Chapter IX. Wherein the Limberlost Falls upon Mrs. Duncan and Freckles Comes to the Rescue

Freckles was halfway to the Limberlost when he dismounted. He could ride no farther, because he could not see the road. He sat under a tree, and, leaning against it, sobs shook, twisted, and rent him. If they would remind him of his position, speak condescendingly, or notice his hand, he could endure it, but this--it surely would kill him! His hot, pulsing Irish blood was stirred deeply. What did they mean? Why did they do it? Were they like that to everyone? Was it pity?

It could not be, for he knew that the Bird Woman and the Angel's father must know that he was not really McLean's son, and it did not matter to them in the least. In spite of accident and poverty, they evidently expected him to do something worth while in the world. That must be his remedy. He must work on his education. He must get away. He must find and do the great thing of which the Angel talked. For the first time, his thoughts turned anxiously toward the city and the beginning of his studies. McLean and the Duncans spoke of him as "the boy," but he was a man. He must face life bravely and act a man's part. The Angel was a mere child. He must not allow her to torture him past endurance with her frank comradeship that meant to him high heaven, earth's richness, and all that lay between, and nothing to her.

There was an ominous growl of thunder, and amazed at himself, Freckles snatched up his wheel and raced toward the swamp. He was worried to find his boots lying at the cabin door; the children playing on the woodpile told him that "mither" said they were so heavy she couldn't walk in them, and she had come back and taken them off. Thoroughly frightened, he stopped only long enough to slip them on, and then sped with all his strength for the Limberlost. To the west, the long, black, hard-beaten trail lay clear; but far up the east side, straight across the path, he could see what was certainly a limp, brown figure. Freckles spun with all his might.

Face down, Sarah Duncan lay across the trail. When Freckles turned her over, his blood chilled at the look of horror settled on her face. There was a low humming and something spatted against him. Glancing around, Freckles shivered in terror, for there was a swarm of wild bees settled on a scrub-thorn only a few yards away. The air was filled with excited, unsettled bees making ready to lead farther in search of a suitable location. Then he thought he understood, and with a prayer of thankfulness in his heart that she had escaped, even so narrowly, he caught her up and hurried down the trail until they were well out of danger. He laid her in the shade, and carrying water from the swamp in the crown of his hat, he bathed her face and hands; but she lay in unbroken stillness, without a sign of life.

She had found Freckles' boots so large and heavy that she had gone back and taken them off, although she was mortally afraid to approach the swamp without them. The thought of it made her nervous, and the fact that she never had been there alone added to her fears. She had not followed the trail many rods when her trouble began. She was not Freckles, so not a bird of the line was going to be fooled into thinking she was.

They began jumping from their nests and darting from unexpected places around her head and feet, with quick whirs, that kept her starting and dodging. Before Freckles was halfway to the town, poor Mrs. Duncan was hysterical, and the Limberlost had neither sung nor performed for her.

But there was trouble brewing. It was quiet and intensely hot, with that stifling stillness that precedes a summer storm, and feathers and fur were tense and nervous. The birds were singing only a few broken snatches, and flying around, seeking places of shelter. One moment everything seemed devoid of life, the next there was an unexpected whir, buzz, and sharp cry. Inside, a pandemonium of growling, spatting, snarling, and grunting broke loose.

The swale bent flat before heavy gusts of wind, and the big black chicken swept lower and lower above the swamp. Patches of clouds gathered, shutting out the sun and making it very dark, and the next moment were swept away. The sun poured with fierce, burning brightness, and everything was quiet. It was at the first growl of thunder that Freckles really had noticed the weather, and putting his own troubles aside resolutely, raced for the swamp.

Sarah Duncan paused on the line. "Weel, I wouldna stay in this place for a million a month," she said aloud, and the sound of her voice brought no comfort, for it was so little like she had thought it that she glanced hastily around to see if it had really been she that spoke. She tremblingly wiped the perspiration from her face with the skirt of her sunbonnet.

"Awfu' hot," she panted huskily. "B'lieve there's going to be a big storm. I do hope Freckles will hurry."

Her chin was quivering as a terrified child's. She lifted her bonnet to replace it and brushed against a bush beside her. Whirr, almost into her face, went a nighthawk stretched along a limb for its daytime nap. Mrs. Duncan cried out and sprang down the trail, alighting on a frog that was hopping across. The horrible croak it gave as she crushed it sickened her. She screamed wildly and jumped to one side. That carried her into the swale, where the grasses reached almost to her waist, and her horror of snakes returning, she made a flying leap for an old log lying beside the line. She alighted squarely, but it was so damp and rotten that she sank straight through it to her knees. She caught at the wire as she went down, and missing, raked her wrist across a barb until she tore a bleeding gash. Her fingers closed convulsively around the second strand. She was too frightened to scream now. Her tongue stiffened. She clung frantically to the sagging wire, and finally managed to grasp it with the other hand. Then she could reach the top wire, and so she drew herself up and found solid footing. She picked up the club that she had dropped in order to extricate herself. Leaning heavily on it, she managed to return to the trail, but she was trembling so that she scarcely could walk. Going a few steps farther, she came to the stump of the first tree that had been taken out.

She sat bolt upright and very still, trying to collect her thoughts and reason away her terror. A squirrel above her dropped a nut, and as it came rattling down, bouncing from branch to branch, every nerve in her tugged wildly. When the disgusted squirrel barked loudly, she sprang to the trail.

The wind arose higher, the changes from light to darkness were more abrupt, while the thunder came closer and louder at every peal. In swarms the blackbirds arose from the swale and came flocking to the interior, with a clamoring cry: "T'check, t'check." Grackles marshaled to the tribal call: "Trall-a-hee, trall-a-hee." Red-winged blackbirds swept low, calling to belated mates: "Fol-low-me, fol-low-me." Big, jetty crows gathered close to her, crying, as if warning her to flee before it was everlastingly too late. A heron, fishing the near-by pool for Freckles' "find-out" frog, fell into trouble with a muskrat and uttered a rasping note that sent Mrs. Duncan a rod down the line without realizing that she had moved. She was too shaken to run far. She stopped and looked around her fearfully.

Several bees struck her and were angrily buzzing before she noticed them. Then the humming swelled on all sides. A convulsive sob shook her, and she ran into the bushes, now into the swale, anywhere to avoid the swarming bees, ducking, dodging, fighting for her very life. Presently the humming seemed to become a little fainter. She found the trail again, and ran with all her might from a few of her angry pursuers.

As she ran, straining every muscle, she suddenly became aware that, crossing the trail before her, was a big, round, black body, with brown markings on its back, like painted geometrical patterns. She tried to stop, but the louder buzzing behind warned her she dared not. Gathering her skirts higher, with hair flying around her face and her eyes almost bursting from their sockets, she ran straight toward it. The sound of her feet and the humming of the bees alarmed the rattler, so it stopped across the trail, lifting its head above the grasses of the swale and rattling inquiringly--rattled until the bees were outdone.

Straight toward it went the panic-stricken woman, running wildly and uncontrollably. She took one leap, clearing its body on the path, then flew ahead with winged feet. The snake, coiled to strike, missed Mrs. Duncan and landed among the bees instead. They settled over and around it, and realizing that it had found trouble, it sank among the grasses and went threshing toward its den in the deep willow-fringed low ground. The swale appeared as if a reaper were cutting a wide swath. The mass of enraged bees darted angrily around, searching for it, and striking the scrub-thorn, began a temporary settling there to discover whether it were a suitable place. Completely exhausted, Mrs. Duncan staggered on a few steps farther, fell facing the path, where Freckles found her, and lay quietly.

Freckles worked over her until she drew a long, quivering breath and opened her eyes.

When she saw him bending above her, she closed them tightly, and gripping him, struggled to her feet. He helped her, and with his arm around and half carrying her, they made their way to the clearing. She clung to him with all her remaining strength, but open her eyes she would not until her children came clustering around her. Then, brawny, big Scotswoman though she was, she quietly keeled over again. The children added their wailing to Freckles' panic.

This time he was so close the cabin that he could carry her into the house and lay her on the bed. He sent the oldest boy scudding down the corduroy for the nearest neighbor, and between them they undressed Mrs. Duncan and discovered that she was not bitten. They bathed and bound the bleeding wrist and coaxed her back to consciousness. She lay sobbing and shuddering. The first intelligent word she said was: "Freckles, look at that jar on the kitchen table and see if my yeast is no running ower."

Several days passed before she could give Duncan and Freckles any detailed account of what had happened to her, even then she could not do it without crying as the least of her babies. Freckles was almost heartbroken, and nursed her as well as any woman could have done; while big Duncan, with a heart full for them both, worked early and late to chink every crack of the cabin and examine every spot that possibly could harbor a snake. The effects of her morning on the trail kept her shivering half the time. She could not rest until she sent for McLean and begged him to save Freckles from further risk, in that place of horrors. The Boss went to the swamp with his mind fully determined to do so.

Freckles stood and laughed at him. "Why, Mr. McLean, don't you let a woman's nervous system set you worrying about me," he said. "I'm not denying how she felt, because I've been through it meself, but that's all over and gone. It's the height of me glory to fight it out with the old swamp, and all that's in it, or will be coming to it, and then to turn it over to you as I promised you and meself I'd do, sir. You couldn't break the heart of me entire quicker than to be taking it from me now, when I'm just on the home-stretch. It won't be over three or four weeks yet, and when I've gone it almost a year, why, what's that to me, sir? You mustn't let a woman get mixed up with business, for I've always heard about how it's bringing trouble."

McLean smiled. "What about that last tree?" he said.

Freckles blushed and grinned appreciatively.

"Angels and Bird Women don't count in the common run, sir," he affirmed shamelessly.

McLean sat in the saddle and laughed.