"Do ye believe what she says when the bats be a flyin' round in her head, and when she sees the good land for you and myself, Flukey?"
"Did she say somethin' 'bout a good land for us, Flea?"
"Where's the good land?"
"Down behind the college hill, many a stretch from here—and, Flukey, I ain't a goin' to Lena's, and ye ain't likin' to be a thief. Will ye come and find the good land with me?"
"Girls can't run away like boys can. They ain't able to bear hurt."
Flea dropped her head with a blush of shame. She knew well that Flukey could perform wonderful feats which she had been unable to do. Grandma'm Cronk had told her that her dresses made the difference between her ability and Flukey's. With this impediment removed, she could turn her face toward the shining land predicted by Scraggy for Flukey and herself; she could follow her brother over hills and into valleys, until at last—
"I could wear a pair of yer pants and be a boy, too, and you could chop off my hair," she exclaimed. "All I want ye to do is to grow to be a man quick, and to lick Lem Crabbe if he comes after me. Will ye? Screechy says he's goin' to follow me."
"I'll lick him anywhere," cried the boy, his tears rising; "and if ye has to go to him, and he as much as lays a finger on ye, I'll kill him!"
His face was so rigidly drawn during his last threat that he hissed the words out through his teeth.
"Then ye'd get yer neck stretched," argued Flea, "and I ain't a goin' to him. We be goin' away to the good land down behind the college hill."
"When?" demanded Flukey.
"Tonight," replied Flea. "Ye go and get some duds for me,—a shirt and the other pair of yer jeans. Crib Granny's shears to cut my hair off. Then we'll start. See? And we ain't never comin' back. Pappy Lon hates me, and he's licked ye all he's goin' to. Git along and crib the duds!"
She rose to her feet, nervously breaking away the little rivers of grease that had hardened upon her hand and wrist.
"Ye've got to get into the hut in the dark," she said, "and then ye stand at the mouth of the cave while I put on the things."
"How be we goin' to live when we go?" asked Flukey dully, making no move to obey her.
"We'll live in the good land where there be lots of bread and 'lasses," she soothed; "the two dips in the dish at one time—jest think of that, ole skate!"
He tried to smile at her forced jocularity; but the hunted expression saddened his eyes again. To these children, brought up animal-like in the midst of misery and hate, their world revolved round their stomachs, too often empty. But this new trouble—the terror of Flea's going with Lem—had made a man of Flukey, and bread and molasses sank into oblivion. He was ready to shield her from the thief with his life.
"Get along!" ordered Flea.
Instead of obeying, the boy sat down on a rounded stone. "I'd a runned away along ago, if it hadn't been, for you, Flea."
"I know that you love me," said the girl brokenly; "I know that, all right!"
"I couldn't have stood Pappy Lon nor Lem nor none of the rest," groaned Flukey, "and I was to tell ye tonight to let me go, and I would come back for ye; but if ye be made to go with Lem—"
"That makes ye take me with you," gasped Flea eagerly. "Huh?"
"Yep, that makes me take ye with me, Flea; but if we go mebbe sometimes we have to go without no bread."
There was warning in his tones; for he had heard stories of other lads who had left the settlement and had returned home lank, pale, and hungry.
"I've been out o' bread here," encouraged Flea. "Granny's put me to bed many a time, and no supper. Get along, will ye?"
"Yep, I'm goin'; but I can't leave Snatchet. We can take my dorg, Flea. Where's he gone?"
"We'll take him," promised Flea. "He's in the wood-house. Scoot and get the duds and him!"
The boy toiled up the rocks to the top of the cave, and Flea heard his departing steps for a moment, then seated herself in tremulous fear.
Flukey pushed open the cabin door, listened a moment, and stepped in. No sound save of loud breathing came from the back room where the old woman slept. At the top of the ladder he could hear Lon snoring loudly. Flukey crawled upon his knees to a small box against the wall. He pulled out a pair of brown overalls and a blue shirt, and with great caution crept back. Almost before Flea realized that he had gone, he was in the cave again with Snatchet in his arms, displaying his plunder.
"Put 'em on quick!" ordered Flukey. "Here, hold still!" As he spoke, he gathered Flea's black curls into his fingers and cut them off boylike to her head. "If Pappy Lon catches us," he went on, "he'll knock hell out of us both."
The girl, having surrendered her spirit of command, crawled into the trousers and donned the blue shirt. After extinguishing the candle, which Flukey slipped into his pocket, they clambered out of the cave, leaving the rocky floor strewn with locks of hair, and stole softly along the shore toward the college hill.
Horace Shellington, newly fledged attorney and counsellor-at-law, sat in his luxurious library, his feet cocked upon the desk in true bachelor fashion. He was apparently deep in thought, his handsome head resting against the back of the chair, when his meditations were broken by a knock at the door.
"Come in. Is it you, Sis?" he said.
"Yes, Dear," was the answer as the girl entered. "Everett wants us to go in his party to the Dryden fair. Would you like to?"
Horace glanced up quizzically and smiled as the blush mounted to her fair hair. "The question, Ann dear, rests with you."
"I never tire being with Everett," Ann said slowly.
"That's because you're in love with him, Sis. When a girl is in love she always wants to be with the lucky chap."
"And doesn't he want to be with her?" demanded Ann eagerly.
"Of course. And, Ann, I shouldn't ask for a better fellow than Everett is, only that I don't want you to leave me right away. Without you, Dear, I think I should die of the blue devils!"
"Do you want me to stay at home until you, too, get ready to marry?" Ann asked laughingly. "I'm afraid I should never have a chance to help Everett make a home if you did; for you simply won't like any of the girls I know."
"I want to get well started in my profession before I think of marrying. I am happy over the fact that I have been able to enter Vandecar's law office. He's the strongest man in the state in his line, and it means New York for me some day. Vandecar is even more powerful than Brimbecomb."
"I'm glad for you, Horace, because it seems to me that you have an opportunity that few men have. Nothing can ever keep you back! And you are so very young, Dear!"
"No, nothing can keep me back now, Ann. Sit down, do."
"Not now, Dear; I'll run away from you, and tell Everett that you will go to Dryden with us—and I do hope that the weather will be fine!"
Ann tripped out, her heart light with contentment. Her star of happiness had reached its zenith when Everett Brimbecomb had asked her to be his wife. Rich in her own right, of the bluest blood in the state, soon to marry the man who had been her ideal since their childhood days, why should she not be happy?
After leaving Horace, Ann went to the side window and tapped upon it. Receiving no response, she lifted the sash and called softly to her fiance. Hearing her voice, Everett Brimbecomb appeared at the opposite window. The girl's heart thrilled with happiness as he smiled upon her.
"Run over a minute, Everett," she called.
"All right, dear heart."
His voice was so vibrantly low and rich that the girl experienced a feeling of thanksgiving as she stood waiting for him at the door. When he came, the lovers went into the drawing-room, where a grate fire burned dim.
"Horace says he'll go to Dryden, Everett," Ann announced, "and I'm so glad! I thought he might say that he was too busy."
Everett smiled, slipped his arm about the girl's waist, and for a moment she leaned against him like a frail, sweet flower.
Presently Ann noticed that a shadow had settled on her lover's face. Womanlike, she questioned him.
"Is there anything the matter, Dear?" she asked, drawing him to the divan.
"Nothing serious. I've been talking with Father."
She waited for him to continue; but he sat silent, wrapped in thought for a long minute. At last, however, he spoke gloomily:
"Ann, I wish I knew who my own people were."
"Aren't you satisfied with those you have, Everett?" There was sweet reproof in the girl's tones.
"More than satisfied," he said; "but somehow I feel—no I won't say it, Ann. It would seem caddish to you."
"Nothing you could say to me would seem that," she answered.
Everett rose and walked up and down the room. "Well, it seems to me that, although the blood of the Brimbecomb's is blue, mine is bluer still; that, while they have many famous ancestors, I have still more illustrious ones. I feel sometimes a longing to run wild and do unheard-of things, and to make men know my strength, to—well, to virtually turn the world upside down."
A frightened look leaped into the girl's eyes. He was so vehement, so passionate, so powerful, that at times she felt how inferior in temperment she was to him. Her heart swelled with gratitude when she realized that he belonged to her and to her alone. How good God had been! And every day in the solitude of her chamber she had thanked the Giver of every gift for this perfect man—since he was perfect to her. In a few moments she rose and walked beside him, longing to enter into the hidden ambitions of his heart, to read his innermost thoughts. Everett appreciated her feeling. Again he passed his arm around her, and for a time they paced to and fro, each thankful for the love that had become the chief thing in life.
"I have an idea, Ann," began Everett presently, "that my mother will know me by the scar on me here." He raised his fingers to his shoulder and drew them slowly downward as he continued. "And I know that she is some wild, beautiful thing different from any other woman living. And I've pictured my father in my mind's eyes a million times, since I have found out I am not really Everett Brimbecomb."
"But Mr. and Mrs. Brimbecomb have done everything for you—"
"So they have," broke in Everett; "but a chap wants to know his own flesh and blood, and, since Mother told me that I was not her own son, I've looked into the face of every woman I've seen and wondered if my own mother was like her. I don't want to seem ungrateful; but if they would only tell me more I could rest easier." A painful pucker settled between his brows.
"Sit down here, Everett," Ann urged, "and tell me if you have ever tried to find them."
"I asked my fath—Mr. Brimbecomb today." His faltering words and the change of appellation shocked Ann; but she did not chide him, for he was speaking again. "I told him that, now I was through college and had been admitted to the bar, I insisted upon knowing who my own people were. But he said that I must ask his wife; that she knew, and would tell me, if she desired me to know. I promised him long ago that I would register in his law office at the same time that Horace went to Vandecar's. Confound it, Ann!—I beg your pardon, but I feel as if I had been created for something more than to drone over petty cases in a law office."
"But, Everett, it has been understood ever since you went to Cornell that you should enter Mr. Brimbecomb's office. You would not fail him now that he is so dependent upon you?"
"Of course not; I intend to work with him. But I tell you this, Ann, that I am determined to find my own people at whatever cost!"
"Did you ask Mrs. Brimbecomb about them?"
"Yes; but she cried so that I stopped—and so it goes! Well, Dear, I don't want to worry you. It only makes a little more work for me, that's all. But, when I do find them, I shall be the proudest man in all the world."
Ann rose to her feet hastily. "Here comes Horace! Let's talk over the fair—and now, Dear, I must kiss away those naughty lines between your eyes this moment. I don't want my boy to feel sad."
She kissed him tenderly, and turned to meet her brother.
"I was tired of staying in there alone," said Horace. "Hello, Everett! It was nice of you, old chap, to ask me along to Dryden. That's my one failing in the fall—I always go. Let me see—you didn't go last year, did you, Everett?"
"No; but I knew that Ann wanted to go this year, and I thought a party would be pleasant. I asked Katherine Vandecar; but her aunt is such an invalid that Katherine can scarcely ever leave her."
"Mrs. Vandecar is ill," said Ann. "I called there yesterday, and she is the frailest looking woman I ever saw."
"She's never got over the loss of her children," rejoined Everett. "It's hard on Vandecar, too, to have her ill. He looks ten years older than he is."
"Yes; but their little Mildred is such a comfort to them both!" interjected Ann. "They watch the child like hawks. I suppose it's only natural after their awful experience. Isn't it strange that two children could disappear from the face of the earth and not a word be heard from them in all these years?"
"They're probably dead," replied Horace gently, and silence fell upon them.
Flea and Flukey Cronk, followed by the yellow dog, made their way farther and farther from Ithaca. They had left the university in the distance, when a dim streak of light warned them that day was approaching. It was here that Flea lagged behind her brother.
"Ye're tired, Flea," said Flukey.
"Will ye crawl into a haystack if we come to one?"
They spoke no more until, farther on, a farmhouse, with dark barns in the rear, loomed up before them.
"Ye wait here, Flea," said Flukey, "till I see where we can sleep."
After an absence of a few minutes he returned and in silence conducted the girl by a roundabout way to a newly piled stack of hay.
"I burried a place for us both," he whispered. "Ye crawl in first, Flea, and I'll bring in Snatchet. Lift yer leg up high and ye'll find the hole."
A minute later they were tucked away from the cold morning, their small faces overshadowed by the new-mown hay, and here, through the morning hours, they slept soundly. Then again they set forth, and it was late in the afternoon when they drew up before the high fence encircling the fair-grounds at Dryden. The fall fair was in full blast. Crowds were passing in and out of the several gates. With longing heart, first Flea, then Flukey, placed an eye to a knothole, to watch the proceedings inside. Rows of sleek cattle waved their blue and red ribbons jauntily in the breeze; fat pigs, with the owners' names pasted on the cards in front, grunted in small pens. For a time the twins stood side by side, wishing with all their might that they were possessed of the necessary entrance-fee.
"If I could get a job," said Flukey, "we could get in."
"I could work, too," said Flea, her hands dug deep in her trousers pockets.
Just then a man hailed them. "Want to get in, Kids?" he asked.
"Yep!" bawled Flea and Flukey in unison, their hunger forgotten in this new delight.
"Then help me carry in those boards, and then you can stay in."
Flukey looked apprehensively at Flea.
"Ye ain't a boy—"
"Shet up!" snapped Flea. "My pants're as long as your'n, and I be a boy till we get to the good land. Heave a board on my shoulder, Fluke."
They slid through the opening in the fence made to pass in the lumber, and for ten minutes aided their new friend by carrying plank after plank into the fair-grounds. When the work was done they stood awe-stricken, looking at the gorgeous surroundings. Flags waved aloft on each building; yards of bunting roped in exhibits of all kinds. Everywhere persons were walking to and fro. But still the squatter children stood motionless and stared with wide-open eyes at such an array of good things as had never before gladdened their sight. Then, after the strangeness had somewhat worn off, they wandered on, bewildered. Snatchet was hugged tight in Flukey's arms; for other dogs laid back their ears and growled at the yellow cur.
Suddenly they came upon the athletic field. Here, reared high in the air, was a slender greased pole, on the top of which fluttered a five-dollar bill. Several youngsters, dressed in bathing suits, awaited the hour when they should be allowed to try and win the money. One after another they took their turn, and when an extra spurt up the pole was made by some lucky boy the crowd evinced its delight by loud cheers. Time and again the breeze fluttered the coveted money, and yet no boy had won the prize.
"I'd like to try it," said Flukey.
"If we couldn't get it with bathing suits, you couldn't climb that pole with them long pants," retorted one of the contestants who stood near. "Look! that kid's goin' to get it, after all!" There was disappointment in the tones; but the words had no sooner died away than the climber slipped to the ground.
Flea pinched Flukey's arm. "Be yer knee so twisted that ye can't try, Flukey?"
"Nope, my rheumatiz ain't hurtin' me now."
"Then shinny up it, Fluke—ye can climb it! Get along there!"
She took the dog from his arms, and the boy went forward when the call came for another aspirant.
"I'm goin' to get that there bill!" said Flukey, shutting his teeth firmly.
He advanced and spoke in an undertone to a man, who, with a grin, shouted out the name, "Mr. F. Cronk."
The dignity of the prefix made Flukey spit upon his hands before he started to climb the pole. Flea came closer and stood almost breathless. Her parted lips showed small, even, white teeth, her eyes glistened, and flashes of red blood crimsoned her face. One suspender slipping from her shoulder, the vicious dog in her arms, the beautiful upturned face, was as interesting a spectacle as the onlookers had ever seen. It was with breathless interest that she watched her brother laboriously ascend the pole.
Flukey was indeed making a masterful climb. But at last he halted; and then, a moment later, he climbed desperately. The girl on the ground saw him falter, and knew that he was becoming faint-hearted. To encourage him, she lifted a voice broken by emotion and shouted:
"Go it, Fluke, go it!... Aw! damn it, he slid!... Go it, ole feller! Git there, git there! Ye're almost there, Fluke—git it! It's a dinner—it's a bone for Snatchet, and we'll eat!... Damn it! he slid again!... Aw! hell!"
Flukey gained the space he had lost in his last slide. Halfway up, he began again, the men cheering and the women waving handkerchiefs. But the boy had heard only the words from the little figure under the pole. The five dollars did mean a good dinner, and a bone for lean Snatchet. Up, up, and still up, until his fingers grasped the pole very near the top.
There he rested for breath. For a few seconds his head drooped on his shoulders, and absolute quiet reigned below. His slender legs encircled the pole, and finally, with a painful effort, he lifted out the pin stuck in the bill, grasped the money in his fingers, and instantly slid to the ground. Laughs and cheers roared into the air. Flea had backed away from the pole, still holding the small dog; but, before she could get to Flukey, other boys were surrounding him, asking how he had done it.
* * * * *
A sudden shouting came from hundreds of throats. One voice raised above the clamor:
"Anyone catching the greased pig, Squeaky, can have him. He's a fine roaster! After him, Boys!"
Over a knoll, his tiny nose swaying in the air, and four short legs kicking the dust into clouds, skurried a small pig, coated from head to tail with lard. Deftly he slipped for his life through many youthful hands stretched out to grasp him, and time and again he wriggled from under a small boy crouched to stop his progress. He passed the danger-mark, and in the new stretch of ground, where the spectators were standing, discerned a chance to escape.
Flea saw him coming and could detect the terror in the flying little beast. Her heart leaped up in answer to the call from something in distress—something she loved, loved because it lived and suffered through terrible fear. She dropped Snatchet and caught the greased pig in her arms. She hugged him up to her breast and, turning flashing eyes upon the people staring at her, said:
"Poor little baby piggy! He's scared almost to death."
"You've caught the greased pig!" somebody shouted. "You can have him—he's yours!"
"Ye mean mine to keep?" Flea demanded of the man who had cheered on the boys.
"Yes, to keep," was the reply, "and this five-dollar gold-piece because you caught him."
"I didn't try to catch him," she said simply. "He jest comed to me 'cause he were so afeard. His little heart's a beatin' like as if he's goin' to die. I'll keep him, and I thank ye for the money.... Golly! but ain't me and Flukey two rich kids? Where's Fluke?"
Just then somebody stepped up behind the girl and touched her on the arm. Flea turned her head and found herself gazing into the kindly eyes and earnest face of her prince.
Instantly she lost all thought of her brother and Snatchet. The voice she had dreamed of was speaking.
"Little boy," it said, "I've purchased every year the greased pig of the youngster who caught him. May I buy him of you? I'll give you another gold-piece for him."
Words stuck in Flea's throat, and she only clung closer to the suckling. At last she murmured, "What do ye want with him?"
The man threw back his head and laughed. "Why, to eat him, of course. We always have roast pig for dinner the day after the fair."
Flea dug her toe into the dust and flung up a cloud of it, as her face drew into a sulky frown. "Well," she drawled, "ye don't hog down this 'un! He's mine!"
"But the money, Boy! Don't you want the money?"
Her heart was beating so fast that she dared not lift her eyes again to his. Then a lady spoke in a soft voice, and Flea glanced at her.
"This is Mr. Horace Shellington," she said, "and if he did not have the pig he would be disappointed. You'll let him buy it, won't you?"
Flea looked into the questioning face of her prince, the face of her dreams, looked again into his smiling eyes, and stood hesitant. Her thoughts flew fast. She remembered the terrified pig, how she had pitied him, and how much he wanted to live, to frisk in the sunshine. She thought of the cruel knife that would reach the tiny heart tapping against her own, and threw back her head in defiance.
"Ye may have e't all the greased pigs in this here country," she said to Shellington; "but ye don't eat this 'un! Ye see, this 'un's mine, and he's goin' to live, eat, and be happy, that's all!" Although she had spoken emphatically, her eyes dropped again before the keen gaze bent upon her. To relieve her embarrassment, she turned and shouted, "Flukey, Flukey, come along! Where's Snatchet?"
So great had been Flea's excitement at the catching of the pig that she had given no heed to the dog. Flukey had handed the little fellow to her, and she had let him go.
Suddenly an appalling spectacle rose before her. On an elevated spot, a few feet from the greased pole, Snatchet stood poised in view of hundreds of curious eyes. His short stubby tail had straightened out like a stick. His nose was lowered almost to the ground. Each yellow hair on his scarred back had risen separate and apart from one another, while his beady eyes glistened greedily. Directly in front of him, staring back with feathers ruffled and drooping wings, was a little brown hen, escaped from her coop. She was eying Snatchet impudently, daring him to approach her by perking her wee head saucily first on one side and then on the other. Snatchet, pressed on by hunger beating at his lean sides, slid rigidly a pace nearer. A cry went up from a childish voice.
"He'll kill my Queen Bess! Father—Oh! Father!"
Flukey's voice, calling to his dog, rose high above the clamor. Suddenly the little hen turned tail and flew across over the soft earth, uttering frightened cackles; but her flight was slow compared to Snatchet's. He came scurrying behind her, snapping a tail feather loose with each onward bound, utterly oblivious of the two strong voices calling his name.
The little hen wove a precarious path through coops of chattering chickens, and Snatchet, bent upon his prey, added to the din. He had no way of knowing the twists and turns to be taken by his small brown victim, and it was only by making sharp corners that Queen Bess kept clear of the snapping teeth. Men were running to and fro for something to beat off the yellow invader. The girl's voice had settled to a cry, and, just as Flukey, panting and tired, reached the dog, Snatchet snapped up the hen, shook her fiercely, and settled down to his meal. In an instant Flukey had dragged the beating body from his teeth, kicked him soundly with his bare foot, and held out the dead hen to a man whose face was darkened by anger. The young mistress of the feathered queen was clinging, sobbing, to his hand.
"Is that your dog?" Flea heard the man ask, pointing to Snatchet under the squatter boy's arm.
"Do you understand that he killed my little girl's prize hen?"
"The dog ought to die, too!" cried a voice from the people.
Her brother's sorrowful attitude made Flea press Flukey's arm soothingly.
"So he ought to die!" said another.
"He were hungry," explained Flukey, turning on Snatchet's accuser. "Mister, if ye'll let my dorg live—"
Before he could finish the child had interrupted him. "That dog ought to die for killing my Bess!"
Flea pushed past Flukey and stood before the little girl. "Kid, I don't blame ye for cryin' for yer hen," she began; "but my brother ain't got no dog but Snatchet, an' if ye'll let him live I'll give ye this bit of gold I got for catchin' the pig."
A murmur followed her words, and the tears dried in the blue eyes looking up at her.
"Here little 'un, chuck it in yer pocket," said Flea, straightening her shoulders, "and it'll buy another hen."
So the jury which had sat for a moment upon the precious life of Snatchet brought in a verdict of "not guilty," and the squatter children turned to find something to eat for the quartet of empty stomachs. Out of sight of Dryden, they sat down beside the road, and Flea looked the pig over.
"Ye has to tie a piece of cord to his leg, Kid," cautioned Flukey; "'cause he'll get away if ye don't. Ain't he fine?"
"The finest pig in this here world," responded Flea. "Ye ain't got no rag what'll wipe off some of this grease, have ye, Fluke?"
"Nope; but ye can scrape it off with a stick or a rock. Here, ye hold him tight while I dig at him."
For about twenty minutes they busied themselves with cleaning the suckling, laughing at his wriggles and squeaks.
"What'll we call him?" asked Flea.
"Squeaky," said Flukey, "that's what the man called out."
"Aw, that ain't nice enough for me! I'll call him Prince, and ye call him Squeaky—Prince Squeaky," she ended, knotting the cord Flukey had given her about the short hind leg of the animal.
"And we be rich," she declared later, "'most five dollars, a pig, and Snatchet, and yer leg's well. It don't hurt a bit, do it?"
"Nope, not now; but when I were at the top of that pole I got a damn good twist. It's better now."
"Then let's mog along," said Flea, "'cause we can eat all we want, now we got money."
For two weeks Flea and Flukey lived on the fat of the land. The country afforded them haystacks, and the brooks, clear water. The children were never happier than when Squeaky's nose was hidden in a tin can of buttermilk, and the precious five dollars bought countless numbers of currant buns, sugar cakes, and penny bones for Snatchet. Now Flukey lifted his head proudly and walked with the air of a boy on the road to fortune, and Flea kept at his side with the prince hugged close in her arms. Through the long stretch of houseless roads Snatchet was allowed to rove at will, and Flukey relieved his sister of her burden. By the third day out toward the promised land the two little animals had become firm friends, and the queer quartet walked on and on, as straight as the crow flies, through the valleys and over the hills, wading the creeks and ferrying the rivers, until they awoke one morning without money or breakfast. The warm hay at night, much sunshine, and the absence of rain had reduced the swollen joint in Flukey's knee to normal size; but that day, as they trudged along, Flea noticed that he limped more than at any time during their journey from Tompkins County. Even now, with hunger staring wolf-eyed at them, there was no desire to return to Ithaca, no thought of renewing their life in the squatter's settlement; for, unknown to themselves, they were being swept on by a common destiny.
"Ye're gettin' lame again," said Flea after awhile, the mother-feeling in her making her watch Flukey with concern. "Last night a-laying' in the field didn't do ye any good. Let me lug Prince Squeaky."
Without remonstrance, the boy surrendered the wriggling burden, and they started out once more.
"I wish we could find a nice, warm haystack," Flea commented; "it'd warm up yer bones. Will we get to one, Fluke, after awhile?"
"Nope, 'cause we're comin' to a big city."
As he spoke, he motioned to where Tarrytown lay on the banks of the Hudson River, several miles distant. Then they were silent a time; for each young life was busy with the tragedy of living. Just what they would do for a place to sleep Flea could not tell, since under the compact made in the rock-cavern they would steal no more.
In the gathering twilight the two came upon the cemetery of Sleepy Hollow, and here, tired, hungry, and despondent, they sat down to rest.
"It's gettin' night," said Flukey drearily. "I wonder where we'll sleep?"
"Can't we squirm in this dead man's yard 'thout nobody seein' us?" asked Flea, casting her eyes over the graves. "Ye can't walk no more tonight. I ain't hungry, anyhow."
"Ye lie, Flea!" moaned Flukey. "Yer belly's as empty as Squeaky's or Snatchet's. I've got to get ye somethin' to eat."
Nevertheless, without resistance, he allowed her to help him through the large gate, and they struck off into the older part of the cemetery. All through the night they lay dozing in the presence of the dead, Squeaky tied by the leg to a tree, and Snatchet snuggled warmly between the two children. The dawning of day brought Flukey new anguish; for both knees were swollen, and he groaned as he turned over.
Flea was up instantly. "Be ye sick?"
"Only the twist in my legs. I wish it wasn't so cold. If the sun would only get warm!"
"We'll get to the good land today, Fluke," soothed Flea, "and ye can eat all ye want, and sleep with a pile of covers on—as big—as big as that there vault yonder."
"But we ain't in the good land yet, Flea," groaned Flukey, "and we're all hungry. I wish I could 'arn a nickel. If ye didn't love the pig so much, Flea, we could sell him. He's a growin' thinner and thinner every minute, and Snatchet be that starvin' he could eat another mut bigger'n himself."
The girl made no answer to this, but tucked Squeaky's pink nose under the blue-shirted arm and sat mute.
Flukey, encouraged, went on. "Nobody'd buy Snatchet—he's only a poor, damn, shiverin' cuss."
"If we selled Prince Squeaky, some'un'd eat him," mourned Flea. "He ain't goin' to be e't, I says!"
So forceful were her tones that Flukey offered no more suggestions; but stared miserably at the sun as it rose up from the east, dispersing the cold, gray morning fog. Presently Flea stood up and said decisively:
"We've got to eat. Ye stay here while I hunt for somethin'."
She darted away before Flukey could remonstrate. For a long time the boy lay on the damp ground, his face drawn awry with pain, watching the wagons going back and forth on the road below. The pangs of hunger and the night of rheumatism had told upon his young strength. His mind went back to the hut on Cayuga Lake, and he thought of how when their absence had been discovered Granny Cronk had cried a little, and how Pappy Lon had cursed and grown more silent than ever. The tender heart of the sick boy yearned toward the old squatter woman, who had been the only mother he and Flea had ever known. In his loneliness he stroked Squeaky on the snout and muttered tender words to the lean dog lying under his lame leg. After a short time he saw Flea, with a small bundle in her hand, picking her way among the graves. Flukey lay perfectly quiet until his sister offered him a bun.
"I could only buy four, 'cause I only had a nickel."
"Give Squeaky and Snatchet one, will ye, Flea?" ventured Flukey.
"Yep. I said, when I buyed 'em, there'd be one apiece."
"Somethin' has made ye pale, Flea," said Flukey after each of the four had devoured breakfast. "Ye didn't—"
"I see Lem Crabbe's scow down by the river."
Flukey uttered an exclamation and sat up with a groan. "He's comin' after ye, Kid," he breathed desperately.
"Nope, he ain't," assured Flea; "he's takin' lumber down to New York. And he didn't see me. And we'll stay in this here graveyard till he's gone. He's waitin' for the steam tug to come. I guess he poled from Albany down when he couldn't use his mules."
"Were Pappy Lon with him?" asked Flukey, drawing up his knees.
"I dunno; I didn't wait to see. I had to 'arn this nickel."
"Ye didn't steal it, Flea?"
"Nope; I had it give to me for holdin' a horse. Ye believe me, Fluke?"
"Yep, I believe ye. And ye say as how we can't go on now to the good land? We has to stay here?"
"For awhile," replied Flea. "When Lem Crabbe goes to New York, then we go, too."
* * * * *
While hundreds of birds made ready for a long night in the elm trees, the twins turned silent. Flukey lay with his eyes closed in pain. The girl broke the quietude now and then by muttering softly the names on the gravestones over which her eyes roved:
"EVERETT BRIMBECOMB ONE YEAR OLD BELOVED SON OF AGNES AND HAROLD BRIMBECOMB. RESTING IN JESUS"
Flea read this over several times, and turned to Flukey.
"Who's Jesus, Fluke?" she asked.
The boy raised his head and opened his eyes languidly. "What? What'd ye say, Flea?"
"Who's Jesus?" she asked again, pointing to the inscription on the stone.
"I dunno. I guess he's some old feller layin' down in there with that kid."
Thus the day had passed and the night fell. Flukey dropped into a deep sleep, and Flea, huddling to the cold earth, settled closer to her brother in the sheltering darkness. Suddenly the girl aroused as if from a bad dream. She sat up, feeling for the pig and Snatchet, and placed her hand on Flukey's quiet body and lay down. Once more came the sound. It was the faint, distant hoot of an owl, stealing out through the tall trees. Nearer and nearer it came, until Flea sat bolt upright. Instantly into her mind shot the picture of a shriveled woman from the squatter country. A cold perspiration broke over her.
She turned her head slowly and looked off into the dark end of the cemetery, over which hung a mist. Through this veil the pale moon watched the earth with steady gaze. From among the monuments and time-scarred headstones, looming darkly in the forbidding silence, an apparition arose, and to Flea's vivid imagination it seemed as if voiceless gray ghosts were peopling God's Acre on all sides. She recoiled in horror as the strange, wild cry drew nearer.
A hysterical sensation burning in her throat tightened it so she could not speak to Flukey, nor could she drag her eyes from the thing moving toward her. Snatchet growled; but Flea pressed his jaws together with a snap, and the sound died in his throat. Squeaky moved slightly among the dead leaves, then became quiet again. The phantom-like figure passed almost near enough to touch the rigid girl. Its lips opened, and a hoarse, owl-like cry aroused the sleepy birds above.
"It's Screechy!" murmured Flea, dropping back in fear. "She's come seekin' Flukey and me! The bats be flyin' in her head!"
Screech Owl, ignorant of the children's proximity, went straight on, gliding over the graves until she stopped before the stone mansion at the edge of the graveyard. A light shone from the room, and the woman stole directly under it. A tall, handsome young man, his gaze centered thoughtfully upon the dark aspect, stood in the window. Flea saw Screechy hold out her arms toward him with an appealing gesture. He lifted his hand suddenly and drew down the shade, and his broad shoulders were silhouetted against it in sharp, black lines. After that the breathless girl saw the woman turn and stumble past her without a sound.
"The bats left her head the minute that there winder got dark!" gasped the watcher. Tremblingly she drew closer to Flukey, until sleep overpowered her.
* * * * *
The next day passed slowly, the cold rain lasting until almost nightfall, and yet the children dared not venture into the town. Flea fumed and fretted; for the earning of the nickel had whetted her ambition to earn more. Now she dared not go near the river where work could be found; but she knew that as soon as the tug appeared Lem Crabbe would go to New York. Probably by this time the scow was far on its way down the river. This was the decision at which the squatter twins arrived after weary hours of waiting. So, when the twilight again fell over the dead, they rose stiffly from their hiding place and limped to the road.
"We'll go back to the graveyard tonight, if this ain't the good land," murmured Flea. "We'll be safe there from Lem, Fluke."
"Wish we was rich like we was that fair-day, Flea," replied the boy, scarcely able to walk.
"I wish so, too. If we had that yeller gold-piece we coughed up for that damn brown hen, we'd eat. But I'd ruther have Snatchet, Fluke."
"I'd ruther have him, too; but we need money—"
"And when we get it," interrupted Flea, "Snatchet'll have a hunk of meat, and Prince Squeaky a bucket of buttermilk, and ye'll have liniment for yer legs, Fluke."
"Ye'll eat yerself first, Flea," said Flukey. "I saw ye when ye give the pig a bit of yer biscuit yesterday mornin'."
"We'll all eat in the good land," replied Flea hopefully.
By this time they had come to the gateway and turned into the street. Harold Brimbecomb's beautiful home was brilliantly lighted. It appeared the same to Flea as on the night before, when she had seen Scraggy make her melancholy play before it.
Flea had refrained from speaking of her midnight fright to Flukey; for he would but tell her that, like all girls, she was afraid, and a slur from her brother was more than she could bear.
Flea and Flukey had never been taught to pray, "Lead us not into temptation." Now, with aching hearts and empty stomachs, they turned in silence to the richly lighted houses. Flukey dragged himself resolutely past Brimbecomb's as if he would avoid the desire that suddenly pressed upon him to ply the trade in which he had been darkly instructed. But he halted abruptly before the next house, the curtains of which were pulled up halfway. The long windows reached to the porch floor. Through the clear glass the children saw a table dressed in all the gorgeousness of silver and crystal. At the spectacle a clamor for food set up in both aching stomachs, and the two passed as if by one accord to the porch. As they peered into the window with longing eyes, Squeaky was held tightly under Flea's arm; but Snatchet, resting wearily on Flukey's, suddenly sat up. He, too, had scented something to eat, and thrust in and out a lean red tongue over pointed, tusky teeth.
"It's time for me to steal, Flea," whispered Flukey, turning feverish eyes toward his sister.
"If you do it, Flukey, I'll do it with ye."
With no more ado, Flukey's practiced fingers silently slid up the sash. Two youthful bodies stepped through: the opening. In absolute quiet, they stood raggedly forlorn, savagely hungry, before the tempting table. There, was plenty to eat; so without a word the squatter girl placed Squeaky before a glass dish of salad. His small pink nose buried its tip from sight, and the food disappeared into the suckling's empty stomach. Snatchet, squatting on his haunches, snapped up a stuffed bird. Flea began to eat; but Flukey, now too ill, leaned against the red-papered wall.
Just at this critical moment the door opened, and Flea, greatly frightened, started back to the window. She blinked, brushed a dark curl from her eyes, and saw her Prince advancing toward her. He saw her, too; but did not connect her with the bare-footed girl on Cayuga Lake, but only with the boy who had kept from him the greased pig at the Dryden fair. He glanced at Squeaky calmly eating the salad and smiled.
"Bless my soul, Ann!" he said, turning to a lady who had followed him in, "we have company to dinner, or my name isn't Horace Shellington! Why didn't you young gentlemen wait, and we should all have been seated together?"
There was a whirling in Flukey's head, such as he had never felt before; but Flea's ashen face brought back his scattered senses. He tried to lift his arm to throw it about her; but dropped it with a groan. Realizing the agony that had swept over her dear one, Flea gathered in a deep breath and took his fevered hand in hers.
"It weren't him," she cried, lifting her eyes to her questioner and sullenly moving her head toward the shivering boy at her side. "I e't yer victuals—he didn't. If one of us goes to jail, I do—see?"
"Let me think," ruminated Horace, eying her gravely. "Six months is about the shortest sentence given to a fellow for breaking into a house. And what about the pig? I see him in the act of theft. Shall he go with you?"
"He were hungry, that's why Prince Squeaky stealed," exclaimed Flea, dropping Flukey's fingers. There was something in the kindly eyes of the man that forced her forward a step. She thrust out her hand in appealing anxiety. "We was all hungry," she continued, a dry sob strangling her. "Flukey nor me nor the pig nor Snatchet ain't e't in a long time. We did steal; but if I knowed it were yer house—"
A quizzical expression flashing into Shellington's eyes stopped her words.
"You wouldn't have come in?" he queried.
Flea nodded just as Snatchet jumped to the floor with another plump bird between his teeth. Flukey staggered to his sister's side.
"Let me tell ye how it was, Mister," he begged, his eyes bloodshot and restless. "We be lookin' for a good land where boys don't have to steal, and when they get sick they get well again."
Here Flea burst forth impetuously.
"He has such hellish rheumatiz that he can't set in no dark prison. I can set weeks among rats and bugs what be in all prisons! I ain't afraid of nothing what lives!"
Flukey interrupted her by taking her arm and pushing her back a little.
"I'm a thief by trade," he said; "but my sister ain't. She ain't never stole nothin' in all her life, she ain't. Take me, will ye, Mister?"
"Sister!" murmured the gentleman, turning to Flea.
If nothing else had been said, the question would have been answered in the affirmative by the vivid blush that dyed Flea's dark skin. Her embarrassment brought another exclamation from Flukey.
"She's a girl, all right! She's only tryin' to save me. She put on my pants jest to get away from Pappy Lon. I'll go to jail; but don't send her!"
He swayed blindly, closing his eyes with a moan.
"The child is sick, Horace," said Ann. "I think he is very sick."
"Where did you sleep last night?" Shellington asked this of Flea.
"Out there," answered the girl, pointing over her shoulder, "down by a big monument."
"Horace Shellington," gasped Ann, "they slept in the cemetery!"
The sharp tone of the girl's voice brought Flukey back to the present.
"We run away 'cause Pappy Lon were a makin' me steal when I didn't want to," he explained, clearing his throat, "and he was goin' to make Flea be Lem's woman. And that's the truth, Mister, and Lem wasn't goin' to marry her, nuther!"
He rambled on in a monotone as if too sick for inflection. Flea placed one arm about his neck.
"I'm a girl! I'm Flea Cronk!" she confessed brokenly. "And Flukey's doin' all this for me! And he's so sick! I stealed from yer table—he didn't! Will ye let him lay in yer barn tonight, if I go up for the stealin'?"
Never had Horace Shellington felt so keenly the sorrows of other human beings as when this girl, in her crude boy clothes, lifted her agonized, tearless eyes to his. His throat filled. Somehow, his whole soul went out to her, his being stirred to its depths. He put out one hand to touch Flea—when voices from the inner room stopped further speech. A light step, accompanied by a heavier one, approaching the dining-hall, brought his thoughts together.
"Ann," he appealed, stepping to his sister's side, "you're always wanting to do something for me—do it now. Let me settle this!"
Speaking to Flukey, he said, "Pick up your dog, Boy!"
"And the pig from the table!" groaned Ann distractedly.
* * * * *
Flukey mechanically stooped to obey, while Flea captured Squeaky and tucked the suckling under her arm just as Shellington opened the door to admit his guests. When Flea lifted her embarrassed gaze to the strangers, she saw the same face that had peered at her over Horace's shoulder at the Dryden fair, the face to which Screech Owl had made her silent appeal. A graceful girl followed, whose eyes expressed astonishment as Horace spoke.
"These are my young friends, you will remember, Everett, from the fair, Flea and Flukey Cronk." Turning his misty eyes upon the children he continued, "This is Mr. Brimbecomb, and Miss Katherine Vandecar, Governor Vandecar's niece."
He went through this introduction to gain control of his feelings.
"They have changed their minds, Everett, and have brought me the pig," he exclaimed. "It was kind of you, child!"
He had almost said "boy"; but, remembering the admission Flea had made, he gazed straight at her, watching with growing interest the changes that passed over the young face.
"You see," he hurried on nervously, "they found out where I lived, and thought I might still want the pig—"
Ann Shellington admonishingly touched her brother's arm. "Horace!" she urged; but he stopped her with a gesture.
"I think it mighty nice of them to come all the way from Dryden with a pig—on my soul, I do, Ann!"
Taking a silver case from his pocket, he extracted a cigarette from it, while directing his attention to Flea.
"I want it now as much as I did then; but I don't believe that I shall ever roast and eat him."
Flea searched the speaker's face fearfully, her eyes lustrous with melting tenderness. He had promised her that Squeaky should live; but was he going to send Flukey away? It was slow torture, this waiting for his verdict, each second measured full to the brim, each minute more agonizing than the last.
Horace Shellington was speaking again. "You see, Katherine," he said, turning to the younger girl, "I know this puzzles you; but these two youngsters won the pig at the fair, and I tried to buy it of them for a roast. Just at that time this little—chap—" he motioned toward Flea, "didn't want to part with it. He's changed his mind. You see the pig is here."
Miss Shellington did not supplement her brother's statement; but the tall stranger with the brilliant eyes gazed dubiously at the table and then down into Flea's face.
"I'll bet my hat," he said in a tone deep and rich, "that you boys have been thieving!"
Before the frightened girl could respond, the master of the house stepped between them; but not before Flea had caught an expression that took her back to Screech Owl's hut.
"For shame, Everett!" chided Horace. "I have just told you that they were trying to do me a favor. The pig has come a long way, and I gave him some—salad. There's plenty more in the larder."
It was hard for Horace Shellington to lie flagrantly, and his explanation sounded forced. The music in his voice pierced the childish lethargy of Flea's soul, awakening it to womanhood. Intuition told her that he had lied for her sake.
"And you gave him the birds, too?" Everett asked sneeringly, glancing at the scattered bones.
"No, I gave the dog the birds," replied Horace simply. "It seemed," he proceeded slowly, "that just at that moment I felt for the hungry dog and pig more than I did for my guests."
He had backed to his sister's side with an imploring glance, and allowed his hand to rest lightly on hers. She understood his message, and met his appeal.
"And now these young people have been so good to us," she said, "we ought to repay them with a good supper. If you will come with me, Boys, you shall have what you need.... Oh! Yes, you can bring both the dog and the pig."
A tranquil smile, sweet and pathetic, erased the pain-wrinkles from Flukey's face. Supper at last for his dear ones!
Ann held out her hand to him, and dazedly the sick lad took it in his hot fingers. Then, remembering Everett's disapprobation of the boys, she glanced into his face; but, meeting a studiously indifferent, slightly bored look, she led Flukey away.
Flukey was too ill, as he stumbled along, to dread the outcome of their act of theft. He realized only that a beautiful lady was leading Flea to a place where her hunger could be satisfied, and, as he felt the warmth of Ann's fingers permeate his own famished body, a great courage urged him forward. He would never again steal at Lon's command, and Flea would have to dread Lem no more! Something infinitely sweet, like new-coming life, entered his soul. It was the first exquisite joy that had come to Flukey Cronk. He stopped and disengaged his hand, to press it to his side as a pain made him gasp for breath. Then of a sudden he sank to the polished floor, still clinging to Snatchet.
"Missus," he muttered, "I can't walk no more. Jest ye leave me here and git the grub for Flea."
Flea turned sharply. "I don't eat when ye're sick, Fluke. The Prince says as how ye can sleep in the barn, and mebbe—mebbe he'll let me work for the victuals Snatchet and Squeaky stole."
Flea added this hopefully.
"Children," said Ann in a smothered voice, "listen to me! You're both welcome to all you've had, and more. The little dog and pig were welcome too."
Tears rose under her lids, and she turned her head away, that the twins might not see them. Ann Shellington, like her brother, had never before seen human misery depicted in small lives. At the mention of his dog, Flukey opened his eyes and turned his gaze upward.
"Thank ye, Lady," said he, "thank ye for what ye said about Snatchet. Ain't he a pink peach of a dorg, Ma'm?"
Ann inclined her head gently, glancing dubiously over the yellow pup. She could not openly admit that Snatchet resembled anything beautiful she had ever seen, when the boy, his lips twitching with agony, held his pet up toward her.
"Ye can take him, Ma'm," groaned Flukey. "He only bites bad 'uns like Lem Crabbe."
Snatchet, feeling the importance of the moment, lifted his head and shot forth a slavering tongue. As it came in contact with her fingers, Miss Shellington drew back a little. She had been used to slender-limbed, soft-coated dogs; this small, shivering mongrel, touching her flesh with a tongue roughly beaded, sent a tremor of disgust over her. Flea stepped forward, took Snatchet from her brother, and tucked him away under the arm opposite the one Squeaky occupied.
"Ye'll go to the barn, Fluke," she said, "and ye'll go damn quick! The lady'll let ye, and Snatchet'll go with ye. Squeaky sleeps with me."
Ann coughed embarrassedly. "Children," she began, "we couldn't let the dog and pig sleep in the house; neither could we allow you to sleep in the barn. So, if you will let the coachman take your pets, I'll see that you, Boy, go into a warm bed, and you," Ann turned to Flea, "must have some supper and other clothes. Your brother is very ill, I believe, and I think we ought to have a doctor."
Flea pricked up her ears, and a sad smile crossed her lips. "Ye mean, Ma'm," said she, "that Flukey can sleep in a real bed and have doctor's liniments for his bones?"
Ann nodded. "Yes. Now then hurry!... Look at that poor little boy!"
Flukey was on his knees, leaning against the wall, his feverish fingers clutching his curls.
"Horace! Horace!" called Ann.
Shellington opened the dining-room door and went out hurriedly, leaving Everett Brimbecomb and Katherine Vandecar still surveying the disarranged table.
"It all seems strange to me, Katherine; I mean—this," said Everett, waving his hand. "I scarcely believed Horace when he said he had allowed it."
As he spoke, he approached the table and lifted the soiled cloth between his fingers.
"You can see for yourself," he said, "the marks of the pig's feet on the linen."
Katherine examined the spots. "But it really doesn't matter, does it?" she said. "The poor little animals were hungry, and Horace has such a big heart!" and she sighed.
Everett made an angry gesture. "But I object to Ann having anything to do with such—" he hesitated and finished, "such youngsters. There's no need of it."
"Oh, Everett—but those two children must be cared for! Horace will come back in a few minutes, and then we'll know all about it."
"In the meantime I'm hungry," grumbled Everett, "and if we're going to the theater—"
He had no time to finish his sentence before Horace, with a grave countenance, opened the door.
"I'm sorry, Katherine," he apologized, and then stopped; for he noticed Everett's face dark with anger. Shellington did not forget that his friends had come to dinner; but he had just witnessed a scene that had touched his heart, and he determined to make both of his guests understand it also.
"The evening has turned out differently from what Ann and I expected," he explained. "The fact is that sister can't go to the theater, and I feel that I ought to stay with her. So, we'll order another dinner, and then, Everett, if you and Katherine don't—" His fingers had touched the bell as he was speaking; but Everett stopped him.
"If the boy is too ill to be taken to a hospital," he said coldly, "Ann might be persuaded to leave him with the servants."
"Yes, I suggested that," answered Horace; "but she refused. The boy has somehow won her heart, and the doctor will be here at any moment."
A servant appeared, and in a half-hour the table was spread with another dinner. Ann's coming to the dining-room did not raise the spirits of the party; for her eyes were red from weeping, and she refused to eat.
"I've never known before, Everett," she said, "that children could suffer as that little boy does."
"And you shouldn't know it now, Ann, if I had my way," objected Brimbecomb. "There's a strong line drawn between their kind and ours, and places have been provided for such people. I really want you to come with us tonight."
In sharp astonishment, Ann turned on him.
"Oh, I really couldn't, Everett!" she said, beginning to sob. "I shouldn't enjoy one moment of the time, while thinking of that poor child. You take Katherine, and say to Governor and Mrs. Vandecar that we couldn't come tonight. Tell them about it or not as you please. They are both good and kind, and will understand."
Her tears had ceased during the latter part of her speech; for the frown had deepened on Everett's brow, bringing determination to her own. Never before had she been forced to exercise her wish above his, and Brimbecomb was not prepared for it. Something new had been born in the large, sad eyes turned to his, something he did not comprehend, and he inwardly cursed the squatter children.
At eight o'clock Everett handed Katherine into the carriage and gloomily took his place beside her. They were late at the theater by several minutes, when he brushed aside the curtain and ushered Miss Vandecar into the Governor's box. Mrs. Vandecar was seated in the far corner, her attention directed upon the play. Vandecar rose quietly, and before resuming his seat waited until his niece had taken her place. Then they were silent until the curtain fell after the first act.
"Where are Horace and Ann?" asked Mrs. Vandecar of Everett. "Ann telephoned me at dinner-time that she would be here."
Everett inclined his head toward Katherine, and the girl explained the situation. When she had added pathos to the story by telling of Flukey's illness, Mrs. Vandecar broke in.
"I'm glad Ann stayed, dear girl! It's like her to nurse that sick child." She said no more; but turned away with misty eyes.
During the next act the Governor drew near her, and amid the shadows of the darkened box, took up the slender fingers and held them until the lights flashed upon the falling curtain. Both had gone back in memory to those dreadful days when tragedy had cast its somber shadows over them.
* * * * *
The doctor had predicted a serious illness for Flukey. Ann and Horace held an earnest conversation about it. Miss Shellington's maid had been instructed to relieve Flea of her boy's attire and clothe her in some of Ann's garments. Horace led his sister to the room where Flukey lay, and suggested that Flea be called.
A servant appeared at the touch of the bell.
"Tell the boy's sister to come here," said Horace.
When Flea knocked at the door a few minutes later, he bade her enter. Suppressing her pleasure and surprise at the girl's loveliness, Ann walked forward to meet her; but the little stranger backed timidly against the door and flashed a blushing glance at the man.
The mauve dressing-gown, reaching to the floor, displayed to advantage the girl's lithe figure, accentuating its long, graceful lines. The bodice, opened at the neck, exposed the slender white throat, around which the summer's sun had tanned a ruddy ring. Her hair had been parted in the center and twined in adorable curls about the young head.
The transformation drew an untactful ejaculation from Horace, and he stared intently at the sensitive face. Flea's gray eyes, after the first hasty glance at him, sought Flukey.
"Flukey ain't so awful sick, be he?" she questioned fearfully.
Ann passed an arm tenderly around her. "Yes, child, he is very ill. My brother and I want to speak to you about him."
"But he ain't goin' dead?"
Her tone brought Horace nearer. In spite of Flea's somberness, the bouyancy of her youth obliterated the memory of every other girl he knew. He was confounded by the thought that a short time before she had stood as a ragged boy before him. She had been transformed into womanhood by Ann's clothing.
Flea bent over Flukey and hid her face. Even when Horace had discovered the pig in the salad, her embarrassment had been of small moment to this. After an instant, she lifted her eyes from her muttering brother and allowed them to fall upon her Prince. There was an unmistakable smile upon his lips; nevertheless, a great fear possessed her. If Flukey were allowed to stay there because of his illness, she at least would be taken away; for she had never heard of a theft being entirely overlooked, and she believed that her imprisonment must be the penalty.
She stooped a little and lovingly touched Flukey's shoulder, looking first at Ann, then at Horace. Straightening up, she burst out:
"Mister, if ye're goin' to have me pinched for stealin', do it quick before my brother knows about it, and—I'd ruther go to prison in Fluke's pants—please!"
Still the master of the house did not speak. Flea was filled with suspicion, and thought she divined the cause of his quietness and smile. He was ridiculing her dress, perhaps making sport of the way her curls were arranged. She thrust one hand upward and tumbled the mass of hair into disorder.
"Yer woman put these togs onto me," she said, "and I feel like an old guy—dressed up this way!"
Anger forced tears into her eyes, and her two small brown hands clenched under the hanging lace at her wrists. Her words and the spontaneous action deepened the expression on the face of the silent man, and she cried out again:
"Ye needn't be making fun of me, Mister! I can't help how I look."
But a feverish exclamation from the sick boy so increased her anxiety for him that her own troubles were overwhelmed. She was rendered unmindful that Ann had softly called her name; nor did she realize that Shellington had spoken quietly to her.
She flung out her hands in eloquent appeal.
"Oh, I thank ye for covering my brother up so warm! He didn't need no sheets nor piller-slips; but his bones did need the blankets—sure. I say as how he'd thank ye, too, if he weren't offen his head."
Horace gently took the girl's hands in his, and Flea lowered her sun-browned face.
"I know he would, child," he said in moved tones. "He's more than welcome to all we can do—and you are to stay here, too, little girl."
Horace had done what Ann had been unable to do. The words had soothed the squatter girl, and the savage young heart was softened. The long, dreary country marches were over; the cold nights and bare fields were things of the past. For Flukey, there were tender hands that would ease his pain; for her, a home unmenaced by Lem. She had looked her last upon horrors that had bound her to a life she hated.
Shellington spoke to her.
"Look at me, child!" said he. "I want to tell you what the doctor said."
She lifted an anxious gaze filled with the emotion of a woman's soul. It was her dawning womanhood that Horace saw, and toward it his manhood was unconsciously drawn.
Ann spoke quietly:
"The doctor says that your brother will be ill many weeks, and we have decided to keep him here with us, if you consent to our arrangements."
"Ye mean," gasped Flea, snatching her hands from Horace, "ye mean that Flukey can lay in that there bed till he gets all well and all the misery has gone out of his bones?"
Ann's answer meant much to Flea. The girl had realized the import of the speech; but, that she might better understand the words, she had sent them questioningly back in her vernacular for further confirmation.
"If you are willing to stay with us," Horace was saying, "and will help us take care of him—"
He could not have offered anything else that would so have touched her. How she had longed to do something for Flukey those last hours in the graveyard! But Flea wanted no mistake. Did the gentleman understand how terribly poor they were?
"We ain't got no money, and we only own Squeaky and Snatchet."
Shellington smiled at the interruption.
"You will still own your dog and pig, child, if you ever wish to go away. My sister and I are anxious to have your brother grow strong and well. He has rheumatic fever, which is sometimes very stubborn, and if we don't work hard—"
He paused, tempted to pass one arm about the girl as his sister had done; but the womanliness of her forbade.
"Ye think Flukey mightn' get well?" Flea breathed.
Ann turned anxious eyes upon the boy, who was muttering incoherently.
"Poor little child! May Jesus help him!" she whispered.
Flea rose to her feet.
"Jesus! Jesus!" she repeated solemnly. "Granny Cronk used to talk about him. He's the Man what's a sleepin' in the grave with the kid with the same name as that bright-eyed duffer who don't like Fluke nor me."
Ann, mystified, glanced at Horace.
Flukey turned slowly, opened his eyes, and murmured;
"'Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little—'"
He sighed painfully as the last words trailed from his lips. Flea ended his quotation, saying:
"'A little child.' But, Flukey, Jesus is dead and buried."
"No, no, He isn't, child!" cried Ann sharply. "He'll never die. He will always help little children."
"Ain't He a restin' in the dead man's yard out there?" demanded Flea, lifting her robe as she moved toward Ann.
"No! indeed, no! He is everywhere, with the dead and the living, with men and women, and also with little children."
"Where be He?" Flea asked.
"In Heaven," replied Ann, leaning over Flukey. "And He's able even to raise the dead."
Flea grasped her arm.
"Then, if He's everywhere, as ye've jest said, can't ye—"
Flukey opened his eyes.
"If ye know that Man Jesus, well enough," he broke forth, trying to take her hand in his, "if ye ever sees Him to speak to Him, will ye say that, if He'll let my bones get well, and keep my little Flea from Lem, I'll do all He says for me to? Tell Him—tell—tell Him, Ma'm, that my bones be—almost a bustin'."
"Can He help Fluke any if ye ask Him?" Flea questioned.
Ann nodded; but Flea, not satisfied, asked the question directly of Horace.
"I believe so," he hesitated; "yes, I do believe that He can and will help your brother."
"Will ye ask Him?" Flea pleaded. "Will ye both ask Him?"
Ann answered yes quickly; and Flea was satisfied with the nod Horace gave her before he wheeled about to the window.
When Flukey was resting under the physician's medicine, Horace and Ann listened to the tale of the squatter children's lives, told by Flea. It was then that Shellington promised her that Squeaky should find a future home on their farm among other animals of the kind, and that he would make it his task to see that the little pig had plenty to eat, plenty of sunshine, and a home such as few little pigs had. Snatchet, too, Horace promised, should be housed in a warm kennel with the greyhounds and blooded pups.
When Flea leaned over Flukey to say goodnight to him, she breathed:
"This be the promised land, all right, Fluke! Ain't we lucky kids to be here?"
With infinite tenderness, Ann led Flea into the pretty blue bedroom. The girl drew back with an exclamation.
"It's too nice for a squatter! But I'm glad you put Fluke in that red place, 'cause it looks so warm and feels warm. But me—"
Ann interrupted hastily.
"You remember my brother saying that you were going to stay here with us until your brother was well?"
"Then, as long as you are with us, you will be our guest just as though you were my sister. Would you like to be my sister?"
Flea dropped her gaze before the earnest eyes.
"Yep!" she choked. "But I'm a squatter, Missus, and squatters don't count for nothin'. But Fluke—"
"Poor child! She can't think of anyone but her brother," Miss Shellington murmured to herself.
But Flea caught the words.
"He's so good—oh, so awful good—and he ain't never had no chance with Pappy Lon. If he gets well, we'll work together, and we won't steal nothin' ever no more."
"I feel positive you won't," assured Ann. "You remember, I told you tonight how very good God is to all His children, and you are a child of His, and you know that the Bible says that you must never take anything that doesn't belong to you."
"Nope, I ain't never seen no Bible," faltered Flea.
"Then I'm going to give you one, and you can learn to read it. Wouldn't you be happy if your brother should get well, and you knew that your prayers had done it?"
"It wouldn't be me, Ma'm; 'twould be you and your brother."
Ann considered how she should best begin to open the young mind to truth.
"Child, would you like me to tell you a story?" she asked presently.
"Yep," replied Flea eagerly. "Is it about fairies, or ghosts, or goblins what live near lakes?"
"No; it's about Jesus, who died to save the world."
Then gently and simply Ann told the story of the Passion to the wondering girl, and shortly after left her to sleep.
Miss Shellington went to her brother's study, and he met her with a quizzical smile.
"You've woven a net about yourself, Sis, haven't you?" said he.
"And about you, too, Dear," Ann retorted. "But, Horace, I shouldn't have thought of keeping them, if you hadn't consented."
She looked so troubled, her brow puckered up in thought, that he smiled again.
"Of course, you wouldn't—I know that. But I'm not in the least sorry. We've money enough to do a kindness once in awhile. And as long as you don't work yourself to death over them I sha'n't complain."
They were silent for a little while. Then presently Ann spoke musingly:
"Horace, do those children remind you of someone?"
"I don't know that they do. I'm not a fellow who notices resemblances. Why?"
"I can't tell. Only, when they stood there tonight by the table, looking so forlorn, there was something familiar about them."
"Your dear, tender heart imagined it," Horace declared.
"Possibly. Still, the feeling has been with me ever since. Horace, I've always wanted to do some real work, and don't you think this—"
"Hark!" Horace interrupted. "Wasn't that the bell?"
"Yes, it's Everett, I hope," said Ann, rising, "I thought perhaps he would run in. Yes, I hear his voice! Shall I bring him in here for a few moments?"
When Everett came in, Horace noted that he had lost the frown. Brimbecomb good naturedly demanded if Ann intended to start a kindergarten. He recounted how Mr. and Mrs. Vandecar had received their excuses, and then said:
"Ann, Mrs. Vandecar thought you so charitably inclined. She seemed quite exercised over the story. But you don't intend to keep them here after tomorrow morning, do you?"
"Well, you see, Everett," Ann explained, "Horace and I have talked for a long time about doing some real charity work; so now we're going to try an experiment."
Ann interrupted. "One of them is a girl."
Horace saw the change on Brimbecomb's face and said hurriedly:
"The girl had on her brother's clothes, that's all."
"Strange proceedings all the way through, though," snapped Everett.
He was showing himself in a new light, and Horace noted that the young lawyer's face bore sarcasm and unpleasant cynicism. He wondered that his gentle, obedient sister had gathered courage to stand against her lover's wishes; for Everett had expressed a decided objection to Ann's working for the squatter children. Suddenly he felt a twinge of dislike for the man before him, and his respect for Ann deepened. How many girls, he reasoned, would have the courage and desire thus to take in two suffering children? He rose quickly and left the room.
Everett took up the argument again with Miss Shellington:
"Ann, you're going very much against my wishes if you keep those children here."
"I'm sorry, Dear," she said simply; "but you know—"
"I know that you won't do anything of which I disapprove, Ann."
"You're mistaken, Everett," Ann contradicted slowly. "I could not allow even you to mark out my duty. And something makes me so anxious to help them! I don't want to go against your wishes; but—I must do as my conscience dictates."
"Surely you don't mean, Ann, that if you were my wife you would force—"
"Please don't, Everett! No, of course not; but this is Horace's home and mine, and, if we desire to share it with someone less fortunate than we are, you shouldn't object."
Everett took up no more time in vain argument; but registered a vow that he would make it warm for the beggars who had thrust themselves upon the Shellingtons. He would search for an opportunity! Impatient and unsettled, he left Ann. She, too, was unhappy; for it had been the first time her duty had ever clashed with her love. The shock of the collision hurt.
The next morning Flea crept into her brother's room and stood looking down at him. He opened his eyes languidly, smiled, and groaned.
"Ain't yer bones any better this mornin'?" asked Flea in an awed whisper.
"Yep; but my heart hurts me. The pains round it be worse than the misery in my knees, 'cause I can't breathe."
Flea bent lower.
"Did the pretty lady tell ye anythin' last night?"
"Nope; did she tell you anythin'?"
"Yep, all about the Jesus. Get her to tell you, Fluke. It's better than fairy stories. I can't remember all of it; but she says He jest loved everybody so well that He let 'em nail Him on a cross, and died there. But He got up again, and that's how He came to be up there."
Flea pointed upward.
"Did Miss—Miss Shellington tell ye that?"
"Yep, Fluke." She hesitated and whispered again, "Do ye believe it, Fluke?"
"Course I do, if she says it! Don't ye think what she says is so?"
"I don't believe all that," replied Flea. "I tried last night, and couldn't. You used to laugh at me when I said as how there was ghosts."
"Mebbe she don't believe in ghosts," sighed Flukey.
"It's almost the same. She believes in Jesus."
"He's all I believe in, too." Flukey closed his eyes wearily.
"Fluke," whispered Flea presently, "ye ought to see that room I slep' in! It were finer'n this one."
"This be the promised land, all right, what Scraggy speaked about," said Flukey. "There ain't no more places like it in this here world."
"I believe that, too," answered Flea, "and if we hadn't been hungry we'd never have stealed, and we wouldn't have found Mr. and Miss Shellington. Yet she says it's wicked to steal."
"So it be, Flea, and ye know it. All ye're tryin' to do now is not to believe about that Jesus. I bet somethin'll come that'll make ye believe it."
"Mebbe," mumbled Flea darkly; "but 's long 's 'tain't Pappy Lon or Lem, I don't care."
During the next two weeks, while Flukey was fighting with death, and the great Shellington mansion was as silent as a tomb, Scraggy Peterson was tramping back to the squatter country. When she reached Ithaca, she was almost too ill to start up the Lehigh Valley tracks toward her hut. The black cat clung to her tattered jacket, his wizard-eyes shining green, as Screech Owl passed under the gas-lamps. It was almost ten o'clock at night when she unlatched her shanty door and kindled a fire. The larder was bare, save for some crusts of hard bread. These the woman soaked in hot water and shared with the cat. Then, in a state of great exhaustion, she picked up Black Pussy, blew out the candle, and, for the first time in many days, slept in her own hut.
On the shore below Lem Crabbe's scow was drawn up near the Cronk hut. The squatter and scowman were conversing in the dim light of a lantern that swung from Lem's hook.
"Did ye make any hauls while ye was gone, Lem?" asked Lon.
"Nope, only sold the lumber. I ain't trying nothin' alone."
"It was cussed mean I couldn't go along with ye," Lon said; "but I had to stay to hum. Did ye know that Mammy were dead?"
"Yep, and buried, too! She fretted over the brats, and kep' a sayin' they was dead in the lake. But I know they jest runned off some'ers."
"I know it, too," Lem grunted savagely. "The gal didn't have no likin' for me."
"I jest see Scraggy come hum," ventured Lon. "She's been gone for a long while. She were a comin' down the tracks."
Lem muttered a savage oath, and faced the scow preparatory to entering. Looking back over his shoulder, he asked:
"Be ye comin' in, Lon?"
"Nope; I'm goin' to bed. Say, Lem, while ye was away, ye didn't get ear of no good place to make a haul soon, did ye?"
"Yep; I tied up to Tarrytown goin' down. There be heaps of rich folks there. Middy Burnes what runs the tug says as how there be a feller there richer than the devil.... Hell! I've forgot his name!"
Lem halted on the gangplank and thought for a moment.
"Nope, I ain't; I jest thought of it!... Shellington! That's him, and he's a fine house, and many's the room filled with—"
Lon broke in upon Lem with a growl:
"Then we'll separate him from some of his jewjaws. I bet we has a little of his pile afore another month goes by!"
"That's what I bet, too," muttered Lem. "Night, Lon."
"Night," repeated Lon, walking away.
* * * * *
Lem placed the lantern on the table and sat down to think. Ever since the day Screech Owl had told him of the boy he had wounded so many years before his mind had worked constantly with the thought that he must find the home where his son was. Scraggy was the only human being to tell him. She must tell him! He would make her, if he had to choke the woman to death to get her secret! He remembered how she had mocked at him when she had told him that strange bit of news. Realizing that Scraggy's malady made her difficult to coerce, he decided to try cajolery at once.
Lent rose and took a bit of bread from the cupboard shelf. He slipped it into a bag, caught up the lantern with his hook, and left the scow. He halted in front of Scraggy's dark hut and pounded on the door. The cat, scrambling to the floor inside, was Lem's answer. He knocked again.
"Scraggy! Scraggy!" he called. "It be Lemmy! Open the door!"
Through her deep sleep came the voice Screech Owl had loved, and still loved. She sat up in bed, trembling violently, pushing back with a pathetic gesture the gray hair from her eyes. She had been dreaming of Lem—dreaming that she had heard his voice. But black pussy couldn't have dreamed also. He was perched in the small window, lashing his great tail from side to side. She slid from the bed, stretched out a bony hand, and clutched the cat.
"Did ye hear him, too, black pussy?"
"Scraggy!" called Lem again, "Open the door! I brought you something to eat."
It was the thought of the time when he had loved her so, and not of the food he had brought, that forced Scraggy to the door. She flung it open, and the scowman entered.
"I thought ye might be hungry, Scraggy; so I brought ye this bread," said Lem, lifting the hook and sending a ray from the lantern upon the woman. "Can I set down?"
Could he, this king among men to her, could he sit down in her hut? He could have had her heart's blood had he asked it! Had she not crowned him that day, when he had stood awkwardly by, as she tendered him a dark-haired baby boy? Scraggy's happiness knew no bounds. She forgot her fatigue and set forth a chair for Lem.
"Be ye glad to see me, Scraggy?" asked he presently, crossing his legs and watching her as she lighted some candles.
"More'n glad," she replied simply. "But what did ya come for, Lemmy?"
Lem remained silent for some seconds; then said:
"Do ye want to come back to the scow, Scraggy?"
"Ye mean to live?"
Lem shoved out his hairy chin.
"Yep, to live," said he.
"Did ye come to ask me back, Lemmy?"
"Yep, or I wouldn't have been here. I've been thinkin' our fambly oughter be together."
"Fambly!" echoed Screech Owl wonderingly.
"Yep, Scraggy. We'll get the boy again, and all of us'll live on the scow."
His swarthy face went yellow in the candlelight, and the huge goiter under his chin evidenced by its movements the emotion through which he was passing. Scraggy had sunk to the floor. Now she crawled nearer him, staring at his face with wonder-widened eyes.
"Do ye mean, Lemmy, that ye love yer pretty boy brat well enough to want him on the scow, and that he can eat all he wants?"
"That's what I mean," grunted Lem.
"And that ye mean me to tell him what ye says, Lemmy, and that ye want me to bring him back?"
Scraggy had drawn closer and closer to Lem, her sad face wrinkling into deeper lines. With each uttered word Lem had seen that he had conquered her. Suddenly he dropped his heavy left hand down on the gray head and kept it there.
For the first time in many weary years Scraggy Peterson was kneeling before her man. Now he wanted her! He had asked her to come again to that precious haven of rest, and to bring the child! Scraggy forgot that the babe she had passed through the barge window was grown to be a man, forgot that he might not want to come back to the scow with her and his father.
Lem drew her close between his heavy knees and touched her withered chin with his fingers.
"Where be the brat, Scraggy?" he wheedled.
Screech Owl lifted her head and drew back frightened. Something warned her that she must not tell him where his son lived.
"I'll get him for ye," she said doggedly.
"Where be he?" demanded the scowman.
"I ain't tellin' ye where he be now, Lem." Scraggy's tone was sulky.
"'Cause I'll go and get him. I'll bring him to the scow lessen—lessen—"
"Lessen what?" cried Lem darkly.
"Lessen a month," replied Scraggy, "and ye'll kiss the brat, and he'll call ye 'Daddy,' and he'll love ye like I do, Lemmy dear."
Lem was rigid, as the woman smoothed down his shaggy gray hair and patted his hard face. Suddenly he started to his feet.
"Ye say, Scraggy, that ye'll bring the boy lessen a month?"
"Yep, lessen a month. And, Lemmy, he be a beautiful baby! Ye'll love him, will ye, Lemmy?"
"Yep. And now ye take yer cat, Screechy, and get back to bed, and when ye get the boy bring him to the scow." He hesitated a moment; then said, "Ye don't know, do ye, where Flea and Flukey run to?"
Scraggy's face dropped.
"Be they gone?" she stammered, rising.
"Yep, for a long time; and Granny Cronk be dead."
"Then ye didn't get Flea, Lem?"
"Nope. And I don't want the brat, Scraggy; I only want the boy." He spoke with meaning, and when he stood on the hut steps he turned back to finish, "Ye'll bring him, will ye, Owl?"
"Yep, Lemmy love, lessen a month."
Scraggy greedily watched the shadowy form move away in the light of the lantern. "Pussy, Pussy," she muttered, as she closed the door, "black Pussy, come a beddy; yer ole mammy be that happy that her heart's a bustin'."
When Screech Owl, although the happiest woman in the squatter settlement, fell asleep with the cat in her arms, her pillow was wet with tears.
* * * * *
Through long days of anxious waiting for Flukey's recovery, Flea struggled with the Bible lessons Ann set for her each day. Yet she could not grasp the meaning of faith. She prayed nightly; but uttered her words mechanically, for the Savior in the blue sky seemed beyond her conception. In spite of Miss Shellington's tender pleading, in spite of the fact that Flukey believed stanchly all that Ann had told them, Flea suffered in her disbelief. Many times she sought consolation in Flukey's faith.
"Ye see, Flea, can't ye," he said, one morning, "that when Sister Ann says a thing it's so? Can't ye see it, Flea?"
"Nope, I can't. I don't know how God looks. I can't understand how Jesus ruz after he'd been dead three days."
"He did that 'cause He were one-half God," explained Flukey, and then, brightening, added, "Sister Ann telled me that if He hadn't been a sufferin' and a sufferin', and hadn't loved everybody well enough, God wouldn't have let Him ruz. 'Twa'n't by anything He did after He were dead that brought Him standin' up again."
"Then who did it?" queried Flea.
"God did—jest as how He said 'way back there when there wasn't any world, 'World, come out!' and the world came. He said, 'Jesus, stand up!' and Jesus stood up. That's as easy as rollin' off a log, Flea."
She had heard Ann explain it, too; but it seemed easier when Flukey interpreted it.
"If I could see and speak to Him once," she mourned, "I could make Sister Ann glad by tellin' her that I knowed He'd answer me."
"Ask Him to let ye see Himself," advised Flukey, "He'll do it, I bet! Will ye, Flea?"
"Nope! I'd be 'fraid if He came and stood near me. I'm 'fraid even now when I think of Him; but 'cause I can't believe 'tain't no reason why you can't, Fluke."
She turned her head toward the door and listened.
"Brother Horace ain't like Sister Ann," she whispered.
"Nobody ain't like her, Flea. She's the best ever!"
"Yep, so she is. But I wish as how—" She paused, and a burning blush spread over her face. "I wish as how Brother Horace had Sister Ann's way of talking to me. I could—"
"Brother Horace ain't nothin' to do with yer believin', Flea."
"Yep, he has, and when he says as how he believes like Miss Shellington, then I'll believe, too. See?"
Then Flea fell into a stubborn silence.
One afternoon in December, Ann and Horace sat conversing in the library.
"I don't see how Mrs. Vandecar can refuse to help you get that child into school, Ann."
"I don't believe she will; but Everett thinks she ought."
"Everett's getting some queer notions lately," Horace said reluctantly.