BETTY GORDON AT BRAMBLE FARM

CHAPTER XXI

THE CHICKEN THIEVES



OVER in one corner of the bay-window room, as Betty had already named it, was a black register in the floor, designed to let the warm air from a stove in the parlor below boat the bedroom above. Toward this Betty crept cautiously, testing each floor board for creams before she trusted her whole weight to it. She reached the register, which was open, and was startled at the view it opened up for her. She drew back hastily, afraid that she would be discovered.

Lieson and Wapley stood almost squarely under the register, above the crates of chickens and looking down on the fowls.

"I began to think you wasn't coming," Lieson said slowly, putting a hand on his companion's shoulder to steady himself as he lurched and swayed. "I got soaked to the skin waiting for you in those bushes."

"Well, it's some jaunt to Laurel Grove," came Wapley's response. "I got a man, though. Coming at ten to-night. There's no moon, and he says he can make the run to Petria in six or seven hours, barring tire trouble."

"Does he take us, too?" demanded Lieson. "I'm tired of hanging around here. What kind of a truck has he got ?"

Wapley was so long in answering that Betty nervously wondered if he could have discovered the register. She risked a peep and found that both men were absorbed in filling their pipes. These lighted and drawing well, Wapley consented to answer his companion's question.

"Got a one-ton truck. Plenty of room under the seat for us. He's kind of leery of the constables, 'cause he's been doing a nice little night trade between Laurel Grove and Petria carrying one thing and another, but he's willing to do the job on shares."

Lieson yawned noisily.

"Wish we had some grub," he observed. "Guess the training we got at Peabody's will come in handy if we don't eat again till we sell the chickens. Wouldn't you like to have seen the old miser's face when he found his chickens were gone?"

So, thought Betty, she had not been mistaken; the black rooster was the same one who had been the pride of Mrs. Peabody's heart.

A burst of harsh laughter from Wapley startled her. Leaning forward, she could see him stretched out on the floor, his head resting on his coat, doubled up to form a pillow.

"What do you know!" he gurgled, the tears standing in his eyes. "Didn't I run into Bob Henderson, of all people!"

Lieson was incredulous.

"You're fooling," he said sullenly. "What would Bob be doing in Laurel Grove? Unless he was playing ferret! I'd wring his neck with pleasure if I thought the old man sent him over to spy."

"Don't worry," counseled Wapley, waving his pipe airily. "The lad doesn't hook us up with the missing biddies. They never knew they were stolen till ten o'clock this morning. The old man sold 'em to Ryerson, and the hen houses stayed shut up till he came to get 'em. Can you beat that for luck?"

Both men went off into roars of laughter.

"We needn't have spent the night lifting 'em," said Lieson when he could speak. "I hate to lose my night's rest. What did Bob say about it? Was the old man mad?"

" 'Bout crazy," admitted Wapley gravely. "Bob wasn't home, but the old lady told him he carried on somethin' great. Wish we could 'a' heard him rave. But, Lieson, you haven't got it all. Betty Gordon's run off, and Peabody's doped It out she ran off with the hens!"

The girl in the room above clapped her hand to her mouth. She had almost cried out. So Mr. Peabody could accuse her of being a thief! But what were the men saying?

"What would the girl do with hens?" propounded Lieson. "Bob think she stole 'em?"

"Bob's so close-mouthed," growled Wapley. "But I guess he knows where she went all right. He says she had nothing to do with the hens disappearing, and I told him I thought he was right! But Peabody figures out she was mad and chased 'em into the woods to spite him. And he's hunting for her and his hens with fire in his eye."

Lieson knocked the ashes from his pipe and yawned again.

"Wonder what Peabody's got against her now?" he speculated. "For a boarder, that kid had a pretty pindling time. Well, if we're going to be bumped around in a truck all night, I'll say we ought to take a nap while we can get it."

"All right," agreed Wapley. "But I ain't aiming to go on any such trip without a bite of supper. The rain's stopped, and I'm going to snooze a bit and then go down the road to that farmhouse and see how they feel about feeding a poor unfortunate who's starving. I'll milk for 'em for a square meal."

Betty, shivering with excitement, crouched on the floor afraid to risk moving until they should be asleep. Her one thought was to get away from the house and find Bob. Bob would know what to do. Bob would get the chickens back to the Peabodys and herself over to the haven of Doctor Guerin's house, somehow. Bob would be sorry for Wapley and Lieson even if they had turned chicken thieves. If she could only get to Bob before he set out for home or if she might meet him on the road, everything would be all right. Bob must wait for her.

There were no back stairs to the house, and it required grit to go softly down the one flight of stairs and steal past the door of the parlor where the two men lay, but Betty set her teeth and did it. Once on the porch she put on her hat and sweater, for a cool wind had sprung up; and then how she ran!

The road was muddy, and her skirt was splashed before she slowed down to gain her breath. Anxiously she scanned the road ahead, wondering if there was another way Bob could take to reach Bramble Farm. As usual when one is worried, a brand-new torment assailed her. Suppose he should take the road to Glenside, that he might stop in to see her! He, of course, pictured her safe at the doctor's.

"Want a lift?" drawled a lazy, pleasant voice.

A gawky, blue-eyed boy about Bob Henderson's age beamed at her from a dilapidated old buggy. The fat, white horse also seemed to regard her benevolently.

"It's sort of muddy," said the boy diffidently. "If you don't mind the stuffing on the seat—it's worn through—I can give you a ride to Laurel Grove."

Betty accepted thankfully, but she was not very good company, it must be confessed, her thoughts being divided between schemes to hasten the desultory pace of the fat white horse and wonder as to how she was to find Bob in the town.

The fat white horse stopped of his own accord at a pleasant looking house on the outskirts of the town, and Betty, in a brown study, was suddenly conscious that the boy was waiting for her.

"Oh!" she said in some confusion. "Is this your house ? Well, you were ever so kind to give me a lift, and I truly thank you!"

She smiled at him and climbed out, and the lad, who had been secretly admiring her and wondering what she could be thinking about so absorbedly, wished for the tenth time that he had a sister. Laurel Grove was a bustling country town, a bit livelier than Glenside, and Betty, when she had traversed the main street twice, began to be aware that curious glances were being cast at her.

"I'd go shopping, I'd do anything, for an excuse to go into every store," she thought distractedly, "if only I had a dollar bill! Where can Bob be? I can't have missed him!"

There was every reason to think she had missed him, except her determined optimism, but after she had been to the drug store and the hardware store and the post-office, all more or less public meeting places, and found no sign of Bob, Betty began to feel a trifle discouraged. Then two men on the curb gave her a clue.

"I've been hanging around all day," declared one, evidently a thrifty farmer. "Came over to get some grinding done, and the blame mill machinery broke. They just started grinding an hour ago."

So there was a mill, and Bob often had to go to mills for Mr. Peabody. Betty did not know why he should have to come so far, but it was quite possible that some whim of the master of Bramble Farm had sent him to the Laurel Grove mill. Betty stepped up to the farmer and addressed him quietly.

"Please, will you tell me where the mill is?" she asked.



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