Freckles is a one-handed, plucky waif of an orphan, who has been raised since infancy in a Chicago orphanage and yet speaks with a powerful Irish accent. He applies for a job guarding timber in the swamp, and is accepted despite his youth and the disability of his having only one hand. He insists that the name given him in the orphanage "is no more my name than it is yours." Freckles develops an interest in the wildlife of the swamp and in natural history, and falls in love with the Swamp Angel. The story's primary action involves his self-education, his loyalty to his employer, his growing love for the Angel (and hers for him) and his conviction that it's better and finer to deny his love than to court her "without knowledge of honorable birth." Though he is loved and admired by all he meets, he considers himself unworthy of the Angel because of his apparent bastardy and because his birth-parents seem to have abused him. Eventually he risks his life to save the Angel, and she goes on a quest to find his birthparents in order to ease his mind.
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