In the spinning room at the Victory Mill, with its tall frames and endlessly turning bobbins, where the languid thread ran from hank to spool and the tired little feet must walk the narrow aisles between the jennies, watching if perchance a filament had broken, a knot caught, or other mischance occurred, and right it, Deanie plodded for what seemed to her many years. Milo and Pony both had work now in another department, and Lissy's frames were quite across the noisy big room. Whenever the little dark-haired girl could get away from her own task and the eye of the room boss, she ran across to the small, ailing sister and hugged her hard, begging her not to feel bad, not to cry, Sis' Johnnie was bound to come before long. With the morbidness of a sick child, Deanie came to dread these well-meant assurances, finding them almost as distressing as her own strange, tormenting sensations.
The room was insufferably close, because it had rained and the windows were all tightly shut. The flare of light vitiated the air, heated it, but seemed to the child's sick sense to illuminate nothing. Sometimes she found herself walking into the machinery and put out a reckless little hand to guard her steps. Sister Johnnie had said she would come and take her away. Sister Johnnie was the Providence that was never known to fail. Deanie kept on doggedly, and tied threads, almost asleep. The room opened and shut like an accordion before her fevered vision; the floor heaved and trembled under her stumbling feet. To lie down--to lie down anywhere and sleep--that was the almost intolerable longing that possessed her. Her mouth was hot and dry. The little white, peaked face, like a new moon, grew strangely luminous in its pallor. Her eyes stung in their sockets--those desolate blue eyes, dark with unshed tears, heavy with sleep.
She had turned her row and started back, when there came before her, so plain that she almost thought she might wet her feet in the clear water, a vision of the spring-branch at home up on Unaka, where she and Lissy used to play. There, among the giant roots of the old oak on its bank, was the house they had built of big stones and bright bits of broken dishes; there lay her home-made doll flung down among gay fallen leaves; a little toad squatted beside it; and near by was the tiny gourd that was their play-house dipper. Oh, for a drink from that spring!
She caught sight of Mandy Meacham passing the door, and ran to her, heedless of consequences.
"Mandy," she pleaded, taking hold of the woman's skirts and throwing back her reeling head to stare up into the face above her, "Mandy, Sis' Johnnie said she'd come; but it's a awful long time, and I'm scared I'll fall into some of these here old machines, I feel that bad. Won't you go tell Sis' Johnnie I'm waitin' for her?"
Mandy glanced forward through the weaving-room toward her own silent looms, then down at the little, flushed face at her knee. If she dared to do things, as Johnnie dared, she would pick up the baby and leave. The very thought of it terrified her. No, she must get Johnnie herself. Johnnie would make it right. She bent down and kissed the little thing, whispering:
"Never you mind, honey. Mandy's going straight and find Sis' Johnnie, and bring her here to Deanie. Jest wait a minute."
Then she turned and, swiftly, lest her courage evaporate, hurried down the stair and to the time keeper.
"Ef you've got a substitute, you can put 'em on my looms," she said brusquely. "I've got to go down in town."
"Sick?" inquired Reardon laconically, as he made some entry on a card and dropped it in a drawer beside him.
"No, I ain't sick--but Deanie Consadine is, and I'm goin' over in town to find her sister. That child ain't fitten to be in no mill--let alone workin' night turn. You men ort to be ashamed--that baby ort to be in her bed this very minute."
Her voice had faltered a bit at the conclusion. Yet she made an end of it, and hurried away with a choke in her throat. The man stared after her angrily.
"Well!" he ejaculated finally. "She's got her nerve with her. Old Himes is that gal's stepdaddy. I reckon he knows whether she's fit to work in the mills or not--he hired her here. Bob, ain't Himes down in the basement right now settin' up new machines? You go down there and name this business to him. See what he's got to say."
A party of young fellows was tramping down the village street singing. One of them carried a guitar and struck, now and again, a random chord upon its strings. The street was dark, but as the singers, stepping rythmically, passed the open door of the store, Mandy recognized a shape she knew.
"Shade--Shade Buckheath! Wait thar!" she called to him.
The others lingered, too, a moment, till they saw it was a girl following; then they turned and sauntered slowly on, still singing:
"Ef I was a little bird, I'd nest in the tallest tree, That leans over the waters of the beautiful Tennessee." The words came back to Buckheath and Mandy in velvety bass and boyish tenor.
"Shade--whar's Johnnie?" panted Mandy, shaking him by the arm. "I been up to the house, and she ain't thar. Pap ain't thar, neither. I was skeered to name my business to Laurelly; Aunt Mavity ain't no help and, and--Shade--whar's Johnnie?" Buckheath looked down into her working, tragic face and his mouth hardened.
"She ain't at home," he said finally. "I've been at Himes's all evening. Pap and me has a--er, a little business on hand and--she ain't at home. They told me that they was some sort of shindig at Mr. Hardwick's to-night. I reckon Johnnie Consadine is chasin' round after her tony friends. Pap said she left the house a-goin' in that direction--or Mavity told me, I disremember which. I reckon you'll find her thar. What do you want of her?"
"It's Deanie." She glanced fearfully past his shoulder to where the big clock on the grocery wall showed through its dim window. It was half-past ten. The lateness of the hour seemed to strike her with fresh terror, "Shade, come along of me," she pleaded. "I'm so skeered. I never shall have the heart to go in and ax for Johnnie, this time o' night at that thar fine house. How she can talk up to them swell people like she does is more than I know. You go with me and ax is she thar."
The group of young men had crossed the bridge and were well on their way to the Inn. Buckheath glanced after them doubtfully and turned to walk at Mandy's side. When they came to the gate, the woman hung back, whimpering at sight of the festal array, and sound of the voices within.
"They've got a party," she deprecated. "My old dress is jest as dirty as the floor. You go ax 'em, Shade."
As she spoke, Johnnie, carrying a tray of cups and saucers, passed a lighted window, and Buckheath uttered a sudden, unpremeditated oath.
"I don't know what God Almighty means makin' women such fools," he growled. "What call had Johnnie Consadine got to come here and act the servant for them rich folks?--runnin' around after Gray Stoddard--and much good may it do her!"
Mandy crowded herself back into the shadow of the dripping evergreens, and Shade went boldly up on the side porch. She saw the door opened and her escort admitted; then through the glass was aware of Lydia Sessions in an evening frock coming into the small entry and conferring at length with him.
Her attention was diverted from them by the appearance of Johnnie herself just inside a window. She ran forward and tapped on the pane. Johnnie put down her tray and came swiftly out, passing Shade and Miss Sessions in the side entry with a word.
"What is it?" she inquired of Mandy, with a premonition of disaster in her tones.
"Hit's Deanie," choked the Meacham woman. "She's right sick, and they won't let her leave the mill--leastways she's skeered to ask, and so am I. I 'lowed I ought to come and tell you, Johnnie. Was that right? You wanted me to, didn't you?" anxiously.
"Yes--yes--yes!" cried Johnnie, reaching up swift, nervous fingers to unfasten the cap from her hair, thrusting it in the pocket of the apron, and untying the apron strings. "Wait a minute. I must give these things back. Oh, let's hurry!"
It was but a moment after that she emerged once more on the porch, and apparently for the first time noticed Buckheath.
"To-morrow, then," Miss Sessions was saying to him as he moved toward the two girls. "To-morrow morning." And with a patronizing nod to them all, she withdrew and rejoined her guests.
"I never found you when I went up to the house," explained Mandy nervously, "and so I stopped Shade on the street and axed him would he come along with me. Maybe it would do some good if he was to go up with us to the mill. They pay more attention to a man person. I tell you, Johnnie, the baby's plumb broke down and sick."
The three were moving swiftly along the darkened street now.
"I'm going to take the children away from Pap," Johnnie said in a curious voice, rapid and monotonous, as though she were reciting something to herself. "I have obliged to do it. There must be a law somewhere. God won't let me fail."
"Huh-uh," grunted Buckheath, instantly. "You can't do such a thing. Ef you was married, and yo' mother would let you adopt 'em, I reckon the courts might agree to that."
"Shade," Johnnie turned upon him, "you've got more influence with Pap Himes than anybody. I believe if you'd talk to him, he'd let me have the children. I could support them now."
"I don't want to fall out with Pap Himes--for nothing" responded Shade. "If you'll say that you'll wed me to-morrow morning, I'll go to Pap and get him to give up the children." Neither of them paid any attention to Mandy, who listened open-eyed and open-eared to this singular courtship. "Or I'll get him to take 'em out of the mill. You're right, I ain't got a bit of doubt I could do it. And if I don't do it, you needn't have me."
An illumination fell upon Johnnie's mind. She saw that Buckheath was in league with her stepfather, and that the pressure was put on according to the younger man's ideas, and would be instantly withdrawn at his bidding. Yet, when the swift revulsion such knowledge brought with it made her ready to dismiss him at once, thought of Deanie's wasted little countenance, with the red burning high on the sharp, unchildish cheekbone, stayed her. For a while she walked with bent head. Heavily before her mind's eye went the picture of Gray Stoddard among his own people, in his own world--where she could never come.
"Have it your way," she said finally in a suffering voice.
"What's that you say? Are you goin' to take me?" demanded Buckheath, pressing close and reaching out a possessive arm to put around her.
"I said yes," Johnnie shivered, pushing his hand away; "but--but it'll only be when you can come to me and tell me that the children are all right. If you fail me there, I--"
Back at the Victory, downstairs went Reardon's messenger to where Pap Himes was sweating over the new machinery. Work always put the old man in a sort of incandescent fury, and now as Bob spoke to him, he raised an inflamed face, from which the small eyes twinkled redly, with a grunt of inquiry.
"That youngest gal o' yours," the man repeated. "She's tryin' to leave her job and go home. Reardon said tell you, an' see what you had to say. The Lord knows we have trouble enough with those young 'uns. I'm glad when any of their folks that's got sand is around to make 'em behave. I reckon she can't come it over you, Gid."
Himes straightened up with a groan, under any exertion his rheumatic old back always punished him cruelly for the days of indolence that had let its suppleness depart.
"Huh?" he grunted. "Whar's she at? Up in the spinnin' room? Well, is they enough of you up thar to keep her tendin' to business for a spell, till I can get this thing levelled?" He held to the mechanism he was adjusting and harangued wheezily from behind it. "I cain't drop my job an' canter upstairs every time one o' you fellers whistles. The chap ain't more'n two foot long. Looks like you-all might hold on to her for one while--I'll be thar soon as I can--'bout a hour"; and he returned savagely to his work.
When Mandy left her, Deanie tried for a time to tend her frames; but the endlessly turning spools, the edges of the jennies, blurred before her fevered eyes. Everything--even her fear of Pap Himes, her dread of the room boss--finally became vague in her mind. More and more she dreaded little Lissy's well-meant visitations; and after nearly an hour she stole toward the door, looking half deliriously for Sister Johnnie. Nobody noticed in the noisy, flaring room that spool after spool on her frame fouled its thread and ceased turning, as the little figure left its post and hesitated like a scared, small animal toward the main exit. Pap Himes, having come to where he could leave his work in the basement, climbed painfully the many stairs to the spinning room, and met her close to where the big belt rose up to the great shaft that gave power to every machine in that department.
The loving master of the big yellow cat had always cherished a somewhat clumsily concealed dislike and hostility to Deanie. Perhaps there lingered in this a touch of half-jealousy of his wife's baby; perhaps he knew instinctively that Johnnie's rebellion against his tyranny was always strongest where Deanie was concerned.
"Why ain't you on your job?" he inquired threateningly, as the child saw him and made some futile attempt to shrink back out of his way.
"I feel so quare, Pap Himes," the little girl answered him, beginning to cry. "I thes' want to lay down and go to sleep every minute."
"Huh!" Pap exploded his favourite expletive till it sounded ferocious, "That ain't quare feelin's. That's just plain old-fashioned laziness. You git yo'self back thar and tend them frames, or I'll--"
"I cain't! I cain't see 'em to tend! I'm right blind in the eyes!" wailed Deanie. "I wish Sis' Johnnie would come. I wish't she would!"
"Uh-huh," commented Bob Conley, who had strolled up in the old man's wake. "Reckon Sis' Johnnie would run things to suit her an' you, Himes, you can cuss me out good an' plenty, but I take notice you seem to have trouble makin' your own family mind."
"You shut your head," growled Pap.
Reardon had added himself to the spectators.
"See here," the foreman argued, "if you say there's nothing the matter with that gal, an' she carries on till we have to let her go home, she goes for good. I'll take her frames away from her."
Pap felt that a formidable show of authority must be made.
"Git back thar!" he roared, advancing upon the child, raising the hand that still held the wrench with which he had been working on the machinery down stairs. "Git back thar, or I'll make you wish you had. When I tell you to do a thing, don't you name Johnnie to me. Git back thar!"
With a faint cry the child cowered away from him. It is unlikely he would have struck her with the upraised tool he held. Perhaps he did not intend a blow at all, but one or two small frame tenders paused at the ends of their lanes to watch the scene with avid eyes, to extract the last thrill from the sensation that was being kindly brought into the midst of their monotonous toilsome hours; and Lissy, who was creeping up anxiously, yet keeping out of the range of Himes's eye, crouched as though the hammer had been raised over her own head.
"Johnnie said--" began the little girl, desperately; but the old man, stung to greater fury, sprang at her; she stumbled back and back; fell against the slowly moving belt; her frock caught in the rivets which were just passing, and she was instantly jerked from her feet. If any one of the three men looking on had taken prompt action, the child might have been rescued at once; but stupid terror held them motionless.
At the moment Johnnie, Shade and Mandy, coming up the stairs, got sight of the group, Pap with upraised hammer, the child in the clutches of imminent death.
With shrill outcries the other juvenile workers swiftly gathered in a crowd. One broke away and fled down the long room screaming.
"You Pony Consadine! Milo! Come here. Pap Himes is a-killing yo' sister."
The old man, shaking all through his bulk, stared with fallen jaw. Mandy shrieked and leaped up the few remaining steps to reach Deanie, who was already above the finger-tips of a tall man.
"Pap! Shade! Quick! Don't you see she'll be killed!" Mandy screamed in frenzy.
Something in the atmosphere must have made itself felt, for no sound could have penetrated the din of the weaving room; yet some of the women left their looms and came running in behind the two pale, scared little brothers, to add their shrieks to the general clamour. Deanie's fellow workers, poor little souls, denied their childish share of the world's excitements, gazed with a sort of awful relish. Only Johnnie, speeding down the room away from it all, was doing anything rational to avert the catastrophe. The child hung on the slowly moving belt, inert, a tiny rag of life, with her mop of tangled yellow curls, her white, little face, its blue eyes closed. When she reached the top, where the pulley was close against the ceiling, her brains would be dashed out and the small body dragged to pieces between beam and ceiling.
Those who looked at her realized this. Numbed by the inevitable, they made no effort, save Milo, who at imminent risk of his own life, was climbing on a frame near at hand; but Pony flew at Himes, beating the old man with hard-clenched, inadequate fists, and screaming.
"You git her down from thar--git her down this minute! She'll be killed, I tell ye! She'll be killed, I tell ye!"
Poor Mandy made inarticulate moanings and reached up her arms; Shade Buckheath cursed softly under his breath; the women and children stared, eager to lose no detail.
"I always have said, and I always shall say, that chaps as young as that ain't got no business around whar machinery's at!" Bob Conley kept shouting over and over in a high, strange, mechanical voice, plainly quite unconscious that he spoke at all.
The child was so near the ceiling now that a universal groan proceeded from the watchers. Then, all at once the belt ceased to move, and the clash and tumult were stilled. Johnnie, who had flown to the little controlling wheel to throw off the power, came running back, crying out in the sudden quiet.
"Shade--quick--get a ladder! Hold something under there! She might--Oh, my God!" for Deanie's frock had pulled free and the little form hurled down before Johnnie could reach them. But the devoted Mandy was there, her futile, inadequate skirts upheld. Into them the small body dropped, and together the two came to the floor with a dull sort of crunch.
When Johnnie reached the prostrate pair, Mandy was struggling to her knees, gasping; but Deanie lay twisted just as she had fallen, the little face sunken and deathly, a tiny trickle of blood coming from a corner of her parted lips.
"Oh, my baby! Oh, my baby! They've killed my baby! Deanie--Deanie--Deanie--!" wailed Mandy.
Johnnie was on her knees beside the child, feeling her over with tremulous hands. Her face was bleached chalk-white, and her eyes stared fearfully at the motionless lips of the little one, from which that scarlet stream trickled; but she set her own lips silently.
"Thar--right thar in the side," groaned Mandy. "She's all staved in on the side that--my pore little Deanie! Oh, I tried to ketch her, but she broke right through and pulled my skirts out of my hand and hit the floor."
Pap had drawn nearer on shaking limbs; the children crowded so close that Johnnie looked up and motioned them back.
"Shade--you run for a doctor, and have a carriage fetched," she ordered briefly.
"Is--Lord God, is she dead?" faltered the old man.
"Ef she ain't dead now, she'll die," Mandy answered him shrilly. "They ain't no flesh on her--she's run down to a pore little skeleton. That's what the factories does to women and children--they jest eats 'em up, and spits out they' bones."
"Well, I never aimed to skeer her that-a-way," said Himes; "but the little fool--"
Johnnie's flaming glance silenced him, and his voice died away, a sort of a rasp in his throat. Mechanically he glanced up to the point on the great belt from which the child had fallen, and measured the distance to the floor. He scratched his bald head dubiously, and edged back from the tragedy he had made.
"Everybody knows I never hit her," he muttered as he went.