BETTY GORDON AT BRAMBLE FARM

CHAPTER XXIII

IN AMIABLE CONFERENCE



BETTY'S sole idea of a court had been gained from a scene or two in the once-a-week Pineville motion picture theater, and Bob had even less knowledge. They both thought there might be a crowd, a judge in a black gown, and some noise and excitement.

Instead Recorder Bender unlocked the door of a little one-story building and ushered them into a small room furnished simply with a long table, a few chairs, and a case of law books.

Presently two men came in, nodded to Mrs. Bender, and conferred in whispers with Mr. Bender. There was a scuffling step outside the door and Mr. Peabody entered.

"Huh, there you are!" he greeted Bob. "For all of you, I might have been hunting my horse and wagon all night. Mighty afraid to let any one know where you are."

"Mr. Peabody?" asked the recorder crisply, and suddenly all his quiet friendliness was gone and an able official with a clear, direct gaze and a rather stern chin faced the farmer. "Sit down, please, until we're all ready."

Mr. Peabody subsided into a chair, and the two men went away. They were back in a few moments, and with them they brought Wapley and Lieson and a lad, little more than a boy, who was evidently the truck driver.

"Close the door," directed the recorder.

"Now, Mr. Peabody, if you'll just sit here—" he indicated a chair at one side of the table. With a clever shifting of the group he soon had them arranged so that Wapley, Lieson, the truck driver, and the two men who had brought them in were sitting on one side of the table, and Betty, Bob, Mrs. Bender and Mr. Peabody on the other. He himself took a seat between Betty and Mr. Peabody.

"Now you all understand," he said pleasantly, "that this is merely an informal hearing. We want to learn what both sides have to say."

Mr. Peabody gave a short laugh.

"I don't see what the other side can have to say!" he exclaimed contemptuously. "They've been caught red-handed, stealing my chickens."

The recorder ignored this, and turned to Lieson.

"You've worked for farmers about here in other seasons," he said. "And, from all I can hear, your record was all right. What made you put yourself in line for a workhouse term?" Lieson cleared his throat, glancing at Wapley. "It can't be proved we was stealing," he argued sullenly. "Them chickens was going to be sold on commission."

"Taking 'em off at ten o'clock at night to save 'em from sunburn, wasn't you?" demanded Mr. Peabody sarcastically. "You never was a quick thinker, Lieson."

"Now, Lieson," struck in Mr. Bender patiently, "that's no sort of use. Miss Gordon here overheard your plans. We know those chickens came from the Peabody farm, and that you and Wapley had a bargain with Tubbs to sell them in Petria. What I want to hear is your excuse. It's been my experience that every one who takes what doesn't belong to him has an excuse, good or bad. What's yours?"

At the mention of Betty's name, Lieson and Wapley had shot her a quick look. She made a little gesture of helplessness, infinitely appealing.

"I'm so sorry," the expressive brown eyes told them. "I just have to tell what I heard, if I'm asked, but I wouldn't willingly do you harm."

Lieson threw back his head and struck the table a rounding blow.

I'll tell you why we took those blamed chickens!" he cried. "You can believe it or not, but we were going to sell 'em in Petria, and all over and above twenty-five dollars they brought, Peabody would have got back. He owes us that amount. Ask him."

"It's a lie!" shouted Peabody, rising, his face crimson. "A lie, I tell you! A lie cooked up by a sneaking, crooked, chicken-thief to save him- self!"

Lieson and Wapley were on their feet, and Betty saw the glint of something shiny in Peabody's hand.

"Sit down, and keep quiet!" said the recorder levelly. "That will be about all the shouting, please, this morning. And, Mr. Peabody, I'll trouble you for that automatic!"

The men dropped into their chairs, and Pea- body pushed his pistol across the table. The recorder opened a drawer and dropped the evil little thing into it.

"Can you prove that wages are owed you by Mr. Peabody?" he asked, as if nothing had happened.

Wapley, who had been silent all along, pulled a dirty scrap of paper from his pocket.

"There's when we came to Bramble Farm and when we left, and the money we've had," he said harshly. "And when we left, it was 'cause he wouldn't give us what was coming to us—not just a dollar or two of it to spend in Glenside. Miss Betty can tell you that."

"Yes," said Betty eagerly. "That was what they quarreled about."

The recorder, who had been studying the bit of paper, asked a question without raising his eyes.

"What's this thirty-four cents subtracted from this two dollars for—June twenty-fourth, it seems to be?"

"Oh, that was when we had the machinist who came to fix the binder stay to supper," explained Wapley simply. "Lieson and me paid Peabody for butter on the table that night, 'cause Edge- worth's mighty particular about what he gets to eat. He'd come ten miles to fix the machine, and we wanted him to have a good meal."

Mr. Peabody turned a vivid scarlet. He did not relish these disclosures of his domestic economy.

"What in tarnation has that got to do with stealing my chickens?" he demanded testily. "Ain't you going to commit these varmints?"

The truck driver, who had been studying Mr. Peabody with disconcerting steadiness, suddenly announced the result of his scrutiny, apparently not in the last in awe of the jail sentence shadow under which he stood.

"Well, you poor, little, mean-livered, low-down, pesky, slithering snake-in-the-grass," he said slowly and distinctly, addressing himself to Mr. Peabody with unflattering directness, "now I know where I've seen your homely mug before. You're the skunk that scattered ground glass on that stretch of road between the crossroads and Miller's Pond, and then laughed when I ruined four of my good tires. I knew I'd seen you some- where, but I couldn't place you.

"Why, do .you know, Mr. Bender," he turned excitedly to the recorder, "that low-down coward wouldn't put ground glass on his own road— might get him into trouble with the authorities. No, he goes and scatters the stuff on some other farmer's highway, and when I lodge a complaint against the man whose name was on the mail box and face him in Glenside, he isn't the man I saw laughing at all! I made a complete fool of myself. I suppose this guy had a grudge against some neighbor and took that way of paying it out; and getting some motorist in Dutch, too. These rubes hates automobiles, anyway."

"It's a lie!" retorted Mr. Peabody, but his tone did not carry conviction. "I never scattered any ground glass."

The recorder fluttered a batch of papers impressively.

"Well, I've two complaints that may be filed against you," he announced decisively. "One for uncollected wages due James Wapley and Enos Lieson, and one charging that you willfully made a public highway dangerous for automobile traffic. Also, I believe, this boy, Bob Henderson, has not been sent to school regularly."

This was a surprise to Bob, who had long ago accepted the fact that school for him was over. But Mr. Peabody was plainly worried.

"What you want me to do?" he whined. "I'm willing to be fair. No man can say I'm not just."

The recorder leaned back in his chair, and his good wife, watching, knew that he had gained his point.

. "Litigation and law-squabble," he said tranquilly, "waste money, time, and too often defeat the ends. Why, in this instance, don't we effect a compromise? You, Mr. Peabody, pay these men the money you owe them and drop the charge of stealing; you will have your chickens back and the knowledge that their enmity toward you is removed. Tubbs, I'm sure, will agree to forget the broken glass, and the schooling charge may lapse, provided something along that line is done for Bob this winter."

Mr. Peabody was shrewd enough to see that he could not hope for better terms. As long as he had the chickens to sell to Ryerson, he had no grounds for complaint. He hated "like sin" as Bob said, to pay the money to Wapley and Lieson, but under the recorder's unwavering eye, he counted out twenty-five dollars—twelve dollars and fifty cents apiece—which the men pocketed smilingly. A word or two of friendly admonition from Mr. Bender, and the men were dismissed.

"I'm so glad," sighed Betty as they left the room, "that I didn't have to say anything against them."

"Well, are you coming along with me?" asked Peabody, almost graciously for him. "There's a letter there for you, Betty. From your uncle, I calculate, since the postmark is Washington. And my word, Bob, you don't seem in any great hurry to get back to your chores; the sorrel must be eating his head off in Haverford's stable."

The recorder exchanged a look with his wife.

"Mr. Peabody," he said, "I shall be detained here an hour or so, and I don't want these young folks to leave until I have a word with them. Mrs. Bender will be only too glad to have you stay for lunch with us, and I'll meet you up at the house. My wife, Mr. Peabody."

"Pleased to meet you, Ma'am," stammered Mr. Peabody awkwardly. "I ought to be getting on toward home. But I suppose, if the chickens were fed this morning, they can wait."

"I'm sure you're hungry yourself," answered Mrs. Bender, slipping an arm about Betty. "Suppose we walk up to the house now, Mr. Peabody, and I'll have lunch ready by the time Mr. Bender is free."

Betty looked back as they were leaving the room and saw the truck driver slouched disconsolately in a chair opposite the recorder.

"Is—is he arrested?" she whispered half-fearfully to Mrs. Bender. Mr. Peabody and Bob were walking on ahead.

"No, dear," was the answer. "But Mr. Bender will doubtless give him a good raking over the coals, which is just what he needs. Fred Tubbs is a Laurel Grove boy, and his mother is one of the sweetest women in town. He's always been a little wild, and lately he's been in with all kinds of riff-raff. Harry heard rumors that he was trucking in shady transactions, but he never could get hold of proof. Now he has him just where he wants him. He'll tell Fred a few truths and maybe knock some sense into him before he does something that will send him to state's prison."

On to chapter twenty-four

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