Read CHAPTER IX of The Torch Bearer A Camp Fire Girls' Story , free online book, by I. T. Thurston, on ReadCentral.com.

JIM

In the first ward of the Children’s Hospital the next afternoon, N lay very still strangely still for a nine-year-old boy watching the door. He had watched it all day, although he knew that visitors’ hours were from two to four, and none would be admitted earlier. N in the next cot asked him a question once, but N only shook his head wearily. Some of the children had books and games, but they soon tired of them, and lay idly staring about the long, sunny room, or looking out at the sky and the trees, or watching the door. Sometimes mothers or fathers came through that door, and if you hadn’t any of your own, at any rate you could look at those that came to see other fellows, and sometimes these mothers had a word or a smile for others as well as their own boys. N, however, didn’t want any other fellow’s mother to smile down at him no indeed, that was the last thing in the world he wanted yet. He wished sometimes, just for a moment, that there weren’t any mothers to come, since the one could never come to him again. But they did come and smile at him, and pat his head these mothers of the other boys came drawn by the hungry longing in his eyes and he set his teeth and clinched his hands under the bedclothes, and when they went away gulped down the great lump that always jumped into his throat, all in a minute but he never cried. One day when a kind-hearted nurse asked him about his mother, he bore her questioning as long as he could, and then he struck at her fiercely and slipped right down under the bedclothes where nobody could see him; but he didn’t cry, though he shook and shook for a long time after she went away.

But Miss Laura she was different. She didn’t kiss him, nor pat him, nor ask fool questions. She just talked to him well, the right way. And she’d promised to come again to-day. Maybe she’d forget though; people did forget things they’d promised only somehow, she didn’t look like the forgetting kind. And she was awful pretty most the prettiest lady he had ever seen. But hospital hours were so dreadfully long! Seemed like a hundred hours since breakfast. Ah! He lifted his head and looked eagerly towards the door somebody was coming in. O, only some other fellow’s mother. He dropped down again, choking back an impatient groan that had almost slipped out. When the next mother came in he turned his back on the door, but soon he was watching it again. A half-hour dragged wearily by; then a crowd of girls fluttered through the doorway. N gazed at them listlessly until one behind slipped past the others; then his eyes widened and his lips twitched as if they had almost a mind to smile, for here was the pretty lady coming straight to him.

“Jim” she said, shaking hands with him just as if he had been a man, “I’ve brought some of my girls to see you to-day. I hope you are glad to see us all, but you needn’t say you are if you are not.”

Jim didn’t say and Rose Anderson laughed softly. Jim flashed a glance at her, but he saw at once that it wasn’t a mean laugh just a girly giggle, and he manfully ignored it.

“I have to speak to Charley Smith over there,” Miss Laura went on, “but I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

As she crossed to the other cot, Frances Chapin slipped into the chair by Jim’s there was only one chair between each two cots. “I think you are about nine, aren’t you, Jim?” she asked.

“Goin’ on ten,” Jim corrected stoutly.

“I’ve a brother going on ten,” she said.

Jim looked at her with quick interest. “Tell about him,” he ordered. “What’s his name?”

“David Chapin. He’s in the sixth grade ”

“So’m I I mean I was ’fore I came here,” Jim interrupted. “What else?”

“ and he’s he’s going to be a Boy Scout as soon as he’s twelve.”

Jim’s plain little face brightened into keen interest. “That’s bully!” he cried. “I’m going to be a Scout soon’s I’m big enough if I can.” The wistful longing in the last words brought a mist into Frances’s eyes, but Jim did not see it. He was looking at the other girls. “Any of the rest of you got brothers?” he demanded.

“I have one, but he’s a big fellow, twice as old as you are,” Alice Reynolds said.

“And I’ve six,” Mary Hastings told him. “Two of them are Scouts.”

“Fine!” exulted Jim. “Say tell me what they do, all about it,” he pleaded, and sitting down on the edge of his cot, Mary told him everything she could think of about the scouting.

When Miss Laura came back Jim’s face was radiant. “She’s been telling me about her brothers they’re Boy Scouts,” he cried eagerly, pointing a stubby finger at Mary. “I wish,” he looked pleadingly into Mary’s eyes, “I do wish they’d come and see me; but I guess boys don’t come to hospitals ’thout they have to,” he ended with a sigh.

“I’ll get them to come if I can,” Mary promised, “but ”

“I know,” Jim nodded, “I guess they won’t have time. There’s so many things for boys to do outdoors!”

“Jim,” said Miss Laura, “there are so many things for you to do outdoors too. You must get well as fast as you can to be at them.”

Jim’s lips took on a most unchildlike set, and his eyes searched her face with a look she could not understand. “I I d’know ” he said vaguely.

He could not put into words his fear and dread of the time when he must go out into some Home where he would be only one of a hundred boys and all alone in a big lonesome world. That was the black dread that weighed on Jim’s heart night and day. He had seen that long procession of girls and boys from the Orphan Asylum going back from church on Sundays, the girls all in white dresses, the boys in blue denim suits, all just alike except for size. He had peeped through knotholes in the high fence that surrounded the Asylum yard too, and had seen the boys playing there on weekdays; and some not playing, but standing off by themselves looking so awful lonesome. Jim had always pitied those lonesome-looking ones. More than once he had poked a stick of chewing-gum through a knothole to one of them a little chap with frightened blue eyes. Jim felt that he’d almost rather die than go to the Asylum; and he’d heard the nurse tell Charley Smith’s mother that he’d have to go there when he got well. That was why Jim was in no hurry to get well.

The girls all shook hands with him before they went off to search the other wards for their blue-eyed baby. Miss Laura did not go with the girls; she stayed with Jim, and somehow, before long, he was telling her all about the Asylum boys and how he dreaded to get well and go there to live till he was fourteen. And, unconsciously, as he told it all, his stubby little fingers crept into Miss Laura’s hand that closed over them with a warm pressure very comforting to Jim.

And then then a wonderful thing happened, for Miss Laura put her head down close to his and whispered, “Jim, you shall never go to the Asylum, I promise you that. If you will try very hard to get well, I’ll find a home for you somewhere, and I’ll take care of you until you can take care of yourself.”

Jim caught his breath and his eyes seemed looking through hers deep into her heart, to see if this incredible thing could be true. What little colour there was in his face faded slowly out of it and his lips quivered as he whispered, “You you ain’t jest foolin’? You mean it, honest Injun?”

“Yes, Jim honest.”

He struggled to a sitting posture. “Cross your heart!” he ordered breathlessly.

She made the sign that children make. “Cross my heart, Jim. You are my boy now,” she said.

With a long, happy breath Jim fell back on his pillow. His eyes began to shine, and a spot of red burned in each thin cheek. “O gee!” he cried exultantly, and again, “O gee! I’ll get well in a hurry now, Miss Laura.” Then eagerly, “Where’ll I live?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ll find a place,” she promised.

He nodded, happily content just then to leave that in her hands.

“An’ I’ll grow big soon,” he crowed, “and I can earn a lot of money when I’m well, carryin’ papers an’ an’ other ways. An’ you’ll let me be a Boy Scout soon’s I’m big enough, an’ a soldier when I get over being lame?”

Laura nodded, and again Jim drew a long rapturous breath. When Laura went away his eyes followed her, and as from the door she looked back at him, he waved his hand to her and then settled down on his pillow to dream happy waking dreams. He was somebody’s boy once more.

Laura found the girls waiting for her in the reception room.

“Did you find your blue-eyed baby?” she asked.

“We found one ” Alice Reynolds began, and Rose broke in,

“But, O Miss Laura, her mother was with her and she wouldn’t hear of giving her up. I don’t wonder such a darling as she is!”

“You can try at the Orphan Asylum,” Miss Laura said, the words sending her thoughts back in a flash to Jim.

“Miss Laura, I wish we could have Jim. I think he’s a dear!” Mary Hastings said as they left the hospital.

“Jim’s pre-empted. He’s my boy now,” Laura answered quickly.

“O Miss Laura, I wanted him too for our Camp Fire child,” Frances said. “Are you really going to adopt him have him live with you?”

“I don’t know, Frances, about the living. When I found that he was fairly dying of loneliness and dread of the Orphan Asylum, I just had to do something; so I told him he should be my boy and I would take care of him. I know my father won’t mind the expense, but he may object to having the boy live with us. Of course, if he does I shall find a good home for him elsewhere.”

“But, Miss Laura, why can’t we all ‘adopt’ him?” Frances pleaded. “I’d so much rather have him than any baby. And there are always people ready to adopt pretty blue-eyed baby girls, but they don’t want just boys like Jim.”

“That’s true,” Alice Reynolds agreed. “My mother is a director at the Orphan Asylum, and she says nine out of ten who go there for a child to adopt, want a pretty baby girl.”

“But you can find some other boy for the Camp Fire,” Miss Laura returned.

“Not another Jim. Please share him with us, anyhow, Miss Laura,” Alice urged.

“I don’t want to be selfish about it,” Laura replied, “but somehow Jim has crept into my heart and I thought I would take him for my own special Camp Fire ‘service.’ And perhaps the other girls won’t be willing to give up their pretty baby.”

“I I’d hate to, though I like Jim too,” Rose admitted.

“You couldn’t make pretty lacey dresses for Jim,” Laura reminded her with a little laugh. “Rose is hankering for a live doll to dress, girls, so you’d better wait and see what the others say about it.”

“When can Jim leave the hospital?” Alice inquired.

“To judge from his face when I left him, he will get well quickly, now,” Miss Laura answered.

And he did. The next time she went to see him, he welcomed her with a beaming smile. “I’m getting well,” he exulted. “She says I can sit up to-morrow,” he nodded towards the nurse.

“He is certainly getting better,” the nurse agreed. “He has seemed like another boy since Sunday. How did you work such magic, Miss Haven?”

Laura looked at Jim and his eyes met hers steadily. “Hasn’t he told you?” she asked the nurse.

“He has told me nothing.”

Laura smiled at him as she explained, “Jim is my boy now we agreed on that, Sunday. When he leaves the hospital he is coming to me.”

“Jim, I congratulate you. You are a lucky boy,” said the nurse, who knew all about Judge Haven and his daughter.

“I think I too am to be congratulated,” said Laura quickly, and the nurse nodded.

“Yes, Jim is a good boy,” she answered. Then she went away and left the two together. This time Jim did not talk very much. It was enough for him to have his pretty lady where he could look at her, and be sure it was not all a dream.

Not many days later, after a telephone conference with the nurse, Laura went to the hospital again. She found the boy lying there with a look of patient endurance in his eyes, but they widened with half-incredulous joy when she told him that she had come to take him away.

“Not not now!” he cried out, with a little break in his voice.

“Yes, now just as you are. We are going to wrap you in a blanket and put you into a carriage, and before you have time to get tired we shall be home.”

“Home!” echoed Jim, his eyes shining.

“What makes you look so sober?” Miss Laura asked him as they drove away. “You aren’t sorry to leave the hospital?”

“Sorry?” Jim gave a shaky little laugh, then suddenly was grave again. “Yes, I’m sorry, but it’s for all the other fellows that nobody’s coming for,” he explained.

“I wish I could have taken them all home with us,” Laura answered quickly. “I’ll tell you what we’ll do, Jim. If you’ll get well very fast, maybe you and I can give a little Christmas party in your ward, to those other boys who have to stay there.”

“Hang up stockin’s an’ an’ a tree an’ all?” Jim questioned breathlessly.

“Yes. Wouldn’t you like that?”

Gee!” was Jim’s rapturous comment. “You bet I’ll get well fast if I can,” the afterthought in a lower tone.

The room Laura had prepared for the boy had been a nursery, and had a frieze, representing in gay colours the old Mother Goose stories. Jim was put on a cot beside the open fire, where he lay very still, but it was not the dull hopeless stillness of the hospital. Now he was resting, and his eyes travelled happily along the wall as he picked out the old familiar characters.

“Makes me feel like a little kid seeing all those,” he said, pointing at them.

The thin white face and small figure under the bedclothes looked like a very “little kid” still, Laura thought. The gray eyes swept over the large sunny room and then back to Miss Laura’s face, and suddenly Jim’s lips trembled.

“I I I think you’re bully!” he broke out, and instantly turned his face to the wall and was still again. Laura slipped quietly out of the room. When she returned a few minutes later, she brought a supper tray.

“You and I are going to have supper here to-night, Jim,” she announced cheerfully, “because my father is away, and I should be lonesome all alone downstairs and you might be lonesome up here. You must have a famous appetite, you know, if you are to get well and strong for that Christmas party at the hospital.”

“I’m hungry, all right,” Jim declared, his eyes lingering on the tempting food so daintily served; but after all he did not eat very much.

After supper he lay quietly watching the leaping flames for a long time. Suddenly he broke the silence with a question.

“I’ll be back there then?”

“Back where, Jim? I don’t understand,” Miss Laura said.

“At the hospital when we have that Christmas party.”

“Oh. Why, yes, of course, you and I will both be there.”

“Yes, but I mean I mean ” Jim’s eyes were very anxious, “will I be back there to stay, or where will I be stayin’?”

Laura’s hand dropped softly over one of his and held it in a warm clasp. “No, Jim, you won’t go back there to stay ever not if you do your best to get well, as of course you are going to. I told you I would find a good home for you and I will, but there’s plenty of time to think of that before your two weeks here are over.”

“You’re the the best ever, Miss Laura,” Jim said. “I I didn’t s’pose,” he stumbled on, trying to put his feeling into words, “ladies like you ever cared about boys that get left out of things like I have.”

Laura longed to put her arms about him and hold him close, but there was something about the sturdy little fellow that warned her, so, waiting a moment to steady her voice, she answered, “O yes, there are many that care and do all they can; but you see there are so very many little fellows that get left out, Jim.”

Jim nodded, his face very sober. “I wonder why,” he said, voicing the world-old query.

When she had settled him for the night, she stood looking down at the dark head on the pillow. “Shall I put the light out, or leave it?” she asked.

“Just as you like, Miss Laura,” he said, but she thought there was a little anxiety in his eyes.

“It makes no difference to me, of course. I want it whichever way you like best. I know you are not afraid of the dark.”

A moment’s silence, then in a very small voice, “Yes I am Miss Laura.”

Afraid!” Miss Laura caught herself up quickly.

“Yes’m,” said Jim in a still smaller voice, his eyes hidden now.

“O then I’ll leave the light, of course.” But there was just a shade of disappointment in Miss Laura’s voice and Jim caught it. “Good-night, dear,” she added, with a light touch on the straight brown hair.

“G’night,” came in a muffled voice from the pillow.

Laura turned away, but before she reached the stairs the boy called her. She went back at once.

“What is it, Jim? Do you want anything?”

“Yes’m, the light. I guess you better put it out.”

“Not if you are afraid in the dark, Jim.”

“Yes, Miss Laura, that’s why.”

“But I don’t understand. Can’t you tell me?” she urged gently.

Jim gulped down a troublesome something in his throat before he said in a whisper, “Put your head down close, Miss Laura.”

She turned out the light and as she dropped down beside the bed, a small arm slipped around her neck and a husky little voice whispered in her ear, “It’s ’cause I’m ’fraid inside that I mustn’t have the light left.” Another gulp. “Mother she said you wasn’t a coward just ’cause you was ’fraid inside, but only when you let the ’fraid get out into the things you do. She said lots of brave men were ’fraid inside sometimes. An’ an’ she said I mustn’t ever be a coward nor tell lies, an’ I promised cross my heart I wouldn’t. So that’s why, Miss Laura.”

Again Laura longed to hug the little fellow and kiss him as his mother would have done, but she said only,

“Yes, Jim, I quite understand now, and I know you will never be a coward. Here’s the bell, you know. You can press the button if you want anything, and the maid sleeps in the next room. She’ll be up in a few minutes.”

“Yes’m.” A little drowsiness was creeping into Jim’s voice already.

“Good-night, dear.”

“Good-night,” Jim murmured and Laura went away, but she left the door open into the lighted hall, and when she slipped back a little later the boy was asleep.

When the other Camp Fire Girls learned about “Miss Laura’s boy” they were all interested in him, and begged that he might come to the next Council meeting. Jim was sitting up most of the day now, and his wheelchair was rolled into the room after all the girls had come. He was dressed and sat up very straight, but though he was much better, his face was still very thin and white.

“All but one of my girls are here to-night, Jim,” Miss Laura told him. “I’m going to introduce you to them and see how many of the names you can remember.”

“Why isn’t that other one here?” he demanded.

“She couldn’t come this time,” Laura said with a glance at Olga, sitting grave and silent a little apart from the others.

The girls gathered about the wheelchair and Jim held out his hand to each one as Laura mentioned her name. His gray eyes searched each face, but he said nothing until Lena Barton flung him a careless nod and would have passed on, but he caught her hand and laughed up into the freckled face with the bunch of red frizzes puffed out on each side in the “latest moment” fashion.

“Hello, Carrots,” he called in the tone of jovial good-fellowship, “I like you, ’cause you look like a fellow I used to sit with in school. His name was Barton too Jo Barton. O, I say,” leaning forward eagerly, “mebbe he’s your brother?”

“You’re right, kiddie he’s one of the bunch,” Lena answered, her face softening as she looked down into the eager gray eyes.

“Gee! Jo’s sister!” Jim repeated. “I wish Jo was here too. I s’pose,” he glanced at Miss Laura, “you couldn’t squeeze in just one more boy?”

Laura shook her head. “Not into these meetings. But you can invite Lena’s brother to come and see you, if you like.”

“O bully!” Jim cried out and turned again to Lena. “You tell him, won’t you?”

“I will, sure,” she promised, and Jim reluctantly released her hand.

The girls begged that he might stay, and though Jim’s tongue was silent his eyes pleaded too, so Miss Laura conceded, “Just for a while then, if you’ll be very quiet so as not to get too tired,” and with a contented smile Jim leaned back against his cushions and looked and listened. When the girls chanted the Fire Ode his eyes widened with pleasure and he listened with keen interest to the recital of “gentle deeds.” Even Olga gave one this time. Jim’s eyes studied her grave face, his own almost as grave, and when later she passed his chair, he caught her dress and said very low, “Put down your head. I want to ask you something.”

Olga impatiently jerked her dress from his grasp, but something in his eyes held her against her will, and under cover of a burst of laughter from another group, she leaned over the wheelchair and ungraciously enough asked what he wanted. Jim’s eyes, very earnest and serious now, were looking straight into hers.

“I know what makes you keep away from the others and look so so dif’rent. You’re lonesome like I was at the hospital. Is it your mother, too?”

Olga’s face went dead white and for an instant her eyes flamed so fiercely that the boy shrank away with a little gasp of fear. But the next moment she was looking at him with eyes full of tears a long silent look then, without a word, she was gone.

The first time that Jim came downstairs to dinner he was very shy and spoke only in answer to a question. But his awe of Judge Haven and the servants soon wore off, and his questions and comments began to interest the judge. When one evening after dinner Laura was called to the telephone, the judge laid aside his paper and called the boy to him. Jim promptly limped across the room and stood at the judge’s knee, his gray eyes looking steadily into the keen blue ones above him.

“Are you having a good time here?” the judge began.

“O, splendid!”

“And you are almost well, aren’t you?”

“Almost well,” Jim assented, a little shadow of anxiety creeping into the gray eyes.

“Let me see how many days have you been here?”

Jim answered instantly, “Nine. I’ve got five more,” this last very soberly.

“Five more?” the judge questioned.

Jim nodded gravely. “Miss Laura said I could stay here two weeks, you know.”

“Oh! And then what back to the hospital?”

“O no!” Jim was very positive about that. “No, I don’t know where I’ll be after the five days. I I kind o’ wish I did. It would be settleder, you know. But,” his face brightening, “but of course, it will be a nice place, because Miss Laura said she’d find me a good home somewhere, and she don’t ever forget her promises. And besides, I’m going to be her boy just the same when I go away from here she promised that too.”

The judge nodded, his eyes studying the small earnest face.

“Miss Laura must find that good home right away,” he said. “Of course you want to know where you are going.”

“I hope she’ll be the kind that likes boys,” Jim said after a thoughtful pause. “Do you think she will?”

“Who?”

“The woman in that good home. They don’t all, you know. Some of ’em think boys are dreadful noisy and bothering, and some think they eat too much. I eat a lot sometimes ” he ended with an anxious frown.

The judge found it necessary just then to put his hand over his eyes. He muttered something about the light hurting them, and then Laura came in and told Jim it was bedtime. He said good-night, holding out his small stubby hand. The judge’s big one grasped it and held it a moment.

“We had a nice talk, didn’t we?” Jim said, and with the smile that made his homely little face radiant for a moment, he added, “It sure is nice to talk with a man,” and he went off wondering what the judge was laughing about.

He was not laughing when Laura came downstairs again after tucking up the boy in bed. She so hated to turn out the light and leave him in the dark, but she always did it. Now she told her father what Jim had said about that the first night.

The judge made no comment, but after a moment he remarked, “The boy is rather worried about the home you are to find for him. It ought to be settled. Have you any place in view?”

“No. To tell the truth, father, I can’t bear to have him go away. Would you mind if I keep him here a while longer? You are so much away, and he is company for me, and very little trouble. I shall miss him dreadfully when he goes.”

“Of course I don’t mind,” her father said. “Only, Laura, is it fair to keep him here fair to him, I mean? The longer he stays the harder it will be for him to go to a strange place.”

“I suppose you are right,” Laura admitted with a sigh, “and I must find the home for him at once.”

“But be sure it is a good place, and with a woman who will ‘mother’ him,” the judge added. “Poor little chap only nine and lame, and alone in the world. It’s hard lines.”

“It would seem so,” his daughter admitted, “and yet, Jim is such a brave honest little fellow, and he has such a gift for making friends, that perhaps he is not so badly handicapped, after all. I shall miss him dreadfully when he leaves us.”