"I'll tell you what!" exclaimed the Angel. "I'd just love to see you on horseback. Nothing sets a handsome man off so splendidly. Do you ride?"
"Yes," said Jack, and his eyes were burning on the Angel as if he would fathom the depths of her soul.
"Well," said the Angel winsomely, "I know what I just wish you'd do. I wish you would let your hair grow a little longer. Then wear a blue flannel shirt a little open at the throat, a red tie, and a broad-brimmed felt hat, and ride past my house of evenings. I'm always at home then, and almost always on the veranda, and, oh! but I would like to see you! Will you do that for me?" It is impossible to describe the art with which the Angel asked the question. She was looking straight into Jack's face, coarse and hardened with sin and careless living, which was now taking on a wholly different expression. The evil lines of it were softening and fading under her clear gaze. A dull red flamed into his bronze cheeks, while his eyes were growing brightly tender.
"Yes," he said, and the glance he gave the men was of such a nature that no one saw fit even to change countenance.
"Oh, goody!" she cried, tilting on her toes. "I'll ask all the girls to come see, but they needn't stick in! We can get along without them, can't we?"
Jack leaned toward her. He was the charmed fluttering bird, while the Angel was the snake.
"Well, I rather guess!" he cried.
The Angel drew a deep breath and surveyed him rapturously.
"My, but you're tall!" she commented. "Do you suppose I ever will grow to reach your shoulders?"
She stood on tiptoe and measured the distance with her eyes. Then she developed timid confusion, while her glance sought the ground.
"I wish I could do something," she half whispered.
Jack seemed to increase an inch in height.
"What?" he asked hoarsely.
"Lariat Bill used always to have a bunch of red flowers in his shirt pocket. The red lit up his dark eyes and olive cheeks and made him splendid. May I put some red flowers on you?"
Freckles stared as he wheezed for breath. He wished the earth would open and swallow him. Was he dead or alive? Since his Angel had seen Black Jack she never had glanced his way. Was she completely bewitched? Would she throw herself at the man's feet before them all? Couldn't she give him even one thought? Hadn't she seen that he was gagged and bound? Did she truly think that these were McLean's men? Why, she could not! It was only a few days ago that she had been close enough to this man and angry enough with him to peel the hat from his head with a shot! Suddenly a thing she had said jestingly to him one day came back with startling force: "You must take Angels on trust." Of course you must! She was his Angel. She must have seen! His life, and what was far more, her own, was in her hands. There was nothing he could do but trust her. Surely she was working out some plan.
The Angel knelt beside his flower bed and recklessly tore up by the roots a big bunch of foxfire.
"These stems are so tough and sticky," she said. "I can't break them. Loan me your knife," she ordered Freckles.
As she reached for the knife, her back was for one second toward the men. She looked into his eyes and deliberately winked.
She severed the stems, tossed the knife to Freckles, and walking to Jack, laid the flowers over his heart.
Freckles broke into a sweat of agony. He had said she would be safe in a herd of howling savages. Would she? If Black Jack even made a motion toward touching her, Freckles knew that from somewhere he would muster the strength to kill him. He mentally measured the distance to where his club lay and set his muscles for a spring. But no—by the splendor of God! The big fellow was baring his head with a hand that was unsteady. The Angel pulled one of the long silver pins from her hat and fastened her flowers securely.
Freckles was quaking. What was to come next? What was she planning, and oh! did she understand the danger of her presence among those men; the real necessity for action?
As the Angel stepped from Jack, she turned her head to one side and peered at him, quite as Freckles had seen the little yellow fellow do on the line a hundred times, and said: "Well, that does the trick! Isn't that fine? See how it sets him off, boys? Don't you forget the tie is to be red, and the first ride soon. I can't wait very long. Now I must go. The Bird Woman will be ready to start, and she will come here hunting me next, for she is busy today. What did I come here for anyway?"
She glanced inquiringly around, and several of the men laughed. Oh, the delight of it! She had forgotten her errand for him! Jack had a second increase in height. The Angel glanced helplessly as if seeking a clue. Then her eyes fell, as if by accident, on Freckles, and she cried, "Oh, I know now! It was those magazines the Bird Woman promised you. I came to tell you that we put them under the box where we hide things, at the entrance to the swamp as we came in. I knew I would need my hands crossing the swamp, so I hid them there. You'll find them at the same old place."
Then Freckles spoke.
"It's mighty risky for you to be crossing the swamp alone," he said. "I'm surprised that the Bird Woman would be letting you try it. I know it's a little farther, but it's begging you I am to be going back by the trail. That's bad enough, but it's far safer than the swamp."
The Angel laughed merrily.
"Oh stop your nonsense!" she cried. "I'm not afraid! Not in the least! The Bird Woman didn't want me to try following a path that I'd been over only once, but I was sure I could do it, and I'm rather proud of the performance. Now, don't go babying! You know I'm not afraid!"
"No," said Freckles gently, "I know you're not; but that has nothing to do with the fact that your friends are afraid for you. On the trail you can see your way a bit ahead, and you've all the world a better chance if you meet a snake."
Then Freckles had an inspiration. He turned to Jack imploringly.
"You tell her!" he pleaded. "Tell her to go by the trail. She will for you."
The implication of this statement was so gratifying to Black Jack that he seemed again to expand and take on increase before their very eyes.
"You bet!" exclaimed Jack. And to the Angel: "You better take Freckles' word for it, miss. He knows the old swamp better than any of us, except me, and if he says 'go by the trail,' you'd best do it."
The Angel hesitated. She wanted to recross the swamp and try to reach the horse. She knew Freckles would brave any danger to save her crossing the swamp alone, but she really was not afraid, while the trail added over a mile to the walk. She knew the path. She intended to run for dear life the instant she felt herself from their sight, and tucked in the folds of her blouse was a fine little 32-caliber revolver that her father had presented her for her share in what he was pleased to call her military exploit. One last glance at Freckles showed her the agony in his eyes, and immediately she imagined he had some other reason. She would follow the trail.
"All right," she said, giving Jack a thrilling glance. "If you say so, I'll return by the trail to please you. Good-bye, everybody."
She lifted the bushes and started toward the entrance.
"You damned fool! Stop her!" growled Wessner. "Keep her till we're loaded, anyhow. You're playing hell! Can't you see that when this thing is found out, there she'll be to ruin all of us. If you let her go, every man of us has got to cut, and some of us will be caught sure."
Jack sprang forward. Freckles' heart muffled in his throat. The Angel seemed to divine Jack's coming. She was humming a little song. She deliberately stopped and began pulling the heads of the curious grasses that grew all around her. When she straightened, she took a step backward and called: "Ho! Freckles, the Bird Woman wants that natural history pamphlet returned. It belongs to a set she is going to have bound. That's one of the reasons we put it under the box. You be sure to get them as you go home tonight, for fear it rains or becomes damp with the heavy dews."
"All right," said Freckles, but it was in a voice that he never had heard before.
Then the Angel turned and sent a parting glance at Jack. She was overpoweringly human and bewitchingly lovely.
"You won't forget that ride and the red tie," she half asserted, half questioned.
Jack succumbed. Freckles was his captive, but he was the Angel's, soul and body. His face wore the holiest look it ever had known as he softly re-echoed Freckles' "All right." With her head held well up, the Angel walked slowly away, and Jack turned to the men.
"Drop your damned staring and saw wood," he shouted. "Don't you know anything at all about how to treat a lady?" It might have been a question which of the cronies that crouched over green wood fires in the cabins of Wildcat Hollow, eternally sucking a corncob pipe and stirring the endless kettles of stewing coon and opossum, had taught him to do even as well as he had by the Angel.
The men muttered and threatened among themselves, but they began working desperately. Someone suggested that a man be sent to follow the Angel and to watch her and the Bird Woman leave the swamp. Freckles' heart sank within him, but Jack was in a delirium and past all caution.
"Yes," he sneered. "Mebby all of you had better give over on the saw and run after the girl. I guess not! Seems to me I got the favors. I didn't see no bouquets on the rest of you! If anybody follows her, I do, and I'm needed here among such a pack of idiots. There's no danger in that baby face. She wouldn't give me away! You double and work like forty, while me and Wessner will take the axes and begin to cut in on the other side."
"What about the noise?" asked Wessner.
"No difference about the noise," answered Jack. "She took us to be from McLean's gang, slick as grease. Make the chips fly!"
So all of them attacked the big tree.
Freckles sat on one of his benches and waited. In their haste to fell the tree and load it, so that the teamsters could start, and leave them free to attack another, they had forgotten to rebind him.
The Angel was on the trail and safely started. The cold perspiration made Freckles' temples clammy and ran in little streams down his chest. It would take her more time to follow the trail, but her safety was Freckles' sole thought in urging her to go that way. He tried to figure on how long it would require to walk to the carriage. He wondered if the Bird Woman had unhitched. He followed the Angel every step of the way. He figured on when she would cross the path of the clearing, pass the deep pool where his "find-out" frog lived, cross Sleepy Snake Creek, and reach the carriage.
He wondered what she would say to the Bird Woman, and how long it would take them to pack and start. He knew now that they would understand, and the Angel would try to get the Boss there in time to save his wager. She could never do it, for the saw was over half through, and Jack and Wessner cutting into the opposite side of the tree. It appeared as if they could fell at least that tree, before McLean could come, and if they did he lost his wager.
When it was down, would they rebind him and leave him for Wessner to wreak his insane vengeance on, or would they take him along to the next tree and dispose of him when they had stolen all the timber they could? Jack had said that he should not be touched until he left. Surely he would not run all that risk for one tree, when he had many others of far greater value marked. Freckles felt that he had some hope to cling to now, but he found himself praying that the Angel would hurry.
Once Jack came to Freckles and asked if he had any water. Freckles arose and showed him where he kept his drinking-water. Jack drank in great gulps, and as he passed back the bucket, he said: "When a man's got a chance of catching a fine girl like that, he ought not be mixed up in any dirty business. I wish to God I was out of this!"
Freckles answered heartily: "I wish I was, too!"
Jack stared at him a minute and then broke into a roar of rough laughter.
"Blest if I blame you," he said. "But you had your chance! We offered you a fair thing and you gave Wessner his answer. I ain't envying you when he gives you his."
"You're six to one," answered Freckles. "It will be easy enough for you to be killing the body of me, but, curse you all, you can't blacken me soul!"
"Well, I'd give anything you could name if I had your honesty," said Jack.
When the mighty tree fell, the Limberlost shivered and screamed with the echo. Freckles groaned in despair, but the gang took heart. That was so much accomplished. They knew where to dispose of it safely, with no questions asked. Before the day was over, they could remove three others, all suitable for veneer and worth far more than this. Then they would leave Freckles to Wessner and scatter for safety, with more money than they had ever hoped for in their possession.
Wherein the Angel Releases Freckles, and the Curse of Black Jack Falls upon Her
On the line, the Angel gave one backward glance at Black Jack, to see that he had returned to his work. Then she gathered her skirts above her knees and leaped forward on the run. In the first three yards she passed Freckles' wheel. Instantly she imagined that was why he had insisted on her coming by the trail. She seized it and sprang on. The saddle was too high, but she was an expert rider and could catch the pedals as they came up. She stopped at Duncan's cabin long enough to remedy this, telling Mrs. Duncan while working what was happening, and for her to follow the east trail until she found the Bird Woman, and told her that she had gone after McLean and for her to leave the swamp as quickly as possible.
Even with her fear for Freckles to spur her, Sarah Duncan blanched and began shivering at the idea of facing the Limberlost. The Angel looked her in the eyes.
"No matter how afraid you are, you have to go," she said. "If you don't the Bird Woman will go to Freckles' room, hunting me, and they will have trouble with her. If she isn't told to leave at once, they may follow me, and, finding I'm gone, do some terrible thing to Freckles. I can't go—that's flat—for if they caught me, then there'd be no one to go for help. You don't suppose they are going to take out the trees they're after and then leave Freckles to run and tell? They are going to murder the boy; that's what they are going to do. You run, and run for life! For Freckles' life! You can ride back with the Bird Woman."
The Angel saw Mrs. Duncan started; then began her race.
Those awful miles of corduroy! Would they never end? She did not dare use the wheel too roughly, for if it broke she never could arrive on time afoot. Where her way was impassable for the wheel, she jumped off, and pushing it beside her or carrying it, she ran as fast as she could. The day was fearfully warm. The sun poured with the fierce baking heat of August. The bushes claimed her hat, and she did not stop for it.
Where it was at all possible, the Angel mounted and pounded over the corduroy again. She was panting for breath and almost worn out when she reached the level pike. She had no idea how long she had been—and only two miles covered. She leaned over the bars, almost standing on the pedals, racing with all the strength in her body. The blood surged in her ears while her head swam, but she kept a straight course, and rode and rode. It seemed to her that she was standing still, while the trees and houses were racing past her.
Once a farmer's big dog rushed angrily into the road and she swerved until she almost fell, but she regained her balance, and setting her muscles, pedaled as fast as she could. At last she lifted her head. Surely it could not be over a mile more. She had covered two of corduroy and at least three of gravel, and it was only six in all.
She was reeling in the saddle, but she gripped the bars with new energy, and raced desperately. The sun beat on her bare head and hands. Just when she was choking with dust, and almost prostrate with heat and exhaustion—crash, she ran into a broken bottle. Snap! went the tire; the wheel swerved and pitched over. The Angel rolled into the thick yellow dust of the road and lay quietly.
From afar, Duncan began to notice a strange, dust-covered object in the road, as he headed toward town with the first load of the day's felling.
He chirruped to the bays and hurried them all he could. As he neared the Angel, he saw it was a woman and a broken wheel. He was beside her in an instant. He carried her to a shaded fence-corner, stretched her on the grass, and wiped the dust from the lovely face all dirt-streaked, crimson, and bearing a startling whiteness around the mouth and nose.
Wheels were common enough. Many of the farmers' daughters owned and rode them, but he knew these same farmers' daughters; this face was a stranger's. He glanced at the Angel's tumbled clothing, the silkiness of her hair, with its pale satin ribbon, and noticed that she had lost her hat. Her lips tightened in an ominous quiver. He left her and picked up the wheel: as he had surmised, he knew it. This, then, was Freckles' Swamp Angel. There was trouble in the Limberlost, and she had broken down racing to McLean. Duncan turned the bays into a fence-corner, tied one of them, unharnessed the other, fastened up the trace chains, and hurried to the nearest farmhouse to send help to the Angel. He found a woman, who took a bottle of camphor, a jug of water, and some towels, and started on the run.
Then Duncan put the bay to speed and raced to camp.
The Angel, left alone, lay still for a second, then she shivered and opened her eyes. She saw that she was on the grass and the broken wheel beside her. Instantly she realized that someone had carried her there and gone after help. She sat up and looked around. She noticed the load of logs and the one horse. Someone was riding after help for her!
"Oh, poor Freckles!" she wailed. "They may be killing him by now. Oh, how much time have I wasted?"
She hurried to the other bay, her fingers flying as she set him free. Snatching up a big blacksnake whip that lay on the ground, she caught the hames, stretched along the horse's neck, and, for the first time, the fine, big fellow felt on his back the quality of the lash that Duncan was accustomed to crack over him. He was frightened, and ran at top speed.
The Angel passed a wildly waving, screaming woman on the road, and a little later a man riding as if he, too, were in great haste. The man called to her, but she only lay lower and used the whip. Soon the feet of the man's horse sounded farther and farther away.
At the South camp they were loading a second wagon, when the Angel appeared riding one of Duncan's bays, lathered and dripping, and cried: "Everybody go to Freckles! There are thieves stealing trees, and they had him bound. They're going to kill him!"
She wheeled the horse toward the Limberlost. The alarm sounded through camp. The gang were not unprepared. McLean sprang to Nellie's back and raced after the Angel. As they passed Duncan, he wheeled and followed. Soon the pike was an irregular procession of barebacked riders, wildly driving flying horses toward the swamp.
The Boss rode neck-and-neck with the Angel. He repeatedly commanded her to stop and fall out of line, until he remembered that he would need her to lead him to Freckles. Then he gave up and rode beside her, for she was sending the bay at as sharp a pace as the other horses could keep and hold out. He could see that she was not hearing him. He glanced back and saw that Duncan was close. There was something terrifying in the appearance of the big man, and the manner in which he sat his beast and rode. It would be a sad day for the man on whom Duncan's wrath broke. There were four others close behind him, and the pike filling with the remainder of the gang; so McLean took heart and raced beside the Angel. Over and over he asked her where the trouble was, but she only gripped the hames, leaned along the bay's neck, and slashed away with the blacksnake. The steaming horse, with crimson nostrils and heaving sides, stretched out and ran for home with all the speed there was in him.
When they passed the cabin, the Bird Woman's carriage was there and Mrs. Duncan in the door wringing her hands, but the Bird Woman was nowhere to be seen. The Angel sent the bay along the path and turned into the west trail, while the men bunched and followed her. When she reached the entrance to Freckles' room, there were four men with her, and two more very close behind. She slid from the horse, and snatching the little revolver from her pocket, darted toward the bushes. McLean caught them back, and with drawn weapon, pressed beside her. There they stopped in astonishment.
The Bird Woman blocked the entrance. Over a small limb lay her revolver. It was trained at short range on Black Jack and Wessner, who stood with their hands above their heads.
Freckles, with the blood trickling down his face, from an ugly cut in his temple, was gagged and bound to the tree again; the remainder of the men were gone. Black Jack was raving as a maniac, and when they looked closer it was only the left arm that he raised. His right, with the hand shattered, hung helpless at his side, while his revolver lay at Freckles' feet. Wessner's weapon was in his belt, and beside him Freckles' club.
Freckles' face was white, with colorless lips, but in his eyes was the strength of undying courage. McLean pushed past the Bird Woman crying. "Hold steady on them only one minute more!"
He snatched the revolver from Wessner's belt, and stooped for Jack's.
At that instant the Angel rushed past. She tore the gag from Freckles, and seizing the rope knotted on his chest, she tugged at it desperately. Under her fingers it gave way, and she hurled it to McLean. The men were crowding in, and Duncan seized Wessner. As the Angel saw Freckles stand out, free, she reached her arms to him and pitched forward. A fearful oath burst from the lips of Black Jack. To have saved his life, Freckles could not have avoided the glance of triumph he gave Jack, when folding the Angel in his arms and stretching her on the mosses.
The Bird Woman cried out sharply for water as she ran to them. Someone sprang to bring that, and another to break open the case for brandy. As McLean arose from binding Wessner, there was a cry that Jack was escaping.
He was already far in the swamp, running for its densest part in leaping bounds. Every man who could be spared plunged after him.
Other members of the gang arriving, were sent to follow the tracks of the wagons. The teamsters had driven from the west entrance, and crossing the swale, had taken the same route the Bird Woman and the Angel had before them. There had been ample time for the drivers to reach the road; after that they could take any one of four directions. Traffic was heavy, and lumber wagons were passing almost constantly, so the men turned back and joined the more exciting hunt for a man. The remainder of the gang joined them, also farmers of the region and travelers attracted by the disturbance.
Watchers were set along the trail at short intervals. They patrolled the line and roads through the swamp that night, with lighted torches, and the next day McLean headed as thorough a search as he felt could be made of one side, while Duncan covered the other; but Black Jack could not be found. Spies were set around his home, in Wildcat Hollow, to ascertain if he reached there or aid was being sent in any direction to him; but it was soon clear that his relatives were ignorant of his hiding-place, and were searching for him.
Great is the elasticity of youth. A hot bath and a sound night's sleep renewed Freckles' strength, and it needed but little more to work the same result with the Angel. Freckles was on the trail early the next morning. Besides a crowd of people anxious to witness Jack's capture, he found four stalwart guards, one at each turn. In his heart he was compelled to admit that he was glad to have them there. Close noon, McLean placed his men in charge of Duncan, and taking Freckles, drove to town to see how the Angel fared. McLean visited a greenhouse and bought an armload of its finest products; but Freckles would have none of them. He would carry his message in a glowing mass of the Limberlost's first goldenrod.
The Bird Woman received them, and in answer to their eager inquiries, said that the Angel was in no way seriously injured, only so bruised and shaken that their doctor had ordered her to lie quietly for the day. Though she was sore and stiff, they were having work to keep her in bed. Her callers sent up their flowers with their grateful regards, and the Angel promptly returned word that she wanted to see them.
She reached both hands to McLean. "What if one old tree is gone? You don't care, sir? You feel that Freckles has kept his trust as nobody ever did before, don't you? You won't forget all those long first days of fright that you told us of, the fearful cold of winter, the rain, heat, and lonesomeness, and the brave days, and lately, nights, too, and let him feel that his trust is broken? Oh, Mr. McLean," she begged, "say something to him! Do something to make him feel that it isn't for nothing he has watched and suffered it out with that old Limberlost. Make him see how great and fine it is, and how far, far better he has done than you or any of us expected! What's one old tree, anyway?" she cried passionately.
"I was thinking before you came. Those other men were rank big cowards. They were scared for their lives. If they were the drivers, I wager you gloves against gloves they never took those logs out to the pike. My coming upset them. Before you feel bad any more, you go look and see if they didn't lose courage the minute they left Wessner and Black Jack, dump that timber and run. I don't believe they ever had the grit to drive out with it in daylight. Go see if they didn't figure on leaving the way we did the other morning, and you'll find the logs before you reach the road. They never risked taking them into the open, when they got away and had time to think. Of course they didn't!
"And, then, another thing. You haven't lost your wager! It never will be claimed, because you made it with a stout, dark, red-faced man who drives a bay and a gray. He was right back of you, Mr. McLean, when I came yesterday. He went deathly white and shook on his feet when he saw those men probably would be caught. Some one of them was something to him, and you can just spot him for one of the men at the bottom of your troubles, and urging those younger fellows to steal from you. I suppose he'd promised to divide. You settle with him, and that business will stop."
She turned to Freckles. "And you be the happiest man alive, because you have kept your trust. Go look where I tell you and you'll find the logs. I can see just about where they are. When they go up that steep little hill, into the next woods after the cornfield, why, they could unloose the chains and the logs would roll from the wagons themselves. Now, you go look; and Mr. McLean, you do feel that Freckles has been brave and faithful? You won't love him any the less even if you don't find the logs."
The Angel's nerve gave way and she began to cry. Freckles could not endure it. He almost ran from the room, with the tears in his eyes; but McLean took the Angel from the Bird Woman's arms, and kissed her brave little face, stroked her hair, and petted her into quietness before he left.
As they drove to the swamp, McLean so earnestly seconded all that the Angel had said that he soon had the boy feeling much better.
"Freckles, your Angel has a spice of the devil in her, but she's superb! You needn't spend any time questioning or bewailing anything she does. Just worship blindly, my boy. By heaven! she's sense, courage, and beauty for half a dozen girls," said McLean.
"It's altogether right you are, sir," affirmed Freckles heartily. Presently he added, "There's no question but the series is over now."
"Don't think it!" answered McLean. "The Bird Woman is working for success, and success along any line is not won by being scared out. She will be back on the usual day, and ten to one, the Angel will be with her. They are made of pretty stern stuff, and they don't scare worth a cent. Before I left, I told the Bird Woman it would be safe; and it will. You may do your usual walking, but those four guards are there to remain. They are under your orders absolutely. They are prohibited from firing on any bird or molesting anything that you want to protect, but there they remain, and this time it is useless for you to say one word. I have listened to your pride too long. You are too precious to me, and that voice of yours is too precious to the world to run any more risks."
"I am sorry to have anything spoil the series," said Freckles, "and I'd love them to be coming, the Angel especial, but it can't be. You'll have to tell them so. You see, Jack would have been ready to stake his life she meant what she said and did to him. When the teams pulled out, Wessner seized me; then he and Jack went to quarreling over whether they should finish me then or take me to the next tree they were for felling. Between them they were pulling me around and hurting me bad. Wessner wanted to get at me right then, and Jack said he shouldn't be touching me till the last tree was out and all the rest of them gone. I'm belaying Jack really hated to see me done for in the beginning; and I think, too, he was afraid if Wessner finished me then he'd lose his nerve and cut, and they couldn't be managing the felling without him; anyway, they were hauling me round like I was already past all feeling, and they tied me up again. To keep me courage up, I twits Wessner about having to tie me and needing another man to help handle me. I told him what I'd do to him if I was free, and he grabs up me own club and lays open me head with it. When the blood came streaming, it set Jack raving, and he cursed and damned Wessner for a coward and a softy. Then Wessner turned on Jack and gives it to him for letting the Angel make a fool of him. Tells him she was just playing with him, and beyond all manner of doubt she'd gone after you, and there was nothing to do on account of his foolishness but finish me, get out, and let the rest of the timber go, for likely you was on the way right then. That drove Jack plum crazy.
"I don't think he was for having a doubt of the Angel before, but then he just raved. He grabbed out his gun and turned on Wessner. Spang! It went out of his fist, and the order comes: 'Hands up!' Wessner reached for kingdom come like he was expecting to grab hold and pull himself up. Jack puts up what he has left. Then he leans over to me and tells me what he'll do to me if he ever gets out of there alive. Then, just like a snake hissing, he spits out what he'll do to her for playing him. He did get away, and with his strength, that wound in his hand won't be bothering him long. He'll do to me just what he said, and when he hears it really was she that went after you, why, he'll keep his oath about her.
"He's lived in the swamp all his life, sir, and everybody says it's always been the home of cutthroats, outlaws, and runaways. He knows its most secret places as none of the others. He's alive. He's in there now, sir. Some way he'll keep alive. If you'd seen his face, all scarlet with passion, twisted with pain, and black with hate, and heard him swearing that oath, you'd know it was a sure thing. I ain't done with him yet, and I've brought this awful thing on her."
"And I haven't begun with him yet," said McLean, setting his teeth. "I've been away too slow and too easy, believing there'd be no greater harm than the loss of a tree. I've sent for a couple of first-class detectives. We will put them on his track, and rout him out and rid the country of him. I don't propose for him to stop either our work or our pleasure. As for his being in the swamp now, I don't believe it. He'd find a way out last night, in spite of us. Don't you worry! I am at the helm now, and I'll see to that gentleman in my own way."
"I wish to my soul you had seen and heard him!" said Freckles, unconvinced.
They entered the swamp, taking the route followed by the Bird Woman and the Angel. They really did find the logs, almost where the Angel had predicted they would be. McLean went to the South camp and had an interview with Crowen that completely convinced him that the Angel was correct there also. But he had no proof, so all he could do was to discharge the man, although his guilt was so apparent that he offered to withdraw the wager.
Then McLean sent for a pack of bloodhounds and put them on the trail of Black Jack. They clung to it, on and on, into the depths of the swamp, leading their followers through what had been considered impassable and impenetrable ways, and finally, around near the west entrance and into the swale. Here the dogs bellowed, raved, and fell over each other in their excitement. They raced back and forth from swamp to swale, but follow the scent farther they would not, even though cruelly driven. At last their owner attributed their actions to snakes, and as they were very valuable dogs, abandoned the effort to urge them on. So that all they really established was the fact that Black Jack had eluded their vigilance and crossed the trail some time in the night. He had escaped to the swale; from there he probably crossed the corduroy, and reaching the lower end of the swamp, had found friends. It was a great relief to feel that he was not in the swamp, and it raised the spirits of every man on the line, though many of them expressed regrets that he who was undoubtedly most to blame should escape, while Wessner, who in the beginning was only his tool, should be left to punishment.
But for Freckles, with Jack's fearful oath ringing in his ears, there was neither rest nor peace. He was almost ill when the day for the next study of the series arrived and he saw the Bird Woman and the Angel coming down the corduroy. The guards of the east line he left at their customary places, but those of the west he brought over and placed, one near Little Chicken's tree, and the other at the carriage. He was firm about the Angel's remaining in the carriage, that he did not offer to have unhitched. He went with the Bird Woman to secure the picture, which was the easiest matter it had been at any time yet, for the simple reason that the placing of the guards and the unusual movement around the swamp had made Mr. and Mrs. Chicken timid, and they had not carried Little Chicken the customary amount of food. Freckles, in the anxiety of the past few days, had neglected him, and he had been so hungry, much of the time, that when the Bird Woman held up a sweet-bread, although he had started toward the recesses of the log at her coming, he stopped; with slightly opened beak, he waited anxiously for the treat, and gave a study of great value, showing every point of his head, also his wing and tail development.
When the Bird Woman proposed to look for other subjects close about the line, Freckles went so far as to tell her that Jack had made fearful threats against the Angel. He implored her to take the Angel home and keep her under unceasing guard until Jack was located. He wanted to tell her all about it, but he knew how dear the Angel was to her, and he dreaded to burden her with his fears when they might prove groundless. He allowed her to go, but afterward blamed himself severely for having done so.
Wherein Freckles Nurses a Heartache and Black Jack Drops Out
"McLean," said Mrs. Duncan, as the Boss paused to greet her in passing the cabin, "do you know that Freckles hasna been in bed the past five nights and all he's eaten in that many days ye could pack into a pint cup?"
"Why, what does the boy mean?" demanded McLean. "There's no necessity for him being on guard, with the watch I've set on the line. I had no idea he was staying down there."
"He's no there," said Mrs. Duncan. "He goes somewhere else. He leaves on his wheel juist after we're abed and rides in close cock-crow or a little earlier, and he's looking like death and nothing short of it."
"But where does he go?" asked McLean in astonishment.
"I'm no given to bearing tales out of school," said Sarah Duncan, "but in this case I'd tell ye if I could. What the trouble is I dinna ken. If it is no' stopped, he's in for dreadful sickness, and I thought ye could find out and help him. He's in sair trouble; that's all I know."
McLean sat brooding as he stroked Nellie's neck.
At last he said: "I suspect I understand. At any rate, I think I can find out. Thank you for telling me."
"Ye'll no need telling, once ye clap your eyes on him," prophesied Mrs. Duncan. "His face is all a glist'ny yellow, and he's peaked as a starving caged bird."
McLean rode to the Limberlost, and stopping in the shade, sat waiting for Freckles, whose hour for passing the foot of the lease had come.
Along the north line came Freckles, fairly staggering. When he turned east and reached Sleepy Snake Creek, sliding through the swale as the long black snake for which it was named, he sat on the bridge and closed his burning eyes, but they would not remain shut. As if pulled by wires, the heavy lids flew open, while the outraged nerves and muscles of his body danced, twitched, and tingled.
He bent forward and idly watched the limpid little stream flowing beneath his feet. Stretching into the swale, it came creeping between an impenetrable wall of magnificent wild flowers, vines, and ferns. Milkweed, goldenrod, ironwort, fringed gentians, cardinal-flowers, and turtle-head stood on the very edge of the creek, and every flower of them had a double in the water. Wild clematis crowned with snow the heads of trees scattered here and there on the bank.
From afar the creek appeared to be murky, dirty water. Really it was clear and sparkling. The tinge of blackness was gained from its bed of muck showing through the transparent current. He could see small and wonderfully marked fish. What became of them when the creek spread into the swamp? For one thing, they would make mighty fine eating for the family of that self-satisfied old blue heron.
Freckles sat so quietly that soon the brim of his hat was covered with snake-feeders, rasping their crisp wings and singing while they rested. Some of them settled on the club, and one on his shoulder. He was so motionless; feathers, fur, and gauze were so accustomed to him, that all through the swale they continued their daily life and forgot he was there.
The heron family were wading the mouth of the creek. Freckles idly wondered whether the nerve-racking rasps they occasionally emitted indicated domestic felicity or a raging quarrel. He could not decide. A sheitpoke, with flaring crest, went stalking across a bare space close to the creek's mouth. A stately brown bittern waded into the clear-flowing water, lifting his feet high at every step, and setting them down carefully, as if he dreaded wetting them, and with slightly parted beak, stood eagerly watching around him for worms. Behind him were some mighty trees of the swamp above, and below the bank glowed a solid wall of goldenrod.
No wonder the ancients had chosen yellow as the color to represent victory, for the fierce, conquering hue of the sun was in it. They had done well, too, in selecting purple as the emblem of royalty. It was a dignified, compelling color, while in its warm tone there was a hint of blood.
It was the Limberlost's hour to proclaim her sovereignty and triumph. Everywhere she flaunted her yellow banner and trailed the purple of her mantle, that was paler in the thistle-heads, took on strength in the first opening asters, and glowed and burned in the ironwort.
He gazed into her damp, mossy recesses where high-piled riven trees decayed under coats of living green, where dainty vines swayed and clambered, and here and there a yellow leaf, fluttering down, presaged the coming of winter. His love of the swamp laid hold of him and shook him with its force.
Compellingly beautiful was the Limberlost, but cruel withal; for inside bleached the uncoffined bones of her victims, while she had missed cradling him, oh! so narrowly.
He shifted restlessly; the movement sent the snake-feeders skimming. The hum of life swelled and roared in his strained ears. Small turtles, that had climbed on a log to sun, splashed clumsily into the water. Somewhere in the timber of the bridge a bloodthirsty little frog cried sharply. "KEEL'IM! KEEL'IM!"
Freckles muttered: "It's worse than that Black Jack swore to do to me, little fellow."
A muskrat waddled down the bank and swam for the swamp, its pointed nose riffling the water into a shining trail in its wake.
Then, below the turtle-log, a dripping silver-gray head, with shining eyes, was cautiously lifted, and Freckles' hand slid to his revolver. Higher and higher came the head, a long, heavy, furcoated body arose, now half, now three-fourths from the water. Freckles looked at his shaking hand and doubted, but he gathered his forces, the shot rang, and the otter lay quiet. He hurried down and tried to lift it. He scarcely could muster strength to carry it to the bridge. The consciousness that he really could go no farther with it made Freckles realize the fact that he was close the limit of human endurance. He could bear it little, if any, longer. Every hour the dear face of the Angel wavered before him, and behind it the awful distorted image of Black Jack, as he had sworn to the punishment he would mete out to her. He must either see McLean, or else make a trip to town and find her father. Which should he do? He was almost a stranger, so the Angel's father might not be impressed with what he said as he would if McLean went to him. Then he remembered that McLean had said he would come that morning. Freckles never had forgotten before. He hurried on the east trail as fast as his tottering legs would carry him.
He stopped when he came to the first guard, and telling him of his luck, asked him to get the otter and carry it to the cabin, as he was anxious to meet McLean.
Freckles passed the second guard without seeing him, and hurried to the Boss. He took off his hat, wiped his forehead, and stood silent under the eyes of McLean.
The Boss was dumbfounded. Mrs. Duncan had led him to expect that he would find a change in Freckles, but this was almost deathly. The fact was apparent that the boy scarcely knew what he was doing. His eyes had a glazed, far-sighted appearance, that wrung the heart of the man who loved him. Without a thought of preliminaries, McLean leaned in the saddle and drew Freckles to him.
"My poor lad!" he said. "My poor, dear lad! tell me, and we will try to right it!"
Freckles had twisted his fingers in Nellie's mane. At the kind words his face dropped on McLean's thigh and he shook with a nervous chill. McLean gathered him closer and waited.
When the guard came with the otter, McLean without a word motioned him to lay it down and leave them.
"Freckles," said McLean at last, "will you tell me, or must I set to work in the dark and try to find the trouble?"
"Oh, I want to tell you! I must tell you, sir," shuddered Freckles. "I cannot be bearing it the day out alone. I was coming to you when I remimbered you would be here."
He lifted his face and gazed across the swale, with his jaws set firmly a minute, as if gathering his forces. Then he spoke.
"It's the Angel, sir," he said.
Instinctively McLean's grip on him tightened, and Freckles looked into the Boss's face in wonder.
"I tried, the other day," said Freckles, "and I couldn't seem to make you see. It's only that there hasn't been an hour, waking or sleeping, since the day she parted the bushes and looked into me room, that the face of her hasn't been before me in all the tinderness, beauty, and mischief of it. She talked to me friendly like. She trusted me entirely to take right care of her. She helped me with things about me books. She traited me like I was born a gintleman, and shared with me as if I were of her own blood. She walked the streets of the town with me before her friends with all the pride of a queen. She forgot herself and didn't mind the Bird Woman, and run big risks to help me out that first day, sir. This last time she walked into that gang of murderers, took their leader, and twisted him to the will of her. She outdone him and raced the life almost out of her trying to save me.
"Since I can remimber, whatever the thing was that happened to me in the beginning has been me curse. I've been bitter, hard, and smarting under it hopelessly. She came by, and found me voice, and put hope of life and success like other men into me in spite of it."
Freckles held up his maimed arm.
"Look at it, sir!" he said. "A thousand times I've cursed it, hanging there helpless. She took it on the street, before all the people, just as if she didn't see that it was a thing to hide and shrink from. Again and again I've had the feeling with her, if I didn't entirely forget it, that she didn't see it was gone and I must he pointing it out to her. Her touch on it was so sacred-like, at times since I've caught meself looking at the awful thing near like I was proud of it, sir. If I had been born your son she couldn't be traiting me more as her equal, and she can't help knowing you ain't truly me father. Nobody can know the homeliness or the ignorance of me better than I do, and all me lack of birth, relatives, and money, and what's it all to her?"
Freckles stepped back, squared his shoulders, and with a royal lift of his head looked straight into the Boss's eyes.
"You saw her in the beautiful little room of her, and you can't be forgetting how she begged and plead with you for me. She touched me body, and 'twas sanctified. She laid her lips on my brow, and 'twas sacrament. Nobody knows the height of her better than me. Nobody's studied my depths closer. There's no bridge for the great distance between us, sir, and clearest of all, I'm for realizing it: but she risked terrible things when she came to me among that gang of thieves. She wore herself past bearing to save me from such an easy thing as death! Now, here's me, a man, a big, strong man, and letting her live under that fearful oath, so worse than any death 'twould be for her, and lifting not a finger to save her. I cannot hear it, sir. It's killing me by inches! Black Jack's hand may not have been hurt so bad. Any hour he may be creeping up behind her! Any minute the awful revenge he swore to be taking may in some way fall on her, and I haven't even warned her father. I can't stay here doing nothing another hour. The five nights gone I've watched under her windows, but there's the whole of the day. She's her own horse and little cart, and's free to be driving through the town and country as she pleases. If any evil comes to her through Black Jack, it comes from her angel-like goodness to me. Somewhere he's hiding! Somewhere he is waiting his chance! Somewhere he is reaching out for her! I tell you I cannot, I dare not be bearing it longer!"
"Freckles, be quiet!" said McLean, his eyes humid and his voice quivering with the pity of it all. "Believe me, I did not understand. I know the Angel's father well. I will go to him at once. I have transacted business with him for the past three years. I will make him see! I am only beginning to realize your agony, and the real danger there is for the Angel. Believe me, I will see that she is fully protected every hour of the day and night until Jack is located and disposed of. And I promise you further, that if I fail to move her father or make him understand the danger, I will maintain a guard over her until Jack is caught. Now will you go bathe, drink some milk, go to bed, and sleep for hours, and then be my brave, bright old boy again?"
"Yis," said Freckles simply.
But McLean could see the flesh was twitching on the lad's bones.
"What was it the guard brought there?" McLean asked in an effort to distract Freckles' thoughts.
"Oh!" Freckles said, glancing where the Boss pointed, "I forgot it! 'Tis an otter, and fine past believing, for this warm weather. I shot it at the creek this morning. 'Twas a good shot, considering. I expected to miss."
Freckles picked up the animal and started toward McLean with it, but Nellie pricked up her dainty little ears, danced into the swale, and snorted with fright. Freckles dropped the otter and ran to her head.
"For pity's sake, get her on the trail, sir," he begged. "She's just about where the old king rattler crosses to go into the swamp—the old buster Duncan and I have been telling you of. I haven't a doubt but it was the one Mother Duncan met. 'Twas down the trail there, just a little farther on, that I found her, and it's sure to be close yet."
McLean slid from Nellie's back, led her into the trail farther down the line, and tied her to a bush. Then he went to examine the otter. It was a rare, big specimen, with exquisitely fine, long, silky hair.
"What do you want to do with it, Freckles?" asked McLean, as he stroked the soft fur lingeringly. "Do you know that it is very valuable?"
"I was for almost praying so, sir," said Freckles. "As I saw it coming up the bank I thought this: Once somewhere in a book there was a picture of a young girl, and she was just a breath like the beautifulness of the Angel. Her hands were in a muff as big as her body, and I thought it was so pretty. I think she was some queen, or the like. Do you suppose I could have this skin tanned and made into such a muff as that?—an enormous big one, sir?"
"Of course you can," said McLean. "That's a fine idea and it's easy enough. We must box and express the otter, cold storage, by the first train. You stand guard a minute and I'll tell Hall to carry it to the cabin. I'll put Nellie to Duncan's rig, and we'll drive to town and call on the Angel's father. Then we'll start the otter while it is fresh, and I'll write your instructions later. It would be a mighty fine thing for you to give to the Angel as a little reminder of the Limberlost before it is despoiled, and as a souvenir of her trip for you."
Freckles lifted a face with a glow of happy color creeping into it and eyes lighting with a former brightness. Throwing his arms around McLean, he cried: "Oh, how I love you! Oh, I wish I could make you know how I love you!"
McLean strained him to his breast.
"God bless you, Freckles," he said. "I do know! We're going to have some good old times out of this world together, and we can't begin too soon. Would you rather sleep first, or have a bite of lunch, take the drive with me, and then rest? I don't know but sleep will come sooner and deeper to take the ride and have your mind set at ease before you lie down. Suppose you go."
"Suppose I do," said Freckles, with a glimmer of the old light in his eyes and newly found strength to shoulder the otter. Together they turned into the trail.
McLean noticed and spoke of the big black chickens.
"They've been hanging round out there for several days past," said Freckles. "I'll tell you what I think it means. I think the old rattler has killed something too big for him to swallow, and he's keeping guard and won't let me chickens have it. I'm just sure, from the way the birds have acted out there all summer, that it is the rattler's den. You watch them now. See the way they dip and then rise, frightened like!"
Suddenly McLean turned toward him with blanching face
"Freckles!" he cried.
"My God, sir!" shuddered Freckles.
He dropped the otter, caught up his club, and plunged into the swale. Reaching for his revolver, McLean followed. The chickens circled higher at their coming, and the big snake lifted his head and rattled angrily. It sank in sinuous coils at the report of McLean's revolver, and together he and Freckles stood beside Black Jack. His fate was evident and most horrible.
"Come," said the Boss at last. "We don't dare touch him. We will get a sheet from Mrs. Duncan and tuck over him, to keep these swarms of insects away, and set Hall on guard, while we find the officers."
Freckles' lips closed resolutely. He deliberately thrust his club under Black Jack's body, and, raising him, rested it on his knee. He pulled a long silver pin from the front of the dead man's shirt and sent it spinning into the swale. Then he gathered up a few crumpled bright flowers and dropped them into the pool far away.
"My soul is sick with the horror of this thing," said McLean, as he and Freckles drove toward town. "I can't understand how Jack dared risk creeping through the swale, even in desperation. No one knew its dangers better than he. And why did he choose the rankest, muckiest place to cross the swamp?"
"Don't you think, sir, it was because it was on a line with the Limberlost south of the corduroy? The grass was tallest there, and he counted on those willows to screen him. Once he got among them, he would have been safe to walk by stooping. If he'd made it past that place, he'd been sure to get out."
"Well, I'm as sorry for Jack as I know how to be," said McLean, "but I can't help feeling relieved that our troubles are over, for now they are. With so dreadful a punishment for Jack, Wessner under arrest, and warrants for the others, we can count on their going away and remaining. As for anyone else, I don't think they will care to attempt stealing my timber after the experience of these men. There is no other man here with Jack's fine ability in woodcraft. He was an expert."
"Did you ever hear of anyone who ever tried to locate any trees excepting him?" asked Freckles.
"No, I never did," said McLean. "I am sure there was no one besides him. You see, it was only with the arrival of our company that the other fellows scented good stuff in the Limberlost, and tried to work in. Jack knew the swamp better than anyone here. When he found there were two companies trying to lease, he wanted to stand in with the one from which he could realize the most. Even then he had trees marked that he was trying to dispose of. I think his sole intention in forcing me to discharge him from my gang was to come here and try to steal timber. We had no idea, when we took the lease, what a gold mine it was."
"That's exactly what Wessner said that first day," said Freckles eagerly. "That 'twas a 'gold mine'! He said he didn't know where the marked trees were, but he knew a man who did, and if I would hold off and let them get the marked ones, there were a dozen they could get out in a few days."
"Freckles!" cried McLean. "You don't mean a dozen!"
"That's what he said, sir—a dozen. He said they couldn't tell how the grain of all of them would work up, of course, but they were all worth taking out, and five or six were real gold mines. This makes three they've tried, so there must be nine more marked, and several of them for being just fine."
"Well, I wish I knew which they are," said McLean, "so I could get them out first."
"I have been thinking," said Freckles. "I believe if you will leave one of the guards on the line—say Hall—that I will begin on the swamp, at the north end, and lay it off in sections, and try to hunt out the marked trees. I suppose they are all marked something like that first maple on the line was. Wessner mentioned another good one not so far from that. He said it was best of all. I'd be having the swelled head if I could find that. Of course, I don't know a thing about the trees, but I could hunt for the marks. Jack was so good at it he could tell some of them by the bark, but all he wanted to take that we've found so far have just had a deep chip cut out, rather low down, and where the bushes were thick over it. I believe I could be finding some of them."
"Good head!" said McLean. "We will do that. You may begin as soon as you are rested. And about things you come across in the swamp, Freckles—the most trifling little thing that you think the Bird Woman would want, take your wheel and go after her at any time. I'll leave two men on the line, so that you will have one on either side, and you can come and go as you please. Have you stopped to think of all we owe her, my boy?"
"Yis; and the Angel—we owe her a lot, too," said Freckles. "I owe her me life and honor. It's lying awake nights I'll have to be trying to think how I'm ever to pay her up."
"Well, begin with the muff," suggested McLean. "That should be fine."
He bent down and ruffled the rich fur of the otter lying at his feet.
"I don't exactly see how it comes to be in such splendid fur in summer. Their coats are always thick in cold weather, but this scarcely could be improved. I'll wire Cooper to be watching for it. They must have it fresh. When it's tanned we won't spare any expense in making it up. It should be a royal thing, and some way I think it will exactly suit the Angel. I can't think of anything that would be more appropriate for her."
"Neither can I," agreed Freckles heartily. "When I reach the city there's one other thing, if I've the money after the muff is finished."
He told McLean of Mrs. Duncan's desire for a hat similar to the Angel's. He hesitated a little in the telling, keeping sharp watch on McLean's face. When he saw the Boss's eyes were full of comprehension and sympathy, he loved him anew, for, as ever, McLean was quick to understand. Instead of laughing, he said: "I think you'll have to let me in on that, too. You mustn't be selfish, you know. I'll tell you what we'll do. Send it for Christmas. I'll be home then, and we can fill a box. You get the hat. I'll add a dress and wrap. You buy Duncan a hat and gloves. I'll send him a big overcoat, and we'll put in a lot of little stuff for the babies. Won't that be fun?"
Freckles fairly shivered with delight.
"That would be away too serious for fun," he said. "That would be heavenly. How long will it be?"
He began counting the time, and McLean deliberately set himself to encourage Freckles and keep his thoughts from the trouble of the past few days, for he had been overwrought and needed quiet and rest.
Wherein Freckles and the Angel Try Taking a Picture, and Little Chicken Furnishes the Subject
A week later everything at the Limberlost was precisely as it had been before the tragedy, except the case in Freckles' room now rested on the stump of the newly felled tree. Enough of the vines were left to cover it prettily, and every vestige of the havoc of a few days before was gone. New guards were patrolling the trail. Freckles was roughly laying off the swamp in sections and searching for marked trees. In that time he had found one deeply chipped and the chip cunningly replaced and tacked in. It promised to be quite rare, so he was jubilant. He also found so many subjects for the Bird Woman that her coming was of almost daily occurrence, and the hours he spent with her and the Angel were nothing less than golden.
The Limberlost was now arrayed as the Queen of Sheba in all her glory. The first frosts of autumn had bejewelled her crown in flashing topaz, ruby, and emerald. Around her feet trailed the purple of her garments, while in her hand was her golden scepter. Everything was at full tide. It seemed as if nothing could grow lovelier, and it was all standing still a few weeks, waiting coming destruction.
The swamp was palpitant with life. Every pair of birds that had flocked to it in the spring was now multiplied by from two to ten. The young were tame from Freckles' tri-parenthood, and so plump and sleek that they were quite as beautiful as their elders, even if in many cases they lacked their brilliant plumage. It was the same story of increase everywhere. There were chubby little ground-hogs scudding on the trail. There were cunning baby coons and opossums peeping from hollow logs and trees. Young muskrats followed their parents across the lagoons.
If you could come upon a family of foxes that had not yet disbanded, and see the young playing with a wild duck's carcass that their mother had brought, and note the pride and satisfaction in her eyes as she lay at one side guarding them, it would be a picture not to be forgotten. Freckles never tired of studying the devotion of a fox mother to her babies. To him, whose early life had been so embittered by continual proof of neglect and cruelty in human parents toward their children, the love of these furred and feathered folk of the Limberlost was even more of a miracle than to the Bird Woman and the Angel.
The Angel liked the baby rabbits and squirrels. Earlier in the season, when the young were yet very small, it so happened that at times Freckles could give into her hands one of these little ones. Then it was pure joy to stand back and watch her heaving breast, flushed cheek, and shining eyes. Hers were such lovely eyes. Freckles had discovered lately that they were not so dark as he had thought them at first, but that the length and thickness of lash, by which they were shaded, made them appear darker than they really were. They were forever changing. Now sparkling and darkling with wit, now humid with sympathy, now burning with the fire of courage, now taking on strength of color with ambition, now flashing indignantly at the abuse of any creature.
She had carried several of the squirrel and bunny babies home, and had littered the conservatory with them. Her care of them was perfect. She was learning her natural history from nature, and having much healthful exercise. To her, they were the most interesting of all, but the Bird Woman preferred the birds, with a close second in the moths and butterflies.
Brown butterfly time had come. The edge of the swale was filled with milkweed, and other plants beloved of them, and the air was golden with the flashing satin wings of the monarch, viceroy, and argynnis. They outnumbered those of any other color three to one.
Among the birds it really seemed as if the little yellow fellows were in the preponderance. At least, they were until the redwinged blackbirds and bobolinks, that had nested on the upland, suddenly saw in the swamp the garden of the Lord and came swarming by hundreds to feast and adventure upon it these last few weeks before migration. Never was there a finer feast spread for the birds. The grasses were filled with seeds: so, too, were weeds of every variety. Fall berries were ripe. Wild grapes and black haws were ready. Bugs were creeping everywhere. The muck was yeasty with worms. Insects filled the air. Nature made glorious pause for holiday before her next change, and by none of the frequenters of the swamp was this more appreciated than by the big black chickens.
They seemed to feel the new reign of peace and fullness most of all. As for food, they did not even have to hunt for themselves these days, for the feasts now being spread before Little Chicken were more than he could use, and he was glad to have his parents come down and help him.
He was a fine, big, overgrown fellow, and his wings, with quills of jetty black, gleaming with bronze, were so strong they almost lifted his body. He had three inches of tail, and his beak and claws were sharp. His muscles began to clamor for exercise. He raced the forty feet of his home back and forth many times every hour of the day. After a few days of that, he began lifting and spreading his wings, and flopping them until the down on his back was filled with elm fiber. Then he commenced jumping. The funny little hops, springs, and sidewise bounds he gave set Freckles and the Angel, hidden in the swamp, watching him, into smothered chuckles of delight.
Sometimes he fell to coquetting with himself; and that was the funniest thing of all, for he turned his head up, down, from side to side, and drew in his chin with prinky little jerks and tilts. He would stretch his neck, throw up his head, turn it to one side and smirk—actually smirk, the most complacent and self-satisfied smirk that anyone ever saw on the face of a bird. It was so comical that Freckles and the Angel told the Bird Woman of it one day.
When she finished her work on Little Chicken, she left them the camera ready for use, telling them they might hide in the bushes and watch. If Little Chicken came out and truly smirked, and they could squeeze the bulb at the proper moment to snap him, she would be more than delighted.
Freckles and the Angel quietly curled beside a big log, and with eager eyes and softest breathing they patiently waited; but Little Chicken had feasted before they told of his latest accomplishment. He was tired and sleepy, so he went into the log to bed, and for an hour he never stirred.
They were becoming anxious, for the light soon would be gone, and they had so wanted to try for the picture. At last Little Chicken lifted his head, opened his beak, and gaped widely. He dozed a minute or two more. The Angel said that was his beauty sleep. Then he lazily gaped again and stood up, stretching and yawning. He ambled leisurely toward the gateway, and the Angel said: "Now, we may have a chance, at last."
"I do hope so," shivered Freckles.
With one accord they arose to their knees and trained their eyes on the mouth of the log. The light was full and strong. Little Chicken prospected again with no results. He dressed his plumage, polished his beak, and when he felt fine and in full toilet he began to flirt with himself. Freckles' eyes snapped and his breath sucked between his clenched teeth.
"He's going to do it!" whispered the Angel. "That will come next. You'll best give me that bulb!"
"Yis," assented Freckles, but he was looking at the log and he made no move to relinquish the bulb.
Little Chicken nodded daintily and ruffled his feathers. He gave his head sundry little sidewise jerks and rapidly shifted his point of vision. Once there was the fleeting little ghost of a smirk.
"Now!—No!" snapped the Angel.
Freckles leaned toward the bird. Tensely he waited. Unconsciously the hand of the Angel clasped his. He scarcely knew it was there. Suddenly Little Chicken sprang straight in the air and landed with a thud. The Angel started slightly, but Freckles was immovable. Then, as if in approval of his last performance, the big, overgrown baby wheeled until he was more than three-quarters, almost full side, toward the camera, straightened on his legs, squared his shoulders, stretched his neck full height, drew in his chin and smirked his most pronounced smirk, directly in the face of the lens.
Freckles' fingers closed on the bulb convulsively, and the Angel's closed on his at the instant. Then she heaved a great sigh of relief and lifted her hands to push back the damp, clustering hair from her face.
"How soon do you s'pose it will be finished?" came Freckles' strident whisper.
For the first time the Angel looked at him. He was on his knees, leaning forward, his eyes directed toward the bird, the perspiration running in little streams down his red, mosquito-bitten face. His hat was awry, his bright hair rampant, his breast heaving with excitement, while he yet gripped the bulb with every ounce of strength in his body.
"Do you think we were for getting it?" he asked.
The Angel could only nod. Freckles heaved a deep sigh of relief.
"Well, if that ain't the hardest work I ever did in me life!" he exclaimed. "It's no wonder the Bird Woman's for coming out of the swamp looking as if she's been through a fire, a flood, and a famine, if that's what she goes through day after day. But if you think we got it, why, it's worth all it took, and I'm glad as ever you are, sure!"
They put the holders in the case, carefully closed the camera, set it in also, and carried it to the road.
Then Freckles exulted.
"Now, let's be telling the Bird Woman about it!" he shouted, wildly dancing and swinging his hat.
"We got it! We got it! I bet a farm we got it!"
Hand in hand they ran to the north end of the swamp, yelling "We got it!" like young Comanches, and never gave a thought to what they might do until a big blue-gray bird, with long neck and trailing legs, arose on flapping wings and sailed over the Limberlost.
The Angel became white to the lips and gripped Freckles with both hands. He gulped with mortification and turned his back.
To frighten her subject away carelessly! It was the head crime in the Bird Woman's category. She extended her hands as she arose, baked, blistered, and dripping, and exclaimed: "Bless you, my children! Bless you!" And it truly sounded as if she meant it.
"Why, why——" stammered the bewildered Angel.
Freckles hurried into the breach.
"You must be for blaming it every bit on me. I was thinking we got Little Chicken's picture real good. I was so drunk with the joy of it I lost all me senses and, 'Let's run tell the Bird Woman,' says I. Like a fool I was for running, and I sort of dragged the Angel along."
"Oh Freckles!" expostulated the Angel. "Are you loony? Of course, it was all my fault! I've been with her hundreds of times. I knew perfectly well that I wasn't to let anything—NOT ANYTHING—scare her bird away! I was so crazy I forgot. The blame is all mine, and she'll never forgive me."
"She will, too!" cried Freckles. "Wasn't you for telling me that very first day that when people scared her birds away she just killed them! It's all me foolishness, and I'll never forgive meself!"
The Bird Woman plunged into the swale at the mouth of Sleepy Snake Creek, and came wading toward them, with a couple of cameras and dripping tripods.
"If you will permit me a word, my infants," she said, "I will explain to you that I have had three shots at that fellow."
The Angel heaved a deep sigh of relief, and Freckles' face cleared a little.
"Two of them," continued the Bird Woman, "in the rushes—one facing, crest lowered; one light on back, crest flared; and the last on wing, when you came up. I simply had been praying for something to make him arise from that side, so that he would fly toward the camera, for he had waded around until in my position I couldn't do it myself. See? Behold in yourselves the answer to the prayers of the long-suffering!"
Freckles took a step toward her.
"Are you really meaning that?" he asked wonderingly. "Only think, Angel, we did the right thing! She won't lose her picture through the carelessness of us, when she's waited and soaked nearly two hours. She's not angry with us!"
"Never was in a sweeter temper in my life," said the Bird Woman, busily cleaning and packing the cameras.
Freckles removed his hat and solemnly held out his hand. With equal solemnity the Angel grasped it. The Bird Woman laughed alone, for to them the situation had been too serious to develop any of the elements of fun.
Then they loaded the carriage, and the Bird Woman and the Angel started for their homes. It had been a difficult time for all of them, so they were very tired, but they were joyful. Freckles was so happy it seemed to him that life could hold little more. As the Bird Woman was ready to drive away he laid his hand on the lines and looked into her face.
"Do you suppose we got it?" he asked, so eagerly that she would have given much to be able to say yes with conviction.
"Why, my dear, I don't know," she said. "I've no way to judge. If you made the exposure just before you came to me, there was yet a fine light. If you waited until Little Chicken was close the entrance, you should have something good, even if you didn't catch just the fleeting expression for which you hoped. Of course, I can't say surely, but I think there is every reason to believe that you have it all right. I will develop the plate tonight, make you a proof from it early in the morning, and bring it when we come. It's only a question of a day or two now until the gang arrives. I want to work in all the studies I can before that time, for they are bound to disturb the birds. Mr. McLean will need you then, and I scarcely see how we are to do without you."
Moved by an impulse she never afterward regretted, she bent and laid her lips on Freckles' forehead, kissing him gently and thanking him for his many kindnesses to her in her loved work. Freckles started away so happy that he felt inclined to keep watching behind to see if the trail were not curling up and rolling down the line after him.
Wherein the Angel Locates a Rare Tree and Dines with the Gang
From afar Freckles saw them coming. The Angel was standing, waving her hat. He sprang on his wheel and raced, jolting and pounding, down the corduroy to meet them. The Bird Woman stopped the horse and the Angel gave him the bit of print paper. Freckles leaned the wheel against a tree and took the proof with eager fingers. He never before had seen a study from any of his chickens. He stood staring. When he turned his face toward them it was transfigured with delight.
"You see!" he exclaimed, and began gazing again. "Oh, me Little Chicken!" he cried. "Oh me ilegant Little Chicken! I'd be giving all me money in the bank for you!"
Then he thought of the Angel's muff and Mrs. Duncan's hat, and added, "or at least, all but what I'm needing bad for something else. Would you mind stopping at the cabin a minute and showing this to Mother Duncan?" he asked.
"Give me that little book in your pocket," said the Bird Woman.
She folded the outer edges of the proof so that it would fit into the book, explaining as she did so its perishable nature in that state. Freckles went hurrying ahead, and they arrived in time to see Mrs. Duncan gazing as if awestruck, and to hear her bewildered "Weel I be drawed on!"
Freckles and the Angel helped the Bird Woman to establish herself for a long day at the mouth of Sleepy Snake Creek. Then she sent them away and waited what luck would bring to her.
"Now, what shall we do?" inquired the Angel, who was a bundle of nerves and energy.
"Would you like to go to me room awhile?" asked Freckles.
"If you don't care to very much, I'd rather not," said the Angel. "I'll tell you. Let's go help Mrs. Duncan with dinner and play with the baby. I love a nice, clean baby."
They started toward the cabin. Every few minutes they stopped to investigate something or to chatter over some natural history wonder. The Angel had quick eyes; she seemed to see everything, but Freckles' were even quicker; for life itself had depended on their sharpness ever since the beginning of his work at the swamp. They saw it at the same time.
"Someone has been making a flagpole," said the Angel, running the toe of her shoe around the stump, evidently made that season. "Freckles, what would anyone cut a tree as small as that for?"
"I don't know," said Freckles.
"Well, but I want to know!" said the Angel. "No one came away here and cut it for fun. They've taken it away. Let's go back and see if we can see it anywhere around there."
She turned, retraced her footsteps, and began eagerly searching. Freckles did the same.
"There it is!" he exclaimed at last, "leaning against the trunk of that big maple."
"Yes, and leaning there has killed a patch of dried bark," said the Angel. "See how dried it appears?"
Freckles stared at her.
"Angel!" he shouted, "I bet you it's a marked tree!"
"Course it is!" cried the Angel. "No one would cut that sapling and carry it away there and lean it up for nothing. I'll tell you! This is one of Jack's marked trees. He's climbed up there above anyone's head, peeled the bark, and cut into the grain enough to be sure. Then he's laid the bark back and fastened it with that pole to mark it. You see, there're a lot of other big maples close around it. Can you climb to that place?"
"Yes," said Freckles; "if I take off my wading-boots I can."
"Then take them off," said the Angel, "and do hurry! Can't you see that I am almost crazy to know if this tree is a marked one?"
When they pushed the sapling over, a piece of bark as big as the crown of Freckles' hat fell away.
"I believe it looks kind of nubby," encouraged the Angel, backing away, with her face all screwed into a twist in an effort to intensify her vision.
Freckles reached the opening, then slid rapidly to the ground. He was almost breathless while his eyes were flashing.
"The bark's been cut clean with a knife, the sap scraped away, and a big chip taken out deep. The trunk is the twistiest thing you ever saw. It's full of eyes as a bird is of feathers!"
The Angel was dancing and shaking his hand.
"Oh, Freckles," she cried, "I'm so delighted that you found it!"
"But I didn't," said the astonished Freckles. "That tree isn't my find; it's yours. I forgot it and was going on; you wouldn't give up, and kept talking about it, and turned back. You found it!"
"You'd best be looking after your reputation for truth and veracity," said the Angel. "You know you saw that sapling first!"
"Yes, after you took me back and set me looking for it," scoffed Freckles.
The clear, ringing echo of strongly swung axes came crashing through the Limberlost.
"'Tis the gang!" shouted Freckles. "They're clearing a place to make the camp. Let's go help!"
"Hadn't we better mark that tree again?" cautioned the Angel. "It's away in here. There's such a lot of them, and all so much alike. We'd feel good and green to find it and then lose it."
Freckles lifted the sapling to replace it, but the Angel motioned him away.
"Use your hatchet," she said. "I predict this is the most valuable tree in the swamp. You found it. I'm going to play that you're my knight. Now, you nail my colors on it."
She reached up, and pulling a blue bow from her hair, untied and doubled it against the tree. Freckles turned his eyes from her and managed the fastening with shaking fingers. The Angel had called him her knight! Dear Lord, how he loved her! She must not see his face, or surely her quick eyes would read what he was fighting to hide. He did not dare lay his lips on that ribbon then, but that night he would return to it. When they had gone a little distance, they both looked back, and the morning breeze set the bit of blue waving them a farewell.
They walked at a rapid pace.
"I am sorry about scaring the birds," said the Angel, "but it's almost time for them to go anyway. I feel dreadfully over having the swamp ruined, but isn't it a delight to hear the good, honest ring of those axes, instead of straining your ears for stealthy sounds? Isn't it fine to go openly and freely, with nothing worse than a snake or a poison-vine to fear?"
"Ah!" said Freckles, with a long breath, "it's better than you can dream, Angel. Nobody will ever be guessing some of the things I've been through trying to keep me promise to the Boss, and to hold out until this day. That it's come with only one fresh stump, and the log from that saved, and this new tree to report, isn't it grand? Maybe Mr. McLean will be forgetting that stump when he sees this tree, Angel!"
"He can't forget it," said the Angel; and in answer to Freckles' startled eyes she added, "because he never had any reason to remember it. He couldn't have done a whit better himself. My father says so. You're all right, Freckles!"
She reached him her hand, and as two children, they broke into a run when they came closer the gang. They left the swamp by the west road and followed the trail until they found the men. To the Angel it seemed complete charm. In the shadiest spot on the west side of the line, at the edge of the swamp and very close Freckles' room, they were cutting bushes and clearing space for a big tent for the men's sleeping-quarters, another for a dining-hall, and a board shack for the cook. The teamsters were unloading, the horses were cropping leaves from the bushes, while each man was doing his part toward the construction of the new Limberlost quarters.
Freckles helped the Angel climb on a wagonload of canvas in the shade. She removed her leggings, wiped her heated face, and glowed with happiness and interest.
The gang had been sifted carefully. McLean now felt that there was not a man in it who was not trustworthy.
They all had heard of the Angel's plucky ride for Freckles' relief; several of them had been in the rescue party. Others, new since that time, had heard the tale rehearsed in its every aspect around the smudge-fires at night. Almost all of them knew the Angel by sight from her trips with the Bird Woman to their leases. They all knew her father, her position, and the luxuries of her home. Whatever course she had chosen with them they scarcely would have resented it, but the Angel never had been known to choose a course. Her spirit of friendliness was inborn and inbred. She loved everyone, so she sympathized with everyone. Her generosity was only limited by what was in her power to give.
She came down the trail, hand in hand with the red-haired, freckled timber guard whom she had worn herself past the limit of endurance to save only a few weeks before, racing in her eagerness to reach them, and laughing her "Good morning, gentlemen," right and left. When she was ensconced on the wagonload of tenting, she sat on a roll of canvas as a queen on her throne. There was not a man of the gang who did not respect her. She was a living exponent of universal brotherhood. There was no man among them who needed her exquisite face or dainty clothing to teach him that the deference due a gentlewoman should be paid her. That the spirit of good fellowship she radiated levied an especial tribute of its own, and it became their delight to honor and please her.
As they raced toward the wagon—"Let me tell about the tree, please?" she begged Freckles.
"Why, sure!" said Freckles.
He probably would have said the same to anything she suggested. When McLean came, he found the Angel flushed and glowing, sitting on the wagon, her hands already filled. One of the men, who was cutting a scrub-oak, had carried to her a handful of crimson leaves. Another had gathered a bunch of delicate marsh-grass heads for her. Someone else, in taking out a bush, had found a daintily built and lined little nest, fresh as when made.
She held up her treasures and greeted McLean, "Good morning, Mr. Boss of the Limberlost!"
The gang shouted, while he bowed profoundly before her.
"Everyone listen!" cried the Angel, climbing a roll of canvas. "I have something to say! Freckles has been guarding here over a year now, and he presents the Limberlost to you, with every tree in it saved; for good measure he has this morning located the rarest one of them all: the one in from the east line, that Wessner spoke of the first day—nearest the one you took out. All together! Everyone! Hurrah for Freckles!"
With flushing cheeks and gleaming eyes, gaily waving the grass above her head, she led in three cheers and a tiger. Freckles slipped into the swamp and hid himself, for fear he could not conceal his pride and his great surging, throbbing love for her.
The Angel subsided on the canvas and explained to McLean about the maple. The Boss was mightily pleased. He took Freckles and set out to re-locate and examine the tree. The Angel was interested in the making of the camp, so she preferred to remain with the men. With her sharp eyes she was watching every detail of construction; but when it came to the stretching of the dining-hall canvas she proceeded to take command. The men were driving the rope-pins, when the Angel arose on the wagon and, leaning forward, spoke to Duncan, who was directing the work.
"I believe if you will swing that around a few feet farther, you will find it better, Mr. Duncan," she said. "That way will let the hot sun in at noon, while the sides will cut off the best breeze."
"That's a fact," said Duncan, studying the conditions.
So, by shifting the pins a little, they obtained comfort for which they blessed the Angel every day. When they came to the sleeping-tent, they consulted her about that. She explained the general direction of the night breeze and indicated the best position for the tent. Before anyone knew how it happened, the Angel was standing on the wagon, directing the location and construction of the cooking-shack, the erection of the crane for the big boiling-pots, and the building of the store-room. She superintended the laying of the floor of the sleeping-tent lengthwise, So that it would be easier to sweep, and suggested a new arrangement of the cots that would afford all the men an equal share of night breeze. She left the wagon, and climbing on the newly erected dining-table, advised with the cook in placing his stove, table, and kitchen utensils.
When Freckles returned from the tree to join in the work around the camp, he caught glimpses of her enthroned on a soapbox, cleaning beans. She called to him that they were invited for dinner, and that they had accepted the invitation.
When the beans were steaming in the pot, the Angel advised the cook to soak them overnight the next time, so that they would cook more quickly and not burst. She was sure their cook at home did that way, and the CHEF of the gang thought it would be a good idea. The next Freckles saw of her she was paring potatoes. A little later she arranged the table.