Michael O'Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XV. A Particular Nix
Peaches awakened early the following morning, but Mickey was watching beside her to help her remember, to prompt, to soothe, to comfort and to teach. He followed Mrs. Harding to the kitchen and from the prepared food selected what he thought came closest filling the diet prescribed by the Sunshine Nurse, and then he carried the tray to a fresh, cool Peaches beside a window opening on a grassy, tree-covered lawn. Her room was bewildering on account of its many, and to the child, magnificent furnishings. She found herself stretching, twisting and filled with a wild desire to walk, to see the house, the little girl and the real baby, the lawn beyond her window, the flower-field, the red berries where they grew, and the birds and animals from which came the most amazing sounds.
After doing everything for Peaches he could, Mickey went to his breakfast. Mary Harding and Bobbie were so anxious to see the visitor they could scarcely eat. Knowing it was no use to try forcing them, their mother excused them and they ventured as far as the door. There they stopped, gazing at the little stranger, while she stared back at them; but she was not frightened, because she knew who they were and that they would be good to her, else Mickey would not let them come. So when Mary, holding little brother's hand, came peeping around the door-casing, Peaches withdrew her attention from exploration of the strip of lawn in her range and concentrated on them. If they had come bounding at her, she would have been frightened, but they did not. They stood still, half afraid, watching the tiny white creature, till suddenly she smiled at them and held out her hand.
"I like you," she said. "Did you have red berries for breakfus?"
Mary nodded and smiled back.
"I think you're a pretty little girl," said Peaches.
"I ain't half as pretty as you," said Mary.
"No a-course you ain't," she admitted. "Your family don't put your ribbon on you 'til night, do they? Mickey put mine on this morning 'cause I have to look nice and be jus' as good, else I have to be took back to the hot room. Do you have to be nice too?"
"Yes, I have to be a good girl," said Mary.
"What does your family do to you if you don't mind?"
"I ain't going to tell, but it makes me," said Mary. "What does yours do to you?"
"I ain't going to tell either," said Peaches, "but I get jus' as good! What's your name?"
"Bobbie. Mostly we call him little brother. Ain't he sweet?" asked Mary.
"Jus' a Precious Child! Let him mark on my slate."
Mickey hurried to the room. As he neared the door he stepped softly and peeped inside. It was a problem with him as to how far Mary and Bobbie could be trusted. Having been with Peaches every day he could not accurately mark improvements, but he could see that her bones did not protrude so far, that her skin was not the yellow, glisteny horror it had been, that the calloused spots were going under the steady rubbing of nightly oil massage, so lately he had added the same treatment to her feet; if they were not less bony, if the skin were not soft and taking on a pinkish colour, Mickey felt that his eyes were unreliable.
Surely she was better! Of course she was better! She had to be! She ate more, she sat up longer, she moved her feet where first they had hung helpless. She was better, much better, and for that especial reason, now was the time to watch closer than before. Now he must make sure that a big strong child did not drag her from the bed, and forever undo all he had gained. Since he had written Dr. Carrel, Mickey had rubbed in desperation, not only nights but mornings also, lest he had asked help before he was ready for it; for the Sunshine Lady had said explicitly that the sick back could not be operated until the child was stronger. He was working according to instructions.
Mickey watched. Any one could have seen the delicate flush on Peaches' cheek that morning, the hint of red on her lips, the clearing whites of her lovely eyes. She was helping Bobbie as Mickey had taught her. And Bobbie approved mightily. He lifted his face, put up his arms and issued his command: "Take Bobbie!"
"No! No, Bobbie," cautioned Mary. "Mother said no! You must stay on the floor! Sister will take you. You mustn't touch Peaches 'til God makes her well. You asked Him last night, don't you know? Mother will spank something awful if you touch her. You must be careful 'til her back is well, mother said so, and father too; father said it crosser than mother, don't you remember?"
"Mustn't touch!" repeated Bobbie, drawing back.
Mickey was satisfied with Mrs. Harding's instructions, but he took the opportunity to emphasize a few points himself. He even slipped one white, bony foot from under the sheet and showed Mary how sick it was, and how carefully it must be rubbed before it would walk.
"I can rub it," announced Mary.
"Well don't you try that," cautioned Mickey.
"Why go on and let her!" interposed Peaches. "Go on and let her! After today you said you'd be gone all day, an' if rubbing in the morning and evening is good, maybe more would make me walk sooner. Mickey I ain't ever said it, 'cause you do so much an' try so hard, but Mickey, I'm just about dead to walk! Mickey, I'm so tired being lifted. Mickey, I want to get up an' go when I want to, like other folks!"
"Well that's the first time you ever said that."
"Well 'tain't the first time I ever could a-said it, if I'd a-wanted to," explained Peaches.
"I see! You game little kid, you," said Mickey. "All right Mary, you ask your mother and if she says so, I'll show you how, and maybe you can rub Lily's feet, if you go slow and easy and don't jar her back a speck."
"Ma said I could a-ready," explained Mary. "Ma said for me to! She said all of us would, all the time we had while you were away, so she'd get better faster. Ma said she'd give a hundred dollars if Peaches would get so she could walk here."
Mickey sat back on his heels suddenly.
"Who'd she say that to?" he demanded.
"Pa. And he said he'd give five hundred."
"Aw-a-ah!" marvelled Mickey.
"He did too!" insisted Mary. "This morning 'fore you came out. And Junior would too. He'd give all in his bank! And he'd rub too! He said he would."
"Well, if you ain't the nicest folks!" cried Mickey. "Gee, I'm glad I found you!"
"Jus' as glad!" chimed in Peaches.
"Mary bring Robert here!" called Mrs. Harding from the hall. Mary obeyed. Mickey moved up and looked intently at Peaches.
"Well Lily," he asked, "what do you think of this?"
"I wouldn't trade this for Heaven!" she answered.
"The country is all the Heaven a-body needs, in June."
"Mickey, bring in the cow now!" ordered Peaches.
"Bring in the cow?" queried Mickey.
"Sure, the little red cow in the book that makes the milk. I want you to milk her right here on my bed!"
"Well, if I ever!" gasped Mickey. "Sure, I'll bring her in a minute; but a cow is big, Lily! Awful, great big. I couldn't bring her in here; but maybe I can drive her where you can see, or I don't know what would be the harm in taking you where the cows are. But first, one thing! Now you look right at me, Miss Chicken. There's something I got to know if you got in your head straight. Who found you, and kept them from 'getting' you?"
"Mickey-lovest," replied Peaches promptly.
"Then who d'you belong to?" he demanded.
"Mickey!" she answered instantly.
"Who you got to do as I say?" he continued.
"Mickey," she repeated.
"Whose family are you?" he pursued.
"Mickey's!" she cried. "Mickey, what's the matter? Mickey, I love you best. I'm all yours. Mickey, I'll go back an' never say a word 'bout the hotness, or the longness, or anything, if you don't want me here."
"Well I do want you here," said Mickey in slow insistent tone. "I want you right here! But you got to understand a few things. You're mine. I'm going to keep you; you got to understand that."
"Yes Mickey," conceded Peaches.
"And if it will help you to be rubbed more than I can rub you while I got to earn money to pay for our supper when we go home, and fix your back, and save for the seminary, I'll let the nice pleasant lady rub you; and I'll let a good girl like Mary rub you, and if his hands ain't so big they hurt, maybe I'll let Peter rub you; he takes care of Bobbie, maybe he could you, and he's got a family of his own, so he knows how it feels; but it's nix on anybody else, Miss Chicken, see?"
"They ain't nobody else!" said Peaches.
"There is too!" contradicted Mickey. "Mary said Junior would rub your feet! Well he won't! It's nix on Junior! He's only a boy! He ain't got a family. He hasn't had experience. He doesn't know anything about families! See?"
"He carries Bobbie, an' I bet he's heavier 'an me."
For the first time Mickey lost his temper.
"Now you looky here, Miss Chicken," he stormed. "I ain't saying what he can do, I'm saying what he can't! See? You are mine, and I'm going to keep you! He can lift me for all I care, but he can't carry you, nor rub your feet, nor nothing; because he didn't find you, and you ain't his; and I won't have it, not at all! Course he's a good boy, and he's a nice boy, and you can play with him, and talk to him, I'll let you just be awful nice to him, because it's polite that you should be, but when it comes to carrying and rubbing, it's nix on Junior, because he's got no family and doesn't understand. See?"
"Umhuh," taunted Peaches.
"Well, are you going to promise?" demanded Mickey.
"Maybe," she teased.
"Back you go and never see a cow at all if you don't promise," threatened Mickey.
"Mickey, what's the matter with you?" cried Peaches suddenly. "What you getting a tantrum yourself for? You ain't never had none before."
"That ain't no sign I ain't just busting full of them," said Mickey. "Bad ones, and I feel an awful one as can be coming right now, and coming quick. Are you going to promise me nobody who hasn't a family, carries you, and rubs you?"
Peaches looked at him in steady wonderment.
"I guess you're pretty tired, an' you need to sleep a while, or somepin," she said. "If you wasn't about sick yourself, you'd know 'at anybody 'cept you 'ull get their dam-gone heads ripped off if they touches me, nelse you say so. Course, you found me! Course, they'd a-got me, if you hadn't took me. Course, I'm yours! Course, it's nix on Junior, an' it's nix on Peter if you say so. Mickey, I jus' love you an' love you. I'll go back now if you say so, I tell you. Mickey what's the matter?"
She stretched up her arms, and Mickey sank into them. He buried his face beside hers and for the first time she patted him, and whispered to him as she did to her doll. She rubbed her cheek against his, crooned over him, and held him tight while he gulped down big sobs.
"Mickey, tell me," she begged, like a little mother. "Tell me honey? Are you got a pain anywhere?"
"No!" he said. "Maybe I was kind of strung up, getting you here and being so awful scared about hurting you; but it's all right now. You are here, and things are going to be fine, only, will you, cross your heart, always and forever remember this: it's nix on Junior, or any boy, who ain't got a family, and doesn't understand?"
"Yes Mickey, cross my heart, an' f'rever, an' ever; an' Mickey, you must get the soap. I slipped, an' said the worse yet. I didn't mean to, but Mickey, I guess you can't trust me. I guess you got to soap me, or beat me, or somepin awful. Go on an' do it, Mickey."
"Why crazy!" said Mickey. "You're mixed up. You didn't say anything! What you said was all rightest ever; rightest of anything I ever heard. It was just exactly what I wanted you to say. I just loved what you said."
"Well if I ever!" cried Peaches. "Mickey, you was so mixed up you didn't hear me. I got 'nother chance. Goody, goody! Now show me the cow!"
"All right!" said Mickey. "I'll talk with Mrs. Harding and see how she thinks I best go at it. Lily, you won't ever, ever forget that particular nix, will you?"
"Not ever," she promised, and lifted her lips to seal the pact with a kiss that meant more to Mickey than all that had preceded it.
"Just how do you feel, anyway, Flowersy-girl?"
"Fine!" said Peaches. "I can tell by how it is right now, that it isn't going to get all smothery an' sweatin's here; whoohoo it's so good, Mickey!"
Mickey bent over her holding both hands and whispered: "Then just you keep right before your eyes where you came from, Miss, and what you must go back to, if you don't behave. You will be a good girl, won't you?"
"Honest, Mickey-lovest, jus' as good."
"Well how goes it with the Little White Butterfly?" asked Peter at the door.
Mickey looked at Peaches to slightly nod encouragement, then he slipped from the room. She gave Peter a smile of wonderment and answered readily: "Grand as queen-lady. You're jus' so nice and fine."
Now Peter hadn't known it, but all his life he had been big; handled rough tools, tasks, implements and animals; while his body grew sinewy and hard, to cope with his task, his heart demanded more refined things; so if Peaches had known the most musical languages on earth, she could not have used words to Peter that would have served her better. He radiated content.
"Good!" he cried. "That's grand and good! I didn't take a fair look at you last night. It was so sissing hot in that place and you went to sleep before I got my chores done; but now we must get acquainted. Tell me honey, does any particular place in your little body hurt you? If there does, put your hand and show Peter where."
Peaches stared at Peter, then she faintly smiled at him and laid a fluttering hand on her left side.
"Oh shockings!" mourned Peter. "That's too bad! That's vital! Your heart's right under there, honey. Is there a pain in your heart?"
Peaches nodded solemnly.
"Not all the time!" she explained. "Only like now, when you are so good to me. Jus' so fine and good."
Then and there Peter surrendered. He bent and kissed the hand he held, and said with tears saturating his words, just as tears do permeate speech sometimes: "Pshaw now, Little White Butterfly! I never was more pleased to hear anything in my life. Ma and I have talked for years of having some city children here for summer, but we've been slow trying it because we hear such bad reports from many of them, and it's natural for people to shield their own; but I guess instead of shielding, we may have been denying. I can't see anything about you children to hurt ours; and I notice a number of ways where it is beneficial to have you here. It's surely good for all of us. You're the nicest little folks!"
Peaches sat up suddenly and smiled on Peter.
"Mickey is nice an' fine," she told him. "Not even you, or anybody, is nice as Mickey. An' I'm going to be. I'd like to be! But you see, I laid alone all day in a dark corner so long, an' I got so wild like, 'at when granny did come, I done an' said jus' like she did, but Mickey doesn't like it. He's scairt 'most stiff fear I'll forget an' say bad swearin's, an' you'll send me back to the hotness, so's I won't get better. Would you send me back if I forget just once, Peter?"
"Why pshaw now!" said Peter. "Pshaw Little Soul, don't you worry about that. You try hard to remember, and be like Mickey wants you to, and if you make a slip, I'll speak to Ma about it, and we'll just turn a deaf ear, and away out here, you'll soon forget it."
Just then, Mickey, trailing a rope, passed before the window; there was a crunching sound; a lumbering cow stopped, lifted a mouth half filled with grass, and bawled her loudest protest at being separated from her calf. Peaches had only half a glance, but her shriek was utter terror. She launched herself on Peter and climbed him, until her knees were on his chest, and her fingers clutching his hair.
"God Jesus!" she screamed. "It 'ull eat me!"
Peter caught her in his arms, turning his back. Mickey heard, and saw, and realized that the cow was too big and had appeared too precipitately, and bellowed too loudly. He should have begun on the smallest calf on the place. He rushed the cow back to Junior, and himself to Peaches, who, sobbing wildly, still clung to Peter. As Mickey entered, frightened and despairing, he saw that Peter was much concerned, but laughing until his shoulders shook, and in relief that he was, and that none of the children were present, Mickey grinned, acquired a slow red, and tried to quiet Peaches.
"Shut that window!" she screamed. "Shut it quick!"
"Why honey, that's the cow you wanted to see," soothed Mickey. "That's the nice cow that gave the very milk you had for breakfast. Junior was going to milk her where you could see. We thought you'd like it!"
"Don't let it get me!" cried Peaches.
"Why it ain't going to get anything but grass!" said Mickey. "Didn't you see me leading it? I can make that big old thing go where I please. Come on, be a game kid now. You ain't a baby coward girl! It's only a cow! You are going to put it on your book!"
"I ain't!" sobbed Peaches. "I ain't ever going to drink milk again! I jus' bet the milk will get me!"
"Be game now!" urged Mickey. "Mary milks the cow. Baby Bobbie runs right up to her. Everything out here is big, Lily. I ran from the horses. I jumped on a fence, and Junior laughed at me."
"Mickey, what did you say?" wavered Peaches.
"I didn't say anything," said Mickey. "I just jumped."
"Mickey, I jumped, an' I said it, both. I said it right on Peter," she bravely confessed. "Mickey, I said the worst yet! I didn't know I did, 'til I heard it! But Mickey, I got another chance!"
Peaches wiped her eyes, tremulously glanced at the window, and still clinging to Mickey explained: "I was just telling Peter about the swearin's, an' Mickey, don't feel so bad. He won't send me back for just once. Mickey, Peter has got 'a deaf ear.' He said he had! He ain't goin' to hear it when I slip a swearin's, an' Mickey, I am tryin'! Honest I'm tryin' jus' as hard, Mickey!"
Mickey turned a despairing face toward Peter.
"Just like she says," assured Peter. "We've all got our faults. You'll have to forgive her Mickey."
"Me? Of course!" conceded Mickey. "But what about you? You don't want your nice little children to hear bad words."
"Well," said Peter, "don't make too much of it! It's likely there are no words she can say that my children don't know. Just ignore and forget it! She won't do it often. I'm sure she won't!"
"Are you sure you won't, Miss?" demanded Mickey.
"Sure!" said Peaches, and in an effort to change the subject: "Mickey, is that cow out there yet?"
"No. Junior took her back to the barnyard."
"Mickey, I ain't going to put a cow on my book; but I want to see her again, away off. Mickey, take me where I can see. You said last night you would."
"But the horses are bigger than the cows. You'll get scared again, and with scaring and crying you'll be so bad off your back won't get any better all day, and to-morrow I got to leave you and go to work."
"Then I'll see all the things to-day, an' to-morrow I'll think about them 'til you come back. Please Mickey! If things don't get Bobbie an' Mary, they won't get me!"
"That's a game little girl!" said Mickey. "All right, I'll take you. But you ought to have----"
"Have what Mickey?" she inquired, instantly alert.
"Well never you mind what," said Mickey. "You be a good girl and lie still, so your back will be better, and watch the bundle I'll bring home to-morrow night."
Peaches shivered in delight. Mickey proceeded slowly, followed by the entire family.
"Mickey, it's so big!" she marvelled. "Everything is so far away, an' so big!"
"Now isn't it!" agreed Mickey. "You see it's like I told you. Now let me show you the garden."
He selected that as a safe proposition. Peaches grasped the idea readily enough. Mrs. Harding gathered vegetables for her to see. When they reached the strawberry bed Mickey knelt and with her own fingers Peaches pulled a berry and ate it, then laughed, exclaimed, and cried in delight. She picked a flower, and from the safe vantage of the garden viewed the cows and horses afar; and the fields and sheep were explained to her. Mickey carried her across the road, Mary brought a comfort, and for a whole hour the child lay under a big tree with pink and white clover in a foot-deep border around her. When they lifted her she said: "Mickey, to-night we put in the biggest blesses of all."
"What?" inquired Mickey.
"Bless the nice people for such grand things, an' the berries; but never mind about the cow."
Then Mickey took her back to the house. She awoke from a restful nap to find a basket of chickens waiting for her, barely down dry from their shells. She caught up a little yellow ball, and with both hands clutched it, exclaiming and crying in joy until Mickey saw the chicken was drooping. He pried open her excited little fingers; but the chicken remained limp. Soon it became evident that she had squeezed the life from it.
"Oh Peaches, you held it too tight!" wailed Mickey. "I'm afraid you've made it sick!"
"I didn't mean to Mickey!" she protested.
Mrs. Harding reached over and picked the chicken from Mickey's fingers.
"That chicken wasn't very well to begin with," she said. "'You give it to me, and I'll doctor it up, while you take another one. Which do you want?"
"Yellow," sniffed Peaches, "but please hurry, and Mickey, you hold this one. Maybe I held too hard!"
"Yes you did," laughed Peter. "But we wanted to see what you'd do. One little chicken is a small price for the show you give. It's all right, Butterfly."
"Peter, you make everything all right, don't you?"
"Well honey, I would if I could," said Peter. "But that's something of a contract. Now you rest till after dinner, and if Ma and Mickey agree on it, we'll go see the meadow brook and hear the birds sing."
"The water!" shouted Peaches. "Mickey, you promised----"
"Yes I remember," said Mickey. "I'll see how cold it is and if I think it won't chill you--yes."
"Oh gee!" chortled Peaches. "'Nother blesses!"
"What does she mean?" asked Peter.
"Can't see how it would hurt her a mite," said Peter. "Water is warm, nice day. It will be good for her."
"All right," said Mickey, "then we'll try it. But how about the plowing Peter, shouldn't I be helping you?"
"Not to-day," said Peter. "I never allow my work to drive me, so I get pleasure from life my neighbours miss, and I'll compare bank accounts with any of them. To-morrow I'll work. To-day I'm entertaining company, or rather they are entertaining me. I think this is about the best day of my life. Isn't it great, Ma?"
"It just is! I can't half work, myself!" answered Nancy Harding. "I just wonder if we could take a little run in the car after supper?"
"What do you think about it, Mickey?" asked Peter.
"Why, I can't see that coming out hurt her any."
"Then we'll go," said Peter.
"Do I have to be all covered?" questioned Peaches.
"Not nearly so much," explained Mickey. "I'll let you see a lot more. There's a bobolink bird down the street Peter wants to show you."
"'Street!'" jeered Junior. "That's a road!"
"Sure!" said Mickey. "I got a lot to learn. You tell me, will you Junior?"
"Course!" said Junior, suddenly changing from scorn to patronage. "Now let's take her to the creek!"
"Well that's quite a walk," said Peter. "We're not going there unless I carry the Little White Butterfly. You want me to take you, don't you?"
Peaches answered instantly.
"Mickey always carries me. He can! And of course I like him the best; but after him, I like you best Peter, so you may, if he'll let you."
"So that's the way the wind blows!" laughed Peter. "Then Mickey, it's up to you."
"Why sure!" said Mickey. "Since you are so big, and got a family of your own, so you understand----"
"What Mickey?" asked Peter.
"Oh how to be easy with little sick people," answered Mickey, "and that a man's family is his family, and he don't want anybody else butting in!"
"I see!" said Peter, struggling with his facial muscles. "Of course! But this sheet is going to be rather bunglesome. Ma, could you do anything about it?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Harding. "Mary, you run up to the flannel chest, and get Bobbie's little blue blanket."
Peter lifted the child to his broad breast, she slipped her arms around his neck, and laid her head on his shoulder.
Bloom time was past, but bird time was not, while the leaves were still freshly green and tender. Some of them reached to touch Peaches' gold hair in passing. She was held high to see into nests and the bluebirds' hollow in the apple tree. Peaches gripped Peter and cried: "Don't let it get my feet!" when the old turkey gobbler came rasping, strutting, and spitting at the party. Mickey pointed to Mary, who was unafraid, and Peaches' clutch grew less frantic but she defended: "Well, I don't care! I bet if she hadn't ever seen one before, an' then a big thing like that would come right at her, tellin' plain it was goin' to eat her alive, it would scare the livers out of her."
"Yes I guess it would," conceded Peter. "But you got the eating end of it wrong. It isn't going to eat us, we are going to eat it. About Thanksgiving, we'll lay its head on the block and Ma will stuff it----"
"I've quit stuffing turkeys, Peter," said Mrs. Harding. "I find it spoils the flavour of the meat."
"Well then it will stuff us," said Peter, "all we can hold, and mince pie, plum pudding, and every good thing we can think of. What piece of turkey do you like best, Butterfly?"
Mickey instantly scanned Peter, then Mrs. Peter, and tensely waited.
"Oh stop! Stop! Is that a turkey bird?" cried Peaches.
"Surely it is," said Mrs. Harding. "Why childie, haven't you ever seen a turkey, either?"
"No I didn't ever," said Peaches. "Can turkey birds sing?"
Just then the gobbler stuck forward his head and sang: "Gehobble, hobble, hobble!" Peaches gripped Peter's hair and started to ascend him again. Mrs. Harding waved her apron; the turkey suddenly reduced its size three- fourths, skipped aside, and a neat, trim bird, high stepping and dainty, walked through the orchard. Peaches collapsed in Peter's arms in open- mouthed wonder. "Gosh! How did it cave in like that?" she cried.
Peter's shoulders were shaking, but he answered gravely: "Well that's a way it has of puffing itself up and making a great big pretense that it is going to flop us, and then if just little Bobbie or Ma waves an apron or a stick it gets out of the way in a hurry."
"I've seen Multiopolis millyingaires cave in like that sometimes when I waved a morning paper with an inch-high headline about them," commented Mickey.
Peter Harding glanced at his wife, then they laughed together. Peter stepped over a snake fence, went carefully down a hill, crossed the meadow to the shade of a tree, sat on the bank of the brook and watched Peaches as she studied first the clear babbling water, then the grass trailing in the stream, the bushes, trees, and then the water again.
"Mickey, come here!" she commanded. "Put your head right down beside mine. Now look just the way I do, an' tell me what you see."
"I see running water, grassy banks, trees, the birds, the sky and the clouds--the water shows what's above it like a mirror, Lily."
Peaches pointed. Mickey watched intently.
"Sure!" he cried. "Little fish with red speckles on them. Shall I catch you one to see?"
"'Tain't my eyes then?" questioned Peaches.
"Your eyes, Miss?" asked Mickey bewildered.
"'Tain't my eyes seein' things that yours doesn't?"
Mickey took her hand and drew closer.
"Well, it isn't any wonder you almost doubt it, honey," he said. "I would too, if I hadn't ever seen it before. But I been on the trolley, and on a few newsboys' excursions, and in the car with Mr. Bruce, and I've got to walk along the str--roads some, so I know it's real. Let me show you----!"
Mickey slipped down the bank, scooped his hands full of water, and lifted them, letting it drip through his fingers. Then he made a sweep and brought up one of the fish, brightly marked as a flower, and gasping in the air.
"Look quick!" he cried. "See it good! It's used to water and the air chokes it, just like the water would you if a big fish would take you and hold your head under; I got to put it back quick."
"Mickey, lay it in my hand, just a little bit!"
Mickey obeyed while Peaches examined it hurriedly.
"Put it back!" she cried. "I guess that's as long as I'd want to be choked, while a fish looked at me."
Mickey exchanged the fish for a handful of wet, vividly coloured pebbles, then brought a bunch of cowslips yellow as gold, and a long willow whip with leaves on, and when she had examined these, she looked inquiringly at Mrs. Harding.
"Nicest lady, may I put my feet in your water?"
"How about the temperature of it, Mickey?" inquired Mrs. Harding.
"It's all right," said Mickey. "I've washed her in colder water lots of times. The Sunshine Lady said I should, to toughen her up."
"Then go ahead," said Mrs. Harding.
"Peter, may I?" asked Peaches.
"Surely!" agreed Peter. "Whole bunch may get in if Ma says so!"
"Well, I don't say so!" exclaimed Mrs. Harding. "The children have their good clothes on and they always get to romping and dirty themselves and then it's bigger washings and mine are enough to break my back right now."
Peter looked at his wife intently. "Why Nancy, I hadn't heard you complain before!" he said. "If they're too big, we must wear less and make them smaller, and I'll take an hour at the machine, and Junior can turn the wringer. All of you children listen to me. Your Ma is feeling the size of the wash. That means we must be more careful of our clothes and help her better. If Ma gets sick, or tired of us, we'll be in a fix, I tell you!"
"I didn't say I was sick, or tired of you, I'm just tired of washing!" said Mrs. Harding.
"I see!" said Peter. "But it is a thing that has got to be done, like plowing and sowing."
"Yes I know," said Mrs. Harding, "but plowing and sowing only come once a year. Washing comes once and twice a week."
"Let me," said Mickey. "I always helped mother, and I do my own and Lily's at home. Of course I will here, and I can help you a lot with yours!"
"Yes a boy!" scoffed Mrs. Harding.
"Well I'll show you that a boy can work as well as a girl, if he's been taught right," said Mickey.
"I wasn't bringing up any question of work," said Mrs. Harding. "I just didn't want the children to dirty a round of clothing apiece. They may wade when their things are ready for the wash anyway. Go on Peaches!"
Peter moved down the bank and prepared to lower her to the water, but she reached her arms for Mickey.
"He promised me," she said. "Back there on his nice bed in the hot room he promised me this."
"So I did," said Mickey, radiating satisfaction he could not conceal. "So I did! Now, I'll let you put your feet in, like I said."
"Will the fish bite me?" she questioned timidly.
"Those little things! What if they did?"
Thus encouraged she put her toes in the water, gripping Mickey and waiting breathlessly to see what happened. Nothing happened, while the warm, running water felt pleasant, so she dipped lower, and then did her best to make it splash. It wasn't much of a splash, but it was a satisfying performance to the parties most interested, and from their eagerness the watchers understood what it meant to them. Junior sidled up to his mother.
"Ain't that tough?" he whispered.
She bit her lip and silently nodded.
"Look at her feet, will you?" he breathed.
She looked at him instead, then suddenly her eyes filled with a mist like that clouding his.
"Think they'll ever walk?" he questioned.
"I don't know," she said softly, "but it looks as if God has given us the chance to make them if it's possible."
"Well say what's my share?" he said.
"Just anything you see that you think will help."
"If I be more careful not to dirty so many clothes, will it help?" he asked.
"It would leave me that much more time and strength to give to her," she said.
"Will all I can save you in any way be helping her that much?" he persisted.
"Surely!" she said. "Soon as he's out of sight, I'm going to begin on her. But don't let them hear!"
Junior nodded. He sat down on the bank watching as if fascinated the feet trying to splash in the water. Mickey could feel the effort of the small body.
"You take her now," he said to Peter. Then he threw off his shoes and stockings, turned up his knee breeches and stepped into the water, where he helped the feet to kick and splash. He rubbed them and at last picked up handfuls of fine sand and lightly massaged with it until he brought a pink glow.
"That's the stuff," indorsed Peter. "Look at that! You're pulling the blood down."
"Where's the blood?" asked Peaches.
Peter explained the circulatory system and why all the years of lying, with no movement, had made her so helpless. He told her why scarce and wrong food had not made good blood to push down and strengthen her feet so they would walk. He told her the friction of the sand-rubbing would pull it down, while the sun, water, and earth would help. Peaches with wide eyes listened, her breath coming faster and faster, until suddenly she leaned forward and cried: "Rub, Mickey! Rub 'til the blood flies! Rub 'em hot as hell!"
"Well, Miss Chicken!" he cried in despair.
Peaches buried her shamed face on Peter's breast. He screened her with a big hand.
"Now never you mind! Never you mind!" he repeated. "Everybody turn a deaf ear! That was a slip! Nobody heard it! You mean Little Butterfly White, 'rub hard.' Say rub hard and that will fix it!"
"Mickey," she said in a faint voice so subdued and contrite as to be ridiculous, "Mickey-lovest, won't you please to rub hard! Rub jus' as hard!"
Mickey suddenly bent to kiss the bony little foot he was chafing.
"Yes darling, I'll rub 'til it a-most bleeds," he said.
When the feet were glowing with alternate sand-rubbing and splashing in cold water, Peter looked at his wife.
"I think that's the ticket!" he said. "Nancy, don't you? That pulls down the blood with rubbing, and drives it back with cold water, and pulls it down, to be pushed back again--ain't that helping the heart get in its work? Now if we strengthen her with right food, and make lots of pure blood to run in these little blue canals on her temples, and hands and feet, ain't we gaining ground? Ain't we making headway?"
"We've just got to be," said Mrs. Harding. "There's no other way to figure it. But this is enough for a start."
Peaches leaned toward her and asked: "May we do this again to-morrow, nicest lady?"
"Well I can't say as we can come clear here every day; I'm a busy woman, and my spare time is scarce; and even light as you are, you'd be a load for me; I can't say as we can do this when Peter is busy plowing and harvesting and Junior is away on the cream wagon, and Mickey is in town at his work; we can't do just this; but there is something we can do that will help the feet quite as much. We can bring a bucket of sand up to the house, and set a tub of water in the sun, and you can lie on a comfort under an apple tree with Mary and Bobbie to watch you, and every few hours we can take a little time off for rubbing and splashing."
"My job!" shouted Junior. "I get a bucket and carry up the sand!"
"I bring the tub and pump the water!" cried Mary.
"Me shoo turkey!" announced Bobbie.
"I lift the tub to the edge of the shade and carry out the Butterfly!" said Peter.
"And where do I come in?" demanded Mickey.
"Why Mickey, you 'let' them!" cried Peaches. "You 'let' them! An' you earn the money to pay for the new back, when I get strong enough to have it changed, an' the Carrel man comes! Don't you 'member?"
"Sure!" boasted Mickey, taking on height. "I got the biggest job of all! I got the job that really does the trick, and to-morrow I get right after it. Now I must take you back to the house to rest a while."
"Aw come on to the barn with me!" begged Junior. "Let father carry her! Ain't you going to be any company for me at all?"
"Sure!" said Mickey. "Wait a minute! I'd like to go to the barn with you."
He dried Peaches' feet with his handkerchief, stuffed his stockings in his pocket, and picked up his shoes.
"Lily, can you let Peter take you back to rest 'til supper time, so I can see what Junior wants to show me?"
"Yes I can," said Peaches. "Yes I can, 'cause I'm a game kid; but I don't wish to!"
"Now you look here, Miss Chicken, that hasn't got anything to do with it," explained Mickey. "Every single time you can't have your way, 'cause it ain't good for you. If all these nice folks are so kind to you, you must think part of the time about what they want, and just now Junior wants me, so you march right along nice and careful with Peter, and pretty soon I'll come."
Peaches pouted a second, then her face cleared by degrees, until it lifted to Peter with a smile.
"Peter, will you please to carry me while Mickey does what Junior wants?" she asked with melting sweetness.
"Sure!" said Peter. "I'm the one to take you anyway, big and strong as an ox; but that's a pretty way to ask, and acting like a nice lady!"
Peaches radiated pride while Peter returned her to the couch, brought her a glass of milk and a cracker, pulled the shade, and going out softly closed the door. In five minutes she was asleep.
An hour before supper time Mickey appeared and without a word began watching Mrs. Harding. Suddenly her work lightened. When she was ready for water, the bucket was filled, saving her a trip to the pump. When she lifted the dishpan and started toward the back door, Mickey met her with the potato basket. When she glanced questioningly at the stove, he put in more wood. He went to the dining-room and set the table exactly as it had been for dinner. He made the trip to the cellar with her and brought up bread and milk, while she carried butter and preserves. As she told Peter that night, no strange woman ever had helped her as quickly and understandingly.
With dishwashing he was on hand, for he knew that Peaches' fate hung on how much additional work was made for Mrs. Harding. That surprised woman found herself seated in a cool place on the back porch preparing things for breakfast, while Mickey washed the dishes, and Mary carried them. Peaches was moved to the couch in the dining-room where she could look on.
Then wrapped in Bobbie's blanket and held closely in Mickey's arms, the child lay quivering with delight while the big car made the trip to the club house, and stopped under the trees to show Peaches where Mr. Bruce played, and then slowly ran along the country road, with all its occupants talking at once in their effort to point out everything to her. No one realized how tired she was, until in calling her attention to a colt beside its mother, she made no response, then it was discovered that she was asleep, so they took her home and put her to bed.