"Fledra, dear, will you marry me—immediately?"
His question brought her to rigidity.
"I mean that all our troubles are going away."
Fledra drew slowly from him.
"How can our troubles go away?" she asked.
"By your consenting."
"I told you once, and more than once, that I couldn't tell you. Won't you ever understand?"
But Horace did not loosen his hold upon her. He drew the dark head against him tenderly.
"You misunderstood, Fledra. I am going to trust you in everything. I am going to put all my faith in you, and to save you and your brother from a fearful life. I must make you my wife!"
Fledra drew a long breath. All the stumbling petitions she had made to Heaven were answered by those few words. At last, to be Horace's wife, to save Flukey, and to protect Ann, who would now have back her lover! It seemed to the young girl, in this flashing moment of thought, that all the clouds of the last few months had floated over their heads and away.
"It will take a few days before I can arrange our marriage," explained Horace. "One reason for not arranging today is that I have to run down to New York for two or three days; and then, too, I must be careful not to let anyone know of our plans. I want you to talk with my sister. I have told her that I love you."
"Was she sorry?" whispered Fledra.
"No—very, very glad!"
"And can I tell Floyd?"
"Yes, just as soon as you like. I have an idea your happiness will go far to make him well."
* * * * *
For an hour Horace refused to let her leave him, and when Fledra did go back to the sick brother her face was radiant with happiness. Floyd was not prepared for the rush of words or the passionate appeal with which she met him.
Blinking his eyes, the boy waved his sister back.
"I can't make out what you're saying, Flea."
"I'm going to marry Brother Horace!" She stopped, and began again. "I'm going to marry Horace—oh, so soon, Fluke! And aren't you glad? And then they can't take us away!"
It was the first intimation Floyd had had of their danger. He rose up, standing upon his legs tremblingly.
"Has anybody been trying to take us away, Flea?"
Then Fledra realized what she had said, and hesitated in fear.
"I forgot, you weren't to know, Fluke. Will you wait till I call Brother Horace?... Fluke, don't be trembling like that! Sit down, Fluke!... Fluke!"
Floyd's face had paled, even to the tips of his ears. He realized now that danger had hung over the fair young sister and he had not known of it.
"It's Pappy Lon, and ye never told me, Flea, and that's why ye been so unhappy! He'll take ye away because yer his kid, and Brother Horace can't do anything."
"Yes, he can, Fluke—yes, he can! He loves me, and I love him, and he's going to marry me! Nobody can't take a wife away from her man!... Fluke, don't wabble like that! Brother Horace! Brother Horace!"
Fledra's voice reached the dreaming man, bending over his desk, and he bounded to answer her call. He found her supporting her brother, white and shivering, with eyes strained by fright.
"I told him," gasped Fledra looking up; "but I didn't mean to."
"Told him what?"
"Pappy Lon," muttered Floyd, "comin' for Flea!"
Horace caught the words in dismay.
He placed the suffering boy on the divan and bent close. In low tones he said that the squatter in some mysterious way had found where they were, and that he had come for them. He began at the beginning, explaining to the boy Lon's demand upon him. He refrained, however, from mentioning Everett, because of the pain to his sister. He had just finished the story, when Ann softly opened the door and came in.
"But I insist that you will place your faith in me, Floyd. I shall see to it that neither you nor your sister leave me—unless you go of your own free will," Horace concluded.
"If Pappy Lon takes one of us," muttered Floyd, as Miss Shellington calmed him with sweet interest, "let him take me. I'm as good as dead, anyhow. I want Flea to marry Brother Horace."
"And so she will," assured Ann. "Now then, Dear, try and sleep."
During the rest of the afternoon Ann held conferences with her brother, fluttering back and forth from him to Floyd, and then to Fledra. She noted that the strained expression had gone from the girl's face, and uttered a little prayer of thanksgiving when she heard Horace's hearty laugh ring out once more.
Everett Brimbecomb took the letter Lon Cronk handed him, without rising from his chair.
"It be for Flea," said Lon, grinning, "and I think she'll understand it. It's as plain as that nose on yer face, Mister."
"May I read it?" asked the lawyer indifferently. Then, as Lon nodded, he slipped the letter deftly from the finger-marked envelop and read the contents with a smile. "It's strong enough," he said, replacing it. "I, too, think she'll succumb to that. If you'll leave this letter with me, I'll see that she gets it."
Everett put the envelop in a drawer and implied that the interview was at an end. But the squatter twirled his cap in his fingers and lingered.
"Lem says as how he'll take the gal and me in his scow to Ithaca. Ye can follow us when ye git ready."
The younger man stood up, nodding his approval.
"That'll be just the way to do it, and I shall look to you, Mr. Cronk, to keep faith with me. Frankly speaking, I do not like your friend. I think he's a rascal."
"Well, he be a mean cuss; but there be other cusses besides Lem, Mister."
Brimbecomb flushed at the meaning glance in the squatter's shrewd eyes.
"All you both have to do," said he bruskly, "is to spend the money I'll give you—and keep your mouths shut."
If Everett had noted the crafty expression on the squatter's face as the latter walked down the street, he would not have been so satisfied over his deal with Lon. After he was alone, he reread Cronk's letter. Later he wrote steadily for sometime. His communication also was for Fledra, and he intended by hook or crook to get it to her with the other.
* * * * *
There never had been greater rejoicing in the Shellington home than on the night when it was settled that Fledra was to marry Horace. It was decided that after the wedding the girl should have tutors and professors. A lovelight had appeared in the gray eyes when she promised Ann that she would study diligently until Horace and Floyd and all her dear ones would be proud of her advancement. How gently Ann encircled the little figure before she said goodnight, and how tearfully she congratulated Horace that he had won such a fond, faithful heart for his own! Even after kissing Floyd, and tucking the coverlet about his shoulders, the young woman was again drawn to Fledra.
"May I come in, Darling?" she whispered.
Fledra did not cease combing her curls before the mirror when she welcomed Miss Shellington.
"I simply couldn't go to bed, child," said Ann, "until I came to see you again. I feel so little like sleeping!"
Fledra turned a blushing, happy face upon her friend.
"And I'm not going to sleep tonight, either. I'm going to stay awake all night and be glad."
This brought Ann's unhappiness back to her, and she smiled sadly as she thought of her own tangled love-affair.
"I want you and my brother to be very happy."
Fledra dropped her comb and looked soberly at the other.
"I'm not good enough for him," she said, with a sigh; "but he loves me, and I love him more than the whole world put together, Sister Ann."
The young face had grown radiant with idealized love and faith, and through the shining gray eyes, in which bits of brown shaded to golden, Ann could see the girl's soul, pure and lofty. She marked how it had grown, had expanded, under great love, and marveled.
"I know that, Dearest. I wish I were as happy as you!"
The pathos in her tones, the sad lines about Ann's sweet mouth, made Fledra grasp her hands in girlish impetuousness.
"He'll come back to you, Sister Ann, some day," she breathed. "He thinks Pappy Lon ought to have us kids, and that's what makes him work against you and Brother Horace. He can't stay away from you long."
Ann shook her head mournfully.
"I fear he doesn't love me, Fledra, or he couldn't have done as he has. Sometimes it seems as if I must send for him; for he isn't bad at heart." She rested her eyes on Fledra's face imploringly. "You think, don't you, Dear, that when a woman loves a man as I love him her love in the end will help him?"
Fledra thought of her own mad affection for Horace, of his love for her, and of how her longing for him stirred the very depths of her soul, uplifting and refreshing it. She nodded her head.
"He'll come back to her, all right," she murmured after Ann had gone and she had thrown herself on the bed. "Floyd will get well, and Horace and I—" She dropped asleep, and the morning had fully dawned before she opened her eyes to another day.
* * * * *
Then, as Fledra sat up in bed, brushed back the curls from her face, and with the eagerness of a child thought over the happy yesterday, suddenly her eyes fell upon an envelop, lying on the carpet just beneath her window. It had not been there the night before. She slipped to the floor, picked up the sealed letter with her name on it, and climbed into bed again, while examining it closely. With a mystified expression upon her face, she tore open the envelop. Unfolding one of the two letters, inclosed, she read:
"This is to tell ye that if ye don't come back with me and Lem, we'll kill that guy Shellington and Flukey. Flukey can stay there if he wants to, if you come. Make up yer mind, and don't ye tell any man that I writ this letter. Come to Lem's scow in the river, or ye know what I does to Flukey.
Fledra folded up the letter and opened the other one dazedly. It was written with a masterly pen-stroke, and the girl, without reading it, looked at the signature. It was signed, "Everett Brimbecomb." Her eyes flashed back to the beginning, and she read it through swiftly:
"Little Miss Cronk.—
"I am delivering this letter in a peculiar way, because I know that you had rather not have anyone see it. It is necessary that you should think calmly and seriously over the question I am going to ask you. I am very fond of you. Whether or not you will return my affection is a thing for you to decide in the future. Now, then, the question is, Do you want to protect your brother and your friends from the anger of your father? If so, you must go with him. I will answer for it that your brother stays where he is; but you must go away. Think well before you decide not to go; for I know the men who are determined to have you, and would save you if I could. I shall try to see you very soon. Destroy this letter immediately. Your friend,
Fledra sat as if in a trance, her eyelids drooping over almost sightless eyes. The last blow had fallen upon her, and she knew that she must go. That she could ever be forced away thus without her brother, that Horace could be given no chance to help her, had never crossed her mind. Through her imagination drifted Lon's dark, cruel face, followed by a vision of Lem Crabbe. Feature after feature of the scowman came vividly to her,—the wind-reddened skin, the foul, tobacco-browned lips, the twitching goiter,—all added to the nervous chill that had suddenly come upon the girl. Lem and Lon represented all the world's evil to her, and Everett Brimbecomb all the world's influence. The three had thrust their triple strength between her and happiness. Her dear ones should not fall before the wrath of Lem and Lon, or before the unsurmountable power of Everett Brimbecomb! In her hands alone lay their salvation. Like one stunned, she rose from the bed and carefully destroyed the two letters. This was the one command she would obey promptly.
When Ann knocked softly at the door, and no answer came, she gently pushed it open. Fledra lay with her face to the wall as if asleep. Miss Shellington bent over her, and then crept quietly out to allow the girl to rest another hour. No sooner had the door closed than Fledra sat up with clenched fists, her face blanched with terror. She could not confront the inevitable without help. But not once did it occur to her that Horace Shellington would be able to protect not only her, but himself also. The path of her future life stretched from Tarrytown to Ithaca, straight into Lem's scow!
* * * * *
Through the entire day the girl was enigmatical both to Horace and to Ann. Weary hours, crowding one upon another, offered her no relief. The thought of Lon's letter shattered hope and made her desolate. She did not stop to reason that her relations with Horace demanded that she tell him of Everett's perfidy. Had not her loved ones been threatened with death, if she disclosed having received the letters? She spent most of the day with Floyd, saying but little.
In the evening Fledra waited wide-eyed and sleepless until the household was quiet, and while she waited she pondered dully upon a plan to escape. Toward night two faint hopes had taken possession of her: Everett Brimbecomb could help her; Pappy Lon might. Before leaving Floyd and severing her connections with Horace, she would appeal to the squatter and his lawyer. She opened the window and looked out. It was but a short drop to the path at the side of the house.
At half-past ten Fledra slipped into her coat and set a soft, light cap upon her black curls. In another minute she had reached the road and had turned toward Brimbecomb's. To escape any eyes in the house she had just left, she scurried to the graveyard. For an instant only did she halt, and, somber-eyed, glance over the graves. She could easily mark the spot where she had lain so long with Floyd, and tears welled into her eyes as she thought of him. How many things had happened since then! In hasty review came week after week of the time she had spent with Horace and Ann. How she loved them both! Turning, she scanned the gloomy Brimbecomb house. In the servants' quarters at the top several lights burned, while on the drawing-room floor a gas-jet shot forth its beams into Sleepy Hollow. If Mr. Brimbecomb were at home, then he must be in that room. Fledra crouched under the window.
"Mr. Brimbecomb! Mr. Brimbecomb!" she called.
Silence, as dense as that in God's Acre near her, reigned in the house. She called again, a little louder. Suddenly she heard a rapid step upon the road and crept back again to the corner of the building.
Everett Brimbecomb was passing under the arc light, and Fledra could see his handsome face plainly in its rays.
He stopped a moment and looked at Shellington's house, with a shrug of his shoulders. Again he resumed his way; but halted as Fledra called his name softly. From her hiding-place in the shadow of the porch she came slowly forward.
"Can I talk with you a few moments, Mr. Brimbecomb?" she faltered. "I know that you can help me, if you will."
Everett's heart began to beat furiously. Something in the appealing girl attacked him as nothing else had. How slim she looked, how lithe and graceful, and yet so childishly young! He compared her with Ann in rapid thought, and remembered that he had never felt toward Horace's sister as he did toward this obscure girl.
"Come in," he murmured; "we can't talk here. Come in."
"Let me tell you out here in the night," stammered Fledra.
Everett touched her arm, urging her forward.
"They may see us from the Shellingtons'," he said; and, in spite of her unwillingness, he forced her up the steps. Like the wind of a hurricane, a mixture of emotions stormed in his soul. He dared not do as he wished and take the girl in his arms. He checked his desire to force his love upon her, and motioned to a chair, into which Fledra sank. Like shining ebony, her black hair framed a death-pale face. The darkness of a new grief had deepened the shade in the mysterious eyes. For an instant she paused on the edge of tears.
"I don't want to go back with Pappy Lon!" she whispered.
Everett caught his breath. She was even more lovely than he had remembered. Inwardly he cursed the squatters. If he could eliminate them from his plans—but they were necessary to him.
"I don't like none o' the bunch of ye!" Fledra burst out in his silence. Brimbecomb's lips formed a slight smile. The girl pondered a moment, and continued fiercely, "And I hate Ithaca and all the squatters!"
"You speak very much like your father," ventured the lawyer. "I can't understand why you hate him. Your place is with him."
The girl bowed her head and wept softly. She realized that when she was excited she could not remember her English.
"I've been a squatter," she said, forlornly shaking her head, "and I s'pose Pappy Lon has a right to me; but I love—"
"You love whom?"
"Mr. Shellington. Oh, Mr. Brimbecomb, can't ye help me to keep away from Pappy Lon? Can't ye make him see that I don't want to go back—that I can't go back to Lem Crabbe ever?"
"There's no danger of your going to—what did you say his name was?"
"Lem Crabbe—the man with a hook on his arm. I hate him so!"
"I remember seeing him once. I don't think you need worry over going with him. Your father is not a fool."
"He promised me to Lem!" wailed Flea.
"And he—promised—you to—me!"
So deliberately did Everett speak that Fledra was on her feet before the sentence was finished. Horror, deep-seated, rested in the eyes raised to his. Oh, surely she had not heard aright!
"What did ye say?" she demanded.
"Your father has promised you to me."
"Oh, that's why you done it, was it? That's why ye fit Sister Ann and Brother Horace? 'Cause ye wanted me to go with ye! I hate ye like I hate—the devil!"
Her words, grossly coarse, struck and stung the man to action. He strode forward and grasped her arm roughly in his fingers.
"You little fury, what do I care how much you hate me? It's a man's pleasure to conquer a woman like you. You can have your choice between the other man and me."
Dumb with fright and amazement, his treachery driving every thought from her mind for the moment, Fledra looked at him.
"I'd rather go with Lem," she got out at last, "'cause I couldn't stand yer hellish pretty face nor yer white teeth. They look like them big stones standing over the dead men out yonder."
With a backward motion of her head toward the window, Fledra drawled out the last words insultingly. That she preferred Lem to him wounded Everett's pride, but made him desire her the more. He loved her just then so much that, if it had been in his power, he would have married her instantly. Her fine-fibered spirit attracted all the evil in him as a magnet draws a needle. Fledra brought him from his reverie.
"There ain't no use of my standin' here any longer," she said. "I might as well go and ask Pappy Lon. He's better'n you."
To let her go this way seemed intolerable.
"Wait," he commanded, "wait! When you came in, I didn't mean to offend you. Will you wait?"
"If ye'll help me keep away from Pappy Lon, and will promise nothin' will happen to Brother Horace or to Fluke."
"I can't do that; it's impossible. But I can take you away, after you get back to Ithaca."
"Can I come back to Brother Horace?"
"No, no; you can't go there again! Now, listen, Fledra Cronk. I'll marry you as soon as you'll let me."
Fledra's eyelids quivered.
"I'll stay with Pappy Lon and Lem, because I love Sister Ann too well to go with you."
"Oh, I thought that was the reason," said Everett. "All your hard words to me were from your tender, grateful heart. That only makes me like you the better."
Fledra turned to go.
"But I don't like you, and I never will. Let me go now, because I'm goin' down to the scow to Pappy Lon."
Brimbecomb threw out an arm with an impetuous swing; but Fledra darted under it.
"Don't—don't!" she cried brokenly. "Don't you never touch me, never—never! I don't want you to! Let me go now, please."
Everett stepped aside and allowed her to reach the door.
"I shall help you, if I can, child," he put in, as she sprang out. "Remember—"
But Fledra did not wait to hear. She was outside the door and flying down the steps.
* * * * *
The wind came sharply from the north as, dejectedly, the girl made her way to the river. She had decided to appeal to Lon, to beg her future of him. Before she reached the scow, she could hear the gurgle of the river, and the sound of the water came familiarly to her ears. Lem's boat lay like a silent, black animal near the bank, and she came to a stop at sight of it. How many times had she seen the dark boat snuggled in the gloom as she saw it now! How many times before had the candle twinkled from the small window, and the sign of life caused her to shiver in fear! But, thinking of what Lon's consent for her to remain with her dear ones meant, she mounted the gangplank and descended the short flight of stairs.
Lon was seated in a chair by the table, and Lem on a stool nearby. Crabbe rose as the pale girl appeared before him; but Lon only displayed two rows of dark teeth. It seemed to him that all his waiting was over; that his wife's constant haunting of his strong spirit would cease, if he could tear the girl from her high estate and watch the small head bend under the indignities Lem would place upon her. The very fact that she had come when he had sent for her showed the fear in which she held him.
Fledra unloosened her wrap from her throat as if it choked her.
"How d'y' do, Flea?" grinned Cronk. His delight was like that of a small boy who has captured a bright-winged butterfly in a net.
"I got yer letter, Pappy Lon," said Fledra, overlooking his impudent manner.
"And ye goin' to stay, ain't ye?" gurgled Lem.
Fledra snapped out "Nope!" to the scowman's question, without looking at him. Her next words were directed to the squatter:
"I've come to beg ye, Pappy Lon, to let me stay in Tarrytown. Mr. Shellington wants to marry me."
She was so frail, so girlishly sweet and desirable, that Lem uttered an oath. But Lon gestured a command of silence.
"Ye can't marry no man yit, Flea," said he. "Ye has to go back to the hut." Determination rang in his words, and the face of the rigid girl paled, and she caught at the table for support. "Ye see," went on Lon, "a kid can't do a thing her pappy says she can't. I says yer to come home to the shanty. And, if ye don't, then I'll do what I said I would. I'll kill that dude Shellington and—"
Before he could finish, Fledra burst in upon him.
"Ye mustn't! Ye mustn't, Pappy Lon! I love him so! And he's so good! And poor little Flukey is so sick, though he's gettin' better, and if I'm happy, then he'll get well! Don't ye love us one little bit, Pappy Lon?" She loosened her hold upon the table and neared the squatter.
Cronk brushed his face awkwardly. The presence of his Midge filled the scow-room, and his dead baby, wee and well beloved, goaded him to complete his vengeance. For a few seconds he breathed hard, with difficulty choking down sobs that shook his whole body. In a haze, the ghost-woman wavered toward him through the long, bitter years he had lived without her. She thrust herself between him and Fledra. The image that his heated brain had drawn up held out a tiny spirit babe, and so real was the apparition that he put out a trembling hand. For a moment he groped blindly for something tangible in the nothingness before him. Then, with a groan, he let his arm fall nerveless to his side. The vision disappeared, and Lem's presence and even Fledra's faded; for Lon again felt the agonizing cracking of his bones under the prison strait-jacket, and could hear himself shrieking.
He started up and wiped drops of water from his face. He glared at Fledra, his decision remaining steadfast within him. Only exquisite torture for Vandecar's flesh and blood would appease the wrath of Midge and the pale-faced child.
"I love ye well enough to want ye to do my will," he brought out huskily, "and when Flukey gits well he'll come with me, too."
Fledra braced herself for the ordeal. Lon had promised her in his letter that sacrificing herself would mean safety for Floyd and her lover. She would not allow him to break that promise, however much he demanded of her.
Cronk spoke again:
"Ye'd better take off yer things and set down, Flea 'cause ye ain't goin' back."
She made no move to obey him.
"Yes, I'm goin' back to Flukey," she said, "even if you make me come here again. I haven't left any letter for him. But I'll come back to the scow, and go with you and Lem, if you let Fluke stay with Mr. Shellington. If you take him, you don't get me."
"How ye goin' to help yerself?" Lon questioned, with a belittling sneer.
"When I get hold of ye," put in Lem, "ye'll want to stay."
The squatter again motioned the scowman to silence. A fear, almost a respect, for this girl, with her solemn gray eyes and unbending manner, dressed like the people he hated, took root within him.
Fledra's next address to Lon ignored Lem's growling threat.
"I didn't come to fight with you, Pappy Lon. But you've got to let me go back and write a letter. I won't tell anybody that I'm goin' from home. Mr. Shellington's going to New York tomorrow, to stay four or five days. That'll give me a chance to get away, and I'll come to you again tomorrow night. But I'll go with you only when you say that Fluke can stay where he is. Do you hear, Pappy Lon?"
Her face expressed such commanding hauteur, she looked so like Floyd Vandecar when she threw up her head defiantly, that Cronk's big chest heaved with satisfaction. To take his grudge out upon her would be enough. He would cause her to suffer even more than had Midge. He waited for a few moments, with his eyes fastened upon her face, before he spoke. He remembered that she had never told him a lie nor broken a promise.
"Ye swear that, if I let ye go now, ye'll come back tomorry night?"
"Yes, I swear it, if you'll swear that you'll let Fluke alone, and that you won't ever hurt Mr. Shellington. Do you swear it?" Her voice was toned with a desperate passion, and she bent toward the squatter in command.
"I swear it," muttered Lon.
"And can I bring Snatchet with me? I want him because he's Flukey's, and because he'll love me. Can I, Pappy Lon?"
"Yep, damn it! ye can. Bring all the dogs in Tarrytown; but be back tomorry night."
"I'll come, all right; but I'm goin' now."
As the girl turned to go, Lem lumbered to his feet.
"I've got somethin' to say about this!" he stuttered.
"Sit down, Lem!" commanded Lon.
Crabbe stood still.
"That gal don't go back tonight! She's mine! Ye gived her to me, and I want her now."
Lem wriggled his body between Fledra and the stairs; but the girl thrust herself upon him with an angry snarl.
"Don't touch me with your dirty hands!" she gasped.
Lem caught his breath.
"Ye've let that rich pup of a Shellington kiss ye—ye don't move from here!"
Fledra crushed back against the cabin wall and eluded his searching fingers.
"I was goin' to marry Mr. Shellington; but I ain't now. I'm going back to him for tonight, and tomorrow, and I'm goin' to let him kiss me, and I'm goin' to kiss him."
She put forward her face until her breath swept Lem's skin.
"I'm goin' to kiss him as much—as much as he'll let me. And I'm goin' to write Fluke; and, if ye touches me afore I does all that—I'll kill ye!"
Lena drew back from her vehemence, leaving the way of the staircase clear, and in another instant Fledra was gone.
The following day Shellington left for New York, immediately after breakfast.
Fledra made no attempt to write her farewells until in the evening after she had looked her last upon Floyd, and Ann had seen her to bed. An hour passed before she got up softly and turned on the light. She fumbled warily about her table for writing materials, and after she had found them her tense face was bent long over the letters. When she had finished, she stole along the hall to Horace's study, and left there the tear-stained envelops for him and her brother.
Once back in her room, she donned her street-clothes rapidly, and, after taking a silent farewell of the surroundings she loved, climbed through the window and dropped to the ground. She crept stealthily to the back of the house and approached the dog-kennels. Through the dim light she could see the scrawny greyhounds pulling at their leashes as she fumbled at the wire-mesh door. Whines from several of the dogs made Fledra step inside, whence she glanced out misgivingly to see if she had been observed.
"Snatchet!" she whispered.
From a distant corner she heard the rattle of a chain.
"Snatchet!" she called again.
This time she spoke more loudly and advanced a step.
"Where are ye?"
A familiar whine gave her Snatchet's whereabouts. She felt her way along the right wall, and as she passed each animal she spoke tenderly to it. Upon reaching the little mongrel, Fledra placed her face down close to him. The glitter of his shining eyes, the warm contact of his wet tongue, brought tears from her. She told him gently that they were going away together, going back to the country where many of the evil persons of the world congregated. The girl took the collar from the dog's neck and, picking him up quickly, retraced her steps.
"We're going back to the hut, Snatchet," she told him again, "and Fledra's going to take you because Floyd won't care when he's got Sister Ann—and Brother Horace." At the mention of the man's name, the squatter girl bent her head over the yellow dog and sobbed.
Then she ran until she was far from the house; but her steps lagged more and more as she neared the river. Long before she reached it she stopped and sat down. How intensely she wished that her sacrifice was to wander alone with Snatchet the rest of her days! Anything would have been preferable to Lem and his scow. But the bargain with her enemies had been the surrendering of herself to the canalman, and shortly she rose and proceeded on her way to the barge. Before entering it, she raised her eyes to the sky. Everything was at peace with the Infinite, save her own little tortured soul. She dashed aside her tears and ascended the gangplank, halting at the top a moment to answer Middy Burnes' familiar call to her. She saw that Middy had his little tug under steam and was ready to tow the scow away. Shuddering, Fledra went down the stairs into the living-room, where Lem and Lon awaited her.
Neither man spoke when she put Snatchet down on the floor and threw back the lovely cloak she had received from Ann at Christmas. Lem's eyes glittered as he looked at it. Before Fledra entered, the scowman had been industriously tacking a sole on a big leather boot, held tightly between his knees. Now he ceased working; the rusty hook loosened its hold upon the heel of the boot, and the hammer was poised lightly in his left hand. From his mouth protruded the sparkling points of some steel tacks.
Lon was first to break the strained silence.
"We been waitin' a long time fer ye, Flea. Ye've kept the tug a steamin' fer two hours."
"I couldn't come before," replied the girl. "I had to wait till Fluke and Sister Ann went to bed."
Lon sneered as he repeated:
"She's the lady you saw when you were there, Pappy Lon. And she's the best woman in all the world!"
The squatter smiled darkly.
"Ye'd best put Snatchet in the back room, and then come here again and set down, Flea, 'cause it'll take a long time to get to Ithaca, and ye'll be tired a standin'."
His sarcasm caused no change to cross the girl's face; but Lem grinned broadly. He took the tacks from between his teeth and made as if to speak. After a few vain stutters, however, he replaced the tacks and hammered away at the old boot. Now and then the goiter moved up and down, each movement indicating the passage of a thought through his sluggish brain.
Fledra removed Snatchet and returned to the living-cabin, as Lon had suggested.
"I want to talk to you before I sit down," she said in a low tone. "What are you going to do with me?"
Just then the scow lurched, and the whistle of the tug ahead screamed a farewell to Tarrytown. Fledra heard the grinding of the boat against the landing as it was pulled slowly away, and she sprang to the window. She took one last glimpse of the promised land, one lingering look at the twinkling lights, which shone like glow-worms and seemed to signal sympathy to the terrified girl. Finally she turned a tearless face to Lon.
"I want to know what you're going to do with me when we get to Ithaca. Can I stay awhile with Granny Cronk?"
She glanced fearfully from Lon to the scowman, whose lips were now free of the nails. His wide smile disclosed his darkened teeth as he stammered:
"Yer Granny Cronk's been chucked into a six-foot hole in the ground, and ye won't see her no more."
Staring at the speaker, Fledra fell back against the wall.
"Granny Cronk ain't dead! She ain't! You're lying, Lem Crabbe!"
"Ask yer daddy, if ye don't believe me," grunted Lem.
Fledra cast imploring eyes to Lon.
"Yer granny went dead a long time ago," verified the squatter.
"Then I can stay with you, Pappy Lon, just for a little time. Oh, Pappy Lon," tears rose slowly, and sobs caught her throat as she advanced toward him, "I'll cook for you, and I'll work days and nights, if I can live with you!" She was so near him that she allowed a trembling hand to fall upon his arm. But he spurned it, shaking it off as he growled:
"Don't tech me! Set down and shut up!"
She passed over the repulse and sobbed on:
"But, Pappy Lon, I'd rather die, I'd rather throw myself in the water, than stay with Lem in this boat! I want to tell you how I've prayed—Sister Ann taught me to. I always asked that Flukey might stay in Tarrytown, and that nothing would ever hurt Mr. Shellington. I never dared pray for myself, because—because God had enough to do to help all the other ones, and because I never asked anything for myself till you found me. I want to stay right in the shanty with you, Pappy Lon. I hate Lem—oh, how I hate him!"
Lem coughed and wheezed.
"I guess we'd better shet her claptrap once and fer all," he said. "Lon, ye leave me to settle with Flea—I know how."
The squatter silenced Lem with a look and rose lumberingly. As he struck a match and made toward the steps, Fledra followed close after him.
"Pappy Lon, if you'll stay with me here on the boat till we get to Ithaca, then I'll do what you say when we get there. You sha'n't go and leave me now with Lem, you sha'n't, you sha'n't!" Her voice rose to a shriek, and her small body trembled like a leaf in a wind. So loud were her cries, and so fiercely did she clutch at Lon's coat, that he turned savagely upon her.
"I'll do what I please. Shet up, or Middy'll hear ye. Git yer hands off en me!"
"Pappy Lon, if you leave me with Lem, then I'll jump in the river!"
She bit her lips to stifle the sobs; but still clung beseechingly to his coat.
Lon stepped backward from the chair, and whirled about so quickly that his coat was jerked from Fledra's grasp.
"Then I'll take Fluke, and what I won't do to him ain't worth speakin' 'bout." He glanced at her face and stopped. Never had he seen such an expression. Her bleeding lips and flaring eyes sent him a step from her.
"If you leave me with Lem," she hissed her repetition, "then I'll jump in the river!" Seeing that he hesitated, she went on, "You stay right in here with Lem and me, Pappy Lon, and when we get to the hut I'll do what you tell me."
Fledra heard Lem drop the old boot he had been mending and advance toward her. She turned upon him, and the scowman halted.
"I said as how I'd settle with ye, Flea," he said, "and now I'm goin' to."
But Lon glared so fiercely that Crabbe closed his mouth and retreated.
"It ain't time fer ye to settle yet, Lem, I'm a thinkin'," said Lon. "Ye keep shet up, or I'll settle with ye afore ye has a chance to fix Flea." Turning to the girl, he questioned her. "Did ye tell anyone ye was goin' with me?" Fledra nodded her head. "Did ye tell Flukey?"
"Yes, and Mr. Shellington. But I told them both that I came of my own free will. But you know I came because I wanted Mr. Shellington to live and Flukey to stay where he is. But I ain't going to be alone in this room with Lem tonight—I tell you that!"
Lon sat down and smoked moodily on his pipe. After a few minutes' thought he said:
"Ye can sleep in that back room where ye put the dorg, Flea, and if there's a key in the lock ye can turn it. You come up to the deck with me, Lem."
With a dark scowl, the scowman followed the squatter upstairs. He had reckoned that the hour to take Flea was near; but Lon's heavy hand held him back. When they were standing side by side in the darkness of the barge-deck, Cronk spoke.
"Lem," he said, "I told ye before that Flea ain't like Flukey. She'd just as soon throw herself into that water as she'd look at ye. She ain't afraid of nothin' but you, and ye've got to keep yer hands offen her till I git her foul, do ye hear?"
"Ye ain't keepin' me away just fer the sake of that high-toned Brimbecomb pup, be ye, Lon?"
"Nope. I'd rather you'd have her, Lem, 'cause ye'll beat her and make her wish a hundred times a day that she'd drowned herself. I say, if ye let me fix this thing, ye'll come out on the top of the heap. If ye don't, she'll raise a fuss, and, if that damned governor gets wind of it, he might catch on that the kid be his. He'd run us both down afore ye could say jackrabbit. Ye let Flea alone till I say ye can have her."
"If yer dealin' fair—"
The squatter interrupted his companion with an angry growl.
"Have I ever cheated ye out of any money?"
"Nope," answered Lem.
"Then I won't cheat ye out of no girl; fer I love a five-cent piece better'n Flea any time. Now, shet up, and we'll go down to sleep!"
* * * * *
Fledra fled into the back room, and, closing the door quickly, slipped the bolt. She glanced about the cabin, which through the candlelight looked dirty and miserably mean. But it was a haven of escape from Lem, and she welcomed it. A large can of tobacco was on a wooden box. Fledra knew this belonged to the canalman and that he would come after it. She picked it up, and, opening the door, shoved it far into the other room. She could bear Lon's muttering voice on the deck above, and the swish of the water as the tug pulled the scow along. Once more she carefully locked the cabin door, and then, with a sob, dropped to her knees, burying her face in the coarse blanket that covered the bunk. Long and wildly she wept, her sobs frequently stopping the utterance of an attempted prayer. Finally her exhaustion overcame her, and she fell into a troubled sleep.
When Fledra opened her eyes the next morning she could not at first realize where she was. When she did she rose from the bed fully dressed; for she had taken off none of her clothing the night before. She drew a long breath as she realized that she would not be pestered by Lem during the trip to Ithaca. Peering through the small cabin window, she could see that they were slowly passing the farms on the banks of the river as the barge was towed slowly through the water. The peace of spring overspread each field, covering the land as far as the girl could see. Herds of cattle grazed calmly on the hills, and she could hear the faint tinkling of their bells above the chug-chug of Middy's small steamer ahead. At intervals fleets of barges, pulled along by struggling little tugboats, passed between her and the bank. These would see Tarrytown—the promised land of Screech Owl's prophecy, the paradise she had been forced to leave! The light of self-sacrifice shone in her uplifted eyes, and many times her sight was blurred by tears; but no thought of escape from Lem and Lon came to her mind. To reenter her promised land would place her beloved ones in jeopardy.
Her reverie left her at a call from Lon, and she unfastened the cabin-door.
"Come out and get the breakfast fer us, Kid," ordered the squatter.
Fledra left the little room and mechanically prepared the coarse food. When it was ready, she took her seat opposite Cronk, and Lem dragged a chair to the table by the aid of the hook on his arm.
"Ye're feelin' more pert this mornin', Flea," said Lon, after drinking a cup of black coffee.
"Yes," replied Flea faintly.
"And are ye goin' to mind yer pappy now?" pursued Lon.
"Yes, after we get to Ithaca," murmured Fledra.
"Tell me what ye said to Flukey in yer note."
"I told him he could stay with Brother Horace; but that I'd go with you, and—"
Her slow precise speech made a decided impression upon Lem; for he ceased eating and stared at her open-mouthed. But Cronk brought his fist down on the table with a thump that rattled the tin dishes.
"Don't be puttin' on no guff with me, brat!" he shouted. "Ye talk as I teeched ye to, and not as them other folks do."
Fledra fell into a resentful silence.
After a few seconds, Cronk said:
"Now, go on, Kid, and tell me what ye told him."
"If you won't let me speak as I like, Pappy Lon, then I'll keep still."
The girl faced him with brave unconcern, with such reckless defiance that Lon drew down his already darkened brow.
"Yer gettin' sassy!" Lem grunted, with his mouth full of food.
Cronk held his peace. He peered at her covertly, as if he would discover what had so changed her since the night before. Her dignity, the haughty poise of her head as she looked straight at him, filled him with something like dismay. Would Lem be able to subdue her with brute force? The scowman also observed her stealthily, compared her to Scraggy, and wondered. They both waited for Fledra to continue; but during the rest of the meal she did not speak again.
* * * * *
Miss Shellington was deeply surprised when the deputy met her with an open letter in his hand, and said:
"The court has called me away, Ma'm. I guess your troubles are all over."
For a moment Ann did not comprehend the meaning of his words. Then she laid a trembling hand on his arm and faltered:
"Possibly they'll send someone else; but I'd much rather you'd stay. We are—we are used to you."
"Thanks, Ma'm; but no one else won't come—the case has been called off."
Increasing excitement reddened Miss Shellington's cheeks.
"Oh, do you think they are going to leave them here with us?"
The deputy buttoned his coat and put on his hat.
"I'm sure I don't know; but I'd almost think so, or I wouldn't have got this order." He tapped his breast-pocket and made as if to go; but he faced the other once more instead, with slightly rising color. "You still have your doctor's orders, Miss, that nobody can take the boy away for sometime; so don't worry. And, Ma'm," the red in his face deepened, "you ain't prayed all these weeks for nothing. I ain't much on praying myself; but I've got a lot of faith in a pretty, good young lady when she does it. Goodby, Ma'm."
As Ann bade the officer farewell, the relief from haunting fears and racking possibilities almost overcame her. She went back to Floyd, resolutely holding up under the strain. She told him that the stranger had gone; but that, as she had received no communication, she did not know the next steps that would be taken.
It was nearly nine o'clock when Ann tapped softly upon Fledra's door. There had been no sign of life from the blue room that morning; for Miss Shellington had given orders that Fledra be allowed to sleep if she so wished. Now, however, she wanted the girl to come to the dining-room to welcome Flukey to his first meal at the table and to learn that the deputy had been withdrawn. When no voice answered her knock, Ann turned the handle of the door and peeped in. Fledra's bed was open, and looked as if its occupant had just got up. Miss Shellington passed through to the bathroom, and called. She ran back hastily to the bed and put her hand upon it. The sheets were cold, while the pillow showed only a faint impression where Fledra's dark head had rested. Miss Shellington paused and glanced about, fright taking the place of expectancy on her face. She hurried to the open window and looked out. Then she rushed to the kitchen and questioned the servants. None of them had seen Fledra, all were earnestly certain that the girl had not been about the house during the morning. Ann thought of Floyd, and for the nonce her fears were forced aside. In spite of her anxiety, she had a smile on her lips as she entered the breakfast-room and took her seat opposite the boy.
"We'll have to eat without Sister this morning," she said gently to the convalescent. "She's a tired little girl."
"She'd be glad to see me here," said Floyd wistfully. "Sister Ann, what's the matter with Fledra?"
Miss Shellington would have given much to have been able to answer this question. Finally her alarm became so strong that she left her breakfast unfinished, and, unknown to Floyd, instituted a systematic search for the girl. Many were the excuses she made to the waiting young brother as the day lengthened hour by hour. Again and again he demanded that Fledra be brought to him. At length the parrying of his questions by Miss Shellington aroused his suspicions, so that he grew nervous and fretful. Five o'clock came, and yet no tidings of the girl. Ann's anxiety had now become distraction; for her brother's absence threw upon her shoulders the responsibility of the girl's disappearance, and the care of Floyd should he suffer a relapse. Her perturbation became so unbearable that she put her pride from her, and sought the aid of Everett Brimbecomb.
She called him on the telephone, and, when his voice answered her clearly over the wire, she felt again all her old desire to be with him; her agitation and uncertainty increased her longing.
"Everett, I'm in dreadful trouble. Can't you come over a moment?"
"Of course, dear girl. I'll come right away."
Not many minutes later Ann herself ushered Everett into the drawing-room, where she had spent such happy hours with him. But, when they were alone, her distrust of him once more took possession of her, and she looked sharply at him as she asked:
"Everett, do you know where Fledra has gone?"
"Who? Fledra Vandecar?" His taunt was untimely, and his daring smile changed her distrust to repulsion.
"No; you know whom I mean—Fledra Cronk. She's, not here. Horace has gone away for a few days, and I'm wild with anxiety. Will you help me find her, Everett? She must be here with us until it is decided which way the matter will go."
They had been standing apart; but the girl's words drew him closer, and he took her hand in his. He had truly missed her, and was glad to be in her confidence once more.
"Ann, you've never been frank with me in this matter; but I'm going to return good for evil. I really don't know where the girl is; still, anything I can do I will. But I do know that her father has seen her; for he told me about it. It was—"
Ann cut him off with a sharp cry:
"But he's seen her only the once, Everett—only that one afternoon when he first came."
This time Everett answered with heart-rending deliberateness:
"You're mistaken, Ann. Your paragon got out of the window when you were all asleep," Ann's sudden pallor disturbed the lawyer only an instant, and, not heeding her clutch on his arm or a pained ejaculation from her, he proceeded, "and went to her father. He told me this. Ann, don't be stupid. Don't totter that way. Sit down, here, child. No, don't push me away.... Well, as you please!"
"Oh, you seem so heartless about it," gasped Ann, "when you know how Horace loves her!"
Miss Shellington did not notice the smile that crossed his lips as he looked down at her, or the triumph in his eyes when he said:
"But, Ann, I've told you only what you've asked of me. I think you're rather unkind, Dear."
"I don't intend to be," she moaned, leaning back and closing her eyes. "Oh! she was with us so long! What shall I say to Horace?"
"Didn't you say he was out of town?"
"Yes, for four or five days," Ann put the wrong meaning to Everett's deep sigh, and she finished; "but I'm going to send for him."
"And, pray, what can he do? The girl is gone, and that ends it."
"But Horace might ascertain if she had been forced to go."
Brimbecomb laughed low.
"No one could force her to jump from the window of her bedroom."
"Everett, Fledra has always said that she hated her father, and that she never wanted to go back to him, because he abused both her and her brother."
"Yes, so you told me before, and I think I remember telling you that you were making a mistake in trusting in her truthfulness. It seems her brother told her that he did not wish to return with the squatter; so she left him here with you. For my part," Everett pressed closer to her, "I'm glad that she is gone. The coming of those children completely changed both you and Horace. You'll get used to ingratitude before you've done much charity work."
Ann's intuition increased her disbelief in the man opposite her.
"Everett, will you swear to me that you had nothing to do with her going?"
Brimbecomb swore glibly enough, and supplemented his oath with:
"I've always felt, though, that you should not have them here; and I can't say that I shouldn't have taken them away, if I could, Ann. Don't you think we could overlook past unpleasantness, and let our arrangements go on as we intended they should?"
Ann rose hastily to her feet. She was sorely tempted to fall into his arms. How handsome he looked, how strongly his eyes pleaded with her! But her vague fears and distrust held her back. She sank again to the chair.
"No, no—not just yet, Everett," she said. "I've loved you dearly; but I can't understand Fledra's disappearance. Oh, I—I don't know how to meet Horace! He loved and trusted her so!" Again she looked at him with indecision. "Come back to me, Dear," she whispered, "when it is all over. I'm so unhappy today!"
Floyd raised his head when Ann bent over him. Agitation and sorrow had so altered her that the change brought him to a half-sitting position.
"Flea's sick, I bet!" he burst out, without waiting to be addressed. "Don't try to fool me, Sister Ann."
As his suspicion grew within him, his eyes traveled over her face again and again; then he put his feet on the floor and stood up.
"Ye didn't tell me the truth this morning, did ye?"
Miss Shellington forced him gently back on the divan, and sat down beside him.
"I'd hoped, Floyd, dear," she said tremblingly, "that we were all going to be happy. You must be brave and help me, won't you? If you should become ill again, I think I should die."
"Then, tell me about Flea. Has Pappy Lon—"
"Fledra went back to him last night of her own free will."
With eyes growing wide from fear, Floyd stared at her.
"I don't know what you mean! Did she tell ye she was a goin'?"
"No, Dear. This morning Fledra was not in her bedroom, and for awhile I thought she had not heeded our cautions, but had gone out for a walk. But Mr. Brimbecomb has just told me that Fledra went back with your father, and that, she had not been forced to go."
"I don't believe it!" The boy's voice was sharp with agony. "Pappy Lon made her go—ye can bet on that, Sister Ann! Flea wouldn't go back there without a reason. I bet that big duffer of yours had a finger in the pie."
Ann flushed painfully.
"Floyd, dear, don't, I beg of you!"
"I'm sorry I said that, Sister Ann. But Flea didn't go for nothin'. Sister Ann, will you and Brother Horace find out why she went? I have to go, too, if Flea's in the hut. Pappy Lon and Lem'll kill her!"
He attempted to rise; but Ann's restraining hand held him back.
"Floyd, Floyd, dear, we don't know where she's gone; but my brother will come soon, and he'll find her. He won't let Fledra be kept from us, if she wants to come back."
The boy's rigid body did not relax at her assurance, nor did her argument lessen his determination.
"But what about Lem? You don't know Lem, Sister Ann. He's the worst man I ever see. I've got to go and get my sister!"
"Floyd, you'd die if you should try to go out now. Why, Dear, you can scarcely stand. Now, listen! I'll send a telegram to my brother, and he'll be right back. Then, if you are determined to go, and can, he'll take you. Why, child, you haven't been out in weeks!"
* * * * *
Three days crawled slowly along, and yet Horace made no response to the many frantic telegrams that Ann had sent. Never had the hours seemed so leaden-winged as those passed waiting for him to come. Ann had received one note from him, and three letters for Fledra lay unopened in the girl's room. His note to Ann was from Boston, and she immediately sent a despatch to him there.
On the fourth day after Fledra's disappearance, when Ann met her brother, one glance told her that he was unaware of their trouble.
"Oh, Horace, I thought you'd never get here! Didn't you receive any of my telegrams?"
"No! What's the matter? Has something happened to Floyd? Where's Fledra?"
"Gone!" gasped Ann.
"Gone! Gone where?"
His voice was filled with imperious questioning, and Ann stifled her sobs.
"I know only what Everett has told me. When we got up the morning after you left, she was gone. I called Everett over, and he told me she went with her father of her own free will. The squatter told him so."
"He's a liar! And if he's inveigled that girl—"
Ann's loyalty to Everett forced her to say:
"Hush, Horace! You've no right to say anything against him until you are sure."
Shellington took several rapid strides around the room.
"If I'd only known it before!"
"I've tried to reach you," Ann broke in; "but my messages could not have been delivered."
"Oh, I'm not blaming you, Ann," he said in a lower tone. "But those men in some way have forced her to go. I'm sure of it! Fledra would never have gone with them willingly. Did she leave no message, no word? Have you searched my room? Have you looked every where?"
"No, I didn't look in your room—it didn't enter my mind. Why didn't I think of that before? Come, we'll look now."
Under the large blotter on his desk Horace found the two tear-stained letters Fledra had left. With a groan the frantic lover tore open the one directed to him and read it.
"She's gone with them!" he said slowly in a hollow voice, and sank into a chair.
Miss Shellington took the note from his outstretched hand, and read:
"I'm going away because I don't like your house any more. Let Floyd stay and let your sister take care of him like when I was here. Give him this letter and tell him I'll love him every day. I took Snatchet because I thought I'd be lonely. Goodby."
The last words were almost illegible. With twitching face, Ann handed the letter back to Horace.
In the man before her she almost failed to recognize her brother, so great was the change that had come over him. She threw her arms tenderly about him, and for many minutes neither spoke. At length, with a start, Horace loosened his sister's arms and stood up.
"Give Floyd his note—and leave me alone for a while, Dear."
His tone served to hasten Ann's ready obedience. She took the note for Floyd and went out.
Four times Horace read and reread his letter. He was tortured with a thousand fears. Where had she gone, and with whom? And why should she have left him, when she had so constantly and sincerely evinced her love for him? She could not have gone back to the squatters; for her hatred of them had been intense. He remembered what she had told him of Lem Crabbe—and sprang to his feet with an oath. Hot blood rushed to his fingertips, and left them dripping with perspiration. He fought with a desire to kill someone; but banished the thought that Fledra had not held faith with him. He called to mind her affection and passionate devotion, and knew that to doubt her would be unjust. But, if to leave him had made her unhappy, why had she gone? He thought of Floyd's letter, and a sudden wish to read it seized him.
When he entered the boy's room Floyd was lying flat on his back, staring fixedly at Miss Shellington, who was deciphering the letter for him. She ceased reading when her brother appeared.
"Horace," she said, rising, "Floyd says he doesn't believe that Fledra went of her own free will. He thinks she was forced in some way."
Horace stooped and looked into the boy's white face, at the same time taking Fledra's letter from Ann.
"Flea can't make me think, Brother Horace," said Flukey, "that she went 'cause she wanted to. Pappy Lon made her go, I bet! There's something we don't know. I want you to take me up there to Ithaca, and when I get there I can find her. Prayin' won't keep her from Lem. We've got to do something."
Horace shot a glance of inquiry at his sister.
"We prayed every morning, Dear," she said simply, "that our little girl might be protected from harm."
"She shall be protected, and I will protect her! Where's the deputy?"
"They called him away the morning Fledra left."
"May I read your letter, Floyd?"
"Sure!" replied the boy wearily.
Shellington's eyes sought the paper in his hand:
"I'm going away, but I will love you every day I live. Floyd, could you ask Sister Ann to pray for everyone—me, too? Forgive me for taking Snatchet—I wanted him awfully. You be good to Sister Ann and always love Brother Horace and mind every word he says. I'm going away because I want to. Remember that, Floyd dear, goodby.
After finishing the letter, Horace said to Ann, "I must see Brimbecomb at once." And he turned abruptly and went out. Ann followed him hurriedly.
"Horace, dear, you won't quarrel with him, for my sake."
"Not unless he had a hand in taking her away. God! I'm so troubled I can't think."
Ann watched him go to the telephone; then, with a premonition of even greater coming evil, she crept back to Floyd.
When Horace ushered Brimbecomb into his home, so firm was his belief that the young lawyer had been instrumental in removing Fledra that he restrained himself with difficulty from wringing a confession from the man by violence. For many moments he could not bring himself to broach the subject of which his mind was so full. Everett, however, soon led to the disappearance of the girl.
"I'm glad you telephoned me so soon after your arrival," said Brimbecomb. "I was just starting for the station. If you hadn't, I shouldn't have seen you. I had something to say to you."
"And I have something to say to you," said Horace, his eyes steadily leveled at the man before him. "Where is Fledra Cronk?"
Everett's confidence gave him a power that was not to be daunted by this direct question.
"My dear fellow," he replied calmly, "I don't exactly know where she is; but I can say that I've had a note from her father, telling me that she was with him in New York, and safe. I suppose it won't be necessary to tell you that she was not compelled to go?"
Horace whitened with suppressed rage. He was now convinced that the suavity of his colleague concealed a craftiness he had never suspected, and he felt sure that Everett had taken advantage of his absence to strike an underhanded blow. Banishing a desire to fell the other to the floor and then choke the secret from him, he decided to ply all the craft of his profession, and draw the knowledge from Brimbecomb by a series of pertinent queries.
"May I see the communication you have received from Cronk?"
Everett seemed to have expected the question; for he made a brave pretense of looking through his wallet for the fictitious letter. He took up the space of several minutes, arranging and rearranging the documents. Then, as he looked at Horace, a paper fluttered to the floor, unobserved by him.
"On second thought," said he, "I think it wouldn't be quite right to show you a private letter from one of my clients. I have told you enough already. I'm sorry, but it's impossible for me to let you see it."
Everett mentally congratulated himself upon his diplomacy, while Horace bit his lip until it was ridged white. In his disappointment he cast down his eyes, and then it was that his attention was called to the paper Brimbecomb had dropped on the floor. He changed his position, and when he came to a standstill his foot was planted squarely on the paper. For a moment Horace was under the impression that Everett had seen him cover the letter; but the unruffled egotism on the face of the other betrayed no suspicion.
"Who ordered the withdrawal of the deputy?" Horace demanded.
Everett knew that the lies he told would have to be consistent; so he repeated what he had said to Ann.
"I don't know," Everett said. "I didn't."
Horace gazed at his companion for several seconds.
"Something tells me that you're lying," he said finally.
An evil change of expression was the only external sign of Brimbecomb's longing to throttle Horace.
"A compliment, I must say, my dear Shellington," he said; "and the only reason I have for not punching you is—Ann."
The other's eyes narrowed ominously.
"Ann is the one who is keeping me from thumping you, Brimbecomb. If you know anything of Fledra Cronk, I want you to tell me."
"I've told you all I know," Everett answered.
"For Ann's sake, I hope you've told me the truth; but, if you haven't, and have done anything to my little girl, then God protect you!"
The last words were uttered with such emotional decision that Everett's first real fear rose within him. With difficulty he held back a torrent of words by which he might exonerate himself. Instead, he said:
"Some day, Shellington, you'll apologize to me for your implied accusation. You have taken—"
"Pardon me," Horace interrupted, "but I must ask you to leave. I'm going to Governor Vandecar."
No sooner had his visitor closed the door than Horace stooped and picked up the paper from under his foot. Going to the window, he opened the sheet, smoothed it out, and read:
"I told you I got the letter you wrote me, and you know I can't ever love you. I hate your kisses—they made me lie to Sister Ann, and I couldn't tell Brother Horace how it happened. I am going back to Lem and Pappy Lon to Ithaca because you and Pappy Lon said as how I must or they would kill Brother Horace. But I hate you, I hate you—and I will always hate you.
Like a brand of fire, every word seared the reader's brain. As his hand crushed the letter, Horace's head dropped down on his arm, and deep sobs shook him. The girl had gone for his sake, and was now braving unspeakable dangers to save him from an evil trumped up by his enemies. Tense-muscled, he sprang to his feet and rushed into the hall.
"My God! What a fool I've been! Ann, Ann! Here, read this!" His words, pronounced in a voice unlike his own, were almost incoherent. He threw the paper at the trembling girl, as he continued, "Brimbecomb dropped it on the floor. Now I think Governor Vandecar will help me! I'm going to Ithaca!"
With the letter held tightly in her hands, the woman read over twice the pitiful denunciation; then, tearless and strong, she went to her brother.
"What—what are you going to do for her first, Dear?"
"I must go to Albany and see the governor."
* * * * *
In the flurry of the departure little more was said, and before an hour had passed Horace Shellington had taken the train for Albany. He had instructed Ann to tell Floyd what had induced Fledra to leave them, and Ann lost no time in communicating the contents of the little tear-stained letter written to Everett.
Later in the day Ann received a telegram from her brother in which she learned that he had missed the governor, who was on his way to Tarrytown. Horace said, also, that he himself was starting for Ithaca by way of Auburn. Ann sat down beside Floyd and read the message to him.
"Did he say," asked the boy, "that the governor was comin' here to Tarrytown?"
For many moments Floyd lay deep in thought.
"I'm goin' to Governor Vandecar's myself. If he's the big man ye say he is, then he can help us. Get me my clothes, Sister Ann."
"It won't do any good, Floyd," argued Ann. "Governor Vandecar has always thought that your father ought to have his children. He doesn't realize how you've suffered through him."
"I'm goin', anyway," insisted Floyd doggedly. "Get my clothes, Sister Ann. I can walk."
"No, you mustn't walk, Deary, you can't; we'll drive. But I wish you wouldn't go out at all, Floyd. Do listen to me!"
"But I must go. Please, get my clothes."
After brief, but vain, arguing, Ann yielded to Floyd's entreaties.
The governor, meditating in his library, was disturbed by a ring at the front door. The servant opened it, and he heard Miss Shellington's voice without.
In a moment Ann entered, white and flurried.
"I want you to pardon me, Floyd," she begged, "but that boy of ours insisted upon coming to see you. He would have come alone, had I refused to accompany him. Will you be kind to him for my sake? He is so miserable over his sister!"
Vandecar clasped her extended hands and smiled upon her.
"I'll be kind to him for his own sake, little friend. Mrs. Vandecar told me of her talk with Horace over the telephone, and I was awfully sorry to have missed him. But the little boy, where is he?"
Miss Shellington threw open the door, and Vandecar's gaze fell upon a tall boy, straight and slim, who pierced him with eyes that startled him into a vague apprehension. He did not utter a word—he seemed to be choked as effectually as if strong fingers were sunk into his throat.
Floyd loosened his hands from Ann's and stepped forward.
"I'm Flukey Cronk, Sir," he broke forth, "and Pappy Lon Cronk stole my sister Flea, and he's goin' to give her to Lem Crabbe to be his woman, and Lem won't marry her, either. Will ye help me to get her back? Brother Horace said as how ye could. Pappy Lon's a thief, too, and so is Lem. If ye'd see Lem Crabbe, ye'd help my sister."
Ann saw two pairs of mottled brown eyes staring at each other, and, as she listened to Floyd's petition, the likeness of the boy to the man struck her forcibly. The expression that swept over Governor Vandecar's face frightened her, and she held her breath. But quicker than hers had been the thoughts of the man. He staggered at the name of "Lon Cronk," and his mind coursed back to a heart-rending scene, to hear again the deep voice of a big-shouldered thief pleading for a sick woman. Again he saw the huge form of the squatter loom up before him, and heard once more the frantic prayer for a week's freedom. He had not taken his eyes from the boy's, and a weakening of his knees compelled him to grip the back of the chair for support. With a voice thickened to huskiness, he stammered:
"What—what did you say your father's name was, boy?"
"Lon Cronk, Sir—and he's the worst man ye ever see. I bet he's the worst man in the state—only Lem Crabbe! He beat my sister, and were makin' me a thief."
Governor Vandecar dropped into his desk-chair. For a space of time his face was concealed from Ann and Floyd by his quivering hand. When he looked up, the joy in his eyes formed a strange contrast to Ann's tearful face. Floyd, thinking the change in the governor boded well for Fledra, advanced a step.
"Sit down, boy," said the governor in a voice that was still hoarse. "Now, then, answer me a few questions. Did your father ever live in Syracuse?"
"Yep, me and Flea were born there."
"How old are you?"
"And your sister? Tell me about her. Is she—how old is she?"
"We be twins," replied Floyd steadily.
The girl, watching the unfolding of a life's tragedy, was silent even to hushing her breathing. The truth was slowly dawning upon her. How well she knew the story of the kidnapped children! How often had her own heart bled for the tender mother, spending endless days in vain mourning! She saw Governor Vandecar stand, saw him sway a little, and then turn toward the door.
"Governor, Governor!" she called tremulously, "I feel as if I were going to faint. Oh, can't you see it all? Where is Mrs. Vandecar?"
"Stay, Ann, stay! Wait! Boy, have you ever had any reason to believe that you were not the son of Lon Cronk?" Through fear of making a mistake, he had asked this question. He knew that, should he plant false hope in the timid mother he had shielded for years, she would be unable to bear it.
"Nope," replied Floyd wonderingly; "only that he hated me and Flea. He were awful to us sometimes."
"There can be no mistake," Ann thrust in. "He looks too much like you, and the girl is exactly like him.... Oh, Floyd!"
Vandecar extended his arms, and, with a sob that shook his soul, drew his boy to him.
"You're not Cronk's son," he said; "you're mine!... God! Ann, you'll never know just how I feel toward you and Horace. You've made me your life debtor; but, of course—of course, I didn't know, did I?" Then, startled by a new thought, he realized Floyd. "But my girl!"
"Horace has gone for her," Ann cried.
"And I will follow him," groaned Vandecar. "Horace—and he could not interest me in my own babies! If I'd helped him, my little girl wouldn't have been taken away!"
In the man's breakdown, Ann's calm disappeared. Unable to restrain her tears, she fluttered about, first to Floyd, then to his father, kissing the boy again and again, assuring and reassuring the governor.
"Just remember," she whispered, bending over the sobbing man, "Horace loves her better than anything in the world. Listen, Floyd! He's going to marry her. Don't you think he'll do everything in his power to save her?... Don't—don't sob that way!"
Of a sudden Vandecar leaped to his feet. Brushing a lock of white hair from his damp brow, he turned to Floyd.
"Before I do anything else, I must take you to your mother."
"But ain't ye goin' for Flea?" demanded Floyd.
"Of course, I am going for my girl," cried Vandecar, "as fast as a train can take me!" He turned suddenly and placed his firm hands on the boy's shoulders. "Before I take you upstairs, boy, listen to me! You've a little mother, a sick little mother who has mourned you and your sister for years. I'm going to leave her with you while I'm gone for your sister. Your mother is ill, and—and needs you!"
Still more interested in his absent sister than in his newly found parent, Floyd put in:
"I'll do anything ye say, if ye'll go for Flea."
Ann touched the father's arm gently.
"Come upstairs now."
* * * * *
Mrs. Vandecar was alone when her husband entered. She was sitting near the window, her eyes pensive and sad. The governor advanced a step, thrusting back the desire to blurt out the truth. The woman glanced into his eyes, and the change there brought her to her feet. Her face paled, and she put out her slender, trembling hands.
"There's something the matter, Floyd.... What's—what's happened?... I heard the bell ring."
In an instant he crushed her to him, and in an agitated voice whispered gently:
"Darling, can you stand very good news—very, very good news, indeed?... No, no; if you tremble like that, I sha'n't tell you. It's only when you promise me—"
"I promise, I promise, Floyd! Is it anything about our—our children?"
"Yes—I have found them!"
How many times for lesser things had she fainted! How many hours had she lain too weak to speak! He expected her now to evince her frail spirit. He felt her shiver, felt her muscles tighten, until she seemed to grow taller as he held her. Then she drooped a little, as if afraid. Dazedly she brushed back her tumbled hair, her eyes flashing past him in the direction of the door.
"Bring—bring them—to—me!" she breathed.
Just how to explain her daughter's danger pressed heavily upon him. He dared not picture Lon Cronk or the man Floyd had described. To gain a moment, he said:
"I will, Dear; but only one of them is here. The other one—"
"Which one is here?"
"The boy, Sweetheart, our own Floyd."
Although she was shaking like a leaf, Vandecar saw that she was not fainting, and when she struggled to be free he released her. She staggered a little, and said helplessly:
"Then, why—why don't you bring—him to me?"
"I will, if you'll sit down and let me tell you something." He knelt beside her and spoke tenderly:
"Sweetheart, our children have been near us for months. They came to Ann and Horace—"
Fledra Vandecar gave a glad little cry.
"It was he, then, the pretty boy that prayed! Oh, Floyd, something told me! But you said he was here alone. Where is my girl?"
"That's what I want to tell you, Fledra. Look at me, dear heart."
The eyes, wandering first from his face, then to the door, fell upon him. They seemed to demand the truth, and he dared not utter a lie to her.
"By some crooked work, which Everett and the squatter—"
His words brought back Horace's story. A strange horror paled her cheeks and widened her eyes.
"That man, the one who called himself her father, took her back to Ithaca. Is that what you wanted to tell me?"
As she attempted to rise, Vandecar pushed her gently back into the chair and said:
"I'm going for her, Beloved, and Horace has already gone—Wait—wait!"
Vandecar was at the door in an instant, and when he opened it Ann appeared, leading Floyd by the hand. Mrs. Vandecar's eyes fastened themselves upon the boy, and, when Ann pushed him toward her, she rose and held out her arms.
Floyd was taller than she, and he stood considering her calmly, almost critically. He had been told by Miss Shellington that he would see his mother, and as he looked a hundred things tore through his mind in a single instant. This little woman, with fluttering white hands extended toward him, was his—his very own! He felt suddenly uplifted with a masculine desire to protect her. She looked so tiny, so frail! He was filled with strength and power, and so glad was his heart that it sang loudly and thumped until he heard a buzzing behind his ears. Suddenly he blurted out:
"I'd a known ye were mine if I'd a met ye any place!"
Governor Vandecar hurriedly left them and telephoned for a special train to take him to Ithaca. He entered his library and summoned Katherine. He talked long to her in low tones, and when he had finished he put his arm about the weeping girl and said softly:
"And you'll come with us, Katherine, dear, and help me bring back my girl? I shall ask Ann to go with us."
"Oh, uncle, dear, you know I will go! And, oh, how glad I am that you've found them!"
"Thank you, child. Now, if you'll run away and make the necessary preparations, we'll start immediately."
During the days of the passage through the Erie Canal, Fledra had remained on the deck of the scow when it was light. The spring days were beautiful, too beautiful to be in accord with her sadness. Yet only when they entered into Cayuga Lake did acute apprehension rise within her. They were now in familiar waters, and she knew the end would soon come. At every thought of Lem, Fledra shuddered; for never did his eyes rest upon her, nor did he approach her, but that she felt the terror of his presence—the sight of him sent a wave of horror through her. Much as she dreaded the wrath of Cronk, much more did she fear Crabbe's eyes, when, half-covered with squinting lids, they pierced her like gimlets. Snatchet was her only comfort, and she lavished infinite affection upon him. Night crowded the day from over Cayuga, and still Fledra and Snatchet remained in the corner, near the top of the stairs. The girl watched pensively the lights upon the hills lose their steadiness, as the scow drew farther away from them, until with a final twinkle they disappeared into the darkness behind. The churning of the tug's propeller dinned continually in Flea's ears; but was not loud enough to make inaudible the sound of a footstep. Lon came to the top of the stairs; but did not speak. He shuffled to the boat's bow, and with a mighty voice bawled to Burnes:
"Slack up a little, Middy! I want to come aboard the tug."
The words floated back to Fledra, and she half-rose, but again sank to the deck. Lon was leaving her alone with Lem! The tug stopped, and the momentum of the barge sent it close to the little steamer. When the gap between the boats was not too wide, Lon sprang to the stern of the tug, and again Middy's small craft pulsated with life, and again the rope stretched taut between the two vessels.
As the gloom of the night deepened, Fledra could no more discern the outline of the steamer ahead, only its stern light disclosing its position. For some moments she scarcely dared breathe. Suddenly a light burst over the crest of the hills opposite, and the edge of the moon's disk rose higher and higher, until the glowing ball threw its soft, pale light over Cayuga and the surrounding country. Once more the tug took form, and the deck of the scow was revealed to the girl in all its murkiness. Shaking with anxiety, she allowed her eyes to rove about until they riveted themselves upon two glittering spots peering at her over the top step from the shadow of the stairway. A low growl from Snatchet did not disturb the fascination the evil eyes held for her. It seemed as if goblin hands reached out to touch her; as if supernatural objects and evil human things menaced her from all sides. The crouching figure of the scowman became more distinct as he sneaked over the top step and edged toward her. A sudden morbid desire came over the girl to throw herself into the water. She rose unsteadily to her feet, with Snatchet still clutched in her arms. She threw one appealing glance at the tug—then, before she could cry out or move, Lem was at her side.
"Don't ye so much as open yer gab," he muttered, "or I'll hit ye with this!"
The steel hook was held up dangerously near her face, and the threat of it rendered her dumb.
"Yer pappy be a playin' me dirt, and I won't let him. Ye're goin' to be my woman, if I has to kill ye! See?"
No sign of help came to the girl from the tug, nor dared she force a cry from her lips.
"Yer pappy says as how I can't marry ye," went on Lem, in the same whisper, "and I don't give a damn about that—- only, ye don't leave this scow to go to no hut! Ye stay here with me!"
Fledra had wedged herself more tightly into the corner, hugging the snarling Snatchet closer. As she backed, the scowman came nearer, his hot breath flooding her face.
"Put down that there dorg!" he hissed. Snatchet did not cease growling, and the baring of his teeth sent Lem back a step or two. "If he bites me, Flea, I'll knock his brains clean plumb out of him!"
With this threat, the scowman came to her again, stretching out his left hand to touch her. Snatchet sent out a bark that was half-yelp and half-growl, and before the man could withdraw his fingers the dog had buried his teeth deep in them. With a wrathful cry, the scowman jumped back, then lunged forward, wrenched the dog from Fledra's arms, and pitched him over the edge of the barge into the lake. The girl heard the dog give a frightened howl, and saw the splash of water in the moonlight as he fell.
He was all she had—a yellow bit she had taken with her from the promised land, a morsel of the life that both she and Floyd loved. With a shove that sent Lem backward, she freed herself and peered over the side. Snatchet had come to the surface, and in his vain effort to reach the scow his small paws were making large watery rings, which contorted the reflection of the moon strangely. He seemed so little, so powerless in the vast expanse, that Fledra, forgetful of her skirts and the handicap they would put upon her, leaped from the scow. Lem saw the water close over her head, and for many seconds only little bubbles and ripples disturbed that part of the lake where her body had sunk. An instant he stood hesitant, then he rushed to the bow.
"Lon, Lon!" he roared. "Flea's jumped overboard!"
The churning of the tug suddenly stopped, and the canalman saw Lon's big body pass through the moonlight into the water.
The scow was soon close to the tug, and together Lem and Middy Burnes examined the lake's surface for a sight of the man and the girl. Many minutes passed. Then a shout from the rear sent Lem running to the stern of the scow which was now at a standstill. He looked down, and on Lon's arm he saw Fledra, pressing Snatchet against her breast. With his other hand the squatter was clinging to the rudder.
"Here she is!" Cronk called. "Grab her up, Lem!"
The scowman relieved Lon of his burden and carried the half-drowned girl below, whither the squatter, dripping with water, quickly followed. Snatchet was directly in his path, and he kicked the dog under the table. At the yelp, Fledra lifted her head, and Lon bent over her.
"What'd ye jump in the lake for, Flea?" he asked.
Still somewhat dazed, Fledra failed to answer.
"Were ye meanin' to drown yer self?"
The girl shook her head, and glanced fearfully at Lem. "Were ye a worryin' her, Lem Crabbe?" demanded the squatter hoarsely.
"I were a tryin' to kiss her," growled Lem. "A man can kiss his own woman, can't he? And that dog bit me. Look at them fingers!" Through the dim candlelight Lem's sullenness answered the dark look that Lon threw on him.
"I don't give a damn for yer fingers," Lon snarled, "and she ain't yer woman yet, and she wouldn't be nuther, if ye weren't the cussedest man livin'. Now listen while I tell ye this: If ye don't let that gal be, ye'll never get her, and I'll smack yer head off ye, if I has to say that again! Do ye want me to say that ye can't never have her?"
"Nope," cowered Lem.
"Then mind yer own business and get out of this here cabin! I'll see to Flea."
Fledra had faith that Lon Cronk would do as he promised. How often had there come to her mind the times when she was but a little girl the squatter had said when he would whip her, and she had waited in shivering terror through the long day until the big thief returned home—he never forgot his anger of the morning. Fledra winced as her imagination brought back the deliberate blows that had fallen upon her bare skin, and tears rushed to her lids at the memory of Floyd's cries, when he, too, had suffered under the strength of the powerful squatter. She was glad she could now at least rest free from Lem until the hut was reached, and then, if only something should happen to soften Cronk's heart, how hard she would work for him!
* * * * *
The next morning the barge approached the squatter settlement, and Fledra was once more on deck. She wondered what Floyd had said when he received her letter, and if he believed that she had gone of her own free will. What had Ann said—and Horace? The thought of her lover caused bitter tears to rain between her fingers. But she stifled her sobs, and a tiny, happy flutter brightened her heart when she thought of how she had saved them all. Below she heard a conversation between Lem and Lon, and listened.
She first heard the voice of the squatter: "It's almost over, Lem, and then we'll go back to stealin' when ye get Flea. She can be a lot of use to us."
"But what ye goin' to say to that feller if he comes up tomorry?"
"He can go to hell!" growled Cronk.
"And ye won't give the gal to him?"
In her fancy Fledra could see Lon draw the pipe from his lips to mutter the words to Lem.
"If ye take his money, Lon," gurgled Lem, "ye might have to fight with him if he don't get Flea."
The listening girl crept to the staircase and strained her ears.
"I kin fight," replied Lon laconically.
When, next day, the tug came to a standstill in front of the rocks near the squatter's hut, Fledra went forward and touched Lon's arm. Her eyes rested a moment upon him, before she could gather voice to say:
"Will you let me stay with you, Pappy Lon, for a few days?"
"I'll let ye stay till I tell ye to go," growled Lon, "and I don't want no sniveling, nuther."
"When are you going to tell me to go?"
"When I like. Middy's gittin' the skiff ready to take ye out. Scoot there, and light a fire in the hut! Here be the key to the padlock."
Fledra's heart rose a little with hope. He had not said that she had to go with Lem that day. After she had been rowed to the shore, she went slowly to the shanty, with a prayer upon her lips. She had no thought that Horace would try to save her, or that he would be able to keep her from Lem and Lon. She prepared the breakfasts for Cronk and Crabbe and for Middy with his two helpers. During the meal four pairs of eyes looked at the slim, lithe form as it darted to and fro, doing the many tasks in the littered hut. Lon Cronk was the only one not to lift his head as she passed and repassed. He sat and thought moodily by the fire. At last he did lift his head, and Fledra's solemn gray eyes, fixed gravely upon him, made the squatter ill at ease.
"What ye lookin' at?" he growled. "Keep your eyes to hum, and quit a staring at me!" Fledra shrank back. "And I hate ye in them glad rags!" Lon thundered out. "Jerk 'em off, and put on some of them togs of Granny Cronk's! Yer a squatter, and ye'd better dress and talk like one! Do ye hear?"
"Yes, Pappy Lon," murmured Fledra, dropping her eyes.
"I ain't said yet when ye was to go to Lem's hut; but, when I do, don't ye kick up no row, and ye'd best do as Lem tells ye, or he'll take the sass out of yer hide!"
"I wish I could stay with you," ventured Fledra sorrowfully; but to this Lon did not reply. After breakfast she was left alone in the hut, and she could hear the loud talking of the tugmen and see Lem working on the scow.
Soon Middy Burnes' tug steamed away toward Ithaca, and Fledra knew that she was alone with no creature between her and Lem but Lon Cronk.
When Lon and Lem returned, the hut was tidy. Fledra had hoped that if she made it so Lon might want her to stay. She could be of much use about the shanty. Neither of the men spoke for awhile, and Fledra held her peace, as she sat by the low hut-window and gazed thoughtfully out upon the lake. In the distance she could see the east shore but dimly. Several fishing boats ran up the lake toward town. A flock of spring birds swept breezily over the water and sought the shade of the forest. Suddenly Lem rose up, stretched his legs, yawned, and said:
"I'm goin' out, Lon, and I'll be back in a little while. Ye'd best be a thinkin' of what I said," he cautioned, "and keep yer eyes skinned for travelers."
"All right. Don't be gone long, Lem," responded Lon. Fledra was not too abstracted to notice the uneasy tone in the squatter's voice.
"Nope; I'm only goin' up the hill."
Lem had decided to reconnoiter for Scraggy. He was filled with a fear that she might be dead; for he had left her in the hut unconscious. He climbed the hill, and, rounding her shanty, drew nearer, and peeped into the window. A piece of bread lying on the table, and a few embers burning on the grate bolstered up his hope that he had not committed murder. He drew a sigh of relief.
* * * * *
Presently, after the departure of Lem, Lon stirred his feet, dragged himself up in the chair, and turned upon the girl. Her heart beat wildly with hope. If he would allow her to stay in the hut with him, she would ask nothing better. His consent would come as a direct answer to prayer. How hard she would work if Floyd and Horace were safe! Cronk coughed behind his hand.
"Flea, turn yer head 'bout here; I want to talk to ye," he said.
The girl got up and came to his side. She was a pathetic little figure, drooping in great fear, and hoping against hope that he would spare her. She had dressed as he had ordered, and at her feet dragged a worn skirt of Granny Cronk's. With trembling fingers she hitched the calico blouse up about her shoulders.
"Flea," said Lon again, "ye came home when I said ye was to, and ye promised that ye'd do what I said, didn't ye?"
"And ye remember well that I promised ye to Lem afore ye went away. I still be goin' to keep that promise to Lem."
The bright blood that had swept her face paced back, leaving her ashen pale. She did not speak, but swayed a little, and supported herself on the top of his chair. Feeling her nearness, he shifted back, and the small hand fell limply.
"Before ye go to Lem," pursued Lon, "I want to tell ye somethin'." Still Fledra did not speak. "Ye know that it'll save Flukey, if ye mind me, and that it don't make no difference if ye don't like Lem."
"Wouldn't it have made any difference if my mother hadn't loved you, Pappy Lon?"
The question shot out in appeal, and Lon's swarthy face shadowed darkly.
"I never loved yer mother," he drawled, sucking hard upon his pipe.
"Then you loved another woman," went on Flea bitterly, "because I heard you tell Lem about her. Would you have liked a man to give her to—Lem?"
As quick as lightning in the smoke came the ghost-gray phantom, approaching from a dark corner of the shanty. Lon's eyes were strained hard, and Fledra saw them widen and follow something in the air. She drew back afraid. The man was staring wildly, and only he knew why he groaned, as the wraith in the pipe-smoke broke around him and drifted away. Fledra brought him back by repeating:
"Would ye have liked to have had Lem take her, Pappy Lon?"
"I'd a killed him," muttered Lon, as if to himself. "But ye, Flea," here he rose and brought down his fist with a bang, "ye go where I send ye! The woman's dead. If she wasn't, ye wouldn't have to go to Lem."
To soften him, Fledra knelt down at his feet.
"Pappy Lon," she pleaded, "you haven't got her, anyhow, and you haven't got anybody but me. If you let me stay—"
How he hated her! How he would have liked to bruise the sweet, upturned face, marking the white cheeks with the impressions of his fists! But he dared not. She would run away again—and to Lem he had given the opportunity to drag her to fathomless depths.
Fledra misread his thoughts, and said quickly:
"I wouldn't care if you beat me every day, Pappy Lon—only let me stay. I'll work for my board. And won't you tell me about the other woman—I don't mean my mother."
Then a diabolical thought flashed into the man's mind. He, too, could make her suffer, even before she went to Lem. A smile twisted his lips, and he said slowly:
"Yer mother ain't dead, Flea."
"Nope, she ain't dead."
"Then where is she?"
"None of yer business!"
Fledra clenched her hands and paled in terror. A mother somewhere living in the world, a woman who, if she knew, would not let her be sacrificed, who would save her from Lem, and from her father, too!
"Lon, Lon!" she cried, springing forward in desperation. "Do you know where she is? I want to know, too."
He flung her away, a grunt of satisfaction coming from his throat.
"And I ain't yer daddy, nuther."
"Then you're not Flukey's father, either?" she whispered.
"Nope; yer pappy and mammy both be livin' and waitin' fer ye. They've been lookin' fer ye fer years—and yet they'll never git ye. Do ye hear, Flea? I hate 'em both so that I could kill ye—I could tear yer throat open with these!" The squatter put his strong, crooked fingers in the girl's face.
A sudden resolution pumped the blood to the girl's cheeks.
"I'm not going to stay here!" was all she said.
Lon lifted his fist and stood up.
"Where ye goin'?"
"Back to Tarrytown."
She was standing close to him, her blazing eyes daring him to strike her.
"What about Flukey?"
"You couldn't have him, either, if—if he isn't yours."
Lon walked to the door and opened it.
"Scoot if ye want to—I don't care. But ye'll remember that I'll kill that sick kid, Fluke, and Lem'll put an end to the Tarrytown duffer what loves ye. I hate him, too!"
Fledra dropped to the floor as if he had struck her.
For some moments her senses were gone, and she opened her eyes only when Lon, vaguely alarmed, threw water in her face.
Cronk entered the scow sullenly and sat down. Lem was sitting at the table, bending over a tin basin in which he was washing his bitten fingers. The steel hook and its leather strappings lay on the table.
"I telled Flea," said the squatter after a silence.
"Did ye tell her she was comin' to my boat tonight?" asked Lem eagerly.
"Nope; but I telled her that she weren't my gal."
"Ye cussed fool!" cried Crabbe, jumping to his feet. "Ye won't keep her now, I bet that!"
Cronk smiled covertly.
"Aw, don't ye believe it! She be as safe stuck in that hut as if I'd nailed her leg to the floor. Ye don't know Flea, ye don't, Lem. She didn't come back with us 'cause she were my brat, but 'cause we was goin' to kill Flukey and Shellington. God! how she w'iggled when I opened the door and telled her to scoot back to Tarrytown if she wanted to! But I didn't forgit to tell her what we'd do to them two others down there, if she'd go. She floundered down and up like a live sucker in a hot skillet. What a plagued fool she is!"
Lon sat back in his chair and laughed loudly.
"Ye'll play with her till ye make her desprite," snarled Lem, "and when she be gone ye can holler the lungs out of ye, and she won't come back. If ye'd left her to me, I'd a drubbed her till she wouldn't think of Tarrytown. I says as how she comes to this scow tonight. Ye can't dicker with me like ye can with that kid, Lon!"
Cronk narrowed his eyelids to slits and contemplated the scowman.
"I want to have a little fun with her afore ye git her," he said. "I love to see her damn face go white and red, and her teeth shut tight like a rat-trap. She won't do none of them things when you git done with her, Lem."
Crabbe rubbed the length of his short arm with a coarse towel.
"Yep, I can make her forgit that she's got blood what'll come in her face," chuckled he. "'Tain't no fun ownin' women, if ye can't make 'em holler once in awhile. But ye didn't say as how she were a comin' here tonight."
"Nope, not tonight," answered Lon; "'cause when I showed her that it didn't make no difference 'bout her stayin' whether she were mine or not, she just tumbled down like a hit ox. My! but it were a fine sight!"
Lem lifted the steel hook in deep reflection and caught the clasps together.
"I'm a wonderin', Lon," he said presently, "if I'm to ever git her."
"Yep, tomorry," assured Lon.
"Honest Injun?" demanded Lem.
"Honest Injun," replied Lon. "If ye takes her tonight, she'll only cut up like the devil. That's the worst of them damn women, they be too techy when they come of stock like her."