The Little Knights of Kentucky by Annie Fellows Johnston
Chapter I. Two Tramps and a Bear.
It was the coldest Saint Valentine's eve that Kentucky had known in twenty years. In Lloydsborough Valley a thin sprinkling of snow whitened the meadows, enough to show the footprints of every hungry rabbit that loped across them; but there were not many such tracks. It was so cold that the rabbits, for all their thick fur, were glad to run home and hide. Nobody cared to be out long in such weather, and except now and then, when an ice-cutter's wagon creaked up from some pond to the frozen pike, the wintry stillness was unbroken.
On the north side of the little country depot a long row of icicles hung from the eaves. Even the wind seemed to catch its breath there, and hurry on with a shiver that reached to the telegraph wires overhead. It shivered down the long stovepipe, too, inside the waiting-room. The stove had been kept red-hot all that dull gray afternoon, but the window-panes were still white with heavy frost-work.
Half an hour before the five o'clock train was due from the city, two boys came running up the railroad track with their skates in their hands. They were handsome, sturdy little fellows, so well buttoned up in their leather leggins and warm reefer overcoats that they scarcely felt the cold. Their cheeks were red as winter apples, from skating against the wind, and they were almost breathless after their long run up-hill to the depot. Racing across the platform, they bumped against the door at the same instant, burst it noisily open, and slammed it behind them with a bang that shook the entire building.
"What kind of a cyclone has struck us now?" growled the ticket agent, who was in the next room. Then he frowned, as the first noise was followed by the rasping sound of a bench being dragged out of a corner, to a place nearer the stove. It scraped the bare floor every inch of the way, with a jarring motion that made the windows rattle.
Stretching himself half-way out of his chair, the ticket agent pushed up the wooden slide of the little window far enough for him to peep into the waiting-room. Then he hastily shoved it down again.
"It's the two little chaps who came out from the city last week," he said to the station-master. "The Maclntyre boys. You'd think they own the earth from the way they dash in and take possession of things."
The station-master liked boys. He stroked his gray beard and chuckled. "Well, Meyers," he said, slowly, "when you come to think of it, their family always has owned a pretty fair slice of the earth and its good things, and those same little lads have travelled nearly all over it, although the oldest can't be more than ten. It would be a wonder if they didn't have that lordly way of making themselves at home wherever they go."
"Will they be out here all winter?" asked Meyers, who was a newcomer in Lloydsborough.
"Yes, their father and mother have gone to Florida, and left them here with their grandmother Maclntyre."
"I imagine the old lady has her hands full," said Meyers, as a sound of scuffling in the next room reached him.
"Oh, I don't know about that, now," said the station-master. "They're noisy children, to be sure, and just boiling over with mischief, but if you can find any better-mannered little gentlemen anywhere in the State when there's ladies around, I'd like you to trot 'em out. They came down to the train with their aunt this morning, Miss Allison Maclntyre, and their politeness to her was something pretty to see, I can tell you, sir."
There was a moment's pause, in which the boys could be heard laughing in the next room.
"No," said the station-master again, "I'm thinking it's not the boys who will be keeping Mrs. Maclntyre's hands full this winter, so much as that little granddaughter of hers that came here last fall,--little Virginia Dudley. You can guess what's she like from her nickname. They call her Ginger. She had always lived at some army post out West, until her father, Captain Dudley, was ordered to Cuba. He was wounded down there, and has never been entirely well since. When he found they were going to keep him there all winter, he sent for his wife last September, and there was nothing to do with Virginia but to bring her back to Kentucky to her grandmother."
"Oh, she's the little girl who went in on the train this morning with Miss Allison," said the ticket agent. "I suppose the boys have come down to meet them. They'll have a long time to wait."
While this conversation was going on behind the ticket window, the two boys stretched themselves out on a long bench beside the stove. The warm room made them feel drowsy after their violent out-door exercise. Keith, the younger one, yawned several times, and finally lay down on the bench with his cap for a pillow. He was eight years old, but curled up in that fashion, with his long eyelashes resting on his red cheeks, and one plump little hand tucked under his chin, he looked much younger.
"Wake me up, Malcolm, when it's time for Aunt Allison's train," he said to his brother. "Ginger would never stop teasing me if she should find me asleep."
Malcolm unbuttoned his reefer, and, after much tugging, pulled out a handsome little gold watch. "Oh, there's a long time to wait!" he exclaimed. "We need not have left the pond so early, for the train will not be here for twenty-five minutes. I believe I'll curl up here myself, till then. I hope they won't forget the valentines we sent for."
The room was very still for a few minutes. There was no sound at all except the crackling of the fire and the shivering of the wind in the long stovepipe. Then some one turned the door-knob so cautiously and slowly that it unlatched without a sound.
It was the cold air rushing into the room as the door was pushed ajar that aroused the boys. After one surprised glance they sat up, for the man, who was slipping into the room as stealthily as a burglar, was the worst-looking tramp they had ever seen. There was a long, ugly red scar across his face, running from his cheek to the middle of his forehead, and partly closing one eye. Perhaps it was the scar that gave him such a queer, evil sort of an expression; even without it he would have been a repulsive sight. His clothes were dirty and ragged, and his breath had frozen in icicles on his stubby red beard.
Behind him came a boy no larger than Keith, but with a hard, shrewd look in his hungry little face that made one feel he had lived a long time and learned more than was good for him to know. It was plain to be seen that he was nearly starved, and suffering from the intense cold. His bare toes peeped through their ragged shoes, and he had no coat. A thin cotton shirt and a piece of an old gray horse-blanket was all that protected his shoulders from the icy wind of that February afternoon. He, too, crept in noiselessly, as if expecting to be ordered out at the first sound, and then turned to coax in some animal that was tied to one end of the rope which he held.
Malcolm and Keith looked on with interest, and sprang up excitedly as the animal finally shuffled in far enough for the boy to close the door behind it. It was a great, shaggy bear, taller than the man when it sat up on its haunches beside him.
The tramp looked uneasily around the room for an instant, but seeing no one save the two children, ventured nearer the stove. The boy followed him, and the bear shuffled along behind them both, limping painfully. Not a word was said for a moment. The boys were casting curious glances at the three tramps who had come in as noiselessly as if they had snowed down, and the man was watching the boys with shrewd eyes. He did not seem to be looking at them, but at the end of his survey he could have described them accurately. He had noticed every detail of their clothing, from their expensive leather leggins to their fur-lined gloves. He glanced at Malcolm's watch-chain and the fine skates which Keith swung back and forth by a strap, and made up his mind, correctly, too, that the pockets of these boys rarely lacked the jingle of money which they could spend as they pleased.
When he turned away to hold his hands out toward the stove, he rubbed them together with satisfaction, for he had discovered more than that. He knew from their faces that they were trusting little souls, who would believe any story he might tell them, if he appealed to their sympathies in the right way. He was considering how to begin, when Malcolm broke the silence.
"Is that a trained bear?"
The man nodded.
"What can it do?" was the next question.
"Oh, lots of things," answered the man, in a low, whining voice. "Drill like a soldier, and dance, and ride a stick." He kept his shifty eyes turning constantly toward the door, as if afraid some one might overhear him.
"I'd put him through his paces for you young gen'lemen," he said, "but he got his foot hurt for one thing, and another is, if we went to showing off, we might be ordered to move on. This is the first time we've smelled a fire in twenty-four hours, and we ain't in no hurry to leave it, I can tell you."
"Will he bite?" asked Keith, going up to the huge bear, which had stretched itself out comfortably on the floor.
"Not generally. He's a good-tempered brute, most times like a lamb. But he ain't had nothing to eat all day, so it wouldn't be surprising if he was a bit snappish."
"Nothing to eat!" echoed Keith. "You poor old thing!" Going a step closer, he put out his hand and stroked the bear, as if it had been a great dog.
"Oh, Malcolm, just feel how soft his fur is, like mamma's beaver jacket. And he has the kindest old face. Poor old fellow, is you hungry? Never mind, Keith'll get you something to eat pretty soon."
Putting his short, plump arms around the animal's neck, he hugged it lovingly up to him. A cunning gleam came into the man's eyes. He saw that he had gained the younger boy's sympathy, and he wanted Malcolm's also.
"Is your home near here, my little gen'leman?" he asked, in a friendly tone.
"No, we live in the city," answered Malcolm, "but my grandmother's place, where we are staying, is not far from here." He was stroking the bear with one hand as he spoke, and hunting in his pocket with the other, hoping to find some stray peanuts to give it.
"Then maybe you know of some place where we could stay to-night. Even a shed to crawl into would keep us from freezing. It's an awful cold night not to have a roof over your head, or a crust to gnaw on, or a spark of fire to keep life in your body."
"Maybe they'd let you stay in the waiting-room," suggested Malcolm. "It is always good and warm in here. I'll ask the station-master. He's a friend of mine."
"Oh, no! No, don't!" exclaimed the tramp, hastily, pulling his old hat farther over his forehead, as if to hide the scar, and looking uneasily around. "I wouldn't have you do that for anything. I've had dealings with such folks before, and I know how they'd treat me. I thought maybe there was a barn or a hay-shed or something on your grandmother's place, where we could lay up for repairs a couple of days. The beast needs a rest. Its foot's sore; and Jonesy there is pretty near to lung fever, judging from the way he coughs." He nodded toward the boy, who had placed his chair as close to the stove as possible. The child's face was drawn into a pucker by the tingling pains in his half-frozen feet, and his efforts to keep from coughing.
Malcolm looked at him steadily. He had read about boys who were homeless and hungry and cold, but he had never really understood how much it meant to be all that. This was the first time in his ten short years that he had ever come close to real poverty. He had seen the swarms of beggars that infest such cities as Naples and Rome, and had tossed them coppers because that seemed a part of the programme in travelling. He had not really felt sorry for them, for they did not seem to mind it. They sat on the steps in the warm Italian sunshine, and waited for tourists to throw them money, as comfortably as toads sit blinking at flies. But this was different. A wave of pity swept through Malcolm's generous little heart as he looked at Jonesy, and the man watching him shrewdly saw it.
"Of course," he whined, "a little gen'leman like you don't know what it is to go from town to town and have every door shut in your face. You don't think that this is a hard-hearted, stingy old world, because it has given you the cream of everything. But if you'd never had anything all your life but other people's scraps and leavings, and you hadn't any home or friends or money, and was sick besides, you'd think things wasn't very evenly divided. Wouldn't you now? You'd think it wasn't right that some should have all that heart can wish, and others not enough to keep soul and body together. If you'd a-happened to be Jonesy, and Jonesy had a-happened to 'a' been you, I reckon you'd feel it was pretty tough to see such a big difference between you. It doesn't seem fair now, does it?"
"No," admitted Malcolm, faintly. He had taken a dislike to the man. He could not have told why, but his child instinct armed him with a sudden distrust. Still, he felt the force of the whining appeal, and the burden of an obligation to help them seemed laid upon his shoulders.
"Grandmother is afraid for anybody to sleep in the barn, on account of fire," he said, after a moment's thought, "and I'm sure she wouldn't let you come into the house without you'd had a bath and some clean clothes. Grandmother is dreadfully particular," he added, hastily, not wanting to be impolite even to a tramp. "Seems to me Keith and I have to spend half our time washing our hands and putting on clean collars."
"Oh, I know a place," cried Keith. "There's that empty cabin down by the spring-house. Nobody has lived in it since the new servants' cottage was built. There isn't any furniture in it, but there's a fireplace in one room, and it would be warmer than the barn."
"That's just the trick!" exclaimed Malcolm. "We can carry a pile of hay over from the barn for you to sleep on. Aunt Allison will be out on this next train and I'll ask her. I am sure she will let you, because last night, when it was so cold, she said she felt sorry for anything that had to be out in it, even the poor old cedar trees, with the sleet on their branches. She said that it was King Lear's own weather, and she could understand how Cordelia felt when she said, 'Mine enemy's dog, though he had bit me, should have stood that night against my fire!' It is just like auntie to feel that way about it, only she's so good to everybody she couldn't have any enemies."
Something like a smile moved the tramp's stubby beard. "So she's that kind, is she? Well, if she could have a soft spot for a dog that had bit her, and an enemy's dog at that, it stands to reason that she wouldn't object to some harmless travellers a-sleeping in an empty cabin a couple of nights. S'pose'n you show us the place, sonny, and we'll be moving on."
"Oh, it wouldn't be right not to ask her first," exclaimed Malcolm. "She'll be here in such a little while."
The man looked uneasy. Presently he walked over to the window and scraped a peep-hole on the frosted pane with his dirty thumbnail. "Sun's down," he said. "I'd like to get that bear's foot fixed comfortable before it grows any darker. I'd like to mighty well. It'll take some time to heat water to dress it. Is that cabin far from here?"
"Not if we go in at the back of the place," said Malcolm. "It's just across the meadow, and over a little hill. If we went around by the big front gate it would be a good deal longer."
The man shifted uneasily from one foot to another, and complained of being hungry. He was growing desperate. For more reasons than one he did not want to be at the station when the train came in. That long red scar across his face had been described a number of times in the newspapers, and he did not care to be recognised just then.
The boys could not have told how it came about, but in a few minutes they were leading the way toward the cabin. The man had persuaded them that it was not at all necessary to wait for their Aunt Allison's permission, and that it was needless to trouble their grandmother. Why should the ladies be bothered about a matter that the boys were old enough to decide? So well had he argued, and so tactfully had he flattered them, that when they took their way across the field, it was with the feeling that they were doing their highest duty in getting these homeless wayfarers to the cabin as quickly as possible, on their own responsibility.
"We can get back in time to meet the train, if we hurry," said Malcolm, looking at his watch again. "There's still fifteen minutes."
No one saw the little procession file out of the waiting-room and across the snowy field, for it was growing dark, and the lamps were lighted and the curtains drawn in the few houses they passed. Malcolm went first, proudly leading the friendly old bear. Jonesy came next beside Keith, and the man shuffled along in the rear, looking around with suspicious glances whenever a twig snapped, or a distant dog barked.
As the wind struck against Jonesy's body, he drew the bit of blanket more closely around him, and coughed hoarsely. His teeth were chattering and his lips blue. "You look nearly frozen," said Keith, who, well-clad and well-fed, scarcely felt the cold. "Here! put this on, or you'll be sick," Unbuttoning his thick little reefer, he pulled it off and tied its sleeves around Jonesy's neck.
A strange look passed over the face of the man behind them. "Blessed if the little kid didn't take it off his own back," he muttered. "If any man had ever done that for me--just once--well, maybe, I wouldn't ha' been what I am now!"
For a moment, as they reached the top of the hill, bear, boys, and man were outlined blackly against the sky like strange silhouettes. Then they passed over and disappeared in the thick clump of pine-trees, which hid the little cabin from the eyes of the surrounding world.