"I like 'em when they're techy—it ain't so easy to make 'em do what a man wants 'em to as 'tis t'other kind—say like Scraggy. I love a gal what'll spit in yer face. God! what a lickin' Flea'll git, if she tries any of them fine notions of her'n on me! For every kiss Shellington gived her, I'll draw blood outen her hide!" Lem paused in his work, and then added in a stammering undertone, "But I love the huzzy!"
The other bent far forward to catch the scowman's words, delighting in the mental picture of Fledra's lithe body writhing under the lash. The proud spirit of the girl would break under the physical pain!
* * * * *
Fledra was still lying on the bed when Lon returned to the hut.
"Git up and git supper!" Cronk growled in her ear.
Mechanically she rose, sliced a few cold potatoes into the skillet, and arranged the table for one person.
"Put down two plates!" roared the squatter.
"I can't eat, Lon," Flea said in a whisper.
He noticed that she had dropped the paternal prefix.
"Put down another plate, I say!" he shouted. "Ye be goin' to Lem's tomorry, and ye'll go tonight if ye put on any airs with me! See?"
Fledra placed a plate for herself, and sat down opposite Lon. Choking, she crushed the food into her mouth and swallowed it with effort. For even one night's respite she would suffer anything!
* * * * *
After the dishes were cleared away Fledra knelt by the open window, and peered out upon the water. She turned tear-dimmed eyes toward the college hill, and allowed her mind to travel slowly over the road she and Floyd had taken in September. Rapidly her thoughts came to the Shellington home, and she imagined she saw her brother and Horace listening to Ann as she read under the light of the red chandelier. How happy they all looked, how peaceful they were—and by her gift! She breathed a sigh as the shadows crept long over the darkening lake.
She glanced at the clock, and counted from its dial the hours until morning. She wished that the sun would never rise; that some unexpected thing would snatch her from the hut before the night-shades disappeared into the dawn. Cronk moved, and the girl turned with a startled face. How timid she had grown of late! She remembered distinctly that at one time she had loved the chirp of the cricket, the mournful croak of the marsh frogs; but tonight they maddened her, filled her with an ominous fear such as she had never before felt. When Lon saved her from drowning, and had scathed Lem for his actions, she had hoped—oh, how she had hoped!—that he would let her fill Granny Cronk's place. She glanced at the squatter again.
Lon was staring out upon the lake with eyes somber and restless, eyes darkening under thoughts that threshed through his brains like a whirlwind. He was face to face with a long-looked-for revenge. Through the pain of Flea he could still see that wraith woman who had haunted him all the past-shadowed years. He believed with all his soul that then Midge would sink into his arms, silent in her spirit of thankfulness, and would always stay with him until he, too, should be called to join her; for Lon had never once doubted that in some future time he would be with his woman. If anyone had asked him during the absence of Flea and Flukey which one of them he would rather have had back in the hut, he would undoubtedly have chosen the girl; for well he knew that she was capable of suffering more than a boy. Still, he moved uneasily when he thought of the soft bed and the kindly hands that were ministering to the son of his enemy.
Suddenly the squatter dragged his pipe from his lips and said:
"Look about here, Flea!"
The girl turned her head.
"What, Pappy Lon?" she questioned.
"Keep yer mouth shet!" commanded Lon. "I'll do the talkin' fer this shanty."
Then, seeing her cowering spirit racked by fear, he grinned broadly. Fledra sank back.
"I've always said as how I were a goin' to make money out of ye, and I've found a chance where, if Lem ain't a fool, he'll jine in, too. Will I tell ye?" Lon's question brought the dark head closer to him. "Ye needn't speak if ye don't want to," sneered he; "but I'll tell ye jest the same! Do ye know who's goin' to own ye afore long?" Fledra's widening eyes questioned him, while her lips trembled. "I can see that ye wants to find out. Does ye know a young fellow by the name of Brimbecomb?" Observing that she did not make an effort to speak, Lon proceeded with a perceptible drawl. "Well, if the cat's got yer tongue, I'll wag mine a bit in yer stead. Brimbecomb's offered to buy ye, and, if Lem says that it'll be all right, then I says yep, too."
Fledra found her voice uttering unintelligible words. She was slowly advancing on her knees toward the squatter, her face working into strong, mature lines.
"Jest keep back there," ordered Lon, "and don't put on no guff with me! Ye can do as ye please 'bout goin' away. I won't put out my hand to keep ye; only, remember, if ye go, what comes to the folks in Tarrytown! Now, then, did ye hear what I said about Brimbecomb?" Fledra nodded, her eyelids quivering under his stare. "Yer pretty enough to take the fancy of any man, Flea, and ye've took two, and it's up to 'em both to fight over ye. The man what pays most gits ye, that's all."
The girl lifted one hand dazedly.
"I'd rather go with Lem," she muttered brokenly.
"It don't make no matter to me what you'd ruther have. Ye go where yer sent, and that's all."
Only Fledra's sobs broke the silence of the next five minutes. She dared not ask Lon Cronk any questions.
Presently, without warning, the man turned upon her.
"He's a comin' here tonight, mebbe."
"Ye mean—oh, Pappy Lon! Let me go to Lem! I'll go, and I won't say no word!... I'll go now!" She rose, her knees trembling.
"Sit down!" Lon commanded.
Used to obeying even his look, Fledra dropped back to the floor.
"It ain't given to ye to go to Lem jest 'cause ye want to," he said. "As I says, that young feller is comin' here tonight to talk with me and Lem. I already told him, that he could take ye; but Lem hain't yet give his word."
Fledra glanced out of the window at the scow. Lem was there, arranging the boat for her reception in his crude, homely way. She was sure the scowman would not give her up. The thought brought Ann more vividly into her mind. If Everett came for her, and Lem held to his desire, Miss Shellington's happiness would be assured. The handsome young lawyer would return to Tarrytown, back to the woman who loved him.
Fledra rose with determination in her face. Suddenly Lem had loomed before her as a friend. She moved uneasily about the shanty, Lon making no move to stay her. For awhile she worked aimlessly, with furtive glances at Cronk.
"Set down, Flea," ordered Lon presently. "Ye give me the twitches. If ye can't set still, crawl to bed till," he glanced her over, as she paused to catch his words,—"till one of yer young men'll come to git ye."
It was the chance Fledra had been longing for. She backed from him through the opening of Granny Cronk's room and closed the door. For one minute she stood panting. Then she walked to the window, threw back the small sash, and slipped through. Once in the open air, she shot toward the scow, and in another moment had scurried up the gangplank and into the living-room.
When he saw her, Lem's lips fell away from his pipe, and he rose slowly and awkwardly; but no shade of surrender softened the hard lines settled about the mouth of the panting girl.
"Lem," she gasped, "has Pappy Lon said anything to ye about Mr. Brimbecomb?"
"Are ye goin' to let me go with him?"
"Will ye swear, Lem, that when he comes to the hut ye'll say that he can't have me?"
Lem's jaw dropped, and he uttered a throat sound, guttural and rough.
"Do ye mean, Flea, that ye'd rather come to the scow than go with the young, good-lookin' cuss?"
"Yes, that's what I mean; and Pappy Lon says he's comin'."
Lem made a spring toward her.
"Don't touch me now!" she cried, shuddering. "Don't—yet! I'm comin' back by and by."
Before he could place his hands upon her, Fledra had gone down the plank. From the small boat-window Lem could discern the little figure flitting among the hut bushes; in another moment she had crawled through the open window into Lon's hut.
When Everett arrived in Ithaca he made arrangements with the conductor of the local train running to Geneva to have it slow down at Sherwoods Lane.
A sudden jerk of the engine as it halted at the path that led to Lon's hut brought Brimbecomb to his feet, and he hurried from the car with muttered thanks and a substantial consideration to the conductor. While the train rumbled away in the distance, he stood in the shadow of a large pine tree by the track and looked about to get his bearings. Suddenly he heard not far from him the faint, weird cry of an owl. Instantly he was on the alert; for there was something familiar in the melancholy sound. It took him back to a night in Tarrytown, when he had cast a woman into the cemetery, and he remembered that she had said she lived in Ithaca. Superstition sent him deeper into the shadow for a moment; but he recovered himself and, shaking his shoulders, went his way toward the lake with a muttered oath.
So dense was the woodland bordering the path, and so dark was the shadow of the bushes in the twilight, that he had almost to feel his way down the dark lane. He had not proceeded more than fifty yards when he saw a light gleaming through the underbrush from the opposite side of the gulch that ran parallel with the narrow road. He came to a path that branched in the direction of the light, and picked his way along it. Soon he crossed a primitive bridge and, climbing a little incline, paused before a dilapidated shanty. He knocked peremptorily on the door; but only a droning voice humming a monotonous tune made answer. Again he knocked, this time harder. The singing ceased, and after a shuffling of feet the door opened.
Standing before him, her hair bedraggled as it had been the first time he saw her, was the woman who had claimed to be his mother, the woman he had thrown into Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Brimbecomb, in his astonishment, almost fell back into the gulch. But he quickly gathered his scattered wits and, forcing a face of effrontery, doffed his hat.
"Can you tell me," his agitation did not allow him to speak calmly,—"can you tell me, please, where Lon Cronk lives?"
Although his question was low and broken, Scraggy caught each word.
"Down to the edge of the lake, Mister," she replied. "It's a goin' to be a dark night to be out in, ain't it?"
In his relief, Brimbecomb drew a long breath. She had not recognized him! The dim light of the candle showed him that the same dazed expression still remained in her faded eyes. The smirk on her face, the crouch of her emaciated figure, about which the rags swirled in the wind, the dismal hut, and the loneliness of her surroundings, made such a picture of woe that Everett shuddered and hastened to get the information, that he might hurry away from the awful place.
"Is there a scow down there that belongs to—"
"That there scow belongs to Lem Crabbe," broke in Scraggy. "Yep, it comed in this mornin'. Lem be a good man, a fine man, the bestest man ye ever see."
Brimbecomb took some money from his pocket and, placing it in her fingers, hurried away.
* * * * *
Fledra heard Everett when he came to Lon's shanty door and knocked. She heard the squatter call him by name. She knew now that the only hope for Ann's love for Brimbecomb was that Lem would keep his word and insist upon Lon's holding faith with him.
Cronk ordered her roughly to come to him. When she appeared, the two men looked at her keenly. As she evinced no surprise at his presence, the lawyer knew that she had been told of his coming. He made an attempt to take her hand; but, as once before, Fledra flung her arms behind her.
"I 'low as she don't like ye, young feller," said Lon, with a laugh.
"Does it matter to you, Cronk?" retorted Brimbecomb.
"Not a damned bit!"
"Then go and make your arrangements with your one-armed friend and leave your daughter here with me."
"Ye be in too big a hurry, my fine buck! Lem ain't as willin' as I be; but I'll jest go down to the scow and speak with him."
"I want to go with you, Pappy Lon," cried Fledra.
"Ye stay right here, gal," commanded Cronk. Full in her face he slammed the door and left her alone with Brimbecomb.
Everett stood looking at her for fully a minute, and as steadily she eyed him back.
"I have come for you," he said quietly. "I could not leave you with these persons."
Fledra curled her lip scornfully.
"I lived with them a long time before I saw any of you folks," she said bitterly.
The girl did not reason now. She knew that she must send him back, that this was her only way to repay the woman who had saved her brother. So she went up to Brimbecomb appealingly, her eager eyes gleaming into his.
"I want you to go back to Tarrytown," she said, "and go to Shellingtons', and see Sister Ann. She's dying to have you back. And you belong to her, because you promised her, and she promised you. Will you go back?"
"When I wish to, I will; but not yet," muttered Everett. He had been taken aback at her words, and at that moment could think of no way to compromise with her. She was so near that he threw out his hands and caught her. Forcibly he drew her face close to his, his lips whitening under the spell of her nearness.
"Never, never will I let you go away from me again!" he was saying passionately, when Cronk opened the door and stepped in.
The squatter gave no evidence that he had seen Everett's action. He left the door open, through which the breeze flung the dust and the dead leaves.
"Lem'll see ye in the scow," he said. "I ain't got nothin' to say 'bout this—only as how Flea goes to one or the other of ye."
Not more than half an hour after Everett had reached Sherwoods Lane, Governor Vandecar's train came to a halt at the same place, and the party, consisting of the governor, Ann Shellington, and Katherine Vandecar, made ready to step out into the night.
"Please draw up to the switch," the governor instructed the conductor, "and I'll hail you as soon as we return. Keep an ear out for my call."
"Yes, Sir," replied the conductor; "but you'd better take this lantern—it's sure dark down by that lake, Sir. And you can signal me with the light."
Ann and Katherine clasped hands, and, aided by the light which Vandecar held high, slowly followed him. So stern did the tall man seem in the deep gloom that neither girl spoke to him as they stumbled down the hill. They halted with thumping hearts in sight of the dark lake. All three noticed a small light twinkling through the Cronk window, and, without knocking, Governor Vandecar flung wide the door of Lon's hut and stepped in.
The squatter sat on the floor, whittling a stick; Fledra crouched by the window. As the door opened, she raised her eyes wonderingly; but when she saw a tall stranger she dropped them again—someone had lost his way and needed Pappy Lon. Cronk looked up and, recognizing Vandecar, suddenly slid like a serpent around the hut wall until he was in touching distance of the girl.
"Ye'd better not come any closer, Mister," he said darkly. "I has this, ye see—and Flea's meat's as soft as a chicken's!" He raised his knife menacingly; but dropped it slowly at sight of Ann and Katherine.
"Sister Ann!" breathed Fledra.
Ann's fingers grasped Vandecar's arm spasmodically; but, without glancing back at her, he shook them off. His brow had gathered deep lines at Lon's words, and now his unswerving gray eyes bent low to the squatter. Under the steady gaze Cronk looked down and began to whittle.
In after days Ann could always conjure up the picture before her. Fledra looked so infinitely young and melancholy, as her eyes fixed themselves in wide terror upon Cronk. Out of the ragged blouse rose the proud, dark head, and the lovely face was almost overshadowed by two tightly clenched fists. Instead of falling into her arms, as Ann had imagined she would, the girl only sank lower to the floor, her face ghastly in a new horror. Miss Shellington's patience gave way as she stared at Vandecar—his delay was imperiling Fledra's life; for, if ever a wicked face expressed hate and murder, the squatter's did now. She turned appealing eyes to Katherine, and took a step forward; but the latter held her and whispered:
"Wait, wait a moment, Ann! Wait until Uncle has spoken!"
The whisper broke the silence, and Fledra turned her eyes from Lon. She wondered dazedly who the stranger was, and why he had come with Ann. She thought of Horace, and a pain shot through her heart. She was aware that his sister had come for her; but no thought entered her mind to give up the yoke that would soon be too heavy to bear. Then Governor Vandecar began to speak, and Fledra looked at him.
"I have come to take back my own, Lon Cronk," said he, "that of which you robbed me many years ago."
"I ain't nothin' that belongs to ye, and ye'd better go back where ye comed from, Mister—and don't—come no nearer!"
As the squatter spoke, his lips spread wide over his teeth, and he began picking up and laying down the bits of white wood. He did it deliberately, and no one present imagined how the sight of Vandecar tore at his heartstrings. Cronk could tolerate no robbing him of his revenge, no taking away his chance of soothing the haunting spirit of his dead woman.
Again Ann touched the governor's arm.
"Don't, Dear!" he said, pushing her back a little. "Lon Cronk—I want to tell you—a story."
Cronk made no response; only stooped over and gathered a few slender whittlings, and stacked them up among the others. There was an intense, biting silence, until the governor spoke again.
"Nineteen years ago, when I lived in Syracuse, there came to me an opportunity to convict a man of theft. Then I was young and happy; I knew nothing of deep misery, or of—deep love." The hesitation on his last words brought a shake from the squatter's shoulders. "This man, as I have said, was a thief, admitted his crime to me; but, at the time of his conviction, he pleaded with me that he might go home for a little while to see his wife, who was ill. But of course I had no authority to do that."
A dark shade flashed over Cronk's face, followed by one of awful suffering.
"Yep, ye had," he repeated parrot-like; "ye might have let him go."
"But I couldn't," proceeded the governor, "and the man was taken away to prison without one glance at the woman who was praying to see him. For she loved him more—than he did her."
"That's a lie!" burst from Cronk's dry puckered lips.
"I repeat, she loved him well," insisted Vandecar; "for every breath she took was one of love for him."
In the hush that followed his broken sentence, Lon moved one big foot outward, then drew it back.
"Afterward—I mean a few hours after the man was taken away—I began to think of him and his agony—over the woman, and I went out to find her. She was in a little hut down by the canal,—an ill-furnished, one-room shanty,—but the woman was so sweet, so little, yet so ill, that I thought only of her."
A dripping sweat broke from every pore in Lon's body, and drops of water rolled down his dark face. He groped about for another stick of wood, as if blind.
"She was too young, too small, Lon Cronk, for the cross she had to bear."
Lon threw up his head.
"Jesus! what a blisterin' memory!" he said.
His throat almost smothered the words. Ann began to sob; but Katherine stood like a stone image, staring at the squatter.
The governor's low voice went on again:
"She was sicker than any woman I'd ever seen before, and when I was there her little baby was born. I held her hands until she died. I remember every message she sent you, Cronk. She told me to tell you how much she loved you, and how the thought of your goodness to her and your love would go down with her to the grave. If I could have saved her for you, I should have done so; but she had to go. Then I wrote and asked you if I should care for her body."
An evil look overspread the squatter's face. The misty tears cleared, and he began to scrape again at the wood. He flashed a murderous look upward.
"Ye could have left her dead in the hut, as long as yer killed her!" said he.
Not heeding the interruption, Vandecar went on:
"But you sent me no word, and, because I was sorry, and because—"
The knife slipped from Lon's stiffened fingers, and a long groan fell from his lips.
"I didn't get no word from ye!" he burst out. "I didn't know nothin' till they told me she were dead." The man's head dropped down on his chest.
Relentlessly Vandecar spoke again:
"Because I could not give you to her when she wanted you, and because she had suffered so, I took her body and placed it in our family plot. I went to the prison to tell you this, so that you could go to her grave whenever you wished; but you had escaped the night before I arrived there, and I never associated you with my great loss."
The revenge Cronk had planned upon this man suddenly lost its savor before the vividly drawn picture. He did not remember that Vandecar had come for his girl; he had in mind only the wee, sweet squatter woman so long dead.
"Didn't the warden tell ye that I hit him, Mister," he groaned, "and that I smashed the keeper when they telled me about her, and—and that the strait-jacket busted my collarbone when I was tryin' to get out to her?"
Vandecar shuddered and shook his head; but before he could speak Cronk wailed dazedly:
"Ye might have come and telled me yerself, ye might a knowed how I wanted ye to!"
"I told you that I did come and you were gone," Vandecar answered emphatically.
"Ye didn't think how I loved her, how I'd a dreamed of huggin' my own little brat!"
Vandecar interrupted again:
"I took the baby with me, Lon Cronk." At the word "baby," Lon dragged his heavy hand backward across his eyes. "The baby," continued the governor, "was no bigger than this,—a wee bit of a girl, such as all big men love to father."
The squatter stood rigidly up against the wall, until his head almost reached the ceiling. His fierce eyes centered themselves upon Vandecar.
"If I'd a knowed, Mister," he mumbled, "that ye'd took my little Midge's hand in yer'n, that ye soothed her when she was a howlin' fer me, I wouldn't have cribbed yer kids—I'll be damned if I would 'ave! But I hated ye—Christ! how I hated ye! I could only think how ye wouldn't help me." He shuddered, wiped his wet lips, and went on, "After that I went plumb to hell. There weren't no living with me in prison, lessen I were strapped in the jacket till my meat were scorched. It seemed as how it made my hurt less for her to have my own skin blistered. Then, when I got out of prison, I never once took my eyes offen ye, and when yer woman gived ye Flea and Flukey—"
A cry from Fledra brought all eyes upon her save Lon's.
"When yer woman gived ye the two kids," he went on, "I let 'em stay long enough for ye to love 'em; then I stole 'em away. But, if I'd a knowed that ye tooked mine—" He moved forward restlessly and almost whispered, "Mister, will ye tell me how the little 'un looked? And were it warm and snuggly? Did ye let it lay ag'in' ye—and sleep?" The miserable, questioning voice rose in demand, but lowered again. "Did ye let it grab hold of yer fingers—oh, that were what I wanted more'n anythin' else! And that's why I stealed yours; so ye'd know what sufferin' was. If ye'd only telled me, Mister—if ye'd only telled me!"
Vandecar groaned—groaned for them all, no more for himself and for his gentle wife than for the great hulk of a man wrestling in agony. Tears rose slowly to his lids; but he dashed them away.
"Cronk," he cried, "Cronk, for God's sake, don't—don't! I've borne an awful burden all these years, and every time I've thought of her I've thought of you and wondered where you were."
"I were with my little woman in spirit," the squatter interrupted, "when I weren't tryin' to get even with you. Mister, will ye swear by God that ye telled me the truth about the baby?"
"I swear by God!" repeated Vandecar solemnly.
"And I believe ye. I could a been good, if I'd a had the little kid awhile. It were a bit of her, a little, livin' bit. I could a been, but I wasn't, a good man. I loved to lash Flukey and Flea. I loved to make the marks stand out on their legs and backs. And I tried to l'arn Flukey to be a thief, and Flea were a goin' to Lem tomorry. It were the only way I lived—the only way!" Cronk trailed on as if to himself. "The woman camed and camed and haunted me, till my mind were almost gone, and I allers seed the little kid's dead face ag'in' her, and allers she seemed to tell me to haggle the life outen yer kids; and haggle I did, till they runned away, and then I went after 'em, and Flea—"
Vandecar stopped the speaker with a wave of the hand.
"Then you brought her back here, and I discovered that she was mine, and I came for her. Lon Cronk, you give me back my girl, and I'll," he whitened to the very lips, and repeated,—"and I'll give you back yours!"
With a sweep of the arm Vandecar pushed Katherine forward. The very air grew dense with anxiety. Ann clutched Katherine by the arm as if to stay her movement, as if to keep her from the dazed squatter. His confession of the kidnapping and his uncouth appearance forced Miss Shellington to try and protect her gentle friend from his contact. But Katherine loosened Ann's fingers in stony silence. Only a choking sound from Fledra broke the quietude. She was staring into Lon's face, and he was flashing from her to Katherine glances that changed and rechanged like dark clouds passing over the heaven's blue. He saw Katherine, so like his dead wife, bow her fair head before him. He noted her trembling fingers pressed into pink palms, her slender body grow tense again and again, relaxing only with spontaneous sobs. That he could touch the fragile young creature, that he might listen to the call of his heart and take her as his own, had not yet been fully forced upon him. The meaning of Governor Vandecar's words seemed to leave his mind at intervals; then his expression showed that he realized the truth of them. He swayed forward; but crouched back once more against the wall. Fledra rose silently to her feet, her ready intelligence grasping the great fact that she was free, that the magnificent stranger had come for her, that he claimed her as his. She was free from Lem, from Lon, free to go back to Flukey. Lem's menacing shadow had lifted slowly from her life, cast away by her own blood. For an instant there rose rampant in her breast the desire to turn and fly, before another chance should be given Lon to exert his authority over her. Then something snapped in her head, and, unconscious, she sank noiselessly to the floor. No one noticed her. She was like a small prey over which two great forces ruthlessly fought and tore at human flesh and human hearts.
Vandecar gently touched Katherine's arm; but her feet were powerless to move.
"Katherine," the governor groaned, "don't you remember that you cried over him and your mother, and that—"
"Yes, yes!" Katherine breathed. She was trying to still the beating of her heart, trying to thrust aside a great, revolting fear; yet she knew intuitively that the squatter was her father, and remembered how the recounting of her mother's death had touched her. In one flashing thought, she recalled how she had longed for a mother, and how she had turned away when other girls were being caressed and loved. But never had it entered her mind to imagine that her parents were like this. The picture of the hut in which the wee woman had died rose within her—the death agony had been so plainly described. The tall, shrinking, sobbing man against the wall was her father! Even that afternoon, when Governor Vandecar had told her of her birth and her mother's death, and of her father in the lake hut, she had not imagined him like this man. Yet something pleaded for him, some subtle, gentle spirit hovering near seemed to drag her forward. She shuddered, slipped from Vandecar's arms, and crouched down before the squatter. She turned a livid, twitching face up to his, her eyes beseeching his with infinite compassion. All that was beautiful in the gentle, soulful girl broke over Ann like a surging sea. This girl, who had been brought up in a beautiful home, always attended with loving kindness, was casting her lot with a man so low and vile that another person would have turned away in disgust. Miss Shellington's mind recalled her girlhood days, in which Katherine had been an intimate part. She could not bear it. She took an impulsive forward step; but Vandecar gripped her.
"Stay," came sternly from his lips, "stay! But—but God pity her!"
The next seconds were laden with biting agony such as neither the governor nor Ann had ever experienced. Katherine pleaded silently with the man above her for paternal recognition. Suddenly he drew away from the kneeling girl and shrank into the corner, pressing the wall with his great weight until the rotting boards of the shanty creaked behind him. Only now and then was his mind equal to the task of owning her. Gathering strength to speak, Katherine sobbed:
"Father, Father, I never knew of you until today—I didn't know, I didn't know!"
In her agony she did not notice the fierce eyes melt with tenderness; but Vandecar saw it with a tumultuous heart. He was waiting to claim the little figure on the floor, that he might take her back to her mother. In that way he would retrieve his own past errors and in a measure redeem the misspent life of the thief. He saw Cronk smooth his brow with a shaking hand, as if to wipe away from his befuddled brain the cobwebs of indecision and time-gathered shadows. His lips, drawn awry with intensity, opened only to drone:
"Pretty little Midge, I thought as how ye were dead! And ye've come back to yer man, a lovin' him as much as ever! God—God!" He raised streaming eyes upward, and then finished, "God! And there be a God, no matter how I said there wasn't! He didn't let ye die when I were pinched!" With a mighty strength he swept the girl from the floor and turned mad eyes upon Vandecar.
"She ain't dead, Mister—I thought she were! Take back yer brat, and keep yer boy—and God forgive me!"
So tender was his last petition, that it seemed but a breath whispered into the infinite listening ear of the God above. Katherine, like Fledra, had lapsed into unconsciousness.
"She's fainted!" cried Ann. "Oh, Katherine, poor, pretty little Katherine!"
"Help her, Ann!" urged Vandecar. "Do something for her!"
He did not wait to see Ann comply; but turned to Fledra, who, still wrapped in unconsciousness, lay crouched on the floor, her dark curls massed in confusion. Granny Cronk's blouse had fallen away, leaving the rounded shoulders bare and gleaming in the faint yellow light.
The father gathered the daughter into his arms with passionate tenderness. At first he did not try to revive her; but sat down and held her close, as if he would never let her go. Tears, the product of weary ages of waiting, fell on her white, upturned face, and again he murmured thanksgivings into her unheeding ear. For many moments only the words of Ann could be heard, as she tried to reason with Cronk to release Katherine for a moment.
"Lay her down, won't you? She's ill. Please, let me put water on her face!"
"Nope," replied Lon; "she won't git away from me ag'in. She's Midge, my little Midge, my little woman, and she's mine!"
"Yes, yes," answered Ann, "I know she's yours; but do you want her to die?"
With his great hands still locked about Katherine, Cronk looked down on her lovely face, crushed against his breast. She was a counterpart of the woman who had lived in another hut with him, and his dazed mind had lost the intervening years. Midge had come out of the prison shadows, and the big squatter had turned back two decades to meet her.
"She's only asleep," he said simply; "she allers slep' on my breast, Missus. She'd never let me put her off'n my arm a minute. And I didn't want to, nuther. She were allers afeared of ghosts—allers, allers! And I kep' her close like this. She ain't dead, Ma'm."
His voice was free from anger and passion. By dint of persuasion, at length Ann forced him to release Katherine and to aid her while she bathed the girl's white face with water.
Katherine was still limp and bewildered when, ten minutes later, Fledra opened her eyes and looked up into her father's face. The past hour had not returned to her memory, and she drew quickly away. Of late she had become timid, always on the defensive; and when Ann spoke to her she held out her arms.
"I'm afraid!" she whimpered. "I want to go to Sister Ann."
But Vandecar held her fast as Miss Shellington knelt on the hut floor at his side.
"Fledra, listen to me! This is your own father, Dear. Don't draw away from him. He came with me for you. We're going to take you back to your mother and little Floyd."
It seemed an eternity to the waiting man before Fledra received him. There were many things she had to reason away. It was necessary first to dispense entirely with Lon Cronk, to feel absolutely free from Lem. Until then, how could she feel secure? The eyes bent upon hers affected her strangely. They were spotted like Flukey's, and had the same trick of not moving when they received another's glance. Then Ann's exclamation seemed to awaken her lethargic soul, and she seized upon the word "mother."
"Mother, Mother!" she stumbled, "oh, I want her, Sister Ann! I want her! Will you take me to her? She's sweet and—and mine!" She made the last statement in a low voice directly to Vandecar.
"Yes, and I'm your father, Fledra," he whispered. He longed for her to be glad in him—longed now as never before.
Fledra's eyes sought Cronk's. He had forgotten her; Katherine alone held his attention. Timidly she raised her arms and drew down her father's face to hers.
"I'm glad, I'm awful glad that you're mine—and you're Floyd's, too. Oh, I'm so glad! And you say—my mother—"
"Yes, Dear," Vandecar murmured, deeply moved; "a beautiful mother, who is waiting and longing for her girl. Dear God, how thankful I am to be able to restore you to her!"
The governor held her close, while he told her of her babyhood and the story of the kidnapping, refraining from mentioning Cronk's name. It took sometime to impress upon her that all need of apprehension was past, that her future cast with her own dear ones was safe, and that Lem and Lon were but as shadows of other days.
Katherine, weeping with despair, was sitting close to Lon. She knew without being told that the father she had just found had lost from his memory all of the bitterness of the years gone by. He had gone back to his Midge, and now centered upon his newly found child the identity of this dead woman. It was better so, even Katherine admitted; for he was meek and tender, wholly unlike the sullen, ugly man they had seen earlier in the evening. The squatter's condition made it impossible to allow Katherine to be with him, and they dared not leave him alone in the hut. Later, when they were making plans for Cronk's future, Vandecar said:
"We can't leave him here, Ann dear. Can't we take him with us, Katherine?"
"It's the only thing I can see to do," replied Ann, with catching breath.
"You'll come with him and me, Katherine, and we'll take him to the car, while he is subdued. You, Ann, dress that child, and wait here for Horace. I'll come back directly. I must place Cronk with the conductor, for fear—"
"Don't be long," begged Ann. "I'm so afraid!"
"No, only long enough to signal the train and get them aboard. You must be brave, dear girl, and we must all remember what he has suffered. His heart is as big as the world, and I can't forget that, indirectly, I brought this upon him." He turned his glance upon the squatter, and Katherine's eyes followed his. The lines about Lon's mouth had softened with tenderness, his eyes were filled with adoration. Katherine flashed him back a sad smile.
"The little Midge!" murmured Lon. "I'll never steal ag'in—never! And I'll jest fish and work fer my little woman—my pretty woman!"
Vandecar rose and went to the squatter.
"Lon," he said, placing a hand upon the rough jacket, "will you bring your little—" He was about to say daughter, but changed the word to "Midge," and continued, "Will you bring Midge to my car and come to Tarrytown with us?"
Cronk stared vacantly.
"Nope," he drawled; "I'll stay here in the hut with Midge. It's dark, and she's afraid of ghosts. I'll never steal ag'in, Mister, so I can't get pinched."
Vandecar still insisted:
"But won't you let your little girl come back and get her clothes? And you, too, can come to our home, for—for a visit." His face crimsoned as he prevaricated.
But Lon still shook his head.
"A squatter woman's place be in her home with her man," he said.
Vandecar turned helplessly upon Katherine.
"You persuade him," he entreated in an undertone.
Katherine whispered her desire in her father's ear.
"We'll go only for a few days," she promised.
"And ye'll come back here?" he demanded.
The girl glanced toward Governor Vandecar, and caught the slight inclination of his head.
"Yes," she promised; "yes, we'll come back, if you are quite well."
Cronk stooped down and pressed his lips to hers.
"I'd a gone with ye, Midge, 'cause I couldn't say no to nothin' ye asked me." But he halted, as they tried to lead him through the door.
"I don't like the dark," he muttered, drawing back.
Fledra eyed him in consternation. Never before had she known him to express fear of anything, much less of the elements which seemed but a part of his own stormy nature. Never had she seen the great head bowed or the shoulders stooped in timidity. Katherine had Cronk's hand in hers, and she gently drew him forward.
"Come, come!" she breathed softly.
"I'm afraid," Lon whined again. "I want to stay here, Midge." He looked back, and, encountering Vandecar's eyes, made appeal to him.
"Cronk," the governor said, "do you believe that I am your friend?"
The squatter flung about, facing the other.
"Yep," he answered slowly, "I know ye be my friend. If ye'll let me walk with my hand in yer'n, I'll go." He said it simply, as a child to a parent. He held out his crooked fingers, and Vandecar seized them. Katherine took up her position on the other side of her father, and the three stepped out into the night and began slowly to ascend the hill.
To Horace Shellington it seemed many hours before the small, jerky train that ran between Auburn and Ithaca drew into the latter city. In his eagerness to reach the squatter settlement without loss of time, he hastened from the car into the station. He knew that it would be far into the night before he reached Lon Cronk's, and, with his whole soul, he hoped he would be in time to save Fledra from harm. At the little window in the station he hurriedly demanded of the agent a mode of conveyance to take him to the spot nearest the squatter's home.
"There's no way to get there tonight over this road," said the man; "but you might see if Middy Burnes could take you down the lake. He's got a tug, and for a little money he'll run you right there."
Horace quickly left the station, and, making his way to the street, found the house to which he had been directed. At his knock Middy Burnes poked a bald head out of the door and asked his business. In a few words Shellington made known his wants. The tugman threw the door wider and scratched his head as he cogitated:
"Mister, it'll take me a plumb hour to get the fire goin' good in that tug. If ye can wait that long, till I get steam up, I'll be glad to take ye." So, presently the two walked together toward the inlet where the boat was tied.
"Who do you want to see down the lake this time of the year?" asked Burnes, with a sidelong look at his tall companion.
"Ho! ho!" laughed Middy. "I jest brought him and Lem Crabbe up from Tarrytown, with one of Lon's kids. She's a pretty little 'un. I pity her, 'cause she didn't do nothin' but cry all the way up, and once she jumped into the lake."
The sharpness of Shellington's voice told Middy that this news was of moment.
"Well, ye see, 'tain't none of my business, 'cause the gal belongs to Lon; but, if she was mine, I wouldn't give her to no Lem Crabbe. Lem said she jumped in the lake after a pup; but I 'low he was monkeyin' with her. Her pappy hopped in the water after her like a frog and pulled her out quicker'n scat."
With fear in his heart, Horace waited on deck for Burnes to get up steam, and it seemed an interminable time before the tug at last drew lazily from the inlet bridge, and, swinging round under Middy's experienced hand, started slowly down the black stream.
* * * * *
Ann closed the shanty door after seeing the governor and his two companions disappear up the hill, and smiled at Fledra with shining eyes. The wonderful events of the evening had taken place in such rapid order that she had no time to express her happiness to the girl. She opened her arms, and Fledra darted into them.
"It's all because you prayed, Sister Ann," she sobbed, "and because you taught me how to pray. Does—does Horace know about my new father and mother?"
"No, Dear; he left Tarrytown before we ourselves knew. We received a telegram from Horace saying he had come on to Ithaca. We must wait here; for he'll arrive sometime tonight. We couldn't go and allow him to find this place empty."
"Of course not," the girl sighed impatiently. "Oh, I hope he comes soon!"
Her soul burned for a sight of him. He had been the first to fly to her rescue, even when he had thought her but a squatter girl. He had not shrunk from the dangers of the settlement, and, in spite of the peril of Lem and Lon, he had been willing to drag her away from harm for the love of her. The thought was infinitely sweet.
At length Ann brought her to the present.
"Fledra dear, can you realize that little Mildred is your own sister, and that Mildred's mother is yours? Oh, Darling, you ought to be the happiest girl in the world!"
"I'm happy, all right," said Fledra gravely; "only, I feel sorry for Katherine. Somehow, we changed Daddies, didn't we?"
"Yes, Dear, and I feel for her too," lamented Ann. "I can't see how she's going to bear it."
"Maybe she's been a praying," said Fledra, "as I did when I thought I was coming to Lem. It does help a lot."
"Dear child, dear heart," murmured Ann, "your faith is greater than mine! Katherine Vandecar is a saint, and—and so are you, Fledra."
"No, I'm not." The girl dropped her eyes and flushed deeply.
"Oh, but Fledra, you are!" Then a new thought entered Ann's mind, and she hesitated before she continued. "Fledra, will you tell me something about Mr. Brimbecomb? I mean—you know—the trouble you spoke of in your letter to him?"
Fledra flashed a startled glance.
"Did he dare show it to you?"
"No, no, Fledra; he dropped it, and Horace found it."
"Is that the way you knew where I'd gone?"
"Yes, and on account of it Floyd went to the governor's house."
"Oh, why did you let Floyd go out? He is so ill!" Her eyes were reproachful.
Ann, with a smile, kissed the girl.
"Dear, unselfish child," said she, "don't you understand that, if he hadn't gone, you wouldn't have your strong, big father, nor would little Floyd be now with his mother?"
"Maybe our mother'll make Floyd well," cried Fledra. "Oh, she couldn't help but love him, could she, Sister Ann?"
"And it will be impossible for her not to love you, Deary," exclaimed Ann, wiping her eyes. "But now you must dress. Have you still the clothes you wore away from home?"
"Yes, I have them; but they're all mussed. I fell in the lake, and got them all wet, and they're wrinkled now. They're up in the loft. Wait—I'll get them." She was scrambling up the ladder as she spoke, and her last words were uttered in the darkness of the loft.
Ann could hear the girl moving about overhead, and heard the dragging of a box across the floor. Then another sound broke upon her ears, and before she could move toward the door it opened, and a shabby, one-armed man shuffled in, followed by Everett Brimbecomb.
* * * * *
After Everett had disappeared across the little bridge, Scraggy closed the rickety door of her hut and went fidgeting about in the littered room. Long she brooded, sniveling in her bewilderment. Something hazy, something out of the past, knocked incessantly upon her demented brain. This something touched her heart; for she whimpered as does a hurt child when the hurt is deep and the child's mother is not near. She still missed Black Pussy, and when she thought of the loss of her only friend wilder paroxysms of frenzied grief filled the shanty.
After one of her raving fits of crying more vehement than those preceding, Black Pussy again came to her mind, and suddenly she was taken back to the wintry night she had lost him. Feebly she put the events of that evening together, one by one, until like a burst of light the memory of her boy came to her. Not once hitherto had she remembered him since his blow had sent her into unconsciousness. Now she recalled how roughly her son had handled her, and she did not forget his threat to kill her if she ever mentioned to anyone that she was his mother. She recognized, too, the identity of the stranger who had asked her the way to the scow but a little while before.
A sane expression came into her eyes, and she settled herself back to think. With her pondering came a clear thought—her boy was seeking his father! Still somewhat dazed, she tottered to one corner of the hut and fumbled for her shawl.
"He axed for Lon!" she whispered. "Nope, he axed for Lem, his own daddy. Now, Lemmy'll take me with 'em—oh, how I love 'em both! And the boy'll eat all he wants, and his little hand'll smooth my face when my head aches!"
Muttering fond words, she opened the door and slid out into the night. She paused on the rustic bridge, the sound of footsteps in the lane that led to the tracks bringing her to a standstill. Several persons were approaching her. They came steadily nearer, passed the footpath that led to her hut, and she crept out. Two men and a woman were near enough for Screech Owl to touch them, if she had put out her hand. She remained perfectly quiet, and Lon Cronk's voice, muttering words she did not understand, came to her through the underbrush. Then, in her joy, Scraggy speedily forgot them, and, as she hurried down the hill sent out cry after cry into the clear night.
* * * * *
For a long time Miss Shellington stood staring at Everett, and the man as fixedly at her. The movements were still going on in the loft.
"How came you here?" cried Ann sharply, when she had at last gathered her senses.
"I might ask you the same thing," replied Everett suavely. "This is scarcely a place for a girl like you."
"I came after Fledra," she said slowly. "I didn't know—"
Everett came forward and crowded back her words with:
"And I came for the same person!"
Brimbecomb reasoned quickly that he dared not tell Ann the truth, and that so long as she thought his actions were for Fledra's welfare she would stand by him.
"I found out that these ruffians had taken her, and I came after her. I thought a good school would be better than this." He swept his hand over the hut, and did not notice the expression that flitted across Ann's face.
Lem uttered an unintelligible grunt, and growled:
"He's a damned liar, Miss! He wanted to buy the gal from me and Lon."
Everett laughed sneeringly.
"Miss Shellington would not believe such a tale as that," said he; "she knows me too well."
"I do believe him," said Ann. "I saw the letter you lost, which Fledra wrote you. You dropped it in our drawing-room. Horace found it."
Everett saw his fall coming. He would not be worsted by this woman, who had believed once that he was the soul of truth. To lose her and the prestige of her family, and to lose also Fledra, was more than he would endure. He bounded forward and grasped her arm fiercely.
"Where is that squatter girl? I'll stand nothing from you or that brother of yours! Where is he, and where is she?"
Ann stood silently praying for strength. So plainly had Everett shown his colors that she felt disgust grow in her heart, although her eyes were directed straight upon him. She hoped that the girl in the loft upstairs would not come down until Governor Vandecar returned. Again she sent up a soul-moving petition for help.
"You can't have her!" she said, trying to speak calmly. "She is going to marry my brother, Everett."
Just then Fledra, robed in her own clothes, scrambled to the top rung of the ladder. She paused halfway down and glanced over the scene below with unbelieving eyes.
"Go back up, Fledra," commanded Ann.
"I don't think she'll go back up," gritted Brimbecomb. "Come down!" He advanced a step, with his hand upon his hip. "I've something to coax you with," he declared in an undertone. "It is this!"
Fledra saw the revolver, noted the expression on the man's face, and stepped slowly down the ladder. The silence of the moment that followed was broken by several loud hoots of an owl. The first one seemed in direct proximity to the hut; the last ones came faintly from the shore of the lake.
When she saw the gun, Ann whitened to the ears, and the threat in Everett's eyes caused Lem to gurgle in his throat, as if he would speak but could not.
"I told you," said Everett, with his lips close to Fledra's ear, "that I would use any means to get you.... Stand aside there—you two!"
He turned his flashing eyes upon the scowman and Ann, and, placing his arm about Fledra, drew her forward. The girl was so dazed at the turn of affairs that she allowed Everett to drag her, unresisting, half the length of the room. Then her glance moved upward to Ann. Miss Shellington's face was as pallid as death, and her horrified look at Everett brought Fledra to her senses. The girl looked appealingly at Lem. The scowman's squinted eyes and the contortions of his face caused Fledra to cry out:
"Lem, Lem, save me! save me!"
Crabbe drew his heavy body more compactly together, and, with his eyes glued upon the revolver, advanced along the wall toward Brimbecomb. His frightful wheezes and choking gulps attracted the lawyer's attention to him, and the gun was suddenly leveled at his breast.
"Stand back there, Crabbe!" ordered Everett. "You have nothing to do with this."
But, as the lawyer spoke, Lem sprang forward with the fierceness of a wild beast. Instantly followed the report of a revolver; but the bullet went wide and sunk into the opposite wall, for, as Everett aimed at Lem, Fledra twisted and struck his arm so heavily that his fingers loosened and the weapon clattered across the room.
The impact of the scowman's body bore the lawyer down, while Fledra was thrown away from the struggle by a sweep of Lem's left arm. Ann was petrified with fear; but this did not keep her from picking up the girl from the floor. In her terror she took in each motion of the fighters. She saw Lem lift his left hand, and heard the sickening thud as his great brown fist struck Everett full in the face. She saw the hook flash in the candlelight, then bury its glittering prong in the other's neck. Everett screamed once, then was silent; for with his unmaimed hand the scowman had grasped his enemy's throat and was shaking the body as a dog does a rat. In his frenzy, Lem threshed and tumbled Brimbecomb about on the hut floor, the sight of his rival's blood sending him mad; and always the sound of his gasps and chokes rose above the struggle. Of a sudden the gurgles in the throat of the scowman ceased, his face became purple black, and it seemed to Ann that his blood must burst through the thick skin. With one last movement he again buried his hook in Everett, then tried to throw the body from him; but, instead, he himself, fell in a heap on the floor.
Suddenly the door opened, and Scraggy Peterson staggered into the hut.
She sent no glance at Ann, nor did she see Fledra shrinking in the corner. No thought came to her weak brain save of the two men at grips with death. She staggered forward with a cry.
"Lemmy, Lemmy, ye wouldn't kill yer own brat?... He's our little 'un!... Lemmy!... God!... Ye've killed him!"
Scraggy put her hands on Everett, and saw Lem struggle to sit up, the lust of killing still blazing in his eyes. He had heard the woman's words, and as he slowly grasped the import of them he turned over and raised his head while pulling desperately at his throat.
"Oh, Lemmy, love," she murmured, "ye've killed him this time! He's dead!" She leaned farther over, and kissed the white face of her son. "Yer hook's killed our little 'un, Lemmy—my little 'un, my little 'un!"
"Oh, no, no, he isn't dead!" cried Ann. "He can't be dead!" She let go her hold on Fledra, and, with Scraggy, bent over Everett. "Oh, he breathes! But he isn't your son?"
"Yep; he be Lemmy's boy and mine," answered Scraggy, lifting her eyes once more to Ann. "Look! He were hurt here by the hook when he were a baby." She drew aside Everett's tattered shirt-front and displayed a long white mark.
Ann staggered back. Everett had said to her:
"My mother will know me by the mark on my breast."
So this was the end of Everett's dream!
"He didn't love his mammy very much," Scraggy went on, "nor his pappy, nuther; but it were 'cause he didn't know nuther one of us very well, and Lem didn't love him nuther. And now they've fit till he's dead! Lemmy's sick, too. Look at his face! He can't swaller when he's sick like that." She left Everett and crawled to Lem.
"Can ye drink, Lemmy?" she asked sorrowfully.
The grizzled head shook a negative.
"Be ye dyin?"
This time Crabbe's head came forward in assent.
"Then ye dies with yer little boy—poor little feller! He were the bestest boy in the hull world!" Here she placed an arm under Everett's neck; throwing the other about Lem, she drew the two men together before she resumed. "And Lemmy was the bestest man and pappy that anybody ever see!"
* * * * *
Screech Owl's last words were nearly drowned by the shrill whistle of a steamer. A minute later Ann and Fledra heard running footsteps coming from the direction of the lake. There was no knock; but a quick jerk of the latch-string flung wide the door—and Fledra was in Horace's arms.
"Thank God, my little girl is safe!" he murmured.
Then he glanced over her head, his horrified attention centered upon the group on the floor.
Scraggy looked up at him, still holding Lem and Everett.
"I'm glad ye comed, Mister. Can't ye help 'em any?"
For many minutes they worked in silence over the father and son. Once the brilliant eyes of Brimbecomb opened and flashed bewilderedly about the room, until he caught sight of Ann. A smile, sweet and winning, curved his lips. Then he lapsed into unconsciousness again.
"Oh, I want him to speak to me, Horace," moaned Ann, "only a little word!"
"Wait, Dear," said Horace. "We're doing all we can.... I believe that man over there is dead."
He made a motion as if to lean over the scowman; but Scraggy pushed him back.
"No, my Lemmy ain't dead," she wailed, "course he ain't dead!" She placed her lips close to the dying man's ear, and called, "Lemmy, Lemmy, this be Scraggy!"
The hooked arm moved a trifle, and then was still. The fingers of the left hand groped weakly about, and Scraggy, with a sob, lifted the arm and put it about her. Had the others in the room been mindful of the action, they would have seen the man's muscles tighten about the woman's thin neck. Then presently his arm loosened and he was dead.
Everett's eyes were open, and he was trying to speak.
"Is—Ann—here?" he whispered faintly.
"Yes, Dear, I am here, right close beside you. Can't you feel my hands?"
His head turned feebly, and his fingers sought hers.
"I have been—wretchedly—wicked!"
His voice was so low that Horace did not catch the words; but Scraggy heard, and crawled from Lem to Miss Shellington's side.
"Missus, will ye tell my little boy-brat that his mammy be here? Will ye say as how I loved him—him and Lemmy, allers?"
Her haggard face was close to Ann's, and the latter took in every word of the low-spoken petition. Miss Shellington bent over the dying man.
"Everett," she said brokenly, "your own mother is here, and she wants you to speak to her."
Brimbecomb partly rose, and, in scanning those in the hut, his eyes fell upon Screech Owl. The tense agony seemed for an instant to leave his face, and it fell into more boyish lines.
"Little 'un—pretty little 'un," whispered Scraggy "yer mammy loves ye, and Lemmy loved ye, too, if he did hit ye!"
Screech Owl hung over him many minutes in a breathless silence; but when Vandecar came in Everett, too, was dead. Then, at last, Scraggy moved toward the door, and, with the same wild cry that had haunted the settlement for so many years, sprang out into the night.
* * * * *
From her hiding place in the gulch, Scraggy saw Vandecar and the rest mount the hill. When they had disappeared, she slunk down the lane and made straight for Lon's hut. With dread in her eyes, she stood for sometime before the dark shanty, and then swayed forward to the window.
When she reached it, superstition forced her back; but love proved stronger than fear, and she looked into the room. So dark was it within that she could see only the white mound on the floor—the mound made by the dead father and son. They were hers—all that was left of the men she had loved always! Scraggy tried the door; but found it locked. Then she attempted to move the window; but it, too, had been fastened. With a stone she hammered out the glass, making an opening through which she dragged her body. As she stood there in silent gloom, the very air seemed to hang heavy with death. In the dark Scraggy broke out into sobs, and was seized with spasms of shivering; she had no strength to move forward or backward.
But again love drove her on, and some seconds passed before she found matches to light the candle. When the dim flame lighted up the room, she turned slowly to the middle of the floor. Tremblingly she drew down the covering and looked upon her dead. They were hers—these men were hers even in death! Chokingly she stifled her sobs, and then the decision came to her that she would keep a night vigil until break of day. Of the two, Screech Owl knew not which she loved better.
"Ye both be dead," she moaned, looking first at Lem then at Everett; "dead so ye'll never breathe no more! But Scraggy loves ye.... God! ye nuther one of ye knows how she loves ye! There weren't no men in the hull world as good as ye both was.... Lemmy didn't know ye was his, little 'un, and ye didn't know Lemmy were yer daddy. I'll stay with ye both till the day."
Saying this, she crouched low between Crabbe and Brimbecomb, and, encircling each neck with an arm, thrust her face down close between them.
Lon Cronk's old clock on the shelf ticked out the minutes into the somberness of the hut. The waves of the lake, breaking ceaselessly upon the shore, softened the harsh, uneven croaks of the marsh-frogs with their harmony. Through the broken window drifted the night noises, and the wind fluttered the candle-flame weakly. Suddenly Screech Owl thought she heard a voice—a voice filled with tender sympathy and pathos. Without disengaging her arms, she lifted herself and searched with dim eyes even the corners of the hut. Misty forms shaded to ghost-gray seemed to steal out and group themselves about her dead. She took her arm from Everett and brushed back the straggling locks that blurred her sight.
The voice spoke again, pronouncing her name in low, even tones. Once more she wound her arm about Everett, and pressed herself down between her beloveds. Her eyes, protruding and fearful, saw the candlelight grow dimmer.
"Lemmy, Lemmy," she gasped between hard-coming breaths, "I'm comin' after ye and our pretty boy! Wherever ye both be—I come—"
A film gathered over Scraggy's eyes, and her words were cut short by the pain of the intermittent flutterings of her heart. She fell lower, and with a last weak effort drew the heads closer together. Then Scraggy's spirit, which had ever sought her lover and her son, took flight out into the vast expanse of the universe, to find Everett and Lem.
* * * * *
Governor Vandecar bent over his wife.
"Darling," he murmured, "I have brought you back your other baby. Won't you turn and—look at—her?"
Fledra was standing at her father's side, and now for an instant she looked down into the blue eyes through which she saw the yearning heart of her mother. Then she knelt down with Floyd, and they rested their heads in tearful silence under the hands of these dear ones, who trembled with thankfulness.
The last fifteen years flashed as a panorama across the governor's mind. That day he had discharged his debt to Lon Cronk by placing the squatter where his diseased mind could be treated, and he had insisted that his own name and home should be Katharine's, the same as of yore. It was not until Mildred opened the door and entered hesitantly that he raised his head. Silently he held out his arms and drew his baby girl into them.
* * * * *
Horace's first duty when he returned to Tarrytown was to make Ann as comfortable as he could. She had borne up well under the tragedy, and smiled at him bravely as he left for Vandecar's. The governor met him in the hall and drew him into his library.
"I must speak with you, boy, before—"
"Then I may talk with Fledra?"
The governor hesitated.
"She is so young yet, Horace! I beg of you to wait, won't you? There are many things to be attended to before she can leave her mother and me. We've only just found her."
"I must see her, though," replied Horace stubbornly.
"You shall, if you will promise me—"
"I won't promise anything," said Horace, slowly raising his eyes. "After I have spoken to her, we'll decide."
Vandecar sighed and touched the bell.
"Say to Miss Fledra that I wish to speak with her," he said to the servant.
After a moment they heard her coming through the hall. Vandecar placed his hand upon Horace's arm; but the young man flung it off as the door opened and Fledra came in. Her face was still pale and wan. Her eyes darkened by circles, testified to the misery of the days since she had left him. Horace spoke her name softly, held out his arms, and she fled into them. He pressed her head closely to his breast, smoothing the black curls, while blinding tears coursed down his face. The governor turned from them to the window. He stood there, until Horace asked huskily:
"Fledra, Fledra, do you still love me? Oh, say that you do! I'm perishing to be forgiven for my lack of faith in you. Can you forgive me, beloved?"
"I love you, Horace," she murmured, lifting bright, shy eyes. "And I love my beautiful mother, too, and—oh, I—worship my splendid father."
She held out one hand to Governor Vandecar, over which the father closed his fingers. Then she threw back her head and smiled at them both.
"I'm going to stay with my mother till she gets well. I'm goin' to help Floyd till he walks as well as ever. Then I'm goin' to study and read till my father's satisfied. Then, after that," she turned a radiant glance on both men, and ended, "when he wants me, I'll go with my Prince."
* * * * *
JOHN FOX, JR'S.
STORIES OF THE KENTUCKY MOUNTAINS
May be had wherever books are sold. Ask for Grosset and Dunlap's list.
THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE. Illustrated by F. C. Yohn.
The "lonesome pine" from which the story takes its name was a tall tree that stood in solitary splendor on a mountain top. The fame of the pine lured a young engineer through Kentucky to catch the trail, and when he finally climbed to its shelter he found not only the pine but the foot-prints of a girl. And the girl proved to be lovely, piquant, and the trail of these girlish foot-prints led the young engineer a madder chase than "the trail of the lonesome pine."
THE LITTLE SHEPHERD OF KINGDOM COME. Illustrated by F. C. Yohn.
This is a story of Kentucky, in a settlement known as "Kingdom Come." It is a life rude, semi-barbarous; but natural and honest, from which often springs the flower of civilization.
"Chad," the "little shepherd" did not know who he was nor whence he came—he had just wandered from door to door since early childhood, seeking shelter with kindly mountaineers who gladly fathered and mothered this waif about whom there was such a mystery—a charming waif, by the way, who could play the banjo better that anyone else in the mountains.
A KNIGHT OF THE CUMBERLAND. Illustrated by F. C. Yohn.
The scenes are laid along the waters of the Cumberland, the lair of moonshiner and feudsman. The knight is a moonshiner's son, and the heroine a beautiful girl perversely christened "The Blight." Two impetuous young Southerners fall under the spell of "The Blight's" charms and she learns what a large part jealousy and pistols have in the love making of the mountaineers.
Included in this volume is "Hell fer-Sartain" and other stories, some of Mr. Fox's most entertaining Cumberland valley narratives.
Ask for complete free list of G. & D. Popular Copyrighted Fiction
GROSSET & DUNLAP, 526 WEST 26TH ST., NEW YORK
* * * * *
THE NOVELS OF WINSTON CHURCHILL
THE INSIDE OF THE CUP. Illustrated by Howard Giles.
The Reverend John Hodder is called to a fashionable church in a middle-western city. He knows little of modern problems and in his theology is as orthodox as the rich men who control his church could desire. But the facts of modern life are thrust upon him; an awakening follows and in the end he works out a solution.
A FAR COUNTRY. Illustrated by Herman Pfeifer.
This novel is concerned with big problems of the day. As The Inside of the Cup gets down to the essentials in its discussion of religion, so A Far Country deals in a story that is intense and dramatic, with other vital issues confronting the twentieth century.
A MODERN CHRONICLE. Illustrated by J. H. Gardner Soper.
This, Mr. Churchill's first great presentation of the Eternal Feminine, is throughout a profound study of a fascinating young American woman. It is frankly a modern love story.
MR. CREWE'S CAREER. Illus. by A. I. Keller and Kinneys.
A New England state is under the political domination of a railway and Mr. Crewe, a millionaire, seizes a moment when the cause of the people is being espoused by an ardent young attorney, to further his own interest in a political way. The daughter of the railway president plays no small part in the situation.
THE CROSSING. Illustrated by S. Adamson and L. Baylis.
Describing the battle of Fort Moultrie, the blazing of the Kentucky wilderness, the expedition of Clark and his handful of followers in Illinois, the beginning of civilization along the Ohio and Mississippi, and the treasonable schemes against Washington.
CONISTON. Illustrated by Florence Scovel Shinn.
A deft blending of love and politics. A New Englander is the hero, a crude man who rose to political prominence by his own powers, and then surrendered all for the love of a woman.
THE CELEBRITY. An episode.
An inimitable bit of comedy describing an interchange of personalities between a celebrated author and a bicycle salesman. It is the purest, keenest fun—and is American to the core.
THE CRISIS. Illustrated with scenes from the Photo-Play.
A book that presents the great crisis in our national life with splendid power and with a sympathy, a sincerity, and a patriotism that are inspiring.
RICHARD CARVEL. Illustrated by Malcolm Frazer.
An historical novel which gives a real and vivid picture of Colonial times, and is good, clean, spirited reading in all its phases and interesting throughout.
GROSSET & DUNLAP, PUBLISHERS, NEW YORK
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ZANE GREY'S NOVELS
May be had wherever books are sold. Ask for Grosset & Dunlap's list.
THE LIGHT OF WESTERN STARS Colored frontispiece by W. Herbert Dunton.
Most of the action of this story takes place near the turbulent Mexican border of the present day. A New York society girl buys a ranch which becomes the center of frontier warfare. Her loyal cowboys defend her property from bandits, and her superintendent rescues her when she is captured by them. A surprising climax brings the story to a delightful close.
DESERT GOLD Illustrated by Douglas Duer.
Another fascinating story of the Mexican border. Two men, lost in the desert, discover gold when, overcome by weakness, they can go no farther. The rest of the story describes the recent uprising along the border, and ends with the finding of the gold which the two prospectors had willed to the girl who is the story's heroine.
RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE Illustrated by Douglas Duer.
A picturesque romance of Utah of some forty years ago when Mormon authority ruled. In the persecution of Jane Withersteen, a rich ranch owner, we are permitted to see the methods employed by the invisible hand of the Mormon Church to break her will.
THE LAST OF THE PLAINSMEN Illustrated with photograph reproductions.
This is the record of a trip which the author took with Buffalo Jones, known as the preserver of the American bison, across the Arizona desert and of a hunt in "that wonderful country of yellow crags, deep canons and giant pines." It is a fascinating story.
THE HERITAGE OF THE DESERT Jacket in color. Frontispiece.
This big human drama is played in the Painted Desert. A lovely girl, who has been reared among Mormons, learns to love a young New Englander. The Mormon religion, however, demands that the girl shall become the second wife of one of the Mormons—
Well, that's the problem of this sensational, big selling story.
BETTY ZANE Illustrated by Louis F. Grant.
This story tells of the bravery and heroism of Betty, the beautiful young sister of old Colonel Zane, one of the bravest pioneers. Life along the frontier, attacks by Indians, Betty's heroic defense of the beleaguered garrison at Wheeling, the burning of the Fort, and Betty's final race for life, make up this never-to-be-forgotten story.
GROSSET & DUNLAP, PUBLISHERS, NEW YORK
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STORIES OF RARE CHARM BY GENE STRATTON-PORTER
May be had wherever books are sold. Ask for Grosset and Dunlap's list.
LADDIE. Illustrated by Herman Pfeifer.
This is a bright, cheery tale with the scenes laid in Indiana. The story is told by Little Sister, the youngest member of a large family, but it is concerned not so much with childish doings as with the love affairs of older members of the family. Chief among them is that of Laddie, the older brother whom Little Sister adores, and the Princess, an English girl who has come to live in the neighborhood and about whose family there hangs a mystery. There is a wedding midway in the book and a double wedding at the close.
THE HARVESTER. Illustrated by W. L. Jacobs.
"The Harvester," David Langston, is a man of the woods and fields, who draws his living from the prodigal hand of Mother Nature herself. If the book had nothing in it but the splendid figure of this man it would be notable. But when the Girl comes to his "Medicine Woods," and the Harvester's whole being realizes that this is the highest point of life which has come to him—there begins a romance of the rarest idyllic quality.
FRECKLES. Decorations by E. Stetson Crawford.
Freckles is a nameless waif when the tale opens, but the way in which he takes hold of life; the nature friendships he forms in the great Limberlost Swamp; the manner in which everyone who meets him succumbs to the charm of his engaging personality; and his love-story with "The Angel" are full of real sentiment.
A GIRL OF THE LIMBERLOST. Illustrated by Wladyslaw T. Brenda.
The story of a girl of the Michigan woods; a buoyant, lovable type of the self-reliant American. Her philosophy is one of love and kindness towards all things; her hope is never dimmed. And by the sheer beauty of her soul, and the purity of her vision, she wins from barren and unpromising surroundings those rewards of high courage.
AT THE FOOT OF THE RAINBOW. Illustrations in colors by Oliver Kemp.
The scene of this charming love story is laid in Central Indiana. The story is one of devoted friendship, and tender self-sacrificing love. The novel is brimful of the most beautiful word painting of nature, and its pathos and tender sentiment will endear it to all.
GROSSET & DUNLAP, PUBLISHERS, NEW YORK
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Transcriber's note: Punctuation has been made regular and consistent with contemporary standards.
Page 67, "forword" changed to "forward" (boy went forward).
Page 320, "wip" changed to "wipe" (to wipe away).