As she rose an ominous crackling caught her ear and held her at attention, then, in a horrid flash, the fire blazed out among the hay and brush which Holton had piled up against the stable door.
“Oh, oh!” she cried. “Th’ stable is burnin’! Fire! Fire! Fire! Neb, are you in there? Don’t you hear me, Neb? Th’ stable air on fire!”
Neb’s voice came from the dim interior, muffled and skeptical. “What dat?” he said. “Don’t want no foolishness ’round heah. I’s ahmed.”
“It’s me, Neb, me,” she cried. “Th’ stable ‘s burnin’, Neb!”
“Gorramighty!” she heard Neb exclaim, now in a voice expressive of great fright. “Dat’s so, dat’s so! Quick, honey, open up de doah!”
Madge was working at the biggest log which Holton had thrust against the door to feed the blaze. The flames and smoke surged ’round her as she struggled with the unwieldy thing, her hands grasped, more than once, live coals, without making her release her hold. Once or twice the bursting flames, swung hither and swung yon by the light, vagrant breezes of the night and the drafts born of the fire, itself, flared straight toward her face, and, to save her hair, which, once igniting, would, she knew, make further work impossible, she had to draw back for a second; but each time, as she saw another chance, she sprang again to the desperate task. At last, after a dozen efforts, she had thrust the blazing log so far from the already burning door that Neb could push it open. He stumbled out, his old hands held before him, gropingly, half-suffocated.
“Neb, you ain’t hurt,” said she.
“You go ring dat bell,” said he, pointing to a standard bearing at its top an ornamental iron crotch in which a big plantation bell was swung. “Soon’s I get my bref from all dat smoke I’ll go back an’ git Queen Bess.”
The girl sprang to the rope and soon the bell was ringing out a wild alarm.
“Hurry, Neb!” she cried. “Oh, hurry! Th’ fire’s a-gainin’, ev’ry second! Hurry!”
Neb dashed back into the stable upon trembling limbs, while, without a pause, the girl kept up the clangor of alarm. Her eyes were ever on the door through which the faithful black had disappeared, watching anxiously to see him come out with the mare.
But second after second—seconds which seemed to her like hours—went by and he did not appear again. Her heart began to beat with frantic fears that Neb, himself, as well as the superb animal which she had already learned to love, had fallen victim to the fire, when, at last, he stumbled from the door.
“’Tain’t no use,” he said, as he weakly staggered up to her. “It kain’t be done. Queen Bess am crazy wid de fiah. She jes’ won’t come out! I cain’t git huh to come out.” He sobbed. “An’ she am all dat Marse Frank hab on earth!” Beside himself he ran off toward the house, shouting for his master wildly.
“All he has on earth!” the girl exclaimed, the bell-rope falling from relaxing hands. An instant she stood there in thought, horrified at the idea of the catastrophe which threatened Layson. Then: “I’ll save her! She will follow me!”