Chapter XXIV. Judy's Return.
 

In the early evening twilight of the day following the tragedy at Elbow Rock, Betty Jo was sitting on the porch, to rest for a few minutes in the fresh air, after long hours of watching beside Brian's bed.

A neighbor woman had come to help, but Betty Jo would not leave the side of the man she loved as he fought his way slowly out of the dark shadow of the death that had so nearly conquered him. Nor, indeed, would Brian let her go, for even in those moments when he appeared most unconscious of the life about him, he seemed to feel her presence. All through the long, long hours of that anxious night and day she had watched and waited the final issue;--feeling the dark messenger very close at times, but gaining hope as the hours passed and her lover won his way nearer and nearer to the light;--courageous always;--giving him the best of her strength, so far as it was possible to give him anything;--making him feel the steady, enduring fullness of her love.

At last, they felt that the victory was won. The doctor, satisfied that the crisis was safely past, went his way to visit other patients. By evening, Brian was resting so easily that the girl had stolen away for a few minutes, leaving the neighbor to call her if he should waken.

Betty Jo had been on the porch but a short time when a step sounded on the gravel walk that led from the porch steps around the corner of the house. A moment more, and Judy appeared.

The mountain girl stopped when she saw Betty Jo, and the latter went to the top of the steps.

"Good-evening, Judy!" said Betty Jo, quietly. "Won't you come in?"

Slowly, with her black beady eyes fixed on Betty Jo's face, Judy went up the steps.

As the mountain girl reached the level of the porch-floor, Betty Jo drew a little back toward the door.

Judy stopped instantly, and stood still. Then, in a low tone, she said: "You-all ain't got no call ter be afeared, Miss Betty Jo. You hain't never goin' ter have no call ter be scared of me again, never."

"I am so glad for you to say that, Judy," returned Betty Jo, smiling. "I don't want to be afraid of you, and I am not really; but--"

"Ain't you-all plumb a-hatin' me for what I done?" asked Judy, wonderingly.

"No, no; Judy, dear, I don't hate you at all, and you must know that Auntie Sue loves you."

"Yes," Judy nodded her head, thoughtfully. "Auntie Sue just naturally loves everybody. Hit wouldn't be no more'n nature, though, for you-all ter hate me. I sure have been poison-mean."

"But that is all past now, Judy," said Betty Jo, heartily. "Come and sit down?" She started toward the chairs.

But the mountain girl did not move, except to shake her head in refusal of the hospitable invitation.

"I ain't a-goin' ter put my foot inside this house, nor set with you-all, nor nothin' 'til I've said what I done come ter say."

Betty Jo turned back to her again: "What is it, Judy?"

"Auntie Sue done told me not ter let you-all er Mr. Burns see me 'til she come back. But I can't help hit, an' if I don't talk 'bout that none, I reckon she ain't a-goin' ter mind so much. You-all don't know that I seed Auntie Sue that night 'fore she went away, an' that hit was me took her ter the station with 'Old Prince,' an' brung him back, did you?"

"No," said Betty Jo, "I did not know; and if Auntie Sue told you not to tell us about it, I would rather you did not, Judy."

"I ain't aimin' ter," Judy returned; "but Auntie Sue don't know nothin' 'bout what's happened since she went away, an' hit's that what's a-makin' me come ter you-all."

Betty Jo, seeing that the poor girl was laboring under some intense emotional stress, said, gently: "What is it that you wish to tell me, Judy? I am sure Auntie Sue will not mind, if you feel so about it."

The mountain girl's eyes filled and the tears streamed down her sallow cheeks, while her twisted shoulders shook with the grief she could not suppress, as she faltered: "My God-A'mighty! Miss Betty Jo, I--I--didn't aim ter do hit! I sure didn't! 'Fore God, I'd er let 'em kill me first, if I'd only had time ter think. But hit--hit--was me what told that there woman how Mr. Burns was Brian Kent. Hit's--hit's--me what's ter blame for gittin' her killed in the river an' him so nigh drowned. O God! O God! If he'll only git well!

"An' I ain't a-feelin' toward you-all like I did, Miss Betty Jo. I can't no more. I done left them clubhouse folks, after I knowed what has happened, an' all day I been hangin' 'round here in the bresh. An' Lucy Warden she done told me, this afternoon, 'bout how you-all was takin' care of Mr. Burns, an' how you just naturally wouldn't let him die. An'--an'--I kin see, now, what hit is that makes Auntie Sue and him an' you-all so different from that there clubhouse gang an' pap an' me. An' I ain't a-wantin' ter be like I been, no more, ever. I'd a heap rather jump inter the river an' drown myself. 'Fore God, I would! An' I want ter come back an' help you-all take care of him; an' live with Auntie Sue; an'--an'--be a little might like youuns, if I kin. Will you let me, Miss Betty Jo? Will you? I most know Auntie Sue would, if she was here."

Before the mountain girl had finished speaking, Betty Jo's arm was around the poor twisted shoulders, and Betty Jo's eyes were answering Judy's pleading.

And so, when Auntie Sue came home, it was Judy who met her at the station, with "Old Prince" and the buggy; and as they drove down the winding road to the little log house by the river, the mountain girl told the old gentlewoman all that had happened in her absence.