Chapter XIV. Wherein Freckles Nurses a Heartache and Black Jack Drops Out
 

"McLean," said Mrs. Duncan, as the Boss paused to greet her in passing the cabin, "do you know that Freckles hasna been in bed the past five nights and all he's eaten in that many days ye could pack into a pint cup?"

"Why, what does the boy mean?" demanded McLean. "There's no necessity for him being on guard, with the watch I've set on the line. I had no idea he was staying down there."

"He's no there," said Mrs. Duncan. "He goes somewhere else. He leaves on his wheel juist after we're abed and rides in close cock-crow or a little earlier, and he's looking like death and nothing short of it."

"But where does he go?" asked McLean in astonishment.

"I'm no given to bearing tales out of school," said Sarah Duncan, "but in this case I'd tell ye if I could. What the trouble is I dinna ken. If it is no' stopped, he's in for dreadful sickness, and I thought ye could find out and help him. He's in sair trouble; that's all I know."

McLean sat brooding as he stroked Nellie's neck.

At last he said: "I suspect I understand. At any rate, I think I can find out. Thank you for telling me."

"Ye'll no need telling, once ye clap your eyes on him," prophesied Mrs. Duncan. "His face is all a glist'ny yellow, and he's peaked as a starving caged bird."

McLean rode to the Limberlost, and stopping in the shade, sat waiting for Freckles, whose hour for passing the foot of the lease had come.

Along the north line came Freckles, fairly staggering. When he turned east and reached Sleepy Snake Creek, sliding through the swale as the long black snake for which it was named, he sat on the bridge and closed his burning eyes, but they would not remain shut. As if pulled by wires, the heavy lids flew open, while the outraged nerves and muscles of his body danced, twitched, and tingled.

He bent forward and idly watched the limpid little stream flowing beneath his feet. Stretching into the swale, it came creeping between an impenetrable wall of magnificent wild flowers, vines, and ferns. Milkweed, goldenrod, ironwort, fringed gentians, cardinal-flowers, and turtle-head stood on the very edge of the creek, and every flower of them had a double in the water. Wild clematis crowned with snow the heads of trees scattered here and there on the bank.

From afar the creek appeared to be murky, dirty water. Really it was clear and sparkling. The tinge of blackness was gained from its bed of muck showing through the transparent current. He could see small and wonderfully marked fish. What became of them when the creek spread into the swamp? For one thing, they would make mighty fine eating for the family of that self-satisfied old blue heron.

Freckles sat so quietly that soon the brim of his hat was covered with snake-feeders, rasping their crisp wings and singing while they rested. Some of them settled on the club, and one on his shoulder. He was so motionless; feathers, fur, and gauze were so accustomed to him, that all through the swale they continued their daily life and forgot he was there.

The heron family were wading the mouth of the creek. Freckles idly wondered whether the nerve-racking rasps they occasionally emitted indicated domestic felicity or a raging quarrel. He could not decide. A sheitpoke, with flaring crest, went stalking across a bare space close to the creek's mouth. A stately brown bittern waded into the clear-flowing water, lifting his feet high at every step, and setting them down carefully, as if he dreaded wetting them, and with slightly parted beak, stood eagerly watching around him for worms. Behind him were some mighty trees of the swamp above, and below the bank glowed a solid wall of goldenrod.

No wonder the ancients had chosen yellow as the color to represent victory, for the fierce, conquering hue of the sun was in it. They had done well, too, in selecting purple as the emblem of royalty. It was a dignified, compelling color, while in its warm tone there was a hint of blood.

It was the Limberlost's hour to proclaim her sovereignty and triumph. Everywhere she flaunted her yellow banner and trailed the purple of her mantle, that was paler in the thistle-heads, took on strength in the first opening asters, and glowed and burned in the ironwort.

He gazed into her damp, mossy recesses where high-piled riven trees decayed under coats of living green, where dainty vines swayed and clambered, and here and there a yellow leaf, fluttering down, presaged the coming of winter. His love of the swamp laid hold of him and shook him with its force.

Compellingly beautiful was the Limberlost, but cruel withal; for inside bleached the uncoffined bones of her victims, while she had missed cradling him, oh! so narrowly.

He shifted restlessly; the movement sent the snake-feeders skimming. The hum of life swelled and roared in his strained ears. Small turtles, that had climbed on a log to sun, splashed clumsily into the water. Somewhere in the timber of the bridge a bloodthirsty little frog cried sharply. "Keel'im! Keel'im!"

Freckles muttered: "It's worse than that Black Jack swore to do to me, little fellow."

A muskrat waddled down the bank and swam for the swamp, its pointed nose riffling the water into a shining trail in its wake.

Then, below the turtle-log, a dripping silver-gray head, with shining eyes, was cautiously lifted, and Freckles' hand slid to his revolver. Higher and higher came the head, a long, heavy, furcoated body arose, now half, now three-fourths from the water. Freckles looked at his shaking hand and doubted, but he gathered his forces, the shot rang, and the otter lay quiet. He hurried down and tried to lift it. He scarcely could muster strength to carry it to the bridge. The consciousness that he really could go no farther with it made Freckles realize the fact that he was close the limit of human endurance. He could bear it little, if any, longer. Every hour the dear face of the Angel wavered before him, and behind it the awful distorted image of Black Jack, as he had sworn to the punishment he would mete out to her. He must either see McLean, or else make a trip to town and find her father. Which should he do? He was almost a stranger, so the Angel's father might not be impressed with what he said as he would if McLean went to him. Then he remembered that McLean had said he would come that morning. Freckles never had forgotten before. He hurried on the east trail as fast as his tottering legs would carry him.

He stopped when he came to the first guard, and telling him of his luck, asked him to get the otter and carry it to the cabin, as he was anxious to meet McLean.

Freckles passed the second guard without seeing him, and hurried to the Boss. He took off his hat, wiped his forehead, and stood silent under the eyes of McLean.

The Boss was dumbfounded. Mrs. Duncan had led him to expect that he would find a change in Freckles, but this was almost deathly. The fact was apparent that the boy scarcely knew what he was doing. His eyes had a glazed, far-sighted appearance, that wrung the heart of the man who loved him. Without a thought of preliminaries, McLean leaned in the saddle and drew Freckles to him.

"My poor lad!" he said. "My poor, dear lad! tell me, and we will try to right it!"

Freckles had twisted his fingers in Nellie's mane. At the kind words his face dropped on McLean's thigh and he shook with a nervous chill. McLean gathered him closer and waited.

When the guard came with the otter, McLean without a word motioned him to lay it down and leave them.

"Freckles," said McLean at last, "will you tell me, or must I set to work in the dark and try to find the trouble?"

"Oh, I want to tell you! I must tell you, sir," shuddered Freckles. "I cannot be bearing it the day out alone. I was coming to you when I remimbered you would be here."

He lifted his face and gazed across the swale, with his jaws set firmly a minute, as if gathering his forces. Then he spoke.

"It's the Angel, sir," he said.

Instinctively McLean's grip on him tightened, and Freckles looked into the Boss's face in wonder.

"I tried, the other day," said Freckles, "and I couldn't seem to make you see. It's only that there hasn't been an hour, waking or sleeping, since the day she parted the bushes and looked into me room, that the face of her hasn't been before me in all the tinderness, beauty, and mischief of it. She talked to me friendly like. She trusted me entirely to take right care of her. She helped me with things about me books. She traited me like I was born a gintleman, and shared with me as if I were of her own blood. She walked the streets of the town with me before her friends with all the pride of a queen. She forgot herself and didn't mind the Bird Woman, and run big risks to help me out that first day, sir. This last time she walked into that gang of murderers, took their leader, and twisted him to the will of her. She outdone him and raced the life almost out of her trying to save me.

"Since I can remimber, whatever the thing was that happened to me in the beginning has been me curse. I've been bitter, hard, and smarting under it hopelessly. She came by, and found me voice, and put hope of life and success like other men into me in spite of it."

Freckles held up his maimed arm.

"Look at it, sir!" he said. "A thousand times I've cursed it, hanging there helpless. She took it on the street, before all the people, just as if she didn't see that it was a thing to hide and shrink from. Again and again I've had the feeling with her, if I didn't entirely forget it, that she didn't see it was gone and I must he pointing it out to her. Her touch on it was so sacred-like, at times since I've caught meself looking at the awful thing near like I was proud of it, sir. If I had been born your son she couldn't be traiting me more as her equal, and she can't help knowing you ain't truly me father. Nobody can know the homeliness or the ignorance of me better than I do, and all me lack of birth, relatives, and money, and what's it all to her?"

Freckles stepped back, squared his shoulders, and with a royal lift of his head looked straight into the Boss's eyes.

"You saw her in the beautiful little room of her, and you can't be forgetting how she begged and plead with you for me. She touched me body, and `twas sanctified. She laid her lips on my brow, and `twas sacrament. Nobody knows the height of her better than me. Nobody's studied my depths closer. There's no bridge for the great distance between us, sir, and clearest of all, I'm for realizing it: but she risked terrible things when she came to me among that gang of thieves. She wore herself past bearing to save me from such an easy thing as death! Now, here's me, a man, a big, strong man, and letting her live under that fearful oath, so worse than any death `twould be for her, and lifting not a finger to save her. I cannot hear it, sir. It's killing me by inches! Black Jack's hand may not have been hurt so bad. Any hour he may be creeping up behind her! Any minute the awful revenge he swore to be taking may in some way fall on her, and I haven't even warned her father. I can't stay here doing nothing another hour. The five nights gone I've watched under her windows, but there's the whole of the day. She's her own horse and little cart, and's free to be driving through the town and country as she pleases. If any evil comes to her through Black Jack, it comes from her angel-like goodness to me. Somewhere he's hiding! Somewhere he is waiting his chance! Somewhere he is reaching out for her! I tell you I cannot, I dare not be bearing it longer!"

"Freckles, be quiet!" said McLean, his eyes humid and his voice quivering with the pity of it all. "Believe me, I did not understand. I know the Angel's father well. I will go to him at once. I have transacted business with him for the past three years. I will make him see! I am only beginning to realize your agony, and the real danger there is for the Angel. Believe me, I will see that she is fully protected every hour of the day and night until Jack is located and disposed of. And I promise you further, that if I fail to move her father or make him understand the danger, I will maintain a guard over her until Jack is caught. Now will you go bathe, drink some milk, go to bed, and sleep for hours, and then be my brave, bright old boy again?"

"Yis," said Freckles simply.

But McLean could see the flesh was twitching on the lad's bones.

"What was it the guard brought there?" McLean asked in an effort to distract Freckles' thoughts.

"Oh!" Freckles said, glancing where the Boss pointed, "I forgot it! `Tis an otter, and fine past believing, for this warm weather. I shot it at the creek this morning. `Twas a good shot, considering. I expected to miss."

Freckles picked up the animal and started toward McLean with it, but Nellie pricked up her dainty little ears, danced into the swale, and snorted with fright. Freckles dropped the otter and ran to her head.

"For pity's sake, get her on the trail, sir," he begged. "She's just about where the old king rattler crosses to go into the swamp--the old buster Duncan and I have been telling you of. I haven't a doubt but it was the one Mother Duncan met. 'Twas down the trail there, just a little farther on, that I found her, and it's sure to be close yet."

McLean slid from Nellie's back, led her into the trail farther down the line, and tied her to a bush. Then he went to examine the otter. It was a rare, big specimen, with exquisitely fine, long, silky hair.

"What do you want to do with it, Freckles?" asked McLean, as he stroked the soft fur lingeringly. "Do you know that it is very valuable?"

"I was for almost praying so, sir," said Freckles. "As I saw it coming up the bank I thought this: Once somewhere in a book there was a picture of a young girl, and she was just a breath like the beautifulness of the Angel. Her hands were in a muff as big as her body, and I thought it was so pretty. I think she was some queen, or the like. Do you suppose I could have this skin tanned and made into such a muff as that?--an enormous big one, sir?"

"Of course you can," said McLean. "That's a fine idea and it's easy enough. We must box and express the otter, cold storage, by the first train. You stand guard a minute and I'll tell Hall to carry it to the cabin. I'll put Nellie to Duncan's rig, and we'll drive to town and call on the Angel's father. Then we'll start the otter while it is fresh, and I'll write your instructions later. It would be a mighty fine thing for you to give to the Angel as a little reminder of the Limberlost before it is despoiled, and as a souvenir of her trip for you."

Freckles lifted a face with a glow of happy color creeping into it and eyes lighting with a former brightness. Throwing his arms around McLean, he cried: "Oh, how I love you! Oh, I wish I could make you know how I love you!"

McLean strained him to his breast.

"God bless you, Freckles," he said. "I do know! We're going to have some good old times out of this world together, and we can't begin too soon. Would you rather sleep first, or have a bite of lunch, take the drive with me, and then rest? I don't know but sleep will come sooner and deeper to take the ride and have your mind set at ease before you lie down. Suppose you go."

"Suppose I do," said Freckles, with a glimmer of the old light in his eyes and newly found strength to shoulder the otter. Together they turned into the trail.

McLean noticed and spoke of the big black chickens.

"They've been hanging round out there for several days past," said Freckles. "I'll tell you what I think it means. I think the old rattler has killed something too big for him to swallow, and he's keeping guard and won't let me chickens have it. I'm just sure, from the way the birds have acted out there all summer, that it is the rattler's den. You watch them now. See the way they dip and then rise, frightened like!"

Suddenly McLean turned toward him with blanching face

"Freckles!" he cried.

"My God, sir!" shuddered Freckles.

He dropped the otter, caught up his club, and plunged into the swale. Reaching for his revolver, McLean followed. The chickens circled higher at their coming, and the big snake lifted his head and rattled angrily. It sank in sinuous coils at the report of McLean's revolver, and together he and Freckles stood beside Black Jack. His fate was evident and most horrible.

"Come," said the Boss at last. "We don't dare touch him. We will get a sheet from Mrs. Duncan and tuck over him, to keep these swarms of insects away, and set Hall on guard, while we find the officers."

Freckles' lips closed resolutely. He deliberately thrust his club under Black Jack's body, and, raising him, rested it on his knee. He pulled a long silver pin from the front of the dead man's shirt and sent it spinning into the swale. Then he gathered up a few crumpled bright flowers and dropped them into the pool far away.

"My soul is sick with the horror of this thing," said McLean, as he and Freckles drove toward town. "I can't understand how Jack dared risk creeping through the swale, even in desperation. No one knew its dangers better than he. And why did he choose the rankest, muckiest place to cross the swamp?"

"Don't you think, sir, it was because it was on a line with the Limberlost south of the corduroy? The grass was tallest there, and he counted on those willows to screen him. Once he got among them, he would have been safe to walk by stooping. If he'd made it past that place, he'd been sure to get out."

"Well, I'm as sorry for Jack as I know how to be," said McLean, "but I can't help feeling relieved that our troubles are over, for now they are. With so dreadful a punishment for Jack, Wessner under arrest, and warrants for the others, we can count on their going away and remaining. As for anyone else, I don't think they will care to attempt stealing my timber after the experience of these men. There is no other man here with Jack's fine ability in woodcraft. He was an expert."

"Did you ever hear of anyone who ever tried to locate any trees excepting him?" asked Freckles.

"No, I never did," said McLean. "I am sure there was no one besides him. You see, it was only with the arrival of our company that the other fellows scented good stuff in the Limberlost, and tried to work in. Jack knew the swamp better than anyone here. When he found there were two companies trying to lease, he wanted to stand in with the one from which he could realize the most. Even then he had trees marked that he was trying to dispose of. I think his sole intention in forcing me to discharge him from my gang was to come here and try to steal timber. We had no idea, when we took the lease, what a gold mine it was."

"That's exactly what Wessner said that first day," said Freckles eagerly. "That 'twas a `gold mine'! He said he didn't know where the marked trees were, but he knew a man who did, and if I would hold off and let them get the marked ones, there were a dozen they could get out in a few days."

"Freckles!" cried McLean. "You don't mean a dozen!"

"That's what he said, sir--a dozen. He said they couldn't tell how the grain of all of them would work up, of course, but they were all worth taking out, and five or six were real gold mines. This makes three they've tried, so there must be nine more marked, and several of them for being just fine."

"Well, I wish I knew which they are," said McLean, "so I could get them out first."

"I have been thinking," said Freckles. "I believe if you will leave one of the guards on the line--say Hall--that I will begin on the swamp, at the north end, and lay it off in sections, and try to hunt out the marked trees. I suppose they are all marked something like that first maple on the line was. Wessner mentioned another good one not so far from that. He said it was best of all. I'd be having the swelled head if I could find that. Of course, I don't know a thing about the trees, but I could hunt for the marks. Jack was so good at it he could tell some of them by the bark, but all he wanted to take that we've found so far have just had a deep chip cut out, rather low down, and where the bushes were thick over it. I believe I could be finding some of them."

"Good head!" said McLean. "We will do that. You may begin as soon as you are rested. And about things you come across in the swamp, Freckles--the most trifling little thing that you think the Bird Woman would want, take your wheel and go after her at any time. I'll leave two men on the line, so that you will have one on either side, and you can come and go as you please. Have you stopped to think of all we owe her, my boy?"

"Yis; and the Angel--we owe her a lot, too," said Freckles. "I owe her me life and honor. It's lying awake nights I'll have to be trying to think how I'm ever to pay her up."

"Well, begin with the muff," suggested McLean. "That should be fine."

He bent down and ruffled the rich fur of the otter lying at his feet.

"I don't exactly see how it comes to be in such splendid fur in summer. Their coats are always thick in cold weather, but this scarcely could be improved. I'll wire Cooper to be watching for it. They must have it fresh. When it's tanned we won't spare any expense in making it up. It should be a royal thing, and some way I think it will exactly suit the Angel. I can't think of anything that would be more appropriate for her."

"Neither can I," agreed Freckles heartily. "When I reach the city there's one other thing, if I've the money after the muff is finished."

He told McLean of Mrs. Duncan's desire for a hat similar to the Angel's. He hesitated a little in the telling, keeping sharp watch on McLean's face. When he saw the Boss's eyes were full of comprehension and sympathy, he loved him anew, for, as ever, McLean was quick to understand. Instead of laughing, he said: "I think you'll have to let me in on that, too. You mustn't be selfish, you know. I'll tell you what we'll do. Send it for Christmas. I'll be home then, and we can fill a box. You get the hat. I'll add a dress and wrap. You buy Duncan a hat and gloves. I'll send him a big overcoat, and we'll put in a lot of little stuff for the babies. Won't that be fun?"

Freckles fairly shivered with delight.

"That would be away too serious for fun," he said. "That would be heavenly. How long will it be?"

He began counting the time, and McLean deliberately set himself to encourage Freckles and keep his thoughts from the trouble of the past few days, for he had been overwrought and needed quiet and rest.