Chapter XVII. Wherein Freckles Offers His Life for His Love and Gets a Broken Body
 

To reach the tree was a more difficult task than McLean had supposed. The gang could approach nearest on the outside toward the east, but after they reached the end of the east entrance there was yet a mile of most impenetrable thicket, trees big and little, and bushes of every variety and stage of growth. In many places the muck had to be filled to give the horses and wagons a solid foundation over which to haul heavy loads. It was several days before they completed a road to the noble, big tree and were ready to fell it.

When the sawing began, Freckles was watching down the road where it met the trail leading from Little Chicken's tree. He had gone to the tree ahead of the gang to remove the blue ribbon. Carefully folded, it now lay over his heart. He was promising himself much comfort with that ribbon, when he would leave for the city next month to begin his studies and dream the summer over again. It would help to make things tangible. When he was dressed as other men, and at his work, he knew where he meant to home that precious bit of blue. It should be his good-luck token, and he would wear it always to keep bright in memory the day on which the Angel had called him her knight.

How he would study, and oh, how he would sing! If only he could fulfill McLean's expectations, and make the Angel proud of him! If only he could be a real knight!

He could not understand why the Angel had failed to come. She had wanted to see their tree felled. She would be too late if she did not arrive soon. He had told her it would be ready that morning, and she had said she surely would be there. Why, of all mornings, was she late on this?

McLean had ridden to town. If he had been there, Freckles would have asked that they delay the felling, but he scarcely liked to ask the gang. He really had no authority, although he thought the men would wait; but some way he found such embarrassment in framing the request that he waited until the work was practically ended. The saw was out, and the men were cutting into the felling side of the tree when the Boss rode in.

His first word was to inquire for the Angel. When Freckles said she had not yet come, the Boss at once gave orders to stop work on the tree until she arrived; for he felt that she virtually had located it, and if she desired to see it felled, she should. As the men stepped back, a stiff morning breeze caught the top, that towered high above its fellows. There was an ominous grinding at the base, a shiver of the mighty trunk, then directly in line of its fall the bushes swung apart and the laughing face of the Angel looked on them.

A groan of horror burst from the dry throats of the men, and reading the agony in their faces, she stopped short, glanced up, and understood.

"South!" shouted McLean. "Run south!"

The Angel was helpless. It was apparent that she did not know which way south was. There was another slow shiver of the big tree. The remainder of the gang stood motionless, but Freckles sprang past the trunk and went leaping in big bounds. He caught up the Angel and dashed through the thicket for safety. The swaying trunk was half over when, for an instant, a near-by tree stayed its fall. They saw Freckles' foot catch, and with the Angel he plunged headlong.

A terrible cry broke from the men, while McLean covered his face. Instantly Freckles was up, with the Angel in his arms, struggling on. The outer limbs were on them when they saw Freckles hurl the Angel, face down, in the muck, as far from him as he could send her. Springing after, in an attempt to cover her body with his own, he whirled to see if they were yet in danger, and with outstretched arms braced himself for the shock. The branches shut them from sight, and the awful crash rocked the earth.

McLean and Duncan ran with axes and saws. The remainder of the gang followed, and they worked desperately. It seemed a long time before they caught a glimpse of the Angel's blue dress, but it renewed their vigor. Duncan fell on his knees beside her and tore the muck from underneath her with his hands. In a few seconds he dragged her out, choking and stunned, but surely not fatally hurt.

Freckles lay a little farther under the tree, a big limb pinning him down. His eyes were wide open. He was perfectly conscious. Duncan began mining beneath him, but Freckles stopped him.

"You can't be moving me," he said. "You must cut off the limb and lift it. I know."

Two men ran for the big saw. A number of them laid hold of the limb and bore up. In a short time it was removed, and Freckles lay free.

The men bent over to lift him, but he motioned them away.

"Don't be touching me until I rest a bit," he pleaded.

Then he twisted his head until he saw the Angel, who was wiping muck from her eyes and face on the skirt of her dress.

"Try to get up," he begged.

McLean laid hold of the Angel and helped her to her feet.

"Do you think any bones are broken?" gasped Freckles.

The Angel shook her head and wiped muck.

"You see if you can find any, sir," Freckles commanded.

The Angel yielded herself to McLean's touch, and he assured Freckles that she was not seriously injured.

Freckles settled back, a smile of ineffable tenderness on his face.

"Thank the Lord!" he hoarsely whispered.

The Angel leaned toward him.

"Now, Freckles, you!" she cried. "It's your turn. Please get up!"

A pitiful spasm swept Freckles' face. The sight of it washed every vestige of color from the Angel's. She took hold of his hands.

"Freckles, get up!" It was half command, half entreaty.

"Easy, Angel, easy! Let me rest a bit first!" implored Freckles.

She knelt beside him. He reached his arm around her and drew her closely. He looked at McLean in an agony of entreaty that brought the Boss to his knees on the other side.

"Oh, Freckles!" McLean cried. "Not that! Surely we can do something! We must! Let me see!"

He tried to unfasten Freckles' neckband, but his fingers shook so clumsily that the Angel pushed them away and herself laid Freckles' chest bare. With one hasty glance she gathered the clothing together and slipped her arm under his head. Freckles lifted his eyes of agony to hers.

"You see?" he said.

The Angel nodded dumbly.

Freckles turned to McLean.

"Thank you for everything," he panted. "Where are the boys?"

"They are all here," said the Boss, "except a couple who have gone for doctors, Mrs. Duncan and the Bird Woman."

"It's no use trying to do anything," said Freckles. "You won't forget the muff and the Christmas box. The muff especial?"

There was a movement above them so pronounced that it attracted Freckles' attention, even in that extreme hour. He looked up, and a pleased smile flickered on his drawn face.

"Why, if it ain't me Little Chicken!" he cried hoarsely. "He must be making his very first trip from the log. Now Duncan can have his big watering-trough."

"It was Little Chicken that made me late," faltered the Angel. "I was so anxious to get here early I forgot to bring his breakfast from the carriage. He must have been hungry, for when I passed the log he started after me. He was so wabbly, and so slow flying from tree to tree and through the bushes, I just had to wait on him, for I couldn't drive him back."

"Of course you couldn't! Me bird has too amazing good sinse to go back when he could be following you," exulted Freckles, exactly as if he did not realize what the delay had cost him. Then he lay silently thinking, but presently he asked slowly: "And so `twas me Little Chicken that was making you late, Angel?"

"Yes," said the Angel.

A spasm of fierce pain shook Freckles, and a look of uncertainty crossed his face.

"All summer I've been thanking God for the falling of the feather and all the delights it's brought me," he muttered, "but this looks as if----"

He stopped short and raised questioning eyes to McLean.

"I can't help being Irish, but I can help being superstitious," he said. "I mustn't be laying it to the Almighty, or to me bird, must I?"

"No, dear lad," said McLean, stroking the brilliant hair. "The choice lay with you. You could have stood a rooted dolt like all the remainder of us. It was through your great love and your high courage that you made the sacrifice."

"Don't you be so naming it, sir!" cried Freckles. "It's just the reverse. If I could be giving me body the hundred times over to save hers from this, I'd be doing it and take joy with every pain."

He turned with a smile of adoring tenderness to the Angel. She was ghastly white, and her eyes were dull and glazed. She scarcely seemed to hear or understand what was coming, but she bravely tried to answer that smile.

"Is my forehead covered with dirt?" he asked.

She shook her head.

"You did once," he gasped.

Instantly she laid her lips on his forehead, then on each cheek, and then in a long kiss on his lips.

McLean bent over him.

"Freckles," he said brokenly, "you will never know how I love you. You won't go without saying good-bye to me?"

That word stung the Angel to quick comprehension. She started as if arousing from sleep.

"Good-bye?" she cried sharply, her eyes widening and the color rushing into her white face. "Good-bye! Why, what do you mean? Who's saying good-bye? Where could Freckles go, when he is hurt like this, save to the hospital? You needn't say good-bye for that. Of course, we will all go with him! You call up the men. We must start right away."

"It's no use, Angel," said Freckles. "I'm thinking ivry bone in me breast is smashed. You'll have to be letting me go!"

"I will not," said the Angel flatly. "It's no use wasting precious time talking about it. You are alive. You are breathing; and no matter how badly your bones are broken, what are great surgeons for but to fix you up and make you well again? You promise me that you'll just grit your teeth and hang on when we hurt you, for we must start with you as quickly as it can be done. I don't know what has been the matter with me. Here's good time wasted already."

"Oh, Angel!" moaned Freckles, "I can't! You don't know how bad it is. I'll die the minute you are for trying to lift me!"

"Of course you will, if you make up your mind to do it," said the Angel. "But if you are determined you won't, and set yourself to breathing deep and strong, and hang on to me tight, I can get you out. Really you must, Freckles, no matter how it hurts, for you did this for me, and now I must save you, so you might as well promise."

She bent over him, trying to smile encouragement with her fear-stiffened lips.

"You will promise, Freckles?"

Big drops of cold sweat ran together on Freckles' temples.

"Angel, darlin' Angel," he pleaded, taking her hand in his. "You ain't understanding, and I can't for the life of me be telling you, but indade, it's best to be letting me go. This is my chance. Please say good-bye, and let me slip off quick!"

He appealed to McLean.

"Dear Boss, you know! You be telling her that, for me, living is far worse pain than dying. Tell her you know death is the best thing that could ever be happening to me!"

"Merciful Heaven!" burst in the Angel. "I can't endure this delay!"

She caught Freckles' hand to her breast, and bending over him, looked deeply into his stricken eyes.

"`Angel, I give you my word of honor that I will keep right on breathing.' That's what you are going to promise me," she said. "Do you say it?"

Freckles hesitated.

"Freckles!" imploringly commanded the Angel, "You do say it!"

"Yis," gasped Freckles.

The Angel sprang to her feet.

"Then that's all right," she said, with a tinge of her old- time briskness. "You just keep breathing away like a steam engine, and I will do all the remainder."

The eager men gathered around her.

"It's going to be a tough pull to get Freckles out," she said, "but it's our only chance, so listen closely and don't for the lives of you fail me in doing quickly what I tell you. There's no time to spend falling down over each other; we must have some system. You four there get on those wagon horses and ride to the sleeping-tent. Get the stoutest cot, a couple of comforts, and a pillow. Ride back with them some way to save time. If you meet any other men of the gang, send them here to help carry the cot. We won't risk the jolt of driving with him. The others clear a path out to the road; and Mr. McLean, you take Nellie and ride to town. Tell my father how Freckles is hurt and that he risked it to save me. Tell him I'm going to take Freckles to Chicago on the noon train, and I want him to hold it if we are a little late. If he can't, then have a special ready at the station and another on the Pittsburgh at Fort Wayne, so we can go straight through. You needn't mind leaving us. The Bird Woman will be here soon. We will rest awhile."

She dropped into the muck beside Freckles and began stroking his hair and hand. He lay with his face of agony turned to hers, and fought to smother the groans that would tell her what he was suffering.

When they stood ready to lift him, the Angel bent over him in a passion of tenderness.

"Dear old Limberlost guard, we're going to lift you now," she said. "I suspect you will faint from the pain of it, but we will be as easy as ever we can, and don't you dare forget your promise!"

A whimsical half-smile touched Freckles' quivering lips.

"Angel, can a man be remembering a promise when he ain't knowing?" he asked.

"You can," said the Angel stoutly, "because a promise means so much more to you than it does to most men."

A look of strength flashed into Freckles' face at her words.

"I am ready," he said.

With the first touch his eyes closed, a mighty groan was wrenched from him, and he lay senseless. The Angel gave Duncan one panic- stricken look. Then she set her lips and gathered her forces again.

"I guess that's a good thing," she said. "Maybe he won't feel how we are hurting him. Oh boys, are you being quick and gentle?"

She stepped to the side of the cot and bathed Freckles' face. Taking his hand in hers, she gave the word to start. She told the men to ask every able-bodied man they met to join them so that they could change carriers often and make good time.

The Bird Woman insisted upon taking the Angel into the carriage and following the cot, but she refused to leave Freckles, and suggested that the Bird Woman drive ahead, pack them some clothing, and be at the station ready to accompany them to Chicago. All the way the Angel walked beside the cot, shading Freckles' face with a branch, and holding his hand. At every pause to change carriers she moistened his face and lips and watched each breath with heart-breaking anxiety.

She scarcely knew when her father joined them, and taking the branch from her, slipped an arm around her waist and almost carried her. To the city streets and the swarm of curious, staring faces she paid no more attention than she had to the trees of the Limberlost. When the train came and the gang placed Freckles aboard, big Duncan made a place for the Angel beside the cot.

With the best physician to be found, and with the Bird Woman and McLean in attendance, the four-hours' run to Chicago began. The Angel constantly watched over Freckles; bathed his face, stroked his hand, and gently fanned him. Not for an instant would she yield her place, or allow anyone else to do anything for him. The Bird Woman and McLean regarded her in amazement. There seemed to be no end to her resources and courage. The only time she spoke was to ask McLean if he were sure the special would be ready on the Pittsburgh road. He replied that it was made up and waiting.

At five o'clock Freckles lay stretched on the operating-table of Lake View Hospital, while three of the greatest surgeons in Chicago bent over him. At their command, McLean picked up the unwilling Angel and carried her to the nurses to be bathed, have her bruises attended, and to be put to bed.

In a place where it is difficult to surprise people, they were astonished women as they removed the Angel's dainty stained and torn clothing, drew off hose muck-baked to her limbs, soaked the dried loam from her silken hair, and washed the beautiful scratched, bruised, dirt-covered body. The Angel fell fast asleep long before they had finished, and lay deeply unconscious, while the fight for Freckles' life was being waged.

Three days later she was the same Angel as of old, except that Freckles was constantly in her thoughts. The anxiety and responsibility that she felt for his condition had bred in her a touch of womanliness and authority that was new. That morning she arose early and hovered near Freckles' door. She had been allowed to remain with him constantly, for the nurses and surgeons had learned, with his returning consciousness, that for her alone would the active, highly strung, pain-racked sufferer be quiet and obey orders. When she was dropping from loss of sleep, the threat that she would fall ill had to be used to send her to bed. Then by telling Freckles that the Angel was asleep and they would waken her the moment he moved, they were able to control him for a short time.

The surgeon was with Freckles. The Angel had been told that the word he brought that morning would be final, so she curled in a window seat, dropped the curtains behind her, and in dire anxiety, waited the opening of the door.

Just as it unclosed, McLean came hurrying down the hall and to the surgeon, but with one glance at his face he stepped back in dismay; while the Angel, who had arisen, sank to the seat again, too dazed to come forward. The men faced each other. The Angel, with parted lips and frightened eyes, bent forward in tense anxiety.

"I--I thought he was doing nicely?" faltered McLean.

"He bore the operation well," replied the surgeon, "and his wounds are not necessarily fatal. I told you that yesterday, but I did not tell you that something else probably would kill him; and it will. He need not die from the accident, but he will not live the day out."

"But why? What is it?" asked McLean hurriedly. "We all dearly love the boy. We have millions among us to do anything that money can accomplish. Why must he die, if those broken bones are not the cause?"

"That is what I am going to give you the opportunity to tell me," replied the surgeon. "He need not die from the accident, yet he is dying as fast as his splendid physical condition will permit, and it is because he so evidently prefers death to life. If he were full of hope and ambition to live, my work would be easy. If all of you love him as you prove you do, and there is unlimited means to give him anything he wants, why should he desire death?"

"Is he dying?" demanded McLean.

"He is," said the surgeon. "He will not live this day out, unless some strong reaction sets in at once. He is so low, that preferring death to life, nature cannot overcome his inertia. If he is to live, he must be made to desire life. Now he undoubtedly wishes for death, and that it come quickly."

"Then he must die," said McLean.

His broad shoulders shook convulsively. His strong hands opened and closed mechanically.

"Does that mean that you know what he desires and cannot, or will not, supply it?"

McLean groaned in misery.

"It means," he said desperately, "that I know what he wants, but it is as far removed from my power to help him as it would be to give him a star. The thing for which he will die, he can never have."

"Then you must prepare for the end very shortly" said the surgeon, turning abruptly away.

McLean caught his arm roughly.

"You look here!" he cried in desperation. "You say that as if I could do something if I would. I tell you the boy is dear to me past expression. I would do anything--spend any sum. You have noticed and repeatedly commented on the young girl with me. It is that child that he wants! He worships her to adoration, and knowing he can never be anything to her, he prefers death to life. In God's name, what can I do about it?"

"Barring that missing hand, I never examined a finer man," said the surgeon, "and she seemed perfectly devoted to him; why cannot he have her?"

"Why?" echoed McLean. "Why? Well, for many reasons! I told you he was my son. You probably knew that he was not. A little over a year ago I never had seen him. He joined one of my lumber gangs from the road. He is a stray, left at one of your homes for the friendless here in Chicago. When he grew up the superintendent bound him to a brutal man. He ran away and landed in one of my lumber camps. He has no name or knowledge of legal birth. The Angel--we have talked of her. You see what she is, physically and mentally. She has ancestors reaching back to Plymouth Rock, and across the sea for generations before that. She is an idolized, petted only child, and there is great wealth. Life holds everything for her, nothing for him. He sees it more plainly than anyone else could. There is nothing for the boy but death, if it is the Angel that is required to save him."

The Angel stood between them.

"Well, I just guess not!" she cried. "If Freckles wants me, all he has to do is to say so, and he can have me!"

The amazed men stepped back, staring at her.

"That he will never say," said McLean at last, "and you don't understand, Angel. I don't know how you came here. I wouldn't have had you hear that for the world, but since you have, dear girl, you must be told that it isn't your friendship or your kindness Freckles wants; it is your love."

The Angel looked straight into the great surgeon's eyes with her clear, steady orbs of blue, and then into McLean's with unwavering frankness.

"Well, I do love him," she said simply.

McLean's arms dropped helplessly.

"You don't understand," he reiterated patiently. "It isn't the love of a friend, or a comrade, or a sister, that Freckles wants from you; it is the love of a sweetheart. And if to save the life he has offered for you, you are thinking of being generous and impulsive enough to sacrifice your future--in the absence of your father, it will become my plain duty, as the protector in whose hands he has placed you, to prevent such rashness. The very words you speak, and the manner in which you say them, prove that you are a mere child, and have not dreamed what love is."

Then the Angel grew splendid. A rosy flush swept the pallor of fear from her face. Her big eyes widened and dilated with intense lights. She seemed to leap to the height and the dignity of superb womanhood before their wondering gaze.

"I never have had to dream of love," she said proudly. "I never have known anything else, in all my life, but to love everyone and to have everyone love me. And there never has been anyone so dear as Freckles. If you will remember, we have been through a good deal together. I do love Freckles, just as I say I do. I don't know anything about the love of sweethearts, but I love him with all the love in my heart, and I think that will satisfy him."

"Surely it should!" muttered the man of knives and lancets.

McLean reached to take hold of the Angel, but she saw the movement and swiftly stepped back.

"As for my father," she continued, "he at once told me what he learned from you about Freckles. I've known all you know for several weeks. That knowledge didn't change your love for him a particle. I think the Bird Woman loved him more. Why should you two have all the fine perceptions there are? Can't I see how brave, trustworthy, and splendid he is? Can't I see how his soul vibrates with his music, his love of beautiful things and the pangs of loneliness and heart hunger? Must you two love him with all the love there is, and I give him none? My father is never unreasonable. He won't expect me not to love Freckles, or not to tell him so, if the telling will save him."

She darted past McLean into Freckles' room, closed the door, and turned the key.