THE RESCUE, CONTINUED

Breaking up a home is not an easy matter, even when the home has little
in it; nor is it a happy thing—no, not even when the home has been a sad
one. Moreover, it cannot be done in an hour, even under the easiest
conditions.

“We’ll come back some day, I reckon,” said Mrs. Panther to Miss Pace,
looking about her at the bare room with its broken fireplace and dingy
walls. “Seems like I wouldn’t know how to live nowhere else.”

“If Mr. Panther gets well, maybe you’ll be glad to come back,” faltered
Aunt Zillah, trying to say the kind thing, but thinking in her wise heart
that these people were perishing, soul and body, for lack of mixing with
their kind. But there was really too much to do to spend time sighing
over the breaking up. Even the one remaining hog and the thirty odd
chickens had to be planned for. It was decided finally that Paralee was
to drive the hog, and that such of the chickens as were not eaten that
night for supper, were to be put in panniers fastened to the saddles and
carried to the McEvoys for safe keeping.

Miss Zillah wanted to help Mrs. Panther pack her clothes, but she was not
quite sure that there was anything to pack; and indeed there was no more
than could be put in a couple of old melon-shaped baskets.

“Clothes ain’t come into my reckoning,” said Mrs. Panther quaintly,
growing more sociable as she felt the influence of Miss Zillah’s genial
atmosphere. “And, anyway, there wa’n’t nobody to see what we had on.”

Meantime, Mr. Thompson and Keefe had, with the aid of Paralee, been
giving their attention to the hammock in which the sick man was to be
carried. The house contained one good blanket of wool homespun, strong
yet flexible. This, doubled, was stretched upon poles, and since no
stout rope could be found about the place, heavy braided warp was
fastened to these poles. This improvised rope was to be slung over the
shoulders of the carriers. Azalea and Carin braided the rope and found
it a pleasant task. Indeed, they both were very happy.

“It warms me all up,” said Azalea, “to think of getting this poor man out
of here and giving him a chance, and I’m just as glad for his wife as I
am for him. Talk of paralysis; Mrs. Panther has paralysis of the soul,
don’t you think?”

“Isn’t Paralee changed?” Carin cried, not bothering to answer Azalea’s
question. “She’s actually tidying up things. I saw her straightening
out the mess under the house with her one poor hand. She wants the
Panther house to fall to ruins decently. That’s going a good way—for
Paralee.”

“Oh, you never can tell a thing about these mountain people,” said
Azalea. “Very likely, a few generations back these silly Panthers, who
ought to have called themselves Marr, had no end of self-respect. Many,
many generations back, they may have been fine people. Marr certainly is
the name of one of the greatest of families.”

“Perhaps it meant the same as Panther in the beginning,” surmised Carin.
“Mars is the god of war, and maybe the Marrs and the Panthers all got
their names because they were such good fighters.”

The sick man had been carried out of doors by Mr. Thompson and Keefe, and
placed where he could watch the preparations that were being made for his
journey. And while he looked, not more than half-understanding, his
great wild eyes rolling in their sockets, his wife mixed hoe-cake, using
the last meal she possessed, and cooked it on the coals. Chickens had
been prepared with dispatch, and were boiling in the pot, and Aunt
Zillah, having given all necessary attention to affairs within the house,
was now gathering dewberries and getting a fine bowl of them.

Presently the hammock was completed and supper was served. Miss Zillah
had persuaded Mrs. Panther to let them eat it in the open, and they sat
together, that strangely mingled company, in the clear light of the
long-lingering day, enjoying their homely repast. The lovely evening,
the wild spot, her friends—so various, but so dear—the awakening light in
Paralee’s eyes, the sense of being, somehow, on the right road of the
world, brought to Azalea’s heart a sense of dancing delight. She
insisted on serving the chicken, the hoecake and the hot decoction which
Mrs. Panther was pleased to call tea, making the others sit still while
she waited on them. She could only be contented when she was doing
something, it seemed.

It was well on into the evening before the company was ready for rest;
for the last preparations for moving had to be made that night if the
company was to have an early morning start. The horses had to be cared
for, Mr. Panther made as fit for civilization as possible, some sort of
garments contrived for Mrs. Panther, and the house and yard “put
straight.” Everyone, save, of course, the helpless, silent man upon his
couch, turned in to help, Carin with the rest. Once Azalea whispered to
her friend:

“Did you hear that noise? It’s Paralee laughing!”

“Do you think so?” asked Carin skeptically. “It sounded to me rather
like a frog.”

“It was Paralee,” declared Azalea seriously. “It did sound a little like
a frog, didn’t it, but just you wait a month or two, Carin Carson, and
then hear how it sounds!”

Carin gave a tired little laugh.

“I can’t take another step, Zalie,” she declared. “No matter what the
rest of you do, I’ve got to go to bed.”

Going to bed on this night meant rolling one’s self in a raincoat,
covering one’s self with some coarse handmade sheeting, and lying
straight upon a bed of pine needles with one’s face to the stars.

“You don’t seem nearly so tired and sleepy as I am, Zalie dear. Sit by
me and hold my hand,” pleaded Carin. “You’ll lie next me, won’t
you—quite close? The mountain seems huge, doesn’t it? Like a kind
beast. Isn’t it breathing? I feel as if it were breathing. Deep
breaths. Where do you suppose my own, own father and mother are
to-night? It was queer that I didn’t want to go with them, wasn’t it? I
wonder if it was because I didn’t wish to leave you, ‘honey-bird’—as Mr.
Thompson calls you. Why didn’t he bring his fiddle? He doesn’t look
right to me without his fiddle. Oh—h, how tired I am. Sing, Azalea:
‘Now the day is over.’”

Carin hummed the first line; Azalea took it up at the second, and the
soft silence of the night was broken by the harmony of their voices.
Azalea remembered the evening, long ago, when she had heard Carin and her
father and mother singing that far down the trail. That was the night
they had come to ask her to be Carin’s adopted sister—the night she had
weighed her love for Ma McBirney in the balance with riches and
opportunity, and had decided in favor of the mountain cabin and Ma
McBirney’s love.

Carin slept quickly, but she was over-tired; her slender shoulders
twitched spasmodically, and the hand Azalea held would clutch and then as
suddenly relax.

“Oh, me,” thought Azalea, suddenly anxious, “are we forgetting how
delicate and tender she is? What if she should be ill, with her mother
so far away! We aren’t looking after her the way we ought. She can’t
stand the things the rest of us can. I must have a talk with Aunt Zillah
at once.”

She drew her hand softly from Carin’s grasp and looked about her for Aunt
Zillah. Someone paced slowly up and down beneath the trees at no great
distance, and Azalea ran to see who it was.

“It’s only Keefe,” said a voice in answer to her low inquiry. “Not the
person you’re looking for, I’m sure.”

“I happened to be looking for Aunt Zillah,” said Azalea; “but why
shouldn’t I be looking for you, Keefe O’Connor?”

“Because you never do—you never have—never will. Nobody looks for me.
Nobody worries about me. I come and go as I please—and don’t like it. I
had some hope at the beginning of the season that Mrs. Rowantree would
worry about me—she seemed so nice. But she hasn’t a speck of worry to
spare from Himself and the children. Then I thought maybe Miss Pace
would devote at least ten minutes a day to worrying about me, but _she_
hasn’t shown a sign of it. She never asks me where I come from or who I
am, or why I am, or—”

“Why, Keefe O’Connor, you’re as unjust as you can be. She hasn’t asked
you—none of us has asked you—because we thought that for some reason you
didn’t want to tell.”

Keefe stopped short in his pacing, and standing twenty feet from the
girl, let one cold word drop between them.

“Oh!”

“What a horrid way of saying ‘Oh!’” cried Azalea. “I meant just what I
said and not anything more. You know very well that we’ve liked you from
the first, Keefe, and that it never would occur to us to think anything
about you that—that wasn’t nice. What’s the matter with you to-night,
anyway? I feel as if, whatever I said, you’d put some meaning into it
that I didn’t want put there.”

“What’s the matter with me?” he asked. “Why, I’m homesick—for a home I
never had. I want to see the kin I haven’t got. I want to know my own
name. I want to understand—” he broke off and let the words rest
quivering upon the air. Azalea drew a little nearer in the gloom.

“Don’t you know any of those things, Keefe?” Her voice sounded awed.

“No, Azalea, I don’t. I have, I believe, the strangest story in the
world. I’ve wanted and wanted to tell it to you, but I’ve been afraid
that you—well, that you wouldn’t believe it, or perhaps that you wouldn’t
like me so well after you knew it.”

“Oh, Keefe, tell me now! I should love to hear a strange story to-night.
I love to live under the sky, don’t you? When I was a little girl I
often slept out like this with my poor mamma. Oh, Keefe, how I wish you
had known my poor little mother! Where shall we sit while you tell me
the story? Or would you rather we walked back and forth?”

But before Keefe could reply, Miss Zillah, with Paralee and her mother,
came from the house and joined them.

“Paralee wishes to sleep out here with us, Azalea,” said Miss Pace.
“That will be very nice, won’t it? Mrs. Panther has come to say good
night, my dear. I tell her she must get to bed. To-morrow will be a
trying day, though, I hope, a happy one, too.”

Keefe and Azalea stood silent for a moment. Their little moment of
enchantment was shattered and it was hard for them to hide their
disappointment. Then Azalea tried to say what was expected of her, but
Mrs. Panther broke in:

“I’ve got it on my mind,” she said slowly, “to say how I feel about
you-all coming away out here to help me and my man. It’s hard for me to
say, for I ain’t used to strangers. What’s more, it’s a good while since
I had call to thank anyone. Things has been against me and folks has
been against me. My own children has been against me.”

“No, they hain’t, ma. No, they hain’t,” cried Paralee excitedly.
“You’ll see it hain’t so—”

“What I can’t get clear in my mind,” went on the woman, paying no heed to
Paralee’s wistful tug at her sleeve, “is why you-all should trouble
yourselves to come up here on something that ain’t no concern of yourn—”

“You would have done just the same, wouldn’t you, Mrs. Panther,” said
Azalea in her light, almost gay little way, “if you had heard we were in
trouble and had known you could help us out?”

“Who, me?” gasped Mrs. Panther. “I never helped nobody. Never had the
chanct.” Again the bitterness came into her voice.

“I’m going to give you the chance sometime, Mrs. Panther,” said Azalea,
laughing softly. “Then you’ll help me the very best you know how; won’t
she, Aunt Zillah?”

On that they parted. Keefe and Mr. Thompson slept at some distance,
guarding the path—though indeed there was no one to guard it against.
Aunt Zillah and her girls lay beneath a hemlock tree. Beside them,
Paralee watched the slow roll of the stars till far into the night,
unable to sleep for the thoughts that beset her.

“I couldn’t stay in the house,” she whispered to Azalea. “It made me
think of the dark days.”

“The dark days?”

“Before I went away—when I thought we was forgot by all on the world.”

The night was good to them; the wind was low and kind; the dew softer
than fairy fingers; the stars softly bright. Even the dawn did not come
blazing upon them. In pink and gray, delicately it smiled from the
farther hills. True, all night long the whippoorwill teased the air with
his foolish song, but all there were too used to the notes of his voice
to heed.

An hour after sunup, the procession was on its way. Mrs. Panther and
Paralee rode the horses which had carried Keefe and Haystack Thompson the
day before. In the panniers by their side cackled the excited and
displeased chickens, and following them came the equally surprised and
disgusted pig, for whom Keefe had constructed a harness by means of which
Paralee led him. Last of all came Keefe and Haystack, carrying the
paralyzed man in his hammock.

The little house looked wretchedly deserted when Paralee had closed its
shutters and Keefe nailed up its door. He noticed that Mrs. Panther kept
her head turned away from it and he wondered if she had, after all, some
strange, irrational love for this grim place, where she had suffered so
much, and known such bitter solitude.




Well, he reflected, the wrench would soon be over. Ten minutes took them
out of sight of the house. They presently were out of the clearing and
picking their way along the most terrible road in a country of bad roads.
The drag of the sick man’s weight, half-skeleton though he was, was more
of a burden than Keefe thought it would be. At the end of the first mile
it seemed to him that he could not go on; but oddly enough, the second
mile found him getting accustomed to the task. With Haystack Thompson,
however, the carrying of this dead weight seemed to be but a small
hardship. Though making the best baskets in the country and playing the
violin with the touch of wild genius were not occupations to strengthen
muscles, still Thompson was capable of great exertion. Keefe, who walked
behind him, looked at his great shoulders with envy.

Miss Pace, with Azalea and Carin, had ridden on ahead as fast as they
could push their horses, in order to send the McEvoy wagon to the point
where the rough trail met the wagon road. They had no fear of losing
their way, for the marks their horses had made the previous day were
their sure guide. So if they were anxious, it was not for themselves.
Their fear was for the two burden-bearers. Azalea had seen from the
first that Keefe was finding the task a very difficult one. He was not
strong in the way her good Haystack was, and he never would be. She
thought of his delicate, long, “clever” hands, that could handle the
sketching pencil or the painter’s brush so deftly, of all his quick,
kind, charming ways, and wondered again what the story could be that he
wanted to tell her, and how it was that he seemed so alone in the world.

The day was proving itself a surprisingly hot one for that altitude.
Azalea was glad to remember the canteens of cold water that the men
carried with them, and hoped Haystack would tell Keefe to put green
leaves in his hat to keep his head cool. She wondered if there was
danger of sunstroke away up on the mountains and wanted to ask Miss Pace,
but for some reason didn’t quite like to. Too much anxiety about Keefe
might bring out Carin’s little teasing smile. Anyway, it was no time for
asking questions. She urged Paprika ahead of the others, and rode him
over the stubble, through the bushes, across the fords, until at last she
reached the well-traveled road. Here she watered him lightly, and
breathed him for a few minutes. Then she flicked the reins on his neck.

“Go home, pony,” she called sharply. Paprika gave a little sniff as much
as to say that he had supposed that was what he _was_ doing, and reaching
out with his tough little legs, he fairly flew over the ground. Carin
set her pretty Mustard at the same pace. The ponies had been bred
together and were equally matched, yet to-day Mustard did not seem quite
the equal of Paprika, and Mustard’s mistress wondered why. But Aunt
Zillah knew. The difference lay, not in the ponies, but in the riders.
It was Azalea whose aching sympathy with those she had left behind her,
diffused itself through the heart and lungs and legs of her staunch
little mount, giving him a speed he seldom had known before.

Indeed, it was an all but fainting pony that was drawn up at last by the
McEvoy steps. Azalea had slipped from her saddle as the little creature
swayed, and guessing at his trouble, had snatched up a pail of water
which stood upon the house steps and dashed it over his face. Miles
McEvoy, placidly smoking his pipe in the shade of a sweet gum tree, came
to her aid, but she waved him away.

“Hitch the horses to the wagon,” she said, “and please ask Mrs. McEvoy to
come here.”

McEvoy, the leisurely, stared for one second. Then, putting a question
or two, and receiving Azalea’s clear answers, he strode away to do her
bidding. Azalea got the saddle off her weary little mount and ran to get
the necessaries for the relief wagon, explaining as she worked. A few
moments later, Miss Zillah and Carin arrived, Carin too jaded to be of
much service just then, but Aunt Zillah full of expedients.

So in less than an hour, McEvoy, with his wife beside him, was on his
way, and the three who were left behind were making free in the bedroom
of the many bottles, getting all in readiness for Mr. Panther.

At midnight they laid the sick man on Mrs. McEvoy’s best feather bed.
Very deep and soft and sweet it was, and very kindly and safe looked the
homely room. Miss Zillah’s soup was hot and savory, and her tea had
comfort in it for the weary. Azalea and Carin, swift-footed and eager,
rendered all the service in their power, and at length, when every task
was performed, with their lanterns in their hands, they, with Miss
Zillah, started for their home.

Keefe O’Connor was sitting without the door waiting for them.

“I want to see you safe, please,” he said in rather a curious voice.
Azalea looked at him to see what was the matter, but the lantern revealed
nothing more than a white and strained face. She noticed that he was
unusually silent as they made their way over the path of pine needles to
the Oriole’s Nest, but for the matter of that, none of them felt
talkative. She certainly was not prepared to see him, when he had
unlocked the cabin door for them, reel suddenly and fall unconscious
across the threshold.