A Girl Of The Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter VII. Wherein Mrs. Comstock Manipulates Margaret and Billy Acquires a Residence
Saturday morning Elnora helped her mother with the work. When she had finished Mrs. Comstock told her to go to Sintons' and wash her Indian relics, so that she would be ready to accompany Wesley to town in the afternoon. Elnora hurried down the road and was soon at the cistern with a tub busily washing arrow points, stone axes, tubes, pipes, and skin-cleaning implements.
Then she went home, dressed and was waiting when the carriage reached the gate. She stopped at the bank with the box, and Sinton went to do his marketing and some shopping for his wife.
At the dry goods store Mr. Brownlee called to him, "Hello, Sinton! How do you like the fate of your lunch box?" Then he began to laugh--
"I always hate to see a man laughing alone," said Sinton. It looks so selfish! Tell me the fun, and let me help you."
Mr. Brownlee wiped his eyes.
"I supposed you knew, but I see she hasn't told."
Then the three days' history of the lunch box was repeated with particulars which included the dog.
"Now laugh!" concluded Mr. Brownlee.
"Blest if I see anything funny!" replied Wesley Sinton. "And if you had bought that box and furnished one of those lunches yourself, you wouldn't either. I call such a work a shame! I'll have it stopped."
"Some one must see to that, all right. They are little leeches. Their father earns enough to support them, but they have no mother, and they run wild. I suppose they are crazy for cooked food. But it is funny, and when you think it over you will see it, if you don't now."
"About where would a body find that father?" inquired Wesley Sinton grimly. Mr. Brownlee told him and he started, locating the house with little difficulty. House was the proper word, for of home there was no sign. Just a small empty house with three unkept little children racing through and around it. The girl and the elder boy hung back, but dirty little Billy greeted Sinton with: "What you want here?"
"I want to see your father," said Sinton.)
"Well, he's asleep," said Billy.
"Where?" asked Sinton.
"In the house," answered Billy, "and you can't wake him."
"Well, I'll try," said Wesley.
Billy led the way. "There he is!" he said. "He is drunk again."
On a dirty mattress in a corner lay a man who appeared to be strong and well. Billy was right. You could not awake him. He had gone the limit, and a little beyond.
He was now facing eternity. Sinton went out and closed the door.
"Your father is sick and needs help," he said. "You stay here, and I will send a man to see him."
"If you just let him 'lone, he'll sleep it off," volunteered Billy. "He's that way all the time, but he wakes up and gets us something to eat after awhile. Only waitin' twists you up inside pretty bad."
The boy wore no air of complaint. He was merely stating facts.
Wesley Sinton looked intently at Billy. "Are you twisted up inside now?" he asked.
Billy laid a grimy hand on the region of his stomach and the filthy little waist sank close to the backbone. "Bet yer life, boss," he said cheerfully.
"How long have you been twisted?" asked Sinton.
Billy appealed to the others. "When was it we had the stuff on the bridge?"
"Yesterday morning," said the girl.
"Is that all gone?" asked Sinton.
"She went and told us to take it home," said Billy ruefully, "and 'cos she said to, we took it. Pa had come back, he was drinking some more, and he ate a lot of it-- almost the whole thing, and it made him sick as a dog, and he went and wasted all of it. Then he got drunk some more, and now he's asleep again. We didn't get hardly none."
"You children sit on the steps until the man comes," said Sinton. "I'll send you some things to eat with him. What's your name, sonny?"
"Billy," said the boy.
"Well, Billy, I guess you better come with me. I'll take care of him," Sinton promised the others. He reached a hand to Billy.
"I ain't no baby, I'm a boy!" said Billy, as he shuffled along beside Sinton, taking a kick at every movable object without regard to his battered toes.
Once they passed a Great Dane dog lolling after its master, and Billy ascended Sinton as if he were a tree, and clung to him with trembling hot hands.
"I ain't afraid of that dog," scoffed Billy, as he was again placed on the walk, "but onc't he took me for a rat or somepin' and his teeth cut into my back. If I'd a done right, I'd a took the law on him."
Sinton looked down into the indignant little face. The child was bright enough, he had a good head, but oh, such a body!
"I 'bout got enough of dogs," said Billy. "I used to like 'em, but I'm getting pretty tired. You ought to seen the lickin' Jimmy and Belle and me give our dog when we caught him, for taking a little bird she gave us. We waited 'till he was asleep 'nen laid a board on him and all of us jumped on it to onc't. You could a heard him yell a mile. Belle said mebbe we could squeeze the bird out of him. But, squeeze nothing! He was holler as us, and that bird was lost long 'fore it got to his stummick. It was ist a little one, anyway. Belle said it wouldn't 'a' made a bite apiece for three of us nohow, and the dog got one good swaller. We didn't get much of the meat, either. Pa took most of that. Seems like pas and dogs gets everything."
Billy laughed dolefully. Involuntarily Wesley Sinton reached his hand. They were coming into the business part of Onabasha and the streets were crowded. Billy understood it to mean that he might lose his companion and took a grip. That little hot hand clinging tight to his, the sore feet recklessly scouring the walk, the hungry child panting for breath as he tried to keep even, the brave soul jesting in the face of hard luck, caught Sinton in a tender, empty spot.
"Say, son," he said. "How would you like to be washed clean, and have all the supper your skin could hold, and sleep in a good bed?"
"Aw, gee!" said Billy. "I ain't dead yet! Them things is in heaven! Poor folks can't have them. Pa said so."
"Well, you can have them if you want to go with me and get them," promised Sinton.
"Crost yer heart?"
"Yes," said Sinton.
"Kin I take some to Jimmy and Belle?"
"If you'll come with me and be my boy, I'll see that they have plenty."
"What will pa say?"
"Your pa is in that kind of sleep now where he won't wake up, Billy," said Sinton. "I am pretty sure the law will give you to me, if you want to come."
"When people don't ever wake up they're dead," announced Billy. "Is my pa dead?"
"Yes, he is," answered Sinton.
"And you'll take care of Jimmy and Belle, too?"
"I can't adopt all three of you," said Sinton. "I'll take you, and see that they are well provided for. Will you come?"
"Yep, I'll come," said Billy. "Let's eat, first thing we do."
"All right," agreed Sinton. "Come into this restaurant." He lifted Billy to the lunch counter and ordered the clerk to give him as many glasses of milk as he wanted, and a biscuit. "I think there's going to be fried chicken when we get home, Billy," he said, "so you just take the edge off now, and fill up later."
While Billy lunched Sinton called up the different departments and notified the proper authorities ending with the Women's Relief Association. He sent a basket of food to Belle and Jimmy, bought Billy a pair of trousers, and a shirt, and went to bring Elnora.
"Why, Uncle Wesley!" cried the girl. "Where did you find Billy?"
"I've adopted him for the time being, if not longer," replied Wesley Sinton.
"Where did you get him?"
"Well, young woman," said Wesley Sinton, "Mr. Brownlee told me the history of your lunch box. It didn't seem so funny to me as it does to the rest of them; so I went to look up the father of Billy's family, and make him take care of them, or allow the law to do it for him. It will have to be the law."
"He's deader than anything!" broke in Billy. "He can't ever take all the meat any more."
"Billy!" gasped Elnora.
"Never you mind!" said Sinton. "A child doesn't say such things about a father who loved and raised him right. When it happens, the father alone is to blame. You won't hear Billy talk like that about me when I cross over."
"You don't mean you are going to take him to keep!"
"I'll soon need help," said Wesley. "Billy will come in just about right ten years from now, and if I raise him I'll have him the way I want him."
"But Aunt Margaret doesn't like boys," objected Elnora.
"Well, she likes me, and I used to be a boy. Anyway, as I remember she has had her way about everything at our house ever since we were married. I am going to please myself about Billy. Hasn't she always done just as she chose so far as you know? Honest, Elnora!"
"Honest!" replied Elnora. "You are beautiful to all of us, Uncle Wesley; but Aunt Margaret won't like Billy. She won't want him in her home."
"In our home," corrected Wesley.
"What makes you want him?" marvelled Elnora.
"God only knows," said Sinton. "Billy ain't so beautiful, and he ain't so smart, I guess it's because he's so human. My heart goes out to him."
"So did mine," said Elnora. "I love him. I'd rather see him eat my lunch than have it myself any time."
"What makes you like him?" asked Wesley.
"Why, I don't know," pondered Elnora. "He's so little, he needs so much, he's got such splendid grit, and he's perfectly unselfish with his brother and sister. But we must wash him before Aunt Margaret sees him. I wonder if mother----"
"You needn't bother. I'm going to take him home the way he is," said Sinton. "I want Maggie to see the worst of it."
"I'm afraid----" began Elnora.
"So am I," said Wesley, "but I won't give him up. He's taken a sort of grip on my heart. I've always been crazy for a boy. Don't let him hear us."
"Don't let him be killed!" cried Elnora. During their talk Billy had wandered to the edge of the walk and barely escaped the wheels of a passing automobile in an effort to catch a stray kitten that seemed in danger.
Wesley drew Billy back to the walk, and held his hand closely. "Are you ready, Elnora?"
"Yes; you were gone a long time," she said.
Wesley glanced at a package she carried. "Have to have another book?" he asked.
"No, I bought this for mother. I've had such splendid luck selling my specimens, I didn't feel right about keeping all the money for myself, so I saved enough from the Indian relics to get a few things I wanted. I would have liked to have gotten her a dress, but I didn't dare, so I compromised on a book."
"What did you select, Elnora?" asked Wesley wonderingly.
"Well," said she, "I have noticed mother always seemed interested in anything Mark Twain wrote in the newspapers, and I thought it would cheer her up a little, so I just got his `Innocents Abroad.' I haven't read it myself, but I've seen mention made of it all my life, and the critics say it's genuine fun."
"Good!" cried Sinton. "Good! You've made a splendid choice. It will take her mind off herself a lot. But she will scold you."
"Of course," assented Elnora. "But, possibly she will read it, and feel better. I'm going to serve her a trick. I am going to hide it until Monday, and set it on her little shelf of books the last thing before I go away. She must have all of them by heart. When, she sees a new one she can't help being glad, for she loves to read, and if she has all day to become interested, maybe she'll like it so she won't scold so much."
"We are both in for it, but I guess we are prepared. I don't know what Margaret will say, but I'm going to take Billy home and see. Maybe he can win with her, as he did with us."
Elnora had doubts, but she did not say anything more. When they started home Billy sat on the front seat. He drove with the hitching strap tied to the railing of the dash-board, flourished the whip, and yelled with delight. At first Sinton laughed with him, but by the time he left Elnora with several packages at her gate, he was looking serious enough.
Margaret was at the door as they drove up the lane. Wesley left Billy in the carriage, hitched the horses and went to explain to her. He had not reached her before she cried, "Look, Wesley, that child! You'll have a runaway!"
Wesley looked and ran. Billy was standing in the carriage slashing the mettlesome horses with the whip.
"See me make 'em go!" he shouted as the whip fell a second time.
He did make them go. They took the hitching post and a few fence palings, which scraped the paint from a wheel. Sinton missed the lines at the first effort, but the dragging post impeded the horses, and he soon caught them. He led them to the barn, and ordered Billy to remain in the carriage while he unhitched. Then leading Billy and carrying his packages he entered the yard.
"You run play a few minutes, Billy," he said. "I want to talk to the nice lady."
The nice lady was looking rather stupefied as Wesley approached her.
"Where in the name of sense did you get that awful child?" she demanded.
"He is a young gentleman who has been stopping Elnora and eating her lunch every day, part of the time with the assistance of his brother and sister, while our girl went hungry. Brownlee told me about it at the store. It's happened three days running. The first time she went without anything, the second time Brownlee's girl took her to lunch, and the third a crowd of high school girls bought a lot of stuff and met them at the bridge. The youngsters seemed to think they could rob her every day, so I went to see their father about having it stopped."
"Well, I should think so!" cried Margaret.
"There were three of them, Margaret," said Wesley, "that little fellow----"
"Hyena, you mean," interpolated Margaret.
"Hyena," corrected Wesley gravely, "and another boy and a girl, all equally dirty and hungry. The man was dead. They thought he was in a drunken sleep, but he was stone dead. I brought the little boy with me, and sent the officers and other help to the house. He's half starved. I want to wash him, and put clean clothes on him, and give him some supper."
"Have you got anything to put on him?"
"Where did you get it?"
"Bought it. It ain't much. All I got didn't cost a dollar."
"A dollar is a good deal when you work and save for it the way we do."
"Well, I don't know a better place to put it. Have you got any hot water? I'll use this tub at the cistern. Please give me some soap and towels."
Instead Margaret pushed by him with a shriek. Billy had played by producing a cord from his pocket, and having tied the tails of Margaret's white kittens together, he had climbed on a box and hung them across the clothes line. Wild with fright the kittens were clawing each other to death, and the air was white with fur. The string had twisted and the frightened creatures could not recognize friends. Margaret stepped back with bleeding hands. Sinton cut the cord with his knife and the poor little cats raced under the house bleeding and disfigured. Margaret white with wrath faced Wesley.
"If you don't hitch up and take that animal back to town," she said, "I will."
Billy threw himself on the grass and began to scream.
"You said I could have fried chicken for supper," he wailed. "You said she was a nice lady!"
Wesley lifted him and something in his manner of handling the child infuriated Margaret. His touch was so gentle. She reached for Billy and gripped his shirt collar in the back. Wesley's hand closed over hers.
"Gently, girl!" he said. "This little body is covered with sores."
"Sores!" she ejaculated. "Sores? What kind of sores?"
"Oh, they might be from bruises made by fists or boot toes, or they might be bad blood, from wrong eating, or they might be pure filth. Will you hand me some towels?"
"No, I won't!" said Margaret.
"Well, give me some rags, then."
Margaret compromised on pieces of old tablecloth. Wesley led Billy to the cistern, pumped cold water into the tub, poured in a kettle of hot, and beginning at the head scoured him. The boy shut his little teeth, and said never a word though he twisted occasionally when the soap struck a raw spot. Margaret watched the process from the window in amazed and ever-increasing anger. Where did Wesley learn it? How could his big hands be so gentle? He came to the door.
"Have you got any peroxide?" he asked.
"A little," she answered stiffly.
"Well, I need about a pint, but I'll begin on what you have."
Margaret handed him the bottle. Wesley took a cup, weakened the drug and said to Billy: "Man, these sores on you must be healed. Then you must eat the kind of food that's fit for little men. I am going to put some medicine on you, and it is going to sting like fire. If it just runs off, I won't use any more. If it boils, there is poison in these places, and they must be tied up, dosed every day, and you must be washed, and kept mighty clean. Now, hold still, because I am going to put it on."
"I think the one on my leg is the worst," said the undaunted Billy, holding out a raw place. Sinton poured on the drug. Billy's body twisted and writhed, but he did not run.
"Gee, look at it boil!" he cried. "I guess they's poison. You'll have to do it to all of them."
Wesley's teeth were set, as he watched the boy's face. He poured the drug, strong enough to do effective work, on a dozen places over that little body and bandaged all he could. Billy's lips quivered at times, and his chin jumped, but he did not shed a tear or utter a sound other than to take a deep interest in the boiling. As Wesley put the small shirt on the boy, and fastened the trousers, he was ready to reset the hitching post and mend the fence without a word.
"Now am I clean?" asked Billy.
"Yes, you are clean outside," said Wesley. "There is some dirty blood in your body, and some bad words in your mouth, that we have to get out, but that takes time. If we put right things to eat into your stomach that will do away with the sores, and if you know that I don't like bad words you won't say them any oftener than you can help, will you Billy?"
Billy leaned against Wesley in apparent indifference.
"I want to see me!" he demanded.
Wesley led the boy into the house, and lifted him to a mirror.
"My, I'm purty good-looking, ain't I?" bragged Billy. Then as Wesley stooped to set him on the floor Billy's lips passed close to the big man's ear and hastily whispered a vehement "No!" as he ran for the door.
"How long until supper, Margaret?" asked Wesley as he followed.
"You are going to keep him for supper?" she asked
"Sure!" said Wesley. "That's what I brought him for. It's likely he never had a good square meal of decent food in his life. He's starved to the bone."
Margaret arose deliberately, removed the white cloth from the supper table and substituted an old red one she used to wrap the bread. She put away the pretty dishes they commonly used and set the table with old plates for pies and kitchen utensils. But she fried the chicken, and was generous with milk and honey, snowy bread, gravy, potatoes, and fruit.
Wesley repainted the scratched wheel. He mended the fence, with Billy holding the nails and handing the pickets. Then he filled the old hole, digged a new one and set the hitching post.
Billy hopped on one foot at his task of holding the post steady as the earth was packed around it. There was not the shadow of a trouble on his little freckled face.
Sinton threw in stones and pounded the earth solid around the post. The sound of a gulping sob attracted him to Billy. The tears were rolling down his cheeks. "If I'd a knowed you'd have to get down in a hole, and work so hard I wouldn't 'a' hit the horses," he said.
"Never you mind, Billy," said Wesley. "You will know next time, so you can think over it, and make up your mind whether you really want to before you strike."
Wesley went to the barn to put away the tools. He thought Billy was at his heels, but the boy lagged on the way. A big snowy turkey gobbler resented the small intruder in his especial preserves, and with spread tail and dragging wings came toward him threateningly. If that turkey gobbler had known the sort of things with which Billy was accustomed to holding his own, he never would have issued the challenge. Billy accepted instantly. He danced around with stiff arms at his sides and imitated the gobbler. Then came his opportunity, and he jumped on the big turkey's back. Wesley heard Margaret's scream in time to see the flying leap and admire its dexterity. The turkey tucked its tail and scampered. Billy slid from its back and as he fell he clutched wildly, caught the folded tail, and instinctively clung to it. The turkey gave one scream and relaxed its muscles. Then it fled in disfigured defeat to the haystack. Billy scrambled to his feet holding the tail, while his eyes were bulging.
"Why, the blasted old thing came off!" he said to Wesley, holding out the tail in amazed wonder.
The man, caught suddenly, forgot everything and roared. Seeing which, Billy thought a turkey tail of no account and flung that one high above him shouting in wild childish laughter, when the feathers scattered and fell.
Margaret, watching, began to cry. Wesley had gone mad. For the first time in her married life she wanted to tell her mother. When Wesley had waited until he was so hungry he could wait no longer he invaded the kitchen to find a cooked supper baking on the back of the stove, while Margaret with red eyes nursed a pair of demoralized white kittens.
"Is supper ready?" he asked.
"It has been for an hour," answered Margaret.
"Why didn't you call us?"
That "us" had too much comradeship in it. It irritated Margaret.
"I supposed it would take you even longer than this to fix things decent again. As for my turkey, and my poor little kittens, they don't matter."
"I am mighty sorry about them, Margaret, you know that. Billy is very bright, and he will soon learn----"
"Soon learn!" cried Margaret. "Wesley Sinton, you don't mean to say that you think of keeping that creature here for some time?"
"No, I think of keeping a well-behaved little boy."
Margaret set the supper on the table. Seeing the old red cloth Wesley stared in amazement. Then he understood. Billy capered around in delight.
"Ain't that pretty?" he exulted. "I wish Jimmy and Belle could see. We, why we ist eat out of our hands or off a old dry goods box, and when we fix up a lot, we have newspaper. We ain't ever had a nice red cloth like this."
Wesley looked straight at Margaret, so intently that she turned away, her face flushing. He stacked the dictionary and the geography of the world on a chair, and lifted Billy beside him. He heaped a plate generously, cut the food, put a fork into Billy's little fist, and made him eat slowly and properly. Billy did his best. Occasionally greed overcame him, and he used his left hand to pop a bite into his mouth with his fingers. These lapses Wesley patiently overlooked, and went on with his general instructions. Luckily Billy did not spill anything on his clothing or the cloth. After supper Wesley took him to the barn while he finished the night work. Then he went and sat beside Margaret on the front porch. Billy appropriated the hammock, and swung by pulling a rope tied around a tree. The very energy with which he went at the work of swinging himself appealed to Wesley.
"Mercy, but he's an active little body," he said. "There isn't a lazy bone in him. See how he works to pay for his fun."
"There goes his foot through it!" cried Margaret. "Wesley, he shall not ruin my hammock."
"Of course he shan't!" said Wesley. "Wait, Billy, let me show you."
Thereupon he explained to Billy that ladies wearing beautiful white dresses sat in hammocks, so little boys must not put their dusty feet in them. Billy immediately sat, and allowed his feet to swing.
"Margaret," said Wesley after a long silence on the porch, "isn't it true that if Billy had been a half-starved sore cat, dog, or animal of any sort, that you would have pitied, and helped care for it, and been glad to see me get any pleasure out of it I could?"
"Yes," said Margaret coldly.
"But because I brought a child with an immortal soul, there is no welcome."
"That isn't a child, it's an animal."
"You just said you would have welcomed an animal."
"Not a wild one. I meant a tame beast."
"Billy is not a beast!" said Wesley hotly. "He is a very dear little boy. Margaret, you've always done the church-going and Bible reading for this family. How do you reconcile that `Suffer little children to come unto Me' with the way you are treating Billy?"
Margaret arose. "I haven't treated that child. I have only let him alone. I can barely hold myself. He needs the hide tanned about off him!"
"If you'd cared to look at his body, you'd know that you couldn't find a place to strike without cutting into a raw spot," said Wesley. "Besides, Billy has not done a thing for which a child should be punished. He is only full of life, no training, and with a boy's love of mischief. He did abuse your kittens, but an hour before I saw him risk his life to save one from being run over. He minds what you tell him, and doesn't do anything he is told not to. He thinks of his brother and sister right away when anything pleases him. He took that stinging medicine with the grit of a bulldog. He is just a bully little chap, and I love him."
"Oh good heavens!" cried Margaret, going into the house as she spoke.
Sinton sat still. At last Billy tired of the swing, came to him and leaned his slight body against the big knee.
"Am I going to sleep here?" he asked.
"Sure you are!" said Sinton.
Billy swung his feet as he laid across Wesley's knee. "Come on," said Wesley, "I must clean you up for bed."
"You have to be just awful clean here," announced Billy. "I like to be clean, you feel so good, after the hurt is over."
Sinton registered that remark, and worked with especial tenderness as he redressed the ailing places and washed the dust from Billy's feet and hands.
"Where can he sleep?" he asked Margaret.
"I'm sure I don't know," she answered.
"Oh, I can sleep ist any place," said Billy. "On the floor or anywhere. Home, I sleep on pa's coat on a store- box, and Jimmy and Belle they sleep on the storebox, too. "I sleep between them, so's I don't roll off and crack my head. Ain't you got a storebox and a old coat?"
Wesley arose and opened a folding lounge. Then he brought an armload of clean horse blankets from a closet.
"These don't look like the nice white bed a little boy should have, Billy," he said, "but we'll make them do. This will beat a storebox all hollow."
Billy took a long leap for the lounge. When he found it bounced, he proceeded to bounce, until he was tired. By that time the blankets had to be refolded. Wesley had Billy take one end and help, while both of them seemed to enjoy the job. Then Billy lay down and curled up in his clothes like a small dog. But sleep would not come.
Finally he sat up. He stared around restlessly. Then he arose, went to Wesley, and leaned against his knee. He picked up the boy and folded his arms around him. Billy sighed in rapturous content.
"That bed feels so lost like," he said. "Jimmy always jabbed me on one side, and Belle on the other, and so I knew I was there. Do you know where they are?"
"They are with kind people who gave them a fine supper, a clean bed, and will always take good care of them."
"I wisht I was--" Billy hesitated and looked earnestly at Wesley. "I mean I wish they was here."
"You are about all I can manage, Billy," said Wesley.
Billy sat up. "Can't she manage anything?" he asked, waving toward Margaret.
"Indeed, yes," said Wesley. "She has managed me for twenty years."
"My, but she made you nice!" said Billy. "I just love you. I wisht she'd take Jimmy and Belle and make them nice as you."
"She isn't strong enough to do that, Billy. They will grow into a good boy and girl where they are."
Billy slid from Wesley's arms and walked toward Margaret until he reached the middle of the room. Then he stopped, and at last sat on the floor. Finally he lay down and closed his eyes. "This feels more like my bed; if only Jimmy and Belle was here to crowd up a little, so it wasn't so alone like."
"Won't I do, Billy?" asked Wesley in a husky voice.
Billy moved restlessly. "Seems like--seems like toward night as if a body got kind o' lonesome for a woman person--like her."
Billy indicated Margaret and then closed his eyes so tight his small face wrinkled.
Soon he was up again. "Wisht I had Snap," he said. "Oh, I ist wisht I had Snap!"
"I thought you laid a board on Snap and jumped on it," said Wesley.
"We did!" cried Billy--"oh, you ought to heard him squeal!" Billy laughed loudly, then his face clouded.
"But I want Snap to lay beside me so bad now--that if he was here I'd give him a piece of my chicken, 'for, I ate any. Do you like dogs?"
"Yes, I do," said Wesley.
Billy was up instantly. "Would you like Snap?"
"I am sure I would," said Wesley.
"Would she?" Billy indicated Margaret. And then he answered his own question. "But of course, she wouldn't, cos she likes cats, and dogs chases cats. Oh, dear, I thought for a minute maybe Snap could come here." Billy lay down and closed his eyes resolutely.
Suddenly they flew open. "Does it hurt to be dead?" he demanded.
"Nothing hurts you after you are dead, Billy," said Wesley.
"Yes, but I mean does it hurt getting to be dead?"
"Sometimes it does. It did not hurt your father, Billy. It came softly while he was asleep."
"It ist came softly?"
"I kind o' wisht he wasn't dead!" said Billy. "'Course I like to stay with you, and the fried chicken, and the nice soft bed, and--and everything, and I like to be clean, but he took us to the show, and he got us gum, and he never hurt us when he wasn't drunk."
Billy drew a deep breath, and tightly closed his eyes. But very soon they opened. Then he sat up. He looked at Wesley pitifully, and then he glanced at Margaret. "You don't like boys, do you?" he questioned.
"I like good boys," said Margaret.
Billy was at her knee instantly. "Well say, I'm a good boy!" he announced joyously.
"I do not think boys who hurt helpless kittens and pull out turkeys' tails are good boys."
"Yes, but I didn't hurt the kittens," explained Billy. "They got mad 'bout ist a little fun and scratched each other. I didn't s'pose they'd act like that. And I didn't pull the turkey's tail. I ist held on to the first thing I grabbed, and the turkey pulled. Honest, it was the turkey pulled." He turned to Wesley. "You tell her! Didn't the turkey pull? I didn't know its tail was loose, did I?"
"I don't think you did, Billy," said Wesley.
Billy stared into Margaret's cold face. "Sometimes at night, Belle sits on the floor, and I lay my head in her lap. I could pull up a chair and lay my head in your lap. Like this, I mean." Billy pulled up a chair, climbed on it and laid his head on Margaret's lap. Then he shut his eyes again. Margaret could have looked little more repulsed if he had been a snake. Billy was soon up.
"My, but your lap is hard," he said. "And you are a good deal fatter 'an Belle, too!" He slid from the chair and came back to the middle of the room.
"Oh but I wisht he wasn't dead!" he cried. The flood broke and Billy screamed in desperation.
Out of the night a soft, warm young figure flashed through the door and with a swoop caught him in her arms. She dropped into a chair, nestled him closely, drooped her fragrant brown head over his little bullet-eyed red one, and rocked softly while she crooned over him--
"Billy, boy, where have you been? Oh, I have been to seek a wife, She's the joy of my life, But then she's a young thing and she can't leave her mammy!"
Billy clung to her frantically. Elnora wiped his eyes, kissed his face, swayed and sang.
"Why aren't you asleep?" she asked at last.
"I don't know," said Billy. "I tried. I tried awful hard cos I thought he wanted me to, but it ist wouldn't come. Please tell her I tried." He appealed to Margaret.
"He did try to go to sleep," admitted Margaret.
"Maybe he can't sleep in his clothes," suggested Elnora. "Haven't you an old dressing sacque? I could roll the sleeves."
Margaret got an old sacque, and Elnora put it on Billy. Then she brought a basin of water and bathed his face and head. She gathered him up and began to rock again.
"Have you got a pa?" asked Billy.
"No," said Elnora.
"Is he dead like mine?"
"Did it hurt him to die?"
"I don't know."
Billy was wide awake again. "It didn't hurt my pa," he boasted; "he ist died while he was asleep. He didn't even know it was coming."
"I am glad of that," said Elnora, pressing the small head against her breast again.
Billy escaped her hand and sat up. "I guess I won't go to sleep," he said. "It might `come softly' and get me."
"It won't get you, Billy," said Elnora, rocking and singing between sentences. "It doesn't get little boys. It just takes big people who are sick."
"Was my pa sick?"
"Yes," said Elnora. "He had a dreadful sickness inside him that burned, and made him drink things. That was why he would forget his little boys and girl. If he had been well, he would have gotten you good things to eat, clean clothes, and had the most fun with you."
Billy leaned against her and closed his eyes, and Elnora rocked hopefully.
"If I was dead would you cry?" he was up again.
"Yes, I would," said Elnora, gripping him closer until Billy almost squealed with the embrace.
"Do you love me tight as that?" he questioned blissfully.
"Yes, bushels and bushels," said Elnora. "Better than any little boy in the whole world."
Billy looked at Margaret. "She don't!" he said. "She'd be glad if it would get me `softly,' right now. She don't want me here 't all."
Elnora smothered his face against her breast and rocked.
"You love me, don't you?"
"I will, if you will go to sleep."
"Every single day you will give me your dinner for the bologna, won't you," said Billy.
"Yes, I will," replied Elnora. "But you will have as good lunch as I do after this. You will have milk, eggs, chicken, all kinds of good things, little pies, and cakes, maybe."
Billy shook his head. "I am going back home soon as it is light," he said, "she don't want me. She thinks I'm a bad boy. She's going to whip me--if he lets her. She said so. I heard her. Oh, I wish he hadn't died! I want to go home." Billy shrieked again.
Mrs. Comstock had started to walk slowly to meet Elnora. The girl had been so late that her mother reached the Sinton gate and followed the path until the picture inside became visible. Elnora had told her about Wesley taking Billy home. Mrs. Comstock had some curiosity to see how Margaret bore the unexpected addition to her family. Billy's voice, raised with excitement, was plainly audible. She could see Elnora holding him, and hear his excited wail. Wesley's face was drawn and haggard, and Margaret's set and defiant. A very imp of perversity entered the breast of Mrs. Comstock.
"Hoity, toity!" she said as she suddenly appeared in the door. "Blest if I ever heard a man making sounds like that before!"
Billy ceased suddenly. Mrs. Comstock was tall, angular, and her hair was prematurely white. She was only thirty-six, although she appeared fifty. But there was an expression on her usually cold face that was attractive just then, and Billy was in search of attractions.
"Have I stayed too late, mother?" asked Elnora anxiously. "I truly intended to come straight back, but I thought I could rock Billy to sleep first. Everything is strange, and he's so nervous."
"Is that your ma?" demanded Billy.
"Does she love you?"
"My mother didn't love me," said Billy. "She went away and left me, and never came back. She don't care what happens to me. You wouldn't go away and leave your little girl, would you?" questioned Billy.
"No," said Katharine Comstock, "and I wouldn't leave a little boy, either."
Billy began sliding from Elnora's knees.
"Do you like boys?" he questioned.
"If there is anything I love it is a boy," said Mrs. Comstock assuringly. Billy was on the floor.
"Do you like dogs?"
"Yes. Almost as well as boys. I am going to buy a dog as soon as I can find a good one."
Billy swept toward her with a whoop.
"Do you want a boy?" he shouted.
Katharine Comstock stretched out her arms, and gathered him in.
"Of course, I want a boy!" she rejoiced.
"Maybe you'd like to have me?" offered Billy.
"Sure I would," triumphed Mrs. Comstock. "Any one would like to have you. You are just a real boy, Billy."
"Will you take Snap?"
"I'd like to have Snap almost as well as you."
"Mother!" breathed Elnora imploringly. "Don't! Oh, don't! He thinks you mean it!"
"And so I do mean it," said Mrs. Comstock. "I'll take him in a jiffy. I throw away enough to feed a little tyke like him every day. His chatter would be great company while you are gone. Blood soon can be purified with right food and baths, and as for Snap, I meant to buy a bulldog, but possibly Snap will serve just as well. All I ask of a dog is to bark at the right time. I'll do the rest. Would you like to come and be my boy, Billy?"
Billy leaned against Mrs. Comstock, reached his arms around her neck and gripped her with all his puny might. "You can whip me all you want to," he said. "I won't make a sound."
Mrs. Comstock held him closely and her hard face was softening; of that there could be no doubt.
"Now, why would any one whip a nice little boy like you?" she asked wonderingly.
"She"--Billy from his refuge waved toward Margaret --"she was going to whip me 'cause her cats fought, when I tied their tails together and hung them over the line to dry. How did I know her old cats would fight?"
Mrs. Comstock began to laugh suddenly, and try as she would she could not stop so soon as she desired. Billy studied her.
"Have you got turkeys?" he demanded.
"Yes, flocks of them," said Mrs. Comstock, vainly struggling to suppress her mirth, and settle her face in its accustomed lines.
"Are their tails fast?" demanded Billy.
"Why, I think so," marvelled Mrs. Comstock.
"Hers ain't!" said Billy with the wave toward Margaret that was becoming familiar. "Her turkey pulled, and its tail comed right off. She's going to whip me if he lets her. I didn't know the turkey would pull. I didn't know its tail would come off. I won't ever touch one again, will I?"
"Of course, you won't," said Mrs. Comstock. "And what's more, I don't care if you do! I'd rather have a fine little man like you than all the turkeys in the country. Let them lose their old tails if they want to, and let the cats fight. Cats and turkeys don't compare with boys, who are going to be fine big men some of these days."
Then Billy and Mrs. Comstock hugged each other rapturously, while their audience stared in silent amazement.
"You like boys!" exulted Billy, and his head dropped against Mrs. Comstock in unspeakable content.
"Yes, and if I don't have to carry you the whole way home, we must start right now," said Mrs. Comstock. "You are going to be asleep before you know it."
Billy opened his eyes and braced himself. "I can walk," he said proudly.
"All right, we must start. Come, Elnora! Good-night, folks!" Mrs. Comstock set Billy on the floor, and arose gripping his hand. "You take the other side, Elnora, and we will help him as much as we can," she said.
Elnora stared piteously at Margaret, then at Wesley, and arose in white-faced bewilderment.
"Billy, are you going to leave without even saying good- bye to me?" asked Wesley, with a gulp.
Billy held tight to Mrs. Comstock and Elnora.
"Good-bye!" he said casually. "I'll come and see you some time."
Wesley Sinton gave a smothered sob, and strode from the room.
Mrs. Comstock started toward the door, dragging at Billy while Elnora pulled back, but Mrs. Sinton was before them, her eyes flashing.
"Kate Comstock, you think you are mighty smart, don't you?" she cried.
"I ain't in the lunatic asylum, where you belong, anyway,"said Mrs. Comstock. "I am smart enough to tell a dandy boy when I see him, and I'm good and glad to get him. I'll love to have him!"
"Well, you won't have him!" exclaimed Margaret Sinton. "That boy is Wesley's! He found him, and brought him here. You can't come in and take him like that! Let go of him!"
"Not much, I won't!" cried Mrs. Comstock. "Leave the poor sick little soul here for you to beat, because he didn't know just how to handle things! Of course, he'll make mistakes. He must have a lot of teaching, but not the kind he'll get from you! Clear out of my way!"
"You let go of our boy," ordered Margaret.
"Why? Do you want to whip him, before he can go to sleep?" jeered Mrs. Comstock.
"No, I don't!" said Margaret. "He's Wesley's, and nobody shall touch him. Wesley!"
Wesley Sinton appeared behind Margaret in the doorway, and she turned to him. "Make Kate Comstock let go of our boy!" she demanded.
"Billy, she wants you now," said Wesley Sinton. "She won't whip you, and she won't let any one else. You can have stacks of good things to eat, ride in the carriage, and have a great time. Won't you stay with us?"
Billy drew away from Mrs. Comstock and Elnora.
He faced Margaret, his eyes shrewd with unchildish wisdom. Necessity had taught him to strike the hot iron, to drive the hard bargain.
"Can I have Snap to live here always?" he demanded.
"Yes, you can have all the dogs you want," said Margaret Sinton.
"Can I sleep close enough so's I can touch you?"
"Yes, you can move your lounge up so that you can hold my hand," said Margaret.
"Do you love me now?" questioned Billy.
"I'll try to love you, if you are a good boy," said Margaret.
"Then I guess I'll stay," said Billy, walking over to her.
Out in the night Elnora and her mother went down the road in the moonlight; every few rods Mrs. Comstock laughed aloud.
"Mother, I don't understand you," sobbed Elnora.
"Well, maybe when you have gone to high school longer you will," said Mrs. Comstock. "Anyway, you saw me bring Mag Sinton to her senses, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did," answered Elnora, "but I thought you were in earnest. So did Billy, and Uncle Wesley, and Aunt Margaret."
"Well, wasn't I?" inquired Mrs. Comstock.
"But you just said you brought Aunt Margaret to!"
"Well, didn't I?"
"I don't understand you."
"That's the reason I am recommending more schooling!"
Elnora took her candle and went to bed. Mrs. Comstock was feeling too good to sleep. Twice of late she really had enjoyed herself for the first in sixteen years, and greediness for more of the same feeling crept into her blood like intoxication. As she sat brooding alone she knew the truth. She would have loved to have taken Billy. She would not have minded his mischief, his chatter, or his dog. He would have meant a distraction from herself that she greatly needed; she was even sincere about the dog. She had intended to tell Wesley to buy her one at the very first opportunity. Her last thought was of Billy. She chuckled softly, for she was not saintly, and now she knew how she could even a long score with Margaret and Wesley in a manner that would fill her soul with grim satisfaction.