AT SNOW CAMP
LOST IN THE BACKWOODS
ALICE B. EMERSON
I. A LIVELY TIME II. A SURPRISING APPEARANCE III. THE NEWSPAPER CLIPPING IV. THE MYSTERIOUS BEHAVIOR OF FRED HATFIELD V. OFF FOR THE BACKWOODS VI. ON THE TRAIN VII. A RUNAWAY IN GOOD EARNEST VIII. FIRST AT SNOW CAMP IX. "LONG JERRY" TODD X. BEARS—AND OTHER THINGS XI. THE FROST GAMES XII. PERIL—AND A TAFFY PULL XIII. SHELLS AND KERNELS XIV. A TELEPHONE CHASE XV. THE BATTLE IN THE SNOW XVI. AN APPEARANCE AND A DISAPPEARANCE XVII. LONG JERRY'S STORY XVIII. "THE AMAZON MARCH" XIX. BESIEGED BY THE STORM KING XX. THE SNOW SHROUD XXI. ADRIFT IN THE STORM XXII. THE HIDEOUT XXIII. A DOUBLE CAPTIVITY XXIV. THE SEARCH XXV. CERTAIN EXPLANATIONS
AT SNOW CAMP
A LIVELY TIME
"I don't think we'd better go home that way, Helen."
"Why not? Mr. Bassett won't care—and it's the nearest way to the road."
"But he's got a sign up—and his cattle run in this pasture," said Ruth Fielding, who, with her chum, Helen Cameron, and Helen's twin brother, Tom, had been skating on the Lumano River, where the ice was smooth below the mouth of the creek which emptied into the larger stream near the Red Mill.
"Aw, come on, Ruthie!" cried Tom, stamping his feet to restore circulation.
The ground was hard and the ice was thick on the river; but the early snows that had fallen were gone. It was the day after Christmas, and Helen and Ruth had been at home from school at Briarwood Hall less than a week. Tom, too, who attended the Military Academy at Seven Oaks, was home for the winter holidays. It was snapping cold weather, but the sun had been bright this day and for three hours or more the friends had enjoyed themselves on the ice.
"Surely Hiram Bassett hasn't turned his cows out in this weather," laughed Helen.
"But maybe he has turned out his bull," said Ruth. "You know how ugly that creature is. And there's the sign."
"I declare! you do beat Peter!" ejaculated Tom, shrugging his shoulders. "We are only going to cut across Bassett's field—it won't take ten minutes. And it will save us half an hour in getting to the mill. We can't go along shore, for the ice is open there at the creek."
"All right," agreed Ruth Fielding, doubtfully. She was younger than the twins and did not mean to be a wet blanket on their fun at any time; but admiring Helen so much, she often gave up her own inclinations, or was won by the elder girl from a course which she thought wise. There had been times during their first term at Briarwood Hall, now just completed, when Ruth had been obliged to take a different course from her chum. This occasion, however, seemed of little moment. Hiram Bassett owned a huge red herd-leader that was the terror of the countryside; but it was a fact, as Helen said, that the cattle were not likely to be roaming the pasture at this time of year.
"Come on!" said Tom, again. "The car was to go down to the Cheslow station for father and stop at the mill for us on its return. We don't want to keep him waiting."
"And we've got so much to do to-night, Ruthie!" cried Helen. "Have you got your things packed?"
"Aunt Alvirah said she would look my clothes over," said Ruth, in reply. "I don't really see as I've much to take, Helen. We only want warm things up there in the woods."
"And plenty of 'em," advised Tom. "Bring your skates. We may get a chance to use them if the snow isn't too heavy. But up there in the backwoods the snow hasn't melted, you can bet, since the first fall in November."
"We'll have just the loveliest time!" went on Helen, with her usual enthusiasm. "Tom and I spent a week-end at Snow Camp when Mr. Parrish owned it, and when we knew he was going to sell, we just begged papa to buy it. You never saw such a lovely old log cabin—"
"I never saw a log cabin at all," responded Ruth, laughing.
They had climbed the steep bank now and started across the pasture in what Tom called "a catter-cornering" direction, meaning to come out upon the main road to Osago Lake within sight of the Red Mill, which was the property of Mr. Jabez Potter, Ruth's uncle.
Ruth Fielding, after her parents died, had come from Darrowtown to live with her mother's uncle at the Red Mill, as was told in the first volume of this series, entitled "Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill; Or, Jasper Parloe's Secret." The girl had found Uncle Jabez very hard to get along with at first, for he was a good deal of a miser, and his finer feelings seemed to have been neglected during a long life of hoarding and selfishness.
But through a happy turn of circumstances Ruth was enabled to get at the heart of her crotchety uncle, and when Ruth's very dear friend, Helen Cameron, planned to go away to school, Uncle Jabez was won over to the idea of sending Ruth with her. The girls were now home for the winter holidays after spending their first term at Briarwood Hall, where they had made many friends as well as learning a good many practical and necessary things. The fun and work of this first term is all related in "Ruth Fielding at Briarwood Hall; Or, Solving the Campus Mystery," which is the second volume of the Ruth Fielding Series.
And now another frolic was in immediate prospect. Mr. Cameron, who was a very wealthy dry-goods merchant, had purchased a winter camp deep in the wilderness, up toward the Canadian line, and Christmas itself now being over, Helen and Tom had obtained his permission to take a party of their friends with them to the lodge in the backwoods —Snow Camp.
It was really Helen's party. Besides Ruth, she had invited Madge Steele, Jennie Stone, Belle Tingley, and Lluella Fairfax to be of the party. She had invited one other girl from Briarwood, too; but Mary Cox had refused the invitation. "The Fox," as her school-fellows called her, had been under a cloud at the end of the term, and perhaps she might have felt somewhat abashed had she joined the party of her school-fellows at Snow Camp.
Tom had invited his chum at school, who was Madge Steele's brother Bob, and another boy named Isadore Phelps. With Mr. Cameron himself and Mrs. Murchiston, the lady who had been the twins' governess when they were small, and several servants, the party were to take train at Cheslow the next day for the northern wilderness.
The trio of friends, as they hurried across Hiram Bassett's pasture, were full of happy anticipations regarding the proposed trip, and they chatted merrily as they went on. Halfway across the field they passed along the edge of a bush-bordered hollow. Their skating caps— Tom's white, Ruth's blue, and Helen's of a brilliant scarlet—bobbed up and down beside the hedge, and anybody upon the other side, in the hollow, might have been greatly puzzled to identify the bits of color.
"For mercy's sake! what's that?" ejaculated Helen, suddenly.
The others fell silent. A sudden stamping upon the frozen ground arose from beyond the bushes. Then came a reverberating bellow.
Tom leaped through the bushes and looked down the hill. There sounded the thundering of pounding hoofs, and the boy sprang back to the side of his sister and her chum with a cry.
"Run!" he gasped. "The bull is there—I declare it is! He's coming right up the hill and will head us off. We've got to go back. He must have seen us through the bushes."
"Oh, dear me! dear me!" cried his sister. "What will we do—"
"Run, I tell you!" repeated Tom, seizing her hand.
Ruth had already taken her other hand. With their skates rattling over their shoulders, the trio started back across the field. The bull parted the bushes and came thundering out upon the plain. He swerved to follow them instantly. There could be no doubt that he had seen them, and the bellow he repeated showed that he was very much enraged and considered the three friends his particular enemies.
Ruth glanced back over her shoulder and saw that the angry beast was gaining on them fast. It was indeed surprising how fast the bull could gallop—and he was very terrible indeed to look upon.
"He will catch us! he will catch us!" moaned Helen.
"You girls run ahead," gasped Tom, letting go of his sister's hand. "Maybe I can turn him—-"
"He'll kill you!" cried Helen.
"Come this way!" commanded Ruth, suddenly turning to the left, toward the bank of the open creek. The current of this stream was so swift that it had not yet frozen—saving along the edges. The bank was very steep. A few trees of good size grew along its edge.
"We can't cross the creek, Ruthie!" shrieked Helen. "He will get us, sure."
"But we can get below the bank—out of sight!" panted her chum. "Come, Tom! that beast will kill you if you delay."
"It's our caps he sees," declared Master Tom. "That old red cap of Nell's is what is exciting him so."
In a flash Ruth Fielding snatched the red cap from her chum's head and ran on with it toward the bank of the creek. The others followed her while the big bull, swerving in his course, came bellowing on behind.
A SURPRISING APPEARANCE
Helen was sobbing and crying as she ran. Tom kept a few feet behind the girls, although what he could have done to defend them, had the big bull overtaken him, it would be hard to say. And for several moments it looked very much as though Hiram Bassett's herd-leader was going to reach his prey.
The thunder of his hoofs was in their ears. They did not speak again as they came to the steep bank down to the open creek. There, just before them, was an old hollow stump, perhaps ten feet high, with the opening on the creek side. All three of them knew it well.
As Helen went over the bank and disappeared on one side of the stump, Tom darted around the other side. Ruth, with the red cap in her hand, stumbled over a root and fell to her knees. She was right beside the hollow stump, and Helen's cap caught in a twig and was snatched from her hand.
As Ruth scrambled aside and then fairly rolled over the edge of the bank out of sight, the cap was left dangling right in front of the stump. The bull charged it. That flashing bit of color was what had attracted the brute from the start.
As the three friends dived over the bank—and their haste and heedlessness carried them pell-mell to the bottom—there sounded a yell behind them that certainly was not emitted by the bull. Goodness knows, he roared loudly enough! But this was no voice of a bull that so startled the two girls and Tom Cameron—it was far too shrill.
"There's somebody in that tree!" yelled Tom.
And then the forefront of the bull collided with the rotten old stump. Taurus smashed against it with the force of a pile-driver— three-quarters of a ton of solid flesh and bone, going at the speed of a fast train, carries some weight. It seemed as though a live tree could scarcely have stood upright against that charge, let alone this rotten stump.
The rotten roots gave way. They were torn out of the frozen ground, the stump toppled over, and, carrying a great ball of earth with it, plunged down the bank of the creek.
Tom had clutched the girls by their hands again and the three were running along the narrow shore under shelter of the bank. The bull no longer saw them. Indeed, the shock had thrown him to the ground, and when he scrambled up, he ran off, bellowing and tossing his head, in an entirely different direction.
But the uprooted stump went splash! into the icy waters of the creek, and as it plunged beneath the surface—all but its roots—the trio of frightened friends heard that eyrie cry again.
"It's from the hollow trunk! I tell you, some body's in there!" declared Tom.
But the uprooted stump had fallen into the water with the opening down. If there really was anybody in it, the way in which the stump had fallen served to hold such person prisoner.
Ruth Fielding was as quick as Tom to turn back to the spot where the old stump had been submerged; but Helen had fallen in her tracks, and sat there, hugging her knees and rocking her body to and fro, as she cried:
"He'll be drowned! Don't you see, he is drowned? And suppose that bull comes back?"
"That bull won't get us down here, Nell," returned her brother, laying hold of the roots of the hollow tree and trying to turn it over.
But although he and Ruth both exerted themselves to the utmost, they could barely stir the stump. Suddenly they heard a struggle going on inside the hollow shell; as well, a thumping on the thin partition of wood and a muffled sound of shouting.
"He's alive—the water hasn't filled the hollow," cried Ruth. "Oh, Tom! we must do something."
"And I'd like to know what?" demanded that youth, in great perturbation.
The stump rested on the shore, but was half submerged in the water for most of its length. The unfortunate person imprisoned in the hollow part of the tree-trunk must be partly submerged in the water, too. Had the farther end of the stump not rested on a rock, it would have plunged to the bottom of the creek and the victim of the accident must certainly have been drowned.
"Why don't he crawl out? Why don't he crawl out?" cried Ruth, anxiously.
"How's he going to do it?" sputtered Tom.
"Can't he dive down into the water through the hole in the tree and so come up outside?" demanded the girl from the Red Mill, irritably. "I never saw such a fellow!"
Whether this referred to Tom, or to the unknown, the former did not know. But he recognized immediately the good sense in Ruth's suggestion. Tom leaped out upon the log and stamped upon it. Helen screamed:
"You'll go into the creek, too, Tom!"
"No, I won't," he replied.
"Then you'll make the stump fall in entirely and the man will be drowned."
"No, I won't do that, either," muttered Master Tom.
He stamped upon the wooden shell again. A faint halloo answered him, and the knocking on the inner side of the hollow tree was repeated.
"Come out! Come out!" shouted Tom, "Dive down through the water and get out. You'll be suffocated there."
But at first the prisoner seemed not to understand—or else was afraid to make the attempt.
"Oh, if I only had an axe!" groaned Master Tom.
"If you cut into that tree you might do some damage," said his sister, now so much interested in the prisoner that she got up and came near.
Ruth saw Helen's red cap high up on the bank and she scrambled up and got it, stuffing it under her coat again.
"We'll keep that out of sight," she said.
"If it hadn't been for that old red thing," growled Tom, "the bull wouldn't have chased us in the first place."
But all of them were thinking mainly of the person in the hollow of the old stump. How could they get this person out?
And the answer to that question was not so easily found—as Tom had observed. They could not roll the stump over; they had no means of cutting through to the prisoner. But, suddenly, that individual settled the question without their help. There was a struggle under the log, a splashing of the water, and then a figure bobbed up out of the shallows.
Ruth screamed and seized it before it fell back again. It was a boy— a thin, miserable-looking, dripping youth, no older than Tom, and with wild, burning eyes looking out of his wet and pallid face. Had it not been for Ruth and Tom he must have fallen back into the stream again, he was so weak.
They dragged him ashore, and he fell down, shaking and chattering, on the edge of the creek. He was none too warmly dressed at the best; the water now fast congealed upon his clothing. His garments would soon be as stiff as boards.
"We've got to get him to the Mill, girls," declared Tom. "Come! get up!" he cried to the stranger. "You must get warmed and have dry clothing."
"And something hot to drink," said Ruth. "Aunt Alviry will make him something that will take the cold out of his bones."
The strange boy stared at them, unable, it seemed, to speak a word. They dragged him upright and pushed him on between them. The bull had run towards the river and had not come back; so the friends, with their strange find, hurried on to the public road and crossed the bridge at the creek, turning off into the orchard path that led up to the Red Mill.
"What's your name?" demanded Tom of the strange boy.
But all the latter could do was to chatter and shake his head. The icy water had bitten into his very bones. They fairly dragged him between them for the last few yards, and burst into Aunt Alvirah's kitchen in a manner "fit to throw one into a conniption!" as that good lady declared.
"Oh, my back, and oh, my bones!" she groaned, getting up quickly from her rocking chair by the window, where she had been knitting. "For the good land of mercy! what is this?"
All three of the friends began to tell her together. But the little old woman with the bent back and rheumatic limbs understood one thing, if she made nothing else out of the general gabble. The strange boy had been in the water, and his need was urgent.
"Bring him right in here, Tommy," she commanded, hobbling into Mr. Potter's bedroom, which was the nearest to the kitchen, and thereby the warmest. "I don't know what Jabez will say, but that child's got to git a-twixt blankets right away. It's a mercy if he ain't got his death."
They drew off the stranger's outer clothing, and then Aunt Alviry left Tom to help him further disrobe and roll up in the blankets on Mr. Potter's bed. Meantime the old woman filled a stone water-bottle with boiling water, to put at his feet, and made a great bowl of "composition" for him to drink down as soon as it was cool enough for him to swallow.
Ruth wrung out the boy's wet garments and hung them to dry around the stove, where they began immediately to steam. As she had noticed before, the stranger's clothing was well worn. He had no overcoat— only a thick jacket. All his clothing was of the cheapest quality.
Suddenly Helen exclaimed: "What's that you've dropped out of his vest, Ruthie? A wallet?"
It was an old leather note-case. There appeared to be little in it when Ruth picked it up, for it was very flat. Certainly there was no money in it. Nor did there seem to be anything in it that would identify its owner. However, as Ruth carried it to the window she found a newspaper clipping tucked into one compartment, and, as it was damp, too, she took this out, unfolded it, and laid it carefully on the window sill to dry. But when she looked further, she saw inside the main compartment of the wallet a name and address stenciled, It was:
SCARBORO, N. Y.
"Sec, Helen," she said to her chum. "Maybe this is his name—Jonas Hatfield."
"And Scarboro, New York!" gasped Helen, suddenly. "Why, Ruthie!"
"What's the matter?" returned Ruth, in surprise.
"What a coincidence!"
"What is a coincidence?" demanded Ruth, still greatly amazed by her chum's excitement.
"Why this boy—if this is his wallet and that is his name and address—comes from right about where we are going to-morrow. Scarboro is the nearest railroad station to Snow Camp. What do you think of that?"
Before Ruth could reply, the sound of an automobile horn was heard outside, and both girls ran to the door. The Cameron automobile was just coming down the hill from the direction of Cheslow, and in a minute it stopped before the door of the Potter farmhouse.
THE NEWSPAPER CLIPPING
The Red Mill was a grist mill, and Mr. Jabez Potter made wheat-flour, buckwheat, cornmeal, or ground any grist that was brought to him. Standing on a commanding knoll beside the Lumano River, it was very picturesquely situated, and the rambling old farmhouse connected with it was a very homey-looking place indeed.
The automobile had stopped at the roadside before the kitchen door, and Mr. Cameron alighted and started immediately up the straight path to the porch. He was a round, jolly, red-faced man, who was forever thinking of some surprise with which to please his boy and girl, and seldom refused any request they might make of him. This plan of taking a party of young folk into the backwoods for a couple of weeks was entirely to amuse Tom and Helen. Personally, the dry-goods merchant did not much care for such an outing.
He came stamping up the steps and burst into the kitchen in a jolly way, and Helen ran to him with a kiss.
"Hullo I what's all this?" he demanded, his black eyes taking in the grove of airing garments around the stove. "Tom been in the river? No! Those aren't Tom's duds, I'll be switched if they are!"
"No, no," cried Helen. "It's another boy."
And here Tom himself appeared from the bedroom.
"I thought Tom could keep out of the river when the ice was four inches thick—eh, son?" laughed Mr. Cameron.
His children began to tell him, both together, of the adventure with the bull and the mysterious appearance of the strange boy.
"Aye, aye!" he said. "And Ruth Fielding was in it, of course—and did her part in extricating you all from the mess, too, I'll be bound! Whatever would we do without Ruth?" and he smiled and shook hands with the miller's niece.
"I guess we were all equally scared. But it certainly was my fault that the old bull bunted the hollow stump into the creek. So this boy can thank me for getting him such a ducking," laughed Ruth.
"And who is he? Where does he come from?"
Ruth showed Mr. Cameron the stencil on the inside of the wallet.
"Isn't that funny, Father?" cried Helen. "Right where we are going— Scarboro."
"If the wallet is his," muttered Mr. Cameron.
"What do you mean, sir?" questioned Ruth, quickly. "Do you think he is a bad boy—that he has taken the wallet——"
"Now, now!" exclaimed Mr. Cameron, smiling at her again. "Don't jump at conclusions, Mistress Ruth Fielding. I have no suspicion regarding the lad——How is the patient, Aunt Alviry?" he added, quickly, as the little old woman came hobbling out of the bedroom where the strange boy lay.
"Oh, my back, and oh, my bones!" said Aunt Alviry, under her breath. But she welcomed Mr. Cameron warmly enough, too. "He's getting on fine," she declared. "He'll be all right soon. I reckon he won't suffer none in the end for his wetting. I'm a-goin' to cook him a mess of gruel, for I believe he's hungry."
"Who is he, Aunt Alviry?" asked the gentleman. Aunt Alvirah Boggs was "everybody's Aunt Alviry," although she really had no living kin, and Mr. Jabez Potter had brought her from the almshouse ten years or more before to act as his housekeeper.
"Dunno," said Aunt Alvirah, shaking her head in answer to Mr. Cameron's question. "Ain't the first idee. You kin go in and talk to him, sir."
With the wallet in his hand and the three young folk at his heels, both their interest and their curiosity aroused, Mr. Cameron went into the passage and so came to the open door of the bedroom. Mr. Potter slept in a big, four-post bedstead, which was heaped high at this time of year with an enormous feather bed. Rolled like a mummy in the blankets, and laid on this bed, the feathers had plumped up about the vagabond boy and almost buried him. But his eyes were wide open—pale blue eyes, with light lashes and eyebrows, which gave his thin, white countenance a particularly blank expression.
"Heigho, my lad!" exclaimed Mr. Cameron, in his jolly way. "So your name is Jonas Hatfield, of Scarboro; is it?"
"No; sir; that was my father's name, sir," returned the boy in bed, weakly. "My name is Fred."
And then a brilliant flush suddenly colored his pale face. He half started up in bed, and the pale blue eyes flashed with an entirely different expression. He demanded, in a hoarse, unnatural voice:
"How'd' you find me out?"
Mr. Cameron shook his head knowingly, and laughed.
"That was a bit of information you were keeping to yourself—eh? Well, why did you carry your father's old wallet about with you, if you did not wish to be identified? Come, son! what harm is there in our knowing who you are?"
Fred Hatfield sank back in the feathers and weakly rolled his head from side to side. The blood receded from his cheeks, leaving him quite as pale as before. He whispered:
"I ran away."
"Yes. That's what I supposed," said Mr. Cameron, easily. "What for?"
"I—I can't tell you."
"What did you do?"
"I didn't say I did anything. I just got sick of it up there, and came away," the boy said, sullenly.
"Your father is dead?" asked the gentleman, shrewdly.
"Got a mother?"
"Doesn't she need you?"
"She's got Ez, and Peter, and 'Lias to work the farm. They're all older'n me. Then there's the two gals and Bob, who are younger. She don't need me," declared Fred Hatfield, doggedly.
"I don't believe a mother ever had so many children that she didn't sorely miss the one who was absent," declared Mr. Cameron, quietly. "Tell me how you came away down here,"
Brokenly the boy told his story—not an uncommon one. He had traveled most of the distance afoot, working here and there for farmers and storekeepers. He admitted that he had been some weeks on the road. His being in that hollow stump in Hiram Bassett's field was quite by accident. He was passing through the field, making for the main road, when he had seen Ruth, Helen, and Tom, and stepped behind the tree so as not to be observed.
"What made you so afraid of being seen by anyone?" demanded Mr. Cameron, at this point. "Do you think your folks are trying to find you?"
"I—I don't know," stammered the lad.
This was about all his questioner was able to get out of him.
"You'll be cared for here to-night—I'll speak to Mr. Potter," said Mr. Cameron. "And in the morning I'll decide what's to be done with you."
"Why, Dad! we're going——"
Tom had begun this speech when his father warned him with a look to be still.
"You'll be all right here," pursued Mr. Cameron, cheerfully. "Aunt Alviry and Ruth will look after you. Why! I wouldn't want better nurses if I was sick."
"But I'm not sick," said Fred Hatfield, as the little old woman hobbled in with a steaming bowl. His eyes were wolfish when he saw the gruel, however.
"No, you're not so sick but that a good, square meal would be your best medicine, I'll be bound," cried the gentleman, laughing.
He went out to the mill then and was gone some moments; when he returned he called Helen and Tom to come with him quickly to the car.
"Remember and be ready as early as nine o'clock, Ruth!" called Helen, looking back as she climbed into the automobile.
When her friends had bowled away up the frozen road, Ruth came back into the kitchen. Aunt Alvirah was still in the bedroom with their strange guest. Of a sudden the girl's eye caught sight of the newspaper clipping laid on the window sill to dry.
Mr. Cameron had placed the old wallet belonging to Fred Hatfield's father on the table when he came out of the bedroom. Now Ruth picked it up, found it dry, and went to the window to replace the clipping in it. It was the most natural thing in the world for Ruth to glance at the slip of paper when she picked it up. There is nothing secret about a newspaper clipping; it was no infringement of good manners to read the article.
And read it Ruth did when she had once seen the heading—she read it all through with breathless attention. Her rosy face paled as she came to the conclusion, and she glanced suddenly toward the bedroom as she heard Aunt Alvirah's voice again.
Dropping the old wallet on the table, Ruth folded the clipping and hastily thrust it into the bosom of her frock. She did not dare face the old woman when she appeared, but kept her back turned until she was sure the color had returned to her cheeks. And all the time she helped Aunt Alvirah get supper, Ruth was very, very silent.
THE MYSTERIOUS BEHAVIOR OF FRED HATFIELD
Uncle Jabez Potter came in from the mill after a time. He was a gaunt, gray-faced man, who seldom smiled, and whose stern, rugged countenance had at first almost frightened Ruth whenever she looked at it. But she had fortunately gotten under the crust of Mr. Potter's manner and learned that there was something better there than the harsh surface the miller turned to all the world.
Uncle Jabez hoarded money for the pleasure of hoarding it; but he had been generous to Ruth, having put her at one of the best boarding schools in the State. He could be charitable at times, too; Aunt Alvirah could testify to that fact. So could a certain little lame friend of Ruth Fielding, Mercy Curtis, who was attending Briarwood Hall as the result of the combined charity of Uncle Jabez and Dr. Davison, of Cheslow.
But it is said that "charity begins at home"; when charity begins in a man's very bed, that seems a little too near! At least, so Mr. Potter thought.
"What's this I hear about a vagabond boy in my bed, Aunt Alviry?" he demanded, when he came in.
"The poor child!" said the old woman. "Oh, my back, and oh, my bones! Come in and see him, Jabez," she urged, hobbling toward the passage.
"No. Who is he? What is he here for? That Cameron talks so fast I never can get the rights of what he's saying till afterward. Says the boy belongs up there where he wants to take Ruth to-morrow?"
"He has run away from his home at Scarboro, Uncle," said Ruth.
"Young villain! A widder's son, too!" said her uncle.
"He says his father is dead," said Ruth, hesitating.
"I venture to say!" exclaimed Jabez Potter. "And he's in my bed; is he?"
He came back to this as being a reason for objection.
"Now, now, Jabez," said Aunt Alvirah, soothingly. "He ain't hurted the bed. He was wet—the coat frozen right on him—when they brought him in. I had to git him atween blankets jest as quick as I could. And your bedroom isn't so cold as the rooms upstairs."
"Well?" grunted Mr. Potter.
"Before bedtime I'll make him up a couch in here near the fire and put your bed straight for you."
"Young vagabond!" grunted Mr. Potter. "Don't know who he is. May rob us before morning. Perhaps he come here for just that purpose."
"That's not possible, Uncle," said Ruth, laughing. She told him the story of their adventure with the bull and Fred Hatfield's appearance. Yet all the time she looked worried herself. There was something troubling the girl of the Red Mill.
Ruth took the tray into the bedroom with the supper that Aunt Alvirah had prepared. There was a flaming red spot in the center of each of the boy's pallid cheeks, and his eyes were still bright. He had no little fever after the chill of his plunge into the creek. But the fever might have been as much from a mental as a physical cause.
It was on Ruth's lips to ask the boy certain questions. That newspaper clipping fairly burned in the bosom of her frock. But his suppressed excitement warned her to be silent.
He was hungry still. It was plain that he had been without proper food for some time. But in the midst of his appreciation of the meal he asked Ruth, suddenly:
"Wasn't there anything in that wallet when you gave it to that man, Miss?"
"No," she replied, truthfully enough.
"No. He didn't say there was," muttered the boy, and said not another word.
Ruth watched him eat. He did not raise his light eyes to her. The color faded out of his cheeks. She knew that it was actual starvation that kept him eating; but he was greatly troubled in his mind. She went back to her own supper, and remained very quiet all through the evening.
Later Aunt Alvirah made up the couch with plenty of blankets and thick, downy "comforters," and when Ruth had gone to bed the boy came out into the kitchen and left Uncle Jabez free to seek his own repose. But though the whole house slept, Ruth could not—at first. Long after it was still, and she knew Aunt Alvirah was asleep and Uncle Jabez was snoring, Ruth arose, slipped on a warm wrapper and her slippers, and squeezing something tightly between her fingers, crept down the stairs to the kitchen door. She unlatched it softly and let it swing open a couple of inches.
There was a stir within. She waited, holding her breath. She heard the couch creak. Then came the sound of a shuffling step.
The moonlight lay in a broad band under the front window. Into this radiance moved the figure of the vagabond boy, shrouded in a blanket. He came to the table and he felt around until he found the wallet. He had doubtless marked it lying there by the window before Aunt Alvirah had put the lamp out and left him.
He seized the wallet and opened it wide. He shook it over the table. Then Ruth heard him groan:
"It's gone! it's gone!"
He stood there, shaking, and dropped the leather case unnoticed. For half a minute he stood there, uncertain and—Ruth thought—sobbing softly. Then the boy approached the garments hung upon the chairs about the stove, wherein the coal fire was banked for the night.
He stopped before he touched his underclothing. All these garments were well dried by this time; but Aunt Alvirah had wished them left there to be warm when he put them on in the morning. Ruth knew exactly what Fred Hatfield had in his mind. The vagabond boy was determined to dress quietly and secretly leave the miller's house.
But when Master Fred touched the first garment Ruth rattled the door latch ever so lightly. Fred stopped and turned fearfully in that direction. His lips parted. She could see that he was panting with fear.
Ruth rattled the latch again. He ran back to his couch and plunged into the comforters with a gasp. Ruth pulled the door quietly to and stood there, shivering in the dark, wondering what to do. She knew that the boy had it in his mind to escape. She did not wish to arouse Uncle Jabez. Nor did she wish the strange boy to depart so secretly.
Mr. Cameron expected to find him here when he came in the morning, she was sure. Although Mr. Cameron only supposed him an ordinary runaway, and perhaps wished to advise him to return to his mother, Ruth knew well that Fred Hatfield's was no ordinary case of vagabondage.
Ruth hesitated on the stairs for some minutes. Uncle Jabez snored. There was no further movement from the boy on the couch.
She was growing very cold. Ruth could not remain there on the stairs to guard the boy all night. Something desperate had to be done—and something very desperate she did!
She unlatched the door again as quietly as possible. She pushed it open far enough to slip through into the kitchen. There was no movement from the boy—not a sound. Nor did Ruth dare even look in his direction.
She crept across the kitchen floor to the stove. She reached the garments hung upon the chair backs. She selected one and withdrew in a hurry to the staircase, and so ran up to her room.
"There!" she thought, shutting her door and breathing heavily. "If he wants to run away he can; but he'll have to go without his trousers!"
OFF FOR THE BACKWOODS
It was still dark when Ruth awoke and slipped down to the kitchen again. But she heard her uncle rattling the stove grate. He was a very early riser. She peered into the kitchen and saw the grove of drying clothing, so knew that her trick of the night before had kept Fred Hatfield from running away.
Therefore she merely dropped the boy's nether garments inside the kitchen door and scurried back to her own room to dress by candle-light. She heard Aunt Alvirah stumbling about her room and groaning her old, old tune, "Oh, my back, and oh, my bones!" As soon as Ruth was dressed she ran in to see if she could do anything for the old woman.
"Ah, deary! what a precious pretty you be," said the old woman, hugging her. "I'm so glad to see you again after your being away so long. And your Uncle's that proud of you, too! He often reads the reports the school teacher sends him—I see him doing that in the evening. He keeps the reports in his cash-box, just as though they was as precious as his stocks and bonds. Yes-indeedy!"
"You are so glad to have me at home, Aunt Alvirah, that I feel guilty to be going away again so soon," Ruth said.
"No, honey. Have your good times while ye may, my pretty creetur. It's mighty nice of the Camerons to take you away with them. You go and have a good time. Your trunk's all packed and ready, and your young friend, Helen, would be dreadful disappointed if you didn't go. Now, let's go down and git breakfast. Jabez has been up for some time and I heard him just go out to the mill. That boy must be up and dressed by now, for if he had been sick, Jabez would have hollered up the stairs about it."
She was right. Fred Hatfield was completely dressed when they came into the kitchen. Ruth did not look at him, but busied herself with the details of getting breakfast. She did not speak to him, nor did Fred speak to her. But Aunt Alvirah was as cheerful and as chatty as ever.
Uncle Jabez was never talkative; but he was no more taciturn this morning than was their guest. The boy ate his breakfast with downcast eyes and only said timidly, at the end of the meal:
"I'm real obliged for your kindness, Mr. Potter. I think I'm all right again now. Can't I do some work for you to pay—"
"I don't need another hand at the mill—and I couldn't make use of a boy like you at all," said Mr. Potter, hastily. "You wait till Mr. Cameron comes here this morning."
Ruth saw that there was an understanding between her uncle and Mr. Cameron regarding this boy. But Fred said, still hesitating:
"If—if I can't do anything to repay you, I'd rather go on. I was making for Cheslow. I'll get a job—"
"You wait here as you're told, boy," snapped Uncle Jabez, and the runaway shrank into his chair again and said nothing more.
Breakfast at the Red Mill was always early; it had been finished before seven o'clock on this clear winter morning. It was a fine day when the sun appeared, and Ruth's mind—at least, a part of it!—delighted in the thought of the journey to be taken into the great woods to the north and east of Osago Lake. She had several little things to do in preparation; therefore she could not be blamed if she lost sight of Fred Hatfield occasionally.
Suddenly, however, she found that he had left the kitchen. She cried up the stairs to Aunt Alvirah:
"Have you seen him, Auntie? Where is he?"
"Where's who?" returned the old woman.
"That boy. He's not here."
"For the land's sake!" returned Aunt Alvirah. "I dunno. Didn't your uncle tell him to wait for Mr. Cameron here?"
"But he's gone!" exclaimed Ruth; and picking up her cap she pulled it on, and likewise her sweater, and went out of the house with a bang. He was not on the road to Cheslow. She could see that, straight before the mill, for a mile. She ran down to the gate and looked along the river road, up stream. No figure appeared there. Nor in the other direction—although the Camerons' car would appear from that way, and if the runaway went in that direction he would surely run right into the Camerons.
"He slipped out of the back door—towards the river," she whispered.
Back she ran into the house. She caught up her skates in the back hall and burst out upon the back porch, which was partly enclosed. There was the figure of Fred Hatfield on the ice—some distance, already, from the shore.
Ruth ran eagerly down to the shore. She had no idea what young Hatfield intended; but she was well aware that he could get across the Lumano if he chose; the ice was thick enough.
She quickly clamped the skates upon her shoes, and within five minutes was darting off across the ice.
Hatfield heard the ring of her skates within a very few moments; he threw a glance over his shoulder, saw her, and then began to run. It was a feeble attempt to escape, for unless some accident happened to Ruth, she could easily overtake him.
And she did so, although he ran straight ahead, and ran so hard that finally he slipped and fell, panting, to his knees. Ruth was beside him before he could rise.
"Don't you be such a ridiculous boy!" she commanded, seizing the lad by the shoulder, as he attempted to rise. "You mustn't run away. Mr. Cameron expects to find you at the mill, and you must stay. And they'll be here, ready to take the train from Cheslow, shortly."
"I—I don't want to stay here," stammered the boy. "I—I don't want to see that man again."
"But he expects to see you, and I could not let you go before he comes."
"You're just the meanest girl I ever saw!" cried Hatfield, almost in tears. "I'd got away in the night if it hadn't been for you."
Ruth fairly giggled at that—she couldn't help it.
"Well, don't you be nasty about it," she said. "You are a dreadfully foolish boy—"
"What do you know about me?" he gasped, turning to look at her finally with frightened eyes.
"I know that running away isn't going to help you," Ruth Fielding said, with returning gravity.
"You think that man—that Cameron man—will take me back?"
"I don't know."
"I tell you I won't go," the boy cried. "I won't go."
"But we're all going up there this very day," said Ruth, slowly." Mr. Cameron, and Helen and Tom, and some other girls and boys. I'm going, too—"
"Going where?" shrieked Fred Hatfield, actually shaking with terror, and as pale as a ghost.
"We're off for the backwoods—up Scarboro way. Mr. Cameron is going to take us for a fortnight to Snow Camp. And you—"
With another wild cry Fred Hatfield crumpled down upon the ice and burst into a tempest of sobbing. He beat his ungloved hands upon the ice, and although Ruth could not help feeling contempt for a boy who would so give way to weakness she could not help but pity him, too.
For Ruth Fielding had more than an inkling of the trouble that so weighed Fred Hatfield down, and had made him an outcast from his home and friends.
ON THE TRAIN
When the Cameron automobile arrived at the Red Mill that forenoon Fred Hatfield sat gloomily upon the porch steps. Ruth kept an eye on him from the doorway. Mr. Cameron seemed to understand their position when he came up the walk, and asked Ruth:
"So, he wants to leave; does he?"
Ruth merely nodded; but Fred Hatfield scowled at the dry-goods merchant and turned away his head.
"Now, young man," said Mr. Cameron, standing in front of the sullen boy, with his legs wide apart and a smile upon his ruddy face, "now, young man, let's get to the bottom of this. You confide in me, and I will not betray your confidence. Why don't you want to live at home?"
"I don't want to—that's all," muttered Fred Hatfield, shortly. "And I won't."
Mr. Cameron shook his head. "I hate to see one so young so obstinate," he said. "It may be that your mother and brothers and sisters find you a sore trial; perhaps they are glad you are not at home. But until I am sure of that I consider it my duty to keep an eye on you. I want you to come along with us to-day."
"I know where you are going. This girl has told me," said the light-haired youth, nodding at Ruth. "You're going up to Scarboro."
"Yes. And I propose to take you with us. We'll see whether your mother wants you or not."
"You don't know what you're doing, sir!" gasped Fred Hatfield, crouching down upon the step.
"I certainly do not know what I am doing," admitted Mr. Cameron. "But that is your fault, not mine. If you would trust us—"
"I can't!" cried the boy, shaking as though with a chill.
"Then, you come along, young man," commanded the merchant.
He put a hand upon Fred's shoulder and the boy wriggled out from under it and started to run. But Tom had got out of the automobile and seemed rather expecting this move. He sprang for the other boy and held him.
"Here! hold on!" he cried. "Put on this old overcoat of mine that I've brought along, It's going to be cold riding. Put it on—and then get into the auto with us. Aw, come on! What are you afraid of? We aren't going to eat you."
Snivelling, but ceasing his struggles, Fred Hatfield got into the coat Tom offered him, and entered the car. Ruth said never a word, but she looked very grave.
Uncle Jabez came to the door of the mill and Ruth ran to him and kissed the old miller goodbye. Not that he returned the kiss; Uncle Jabez looked as though he had never kissed anybody since he was born! But Aunt Alvirah hugged and caressed her "pretty creetur" with a warmth that made up for the miller's coldness.
"Bless ye, deary!" crooned the little old woman, enfolding Ruth in her arms. "Go and have the best of times with your young friends. We'll be thinkin' of ye here—and don't run into peril up there in the woods. Have a care."
"Oh, we won't get into any trouble," Ruth declared, happily, with no suspicion of what was before the party in the backwoods. "Goodbye!"
"Good-bye, Ruthie—Oh, my back and oh, my bones!" groaned Aunt Alvirah, as she hobbled into the house again, while Ruth ran down to the car, leaped aboard, and the chauffeur started immediately. Ben, the hired man, had gone on to Cheslow with Ruth's trunk early in the morning, and now the automobile sped quickly over the smooth road to the railroad station.
By several different ways—for Cheslow was a junction of the railroad lines—the young folk who had been invited to Snow Camp had gathered at the station to meet the Camerons and Ruth Fielding. Nobody noticed Fred Hatfield, saving Mr. Cameron and Ruth herself; but the runaway found no opportunity of leaving the party. Tom had no attention to give the Scarboro boy as he welcomed his own chums.
"Here's old Bobbins and Busy Izzy!" he cried, seeing Bob Steele and his sister, with Isadore Phelps, pacing the long platform as the car halted.
Bob Steele was a big, yellow-haired boy, rosy cheeked and good-natured, but not a little bashful. As Madge, his sister, was a year and a half older than Bob she often treated him like a very small boy indeed.
"Now, Master Cameron!" she cried, when Tom appeared, "don't muss his nice clean clothes. Be careful he doesn't get into anything. Be a good boy, Bobbie, and the choo-choo cars will soon come."
Isadore Phelps was a sharp-looking boy, with red hair and so many freckles across the bridge of his nose and under his eyes that, at a little distance, he looked as though he wore a brown mask. Isadore seldom spoke without asking a question. He was a walking interrogation point. Perhaps that was one reason why he was known among his mates as "Busy Izzy," being usually busy about other people's business.
"What do you let her nag you for that way, Bob?" he cried. "I'd shake her, if she was my sister—wouldn't you, Tom?"
"No," said Tom, boldly, for he considered Madge Steele quite a young lady. "She's too big to shake—isn't she, Bobbins?"
But Bob only smiled in his slow way, and said nothing. The girls were in a group by themselves—Helen and Ruth, Belle and Lluella, Jennie Stone (who rejoiced in the nickname of "Heavy" because of her plumpness) and Madge Steele. Mr. Cameron had gone to the ticket window to make an inquiry. It was Ruth who saw Fred Hatfield making across the tracks to where a freight train was being made up for the south.
"Tom!" she cried to Helen's brother, and he turned and saw her glance.
"By George, fellows!" exclaimed Tom, with some disgust. "There's that chap sneaking off again. We've got to watch him. Come on!"
He ran after the runaway. Busy Izzy was at his ear in a moment:
"What's the matter with him? Who is he? What's he been doing? Is he trying to get aboard that freight? What do you want of him?"
"Oh, hush! hush!" begged Tom. "Your clatter would deafen one." Then he shouted to Hatfield: "Hold on, there! the train will be in soon. Come back!"
Hatfield stopped and turned back with a scowl. Tom grinned at him cheerfully and added:
"Might as well take it easy. Dad says you're to go along with us, so I advise you to stick close."
"Pleasant-looking young dog," said Bob, in an undertone. "What's he done?"
"I don't know that he has done anything," returned Tom, in the same low tone. "But we're going to take him with us to Scarboro. That is the place he has run away from."
"Did he run away from home?" demanded Isadore Phelps. "What for?"
"I don't know. But don't you ask him!" commanded Tom. "He wouldn't tell you, anyway; he won't tell father. But don't nag him, Izzy."
To the great surprise of the young folks, when the train bound north came along, there was a private car attached to it, and in that car the Cameron party were to travel. One of the railroad officials had lent his own coach to the Cheslow merchant, and he and his party had the car to themselves.
There was a porter and a steward aboard—both colored men; and soon after the train started odors from the tiny kitchen assured the girls and boys that they were to have luncheon on the train.
"Isn't it delightful?" sighed Heavy, gustily, in Ruth's ear. "Riding through the country on this fast train and being served with our meals—Oh, dear! why weren't all fathers born rich?"
"It's lucky your father isn't any richer than he is, Jennie Stone!" whispered Madge Steele, who heard this. "If he was, you'd do nothing but eat all the livelong day."
"Well, I might do a deal worse," returned Heavy. "Father says that himself. He says he wishes my reports were better at Briarwood; but he can't expect me to put on flesh and gain much learning at the same time—not when the days are only twenty-four hours long."
They all laughed a good deal at Heavy, but she was so good-natured that the girls all liked her, too. What they should do when they reached Snow Camp was the principal topic of conversation. As the train swept northward the snow appeared. It was piled in fence corners and lay deep in the woods. Some ice-bound streams and ponds were thickly mantled in the white covering.
Mr. Cameron read his papers or wrote letters in one compartment; Mrs. Murchiston was the girls' companion most of the time, while Tom and his two chums had a gay time by themselves. They tried to get Fred Hatfield into their company, but the runaway boy would not respond to their overtures.
At the dinner table, when the fun became fast and furious, Fred Hatfield did not even smile. Heavy whispered to Ruth that she never did see a boy before who was so dreadfully solemn. "And he grows solemner and solemner every mile we travel!" added Heavy. "What do you suppose is on his mind?"
Ruth was quite sure she knew what was on the lad's mind; but she did not say. Indeed, all the day long she was troubled by the special knowledge she had gained from the newspaper clipping that she carried hidden in the bottom of her pocket. Should she tell Mr. Cameron about it? Should she speak plainly to Fred himself about it? The nearer they approached Scarboro the more uncertain she became, and the more sullen Fred Hatfield looked.
Ruth watched him a good deal, but so covertly that her girl friends did not notice her abstraction. The short Winter day was beginning to draw in and the red sun was hanging low above the tree-tops when Mr. Cameron announced that the second stop of the train would be their destination. The party—at least, Mr. Cameron, the governess, and the young folk—were to remain at the hotel in Scarboro over-night. The serving people and the baggage were to go on that evening to Snow Camp.
Fred Hatfield sauntered to the rear of the car and stood looking out of the window in the door. The flagman was on the rear platform, however, and he could not get down without being observed. The stop at this town was brief; then the train sped on through the deep woods.
But suddenly the airbrakes were put on again and they slowed down with a good deal of clatter and bumping.
"We're not at Scarboro yet, surely?" cried Mrs. Murchiston.
"No, no!" Mr. Cameron assured them. "We're stopping from some other cause—why, this is merely a flag station. Not even a station—just a crossing."
A white-sheeted road crossed the rails. There were two or three houses in sight and a big general store, over the door of which was painted:
EMORYVILLE P. O.
But the train had stopped and the rear brake-man, or flagman, seized his lamp and ran back to wait for the engineer to recall him. It was growing dusk and the lamps had been lighted the length of the train. The general interest of the party drew their attention forward. Ruth, suddenly remembering Fred Hatfield, looked toward the rear of the car. Fred was just going out of the door in the wake of the brakeman.
"Oh, he mustn't go!" whispered Ruth to herself, and leaving her girl companions she ran back to speak to the runaway boy. When she reached the door, Fred had already descended the steps. She saw him run across the tracks, and quick as a flash she sprang down after him.
A RUNAWAY IN GOOD EARNEST
Fred Hatfield, the runaway, was approaching the old, rambling country store at Emoryville Crossroads. It was so cold an evening that there were no loungers upon the high, railless porch which extended clear across the front of the building. Indeed, there was but one wagon standing before the store and probably there were very few customers, or loungers either, inside. The stopping of the train had brought nobody to the door.
As Fred gained the sidewalk in front of the store he glanced back. There was Ruth crossing the tracks behind him.
"You come back! Come back immediately, Fred Hatfield!" she called. "Come back or I shall call Mr. Cameron."
The girl had been his Nemesis all day. Fred knew he could have given the party the slip at some station, had Ruth not kept such a sharp watch upon him. And here she was on his very heels, when he might have gotten well away.
The next stop would be Scarboro. Fred did not want to appear in Scarboro again. And he had a suspicion that Ruth knew his reasons for desiring to keep away from his home and friends.
He looked wildly about the lonely crossroads. The panting of the locomotive exhaust was not the only sound he heard. The two mules hitched to the timber wagon—the only wagon standing by the store— jingled their harness as they shook their heads. One bit at the other, and his mate squealed and stamped. They were young mules and full of "ginger"; yet their driver had carelessly left them standing unhitched in the road.
Fred gave another glance at Ruth and kept on running. The engineer suddenly whistled for the return of the flagman. But none of the train-hands—nor did the party in the private car—notice the boy and girl who had so incautiously left the train.
"Come back!" commanded Ruth, so much interested in following Fred that she did not notice the lantern of the rear brakeman bobbing along beside the ties. In a moment he swung himself aboard the private car and his lantern described half an arc in the dusk. The engine answered with a loud cough and the heavy train began to move.
But at that moment Fred Hatfield, grown desperate because of Ruth's pursuit, leaped aboard the timber wagon. He was a backwoods boy himself; he knew how to handle mules. He gave a shout to which the team responded instantly. They leaped ahead just as Ruth came to the side of the long reach that connected the small pair of front wheels with the huge wheels in the rear.
"Get off of that wagon, Fred!" she had just cried, when the mules started. She was directly in front of the large rear wheel. If it struck her—knocked her down—ran over her! Fred knew that she would be killed and he seized her hands and dragged her up beside him on the jouncing timber-reach.
"Now see what you've done!" he bawled, as the mules broke into a gallop.
But Ruth was too frightened for the moment to speak. Her uncle had a pair of mules, and she knew just how hard they were to manage. And this pair were evidently looking toward supper. They flew up the road, directly away from the railroad, and the wagon jounced about so that she could only hold on with both hands.
"Stop them! Stop them!" she cried.
But that was much easier said than done. The animals had been willing enough to start when given the word by a stranger; but now they did not recognize their master's voice when the boy yelled:
Instead of stopping, the mules went faster and faster. They had their bits 'twixt their teeth and were running away in good earnest.
Almost immediately, when the bumping and jouncing wagon got away from the store and the two or three neighboring houses, they were in the deep woods. There were no farms—no clearings—not even an open patch in the timber. The snow lay deep under the pines and firs. The road had been used considerably since the last snow, and the ruts were deep. Therefore the mules kept to the beaten track.
"Oh, stop them! stop them!" moaned Ruth, clinging to the swaying, jouncing cart.
"I can't! I can't!" repeated the terrified boy.
"Oh, you wicked, wicked boy! you'll kill us both!" cried Ruth.
"It's your own fault you're here," returned Fred, sharply. "And I wouldn't never have got onto the wagon if you hadn't chased me."
"I believe you are the very worst boy who ever lived!" declared the girl from the Red Mill, in both anger and despair. "And I wish I had let you go your own wicked way."
"I wish you had," growled Hatfield, and then tried to soothe the running mules again.
He was successful in the end. He had driven mules before and understood them. The beasts, after traveling at least two miles, began to slow down. The wagon was now passing through a wild piece of the forest, and it was growing dark very fast. Only the snow on the ground made it possible for the boy and girl to see objects at a distance.
Ruth was wondering what her friends would think when they missed her, and likewise how she would ever get back to the railroad. Would Mr. Cameron send back for her? What would happen to her, here in the deep woods, even when the mules stopped so that she dared leap down from the cart?
And just then—before these questions became very pertinent in her mind—she was startled by a wild scream from the bush patch beside the road. Fred cried out in new alarm, and the mules stopped dead— for a moment. They were trembling and tossing their heads wildly. The awful, blood-chilling scream was repeated, and there was the soft thudding of cushioned paws in the bushes. Some beast had leaped down from a tree-branch to the hard snow.
"A cat-o'-mountain!" yelled Fred Hatfield, and as he shouted, the lithe cat sprang over the brush heap and landed in the road, right beside the timber cart.
Once Ruth had been into the menagerie of a traveling circus that had come to Darrowtown while her father was still alive. She had seen there a panther, and the wicked, graceful, writhing body of the beast had frightened her more than the bulk of the elephant or the roaring of the lion. This great cat, crouching close to the snow, its tail sweeping from side to side, all its muscles knotted for another spring, struck Ruth dumb and helpless.
Fortunately her gloved hands were locked about the timber on which she lay, for the next instant a third savage scream parted the bewhiskered lips of the catamount and on the heels of the cry the mules started at full gallop. The panther sprang into the air like a rubber ball. Had the mules not started the beast must have landed fairly upon the boy and the girl clinging to the reach of the timber wagon.
But providentially Ruth Fielding and her companion escaped this immediate catastrophe. The savage beast landed upon the wagon, however—far out upon the end of the timber, beyond the rear wheels. Mad with fright, the mules tore on along the wood road. There were many turns in it, and the deep ruts shook them about terrifically. Ruth and Fred barely retained their positions on the cart—nor was the catamount in better situation. It hung on with all its claws, yowling like the great Tom-cat it was.
On and on plunged the poor mules, sweating and fearful. Ruth and Fred Hatfield clung like mussels to a rock, while the panther bounded into the air, screeching and spitting, always catching the tail of the cart as it came down—afraid to leap off and likewise afraid to hang on.
The mules came to a hill. They were badly winded by now and their pace grew slower. The panther scratched along the reach nearer to the two human passengers, and Ruth saw its eyes blazing like huge carbuncles in the dusk. There was a fork of the roads at the foot of the hill. Fred Hatfield uttered a shriek of despair as the mules took the right hand road and struck into the bush itself—a narrow and treacherous track where the limbs of the trees threatened to brush all three passengers from the cart at any instant.
"Oh! oh! we're done for now!" yelled Fred. "They've taken the road to Rattlesnake Hill. We'll be killed as sure as fate!"
FIRST AT SNOW CAMP
Fred Hatfield's fears might have been well-founded had the mules not been so winded. They had run at least four miles from the railroad and even with the fear of the snarling panther behind them they could not continue much farther at this pace.
But over this rougher and narrower road the timber cart jounced more than ever. In all its life the panther had probably never received such a shaking-up. The mules had not gone far on what Fred called the Rattlesnake Hill Road when, with an ear-splitting cry, the huge cat leaped out from the flying wagon and landed in the bush.
"We're saved!" gasped Ruth. "That dreadful beast is gone."
Fred immediately tried to soothe the mules into a more leisurely pace; but nothing but fatigue would bring them down. Thoroughly frightened, they kept starting and running without cause, and there was no chance in this narrow road to turn them.
The fact that it ascended the side of the hill steeply did more toward abating the pace of the runaways than aught else. The track crept along the edge of several abrupt precipices, too—not more than thirty or forty feet high, but enough to wreck the wagon and kill mules and passengers had they gone over the brink.
These dangerous places in the winding road were what had so frightened young Hatfield at first. He knew this locality well. But to Ruth the place was doubly terrifying, for she was lost—completely lost.
"Oh, where are we going? What will become of us?" she murmured, still obliged to cling with both hands to the jumping, rocking reach.
The mules could gallop no longer. Fred yelled at them "Yea-a! Yea-a!" at the top of his voice. They began to pay some attention—or else were so winded that they would have halted of their own volition. And as the cart ceased its thumping and rumbling a light suddenly blazed up before them, shining through the dusk, and higher up the hill.
"What is that? A house?" cried Ruth, seizing Fred by the shoulder.
Not more than half an hour ago the girl from the Red Mill had slipped out of the private car at the Emoryville Crossing, in pursuit of the runaway youth; now they were deep in the wilderness and surrounded by such dangers as Ruth had never dreamed of before.
The baying of a hound and the angry barking of another dog was Ruth's only answer. She turned to see Fred Hatfield sliding down off the cart.
"You sha'n't leave me!" cried Ruth, jumping down after him and seizing the runaway desperately. "You sha'n't abandon me in this forest, away from everybody. You're a cruel, bad boy, Fred Hatfield; but you've just got to be decent to me."
"What did you interfere for, anyway?" he demanded, snarling like a cross dog. "Lemme go!"
But if Ruth was afraid of what terrors the forest might hold, and of her general situation, she had seen enough of this boy to know that he was just a poor, miserable coward—he aroused no fear in her heart.
"I'm going to just stick to you, Freddie," she assured him. She was quite as strong as he, she knew. "You are going home. At least, you shall go back to Mr. Cameron—"
Just then the flare of light ahead broadened and a gruff voice shouted:
"Hullo! what's wanted? Down, Tiger! Behave, Rose!"
The dogs instantly stopped their clamor. The light came through the open door and the glazed window of a little hut perched on a rock overlooking the road. The mules had halted just below this eminence, and Ruth saw that there was a winding path leading up to the door of the hovel. Down this path came the huge figure of a man, with the two dogs gamboling about him in the snow. The occupant of this cabin in the wilderness carried a rifle in one hand.
"Hullo!" he said again. "That's Sim Rogers's team—I know those mules. Are you there, Sim? What's happened ye?"
"Who is it?" whispered Ruth, again, still clinging to Fred's jacket.
"It's—it's the Rattlesnake Man," returned the boy, in a shaking voice.
"Who is he?" asked Ruth, in surprise.
"He lives here alone on the hill. He's a hermit. They say he's crazy. And I guess he is," added Fred, with a shudder.
"Why do you think he's crazy?"
But before Fred could reply—if he intended to—the hermit reached the road. He was an old but very vigorous-looking man, burly and stout, with a great mat of riotous gray hair under his fur cap, and a beard of the same color that reached his breast. He seemed to have very good eyes indeed, for he immediately muttered:
"Ha! Sim's mules—been running like the very kildee! All of a sweat, I vow. Two young folks—ha! Scared. Runaway—ah! What's that?"
The dogs began to bay again. Far behind the boy and girl—down the hill road—rose the eyrie scream of the disappointed panther.
"That cat-o'-mountain chase ye, boy?" the hermit asked, sharply.
But Fred had no answer. He stood, in Ruth's sharp clutch, and hung his head without a word. The girl had to reply:
"I never was so scared. The beast jumped right on the cart and we just shook him off down the hill yonder."
"A girl," said the hermit, talking to himself, but talking aloud, in the same fashion as before. Without doubt, being so much alone in these wilds he had contracted the habit of talking to himself—or to his dogs—or to whatever creature chanced to be his company.
"A girl. Not Sim's gal. Sim ain't got nothing but louts of boys. Let me see. What boy is this?"
"He is Fred Hatfield," said Ruth, simply. Fred jumped and tried to pull away from her; but Ruth's hold was not to be so easily broken. The hermit, however, seemed to have never heard the name before. He only said, idly:
"Fred Hatfield, eh? You his sister?"
"No, sir. I am Ruth Fielding," she replied.
"Ruth Fielding? Don't know her. She's not belongin' around here. No. Well, how'd you get here? And with Sim's mules?"
Ruth told him briefly, but without bringing Fred Hatfield's trouble into the story. They had got aboard the timber cart at the crossing, the mules had run away, the panther had taken a ride with them and— here they were!
The hermit merely nodded in acknowledgment of the tale. His questions dealt with her alone:
"Where do you belong?"
"The party I was with are bound for Snow Camp. Do you know where that is, sir?" Ruth asked.
"Not ten miles away. Yes."
"They will be worried—"
"I will get you over there before bedtime. Go up to my house and wait. This boy and I will stable the mules in my barn; it's just along the road here. Sim will follow the beasts and find them; but he'll be some time in getting along. He lives along this road himself —not far, not far. Ah!"
The old man talked mostly as though he spoke to himself. He seldom more than glanced at her, his eye roving everywhere but at the person to whom he spoke. Ruth started toward the house from which the fire and lamplight shone so cordially. The dogs stood before her—Tiger, the big hound, and Rose, a beautiful Gordon setter,
"Let her alone," said the hermit to his canine companions. "She's all right."
The dogs seemed to agree with him immediately. The hound sniffed once at the hem of Ruth's frock; Rose gambolled about her and licked her hand. Ruth now realized how cold she was, and she ran quickly up to the open door of the cabin.
On the threshold she hesitated a moment. A great lamp with a tin shade, hanging from the rafters, illuminated all the center of the room. At one end burned a hot log fire on the hearth; but the two further corners were in gloom. Ruth had said she had never seen a log cabin, and it was true. This one seemed to her to be a very cozy place indeed, even if it was the habitation of a hermit.
As she entered, however, she found that there was a rather suffocating, unpleasant odor in the place. It was light, yet penetrating enough to be distinguished clearly. In one of the darker corners was what appeared to be a big green chest, and it had a glazed window frame for a cover. Something rustled there.
The dogs followed her in and she sat down in an old-fashioned, bent hickory chair on the hearth—perhaps the hermit himself had just risen from it, for there was a sheepskin lying before it for a mat and a pair of huge carpet slippers on either side of the sheepskin. The dogs came in and sat down by the slippers, just where Ruth could rest a hand on either head, and so blinked at the flames while they waited for the return of the hermit and the runaway boy.
So she sat when they came into the cabin, stamping the snow from their shoes. The hermit led Fred by the arm. He had not overlooked the care with which Ruth had retained him by her side.
"So you want to go over to Mr. Parrish's Snow Camp?" asked the old man.
"It belongs to Mr. Cameron, now." said Ruth. "I know that there is a telephone there, and I can get word to Mr. Cameron and Helen and Tom at Scarboro that we are safe."
"I'm not going," said Fred "I'll stay here."
"You'll go along with Young Miss," said the hermit, firmly. "I'll git ye a pannikin of tea and a bite. Then we'll start. We'll go 'cross the woods on snowshoes—'twill be easier."
"Oh, can I do it, do you suppose?" cried Ruth. "I never wore such things in my life."
"You'll learn," said the hermit.
He bustled about, making the tea and warming a big pancake of cornbread which he put into an iron dripping-pan down before the glowing coals at one side. While they waited for the water to bubble for the tea the old man went to the big chest, and began to talk and fondle something. Ruth heard the rustling again and turned around to look.
"Want to see my children, Young Miss?" asked the old man, whose eyes seemed as sharp as needles.
Ruth arose in curiosity and approached. Within a yard of the old man and his chest she stopped suddenly with a gasp. The hermit stood up with two snakes twining about his hands and wrists. The serpents ran their tongues out like lightning, and their beady eyes glowed as though living fire dwelt in their heads. Ruth was frightened, but she would not scream. The hermit handled the snakes as though they were as harmless as kittens—as probably they were, the poison sacks having been removed.
"They won't hurt you—harmless, harmless," said the old man, caressingly. "There, there, my pretties! Go to bed again."
He lifted the glass cover of the chest and dropped them into its interior. There was a great hissing and rustling. The hermit stepped to the hanging lamp and turned the shade so as to send the radiance of it into that corner. Through the pane Ruth saw a squirming mass of scaly bodies, mixed up with an old quilt. More than one tail, with rows of "buttons" and rattles on it, was elevated, and one angry serpent "sprung his rattle" sharply.
"Hush, hush, my dears!" said the hermit, soothingly. "Go to sleep again now. My children," he said, nodding at Ruth. "Pretty dears!"
To tell the truth, the girl from the Red Mill wanted to scream; but she held herself down, clenching her hands, and saying nothing. The kettle began to sing and she was glad to go back to the chair by the fire and afterward to sip the tin cup of hot tea that their host gave her, and eat with gocd appetite a square of the crisp cornbread.
Meanwhile, the hermit took from the walls three pairs of great, awkward-looking snowshoes and tightened the lacings and fitted thongs to them. The pair he selected for Ruth looked to the girl to be so big that she never could take a step in them; but he seemed to expect her to try.
They went out of the cabin as the moon was rising. It came up as red and fiery as the sun had gone down. Long shadows of the tall trees were flung across the snow. The hermit commanded Rose, the setter, to guard the hut, while he allowed the hound to follow at heel. He carried his rifle, and Ruth was glad of this.
"Haven't heard a cat-o'-mountain around here this winter," he said, as they started up the hill. "Didn't hear nor see one at all last winter. Neighbors will have to get up a hunt for this one that troubled you, Young Miss, 'fore it does more damage."
At the top of the ascent they stopped and the old man put on Ruth's snowshoes for her. Fred, always without a word and looking mighty sullen (but evidently afraid of the rattlesnake man) tied his own in place and the hermit slipped into his and they each gave Ruth a hand.
She stood up and found that her weight made little or no impression upon the well-packed snow. There was no wind and, although the air was very keen (the thermometer probably being almost to the zero mark) it was easy for her to move over the drifts. With some little instruction from the rattlesnake man, and after several tumbles— which were of little moment because he and Fred held her up—Ruth was able to put one foot before the other and shuffle over the snow at a fairly good pace.
The moonlight made the unbroken track as plain as noonday. To Ruth it seemed almost impossible that the hermit could find his way through a forest which showed no mark of any former traveler; but he went on as though it was a turnpike.
Two hours and a half were they on the way, and Ruth had begun to be both tired and cold when they crossed a road on which there were telegraph, or telephone poles and then—a little farther into the Big Woods—they struck a well-defined private track over which sleds had recently traveled.
"You say some of your party and the baggage were coming over to-night," said the hermit to Ruth. "They have been along. This is the road to Snow Camp—and there is the light from the windows!"
Ruth saw several points of light directly ahead. They quickly reached a good-sized clearing, in the middle of which stood a two-story log cabin, with a balcony built all around it at the height of the second floor. Sleigh bells jingled as the horses stamped in the yard. The heavy sledges with the luggage and the serving people had just arrived. Ruth Fielding was the first of the pleasure party to arrive at Snow Camp.
"LONG JERRY" TODD
Some dogs began barking, and the hermit's hound replied by baying with his nose in the air—a sound to make anybody shiver! The Rattlesnake Man gave a lusty shout, and a door opened, flooding the porch of the big log cabin with lamplight.
"Hello!" came the answering shout across the clearing, and a very tall man—as thin as a lath—strode down from the porch and approached them, after sending back the dogs—all but one. This big creature could not be stayed in his impetuous rush over the snow and the next instant he sprang up and put both his forepaws on Ruth's shoulders.
"Oh, Reno!" she cried, fondling Tom Cameron's big mastiff, that had come all the way from Cheslow with them in the baggage car. "You know me; don't you?"
"Guess that proves her right to be here," said the hermit, more to himself than to the surprised tall man, who was the guide and keeper in charge of Snow Camp. "Your boss lose one of his party off the train, Long Jerry Todd?"
"So I hear. Is this here the gal?" cried the other, in immense surprise. "I swanny!"
"Yep. She's all right. I'll go back," said the rattlesnake man, without further ado, turning in his tracks.
"Oh, sir!" cried Ruth. "I'm so much obliged to you."
But the hermit slipped away on his snowshoes and in less than a minute was out of sight. Then Ruth looked around suddenly for Fred Hatfield. The runaway had disappeared.
"Where's that boy?" she cried.
"What boy?" returned Long Jerry, curiously. "Didn't see no boy here."
"Why, the boy that came here with us. He left the train at Emoryville when I did—you must have seen him."
"I never did," declared the guide. "He must have slipped away. Maybe he's gone into the house. You'd better come in yourself. The women folks will 'tend to you. Why, Miss, you're dead beat!"
Indeed Ruth was. She could scarcely stumble with the guide's help to the porch. She had kicked off the snowshoes and the hermit had taken them with him. Had it not been for the hermit and Fred Hatfield, Ruth Fielding would never have been able to travel the distance from the hermit's cabin to Snow Camp. And the terrible shaking up she had received on the timber cart made her feel like singing old Aunt Alvirah's tune of "Oh, my back and oh, my bones!"
There were two maids whom Mr. Cameron had brought along and they, with two men, had come over from Scarboro (a ride of eight miles, or so) with the luggage. They welcomed Ruth and set her down before a great fire in the dining room, and one of them removed the girl's shoes so that her feet might be dried and warmed, while the other hurried to make some supper for the wanderer.
But as soon as Ruth got her slippers on, and recovered a little from the exhaustion of her trip, two things troubled her vastly. She inquired for the boy again, and learned that he had not been seen about the camp. When she and the hermit had entered the clearing, Fred had undoubtedly taken the opportunity to slip away.
"And in the night—and it so cold, too," thought Ruth. "What will Mr. Cameron say?"
That question brought her to the second of her troubles. Her friends would worry about her all night if she did not find some way of allaying their anxiety.
"Oh, Mary!" she said to the maid. "Where's the telephone? Tom said there was telephone connection here."
"So there is, Miss," returned the maid. "And somebody had better tell Mrs. Murchiston that you're safe. They're all as worried as they can be about you, for the folks at that store by the railroad—where the train stopped—when they was called up as soon as the train reached Scarboro, declared that you had got run away with by a team of mules."
"Which was most certainly true," admitted Ruth. "I never had such a dreadful time in all my life. Run away with by mules, and frightened to death by a great big catamount——"
Mary squealed and covered her ears. "Don't tell me!" she gasped. "Sure, Miss, there do bes bears, an' panthers, an' wild-cats, an'— an' I dunno what-all in these woods. Sure, me and Janey will never go out of this house whilst we stay. 'Tain't civilized hereabout."
Ruth laughed rather ruefully. "I guess you're right, Mary," she said. "It doesn't seem to be very civilized here in the backwoods— and such queer people live here, too. But now! let me telephone."
The maid showed her where it was and Ruth called up Scarboro and got the hotel where the Cameron party was stopping. Almost immediately she heard Mr. Cameron's voice.
"Hullo! Snow Camp? What's wanted?" he asked, in a nervous, jerky way.
"This is me, Mr. Cameron—Ruth, you know. I am all right at Snow Camp."
"Well! That's fine! Thank goodness you're safe!" ejaculated the merchant, in an entirely different tone. "Why, Ruth, I was just about sending a party out from the store at Emoryville to beat up the woods for you. They say there is a big panther in that district."
"Oh, I know it. The beast frightened us most to death—"
"Who was with you?" interrupted Mr. Cameron.
"Why, that boy! He jumped off the train and I followed to stop him. Now he's run away again, sir."
"Oh, the boy calling himself Fred Hatfield?" ejaculated Mr. Cameron. "He's left you?"
"He came here to Snow Camp and then disappeared. I am sorry—"
"You're a good little girl, Ruth. I wanted to bring him up here—and there are people who would be glad to know who he really is."
"But don't you know? Isn't his name Fred Hatfield?" questioned Ruth, in surprise.
"That can't be. Fred Hatfield was shot here in the woods more than a month ago. It was soon after the deer season opened, they tell me, and it is supposed to have been an accident. Young 'Lias Hatfield, half-brother of the real Fred, is in jail here, held for shooting his brother. Who the boy was whom we found and brought from the Red Mill, seems to be a mystery."
"Oh!" cried Ruth, but before she could say more, Mr. Cameron went on:
"We'll all be over in the morning. I hope you have not taken cold, or overtaxed your strength, I must go and tell Helen. She has been frightened half to death about you. Goodnight."
He hung up the receiver, leaving Ruth in rather a disturbed state of mind. The newspaper clipping that had dropped out of the old wallet the strange boy had carried, was the account of the shooting affair. Mention was made in it about the very frequent mistakes made in the hunting season—mistakes which often end in the death of one hunter by the hand of another.
It said that 'Lias Hatfield and his younger brother, Fred, had had a quarrel and then gone hunting, each taking a different direction. The younger boy had ensconced himself just under the brink of a steep bank at the bottom of which was Rolling River, a swift and deep stream. His brother's story was that he had come up facing this place, having started a young buck not half a mile away. He thought he heard the buck stamping, and blowing, and then saw what he thought was the animal behind a fringe of bushes at the top of this steep river bank.
The hunter blazed away, and heard a dreadful scream, a rolling and thrashing in the brush, and a splash in the river. He ran forward and found his brother's old gun and tippet. There was blood on the bushes. The supposition was that Fred Hatfield had been shot and had rolled into the swift-flowing river. 'Lias had given himself up to the authorities and there seemed some doubt in the minds of the people of Scarboro as to whether the shooting had been an accident.
"If there was no body found," thought Ruth, all the time she was eating the supper that Mary brought her, "how do they know Fred Hatfield is really dead? And if he is dead, who is the boy who is traveling about the country using Fred Hatfield's name and carrying Mr. Hatfield's old wallet? I guess Fred has run away, instead of being killed, and is staying away because he hates his brother 'Lias, and wishes him to get into trouble about the shooting. If that's so, isn't he just the meanest boy that ever was?"
Long Jerry Todd came in with a huge armful of wood for the fire, and Ruth determined to pump him about the accident. The tall man knew all about it, and was willing enough to talk.
He sat down beside the fire and answered Ruth's questions most cheerfully.
"Ya-as, I knowed old man Hatfield," he said. "He's been dead goin' on ten year. That Fred wasn't good to his mother. His half-brothers— children of Old Man Hatfield's fust wife—is nicer to their marm than Fred was. Oh, ya-as! he was shot by 'Lias, all right. I dunno as 'Lias meant to do it. Hope not. But they found Fred's body in the river t'other day, and so they arrested 'Lias."
But Long Jerry hadn't seen any sign of the boy that had been with Ruth and the hermit when they arrived at Snow Camp. Ruth did not like to discuss the mystery with him any more; for it was a mystery now, that was sure. Fred Hatfield's body had been found in the river, yet a boy was traveling about the country bearing Fred Hatfield's name.
The guide finally unfolded himself and rose slowly to his full height, preparatory to going back to the kitchen regions. He was nearly seven feet tall, and painfully thin. He grinned down upon Ruth Fielding as she gazed in wonder at his proportions.
"I'm some long; ain't I, Miss?" he chuckled. "But I warn't no taller than av'rage folks when I was a boy. You hear of some folks gettin' stunted by sickness, or fright, or the like. Wal, I reckon I got stretched out longer'n common by fright. Want to hear about it?"
He was so jolly and funny that Ruth was glad to hear him talk and she encouraged him to go on. So Jerry sat down again and began his story.
BEARS—AND OTHER THINGS
"Ye see," drawled Jerry, "my marm was alive in them days—bless her heart! Dad was killed on the boom down Rolling River when I was a little shaver; but marm hung on till I got growed. Ya-as! I mean till I got clean through growin' and that was long after I voted fust time," and he chuckled and wagged his head.
"Wal, mebbe I was sixteen; mebbe seventeen. Boys up here in the woods have to cut their own vittles pretty airly. I was doin' a man's labor when I was 'leven. Ya-as, Miss! Had to work for me an' marm.
"And marm worked, too. One day I started for Drownville with a big bundle of aperns marm had sewed for Mis' Juneberry that kep' store at Drownville. She got two bits a dozen for makin' them aperns, I remember. Wal, it was a wilder country then than it is now, and I never see a soul, nor heard the sound of an axe in walking four miles. Just at the end o' them four miles," continued Long Jerry, his eyes twinkling, "there was a turn in the road. I swung around it—I was travelin' at a good clip—and come facin' up an old she b'ar which riz up on her hind laigs an' said: 'How-d'-do, Jerry Todd!' jest as plain as ever a bear spoke in its e-tar-nal life!
"Why," said Long Jerry, almost choking with his own laughter, "by the smile on thet thar b'ar's face and the way she spread her arms wide to receive me, it was plain enough how glad she was ter see me."
"I should think you'd have been scared to death!" gasped Ruth, looking down at him.
"Wal, I calculate I was some narvous. I was more narvous in them days than I be now. Hadn't seen so much of the world. And sure hadn't seen so much o' b'ars," cackled Jerry. "Not bein' used to b'ar sassiety I natcherly balked when that ol' she b'ar appeared so lovin'. I had pretty nigh walked right into her arms and there wasn't much chance to make any particular preparations. Fact was, I didn't have nothin' with me more dangerous than a broken jack-knife, and I don't know how it might strike you, Miss, but to me that didn't seem to be no implement with which to make a b'ar's acquaintance."
"I should think not!" giggled Ruth. "What did you do?"
"Wal, first of all I give her marm's bundle—ya-as I did! I pitched that there bundle of aperns right at her, and the way she growled an' tore at 'em was a caution, now I tell ye! I seen at once what she'd do to me if she got me, so I left them parts, an' left 'em quick! I started off through the woods, hittin' only the high spots, and fancied I could beat the old gal runnin'. But not on your tin-type! No, sir-ree! The old gal jest give a roar, come down on all four feet, and started after me at a pace that set me a-thinkin' of my sins.
"Jest as sure as you live, if I'd kept on running she'd had me within thirty yards. An' I knew if I climbed a big tree she'd race me to the top of it and get me, too. Ye see, a small-round tree was my only chance. A b'ar climbs by huggin' their paws around the trunk, and it takes one of right smart size to suit them for climbin',
"I see my tree all right, and I went for it. Missus B'ar, she come cavortin' an' growlin' along, and it did seem to me as though she'd have a chunk out o' me afore I could climb out o' reach. It was jest about then, I reckon," pursued Long Jerry, chuckling again, "when I believe I began to grow tall!
"I stretched my arms up as fur as I could, an' the way I shinnied up that sapling was a caution to cats, now I tell ye! She riz up the minute she got to the tree and tried to scrape me off with both paws. She missed me by half a fraction of an infinitessimal part of an inch —that's a good word, that 'infinitessimal'; ain't it, Miss? I got it off of a college perfesser what come up here, and he said he got it straight-away out of the dictionary."
"It's a good word, Mr. Todd," laughed Ruth, highly delighted at the man and his story.
"Wal!" chuckled Jerry, "we'll say she missed me. I was so scar't that I didn't know then whether she had missed me or was chawin' of me. I felt I was pretty numb like below my waist. And how I did stretch up that tree! No wonder I growed tall after that day," said Jerry, shaking his head. "I stretched ev'ry muscle in my carcass, Miss—I surely did!
"There was that ol she b'ar, on her hind legs and a-roarin' at me like the Mr. Bashan's Bull that they tell about, and scratchin' the bark off'n that tree in great strips. She cleaned the pole, as far up as she could reach, as clean as a bald man's head. She jumped as far as she could, gnashed her teeth, and tried her best to climb that sapling. Every time she made a jump, or howled, I tried to climb higher. An', Miss, that was the time I got stretched out so tall, for sure.
"The bear, with wide-open mouth, kept on a-jumpin' an' ev'ry time she jumped I clumb a little higher, I was so busy lookin' down at her that I never looked up to see how fur I was gettin' toward the top, so, all of a suddent-like, the tree top begun to bend over with me an' sumpin' snapped. 'Twarn't my galluses, neither!" crowed Long Jerry, very much delighted by his own tale. "I knowed that, all right. Sna-a-ap! she went again, and I begun to go down.
"I swanny! but that was a warm time for me, Miss—it sure was. There was that ol' she b'ar with her mouth as wide open as a church door— or, so it looked to Jerry Todd. They say a feller that's drowndin' thinks over all his hull endurin' life when he's goin' down. I believe it. Sure I do. 'Twarn't twenty feet from the top o' that tree to the ground, but I even remembered how I stole my sister Jane's rag baby when I couldn't more'n toddle around marm's shanty—that's right!—an' berried of it in the hog-pen. Every sin that was registered to my account come up before me as plain as the wart on Jim Biggle's nose!"
"Oh, Mr. Todd!" cried Ruth. "Falling right on that awful bear?"
"That's what I was doin', Miss—and it didn't take me long to do it, neither, I reckon. Mebbe the b'ar warn't no more ready to receive me than I was to drap down on her. I heard her give a startled whuff, and she come on all four paws. The next thing I done was to land square on her back—I swanny! that was a crack. Purty nigh drove my spine up through the top of my head, it did. And the ol' b'ar must ha' been mighty sorry arterwards that she was right there to receive me. She give a most awful grunt, shook me off onto the ground and kited out o' that as though she'd been sent for in a hurry! I swanny! I never did see a b'ar run so fast," and Long Jerry burst into an uproarious laugh.
"But that, I reckon, is the time I got so stretched out an' begun to grow so tall, Miss," he added. "Stretchin' an' strainin' to git away from that ol' she b'ar was what done it."
Ruth was delighted with the guide; but she was very tired, too, and when the maids came in she was only too glad to fall in with the suggestion of bed. She was put to sleep in a great, plainly furnished room, where there were three other beds—a regular dormitory. It was like one of the Prime sleeping rooms at Briarwood Hall.
And how Ruth did sleep that night after her adventurous day! The sun shone broadly on the clearing about the camp when she first opened her eyes. Mary put her head in at the door and said:
"Your breakfast will be spoilt, Miss Ruth, or I wouldn't disturb you. All the men's ate long ago and Janey's fussin' in the kitchen. Besides, the folks will be over from Scarboro in an hour. Mr. Cameron just telephoned and asked how you were."
"Oh, I feel fine!" cried the girl from the Red Mill, joyfully.
But when she hopped out of bed she found herself dreadfully stiff and lame; the jouncing she had received while riding with the boy calling himself Fred Hatfield, and the catamount, on the timber cart, and later her first long walk on snow-shoes, had together strained her muscles and lamed her limbs to a degree. Old Aunt Alvirah's oft-repeated phrase fitted her condition, and she grimly repeated it:
"Oh, my back and oh, my bones!"
But the prospect of the other girls, coming—and Tom and his friends, too—and the fun in store for them all at Snow Camp, soon made Ruth Fielding forget small troubles. Besides, the muscles of youth are elastic and the weariness soon went out of her bones. Before the party arrived from Scarboro she had opportunity of going all about the great log lodge, and getting acquainted with all it held and all that surrounded it.
The great hall on the lower floor was arranged so as to have a broad open fireplace at either end. These fires were kept burning day and night and the great heaps of glowing logs made the hall, and most of the upper rooms, very comfortable indeed. The walls of this hall were hung with snowshoes, Canadian toboggans—so light, apparently, that they would not hold one man, let alone four, but very, very strongly built—guns, Indian bows and sheaf of arrows, fish-spears, and a conglomeration of hunting gear for much of which Ruth Fielding did not even know the names, let alone their uses.
Outside the snow had been cleared away immediately around the great log house and a wide path was cut through the drifts down to a small lake, or pond. In coming from Rattlesnake Hill the night before with the old hermit, and the boy who called himself Fred Hatfield, they had come down a long incline in sight of the camp. Now, Ruth saw that a course had been made level upon that hillside, banked up on either side with dykes of snow, and water poured over the whole to make a perfect slide. There was a starting platform at the top and the course was more than half a mile in length, Long Jerry told her.
But when she had seen all these things sleigh bells were heard and Ruth ran out to welcome her friends.
THE FROST GAMES
The big sleigh in which were Helen and the other girls swept into the clearing in advance and Ruth's chum led the chorus addressed vociferously to the girl from Red Mill.
"The lost is found!"
"And she got here first—wasn't that cute of her?"
"Oh, do tell us all about it, Ruth," cried Lluella Fairfax.
"However could you scare us so, Ruthie?" cried Jennie Stone, the heavyweight. "I was so worried I was actually sick."
"And that is positively 'no error,'" laughed Belle Tingley. "For once Heavy was so troubled that she couldn't eat."
Helen was out of the sleigh at once and hugged Ruth hard. "You blessed girl!" she cried. "I was so afraid something dreadful had happened to you."
"And what became of that horrid boy Mr. Cameron tried to take to Scarboro?" demanded Madge Steele.
The boys piled out of their sledge before Ruth could answer these questions, and she was unable to give a very vivid explanation of all that had happened to her since leaving the train, until the whole party was gathered before one of the open fires in the hall, waiting for dinner. Before this hour came, however, and while the rest of the young folks were getting acquainted with the possibilities of Snow Camp, Ruth had a serious talk with Mr. Cameron regarding the mysterious boy who had disappeared on the verge of the Snow Camp reservation.
"I don't know how he escaped us. He sped away through the woods with the old hermit's snowshoes—I am sure of that. And that old Rattlesnake Man didn't seem to be bothered at all by his loss," Ruth said.
"Perhaps that hermit knows something about the fellow. We'll look into that," said the merchant, gravely. "However, Ruth, you did what you thought was right. It was reckless. I cannot commend you for leaving the train, child. Something dreadful might have happened to you."
"I thought something dreadful did happen to me," said Ruth, with a shudder, "when those mules ran away and that catamount leaped up on the timber cart."
"I believe you! And your going to the cabin of that rattlesnake catcher. They say he is mad, and he handles the serpents just as though they were white mice. The people hereabout are afraid of him," said Mr. Cameron, earnestly.
"He was as kind as he could be to me," said Ruth, shaking her head. "I don't think I should ever be afraid of him. His eyes are kind. But the snakes—oh! they did frighten me dreadfully."
"From what I hear of this young man, 'Lias Hatfield, who is in jail at Scarboro, he is a decent lad and has worked hard for his stepmother. The half-brother he shot was about the age of this boy we found down home. But his body was recovered from the river only the other day when they arrested 'Lias. I shall make it my business to see the Hatfields personally and learn, if possible, how a stranger like that boy who came here with you, Ruth, could have obtained Mr. Hatfield's old wallet."
"He had some deep interest in the mystery of this shooting," declared Ruth, and she told the merchant of the newspaper clipping that had dropped out of the old wallet when she had undertaken to dry the boy's clothing at the Red Mill.
Meanwhile, the other young folks were highly delighted over the possibilities for fun at Snow Camp. Tom and his friends did not pay much attention to what was inside the great log house; but before noon they knew all that was to be done outside and were unhappy only because they did not know which to do first. In addition, Busy Izzy had exhausted himself and every man about the place, asking questions; and finally Tom and Bob gagged him with his own handkerchief and threatened to tie him up and not give him any dinner if he did not stop it.