BETTY GORDON AT BRAMBLE FARM
SPREADING THE NET
HE was a nice, fatherly kind of person, and he insisted on walking with Betty to the corner and pointing out the low roof of the mill down a side street.
"No water power, just electricity," he explained. "Give me a water mill, every time; this current stuff is mighty unreliable."
Betty thanked him, and hurried down the street. She was sure she saw the sorrel tied outside the mill, and when she reached the hitching posts, sure enough, there was the familiar old wagon, with some filled bags in it, and the drooping, tired old sorrel horse that had come to meet her when she stepped from the train at Hagar's Corners.
"Betty! For the love of Mike!" Bob's language was expressive, if not elegant.
Betty whirled. She had not seen the boy come down the steps of the mill office, and she was totally unprepared to hear his voice. "Why, Bob!" The unmistakable relief and gladness that shone in her tired face brought a little catch to Bob's throat.
To hide it, he spoke gruffly.
"What are you doing here? It's after four o'clock, and I'll get Hail Columbia when I get i back. Mill's been out of order all day, and I had to wait. Haven't you been to Doctor Guerin's?"
"No, not yet." Betty pulled at his sleeve nervously. "Oh, Bob, there's so much I must tell you! And after ten o'clock it will be too late. To think he thought I stole his old chickens! And where is Petria?"
Bob gazed at her in amazement. This incoherent stream of words meant nothing to him.
"Petria?" he repeated, catching at a straw. "Why, Petria's a big city, sort of a center for farm products. All the commission houses have home offices there. Why?"
"That's where Mr. Peabody's chickens are going," Betty informed him, "unless you can think of a way to stop 'em."
"Mr. Peabody's chickens? Have you got 'em?" asked Bob in wonder.
Betty stamped her foot.
"Bob Henderson, how can you be so stupid!" she stormed. "What would I be doing with stolen chickens—unless you think I stole them?"
"Now don't go off into a temper," said Bob placidly. "I see where I have to drive you to Glenside, anyway. Might as well go the whole show and be half a day late while I'm about it. Hop in, Betty, and you can tell me this wonderful tale while we're traveling."
Betty was tired out from excitement, fear, in- sufficient food and the long distance she had walked. Her nerves protested loudly, and to Bob's astonishment and dismay she burst into violent weeping.
"Oh, I say!" he felt vainly in his pocket for a handkerchief. "Betty, don't cry like that! What did I say wrong? Don't you want to go to Glenside ? What do you want me to do ?"
"I want you to listen," sobbed Betty. "I'm trying to tell you as fast as I can that Wapley and Lieson stole Mr. Peabody's chickens. They've got 'em all crated, and an automobile truck is coming at ten o'clock to-night to take them to Petria. So there!"
Bob asked a few direct questions that soon put him in possession of all the facts. When he had heard the full story he took out the hitching rope he had put under the seat and tied the sorrel to the railing again.
"Come on," he said briefly.
"Where—where are we going?" quavered Betty, a little in awe of this stern new Bob with. the resolute chin.
"To the police recorder's," was the uncompromising reply.
The recorder was young and possessed of plenty of what Bob termed "pep," and when he heard what Bob had to tell him, for Betty was stricken with sudden dumbness, he immediately mapped out a plan that should catch all the 'wrong-doers in one net.
"The fellow we want to get hold of is this truck driver," he explained. "You didn't hear his name?"
Betty shook her head.
"Well, to get him, our men will have to wait till he comes for the crates," said the recorder. "I'll send a couple of 'em out to this farm—they know the old D. Smith place well enough—and they can hang around till the truck comes and then take 'em all in. I'm sorry, but I'll have to hold the girl here as a witness. My wife will look after her, and she'll be all right."
"I'll stay, too, Betty," Bob promised her hastily, noting the plea in her eyes.
"All right, so much the better," said the recorder heartily. "We'll put you both up for the night. It won't be necessary for you to see the prisoners to-night, and to-morrow you'll both be mighty good witnesses for this Mr. Peabody. I'll send for him in the morning."
Bob's sense of humor was tickled at the thought of stabling the sorrel in a livery stable and charging the bill to his employer. A vision of what would be said to him caused his eyes to dance as he gave orders to the stableman to see that the horse had an extra good measure of oats.
But when he came back to the recorder's for supper he found Betty sitting close beside the recorder's wife, crying as though her heart would break.
"Why, Betty!" he protested. "You don't usually act like this. What does ail you—are you sick?"
"It isn't fair!" protested Betty passionately. "Wapley and Lieson worked so hard and Mr. Peabody was mean to 'em! I don't want to save his old chickens for him! I'd much rather the hired men got the money. And I won't be a witness for him and get them into prison!"
Bob looked shocked at this outburst, but Mrs. Bender only continued to soothe the girl, and presently Betty's sobs grew less violent, and by and by ceased.
After supper Mrs. Bender played for them and sang a little, and then, declaring that Betty looked tired to death, took her upstairs to the blue and white guest-room, where, after she had helped her to undress and loaned her one of her own pretty nightgowns, she turned off the lights and sat beside her till she fell asleep. For the first time in months, Betty was encouraged to talk about her mother, and she told this new friend of her great loss, her life with the Arnolds, and about her Uncle Dick. It both rested and refreshed her to give this confidence, and her sleep that night was unbroken and dreamless.
Long after Betty was asleep, Bob and the recorder played checkers, Mrs. Bender sitting near with her sewing. Bob was starved for companionship, and something about the lad, his eager eyes, perhaps, or his evident need of interested guidance, appealed to Recorder Bender.
"You say you were born in the poorhouse?" he asked, between games. "Was your mother born in this township?"
Bob explained, and the Benders were both interested in the mention of the box of papers. Encouraged by friendly auditors, Bob told his meager story, unfolding in its recital a very fair picture of conditions as they existed at Bramble Farm.
Betty lay in dreamless sleep, but Bob, in a room across the hall, tossed and turned restlessly. At half-past ten he heard the recorder go out, and knew he was going to see if the chicken thieves and motor truck driver had been brought . in by his men. Bob wondered how it seemed to be arrested, and he fervently resolved never to court the experience. He was asleep before the recorder returned, but woke once during the night. A heavy truck was lumbering through the street, the driver singing in a' high sweet tenor voice, probably to keep himself awake. Bob's swift thoughts flew to Wapley and Lieson, and he wondered if they were asleep. How could they sleep in jail?
Breakfast in the Bender household was just as pleasant and cheerful and unhurried as supper had been. Mrs. Bender in a white and green morning frock beamed upon Bob and Betty and urged delicious viands upon them till they begged for mercy. It was, she said, so nice to have "four at the table."
Mr. Bender pushed back his chair at last, glancing at his watch.
"The hearing is set for ten o'clock," he announced quietly. "Mr. Peabody has been notified and should be here any minute. I think we had better walk down to the office. Catherine, if you're ready—"
Mrs. Bender smiled at Betty. She had promised to see her through.
On to chapter twenty-three
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