Ruth Fielding On Cliff Island
THE OLD HUNTER'S TREASURE BOX
ALICE B. EMERSON
AUTHOR OF "RUTH FIELDING OF THE RED MILL," "RUTH FIELDING AT SILVER RANCH," ETC.
CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY
Books for Girls
BY ALICE B. EMERSON
RUTH FIELDING SERIES
12mo. Cloth. Illustrated.
Price per volume, 40 cents, postpaid.
RUTH FIELDING OF THE RED MILL Or, Jasper Parloe's Secret.
RUTH FIELDING AT BRIARWOOD HALL Or, Solving the Campus Mystery.
RUTH FIELDING AT SNOW CAMP Or, Lost in the Backwoods.
RUTH FIELDING AT LIGHTHOUSE POINT Or, Nita, the Girl Castaway.
RUTH FIELDING AT SILVER RANCH Or, Schoolgirls Among the Cowboys.
RUTH FIELDING ON CLIFF ISLAND Or, The Old Hunter's Treasure Box.
RUTH FIELDING AT SUNRISE FARM Or, What Became of the Raby Orphans.
RUTH FIELDING AND THE GYPSIES Or, The Missing Pearl Necklace.
CUPPLES & LEON CO., PUBLISHERS, NEW YORK.
COPYRIGHT, 1915, BY CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY
RUTH FIELDING ON CLIFF ISLAND
I. THE WRECK AT APPLEGATE CROSSING 1
II. THE PANTHER AT LARGE 9
III. UNCLE JABEZ HAS TWO OPINIONS 17
IV. ON THE WAY TO BRIARWOOD 26
V. A LONG LOOK AHEAD 35
VI. PICKING UP THE THREADS 42
VII. "A HARD ROW TO HOE" 49
VIII. JERRY SHEMING AGAIN 57
IX. RUTH'S LITTLE PLOT 66
X. AN EXCITING FINISH 73
XI. A NUMBER OF THINGS 82
XII. RUFUS BLENT'S LITTLE WAYS 90
XIII. FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE 98
XIV. THE HUE AND CRY 106
XV. OVER THE PRECIPICE 115
XVI. HIDE AND SEEK 124
XVII. CHRISTMAS MORNING 133
XVIII. FUN ON THE ICE 143
XIX. BLENT IS MASTER 150
XX. THE FISHING PARTY 157
XXI. JERRY'S CAVE 166
XXII. SNOWED IN 173
XXIII. "A BLOW FOR LIBERTY" 181
XXIV. A MIDNIGHT MARAUDER 189
XXV. THE TREASURE BOX 197
RUTH FIELDING ON CLIFF ISLAND
THE WRECK AT APPLEGATE CROSSING
A September morning has dawned, with only a vague tang of autumn in the air. In the green old dooryard at the Red Mill, under the spreading shade trees, two girls are shelling a great basket of dried lima beans for the winter's store.
The smaller, black-haired girl begins the conversation.
"Suppose Jane Ann doesn't come, Ruth?"
"You mean on this morning train?" responded the plumper and more mature-looking girl, whose frank face was particularly attractive.
"Then Tom said he would go back to meet the evening train—and we'll go with him," said Ruth Fielding, with a smile. "But I could not go this morning and leave poor Aunt Alvirah all these beans to shell."
"Of course not," agreed her friend, promptly. "And Jane Ann won't feel offended by our not meeting her at Cheslow, I know."
"No, indeed, Helen," laughed Ruth. "Jane Ann Hicks is altogether too sensible a girl."
"Sensible about everything but her name," commented Helen Cameron, making a little face.
"And one can scarcely blame her. It is ugly," Ruth responded, with a sigh. "Jane Ann Hicks! Dear, dear! how could her Uncle Bill be so thoughtless as to name her that, when she was left, helpless, to his care?"
"He didn't realize that fashions in names change—like everything else," observed Helen, briskly.
"I wonder what the girls at Briarwood will say to that name," Ruth pondered.
"Why The Fox and Heavy will help us make the other girls toe the mark. And Madge Steele! She's a regiment in herself," declared Helen. "We all had such a fine time at Silver Ranch that the least we can do is to see that Jane Ann is not hazed like the other infants."
"I expect we all have to stand our share of hazing when we go into fresh company," said Ruth, reflectively. "But there will not be the same crowd to meet her that met us, dear."
"And the Sweetbriars will be on hand to preserve order," laughed her chum. "Thanks to you, Ruthie. Why—oh! see Tom!"
She jumped up, dropping a lapful of pods, and pointed up the Cheslow road, which here branched from the river road almost opposite the Red Mill.
"What is the matter?" demanded Ruth, also scrambling to her feet.
A big touring car was approaching at top speed. They could see that the only person in it was a black-haired boy, who sat at the steering wheel.
He brought the machine to an abrupt stop before the gate, and leaped out. Tearing off his goggles as he ran, he approached the two girls in such a state of excitement that he could scarce speak coherently.
"Oh, Tom! what is it?" gasped Helen, seizing his arm with both hands.
It took but a single glance to discover the relationship between them. Twins never looked more alike—only Tom's features lacked the delicacy of outline which belonged to his sister.
"Tom!" cried Ruth, on the other side of the excited youth, "don't keep us on tenter-hooks. Surely nothing has happened to Jane Ann?"
"I don't know! They won't tell us much about it at the station," exclaimed the boy.
"There hasn't been a wreck?" demanded Ruth.
"Yes. At Applegate Crossing. And it is the train from the west that is in trouble with a freight. A rear-end collision, I understand."
"Suppose something has happened to the poor girl!" wailed Helen.
"We must go and see," declared Ruth, quick to decide in an emergency. "You must drive us, Tom."
"That's what I came back for," replied Tom Cameron, mopping his brow. "I couldn't get anything out of Mercy's father——"
"Of course not," Helen said, briskly, as Ruth ran to the house. "The railroad employes are forbidden to talk when there is an accident. Mr. Curtis might lose his job as station agent at Cheslow if he answered all queries."
Ruth came flying back from the house. She had merely called into the kitchen to Aunt Alvirah that they were off—and their destination. While Tom sprang in and manipulated the self-starter, his sister and the girl of the Red Mill took their seats in the tonneau.
By the time old Aunt Alvirah had hobbled to the porch, the automobile was being turned, and backed, and then it was off, up the river road. Uncle Jabez, in his dusty garments, appeared for a moment at the door of the mill as they flashed past in the big motor car. Evidently he was amazed to see the three—the girls hatless—starting off at such a pace in the Camerons' car.
Tom threw in the clutch at high speed and the car bounded over the road, gradually increasing its pace until the hum of the engine almost drowned out all speech. The girls asked no questions. They knew that, by following the river road along the placid Lumano for some distance, they could take a fork toward the railway and reach Applegate Crossing much quicker than by going through Cheslow.
Once Tom flung back a word or two over his shoulder. No relief train had gone from their home station to the scene of the wreck. It was understood that a wrecking gang, and doctors, and nurses, had started from the distant city before ever the Cheslow people learned of the trouble.
"Oh! if Jane Ann should be hurt!" murmured Helen for the twentieth time.
"Uncle Bill Hicks would be heartbroken," agreed Ruth.
Although the crossroad, when they struck into it at the Forks, was not so smooth and well-built as the river highway, Tom did not reduce speed. Mile after mile rolled away behind them. From a low ridge they caught a glimpse of the cut where the two trains had come together.
It was the old story of a freight being dilatory in getting out of a block that had been opened for the passage of an express. The express had run her nose into the caboose of the freight, and more harm was done to the freight than to the passenger cars. A great crowd, however, had gathered about.
Tom ran the car into an open lot beside the tracks, where part of the railroad fence had been torn away. Two passenger cars were on their sides, and one or two of the box cars had burst open.
"Look at that!" gasped the boy, whose bright eyes took in much that the girls missed, for they were looking for Jane Ann Hicks. "That's a menagerie car—and it's all smashed. See! 'Rival's Circus & Menagerie.' Crickey! suppose some of the savage animals are loose!"
"Oh! don't suggest such a thing," begged his sister.
Tom saw an excited crowd of men near the broken cage cars of the traveling menagerie. Down in the gully that was here crossed by the narrow span of the railroad trestle, there was a thick jungle of saplings and brush out of which a few taller trees rose, their spreading limbs almost touching the sides of the ravine.
It must be confessed that the boy was drawn more toward this point of interest than toward the passenger train where Jane Ann might possibly be lying injured. But Ruth and Helen ran toward this latter spot, where the crowd of passengers was thickest.
Suddenly the crowd parted and the girls saw a figure lying on the ground, with a girl about their own age bending over it. Ruth screamed, "Jinny!" and at the sound of the pet name her uncle's cow punchers had given her, the girl from Silver Ranch responded with an echoing cry.
"Oh, Ruth! And Helen! I'm not hurt—only scratched. But this poor fellow——"
"Who is he?" demanded Helen Cameron, as she and Ruth arrived beside their friend.
The figure on the ground was a very young man—a boy, in fact. He was roughly dressed, and sturdily built. His eyes were closed and he was very pale.
"He got me out of the window when the car turned over," gasped Jane Ann. "Then he fell with me and has either broken his leg, or twisted it——"
"Only strained, Miss," spoke the victim of the accident, opening his eyes suddenly. Ruth saw that they were kind, brown eyes, with a deal of patience in their glance. He was not the sort of chap to make much of a trifle.
"But you can't walk on it," exclaimed Jane Ann, who was a large-framed girl with even blacker hair than Helen's—straight as an Indian's—and with flashing eyes. She was expensively dressed, although her torn frock and coat were not in very good taste. She showed plainly a lack of that motherly oversight all girls need.
"They'll come and fix me up after a time," said the strange youth, patiently.
"That won't do," declared Ruth, quickly. "I suppose the doctors are busy up there with other passengers?"
"Oh, yes," admitted Jane Ann. "Lots of people were hurt in the cars a good deal worse than Mr.—Mr.——?"
"My name's Jerry Sheming, Miss," said the youth. "Don't you worry about me."
"Here's Tom!" cried Helen. "Can't we lift him into the car? We'll run to Cheslow and let Dr. Davison look at his leg," she added.
Tom, understanding the difficulty at a glance, agreed. Between the four young folk they managed to carry Jerry Sheming to the car. They had scarcely got him into the tonneau when a series of yells arose from the crowd down near the derailed freight train.
"Look out! Take care of that panther! I told you she was out!" shouted one voice above the general uproar.
Ruth Fielding and her friends, startled indeed, ran to the brow of the hill. One of the wide-branched trees rose from the bottom of the ravine right below them. Along one of the branches lay a long, cat-like body.
"A black panther!" gasped Tom.
THE PANTHER AT LARGE
"Say! let's get out of here!" exclaimed the girl from the West. "I don't want to be eaten up by that cat—and Uncle Bill would make an awful row over it. Come on!"
She seized Ruth's hand and, leaving Tom to drag his sister with him, set off at full speed for the motor car, wherein Jerry Sheming, the stranger, still lay helpless.
Helen was breathless from laughter when she reached the car. Jane Ann's desire not to be eaten up by the panther because of what Mr. Bill Hicks, of Bullhide, Montana, would say, was so amusing that Tom's twin forgot her fright.
"Stop your fooling and get in there—quick!" commanded the anxious boy, pushing his sister into the tonneau. With the injured Jerry, the back of the car was well filled. Tom leaped into the front seat and tried to start the car.
"Quick, Tom!" begged Ruth Fielding. "There's the panther."
"Panther! What panther?" demanded Jerry, starting up in his seat.
The lithe, black beast appeared just then over the brow of the hill. The men who had started after the beast were below in the ravine, yelling, and driving the creature toward them. The motor car was the nearest object to attract the great cat's wrath, and there is no wild beast more savage and treacherous.
Tom was having trouble in starting the car. Besides, it was headed directly for the huge cat, and the latter undoubtedly had fastened its cruel gaze upon the big car and its frightened occupants.
Ruth Fielding and her friends had been in serious difficulties before. They had even (in the woods of the Northern Adirondacks and in the foothills of the Montana Rockies) met peril in a somewhat similar form. But here, with the panther creeping toward them, foot by foot, the young friends had no weapon of defense.
Ruth had often proved herself both a courageous and a sensible girl. Coming from her old home where her parents had died, a year and a half before, she had received shelter at the Red Mill, belonging to her great uncle, Jabez Potter, at first as an object of charity, for Uncle Jabez was a miserly and ill-tempered old fellow. The adventures of the first book of this series, entitled "Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill; Or, Jasper Parloe's Secret," narrate how Ruth won her way—in a measure, at least—to her uncle's heart.
Ruth made friends quickly with Helen and Tom Cameron, and when, the year previous, Helen had gone to Briarwood Hall to school, Ruth had gone with her, and the fun, friendships, rivalries, and adventures of their first term at boarding school are related in "Ruth Fielding at Briarwood Hall; Or, Solving the Campus Mystery."
In "Ruth Fielding at Snow Camp; Or, Lost in the Backwoods," the third volume of the series, are told the mid-winter sports of our heroine and her friends; and later, after the school year is concluded, we find them all at the seaside home of one of the Briarwood girls, and follow them through the excitement and incidents of "Ruth Fielding at Lighthouse Point; Or, Nita, the Girl Castaway."
When our present story opens Ruth and the Camerons have just returned from the West, where they had spent a part of the summer vacation with Jane Ann Hicks, and their many adventures are fully related in the fifth volume of the series, entitled "Ruth Fielding at Silver Ranch; Or, Schoolgirls Among the Cowboys."
Few perils they had faced, however, equalled this present incident. The black panther, its gleaming eyes fixed upon the stalled motor car and the young folk in it, crouched for only a moment, with lashing tail and bared fangs.
Uttering another half-stifled snarl, the beast bounded into the air. The distance was too great for the brute to pass immediately to the car; but it was plain that one more leap would bring her aboard.
"Start it! Quick, Tom!" gasped Helen.
"I—I can't!" groaned her brother.
"Then we must run——"
"Sit still!" commanded Jane Ann, with fire in her eye. "I'm not going to run from that cat. I hate 'em, anyway——"
"We can't leave Mr. Sheming," said Ruth, decidedly. "Try again, Tommy."
"Oh, don't bother about me," groaned the young man, who was still a stranger to them. "Don't be caught here on my account."
"It will not do us any good to run," cried Ruth, sensibly. "Oh, Tommy!"
And then the engine started. The electric starter had worked at last. Tom threw in his clutch and the car lunged ahead just as the snarling cat sprang into the air again.
The cat and the car were approaching each other, head on. The creature could not change its course; nor could Tom Cameron veer the car very well on this rough ground.
He had meant to turn the car in a big circle and make for the road again. But that flashing black body darting through the air was enough to shake the nerve of anybody. The car "wabbled." It shot towards the tracks, and then back again.
Perhaps that was a happy circumstance, after all. For as the car swerved, there was a splintering crash, and the windshield was shivered. The body of the panther shot to one side and the motor car escaped the full shock of the charge.
Over and over upon the ground the panther rolled; and off toward the road, in a long, sweeping curve, darted the automobile.
"Lucky escape!" Tom shouted, turning his blazing face once to look back at the party in his car.
"Oh! More than luck, Tommy!" returned Ruth, earnestly.
"It was providential," declared Helen, shrinking into her seat again and beginning to tremble, now that the danger was past.
"Good hunting!" exclaimed the girl from the ranch. "Think of charging a wildcat with one of these smoke wagons! My! wouldn't it make Bashful Ike's eyes bulge out? I reckon he wouldn't believe we had such hunting here in the East—eh?" and her laugh broke the spell of fear that had clutched them all.
"That critter beats the biggest bobcat I ever heard of," remarked Jerry Sheming. "Why! a catamount isn't in it with that black beast."
"Where'd it go?" asked Tom, quite taken up with the running of the car.
"Back to the ravine," said Ruth. "Oh! I hope it will do no damage before it is caught."
Just now the four young friends had something more immediate to think about. This Jerry Sheming had been "playing 'possum." Suddenly they found that he lay back in the tonneau, quite insensible.
"Oh, oh!" gasped Helen. "What shall we do? He is—Oh, Ruth! he isn't dead?"
"Of a strained leg?" demanded Jane Ann, in some disgust.
"But he looks so white," said Helen, plaintively.
"He's just knocked out. It's hurt him lots more than he let on," declared the girl from Silver Ranch, who had seen many a man suffer in silence until he lost the grip on himself—as this youth had.
In half an hour the car stopped before Dr. Davison's gate—the gate with the green lamps. Jerry Sheming had come to his senses long since and seemed more troubled by the fact that he had fainted than by the injury to his leg.
Ruth, by a few searching questions, had learned something of his story, too. He had not been a passenger on the train in which Jane Ann was riding when the wreck occurred. Indeed, he hadn't owned carfare between stations, as he expressed it.
"I was hoofin' it from Cheslow to Grading. I heard of a job up at Grading—and I needed that job," Jerry had observed, drily.
This was enough to tell Ruth Fielding what was needed. When Dr. Davison asked where the young fellow belonged, Ruth broke in with:
"He's going to the mill with me. You come after us, Doctor, if you think he ought to go to bed before his leg is treated."
"What do you reckon your folks will say, Miss?" groaned the injured youth. And even Helen and Tom looked surprised.
"Aunt Alvirah will nurse you," laughed Ruth. "As for Uncle Jabez——"
"It will do Uncle Jabez good," put in Dr. Davison, confidently. "That's right, Ruthie. You take him along to your house. I'll come right out behind you and will be there almost before Tom, here, and your uncle's Ben can get our patient to bed."
It had already been arranged that Jane Ann should go on to Outlook, the Camerons' home. She would remain there with the twins for the few days intervening before the young folk went back to school—the girls to Briarwood, and Tom to Seven Oaks, the military academy he had entered when his sister and Ruth went to their boarding school.
"How you will ever get your baggage—and in what shape—we can only guess," Tom said to the Western girl, grinning over his shoulder as the car flew on toward the Red Mill. "Guess you'll have to bid a fond farewell to all the glad rags you brought with you, and put on some of Ruth's, or Helen's."
"I'd look nice; wouldn't I?" she scoffed, tossing her head. "If I don't get my trunks I'll sue the railroad company."
The car arrived before the gate of the cottage. There was the basket of beans just where Ruth and Helen had left them. And Aunt Alvirah came hobbling to the door again, murmuring, "Oh, my back! and oh, my bones!" and quite amazed when she saw Ben come running to help Tom Cameron into the house with the youth from the railroad wreck.
"Though, landy's sake! I don't know what your Uncle Jabez will say when he comes back from town and finds this boy in the best bed," grumbled Aunt Alvirah, after a bit, when she and Ruth were left alone with Jerry Sheming, and the others had gone on in the car, hurrying so as not to be late for luncheon at Outlook.
UNCLE JABEZ HAS TWO OPINIONS
Dr. Davison came, found that Jerry's leg was not broken, left liniment, some quieting medicine to use if the patient could not sleep, and went away. Still Uncle Jabez had not returned from town.
Dinner had been a farce. Ben, the hired man, was fed as usual; but Ruth and Aunt Alvirah did not feel like eating; and, considering his fever, it was just as well, the doctor said, if the patient did not eat until later.
Jerry Sheming was a fellow of infinite pluck. The pain he had endured during his rough ride in the automobile must have been terrific. Yet he was only ashamed, now, that he had fainted.
"First time I ever heard of a Sheming fainting—or yet a Tilton, Miss," he told Ruth.
"I don't believe you belong near here?" suggested Ruth, who sat beside him, for he seemed restless. "I don't remember hearing either of those names around the Red Mill."
"No. I—I lived away west of here," replied Jerry, slowly. "Oh, a long ways."
"Not as far as Montana? That is where Jane Ann comes from."
"The girl I helped through the car window?" he asked, quickly.
"Yes. Miss Hicks."
"I did not mean really West," he said. "But it's quite some miles. I had been walking two days—and I'm some walker," he added, with a smile.
"Looking for work, you said?" questioned Ruth, diffident about showing her interest in the young fellow, yet deeply curious.
"Yes. I've got to support myself some way."
"Haven't you any folks at all, Mr. Jerry?"
"I ain't a 'mister,'" said the youth. "I'm not so much older than you and your friends."
"You seem a lot older," laughed Ruth, tossing back her hair.
"That's because I have been working most of my life—and I guess livin' in the woods all the time makes a chap seem old."
"And you've lived in the woods?"
"With my uncle. I can't remember anybody else belongin' to me—not very well. Pete Tilton is his name. He's been a guide and hunter all his life. And of late years he got so queer—before they took him away——"
"Took him away?" interrupted Ruth, "What do you mean by that?"
"Why, I'll tell you," said Jerry, slowly. "He got wild towards the last. It was something about his money and papers that he lost. He kep' 'em in a box somewhere. There was a landslide at the west end of the island."
"The island? What island?"
"Cliff Island. That's where we lived. Uncle Pete said he owned half the island, but Rufe Blent cheated him out of it. That's what made him so savage with Blent, and he come pretty near killin' him. At least, Blent told it that way.
"So they took poor Uncle Pete into court, and they said he wasn't safe to be at large, and sent him to the county asylum. Then—well, there wasn't no manner o' use my stayin' around there. Rufe Blent warned me off the island. So I started out to hunt a job."
The details were rather vague, but Ruth felt a little diffident about asking for further particulars. Besides, it was not long before Uncle Jabez came home.
"What do ye reckon your Aunt Alvirah keeps that spare room for?" demanded the old miller, with his usual growl, when Ruth explained about Jerry. "For to put up tramps?"
"Oh, Uncle! he isn't just a tramp!"
"I'd like to know what ye call it, Niece Ruth?" grumbled Uncle Jabez.
"Think how he saved Jane Ann! That car was rolling right down the embankment. He pulled her through the window and almost the next moment the car slid the rest of the way to the bottom, and lots of people—people in the chairs next to her—were badly hurt. Oh, Uncle! he saved her life, perhaps."
"That ain't makin' it any dif'rent," declared Uncle Jabez. "He's a tramp and nobody knows anything about him. Why didn't Davison send him to the hospital? The doc's allus mixin' us up with waifs an' strays. He's got more cheek than a houn' pup——"
"Now, Jabez!" cried the little old lady, who had been bending over the stove. "Don't ye make yourself out wuss nor you be. That poor boy ain't doin' no harm to the bed."
"Makin' you more work, Alviry."
"What am I good for if it ain't to work?" she demanded, quite fiercely. "When I can't work I want ye sh'd take me back to the poor farm where ye got me—an' where I'd been these last 'leven years if it hadn't been for your charity that you're so 'fraid folks will suspect——"
"Charity!" broke in Uncle Jabez. "Ha! Yes! a fat lot of charity I've showed you, Alviry Boggs. I reckon I've got my money's wuth out o' you back an' bones."
The old woman stood as straight as she could and looked at the grim miller with shining eyes. Ruth thought her face really beautiful as she smiled and said, wagging her head at the gray-faced man:
"Oh, Jabez Potter! Jabez Potter! Nobody'll know till you're in your coffin jest how much good you've done in this world'—on the sly! An' you'll let this pore boy rest an' git well here before he has to go out an' hunt a job for hisself. For my pretty, here, tells me he ain't got no home nor no friends."
"Uh-huh!" grunted Uncle Jabez, and stumped away to the mill, fairly beaten for the time.
"He grumbles and grunts," observed Aunt Alvirah, shaking her head as she turned to her work again. "But out o' sight he's re'lly gettin' tender-hearted, Ruthie. An' I b'lieve you showed him how a lot. Oh, my back! and oh, my bones!"
Before supper time a man on horseback came to the mill and cried a warning to the miller and his family: "Look out for your stables and pigpens. There's three beasts loose from those wrecked menagerie cars at the crossing, Jabez."
"Mercy on us! They ain't bound this way, are they?" demanded Uncle Jabez, with more anxiety than he usually showed.
"Nobody knows. You know, the piece of woods yonder is thick. The menagerie men lost them an hour ago. A big black panther—an ugly brute—and a lion and lioness. Them last two they say is as tame as kittens. But excuse me! I'd ruther trust the kittens," said the neighbor. Then he dug his heels in the sides of his horse and started off to bear the news to other residents along the road that followed this bank of the Lumano River.
Jabez shouted for Ben to hurry through his supper, and they closed the mill tight while the womenfolk tried to close all the shutters on the first floor of the cottage. But the "blinds" had not been closed on the east side of the house since they were painted the previous spring. Aunt Alviry was the kind of housekeeper who favored the morning sun and it always streamed into the windows of the guest room.
When they tried to close the outside shutters of those windows, one had a broken hinge that the painters had said nothing about. The heavy blind fell to the ground.
"Goodness me!" exclaimed Ruth, running back into the house. "That old panther could jump right into that room where Jerry is. But if we keep a bright light in there all night, I guess he won't—if he comes this way at all."
It was foolish, of course, to fear the coming of the marauding animal from the shattered circus car. Probably, Ruth told herself before the evening was half over, "Rival's Circus and Menagerie" had moved on with all its beasts.
Uncle Jabez, however, got down the double-barreled shotgun, cleaned and oiled it, and slipped in two cartridges loaded with big shot.
"I ain't aimin' to lose my pigs if I can help it," he said.
As the evening dragged by, they all forgot the panther scare. Jerry had fallen asleep after supper without recourse to the medicine Dr. Davison had left. As usual, Uncle Jabez was poring over his daybook and counting the cash in the japanned money box.
Ruth was deep in her text books. One does forget so much between June and September! Aunt Alvirah was busily sewing some ruffled garment for "her pretty."
Suddenly a quick, stern voice spoke out of the guest room down the hall.
"Quick! bring that gun!"
"Hul-lo!" murmured Uncle Jabez, looking up.
"That poor boy's delirious," declared Aunt Alvirah.
But Ruth jumped up and ran lightly to the room where Jerry Sheming lay.
"What is it?" she gasped, peering at the flushed face that was raised from the pillow.
"That cat!" muttered Jerry.
"Oh, you're dreaming!" declared Ruth, trying to laugh.
"I ain't lived in the woods for nothin'," snapped the young fellow. "I never see that black panther in her native wilds, o' course; but I've tracked other kinds o' cats. And one of the tribe is 'round here——There! hear that?"
One of the horses in the stable squealed suddenly—a scream of fear. Then a cow bellowed.
Uncle Jabez came with a rush, in his stocking feet, with the heavy shotgun in his hand.
"What's up?" he demanded, hoarsely.
"I am!" exclaimed Jerry, swinging his legs out of bed, despite the pain it caused him. "Put out that light, Miss Ruth."
Aunt Alvirah hobbled in, groaning, "Oh, my back! and oh, my bones!"
Uncle Jabez softly raised the sash where the blind was missing.
"I saw her eyes," gasped Jerry, much excited. He reached out a grasping hand. "Gimme that gun, sir, unless you are a good shot. I don't often miss."
"You take it," muttered Uncle Jabez, thrusting the gun into the young fellow's hand. "My—my eyes ain't what they once was."
"Send the women folk back. If she leaps in at the winder——"
Suddenly he raised the gun to his shoulder. It was so dark in the room they all saw the crouching creature on the lawn outside. It was headed for the open window, and its eyes gleamed like yellow coals.
In a moment the gun spoke—one long tongue of flame, followed by the other, flashed into the night. There was a yowl, a struggle on the grass outside, and then——
"You're something of a shot, you be, young feller!" boomed out Jabez Potter's rough voice. "I was some mistaken in you. Ah! it hurt ye, eh?" and he proceeded to lift the suffering Jerry back into bed as tenderly as he would have handled Ruth herself.
They did not go out to see the dead panther until daybreak. Then they learned that the pair of lions had already been caught by their owners.
ON THE WAY TO BRIARWOOD
If anything had been needed to interest Ruth Fielding deeply in the young fellow who had been injured at the scene of the railroad wreck, the occurrence that evening at the Red Mill would have provided it.
It was not enough for her to make a veritable hero of him to Helen, and Jane Ann, and Tom, when they came over from Outlook the following morning. When the girl of the Red Mill was really interested in anything or anybody, she gave her whole-souled attention to it.
She could not be satisfied with Jerry Sheming's brief account of his life with his half-crazed uncle on some distant place called Cliff Island, and the domestic tragedy that seemed to be the cause of the old man's final incarceration in a madhouse.
"Tell me all about yourself—do," she pleaded with Jerry, who was to remain in bed for several days (Uncle Jabez insisted on it himself, too!), for the injured leg must be rested. "Didn't you live anywhere else but in the woods?"
"That's right, Miss," he said, slowly. "I got a little schooling on the mainland; but it warn't much. Uncle Pete used to guide around parties of city men who wanted to fish and hunt. At the last I did most of the guidin'. He said he could trust me, for I hated liquor as bad as him. My dad was killed by it.
"Uncle Pete was a mite cracked over it, maybe. But he was good enough to me until Rufus Blent came rummagin' round. Somehow he got Uncle Pete to ragin'."
"Who is this Rufus Blent?" asked Ruth, curiously.
"He's a real estate man. He lives at Logwood. That's the landin' at the east end o' the lake."
"Tallahaska. You've heard tell on't?" he asked.
"Yes. But I was never there, of course."
"Well, Miss, Cliff Island is just the purtiest place! And Uncle Pete must have had some title to it, for he's lived there all his life—and he's old. Fifty-odd year he was there, I know. He was more than a squatter.
"I reckon he was a bit of a miser. He had some money, and he didn't trust to banks. So he kept it hid on the island, of course.
"Then the landslide come, and he talked as though it had covered his treasure box—and in it was papers he talked about. If he could ha' got those papers he could ha' beat Rufus Blent off.
"That's the understandin' I got of him. Of course, he talked right ragin' and foolish; but some things he said was onderstandable. But he couldn't make the judge see it—nor could I. They let Rufus Blent have his way, and Uncle Pete went to the 'sylum.
"Then they ordered me off the island. I believe Blent wanted to s'arch it himself for the treasure box. He's a sneakin' man—I allus hated him," said Jerry, clenching his fist angrily.
"But they could ha' put me in the jug if I'd tried to fight him. So I come away. Don't 'spect I'll ever see Tallahaska—or Cliff Island—again," and the young fellow's voice broke and he turned his face away.
When Jane Ann Hicks heard something of this, through Ruth, she was eager to help Jerry to be revenged upon the man whom he thought had cheated his uncle.
"Let me write to Bill Hicks about it," she cried, eagerly. "He'll come on here and get after this thieving real estate fellow—you bet!"
"I have no doubt that he would," laughed Helen, pinching her. "You'd make him leave his ranch and everything else and come here just to do that. Don't be rash, young lady. Jerry certainly did you a favor, but you needn't take everything he says for the gospel truth."
"I believe myself he's honest," added Ruth, quietly.
"And I don't doubt him either," Helen Cameron said. "But we'd better hear both sides of it. And a missing treasure box, and papers to prove that an old hunter is owner of an island in Tallahaska, sounds—well, unusual, to say the least."
Ruth laughed. "Helen has suddenly developed caution," she said. "What do you say, Tom?"
"I'll get father to write to somebody at Logwood, and find out about it," returned the boy, promptly.
That is the way the matter was left for the time being. The next day they were to start for school—the girls for Briarwood and Tom for Seven Oaks.
It was arranged that Jerry should remain at the Red Mill for a time. Uncle Jabez's second opinion of him was so favorable that the miller might employ him for a time as the harvesting and other fall work came on. And Jane Ann left a goodly sum in the miller's hands for young Sheming's use.
"He's that independent that he wouldn't take nothing from me but a pair of cuff links," declared Jane Ann, wiping her eyes, for she was a tender-hearted girl under her rough exterior. "Says they will do for him to remember me by. He's a nice chap."
"Jinny's getting sentimental," gibed Tom, slily.
"I'm not over you, Mister Tom!" she flared up instantly. "You're too 'advanced' a dresser."
"And you were the girl who once ran away from Silver Ranch and the boys out there, because everything was so 'common,'" chuckled Tom.
Ruth shut him off at that. She knew that the western girl could not stand much teasing.
They were all nervous, anyway; at least, the girls were. Ruth and Helen approached their second year at Briarwood with some anxiety. How would they be treated? How would the studies be arranged for the coming months of hard work? How were they going to stand with the teachers?
When the two chums first went to Briarwood they occupied a double room; but later they had taken in Mercy Curtis, a lame girl. Now that "triumvirate" could not continue, for Jane Ann had begged to room with Ruth and Helen.
The western girl, who was afraid of scarcely anything "on four legs or two" in her own environment, was really nervous as she approached boarding school. She had seen enough of these eastern girls to know that they were entirely different from herself. She was "out of their class," she told herself, and if she had not been with Ruth and Helen these few last days before the opening of the school term, she would have run away.
Ruth was going back to school this term with a delightful sense of having gained Uncle Jabez's special approval. He admitted that schooling such as she gained at Briarwood was of some use. And he made her a nice present of pocket-money when she started.
The Cameron auto stopped for her at the Red Mill before mid-forenoon, and Ruth bade the miller and Aunt Alvirah and Ben—not forgetting Jerry Sheming, her new friend—good-bye.
"Do—do take care o' yourself, my pretty," crooned Aunt Alvirah over her, at the last. "Jest remember we're a-honin' for you here at the ol' mill."
"Take care of Uncle Jabez," whispered Ruth. She dared kiss the grim old man only upon his dusty cheek. Then she shook hands with bashful Ben and ran out to her waiting friends.
"Come on, or we'll lose the train," cried Helen.
They were off the moment Ruth stepped into the tonneau. But she stood up and waved her hand to the little figure of Aunt Alvirah in the cottage doorway as long as she could be seen on the Cheslow road. And she had a fancy that Uncle Jabez himself was lurking in the dark opening to the grist-floor of the mill, and watching the retreating motor car.
There was a quick, alert-looking girl hobbling on two canes up and down the platform at Cheslow Station. This was Mercy Curtis, the station agent's crippled daughter.
"Here you are at last!" she cried, shrilly. "And the train already hooting for the station. Five minutes more and you would have been too late. Did you think I could go to Briarwood without you?"
Ruth ran up and kissed her heartily. She knew that Mercy's "bark was worse than her bite."
"You come and see Jane Ann—and be nice to her. She doesn't look it, but she's just as scared as she can be."
"Of course you'd have some poor, unfortunate pup, or kitten, to mother, Ruth Fielding," snapped the lame girl.
She was very nice, however, to the girl from Silver Ranch, sat beside her in the chair car, and soon had Jane Ann laughing. For Mercy Curtis, with her sarcastic tongue, could be good fun if she wished to be.
Here and there, along the route to Osago Lake, other Briarwood girls joined them. At one point appeared Madge Steele and her brother, Bob, a slow, smiling young giant, called "Bobbins" by the other boys, who was always being "looked after" in a most distressing fashion by his sister.
"Come, Bobby, boy, don't fall up the steps and get your nice new clothes dirty," adjured Madge, as her brother made a false step in getting aboard the train. "Will you look out for him, Mr. Cameron, if I leave him in your care?"
"Sure!" said Tom, laughing. "I'll see that he doesn't spoil his pinafore or mess up his curls."
"Say! I'd shake a sister like that if I had one," grunted "Busy Izzy" Phelps, disgustedly.
"Aw, what's the odds?" drawled good-natured Bobbins.
The hilarious crowd boarded the Lanawaxa at the landing, and after crossing the lake they again took a train, disembarking at Seven Oaks, where the boys' school was situated.
From here the girls were to journey by stage to Briarwood. There was dust-coated, grinning, bewhiskered "Old Noah Dolliver" and his "Ark," waiting for them.
There was a horde of uniformed academy boys about to greet Tom and his chums, and to eye the girls who had come thus far in their company. But Ruth and her friends were not so bashful as they had been the year before.
They formed in line, two by two, and slowly paraded the length of the platform, chanting in unison the favorite "welcome to the infants" used at the beginning of each half at Briarwood:
"Uncle Noah, he drove an Ark— One wide river to cross! He's aiming to land at Briarwood Park— One wide river to cross! One wide river! One wide river of Jordan! One wide river! One wide river to cross!"
The boys cheered them enthusiastically. The girls piled into the coach with much laughter. Even Mercy had taken part in this fun, for the procession had marched at an easy pace for her benefit.
Old Dolliver cracked his whip. Tom ran along in the dust on one side and Bobbins on the other, each to bid a last good-bye to his sister.
Then the coach rolled into the shadow of the cool wood road, and Ruth and her friends were really upon the last lap of their journey to the Hall.
A LONG LOOK AHEAD
"Hurrah! first glimpse of the old place!"
Helen cried this, with her head out of the Ark. The dust rolled up in a cloud behind them as they topped the hill. Here Mary Cox had met Ruth and Helen that first day, a year ago, when they approached the Hall.
There was no infant in the coach now save Jane Ann. And the chums were determined to save the western girl from that strange and lonely feeling they had themselves experienced.
There was nobody in view on the pastured hill. Down the slope the Ark coasted and bye and bye Cedar Walk came into view.
"Shall we get out here, girls?" called Madge Steele, with a glance at Mercy.
"Of course we shall," cried that sprightly person, shaking her fist at the big senior. "Don't you dare try to spare me, Miss! I am getting so strong and healthy I am ashamed of myself. Don't you dare!"
Madge kissed her warmly, as Ruth had. That was the best way to treat Mercy Curtis whenever she "exploded."
Suddenly Helen leaned out of the open half of the door on her side and began to call a welcome to four girls who were walking briskly down the winding pathway. Instantly they began to run, shouting joyfully in return.
"Here we be, young ladies," croaked Old Dolliver, bringing his tired horses to a halt.
They struggled forth, Jane Ann coming last to help the lame girl—just a mite. Then the two parties of school friends came together like the mingling of waters.
One was a very plump girl with a smiling, rosy face; one was red-haired and very sharp-looking, and the other two balanced each other evenly, both being more than a little pretty, very well dressed, and one dark while the other was light.
The light girl was Belle Tingley, and the dark one Lluella Fairfax; of course, the red-haired one was Mary Cox, "The Fox," while the stout girl could be no other than "Heavy" Jennie Stone.
The Fox came forward quickly and seized both of Ruth's hands. "Dear Ruth," she whispered. "I arrived just this morning myself. You know that my brother is all right again?" and she kissed the girl of the Red Mill warmly.
Belle and Lluella looked a bit surprised at Mary Cox's manifestation of friendship for Ruth; but they did not yet know all the particulars of their schoolmates' adventures at Silver Ranch.
Heavy was hurrying about, kissing everybody indiscriminately, and of course performing this rite with Ruth at least twice.
"I'm so tickled to see you all, I can't tell!" she laughed. "And you're all looking fine, too. But it does seem a month, instead of a week, since I saw you."
"My! but you are looking bad yourself, Heavy," gibed Helen Cameron, shaking her head and staring at the other girl. "You're just fading away to a shadow."
"Pretty near," admitted Heavy. "But the doctor says I shall get my appetite back after a time. I was allowed to drink the water two eggs were boiled in for lunch, and to-night I can eat the holes out of a dozen doughnuts. Oh! I'm convalescing nicely, thank you."
The girls who had reached the school first welcomed Jane Ann quite as warmly as they did the others. There was an air about them all that seemed protecting to the strange girl.
Other girls were walking up and down the Cedar Walk, and sometimes they cast more than glances at the eight juniors who were already such friends. Madge had immediately been swallowed up by a crowd of seniors.
"Say, Foxy! got an infant there?" demanded one girl.
"I suppose Fielding has made her a Sweetbriar already—eh?" suggested another.
"The Sweetbriars do not have to fish for members," declared Helen, tossing her head.
"Oh, my! See what a long tail our cat's got!" responded one of the other crowd, tauntingly.
"The double quartette! There's just eight of them," crowed another. "There certainly will be something doing at Briarwood Hall with those two roomsful."
"Say! that's right!" cried Heavy, eagerly, to Ruth. "You, and Helen, and Mercy, and Jinny, take that quartette room on our other side. We'll just about boss that dormitory. What do you say?"
"If Mrs. Tellingham will agree," said Ruth. "I'll ask her."
"But you girls will be 'way ahead of me in your books," broke in Jane Ann.
"We needn't be ahead of you in sleeping, and in fun," laughed Heavy, pinching her.
"Don't be offish, Miss Jinny," said Helen, calling her by the title that the cowboys did.
"And my name—my dreadful, dreadful name!" groaned the western girl.
"I tell you!" exclaimed Ruth, "we're all friends. Let's agree how we shall introduce Miss Hicks to the bunch. She must choose a name——"
"Why, call yourself 'Nita,' if you want to, dear," said Helen, patting the western girl's arm. "That's the name you ran away with."
"But I'm ashamed of that. I know it is silly—and I chose it for a silly reason. But you know what all these girls will do to 'Jane Ann,'" and she shook her head, more than a little troubled.
"What's the matter with Ann?" demanded Mercy Curtis, sharply. "Isn't 'Ann Hicks' sensible-sounding enough? For sure, it's not pretty; but we can't all have both pretty names and pretty features," and she laughed.
"And it's mighty tough when you haven't got either," grumbled the new girl.
"'Ann Hicks,'" quoth Ruth, softly. "I like it. I believe it sounds nice, too—when you get used to it. 'Ann Hicks.' Something dignified and fine about it—just as though you had been named after some really great woman—some leader."
The others laughed; and yet they looked appreciation of Ruth Fielding's fantasy.
"Bully for you, Ruthie!" cried Helen, hugging her. "If Ann Hicks agrees."
"It doesn't sound so bad without the 'Jane,'" admitted the western girl with a sigh. "And Ruth says it so nicely."
"We'll all say it nicely," declared The Fox, who was a much different "Fox" from what she had been the year before. "'Ann Hicks,' I bet you've got a daguerreotype at home of the gentle old soul for whom you are named. You know—silver-gray gown, pearls, pink cheeks, and a real ostrich feather fan."
"My goodness me!" ejaculated the newly christened Ann Hicks, "you have already arranged a very fanciful family tree for me. Can I ever live up to such an ancestress as that?"
"Certainly you can," declared Ruth, firmly. "You've just got to. Think of the original Ann—as Mary described her—whenever you feel like exploding. Her picture ought to bring you up short. A lady like that couldn't explode."
"Tough lines," grumbled the western girl. "Right from what you girls call the 'wild and woolly,' and to have to live up to silver-gray silk and pearls—M-m-m-m!"
"Now, say! say!" cried Belle Tingley, suddenly, and seizing upon Ruth, about whom she had been hovering ever since they had met. "I want to talk a little. There aren't any more infants to christen, I hope?"
"Go on!" laughed Ruth, squeezing her. "What is the matter, Bella mia?"
"And don't talk Italian," said Belle, shrugging her shoulders. "Listen! I promised to ask you the minute you arrived, Ruthie, and now you've been here ten at least."
"It is something splendid," laughed Lluella, clapping her hands, evidently being already a sharer in Belle's secret.
"I'll tell you—if they'll let me," panted Belle, shaking Ruth a little. "Father's bought Cliff Island. It's a splendid place. We were there for part of the summer. And there will be a great lodge built by Christmas time and he has told me I might invite you all to come to the house-warming. Now, Ruth! it remains with you. If you'll go, the others will, I know. And it's a splendid place."
"Cliff Island?" gasped Ruth.
"Yes. In Lake Tallahaska."
"And your father has just bought it?"
"Yes. He had some trouble getting a clear title; but it's all right now. They had to evict an old squatter. I want you all to come with me for the mid-winter holiday. What do you say, Ruthie?" asked Belle, eagerly.
"I say it's a long look ahead," responded Ruth, slowly. "It's very kind of you, Belle. But I'll have to write home first, of course. I'd like to go, though—to Cliff Island—yes, indeed!"
PICKING UP THE THREADS
Ann Hicks must see the preceptress at once. That came first, and Ruth would not go into the old dormitory until the introduction of the western girl was accomplished.
There was a whole bevy of girls on the steps of the main building, in which Mrs. Grace Tellingham and Dr. Tellingham lived. Nobody ever thought of putting the queer old doctor first, although all the Briarwoods respected the historian immensely. He was considered very, very scholarly, although it would have been hard to find any of his histories in any library save that of Briarwood itself.
It was understood that just now he was engaged upon a treatise relating to the possible existence of a race before the Mound Builders in the Middle West, and he was not to be disturbed, of course, at his work.
But when Ruth and Ann Hicks entered the big office room, there he was, bent over huge tomes upon the work table, his spectacles awry, and his wig pushed so far back upon his head that two hands' breadth of glistening crown was exposed.
The fiction that Dr. Tellingham was not bald might have been kept up very well indeed, did not the gentleman get so excited while he worked. As soon as he became interested in his books, he proceeded to bare his high brow to all beholders, and the wig slid toward the back of his neck.
The truth was, as Heavy Stone said, Dr. Tellingham had to remove his collar to brush his hair—there really was so little of it.
"Dear, dear!" sputtered the historian, peering at the two girls over his reading glasses. "You don't want me, of course?"
"Oh, no, Dr. Tellingham. This is a new girl. We wished to see Mrs. Tellingham," Ruth assured him.
"Quite so," he said, briskly. "She is—Ah! she comes! My dear! Two of the young ladies to see you," and instantly he was buried in his books again—that is, buried all but his shining crown.
Mrs. Tellingham was a graceful, gray-haired lady, with a charming smile. She trailed her black robe across the carpet and stooped to kiss Ruth warmly, for she not only respected the junior, but had learned to love her.
"Welcome, Miss Fielding!" she said, kindly. "I am glad to see you back. And this is the girl I have been getting letters about—Miss Hicks?"
"Ann Hicks," responded Ruth, firmly. "That is the name she wishes to be known by, dear Mrs. Tellingham."
"I don't know who could be writing you but Uncle Bill," said Ann Hicks, blunderingly. "And I expect he's told you a-plenty."
"I think 'Uncle Bill' must be the most recklessly generous man in the world, my dear," observed Mrs. Tellingham, taking and holding one of Ann's brown hands, and looking closely at the western girl.
For a moment the new girl blushed and her own eyes shone. "You bet he is! I—I beg pardon," she stammered. "Uncle Bill is all right."
"And Jennie Stone's Aunt Kate has been writing me about you, too. It seems she was much interested in you when you visited their place at Lighthouse Point."
"She's very kind," murmured the new girl.
"And Mrs. Murchiston, Helen's governess, has spoken a good word for you," added the preceptress.
"Why—why I didn't know so many people cared," stammered Ann.
"You see, you have a way of making friends unconsciously. I can see that," Mrs. Tellingham said, kindly. "Now, do not be discouraged. You will make friends among the girls in just the same way. Don't mind their banter for a while. The rough edges will soon rub off——"
"But there are rough edges," admitted the western girl, hanging her head.
"Don't mind. There are such in most girls' characters and they show up when first they come to school. Keep cheerful. Come to me if you are in real trouble—and stick close to Miss Fielding, here. I can't give you any better advice than that," added Mrs. Tellingham, with a laugh.
Then she was ready to listen to Ruth's plea that the room next to The Fox and her chums be given up to Ruth, Helen, Mercy and the new girl.
"We love our little room; but it was crowded with Mercy last half; and we could all get along splendidly in a quartette room," said Ruth.
"All right," agreed the principal. "I'll telephone to Miss Scrimp and Miss Picolet. Now, go and see about getting settled, young ladies. I expect much of you this half, Ruth Fielding. As for Ann, I shall take her in hand myself on Monday and see what classes she would best enter."
"She's fine," declared Ann Hicks, when they were outside again. "I can get along with her. But how about the girls?"
"They'll be nice to you, too—after a bit. Of course, everybody new has to expect some hazing. Thank your stars that you won't have to be put through the initiation of the marble harp," and she pointed to a marble figure in the tiny Italian garden in the middle of the campus.
When Ann wanted to know what that meant, Ruth repeated the legend as all new girls at Briarwood must learn it. But Ruth and her friends had long since agreed that no other nervous or high-strung girl was to be hazed, as she and Helen had been, when they first came to the Hall. So the ceremony of the marble harp was abolished. It has been described in the former volume of this series, "Ruth Fielding at Briarwood Hall."
The two went back to the dormitory that had become like home to Ruth. Miss Picolet, the little French teacher, beckoned them into her study. "I must be the good friend of your good friend, too, Miss Fielding," she said, and shook hands warmly with Ann.
The matron of the house had already opened and aired the large room next to that which had been so long occupied by The Fox and her chums. The eight girls made the corridor ring with laughter and shouts while they were getting settled. The trunks had arrived from Lumberton and Helen and Ruth were busy decorating the big room which they were to share in the future with the lame girl and Ann Hicks.
There were two wide beds in it; but each girl had her own dressing case and her locker and closet There were four windows and two study tables. It was a delightful place, they all agreed.
"Hush! tell it not in Gath; whisper it not in Ascalon!" hissed The Fox, peering into the room. "You girls have the best there is. It's lots bigger than our quartette——"
"Oh, I don't think so. Only a 'teeny' bit larger," responded Ruth, quickly.
"Then it's Heavy that takes up so much space in our room. She dwarfs everything. However," said the red-haired girl, "you can have lots more fun in here. Shove back everything against one wall, roll up the rugs, and then we can dance."
"And have Picolet after us in a hurry," observed Helen, laughing.
"Barefoot dancing is still in vogue," retorted The Fox. "Helen can play her violin."
"After retiring bell? No, thanks!" exclaimed Ruth's chum. "I am to stand better in my classes this half than last spring or Monsieur Pa-pa will have something to say to me. He doesn't often preach; but that black-haired brother of mine did better last term than I did. Can't have that."
"They're awfully strict with the boys over at Seven Oaks," sighed Heavy, who was chewing industriously as she talked, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
"What are you eating, Heavy?" demanded Belle, suddenly.
"Some of those doughnut holes, I bet!" giggled Lluella. "They must be awful filling, Heavy."
"Nothing is filling," replied the stout girl. "Just think, almost the whole universe is filled with just atmosphere—and your head, Lluella."
"That's not pretty, dear," remarked The Fox, pinching Heavy. "Don't be nasty to your playmates."
"Well, I've got to eat," groaned Heavy. "If you knew how long it seemed from luncheon to supper time——"
Despite all Ruth Fielding could do, the girl from Silver Ranch felt herself a good deal out of this nonsense and joviality. Ann could not talk the way these girls did. She felt serious when she contemplated her future in the school.
"I'd—I'd run away if it wasn't for Uncle Bill," she whispered to herself, looking out of the window at the hundreds of girls parading the walks about the campus.
Almost every two girls seemed chums. They walked with their arms about each other's waists, and chattered like magpies. Ann Hicks wanted to run and hide somewhere, for she was more lonely now than she had ever been when wandering about the far-reaching range on the Montana ranch!
"A HARD ROW TO HOE"
Since Ruth Fielding had organized the S.B.'s, or Sweetbriars, there had been little hazing at Briarwood Hall. Of course, this was the first real opening of the school year since that auspicious occasion; but the effect of the new society and its teachings upon the whole school was marked.
Rivalries had ceased to a degree. The old Upedes, of which The Fox had been the head, no longer played their tricks. The Fox had grown much older in appearance, if not in years. She had had her lesson.
Belle and Lluella and Heavy were not so reckless, either. And as the S.B.'s stood for friendship, kindness, helpfulness, and all its members wore the pretty badge, it was likely to be much easier for those "infants" who joined the school now.
Ann Hicks was bound to receive some hard knocks, even as Mrs. Tellingham had suggested. But "roughing it" a little is sometimes good for girls as well as boys.
In her own western home Ann could have held her own with anybody. She was so much out of her usual element here at Briarwood that she was like a startled hare. She scented danger on all sides.
Her roommates could not always defend her, although even Mercy, the unmerciful, tried. Ann Hicks was so big, and blundering. She was taller than most girls of her age, and "raw-boned" like her uncle. Some time she might really be handsome; but there was little promise of it as yet.
When the principal started her in her studies, it was soon discovered that Ann, big girl though she was, had to take some of the lessons belonging to the primary grade. And she made a sorry appearance in recitation, at best.
There were plenty of girls to laugh at her. There is nothing so cruel as a schoolgirl's tongue when it is unbridled. And unless the victim is blessed with either a large sense of humor, or an apt brain for repartee, it goes hard with her.
Poor Ann had neither—she was merely confused and miserable.
She saw the other girls of her room—and their close friends in the neighboring quartette—going cheerfully about the term's work. They had interests that the girl from the West, with her impoverished mind, could not even appreciate.
She had to study so hard—even some of the simplest lessons—that she had little time to learn games. She did not care for gymnasium work, although there were probably few girls at the school as muscular as herself. Tennis seemed silly to her. Nobody rode at the Hall, and she longed to bestride a pony and dash off for a twenty-mile canter.
Nothing that she was used to doing on the ranch would appeal to these girls here—Ann was quite sure of that. Ruth and the others who had been with them for that all-too-short month at Silver Ranch seemed to have forgotten the riding, and the roping, and all.
Then, Helen had her violin—and loved it. Ruth was practicing singing all the time she could spare, for she was already a prominent member of the Glee Club. When the girl of the Red Mill sang, Ann Hicks felt her heart throb and the tears rise in her eyes. She loved Ruth's kind of music; yet she, herself, could not carry a tune.
Mercy was strictly attentive to her own books. Mercy was a bookworm—nor did she like being asked questions about her studies. Those first few weeks Ann Hicks's recitations did not receive very high marks.
Often some of the girls who did not know her very well laughed because she carried books belonging to the primary grade. Ann Hicks had many studies to make up that her mates had been drilled in while they were in the lower classes.
One day at mail time (and in a boarding school that is a most important hour) Ann received a very tempting-looking box by parcel post. She had been initiated into the meaning of "boxes from home." Even Aunt Alvirah had sent a box to Ruth, filled with choicest homemade dainties.
Ann expected nothing like that. Uncle Bill would never think of it—and he wouldn't know what to buy, anyway. The box fairly startled the girl from Silver Ranch.
"What is it? Something good to eat, I bet," cried Heavy, who was on hand, of course. "Open it, Ann—do."
"Come on! Let's see what the goodies are," urged another girl, but who smiled behind her hand.
"I don't know who would send me anything," said Ann, slowly.
"Never mind the address. Open it!" cried a third speaker, and had Ann noted it, she would have realized that some of the most trying girls in the school had suddenly surrounded her.
With trembling fingers she tore off the outside wrapper without seeing that the box had been mailed at the local post office—Lumberton!
A very decorative box was enclosed.
"H-m-m!" gasped Heavy. "Nothing less than fancy nougatines in that."
She was aiding the heartless throng, but did not know it. It would have never entered Heavy's mind to do a really mean thing.
Ann untied the narrow red ribbon. She raised the cover. Tissue paper covered something very choice——?
A dunce cap.
For a moment Ann was stricken motionless. The girls about her shouted. One coarse, thoughtless girl seized the cap, pulled it from the box, and clapped it on Ann Hicks's black hair.
The delighted crowd shouted more shrilly. Heavy was thunderstruck. Then she sputtered:
"Well! I never would have believed there was anybody so mean as that in the whole of Briarwood School."
But Ann, who had held in her temper as she governed a half-wild pony on the range, until this point, suddenly "let go all holts," as Bill Hicks would have expressed it.
She tore the cap from her head and stamped upon it and the fancy box it had come in. She struck right and left at the laughing, scornful faces of the girls who had so baited her.
Had it not been disgraceful, one might have been delighted with the change in the expression of those faces—and in the rapidity with which the change came about.
More than one blow landed fairly. The print of Ann's fingers was impressed in red upon the cheeks of those nearest to her. They ran screaming—some laughing, some angry.
Heavy's weight (for the fleshy girl had seized Ann about the waist) was all that made the enraged girl give over her pursuit of her tormentors. Fortunately, Ruth herself came running to the spot. She got Ann away and sat by her all the afternoon in their room, making up her own delinquent lessons afterward.
But the affair could not be passed over without comment. Some of the girls had reported Ann's actions. Of course, such a disgraceful thing as a girl slapping another was seldom heard of in Briarwood. Mrs. Tellingham, who knew very well where the blame lay, dared not let the matter go without punishing Ann, however.
"I am grieved that one of our girls—a young lady in the junior grade—should so forget herself," said the principal. "Whatever may have been the temptation, such an exhibition of temper cannot be allowed. I am sure she will not yield to it again; nor shall I pass leniently over the person who may again be the cause of Ann Hicks losing her temper."
This seemed to Ann to be "the last straw." "She might have better put me in the primary grade in the beginning," the ranch girl said, spitefully. "Then I wouldn't have been among those who despise me. I hate them all! I'll just get away from here——"
But the thought of running away a second time rather troubled her. She had worried her uncle greatly the first time she had done so. Now he was sure she was in such good hands that she wouldn't wish to run away.
Ann knew that she could not blame Ruth Fielding, and the other girls who were always kind to her. She merely shrank from being with them, when they knew so much more than she did.
It was her pride that was hurt. Had she taken the teasing of the meaner girls in a wiser spirit, she knew they would not have sent her the dunce cap. They continued to tease her because they knew they could hurt her.
"I—I wish I could show them I could do things that they never dreamed of doing!" muttered Ann, angrily, yet wistfully, too. "I'd like to fling a rope, or manage a bad bronc', or something they never saw a girl do before.
"Book learning isn't everything. Oh! I have half a mind to give up and go back to the ranch. Nobody made fun of me out there—they didn't dare! And our folks are too kind to tease that way, anyhow," thought the western girl.
"Uncle Bill is just paying out his good money for nothing. He said Ruth was a little lady—and Helen, too. I knew he wanted me to be the same, after he got acquainted with them and saw how fine they were.
"But you sure 'can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.' That's as certain as shootin'! If I stay here I've got a mighty hard row to hoe—and—and I don't believe I've got the pluck to hoe it." Ann groaned, and shook her tousled black head.
JERRY SHEMING AGAIN
Ruth, with all the fun and study of the opening of the fall term at Briarwood, could not entirely forget Jerry Sheming. More particularly did she think of him because of the invitation Belle Tingley had extended to her the day of their arrival.
It was a coincidence that none of the other girls appreciated, for none of them had talked much with the young fellow who had saved Ann Hicks from the wrecked car at Applegate Crossing. Even Ann herself had not become as friendly with the boy as had Ruth.
The fact that he had lived a good share of his life on the very island Belle said her father had bought for a hunting camp, served to spur Ruth's interest in both the youth and the island itself. Then, what Jerry had told her about his uncle's lost treasure box added to the zest of the affair.
Somewhere on the island Peter Tilton had lost a box containing money and private papers. Jerry believed it to have been buried by a landslide that had occurred months before.
There must be something in this story, or why should "Uncle Pete," as Jerry called him, have lost his mind over the catastrophe? Uncle Pete must be really mad or they would not have shut him up in the county asylum.
The loss of the papers supposed to be in the box made it possible for some man named Blent to cheat the old hunter out of his holdings on Cliff Island.
Not for a moment did Ruth suppose that Mr. Tingley, Belle's father, was a party to any scheme for cheating the old hunter. It was the work of the man Blent—if true.
Ruth was very curious—and very much interested. Few letters ever passed between her and the Red Mill. Aunt Alvirah's gnarled and twisted fingers did not take kindly to the pen; and Uncle Jabez loved better to add up his earnings than to spend an evening retailing the gossip of the Mill for his grandniece to peruse.
Ruth knew that Jerry had soon recovered from his accident and that for several weeks, at least, had worked for Uncle Jabez. The latter grudgingly admitted that Jerry was the best man he had ever hired in the cornfield, both in cutting fodder and shucking corn.
Just before Thanksgiving there came a letter saying that Jerry had gone on. Of course, Ruth knew that her uncle would not keep the young fellow longer than he could make use of him; but she was sorry he had gone before she had communicated with him.
The girl of the Red Mill felt that she wished to know Jerry better. She had been deeply interested in his story. She had hoped to learn more about him.
"If you are really going to Cliff Island for the holidays, Belle," she told the latter, "I hope I can go."
"Bully!" exclaimed Belle, joyfully. "We'll have a dandy time there—better than we had at Helen's father's camp, last winter. I refuse to be lost in the snow again."
"Same here," drawled Heavy. "But I wish that lake you talk about, Belle, wouldn't freeze over. I don't like ice," with a shiver.
"Who ever heard of water that wouldn't freeze?" demanded Belle, scornfully.
"I have," said Heavy, promptly.
"What kind of water, I'd like to know, Miss?"
"Hot water," responded Heavy, chuckling.
Helen, and most of the other girls who were invited to Cliff Island for Christmas, had already accepted the invitation. Ruth wrote to her uncle with some little doubt. She did not know how he would take the suggestion. She had been at the mill so little since first she began attending boarding school.
This Thanksgiving she did not expect to go home. Few of the girls did so, for the recess was only over the week-end and lessons began again on Monday. Only those girls who lived very near to Briarwood made a real vacation of the first winter holiday. A good many used the time to make up lessons and work off "conditions."
Thanksgiving Day itself was made somewhat special by a trip to Buchane Falls, where there was a large dam. Dinner was to be served at five in the evening, and more than half the school went off to the falls (which was ten miles away) in several big party wagons, before ten o'clock in the morning.
"Bring your appetites back with you, girls," Mrs. Tellingham told them at chapel, and Heavy, at least, had promised to do so and meant to keep her word. Yet even Heavy did justice to the cold luncheon that was served to all of them at the falls.
It was crisp autumn weather. Early in the morning there had been a skim of ice along the edge of the water; but there had not yet been frost enough to chain the current of the Buchane Creek. Indeed, it would not freeze over in the middle until mid-winter, if then.
The picnic ground was above the falls and on the verge of the big millpond. There were swings, and a bowling alley, and boats, and other amusements.
Ruth had fairly dragged Ann Hicks into the party. The girls who had been meanest to the westerner were present. Ann would have had a woefully bad time of it had not some of the smaller girls needed somebody to look out for them.
Ann hated the little girls at Briarwood less than she did the big ones. In fact, the "primes," as they were called, rather took to the big girl from the West.
One of the swings was not secure, and Ann started to fix it. She could climb like any boy, and there did not happen to be a teacher near to forbid her. Therefore, up she went, unfastened the rope from the beam, and proceeded to splice the place where it had become frayed.
It was not a new rope, but was strong save in that one spot. Ann coiled it, and although it did not have the "feel" of the fine hemp, or the good hair rope that is part of the cowman's equipment, her hands and arm tingled to lassoo some active, running object.
She coiled it once more and then flung the rope at a bush. The little girls shouted their appreciation. Ann did not mind, for there seemed to be no juniors or seniors there to see. Most of the older girls were down by the water.
Indeed, some of the seniors were trying to interest the bigger girls in rowing. Briarwood owned a small lake, and they might have canoes and racing shells upon it, if the girls as a whole would become interested.
But many of the big girls did not even know how to row. There was one big punt into which almost a dozen of them crowded. Heavy sat in the stern and declared that she had to have a big crowd in the bow of the boat, to balance it and keep her end from going down.
Therefore one girl after another jumped in, and when it was really too full for safety it was pushed out from the landing. Just about the time the current which set toward the middle of the pond seized the punt, it was discovered that nobody had thought of oars.
"How under the sun did you suppose a thing like this was going to be propelled?" Heavy demanded. "I never did see such a fellow as you are, Mandy Mitchell!"
"You needn't scold me," declared the Mitchell girl. "You invited me into the boat."
"Did I? Why! I must have been crazy, then!" declared Heavy. "And didn't any of you think how we were going to get back to shore?"
"Nor we don't know now," cried another girl.
"Oh-o!" gasped one of the others, darting a frightened look ahead. "We're aiming right for the dam."
"You wouldn't expect the boat to drift against the current, would you?" snapped Heavy.
"Let's scream!" cried another—and they could all do that to perfection. In a very few minutes it was apparent to everybody within the circle of half a mile or more that a bunch of girls was in trouble—or thought so!
"Sit down!" gasped Heavy. "Don't rock the boat. If that yelling doesn't bring anybody, we're due to reach a watery grave, sure enough."
"Oh, don't, Heavy!" wailed one of the weaker ones. "How can you?"
Heavy was privately as frightened as any of them, but she tried to keep the others cheerful, and would have kept on joking till the end. But several small boats came racing down the pond after them, and along the bank came a man—or a boy—running and shouting. How either the girls in the boats or the youth on the shore could help them, was a mystery; but both comforted the imperiled party immensely.
The current swung the heavy punt in toward the shore. Right at that end of the dam the water was running a foot deep—or more—over the flash-board.
If the punt struck, it would turn broadside, and probably tip all hands over the dam. This was a serious predicament, indeed, and the spectators realized it even more keenly than did the girls in the punt.
The youth who had been called to the spot by their screams threw off his coat and cap, and they saw him stoop to unlace his shoes. A plunge into this cold water was not attractive, and it was doubtful if he could help them much if he reached the punt.
Down the hill from the picnic grounds came a group of girls, Ann Hicks in the lead. Most of her companions were too small to do any good in any event. The girl from the ranch carried a neat coil of rope in one hand and she shouted to Heavy to "Hold on!"
"You tell me what to hold on to, and you'll see me do it!" replied the plump girl. "All I can take hold of just now is thin air."
"Hold on!" said Ann again, and stopped, having reached the right spot. Then she swung the rope in the air, let it uncoil suddenly, and the loose end dropped fairly across Jennie Stone's lap.
"Hold on!" yelled everybody, then, and Heavy obeyed.
But the young fellow sprang to Ann's aid, and wrapped the slack of the rope around a stout sapling on the edge of the pond.
"Easy! Easy!" he admonished. "We don't want to pull them out of the boat. You can fling a rope; can't you, Miss?"
"I'd ought to," grunted Ann. "I've roped enough steers—Why! you're Jerry Sheming," she declared, suddenly looking into his face. "Ruth Fielding wants to see you. Don't you run away before she talks with you."
Then the rope became taut, and the punt began to swing shoreward slowly, taking in some water and setting the girls to screaming again.
RUTH'S LITTLE PLOT
The punt was in shallow water and the girls who had ventured into it without oars were perfectly safe before any of the teachers arrived. With them came Ruth and Helen, and some of the other juniors and seniors. Heavy took the stump.
"Now! you see what she did?" cried the stout girl, seizing Ann in her arms the moment she could get ashore. "If she hadn't known how to fling a lasso, and rope a steer, she'd never have been able to send that rope to us.
"Three cheers for Ann Hicks, the girl from the ranch, who knows what to do when folks are drowning in Buchane Pond! One—two—three——"
The cheers were given with a will. Several of the girls who had treated the western girl so meanly about the dunce cap had been in the boat, and they asked Ann to shake hands. They were truly repentant, and Ann could not refuse their advances.
But the western girl was still doubtful of her standing with her mates, and went back to play with the little ones. Meanwhile she showed Ruth where Jerry Sheming stood at one side, and the girl from the Red Mill ran to him eagerly.
"I am delighted to see you!" she exclaimed, shaking Jerry's rough hand. "I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find you after you left the mill. And I wanted to."
"I'm glad of your interest in me, Miss Ruth," he said, "but I ain't got no call to expect it. Mr. Potter was pretty kind to me, and he kept me as long as there was work there."
"But you haven't got to tramp it, now?"
"Only to look for a steady job. I—I come over this way hopin' I'd hit it at Lumberton. But they're discharging men at the mills instead of hiring new ones."
"And I expect you'd rather work in the woods than anywhere else?" suggested Ruth.
"Why—yes, Miss. I love the woods. And I got a good rifle and shotgun, and I'm a good camp cook. I can't get a guide's license, but I could go as assistant—if anybody would take me around Tallahaska."
"Suppose I could get you a job working right where you've always lived—at Cliff Island?" she asked, eagerly.
"What d'ye mean—Cliff Island?" he demanded, flushing deeply. "I wouldn't work for that Rufus Blent—nor he wouldn't have me."
"I don't know anything about the man," said Ruth, smiling. "But one of my chums has invited me to go to Cliff Island for the Christmas holidays. Her father has bought the place and is building a lodge there."
"Good lands!" ejaculated Jerry.
"Isn't that a coincidence?" Ruth commented. "Now, you wouldn't refuse a job with Mr. Tingley; would you?"
"Tingley—is that the name?"
"Yes. Perhaps I can get him, through Belle, to hire you. I'll try. Would you go back?"
"In a minute!" exclaimed Jerry.
"Then I'll try. You see, in four or five weeks, we'll be going there ourselves. I think it would just be jolly to have you around, for you know all about the island and everything."
"Yes, indeed, ma'am," agreed Jerry. "I'd like the job."
"So you must write me every few days and let me know where you are. Mrs. Tellingham won't mind—I'll explain to her," Ruth said, earnestly. "I am not quite sure that I can go myself, yet. But I'll know for sure in a few days. And I'll see if Belle won't ask her father to give you work at Cliff Island. Then, in your off time, you can look for that box your uncle lost. Don't you see?"
"Oh, Miss! I guess that's gone for good. Near as I could make out o' Uncle Pete, the landslide at the west end of the island buried his treasure box a mile deep! It was in one o' the little caves, I s'pose."
"Caves? Are there caves on the island?"
"Lots of 'em. Big ones as well as small. If Uncle Pete wasn't plumb crazy, he had his money and papers in a hide-out that I'd never found."
"I see Miss Picolet coming this way. She won't approve of my talking with 'a strange young man' so long," laughed Ruth. "You let me know every few days where you are, Jerry?"
"Yes, ma'am, I will. And thank you kindly."
"You aren't out of funds? You have money?"
"I've got quite a little store," said Jerry, smiling. "Thanks to that nice black-eyed girl that I helped out of the car window."
"Oh! Ann Hicks. And she's being made much of, now, by the girls, because she knew how to fling a rope," cried Ruth, looking across the picnic ground to where her schoolmates were grouped.
"She's all right," said Jerry, enthusiastically. "They ought to be proud of her—them that was in that boat."
"It will break the ice for Ann," declared Ruth. "I am so glad. Now, I must run. Don't forget to write, Jerry. Good bye."
She gave him her hand and ran back to join her school friends. Ann had gone about putting up the children's swing and at first had paid little attention to the enthusiasm of the girls who had been saved from going over the dam. But she could not ignore them altogether.
"You're just the smartest girl I ever saw," Heavy declaimed. "We'd all be in the water, sure enough, if you hadn't got that rope to us. Come on, Ann! Be a sport. Do wear your laurels kindly."
"I'm just as 'dumb' about books as ever. Flinging that rope didn't make any difference," growled the western girl.
"I don't care if you don't know your 'A.B., abs,'" cried one of the girls who had taken a prominent part in the dunce cap trick. "You make me awfully ashamed of myself for being so mean to you. Please forgive us all, Ann—that's a good girl."
Ann was awkward about accepting their apologies; and yet she was not naturally a bad-tempered girl. She was just different from them all—and felt the difference so keenly!
This sudden reversal of feeling, and their evident offer of friendliness, made her feel more awkward than ever. She remained very glum while at the picnic grounds.
But, as Ruth had said, the incident served to break the ice. Ann had gotten her start. Somebody beside the "primes" gave her "the glad hand and the smiling eye." Briarwood began to be a different sort of place for the ranch girl.
There were plenty of the juniors who looked down on her still; but she had "shown them" once that she could do something the ordinary eastern girl could not do and Ann was on the qui vive for another chance to "make good" along her own particular line.
She grew brighter and more self-possessed as the term advanced. Her lessons, too, she attacked with more assurance.
A few days after Thanksgiving Ruth received a letter in Aunt Alvirah's cramped hand-writing which assured her that Uncle Jabez would make no objection to her accepting the invitation to go to Cliff Island for the holidays.
"And I'll remind him of it in time so't he can send you a Christmas goldpiece, if the sperit so moves him," wrote Aunt Alvirah, in her old-fashioned way. "But do take care of yourself, my pretty, in the middle of that lake."
In telling Belle how happy she was to accept the invitation for the frolic, Ruth diffidently put forward her request that Mr. Tingley give Jerry Sheming a job.
"I am quite sure he is a good boy," she told Belle. "He has worked for my uncle, and Uncle Jabez praised him. Now, Uncle Jabez doesn't praise for nothing."
"I'll tell father about this Jerry—sure," laughed Belle. "You're an odd girl, Ruth. You're always trying to do something for somebody."
"Trying to do somebody for somebody, maybe," interposed Mercy, in her sharp way. "Ruth uses her friends for her own ends."
But Ruth's little plot worked. A fortnight after Thanksgiving she was able to write to Jerry, who had found a few days' work near the school, that he could go back to Cliff Island and present himself to Mr. Tingley's foreman. A good job was waiting for him on the island where he had lived so long with his uncle, the old hunter.
AN EXCITING FINISH
Affairs at Briarwood went at high speed toward the end of the term. Everybody was busy. A girl who did not work, or who had no interest in her studies, fell behind very quickly.
Ann Hicks was spurred to do her best by the activities of her mates. She did not like any of them well enough—save those in the two neighboring quartette rooms in her dormitory building—to accept defeat from them. She began to make a better appearance in recitations, and her marks became better.
They all had extra interests save Ann herself. Helen Cameron was in the school orchestra and played first violin with a hope of getting solo parts in time. She loved the instrument, and in the evening, before the electricity was turned on, she often played in the room, delighting the music-loving Ann.
Sometimes Ruth sang to her chum's accompaniment. Ruth's voice was so sweet, so true and tender, and she sang ballads with such feeling, that Ann often was glad it was dark in the room. The western girl considered it "soft" to weep, but Ruth's singing brought the tears to her eyes.
Mercy Curtis even gave up her beloved books during the hour of these informal concerts. Other times she would have railed because she could not study. Mercy was as hungry for lessons as Heavy Stone was for layer-cake and macaroons.
"That's all that's left me," croaked the lame girl, when she was in one of her most difficult moods. "I'll learn all there is to be learned. I'll stuff my head full. Then, when other girls laugh at my crooked back and weak legs, I'll shame 'em by knowing more out of books."
"Oh, what a mean way to put it!" gasped Helen.
"I don't care, Miss! You never had your back ache you and your legs go wabbly—No person with a bad back and such aches and pains as I have, was ever good-natured!"
"Think of Aunt Alvirah," murmured Ruth, gently.
"Oh, well—she isn't just human!" gasped the lame girl.
"She is very human, I think," Ruth returned.
"No. She's an angel. And no angel was ever called 'Curtis,'" declared the other, her eyes snapping.
"But I believe there must be an angel somewhere named 'Mercy,'" Ruth responded, still softly.
However, it was understood that Mercy was aiming to be the crack scholar of her class. There was a scholarship to be won, and Mercy hoped to get it and to go to college two years later.
Even Jennie Stone declared she was going in for "extras."
"What, pray?" scoffed The Fox. "All your spare time is taken up in eating now, Miss."
"All right. I'll go in for the heavyweight championship at table," declared the plump girl, good-naturedly. "At least, the result will doubtless be visible."
Ann began to wonder what she was studying for. All these other girls seemed to have some particular object. Was she going to school without any real reason for it?
Uncle Bill would be proud of her, of course. She practised assiduously to perfect her piano playing. That was something that would show out in Bullhide and on the ranch. Uncle Bill would crow over her playing just as he did over her bareback riding.
But Ann was not entirely satisfied with these thoughts. Nor was she contented with the fact that she had begun to make her mates respect her. There was something lacking.
She had half a mind to refuse Belle Tingley's invitation to Cliff Island. In her heart Ann believed she was included in the party because Belle would have been ashamed to ignore her, and Ruth would not have gone had Ann not been asked.
To tell the truth Ann was hungry for the girls to like her for herself—for some attribute of character which she honestly possessed. She had never had to think of such things before. In her western home it had never crossed her mind whether people liked her, or not. Everybody about Silver Ranch had been uniformly kind to her.
Belle's holiday party was to be made up of the eight girls in the two quartette rooms, with Madge Steele, the senior; Madge's brother, Bobbins, Tom Cameron, little Busy Izzy Phelps, and Belle's own brothers.
"Of course, we've got to have the boys," declared Helen. "No fun without them."
Mercy had tried to beg off at first; then she had agreed to go, if she could take half a trunkful of books with her.
Briarwood girls were as busy as bees in June during these last few days of the first half. The second half was broken by the Easter vacation and most of the real hard work in study came before Christmas.
There was going to be a school play after Christmas, and the parts were given out before the holidays. Helen was going to play and Ruth to sing. It did seem to Ann as though every girl was happy and busy but herself.
The last day of the term was in sight. There was to be the usual entertainment and a dance at night. The hall had to be trimmed with greens and those girls—of the junior and senior classes—who could, were appointed to help gather the decorations.
"I don't want to go," objected Ann.
"Goosie!" cried Helen. "Of course you do. It will be fun."
"Not for me," returned the ranch girl, grimly. "Do you see who is going to head the party? That Mitchell girl. She's always nasty to me."
"Be nasty to her!" snapped Mercy, from her corner.
"Now, Mercy!" begged Ruth, shaking a finger at the lame girl.
"I wouldn't mind what Mitchell says or does," sniffed The Fox.
"Fibber!" exclaimed Mercy.
"I never tell lies, Miss," said Mary Cox, tossing her head.
"Humph!" ejaculated the somewhat spiteful Mercy, "do you call yourself a female George Washington?"
"No. Marthy Washington," laughed Heavy.
"Only her husband couldn't lie," declared Mercy. "And at that, they say that somebody wished to change the epitaph on his tomb to read: 'Here lies George Washington—for the first time!'"
"Everybody is tempted to tell a fib some time," sighed Helen.
"And falls, too," exclaimed Mercy.
"I must say I don't believe there ever was anybody but Washington that didn't tell a lie. It's awfully hard to be exactly truthful always," said Lluella. "You remember that time in the primary grade, just after we'd come here to Briarwood, Belle?"
"Do I?" laughed Belle Tingley. "You fibbed all right then, Miss."
"It wasn't very bad—and I did want to see the whole school so much. So—so I took one of my pencils to our teacher and asked her if she would ask the other scholars if it was theirs.
"Of course, all the other girls in our room said it wasn't," proceeded Lluella. "Then teacher said just what I wanted her to say: 'You may inquire in the other classes.' So I went around and saw all the other classes and had a real nice time.
"But when I got back with the pencil in my hand still, Belle come near getting me into trouble."
"Uh-huh!" admitted Belle, nodding.
"How?" asked somebody.
"She just whispered—right out loud, 'Lluella, that is your pencil and you know it!' And I had to say—right off, 'It isn't, and I didn't!' Now, what could I have said else? But it was an awful fib, I s'pose."
The assembled girls laughed. But Ann Hicks was still seriously inclined not to go into the woods, although she had no idea of telling a fib about it. And because she was too proud to say to the teacher in charge that she feared Miss Mitchell's tongue, the western girl joined the greens-gathering party at the very last minute.
There were two four-seated sleighs, for there was a hard-packed white track into the woods toward Triton Lake. Old Dolliver drove one, and his helper manned the other. The English teacher was in charge. She hoped to find bushels of holly berries and cedar buds as well as the materials for wreaths.
One pair of the horses was western—high-spirited, hard-bitted mustangs. Ann Hicks recognized them before she got into the sleigh. How they pulled and danced, and tossed the froth from their bits!
"I feel just as they do," thought the girl. "I'd love to break out, and kick, and bite, and act the very Old Boy! Poor things! How they must miss the plains and the free range."
The other girls wondered what made her so silent. The tang of the frosty air, and the ring of the ponies' hoofs, and the jingle of the bells put plenty of life and fun into her mates; but Ann remained morose.
They reached the edge of the swamp and the girls alighted with merry shout and song. They were all armed with big shears or sharp knives, but the berries grew high, and Old Dolliver's boy had to climb for them.
Then the accident occurred—a totally unexpected and unlooked for accident. In stepping out on a high branch, the boy slipped, fell, and came down to the ground, hitting each intervening limb, and so saving his life, but dashing every bit of breath from his lungs, it seemed!
The girls ran together, screaming. The teacher almost fainted. Old Dolliver stooped over the fallen boy and wiped the blood from his lips.
"Don't tech him!" he croaked. "He's broke ev'ry bone in his body, I make no doubt. An' he'd oughter have a doctor——"
"I'll get one," said Ann Hicks, briskly, in the old man's ear. "Where's the nearest—and the best?"
"Doc Haverly at Lumberton."
"I'll get him."
"It's six miles, Miss. You'd never walk it. I'll take one of the teams——"
"You stay with him," jerked out Ann. "I can ride."
"Ride? Them ain't ridin' hosses, Miss," declared Old Dolliver.
"If a horse has got four legs he can be ridden," declared the girl from the ranch, succinctly.
"Take the off one on my team, then——"
"That old plug? I guess not!" exclaimed Ann, and was off.
She unharnessed one of the pitching, snapping mustangs. "Whoa—easy! You wouldn't bite me, you know," she crooned, and the mustang thrust forward his ears and listened.
She dropped off the heavy harness. The bridle she allowed to remain, but there was no saddle. The English teacher came to her senses, suddenly.
"That creature will kill you!" she cried, seeing what Ann was about.
"Then he'll be the first horse that ever did it," drawled Ann. "Hi, yi, yi! We're off!"
To the horror of the teacher, to the surprise of Old Dolliver, and to the delight of the other girls, Ann Hicks swung herself astride of the dancing pony, dug her heels into his ribs, and the next moment had darted out of sight down the wood road.
A NUMBER OF THINGS
There may have been good reason for the teacher to be horrified, but how else was the mustang to be ridden? Ann was a big girl to go tearing through the roads and 'way into Lumberton astride a horse. Without a saddle and curb, however, she could not otherwise have clung to him.
Just now haste was imperative. She had a picture in her mind, all the way, of that boy lying in the snow, his face so pallid and the bloody foam upon his lips.
In twenty-five minutes she was at the physician's gate. She flung herself off the horse, and as she shouted her news to the doctor through the open office window, she unbuckled the bridle-rein and made a leading strap of it.
So, when the doctor drove out of the yard in his sleigh, she hopped in beside him and led the heaving mustang back into the woods. Of course she did not look ladylike at all, and not another girl at Briarwood would have done it. But even the English teacher—who was a prude—never scolded her for it.
Indeed, the doctor made a heroine of Ann, Old Dolliver said he never saw her beat, and the boy, who was so sadly hurt (but who pulled through all right in the end) almost worshipped the girl from Silver Ranch.
"And how she can ride!" the very girl who had treated Ann the meanest said of her. "What does it matter if she isn't quite up to the average yet in recitations? She will be."
This was after the holidays, however. There was too short a time before Belle Tingley and her friends started for Cliff Island for Ann to particularly note the different manner in which the girls in general treated her.
The party went on the night train. Mr. Tingley, who had some influence with the railroad, had a special sleeper side-tracked at Lumberton for their accommodation. This sleeper was to be attached to the train that went through Lumberton at midnight.
Therefore they did not have to skip all the fun of the dance. This was one of the occasions when the boys from the Seven Oaks Military Academy were allowed to mix freely with the girls of Briarwood. And both parties enjoyed it.
Belle's mother had arrived in good season, for she was to chaperone the party bound for Logwood, at the head of Tallahaska Lake. She passed the word at ten o'clock, and the girls got their hand-baggage and ran down to the road, where Old Dolliver waited for them with his big sleigh. The boys walked into town, so the girls were nicely settled in the car when Tom Cameron and his chums reached the siding.
Belle Tingley's two brothers were not too old to be companions for Tom, Bob, and Isadore Phelps. And they were all as eager for fun and prank-playing as they could be.
Mrs. Tingley had already retired and most of the girls were in their dressing gowns when the boys arrived. The porter was making up the boys' berths as the latter tramped in, bringing on their clothing the first flakes of the storm that had been threatening all the evening.
"Let the porter brush you, little boy," urged Madge, peering out between the curtains of her section and admonishing her big brother. "If you get cold and catch the croup I don't know what sister will do! Now, be a good child!"
"Huh!" grunted Isadore Phelps, trying to collect enough of the snow to make a ball to throw at her. "I wonder at you, Bobbins. Why don't you make her behave? Treatin' you like an over-grown kid."
"I'd never treat you that way, Master Isadore," said Madge, sweetly. "For you very well know that you're not grown at all!"
At that Isadore did gather snow—by running out for it. He brought back a dozen snowballs and the first thing the girls knew the missiles were dropping over the top of the curtains into the sheltered spaces devoted to the berths.
There was a great squealing then, for some of the victims were quite ready for bed, and the snow was cold and wet. Mrs. Tingley interfered little with the pranks of the young folk, and Izzy was careful not to throw any snow into her compartment.