BETTY GORDON AT BRAMBLE FARM
THE POORHOUSE RAT
"THE next station's yours, Miss," said the porter, breaking in on Betty's reflections. "Any small luggage? No? All right, I'll see that you get off safely."
Betty gathered up her coat and stuffed the magazine she had bought from the train boy, but scarcely glanced at, into her bag. Then she carefully put on her pretty grey silk gloves and tried to see her face in the mirror of the little fitted purse. She wanted to look nice when the Peabodys first saw her.
The train jarred to a standstill.
Betty hurried down the aisle to find the porter waiting for her with his little step. She was the only person to leave the train at Hagar's Corners, and, happening to glance down the line of cars, she saw her trunk, the one solitary piece of bag- gage, tumbled none too gently to the platform.
The porter with his step swung aboard the train which began to move slowly out. Betty felt unaccountably small and deserted standing there, and as the platform of the last car swept past her, she was conscious of a lump in her throat.
"Hello!" blurted an oddly attractive voice at her shoulder, a boy's voice, shy and brusque but with a sturdy directness that promised strength and honesty.
The blue eyes into which Betty turned to look were honest, too, and the shock of tow-colored hair and the half-embarrassed grin that displayed a set of uneven, white teeth instantly prepossessed the girl in favor of the speaker. There was a splash of brown freckles across the snub nose, and the tanned cheeks and blue overalls told Betty that a country lad stood before her.
"Hello!" she said politely. "You're from Mr. Peabody's, aren't you? Did they send you to meet me?"
"Yes, Mr. Peabody said I was to fetch you," replied the boy. "I knew it was you, 'cause no one else got off the train. If you'll give me your trunk check I'll help the agent put it in 'the wagon. He locks up and goes off home in a little while."
Betty produced the check and the boy disappeared into the little one-room station. The girl for the first time looked about her. Hagar's Corners, it must be confessed, was not much of a place, if one judged from the station. The station itself was not much more than a shanty, sadly in need of paint and minus the tiny patch of green lawn that often makes the least pretentious railroad station pleasant to the eye. Cinders filled in the road and the ground about the platform. Hitched to a post Betty now saw a thin sorrel horse harnessed to a dilapidated spring wagon with a board laid across it in lieu of a seat. To her astonishment, she saw her trunk lifted into this wagon by the station agent and the boy who had spoken to her.
"Why—why, it doesn't look very comfort- able," said Betty to herself. "I wonder if that's the best wagon Mr. Peabody has? But perhaps his good horses are busy, or the carriage is broken or something."
The boy unhitched the sorry nag and drove up to the platform where Betty was waiting. His face flushed under his tan as he jumped down to help her in.
"I'm afraid it isn't nice enough for you," he said, glancing with evident admiration at Betty's frock. "I spread that salt bag on the seat so you wouldn't get rust from the nails in that board on your dress. I'm awfully sorry I haven't a robe to put over your lap."
"Oh, I'm all right," Betty hastened to assure him tactfully. Then, with a desire to put him at his ease, "Where is the town?" she asked. They had turned from the station straight into a country road, and Betty had not seen a single house.
"Hagar's Corners is just a station," explained the lad. "Mostly milk is shipped from it. All the trading is done at Glenside. There's stores and schools and a good-sized town there. Mr. Peabody had you come to Hagar's Corners 'cause it's half a mile nearer than Glenside. The horse has lost a shoe, and he doesn't want to run up a blacksmith's bill till the foot gets worse than it is."
Betty's brown eyes widened with amazement.
"That horse is limping now," she said severely. "Do you mean to tell me Mr. Peabody will let a horse get a sore foot before he'll pay out a little money to have it shod?"
The boy turned and looked at her with something smoldering in his face that she did not understand. Betty was not used to bitterness.
"Joe Peabody," declared the boy impressively, "would let his own wife go without shoes if he thought she could get through as much work as she can with 'em. Look at my feet!" He thrust out a pair of rough, heavy work shoes, the toes patched abominably, the laces knotted in half a dozen places; Betty noticed that the heel of one was ripped so that the boy's skin showed through. "Let his horse go to save a blacksmith's bill!" repeated the lad contemptuously. "I should think? he would! The only thing that counts with Joe Peabody in this world is money!"
Betty's heart sank. To what kind of a home had she come ? Her head was beginning to ache, and the glare of the sun on the white, dusty road hurt her eyes. She wished that the wagon had some kind of top, or that the board seat had a back.
"Is it very much further?" she asked wearily.
"I'll bet you're tired," said the boy quickly. "We've a matter of three miles to go yet. The sorrel can't make extra good time even when he has a fair show, but I aim to favor his sore foot if I do get dished out of my dinner,"
"I'm so hungry," declared Betty, restored to vivacity at the thought of luncheon. "All I had on the train was a cup of chocolate and a sandwich. Aren't you hungry, too?"
"Considering that all I've had since breakfast at six this morning, is an apple I stole while hunting through the orchard for the turkeys, I'll say I'm starved," admitted the boy. "But I'll have to wait till six to-night, and so will you."
"But I haven't had any lunch!" Betty protested vigorously. "Of course, Mrs. Peabody will let me have something—perhaps they'll wait for me."
The boy polled on the lines mechanically as the sorrel stumbled.
"If that horse once goes down, he'll die in the road and that'll be the first rest he's known in seven years," he said cryptically. "No, Miss, the Peabodys won't wait for you. They wouldn't wait for their own mother, and that's a fact. Don't I remember seeing the old lady, who was childish the year before she died, crying up in her room because no one had called her to breakfast and she came down too late to get any? Mrs. Peabody puts dinner on the table at twelve sharp, and them as aren't there have to wait till the next meal. Joe Peabody counts it that much food saved, and he's got no intentions of having late-comers gobble it up."
Betty Gordon's straight little chin lifted. Meekness was not one of her characteristics, and her fighting spirit rose to combat with small encouragement.
"My uncle's paying my board, and I intend to eat," she announced firmly. "But maybe I'm upsetting the household by coming so late in the afternoon; only there was no other train till night. I have some chocolate and crackers in my bag— suppose we eat those now?"
"Gee, that will be corking!" the fresh voice of the boy beside her was charged with fervent appreciation. "There's a spring up the road a piece, and we'll stop and get a drink. Chocolate sure will taste good."
Betty was quicker to observe than most girls of her age, her sorrow having taught her to see other people's troubles. As the boy drew rein at the spring and leaped down to bring her a drink from its cool depths, she noticed how thin he was and how red and calloused were his hands.
"Thank you." She smiled, giving back the cup. "That's the coldest water I ever tasted. I'm all cooled off now."
He climbed up beside her again, and the wagon creaked on its journey. As Betty divided the chocolate and crackers, unobtrusively giving her driver the larger portion, she suggested that he might tell her his name.
"I suppose you know I'm Betty Gordon," she said. "You've probably heard Mrs. Peabody say she went to school with my Uncle Dick. Tell me who you are, and then we'll be introduced."
The mouth of the boy twisted curiously, and a sullen look came into the blue eyes.
"You can do without knowing me," he said shortly. "But so long as you'll hear me yelled at from sun-up to sun-down, I might as well make you acquainted with my claims to greatness. I'm the 'poorhouse rat'—now pull your blue skirt away."
"You have no right to talk like that," Betty asserted quietly. "I haven't given you the slightest reason to. And if you are really from the poorhouse, you must be an orphan like me. Can't we be good friends? Besides, I don't know your name even yet."
The boy looked at the sweet girl face and his own cleared.
"I'm a pig!" he muttered with youthful vehemence. "My name's Bob Henderson, Miss. I hadn't any call to flare up like that. But living with the Peabodys doesn't help a fellow when it comes to manners. And I am from the poorhouse. Joe Peabody took me when I was ten years old. I'm thirteen now."
"I'm twelve," said Betty. "Don't call me Miss, it sounds so stiff. I'm Betty. Oh, dear, how dreadfully lame that horse is!"
The poor beast was limping, and in evident pain. Bob Henderson explained that there was nothing they could do except to let him walk slowly and try to keep him on the soft edge of the road.
"He'll have to go five miles to-morrow to Glenside to the blacksmith's," he said moodily. "I'm ashamed to drive a horse through the town in the shape this one's in."
Betty thought indignantly that she would write to the S. P. C. A. They must have agents throughout the country, she knew, and surely it could not be within the law for any farmer to allow his horse to suffer as the sorrel was plainly suffering.
"Is Mr. Peabody poor, Bob?" she ventured timidly. "I'm sure Uncle Dick thought Bramble Farm a fine, large place. He wanted me to learn to ride horseback this summer."
"Have to be on a saw-horse," replied Bob ironically. "You bet Peabody isn't poor! Some say he's worth a hundred thousand if he's worth a penny. But close—s'ay, that man's so close he puts every copper through the wringer. You've come to a sweet place, and no mistake, Betty. I'm kind of sorry to see a girl get caught in the Peabody maw."
"I won't stay less I like it," declared Betty quickly. "I'll write to Uncle Dick, and you can come, too, Bob. Why are we turning in here?" "This," said Bob Henderson pointing with his whip dramatically, "is Bramble Farm."
On to chapter seven
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