BETTY GORDON AT BRAMBLE FARM
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"WE'LL have to hurry," said Bob, quickening his steps, "if I'm to get back at eleven. I hope Turner has the sorrel ready."
"Hasn't the horse a name?" queried Betty curiously, running to keep up with Bob. "I must go out and see the cows and things. Do you like pigs, Bob?"
The boy laughed a little at this confusion of ideas.
"No, none of the horses are named," he answered, taking the questions in order. "Peabody has three; but we just call 'em the sorrel and the black and the bay. Nobody's got time to feed 'em lumps of sugar and make pets out of them. Guess that's what you've got in mind, Betty. Old Peabody would throw a fit if he saw any one feeding sugar to a horse."
"But the cows?" urged Betty. "Do they get enough to eat? Or do they have to suffer to save money, like this poor horse we brought over to be shod?"
"Cows," announced Bob sententiously, "are different. "A cow won't give as much milk if she's bothered, and Joe Peabody can see a butter check as far as anybody else. So the stables are screened and the cows are fed pretty well. Now, of course, they're out on pasture. They're not blood stock, though—just mixed breeds. And I hate pigs!"
Betty was surprised at his vehemence, but she had no chance to ask for an explanation, for by this time they had reached the smithy, and the blacksmith led out the sorrel.
After they were well started on their way toward the farm, she ventured to ask Bob why he hated pigs.
"If you had to take care of 'em, you'd know why," he answered moodily. "I'd like to drown every one of 'em in the pails of slop I've carried out to 'em. And whitewashing the pig house on a hot day—whew! The pigs can go out in the orchard and root around, while I have to clean up after 'em. Besides, if you lived on ham for breakfast the year round, you'd hate the sight of a pig!"
Betty laughed understandingly.
"I know I should," she agreed. "Isn't it funny, I never thought so much about eating in my life as I have since I've been here. It's on my mind continually. I bought this canned stuff to keep up in my room so if I don't want to eat what the Peabodys have every meal I needn't. You can have some, too, Bob. Let's eat these sandwiches now—I'm hungry, aren't you? Why didn't you tell me you were tired of ham and I would have bought something else?"
But Bob was far from despising well-cooked cold, boiled ham, and he thoroughly enjoyed his share of the sandwiches. While eating he glanced once or twice uncertainly at Betty, wishing he could find the courage to tell her how glad he was that she had come to Bramble Farm. Bob's life had had very few pleasant events in it so far.
"Don't you think it was funny that Mr. Pea- body let me come?" asked Betty presently, following her own train of thought. "If he's so close, I should think he'd hate to have any one come to see his wife."
"He's doing it for the check your uncle sent," retorted Bob shrewdly. "Didn't you know your board was paid for two weeks in advance? That's why Peabody isn't making a fuss about your going; he figures he'll be in that much. Hello, what's this?"
"This" was a buggy drawn up at one side of the road, the fat, white horse lazily cropping grass, while two slight feminine figures stood helplessly by.
Bob was going to drive past, but Betty put out her hand and jerked the sorrel to a halt.
"Ask 'em what the matter is," she commanded. "They've lost a wheel," said Bob in a low tone, his practiced eye having detected at once that one of the rear wheels was lying on the grass. "We can't stop, Betty; we're late now, and Joe Pea- body's in a raging temper anyway this morning."
"Why, Bob Henderson, how you do talk!" Betty's dark eyes began to shoot fire. "Just because you have to live with the meanest man in the world is no excuse for you to grow like him! If you drive on and don't try to help these women, I'll never speak to you again—never!"
Bob looked shamefaced. His first impulse had been to stop and offer help, but he had had first-hand experience with the Peabody temper and had endured more than one beating for slight neglect of iron-clad orders. When he still hesitated, Betty spoke scornfully.
"They're old ladies—so don't bother," she said bitingly. "Uncle Dick says no one should ever leave any one in trouble on the road, but I suppose he meant men who could whack you over the head if you refused to assist them. Why don't you drive on, Bob?"
"You hush up!" Bob, stung into action, closed his mouth grimly and handed over the reins to his tormentor. "It's a half hour's job to put that wheel on, but I suppose there's no way out of it, so here goes."
The two women were, as Betty had said, old ladies; that is, each had very white hair. And, although the day was warm, they were so muffled up in veils and shawls and gloves that the boy and the girl marveled how they could see to drive.
"The wheel just came off without warning," said the taller of the two, in a high, sweet voice, as Bob asked to be allowed to help them. "Sister and I were so frightened! It might have been serious, you know, but Phyllis is such a good horse! She never even attempted to run."
Bob with difficulty repressed a grin. Looking at the fat sides of Phyllis he would have said that physical handicaps, rather than an inherent sweetness of disposition, kept Phyllis where she be' longed between the shafts.
"You've lost a nut," announced the boy, after a brief examination.
"Dear, dear!" fluttered both ladies. "Isn't that unfortunate! "You haven't a—a—nut with you, Mr. —?"
"I'm Bob Henderson," said the lad courteously. "I'll look around here in the dust a bit and maybe the nut will turn up. Why don't you sit down in the shade and rest awhile?"
The two ladies accepted his suggestion gratefully. They retired to a crooked old apple tree growing on the bank further down the road, evincing no desire to make the acquaintance of Betty, who sat quietly in the wagon holding the reins.
"I suppose they think we're backwoods country folks," thought Betty, the blood coming into her face. "Don't know that I blame them, seeing that this wagon is patched and tied together in a hundred places and the horse looks like a shadow of a skeleton."
Bob continued to search in the dust of the road painstakingly. The two women clearly had shifted their trouble to him, and apparently had no further interest in the outcome. Betty longed to offer to help him, but the severity of his pro- file, as she glimpsed it now and then, deterred her.
"I wish I could stop before I say so much," mourned the girl to herself. "I ought to know that Bob can't help being afraid of Mr. Peabody. If he had control over me, I'd probably act just as his wife and Bob do. When you can get away from an ogre, it's easy enough to say you're not afraid of him. Doesn't Bob dominate the situation, as Mrs. Arnold used to say!"
Bob had found the nut, and was now fitting the wheel into place, working with a quickness and skill that fascinated Betty. She timidly called to him and asked if she should not come and hold the axle, but he refused her offer curtly. In a very few minutes the wheel was screwed on and the two ladies at liberty to resume their journey.
They were insistent that Bob accept pay for his help, but the boy declined, politely but resolutely, and seemingly at no loss for diplomatic words and phrases.
"Were you born in the poorhouse, Bob?" Betty asked curiously, wondering where the lad had developed his ability to meet people on their own ground. The volubly thankful ladies had driven on, and the sorrel was now trotting briskly toward Bramble Farm.
"Yes, I was," said Bob shortly. "But my mother wasn't, nor my father. I've got a box buried in the garden that's mine, though the clothes on my back belong to old Peabody. And if I'm like Joe Peabody in other things, perhaps I'll learn to make money and save it. My father couldn't, or I wouldn't have been born in an almshouse!"
"Oh, Bob!" Betty cried miserably, "I didn't mean you were like Mr. Peabody—you know I didn't. I'm so sorry! I always say things I don't mean when I'm mad. Uncle Dick told me to go out and chop wood when I get furious, and not talk. I am so sorry!"
"We've got a wood pile," grinned Bob. "I'll show you where it is. The rest of it's all right, Betty. I'd probably have stayed awake all night if I'd driven by those women. Only I suppose Peabody will be in a towering rage. It must be noon."
If Betty was not afraid of Mr. Peabody, it must be confessed that she looked forward with no more pleasure than Bob to meeting him. Still she was not prepared for the cold fury with which he greeted them when they drove into the yard.
"Just as I figured," he said heavily. "Here 'tis noon, and that boy hasn't done a stroke of work since breakfast. Gallivanting all over town, I'll be bound. Going to be like his shiftless, worthless father and mother—a charge on the township all his days. You take that pail of whitewash and don't let me see you again till you get the pig house done, you miserable, sneaking poorhouse rat! You'll go without dinner to pay for wasting my time like this! Clear out, now."
"How dare you!" Betty's voice was shaking, but she stood up in the wagon and looked down at Mr. Peabody bravely. "How dare you taunt a boy with what he isn't responsible for? It isn't his fault that he was born in the poorhouse, nor his fault that we're late. I made him stop and help put a buggy wheel on. Oh, how can you be so mean, and close and hateful?"
Betty's eyes overflowed as she gathered up her bundles and jumped to the ground. Mrs. Peabody, standing in the doorway, was a silent witness to her outburst, and the two hired men, who had come up to the house for dinner, were watching curiously. Bob had disappeared with the bucket of whitewash. No one would say anything, thought Betty despairingly, if a murder were committed in this awful place.
"Been spending your money?" sneered Mr. Peabody, eyeing the bundles with disfavor. "Never earned a cent in your life, I'll be bound, yet you'll fling what isn't yours right and left. Let me give you a word of advice, young lady; as long as you're in my house you hold your tongue if you don't want to find yourself in your room on a diet of bread and water. Under- stand?"
Betty Gordon fled upstairs, her one thought to reach the haven of her bed. Anger and humiliation and a sense of having lowered herself to the Peabody level by quarreling when in a bad temper swept over her in a wave. She buried her head in the hard little pillow.
On to chapter eleven
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