BETTY GORDON AT BRAMBLE FARM
BETTY capered exultantly when she was on the ground.
"I packed my things last night," she informed Bob. "If Mr. Peabody isn't too mean, he'll keep the trunk for me and send it when I write him to. Here, I'll help you carry back the ladder."
"Take your sweater and hat," advised the practical Bob, pointing to these articles lying on a chair on the porch where Betty had left them the afternoon before. "You don't want to travel too light. I think we'll have a storm before noon."
Betty helped carry the ladder back to the barn and put it in place. Then she hung around watching Bob harness up the sorrel to the dilapidated old wagon preparatory to driving to Laurel Grove, a town to the east of Glenside.
"I'd kind of like to say good-bye to Mrs. Peabody," ventured Betty, trying to fix a buckle.
"Well, you can't. That would get us both in trouble," returned Bob shortly. "There! you've dawdled till here comes the old man. Scoot out the side door and keep close to the hedge. If I overtake you before you get to the crossroads I'll give you a lift. Doc Guerin will know what you ought to do."
Her heart quaking, Betty scuttled for the narrow side door and crept down the lane, keeping close to the osage orange hedge that made a thick screen for the fence. Evidently she was not seen, for she reached the main road safely, hearing no hue and cry behind her.
"So you haven't started?" Peabody greeted the somewhat flustered Bob, entering the barn and looking, for him, almost amiable. "Well, hitch the horse, and go over to Kepplers. He wants you to help him catch a crate of chickens. The horse can wait and you can come home at twelve and go to Laurel Grove after dinner."
Bob would have preferred to start on his errand at once, so that he might be at a safe distance when Betty's absence should be discovered; but he hoped that Peabody might not go near her room till afternoon, and he knew Mrs. Peabody was too thoroughly cowed to try to communicate with Betty, fond as she was of her.
"I'll take a chance," thought Bob. "Anyway, the worst he can do to me is to kill me."
This not especially cheerful observation had seen Bob through many a tight place in the past, and now he tied the patient horse under a shady tree and went whistling over to the Keppler farm to chase chickens for a hot morning's work.
"Oh, Bob!" To his amazement, Mrs. Peabody came running to meet him when he came back at noon to get his dinner. "Oh, Bob!"
Poor Bob felt a wobbling sensation in his knees.
"Yes?" he asked shakily. "Yes, what is it?"
"The most awful thing has happened!" Mrs. Peabody wiped the perspiration from her fore- head with her apron. "The most awful thing! I never saw Joseph in such a temper, never! He swore till I thought he'd shrivel up the grass! And before Mr. Ryerson, too!"
Bob's face cleared.
"Did he try to cheat Ryerson?" he asked eagerly. "That is, er—I mean did he think Ryerson was trying to cheat him?"
"Cheat?" repeated Mrs. Peabody, sitting down on an old tree stump to get her breath. "No one said anything about cheating. I don't know exactly how to tell you, Bob. Betty has gone and she's taken all the chickens with her!"
Bob opened his eyes and mouth to their widest extent. Chickens! Betty! The words danced through his brain stupidly.
"I don't wonder you look like that," said Mrs. Peabody. "I was in a daze myself."
"But she couldn't have taken the chickens!" argued Bob, restraining a mad desire to laugh. "How could she? And what would she want with them?"
"Well, of course, I don't mean she took them with her," admitted Mrs. Peabody. "But she was mad at Joseph, you know, for locking her in her room, and he says she's just driven the hens off to the woods to spite him."
Bob walked out to the poultry yard, followed by Mrs. Peabody. The doors of the henhouses were flung wide open, and there was not a fowl in sight.
"When did you find it out?" he asked.
"When Mr. Ryerson drove in for the hens," answered Mrs. Peabody. "Joseph went out with him to help him bag 'em, and the minute he opened the door he gave a yell. I was making beds, but I heard him. The way he carried on, Bob, was a perfect scandal. I never heard such talk, never!"
"Where is he now?" said Bob briefly.
"He's gone over to the woods, hunting for the hens," replied Mrs. Peabody. "He wouldn't stop for dinner, or even to take the horse. He says you're to start for Laurel Grove, soon as you've eaten. He's going to search the woods and then follow the Glenside road, looking for Betty."
Bob did not worry over the possibility of Betty being overtaken by the angry farmer. He counted on her getting a lift to Glenside, since the road was well traveled in the morning, and probably she was at this very moment sitting down to lunch with the doctor's family. He was puzzled about the loss of the chickens, and curious to know how the Peabodys had discovered Betty's escape.
He and Mrs. Peabody sat down to dinner, and, partly because of her excitement and partly be- cause in her husband's absence she dared to be more generous, Bob made an excellent meal. Over his second piece of pie he ventured to ask when they had found out that Betty was not in her room.
"Oh, Joseph thought of her as soon as he missed the chickens," answered Mrs. Peabody. "I never thought she would be spiteful, but I declare it's queer, anyway you look at it. Joseph flew up to her room and unlocked the door, and she wasn't there! Do you suppose she could have jumped from the window and hurt herself?"
Bob thought it quite possible.
"Well, I don't," said Mrs. Peabody shrewdly. "However, I'm not asking questions, so there's no call for you to get all red. Joseph seemed to think she had jumped out, and he's furious be- cause he didn't nail up both windows, though how he expected Betty to breathe in that case is more than I can see."
Bob was relieved to learn that apparently Mr. Peabody did not connect him with Betty's disappearance. He finished his dinner and went out to do the few noon chores. Then he started on the drive to Laurel Grove.
"Looks like a storm," he muttered to himself, as he noted the heavy white clouds piling up toward the south. "I wish to goodness, old Peabody would spend a few cents and get an awning for the seat of this wagon. Last time I was caught in a storm I got soaked, and my clothes didn't dry overnight. I'll be hanged if I'm going to get wet this time—I'll drive in somewhere first."
Bob's predictions of a storm proved correct, and before he had gone two miles he heard distant thunder.
With the first splash of rain Bob hurried the sorrel, keeping his eyes open for a mail-box that would mark the home of some farmer where he might drive into the barn and wait till the shower was over.
He came within sight of some prosperous looking red barns before the rain was heavy, and drove into a narrow lane just as the first vivid streak of lightning ripped a jagged rent in the black clouds.
"Come right on in," called out the farmer, who had seen him coming and thrown open the double doors. "Looks like it might be a hummer, doesn't it? There's a ring there in the wall where you can tie your horse."
"He stands without hitching," grinned Bob. "Only too glad to get the chance. Gee, that wind feels good!"
The farmer brought out a couple of boxes and turned them up to serve as seats.
"I like to watch a storm," he observed. "The house is all locked up—women-folk gone to an all-day session of the sewing circle—or I'd take you in. We'd get soaked walking that short distance, though. You don't live around here, do you?"
"Bramble Farm. I'm a poorhouse rat the Peabodys took to bring up."
He had seldom used that phrase since Betty's coming, but it always irritated him to try to ex- plain who he was and where he came from.
"I was bound out myself," retorted the farmer quickly. "Knocked around a good bit, but now I own this ninety acres, free and clear. You've got just as good a chance as the boy with too much done for him. Don't you forget that, young man."
They were silent for a few moments, watching the play of lightning through the wide doors.
"Didn't two men named Wapley and Lieson used to work for Peabody?" asked the farmer abruptly. "I thought so," as Bob nodded. "They were around the other day asking for jobs."
"Are you sure?" asked Bob. "I thought they had left the state. Lieson, I know, had folks across the line."
"Well, they may have gone now," was the reply. "But I know that two days ago they wanted work. I've a couple of men, all I can use just now, but I sent them on to a neighbor. They looked strong, and good farm help is mighty scarce."
Bob waited till the rain had stopped and the clouds were lifting, then drove on, thanking the friendly farmer for his cordiality.
"Don't be calling yourself names, but plan what you want to make of yourself," was that individual's parting advice.
"If I had a nickel," said Bob to himself, urging the sorrel to a brisk trot, for the time spent in waiting must be made up, "I'd telephone to Betty from Laurel Grove. But pshaw! I know she must be all right."
On to chapter twenty
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