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CHAPTER XI THE WITCH'S WISHBONE
When a fortnight had elapsed we gave up all hope.
"Pat is dead," said the Story Girl hopelessly, as we returned one evening from a bootless quest to Andrew Cowan's where a strange gray cat had been reported - a cat which turned out to be a yellowish brown nondescript, with no tail to speak of.
"I'm afraid so," I acknowledged at last.
"If only Peg Bowen had been at home she could have found him for us," asserted Peter. "Her skull would have told her where he was."
"I wonder if the wishbone she gave me would have done any good," cried Cecily suddenly. "I'd forgotten all about it. Oh, do you suppose it's too late yet?"
"There's nothing in a wishbone," said Dan impatiently.
"You can't be sure. She TOLD me I'd get the wish I made on it. I'm going to try whenever I get home."
"It can't do any harm, anyhow," said Peter, "but I'm afraid you've left it too late. If Pat is dead even a witch's wishbone can't bring him back to life."
"I'll never forgive myself for not thinking about it before," mourned Cecily.
As soon as we got home she flew to the little box upstairs where she kept her treasures, and brought therefrom the dry and brittle wishbone.
"Peg told me how it must be done. I'm to hold the wishbone with both hands, like this, and walk backward, repeating the wish nine times. And when I've finished the ninth time I'm to turn around nine times, from right to left, and then the wish will come true right away."
"Do you expect to see Pat when you finish turning?" said Dan skeptically.
None of us had any faith in the incantation except Peter, and, by infection, Cecily. You never could tell what might happen. Cecily took the wishbone in her trembling little hands and began her backward pacing, repeating solemnly, "I wish that we may find Paddy alive, or else his body, so that we can bury him decently." By the time Cecily had repeated this nine times we were all slightly infected with the desperate hope that something might come of it; and when she had made her nine gyrations we looked eagerly down the sunset lane, half expecting to see our lost pet. But we saw only the Awkward Man turning in at the gate. This was almost as surprising as the sight of Pat himself would have been; but there was no sign of Pat and hope flickered out in every breast but Peter's.
"You've got to give the spell time to work," he expostulated. "If Pat was miles away when it was wished it wouldn't be reasonable to expect to see him right off."
But we of little faith had already lost that little, and it was a very disconsolate group which the Awkward Man presently joined.
He was smiling - his rare, beautiful smile which only children ever saw - and he lifted his hat to the girls with no trace of the shyness and awkwardness for which he was notorious.
"Good evening," he said. "Have you little people lost a cat lately?"
We stared. Peter said "I knew it!" in a triumphant pig's whisper. The Story Girl started eagerly forward.
"Oh, Mr. Dale, can you tell us anything of Paddy?" she cried.
"A silver gray cat with black points and very fine marking?"
"Well, doesn't that beat the Dutch!" muttered Dan.
But we were all crowding about the Awkward Man, demanding where and when he had found Paddy.
"You'd better come over to my place and make sure that it really is your cat," suggested the Awkward Man, "and I'll tell you all about finding him on the way. I must warn you that he is pretty thin - but I think he'll pull through."
We obtained permission to go without much difficulty, although the spring evening was wearing late, for Aunt Janet said she supposed none of us would sleep a wink that night if we didn't. A joyful procession followed the Awkward Man and the Story Girl across the gray, star-litten meadows to his home and through his pine-guarded gate.
"You know that old barn of mine back in the woods?" said the Awkward Man. "I go to it only about once in a blue moon. There was an old barrel there, upside down, one side resting on a block of wood. This morning I went to the barn to see about having some hay hauled home, and I had occasion to move the barrel. I noticed that it seemed to have been moved slightly since my last visit, and it was now resting wholly on the floor. I lifted it up - and there was a cat lying on the floor under it. I had heard you had lost yours and I took it this was your pet. I was afraid he was dead at first. He was lying there with his eyes closed; but when I bent over him he opened them and gave a pitiful little mew; or rather his mouth made the motion of a mew, for he was too weak to utter a sound."
"Oh, poor, poor Paddy," said tender-hearted Cecily tearfully.
"He couldn't stand, so I carried him home and gave him just a little milk. Fortunately he was able to lap it. I gave him a little more at intervals all day, and when I left he was able to crawl around. I think he'll be all right, but you'll have to be careful how you feed him for a few days. Don't let your hearts run away with your judgment and kill him with kindness."
"Do you suppose any one put him under that barrel?" asked the Story Girl.
"No. The barn was locked. Nothing but a cat could get in. I suppose he went under the barrel, perhaps in pursuit of a mouse, and somehow knocked it off the block and so imprisoned himself."
Paddy was sitting before the fire in the Awkward Man's clean, bare kitchen. Thin! Why, he was literally skin and bone, and his fur was dull and lustreless. It almost broke our hearts to see our beautiful Paddy brought so low.
"Oh, how he must have suffered!" moaned Cecily.
"He'll be as prosperous as ever in a week or two," said the Awkward Man kindly.
The Story Girl gathered Paddy up in her arms. Most mellifluously did he purr as we crowded around to stroke him; with friendly joy he licked our hands with his little red tongue; poor Paddy was a thankful cat; he was no longer lost, starving, imprisoned, helpless; he was with his comrades once more and he was going home - home to his old familiar haunts of orchard and dairy and granary, to his daily rations of new milk and cream, to the cosy corner of his own fireside. We trooped home joyfully, the Story Girl in our midst carrying Paddy hugged against her shoulder. Never did April stars look down on a happier band of travellers on the golden road. There was a little gray wind out in the meadows that night, and it danced along beside us on viewless, fairy feet, and sang a delicate song of the lovely, waiting years, while the night laid her beautiful hands of blessing over the world.
"You see what Peg's wishbone did," said Peter triumphantly.
"Now, look here, Peter, don't talk nonsense," expostulated Dan. "The Awkward Man found Paddy this morning and had started to bring us word before Cecily ever thought of the wishbone. Do you mean to say you believe he wouldn't have come walking up our lane just when he did if she had never thought of it?"
"I mean to say that I wouldn't mind if I had several wishbones of the same kind," retorted Peter stubbornly.
"Of course I don't think the wishbone had really anything to do with our getting Paddy back, but I'm glad I tried it, for all that," remarked Cecily in a tone of satisfaction.
"Well, anyhow, we've got Pat and that's the main thing," said Felix.
"And I hope it will be a lesson to him to stay home after this," commented Felicity.
"They say the barrens are full of mayflowers," said the Story Girl. "Let us have a mayflower picnic tomorrow to celebrate Paddy's safe return."
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XII FLOWERS O' MAY