The swamp, the eternal swamp, had been drained in its deepest fastness; but, how?—how? He gazed about, perplexed, astonished. What a field of cotton! what a marvellous field! But how had it been saved?
He skirted the island slowly, stopping near Zora’s oak. Here lay the reading of the riddle: with infinite work and pain, some one had dug a canal from the lagoon to the creek, into which the former had drained by a long and crooked way, thus allowing it to empty directly. The canal went straight, a hundred yards through stubborn soil, and it was oozing now with slimy waters.
He sat down weak, bewildered, and one thought was uppermost—Zora! And with the thought came a low moan of pain. He wheeled and leapt toward the dripping shelter in the tree. There she lay—wet, bedraggled, motionless, gray-pallid beneath her dark-drawn skin, her burning eyes searching restlessly for some lost thing, her lips a-moaning.
In dumb despair he dropped beside her and gathered her in his arms. The earth staggered beneath him as he stumbled on; the mud splashed and sunlight glistened; he saw long snakes slithering across his path and fear-struck beasts fleeing before his coming. He paused for neither path nor way but went straight for the school, running in mighty strides, yet gently, listening to the moans that struck death upon his heart. Once he fell headlong, but with a great wrench held her from harm, and minded not the pain that shot through his ribs. The yellow sunshine beat fiercely around and upon him, as he stumbled into the highway, lurched across the mud-strewn road, and panted up the porch.
“Miss Smith—!” he gasped, and then—darkness.
The years of the days of her dying were ten. The boy that entered the darkness and the shadow of death emerged a man, a silent man and grave, working furiously and haunting, day and night, the little window above the door. At last, of one gray morning when the earth was stillest, they came and told him, “She will live!” And he went out under the stars, lifted his long arms and sobbed: “Curse me, O God, if I let me lose her again!” And God remembered this in after years.
The hope and dream of harvest was upon the land. The cotton crop was short and poor because of the great rain; but the sun had saved the best, and the price had soared. So the world was happy, and the face of the black-belt green and luxuriant with thickening flecks of the coming foam of the cotton.
Up in the sick room Zora lay on the little white bed. The net and web of endless things had been crawling and creeping around her; she had struggled in dumb, speechless terror against some mighty grasping that strove for her life, with gnarled and creeping fingers; but now at last, weakly, she opened her eyes and questioned.
Bles, where was he? The Silver Fleece, how was it? The Sun, the Swamp? Then finding all well, she closed her eyes and slept. After some days they let her sit by the window, and she saw Bles pass, but drew back timidly when he looked; and he saw only the flutter of her gown, and waved.