Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter IV. Wherein Freckles Faces Trouble Bravely and Opens the Way for New Experiences
On Duncan's return from his next trip to town there was a big store-box loaded on the back of his wagon. He drove to the west entrance of the swamp, set the box on a stump that Freckles had selected in a beautiful, sheltered place, and made it secure on its foundations with a tree at its back.
"It seems most a pity to nail into that tree," said Duncan. "I haena the time to examine into the grain of it, but it looks as if it might be a rare ane. Anyhow, the nailin' winna hurt it deep, and havin' the case by it will make it safer if it is a guid ane."
"Isn't it an oak?" asked Freckles.
"Ay," said Duncan. "It looks like it might be ane of thae fine-grained white anes that mak' such grand furniture."
When the body of the case was secure, Duncan made a door from the lid and fastened it with hinges. He drove a staple, screwed on a latch, and gave Freckles a small padlock--so that he might fasten in his treasures safely. He made a shelf at the top for his books, and last of all covered the case with oil-cloth.
It was the first time in Freckles' life that anyone ever had done that much for his pleasure, and it warmed his heart with pure joy. If the interior of the box already had been covered with the rarest treasures of the Limberlost he could have been no happier.
When the big teamster stood back to look at his work he laughingly quoted, "`Neat, but no' gaudy,' as McLean says. All we're, needing now is a coat of paint to make a cupboard that would turn Sarah green with envy. Ye'll find that safe an' dry, lad, an' that's all that's needed."
"Mr. Duncan," said Freckles, "I don't know why you are being so mighty good to me; but if you have any jobs at the cabin that I could do for you or Mrs. Duncan, hours off the line, it would make me mighty happy."
Duncan laughed. "Ye needna feel ye are obliged to me, lad. Ye mauna think I could take a half-day off in the best hauling season and go to town for boxes to rig up, and spend of my little for fixtures."
"I knew Mr. McLean sent you," said Freckles, his eyes wide and bright with happiness. "It's so good of him. How I wish I could do something that would please him as much!"
"Why, Freckles," said Duncan, as he knelt and began collecting his tools, "I canna see that it will hurt ye to be told that ye are doing every day a thing that pleases the Boss as much as anything ye could do. Ye're being uncommon faithful, lad, and honest as old Father Time. McLean is trusting ye as he would his own flesh and blood."
"Oh, Duncan!" cried the happy boy. "Are you sure?"
"Why I know," answered Duncan. "I wadna venture to say so else. In those first days he cautioned me na to tell ye, but now he wadna care. D'ye ken, Freckles, that some of the single trees ye are guarding are worth a thousand dollars?"
Freckles caught his breath and stood speechless.
"Ye see," said Duncan, "that's why they maun be watched so closely. They tak', say, for instance, a burl maple--bird's eye they call it in the factory, because it's full o' wee knots and twists that look like the eve of a bird. They saw it out in sheets no muckle thicker than writin' paper. Then they make up the funiture out of cheaper wood and cover it with the maple--veneer, they call it. When it's all done and polished ye never saw onythin' grander. Gang into a retail shop the next time ye are in town and see some. By sawin' it thin that way they get finish for thousands of dollars' worth of furniture from a single tree. If ye dinna watch faithful, and Black Jack gets out a few he has marked, it means the loss of more money than ye ever dreamed of, lad. The other night, down at camp, some son of Balaam was suggestin' that ye might be sellin' the Boss out to Jack and lettin' him tak' the trees secretly, and nobody wad ever ken till the gang gets here."
A wave of scarlet flooded Freckles' face and he blazed hotly at the insult.
"And the Boss," continued Duncan, coolly ignoring Freckles' anger, "he lays back just as cool as cowcumbers an' says: `I'll give a thousand dollars to ony man that will show me a fresh stump when we reach the Limberlost,' says he. Some of the men just snapped him op that they'd find some. So you see bow the Boss is trustin' ye, lad."
"I am gladder than I can ever expriss," said Freckles. "And now will I be walking double time to keep some of them from cutting a tree to get all that money!"
"Mither o' Moses!" howled Duncan. "Ye can trust the Scotch to bungle things a'thegither. McLean was only meanin' to show ye all confidence and honor. He's gone and set a high price for some dirty whelp to ruin ye. I was just tryin' to show ye how he felt toward ye, and I've gone an' give ye that worry to bear. Damn the Scotch! They're so slow an' so dumb!"
"Exciptin' prisint company?" sweetly inquired Freckles.
"No!" growled Duncan. "Headin' the list! He'd nae business to set a price on ye, lad, for that's about the amount of it, an' I'd nae right to tell ye. We've both done ye ill, an' both meanin' the verra best. Juist what I'm always sayin' to Sarah."
"I am mighty proud of what you have been telling me, Duncan," said Freckles. "I need the warning, sure. For with the books coming I might be timpted to neglect me work when double watching is needed. Thank you more than I can say for putting me on to it. What you've told me may be the saving of me. I won't stop for dinner now. I'll be getting along the east line, and when I come around about three, maybe Mother Duncan will let me have a glass of milk and a bite of something."
"Ye see now!" cried Duncan in disgust. "Ye'll start on that seven-mile tramp with na bite to stay your stomach. What was it I told ye?"
"You told me that the Scotch had the hardest heads and the softest hearts of any people that's living," answered Freckles.
Duncan grunted in gratified disapproval.
Freckles picked up his club and started down the line, whistling cheerily, for he had an unusually long repertoire upon which to draw.
Duncan went straight to the lower camp, and calling McLean aside, repeated the conversation verbatim, ending: "And nae matter what happens now or ever, dinna ye dare let onythin' make ye believe that Freckles hasna guarded faithful as ony man could."
"I don't think anything could shake my faith in the lad," answered McLean.
Freckles was whistling merrily. He kept one eye religiously on the line. The other he divided between the path, his friends of the wire, and a search of the sky for his latest arrivals. Every day since their coming he had seen them, either hanging as small, black clouds above the swamp or bobbing over logs and trees with their queer, tilting walk. Whenever he could spare time, he entered the swamp and tried to make friends with them, for they were the tamest of all his unnumbered subjects. They ducked, dodged, and ambled around him, over logs and bushes, and not even a near approach would drive them to flight.
For two weeks he had found them circling over the Limberlost regularly, but one morning the female was missing and only the big black chicken hung sentinel above the swamp. His mate did not reappear in the following days, and Freckles grew very anxious. He spoke of it to Mrs. Duncan, and she quieted his fears by raising a delightful hope in their stead.
"Why, Freckles, if it's the hen-bird ye are missing, it's ten to one she's safe," she said. "She's laid, and is setting, ye silly! Watch him and mark whaur he lichts. Then follow and find the nest. Some Sabbath we'll all gang see it."
Accepting this theory, Freckles began searching for the nest. Because these "chickens" were large, as the hawks, he looked among the treetops until he almost sprained the back of his neck. He had half the crow and hawk nests in the swamp located. He searched for this nest instead of collecting subjects for his case. He found the pair the middle of one forenoon on the elm where he had watched their love-making. The big black chicken was feeding his mate; so it was proved that they were a pair, they were both alive, and undoubtedly she was brooding. After that Freckles' nest-hunting continued with renewed zeal, but as he had no idea where to look and Duncan could offer no helpful suggestion, the nest was no nearer to being found.
Coming from a long day on the trail, Freckles saw Duncan's children awaiting him much closer the swale than they usually ventured, and from their wild gestures he knew that something had happened. He began to run, but the cry that reached him was: "The books have come!"
How they hurried! Freckles lifted the youngest to his shoulder, the second took his club and dinner pail, and when they reached Mrs. Duncan they found her at work on a big box. She had loosened the lid, and then she laughingly sat on it.
"Ye canna have a peep in here until ye have washed and eaten supper," she said. "It's all ready on the table. Ance ye begin on this, ye'll no be willin' to tak' your nose o' it till bedtime, and I willna get my work done the nicht. We've eaten long ago."
It was difficult work, but Freckles smiled bravely. He made himself neat, swallowed a few bites, then came so eagerly that Mrs. Duncan yielded, although she said she very well knew all the time that his supper would be spoiled.
Lifting the lid, they removed the packing and found in that box books on birds, trees, flowers, moths, and butterflies. There was also one containing Freckles' bullfrog, true to life. Besides these were a butterfly-net, a naturalist's tin specimen-box, a bottle of cyanide, a box of cotton, a paper of long, steel specimen-pins, and a letter telling what all these things were and how to use them.
At the discovery of each new treasure, Freckles shouted: "Will you be looking at this, now?"
Mrs. Duncan cried: "Weel, I be drawed on!"
The eldest boy turned a somersault for every extra, while the baby, trying to follow his example, bunched over in a sidewise sprawl and cut his foot on the axe with which his mother had prized up the box-lid. That sobered them, they carried the books indoors. Mrs. Duncan had a top shelf in her closet cleared for them, far above the reach of meddling little fingers.
When Freckles started for the trail next morning, the shining new specimen-box flashed on his back. The black "chicken," a mere speck in the blue, caught the gleam of it. The folded net hung beside the boy's hatchet, and the bird book was in the box. He walked the line and tested each section scrupulously, watching every foot of the trail, for he was determined not to slight his work; but if ever a boy "made haste slowly" in a hurry, it was Freckles that morning. When at last he reached the space he had cleared and planted around his case, his heart swelled with the pride of possessing even so much that he could call his own, while his quick eyes feasted on the beauty of it.
He had made a large room with the door of the case set even with one side of it. On three sides, fine big bushes of wild rose climbed to the lower branches of the trees. Part of his walls were mallow, part alder, thorn, willow, and dogwood. Below there filled in a solid mass of pale pink sheep-laurel, and yellow St. John's wort, while the amber threads of the dodder interlaced everywhere. At one side the swamp came close, here cattails grew in profusion. In front of them he had planted a row of water-hyacinths without disturbing in the least the state of their azure bloom, and where the ground arose higher for his floor, a row of foxfire, that soon would be open.
To the left he had discovered a queer natural arrangement of the trees, that grew to giant size and were set in a gradually narrowing space so that a long, open vista stretched away until lost in the dim recesses of the swamp. A little trimming of underbush, rolling of dead logs, levelling of floor and carpeting with moss, made it easy to understand why Freckles had named this the "cathedral"; yet he never had been taught that "the groves were God's first temples."
On either side of the trees that constituted the first arch of this dim vista of the swamp he planted ferns that grew waist-high thus early in the season, and so skilfully the work had been done that not a frond drooped because of the change. Opposite, he cleared a space and made a flower bed. He filled one end with every delicate, lacy vine and fern he could transplant successfully. The body of the bed was a riot of color. Here he set growing dainty blue-eyed-Marys and blue-eyed grass side by side. He planted harebells; violets, blue, white, and yellow; wild geranium, cardinal-flower, columbine, pink snake's mouth, buttercups, painted trilliums, and orchis. Here were blood-root, moccasin-flower, hepatica, pitcher-plant, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and every other flower of the Limberlost that was in bloom or bore a bud presaging a flower. Every day saw the addition of new specimens. The place would have driven a botanist wild with envy.
On the line side he left the bushes thick for concealment, entering by a narrow path he and Duncan had cleared in setting up the case. He called this the front door, though he used every precaution to hide it. He built rustic seats between several of the trees, leveled the floor, and thickly carpeted it with rank, heavy, woolly-dog moss. Around the case he planted wild clematis, bittersweet, and wild-grapevines, and trained them over it until it was almost covered. Every day he planted new flowers, cut back rough bushes, and coaxed out graceful ones. His pride in his room was very great, but he had no idea how surprisingly beautiful it would appear to anyone who had not witnessed its growth and construction.
This morning Freckles walked straight to his case, unlocked it, and set his apparatus and dinner inside. He planted a new specimen he had found close the trail, and, bringing his old scrap-bucket from the corner in which it was hidden, from a near-by pool he dipped water to pour over his carpet and flowers.
Then he took out the bird book, settled comfortably on a bench, and with a deep sigh of satisfaction turned to the section headed. "V." Past "veery" and "vireo" he went, down the line until his finger, trembling with eagerness, stopped at "vulture."
"`Great black California vulture,'" he read.
"Humph! This side the Rockies will do for us."
"Well, we ain't hunting common turkeys. McLean said chickens, and what he says goes."
"`Black vulture of the South.'"
"Here we are arrived at once."
Freckles' finger followed the line, and he read scraps aloud.
"`Common in the South. Sometimes called Jim Crow. Nearest equivalent to C-a-t-h-a-r-t-e-s A-t-r-a-t-a.'"
"How the divil am I ever to learn them corkin' big words by mesel'?"
"`--the Pharaoh's Chickens of European species. Sometimes stray north as far as Virginia and Kentucky----'"
"And sometimes farther," interpolated Freckles, "'cos I got them right here in Indiana so like these pictures I can just see me big chicken bobbing up to get his ears boxed. Hey?"
"Golly! I got to be seeing them!"
"`--big as a common turkey's, but shaped like a hen's, heavily splotched with chocolate----'"
"Caramels, I suppose. And----"
"`--in hollow logs or stumps.'"
"Oh, hagginy! Wasn't I barking up the wrong tree, though? Ought to been looking close the ground all this time. Now it's all to do over, and I suspect the sooner I start the sooner I'll be likely to find them."
Freckles put away his book, dampened the smudge-fire, without which the mosquitoes made the swamp almost unbearable, took his cudgel and lunch, and went to the line. He sat on a log, ate at dinner-time and drank his last drop of water. The heat of June was growing intense. Even on the west of the swamp, where one had full benefit of the breeze from the upland, it was beginning to be unpleasant in the middle of the day.
He brushed the crumbs from his knees and sat resting awhile and watching the sky to see if his big chicken were hanging up there. But he came to the earth abruptly, for there were steps coming down the trail that were neither McLean's nor Duncan's--and there never had been others. Freckles' heart leaped hotly. He ran a quick hand over his belt to feel if his revolver and hatchet were there, caught up his cudgel and laid it across his knees--then sat quietly, waiting. Was it Black Jack, or someone even worse? Forced to do something to brace his nerves, he puckered his stiffening lips and began whistling a tune he had led in his clear tenor every year of his life at the Home Christmas exercises.
"Who comes this way, so blithe and gay, Upon a merry Christmas day?"
His quick Irish wit roused to the ridiculousness of it until he broke into a laugh that steadied him amazingly.
Through the bushes he caught a glimpse of the oncoming figure. His heart flooded with joy, for it was a man from the gang. Wessner had been his bunk-mate the night he came down the corduroy. He knew him as well as any of McLean's men. This was no timber-thief. No doubt the Boss had sent him with a message. Freckles sprang up and called cheerily, a warm welcome on his face.
"Well, it's good telling if you're glad to see me," said Wessner, with something very like a breath of relief. "We been hearing down at the camp you were so mighty touchy you didn't allow a man within a rod of the line."
"No more do I," answered Freckles, "if he's a stranger, but you're from McLean, ain't you?"
"Oh, damn McLean!" said Wessner.
Freckles gripped the cudgel until his knuckles slowly turned purple.
"And are you railly saying so?" he inquired with elaborate politeness.
"Yes, I am," said Wessner. "So would every man of the gang if they wasn't too big cowards to say anything, unless maybe that other slobbering old Scotchman, Duncan. Grinding the lives out of us! Working us like dogs, and paying us starvation wages, while he rolls up his millions and lives like a prince!"
Green lights began to play through the gray of Freckles' eyes.
"Wessner," he said impressively, "you'd make a fine pattern for the father of liars! Every man on that gang is strong and hilthy, paid all he earns, and treated with the courtesy of a gentleman! As for the Boss living like a prince, he shares fare with you every day of your lives!"
Wessner was not a born diplomat, but he saw he was on the wrong tack, so he tried another.
"How would you like to make a good big pile of money, without even lifting your hand?" he asked.
"Humph!" said Freckles. "Have you been up to Chicago and cornered wheat, and are you offering me a friendly tip on the invistment of me fortune?"
Wessner came close.
"Freckles, old fellow," he said, "if you let me give you a pointer, I can put you on to making a cool five hundred without stepping out of your tracks."
Freckles drew back.
"You needn't be afraid of speaking up," he said. "There isn't a soul in the Limberlost save the birds and the beasts, unless some of your sort's come along and's crowding the privileges of the legal tinints."
"None of my friends along," said Wessner. "Nobody knew I came but Black, I--I mean a friend of mine. If you want to hear sense and act with reason, he can see you later, but it ain't necessary. We can make all the plans needed. The trick's so dead small and easy."
"Must be if you have the engineering of it," said Freckles. But he heard, with a sigh of relief, that they were alone.
Wessner was impervious. "You just bet it is! Why, only think, Freckles, slavin' away at a measly little thirty dollars a month, and here is a chance to clear five hundred in a day! You surely won't be the fool to miss it!"
"And how was you proposing for me to stale it?" inquired Freckles. "Or am I just to find it laying in me path beside the line?"
"That's it, Freckles," blustered the Dutchman, "you're just to find it. You needn't do a thing. You needn't know a thing. You name a morning when you will walk up the west side of the swamp and then turn round and walk back down the same side again and the money is yours. Couldn't anything be easier than that, could it?"
"Depinds entirely on the man," said Freckles. The lilt of a lark hanging above the swale beside them was not sweeter than the sweetness of his voice. "To some it would seem to come aisy as breathing; and to some, wringin' the last drop of their heart's blood couldn't force thim! I'm not the man that goes into a scheme like that with the blindfold over me eyes, for, you see, it manes to break trust with the Boss; and I've served him faithful as I knew. You'll have to be making the thing very clear to me understanding."
"It's so dead easy," repeated Wessner, "it makes me tired of the simpleness of it. You see there's a few trees in the swamp that's real gold mines. There's three especial. Two are back in, but one's square on the line. Why, your pottering old Scotch fool of a Boss nailed the wire to it with his own hands! He never noticed where the bark had been peeled, or saw what it was. If you will stay on this side of the trail just one day we can have it cut, loaded, and ready to drive out at night. Next morning you can find it, report, and be the busiest man in the search for us. We know where to fix it all safe and easy. Then McLean has a bet up with a couple of the gang that there can't be a raw stump found in the Limberlost. There's plenty of witnesses to swear to it, and I know three that will. There's a cool thousand, and this tree is worth all of that, raw. Say, it's a gold mine, I tell you, and just five hundred of it is yours. There's no danger on earth to you, for you've got McLean that bamboozled you could sell out the whole swamp and he'd never mistrust you. What do you say?"
Freckles' soul was satisfied. "Is that all?" he asked.
"No, it ain't," said Wessner. "If you really want to brace up and be a man and go into the thing for keeps, you can make five times that in a week. My friend knows a dozen others we could get out in a few days, and all you'd have to do would be to keep out of sight. Then you could take your money and skip some night, and begin life like a gentleman somewhere else. What do you think about it?"
Freckles purred like a kitten.
"'Twould be a rare joke on the Boss," he said, "to be stalin' from him the very thing he's trusted me to guard, and be getting me wages all winter throwed in free. And you're making the pay awful high. Me to be getting five hundred for such a simple little thing as that. You're trating me most royal indade! It's away beyond all I'd be expecting. Sivinteen cints would be a big price for that job. It must be looked into thorough. Just you wait here until I do a minute's turn in the swamp, and then I'll be eschorting you out of the clearing and giving you the answer."
Freckles lifted the overhanging bushes and hurried to the case. He unslung the specimen-box and laid it inside with his hatchet and revolver. He slipped the key in his pocket and went back to Wessner.
"Now for the answer," he said. "Stand up!"
There was iron in his voice, and he was commanding as an outraged general. "Anything, you want to be taking off?" he questioned.
Wessner looked the astonishment he felt. "Why, no, Freckles," he said.
"Have the goodness to be calling me Mister McLean," snapped Freckles. "I'm after resarvin' me pet name for the use of me friends! You may stand with your back to the light or be taking any advantage you want."
"Why, what do you mean?" spluttered Wessner.
"I'm manin'," said Freckles tersely, "to lick a quarter-section of hell out of you, and may the Holy Vargin stay me before I leave you here carrion, for your carcass would turn the stummicks of me chickens!"
At the camp that morning, Wessner's conduct had been so palpable an excuse to force a discharge that Duncan moved near McLean and whispered, "Think of the boy, sir?"
McLean was so troubled that, an hour later, he mounted Nellie and followed Wessner to his home in Wildcat Hollow, only to find that he had left there shortly before, heading for the Limberlost. McLean rode at top speed. When Mrs. Duncan told him that a man answering Wessner's description had gone down the west side of the swamp close noon, he left the mare in her charge and followed on foot. When he heard voices he entered the swamp and silently crept close just in time to hear Wessner whine: "But I can't fight you, Freckles. I hain't done nothing to you. I'm away bigger than you, and you've only one hand."
The Boss slid off his coat and crouched among the bushes, ready to spring; but as Freckles' voice reached him he held himself, with a strong effort, to learn what mettle was in the boy.
"Don't you be wasting of me good time in the numbering of me hands," cried Freckles. "The stringth of me cause will make up for the weakness of me mimbers, and the size of a cowardly thief doesn't count. You'll think all the wildcats of the Limberlost are turned loose on you whin I come against you, and as for me cause----I slept with you, Wessner, the night I came down the corduroy like a dirty, friendless tramp, and the Boss was for taking me up, washing, clothing, and feeding me, and giving me a home full of love and tinderness, and a master to look to, and good, well-earned money in the bank. He's trusting me his heartful, and here comes you, you spotted toad of the big road, and insults me, as is an honest Irish gintleman, by hinting that you concaive I'd be willing to shut me eyes and hold fast while you rob him of the thing I was set and paid to guard, and then act the sneak and liar to him, and ruin and eternally blacken the soul of me. You damned rascal," raved Freckles, "be fighting before I forget the laws of a gintlemin's game and split your dirty head with me stick!"
Wessner backed away, mumbling, "But I don't want to hurt you, Freckles!"
"Oh, don't you!" raged the boy, now fairly frothing. "Well, you ain't resembling me none, for I'm itching like death to git me fingers in the face of you."
He danced up, and as Wessner lunged in self-defense, ducked under his arm as a bantam and punched him in the pit of the stomach so that he doubled with a groan. Before Wessner could straighten himself, Freckles was on him, fighting like the wildest fury that ever left the beautiful island. The Dutchman dealt thundering blows that sometimes landed and sent Freckles reeling, and sometimes missed, while he went plunging into the swale with the impetus of them. Freckles could not strike with half Wessner's force, but he could land three blows to the Dutchman's one. It was here that the boy's days of alert watching on the line, the perpetual swinging of the heavy cudgel, and the endurance of all weather stood him in good stead; for he was tough, and agile. He skipped, ducked, and dodged. For the first five minutes he endured fearful punishment. Then Wessner's breath commenced to whistle between his teeth, when Freckles only had begun fighting. He sprang back with shrill laughter.
"Begolly! and will your honor be whistling the hornpipe for me to be dancing of?" he cried.
Spang! went his fist into Wessner's face, and he was past him into the swale.
"And would you be pleased to tune up a little livelier?" he gasped, and clipped his ear as he sprang back. Wessner lunged at him in blind fury. Freckles, seeing an opening, forgot the laws of a gentleman's game and drove the toe of his heavy wading-boot in Wessner's middle until he doubled and fell heavily. In a flash Freckles was on him. For a time McLean could not see what was happening. "Go! Go to him now!" he commanded himself, but so intense was his desire to see the boy win alone that he did not stir.
At last Freckles sprang up and backed away. "Time!" he yelled as a fury. "Be getting up, Mr. Wessner, and don't be afraid of hurting me. I'll let you throw in an extra hand and lick you to me complate satisfaction all the same. Did you hear me call the limit? Will you get up and be facing me?"
As Wessner struggled to his feet, he resembled a battlefield, for his clothing was in ribbons and his face and hands streaming blood.
"I--I guess I got enough," he mumbled.
"Oh, you do?" roared Freckles. "Well this ain't your say. You come on to me ground, lying about me Boss and intimatin' I'd stale from his very pockets. Now will you be standing up and taking your medicine like a man, or getting it poured down the throat of you like a baby? I ain't got enough! This is only just the beginning with me. Be looking out there!"
He sprang against Wessner and sent him rolling. He attacked the unresisting figure and fought him until he lay limp and quiet and Freckles had no strength left to lift an arm. Then he arose and stepped back, gasping for breath. With his first lungful of air he shouted: "Time!" But the figure of Wessner lay motionless.
Freckles watched him with regardful eye and saw at last that he was completely exhausted. He bent over him, and catching him by the back of the neck, jerked him to his knees. Wessner lifted the face of a whipped cur, and fearing further punishment, burst into shivering sobs, while the tears washed tiny rivulets through the blood and muck. Freckles stepped back, glaring at Wessner, but suddenly the scowl of anger and the ugly disfiguring red faded from the boy's face. He dabbed at a cut on his temple from which issued a tiny crimson stream, and jauntily shook back his hair. His face took on the innocent look of a cherub, and his voice rivaled that of a brooding dove, but into his eyes crept a look of diabolical mischief.
He glanced vaguely around him until he saw his club, seized and twirled it as a drum major, stuck it upright in the muck, and marched on tiptoe to Wessner, mechanically, as a puppet worked by a string. Bending over, Freckles reached an arm around Wessner's waist and helped him to his feet.
"Careful, now" he cautioned, "be careful, Freddy; there's danger of you hurting me."
Drawing a handkerchief from a back pocket, Freckles tenderly wiped Wessner's eyes and nose.
"Come, Freddy, me child," he admonished Wessner, "it's time little boys were going home. I've me work to do, and can't be entertaining you any more today. Come back tomorrow, if you ain't through yet, and we'll repate the perfarmance. Don't be staring at me so wild like! I would eat you, but I can't afford it. Me earnings, being honest, come slow, and I've no money to be squanderin' on the pailful of Dyspeptic's Delight it would be to taking to work you out of my innards!"
Again an awful wrenching seized McLean. Freckles stepped back as Wessner, tottering and reeling, as a thoroughly drunken man, came toward the path, appearing indeed as if wildcats had attacked him.
The cudgel spun high in air, and catching it with an expertness acquired by long practice on the line, the boy twirled it a second, shook back his thick hair bonnily, and stepping into the trail, followed Wessner. Because Freckles was Irish, it was impossible to do it silently, so presently his clear tenor rang out, though there were bad catches where he was hard pressed for breath:
"It was the Dutch. It was the Dutch. Do you think it was the Irish hollered help? Not much! It was the Dutch. It was the Dutch----"
Wessner turned and mumbled: "What you following me for? What are you going to do with me?"
Freckles called the Limberlost to witness: "How's that for the ingratitude of a beast? And me troubling mesilf to show him off me territory with the honors of war!"
Then he changed his tone completely and added: "Belike it's this, Freddy. You see, the Boss might come riding down this trail any minute, and the little mare's so wheedlesome that if she'd come on to you in your prisint state all of a sudden, she'd stop that short she'd send Mr. McLean out over the ears of her. No disparagement intinded to the sinse of the mare!" he added hastily.
Wessner belched a fearful oath, while Freckles laughed merrily.
"That's a sample of the thanks a generous act's always for getting," he continued. "Here's me negictin' me work to eschort you out proper, and you saying such awful words Freddy," he demanded sternly, "do you want me to soap out your mouth? You don't seem to be realizing it, but if you was to buck into Mr. McLean in your prisint state, without me there to explain matters the chance is he'd cut the liver out of you; and I shouldn't think you'd be wanting such a fine gintleman as him to see that it's white!"
Wessner grew ghastly under his grime and broke into a staggering run.
"And now will you be looking at the manners of him?" questioned Freckles plaintively. "Going without even a `thank you,' right in the face of all the pains I've taken to make it interesting for him!"
Freckles twirled the club and stood as a soldier at attention until Wessner left the clearing, but it was the last scene of that performance. When the boy turned, there was deathly illness on his face, while his legs wavered beneath his weight. He staggered to the case, and opening it he took out a piece of cloth. He dipped it into the water, and sitting on a bench, he wiped the blood and grime from his face, while his breath sucked between his clenched teeth. He was shivering with pain and excitement in spite of himself. He unbuttoned the band of his right sleeve, and turning it back, exposed the blue-lined, calloused whiteness of his maimed arm, now vividly streaked with contusions, while in a series of circular dots the blood oozed slowly. Here Wessner had succeeded in setting his teeth. When Freckles saw what it was he forgave himself the kick in the pit of Wessner's stomach, and cursed fervently and deep.
"Freckles, Freckles," said McLean's voice.
Freckles snatched down his sleeve and arose to his feet.
"Excuse me, sir," he said. "You'll surely be belavin' I thought meself alone."
McLean pushed him carefully to the seat, and bending over him, opened a pocket-case that he carried as regularly as his revolver and watch, for cuts and bruises were of daily occurrence among the gang.
Taking the hurt arm, he turned back the sleeve and bathed and bound the wounds. He examined Freckles' head and body and convinced himself that there was no permanent injury, although the cruelty of the punishment the boy had borne set the Boss shuddering. Then he closed the case, shoved it into his pocket, and sat beside Freckles. All the indescribable beauty of the place was strong around him, but he saw only the bruised face of the suffering boy, who had hedged for the information he wanted as a diplomat, argued as a judge, fought as a sheik, and triumphed as a devil.
When the pain lessened and breath reieved Freckles' pounding heart, he watched the Boss covertly. How had McLean gotten there and how long had he been there? Freckles did not dare ask. At last he arose, and going to the case, took out his revolver and the wire- mending apparatus and locked the door. Then he turned to McLean.
"Have you any orders, sir?" he asked.
"Yes," said McLean, "I have, and you are to follow them to the letter. Turn over that apparatus to me and go straight home. Soak yourself in the hottest bath your skin will bear and go to bed at once. Now hurry."
"Mr. McLean," said Freckles, "it's sorry I am to be telling you, but the afternoon's walking of the line ain't done. You see, I was just for getting to me feet to start, and I was on time, when up came a gintleman, and we got into a little heated argument. It's either settled, or it's just begun, but between us, I'm that late I haven't started for the afternoon yet. I must be going at once, for there's a tree I must find before the day's over."
"You plucky little idiot," growled McLean. "You can't walk the line! I doubt if you can reach Duncan's. Don't you know when you are done up? You go to bed; I'll finish your work."
"Niver!" protested Freckles. "I was just a little done up for the prisint, a minute ago. I'm all right now. Riding-boots are far too low. The day's hot and the walk a good seven miles, sir. Niver!"
As he reached for the outfit he pitched forward and his eyes closed. McLean stretched him on the moss and applied restoratives. When Freckles returned to consciousness, McLean ran to the cabin to tell Mrs. Duncan to have a hot bath ready, and to bring Nellie. That worthy woman promptly filled the wash-boiler, starting a roaring fire under it. She pushed the horse-trough from its base and rolled it to the kitchen.
By the time McLean came again, leading Nelie and holding Freckles on her back, Mrs. Duncan was ready for business. She and the Boss laid Freckles in the trough and poured on hot water until he squirmed. They soaked and massaged him. Then they drew off the hot water and closed his pores with cold. Lastly they stretched him on the floor and chafed, rubbed, and kneaded him until he cried out for mercy. As they rolled him into bed, his eyes dropped shut, but a little later they flared open.
"Mr. McLean," he cried, "the tree! Oh, do be looking after the tree!"
McLean bent over him. "Which tree, Freckles?"
"I don't know exact" sir; but it's on the east line, and the wire is fastened to it. He bragged that you nailed it yourself, sir. You'll know it by the bark having been laid open to the grain somewhere low down. Five hundred dollars he offered me--to be-- selling you out--sir!"
Freckles' head rolled over and his eyes dropped shut. McLean towered above the lad. His bright hair waved on the pillow. His face was swollen, and purple with bruises. His left arm, with the hand battered almost out of shape, stretched beside him, and the right, with no hand at all, lay across a chest that was a mass of purple welts. McLean's mind traveled to the night, almost a year before, when he had engaged Freckles, a stranger.
The Boss bent, covering the hurt arm with one hand and laying the other with a caress on the boy's forehead. Freckles stirred at his touch, and whispered as softly as the swallows under the eaves: "If you're coming this way--tomorrow--be pleased to step over-- and we'll repate--the chorus softly!"
"Bless the gritty devil," muttered McLean.
Then he went out and told Mrs. Duncan to keep close watch on Freckles, also to send Duncan to him at the swamp the minute he came home. Following the trail to the line and back to the scent of the fight, the Boss entered Freckles' study quietly, as if his spirit, keeping there, might be roused, and gazed around with astonished eyes.
How had the boy conceived it? What a picture he had wrought in living colors! He had the heart of a painter. He had the soul of a poet. The Boss stepped carefully over the velvet carpet to touch the walls of crisp verdure with gentle fingers. He stood long beside the flower bed, and gazed at the banked wall of bright bloom as if he doubted its reality.
Where had Freckles ever found, and how had he transplanted such ferns? As McLean turned from them he stopped suddenly.
He had reached the door of the cathedral. That which Freckles had attempted would have been patent to anyone. What had been in the heart of the shy, silent boy when he had found that long, dim stretch of forest, decorated its entrance, cleared and smoothed its aisle, and carpeted its altar? What veriest work of God was in these mighty living pillars and the arched dome of green! How similar to stained cathedral windows were the long openings between the trees, filled with rifts of blue, rays of gold, and the shifting emerald of leaves! Where could be found mosaics to match this aisle paved with living color and glowing light? Was Freckles a devout Christian, and did he worship here? Or was he an untaught heathen, and down this vista of entrancing loveliness did Pan come piping, and dryads, nymphs, and fairies dance for him?
Who can fathom the heart of a boy? McLean had been thinking of Freckles as a creature of unswerving honesty, courage, and faithfulness. Here was evidence of a heart aching for beauty, art, companionship, worship. It was writ large all over the floor, walls, and furnishing of that little Limberlost clearing.
When Duncan came, McLean told him the story of the fight, and they laughed until they cried. Then they started around the line in search of the tree.
Said Duncan: "Now the boy is in for sore trouble!"
"I hope not," answered McLean. "You never in all your life saw a cur whipped so completely. He won't come back for the repetition of the chorus. We surely can find the tree. If we can't, Freckles can. I will bring enough of the gang to take it out at once. That will insure peace for a time, at least, and I am hoping that in a month more the whole gang may be moved here. It soon will be fall, and then, if he will go, I intend to send Freckles to my mother to be educated. With his quickness of mind and body and a few years' good help he can do anything. Why, Duncan, I'd give a hundred- dollar bill if you could have been here and seen for yourself."
"Yes, and I'd `a' done murder," muttered the big teamster. "I hope, sir, ye will make good your plans for Freckles, though I'd as soon see ony born child o' my ain taken from our home. We love the lad, me and Sarah."
Locating the tree was easy, because it was so well identified. When the rumble of the big lumber wagons passing the cabin on the way to the swamp wakened Freckles next morning, he sprang up and was soon following them. He was so sore and stiff that every movement was torture at first, but he grew easier, and shortly did not suffer so much. McLean scolded him for coming, yet in his heart triumphed over every new evidence of fineness in the boy.
The tree was a giant maple, and so precious that they almost dug it out by the roots. When it was down, cut in lengths, and loaded, there was yet an empty wagon. As they were gathering up their tools to go, Duncan said: "There's a big hollow tree somewhere mighty close here that I've been wanting for a watering-trough for my stock; the one I have is so small. The Portland company cut this for elm butts last year, and it's six feet diameter and hollow for forty feet. It was a buster! While the men are here and there is an empty wagon, why mightn't I load it on and tak' it up to the barn as we pass?"
McLean said he was very willing, ordered the driver to break line and load the log, detailing men to assist. He told Freckles to ride on a section of the maple with him, but now the boy asked to enter the swamp with Duncan.
"I don't see why you want to go," said McLean. "I have no business to let you out today at all."
"It's me chickens," whispered Freckles in distress. "You see, I was just after finding yesterday, from me new book, how they do be nesting in hollow trees, and there ain't any too many in the swamp. There's just a chance that they might be in that one."
"Go ahead," said McLean. "That's a different story. If they happen to be there, why tell Duncan he must give up the tree until they have finished with it."
Then he climbed on a wagon and was driven away. Freckles hurried into the swamp. He was a little behind, yet he could see the men. Before he overtook them, they had turned from the west road and had entered the swamp toward the east.
They stopped at the trunk of a monstrous prostrate log. It had been cut three feet from the ground, over three-fourths of the way through, and had fallen toward the east, the body of the log still resting on the stump. The underbrush was almost impenetrable, but Duncan plunged in and with a crowbar began tapping along the trunk to decide how far it was hollow, so that they would know where to cut. As they waited his decision, there came from the mouth of it--on wings--a large black bird that swept over their heads.
Freckles danced wildly. "It's me chickens! Oh, it's me chickens!" he shouted. "Oh, Duncan, come quick! You've found the nest of me precious chickens!"
Duncan hurried to the mouth of the log, but Freckles was before him. He crashed through poison-vines and underbrush regardless of any danger, and climbed on the stump. When Duncan came he was shouting like a wild man.
"It's hatched!" he yelled. "Oh, me big chicken has hatched out me little chicken, and there's another egg. I can see it plain, and oh, the funny little white baby! Oh, Duncan, can you see me little white chicken?"
Duncan could easily see it; so could everyone else. Freckles crept into the log and tenderly carried the hissing, blinking little bird to the light in a leaf-lined hat. The men found it sufficiently wonderful to satisfy even Freckles, who had forgotten he was ever sore or stiff, and coddled over it with every blarneying term of endearment he knew.
Duncan gathered his tools. "Deal's off, boys!" he said cheerfully. "This log mauna be touched until Freckles' chaukies have finished with it. We might as weel gang. Better put it back, Freckles. It's just out, and it may chill. Ye will probably hae twa the morn."
Freckles crept into the log and carefully deposited the baby beside the egg. When he came back, he said: "I made a big mistake not to be bringing the egg out with the baby, but I was fearing to touch it. It's shaped like a hen's egg, and it's big as a turkey's, and the beautifulest blue--just splattered with big brown splotches, like me book said, precise. Bet you never saw such a sight as it made on the yellow of the rotten wood beside that funny leathery-faced little white baby."
"Tell you what, Freckles," said one of the teamsters. "Have you ever heard of this Bird Woman who goes all over the country with a camera and makes pictures? She made some on my brother Jim's place last summer, and Jim's so wild about them he quits plowing and goes after her about every nest he finds. He helps her all he can to take them, and then she gives him a picture. Jim's so proud of what he has he keeps them in the Bible. He shows them to everybody that comes, and brags about how he helped. If you're smart, you'll send for her and she'll come and make a picture just like life. If you help her, she will give you one. It would be uncommon pretty to keep, after your birds are gone. I dunno what they are. I never see their like before. They must be something rare. Any you fellows ever see a bird like that hereabouts?"
No one ever had.
"Well," said the teamster, "failing to get this log lets me off till noon, and I'm going to town. I go right past her place. I've a big notion to stop and tell her. If she drives straight back in the swamp on the west road, and turns east at this big sycamore, she can't miss finding the tree, even if Freckles ain't here to show her. Jim says her work is a credit to the State she lives in, and any man is a measly creature who isn't willing to help her all he can. My old daddy used to say that all there was to religion was doing to the other fellow what you'd want him to do to you, and if I was making a living taking bird pictures, seems to me I'd be mighty glad for a chance to take one like that. So I'll just stop and tell her, and by gummy! maybe she will give me a picture of the little white sucker for my trouble."
Freckles touched his arm.
"Will she be rough with it?" he asked.
"Government land! No!" said the teamster. "She's dead down on anybody that shoots a bird or tears up a nest. Why, she's half killing herself in all kinds of places and weather to teach people to love and protect the birds. She's that plum careful of them that Jim's wife says she has Jim a standin' like a big fool holding an ombrelly over them when they are young and tender until she gets a focus, whatever that is. Jim says there ain't a bird on his place that don't actually seem to like having her around after she has wheedled them a few days, and the pictures she takes nobody would ever believe who didn't stand by and see."
"Will you he sure to tell her to come?" asked Freckles.
Duncan slept at home that night. He heard Freckles slipping out early the next morning, but he was too sleepy to wonder why, until he came to do his morning chores. When he found that none of his stock was at all thirsty, and saw the water-trough brimming, he knew that the boy was trying to make up to him for the loss of the big trough that he had been so anxious to have.
"Bless his fool little hot heart!" said Duncan. "And him so sore it is tearing him to move for anything. Nae wonder he has us all loving him!"
Freckles was moving briskly, and his heart was so happy that he forgot all about the bruises. He hurried around the trail, and on his way down the east side he went to see the chickens. The mother bird was on the nest. He was afraid the other egg might be hatching, so he did not venture to disturb her. He made the round and reached his study early. He ate his lunch, but did not need to start on the second trip until the middle of the afternoon. He would have long hours to work on his flower bed, improve his study, and learn about his chickens. Lovingly he set his room in order and watered the flowers and carpet. He had chosen for his resting-place the coolest spot on the west side, where there was almost always a breeze; but today the heat was so intense that it penetrated even there.
"I'm mighty glad there's nothing calling me inside!" he said. "There's no bit of air stirring, and it will just be steaming. Oh, but it's luck Duncan found the nest before it got so unbearing hot! I might have missed it altogether. Wouldn't it have been a shame to lose that sight? The cunning little divil! When he gets to toddling down that log to meet me, won't he be a circus? Wonder if he'll be as graceful a performer afoot as his father and mother?"
The heat became more insistent. Noon came; Freckles ate his dinner and settled for an hour or two on a bench with a book.