Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XII. Wherein Black Jack Captures Freckles and the Angel Captures Jack
As Freckles left the trail, from the swale close the south entrance, four large muscular men arose and swiftly and carefully entered the swamp by the wagon road. Two of them carried a big saw, the third, coils of rope and wire, and all of them were heavily armed. They left one man on guard at the entrance. The other three made their way through the darkness as best they could, and were soon at Freckles' room. He had left the swamp on his wheel from the west trail. They counted on his returning on the wheel and circling the east line before he came there.
A little below the west entrance to Freckles' room, Black Jack stepped into the swale, and binding a wire tightly around a scrub oak, carried it below the waving grasses, stretched it taut across the trail, and fastened it to a tree in the swamp. Then he obliterated all signs of his work, and arranged the grass over the wire until it was so completely covered that only minute examination would reveal it. They entered Freckles' room with coarse oaths and jests. In a few moments, his specimen case with its precious contents was rolled into the swamp, while the saw was eating into one of the finest trees of the Limberlost.
The first report from the man on watch was that Duncan had driven to the South camp; the second, that Freckles was coming. The man watching was sent to see on which side the boy turned into the path; as they had expected, he took the east. He was a little tired and his head was rather stupid, for he had not been able to sleep as he had hoped, but he was very happy. Although he watched until his eyes ached, he could see no sign of anyone having entered the swamp.
He called a cheery greeting to all his chickens. At Sleepy Snake Creek he almost fell from his wheel with surprise: the saw-bird was surrounded by four lanky youngsters clamoring for breakfast. The father was strutting with all the importance of a drum major.
"No use to expect the Bird Woman today," said Freckles; "but now wouldn't she be jumping for a chance at that?"
As soon as Freckles was far down the east line, the watch was posted below the room on the west to report his coming. It was only a few moments before the signal came. Then the saw stopped, and the rope was brought out and uncoiled close to a sapling. Wessner and Black Jack crowded to the very edge of the swamp a little above the wire, and crouched, waiting.
They heard Freckles before they saw him. He came gliding down the line swiftly, and as he rode he was singing softly:
"Oh, do you love, Oh, say you love----"
He got no farther. The sharply driven wheel struck the tense wire and bounded back. Freckles shot over the handlebar and coasted down the trail on his chest. As he struck, Black Jack and Wessner were upon him. Wessner caught off an old felt hat and clapped it over Freckles' mouth, while Black Jack twisted the boy's arms behind him and they rushed him into his room. Almost before he realized that anything had happened, he was trussed to a tree and securely gagged.
Then three of the men resumed work on the tree. The other followed the path Freckles had worn to Little Chicken's tree, and presently he reported that the wires were down and two teams with the loading apparatus coming to take out the timber. All the time the saw was slowly eating, eating into the big tree.
Wessner went to the trail and removed the wire. He picked up Freckles' wheel, that did not seem to be injured, and leaned it against the bushes so that if anyone did pass on the trail he would not see it doubled in the swamp-grass.
Then he came and stood in front of Freckles and laughed in devilish hate. To his own amazement, Freckles found himself looking fear in the face, and marveled that he was not afraid. Four to one! The tree halfway eaten through, the wagons coming up the inside road--he, bound and gagged! The men with Black Jack and Wessner had belonged to McLean's gang when last he had heard of them, but who those coming with the wagons might be he could not guess.
If they secured that tree, McLean lost its value, lost his wager, and lost his faith in him. The words of the Angel hammered in his ears. "Oh, Freckles, do watch closely!"
The saw worked steadily.
When the tree was down and loaded, what would they do? Pull out, and leave him there to report them? It was not to be hoped for. The place always had been lawless. It could mean but one thing.
A mist swept before his eyes, while his head swam. Was it only last night that he had worshiped the Angel in a delirium of happiness? And now, what? Wessner, released from a turn at the saw, walked to the flower bed, and tearing up a handful of rare ferns by the roots, started toward Freckles. His intention was obvious. Black Jack stopped him, with an oath.
"You see here, Dutchy," he bawled, "mebby you think you'll wash his face with that, but you won't. A contract's a contract. We agreed to take out these trees and leave him for you to dispose of whatever way you please, provided you shut him up eternally on this deal. But I'll not see a tied man tormented by a fellow that he can lick up the ground with, loose, and that's flat. It raises my gorge to think what he'll get when we're gone, but you needn't think you're free to begin before. Don't you lay a hand on him while I'm here! What do you say, boys?"
"I say yes," growled one of McLean's latest deserters. "What's more, we're a pack of fools to risk the dirty work of silencing him. You had him face down and you on his back; why the hell didn't you cover his head and roll him into the bushes until we were gone? When I went into this, I didn't understand that he was to see all of us and that there was murder on the ticket. I'm not up to it. I don't mind lifting trees we came for, but I'm cursed if I want blood on my hands."
"Well, you ain't going to get it," bellowed Jack. "You fellows only contracted to help me get out my marked trees. He belong to Wessner, and it ain't in our deal what happens to him."
"Yes, and if Wessner finishes him safely, we are practically in for murder as well as stealing the trees; and if he don't, all hell's to pay. I think you've made a damnable bungle of this thing; that's what I think!"
"Then keep your thoughts to yourself," cried Jack. "We're doing this, and it's all planned safe and sure. As for killing that buck--come to think of it, killing is what he needs. He's away too good for this world of woe, anyhow. I tell you, it's all safe enough. His dropping out won't be the only secret the old Limberlost has never told. It's too dead easy to make it look like he helped take the timber and then cut. Why, he's played right into our hands. He was here at the swamp all last night, and back again in an hour or so. When we get our plan worked out, even old fool Duncan won't lift a finger to look for his carcass. We couldn't have him going in better shape."
"You just bet," said Wessner. "I owe him all he'll get, and be damned to you, but I'll pay!" he snarled at Freckles.
So it was killing, then. They were not only after this one tree, but many, and with his body it was their plan to kill his honor. To brand him a thief, with them, before the Angel, the Bird Woman, the dear Boss, and the Duncans--Freckles, in sick despair, sagged against the ropes.
Then he gathered his forces and thought swiftly. There was no hope of McLean's coming. They had chosen a day when they knew he had a big contract at the South camp. The Boss could not come before tomorrow by any possibility, and there would be no tomorrow for the boy. Duncan was on his way to the South camp, and the Bird Woman had said she would come as soon as she could. After the fatigue of the party, it was useless to expect her and the Angel today, and God save them from coming! The Angel's father had said they would be as safe in the Limberlost as at home. What would he think of this?
The sweat broke on Freckles' forehead. He tugged at the ropes whenever he felt that he dared, but they were passed around the tree and his body several times, and knotted on his chest. He was helpless. There was no hope, no help. And after they had conspired to make him appear a runaway thief to his loved ones, what was it that Wessner would do to him?
Whatever it was, Freckles lifted his head and resolved that he would bear in mind what he had once heard the Bird Woman say. He would go out bonnily. Never would he let them see, if he grew afraid. After all, what did it matter what they did to his body if by some scheme of the devil they could encompass his disgrace?
Then hope suddenly rose high in Freckles' breast. They could not do that! The Angel would not believe. Neither would McLean. He would keep up his courage. Kill him they could; dishonor him they could not.
Yet, summon all the fortitude he might, that saw eating into the tree rasped his nerves worse and worse. With whirling brain he gazed into the Limberlost, searching for something, he knew not what, and in blank horror found his eyes focusing on the Angel. She was quite a distance away, but he could see her white lips and angry expression.
Last week he had taken her and the Bird Woman across the swamp over the path he followed in going from his room to the chicken tree. He had told them the night before, that the butterfly tree was on the line close to this path. In figuring on their not coming that day, he failed to reckon with the enthusiasm of the Bird Woman. They must be there for the study, and the Angel had risked crossing the swamp in search of him. Or was there something in his room they needed? The blood surged in his ears as the roar of the Limberlost in the wrath of a storm.
He looked again, and it had been a dream. She was not there. Had she been? For his life, Freckles could not tell whether he really had seen the Angel, or whether his strained senses had played him the most cruel trick of all. Or was it not the kindest? Now he could go with the vision of her lovely face fresh with him.
"Thank You for that, oh God!" whispered Freckles." `Twas more than kind of You and I don't s'pose I ought to be wanting anything else; but if You can, oh, I wish I could know before this ends, if `twas me mother"--Freckles could not even whisper the words, for he hesitated a second and ended--"If `twas me mother did it!"
"Freckles! Freckles! Oh, Freckles!" the voice of the Angel came calling. Freckles swayed forward and wrenched at the rope until it cut deeply into his body.
"Hell!" cried Black Jack. "Who is that? Do you know?"
Jack whipped out a revolver and snatched the gag from Freckles' mouth.
"Say quick, or it's up with you right now, and whoever that is with you!"
"It's the girl the Bird Woman takes with her," whispered Freckles through dry, swollen lips.
"They ain't due here for five days yet," said Wessner. "We got on to that last week."
"Yes," said Freckles, "but I found a tree covered with butterflies and things along the east line yesterday that I thought the Bird Woman would want extra, and I went to town to tell her last night. She said she'd come soon, but she didn't say when. They must be here. I take care of the girl while the Bird Woman works. Untie me quick until she is gone. I'll try to send her back, and then you can go on with your dirty work."
"He ain't lying," volunteered Wessner. "I saw that tree covered with butterflies and him watching around it when we were spying on him yesterday."
"No, he leaves lying to your sort," snapped Black Jack, as he undid the rope and pitched it across the room. "Remember that you're covered every move you make, my buck," he cautioned.
"Freckles! Freckles!" came the Angel's impatient voice, closer and closer.
"I must be answering," said Freckles, and Jack nodded. "Right here!" he called, and to the men: "You go on with your work, and remember one thing yourselves. The work of the Bird Woman is known all over the world. This girl's father is a rich man, and she is all he has. If you offer hurt of any kind to either of them, this world has no place far enough away or dark enough for you to be hiding in. Hell will be easy to what any man will get if he touches either of them!"
"Freckles, where are you?" demanded the Angel.
Soulsick with fear for her, Freckles went toward her and parted the bushes that she might enter. She came through without apparently giving him a glance, and the first words she said were: "Why have the gang come so soon? I didn't know you expected them for three weeks yet. Or is this some especial tree that Mr. McLean needs to fill an order right now?"
Freckles hesitated. Would a man dare lie to save himself? No. But to save the Angel--surely that was different. He opened his lips, but the Angel was capable of saving herself. She walked among them, exactly as if she had been reared in a lumber camp, and never waited for an answer.
"Why, your specimen case!" she cried. "Look! Haven't you noticed that it's tipped over? Set it straight, quickly!"
A couple of the men stepped out and carefully righted the case.
"There! That's better," she said. "Freckles, I'm surprised at your being so careless. It would be a shame to break those lovely butterflies for one old tree! Is that a valuable tree? Why didn't you tell us last night you were going to take out a tree this morning? Oh, say, did you put your case there to protect that tree from that stealing old Black Jack and his gang? I bet you did! Well, if that wasn't bright! What kind of a tree is it?"
"It's a white oak," said Freckles.
"Like those they make dining-tables and sideboards from?"
"My! How interesting!" she cried. "I don't know a thing about timber, but my father wants me to learn just everything I can. I am going to ask him to let me come here and watch you until I know enough to boss a gang myself. Do you like to cut trees, gentlemen?" she asked with angelic sweetness of the men.
Some of them appeared foolish and some grim, but one managed to say they did.
Then the Angel's eyes turned full on Black Jack, and she gave the most natural little start of astonishment.
"Oh! I almost thought that you were a ghost!" she cried. "But I see now that you are really and truly. Were you ever in Colorado?"
"No," said Jack.
"I see you aren't the same man," said the Angel. "You know, we were in Colorado last year, and there was a cowboy who was the handsomest man anywhere around. He'd come riding into town every night, and all we girls just adored him! Oh, but he was a beauty! I thought at first glance you were really he, but I see now he wasn't nearly so tall nor so broad as you, and only half as handsome."
The men began to laugh while Jack flushed crimson. The Angel joined in the laugh.
"Well, I'll leave it to you! Isn't he handsome?" she challenged. "As for that cowboy's face, it couldn't be compared with yours. The only trouble with you is that your clothes are spoiling you. It's the dress those cowboys wear that makes half their attraction. If you were properly clothed, you could break the heart of the prettiest girl in the country."
With one accord the other men looked at Black Jack, and for the first time realized that he was a superb specimen of manhood, for he stood six feet tall, was broad, well-rounded, and had dark, even skin, big black eyes, and full red lips.
"I'll tell you what!" exclaimed the Angel. "I'd just love to see you on horseback. Nothing sets a handsome man off so splendidly. Do you ride?"
"Yes," said Jack, and his eyes were burning on the Angel as if he would fathom the depths of her soul.
"Well," said the Angel winsomely, "I know what I just wish you'd do. I wish you would let your hair grow a little longer. Then wear a blue flannel shirt a little open at the throat, a red tie, and a broad-brimmed felt hat, and ride past my house of evenings. I'm always at home then, and almost always on the veranda, and, oh! but I would like to see you! Will you do that for me?" It is impossible to describe the art with which the Angel asked the question. She was looking straight into Jack's face, coarse and hardened with sin and careless living, which was now taking on a wholly different expression. The evil lines of it were softening and fading under her clear gaze. A dull red flamed into his bronze cheeks, while his eyes were growing brightly tender.
"Yes," he said, and the glance he gave the men was of such a nature that no one saw fit even to change countenance.
"Oh, goody!" she cried, tilting on her toes. "I'll ask all the girls to come see, but they needn't stick in! We can get along without them, can't we?"
Jack leaned toward her. He was the charmed fluttering bird, while the Angel was the snake.
"Well, I rather guess!" he cried.
The Angel drew a deep breath and surveyed him rapturously.
"My, but you're tall!" she commented. "Do you suppose I ever will grow to reach your shoulders?"
She stood on tiptoe and measured the distance with her eyes. Then she developed timid confusion, while her glance sought the ground.
"I wish I could do something," she half whispered.
Jack seemed to increase an inch in height.
"What?" he asked hoarsely.
"Lariat Bill used always to have a bunch of red flowers in his shirt pocket. The red lit up his dark eyes and olive cheeks and made him splendid. May I put some red flowers on you?"
Freckles stared as he wheezed for breath. He wished the earth would open and swallow him. Was he dead or alive? Since his Angel had seen Black Jack she never had glanced his way. Was she completely bewitched? Would she throw herself at the man's feet before them all? Couldn't she give him even one thought? Hadn't she seen that he was gagged and bound? Did she truly think that these were McLean's men? Why, she could not! It was only a few days ago that she had been close enough to this man and angry enough with him to peel the hat from his head with a shot! Suddenly a thing she had said jestingly to him one day came back with startling force: "You must take Angels on trust." Of course you must! She was his Angel. She must have seen! His life, and what was far more, her own, was in her hands. There was nothing he could do but trust her. Surely she was working out some plan.
The Angel knelt beside his flower bed and recklessly tore up by the roots a big bunch of foxfire.
"These stems are so tough and sticky," she said. "I can't break them. Loan me your knife," she ordered Freckles.
As she reached for the knife, her back was for one second toward the men. She looked into his eyes and deliberately winked.
She severed the stems, tossed the knife to Freckles, and walking to Jack, laid the flowers over his heart.
Freckles broke into a sweat of agony. He had said she would be safe in a herd of howling savages. Would she? If Black Jack even made a motion toward touching her, Freckles knew that from somewhere he would muster the strength to kill him. He mentally measured the distance to where his club lay and set his muscles for a spring. But no--by the splendor of God! The big fellow was baring his head with a hand that was unsteady. The Angel pulled one of the long silver pins from her hat and fastened her flowers securely.
Freckles was quaking. What was to come next? What was she planning, and oh! did she understand the danger of her presence among those men; the real necessity for action?
As the Angel stepped from Jack, she turned her head to one side and peered at him, quite as Freckles had seen the little yellow fellow do on the line a hundred times, and said: "Well, that does the trick! Isn't that fine? See how it sets him off, boys? Don't you forget the tie is to be red, and the first ride soon. I can't wait very long. Now I must go. The Bird Woman will be ready to start, and she will come here hunting me next, for she is busy today. What did I come here for anyway?"
She glanced inquiringly around, and several of the men laughed. Oh, the delight of it! She had forgotten her errand for him! Jack had a second increase in height. The Angel glanced helplessly as if seeking a clue. Then her eyes fell, as if by accident, on Freckles, and she cried, "Oh, I know now! It was those magazines the Bird Woman promised you. I came to tell you that we put them under the box where we hide things, at the entrance to the swamp as we came in. I knew I would need my hands crossing the swamp, so I hid them there. You'll find them at the same old place."
Then Freckles spoke.
"It's mighty risky for you to be crossing the swamp alone," he said. "I'm surprised that the Bird Woman would be letting you try it. I know it's a little farther, but it's begging you I am to be going back by the trail. That's bad enough, but it's far safer than the swamp."
The Angel laughed merrily.
"Oh stop your nonsense!" she cried. "I'm not afraid! Not in the least! The Bird Woman didn't want me to try following a path that I'd been over only once, but I was sure I could do it, and I'm rather proud of the performance. Now, don't go babying! You know I'm not afraid!"
"No," said Freckles gently, "I know you're not; but that has nothing to do with the fact that your friends are afraid for you. On the trail you can see your way a bit ahead, and you've all the world a better chance if you meet a snake."
Then Freckles had an inspiration. He turned to Jack imploringly.
"You tell her!" he pleaded. "Tell her to go by the trail. She will for you."
The implication of this statement was so gratifying to Black Jack that he seemed again to expand and take on increase before their very eyes.
"You bet!" exclaimed Jack. And to the Angel: "You better take Freckles' word for it, miss. He knows the old swamp better than any of us, except me, and if he says `go by the trail,' you'd best do it."
The Angel hesitated. She wanted to recross the swamp and try to reach the horse. She knew Freckles would brave any danger to save her crossing the swamp alone, but she really was not afraid, while the trail added over a mile to the walk. She knew the path. She intended to run for dear life the instant she felt herself from their sight, and tucked in the folds of her blouse was a fine little 32-caliber revolver that her father had presented her for her share in what he was pleased to call her military exploit. One last glance at Freckles showed her the agony in his eyes, and immediately she imagined he had some other reason. She would follow the trail.
"All right," she said, giving Jack a thrilling glance. "If you say so, I'll return by the trail to please you. Good-bye, everybody."
She lifted the bushes and started toward the entrance.
"You damned fool! Stop her!" growled Wessner. "Keep her till we're loaded, anyhow. You're playing hell! Can't you see that when this thing is found out, there she'll be to ruin all of us. If you let her go, every man of us has got to cut, and some of us will be caught sure."
Jack sprang forward. Freckles' heart muffled in his throat. The Angel seemed to divine Jack's coming. She was humming a little song. She deliberately stopped and began pulling the heads of the curious grasses that grew all around her. When she straightened, she took a step backward and called: "Ho! Freckles, the Bird Woman wants that natural history pamphlet returned. It belongs to a set she is going to have bound. That's one of the reasons we put it under the box. You be sure to get them as you go home tonight, for fear it rains or becomes damp with the heavy dews."
"All right," said Freckles, but it was in a voice that he never had heard before.
Then the Angel turned and sent a parting glance at Jack. She was overpoweringly human and bewitchingly lovely.
"You won't forget that ride and the red tie," she half asserted, half questioned.
Jack succumbed. Freckles was his captive, but he was the Angel's, soul and body. His face wore the holiest look it ever had known as he softly re-echoed Freckles' "All right." With her head held well up, the Angel walked slowly away, and Jack turned to the men.
"Drop your damned staring and saw wood," he shouted. "Don't you know anything at all about how to treat a lady?" It might have been a question which of the cronies that crouched over green wood fires in the cabins of Wildcat Hollow, eternally sucking a corncob pipe and stirring the endless kettles of stewing coon and opossum, had taught him to do even as well as he had by the Angel.
The men muttered and threatened among themselves, but they began working desperately. Someone suggested that a man be sent to follow the Angel and to watch her and the Bird Woman leave the swamp. Freckles' heart sank within him, but Jack was in a delirium and past all caution.
"Yes," he sneered. "Mebby all of you had better give over on the saw and run after the girl. I guess not! Seems to me I got the favors. I didn't see no bouquets on the rest of you! If anybody follows her, I do, and I'm needed here among such a pack of idiots. There's no danger in that baby face. She wouldn't give me away! You double and work like forty, while me and Wessner will take the axes and begin to cut in on the other side."
"What about the noise?" asked Wessner.
"No difference about the noise," answered Jack. "She took us to be from McLean's gang, slick as grease. Make the chips fly!"
So all of them attacked the big tree.
Freckles sat on one of his benches and waited. In their haste to fell the tree and load it, so that the teamsters could start, and leave them free to attack another, they had forgotten to rebind him.
The Angel was on the trail and safely started. The cold perspiration made Freckles' temples clammy and ran in little streams down his chest. It would take her more time to follow the trail, but her safety was Freckles' sole thought in urging her to go that way. He tried to figure on how long it would require to walk to the carriage. He wondered if the Bird Woman had unhitched. He followed the Angel every step of the way. He figured on when she would cross the path of the clearing, pass the deep pool where his "find-out" frog lived, cross Sleepy Snake Creek, and reach the carriage.
He wondered what she would say to the Bird Woman, and how long it would take them to pack and start. He knew now that they would understand, and the Angel would try to get the Boss there in time to save his wager. She could never do it, for the saw was over half through, and Jack and Wessner cutting into the opposite side of the tree. It appeared as if they could fell at least that tree, before McLean could come, and if they did he lost his wager.
When it was down, would they rebind him and leave him for Wessner to wreak his insane vengeance on, or would they take him along to the next tree and dispose of him when they had stolen all the timber they could? Jack had said that he should not be touched until he left. Surely he would not run all that risk for one tree, when he had many others of far greater value marked. Freckles felt that he had some hope to cling to now, but he found himself praying that the Angel would hurry.
Once Jack came to Freckles and asked if he had any water. Freckles arose and showed him where he kept his drinking-water. Jack drank in great gulps, and as he passed back the bucket, he said: "When a man's got a chance of catching a fine girl like that, he ought not be mixed up in any dirty business. I wish to God I was out of this!"
Freckles answered heartily: "I wish I was, too!"
Jack stared at him a minute and then broke into a roar of rough laughter.
"Blest if I blame you," he said. "But you had your chance! We offered you a fair thing and you gave Wessner his answer. I ain't envying you when he gives you his."
"You're six to one," answered Freckles. "It will be easy enough for you to be killing the body of me, but, curse you all, you can't blacken me soul!"
"Well, I'd give anything you could name if I had your honesty," said Jack.
When the mighty tree fell, the Limberlost shivered and screamed with the echo. Freckles groaned in despair, but the gang took heart. That was so much accomplished. They knew where to dispose of it safely, with no questions asked. Before the day was over, they could remove three others, all suitable for veneer and worth far more than this. Then they would leave Freckles to Wessner and scatter for safety, with more money than they had ever hoped for in their possession.