Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XVI. Wherein the Angel Locates a Rare Tree and Dines with the Gang
From afar Freckles saw them coming. The Angel was standing, waving her hat. He sprang on his wheel and raced, jolting and pounding, down the corduroy to meet them. The Bird Woman stopped the horse and the Angel gave him the bit of print paper. Freckles leaned the wheel against a tree and took the proof with eager fingers. He never before had seen a study from any of his chickens. He stood staring. When he turned his face toward them it was transfigured with delight.
"You see!" he exclaimed, and began gazing again. "Oh, me Little Chicken!" he cried. "Oh me ilegant Little Chicken! I'd be giving all me money in the bank for you!"
Then he thought of the Angel's muff and Mrs. Duncan's hat, and added, "or at least, all but what I'm needing bad for something else. Would you mind stopping at the cabin a minute and showing this to Mother Duncan?" he asked.
"Give me that little book in your pocket," said the Bird Woman.
She folded the outer edges of the proof so that it would fit into the book, explaining as she did so its perishable nature in that state. Freckles went hurrying ahead, and they arrived in time to see Mrs. Duncan gazing as if awestruck, and to hear her bewildered "Weel I be drawed on!"
Freckles and the Angel helped the Bird Woman to establish herself for a long day at the mouth of Sleepy Snake Creek. Then she sent them away and waited what luck would bring to her.
"Now, what shall we do?" inquired the Angel, who was a bundle of nerves and energy.
"Would you like to go to me room awhile?" asked Freckles.
"If you don't care to very much, I'd rather not," said the Angel. "I'll tell you. Let's go help Mrs. Duncan with dinner and play with the baby. I love a nice, clean baby."
They started toward the cabin. Every few minutes they stopped to investigate something or to chatter over some natural history wonder. The Angel had quick eyes; she seemed to see everything, but Freckles' were even quicker; for life itself had depended on their sharpness ever since the beginning of his work at the swamp. They saw it at the same time.
"Someone has been making a flagpole," said the Angel, running the toe of her shoe around the stump, evidently made that season. "Freckles, what would anyone cut a tree as small as that for?"
"I don't know," said Freckles.
"Well, but I want to know!" said the Angel. "No one came away here and cut it for fun. They've taken it away. Let's go back and see if we can see it anywhere around there."
She turned, retraced her footsteps, and began eagerly searching. Freckles did the same.
"There it is!" he exclaimed at last, "leaning against the trunk of that big maple."
"Yes, and leaning there has killed a patch of dried bark," said the Angel. "See how dried it appears?"
Freckles stared at her.
"Angel!" he shouted, "I bet you it's a marked tree!"
"Course it is!" cried the Angel. "No one would cut that sapling and carry it away there and lean it up for nothing. I'll tell you! This is one of Jack's marked trees. He's climbed up there above anyone's head, peeled the bark, and cut into the grain enough to be sure. Then he's laid the bark back and fastened it with that pole to mark it. You see, there're a lot of other big maples close around it. Can you climb to that place?"
"Yes," said Freckles; "if I take off my wading-boots I can."
"Then take them off," said the Angel, "and do hurry! Can't you see that I am almost crazy to know if this tree is a marked one?"
When they pushed the sapling over, a piece of bark as big as the crown of Freckles' hat fell away.
"I believe it looks kind of nubby," encouraged the Angel, backing away, with her face all screwed into a twist in an effort to intensify her vision.
Freckles reached the opening, then slid rapidly to the ground. He was almost breathless while his eyes were flashing.
"The bark's been cut clean with a knife, the sap scraped away, and a big chip taken out deep. The trunk is the twistiest thing you ever saw. It's full of eyes as a bird is of feathers!"
The Angel was dancing and shaking his hand.
"Oh, Freckles," she cried, "I'm so delighted that you found it!"
"But I didn't," said the astonished Freckles. "That tree isn't my find; it's yours. I forgot it and was going on; you wouldn't give up, and kept talking about it, and turned back. You found it!"
"You'd best be looking after your reputation for truth and veracity," said the Angel. "You know you saw that sapling first!"
"Yes, after you took me back and set me looking for it," scoffed Freckles.
The clear, ringing echo of strongly swung axes came crashing through the Limberlost.
"'Tis the gang!" shouted Freckles. "They're clearing a place to make the camp. Let's go help!"
"Hadn't we better mark that tree again?" cautioned the Angel. "It's away in here. There's such a lot of them, and all so much alike. We'd feel good and green to find it and then lose it."
Freckles lifted the sapling to replace it, but the Angel motioned him away.
"Use your hatchet," she said. "I predict this is the most valuable tree in the swamp. You found it. I'm going to play that you're my knight. Now, you nail my colors on it."
She reached up, and pulling a blue bow from her hair, untied and doubled it against the tree. Freckles turned his eyes from her and managed the fastening with shaking fingers. The Angel had called him her knight! Dear Lord, how he loved her! She must not see his face, or surely her quick eyes would read what he was fighting to hide. He did not dare lay his lips on that ribbon then, but that night he would return to it. When they had gone a little distance, they both looked back, and the morning breeze set the bit of blue waving them a farewell.
They walked at a rapid pace.
"I am sorry about scaring the birds," said the Angel, "but it's almost time for them to go anyway. I feel dreadfully over having the swamp ruined, but isn't it a delight to hear the good, honest ring of those axes, instead of straining your ears for stealthy sounds? Isn't it fine to go openly and freely, with nothing worse than a snake or a poison-vine to fear?"
"Ah!" said Freckles, with a long breath, "it's better than you can dream, Angel. Nobody will ever be guessing some of the things I've been through trying to keep me promise to the Boss, and to hold out until this day. That it's come with only one fresh stump, and the log from that saved, and this new tree to report, isn't it grand? Maybe Mr. McLean will be forgetting that stump when he sees this tree, Angel!"
"He can't forget it," said the Angel; and in answer to Freckles' startled eyes she added, "because he never had any reason to remember it. He couldn't have done a whit better himself. My father says so. You're all right, Freckles!"
She reached him her hand, and as two children, they broke into a run when they came closer the gang. They left the swamp by the west road and followed the trail until they found the men. To the Angel it seemed complete charm. In the shadiest spot on the west side of the line, at the edge of the swamp and very close Freckles' room, they were cutting bushes and clearing space for a big tent for the men's sleeping-quarters, another for a dining-hall, and a board shack for the cook. The teamsters were unloading, the horses were cropping leaves from the bushes, while each man was doing his part toward the construction of the new Limberlost quarters.
Freckles helped the Angel climb on a wagonload of canvas in the shade. She removed her leggings, wiped her heated face, and glowed with happiness and interest.
The gang had been sifted carefully. McLean now felt that there was not a man in it who was not trustworthy.
They all had heard of the Angel's plucky ride for Freckles' relief; several of them had been in the rescue party. Others, new since that time, had heard the tale rehearsed in its every aspect around the smudge-fires at night. Almost all of them knew the Angel by sight from her trips with the Bird Woman to their leases. They all knew her father, her position, and the luxuries of her home. Whatever course she had chosen with them they scarcely would have resented it, but the Angel never had been known to choose a course. Her spirit of friendliness was inborn and inbred. She loved everyone, so she sympathized with everyone. Her generosity was only limited by what was in her power to give.
She came down the trail, hand in hand with the red-haired, freckled timber guard whom she had worn herself past the limit of endurance to save only a few weeks before, racing in her eagerness to reach them, and laughing her "Good morning, gentlemen," right and left. When she was ensconced on the wagonload of tenting, she sat on a roll of canvas as a queen on her throne. There was not a man of the gang who did not respect her. She was a living exponent of universal brotherhood. There was no man among them who needed her exquisite face or dainty clothing to teach him that the deference due a gentlewoman should be paid her. That the spirit of good fellowship she radiated levied an especial tribute of its own, and it became their delight to honor and please her.
As they raced toward the wagon--"Let me tell about the tree, please?" she begged Freckles.
"Why, sure!" said Freckles.
He probably would have said the same to anything she suggested. When McLean came, he found the Angel flushed and glowing, sitting on the wagon, her hands already filled. One of the men, who was cutting a scrub-oak, had carried to her a handful of crimson leaves. Another had gathered a bunch of delicate marsh-grass heads for her. Someone else, in taking out a bush, had found a daintily built and lined little nest, fresh as when made.
She held up her treasures and greeted McLean, "Good morning, Mr. Boss of the Limberlost!"
The gang shouted, while he bowed profoundly before her.
"Everyone listen!" cried the Angel, climbing a roll of canvas. "I have something to say! Freckles has been guarding here over a year now, and he presents the Limberlost to you, with every tree in it saved; for good measure he has this morning located the rarest one of them all: the one in from the east line, that Wessner spoke of the first day--nearest the one you took out. All together! Everyone! Hurrah for Freckles!"
With flushing cheeks and gleaming eyes, gaily waving the grass above her head, she led in three cheers and a tiger. Freckles slipped into the swamp and hid himself, for fear he could not conceal his pride and his great surging, throbbing love for her.
The Angel subsided on the canvas and explained to McLean about the maple. The Boss was mightily pleased. He took Freckles and set out to re-locate and examine the tree. The Angel was interested in the making of the camp, so she preferred to remain with the men. With her sharp eyes she was watching every detail of construction; but when it came to the stretching of the dining-hall canvas she proceeded to take command. The men were driving the rope-pins, when the Angel arose on the wagon and, leaning forward, spoke to Duncan, who was directing the work.
"I believe if you will swing that around a few feet farther, you will find it better, Mr. Duncan," she said. "That way will let the hot sun in at noon, while the sides will cut off the best breeze."
"That's a fact," said Duncan, studying the conditions.
So, by shifting the pins a little, they obtained comfort for which they blessed the Angel every day. When they came to the sleeping-tent, they consulted her about that. She explained the general direction of the night breeze and indicated the best position for the tent. Before anyone knew how it happened, the Angel was standing on the wagon, directing the location and construction of the cooking-shack, the erection of the crane for the big boiling-pots, and the building of the store-room. She superintended the laying of the floor of the sleeping-tent lengthwise, So that it would be easier to sweep, and suggested a new arrangement of the cots that would afford all the men an equal share of night breeze. She left the wagon, and climbing on the newly erected dining-table, advised with the cook in placing his stove, table, and kitchen utensils.
When Freckles returned from the tree to join in the work around the camp, he caught glimpses of her enthroned on a soapbox, cleaning beans. She called to him that they were invited for dinner, and that they had accepted the invitation.
When the beans were steaming in the pot, the Angel advised the cook to soak them overnight the next time, so that they would cook more quickly and not burst. She was sure their cook at home did that way, and the chef of the gang thought it would be a good idea. The next Freckles saw of her she was paring potatoes. A little later she arranged the table.
She swept it with a broom, instead of laying a cloth; took the hatchet and hammered the deepest dents from the tin plates, and nearly skinned her fingers scouring the tinware with rushes. She set the plates an even distance apart, and laid the forks and spoons beside them. When the cook threw away half a dozen fruit-cans, she gathered them up and melted off the tops, although she almost blistered her face and quite blistered her fingers doing it. Then she neatly covered these improvised vases with the Manila paper from the groceries, tying it with wisps of marshgrass. These she filled with fringed gentians, blazing-star, asters, goldenrod, and ferns, placing them the length of the dining-table. In one of the end cans she arranged her red leaves, and in the other the fancy grass. Two men, watching her, went away proud of themselves and said that she was "a born lady." She laughingly caught up a paper bag and fitted it jauntily to her head in imitation of a cook's cap. Then she ground the coffee, and beat a couple of eggs to put in, "because there is company," she gravely explained to the cook. She asked that delighted individual if he did not like it best that way, and he said he did not know, because he never had a chance to taste it. The Angel said that was her case exactly--she never had, either; she was not allowed anything stronger than milk. Then they laughed together.
She told the cook about camping with her father, and explained that he made his coffee that way. When the steam began to rise from the big boiler, she stuffed the spout tightly with clean marshgrass, to keep the aroma in, placed the boiler where it would only simmer, and explained why. The influence of the Angel's visit lingered with the cook through the remainder of his life, while the men prayed for her frequent return.
She was having a happy time, when McLean came back jubilant, from his trip to the tree. How jubilant he told only the Angel, for he had been obliged to lose faith in some trusted men of late, and had learned discretion by what he suffered. He planned to begin clearing out a road to the tree that same afternoon, and to set two guards every night, for it promised to be a rare treasure, so he was eager to see it on the way to the mills.
"I am coming to see it felled," cried the Angel. "I feel a sort of motherly interest in that tree."
McLean was highly amused. He would have staked his life on the honesty of either the Angel or Freckles; yet their versions of the finding of the tree differed widely.
"Tell me, Angel," the Boss said jestingly. "I think I have a right to know. Who really did locate that tree?"
"Freckles," she answered promptly and emphatically.
"But he says quite as positively that it was you. I don't understand."
The Angel's legal look flashed into her face. Her eyes grew tense with earnestness. She glanced around, and seeing no towel or basin, held out her hand for Sears to pour water over them. Then, using the skirt of her dress to dry them, she climbed on the wagon.
"I'll tell you, word for word, how it happened," she said, "and then you shall decide, and Freckles and I will agree with you."
When she had finished her version, "Tell us, `oh, most learned judge!'" she laughingly quoted, "which of us located that tree?"
"Blest if I know who located it!" exclaimed McLean. "But I have a fairly accurate idea as to who put the blue ribbon on it."
The Boss smiled significantly at Freckles, who just had come, for they had planned that they would instruct the company to reserve enough of the veneer from that very tree to make the most beautiful dressing table they could design for the Angel's share of the discovery.
"What will you have for yours?" McLean had asked of Freckles.
"If it's all the same to you, I'll be taking mine out in music lessons-- begging your pardon--voice culture," said Freckles with a grimace.
McLean laughed, for Freckles needed to see or hear only once to absorb learning as the thirsty earth sucks up water.
The Angel placed McLean at the head of the table. She took the foot, with Freckles on her right, while the lumber gang, washed, brushed, and straightened until they felt unfamiliar with themselves and each other, filled the sides. That imposed a slight constraint. Then, too, the men were afraid of the flowers, the polished tableware, and above all, of the dainty grace of the Angel. Nowhere do men so display lack of good breeding and culture as in dining. To sprawl on the table, scoop with their knives, chew loudly, gulp coffee, and duck their heads as snapping-turtles for every bite, had not been noticed by them until the Angel, sitting straightly, suddenly made them remember that they, too, were possessed of spines. Instinctively every man at the table straightened.