The Little Knights of Kentucky by Annie Fellows Johnston
Chapter VI. The Little Colonel's Two Rescues.
Early in March, when the crocuses were beginning to bud under the dining-room windows, there came one of those rare spring days that seem to carry the warmth of summer in its sunshine.
"Exactly the kind of a day for a picnic," Virginia had said that morning, and when her grandmother objected, saying that the ground was still too damp, she suggested having it in the hay-barn. The boys piled the hay that was left from the winter's supply up on one side of the great airy room, set wide the big double doors, and swept it clean.
"It is clean enough now for even grandmother to eat in," said Virginia, as she spread a cloth on the table Unc' Henry had carried out for them. "It's good enough for a queen. Oh, I'll tell you what let's do. Let's play that Malcolm and I are a wicked king and queen and Lloyd is a 'fair ladye' that we have shut up in a dungeon. This will be a banquet, and while we are eating Keith can be the knight who comes to her rescue and carries her off on his pony."
"That's all right," consented Keith, "except the eating part. How can we get our share of the picnic?"
"We'll save it for you," answered Virginia, "and you can eat it afterward."
"Save enough for Jonesy, too," said Keith. "He shall be my page and help me rescue her. I'll go and ask him now."
The month had made a great change in Jonesy. With plenty to eat, his thin little snub-nosed face grew plump and bright. There was a good-humoured twinkle in his sharp eyes, and being quick as a monkey at imitating the movements of those around him, Mrs. MacIntyre found nothing to criticise in his manners when Malcolm and Keith brought him into the house. Their pride in him was something amusing, and seeing that, after all, he was an inoffensive little fellow, she made no more objections to their playing with him.
By the time Keith was back again with Jonesy, the other guests had arrived, and the Little Colonel had been lowered into a deep feed-bin, in lieu of a dungeon. The banquet began in great state, but in a few moments was interrupted by a fearful shrieking from the depths of the bin. The fair ladye protested that she would not stay in her dungeon.
"There's nasty big spidahs down heah!" she called. "Ow! One is crawlin' on my neck now, and my face is all tangled up in cobwebs! Get me out! Get me out! Quick, Gingah!"
The king sprang up to go to her rescue, but was promptly motioned to his seat again by a warning shake of the other crowned head.
"Why, of course! There's always spiders in dungeons," called the wicked queen, coolly helping herself to another piece of chicken. "Besides, you should say 'your Majesty' when you are talking to me."
"But there's a mouse in heah, too," she called back, in distress. "Oo! Oo! It ran ovah my feet. If you don't make them take me out of heah, Gingah Dudley, I'll do something awful to you! Murdah! Murdah!" she yelled, pounding on the sides of the bin with both her fists, and stamping her little foot in a furious rage.
Seeing that Lloyd was really terrified, and fearing that her screams would bring some one from the house, the royal couple and their guests sprang to the rescue, nearly upsetting the banquet as they did so. The game would have been broken up then, when she was lifted out from the feed-bin, red and angry, if it had not been for the king's great tact. He brushed the cobwebs from her face and hair, and even got down on his royal knees to ask her pardon.
His polite coaxing finally had its effect on the little lady, and he persuaded her to climb a ladder into a loft just above them. Here on a pile of clean hay, beside an open window that looked across a peaceful meadow, her anger cooled. Towers were far more comfortable than dungeons, in her opinion, and when Malcolm came up the ladder with a plateful of the choicest morsels of the feast, she began to enjoy her part of the play. Jonesy was sent to inform his knight of the change from dungeon to tower, and the banquet went merrily on.
He found Keith waiting below the barn, with his pony tied to a fence. On the other side of the fence lay the railroad track, which skirted the back of Mrs. MacIntyre's place for over half a mile.
"Do you see that hand-car?" asked Keith, pointing with his riding-whip to one on the track. "The section boss let Malcolm and me ride up and down on it all afternoon one day this winter. Some workman left it on the switch while ago, and while you were up at the barn I got two darkeys to move it for me. They didn't want to at first, but I knew that there'd be no train along for an hour, and told 'em so, and they finally did it for a dime apiece. As soon as I rescue Lloyd I'll dash down here on my pony with her behind me. Then we'll slip through the fence and get on the hand-car, and be out of sight around the curve before the rest get here. They won't know where on earth we've gone, and it will be the best joke on them. It's down grade all the way to the section-house, so I can push it easily enough by myself, but I'll need your help coming back, maybe. S'pose you cut across lots to the section-house as soon as I start to the barn, and meet me there. It isn't half as far that way, so you'll get there as soon as we do."
"All right," said Jonesy. "I'm your kid."
"You should say, ''Tis well, Sir Knight, I fly to do thy bidding,'" prompted Keith.
Jonesy grinned. He could not enter into the spirit of the play as the others did. "Aw, I'll be on time," he said; then, as Keith untied his pony, started on a run across the fields.
The Lady Lloyd had not finished her repast when her rescuer appeared, but she put the plate down on the hay to await her return, and obediently climbed down the ladder he placed for her. They reached the fence before the banqueters knew that she had escaped. Flinging the pony's bridle over a fence-post, when they reached the edge of the field, the brave knight crawled through the fence and pulled Lloyd after him, tearing her dress, much to that dainty little lady's extreme disgust.
By the time the king and his guard were mounted in pursuit, on the other pony which stood in waiting, the runaways were in the hand-car. It moved slowly at first, although Keith was strong for his age, and his hardy little muscles were untiring.
"Isn't it lovely?" cried Lloyd, as they moved faster and faster and swept around the curve. "I wish we could go all the way to Louisville on this." The warm March wind fanned her pink cheeks, and blew her soft light hair into her eyes.
Jonesy was waiting at the section-house, and waved his cap as they passed. "We're going on, around the next bend," shouted Keith, as they passed him. "Whoop-la! this is fine, and not a bit hard to work!"
"What will the wicked queen think when she can't find us?" asked Lloyd, laughing happily, as they sped on down the track.
"She'll think that I am a magician and have spirited you away," said Keith.
"Then if you are a magician you ought to change her into a nasty black spidah, to pay her back fo' shuttin' me up with them!" Lloyd was delighted with this new play. For the time it seemed as if she really were escaping from a castle prison. Faster and faster they went. Jonesy, who had followed them to the second curve, stood watching them with wistful eyes, wishing he could be with them. They passed the depot, and then the hand-car seemed to grow smaller and smaller as it rolled away, until it was only a moving speck in the distance. Then he turned and walked back to the section-house.
"I s'pect we've gone about far enough," said Keith, after awhile. "We'd better turn around now and go back, or the picnic will all be over before we get our share. Let's wait here a minute till I rest my arms, and then we'll start."
The place where they had stopped was the loneliest part of the track that could be found in miles, on either side. It was in the midst of a thick beech woods, and the twitter of a bird, now and then, was the only sound in all the deep stillness.
"What lovely green moss on that bank!" cried the Little Colonel. "Wouldn't it make a beautiful carpet for our playhouse down by the old mill?"
"I'll get you some," said Keith, gallantly springing from the car and clambering up the bank. Taking out his knife, he began to cut great squares of the velvety green moss, and pile it up to carry back to the hand-car.
Meanwhile Jonesy waited at the section-house, digging his heels into the cinders that lined the track, and looking impatiently down the road. Presently the section boss came limping along painfully, and sat down on the bank in the warm spring sunshine. He had dropped a piece of heavy machinery on his foot, the week before, and was only able to hobble short distances.
Everybody in the Valley was interested in Jonesy since the fire and the Benefit had made him so well known, and the man was glad of this opportunity to satisfy his curiosity about the boy. Jonesy, with all the fearlessness of a little street gamin brought up in a big city, answered him fearlessly, even saucily at times, much to the man's amusement.
"So you want to get a job around here, do you?" said the man, presently, with a grin. "Maybe I can give you one. Know anything about railroadin'?"
"Heaps," answered Jonesy. "Well, I'd ought to, seem' as I've lived next door to the engine yards all my life, and spent my time dodgin' the cop on watch there, when I was tryin' to steal rides on freight-cars and such."
"Is that what you're hangin' around here now for?" asked the man, with a good-natured twinkle in his eyes.
"Nope! I'm waiting for that MacIntyre kid to come back this way. He went down the track a bit ago on a hand-car, playing rescue a princess with one of the girls at the picnic,"
The section boss sprang up with an exclamation of alarm. "How far's he gone?" he asked. "There's a special due to pass here in a few minutes."
Even while he spoke there sounded far away in the distance, so far that it was like only a faint echo, the whistle of an approaching locomotive. The man hobbled down the track a yard or so and stopped. "What do you suppose they'll do?" he asked. "There are so many bends in this road, the train may come right on to 'em before the engineer sees 'em. S'pose they'll jump off, or turn and try to come back?"
Jonesy glanced around wildly a second, and then sprang forward toward the man.
"Give me the switch-key!" he cried, in a high voice, shrill with excitement. "You can't run, but I can. Give me the switch-key!" Perplexed by the sudden turn of affairs and the little fellow's commanding tone, the man took the key from his pocket. He realised his own helplessness to do anything, and there was something in Jonesy's manner that inspired confidence. He felt that the child's quick wit had grasped the situation and formed some sensible plan of action.
Again the whistle sounded in the distance, and, snatching the key, Jonesy was off down the track like an arrow. The section boss, leaning heavily on his cane, limped after him as fast as he could.
Keith and the Little Colonel, having gathered the moss and started back home, were rolling leisurely along, still talking of magicians and their ilk.
"What if we should meet a dragon?" cried the Little Colonel. "A dragon with a scaly green tail, and red eyes and a fiery tongue. What would you do then?"
"I'd say, 'What! Ho! Thou monster!' and cleave him in twain with my good broadsword, and when he saw its shining blade smite through the air he'd just curl up and die."
Keith looked back to smile at the bright laughing face beside him. Then he caught sight of something over his shoulder that made him pause. "Oh, look!" he cried, pointing over the tree-tops behind them. A little puff of smoke, rising up in the distance, trailed along the sky like a long banner. At the same instant, out of the smoke, sounded the whistle of an approaching engine. The track behind them had so many turns, he could not judge of their distance from it, and for an instant he stopped working the handle bar up and down, too thoroughly frightened to know what to do. An older child might have acted differently; might have jumped from the hand-car and left it to be run into by the approaching train, or have hurried back around the bend to flag the engine. But Keith had only one idea left: that was to keep ahead of the train as long as possible. It seemed so far away he thought they could surely reach the depot before it caught up with them, and his sturdy little arms bent to the task.
For a moment there was a real pleasure in the exertion. He felt with an excited thrill that he was really running away with the Little Colonel, and rescuing her from a pursuing danger. Suddenly the whistle sounded again, and this time it seemed so close behind them that the Little Colonel gave a terrified glance over her shoulder and then screamed at the sight of the great snorting monster, breathing out fire and smoke, worse than any scaly-tailed dragon that she had ever imagined. It was far down the track but they could hear its terrible rumble as it rushed over a trestle, and the singing of the wires overhead.
Keith was straining every muscle now, but it was like running in a nightmare. His arms moved up and down at a furious speed, but it seemed to him that the hand-car was glued to one spot. It seemed, too, that it had been hours since they first discovered that the engine was after them, and he felt that he would soon be too exhausted to move another stroke. Would the depot never never come in sight?
Just then they shot around the curve and caught sight of Jonesy at the depot switch, wildly beckoning with his cap and shouting for them to come on. At that sight, with one supreme effort Keith put his fast-failing strength to the test, and sent the hand-car rolling forward faster than ever. It shot past the switch that Jonesy had unlocked and off to the side-track, just as the train bore down upon them around the last bend.
There was barely time for Jonesy to set the switch again before it thundered on along the main track past the little depot. Being a special, it did not stop. As it went shrieking by, the engineer cast a curious glance at a hand-car on the side-track. A little girl sat on it, a pretty golden-haired child with dark eyes big with fright, and her face as white as her dress. He wondered what was the matter.
For a moment after the shrieking train whizzed by everything seemed deathly still. Keith sat leaning against the embankment, white and limp from exhaustion and the excitement of his close escape. Jonesy was panting and wiping the perspiration from his red face, for he had run like a deer to reach the switch in time.
"I couldn't have held out a minute longer," said Keith, presently. "My arms felt like they had gone to sleep, and I was just ready to give up when I caught sight of you. That seemed to give me strength to go on, when I saw what you were at and that it would only be a little farther to go before we would be safe. Plow did you happen to be at the switch, and know how to set it?"
"Hain't lived all my life around engine yards fer nothin'," answered Jonesy. "Why didn't you jump off and flag the train?"
"I was so taken by surprise I didn't think of that," answered Keith. "The only thing I knew was that we had to keep ahead of it as long as possible. You've saved my life, Jones Carter, and I'll never forget it, no matter what comes,"
"I've been rescued twice to-day," said the Little Colonel, taking a deep breath as she began to recover from her fright. "Jonesy ought to be a knight, too."
"That's so!" exclaimed Keith, springing to his feet. "Come on and let's go back to the barn. We'll tell our adventures, and then we'll go through the ceremony of making Jonesy a Sir Something or other. He's certainly won his spurs."
"Goin' back on the hand-car?" asked Jonesy.
"Not much," answered Keith, with a sickly sort of smile. "Somehow such fast travelling doesn't seem to agree with a fellow. Walking is good enough for me."
"Me too!" cried the Little Colonel, tying on her white sunbonnet. "But the first part of it was lovely,--just like flyin'."
Jonesy ran back to give the man his key, and was kept answering questions so long that he did not catch up with the other children until they were in sight of the barn.
"After all," said Keith, as the three trudged along together, "maybe we'd better not tell how near we came to being run over. Grandmother and Aunt Allison would be dreadfully worried if they should hear of it. They are always worrying for fear something will happen to us."
"Mothah would be wild" exclaimed the Little Colonel, "if she knew I had been in any dangah. Maybe she wouldn't let me out of her sight again to play all summah."
"Then let's don't tell for a long, long time," proposed Keith. "It'll be our secret, just for us three."
"All right," the others agreed. They dropped the subject then, for the barn was just ahead of them, and the gay picnickers came running out, demanding to know where they had been so long.
The Little Colonel often spoke of her experience afterward to the two boys, however, and in Keith's day-dreams a home for Jonesy began to crowd out all other hopes and plans.