NAN SHERWOOD AT ROSE RANCH
THE OLD MEXICAN'S TREASURE
ANNIE ROE CARR
I. SCHOOL REOPENS
III. "CURFEW SHALL NOT RING TO-NIGHT"
IV. WALKING THE PLANK
V. RHODA IS UNPOPULAR
VI. THE MEXICAN GIRL
VII. DOWN THE SLOPE
VIII. AFTERNOON TEA
IX. NOT ALWAYS "BUTTERFINGERS"
X. THE TREASURE OF ROSE RANCH
XII. ROSE RANCH AT LAST
XIII. OPEN SPACES
XIV. THE POOR LITTLE CALF
XV. A TROPHY FOR ROOM EIGHT
XVII. THE ROUND-UP
XVIII. THE OUTLAW
XIX. A RAID
XX. THE ANTELOPE HUNT; AND MORE
XXI. IN THE OLD BEAR DEN
XXII. AFTER THE TEMPEST
XXIII. THE LETTER FROM JUANITA
XXV. THE STAMPEDE
XXVI. WHO ARE THEY?
XXVII. THE FUNNEL
XXVIII. A PRISONER
XXIX. A TAMED OUTLAW
"And of course," drawled Laura Polk, she of the irrepressible spirits and what Mrs. Cupp called "flamboyant" hair, "she will come riding up to the Hall on her trusty pinto pony (whatever kind of pony that is), with a gun at her belt and swinging a lariat. She will yell for Dr. Beulah to come forth, and the minute the darling appears this Rude Rhoda from the Rolling Prairie will proceed to rope our dear preceptress and bear her off captive to her lair—"
"My—goodness—gracious—Agnes!" exclaimed Amelia Boggs, more frequently addressed as 'Procrastination Boggs', "you are getting your metaphors dreadfully mixed. It is a four-legged beast of prey that bears its victim away to its 'lair.'"
"How do you know Rollicking Rhoda from Crimson Gulch hasn't four legs?" demanded the red-haired girl earnestly. "You know very well from what we see in the movies that there are more wonders in the 'Wild and Woolly West' than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio-Amelia."
"One thing I say," said a very much overdressed girl who had evidently just arrived, for she had not removed her furs and coat, and was warming herself before the open fire in the beautiful reception hall where this conversation was going on, "I think Lakeview Hall is getting to be dreadfully common, when all sorts and conditions of girls are allowed to come here."
"Oh, I guess this Rhododendron-girl from Dead Man's Den has money enough to suit even you, Linda," Laura Polk said carelessly.
"Money isn't everything, I hope," said the girl in furs, tossing her head.
"Hear! Hear!" exclaimed Laura, and some of the other girls laughed. "Linda's had a change of heart."
"Dear me!" sniffed Linda Riggs, "how smart you are, Polk. Just as though I was not used to anything but money—"
"True. You are. But you have never talked about much of anything else before this particular occasion," said the red-haired girl. "What has happened to you, Linda mine, since you separated from us all at the beginning of the winter holidays?"
Linda merely sniffed again and turned to speak to her particular chum, Cora Courtney.
"You should have been with me in Chicago, Cora—at my cousin, Pearl Graves', house. I tried to get Pearl—she's just about our age—to come to Lakeview Hall; but she goes to a private school right in her neighborhood—oh! a very select place. No girl like this wild Western person Polk is talking about, would be received there. No, indeed!"
"Hi, Linda!" broke in the irrepressible red-haired girl, "why didn't you try to enter that wonderful school?"
"I did ask to. But my father is so old-fashioned," complained Linda. "He would not hear of it. Said it would not be treating Dr. Beulah right."
"Oh, oh!" groaned Laura. "How the dear doctor would have suffered, Linda, if you had not come back to her sheltering arms."
The laugh this raised among the party made Linda's cheeks flame more hotly than before. She would not look at the laughing group again. A flaxen-haired girl with pink cheeks and blue eyes—one of the smallest though not the youngest in the party—came timidly to Linda Riggs' elbow.
"Did you spend all your vacation in Chicago?" she asked gently. "I was to go to visit Grace; but there was sickness at home, and so I couldn't. Didn't the Masons come back with you, Linda?"
"And Nan Sherwood and Bess Harley?" questioned Amelia Boggs, the homely girl. "They went to the Masons' to visit, didn't they?"
"I'm sure I could not tell you much about them," Linda said, shrugging her shoulders. "I had something else to do, I can assure you, than to look up Sherwood and Harley."
"Why!" gasped the fair-haired girl, "Grace wrote me that you were at her house, and went to the theater with them, and that—that—"
"Well, what of it, Lillie Nevins?" demanded the other sharply.
"In her letter she said you had a dreadful accident. That you were run away with in a sleigh and that Nan Sherwood and Walter saved your life."
"That sounds interesting!" cried Laura Polk. "So Our Nan has been playing the he-ro-wine again? How did it happen?"
"She has been putting herself forward the same as usual," snapped Linda Riggs. "I suppose that is what you mean. And Grace is crazy. Walter did help me when Madam Graves' horses ran away; but Nan Sherwood had nothing to do with it. Or, nothing much, at least."
"Keep on," said Laura Polk, dryly, "and I guess we'll get the facts of the case."
"If you think I am going to join this crew that praises Nan Sherwood to the skies, you are mistaken," cried Linda.
"All right. We'll hear all about it when Bess Harley comes," said Laura, laughing. She did like to plague Linda Riggs.
"Where are Nan and Bess, to say nothing of Gracie?" Amelia Boggs wanted to know. "You came on the last train, didn't you, Linda?"
"Oh, I did not pay much attention to those on the train," said Linda airily. "Father had his private car put on for me, and I rode in that."
Mr. Riggs was president of the railroad, and by no chance did his daughter ever let her mates lose sight of that fact.
"My goodness!" exclaimed Cora, "didn't you have anybody with you?"
"Well, no. You see, I invited Walter and Grace Mason, but they had people in the chair car they thought they must entertain," and she sniffed again.
"Oh, you Linda!" laughed Laura. "I bet I know who they were entertaining."
"Here comes the bus!" cried Amelia suddenly.
A rush of more than half the girls gathered about the open hearth for the great main entrance door of Lakeview Hall followed the announcement. This hall was almost like a castle set upon a high cliff overlooking Lake Huron on one side and the straggling town of Freeling, and Freeling Inlet, on the other.
The girls flung open the door. The school bus had just stopped before the wide veranda. Girls were fairly "boiling out of it," as Laura declared. Short, tall, thin, stout girls and girls of all ages between ten and seventeen tramped merrily up the steps with their handbags. Such a hullabaloo of greeting as there was!
"Come on, Cora," said Linda, haughtily. "Let us go up to our room. They are positively vulgar."
"Oh, no, Linda!" Cora cried. "I want to stay and see the fun."
"Fun!" gasped the disdainful Linda.
"Yes," said Cora, who was a terrible toady, but who showed some spirit on this occasion. "I want to have fun with the other girls. I don't want to be left out of everything just because of you. Even if you are going to flock by yourself this term, as you did most of last, because you are all the time quarreling with the girls that have the nicest times, I'm going to get into the fun."
This, according to Linda Riggs' opinion, was crass ingratitude and treachery. Besides, she and Cora had the nicest room in the Hall, for it had been fixed up especially for his daughter by Mr. Riggs; and Cora, who was poor, was allowed to be Linda's roommate without extra charge.
"You mean that you want to run with that Nan Sherwood and Bess Harley crew!" exclaimed Linda.
"I want to get into some of the fun. And so do you, Linda! Don't act offish," and Cora walked toward the open door to meet the new arrivals.
It was a terrible shock to the railroad magnate's daughter—this. The defection of her chief henchman and ally would rather break up the little group which Laura Polk had unkindly dubbed "the School of Snobs." With all her wealth Linda had but few retainers.
In the van of the newcomers were a rather comely, brown-eyed girl with a bright and cheerful expression of countenance, a dark beauty with curls and flashing eyes, and a demure but pretty girl to whom Lillie Nevins ran with exclamations of joy. This last was Grace Mason, the flaxen-haired girl's chum.
"Oh, Nancy! how well you look," cried Laura, hugging the brown-eyed girl. And to the curly-haired one: "What mischief have you got into, Bess? You look just as though you had done something."
"Don't say a word!" gasped Bess Harley in the red-haired girl's ear. "It's what we are going to do. Some sawneys have arrived. We'll have a procession."
"Oh, say!" exclaimed Amelia Boggs, "there is one special sawney expected. Did she come on this train with you other girls?"
"Oh, that's so! Who has seen Roistering Rhoda of the Staked Plains? Mrs. Cupp said she was due tonight," cried Laura.
"For goodness' sake!" exclaimed Bess, "who is that?"
"A sawney!" cried one of the other girls.
"They say she is Rhoda Hammond, from the very farthest West there is," Laura said gravely. "Of course she will ride in on a mustang, or something like that."
"What! with the snow two feet deep?" laughed the brown-eyed girl, tossing off her furs and smiling at the group of her schoolmates with happy mien.
"Say not so!" begged Laura. "No pony? What is the use of having a cow-girl fresh from the wildest West come to Lakeview Hall unless she comes in proper character?"
Nan Sherwood, having swept her old friends with her quick glance, now looked back at the group that had followed her into the hall. The bus had been so crowded and so dark that she had not known half of those who had been with her coming up from the Freeling railroad station.
"How nice it is to get back, isn't it?" she murmured to her special chum, Bess Harley.
"I should say!" agreed Elizabeth, warmly and emphatically.
Laura Polk, as an older girl and, after all, one of the most thoughtful, suddenly noticed a stranger in brown who still stood just inside the door that somebody had thoughtfully closed.
She made quite a charming, not to say striking, figure, as she stood there alone, just the faintest smile upon her lips, yet looking quite as neglected and lonely as any novice could possibly look.
This stranger wore brown furs and a brown coat, with a hat to match on which was a really wonderful brown plume. She wore bronze shoes and hose. Even Linda Riggs was dressed no more richly than this girl; only the latter was dressed in better taste than Linda.
Laura, leaving the gay company, went quickly toward the girl in brown and held out her hand.
"I am sure you are a stranger here," she said. "And I am a member of the Welcoming Committee. I am Laura Polk. And you—?"
"I am Rhoda Hammond," said the demure girl quietly.
"What!" almost shouted the startled Laura. "You're never! You can't be! Not Rollicking Rhoda from Rustlers' Roost, the wild Western adventuress we've heard so much about?"
"No," said the girl in brown, still placidly. "I am Rhoda Hammond from Rose Ranch."
"Oh, my auntie!" murmured Amelia Boggs, using most uncommendable slang. "Stung!"
But Laura Polk, if inclined to be boisterous and rather rude in her jokes, was by no means petty. She burst into such a good-natured and disarming laugh that the girl in brown was forced to join her.
"There, Laura," said Bess Harley, "the biter for once is the bitten. I hope you are properly overcome."
Nan Sherwood likewise hastened to offer the new girl her hand.
"I am glad to greet you, Rhoda Hammond," she said sympathetically. "You must not mind our animal spirits. We just do slop over at this time, my dear. Wait till you see how gentle and decorous we have to be after the semester really begins. This is only letting off steam, you know."
"Do you meet all newcomers with the same grade of hospitality?" asked Rhoda Hammond, with more than a little sarcasm in both her words and tone.
"Only more so," Bess Harley assured her. "Oh, Nan! consider what they did to us when we came here for the first time last September. 'Member?"
Nan nodded with sudden gravity in her pretty face. She was not likely to forget that trying time. She had been on a very different footing with her schoolmates for the first few weeks of her life at Lakeview Hall than she was now.
Rhoda Hammond, the new girl, seemed to apprehend something of this change, for she said quickly and with much good sense:
"Well, if you two could stand it, and are evidently so much thought of now, I'll grin and bear it, too. Though it isn't just as we are taught to treat strangers out home. At Rose Ranch if a person is a tenderfoot we try to make it particularly easy for him."
"Oh, my dear," drawled Bess, her eyes dancing, "it works just the opposite at a girls' boarding school, believe me!"
Her chum, Nan, was for the moment not in a laughing mood. She could scarcely realize now that she was the same Nan Sherwood who had come so wonderingly and timidly to Lakeview Hall.
Of the Sherwoods there were only Nan and her father and mother. They were an especially warmly attached trio and probably, if a most wonderful and startling thing had not happened, Nan and Momsey and Papa Sherwood would never have been separated, or been fairly shaken out of their family existence, as they had been just about a year before this present story opens.
The Sherwoods lived in a little cottage on Amity Street in Tillbury. Bess Harley lived with her parents and brothers and sisters in the same town; but they were much better off financially than the Sherwoods. Mr. Sherwood was a foreman in the Atwater Mills, and when that company abruptly closed down, Nan's father was thrown out of work and the prospect of real poverty stared the Sherwoods in the face.
Then the unexpected happened. A distant relative of Mrs. Sherwood's died, leaving her some property in Scotland. But it was necessary for her to appear personally before the Scotch courts to obtain Hughie Blake's fortune.
Circumstances were such, however, that her parents could not take Nan with them. It was a hard blow to the girl; but she was plucky and ready to accept the determination of Momsey and Papa Sherwood. When they started for Scotland, Nan started for Pine Camp with her Uncle Henry, and the first book of this series relates for the most part Nan's exciting adventures in the lumber region of the Michigan Peninsula, under the title of: "Nan Sherwood at Pine Camp; Or, the Old Lumberman's Secret."
As has been mentioned, Nan and her chum, Bess Harley, had come to Lakeview Hall the previous September. The matter of Momsey's fortune had not then been settled in the Scotch courts; but enough money had been advanced to make it possible for Nan to accompany her chum to the very good boarding school on the shore of Lake Huron.
In "Nan Sherwood at Lakeview Hall; Or, the Mystery of the Haunted Boathouse," the two friends are first introduced to boarding-school life, and to this very merry, if somewhat thoughtless, company of girls that have already been brought to the attention of the reader in our present volume.
They were for the most part nice girls and, at heart, kindly intentioned; but Nan had gone through some harsh experiences, as well as exciting times, during the fall and winter semester at Lakeview Hall. She had made friends, as she always did; and the Masons, Grace and Walter, determined to have her with them in Chicago over the holidays. Therefore, in the third volume of the series, "Nan Sherwood's Winter Holidays; Or, Rescuing the Runaways," we find Nan and her chum with their friends in the great city of the Lakes.
During those two weeks of absence from school Nan certainly had experienced some exciting times. Included in her adventures were her experiences in rescuing two foolish country girls who had run away to be motion picture actresses. In addition Nan Sherwood had saved little Inez, a street child, and had taken her back to "the little dwelling in amity," as Papa Sherwood called their Tillbury home. For Nan's parents had returned from across the seas, and she was beginning this second semester at Lakeview Hall in a much happier state of mind in every way than she had begun the first one.
It was only to be expected that Nan would try to make the coming of the girl in brown, Rhoda Hammond, more pleasant than her own first appearance at school had been.
But the girls who had remained at the Hall over the holidays were fairly wild. At least, Mrs. Cupp said so, and Mrs. Cupp, Doctor Beulah Prescott's housekeeper, ought to know for she had had complete charge of the crowd during the intermission of studies.
"And, believe me," sighed Laura Polk, "we've led the dear some dance."
Mrs. Cupp looked very stern now as she suddenly appeared from her office at the end of the big hall. She scarcely responded to the greetings of the girls who had returned—not even to Nan's—but asked in a most forbidding tone:
"Who is there new? Girls who have for the first time arrived, come into my office at once. There is time for the usual formalities before supper."
"Oh, my dear," murmured Bess Harley wickedly, and loud enough for the girl in brown to hear her, "she is in a dreadful temper. She certainly will put these poor sawneys through the wringer tonight."
Rhoda Hammond evidently took this "with a grain of salt." She asked, before going to the office:
"What sort of instrument of torture is the 'wringer,' please?"
"I am speaking in metaphor," explained Bess. "But you wait! She will wring tears from your eyes before she gets through with you. As the little girls say, you can see her 'mad is up.'"
"Oh, now, Elizabeth," warned Nan, "don't scare her."
Rhoda walked away without another word. Bess looked after her with an admiring light in her eyes.
"Oh, Nan! isn't she beautifully dressed?"
"Richly dressed, I agree," said Nan. "But Mrs. Cupp will have something to say about that."
"I know," giggled the wicked and slangy Bess. "She'll give her an earful about dressing 'out of order.' She is worse than Linda."
"No. Better," said Nan confidently. "Whoever chose that girl's outfit showed beautiful taste, even if she is dressed much too richly for the standard of Lakeview Hall."
Linking arms a little later, when the supper gong sounded, the two friends from Tillbury sought the pleasant dining-room where the whole school—"primes" as well as the four upper divisions—ate at long tables, with an instructor in charge of each division.
But discipline was relaxed to-night, as it was always at such times. Even Mrs. Cupp, who, all through the meal, marched up and down the room with a hawk eye on everything and everybody, was less strict than ordinarily.
The moment Nan Sherwood appeared the little girls hailed her as their chum and "Big Sister." Nothing would do but she must sit at their table and share their food for this one meal.
"Oh, dear, Nan!" cried one little miss, "did you bring back Beautiful Beulah all safe and sound with you? Shall we have her to play with again this term?"
"Why, bless you, honey!" returned the bigger girl, "I did not even take the doll away. Mrs. Cupp has charge of it, and if she lets me, we will take it up into Room Seven, Corridor Four, to-morrow."
"Oh, won't that be nice?" acclaimed the little girls, for Nan's big doll was an institution at Lakeview Hall among more than the children in the primary department.
But at the end of the meal Nan was dragged away by the older girls. They were an excited and hilarious crowd.
"There's something doing!" whispered Bess in Nan's ear. "That new girl is on our corridor. You know the room that was shut up all last term?"
"That is the one. Rhoda has got it. And what do you think?"
"Almost any mischief," replied Nan, with dancing eyes.
"Oh, now, Nan! Well, Laura has told her that the room is haunted. Says a girl died there two years ago and it's never been used since. And so now her ghost will be sure to haunt it—"
"I think that is both mean and silly of Laura," interrupted Nan, with vigor. "She will have some of these little girls, who will be bound to hear the tale, scared half to death. Is that poor girl going to live in Number Eight alone?"
"She is until somebody else comes to mate with her," said Bess carelessly. "Come on, old Poky. We're going to have some fun with that wild Westerner."
"I'll go along," agreed Nan, smiling again, "if only to make sure that you crazy ones do not go too far in your hazing."
"CURFEW SHALL NOT RING TONIGHT"
In Corridor Four had always been centered most of Lakeview Hall's "high jinks," to quote Laura Polk. Although Procrastination Boggs, Nan Sherwood, Bess Harley, and several other dwellers on this corridor stood well up in their classes, Mrs. Cupp was inclined to locate most infractions of the school rules in the confines of Corridor Four.
"Our overflowing an-i-mile spirits, young ladies, are our bane," quoted Laura, talking through her nose. "Dr. Beulah has been away—has not arrived home yet—and we unfortunate orphans have been driven to bed with the chickens. I, for one, have revolted."
"You don't look very revolting, Laura," drawled Amelia Boggs, "even with that red necktie on crooked."
"Just the same, I have anarchistic tendencies. I feel 'em," declared the red-haired girl.
"That is not anarchism you feel," scoffed Bess. "If I had eaten what you did for supper—"
"Oh, say not so!" begged Laura. "Don't tell me that all this disturbance within me is from merely what I ate. Why, I feel that I might lead an assault on Cupp's office, take her by force, and immure her in—"
"The old secret passage to the boathouse," put in Nan.
"Oh, goodness—gracious—Agnes!" said Amelia, looking at one of her watches, "if we are going to do anything to that wild Western mustang to-night—"
"Hush! Have no fear," interrupted Laura. "There is time enough."
"Procrastination should know that," giggled Bess, "with all the watches and clocks she owns."
"While we gab here," went on Amelia, "curfew time approaches."
Laura struck an attitude. "Listen, girls!" she cried. "'Curfew shall not ring to-night!'"
"Now, don't begin reciting old chestnuts like that," sniffed Bess.
"It is an announcement of revolt, not a recitation, I'd have you know," declared the red-haired girl.
"What do you mean, Laura?" Nan asked, suddenly seeing that Laura really had some meaning underneath her raillery.
"Hush, children!" crooned the red-haired girl. "What is our greatest trial—our most implacable enemy—in this fair Garden of Eves? Tell me!"
"Mrs. Cupp," sighed Nan.
"Nay, nay! She is but the slave of the lamp," responded Laura, still in flowery fashion. "The bete noire of the girls of Lakeview Hall is the half-past nine o'clock curfew. And I vow it shall not ring to-night!"
"Why won't it?" asked Nan, finally grown suspicious.
"Because," hissed Laura, her eyes dancing, "I climbed up into the tower this forenoon and unhooked and hid the bell-clapper. They won't find it for one while, now you mark my word!"
"Oh, Laura!" gasped Nan; but then she, too, had to join in the peal of laughter that the other girls in Room Seven, Corridor Four, emitted.
"What a joke!" exclaimed Bess.
"It's one of those jokes best kept secret," advised Amelia Boggs, who, after all, possessed a fund of caution. "Mrs. Cupp will be desperately moved when she finds it out."
"At least," Nan agreed, "Laura is right. Curfew will not ring to-night. But Mrs. Cupp will find some other way of making it known that retiring hour has arrived. We'd best get to work if we are going to have a procession of the sawneys."
"Girls," suddenly asked Bess, "who ever started that lumberman's slang of 'sawney' for 'greenhorn' up in this hall of acquired good English?"
"Oh, come, Bess!" groaned Amelia, "the term hasn't really opened yet. Don't make us delve into the past for the roots of our language. It's us for the procession now!"
Nan Sherwood entered into the plan for the evening's hazing of newcomers for a special reason. She had liked the girl from the West, Rhoda Hammond, at first sight. Not for her beautiful clothing, but for something Nan had seen in her countenance.
The former purposed to take an active part in whatever was done to the newcomer because she believed she could influence the more thoughtless girls to the extent that nothing very harsh would be done to Rhoda.
"I'll stir up the animals," cried Bess, hopping off her bed, where she had been perching. "We want a big crowd to help worry that Hammond girl."
She was gone in a flash to get together the other girls of Corridor Four. Laura yawned:
"I wonder if we'll be able to worry that wild Western young person much, after all?" she said. "She looked to me like a cool sort of person."
"I don't know," said Amelia. "I think she's stuck up."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," cried Nan.
"She's dressed to kill, just the same. I'd like to take her for a good long tramp in that outfit she came in."
"Procrastination means this Riotous Rhoda has got too much money—like Linda Riggs," put in Laura.
"I wonder if that Rose Ranch she comes from is a nice place," said Nan. "Just think! A real cattle ranch!"
"Pooh!" said Amelia. "My uncle owns a dairy farm. What's the difference whether you have muley cows or long-horned Texas steers?"
Laura was still chuckling at this when Bess returned with several girls who crowded into the room behind her. There was a busy time for a few minutes as the girls dressed Amelia in an old pillow-slip with eye-holes burned in it, and placed in her hand the staff of a broom, over the brush-end of which was drawn another bag, on which, in charcoal, Grace Mason deftly drew a very wise looking owl in outline.
Thus arrayed, Amelia was to lead the procession and be Mistress of Ceremonies. They were about to start when Laura Polk was suddenly missed.
"Now, where has she gone?" demanded Bess. "She's just like a flea! You put your hand on her, and there she isn't!"
But Laura was back in a moment. She brought with her, and dangled before their wondering gaze, a suit of paint-stained overalls, jumper and all, that evidently by their size belonged to Henry, the boatkeeper and man of all work of Lakeview Hall.
"I hid 'em the other day," declared the red-haired girl. "You never know what may happen, or how such garments as these may come in use."
"But, for pity's sake, Laura!" gasped Nan, "what are they for?"
"Don't they make just the uniform needed for a cowgirl? What say? I bet she rides astride, and these old overalls will remind her of home, at Rustlers' Roost, and all that, you know."
The shrieks of laughter that answered this proposal threatened to bring some of the teachers and so spoil the fun altogether. Finally, however, Amelia Boggs got the crowd into line, and the parade marched out of Room Seven into the corridor.
Room Eight was almost directly opposite the one occupied by Nan and Bess; but Amelia led the procession the full length of the hall and returned again before rapping a summons on Rhoda Hammond's door.
"Oh, yes! In a minute," cried a small voice from inside.
But Amelia waited on no appeal of this character. She found on turning the knob that the door was unlocked. She flung it open and stalked in, the other girls trailing two by two behind her.
"Oh, dear me! what do you want?" gasped Rhoda.
She had removed and hung up in the clothes-closet the beautiful furs, dress, and hat. Her bag was open on the couch, but it seemed to contain no kimono, and the Western girl remained half hidden behind the portiere that hung before the closet.
"What do you want?" she repeated, gazing in wonder at the tall figure of the Mistress of Ceremonies.
"We are just in time," said Amelia behind her mask, and in a supposed-to-be-sepulchral voice. "The sawney is all prepared to don her costume. Hither, slave! and see that she dons the costume quickly, for we must haste."
"The slave hithers," said Laura jovially. "Here you are, Rambunctious Rhoda from Rawhide Springs. Put 'em on."
She held out the overalls and jumper to the surprised new girl, who hesitated to take them.
"Hic jacet! The varlet refuses 'em!" hissed the red-haired girl.
"Goodness, Laura," whispered Nan. "That means 'here lies'—and nobody is telling stories."
"She's got her Latin and Shakesperean English most awfully mixed," giggled one of the other girls.
"And 'varlet' is the wrong gender, anyway," observed Bess.
"Silence!" commanded the Mistress of Ceremonies. "Silence in the ranks. Will she not don the costume?"
"Put 'em on!" commanded Laura again, shaking the painter's suit before the hesitating Western girl.
"She would better," said Amelia threateningly, "or I will call to your aid all these, my faithful followers, who have already been through the fiery trial."
"I don't want to go through any fiery trial," said Rhoda. "But if you insist, I'll put on that jacket and the pants."
"'Pants' is truly Western, isn't it, Laura?" asked Amelia Boggs. "Civilized folk say trousers."
"I see I have much to learn," said Rhoda, too meekly, perhaps.
She slipped quickly into the roomy overalls behind the curtain, and then came forth, putting on the jumper. Her bare arms and shoulders were brown and firm. Nan thought Rhoda's figure was as attractive as her face was pretty. She caught the new girl's glance and smiled encouragingly.
"Doesn't she make a darling boy!" whispered Bess Harley to her chum.
But the other girls—at least, some of them—meant to make the newcomer feel keenly her position as a "sawney."
"She wears 'em just as though she was at home in them," said Laura drawlingly. "I tell you she is a regular cowgirl at home on the Hot Dog Mesa. Isn't that so, Miss Rhoda?"
"You seem to know," replied the Western girl bruskly.
Laura suddenly whispered to the hooded Amelia. The latter cleared her throat portentously and said:
"Sawney, it is evident that you must be taught your place. Meekness becomes you lambkins when you first come to Lakeview Hall. Slave, prepare the bandage."
"What's that?" demanded Rhoda. "Do you know, I don't like this foolishness much."
"The fiery trial all right for yours!" exclaimed Laura, who had caught up a towel and was folding it dexterously. "Turn around!"
"I won't!" declared Rhoda flatly.
"Mutiny!" exclaimed Amelia. "Seize the captive and bandage her eyes at once," and she pounded on the floor with the broom handle.
Nan was one of those who grabbed the Western girl. But she did so to whisper swiftly in Rhoda's ear:
"Don't fight against it. It's only fun."
"Fun!" repeated Rhoda in disgust.
But she gave over struggling. Laura blindfolded her quickly and securely. Of course she might have torn the bandage off, for her hands were free. But she waited more calmly now for what might come next.
WALKING THE PLANK
Nan Sherwood knew very well that there was no intention of really injuring the new girl; therefore she made no objection to what was done. Indeed, she helped haze Rhoda Hammond, but more for the sake of seeing that the Western girl was not taken advantage of in any way than for the fun of the prank.
Nan did not know what Amelia and Laura had planned to do to the new girl, but knowing the older girls as well as she did, she was sure that nothing very bad was intended.
Somebody found an old striped silk parasol with some of the panels split, and this was opened and given to Rhoda to carry. The line of march was then taken up, with the victim directly behind the Mistress of Ceremonies and Laura and Nan shutting off all chance of Rhoda's escape.
The latter's cheeks were very red and her teeth gripped her lower lip tightly. Bess mentioned, giggling, that Rhoda looked already as though she were going through the fiery trial!
Nan realized it would have gone much better for the Western girl if she had taken it smiling. She feared that Rhoda's attitude would make the hazing more severe and more prolonged. She wished she knew what was in the minds of Laura and Amelia Boggs regarding the new girl.
The procession marched through Corridor Four to the rear stairway. Amelia stalked ahead, carrying the broom, her "wand of office." The stairway led threateningly near to Mrs. Cupp's room.
"Don't dare breathe even, while we are going down," hissed Laura.
"Silence!" reiterated Amelia.
They descended carefully—all but the prisoner. But when she made too much noise Laura poked her.
"Here!" the red-haired girl muttered, "make believe you are stealing upon a band of Indians to scalp 'em—the poor things! You don't walk like a prairie rose. You stamp along more like a charging buffalo."
"Goodness!" sighed Lillie Nevins, in the rear, "how much our Laura knows about the West, doesn't she?"
At the titter which followed this remark, their leader hissed for silence again. The procession was now winding down the stairway to the rear of Mrs. Cupp's office. They were bound for the basement, it seemed.
For a moment Nan Sherwood wondered if the older girls intended to reach the subterranean passage which connected the trunk room with the boathouse at the foot of the cliff. Then she remembered that the trunk room would be locked at this hour and that Mrs. Cupp had the key.
But the gymnasium was down here, too. The cellars under the school were enormous. Castle-like, the great, rambling building had been constructed by a man with more imagination than money. The latter ran out before his castle on the cliff was completed. After years of emptiness, Dr. Beulah Prescott had obtained it and made it into what it now was—a school for girls.
The great gymnasium was not locked. Laura ran quickly when they entered the dusky place, and punched the light buttons.
"What do you suppose Mrs. Gleason will say?" whispered Grace Mason. Mrs. Gleason was the athletic instructor.
"She won't say a thing if she doesn't know," declared Bess promptly.
Some one closed the door, and Nan saw then that there were at least twenty girls in the room. Some had joined the procession from other corridors. Now they all began to gabble at once, and Amelia pounded frantically for order.
Nan saw that the bandage was sufficiently tight across Rhoda's eyes. Then she led her into the middle of the great room. Amelia was beckoning.
There had been repairs going on in the gymnasium during the holidays, and a good deal of the paraphernalia had been disarranged. It was evident, too, that the workmen were not entirely through. A long plank, used by the men as a scaffolding, stretched from one set of horizontal bars to another on the platform at one end of the room.
Laura called the other girls and in whispers directed them to gather all the mattresses and pile them on the platform under the somewhat insecure plank. Amelia, her eyes sparkling through the holes in the pillow-slip, held Nan and the prisoner back.
"Sawney," the tall girl said sternly, "as you have filed objections to being tried by fire according to the ancient and honorable custom of Lakeview lambkins, you shall be treated as a robber—No! A pirate. You shall be made to walk the plank."
"Well," said Rhoda, rather scornfully. She did not see anything funny in all this.
"It will be a pretty deep well you will plop into," threatened Amelia. "Ready, slaves?"
"Your slaves are slavishly ready," called Laura from the platform. "Let the sawney climb the ship's taffrail and be plunged into the sea."
"We ought to tie her hands behind her," said one girl, as they marched down the room.
"No," said Nan.
"That is right," said Amelia. "We must give her a chance to swim when she strikes the water."
"Oh, fiddlesticks!" murmured Rhoda.
But Nan saw Laura run and fill a big dipper with water from the spigot and give it to one of the other girls, who climbed quickly to the platform. Then Laura came to seize the victim's other arm. She and Nan marched Rhoda, willy-nilly, down the room and up the steps to the platform.
Rhoda stumbled on each step and held her head down. Nan, therefore, judged that Rhoda could see a little from under the bandage. But she did not call Laura's attention to this fact.
"Mount her quickly, slaves!" called Amelia from below. "Force her to walk the plank instantly!"
There had been a stepladder set up against the first horizontal bar set, right at the end of the plank. Nan saw that the mattresses were all in place and that a fall from the plank would only be about three feet. Such a fall was not likely to be serious, and to girls used to athletic drill it seemed a mere nothing. And yet—
"Come on!" commanded Laura, half lifting Rhoda up the stepladder.
"Careful, Laura!" whispered Nan. "If she should fall—"
"Then she will escape drowning," said the red-haired girl, coolly and aloud.
"Fudge!" muttered the victim, who seemed in a very much disgusted mood.
"Beseemeth the candidate is not sufficiently impressed by her situation," hissed Laura.
She and Nan had scrambled up the steps with the blindfolded Rhoda. There was a cross-plank which gave the three uncertain footing.
"Oh, look out!" gasped Nan, wavering herself upon the edge of the plank.
"Hey! We don't want to have to raise the 'man overboard' cry just yet," grumbled Laura. "Easy there, Nancy!"
Nan whispered in Rhoda's ear: "Walk straight ahead. It isn't hard. I'll be ready to catch you."
"Out on the plank, sawney!" commanded Amelia from below.
Laura pushed Rhoda ahead. The candidate for initiation, even if she could see a little from under the bandage, had at best a very uncertain idea of where she was, or where she was going. Besides, with one's eyes practically blinded, it is very difficult indeed to walk a chalk line, even on the floor. And this plank that was far from steady was only about a foot in width.
"Oh!" ejaculated Rhoda, one foot before the other and her arms waving for a balance. The parasol did not help much.
"Oh! oh! oh!" was the prolonged wail from the crowd below.
"You—think—you're—so—smart!" Again the Western girl teetered back and forth. Laura gave her another slight push. Rhoda took one more step, and let the parasol fall.
"Good!" encouraged Nan.
"Treason!" croaked Laura, observing Nan's encouragement of the candidate.
"Have a care, sawney," declared Amelia Boggs sternly. "A false step and you are lost! The ravening sea is below you. Feel the spray dashing in your face!"
Quick as a flash the girl with the dipper filled her palm with water and threw it upward. It spattered into Rhoda's face and she jerked back her head.
The motion destroyed the balance she had gained. She uttered a stifled ejaculation and wavered again. Laura stretched out a hand and wickedly nudged the victim.
"Oh, don't!" yelled Nan, and she leaped down upon the mattresses.
Rhoda completely lost her equilibrium. She uttered another scream and stepped out into space.
"Man overboard!" shouted Laura.
And as Rhoda fell the girl with the dipper flung its contents over the flying figure of the new girl.
RHODA IS UNPOPULAR
The blindfolded Rhoda came down so awkwardly that Nan feared she would be hurt. The girl from Tillbury screamed a warning—which was useless.
But in that exciting moment Nan noted something that afterward gave her a sidelight upon Rhoda Hammond's character. As the Western girl felt herself going she snatched off the blindfolding towel.
Self-possession! Rhoda owned that attribute, largely developed. She was cool, if angry.
When she landed on the padded platform, she fell on her knees, and the fall must have jarred her. But she was up in a flash, and the girl with the dipper, Minnie Wolff, found herself in the muscular grasp of Rhoda's arms.
"There, now, I've had enough of this foolishness!" snapped the Western girl, limping toward the platform steps. "I've wrenched my knee, and I should hope you'd be satisfied. I want nothing more to do with your baby plays! I came to Lakeview Hall to study and learn something—"
"Oh, you are going to learn something all right," drawled Laura, interrupting Rhoda's angry speech. "But I can see it is going to take you some time, Miss Rhoda Hammond. You are going to have a nice time here!"
Rhoda pushed through the group of girls with blazing face. Her eyes were hard and dry. She had evidently hurt her knee quite badly, for she could not walk without limping. Nan ran after her.
"Oh, Rhoda, don't take it so," she begged in a whisper. "It will make it so much harder for you."
"I don't care!"
"But you want to be friends with us."
"With those girls?" repeated Rhoda, in scorn. "Not much!"
"Oh, yes, you do. Every one of them is nice."
"They act so."
"They are!" reiterated Nan. "And you made Minnie cry."
"What did she want to throw that water on me for?"
"But it didn't hurt you," Nan pointed out. "You are dressed for it!"
"Yes," snapped Rhoda, looking down at the jumper and overalls. "I look like a silly in these things."
"Well, you don't need to act like a silly," urged Nan, keeping pace with her, as Rhoda left the gymnasium. "You are making it awfully hard for yourself. The girls won't forgive you."
"Forgive me? Well, I like that!" scoffed Rhoda.
"Oh, yes. It was all in fun. We all have to go through some such performance—when we are greenhorns."
"Not for me!" exclaimed the Western girl with emphasis.
Nan was silent for a moment, guiding the new girl through the unfamiliar and only half-lighted passages to the back stairway. Then Nan asked:
"Does your knee hurt?"
"Of course it does."
"I have some lotion in my room. It is good for a sprain, or anything like that. I'll get it for you and you can rub it in well when you go to bed."
"If those girls come around to bother me again—"
"I'm afraid they won't," said Nan, sorrowfully.
"You're afraid they won't?"
"Yes. They may let you very much alone. You won't have much fun here."
"Humph! I can flock by myself," said Rhoda, quite cheerfully.
"But you can have so much better times if you are friends with the other girls."
"I don't know about that. I don't like any of them—as far as I've gone. Except you. Out where I come from—at Rose Ranch—there are plenty of Mexican girls and Indian girls who are much more ladylike than this crowd. Why! these girls are savages."
"Oh, no, Rhoda! Not quite that," laughed Nan. "You don't understand. And I am afraid they won't understand you."
"Who wants 'em to?" responded Rhoda Hammond gruffly.
Nan Sherwood took the liniment into Rhoda's room, and when she returned, bringing back the overall suit to be returned to Henry, she found her chum, Bess Harley, in their room, slowly preparing for bed.
"Well! isn't that the greatest girl you ever saw?" exclaimed Bess. "She will have a nice time here—not! And I should think you'd not have anything to do with her, Nan. The other girls won't like it. We're just going to ignore her. A girl who can't take a joke!"
"I shan't have much to do with her until she comes to her senses," Nan admitted. "But I am sorry for her, just the same."
"You'll waste your 'sorry' on that one," laughed Bess.
"Perhaps. But don't you realize, honey, that we came near being just as foolish as Rhoda Hammond when we came here last fall?"
"Oh, nonsense!" ejaculated Bess; but she blushed.
"Think," said Nan, with twinkling eyes. "Don't you remember that shoe-box lunch we brought with us and that the girls made so much sport of? Didn't you get vexed?"
"Oh! Well! Yes, a little," admitted Bess. "But, Nan! I never acted as foolishly as this Rhoda Hammond. Now, did I?"
"No, you did not, my dear," agreed her chum.
But she might honestly have claimed credit for this being a fact. It had been Nan's better sense and her strong influence over her chum that had kept Bess Harley from acting quite as unwisely as Rhoda Hammond was now acting.
"I expect," was all Nan said, however, "that this poor Rhoda is going to have a very unhappy time of it here, unless she changes her attitude."
"Well, she deserves to. She spoiled our fun and she hurt Minnie badly. I suppose she's had no sort of bringing-up, coming right from that wild country."
Nan chuckled. "I wonder! She thinks we lack proper up-bringing. She compares us unfavorably with the Mexican and Indian girls she has been used to out on the ranch from which she comes."
"Good-night!" gasped Bess indignantly, as she plunged into bed.
It did not take a seeress to foretell Rhoda Hammond's unpopularity during the opening days of this term at Lakeview Hall. It seemed that before breakfast the next morning the whole school was buzzing with the story of the doings of the girls of Corridor Four.
That a newcomer should set herself contrary to a custom that had always been honored at the Hall, was considered unpardonable. Even the older girls—seniors and juniors who thought themselves too dignified for such escapades—had merely a sarcastic smile for the new girl from the West. While the little girls—the "primes"—were frankly curious, and could scarcely keep their gaze off Rhoda at meals, or in the main hall at chapel.
The privilege of hazing had seldom been abused by the girls. Dr. Prescott winked at the romps which never really hurt anybody. No girl with "ingrowing dignity," as Amelia Boggs called it, could hope to be happy with her fellows at Lakeview Hall.
"A proper amount of hazing is bound to reduce the size of the sawney's ego," Laura remarked. "This wild Western person has a swelled ego, if ever I saw one. But she shall be let alone, all right, if that is what she is so anxious for."
Nan was, as she said, sorry for Rhoda; but she could do nothing openly to help matters. She would not speak for the Western girl, for she felt that, in justice, Rhoda was in the wrong.
Unlike many of the other girls, however, Nan failed to find anything about Rhoda's character to dislike. Even Linda Riggs was not pleased with the girl from Rose Ranch. The latter girl threatened quite unconsciously to outshine the railroad magnate's daughter in point of dress.
Mrs. Cupp had something to say about that. It was said tartly enough, of course, and Rhoda had to take it before a good-sized party of other girls.
"Where did your mother think you were coming to, Miss Hammond?" Mrs. Cupp demanded when she had looked over the contents of Rhoda's two trunks. "These clothes might be of use if you expected to attend the opera, or appear in society. How absurd to dress a young girl in such garments! Your mother—"
"Please, Mrs. Cupp, do not blame my mother if you think these things are not suitable for me to wear. She is not at—at fault for their selection. They were bought for me by a friend, mostly in Chicago."
"Humph! Your mother should have attended to your being properly dressed. This is a practical school, not a theatrical company, you have come to," snapped Mrs. Cupp, who was always very severe in matters of dress. "Your mother—"
"Don't criticize my mother, please," interrupted Rhoda again, and her voice was sharper. "My—my mother is blind; she could not pick out my clothes."
The statement sponged the smiles from the faces of all the girls within hearing. Unpopular as the Western girl was, the fact she had made public somehow made the other girls taste pity for her for the first time. Bess Harley fairly sobbed when she and Nan got to their room with the piles of their own garments, which Mrs. Cupp had allowed them to take from their trunks.
"It—it's mean that she should have a blind mother," cried Bess angrily. "Why, it makes us sorry for her. And she doesn't deserve to be pitied."
"I wonder?" murmured Nan, somewhat moved herself by the incident.
As the days went by, Nan Sherwood wondered more and more about Rhoda Hammond. Was she deserving of some sympathy for her situation in the school or not? Frankly, Nan was puzzled.
Of course Rhoda was being absolutely left out of all the social good times and larks of the girls who should have been her mates. Likewise in classes and in indoor athletics she seemed out of place.
She had been schooled mostly at home, it appeared. Nan understood—although Rhoda did not say as much—that her mother had personally conducted much of her education until the last two years. Then she had had a governess.
The latter seemed to have been an English woman with rather old-fashioned ideas. Rhoda was grounded well in certain branches and densely ignorant in others which Dr. Prescott considered essential.
And in the athletic classes!
"Why, I thought these Western cowgirls were just like boys—that they were even born with an ability to pitch a ball underhand, for instance, which we girls are not," sighed Laura. "And look at that thing! She doesn't know how to do anything right."
"Oh, not as bad as that," said Nan, smiling.
"Stop trying to make excuses for her, Nan Sherwood," commanded the red-haired girl sharply. "I won't have it. She never saw a basketball game before. She can scarcely lift herself waist-high on the parallel bars. Couldn't chin herself five times in succession on the trapeze to save her life. Why! she might as well be her own grandmother, she knows so little about athletics."
"Huh!" added Bess Harley with equal disgust, "I heard her tell Mrs. Gleason she thought such things were only for boys. She's a regular sissy!" But this made her hearers laugh.
Nan joined in the laughter, but she added:
"You get into a wrestling match with her and see if she's a sissy. She has developed her muscles by other means than gymnasium tricks. She is so very wiry and strong—you have no idea!"
"But she walks so funny," remarked Lillie Nevins.
"Perhaps that is because she has walked so little," said Nan, wisely.
"Humph!" Amelia Boggs commented, "has she been used to being pushed in a baby carriage?"
"Distances are long out in the cattle country. Everybody rides, I guess," Nan observed.
"Well," one of the older girls remarked, "she's no material for basketball, or any other team. She can't even run, it seems. I guess we'll have to pass her up."
Nor did Rhoda seem to mind being "passed up." At least, if she missed the companionship of her schoolmates, she did not show it. Perhaps Nan Sherwood worried more about Rhoda than Rhoda did about herself.
There came a day, however, when the girls of Lakeview Hall saw something in the girl from Rose Ranch that they were bound to admire. Rhoda Hammond possessed one faculty that raised her, head and shoulders, above most of her schoolmates who so derided her.
THE MEXICAN GIRL
The schoolwork was in full swing by this time, and almost every girl seemed to be doing well. "Dr. Beulah," as her pupils lovingly called the head of the school (though not, of course, to her face), went about with a smile most of the time; and even Mrs. Cupp was less grim than usual.
There was an early January thaw that spoiled all outdoor sport for the Lakeview Hall girls. Skating, bobsledding, skiing, and even walking, was taboo for a while, for there was more mud in sight than snow. The girls had to look for entertainment on Saturday in other directions.
Therefore it was considered a real godsend by the girls of Corridor Four when Lillie Nevins told them of the new shop at Adminster. Adminster was about ten miles from Freeling, the little town under the cliff, where the Lakeview Hall girls usually shopped.
"It must be a delightfully funny store," said the flaxen-haired Lillie. "It's full of those Indian blankets, and bead-trimmed things, and Mexican drawn-work, and pottery. Oh! ancient pots and pitchers—"
"Made last year in New Jersey?" scoffed Laura Polk.
"No, no! These are real Mexican. Doctor Larry's girls told me about it. They have been over there and bought the loveliest things!"
There was a good deal of talk about this. It was at the supper table. Nan and Bess were just as much interested as the other girls, and they determined to go to the Mexican curio shop if they could obtain permission.
Nan noticed that for once Rhoda seemed interested in what the other girls were saying. Her brown eyes sparkled and a little color came and went in her cheeks as the discussion went on.
The girl from Tillbury was tempted to invite Rhoda to go with her on Saturday. Yet she felt that Rhoda was not in a mood to accept any overture of peace. The Western girl treated Nan herself well enough; but Nan could not offend her older friends by showing Rhoda Hammond many favors.
So many of the girls asked permission to visit Adminster on the next Saturday afternoon that Mrs. Cupp allowed Miss March, one of the younger instructors and a favorite of the girls, to accompany them.
It was quite a party that picked its way down the muddy track into Freeling's Main Street where the interurban trolley car passed through toward Adminster. The girls under Miss March's care all but filled the car when it came along; but they were hardly settled when they spied Rhoda Hammond already sitting in a corner by herself.
"Why, Rhoda," said Miss March, rising and going to the Western girl as the car started, "I did not get your name as one of my party."
"No, Miss March," said Rhoda coolly.
"Did you obtain permission to leave the school premises? That is a rule, you know."
"Yes, Miss March," said Rhoda, "I obtained permission."
"From whom, Rhoda?" asked the instructor, rather puzzled.
"I telegraphed yesterday to my father. He sent a night letter to Dr. Prescott, and she got it this morning. She gave it to me. Here it is," said the Western girl, taking the crumpled message from her handbag and handing it to the teacher.
Miss March looked amazed when she had read the long message. "Dr. Prescott, then, granted you this privilege which he asks here?"
"Yes, Miss March," said Rhoda coldly, and Miss March went back to her seat.
"Did you ever?" gasped Bess to Nan and Laura. "Why, it must have cost five dollars or more to telegraph back and forth."
"Humph! she certainly doesn't know the value of money," commented Laura. "She is more recklessly extravagant than Linda."
The rest of the girls paid no further attention to Rhoda. They were having too good a time among themselves. As there were few other passengers on that car to Adminster, the Lakeview Hall pupils came very near to taking charge of it. The conductor was good-natured, and the girls' fun was kept in bounds by Miss March.
All the time the Western girl sat in her corner and looked out of the front window at the dreary landscape. It seemed too bad, Nan Sherwood thought more than once, that Rhoda should have allowed herself to become so frankly ignored by her schoolmates.
Nan missed her when the crowd got out of the car in Adminster. This was a larger town than Freeling, and it was on the main railroad line instead of a branch line, as Freeling was. But at that, Adminster was not very metropolitan.
However, the stores fronting on the main street were rather attractive shops. Bess and Grace, with Nan herself, had some things to buy in the department store which was the town's chief emporium, and they separated for a while from the rest of the party.
But when the trio entered the Mexican shop, which was on a side street, there was the whole party of their schoolmates under Miss March's charge.
Some of the girls had already made purchases, and all were excited over certain finds they had made in the stock. Like all such stores that are established for a few months only, and move from town to town, there was much trash exhibited together with some really worth while merchandise from the Southwest.
Not all of the girls knew how to select the good from the trashy merchandise. There were a man, a woman, and a young girl who waited on the customers, all dressed in Mexican costumes; they were too wise to interfere much with the selections of the customers in any department.
The young girl came forward to meet Nan and her companions, courteously offering her services in showing any goods they might wish to look at Nan shrewdly suspected the man and woman to be Jews; but this girl, with her large, black eyes, raven hair, and flashing white teeth, was undoubtedly a Mexican. She was very pretty.
"I can show what dhe yoong ladies want—yes?" she inquired with a most disarming smile.
"Oh, we want to look about, first of all," cried Bess. "Look at all those blankets, Nan! What bully things to throw over our couch!"
"And that lovely spread!" cried Grace.
They went from one lot of goods to another.
The Mexican girl, smiling and quite enjoying their comments, strolled after them. Nan turned to ask her a question regarding a beaded cloth that was evidently meant for a table-scarf. And at the moment Rhoda Hammond entered the shop.
The saleswoman was nearest and she turned to welcome the Western girl. But Nan saw that the girl who was waiting on her started as though to approach the newcomer. Then she stopped, and under her breath hissed an exclamation that must have been in Spanish.
The girl's eyes blazed, her black brows drew together, and she gave every indication of an excitement that was originated by anger. It could be nothing else!
Rhoda Hammond was perfectly unconscious of either the Mexican girl's attention, or her emotion. With the saleswoman who had come to wait on her the girl from Rose Ranch was discussing the price of a piece of pottery which had attracted her notice.
Suddenly the Mexican girl turned to see Nan Sherwood staring at her in wonder. She flushed darkly and was at first inclined to turn away. Then her excitement overpowered her natural caution. She seized Nan by the wrist with a pressure of her fingers that actually hurt.
"You know all dhese yoong ladies—yes?" she demanded. "Dhey all coom wit' you? Huh?"
"Why, yes. We all come from the same school," admitted the astonished Nan.
"You know dhat girl?" asked the Mexican, pointing quickly at Rhoda.
"She do go to school wit' you all—yes? Her name?" demanded the other.
"Eet ees Ham-mon'—no?" hissed the strangely acting girl. "Senorita Ham-mon'?"
"Her name is Hammond. Yes. Rhoda Hammond," admitted Nan, scarcely knowing whether it was right to tell the girl this fact or not.
"Ah, eet ees so! Senorita Ham-mon', of dhe Ranchio Rose. Huh?"
"Why—why—" gasped Nan. "Yes, her home is at Rose Ranch. That is what she calls it."
"Ah!" hissed the Mexican girl, her eyes still glittering angrily. "See! See how reech she is dress'. Huh! The treasure of Ranchio Rose buy dhose dress'. Huh! Ah!"
She flung herself about and walked hastily to the back of the store. Nan was speechless. She stood utterly amazed by the Mexican girl's words and actions.
DOWN THE SLOPE
Nobody seemed to have noticed the strange actions of the Mexican girl save Nan—least of all Rhoda herself. There was no time to speak of the incident while they remained in the shop, even had Nan decided that it was best to do so.
The Mexican girl did not reappear from the rear of the shop. The girls all bought something—perhaps not wisely in every case. Nan Sherwood saw a queer smile on Rhoda Hammond's face as she noted some of the trinkets the other girls purchased. Of course, the girl from Rose Ranch could have advised them about the real value of these articles. But who would ask her?
It really was too bad. Most of the crowd ignored Rhoda Hammond altogether. They did not even speak to her when they brushed her furs in passing.
Rhoda was beautifully dressed, and Bess audibly wondered who had purchased Rhoda's clothes, as her mother's affliction made it impossible for her to have selected them.
The Western girl left the store before the others had finished shopping and Nan fancied Rhoda intended to catch an earlier car back to Freeling than the one Miss March and her party were to take. Nan said nothing to Bess or to Grace regarding the peculiar actions of the Mexican girl who had evidently recognized Rhoda, and knew where she came from. Nan was enormously interested in the mystery; but she did not think it was right to make common property of what she had seen or heard. She was the more tempted to go to Rhoda herself and ask about it.
Perhaps it was something that Rhoda really ought to know. The Mexican girl had looked at the unnoticing Rhoda in a very angry way. And she had spoken very strangely.
"The treasure of the Ranchio Rose buy those dresses."
That was a very peculiar way to have spoken, to say the least. What was "the treasure of Rose Ranch?" Nan was very desirous of asking Rhoda Hammond to explain.
Of course she could not make the inquiry without telling Rhoda about the Mexican girl. Nan wondered if that would be a wise thing to do. Rhoda had not appeared to notice the strange girl. Had she done so, would she have recognized the Mexican as the latter had her?
All the time these thoughts and queries were rioting in Nan Sherwood's mind she had to give her open attention to the buying of certain articles and to the questions and observations of the other girls. She and Bess purchased several things for their room; but Nan would have been better satisfied if they had been intimate enough with Rhoda to have asked her advice about the purchases.
They all trooped out with their bundles at last.
"My goodness!" laughed Bess, "we look like a gang of Italian immigrants being taken by a padrone into the woods. Only we should wear shawls over our heads instead of hats."
They went merrily along the streets to the point from which the car for Freeling started, and lo! there was Rhoda Hammond. She had evidently missed the previous car.
"Is that girl going to tag us wherever we go?" Bess asked, with some vexation.
"Sh!" warned Grace. "She has a perfect right to come over here to Adminster, of course."
"My goodness! I should say she has," Lillie Nevins said, laughing. "After telegraphing to her father for permission."
When the car came along Rhoda got in at the front and took the corner seat again, while the others crowded in through the rear door. The old man who acted as motorman was well known to some of the girls, and they hailed him, as well as the conductor, gayly. But the motorman seemed in no pleasant mood, for he scarcely answered their sallies.
He shut himself into the forward platform before the conductor gave the signal for starting, and dropped the latch on the double doors so that the girls should not disturb him. When the conductor took up the fares he said, on being questioned by Laura Polk:
"Oh, John is not feeling well, I guess. He hasn't acted like himself all day. But it's as much as my life's worth to ask him how he feels. He's got the temper of a wolf when he's under the weather—poor old John has."
Of course, the girls gave the motorman little attention—unless Rhoda did from her situation up front. The rest of them only noticed him when he started or stopped the car with more than ordinary abruptness.
"I do wish he wouldn't jerk the car so," complained Laura Polk. "He's made me almost swallow my gum twice."
"Gracious, Laura!" gasped Lillie Nevins, looking alarmed, "if you really have any gum you had better swallow it before Miss March sees you."
At this Laura merely chuckled delightedly.
"I really don't like the way this man is running the car," Miss March said finally to the conductor. "Tell him to have a care. He will have us off the track."
The interurban line was not a smooth, straight-ahead road. They swung around turns that were somewhat sharp. John stormed along as though he were running on a perfectly straight track.
"I'll see what I can do," said the conductor doubtfully, and he went forward and tapped on the glass of the front door. But the motorman only gave him an angry glance and would not even reach around and lift the latch.
"He's running away with us!" exclaimed Lillie Nevins, who was always easily frightened.
"Oh, my dear!" laughed another girl. "What an elopement!"
"I hate to do it," said the conductor, when he came back to Miss March. "But I'll report him to the inspector when we get to the end of the route."
The car topped the heights of the ridge of hills that lay between Adminster and Freeling. On the Freeling side of the ridge the slope to the valley was almost continuous. But near the bottom was a sharp curve. Here was a low stone wall along the edge of the road, beyond which was a sheer drop of thirty or more feet into a rocky gorge. It was a perilous spot. More than one accident had happened there; but never an electric car accident.
The rapidity with which the motorman ran the car, and the jerky way in which he stopped and started it, did not bother Nan Sherwood much, for she was not nervous. Miss March, however, began to stare ahead apprehensively, and the way in which she twisted her pocket-handkerchief in her hands as the car started down the long slope betrayed her feelings. Nan was really sorry for Miss March.
The wheels pounded over the rail-joints and the car began to rock threateningly. A small obstruction on the track would very likely have thrown the car off the rails.
"I do wish that man would have a care," sighed Miss March.
Nan jumped up. She feared that the teacher would soon become hysterical. Also, Grace and Lillie began to betray fear and more of the girls were anxious. Nan stumbled forward to the end of the car. Rhoda sat there, looking ahead, and betraying no emotion at all.
Nan could see the shoulders of the motorman, who was sitting on the one-legged stool on which he had a right to rest when the car was out of town. The rules of the company did not force him to stand all the time. His head seemed to sag forward on his breast. The car was running so fast that he pitched from side to side on his seat—
Or was it from some other reason that his body swayed so? The question shocked Nan Sherwood.
"Oh, Rhoda!" she exclaimed, turning to the Western girl, "what is the matter with him?"
Rhoda Hammond sprang up. Her face was pale but her lips were firmly compressed. She clung to the handle of the door. Nan was holding herself upright by clinging to the other handle.
"There is something the matter with that man!" cried the girl from Tillbury.
They shook the door handles. Of course they could not open the door, nor did the motorman heed them in any way.
Nan screamed aloud then. She saw the hands of the man slip from the handle of the brake and from the controller. The car seemed to leap ahead, gaining additional speed. The man slipped sideways from his stool and crumpled on the platform of the car.
The other girls did not see this. Even the conductor on the rear platform did not know what had happened. Only Nan and Rhoda realized fully the trouble.
"My dear!" gasped Nan, "we cannot get to him. And nobody can stop the car!"
She felt almost a sensation of nausea at the pit of her stomach. She did not weep or lose control of herself. But she felt frightfully helpless.
There seemed nothing to do but to stand there, clinging to the door handle, and watch the car reeling down the slope at a speed that promised disaster at the curve, if not before. Never in her life, in any time of emergency, had Nan Sherwood felt so utterly helpless.
The girl from the West said not a word. She, too, clung to the handle and stared through the pane at the crumpled figure of the motorman on the platform. But she remained thus only for a moment.
Suddenly she swung sideways and pushed Nan away from the door. The latter tumbled into the nearest seat. Hanging by her left hand to the door handle, Rhoda Hammond doubled her gloved right and smashed one of the glass panes in the door.
At the crash of glass Nan sprang to Rhoda's side, and everybody screamed. The conductor burst open the rear door and started forward. Rhoda paid no attention to the shouts behind her.
She reached through the broken pane and lifted the latch which held the two halves of the door together. She flung them apart and leaped down the single step to the enclosed front platform of the car, Nan close at her side.
The conductor arrived. But it was the girl from Rose Ranch who did it all. She seized the controller and turned off the current. Her right hand wound up the brake as though she had practiced the work. Fast as the car was speeding, the pressure on the wheels made itself felt almost at once. Nan wished to help, but realized that in her ignorance she might blunder, so held herself in.
"What's happened to John?" demanded the conductor. "My goodness!" he added to Rhoda, "you're a smart girl."
But he took her place at the brake. The car did not halt at once. It ran down almost to the turn in the road before it came to a jarring halt.
Some of the frightened girls had gathered around Miss March. The others crowded forward. Nan was holding Rhoda Hammond tight about the neck, and she kissed her warmly.
"You are a splendid girl, Rhoda!" Nan cried. "You stopped the car."
"I didn't see that you showed any white feather, Nan," urged Bess Harley.
"Ah, but Rhoda was more than brave. She knew what to do. We'd have gone off the track and pitched over that wall probably, if it had depended on me to stop this old car," declared Nan generously.
The girls from Lakeview Hall were not likely to forget their experience on the car for many a long day. And they were honestly appreciative of the fact that Rhoda Hammond, the girl from Rose Ranch, had saved their lives.
But they did not really know how to show Rhoda that, in spite of her bad start at the Hall, the attitude of at least the party of girls who had been with her in the electric car, had changed toward her.
Nan put her arms about the Western girl and kissed her warmly. She could do that, for from the start she had been kind to the girl from Rose Ranch. But the others hesitated. Rhoda was not a shallow girl. She did not turn easily from one attitude to another.
The unconscious motorman had been picked up and laid on a seat in the car, and the conductor had run them into Freeling. John was there put in a hospital ambulance. That was all they could do for him.
The doctors said he had been walking around suffering from pneumonia for several days. The girls sent him flowers and some other luxuries and comforts when he was better.
But what could they do for Rhoda?
"I don't think we had better try to do anything for her," Nan finally said, after suggestions had been discussed ranging from presenting Rhoda with a gold medal to falling down on their knees and begging her forgiveness.
"We have nothing really to ask her pardon for. It actually was her own stupidity that made her begin so unfortunately among us. She, perhaps, can't see that. Or, if she does, she is too obstinate to admit it."
"Why, Nan!" cried warm-hearted Bess Harley, who, once moved in the right direction, could not do too much for the object of her approval. "Why, Nan! you speak as though you did not like Rhoda, after all. You are the only one who stood up for her all those weeks."
"When did I stand up for her?" demanded Nan. "I would not treat her unkindly. But I have thought all the time she was in the wrong. And there is no use going to Rhoda and telling her we were wrong and that we are sorry. That would not only be a falsehood, but it would do no lasting good."
"Hear! Hear!" cried Amelia. "Minerva Sherwood speaks."
"I guess Nan has got the 'wise' of it," agreed Laura. "No matter how well we may think of Rhoda, she would be equally offended if we all suddenly changed toward her in a way to make her conspicuous. We must begin treating her naturally."
"That's all right," agreed Amelia. "But we cannot overlook the incident of that car ride."
"I should say not!" exclaimed Bess Harley.
"Everybody is talking about it," said Grace.
"Dr. Beulah spoke of it this morning at chapel," Lillie said, "although she did not mention Rhoda's name."
"But everybody knew who she meant," Bess declared.
"For that she can thank Miss March," laughed Laura. "She will never get over talking about Rhoda's bravery."
"And poor Rhoda looked scared in chapel," said Nan. "She thought she was going to be publicly commended for what she had done," and Nan finished with laughter.
"Well," cried Bess, "what shall we do, girls?"
"No," Nan said once more with gravity, "that isn't it. It's what will she do? That is the question. Let Rhoda meet us half way, at least. Otherwise we'll all be stiff and formal and never get any nearer to that wild Western girl than before. I'll tell you!"
"Go ahead. That's what we are waiting for. Tell us," begged Laura.
They gathered closer about the girl from Tillbury and Nan lowered her voice while she explained her idea. So the girls of Corridor Four—at least, all those who had been aboard the electric car when Rhoda's self-possession had saved them from disaster—were merely courteous to the girl from Rose Ranch, or smiled at her when they met, and kept deftly away from the exciting adventure in their conversation while Rhoda was near.
Apparently the afternoon tea was given in Room Seven in honor of Beautiful Beulah, Nan's famous doll.
"But I'm too big to play dolls," Rhoda Hammond objected when Nan urged her attendance on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
"Pshaw!" laughed Nan, "you're not too big to pass tea and cocoa and sweet crackers to the primes who will come to worship at the shrine of my Beautiful Beulah. That's what I want you for—to help. Bess and I can't do it all."
It was hard to refuse Nan Sherwood anything.
"Laura declares one has to be real mad at you to get out of anything you want us to do!" complained Bess one day, when yielding to Nan's pressure and doing something she would have preferred not to do.
These "doll-teas" in Number Seven, Corridor Four, had become very popular toward the latter end of the previous term at Lakeview Hall. Every girl in the school—even the seniors and juniors—knew of Beautiful Beulah, and the little girls in the primary department flocked to Nan Sherwood's parties whenever they had the chance, bringing their own dolls.
On this particular occasion, however, the young girls came early, were "primed" (as Laura said) with goodies and cocoa, and sent away; the older girls, dropping in one by one, were huddled on beds, chairs, the couch, and even sat Turk-fashion on the floor, gradually filling the room. The crowd included all those girls who had gone to Adminster two Saturdays previous.
Nan had kept Rhoda so busy helping behind the tea table that the Western girl did not realize at once how the character of the party had changed. And shrewd Nan had got Rhoda to talking, too.
A query or two about Rose Ranch, something about the Navaho blanket Nan and her chum had bought for their couch—before she knew it the girl from the West was eagerly describing her home, and telling more in ten minutes about her life before she had come to Lakeview Hall than she had related to anybody in all the weeks she had been here.
"Rose Ranch must be a great place," sighed Bess longingly.
"A beautiful country?" suggested Amelia.
"Magnificent views all around us," Rhoda agreed softly. "A range of hills to the southeast that we call the Blue Buttes. Many mesas on their tops, you know, on which the ancient Indian peoples used to till their gardens. There was a city of Cliff Dwellers not fifty miles from our house."
"Sounds awf'ly interesting," declared Laura.
"And winding through the Blue Buttes is the old Spanish Trail. Up from Mexico by that trail came the Spanish Conquistadors, they say," Rhoda went on, quite excited herself now, in telling of her home and its surroundings.
"And I s'pose there's an electric car line running through those hills now—on the Spanish Trail, I mean?" laughed Laura.
"Well, no. We're not quite as far advanced as that," the Western girl said, good-naturedly enough. "But we don't have any Indian scares nowadays. The Indians used to ride through that gap in the Blue Buttes years ago. Now it's only Mexican bandits."
"Never!" gasped Bess, sitting up suddenly.
"You don't mean it?" from Grace and Lillie in unison.
"You're just spoofing us, aren't you, Rhoda?" drawled Amelia Boggs.
"No, no. We do have Mexican bandits. There is Lobarto. He is no myth."
"Fancy!" exclaimed one of the other girls. "A live bandit!"
"Very much so," said Rhoda. "He has made us a lot of trouble, this Lobarto; although it has been six years since he came into our neighborhood last. He drove off a band of father's horses at that time. But our boys got after him so quick and chased him so hard that they say he took less back to Mexico with him than be brought over the border."
"What does that mean?" asked Bess quickly.
"Why, he brought with him a lot of plunder, they say," Rhoda explained, "and he could not carry it back."
"Then your folks got the plunder?" inquired Nan.
"Not exactly! Lobarto hid it. But our boys got back the horses. And they killed several of Lobarto's gang."
"Mercy! Just listen to her!" cried Laura excitedly. "Why! I was just making believe about your coming from the wild and woolly West; and you really do!"
"Not very woolly around Rose Ranch," said Rhoda grimly. "Father does not approve of sheep. The nesters make us trouble enough, without having sheepmen."
"What are 'nesters'?" asked Amelia.
"I guess you'd call 'em 'squatters' farther East. We don't like them on the ranges. They are small farmers who come and take up quarter sections of the open lands and fence them in."
"But is there really a treasure buried on Rose Ranch?" asked Nan, much more interested in this than she wished the others to observe.
"Why, I suppose so. They all say so. Lobarto and his gang were run off so quick that he had to cache almost everything but the hard cash he had with him. He had raided two churches in Mexico and plundered several haciendas before coming up from the Border, so people say."
"Why don't you ranch folks go and dig up his loot?" demanded Bess, wide-eyed.
"Well," laughed Rhoda, "we don't know where it is cached. It sounds rather preposterous, too—a wagon-load of gold and silver plate, altar ornaments, candlesticks, jeweled cloths, and all that. It does sound sort of romantic, doesn't it?"
"I should say it did!" the girls chorused.
Nan did not say another word in comment at the time. She was enormously curious about what she had overheard the Mexican girl say in the shop at Adminster. And how strangely she had stared at Rhoda Hammond!
NOT ALWAYS "BUTTERFINGERS"
Following that afternoon tea matters changed for Rhoda Hammond at Lakeview Hall. Nor did she overlook Nan's part in bringing her into the social life of the girls whom she met in classes and at the table.
At her books Rhoda was neither brilliant nor dull. She was just a good, ordinary student who stood well enough in her classes to satisfy Dr. Prescott. In athletics, however, Rhoda did not reach a high mark.
In the first place she could not see the value of all the gymnasium exercises; and the indoor games did not interest her much. She was an outdoors girl herself, and had stored up such immense vitality and was so muscular and wiry that she possibly did not need the exercises that Mrs. Gleason insisted upon.
They tried Rhoda at basketball, and she proved to be a regular "butterfingers." Laura, who captained one of the scrub teams, tried to make something of her, but gave it up in exasperation.
Nan, Bess, and Amelia took Rhoda to the basement tennis court and did their best to teach her tennis. She learned the game quickly enough; but to her it was only "play."
"She hasn't a drop of sporting blood in her," groaned Bess. "It seems just silly to her. It is something to pass away the time. Batting a little ball about with a snowshoe, she calls it! And if she misses a stroke, why, she lumbers after the ball like that bear we saw in the Chicago Zoo, Nan, that chased snowballs. 'Member?"
"Well, I never!" laughed Nan. "Rhoda's no bear."
"But she surely is a 'butterfingers,'" Amelia said. "No fun in her at all."
"Says she doesn't see any reason for getting in a perspiration running down here, when she might be using her spare time upstairs reading a book, or knitting that sweater for Nan's Beautiful Beulah."
So, after all, Rhoda Hammond did not become very popular with her schoolmates during those two long and dreary months, February and March, when outdoor exercise was almost impossible in the locality of Lakeview Hall.
Best of all, Rhoda liked to sit in Number Seven, Corridor Four, with Nan and Bess and others who might drop in and talk. If Rhoda herself talked, it was almost always about Rose Ranch. Sometimes about her mother, though she did not often speak of Mrs. Hammond's affliction.
To Nan, Rhoda had once said her mother had been a school-teacher who had gone from the East to the vicinity of the Mexican Border to conduct a school. Her eyes had been failing then; and the change of climate, of course, had not benefited her vision.
"Daddy Hammond," said Rhoda, speaking lovingly of her father, "is twenty years older than mother; but he was so kind and good to her, I guess, when she had to give up teaching, that she just fell in love with him. You know, I fell in love with him myself when I got big enough to know how good he was," and she laughed softly.
"You see, he knows me a whole lot better than mother does, for she has never seen me."
"Doesn't that sound funny!" gasped Nan. "Fancy! Your own mother never having seen you, Rhoda!"
"Only with her fingers," sighed Rhoda. "But mother says she has ten eyes to our two apiece. She 'sees' with the end of every finger and thumb. It is quite wonderful how much she learns about things by just touching them. And she rides as bravely as though she had her sight."
"My!" exclaimed Nan, with a little shudder. "It would scare me to see her."
"Oh, she rides a horse that is perfectly safe. Old Cherrypie seems to know she can't see and that he has to be extremely careful of her."
It was when Rhoda told more about the ranch, however—of the bands of half-wild horses, the herds of shorthorns, the scenery all about her home, the acres upon acres of wild roses in the near-by canyons, the rugged gulches and patches of desert on which nothing but cacti grew, the high mesas that were Nature's garden-spots—that Nan Sherwood was stirred most deeply.
"I think it must be a most lovely place, that Rose Ranch!" she cried on one occasion.
"It is a lovely place; and I'd dearly love to have you see it, Nan Sherwood. You must go home with me when school is over. Oh, what a lark! That would be just scrumptious, as Bess says."
"Oh, it is too long a journey. I never could go so far," Nan said, wistfully it must be confessed.
But Rhoda nodded with confidence. "Oh, yes, you could," she declared. "You spent your Christmas holidays in Chicago with Grace. And before that, you say, you went up to a lumber camp in Michigan. One journey is no worse than another—only that to Rose Ranch is a little longer."
"A little longer!"
"Well, comparatively. To going to China, for instance," laughed Rhoda. "Of course you can go home with me."
But Nan laughed at that cool statement. She was quite sure Momsey and Papa Sherwood would veto any such wild plan. And she had been away so much from them during the past year. But she received fine reports regarding her mother's health and Papa Sherwood's new automobile business; and little Inez, under Momsey's tuition, was beginning to write brief, scrawly notes to Nan to tell her how happy she was in the little dwelling in amity.
Winter could not linger in the lap of spring for ever. The snow under the hedges disappeared almost over night. The mud of the highways dried up.
The sparkling surface of the lake was ruffled temptingly by the light breezes and drew the girls of Lakeview Hall boatward. The outdoor tennis courts, the croquet grounds, the basketball enclosure, and the cinder track were put into shape for the season. The girls buzzed outside the Hall like bees about a hive at swarming time.
Grace Mason took up horseback riding again. Her father and mother were still at their town house, but her brother Walter and his tutor were at the summer home a short distance from Lakeview Hall, where he was "plugging," as he called it, for the entrance examinations of a college preparatory school in the fall.
Walter had been unable to be much with his sister since the holidays; but now he came for Grace three times a week to accompany her on her rides.
He bestrode his own big black horse, Prince, leading the speckled pony Grace was to ride. The pony was a nervous, excitable creature. Rhoda, seeing it for the first time, asked Nan:
"Is Grace Mason used to that creature?"
"I don't know. I never saw it before. But the pony can't be any worse than the big black horse that Walter rides."
"Why, what is the matter with him?" asked the Western girl.
"Prince is so high-spirited. You never know what he is going to do."
"I guess the black horse is spirited; but that is not a fault," Rhoda said. "He looks all right to me. But that little flea-bitten grey is a tricky one. You can tell that. See how her eyes roll."
"Do you think the pony will bite?" asked Lillie Nevins, Grace's chum, who overheard the girl from Rose Ranch.
"Goodness! I should hope so. She's got teeth," laughed Rhoda. "But I mean that probably she is skittish—will shy at the least little thing. And perhaps she will run away if she gets the chance."
"Then I shouldn't think Walter would leave them there alone beside the road," Nan said thoughtfully.
"Reckon he trusts that black horse to stand. He's looped the reins of the grey over the pommel of his own saddle. And that's not a smart trick," added Rhoda.
"Why don't you get a horse and ride with them, Rhoda?" asked Bess Harley. "I guess you just ache to get on that pony?"
"What! Side-saddle?" gasped the girl from Rose Ranch. "I wouldn't risk my neck that way."
Suddenly somebody batted a determined tennis ball from far down the nearest court. It whizzed over the back stop, and—bang!—hit the grey pony on the nose.
Rhoda had not been a bad prophet. The pony with the rolling eye leaped and snorted, all four feet in the air at once, and just as crazy in an instant as ever a horse could be.
But perhaps a much better trained and better-tempered animal would have done the same. She jerked the loop of her bridle-rein off Prince's saddlehorn in that first jump. Then she was away like the wind, her little hoofs spurning the gravel of the path that crossed the school's athletic field and led to the broad steps that led down the face of the cliff to the boathouse and cove.
Mad as the pony was, she might have cast herself down the steep flight. Frightened animals have done such things upon less provocation.
The girls screamed, and that only lent wings to the grey's flying hoofs. But the horror and wild despair of the group at the edge of the field were not caused by the mere running away of the grey pony.
The mad creature was headed for the brink of the cliff; but between the pony and that side of the field was a group of the smaller girls at play. There were almost thirty of the little girls of the Hall engaged in a game of tag, and utterly oblivious to the drumming hoofs of the pony!
The girls did not instantly see the pony coming. And when they did realize their peril they milled for a minute right in her track like a herd of frightened cattle.
Scarcely had the pony started from the road, however, and the peril of the girls become apparent, when Rhoda Hammond leaped into action, jumping to the back of Walter Mason's pawing black Prince.
The girl from Rose Ranch seemed to reach the saddle in a single spring. She was astride the snorting horse and her feet instinctively sought the stirrups, as Prince leaped away in the track of the grey pony.
The stirrup-leathers were longer than Rhoda was used to; for most Western riders use a shorter leather than was the custom about Lakeview Hall. But, almost standing erect as Prince thundered across the athletic field, Rhoda seemed perfectly poised both in body and mind. To see her, one would never suppose that it was possible to fall out of a saddle.
The big black horse seemed to know just what was expected of him. He scarcely needed guiding. The girl's hair snapped out behind her in the wind; her set face, visible to a few of the spectators, gave them confidence. She was no "butterfingers" now. She was going to do what she had set out to do—no doubt of that!
She rode slightly stooping forward from the waist, with left hand outstretched while Prince's reins were gathered loosely in her right hand. The shrieking children were huddled right before the grey pony. It did seem as though they could not possibly escape being trampled upon.
But the stride of the big black horse was almost twice the length of the pony's. And he answered the rein perfectly. Rhoda rode to the right of the grey, stretched forward her long arm, and swerved her own mount at the same moment.
A single jerk on the lines of the pony, dragging her sideways, and the runaway crossed her forefeet and crashed to the ground, almost throwing a somersault the fall was so abrupt.
But the grey was not much hurt. Rhoda had drawn Prince in, was out of the saddle, had run to seize the pony's bridle before the fallen animal could get to her feet and continue her mad race.
THE TREASURE OF ROSE RANCH
Walter Mason came running as hard as he could across the field; but he had only to seize Prince's reins and manage that excited animal. Rhoda had the grey pony well in hand.
"Well, you're a wonder for a girl!" exclaimed Grace's brother.
"Humph!" said Rhoda in return, "I don't consider that a compliment—if you meant it as such. Look out, or that black horse will step on you."
"She was just as cool as a cucumber," Walter told Nan and his sister afterward. "Why! I never saw such a girl."
"I guess," Nan Sherwood said shrewdly, "that we don't know much about girls who are born and brought up in the far West. Rhoda Hammond is a friend to be proud of. She has such good sense."
"And pluck to beat the band!" cried Walter. "I'd like to see that country she comes from."
"And me, too," agreed Bess Harley, who overheard this statement.
"'Rose Ranch,'" murmured Grace. "Such a pretty name! After all, she has said just enough about it to be very tantalizing," and the smaller girl smiled.
"Maybe she does that purposely," Bess remarked. "Perhaps she thinks we have so many things she hasn't obtained yet, that she wants to make us jealous a bit."
"I really don't think that Rhoda worries about what she doesn't have," Nan put in. "Perhaps she doesn't even see that she lacks anything that we have."
"Well, she never will go in for athletics," Bess declared.
"Athletics!" burst out Walter. "Why, there isn't another girl at Lakeview Hall who could do what she did just now."
They were all agreed on that point. Even Dr. Prescott and the staff of instructors commented upon Rhoda's stopping the runaway. Professor Krenner, the mathematics teacher, and with whom Nan and Amelia Boggs took architectural drawing, selected Rhoda to be one of a small party at his cabin up the lake one spring afternoon. And the professor's parties were famous and very much enjoyed by those girls who understood the queer and humorous old gentleman.
He played his key-bugle for them, showed them how to bark birches for the purpose of making canoes (he was building one for his own use) and finally gave them a supper of wild duck, served on birch-bark platters, and corn pone baked on a plank before the embers of a campfire and seasoned mildly with wood smoke.
This incident cheered Rhoda up. She had begun to be dreadfully homesick as the good weather came. She confessed to Nan that she was very much tempted to run away from school and return to the ranch. Only she knew her father and mother would be terribly disappointed in her if she did such a thing.
"And besides that," Rhoda said, with a quiet little smile, "I want company when I go back to Rose Ranch."
"Oh, yes," said the innocent Nan. "You do know people in Chicago, don't you?"
"Humph! Mamma's friend, Mrs. Janeway. Yes," said Rhoda, still secretly amused, "I don't want to go away out to Rose Ranch alone and come back alone next fall. For I've got to come back, I suppose."
"Why, Rhoda!" exclaimed Nan, "I can't see why you don't like Lakeview Hall."
"Wait till you see Rose Ranch. Then you'll know."
"But I don't expect ever to see that," sighed Nan; for she really had begun to think so much about Rhoda's home, and had listened so closely to the tales the Western girl related, that Nan felt herself drawn strongly toward an outdoor experience such as Rhoda enjoyed at home. It would be even more free and primitive, Nan thought, than her sojourn at Pine Camp.
"You are terribly pessimistic," laughed the Western girl in rejoinder to Nan's last observation. "How do you know you'll never see Rose Ranch?"
Even this remark did not make Nan suspect what was coming. Nor did Bess Harley or the Masons have any warning of the plan Rhoda Hammond had so carefully thought out. But the surprise "broke" one afternoon at mail time.
Both Nan and Bess received letters from home, and they ran at once to Room Seven, Corridor Four, to read them. Scarcely had they broken the seals of the two fat missives when the door was flung open and Grace Mason fairly catapulted herself into the room in such a state of excitement that she startled the Tillbury chums.
"What is the matter, Grace?" gasped Bess, as the smaller girl threw herself into Nan's arms.
"Why! she's only happy," said Nan, holding her off and viewing her flushed and animated countenance. "Do get your breath, Gracie."
"And—when I do—I'll take yours!" gasped Grace. She held up a letter. "From mother. She—she says we can go—Walter and I—both of us!"
"Well, for mercy's sake!" exclaimed Bess, "where are you going? Though I should say you, Grace, had already gone. Crazy, you know."
"To Rose Ranch!" almost shouted Grace.
In astounded repetition, Nan and Bess fairly shrieked: "To Rose Ranch?"
"My goodness, yes! Haven't you heard about it? My letter says Rhoda's invited both of you girls, too, and that Walter is going. Is—it a hoax?"
Nan and Bess stared at each other in amazement for a single moment; then, like a flash, they tore open their own letters, both being those prized "mother letters" so dear to every boarding-school girl's heart, and unfolded the missives the envelopes contained. It was Bess who found it first.
"It's here! It's here! Just think of Rhoda Hammond keeping this secret from us! She wrote her folks and they wrote to mine—and to yours, Nan—and Gracie's. Oh! Oh! We're going, going, going!"
"Isn't it fine?" cried Grace, dancing up and down in her delight.
"Delightsome! Just delightsome!" agreed Bess, coining a new word to express her own joy. "Three cheers and a tiger! And a wildcat! And a panther! And—and—Well! all the other trimmings that may go with three cheers," she concluded because she was out of both breath and inspiration.
"And Rhoda's folks must be awfully nice people," Grace said warmly. "And her mamma—"
But Nan was deep in her own letter from Momsey, and here follows the part of it dealing with this wonderful news which had so excited all three of the girls:
"Your new friend, Rhoda, must be a very lovely girl, and I want you to bring her home to Tillbury the day school closes. I know she must be a nice girl by the way her mother writes me. Her mother is blind, but she has had somebody write me that she wants very much to 'see' Nan Sherwood, who has been so kind to her Rhoda during the latter's first term at Lakeview.
"This makes me very happy and proud, Nan dear; for if your schoolmates love you so much that they write home about you, I am sure you are doing as well at school as Papa Sherwood and I could wish you to. And this Mrs. Hammond is very insistent that you shall visit Rose Ranch this summer. Mrs. Harley came to see me about it, and we have decided that you and Elizabeth can go home with Rhoda, if the Masons likewise agree to let Grace and Walter go. There is a lady going West to Rose Ranch at the same time—a Mrs. Janeway—who is a friend of Mrs. Hammond's. She will look after you young folk en route, and will return with you.
"But we must have you a little while first, my Nan; and you must bring Rhoda here to the little cottage in amity for a few days, at least, before the party starts West. And—"
But this much of the letter was all Nan would let the other girls hear. She was quite as happy as either Grace or Bess. And all three of them tripped away at once to find Rhoda and try to tell her just how delighted they were over this plan.
"It never seemed as though I should see Rose Ranch," Nan sighed ecstatically when they had talked it all over. "It is too good to be true."
As the term lengthened the girls were pushed harder and harder by the instructors, and Bess and others like her complained a good deal.
"The only thing that keeps me going is a mirage of Rose Ranch ahead of me," declared Nan's chum, shaking her head over the text books piled upon their study table. "Oh, dear me, Nan! if anything should happen to make it impossible for us to go with Rhoda, I certainly should fall—down—and—die!"
"Oh, nothing will happen as bad as that," laughed Nan.
"Well, nothing much ever does happen to us," agreed Bess. "But suppose something should happen to Rhoda?"
"Shall we set a bodyguard about her?" asked Nan, her eyes twinkling. "Do you think of any particular danger she may be in? I fancy she is quite capable of taking care of herself."
"Now, Nan!" cried Bess, "don't poke fun. It would be awful if anything should happen so that we couldn't go to Rose Ranch with her."
Perhaps this was rather a selfish thought on Bess Harley's part. Still, Bess was not notably unselfish, although she had improved a good deal during the months she had been at Lakeview Hall.
But Nan had occasion to remember her chum's words very clearly not long thereafter, for she did find Rhoda Hammond in trouble. It was one Friday afternoon when Nan was returning from her architectural drawing lesson at Professor Krenner's cabin, up the lake shore. Amelia had not gone that day, being otherwise engaged; so Nan was alone on the path through the spruce wood that here clothed the face of the high bluff on which Lakeview Hall was set.
A company of jays squalling in a thicket had been the only disturbing sounds in the sun-bathed woods, when of a sudden Nan heard somebody speak—a high and angry voice. Then in Rhoda's deeper tones, she heard: