pride of possessing even so much that he could call his own, while his quick eyes feasted on the beauty of it.
He had made a large room with the door of the case set even with one side of it. On three sides, fine big bushes of wild rose climbed to the lower branches of the trees. Part of his walls were mallow, part alder, thorn, willow, and dogwood. Below there filled in a solid mass of pale pink sheep-laurel, and yellow St. John's wort, while the amber threads of the dodder interlaced everywhere. At one side the swamp came close, here cattails grew in profusion. In front of them he had planted a row of water-hyacinths without disturbing in the least the state of their azure bloom, and where the ground arose higher for his floor, a row of foxfire, that soon would be open.
To the left he had discovered a queer natural arrangement of the trees, that grew to giant size and were set in a gradually narrowing space so that a long, open vista stretched away until lost in the dim recesses of the swamp. A little trimming of underbush, rolling of dead logs, levelling of floor and carpeting with moss, made it easy to understand why Freckles had named this the "cathedral"; yet he never had been taught that "the groves were God's first temples."
On either side of the trees that constituted the first arch of this dim vista of the swamp he planted ferns that grew waist-high thus early in the season, and so skilfully the work had been done that not a frond drooped because of the change. Opposite, he cleared a space and made a flower bed. He filled one end with every delicate, lacy vine and fern he could transplant successfully. The body of the bed was a riot of color. Here he set growing dainty blue-eyed-Marys and blue-eyed grass side by side. He planted harebells; violets, blue, white, and yellow; wild geranium, cardinal-flower, columbine, pink snake's mouth, buttercups, painted trilliums, and orchis. Here were blood-root, moccasin-flower, hepatica, pitcher-plant, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and every other flower of the Limberlost that was in bloom or bore a bud presaging a flower. Every day saw the addition of new specimens. The place would have driven a botanist wild with envy.
On the line side he left the bushes thick for concealment, entering by a narrow path he and Duncan had cleared in setting up the case. He called this the front door, though he used every precaution to hide it. He built rustic seats between several of the trees, leveled the floor, and thickly carpeted it with rank, heavy, woolly-dog moss. Around the case he planted wild clematis, bittersweet, and wild-grapevines, and trained them over it until it was almost covered. Every day he planted new flowers, cut back rough bushes, and coaxed out graceful ones. His pride in his room was very great, but he had no idea how surprisingly beautiful it would appear to anyone who had not witnessed its growth and construction.
This morning Freckles walked straight to his case, unlocked it, and set his apparatus and dinner inside. He planted a new specimen he had found close the trail, and, bringing his old scrap-bucket from the corner in which it was hidden, from a near-by pool he dipped water to pour over his carpet and flowers.
Then he took out the bird book, settled comfortably on a bench, and with a deep sigh of satisfaction turned to the section headed. "V." Past "veery" and "vireo" he went, down the line until his finger, trembling with eagerness, stopped at "vulture."
"'Great black California vulture,'" he read.
"Humph! This side the Rockies will do for us."
"Well, we ain't hunting common turkeys. McLean said chickens, and what he says goes."
"'Black vulture of the South.'"
"Here we are arrived at once."
Freckles' finger followed the line, and he read scraps aloud.
"'Common in the South. Sometimes called Jim Crow. Nearest equivalent to C-a-t-h-a-r-t-e-s A-t-r-a-t-a.'"
"How the divil am I ever to learn them corkin' big words by mesel'?"
"'—the Pharaoh's Chickens of European species. Sometimes stray north as far as Virginia and Kentucky——'"
"And sometimes farther," interpolated Freckles, "'cos I got them right here in Indiana so like these pictures I can just see me big chicken bobbing up to get his ears boxed. Hey?"
"Golly! I got to be seeing them!"
"'—big as a common turkey's, but shaped like a hen's, heavily splotched with chocolate——'"
"Caramels, I suppose. And——"
"'—in hollow logs or stumps.'"
"Oh, hagginy! Wasn't I barking up the wrong tree, though? Ought to been looking close the ground all this time. Now it's all to do over, and I suspect the sooner I start the sooner I'll be likely to find them."
Freckles put away his book, dampened the smudge-fire, without which the mosquitoes made the swamp almost unbearable, took his cudgel and lunch, and went to the line. He sat on a log, ate at dinner-time and drank his last drop of water. The heat of June was growing intense. Even on the west of the swamp, where one had full benefit of the breeze from the upland, it was beginning to be unpleasant in the middle of the day.
He brushed the crumbs from his knees and sat resting awhile and watching the sky to see if his big chicken were hanging up there. But he came to the earth abruptly, for there were steps coming down the trail that were neither McLean's nor Duncan's—and there never had been others. Freckles' heart leaped hotly. He ran a quick hand over his belt to feel if his revolver and hatchet were there, caught up his cudgel and laid it across his knees—then sat quietly, waiting. Was it Black Jack, or someone even worse? Forced to do something to brace his nerves, he puckered his stiffening lips and began whistling a tune he had led in his clear tenor every year of his life at the Home Christmas exercises.
"Who comes this way, so blithe and gay, Upon a merry Christmas day?"
His quick Irish wit roused to the ridiculousness of it until he broke into a laugh that steadied him amazingly.
Through the bushes he caught a glimpse of the oncoming figure. His heart flooded with joy, for it was a man from the gang. Wessner had been his bunk-mate the night he came down the corduroy. He knew him as well as any of McLean's men. This was no timber-thief. No doubt the Boss had sent him with a message. Freckles sprang up and called cheerily, a warm welcome on his face.
"Well, it's good telling if you're glad to see me," said Wessner, with something very like a breath of relief. "We been hearing down at the camp you were so mighty touchy you didn't allow a man within a rod of the line."
"No more do I," answered Freckles, "if he's a stranger, but you're from McLean, ain't you?"
"Oh, damn McLean!" said Wessner.
Freckles gripped the cudgel until his knuckles slowly turned purple.
"And are you railly saying so?" he inquired with elaborate politeness.
"Yes, I am," said Wessner. "So would every man of the gang if they wasn't too big cowards to say anything, unless maybe that other slobbering old Scotchman, Duncan. Grinding the lives out of us! Working us like dogs, and paying us starvation wages, while he rolls up his millions and lives like a prince!"
Green lights began to play through the gray of Freckles' eyes.
"Wessner," he said impressively, "you'd make a fine pattern for the father of liars! Every man on that gang is strong and hilthy, paid all he earns, and treated with the courtesy of a gentleman! As for the Boss living like a prince, he shares fare with you every day of your lives!"
Wessner was not a born diplomat, but he saw he was on the wrong tack, so he tried another.
"How would you like to make a good big pile of money, without even lifting your hand?" he asked.
"Humph!" said Freckles. "Have you been up to Chicago and cornered wheat, and are you offering me a friendly tip on the invistment of me fortune?"
Wessner came close.
"Freckles, old fellow," he said, "if you let me give you a pointer, I can put you on to making a cool five hundred without stepping out of your tracks."
Freckles drew back.
"You needn't be afraid of speaking up," he said. "There isn't a soul in the Limberlost save the birds and the beasts, unless some of your sort's come along and's crowding the privileges of the legal tinints."
"None of my friends along," said Wessner. "Nobody knew I came but Black, I—I mean a friend of mine. If you want to hear sense and act with reason, he can see you later, but it ain't necessary. We can make all the plans needed. The trick's so dead small and easy."
"Must be if you have the engineering of it," said Freckles. But he heard, with a sigh of relief, that they were alone.
Wessner was impervious. "You just bet it is! Why, only think, Freckles, slavin' away at a measly little thirty dollars a month, and here is a chance to clear five hundred in a day! You surely won't be the fool to miss it!"
"And how was you proposing for me to stale it?" inquired Freckles. "Or am I just to find it laying in me path beside the line?"
"That's it, Freckles," blustered the Dutchman, "you're just to find it. You needn't do a thing. You needn't know a thing. You name a morning when you will walk up the west side of the swamp and then turn round and walk back down the same side again and the money is yours. Couldn't anything be easier than that, could it?"
"Depinds entirely on the man," said Freckles. The lilt of a lark hanging above the swale beside them was not sweeter than the sweetness of his voice. "To some it would seem to come aisy as breathing; and to some, wringin' the last drop of their heart's blood couldn't force thim! I'm not the man that goes into a scheme like that with the blindfold over me eyes, for, you see, it manes to break trust with the Boss; and I've served him faithful as I knew. You'll have to be making the thing very clear to me understanding."
"It's so dead easy," repeated Wessner, "it makes me tired of the simpleness of it. You see there's a few trees in the swamp that's real gold mines. There's three especial. Two are back in, but one's square on the line. Why, your pottering old Scotch fool of a Boss nailed the wire to it with his own hands! He never noticed where the bark had been peeled, or saw what it was. If you will stay on this side of the trail just one day we can have it cut, loaded, and ready to drive out at night. Next morning you can find it, report, and be the busiest man in the search for us. We know where to fix it all safe and easy. Then McLean has a bet up with a couple of the gang that there can't be a raw stump found in the Limberlost. There's plenty of witnesses to swear to it, and I know three that will. There's a cool thousand, and this tree is worth all of that, raw. Say, it's a gold mine, I tell you, and just five hundred of it is yours. There's no danger on earth to you, for you've got McLean that bamboozled you could sell out the whole swamp and he'd never mistrust you. What do you say?"
Freckles' soul was satisfied. "Is that all?" he asked.
"No, it ain't," said Wessner. "If you really want to brace up and be a man and go into the thing for keeps, you can make five times that in a week. My friend knows a dozen others we could get out in a few days, and all you'd have to do would be to keep out of sight. Then you could take your money and skip some night, and begin life like a gentleman somewhere else. What do you think about it?"
Freckles purred like a kitten.
"'Twould be a rare joke on the Boss," he said, "to be stalin' from him the very thing he's trusted me to guard, and be getting me wages all winter throwed in free. And you're making the pay awful high. Me to be getting five hundred for such a simple little thing as that. You're trating me most royal indade! It's away beyond all I'd be expecting. Sivinteen cints would be a big price for that job. It must be looked into thorough. Just you wait here until I do a minute's turn in the swamp, and then I'll be eschorting you out of the clearing and giving you the answer."
Freckles lifted the overhanging bushes and hurried to the case. He unslung the specimen-box and laid it inside with his hatchet and revolver. He slipped the key in his pocket and went back to Wessner.
"Now for the answer," he said. "Stand up!"
There was iron in his voice, and he was commanding as an outraged general. "Anything, you want to be taking off?" he questioned.
Wessner looked the astonishment he felt. "Why, no, Freckles," he said.
"Have the goodness to be calling me Mister McLean," snapped Freckles. "I'm after resarvin' me pet name for the use of me friends! You may stand with your back to the light or be taking any advantage you want."
"Why, what do you mean?" spluttered Wessner.
"I'm manin'," said Freckles tersely, "to lick a quarter-section of hell out of you, and may the Holy Vargin stay me before I leave you here carrion, for your carcass would turn the stummicks of me chickens!"
At the camp that morning, Wessner's conduct had been so palpable an excuse to force a discharge that Duncan moved near McLean and whispered, "Think of the boy, sir?"
McLean was so troubled that, an hour later, he mounted Nellie and followed Wessner to his home in Wildcat Hollow, only to find that he had left there shortly before, heading for the Limberlost. McLean rode at top speed. When Mrs. Duncan told him that a man answering Wessner's description had gone down the west side of the swamp close noon, he left the mare in her charge and followed on foot. When he heard voices he entered the swamp and silently crept close just in time to hear Wessner whine: "But I can't fight you, Freckles. I hain't done nothing to you. I'm away bigger than you, and you've only one hand."
The Boss slid off his coat and crouched among the bushes, ready to spring; but as Freckles' voice reached him he held himself, with a strong effort, to learn what mettle was in the boy.
"Don't you be wasting of me good time in the numbering of me hands," cried Freckles. "The stringth of me cause will make up for the weakness of me mimbers, and the size of a cowardly thief doesn't count. You'll think all the wildcats of the Limberlost are turned loose on you whin I come against you, and as for me cause——I slept with you, Wessner, the night I came down the corduroy like a dirty, friendless tramp, and the Boss was for taking me up, washing, clothing, and feeding me, and giving me a home full of love and tinderness, and a master to look to, and good, well-earned money in the bank. He's trusting me his heartful, and here comes you, you spotted toad of the big road, and insults me, as is an honest Irish gintleman, by hinting that you concaive I'd be willing to shut me eyes and hold fast while you rob him of the thing I was set and paid to guard, and then act the sneak and liar to him, and ruin and eternally blacken the soul of me. You damned rascal," raved Freckles, "be fighting before I forget the laws of a gintlemin's game and split your dirty head with me stick!"
Wessner backed away, mumbling, "But I don't want to hurt you, Freckles!"
"Oh, don't you!" raged the boy, now fairly frothing. "Well, you ain't resembling me none, for I'm itching like death to git me fingers in the face of you."
He danced up, and as Wessner lunged in self-defense, ducked under his arm as a bantam and punched him in the pit of the stomach so that he doubled with a groan. Before Wessner could straighten himself, Freckles was on him, fighting like the wildest fury that ever left the beautiful island. The Dutchman dealt thundering blows that sometimes landed and sent Freckles reeling, and sometimes missed, while he went plunging into the swale with the impetus of them. Freckles could not strike with half Wessner's force, but he could land three blows to the Dutchman's one. It was here that the boy's days of alert watching on the line, the perpetual swinging of the heavy cudgel, and the endurance of all weather stood him in good stead; for he was tough, and agile. He skipped, ducked, and dodged. For the first five minutes he endured fearful punishment. Then Wessner's breath commenced to whistle between his teeth, when Freckles only had begun fighting. He sprang back with shrill laughter.
"Begolly! and will your honor be whistling the hornpipe for me to be dancing of?" he cried.
SPANG! went his fist into Wessner's face, and he was past him into the swale.
"And would you be pleased to tune up a little livelier?" he gasped, and clipped his ear as he sprang back. Wessner lunged at him in blind fury. Freckles, seeing an opening, forgot the laws of a gentleman's game and drove the toe of his heavy wading-boot in Wessner's middle until he doubled and fell heavily. In a flash Freckles was on him. For a time McLean could not see what was happening. "Go! Go to him now!" he commanded himself, but so intense was his desire to see the boy win alone that he did not stir.
At last Freckles sprang up and backed away. "Time!" he yelled as a fury. "Be getting up, Mr. Wessner, and don't be afraid of hurting me. I'll let you throw in an extra hand and lick you to me complate satisfaction all the same. Did you hear me call the limit? Will you get up and be facing me?"
As Wessner struggled to his feet, he resembled a battlefield, for his clothing was in ribbons and his face and hands streaming blood.
"I—I guess I got enough," he mumbled.
"Oh, you do?" roared Freckles. "Well this ain't your say. You come on to me ground, lying about me Boss and intimatin' I'd stale from his very pockets. Now will you be standing up and taking your medicine like a man, or getting it poured down the throat of you like a baby? I ain't got enough! This is only just the beginning with me. Be looking out there!"
He sprang against Wessner and sent him rolling. He attacked the unresisting figure and fought him until he lay limp and quiet and Freckles had no strength left to lift an arm. Then he arose and stepped back, gasping for breath. With his first lungful of air he shouted: "Time!" But the figure of Wessner lay motionless.
Freckles watched him with regardful eye and saw at last that he was completely exhausted. He bent over him, and catching him by the back of the neck, jerked him to his knees. Wessner lifted the face of a whipped cur, and fearing further punishment, burst into shivering sobs, while the tears washed tiny rivulets through the blood and muck. Freckles stepped back, glaring at Wessner, but suddenly the scowl of anger and the ugly disfiguring red faded from the boy's face. He dabbed at a cut on his temple from which issued a tiny crimson stream, and jauntily shook back his hair. His face took on the innocent look of a cherub, and his voice rivaled that of a brooding dove, but into his eyes crept a look of diabolical mischief.
He glanced vaguely around him until he saw his club, seized and twirled it as a drum major, stuck it upright in the muck, and marched on tiptoe to Wessner, mechanically, as a puppet worked by a string. Bending over, Freckles reached an arm around Wessner's waist and helped him to his feet.
"Careful, now" he cautioned, "be careful, Freddy; there's danger of you hurting me."
Drawing a handkerchief from a back pocket, Freckles tenderly wiped Wessner's eyes and nose.
"Come, Freddy, me child," he admonished Wessner, "it's time little boys were going home. I've me work to do, and can't be entertaining you any more today. Come back tomorrow, if you ain't through yet, and we'll repate the perfarmance. Don't be staring at me so wild like! I would eat you, but I can't afford it. Me earnings, being honest, come slow, and I've no money to be squanderin' on the pailful of Dyspeptic's Delight it would be to taking to work you out of my innards!"
Again an awful wrenching seized McLean. Freckles stepped back as Wessner, tottering and reeling, as a thoroughly drunken man, came toward the path, appearing indeed as if wildcats had attacked him.
The cudgel spun high in air, and catching it with an expertness acquired by long practice on the line, the boy twirled it a second, shook back his thick hair bonnily, and stepping into the trail, followed Wessner. Because Freckles was Irish, it was impossible to do it silently, so presently his clear tenor rang out, though there were bad catches where he was hard pressed for breath:
"It was the Dutch. It was the Dutch. Do you think it was the Irish hollered help? Not much! It was the Dutch. It was the Dutch——"
Wessner turned and mumbled: "What you following me for? What are you going to do with me?"
Freckles called the Limberlost to witness: "How's that for the ingratitude of a beast? And me troubling mesilf to show him off me territory with the honors of war!"
Then he changed his tone completely and added: "Belike it's this, Freddy. You see, the Boss might come riding down this trail any minute, and the little mare's so wheedlesome that if she'd come on to you in your prisint state all of a sudden, she'd stop that short she'd send Mr. McLean out over the ears of her. No disparagement intinded to the sinse of the mare!" he added hastily.
Wessner belched a fearful oath, while Freckles laughed merrily.
"That's a sample of the thanks a generous act's always for getting," he continued. "Here's me neglictin' me work to eschort you out proper, and you saying such awful words Freddy," he demanded sternly, "do you want me to soap out your mouth? You don't seem to be realizing it, but if you was to buck into Mr. McLean in your prisint state, without me there to explain matters the chance is he'd cut the liver out of you; and I shouldn't think you'd be wanting such a fine gintleman as him to see that it's white!"
Wessner grew ghastly under his grime and broke into a staggering run.
"And now will you be looking at the manners of him?" questioned Freckles plaintively. "Going without even a 'thank you,' right in the face of all the pains I've taken to make it interesting for him!"
Freckles twirled the club and stood as a soldier at attention until Wessner left the clearing, but it was the last scene of that performance. When the boy turned, there was deathly illness on his face, while his legs wavered beneath his weight. He staggered to the case, and opening it he took out a piece of cloth. He dipped it into the water, and sitting on a bench, he wiped the blood and grime from his face, while his breath sucked between his clenched teeth. He was shivering with pain and excitement in spite of himself. He unbuttoned the band of his right sleeve, and turning it back, exposed the blue-lined, calloused whiteness of his maimed arm, now vividly streaked with contusions, while in a series of circular dots the blood oozed slowly. Here Wessner had succeeded in setting his teeth. When Freckles saw what it was he forgave himself the kick in the pit of Wessner's stomach, and cursed fervently and deep.
"Freckles, Freckles," said McLean's voice.
Freckles snatched down his sleeve and arose to his feet.
"Excuse me, sir," he said. "You'll surely be belavin' I thought meself alone."
McLean pushed him carefully to the seat, and bending over him, opened a pocket-case that he carried as regularly as his revolver and watch, for cuts and bruises were of daily occurrence among the gang.
Taking the hurt arm, he turned back the sleeve and bathed and bound the wounds. He examined Freckles' head and body and convinced himself that there was no permanent injury, although the cruelty of the punishment the boy had borne set the Boss shuddering. Then he closed the case, shoved it into his pocket, and sat beside Freckles. All the indescribable beauty of the place was strong around him, but he saw only the bruised face of the suffering boy, who had hedged for the information he wanted as a diplomat, argued as a judge, fought as a sheik, and triumphed as a devil.
When the pain lessened and breath relieved Freckles' pounding heart, he watched the Boss covertly. How had McLean gotten there and how long had he been there? Freckles did not dare ask. At last he arose, and going to the case, took out his revolver and the wire-mending apparatus and locked the door. Then he turned to McLean.
"Have you any orders, sir?" he asked.
"Yes," said McLean, "I have, and you are to follow them to the letter. Turn over that apparatus to me and go straight home. Soak yourself in the hottest bath your skin will bear and go to bed at once. Now hurry."
"Mr. McLean," said Freckles, "it's sorry I am to be telling you, but the afternoon's walking of the line ain't done. You see, I was just for getting to me feet to start, and I was on time, when up came a gintleman, and we got into a little heated argument. It's either settled, or it's just begun, but between us, I'm that late I haven't started for the afternoon yet. I must be going at once, for there's a tree I must find before the day's over."
"You plucky little idiot," growled McLean. "You can't walk the line! I doubt if you can reach Duncan's. Don't you know when you are done up? You go to bed; I'll finish your work."
"Niver!" protested Freckles. "I was just a little done up for the prisint, a minute ago. I'm all right now. Riding-boots are far too low. The day's hot and the walk a good seven miles, sir. Niver!"
As he reached for the outfit he pitched forward and his eyes closed. McLean stretched him on the moss and applied restoratives. When Freckles returned to consciousness, McLean ran to the cabin to tell Mrs. Duncan to have a hot bath ready, and to bring Nellie. That worthy woman promptly filled the wash-boiler, starting a roaring fire under it. She pushed the horse-trough from its base and rolled it to the kitchen.
By the time McLean came again, leading Nelie and holding Freckles on her back, Mrs. Duncan was ready for business. She and the Boss laid Freckles in the trough and poured on hot water until he squirmed. They soaked and massaged him. Then they drew off the hot water and closed his pores with cold. Lastly they stretched him on the floor and chafed, rubbed, and kneaded him until he cried out for mercy. As they rolled him into bed, his eyes dropped shut, but a little later they flared open.
"Mr. McLean," he cried, "the tree! Oh, do be looking after the tree!"
McLean bent over him. "Which tree, Freckles?"
"I don't know exact sir; but it's on the east line, and the wire is fastened to it. He bragged that you nailed it yourself, sir. You'll know it by the bark having been laid open to the grain somewhere low down. Five hundred dollars he offered me—to be—selling you out—sir!"
Freckles' head rolled over and his eyes dropped shut. McLean towered above the lad. His bright hair waved on the pillow. His face was swollen, and purple with bruises. His left arm, with the hand battered almost out of shape, stretched beside him, and the right, with no hand at all, lay across a chest that was a mass of purple welts. McLean's mind traveled to the night, almost a year before, when he had engaged Freckles, a stranger.
The Boss bent, covering the hurt arm with one hand and laying the other with a caress on the boy's forehead. Freckles stirred at his touch, and whispered as softly as the swallows under the eaves: "If you're coming this way—tomorrow—be pleased to step over—and we'll repate—the chorus softly!"
"Bless the gritty devil," muttered McLean.
Then he went out and told Mrs. Duncan to keep close watch on Freckles, also to send Duncan to him at the swamp the minute he came home. Following the trail to the line and back to the scent of the fight, the Boss entered Freckles' study quietly, as if his spirit, keeping there, might be roused, and gazed around with astonished eyes.
How had the boy conceived it? What a picture he had wrought in living colors! He had the heart of a painter. He had the soul of a poet. The Boss stepped carefully over the velvet carpet to touch the walls of crisp verdure with gentle fingers. He stood long beside the flower bed, and gazed at the banked wall of bright bloom as if he doubted its reality.
Where had Freckles ever found, and how had he transplanted such ferns? As McLean turned from them he stopped suddenly.
He had reached the door of the cathedral. That which Freckles had attempted would have been patent to anyone. What had been in the heart of the shy, silent boy when he had found that long, dim stretch of forest, decorated its entrance, cleared and smoothed its aisle, and carpeted its altar? What veriest work of God was in these mighty living pillars and the arched dome of green! How similar to stained cathedral windows were the long openings between the trees, filled with rifts of blue, rays of gold, and the shifting emerald of leaves! Where could be found mosaics to match this aisle paved with living color and glowing light? Was Freckles a devout Christian, and did he worship here? Or was he an untaught heathen, and down this vista of entrancing loveliness did Pan come piping, and dryads, nymphs, and fairies dance for him?
Who can fathom the heart of a boy? McLean had been thinking of Freckles as a creature of unswerving honesty, courage, and faithfulness. Here was evidence of a heart aching for beauty, art, companionship, worship. It was writ large all over the floor, walls, and furnishing of that little Limberlost clearing.
When Duncan came, McLean told him the story of the fight, and they laughed until they cried. Then they started around the line in search of the tree.
Said Duncan: "Now the boy is in for sore trouble!"
"I hope not," answered McLean. "You never in all your life saw a cur whipped so completely. He won't come back for the repetition of the chorus. We surely can find the tree. If we can't, Freckles can. I will bring enough of the gang to take it out at once. That will insure peace for a time, at least, and I am hoping that in a month more the whole gang may be moved here. It soon will be fall, and then, if he will go, I intend to send Freckles to my mother to be educated. With his quickness of mind and body and a few years' good help he can do anything. Why, Duncan, I'd give a hundred-dollar bill if you could have been here and seen for yourself."
"Yes, and I'd 'a' done murder," muttered the big teamster. "I hope, sir, ye will make good your plans for Freckles, though I'd as soon see ony born child o' my ain taken from our home. We love the lad, me and Sarah."
Locating the tree was easy, because it was so well identified. When the rumble of the big lumber wagons passing the cabin on the way to the swamp wakened Freckles next morning, he sprang up and was soon following them. He was so sore and stiff that every movement was torture at first, but he grew easier, and shortly did not suffer so much. McLean scolded him for coming, yet in his heart triumphed over every new evidence of fineness in the boy.
The tree was a giant maple, and so precious that they almost dug it out by the roots. When it was down, cut in lengths, and loaded, there was yet an empty wagon. As they were gathering up their tools to go, Duncan said: "There's a big hollow tree somewhere mighty close here that I've been wanting for a watering-trough for my stock; the one I have is so small. The Portland company cut this for elm butts last year, and it's six feet diameter and hollow for forty feet. It was a buster! While the men are here and there is an empty wagon, why mightn't I load it on and tak' it up to the barn as we pass?"
McLean said he was very willing, ordered the driver to break line and load the log, detailing men to assist. He told Freckles to ride on a section of the maple with him, but now the boy asked to enter the swamp with Duncan.
"I don't see why you want to go," said McLean. "I have no business to let you out today at all."
"It's me chickens," whispered Freckles in distress. "You see, I was just after finding yesterday, from me new book, how they do be nesting in hollow trees, and there ain't any too many in the swamp. There's just a chance that they might be in that one."
"Go ahead," said McLean. "That's a different story. If they happen to be there, why tell Duncan he must give up the tree until they have finished with it."
Then he climbed on a wagon and was driven away. Freckles hurried into the swamp. He was a little behind, yet he could see the men. Before he overtook them, they had turned from the west road and had entered the swamp toward the east.
They stopped at the trunk of a monstrous prostrate log. It had been cut three feet from the ground, over three-fourths of the way through, and had fallen toward the east, the body of the log still resting on the stump. The underbrush was almost impenetrable, but Duncan plunged in and with a crowbar began tapping along the trunk to decide how far it was hollow, so that they would know where to cut. As they waited his decision, there came from the mouth of it—on wings—a large black bird that swept over their heads.
Freckles danced wildly. "It's me chickens! Oh, it's me chickens!" he shouted. "Oh, Duncan, come quick! You've found the nest of me precious chickens!"
Duncan hurried to the mouth of the log, but Freckles was before him. He crashed through poison-vines and underbrush regardless of any danger, and climbed on the stump. When Duncan came he was shouting like a wild man.
"It's hatched!" he yelled. "Oh, me big chicken has hatched out me little chicken, and there's another egg. I can see it plain, and oh, the funny little white baby! Oh, Duncan, can you see me little white chicken?"
Duncan could easily see it; so could everyone else. Freckles crept into the log and tenderly carried the hissing, blinking little bird to the light in a leaf-lined hat. The men found it sufficiently wonderful to satisfy even Freckles, who had forgotten he was ever sore or stiff, and coddled over it with every blarneying term of endearment he knew.
Duncan gathered his tools. "Deal's off, boys!" he said cheerfully. "This log mauna be touched until Freckles' chaukies have finished with it. We might as weel gang. Better put it back, Freckles. It's just out, and it may chill. Ye will probably hae twa the morn."
Freckles crept into the log and carefully deposited the baby beside the egg. When he came back, he said: "I made a big mistake not to be bringing the egg out with the baby, but I was fearing to touch it. It's shaped like a hen's egg, and it's big as a turkey's, and the beautifulest blue—just splattered with big brown splotches, like me book said, precise. Bet you never saw such a sight as it made on the yellow of the rotten wood beside that funny leathery-faced little white baby."
"Tell you what, Freckles," said one of the teamsters. "Have you ever heard of this Bird Woman who goes all over the country with a camera and makes pictures? She made some on my brother Jim's place last summer, and Jim's so wild about them he quits plowing and goes after her about every nest he finds. He helps her all he can to take them, and then she gives him a picture. Jim's so proud of what he has he keeps them in the Bible. He shows them to everybody that comes, and brags about how he helped. If you're smart, you'll send for her and she'll come and make a picture just like life. If you help her, she will give you one. It would be uncommon pretty to keep, after your birds are gone. I dunno what they are. I never see their like before. They must be something rare. Any you fellows ever see a bird like that hereabouts?"
No one ever had.
"Well," said the teamster, "failing to get this log lets me off till noon, and I'm going to town. I go right past her place. I've a big notion to stop and tell her. If she drives straight back in the swamp on the west road, and turns east at this big sycamore, she can't miss finding the tree, even if Freckles ain't here to show her. Jim says her work is a credit to the State she lives in, and any man is a measly creature who isn't willing to help her all he can. My old daddy used to say that all there was to religion was doing to the other fellow what you'd want him to do to you, and if I was making a living taking bird pictures, seems to me I'd be mighty glad for a chance to take one like that. So I'll just stop and tell her, and by gummy! maybe she will give me a picture of the little white sucker for my trouble."
Freckles touched his arm.
"Will she be rough with it?" he asked.
"Government land! No!" said the teamster. "She's dead down on anybody that shoots a bird or tears up a nest. Why, she's half killing herself in all kinds of places and weather to teach people to love and protect the birds. She's that plum careful of them that Jim's wife says she has Jim a standin' like a big fool holding an ombrelly over them when they are young and tender until she gets a focus, whatever that is. Jim says there ain't a bird on his place that don't actually seem to like having her around after she has wheedled them a few days, and the pictures she takes nobody would ever believe who didn't stand by and see."
"Will you he sure to tell her to come?" asked Freckles.
Duncan slept at home that night. He heard Freckles slipping out early the next morning, but he was too sleepy to wonder why, until he came to do his morning chores. When he found that none of his stock was at all thirsty, and saw the water-trough brimming, he knew that the boy was trying to make up to him for the loss of the big trough that he had been so anxious to have.
"Bless his fool little hot heart!" said Duncan. "And him so sore it is tearing him to move for anything. Nae wonder he has us all loving him!"
Freckles was moving briskly, and his heart was so happy that he forgot all about the bruises. He hurried around the trail, and on his way down the east side he went to see the chickens. The mother bird was on the nest. He was afraid the other egg might be hatching, so he did not venture to disturb her. He made the round and reached his study early. He ate his lunch, but did not need to start on the second trip until the middle of the afternoon. He would have long hours to work on his flower bed, improve his study, and learn about his chickens. Lovingly he set his room in order and watered the flowers and carpet. He had chosen for his resting-place the coolest spot on the west side, where there was almost always a breeze; but today the heat was so intense that it penetrated even there.
"I'm mighty glad there's nothing calling me inside!" he said. "There's no bit of air stirring, and it will just be steaming. Oh, but it's luck Duncan found the nest before it got so unbearing hot! I might have missed it altogether. Wouldn't it have been a shame to lose that sight? The cunning little divil! When he gets to toddling down that log to meet me, won't he be a circus? Wonder if he'll be as graceful a performer afoot as his father and mother?"
The heat became more insistent. Noon came; Freckles ate his dinner and settled for an hour or two on a bench with a book.
Wherein an Angel Materializes and a Man Worships
Perhaps there was a breath of sound—Freckles never afterward could remember—but for some reason he lifted his head as the bushes parted and the face of an angel looked between. Saints, nymphs, and fairies had floated down his cathedral aisle for him many times, with forms and voices of exquisite beauty.
Parting the wild roses at the entrance was beauty of which Freckles never had dreamed. Was it real or would it vanish as the other dreams? He dropped his book, and rising to his feet, went a step closer, gazing intently. This was real flesh and blood. It was in every way kin to the Limberlost, for no bird of its branches swung with easier grace than this dainty young thing rocked on the bit of morass on which she stood. A sapling beside her was not straighter or rounder than her slender form. Her soft, waving hair clung around her face from the heat, and curled over her shoulders. It was all of one piece with the gold of the sun that filtered between the branches. Her eyes were the deepest blue of the iris, her lips the reddest red of the foxfire, while her cheeks were exactly of the same satin as the wild rose petals caressing them. She was smiling at Freckles in perfect confidence, and she cried:
"Oh, I'm so delighted that I've found you!"
The wildly leaping heart of Freckles burst from his body and fell in the black swamp-muck at her feet with such a thud that he did not understand how she could avoid hearing. He really felt that if she looked down she would see.
Incredulous, he quavered: "An'—an' was you looking for me?"
"I hoped I might find you," said the Angel. "You see, I didn't do as I was told, and I'm lost. The Bird Woman said I should wait in the carriage until she came back. She's been gone hours. It's a perfect Turkish bath in there, and I'm all lumpy with mosquito bites. Just when I thought that I couldn't bear it another minute, along came the biggest Papilio Ajax you ever saw. I knew how pleased she'd be, so I ran after it. It flew so slow and so low that I thought a dozen times I had it. Then all at once it went from sight above the trees, and I couldn't find my way back to save me. I think I've walked more than an hour. I have been mired to my knees. A thorn raked my arm until it is bleeding, and I'm so tired and warm."
She parted the bushes farther. Freckles saw that her blue cotton frock clung to her, limp with perspiration. It was torn across the breast. One sleeve hung open from shoulder to elbow. A thorn had torn her arm until it was covered with blood, and the gnats and mosquitoes were clustering around it. Her feet were in lace hose and low shoes. Freckles gasped. In the Limberlost in low shoes! He caught an armful of moss from his carpet and buried it in the ooze in front of her for a footing.
"Come out here so I can see where you are stepping. Quick, for the life of you!" he ordered.
She smiled on him indulgently.
"Why?" she inquired.
"Did anybody let you come here and not be telling you of the snakes?" urged Freckles.
"We met Mr. McLean on the corduroy, and he did say something about snakes, I believe. The Bird Woman put on leather leggings, and a nice, parboiled time she must be having! Worst dose I ever endured, and I'd nothing to do but swelter."
"Will you be coming out of there?" groaned Freckles.
She laughed as if it were a fine joke.
"Maybe if I'd be telling you I killed a rattler curled upon that same place you're standing, as long as me body and the thickness of me arm, you'd be moving where I can see your footing," he urged insistently.
"What a perfectly delightful little brogue you speak," she said. "My father is Irish, and half should be enough to entitle me to that much. 'Maybe—if I'd—be telling you,'" she imitated, rounding and accenting each word carefully.
Freckles was beginning to feel a wildness in his head. He had derided Wessner at that same hour yesterday. Now his own eyes were filling with tears.
"If you were understanding the danger!" he continued desperately.
"Oh, I don't think there is much!"
She tilted on the morass.
"If you killed one snake here, it's probably all there is near; and anyway, the Bird Woman says a rattlesnake is a gentleman and always gives warning before he strikes. I don't hear any rattling. Do you?"
"Would you be knowing it if you did?" asked Freckles, almost impatiently.
How the laugh of the young thing rippled!
"'Would I be knowing it?'" she mocked. "You should see the swamps of Michigan where they dump rattlers from the marl-dredgers three and four at a time!"
Freckles stood astounded. She did know. She was not in the least afraid. She was depending on a rattlesnake to live up to his share of the contract and rattle in time for her to move. The one characteristic an Irishman admires in a woman, above all others, is courage. Freckles worshiped anew. He changed his tactics.
"I'd be pleased to be receiving you at me front door," he said, "but as you have arrived at the back, will you come in and be seated?"
He waved toward a bench. The Angel came instantly.
"Oh, how lovely and cool!" she cried.
As she moved across his room, Freckles had difficult work to keep from falling on his knees; for they were very weak, while he was hard driven by an impulse to worship.
"Did you arrange this?" she asked.
"Yis," said Freckles simply.
"Someone must come with a big canvas and copy each side of it," she said. "I never saw anything so beautiful! How I wish I might remain here with you! I will, some day, if you will let me; but now, if you can spare the time, will you help me find the carriage? If the Bird Woman comes back and I am gone, she will be almost distracted."
"Did you come on the west road?" asked Freckles.
"I think so," she said. "The man who told the Bird Woman said that was the only place the wires were down. We drove away in, and it was dreadful—over stumps and logs, and we mired to the hubs. I suppose you know, though. I should have stayed in the carriage, but I was so tired. I never dreamed of getting lost. I suspect I will be scolded finely. I go with the Bird Woman half the time during the summer vacations. My father says I learn a lot more than I do at school, and get it straight. I never came within a smell of being lost before. I thought, at first, it was going to be horrid; but since I've found you, maybe it will be good fun after all."
Freckles was amazed to hear himself excusing: "It was so hot in there. You couldn't be expected to bear it for hours and not be moving. I can take you around the trail almost to where you were. Then you can sit in the carriage, and I will go find the Bird Woman."
"You'll be killed if you do! When she stays this long, it means that she has a focus on something. You see, when she has a focus, and lies in the weeds and water for hours, and the sun bakes her, and things crawl over her, and then someone comes along and scares her bird away just as she has it coaxed up—why, she kills them. If I melt, you won't go after her. She's probably blistered and half eaten up; but she never will quit until she is satisfied."
"Then it will be safer to be taking care of you," suggested Freckles.
"Now you're talking sense!" said the Angel.
"May I try to help your arm?" he asked.
"Have you any idea how it hurts?" she parried.
"A little," said Freckles.
"Well, Mr. McLean said We'd probably find his son here"
"His son!" cried Freckles.
"That's what he said. And that you would do anything you could for us; and that we could trust you with our lives. But I would have trusted you anyway, if I hadn't known a thing about you. Say, your father is rampaging proud of you, isn't he?"
"I don't know," answered the dazed Freckles.
"Well, call on me if you want reliable information. He's so proud of you he is all swelled up like the toad in AEsop's Fables. If you have ever had an arm hurt like this, and can do anything, why, for pity sake, do it!"
She turned back her sleeve, holding toward Freckles an arm of palest cameo, shaped so exquisitely that no sculptor could have chiseled it.
Freckles unlocked his case, and taking out some cotton cloth, he tore it in strips. Then he brought a bucket of the cleanest water he could find. She yielded herself to his touch as a baby, and he bathed away the blood and bandaged the ugly, ragged wound. He finished his surgery by lapping the torn sleeve over the cloth and binding it down with a piece of twine, with the Angel's help about the knots.
Freckles worked with trembling fingers and a face tense with earnestness.
"Is it feeling any better?" he asked.
"Oh, it's well now!" cried the Angel. "It doesn't hurt at all, any more."
"I'm mighty glad," said Freckles. "But you had best go and be having your doctor fix it right; the minute you get home."
"Oh, bother! A little scratch like that!" jeered the Angel. "My blood is perfectly pure. It will heal in three days."
"It's cut cruel deep. It might be making a scar," faltered Freckles, his eyes on the ground. "'Twould—'twould be an awful pity. A doctor might know something to prevent it."
"Why, I never thought of that!" exclaimed the Angel.
"I noticed you didn't," said Freckles softly. "I don't know much about it, but it seems as if most girls would."
The Angel thought intently, while Freckles still knelt beside her. Suddenly she gave herself an impatient little shake, lifted her glorious eyes full to his, and the smile that swept her sweet, young face was the loveliest thing that Freckles ever had seen.
"Don't let's bother about it," she proposed, with the faintest hint of a confiding gesture toward him. "It won't make a scar. Why, it couldn't, when you have dressed it so nicely."
The velvety touch of her warm arm was tingling in Freckles' fingertips. Dainty lace and fine white ribbon peeped through her torn dress. There were beautiful rings on her fingers. Every article she wore was of the finest material and in excellent taste. There was the trembling Limberlost guard in his coarse clothing, with his cotton rags and his old pail of swamp water. Freckles was sufficiently accustomed to contrasts to notice them, and sufficiently fine to be hurt by them always.
He lifted his eyes with a shadowy pain in them to hers, and found them of serene, unconscious purity. What she had said was straight from a kind, untainted, young heart. She meant every word of it. Freckles' soul sickened. He scarcely knew whether he could muster strength to stand.
"We must go and hunt for the carriage," said the Angel, rising.
In instant alarm for her, Freckles sprang up, grasped the cudgel, and led the way, sharply watching every step. He went as close the log as he felt that he dared, and with a little searching found the carriage. He cleared a path for the Angel, and with a sigh of relief saw her enter it safely. The heat was intense. She pushed the damp hair from her temples.
"This is a shame!" said Freckles. "You'll never be coming here again."
"Oh yes I shall!" said the Angel. "The Bird Woman says that these birds remain over a month in the nest and she would like to make a picture every few days for seven or eight weeks, perhaps."
Freckles barely escaped crying aloud for joy.
"Then don't you ever be torturing yourself and your horse to be coming in here again," he said. "I'll show you a way to drive almost to the nest on the east trail, and then you can come around to my room and stay while the Bird Woman works. It's nearly always cool there, and there's comfortable seats, and water."
"Oh! did you have drinking-water there?" she cried. "I was never so thirsty or so hungry in my life, but I thought I wouldn't mention it."
"And I had not the wit to be seeing!" wailed Freckles. "I can be getting you a good drink in no time."
He turned to the trail.
"Please wait a minute," called the Angel. "What's your name? I want to think about you while you are gone." Freckles lifted his face with the brown rift across it and smiled quizzically.
"Freckles?" she guessed, with a peal of laughter. "And mine is——"
"I'm knowing yours," interrupted Freckles.
"I don't believe you do. What is it?" asked the girl.
"You won't be getting angry?"
"Not until I've had the water, at least."
It was Freckles' turn to laugh. He whipped off his big, floppy straw hat, stood uncovered before her, and said, in the sweetest of all the sweet tones of his voice: "There's nothing you could be but the Swamp Angel."
The girl laughed happily.
Once out of her sight, Freckles ran every step of the way to the cabin. Mrs. Duncan gave him a small bucket of water, cool from the well. He carried it in the crook of his right arm, and a basket filled with bread and butter, cold meat, apple pie, and pickles, in his left hand.
"Pickles are kind o' cooling," said Mrs. Duncan.
Then Freckles ran again.
The Angel was on her knees, reaching for the bucket, as he came up.
"Be drinking slow," he cautioned her.
"Oh!" she cried, with a long breath of satisfaction. "It's so good! You are more than kind to bring it!"
Freckles stood blinking in the dazzling glory of her smile until he scarcely could see to lift the basket.
"Mercy!" she exclaimed. "I think I had better be naming you the 'Angel.' My Guardian Angel."
"Yis," said Freckles. "I look the character every day—but today most emphatic!"
"Angels don't go by looks," laughed the girl. "Your father told us you had been scrapping. But he told us why. I'd gladly wear all your cuts and bruises if I could do anything that would make my father look as peacocky as yours did. He strutted about proper. I never saw anyone look prouder."
"Did he say he was proud of me?" marveled Freckles.
"He didn't need to," answered the Angel. "He was radiating pride from every pore. Now, have you brought me your dinner?"
"I had my dinner two hours ago," answered Freckles.
"Honest Injun?" bantered the Angel.
"Honest! I brought that on purpose for you."
"Well, if you knew how hungry I am, you would know how thankful I am, to the dot," said the Angel.
"Then you be eating," cried the happy Freckles.
The Angel sat on a big camera, spread the lunch on the carriage seat, and divided it in halves. The daintiest parts she could select she carefully put back into the basket. The remainder she ate. Again Freckles found her of the swamp, for though she was almost ravenous, she managed her food as gracefully as his little yellow fellow, and her every movement was easy and charming. As he watched her with famished eyes, Freckles told her of his birds, flowers, and books, and never realized what he was doing.
He led the horse to a deep pool that he knew of, and the tortured creature drank greedily, and lovingly rubbed him with its nose as he wiped down its welted body with grass. Suddenly the Angel cried: "There comes the Bird Woman!"
Freckles had intended leaving before she came, but now he was glad indeed to be there, for a warmer, more worn, and worse bitten creature he never had seen. She was staggering under a load of cameras and paraphernalia. Freckles ran to her aid. He took all he could carry of her load, stowed it in the back of the carriage, and helped her in. The Angel gave her water, knelt and unfastened the leggings, bathed her face, and offered the lunch.
Freckles brought the horse. He was not sure about the harness, but the Angel knew, and soon they left the swamp. Then he showed them how to reach the chicken tree from the outside, indicated a cooler place for the horse, and told them how, the next time they came, the Angel could find his room while she waited.
The Bird Woman finished her lunch, and lay back, almost too tired to speak.
"Were you for getting Little Chicken's picture?" Freckles asked.
"Finely!" she answered. "He posed splendidly. But I couldn't do anything with his mother. She will require coaxing."
"The Lord be praised!" muttered Freckles under his breath.
The Bird Woman began to feel better.
"Why do you call the baby vulture 'Little Chicken'?" she asked, leaning toward Freckles in an interested manner.
"'Twas Duncan began it," said Freckles. "You see, through the fierce cold of winter the birds of the swamp were almost starving. It is mighty lonely here, and they were all the company I was having. I got to carrying scraps and grain down to them. Duncan was that ginerous he was giving me of his wheat and corn from his chickens' feed, and he called the birds me swamp chickens. Then when these big black fellows came, Mr. McLean said they were our nearest kind to some in the old world that they called 'Pharaoh's Chickens,' and he called mine 'Freckles' Chickens.'"
"Good enough!" cried the Bird Woman, her splotched purple face lighting with interest. "You must shoot something for them occasionally, and I'll bring more food when I come. If you will help me keep them until I get my series, I'll give you a copy of each study I make, mounted in a book."
Freckles drew a deep breath.
"I'll be doing me very best," he promised, and from the deeps he meant it.
"I wonder if that other egg is going to hatch?" mused the Bird Woman. "I am afraid not. It should have pipped today. Isn't it a beauty! I never before saw either an egg or the young. They are rare this far north."
"So Mr. McLean said," answered Freckles.
Before they drove away, the Bird Woman thanked him for his kindness to the Angel and to her. She gave him her hand at parting, and Freckles joyfully realized that this was going to be another person for him to love. He could not remember, after they had driven away, that they even had noticed his missing hand, and for the first time in his life he had forgotten it.
When the Bird Woman and the Angel were on the home road, she told of the little corner of paradise into which she had strayed and of her new name. The Bird Woman looked at the girl and guessed its appropriateness.
"Did you know Mr. McLean had a son?" asked the Angel. "Isn't the little accent he has, and the way he twists a sentence, too dear? And isn't it too old-fashioned and funny to hear him call his father 'mister'?"
"It sounds too good to be true," said the Bird Woman, answering the last question first. "I am so tired of these present-day young men who patronizingly call their fathers 'Dad,' 'Governor,' 'Old Man' and 'Old Chap,' that the boy's attitude of respect and deference appealed to me as being fine as silk. There must be something rare about that young man."
She did not find it necessary to tell the Angel that for several years she had known the man who so proudly proclaimed himself Freckles' father to be a bachelor and a Scotchman. The Bird Woman had a fine way of attending strictly to her own business.
Freckles turned to the trail, but he stopped at every wild brier to study the pink satin of the petals. She was not of his world, and better than any other he knew it; but she might be his Angel, and he was dreaming of naught but blind, silent worship. He finished the happiest day of his life, and that night he returned to the swamp as if drawn by invisible force. That Wessner would try for his revenge, he knew. That he would be abetted by Black Jack was almost certain, but fear had fled the happy heart of Freckles. He had kept his trust. He had won the respect of the Boss. No one ever could wipe from his heart the flood of holy adoration that had welled with the coming of his Angel. He would do his best, and trust for strength to meet the dark day of reckoning that he knew would come sooner or later. He swung round the trail, briskly tapping the wire, and singing in a voice that scarcely could have been surpassed for sweetness.
At the edge of the clearing he came into the bright moonlight and there sat McLean on his mare. Freckles hurried to him.
"Is there trouble?" he inquired anxiously.
"That's what I wanted to ask you," said the Boss. "I stopped at the cabin to see you a minute, before I turned in, and they said you had come down here. You must not do it, Freckles. The swamp is none too healthful at any time, and at night it is rank poison."
Freckles stood combing his fingers through Nellie's mane, while the dainty creature was twisting her head for his caresses. He pushed back his hat and looked into McLean's face. "It's come to the 'sleep with one eye open,' sir. I'm not looking for anything to be happening for a week or two, but it's bound to come, and soon. If I'm to keep me trust as I've promised you and meself, I've to live here mostly until the gang comes. You must be knowing that, sir."
"I'm afraid it's true, Freckles," said McLean. "And I've decided to double the guard until we come. It will be only a few weeks, now; and I'm so anxious for you that you must not be left alone further. If anything should happen to you, Freckles, it would spoil one of the very dearest plans of my life."
Freckles heard with dismay the proposition to place a second guard.
"Oh! no, no, Mr. McLean," he cried. "Not for the world! I wouldn't be having a stranger around, scaring me birds and tramping up me study, and disturbing all me ways, for any money! I am all the guard you need! I will be faithful! I will turn over the lease with no tree missing—on me life, I will! Oh, don't be sending another man to set them saying I turned coward and asked for help. It will just kill the honor of me heart if you do it. The only thing I want is another gun. If it railly comes to trouble, six cartridges ain't many, and you know I am slow-like about reloading." McLean reached into his hip pocket and handed a shining big revolver to Freckles, who slipped it beside the one already in his belt.
Then the Boss sat brooding.
"Freckles," he said at last, "we never know the timber of a man's soul until something cuts into him deeply and brings the grain out strong. You've the making of a mighty fine piece of furniture, my boy, and you shall have your own way these few weeks yet. Then, if you will go, I intend to take you to the city and educate you, and you are to be my son, my lad—my own son!"
Freckles twisted his finger in Nellie's mane to steady himself.
"But why should you be doing that, sir?" he faltered.
McLean slid his arm around the boy's shoulder and gathered him close.
"Because I love you, Freckles," he said simply.
Freckles lifted a white face. "My God, sir!" he whispered. "Oh, my God!"
McLean tightened his clasp a second longer, then he rode down the trail.
Freckles lifted his hat and faced the sky. The harvest moon looked down, sheeting the swamp in silver glory. The Limberlost sang her night song. The swale softly rustled in the wind. Winged things of night brushed his face; and still Freckles gazed upward, trying to fathom these things that had come to him. There was no help from the sky. It seemed far away, cold, and blue. The earth, where flowers blossomed, angels walked, and love could be found, was better. But to One, above, he must make acknowledgment for these miracles. His lips moved and he began talking softly.
"Thank You for each separate good thing that has come to me," he said, "and above all for the falling of the feather. For if it didn't really fall from an angel, its falling brought an Angel, and if it's in the great heart of you to exercise yourself any further about me, oh, do please to be taking good care of her!"
Wherein a Fight Occurs and Women Shoot Straight
The following morning Freckles, inexpressibly happy, circled the Limberlost. He kept snatches of song ringing, as well as the wires. His heart was so full that tears of joy glistened in his eyes. He rigorously strove to divide his thought evenly between McLean and the Angel. He realized to the fullest the debt he already owed the Boss and the magnitude of last night's declaration and promises. He was hourly planning to deliver his trust and then enter with equal zeal on whatever task his beloved Boss saw fit to set him next. He wanted to be ready to meet every device that Wessner and Black Jack could think of to outwit him. He recognized their double leverage, for if they succeeded in felling even one tree McLean became liable for his wager.
Freckles' brow wrinkled in his effort to think deeply and strongly, but from every swaying wild rose the Angel beckoned to him. When he crossed Sleepy Snake Creek and the goldfinch, waiting as ever, challenged: "SEE ME?" Freckles saw the dainty swaying grace of the Angel instead. What is a man to do with an Angel who dismembers herself and scatters over a whole swamp, thrusting a vivid reminder upon him at every turn?
Freckles counted the days. This first one he could do little but test his wires, sing broken snatches, and dream; but before the week would bring her again he could do many things. He would carry all his books to the swamp to show to her. He would complete his flower bed, arrange every detail he had planned for his room, and make of it a bower fairies might envy. He must devise a way to keep water cool. He would ask Mrs. Duncan for a double lunch and an especially nice one the day of her next coming, so that if the Bird Woman happened to be late, the Angel might not suffer from thirst and hunger. He would tell her to bring heavy leather leggings, so that he might take her on a trip around the trail. She should make friends with all of his chickens and see their nests.
On the line he talked of her incessantly.
"You needn't be thinking," he said to the goldfinch, "that because I'm coming down this line alone day after day, it's always to be so. Some of these times you'll be swinging on this wire, and you'll see me coming, and you'll swing, skip, and flirt yourself around, and chip up right spunky: 'SEE ME?' I'll be saying 'See you? Oh, Lord! See her!' You'll look, and there she'll stand. The sunshine won't look gold any more, or the roses pink, or the sky blue, because she'll be the pinkest, bluest, goldest thing of all. You'll be yelling yourself hoarse with the jealousy of her. The sawbird will stretch his neck out of joint, and she'll turn the heads of all the flowers. Wherever she goes, I can go back afterward and see the things she's seen, walk the path she's walked, hear the grasses whispering over all she's said; and if there's a place too swampy for her bits of feet; Holy Mother! Maybe—maybe she'd be putting the beautiful arms of her around me neck and letting me carry her over!"
Freckles shivered as with a chill. He sent the cudgel whirling skyward, dexterously caught it, and set it spinning.
"You damned presumptuous fool!" he cried. "The thing for you to be thinking of would be to stretch in the muck for the feet of her to be walking over, and then you could hold yourself holy to be even of that service to her.
"Maybe she'll be wanting the cup me blue-and-brown chickens raised their babies in. Perhaps she'd like to stop at the pool and see me bullfrog that had the goodness to take on human speech to show me the way out of me trouble. If there's any feathers falling that day, why, it's from the wings of me chickens—it's sure to be, for the only Angel outside the gates will be walking this timberline, and every step of the way I'll be holding me breath and praying that she don't unfold wings and sail away before the hungry eyes of me."
So Freckles dreamed his dreams, made his plans, and watched his line. He counted not only the days, but the hours of each day. As he told them off, every one bringing her closer, he grew happier in the prospect of her coming. He managed daily to leave some offering at the big elm log for his black chickens. He slipped under the line at every passing, and went to make sure that nothing was molesting them. Though it was a long trip, he paid them several extra visits a day for fear a snake, hawk, or fox might have found the baby. For now his chickens not only represented all his former interest in them, but they furnished the inducement that was bringing his Angel.
Possibly he could find other subjects that the Bird Woman wanted. The teamster had said that his brother went after her every time he found a nest. He never had counted the nests that he knew of, and it might be that among all the birds of the swamp some would be rare to her.
The feathered folk of the Limberlost were practically undisturbed save by their natural enemies. It was very probable that among his chickens others as odd as the big black ones could be found. If she wanted pictures of half-grown birds, he could pick up fifty in one morning's trip around the line, for he had fed, handled, and made friends with them ever since their eyes opened.
He had gathered bugs and worms all spring as he noticed them on the grass and bushes, and dropped them into the first little open mouth he had found. The babies gladly had accepted this queer tri-parent addition to their natural providers.
When the week had passed, Freckles had his room crisp and glowing with fresh living things that represented every color of the swamp. He carried bark and filled all the muckiest places of the trail.
It was middle July. The heat of the past few days had dried the water around and through the Limberlost, so that it was possible to cross it on foot in almost any direction—if one had an idea of direction and did not become completely lost in its rank tangle of vegetation and bushes. The brighter-hued flowers were opening. The trumpet-creepers were flaunting their gorgeous horns of red and gold sweetness from the tops of lordly oak and elm, and below entire pools were pink-sheeted in mallow bloom.
The heat was doing one other thing that was bound to make Freckles, as a good Irishman, shiver. As the swale dried, its inhabitants were seeking the cooler depths of the swamp. They liked neither the heat nor leaving the field mice, moles, and young rabbits of their chosen location. He saw them crossing the trail every day as the heat grew intense. The rattlers were sadly forgetting their manners, for they struck on no provocation whatever, and did not even remember to rattle afterward. Daily Freckles was compelled to drive big black snakes and blue racers from the nests of his chickens. Often the terrified squalls of the parent birds would reach him far down the line and he would run to rescue the babies.
He saw the Angel when the carriage turned from the corduroy into the clearing. They stopped at the west entrance to the swamp, waiting for him to precede them down the trail, as he had told them it was safest for the horse that he should do. They followed the east line to a point opposite the big chickens' tree, and Freckles carried in the cameras and showed the Bird Woman a path he had cleared to the log. He explained to her the effect the heat was having on the snakes, and creeping back to Little Chicken, brought him to the light. As she worked at setting up her camera, he told her of the birds of the line, while she stared at him, wide-eyed and incredulous.
They arranged that Freckles should drive the carriage into the east entrance in the shade and then take the horse toward the north to a better place he knew. Then he was to entertain the Angel at his study or on the line until the Bird Woman finished her work and came to them.
"This will take only a little time," she said. "I know where to set the camera now, and Little Chicken is big enough to be good and too small to run away or to act very ugly, so I will be coming soon to see about those nests. I have ten plates along, and I surely won't use more than two on him; so perhaps I can get some nests or young birds this morning."
Freckles almost flew, for his dream had come true so soon. He was walking the timber-line and the Angel was following him. He asked to be excused for going first, because he wanted to be sure the trail was safe for her. She laughed at his fears, telling him that it was the polite thing for him to do, anyway.
"Oh!" said Freckles, "so you was after knowing that? Well, I didn't s'pose you did, and I was afraid you'd think me wanting in respect to be preceding you!"
The astonished Angel looked at him, caught the irrepressible gleam of Irish fun in his eyes, so they stood and laughed together.
Freckles did not realize how he was talking that morning. He showed her many of the beautiful nests and eggs of the line. She could identify a number of them, but of some she was ignorant, so they made notes of the number and color of the eggs, material, and construction of nest, color, size, and shape of the birds, and went to find them in the book.
At his room, when Freckles had lifted the overhanging bushes and stepped back for her to enter, his heart was all out of time and place. The study was vastly more beautiful than a week previous. The Angel drew a deep breath and stood gazing first at one side, then at another, then far down the cathedral aisle. "It's just fairyland!" she cried ecstatically. Then she turned and stared at Freckles as she had at his handiwork.
"What are you planning to be?" she asked wonderingly.
"Whatever Mr. McLean wants me to," he replied.
"What do you do most?" she asked.
"Watch me lines."
"I don't mean work!"
"Oh, in me spare time I keep me room and study in me books."
"Do you work on the room or the books most?"
"On the room only what it takes to keep it up, and the rest of the time on me books."
The Angel studied him closely. "Well, maybe you are going to be a great scholar," she said, "but you don't look it. Your face isn't right for that, but it's got something big in it—something really great. I must find out what it is and then you must work on it. Your father is expecting you to do something. One can tell by the way he talks. You should begin right away. You've wasted too much time already."
Poor Freckles hung his head. He never had wasted an hour in his life. There never had been one that was his to waste.
The Angel, studying him intently, read the thought in his face. "Oh, I don't mean that!" she cried, with the frank dismay of sixteen. "Of course, you're not lazy! No one ever would think that from your appearance. It's this I mean: there is something fine, strong, and full of power in your face. There is something you are to do in this world, and no matter how you work at all these other things, or how successfully you do them, it is all wasted until you find the ONE THING that you can do best. If you hadn't a thing in the world to keep you, and could go anywhere you please and do anything you want, what would you do?" persisted the Angel.
"I'd go to Chicago and sing in the First Episcopal choir," answered Freckles promptly.
The Angel dropped on a seat—the hat she had removed and held in her fingers rolled to her feet. "There!" she exclaimed vehemently. "You can see what I'm going to be. Nothing! Absolutely nothing! You can sing? Of course you can sing! It is written all over you."
"Anyone with half wit could have seen he could sing, without having to be told," she thought. "It's in the slenderness of his fingers and his quick nervous touch. It is in the brightness of his hair, the fire of his eyes, the breadth of his chest, the muscles of his throat and neck; and above all, it's in every tone of his voice, for even as he speak it's the sweetest sound I ever heard from the throat of a mortal."
"Will you do something for me?" she asked.
"I'll do anything in the world you want me to," said Freckles largely, "and if I can't do what you want, I'll go to work at once and I'll try 'til I can."
"Good! That's business!" said the Angel. "You go over there and stand before that hedge and sing something. Just anything you think of first."
Freckles faced the Angel from his banked wall of brown, blue, and crimson, with its background of solid green, and lifting his face to the sky, he sang the first thing that came into his mind. It was a children's song that he had led for the little folks at the Home many times, recalled to his mind by the Angel's exclamation:
"To fairyland we go, With a song of joy, heigh-o. In dreams we'll stand upon that shore And all the realm behold; We'll see the sights so grand That belong to fairyland, Its mysteries we will explore, Its beauties will unfold.
"Oh, tra, la, la, oh, ha, ha, ha! We're happy now as we can be, Our welcome song we will prolong, And greet you with our melody. O fairyland, sweet fairyland, We love to sing——"
No song could have given the intense sweetness and rollicking quality of Freckles' voice better scope. He forgot everything but pride in his work. He was singing the chorus, and the Angel was shivering in ecstasy, when clip! clip! came the sharply beating feet of a swiftly ridden horse down the trail from the north. They both sprang toward the entrance.
"Freckles! Freckles!" called the voice of the Bird Woman.
They were at the trail on the instant.
"Both those revolvers loaded?" she asked.
"Yes," said Freckles.
"Is there a way you can cut across the swamp and reach the chicken tree in a few minutes, and with little noise?"
"Then go flying," said the Bird Woman. "Give the Angel a lift behind me, and we will ride the horse back where you left him and wait for you. I finished Little Chicken in no time and put him back. His mother came so close, I felt sure she would enter the log. The light was fine, so I set and focused the camera and covered it with branches, attached the long hose, and went away over a hundred feet and hid in some bushes to wait. A short, stout man and a tall, dark one passed me so closely I almost could have reached out and touched them. They carried a big saw on their shoulders. They said they could work until near noon, and then they must lay off until you passed and then try to load and get out at night. They went on—not entirely from sight—and began cutting a tree. Mr. McLean told me the other day what would probably happen here, and if they fell that tree he loses his wager on you. Keep to the east and north and hustle. We'll meet you at the carriage. I always am armed. Give Angel one of your revolvers, and you keep the other. We will separate and creep toward them from different sides and give them a fusillade that will send them flying. You hurry, now!"
She lifted the reins and started briskly down the trail. The Angel, hatless and with sparkling eyes, was clinging around her waist.
Freckles wheeled and ran. He worked his way with much care, dodging limbs and bushes with noiseless tread, and cutting as closely where he thought the men were as he felt that he dared if he were to remain unseen. As he ran he tried to think. It was Wessner, burning for his revenge, aided by the bully of the locality, that he was going to meet. He was accustomed to that thought but not to the complication of having two women on his hands who undoubtedly would have to be taken care of in spite of the Bird Woman's offer to help him. His heart was jarring as it never had before with running. He must follow the Bird Woman's plan and meet them at the carriage, but if they really did intend to try to help him, he must not allow it. Allow the Angel to try to handle a revolver in his defence? Never! Not for all the trees in the Limberlost! She might shoot herself. She might forget to watch sharply and run across a snake that was not particularly well behaved that morning. Freckles permitted himself a grim smile as he went speeding on.
When he reached the carriage, the Bird Woman and the Angel had the horse hitched, the outfit packed, and were calmly waiting. The Bird Woman held a revolver in her hand. She wore dark clothing. They had pinned a big focusing cloth over the front of the Angel's light dress.
"Give Angel one of your revolvers, quick!" said the Bird Woman. "We will creep up until we are in fair range. The underbrush is so thick and they are so busy that they will never notice us, if we don't make a noise. You fire first, then I will pop in from my direction, and then you, Angel, and shoot quite high, or else very low. We mustn't really hit them. We'll go close enough to the cowards to make it interesting, and keep it up until we have them going."
The Bird Woman reached over, and, taking the smaller revolver from his belt, handed it to the Angel. "Keep your nerve steady, dear; watch where you step, and shoot high," she said. "Go straight at them from where you are. Wait until you hear Freckles' first shot, then follow me as closely as you can, to let them know that we outnumber them. If you want to save McLean's wager on you, now you go!" she commanded Freckles, who, with an agonized glance at the Angel, ran toward the east.
The Bird Woman chose the middle distance, and for a last time cautioned the Angel as she moved away to lie down and shoot high.
Through the underbrush the Bird Woman crept even more closely than she had intended, found a clear range, and waited for Freckles' shot. There was one long minute of sickening suspense. The men straightened for breath. Work was difficult with a handsaw in the heat of the swamp. As they rested, the big dark fellow took a bottle from his pocket and began oiling the saw.
"We got to keep mighty quiet," he said, "and wait to fell it until that damned guard has gone to his dinner."
Again they bent to their work. Freckles' revolver spat fire. Lead spanged on steel. The saw-handle flew from Wessner's hand and he reeled from the jar of the shock. Black Jack straightened, uttering a fearful oath. The hat sailed from his head from the far northeast. The Angel had not waited for the Bird Woman, and her shot scarcely could have been called high. At almost the same instant the third shot whistled from the east. Black Jack sprang into the air with a yell of complete panic, for it ripped a heel from his boot. Freckles emptied his second chamber, and the earth spattered over Wessner. Shots poured in rapidly. Without even reaching for a weapon, both men ran toward the east road in great leaping bounds, while leaden slugs sung and hissed around them in deadly earnest.
Freckles was trimming his corners as closely as he dared, but if the Angel did not really intend to hit, she was taking risks in a scandalous manner.
When the men reached the trail, Freckles yelled at the top of his voice: "Head them off on the south, boys! Fire from the south!"
As he had hoped, Jack and Wessner instantly plunged into the swale. A spattering of lead followed them. They crossed the swale, running low, with not even one backward glance, and entered the woods beyond the corduroy.
Then the little party gathered at the tree.
"I'd better fix this saw so they can't be using it if they come back," said Freckles, taking out his hatchet and making saw-teeth fly.
"Now we must leave here without being seen," said the Bird Woman to the Angel. "It won't do for me to make enemies of these men, for I am likely to meet them while at work any day."
"You can do it by driving straight north on this road," said Freckles. "I will go ahead and cut the wires for you. The swale is almost dry. You will only be sinking a little. In a few rods you will strike a cornfield. I will take down the fence and let you into that. Follow the furrows and drive straight across it until you come to the other side. Be following the fence south until you come to a road through the woods east of it. Then take that road and follow east until you reach the pike. You will come out on your way back to town, and two miles north of anywhere they are likely to be. Don't for your lives ever let it out that you did this," he earnestly cautioned, "for it's black enemies you would be making."
Freckles clipped the wires and they drove through. The Angel leaned from the carriage and held out his revolver. Freckles looked at her in surprise. Her eyes were black, while her face was a deeper rose than usual. He felt that his own was white.
"Did I shoot high enough?" she asked sweetly. "I really forgot about lying down."
Freckles winced. Did the child know how close she had gone? Surely she could not! Or was it possible that she had the nerve and skill to fire like that purposely?
"I will send the first reliable man I meet for McLean," said the Bird Woman, gathering up the lines. "If I don't meet one when we reach town, we will send a messenger. If it wasn't for having the gang see me, I would go myself; but I will promise you that you will have help in a little over two hours. You keep well hidden. They must think some of the gang is with you now. There isn't a chance that they will be back, but don't run any risks. Remain under cover. If they should come, it probably would be for their saw." She laughed as at a fine joke.
Wherein Freckles Wins Honor and Finds a Footprint on the Trail
Round-eyed, Freckles watched the Bird Woman and the Angel drive away. After they were from sight and he was safely hidden among the branches of a small tree, he remembered that he neither had thanked them nor said good-bye. Considering what they had been through, they never would come again. His heart sank until he had palpitation in his wading-boots.
Stretching the length of the limb, he thought deeply, though he was not thinking of Black Jack or Wessner. Would the Bird Woman and the Angel come again? No other woman whom he ever had known would. But did they resemble any other women he ever had known? He thought of the Bird Woman's unruffled face and the Angel's revolver practice, and presently he was not so sure that they would not return.
What were the people in the big world like? His knowledge was so very limited. There had been people at the Home, who exchanged a stilted, perfunctory kindness for their salaries. The visitors who called on receiving days he had divided into three classes: the psalm-singing kind, who came with a tear in the eye and hypocrisy in every feature of their faces; the kind who dressed in silks and jewels, and handed to those poor little mother-hungry souls worn toys that their children no longer cared for, in exactly the same spirit in which they pitched biscuits to the monkeys at the zoo, and for the same reason—to see how they would take them and be amused by what they would do; and the third class, whom he considered real people. They made him feel they cared that he was there, and that they would have been glad to see him elsewhere.
Now here was another class, that had all they needed of the world's best and were engaged in doing work that counted. They had things worth while to be proud of; and they had met him as a son and brother. With them he could, for the only time in his life, forget the lost hand that every day tortured him with a new pang. What kind of people were they and where did they belong among the classes he knew? He failed to decide, because he never had known others similar to them; but how he loved them!
In the world where he was going soon, were the majority like them, or were they of the hypocrite and bun-throwing classes?
He had forgotten the excitement of the morning and the passing of time when distant voices aroused him, and he gently lifted his head. Nearer and nearer they came, and as the heavy wagons rumbled down the east trail he could hear them plainly. The gang were shouting themselves hoarse for the Limberlost guard. Freckles did not feel that he deserved it. He would have given much to be able to go to the men and explain, but to McLean only could he tell his story.
At the sight of Freckles the men threw up their hats and cheered. McLean shook hands with him warmly, but big Duncan gathered him into his arms and hugged him as a bear and choked over a few words of praise. The gang drove in and finished felling the tree. McLean was angry beyond measure at this attempt on his property, for in their haste to fell the tree the thieves had cut too high and wasted a foot and a half of valuable timber.
When the last wagon rolled away, McLean sat on the stump and Freckles told the story he was aching to tell. The Boss scarcely could believe his senses. Also, he was much disappointed.
"I have been almost praying all the way over, Freckles," he said, "that you would have some evidence by which we could arrest those fellows and get them out of our way, but this will never do. We can't mix up those women in it. They have helped you save me the tree and my wager as well. Going across the country as she does, the Bird Woman never could be expected to testify against them."
"No, indeed; nor the Angel, either, sir," said Freckles.
"The Angel?" queried the astonished McLean.
The Boss listened in silence while Freckles told of the coming and christening of the Angel.
"I know her father well," said McLean at last, "and I have often seen her. You are right; she is a beautiful young girl, and she appears to be utterly free from the least particle of false pride or foolishness. I do not understand why her father risks such a jewel in this place."
"He's daring it because she is a jewel, sir," said Freckles, eagerly. "Why, she's trusting a rattlesnake to rattle before it strikes her, and of course, she thinks she can trust mankind as well. The man isn't made who wouldn't lay down the life of him for her. She doesn't need any care. Her face and the pretty ways of her are all the protection she would need in a band of howling savages."
"Did you say she handled one of the revolvers?" asked McLean.
"She scared all the breath out of me body," admitted Freckles. "Seems that her father has taught her to shoot. The Bird Woman told her distinctly to lie low and blaze away high, just to help scare them. The spunky little thing followed them right out into the west road, spitting lead like hail, and clipping all around the heads and heels of them; and I'm damned, sir, if I believe she'd cared a rap if she'd hit. I never saw much shooting, but if that wasn't the nearest to miss I ever want to see! Scared the life near out of me body with the fear that she'd drop one of them. As long as I'd no one to help me but a couple of women that didn't dare be mixed up in it, all I could do was to let them get away."