Read CHAPTER X - THE LITTLE BOY IN THE BLACKBERRY PATCH of Frank of Freedom Hill , free online book, by Samuel A. Derieux, on ReadCentral.com.

Something strange was going on down there in the woods behind the barn. Little Tommy Earle was convinced of it as soon as he saw old Frank, Irish setter, come galloping across the cottonfields from that direction. For old Frank was excited, that was plain; and old Frank didn’t get excited for nothing.

Accordingly, Tommy dropped his wagon tongue, and watched the old boy round the barn, jump the lot fence, and run into the yard. His red silken ears were thrown back, his brown eyes were shining, and he was looking for somebody to tell his secret to.

“F’ank!” called the boy.

At the call the old fellow’s ears flattened and he threw up his head, then he came running straight to Tommy. There was an eager light in his eyes that said plain as words, “Come with me and I’ll show you something.”

Tommy’s heart began to pound. From the kitchen window above his head came the flop-flop of a churn, accompanied by the wailing song of Aunt Cindy, the cook. Tommy glanced shrewdly up at this window from whence proceeded the melancholy refrain. He must not let Aunt Cindy see him leave the yard. That morning after breakfast his father and mother had driven off hurriedly in the car, following a telephone message from Greenville that said Aunt Janet, his mother’s sister, was sick in a hospital. His mother had told him she would be gone several days, and meanwhile he must do everything Aunt Cindy told him to do and nothing she did not tell him to do.

But Tommy had no doubt whatever what Aunt Cindy’s answer would be if he asked permission to leave the yard and follow Frank into the woods. She would put her foot down on it flat, and Aunt Cindy had a big foot. Better leave right now, while the old woman was in the midst of her churning and her song.

“All right, F’ank,” whispered Tommy.

They went by a circuitous route that placed first the garage, then the barn, between them and the kitchen window. Then they broke into a run across the cottonfield and entered the woods, Frank leading. They had not gone far when Tommy stopped stopped suddenly. Ahead of him was an opening where the sun blazed down; and in the midst of this opening was a creature picking blackberries.

Its face, round and sunburned, was smeared with the red juice, as were its hands, with which it was reaching for more. It stopped eating when it discovered Tommy’s presence and looked steadily Tommy’s way. It was a boy about Tommy’s own size, a boy he had never seen before!

Under a white cloth hat Tommy’s eyes narrowed. What right did that boy have to come on his father’s place and pick blackberries? He didn’t have on any hat, either; his hair looked as if it had never been cut; his clothes were ragged. Ordinarily, Tommy rather admired these things, but now, taking in the whole appearance of the intruder, he glanced about quickly at some rocks that lay near-by, rocks the right size to throw.

But evidently the boy didn’t want to fight.

“Heh!” he said.

“Heh,” said Tommy.

“What’s your name?”

“Tommy what’s yours?”

“Joe.”

A minute’s silence followed this exchange of essential information.
Tommy drew nearer Joe. Joe drew nearer Tommy.

“That your dog?”

“Yes he’s my dog.”

“He come down here just now. What’s his name?”

“F’ank.”

Another silence. Then the boy spoke.

“I seen some fishes down thar in the crick jus’ now.”

“I’ve seen ’em lots of times.”

“Say what about goin’ down thar now?”

“I don’t care,” said Tommy.

An hour later they came out of the woods together and started for the house, old Frank strolling along pleasantly behind them. Joe’s hair was wet and plastered down over his face like an Indian’s; Tommy’s was also wet under the white cloth hat. They had done more than look at fish; they had gone in with them.

Tommy walked close to Joe: he had learned many thrilling facts, among them that Joe lived in Greenville and had run away. This he had found out, not all at once, but in fragments, while they splashed water over one another, and later while they sat on the shaded bank of the creek.

Somebody had “beat Joe up see!” Joe had exhibited a welt on his shoulder and another on his leg in proof of the assertion. It seems that previous to this Joe had swiped some bananas from the fruit stand of one Tony, and that, previous to that, Joe had been hungry “Hung’y as hell” was Joe’s way of putting it a way that commended itself to Tommy at once as being extremely picturesque. In fact, even while Joe talked he kept on saying it over and over in his mind, so fine was the phrase and so expansive.

There had been a “cop” in the story. Tommy did not know what a cop was until Joe told him. “Dam ol’ cop” was the phrase, to be exact. The cop had chased him, then Joe had run away. It seemed that he didn’t stop running for a long time. There was also the driver of a motor truck in the story, Mike by name. Mike drove the truck that carried an oil tank from the city to a town. Mike had given him a lift; Mike often did that. When they got out in the country here, Joe had asked Mike to let him down he wanted to get some blackberries. Mike had said he would pick Joe up on the way back.

Such was the thriller Tommy had listened to. It hadn’t come easy, this story, but only after repeated questions. Now and then, while he was telling it, Joe had looked at Tommy with a wry, wise grin, as if sizing him up. He was little, and he couldn’t talk plainly, but he seemed old somehow. We live in deeds, not in years, as the poet says.

Joe was still grinning when they came into the back yard. He had held back a time or two, as if he were afraid of that big house on the hill, but Tommy had over-persuaded him. There wasn’t anybody at home, he had declared, but there were biscuits and jam in the kitchen.

Halfway between the barn lot and the house they were confronted by Aunt Cindy. She was an enormous black woman, dressed always in starched gingham and apron, with a red bandanna handkerchief on her head.

“Whar you been, honey?” she demanded; then sternly: “Whose chile dat you got wid you?”

Tommy did not reply; in fact, he didn’t know; what’s more, he didn’t care. It was Joe, that was enough.

She was towering above them now.

“Who yo’ ma an’ pa, chile?” she demanded of the miniature Marco Polo who had come home with her charge. “Whar you come from?”

Marco Polo did not reply. He only grinned up at her, an impertinent, scrappy sort of grin. In a hard school he had learned the virtue of silence.

“I found him in the woods,” volunteered Tommy at last. “He’s lost an’ he’s goin’ to stay wif me.”

“Stay wid you, honey?” cried the old woman. “No, honey,” she shook her head. “He ain’t gwine stay wid you.”

And she meant it, too, every word of it. Society to her was divided into quality white folks like the Earles, black folks like herself, and poor white trash like this waif; and between the first class and the third was there a great gulf fixed.

“We gwine fin’ who he ma an’ pa is, honey, an’ sen’ him home,” was her verdict.

“You ain’t goin’ to send him home!” cried Tommy, his face suddenly crimson. “He ain’t got no home. You ain’t goin’ to send him anywhere. He’s goin’ to stay here wif me. He ain’t had anything to eat but blackberries. He’s hungry as” the phrase was almost out, but he throttled it “He’s hungry!”

The old woman looked at the waif shrewdly.

“You hongry?” she asked. “Well, one thing’s shore nobody ever come to Freedom Hill hongry an’ went away hongry. You sho’ gwine have somethin’ to eat. Den we sen’ you home.”

She led the way into a kitchen, spacious and cool. She made them wash their hands while she looked on, shaking her head at the condition of one pair of them. She set them down to a table and placed before them biscuits and butter and jam, and cold milk from the refrigerator. But while she performed this act of hospitality her face showed the determination she had expressed.

The kitchen opened by a white-panelled passageway into the dining room, and the dining room into the big front hall. She left the two of them and went into the hall. They heard her ringing the telephone, and while they ate her talk came to them.

“Dat you, Mr. Davis? Mr. Davis, dis me. Mr. Davis, dey’s a strange chile here. Tommy say he foun’ him in de woods. He won’t tell who he ma an’ pa is, or whar he come from. Tommy say he los’. Mr. Steve ain’t comin’ back till to-morrow. What I gwine do, Mr. Davis? Call up Mr. Bob Kelley? All right, suh yes, suh. Das what I’ll do.”

Joe looked at Tommy with a grin.

“What’s that ol’ nigger talkin’ about?” he asked.

Tommy’s eyes narrowed. Old Aunt Cindy wasn’t to be called that even by such a travelled and honoured gentleman as his present guest.

“Don’t call her a nigger,” he said. “Hear?”

Joe nodded. There was a touch of wistfulness in his eyes now there had been, ever since he entered this mansion stocked with biscuit and jam.

The old woman’s voice came to the diners clearly now. She always grew excited when she talked over the telephone.

“Dat you, Mr. Bob Kelley? Dis Cindy over at Mr. Steve Earle. Mr. Kelley, dey’s a stray chile here. Yes, suh, jus’ drap from de clouds. Mr. John Davis he say you likely git some inquiries about him. Mr. Kelley, I gwine sen’ him over to yo’ house by Jake. Yes, suh dis evenin’, right away.”

Tommy slid down from his chair. Joe went on with his biscuits and jam. A dirty little hand that two bathings had not whitened closed tight around a slender white glass of cold milk. Tommy ran into the hall.

“You ain’t goin’ to send him away!” he cried. “He’s goin’ to stay here wif me. He’s goin’ to sleep wif me. Hear, Aunt Cindy?”

Still protesting, he was following her through the hall, out on the high-columned front porch, and around the house toward the barn.

“Hit won’t do, honey,” she was saying over and over. “You listen to yo’ mammy now, you ‘pen’ on her. He ain’t de chile for you to play wid. You can’t touch de kittle an’ not git smut on you. Yo’ ol’ mammy know. She raise you from a baby. Don’t pull at my skirts, honey. It don’t do no good. Yo’ ol’ mammy always is ak de bes’ way for you, honey, an’ she always will. Mis’ Bob Kelley, she’ll be good to him. Mr. Bob Kelley, he’ll fin’ out whar de chile belong.”

She stopped in the back yard, near the lot.

“Jake!” she called. “Oh, Jake!”

From a cabin beside the garden an elongated darky uncoiled himself out of a split-bottom chair and sauntered leisurely toward her.

“Jake, hitch up Nelly to de buggy. Dey’s a los’ chile here. I done spoke to Mr. Bob Kelley ‘bout him, an’ I want you to take him over dar.”

Then Tommy broke loose; then the future master of Freedom Hill asserted his authority. He might obey the old woman in such minor matters as washing his face and putting on a clean nightgown, but here was something different. He stood before Aunt Cindy and Jake with blazing eyes and defied them. He forebade Jake to hitch up Nelly.

“He’s goin’ to stay here, I tell you! He’s goin’ to stay wif me!”

“Lordy, lordy!” laughed Jake, and fell back three steps, his hand over his mouth. “Ain’t dat boy like he paw!”

“He’s goin’ to stay wif me! He’s goin’ to stay wif me!”

And even Aunt Cindy gave in. The spirit of Steve Earle had spoken in Steve Earle’s child.

When they went back into the kitchen an oblivious diner sat at the kitchen table, bent over a plate, and still mopped up blackberry jam with buttered biscuit.

That night the full moon, declining over the sheltering eaves of the mansion, sent its rays into the windows of the big upstairs bedroom. First they fell on a bed where lay one boy asleep, as he had slept all his life, on soft mattresses, between white sheets. Then the silver light crept slowly over the bed, across the floor, where it seemed to linger a while on a pile of toys an engine with three passenger cars, a red hook and ladder whose fiery horses galloped forever, a picture book open at the place where a man in shaggy skins, with a shaggy umbrella, stared with bulging eyes at a track in the sand. And last this gentle light climbed upon another bed and embraced a swarthy little figure lying on its side, one arm stretched out, one fist closed tight, as if to keep fast hold on this chance life had thrown his way.

Never before had this child slept on a soft mattress, never before in a clean nightgown; never before that night had he seen a tiled bathroom and a white tub where water ran. On one sturdy leg that braced the body as it lay on the side the moonlight revealed a ridged place, a scar, purple and hard. But the hard grin was gone now, the face in repose; and the peering moon, which so silently inspected that room and its inmates, might have had a hard time deciding, so serene were the two small faces, which, in the years to come, would be, please God, the gentleman, and which, God forbid, the ruffian!

The two were up at sunrise. Jennie, the maid, dressed them in clothes just alike all except shoes Joe drew the line there. They ate breakfast in the dining room, Tommy in his own chair, the visitor elevated to the proper height by a dictionary. They ate oatmeal and cream, waffles and syrup. While the dew still sparkled on the lawn and on the thousands of tiny morning spiderwebs stretched along the hedges, they went out into the yard, where old Frank came running to meet them with his morning welcome of wagging tail.

But the grin had come back to the visitor’s face now. He was afraid of Aunt Cindy, of the maid, of Jake, of all grown folks. In vain Tommy tried to play with him: he did not know how to play a wagon was a wagon to him, nothing more; a stick a stick, and not a horse to be ridden. Tommy gave it up. They walked around inspecting things, like little old men. Now and then the visitor swore, the oaths coming naturally, like any other talk. He did not even know he was swearing. Tommy, listening, grinned now and then, looking at his visitor with comprehending eyes. The little shrill oaths fascinated him; as for the child who uttered them, God had never entered his garden in the cool of the evening, and he didn’t know he was naked.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, an old black woman, seeing them saunter about, followed by old Frank, and noting that they did not play but talked, shook her wise head.

“I wish Mr. Steve would come,” she said. “He teachin’ dat chile things he ought not to know.”

He came early in the afternoon. Tommy saw the long shining car turn in at the end of the avenue and Frank race to meet it. At the boy’s cry that yonder came Papa, Joe turned and started toward the barn.

“Where you goin’?” demanded Tommy.

“He’ll beat me up,” said Joe.

While the car hummed up the avenue the two stood close together, Tommy’s face earnest as he argued and reassured.

The car stopped near the garage. A tall, clean-shaved man in palm beach clothes and panama hat came toward them. “Hello, old man,” he said and stooped down and kissed one boy; then straightening up: “Who’s this you’ve got with you?”

“Joe,” said Tommy simply.

He saw the keen look in the gray eyes, the smile that caused the fine wrinkles to gather about their corners way up there under the panama hat.

“Well, Joe where did you drop from?”

Then Aunt Cindy called the master of Freedom Hill aside, and Tommy saw the old woman talking earnestly up into his face. His father nodded, then came toward them, smiling.

“All right, boys,” he said. “Come up on the porch where it’s cool, and tell me all about it.”

But Joe would not tell. He drew away and looked at the man with that scrappy grin. Silence, secretiveness where grown people were, had been beaten into his small brain. Out behind the house, the conference finished, Tommy reassured his guest again and again, sometimes laughing, sometimes very earnest.

“Oh, he won’t hurt you, Joe!”

But Joe’s chest was rising and falling. He was afraid of Steve Earle, afraid of those powerful arms, even of those kind gray eyes.

An hour later Steve Earle called Tommy to him.

“Keep him with you, son,” he said. “I’m going to Greenville.”

He came back in the afternoon. From the orchard they saw him get out of the car and go up on the porch. Joe would not come back to the house. He did consent, though, to venture into the yard, near the barn. They were sitting on the concrete base of the windmill when from around the house Tommy saw Mr. John Davis and his wife drive up the avenue and get out near the porch. They lived across the creek and were neighbours. They did not have a car, but drove an old white horse named Charlie, who was always pricking up his ears at you, hoping you would give him an apple. Mr. Davis had a long beard and Mrs. Davis was stout and wore spectacles.

“You go and see what they want,” grinned Joe. “I’ll stay here.”

In vain Tommy begged him to come, too. They weren’t going to hurt him. They would give him apples. Joe shook his head. He didn’t want any apples.

So Tommy went, Frank following. They were sitting on the porch, talking to his father. Yes, they were talking about Joe; and Tommy catching the infection of secrecy from his guest, stopped at the side of the portico that set high off the ground, where he could hear without being seen, while old Frank, panting, lay down beside him.

He knew the voices of them all. He often went with his father across the fields to Mr. Davis’s house. It was always a delightful excursion. The Davises didn’t have any cook or maid, but they had a grape arbour whose vines formed a roof thick as a house, and out in the garden they had a row of bee gums painted white. They lived alone; they had no children, which struck Tommy as being strange, like not having a dog or a cow. The water at their well was very cool, and you drew it with a bucket. While his father and Mr. Davis talked on the porch, Mrs. Davis would call him in the kitchen, him and Frank both. She seemed to be forever making a cake. He would talk to her and tell her all about Frank. He was always sorry when time came to go home.

Mr. Davis was talking now. He always talked in a mumbling way, because of his beard that the words got tangled in. They thought the child had been sent away until they got Steve’s message just now. They came right over. So the boy was still here. Well, he was glad of that.

“I know this much about it, Steve,” he went on. “Yesterday afternoon the driver of a truck stopped by Squire Kirby’s house on the big road and asked the Squire and his wife if they had seen a boy. That’s all I know.”

“Well, I know more than that,” Steve said. “I’ve been to Greenville and found out about him from the people at the settlement house. A fruit dealer reported him to the police for stealing bananas, and the police passed the case on to them. The kid lives with a man named Grimsley, in a shack down by the river, in the gas-tank section. You know what that neighbourhood is, John.

“The settlement house questioned the neighbours. It seems that the kid’s parents are dead, and that Grimsley is an uncle by marriage. He’s a brute, even for the gas-tank section. The neighbours hear him beating the little devil see him doing it! He threatens the kid with policemen all the time. The result is that the child lives in deadly terror of all policemen, and will run like a rabbit at the sight of one.”

“Oh, poor little thing!” cried Mrs. Davis, and Davis growled something that was lost in the tangle of his beard.

Tommy heard his father knock the ashes out of his pipe.

“The settlement-house people,” he went on, “are taking steps to get control of the child. They’ve laid the case before Judge Fowler. You know what that means, John. If anybody has any trouble with the judge it’ll be Grimsley, the uncle.”

“Steve,” said Mrs. Davis, “you’ve seen the child. Is he a nice child?”

“I guess all kids are nice according to their chances,” said Earle. “This one hasn’t had any chances.”

“The reason I ask,” said Mrs. Davis, “is that John and I have talked have talked about adopting one. We we get lonely sometimes for a child.”

Tommy was holding Frank by the collar now. He noticed that it was stifling hot and Frank was panting, that the sunlight on the trees was growing strange in colour, that the trees themselves stood motionless as if the leaves were made out of iron that could not stir, and when he glanced behind him, toward the barn, he saw over the hills a black cloud.

Then something in the road drew his attention. A man had ridden up on a horse and was dismounting and coming up the walk. He looked twice before he could make sure. It was Bob Kelley, rural policeman.

He left his hiding place and went running toward the back yard. There was no one there, not even Joe. For a moment his heart stood still. Then he remembered that he and Joe had played in the barn that morning. Maybe Joe was afraid of the cloud and had gone to the barn. He unlatched the lot gate, swung it heavily open, and went into the high, wide hall. Joe was sitting on the ladder that led up into the loft.

“Heh!” said Tommy.

Joe looked at him strangely.

“Guess who’s out there now!” cried Tommy, out of breath. “Bob Kelley. He’s comin’ up the walk!”

“Who’s he?”

“Pleaseman!”

Joe gasped.

“Cop?”

“Yes, cop!” said Tommy, proud that they had such things in the country as well as in town. “I’ll go an’ fin’ out what he wants. You stay here. I’ll come back an’ tell you. Come on, F’ank!”

He did not look back as he ran. He did not stop at the pillar this time. He went right up on the porch. Policemen didn’t come to their house every day. Kelley had not sat down.

“That’s all right, Bob,” Earle was saying. “John or I will look after him till the matter’s settled.”

Then, said Kelley, he would be going before the storm broke. He went down the steps and down the walk. There was no sun now.

Mrs. Davis rose. She was a stout, motherly woman. She was dressed up as if it were Sunday. Mr. Davis rose, too. You could never tell because of his beard whether he had on a cravat or not.

“I want to see the child, Steve,” Mrs. Davis said. Her face was so earnest it almost frightened Tommy. “Oh, I hope I will love him! I could not take a child I did not love. I always thought I wanted one that had been well brought up. I don’t know what I would do with the other kind but if he loves me ”

Steve turned and saw Tommy looking up at them with wide eyes. Frank had lain down in the walk.

“Where have you got your friend stuck away, old man?” asked Steve.

“Out at the barn, Papa. He’s skeered.”

They all went down the steps. Frank rose and followed, with panting mouth and wagging tail. He was a part of everything they did. This was his place as well as theirs, and he had his share in all that went on. As they turned the corner of the house they came face to face with the black thunder cloud in the west. As if it had seen them, there came from its depths a distant rumble.

Steve Earle held the lot gate open for Mrs. Davis. It was like holding the gate of life open to that boy in the barn. They went into the wide, lofty hall, lined with stalls. The ladder still led into the loft but there was no one on it.

“Joe!” called Tommy shrilly.

“He’s gone up in the loft,” said Davis.

Tommy and Mrs. Davis watched the two men climb the ladder. Mrs. Davis was breathing hard, as if some great test was about to be put to her. They heard the men walking about in the rustling hay; they heard Steve Earle calling.

“Joe Joe nobody’s going to hurt you, son.”

Their faces looked worried when they came down. Aunt Cindy had run out to them now. She had been in the front room, listening between the curtains to the conversation on the porch. She had not seen the child.

“He’s run off!” screamed Tommy suddenly. “Papa, I tol’ him the cop had come.”

Aunt Cindy was down on her knees and had caught him to her ample bosom as she had caught him so many times. He choked down the sobs that had begun to rise. With terror he saw that the trees that had been standing so still were now rustling their leaves violently, and that out at the road a cloud of dust was rising.

Then Frank took charge of things.

He had gone into the barn with them. He had smelled the ladder, the ground, and come out into the lot. While they were searching he had run to them, looked up into their faces, run back out, his nose to the ground, and turned at the entrance to look at them once more, ears pricked. Frank had known from the first. That empty ladder, that straw-carpeted hall, that cleanly kept barn lot, had all the time been telling him something that it didn’t tell people. But Frank couldn’t talk, so now he took his stand beside Steve Earle and barked. Steve turned quickly.

“I get you, Frank!” he said. “Go find him!”

Gratefully Frank looked up at his master. He ran to the lot fence, and reared up on it, smelling the top of the planks. Then he drew back, gathered himself, and sprang up on the fence. He remained poised for a moment, sprang down, and started across the cotton patch, his nose to the ground.

“You had better stay, Mrs. Davis,” said Earle.

“No, I’m going.” Her motherly face was set, the wind was whipping her skirt about her.

Aunt Cindy had run to the house and brought her a raincoat. She was going, too, declared the black woman. They all hurried around the lot. In the cottonfield Frank was still waiting.

“Had we better let Tommy go?” asked Davis.

“He stood up for the kid, John,” replied Earle. “He’s going to be in at the finish.”

Down by the woods Frank was waiting for them now waiting for these slow-moving bipeds. “This is the way he went,” he said plainer than words. “Better than if I had seen him, I know.” His long silken ears were blown back by the wind. As they drew nearer they saw the eagerness of his dark eyes. Earle took Tommy by the hand. On the other side, his beard blown against him, hurried Mr. John Davis. Behind came the women.

A quarter of a mile in the woods, dark with the approaching storm, Earle turned a grim face to his neighbour.

“He’s making straight for the mill dam, John.”

The breath went out of Tommy with terror. That was an awful place, the mill dam! Above it the water was fifteen feet deep, his father said. Below, the water tumbled and foamed over rocks that would beat a man’s life out. On top of the dam, raised above the glancing water on stays, a narrow walkway of single planks was laid. Grown men could cross, not boys.

Once, when he had gone with his father to the mill and no one was looking, Tommy had tried to walk out, just a little way. Everything had turned black. He only knew his father was calling him to look up, not down. But he could not take his eyes from the rushing water under his feet. While he was falling, arms had snatched him up. Tommy began to sob as they hurried.

It was growing darker in the woods. There had been no rain yet, but high up in the trees was a roaring sound, and now and then leaves and dead twigs came whirling down into the quieter regions below.

“Can you see Frank?” asked Earle.

“No. Call him, Steve. We may be off the track.”

“I’m afraid to do that, John. If it rains hard, as it’s apt to do any minute, he will lose the trail.”

“There’s nothing else to do!” cried Davis above the wind. “We may be going wrong!”

Earle stopped. His hat had fallen off and he had not paused to pick it up. Tommy had never seen his face as it was now.

“Here, John, take the boy,” he said. “I’ll run for the dam!”

Just then, sharp and clear above the wind, from the dark wooded bottoms ahead, came a bark a strange little yelp to be made by so big a dog, but the kind a bird dog makes when he functions as a hound. Tommy saw a smile on his father’s face.

“The old dog’s treed, John!”

Then he started running, Tommy keeping pace.

“Speak to him, Frank!” he called. “Let us hear you talk!”

Again, in answer, through the woods came the shrill, self-conscious yelp, then silence, then the yelp again.

“You wait here, son,” said Earle. “Wait for Mrs. Davis and Aunt Cindy. Tell ’em to follow the bark. You know the place, don’t you? That’s the boy. Come on, John! Speak to us, Frank! Speak to us, old man!”

The two men were looking up into a lofty, tossing tree when Tommy and the women reached them. Above them the trees thrashed back and forth bewilderingly, showing the stormy sky, then covering it over, then showing it again. And there, looking up into the tree also, eyes shining, tongue hanging out, sides heaving, was old Frank. Once he reared up on the trunk of the tree as if to make sure again. He whiffed the bark, his tail wagging. Then he jumped down and looked up once more.

Earle’s voice was strangely quiet when he spoke.

“I see him,” he said. They all crowded about. “My God he’s way out at the end of the top limb. If his head swims ” He began to talk loud, his face still raised. “Joe, listen, old man. We are all your friends down here. Tommy’s here.”

Davis had sat down on the ground and was hurriedly pulling off his shoes. His beard fell down over his shirt and his hands were trembling.

“It won’t do, John,” spoke Steve Earle, and Tommy, aghast, saw the look on his father’s face. “The limb he’s on will never hold you. He might try to get farther out, and if he does ”

Then, as calmly as she could, Mrs. Davis called to the boy, pleading with him to come down, telling him that she would be his mother, not knowing, anxious, excited woman that she was, that the word probably meant nothing to that child tossing up there in mid-air.

And now for the first time Tommy’s straining eyes saw saw the white face, the little body pressed against the swaying limb, saw the frantic arms clinging to the lofty perch, saw the whole tree moving dizzily back and forth against the stormy sky, as if in the hands of a giant who was trying to shake that tiny figure down.

The voice of the boy rang out shrill and clear above the tumult of the wind and the tearing leaves.

“Joe! You hear me, Joe, don’t you?” The voice was quiet and sure now, the nerves of the man that was to be had steadied. Only grammar went all to pieces; it had been deteriorating these last twenty-four hours. A boy’s grammar is a structure always ready to tumble, like a house of cards.

“They ain’t no cop down here, Joe. We done sent him home. He’s gone, Joe, honest he has. You know me, Joe. I wouldn’t tell you no lie!”

Now the figure up there stirred. A small bare foot felt down and reached uncertainly, as if blown about by the wind, for a lower branch; a small hand that had clung to a glass of milk now clung to a limb above his head. Then Tommy saw that his father, with upraised face, was standing directly under that figure up there in the angry foliage.

“Steady, Joe, old scout!” said Earle.

“Don’t talk to him, Papa,” pleaded Tommy.

“He’s right, Steve,” spoke Mrs. Davis.

But once after this Tommy spoke.

“Joe! Try that un on the other side!”

Again they watched the foot feeling about. Again it found the limb. Once they saw him, like a bear cub, hug the trunk. Once he slid and fragments of bark came tumbling down. Closer to earth drew the small figure. They could hear the calloused little bare feet scraping the bark. Then, all of a sudden, Steve Earle had swung himself up by the lower branches. His strong arms reached upward and were lowered down to them, and from his fingers a gasping little figure slid to the ground.

It was still light enough to see the face. The grin with which he had started out in life to brave an unfriendly world was gone, and in its place was terror terror of those awful heights, of that swaying tree, of night and storm, and now of these faces about him. The sturdy chest was rising and falling. He looked pitifully small, like a baby.

There came a blinding flash of lightning, and a clap of thunder that seemed to burst the woods open. In the momentary flash they saw his white face and dilated eyes.

Mrs. Davis had sunk to her knees, arms outstretched.

“Darling!” she cried. Tommy had heard his mother say it that way. Then he turned his head in a sort of embarrassment, for Joe had run into Mrs. Davis’s arms, and Joe was sobbing on Mrs. Davis’s ample bosom; and no gentleman, big or small, likes to witness his friend’s emotions.

“I guess it’s a go, Steve,” said John Davis.

“Looks like it, John,” replied Steve.

And then the rain that had held back so long came down through the forest in a deluge.