Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter VI. Wherein a Fight Occurs and Women Shoot Straight
The following morning Freckles, inexpressibly happy, circled the Limberlost. He kept snatches of song ringing, as well as the wires. His heart was so full that tears of joy glistened in his eyes. He rigorously strove to divide his thought evenly between McLean and the Angel. He realized to the fullest the debt he already owed the Boss and the magnitude of last night's declaration and promises. He was hourly planning to deliver his trust and then enter with equal zeal on whatever task his beloved Boss saw fit to set him next. He wanted to be ready to meet every device that Wessner and Black Jack could think of to outwit him. He recognized their double leverage, for if they succeeded in felling even one tree McLean became liable for his wager.
Freckles' brow wrinkled in his effort to think deeply and strongly, but from every swaying wild rose the Angel beckoned to him. When he crossed Sleepy Snake Creek and the goldfinch, waiting as ever, challenged: "See me?" Freckles saw the dainty swaying grace of the Angel instead. What is a man to do with an Angel who dismembers herself and scatters over a whole swamp, thrusting a vivid reminder upon him at every turn?
Freckles counted the days. This first one he could do little but test his wires, sing broken snatches, and dream; but before the week would bring her again he could do many things. He would carry all his books to the swamp to show to her. He would complete his flower bed, arrange every detail he had planned for his room, and make of it a bower fairies might envy. He must devise a way to keep water cool. He would ask Mrs. Duncan for a double lunch and an especially nice one the day of her next coming, so that if the Bird Woman happened to be late, the Angel might not suffer from thirst and hunger. He would tell her to bring heavy leather leggings, so that he might take her on a trip around the trail. She should make friends with all of his chickens and see their nests.
On the line he talked of her incessantly.
"You needn't be thinking," he said to the goldfinch, "that because I'm coming down this line alone day after day, it's always to be so. Some of these times you'll be swinging on this wire, and you'll see me coming, and you'll swing, skip, and flirt yourself around, and chip up right spunky: `See me?' I'll be saying `See you? Oh, Lord! See her!' You'll look, and there she'll stand. The sunshine won't look gold any more, or the roses pink, or the sky blue, because she'll be the pinkest, bluest, goldest thing of all. You'll be yelling yourself hoarse with the jealousy of her. The sawbird will stretch his neck out of joint, and she'll turn the heads of all the flowers. Wherever she goes, I can go back afterward and see the things she's seen, walk the path she's walked, hear the grasses whispering over all she's said; and if there's a place too swampy for her bits of feet; Holy Mother! Maybe--maybe she'd be putting the beautiful arms of her around me neck and letting me carry her over!"
Freckles shivered as with a chill. He sent the cudgel whirling skyward, dexterously caught it, and set it spinning.
"You damned presumptuous fool!" he cried. "The thing for you to be thinking of would be to stretch in the muck for the feet of her to be walking over, and then you could hold yourself holy to be even of that service to her.
"Maybe she'll be wanting the cup me blue-and-brown chickens raised their babies in. Perhaps she'd like to stop at the pool and see me bullfrog that had the goodness to take on human speech to show me the way out of me trouble. If there's any feathers falling that day, why, it's from the wings of me chickens--it's sure to be, for the only Angel outside the gates will be walking this timberline, and every step of the way I'll be holding me breath and praying that she don't unfold wings and sail away before the hungry eyes of me."
So Freckles dreamed his dreams, made his plans, and watched his line. He counted not only the days, but the hours of each day. As he told them off, every one bringing her closer, he grew happier in the prospect of her coming. He managed daily to leave some offering at the big elm log for his black chickens. He slipped under the line at every passing, and went to make sure that nothing was molesting them. Though it was a long trip, he paid them several extra visits a day for fear a snake, hawk, or fox might have found the baby. For now his chickens not only represented all his former interest in them, but they furnished the inducement that was bringing his Angel.
Possibly he could find other subjects that the Bird Woman wanted. The teamster had said that his brother went after her every time he found a nest. He never had counted the nests that he knew of, and it might be that among all the birds of the swamp some would be rare to her.
The feathered folk of the Limberlost were practically undisturbed save by their natural enemies. It was very probable that among his chickens others as odd as the big black ones could be found. If she wanted pictures of half-grown birds, he could pick up fifty in one morning's trip around the line, for he had fed, handled, and made friends with them ever since their eyes opened.
He had gathered bugs and worms all spring as he noticed them on the grass and bushes, and dropped them into the first little open mouth he had found. The babies gladly had accepted this queer tri-parent addition to their natural providers.
When the week had passed, Freckles had his room crisp and glowing with fresh living things that represented every color of the swamp. He carried bark and filled all the muckiest places of the trail.
It was middle July. The heat of the past few days had dried the water around and through the Limberlost, so that it was possible to cross it on foot in almost any direction--if one had an idea of direction and did not become completely lost in its rank tangle of vegetation and bushes. The brighter-hued flowers were opening. The trumpet-creepers were flaunting their gorgeous horns of red and gold sweetness from the tops of lordly oak and elm, and below entire pools were pink-sheeted in mallow bloom.
The heat was doing one other thing that was bound to make Freckles, as a good Irishman, shiver. As the swale dried, its inhabitants were seeking the cooler depths of the swamp. They liked neither the heat nor leaving the field mice, moles, and young rabbits of their chosen location. He saw them crossing the trail every day as the heat grew intense. The rattlers were sadly forgetting their manners, for they struck on no provocation whatever, and did not even remember to rattle afterward. Daily Freckles was compelled to drive big black snakes and blue racers from the nests of his chickens. Often the terrified squalls of the parent birds would reach him far down the line and he would run to rescue the babies.
He saw the Angel when the carriage turned from the corduroy into the clearing. They stopped at the west entrance to the swamp, waiting for him to precede them down the trail, as he had told them it was safest for the horse that he should do. They followed the east line to a point opposite the big chickens' tree, and Freckles carried in the cameras and showed the Bird Woman a path he had cleared to the log. He explained to her the effect the heat was having on the snakes, and creeping back to Little Chicken, brought him to the light. As she worked at setting up her camera, he told her of the birds of the line, while she stared at him, wide-eyed and incredulous.
They arranged that Freckles should drive the carriage into the east entrance in the shade and then take the horse toward the north to a better place he knew. Then he was to entertain the Angel at his study or on the line until the Bird Woman finished her work and came to them.
"This will take only a little time," she said. "I know where to set the camera now, and Little Chicken is big enough to be good and too small to run away or to act very ugly, so I will be coming soon to see about those nests. I have ten plates along, and I surely won't use more than two on him; so perhaps I can get some nests or young birds this morning."
Freckles almost flew, for his dream had come true so soon. He was walking the timber-line and the Angel was following him. He asked to be excused for going first, because he wanted to be sure the trail was safe for her. She laughed at his fears, telling him that it was the polite thing for him to do, anyway.
"Oh!" said Freckles, "so you was after knowing that? Well, I didn't s'pose you did, and I was afraid you'd think me wanting in respect to be preceding you!"
The astonished Angel looked at him, caught the irrepressible gleam of Irish fun in his eyes, so they stood and laughed together.
Freckles did not realize how he was talking that morning. He showed her many of the beautiful nests and eggs of the line. She could identify a number of them, but of some she was ignorant, so they made notes of the number and color of the eggs, material, and construction of nest, color, size, and shape of the birds, and went to find them in the book.
At his room, when Freckles had lifted the overhanging bushes and stepped back for her to enter, his heart was all out of time and place. The study was vastly more beautiful than a week previous. The Angel drew a deep breath and stood gazing first at one side, then at another, then far down the cathedral aisle. "It's just fairyland!" she cried ecstatically. Then she turned and stared at Freckles as she had at his handiwork.
"What are you planning to be?" she asked wonderingly.
"Whatever Mr. McLean wants me to," he replied.
"What do you do most?" she asked.
"Watch me lines."
"I don't mean work!"
"Oh, in me spare time I keep me room and study in me books."
"Do you work on the room or the books most?"
"On the room only what it takes to keep it up, and the rest of the time on me books."
The Angel studied him closely. "Well, maybe you are going to be a great scholar," she said, "but you don't look it. Your face isn't right for that, but it's got something big in it--something really great. I must find out what it is and then you must work on it. Your father is expecting you to do something. One can tell by the way he talks. You should begin right away. You've wasted too much time already."
Poor Freckles hung his head. He never had wasted an hour in his life. There never had been one that was his to waste.
The Angel, studying him intently, read the thought in his face. "Oh, I don't mean that!" she cried, with the frank dismay of sixteen. "Of course, you're not lazy! No one ever would think that from your appearance. It's this I mean: there is something fine, strong, and full of power in your face. There is something you are to do in this world, and no matter how you work at all these other things, or how successfully you do them, it is all wasted until you find the one thing that you can do best. If you hadn't a thing in the world to keep you, and could go anywhere you please and do anything you want, what would you do?" persisted the Angel.
"I'd go to Chicago and sing in the First Episcopal choir," answered Freckles promptly.
The Angel dropped on a seat--the hat she had removed and held in her fingers rolled to her feet. "There!" she exclaimed vehemently. "You can see what I'm going to be. Nothing! Absolutely nothing! You can sing? Of course you can sing! It is written all over you."
"Anyone with half wit could have seen he could sing, without having to be told," she thought. "It's in the slenderness of his fingers and his quick nervous touch. It is in the brightness of his hair, the fire of his eyes, the breadth of his chest, the muscles of his throat and neck; and above all, it's in every tone of his voice, for even as he speak it's the sweetest sound I ever heard from the throat of a mortal."
"Will you do something for me?" she asked.
"I'll do anything in the world you want me to," said Freckles largely, "and if I can't do what you want, I'll go to work at once and I'll try `til I can."
"Good! That's business!" said the Angel. "You go over there and stand before that hedge and sing something. Just anything you think of first."
Freckles faced the Angel from his banked wall of brown, blue, and crimson, with its background of solid green, and lifting his face to the sky, he sang the first thing that came into his mind. It was a children's song that he had led for the little folks at the Home many times, recalled to his mind by the Angel's exclamation:
"To fairyland we go, With a song of joy, heigh-o. In dreams we'll stand upon that shore And all the realm behold; We'll see the sights so grand That belong to fairyland, Its mysteries we will explore, Its beauties will unfold.
Oh, tra, la, la, oh, ha, ha, ha! We're happy now as we can be, Our welcome song we will prolong, and greet you with our melody. O fairyland, sweet fairyland, we love to sing----"
No song could have given the intense sweetness and rollicking quality of Freckles' voice better scope. He forgot everything but pride in his work. He was singing the chorus, and the Angel was shivering in ecstasy, when clip! clip! came the sharply beating feet of a swiftly ridden horse down the trail from the north. They both sprang toward the entrance.
"Freckles! Freckles!" called the voice of the Bird Woman.
They were at the trail on the instant.
"Both those revolvers loaded?" she asked.
"Yes," said Freckles.
"Is there a way you can cut across the swamp and reach the chicken tree in a few minutes, and with little noise?"
"Then go flying," said the Bird Woman. "Give the Angel a lift behind me, and we will ride the horse back where you left him and wait for you. I finished Little Chicken in no time and put him back. His mother came so close, I felt sure she would enter the log. The light was fine, so I set and focused the camera and covered it with branches, attached the long hose, and went away over a hundred feet and hid in some bushes to wait. A short, stout man and a tall, dark one passed me so closely I almost could have reached out and touched them. They carried a big saw on their shoulders. They said they could work until near noon, and then they must lay off until you passed and then try to load and get out at night. They went on--not entirely from sight--and began cutting a tree. Mr. McLean told me the other day what would probably happen here, and if they fell that tree he loses his wager on you. Keep to the east and north and hustle. We'll meet you at the carriage. I always am armed. Give Angel one of your revolvers, and you keep the other. We will separate and creep toward them from different sides and give them a fusillade that will send them flying. You hurry, now!"
She lifted the reins and started briskly down the trail. The Angel, hatless and with sparkling eyes, was clinging around her waist.
Freckles wheeled and ran. He worked his way with much care, dodging limbs and bushes with noiseless tread, and cutting as closely where he thought the men were as he felt that he dared if he were to remain unseen. As he ran he tried to think. It was Wessner, burning for his revenge, aided by the bully of the locality, that he was going to meet. He was accustomed to that thought but not to the complication of having two women on his hands who undoubtedly would have to be taken care of in spite of the Bird Woman's offer to help him. His heart was jarring as it never had before with running. He must follow the Bird Woman's plan and meet them at the carriage, but if they really did intend to try to help him, he must not allow it. Allow the Angel to try to handle a revolver in his defence? Never! Not for all the trees in the Limberlost! She might shoot herself. She might forget to watch sharply and run across a snake that was not particularly well behaved that morning. Freckles permitted himself a grim smile as he went speeding on.
When he reached the carriage, the Bird Woman and the Angel had the horse hitched, the outfit packed, and were calmly waiting. The Bird Woman held a revolver in her hand. She wore dark clothing. They had pinned a big focusing cloth over the front of the Angel's light dress.
"Give Angel one of your revolvers, quick!" said the Bird Woman. "We will creep up until we are in fair range. The underbrush is so thick and they are so busy that they will never notice us, if we don't make a noise. You fire first, then I will pop in from my direction, and then you, Angel, and shoot quite high, or else very low. We mustn't really hit them. We'll go close enough to the cowards to make it interesting, and keep it up until we have them going."
The Bird Woman reached over, and, taking the smaller revolver from his belt, handed it to the Angel. "Keep your nerve steady, dear; watch where you step, and shoot high," she said. "Go straight at them from where you are. Wait until you hear Freckles' first shot, then follow me as closely as you can, to let them know that we outnumber them. If you want to save McLean's wager on you, now you go!" she commanded Freckles, who, with an agonized glance at the Angel, ran toward the east.
The Bird Woman chose the middle distance, and for a last time cautioned the Angel as she moved away to lie down and shoot high.
Through the underbrush the Bird Woman crept even more closely than she had intended, found a clear range, and waited for Freckles' shot. There was one long minute of sickening suspense. The men straightened for breath. Work was difficult with a handsaw in the heat of the swamp. As they rested, the big dark fellow took a bottle from his pocket and began oiling the saw.
"We got to keep mighty quiet," he said, "and wait to fell it until that damned guard has gone to his dinner."
Again they bent to their work. Freckles' revolver spat fire. Lead spanged on steel. The saw-handle flew from Wessner's hand and he reeled from the jar of the shock. Black Jack straightened, uttering a fearful oath. The hat sailed from his head from the far northeast. The Angel had not waited for the Bird Woman, and her shot scarcely could have been called high. At almost the same instant the third shot whistled from the east. Black Jack sprang into the air with a yell of complete panic, for it ripped a heel from his boot. Freckles emptied his second chamber, and the earth spattered over Wessner. Shots poured in rapidly. Without even reaching for a weapon, both men ran toward the east road in great leaping bounds, while leaden slugs sung and hissed around them in deadly earnest.
Freckles was trimming his corners as closely as he dared, but if the Angel did not really intend to hit, she was taking risks in a scandalous manner.
When the men reached the trail, Freckles yelled at the top of his voice: "Head them off on the south, boys! Fire from the south!"
As he had hoped, Jack and Wessner instantly plunged into the swale. A spattering of lead followed them. They crossed the swale, running low, with not even one backward glance, and entered the woods beyond the corduroy.
Then the little party gathered at the tree.
"I'd better fix this saw so they can't be using it if they come back," said Freckles, taking out his hatchet and making saw-teeth fly.
"Now we must leave here without being seen," said the Bird Woman to the Angel. "It won't do for me to make enemies of these men, for I am likely to meet them while at work any day."
"You can do it by driving straight north on this road," said Freckles. "I will go ahead and cut the wires for you. The swale is almost dry. You will only be sinking a little. In a few rods you will strike a cornfield. I will take down the fence and let you into that. Follow the furrows and drive straight across it until you come to the other side. Be following the fence south until you come to a road through the woods east of it. Then take that road and follow east until you reach the pike. You will come out on your way back to town, and two miles north of anywhere they are likely to be. Don't for your lives ever let it out that you did this," he earnestly cautioned, "for it's black enemies you would be making."
Freckles clipped the wires and they drove through. The Angel leaned from the carriage and held out his revolver. Freckles looked at her in surprise. Her eyes were black, while her face was a deeper rose than usual. He felt that his own was white.
"Did I shoot high enough?" she asked sweetly. "I really forgot about lying down."
Freckles winced. Did the child know how close she had gone? Surely she could not! Or was it possible that she had the nerve and skill to fire like that purposely?
"I will send the first reliable man I meet for McLean," said the Bird Woman, gathering up the lines. "If I don't meet one when we reach town, we will send a messenger. If it wasn't for having the gang see me, I would go myself; but I will promise you that you will have help in a little over two hours. You keep well hidden. They must think some of the gang is with you now. There isn't a chance that they will be back, but don't run any risks. Remain under cover. If they should come, it probably would be for their saw." She laughed as at a fine joke.