Chapter XV. Wherein Freckles and the Angel Try Taking a Picture, and Little Chicken Furnishes the Subject
 

A week later everything at the Limberlost was precisely as it had been before the tragedy, except the case in Freckles' room now rested on the stump of the newly felled tree. Enough of the vines were left to cover it prettily, and every vestige of the havoc of a few days before was gone. New guards were patrolling the trail. Freckles was roughly laying off the swamp in sections and searching for marked trees. In that time he had found one deeply chipped and the chip cunningly replaced and tacked in. It promised to be quite rare, so he was jubilant. He also found so many subjects for the Bird Woman that her coming was of almost daily occurrence, and the hours he spent with her and the Angel were nothing less than golden.

The Limberlost was now arrayed as the Queen of Sheba in all her glory. The first frosts of autumn had bejewelled her crown in flashing topaz, ruby, and emerald. Around her feet trailed the purple of her garments, while in her hand was her golden scepter. Everything was at full tide. It seemed as if nothing could grow lovelier, and it was all standing still a few weeks, waiting coming destruction.

The swamp was palpitant with life. Every pair of birds that had flocked to it in the spring was now multiplied by from two to ten. The young were tame from Freckles' tri-parenthood, and so plump and sleek that they were quite as beautiful as their elders, even if in many cases they lacked their brilliant plumage. It was the same story of increase everywhere. There were chubby little ground-hogs scudding on the trail. There were cunning baby coons and opossums peeping from hollow logs and trees. Young muskrats followed their parents across the lagoons.

If you could come upon a family of foxes that had not yet disbanded, and see the young playing with a wild duck's carcass that their mother had brought, and note the pride and satisfaction in her eyes as she lay at one side guarding them, it would be a picture not to be forgotten. Freckles never tired of studying the devotion of a fox mother to her babies. To him, whose early life had been so embittered by continual proof of neglect and cruelty in human parents toward their children, the love of these furred and feathered folk of the Limberlost was even more of a miracle than to the Bird Woman and the Angel.

The Angel liked the baby rabbits and squirrels. Earlier in the season, when the young were yet very small, it so happened that at times Freckles could give into her hands one of these little ones. Then it was pure joy to stand back and watch her heaving breast, flushed cheek, and shining eyes. Hers were such lovely eyes. Freckles had discovered lately that they were not so dark as he had thought them at first, but that the length and thickness of lash, by which they were shaded, made them appear darker than they really were. They were forever changing. Now sparkling and darkling with wit, now humid with sympathy, now burning with the fire of courage, now taking on strength of color with ambition, now flashing indignantly at the abuse of any creature.

She had carried several of the squirrel and bunny babies home, and had littered the conservatory with them. Her care of them was perfect. She was learning her natural history from nature, and having much healthful exercise. To her, they were the most interesting of all, but the Bird Woman preferred the birds, with a close second in the moths and butterflies.

Brown butterfly time had come. The edge of the swale was filled with milkweed, and other plants beloved of them, and the air was golden with the flashing satin wings of the monarch, viceroy, and argynnis. They outnumbered those of any other color three to one.

Among the birds it really seemed as if the little yellow fellows were in the preponderance. At least, they were until the redwinged blackbirds and bobolinks, that had nested on the upland, suddenly saw in the swamp the garden of the Lord and came swarming by hundreds to feast and adventure upon it these last few weeks before migration. Never was there a finer feast spread for the birds. The grasses were filled with seeds: so, too, were weeds of every variety. Fall berries were ripe. Wild grapes and black haws were ready. Bugs were creeping everywhere. The muck was yeasty with worms. Insects filled the air. Nature made glorious pause for holiday before her next change, and by none of the frequenters of the swamp was this more appreciated than by the big black chickens.

They seemed to feel the new reign of peace and fullness most of all. As for food, they did not even have to hunt for themselves these days, for the feasts now being spread before Little Chicken were more than he could use, and he was glad to have his parents come down and help him.

He was a fine, big, overgrown fellow, and his wings, with quills of jetty black, gleaming with bronze, were so strong they almost lifted his body. He had three inches of tail, and his beak and claws were sharp. His muscles began to clamor for exercise. He raced the forty feet of his home back and forth many times every hour of the day. After a few days of that, he began lifting and spreading his wings, and flopping them until the down on his back was filled with elm fiber. Then he commenced jumping. The funny little hops, springs, and sidewise bounds he gave set Freckles and the Angel, hidden in the swamp, watching him, into smothered chuckles of delight.

Sometimes he fell to coquetting with himself; and that was the funniest thing of all, for he turned his head up, down, from side to side, and drew in his chin with prinky little jerks and tilts. He would stretch his neck, throw up his head, turn it to one side and smirk--actually smirk, the most complacent and self-satisfied smirk that anyone ever saw on the face of a bird. It was so comical that Freckles and the Angel told the Bird Woman of it one day.

When she finished her work on Little Chicken, she left them the camera ready for use, telling them they might hide in the bushes and watch. If Little Chicken came out and truly smirked, and they could squeeze the bulb at the proper moment to snap him, she would be more than delighted.

Freckles and the Angel quietly curled beside a big log, and with eager eyes and softest breathing they patiently waited; but Little Chicken had feasted before they told of his latest accomplishment. He was tired and sleepy, so he went into the log to bed, and for an hour he never stirred.

They were becoming anxious, for the light soon would be gone, and they had so wanted to try for the picture. At last Little Chicken lifted his head, opened his beak, and gaped widely. He dozed a minute or two more. The Angel said that was his beauty sleep. Then he lazily gaped again and stood up, stretching and yawning. He ambled leisurely toward the gateway, and the Angel said: "Now, we may have a chance, at last."

"I do hope so," shivered Freckles.

With one accord they arose to their knees and trained their eyes on the mouth of the log. The light was full and strong. Little Chicken prospected again with no results. He dressed his plumage, polished his beak, and when he felt fine and in full toilet he began to flirt with himself. Freckles' eyes snapped and his breath sucked between his clenched teeth.

"He's going to do it!" whispered the Angel. "That will come next. You'll best give me that bulb!"

"Yis," assented Freckles, but he was looking at the log and he made no move to relinquish the bulb.

Little Chicken nodded daintily and ruffled his feathers. He gave his head sundry little sidewise jerks and rapidly shifted his point of vision. Once there was the fleeting little ghost of a smirk.

"Now!--No!" snapped the Angel.

Freckles leaned toward the bird. Tensely he waited. Unconsciously the hand of the Angel clasped his. He scarcely knew it was there. Suddenly Little Chicken sprang straight in the air and landed with a thud. The Angel started slightly, but Freckles was immovable. Then, as if in approval of his last performance, the big, overgrown baby wheeled until he was more than three-quarters, almost full side, toward the camera, straightened on his legs, squared his shoulders, stretched his neck full height, drew in his chin and smirked his most pronounced smirk, directly in the face of the lens.

Freckles' fingers closed on the bulb convulsively, and the Angel's closed on his at the instant. Then she heaved a great sigh of relief and lifted her hands to push back the damp, clustering hair from her face.

"How soon do you s'pose it will be finished?" came Freckles' strident whisper.

For the first time the Angel looked at him. He was on his knees, leaning forward, his eyes directed toward the bird, the perspiration running in little streams down his red, mosquito-bitten face. His hat was awry, his bright hair rampant, his breast heaving with excitement, while he yet gripped the bulb with every ounce of strength in his body.

"Do you think we were for getting it?" he asked.

The Angel could only nod. Freckles heaved a deep sigh of relief.

"Well, if that ain't the hardest work I ever did in me life!" he exclaimed. "It's no wonder the Bird Woman's for coming out of the swamp looking as if she's been through a fire, a flood, and a famine, if that's what she goes through day after day. But if you think we got it, why, it's worth all it took, and I'm glad as ever you are, sure!"

They put the holders in the case, carefully closed the camera, set it in also, and carried it to the road.

Then Freckles exulted.

"Now, let's be telling the Bird Woman about it!" he shouted, wildly dancing and swinging his hat.

"We got it! We got it! I bet a farm we got it!"

Hand in hand they ran to the north end of the swamp, yelling "We got it!" like young Comanches, and never gave a thought to what they might do until a big blue-gray bird, with long neck and trailing legs, arose on flapping wings and sailed over the Limberlost.

The Angel became white to the lips and gripped Freckles with both hands. He gulped with mortification and turned his back.

To frighten her subject away carelessly! It was the head crime in the Bird Woman's category. She extended her hands as she arose, baked, blistered, and dripping, and exclaimed: "Bless you, my children! Bless you!" And it truly sounded as if she meant it.

"Why, why----" stammered the bewildered Angel.

Freckles hurried into the breach.

"You must be for blaming it every bit on me. I was thinking we got Little Chicken's picture real good. I was so drunk with the joy of it I lost all me senses and, `Let's run tell the Bird Woman,' says I. Like a fool I was for running, and I sort of dragged the Angel along."

"Oh Freckles!" expostulated the Angel. "Are you loony? Of course, it was all my fault! I've been with her hundreds of times. I knew perfectly well that I wasn't to let anything--not anything--scare her bird away! I was so crazy I forgot. The blame is all mine, and she'll never forgive me."

"She will, too!" cried Freckles. "Wasn't you for telling me that very first day that when people scared her birds away she just killed them! It's all me foolishness, and I'll never forgive meself!"

The Bird Woman plunged into the swale at the mouth of Sleepy Snake Creek, and came wading toward them, with a couple of cameras and dripping tripods.

"If you will permit me a word, my infants," she said, "I will explain to you that I have had three shots at that fellow."

The Angel heaved a deep sigh of relief, and Freckles' face cleared a little.

"Two of them," continued the Bird Woman, "in the rushes--one facing, crest lowered; one light on back, crest flared; and the last on wing, when you came up. I simply had been praying for something to make him arise from that side, so that he would fly toward the camera, for he had waded around until in my position I couldn't do it myself. See? Behold in yourselves the answer to the prayers of the long-suffering!"

Freckles took a step toward her.

"Are you really meaning that?" he asked wonderingly. "Only think, Angel, we did the right thing! She won't lose her picture through the carelessness of us, when she's waited and soaked nearly two hours. She's not angry with us!"

"Never was in a sweeter temper in my life," said the Bird Woman, busily cleaning and packing the cameras.

Freckles removed his hat and solemnly held out his hand. With equal solemnity the Angel grasped it. The Bird Woman laughed alone, for to them the situation had been too serious to develop any of the elements of fun.

Then they loaded the carriage, and the Bird Woman and the Angel started for their homes. It had been a difficult time for all of them, so they were very tired, but they were joyful. Freckles was so happy it seemed to him that life could hold little more. As the Bird Woman was ready to drive away he laid his hand on the lines and looked into her face.

"Do you suppose we got it?" he asked, so eagerly that she would have given much to be able to say yes with conviction.

"Why, my dear, I don't know," she said. "I've no way to judge. If you made the exposure just before you came to me, there was yet a fine light. If you waited until Little Chicken was close the entrance, you should have something good, even if you didn't catch just the fleeting expression for which you hoped. Of course, I can't say surely, but I think there is every reason to believe that you have it all right. I will develop the plate tonight, make you a proof from it early in the morning, and bring it when we come. It's only a question of a day or two now until the gang arrives. I want to work in all the studies I can before that time, for they are bound to disturb the birds. Mr. McLean will need you then, and I scarcely see how we are to do without you."

Moved by an impulse she never afterward regretted, she bent and laid her lips on Freckles' forehead, kissing him gently and thanking him for his many kindnesses to her in her loved work. Freckles started away so happy that he felt inclined to keep watching behind to see if the trail were not curling up and rolling down the line after him.