KEEFE

Miss Zillah laid a hand on Azalea’s arm.

“Don’t be so frightened,” she said. “He’s overstrained his heart, no
doubt. Find a match. Light the lamps. Carin, help me lift him—well,
drag him then. We’ll get him to the lounge. No hurry.”

Azalea, fumbling for the matches and missing them, wondered why Miss
Zillah had spoken to her. How had she known that her heart stopped
beating at the sight of Keefe prone across the doorstep? And if she was
more frightened than the others, how had she shown it—and why, indeed,
_should_ she care more than they?

Then she knew. She was only a young girl, but she knew. Somehow,
mysteriously and beautifully in this lonely old world, we are able to
pick out our own. We know, as we eye them, those who will make us feel
befriended and comfortable and safe. At least, we think we know, and
even when we find we have been mistaken, we have had the sweetness of the
hour of apparent discovery. Yes, it was true; Azalea admitted it as with
trembling hands she lighted the lamps, shuddering at the sound of that
body being dragged across the floor. Keefe O’Connor, who had said that
he did not know his own right name, who admitted that his life had been
strange and sad and unsettled, had seemed to her, from the first, like
some one she always had known—some one it would be a wicked folly to lose
out of her life.

Pa McBirney had warned her that she was too impulsive. He had told her
that she must watch out for this very thing, and she had promised him
that she would try to put a guard upon herself. Yet by a swift
understanding which she could not explain, she had felt from the first
that she could trust this lad; could forgive him when he needed
forgiveness, and take life as it came, with poverty or plenty, with good
or ill luck, if he were near to praise her for the long day’s work, or to
laugh with her when play-time came. And now perhaps he was dying!

There, the lamps were lighted at last! She had touched a match to the
kindling in the fireplace; she had tossed on a log. She was willing to
do anything rather than turn her face and look upon that white one on the
couch where Aunt Zillah and Carin, breathing hard, had managed to lift
the inert body of her friend.

“Make some black coffee, quick, Azalea,” she heard Aunt Zillah saying.
“Make it very strong. Carin, come hold the light while I look in my
medicine case.”

Black coffee, very strong! How did one make that? Azalea could not
think. “Quick, quick,” Aunt Zillah had said. Azalea gave up thinking,
because her hands were doing the work. She found that she could trust
them, that some faithful servant in her confused house of thought was
doing the work for her. The coffee was ground, the fire was lighted, the
pot set on—all as it should be—and still it was not of coffee that she
was thinking, but of that white face which she would not look at; that
fluttering breath that seemed to cease.

She could hear Miss Zillah slapping the cold hands of the boy there on
the couch; could hear her speaking to him and getting no answer. She
wondered why Carin didn’t come to her to say something—to tell her how he
was faring. Did they expect her to think of nothing but coffee, coffee,
coffee—particularly when it seemed never to boil, never to get where it
would be of any use?

When she carried the coffee into the living room, he was breathing
heavily. His eyes were partly opened, and Miss Zillah had loosened his
shirt at the neck, and had poured water over his face and hair. It made
him look so strange—so different from the way he usually looked. And
yet, though he looked so different, he seemed familiar, too, in a new
way.

“It’s not of himself that he reminds me,” thought Azalea, “but of some
one else.” The resemblance was pleasant to her, as if the person he made
her think of was some one she liked, though she could not think who it
was.

Miss Zillah lifted him up and held him steady while Azalea fed him from
the spoon with the strong black coffee.

“Don’t let your hand tremble,” said Miss Zillah rather sharply. “Don’t
think about your fears, Azalea. He’s got to have the coffee. His heart
needs stimulating. Give it to him and stop trembling.”

Azalea wouldn’t have supposed it possible that by the mere exercise of
will she could stop the shaking of her hand, but when Miss Zillah spoke
to her that way, she steadied herself.

Did the moments go fast or slow? She could not tell. She gave him the
full cup of coffee and went for more. Carin had heated some hot water
and had put it in rubber bags at his hands and feet. He had been wrapped
warm, and now, little by little, the horrid purple of his lips began to
turn into something more like their usual color. His lids opened with a
flutter and he saw those about him. He smiled piteously, like a little
boy, and closed his eyes again.

“Perfect rest is what he needs now,” said Miss Zillah. “He may have to
be quiet for days. It takes much longer to rest a heart than it does to
tire it. Go to bed now, girls. What a day you’ve had! Mercy, what
would your people think, Carin, if they knew all you have been through?
Don’t think of getting up in the morning, or of going to school. The
very thought of your falling ill distresses me.”

It seemed outrageous to leave the gentle Miss Zillah there, her face all
drawn with anxiety, alone with that almost unconscious boy, but she
insisted upon having her way.

“I’ll call you,” she assured the girls, “if there’s anything you can do.”

“Any least thing—” begged Azalea.

Miss Zillah nodded. So the two crept away to their bed behind the great
chimney and the screens, but they did not undress; only lay down in their
wrappers and with the light burning beside them. Carin dropped into a
heavy sleep and lay there so sunken in the bed that Azalea had her to
worry about too. Being of knightly spirit and rescuing folk in distress
was rather an expensive business, it appeared. If anything happened to
Carin or to Keefe, would the rescue of the Panthers have been worth it?
It was not a pleasant question to dwell upon, and Azalea tried not to
think of the answer.

She was not sure whether she slept or not. The wall between sleeping and
waking was transparent, like glass, and she could see through it. So it
was a relief when morning came and she could get out of bed. She was
stiff and half sick, but when she had taken her cold bath in the little
dressing room they had contrived in the shed, and had got into her clean
clothes, she began to feel better. Carin tried in vain to shake her
sleepiness off, but she was so wan and worn-looking that Azalea sternly
commanded her to keep her bed. In the front room Miss Zillah slept
wearily in the arm chair, and Keefe, his eyes wide open, lay watching
her. He held up his finger for silence as Azalea drew near, and she
slipped out again, comforted at his appearance, to get the breakfast.

In the midst of it, she saw some one coming down the path. It was
Paralee, swinging along with her great stride. She still wore her
hideous, outgrown, ragged dress, but for all that she looked changed from
what she had been. Her hair was smoothly combed, her face properly
washed, and there was hope in her eye and decision in her step.

Azalea slipped out of the door to speak to her.

“How be you all?” she asked.

Azalea told her, hastily.

“Ain’t that a pity, now?” sighed Paralee. “I knew that boy wasn’t peart
enough for such a long tug. I wanted him to let me carry pa part of the
way, but he wouldn’t hear to it. He’s jest beat out; that’s what ails
him. Lying quiet is the best thing he can do, I reckon.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” said Azalea anxiously. “And, oh, Paralee, how ever
am I to get over to school to-day? I’m so stiff I can hardly move; and
there’s so much to be done here at the house that I don’t believe I ought
to leave.”

“Ain’t it a pity,” said Paralee, kicking viciously at a stone, “that I
ain’t got my eddication yet! I would jest love to do that thar teaching
for you-all.”

“I wish to goodness you could,” sighed Azalea fervently. “But you seem
to be the only person around here who even wants to do such a thing—”

She broke off her sentence suddenly, remembering that she had heard Mr.
Rowantree say that teaching was the one thing in the way of work that he
actually enjoyed. She told Paralee.

“He’d do it,” she cried, “if only I had some way of getting word to him.
It seems such a pity to break up school just when we’re getting it so
nicely started, doesn’t it? And this is little Skully Simms’ first day,
too! I couldn’t really answer for what might happen if he got there and
met the Coulters and their friends face to face.”

“Oh, that thar Bud Coulter’ll keep his word about not tetching the little
cuss,” said Paralee placidly. (She was a Coulter in her sympathies.)
“But I’ll tell you what, Miss Azalea, you jest say the word and I’ll run
shortcuts over to the Rowantrees and tell them what’s doing.”

“Oh, will you, Paralee? Dare you? Oughtn’t you to be with your father
and mother?”

“Nope. They’re all right, I reckon. Mr. Thompson, he’s to take ’em down
to the afternoon train. Pa ain’t looking very peart, but it warn’t to be
expected that he would. Ma acts like she was scared to death, but Mis’
McEvoy’s fixing her out in proper clothes. Mr. McEvoy, he’s gone down to
Bee Tree to do some telegraphing about the hospital pa’s to go in. My,
ain’t they rich!”

“Rich!” cried Azalea aghast. “Who?”

“Oh, the McEvoys and Mr. Thompson.”

“Rich!” repeated Azalea. But the words died on her lips. So Paralee
thought the McEvoys in their two-roomed cabin, and good old Haystack with
his fiddle, rich! She only said:

“Have you had breakfast, Paralee?”

The girl shook her head.

“Come in then. Things are cooked now, and you can eat and then run to
Rowantree’s. But you _are_ obliging, Paralee!”

Paralee looked at her with something akin to impatience.




“Say,” she said deep in her throat, “don’t you thank me for nothing, you
hear? If I was to crawl on my hands and knees around this here mountain,
it wouldn’t even up with what you’re doing for me. Why, Miss Azalea, I
thought I’d go crazy thinking about my pa and ma in that thar place—plumb
crazy, that’s what I thought I’d go. Ma laid it up against Pete for
running away. I tell you, he had to. It got so awful he just had to.”

“I suppose he did,” said Azalea sympathetically. She knew very well—for
she was still a child—that there are troubles so dark and hopeless that
children cannot endure them.

A few moments later, standing by the door, she saw Paralee striding along
the old, overgrown road that ran toward Rowantree Hall.

She had confidence, somehow, that Mr. Rowantree would not fail her.
Indolent he might be, odd and proud and vexatious he undeniably was, yet
he had a reverence for the seeking mind, and she felt he would not let
these mountain children ask in vain.

She was quite right. An hour before school time she saw him mounted on a
sorry nag, which he rode magnificently and as if it were the most dashing
of horse flesh, coming toward her door. He dismounted with a splendid
gesture, and riding crop in hand, came forward toward the Oriole’s Nest.
By this time Aunt Zillah was sleeping properly in her bed, and Keefe,
wide-eyed and restless, lay on the sofa with instructions neither to move
nor talk. So Azalea met Mr. Rowantree outside the door and hurriedly
told him all the story of the past two days. As he stood there on the
little porch, he, being tall, could look well over her head at the figure
of Keefe lying stretched upon the sofa. It was a sight to make him
sorry, but not one, it would seem, to hold him fascinated. Yet he gazed
and gazed; then, trying to look away, looked in again.

“Who is it that boy looks like, Miss Azalea?” he asked. “Somebody—”

“I know,” replied Azalea under her breath. “Somebody—but who?”

They could not decide, and let it pass. Azalea went over to the
schoolhouse with Mr. Rowantree and introduced the pupils to him, and gave
him an idea of what was to be studied for the day. Mr. Rowantree looked
somewhat out of place in the little schoolhouse, to tell the truth; he
was so tall, so fine, so altogether magnificent with his reddish brown
hair and whiskers and his snowy suit of frayed linen. The children
seemed rather awed by him, but Azalea noticed that little Skully Simms
kept close to him, preferring him, with all his strangeness, to the
Coulters, although the warlike Bud had given bond for good behavior.

When she got back home, the house was very still. Carin was lying in the
hammock asleep. There were circles under her eyes, and the lovely wild
rose bloom was gone from her cheek.

“I must take better care of her,” thought Azalea for the twentieth time,
stealing past her into the house. Aunt Zillah was giving Keefe some
milk, and treating him as gently as if he were glass and might break.

“Remember,” she said as she left the room, “he’s not to talk. Two or
three days of perfect rest will, in my opinion, make him all right. It
isn’t anything unusual for a young man to overstrain his heart. He might
have done it in school athletics and then he wouldn’t have been a hero at
all. Mr. Thompson was looking for you, Zalie. He starts in a short time
for Bee Tree, so that Mr. Panther may have a little rest between his
wagon ride and his train journey. Mr. Thompson is going with him
straight to the hospital. Carin gave him the money—except for a little—a
very little—addition which I made. So now, all is well again, or on the
way to be well, and you must go and lie down. Take a glass of milk first
and sleep as long as you can. I’m going out to see to the chickens.
They’ve been sadly neglected, poor things.”

Azalea stood in the cool, tidy little room vaguely regarding the lad on
the sofa. He looked amazingly long as he lay stretched out, all relaxed
and pallid like that. The “sad-glad” look which Azalea so often had
noticed on his face, was there now. He held out his hand for her to come
nearer and when she was close enough he whispered:

“I oughtn’t to be staying here, Miss Azalea. It’s making trouble I am
for Miss Pace and the rest of you. Anyway, it’s not fitting for me to be
here. Isn’t this a sort of nunnery?” He smiled in his sidelong,
whimsical fashion. “If my tent was to be fixed up right I could wait on
myself well enough, and Mr. McEvoy could be bringing me over a drop of
soup now and then or a pail of milk.”

Azalea made no protest, for she knew how he felt. She would have felt
the same way in his place.

“We love to have you here,” she said softly. “We truly love it. And it
wouldn’t be safe yet for you to go to your tent. But I was thinking—”

“Yes?”

“How would it be if you went to Rowantree Hall, and got some one—Bud
Coulter, or some one like that—to wait on you?”

To Azalea’s surprise he looked up with eagerness in the eyes that a
moment before had been so lackluster.

“Oh, I wonder if it _could_ be arranged,” he said. “I should like that.
I can’t tell why, but I should like it more than anything. Miss Azalea,
will you see if it can be done? I’m terribly tired. I—I should like
beyond words to go there.”

A sharp little grip of jealousy that he should prefer Rowantree Hall to
the Oriole’s Nest had Azalea by the throat and kept her from answering.
But she was ashamed of that pang even while she suffered from it, and
nodding reassuringly, she went into the kitchen to attend to the
neglected duties there.