Michael O'Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XI. The Advent of Nancy and Peter
When Leslie began the actual work of closing her home, and loading what would be wanted for the country, she found the task too big for the time allotted, so wisely telephoned Douglas that she would be compelled to postpone seeing him until the following day.
"Leslie," laughed Douglas over the telephone, "did you ever hear of the man who cut off his dog's tail an inch at a time, so it wouldn't hurt so badly?"
"I have heard of that particular dog."
"Well this process of cutting me out of seeing you a day at a time reminds me of 'that particular dog,' and evokes my sympathy for the canine as never before."
"It's a surprise I am getting ready for you Douglas!"
"It is a surprise all right," answered Douglas, "and 'Bearer of Morning,' I have got a surprise for you too."
"Oh goody!" cried Leslie. "I adore surprises."
"You'll adore this one!"
"You might give me a hint!" she suggested.
"Very well!" he laughed. "Since last I saw you I have seen the loveliest girl of my experience."
"Delightful! Am I to see her also?"
"Undoubtedly!" explained Douglas. "And you'll succumb to her charms just as I did."
"When may I meet her?" asked Leslie eagerly.
"I can't say; but soon now."
"All right!" agreed the girl. "Be ready at four tomorrow."
Leslie sat in frowning thought a moment, before the telephone; then her ever-ready laugh bubbled. "Why didn't I think of it while I was talking?" she wondered. "Of course Mickey has taken him to visit his Lily. I must see about that wrong back before bone and muscle harden."
Then she began her task. By evening she had a gasoline stove set up, the kitchen provisioned, her father's room ready and arrangements sufficiently completed that she sent the car to bring him to his dinner of cornbread and bacon under an apple tree scattering pink petals beside the kitchen door, with every lake breeze. Then they went fishing and landed three black bass.
Douglas Bruce did not mind one day so much, but he resented two. When he greeted Mickey that morning it was not with the usual salutation of his friends, so the boy knew there was something not exactly right. He was not feeling precisely jovial himself. He was under suspended judgment. He knew that when Mr. Bruce had time to think, and talk over the situation with Miss Winton, both of them might very probably agree with the woman who said the law would take Lily from him and send her to a charity home for children.
Mickey, with his careful drilling on the subject, was in rebellion. How could the law take Lily from him? Did the law know anything about her? Was she in the care of the law when he found her? Wouldn't the law have allowed her to die grovelling in filth and rags, inside a few more hours? He had not infringed on the law in any way; he had merely saved a life the law had forgotten to save. Now when he had it in his possession and in far better condition than he found it, how had the law power to step in and rob him?
Mickey did not understand, while there was nothing in his heart that could teach him. He had found her: he would keep her. The Orphans' Home should not have her. The law should not have her. Only one possibility had any weight with Mickey: if some one like Mr. Bruce or Miss Winton wanted to give her a home of luxury, could provide care at once, for which he would be forced to wait years to earn the money; if they wanted her and the Carrel man of many miracles would come for them; did he dare leave her lying an hour, when there was even hope she might be on her feet? There was only one answer to that with Mickey, but it pained his heart. So his greeting lacked its customary spontaneity.
By noon Bruce was irritable, while Mickey was as nearly sullen as it was in his nature to be. At two o'clock Bruce surrendered, summoned the car, and started to the golf grounds. He had played three holes when he overtook a man who said a word that arrested his attention, so both of them stopped, and with notebooks and pencils, under the shade of a big tree began discussing the question that meant more to Douglas than anything save Leslie. He dismissed Mickey for the afternoon, promising him that if he would be ready by six, he should be driven back to the city.
Mickey wanted to be alone to concentrate on his problem, but people were everywhere and more coming by the carload. He could see no place that was then, or would be, undisturbed. The long road with grassy sides gave big promises of leading somewhere to the quiet retreat he sought. Telling the driver that if he were not back by six, he would be waiting down the road, Mickey started on foot, in thought so deep he scarcely appreciated the grasses he trod, the perfume in his nostrils, the concert in his ears. What did at last arouse him was the fact that he was very thirsty. That made him realize that this was the warmest day of the season. Instantly his mind flew to the mite of a girl, lying so patiently, watching the clock for his coming, living for the sound of his feet.
Mickey stopped, studying the landscape. A cool gentle breeze crossed the clover field beside the way, refreshing him in its passing. He sucked his lungs full, then lifted his cap, shaking the hair from his forehead. He stuffed the cap into his pocket, walking slowly along, intending to stop at the nearest farmhouse to ask for water. But the first home was not to Mickey's liking. He went on, passing another and another.
Then he came to land that attracted him. The fences were so straight. The corners so clean where they were empty, so delightful where they were filled with alder, wild plum, hawthorn; attractive locations for the birds of the bushes that were field and orchard feeders. Then the barn and outbuildings looked so neat and prosperous; grazing cattle in rank meadows were so sleek; then a big white house began to peep from the screen of vines, bushes and trees.
"Well if the water here gives you fever, it will anywhere," said Mickey, and turning in at the open gate started up a walk having flower beds on each side. There was a wide grassy lawn where the big trees scattered around afforded almost complete shade. Mickey never had seen a home like it closely. He scarcely could realize that there were places in the world where families lived alone like this. He tried to think how he would feel if he belonged there. When he reached the place where he saw Lily on a comfort under a big bloom-laden pear tree, his throat grew hard, his eyes dry and his feet heavy. Then the screen to the front door swung back as a smiling woman in a tidy gingham dress came through and stood awaiting Mickey.
"I just told Peter when he came back alone, I bet a penny you'd got off at the wrong stop!" she cried. "I'm so glad you found your way by yourself. But you must be tired and hot walking. Come right in and have a glass of milk, then strip your feet and I'll ring for Junior."
For one second Mickey was dazed. The next, he knew what it must mean. These people were the kind whom God had made so big and generous they divided home and summer with tenement children from the big city thirty miles away. Some boy was coming for a week, maybe, into what exactly filled Mickey's idea of Heaven, but he was not the boy.
"'Most breaks my heart to tell you," he said, "but I ain't the boy you're expecting. I'm just taking a walk and I thought maybe you'd let me have a drink. I've wanted one past the last three houses, but none looked as if they'd have half such good, cool water as this."
"Now don't that beat the nation!" exclaimed the woman. "The Multiopolis papers are just oozing sympathy for the poor city children who are wild for woods and water; and when I'd got myself nerved up to try one and thought it over till I was really anxious about it, and got my children all worked up too, here for the second time Peter knocks off plowing and goes to the trolley to meet one, and he doesn't come. I've got a notion to write the editor of the Herald and tell him my experience. I think it's funny! But you wanted water, come this way."
Mickey followed a footpath white with pear petals around the big house and standing beside a pump waited while the woman stepped to the back porch for a cup. He took it, drinking slowly.
"Thank you ma'am," he said as he handed it back, turning to the path.
Yesterday had weakened his nerve. He was going to cry again. He took a quick step forward, but the woman was beside him, her hand on his shoulder.
"Wait a minute," she said. "Sit on this bench under the pear tree. I want to ask you something. Excuse me and rest until I come back."
Mickey leaned against the tree, shutting his eyes, fighting with all his might. He was too big to cry. The woman would think him a coward as Mr. Bruce had. Then things happened as they actually do at times. The woman hurriedly came from the door, sat on the bench beside him, and said: "I went in there to watch you through the window, but I can't stand this a second longer. You poor child you, now tell me right straight what's the matter!"
Mickey tried but no sound came. The woman patted his shoulder. "Now doesn't it beat the band?" she said, to the backyard in general. "Just a little fellow not in long trousers yet, and bearing such a burden he can't talk. I guess maybe God has a hand in this. I'm not so sure my boy hasn't come after all. Who are you, and where are you going? Don't you want to send your ma word you will stay here a week with me?"
Mickey lifted a bewildered face.
"Why, I couldn't, lady," he said brokenly, but gaining control as he went on. "I must work. Mr. Bruce needs me. I'm a regular plute compared with most of the 'newsies'; you wouldn't want to do anything for me who has so much; but if you're honestly thinking about taking a boy and he hasn't come, how would you like to have a little girl in his place? A little girl about so long, and so wide, with a face like Easter church flowers, and rings of gold on her head, and who wouldn't be half the trouble a boy would, because she hasn't ever walked, so she couldn't get into things."
"Oh my goodness! A crippled little girl?"
"She isn't crippled," said Mickey. "She's as straight as you are, what there is of her. She had so little food, and care, her back didn't seem to stiffen, so her legs won't walk. She wouldn't be half so much trouble as a boy. Honest, dearest lady, she wouldn't!"
"Who are you?" asked the woman.
Mickey produced a satisfactory pedigree, and gave unquestionable references which she recognized, for she slowly nodded at the names of Chaffner and Bruce.
"And who is the little girl you are asking me to take?"
Mickey studied the woman and then began to talk, cautiously at first. Ashamed to admit the squalor and the awful truth of how he had found the thing he loved, then gathering courage he began what ended in an outpouring. The woman watched him, listening, and when Mickey had no further word: "She is only a tiny girl?" she asked wonderingly.
"The littlest girl you ever saw," said Mickey.
"Perfectly helpless?" marvelled the woman.
"Oh no! She can sit up and use her hands," said Mickey. "She can feed herself, write on her slate, and learn her lessons. It's only that she stays put. She has to be lifted if she's moved."
"You lift her?" queried the woman.
"Could with one hand," said Mickey tersely.
"You say this young lawyer you work for, whose name I see in the Herald connected with the investigation going on, is at the club house now?" she asked.
"Yes," answered Mickey.
"He's coming past here this evening?" she pursued.
"About how much waiting on would your little girl take?" she asked next.
"Well just at present, she does the waiting on me," said Mickey. "You see, dearest lady, I have to get her washed and fix her breakfast and her lunch beside the bed, and be downtown by seven o'clock, and I don't get back 'til six. Then I wash her again to freshen her up and cook her supper. Then she says her lesson, her prayers and goes to sleep. So you see it's mostly her waiting on me. A boy couldn't be less trouble than that, could he?"
"It doesn't seem like it," said the woman, "and no matter how much bother she was, I guess I could stand it for a week, if she's such a little girl, and can't walk. The difficulty is this: I promised my son Junior a boy and his heart is so set. He's wild about the city. He's going to be gone before we know it. He doesn't seem to care for anything we have, or do. I don't know just what he hoped to get out of a city boy; but I promised him one. Then I felt scared and wrote Mr. Chaffner how it was and asked him to send me a real nice boy who could be trusted. If it were not for Junior-- Mary and the Little Man would be delighted."
"Well never mind," said Mickey. "I'll go see the Nurse Lady and maybe she can think of a plan. Anyway I don't know as it would be best for Lily. If she came here a week, seems like it would kill me to take her back, and I don't know how she'd bear staying alone all day, after she had got used to company. And pretty soon now it's going to get so hot, top floors in the city, that if she had a week like this, going back would make her sick."
"You must give me time to think," said the woman. "Peter will soon be home to supper. I'll talk it over with him and with Junior and see what they think. Where could you be found in Multiopolis? We drive in every few days. We like to go ourselves, and there's no other way to satisfy the children. They get so tired and lonesome in the country."
Mickey was aghast. "They do? Why it doesn't seem possible! I wish I could trade jobs with Junior for a while. What is his work?"
"He drives the creamery wagon," answered the woman.
"O Lord!" Mickey burst forth. "Excuse me ma'am, I mean----Oh my! Drives a real live horse along these streets and gathers up the cream cans we pass at the gates, and takes them to the trolley?"
"Yes," she said.
"And he'd give up that job for blacking somebody's shoes, or carrying papers, or running errands, or being shut up all summer in a big hot building! Oh my!"
"When will you be our way again?" asked the woman. "I'll talk this over with Peter. If we decided to try the little girl and she did the 'waiting' as you say, she couldn't be much trouble. I should think we could manage her, and a boy too. I wish you could be the boy. I'd like to have you. I've been thinking if we could get a boy to show Junior what it is he wants to know about a city, he'd be better satisfied at home, but I don't know. It's just possible it might make him worse. Now such an understanding boy as you seem to be, maybe you could teach Junior things about the city that would make him contented at home. Do you think you could?"
"Dearest lady, I get you," said Mickey. "Do I think I could? Well if you really wished me to, I could take your Junior to Multiopolis with me for a week and make him so sick he'd never want to see a city again while his palpitator was running."
"Hu'umh!" said the lady slowly, her eyes on far distance. "Let me think! I don't know but that would be a fine thing for all of us. We have land enough for a nice farm for both boys, and the way things look now, land seems about as sure as anything; we could give them a farm apiece when we are done with it, and the girl the money to take to her home when she marries--I would love to know that Junior was going to live on land as his father does; but all his life he's talked about working in the city when he grows up. Hu'umh!"
"Well if you want him cured of that, gimme the job," he grinned. "You see lady, I know the city, inside out and outside in again. I been playing the game with it since I can remember. You can't tell me anything I don't know about the lowest, poorest side of it. Oh I could tell you things that would make your head swim. If you want your boy dosed just sick as a horse on what a workingman gets in Multiopolis 'tween Sunrise Alley and Biddle Boulevard, just you turn him over to me a week. I'll fix him. I'll make the creamery job look like 'Lijah charioteering for the angels to him, honest I will lady; and he won't ever know it, either. He'll come through with a lump in his neck, and a twist in his stummick that means home and mother. See?"
The woman looked at Mickey in wide-eyed and open-mouthed amazement: "Well if I ever!" she gasped.
"If you don't believe me, try it," said Mickey.
"Well! Well! I'll have to think," she said. "I don't know but it would be a good thing if it could be done."
"Well don't you have any misgivings about it being done," said Mickey. "It's being done every day. I know men, hundreds of them, just scraping, and slaving and half starving to get together the dough to pull out. I hear it on the cars, on the streets, and see it in the papers. They're jumping their jobs and going every day, while hundreds of Schmeltzenschimmers, O'Laughertys, Hansons, and Pietros are coming in to take their places. Multiopolis is more than half filled with crowd-outs from across the ocean now, instead of home folks' cradles, as it should be. If Junior has got a hankering for Multiopolis that is going to cut him out of owning a place like this, and bossing his own job, dearest lady, cook him! Cook him quick!"
"Would you come here?" she questioned.
"Would I?" cried Mickey. "Well try me and see!"
"I'm deeply interested in what you say about Junior," she said. "I'll talk it over to-night with Peter."
"Well I don't know," said Mickey. "He might put the grand kibosh on it. Hard! But if Junior came back asking polite for his mush and milk, and offering his Christmas pennies for the privilege of plowing, or driving the cream wagon, believe me dear lady, then Peter would fall on your neck and weep for joy."
"Yes, in that event, he would," said the lady, "and the temptation is so great, that I believe if you'll give me your address, I'll look you up the next time I come to Multiopolis, which will be soon. I'd like to see your Lily before I make any promises. If I thought I could manage, I could bring her right out in the car. Tell me where to find you, and I'll see what Peter thinks."
Mickey grinned widely. "You ain't no suffragette lady, are you?" he commented.
"Well I don't know about that," said the lady. "There are a good many things to think of these days."
"Yes I know," said Mickey, "but as long as everything you say swings the circle and rounds up with Peter, it's no job to guess what's most important in your think-tank. Peter must be some pumpkins!"
"Come to think of it, he is, Mickey," she said. "Come to think of it, I do sort of revolve around Peter. We always plan together. Not that we always think alike: there are some things I just can't make Peter see, that I wish I could; but I wouldn't trade Peter----"
"No I guess he's top crust," laughed Mickey.
"He is so!" said the woman. "How did you say I could reach you?"
"Well, the easiest way would be this. Here, I'll write the number for you."
"Fine!" said the woman. "I'll hurry through my shopping and call you--when would it suit you best?"
"Never mind me," said Mickey. "For this, I'll come when you say."
"What about three in the afternoon, then?"
"Sure!" cried Mickey. "Suits me splendid! Mostly quit for the day then. But ma'am, I don't know about this. Lily isn't used to anybody but me, she may be afraid to come with you."
"And I may think I would scarcely want to try to take care of her for a week, when I see her," said the woman.
"You may think that now, but you'll change your mind when you see her," said Mickey. "Dearest lady, when you see a little white girl that hasn't ever walked, smiling up at you shy and timid, you won't be any more anxious for Orphings' Homes and Charity Palaces to swallow her up than I am; not a bit! All I must think of is what Lily will say about coming. She's never been out of my room since I found her, and she hasn't seen any one but Mr. Bruce, so she'll be afraid, and worried. Seeing her is all I ask of you! What I'm up against is what she's going to say; and how I'm going to take her back after a week here, when it will be hotter there and lonesomer than ever."
"You surely give one things to think about," commented the woman.
"Do I?" queried Mickey. "Well I don't know as I should. Probably with Peter, and three children of your own, and this farm to run, you are busy enough without spending any of your time on me."
"The command in the good book is plain: 'Bear ye one another's burdens,'" quoted the woman.
"Oh yes! 'Burdens,' of course!" agreed Mickey. "But that couldn't mean Lily, 'cause she's nothing but joy! Just pure joy! All about her is that a fellow loves her so, that it keeps him laying awake at nights thinking how to do what would be best for her. She's mine, and I'm going to keep her; that's the surest thing you know. If I take you to see Lily, and if I decide to let you have her a few days to rest her and fresh her up, you wouldn't go and want to put her 'mong the Orphings' Home kids, would you? You wouldn't think she ought to be took from me and raised in a flock of every kind, from every place. Would you lady?"
"No, I wouldn't," said the lady. "I see how you feel, and I am sure I wouldn't want that for one of mine."
"Well, there's no question about her being mine!" said Mickey. "But I like you so, maybe I'll let you help me a little. A big boy that can run and play doesn't need you, dearest lady, half so much as my little girl. Do you think he does?"
"No, I think the Lord sent you straight here. If you don't stop I'll be so worked up I can't rest. I may come to-morrow."
Mickey arose, holding out his hand.
"Thank you dearest lady," he said. "I must be getting out where the car won't pass without my seeing it."
"You wait at the gate a minute," she said, "I want to send in a little basket of things to-night. I'll have it ready in a jiffy."
Mickey slowly walked to the gate. When the woman came with a basket covered with a white cloth, he thanked her again; as he took it he rested his head against her arm, smiling up at her with his wide true eyes.
"A thing I can't understand is," he said, "why when the Lord was making mothers, he didn't cut all of them from the same piece he did you. I'll just walk on down the road and smell June beside this clover field. Is it yours?"
"Yes," she said.
"Would you care if I'd take just a few to Lily? I know she never saw any."
"Take a bunch as big as your head if you want them."
"Lily is so little, three will do her just as well; besides, she's got to remember how we are fixed, so she needn't begin to expect things to come her way by baskets and bunches," said Mickey. "She's bound to be spoiled bad enough as it is. I can't see how I'm going to come out with her, but she's mine, and I'm going to keep her."
"Mickey," laughed the woman, "don't you think you swing around to Lily just about the way I do to Peter?"
"Well maybe I do," conceded Mickey.
"What kind of a car did you say Mr. Bruce has?"
"Oh the car is dark green, and the driver has sandy hair; and Mr. Bruce-- why you'd know him anywhere! Just look for the finest man you ever saw, if you are out when he goes by, and that will be Mr. Douglas Bruce."
"I guess I'll know him if I happen to be out."
"Sure lady, you couldn't miss him," replied Mickey.
Carefully holding his basket he went down the road. The woman made supper an hour late standing beside the gate watching for a green car. Many whirled past, then at last one with the right look came gliding along; so she stepped out and raised her hand for a parley. The car stopped.
"Mr. Douglas Bruce?" she asked.
"At your service, Madam!" he answered.
"Just a word with you," she said.
He arose instantly, swung open the car door, and stepping down walked with her to the shade of a big widely branching maple. The woman looked at him, and said flushing and half confused: "Please to excuse me for halting you, but I had a reason. This afternoon such an attractive little fellow stopped here to ask for a drink in passing. Now Peter and I had decided we'd try our hand at taking a city boy for a week or so for his vacation, and twice Peter has left his work and gone to the trolley station to fetch him, and he failed us. I supposed Peter had missed him, so when I saw the boy coming, just the first glimpse my heart went right out to him----"
"Very likely----" assented Mr. Bruce.
"He surely is the most winning little chap I ever saw with his keen blue eyes and that sort of light on his forehead," said the woman.
"I've noticed that," put in the man.
"Yes," she said, "anybody would see that almost the first thing. So I thought he was the boy I was to mother coming, and I went right at the job. He told me quick enough that I was mistaken, but I could see he was in trouble. Someway I'd trust him with my character or my money, but I got to be perfectly sure before I trust him with my children. You see I have three, and if ever any of them go wrong, I don't want it to be because I was careless. I thought I'd like to have him around some; my oldest boy is bigger, but just about his age. He said he might be out this way with you this summer and I wanted to ask him in, and do what I could to entertain him; but first I wanted to inquire of you----"
"I see!" said Douglas Bruce. "I haven't known Mickey so long, but owing to the circumstances in which I met him, and the association with him since, I feel that I know him better than I could most boys in a longer time. The strongest thing I can say to you is this: had I a boy of my own, I should be proud if Mickey liked him and would consider being friends with him. He is absolutely trustworthy, that I know."
"Then I won't detain your further," she said.
Mickey, cheered in mind and heart, had walked ahead briskly with his basket, while as he went he formulated his plans. He would go straight to the Sunshine Nurse, tell her about the heat and this possible chance to take Lily to the country for a week, and consult with her as to what the effect of the trip might be, and what he could do with her afterward, then he would understand better. He kept watching the clover field beside the way. When he decided he had reached the finest, best perfumed place, he saw a man plowing on the other side of the fence and thought it might be Peter and that Peter would wonder what he was doing in his field, so Mickey set the basket in a corner and advanced.
He was wonderfully elated by what had happened to him and the conclusions at which he had arrived, as he came across the deep grasses beside the fence where the pink of wild rose and the snow of alder commingled, where song sparrows trilled, and larks and quail were calling. He approached smiling in utter confidence. As he looked at the man, at his height, his strong open face, his grip on the plow, he realized why the world of the little woman revolved around Peter. Mickey could have conceived of few happier fates than being attached to Peter, so he thought in amazement of the boy who wanted to leave him. Then a slow grin spread over his face, for by this time Peter had stopped his horses and was awaiting him with an answering smile and hand outstretched.
"Why son, I'm glad to see you!" he cried. "How did I come to miss you? Did you get off at the wrong stop?"
Mickey shook his head as he took the proffered hand.
"You are Peter?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm Peter," confirmed the man.
"Well you're making the same mistake your pleasant lady did," explained Mickey. "She thought I was the boy who had been sent to visit you, so she gave me the glad hand too. I wish I was in his shoes! But I'm not your boy. Gee, your lady is a nice gentle lady."
"You're all correct there," agreed Peter. "And so you are not the boy who was to be sent us. Pshaw now! I wish you were. I'm disappointed. I've been watching you coming down the road, and the way you held together and stepped up so brisk and neat took my eye."
"I been 'stepping up brisk and neat' to sell papers, run errands, hop cars, dodge cars and automobiles, and climbing fire-escapes instead of stairs, and keeping from under foot since I can remember," laughed Mickey. "You learn on the streets of Multiopolis to step up, and watch sharp without knowing you are doing it."
"You're a newsboy?" asked Peter.
"I was all my life 'til a few days ago," said Mickey. "Then I went into the office of Mr. Douglas Bruce. He's a corporation lawyer in the Iriquois Building."
"Hum, I've been reading about him," said Peter. "If I ever have a case, I'm going to take it to him."
"Well you'll have a man that will hang on and dig in and sweat for you," said Mickey. "Just now he's after some of them big office-holders who are bleeding the taxpayers of Multiopolis. Some of these days if you watch your Herald sharp, you're going to see the lid fly off of two or three things at once. He's on a hot trail now."
"Why I have seen that in the papers," said Peter. "He was given the job of finding who is robbing the city, by James Minturn; I remember his name. And you work for him? Well, well! Sit down here and tell me about it."
"I can't now," said Mickey. "I must get back to the road. His car may pass any minute, and I'm to be ready. Your pleasant lady said I might take a few clover flowers to my little sick girl, and just as I came to the finest ones in the field, I saw you so I thought maybe I'd better tell you what I was doing before you fired me."
"Take all you want," said Peter. "I'd like to send the whole field, larks and all, to a little sick girl. I'd like especial to send her some of these clowny bobolink fellows to puff up and spill music by the quart for her; I guess nothing else runs so smooth except water."
"I don't know what she'd say," said Mickey gazing around him. "You see she hasn't ever walked, so all she's seen in her life has been the worst kind of bare, dark tenement walls, 'til lately she's got a high window where she can see sky, and a few sparrows that come for crumbs. This!"--Mickey swept his arm toward the landscape--"I don't know what she'd say to this!"
"Pshaw, now!" cried Peter. "Why bring her out! You bring her right out! That's what we been wanting to know. Just what a city child would think of country things she'd never seen before. Bring her to see us!"
"She's a little bit of a thing and she can't walk, you know," explained Mickey.
"Poor little mite! That's too bad," lamented Peter. "Wonder if she couldn't be doctored up. It's a shame she can't walk, but taking care of her must be easy!"
"Oh she takes care of herself," said Mickey. "You see she is alone all day from six 'til six; she must take care of herself, so she studies her lesson, and plays with her doll--I mean her Precious Child."
"Too bad!" said Peter. "By jacks that's a sin! Did you happen to speak to Ma about her?"
"We did talk a little," admitted Mickey. "She was telling me of the visitor boy who didn't come, and your son who doesn't think he'll want to stay; so we got to talking. She said just what you did about wanting to see how a city child who hadn't ever seen a chicken, or a cow, or horse would act----"
"Good Lord!" cried Peter. "Is there a child in Multiopolis who hasn't ever seen a little chicken, or a calf?"
"Hundreds of them!" said Mickey. "I've scarcely seen a cow myself. I've seen hens and little chickens in shop windows at Easter time----"
"But not in the orchard in June?" queried Peter.
"No, 'not in the orchard in June!'" said Mickey.
"Well, well!" marvelled Peter. "There's nothing so true as that 'one half doesn't know how the other half lives.' I've heard that, but I didn't quite sense it, and I don't know as I do yet. You bring her right out!"
"Your pleasant lady talked about that; but you see bringing her out and showing her these things, and getting her used to them is one thing; then taking her back to a room so hot I always sleep on the fire-escape, and where she has to stay all day alone, is another. I don't know but so long as she must go back to what she has now, it would be better to leave her there."
"Humph! I see! What a pity!" exclaimed Peter. "Well, if you'll be coming this way again, stop and see us. I'll talk to Ma about her. We often take a little run to Multiopolis. Junior wouldn't be satisfied till we got a car, and I can't say we ain't enjoying it ourselves. What was that you were saying about my boy not thinking he'll stay?"
"She told me," said Mickey, "about the city bug he had in his system. Why don't you swat it immediate?"
"What do you mean?" inquired Peter.
"Turn him over to me a week or two," suggested Mickey. "I can give him a dose of working in a city that will send him hiking back to home and father."
"It's worth considering," said Peter.
"I know that what I got of Multiopolis would make me feel like von Hindenberg if I had the job of handling the ribbons of your creamery wagon; and so I know about what would put sonny back on the farm, tickled 'most to death to be here."
"By gum! Well, I'll give you just one hundred dollars if you'll do it!" exclaimed Peter. "You see my grandfather and father owned this land before me. We've been on the plowing job so long we have it reduced to a system, so it comes easy for me, and I take pride and pleasure in it; I had supposed my boys would be the same. Do you really think you could manage it?"
"Sure," said Mickey. "Only, if you really mean it, not now, nor ever, do you want son to know it. See! The medicine wouldn't work, if he knew he took it."
"Well I'll be jiggered!" laughed Peter. "I guess you could do it, if you went at it right."
"Well you trust me to do it right," grinned Mickey. "Loan me sonny for a week or two, and you can have him back for keeps."
"Well it's worth trying," said Peter. "Say, when will you be this way again?"
"'Most any day," said Mickey. "And your lady said she'd be in Multiopolis soon, so we are sure to have a happy meeting before long. I think that is Mr. Bruce's car coming. Goodbye! Be good to yourself!"
With a spring from where he was standing Mickey arose in air, alighted on the top rail of the division fence, then balancing, he raced down it toward the road. Peter watched him in astonishment, then went back to his plowing with many new things on his mind. Thus it happened that after supper, when the children were in bed, and he and his wife went to the front veranda for their usual evening visit, and talk over the day, she had very little to tell him.
As was her custom, she removed her apron, brushed her waving hair and wore a fresh dress. She rocked gently in her wicker chair, while her voice was moved to unusual solicitude as she spoke. Peter also had performed a rite he spoke of as "brushing up" for evening. He believed in the efficacy of soap and water, so his body, as well as his clothing, was clean. He sat on the top step leaning against the pillar where the moonlight emphasized his big frame, accented the strong lines of his face and crowned his thick hair, as Nancy Harding thought it should be, with glory.
"Peter," she said, "did you notice anything about that boy, this afternoon, different from other boys?"
"Yes," answered Peter slowly, "I did Nancy. He didn't strike me as being one boy. He has the best of three or four concealed in his lean person."
"He's had a pretty tough time, I judge," said Nancy.
"Yet you never saw a boy who took your heart like he did, and neither did I," answered Peter.
Mickey holding his basket and clover flowers was waiting when the car drew up, and to Bruce's inquiry answered that a lady where he stopped for a drink had given him something for Lily. He left the car in the city, sought the nurse and luckily found her at leisure. She listened with the greatest interest to all he had to say.
"It's a problem," she said, as he finished. "To take her to such a place for a week, and then bring her back where she is, would be harder for her than never going."
"I got that figured," said Mickey; "but I've about made up my mind, after seeing the place and thinking over the folks, that it wouldn't happen that way. Once they see her, and find how little trouble she is, they're not people who would send her back 'til it's cool, if they'd want to then. And there's this, too: there are other folks who would take her now, and see about her back. Have I got the right to let it go a day, waiting to earn the money myself, when some one else, maybe the Moonshine Lady, or Mr. Bruce, would do it now, and not put her in an Orphings' Home, either?"
"No Mickey, you haven't!" said the nurse.
"Just the way I have it figured," said Mickey. "But she's mine, and I'm going to keep her. If her back is fixed, I'm going to have it done. I don't want any one else meddling with my family. You haven't heard anything from the Carrel man yet?"
"No," she said.
"My, I wish he'd come!" cried Mickey.
"So do I," said the nurse. "But so far Mickey, I think you are doing all right. If she must be operated, she'd have to be put in condition for it; and while I suspect I could beat you at your job, I am positive you are far surpassing what she did have."
"Well I know that too," said Mickey. "But surpassing nothing at all isn't going either far or fast. I must do something."
"If you could bring yourself to consent to giving her up----" suggested the nurse.
"Well I can't!" interposed Mickey.
"Just for a while!" continued the nurse.
"Not for a minute! I found her! She's mine!"
"Yes, I know; but----" began the nurse.
"I know too," said Mickey. "Gimme a little time." He studied the problem till he reached his grocery. There he thriftily lifted the cloth to peep, and with a sigh of satisfaction pursued his way. Presently he opened his door, to be struck by a wave of hot air and to note a flushed little face and drawn mouth as he went into Peaches' outstretched arms. Then he delivered the carefully carried clover and the following:
"I got these from a big, pink field bewildering, That God made a-purpose for cows and childering. Her share is being consumed by the cow, Let's go roll in ours right now."
"Again!" demanded Peaches.
Mickey repeated slowly.
"How could we?" asked Peaches.
"Easy!" said Mickey.
"'Easy?'" repeated Peaches.
"Just as easy!" reiterated Mickey.
"Did you see it?" demanded Peaches.
"Yes, I saw it to-day," said Mickey. "It's like this: you see some folks live in houses all built together, and work at selling things to eat, and wear, and making things, and doing other work that must be done like doctors, and lawyers, and hospitals; that's a city. Then to feed them, other folks live on big pieces of land; the houses are far apart, with streets between, and beside them the big fields where the wheat grows for our bread, and our potatoes, and the grass, and the clover like this to feed the cows. To-day Mr. Bruce didn't play long, so I went walking and stopped at a house for a drink, and there was the nicest lady; we talked some and she give me our supper in that pretty basket; and she sent you the clovers from a big pink field so sweet smelly it would 'most make you sick; and there are trees through it, and lots of birds sing, and there are wild roses and fringy white flowers; and it's quiet 'cept the birds, and the roosters crowing, and the wind comes in little perfumery blows on you, and such milk!"
"Better 'an our milk?" asked Peaches.
"Their milk is so rich it makes ours look like a poorhouse relation," scoffed Mickey.
"Tell me more," demanded Peaches.
"Wait 'til I get the water to wash you, you are so warm."
"Yes, it's getting some hot; but 'tain't nothing like on the rags last summer. It's like a real lady here."
"A pretty warm lady, just the same," said Mickey.
Then he brought water and leaving the door ajar for the first time, he soon started a draft; that with the coming of cooler evening lowered the child's temperature, and made her hungry. As he worked Mickey talked. The grass, the blooming orchard, the hen and her little downy chickens, the big cool porch, the wonderful woman and man, the boy whom they expected and who did not come; and then cautiously, slowly, making sure she understood, he developed his plan to take her to the country. Peaches drew back and opened her lips. Mickey promptly laid the washcloth over them.
"Now don't begin to say you 'won't' like a silly baby," he said. "Try it and see, then if you don't like it, you can come right back. You want to ride in a grand automobile like a millyingaire lady, don't you? All the swells go away to the country for the summer, you got to be a swell lady! I ain't going to have you left way behind!"
"Mickey, would you be there?" she asked.
"Yes lady, I'd be right on the job!" said Mickey. "I'd be there a lot more than I am here. You go the week they wanted that boy, and he didn't come; then if you like it, I'll see if they won't board you, and you can have a nice little girl to play with, and a fat, real baby, and a boy bigger than me--and you should see Peter!"
Peaches opened her lips, Mickey reapplied the cloth.
"Calm down now!" he ordered. "I've decided to do it. We got to hump ourselves. This is our chance. Why there's milk, and butter, and eggs, and things to eat there like you never tasted, and to have a cool breeze, and to lie on the grass----"
"Oh Mickey, could I?" cried Peaches.
"Sure silly! Why not?" said Mickey. "There's big fields of it, and the cows don't need it all. You can lie on the grass, or the clover, and hear the birds, and play with the children. I'll take a day and get things started right before I leave you to come to work, like I'll have to. When I come at night, I'll carry your outdoors; why I'll take you down to the water and you can kick your feet in it, where it's nice and warm; all the time you can have as many flowers as your hands will hold; and such bird singing, why Lily Peaches O'Halloran, there are birds as red as blood, yes ma'am, and yellow as orange peel and light blue like this ribbon and dark blue like that--hold still 'til I fix you--and such singing!"
"Mickey, would you hold me?" wavered Peaches.
"Smash anybody that lays a finger on you, unless you say so," said Mickey promptly.
"And you'd stay a whole day?" she asked anxiously.
"Sure!" cried Mickey.
"An' if I was afraid you'd bring me back?" she went on.
"Sure! Right away!" he promised.
"An' they wouldn't anybody 'get' me there?"
"'Way out there 'mong the clover?" scoffed Mickey. "Why it's here they'll 'get' you if they are going to. Nobody out there wants you, but me."
"Mickey, when will you take me?" she asked eagerly.
"Before so very long," promised Mickey. "You needn't be surprised to hear me coming with the nice lady to see you any day now, and to be wrapped in a sheet, and put in a big car, and just scooted right out to the very place that God made especial for little girls. To-night we put in another blesses, Lily. We'll pray, 'Bless the nice lady who sent our supper,' won't we?"
"Yes Mickey, and 'fore you came I didn't want any supper at all, and now I do," said Peaches.
"You were too warm honey," said Mickey. "We'll just fix this old hot city. We'll run right away from it. See? Now we'll have the grandest supper we ever had."
Mickey brought water, plates, and forks, and opened the basket. Peaches bolstered with her pillows cried out and marvelled. There was a quart bottle of milk wrapped in a wet cloth. There was a big loaf of crusty brown country bread. There was a small blue bowl of yellow butter, a square of honey even yellower, a box of strawberries, and some powdered sugar, and a little heap of sliced, cold boiled ham. Mickey surveyed the table.
"Now Miss Chicken, here's how!" he warned. "I found you all warm and feverish. If you load up with this, you'll be sick sure. You get a cup of milk, a slice of bread and butter, some berries and a teeny piece of meat. We can live from this a week, if the heat doesn't spoil it."
"You fix me," said Peaches.
Then they had such a supper as they neither one ever had known, during which Mickey explained wheat fields and bread, bees and honey, cows and clover, pigs and ham, as he understood them. Peaches repeated her lesson and her prayers and then as had become her custom, demanded that Mickey write his last verse on the slate, so she might learn and copy it on the morrow. She was asleep before he finished. Mickey walked softly, cleared the table, placed it before the window, and taking from his pocket an envelope Mr. Bruce had given him drew out a sheet of folded paper on which he wrote long and laboriously, then locking Peaches in, he slipped down to the mail-box and posted this letter:
DEAR MISTER CARREL:
I saw in papers I sold how you put different legs on a dog. I have a little white flowersy-girl that hasn't ever walked. It's her back. A Nurse Lady told me at the "Star of Hope" how you came there sometimes, and the next time you come, I guess I will let you see my little girl; and maybe I'll have you fix her back. When you see her you will know that to fix her back would be the biggest thing you ever did or ever could do. I got a job that I can pay her way and mine, and save two dollars a week for you. I couldn't pay all at once, but I could pay steady; and if you'd lose all you have in any way, it would come in real handy to have that much skating in steady as the clock every week for as long as you say, and soon as I can, I'll make it more. I'd give all I got, or ever can get, to cure Lily's back, and because you fixed the dog, I'd like you to fix her. I do hope you will come soon, but of course I don't wish anybody else would get sick so you'd have to. You can ask if I am square of Mr. Douglas Bruce, Iriquois Building, Multiopolis, Indiana, or of Mr. Chaffner, editor of the Herald, whose papers I've sold since I was big enough.