E-text prepared by Al Haines
Volume III in the Ivy Hall Series
RUTH ALBERTA BROWN
Author of "Tabitha at Ivy Hall," "Tabitha's Glory," "At the Little Brown House," Etc.
[Frontispiece: "I hope," panted Tabitha, trotting along at the rear of the procession, "that you don't have your fun in such a hurry."]
The Saalfield Publishing Company Chicago, —— Akron, Ohio —— New York Made in U. S. A. Copyright, MCMXIII By the Saalfield Publishing Company
I. The McKittricks' Misfortune II. Tabitha and Gloriana, Housekeepers III. Unwelcome Guests IV. Mischief Makers V. Irene's Song VI. Gloriana's Burglars VII. Toady and the Castor Beans VIII. Billiard Runs Away IX. Billiard Surrenders X. Susanne Entertains a Caller XI. In the Canyon XII. The Bank of Silver Bow is Robbed XIII. The Robbers and the Haunted House XIV. The Unexpected Happens XV. Myra's Climax
"I hope," panted Tabitha, trotting along at the rear of the procession, "that you don't have your fun in such a hurry." . . . Frontispiece
THE MCKITTRICKS' MISFORTUNE
"'Ho, ho, vacation days are here, We welcome them with right good cheer; In wisdom's halls we love to be, But yet 'tis pleasant to be free,'"
warbled Tabitha Catt, pausing on the doorstep of her little desert home as she vigorously shook a dingy dusting cloth, and hungrily sniffed the fresh, sweet morning air, for, although the first week of June was already gone, the fierce heat of the summer had not yet descended upon Silver Bow, nestling in its cup-like hollow among the Nevada mountains.
"'Ho, ho, the hours will quickly fly, And soon vacation time be by; Ah, then we'll all in glad refrain, Sing welcome to our school again.'"
piped up a sweet voice in muffled accents from the depths of the closet where the singer was rummaging to find hooks for her wardrobe, which lay scattered rather promiscuously about Tabitha's tiny bedroom.
"Why, Gloriana Holliday, where did you learn that?" demanded the girl on the threshold, abruptly ceasing her song. "It's as old as the hills. Mrs. Carson used to sing it when she went to school."
"So did my mother. I've got her old music book with the words in it," responded her companion, emerging from the dark closet, flushed but triumphant. "There! I've hung up the last dud I could find room for. The rest must go back in the trunk, I guess. My, but it does seem nice to have a few weeks of vacation, doesn't it?"
"One wouldn't think so to hear you carolling about school's beginning again," laughed Tabitha, shaking her finger reprovingly at the red-haired girl now busily collecting the remainder of her scattered property and bundling it into a half-empty trunk just outside the kitchen door.
Gloriana echoed the laugh, and then answered seriously, "But really, I have never been glad before to see vacation come. It always meant only hard work and worry, gathering fruit in the hot sun or digging vegetables and peddling them around from door to door; while school meant books and lessons and a chance to rest a bit, and the last two years it meant Miss Angus, who did not mind my red hair and crutches."
"But it is all different now," Tabitha interrupted hastily, shuddering at the gloomy picture her companion's words had called up. "You are my sister now, and there won't be any more goats and gardens to bother about. You have left off using one crutch altogether, and don't need the other except out of doors. We are going to have a lovely vacation, and you won't want school to begin at all in September."
"Yes, it is all different now, Kitty Catt, thanks to dear old you!" agreed the younger girl, giving the slender figure in the doorway an affectionate hug. "And I suppose I shall be as daffy about this queer desert place as you are by the time Ivy Hall opens its doors again——"
"Aha!" triumphed Tabitha. "Then you don't like it now, do you? I never could get you to admit it last winter."
"I haven't admitted it yet," Gloriana retorted spiritedly. "It looks so much different in the summer time, but still seems queer to me with its heaps of rocks and no trees except the stiff old Joshuas. I wonder why they are called that. Even they don't seem like trees to me. They look like giant cactus plants, and just as cruel."
"They have beautiful blossoms," Tabitha interrupted. "We are a little too late to see them, though many of the other desert flowers are still in bloom. Look across that stretch beyond the river road. Isn't it pretty with its red and yellow carpet? May is the month to see the desert in its glory, though. Then it is truly beautiful. No one could think it ugly. But come, let's run over to Mercy's house. We have swept and dusted, and you have finished unpacking. This is our second day at home and I haven't been near to inquire how Mr. McKittrick is. He was hurt before Christmas, so we never went there during the holidays, you remember."
"Where do they live?"
"Why, I showed you the place—that queer brown house perched up——-"
"Oh, yes, on that great shelf of rock, overlooking the railway station."
"The first house we see on our way up here from the depot. Mr. McKittrick always called it the Eagles' Nest, and his children the eaglets."
"What a pretty idea! How many eaglets are there besides Mercedes and the little boy you named?"
"Four other girls. Mercy is the oldest of the family. Then come Susanne, or Susie, as they call her; the twins, Inez and Irene; Rosslyn and the baby, Janie."
"That's quite a family. What nice times they must have together!" sighed Gloriana wistfully, thinking of her own orphaned life with no brothers or sisters with whom to make merry.
"Yes, I reckon they are a pretty lively bunch sometimes, for Susie is as wild as Mercedes is quiet; and Inez should have been her twin instead of Irene's. Janie is a regular little mischief, too, but such a darling! You are sure to love her, though Rosslyn is my favorite. Put on your hat and let's go down before dinner. Daddy won't be home until evening, and there is nothing to keep us here."
Seizing her sunbonnet from its peg by the door, Tabitha started up the path toward town with Gloriana hobbling along at her side, when they saw Mercedes, with roguish Janie and chubby Rosslyn in tow, coming down the slope toward them. Her round, serious eyes looked heavy and worried, her childish face pale and frightened; but at sight of the two approaching figures, a smile of relief suddenly curved the drooping lips, and she exclaimed eagerly, "Oh, girls, I was just going for you! Are you on the way to our house? Oh, please say yes! Something dreadful has happened, I'm sure, for mamma has sent us all out-doors, and is in the kitchen crying fit to kill. She won't say what's the matter, and I'm horribly scared. I never saw her cry before."
Tabitha's face paled instantly. "I wonder—" she began, then stopped. How could she put her thought into words when Mercedes was already so dreadfully frightened? "Has the doctor been to see your father this morning?" she asked.
"Yes. He stayed ever so long and talked to mamma in the kitchen. I am afraid papa is worse, for 'twas right after the doctor was gone that she began to cry so hard."
Tabitha turned to Gloriana. "I'll run on ahead," she said, "if you don't mind. You can follow more slowly with Mercedes. I—perhaps it would be better if I saw Mrs. McKittrick alone first."
"All right," agreed Glory, who, like Tabitha, was wondering if the message the doctor had delivered in the Eagles' Nest that morning had left the little mother without a ray of hope; and so she fell in step beside the anxious Mercedes, and began to chat in spritely, diverting tones while Tabitha sped swiftly up the narrow, winding path to the lonely-looking, little, brown house perched on the steep mountainside.
Arriving at the door breathless and panting, she hesitated a moment before knocking, suddenly aware that she had not the slightest idea of what she intended to say or do. A glimpse through the screen of a huddled figure bowed despairingly over the kitchen table drove every other thought from her mind, however, and flinging open the door, she ran lightly across the room and impulsively laid her hand upon the quivering shoulders.
"Mercedes, must I tell you again—" began the muffled voice of the distracted woman, as she impatiently shook off the hand resting on her arm.
"It isn't Mercedes," Tabitha interrupted. "It is I—Tabitha. I don't know what is the matter, but if you will tell me, perhaps I can be of some use, even if I am only a girl."
Mrs. McKittrick lifted a red, swollen face from her arms outstretched on the table, glanced in surprise at the black-eyed girl bending so sympathetically above her, and once more burst into a flood of tears, sobbing wildly, "It ain't any use, Tabitha! You couldn't help if you was a woman grown. No one can help. The doctor says—" The choking words died on her lips. She could not bear to repeat the doctor's verdict.
"That Mr. McKittrick is worse?" whispered Tabitha.
The bowed head nodded despairingly.
"Surely he isn't going to——"
"Die?" cried the woman wildly. "Yes, he must die unless we can get him out of here. The only hope is an operation. That means Los Angeles, a hospital, a nurse, and hundreds of dollars; and not a cent coming in from anywhere. The children are too young to earn, and I can't work with him to nurse and six youngsters to care for. Oh, it does seem as if troubles never come singly! Whatever we are going to do is more than I know. The whole world has turned upside down!"
Gravely Tabitha nodded her head. Only a year before as she had stood beside the bed of her father, fighting what seemed like a hopeless battle with death, she, too, had felt that despairing helplessness. "If only Dr. Vane were here!" she whispered fervently.
"I don't believe he could do a bit more for the man than Dr. Hayes is doing. He'd just say the same thing, and there wouldn't be any more money than there is now to carry out his orders."
In vain Tabitha sought to comfort and cheer the despondent soul, but seemed only to make matters worse, and at length, disheartened at her apparent failure, she stole away from the brown house on the bluff, and with Gloriana following silently at her heels, set out for home. Not a word passed between them as they hastened down the main street of the town, until, just as they reached the dingy telegraph station, the sound of the busy, clattering key caused Tabitha to halt abruptly and a gleam of determination to flash over her sober, worried face.
"That's what!" she exclaimed joyfully. "I'll do it! Mr. Carson will fix everything. 'Twas in his mine that McKittrick was hurt."
"What do you mean? Where are you going?" asked bewildered Gloriana, unable to follow Tabitha's thoughts, and wondering what errand was taking her into the low, dimly lighted shack from which issued the monotonous, nervous, clicking sound which had attracted Tabitha's attention.
"To telegraph Mr. Carson. If he knew how badly off Mr. McKittrick is, he would send him inside in a minute."
"To Los Angeles, I mean. People here on the desert call that 'inside,' though I never could see why. Please, Mr. Goodwin, give me a blank. I want to send a telegram."
The man behind the counter supplied her with the necessary materials, and stood waiting curiously for the message to be written. But another idea had occurred to Tabitha, and turning away from the operator with the blank in her hand, she whispered to Gloriana in dismay, "I don't dare telegraph. Mr. Goodwin is a worse gossip than any old maid I ever knew, and he'd tell it all over town before noon!"
"Then write a letter."
"It takes nearly a week for mail to travel that far. It might be too late by—I've got it! How will this do?"
Rapidly she scribbled a few hasty words on the slip in her hands and passed it to Gloriana, who read in amazement this queer scrawl:
"Wire five hundred silver headed eagles. Must get rich quick. Ask Carrie to translate. Letter follows.
"That is more than ten words, but I can't help it. I'm willing to pay for it if it does the work."
"But, Kitty, what does it mean?" asked mystified Gloriana, privately thinking it the silliest piece of nonsense she had ever heard of. "Will he know what you want?"
"Carrie will. We used to write notes to each other in cipher when we were little. We called it cipher. Of course it was all utter nonsense, but I am sure she will remember."
"It doesn't sound—sensible—to me," Gloriana confessed. "I suppose five hundred silver headed eagles means five hundred dollars, but what is that about getting rich?"
Tabitha laughed gleefully. "Rosslyn McKittrick was a long time learning to say his own name when he was a baby," she explained. "As near as he could get it, 'twas 'Russ Getrich.' Mr. Carson was superintendent of the Silver Legion then, instead of one of the owners, and as Mr. McKittrick was working there when Rosslyn was born, the miners made him their mascot, and Mr. Carson used to tease him by calling him 'Must get rich quick.' I couldn't write 'McKittrick' in the telegram without Goodwin suspecting what I am up to; so I did the next best thing I could think of."
"But—" It all still seemed so ridiculous to the red-haired girl.
"You think he will wonder if I am crazy?" Tabitha had read the look of doubt in her companion's face, and correctly surmised what she was thinking. "Perhaps he will, but I don't believe so. He is quick to understand things. Now we will skip back to the post-office and I'll scratch him a letter of explanation, so it will go out with to-day's mail. Then if he shouldn't translate the telegram correctly—well, the letter will get there as soon as possible afterward."
As she spoke, she delivered the written message to the waiting operator, smiled with satisfaction at his look of baffled curiosity and bewilderment, and assuring him that it was worded exactly as she wanted it sent, she left the dingy office confident that the queer cipher would bring the desired results. Nor was she mistaken.
Early the next morning Mercedes came flying excitedly down the path to the Catt cottage, and, without the formality of knocking, burst into the kitchen where the two girls were busy washing up the breakfast dishes.
"Oh, Kitty! Gloriana!" she cried, half laughing, half sobbing with sheer delight. "Guess what's happened! Mr. Carson has sent mamma some money to take papa to Los Angeles. Now he can get well. That is what has been worrying her so much. The doctor said he would die unless he was operated on and mamma hadn't the money to get it done. They are to start to-morrow. Mamma's going, too. Doctor says every minute counts, and he has telegraphed to the hospital to make arrangements already."
She paused, all out of breath, to mop her steaming forehead; and Tabitha, studying the flushed, shining face, wondered that she had ever thought Mercedes McKittrick dull and homely.
"Isn't that fine?" she heard Gloriana saying, as heartily as if she had not known anything about the telegram before. "What are the rest of you going to do while your mother is away? You children, I mean."
"That's how I happened to come here," Mercedes replied, her eyes losing some of their glow as she recalled her errand in that part of the town. "Mamma sent me down to Miss Davis' house with a note, but she isn't there; and the woman next door says she has gone to Riverside for two weeks. I s'pose we'll have to find someone else instead. But I was so near I couldn't help running on down to tell the news. I must be going now. There is lots to be done before train time to-morrow, and mamma'll need me."
"We will come up and help her pack as soon as we get the house righted," Tabitha found tongue to say. "She mustn't get too tired before she starts."
So Mercedes raced away again, and a few moments later the two busy little housekeepers in the hollow locked up their orderly cottage and followed more slowly up to the Eagles' Nest on the bluff.
"Where can the children be?" Tabitha's expectant eyes searched in vain for a glimpse of the noisy, lively brood of 'eaglets,' who usually saw her coming a long way off, and met her half-way down the mountainside with a boisterous shout of welcome. To-day, however, not one of the sextette was in sight about the queer little brown house, and the whole place wore a deserted air.
"Maybe they have gone visiting so Mrs. McKittrick can look after her packing unmolested," suggested Gloriana, letting her keen gray eyes sweep the steep, rocky incline for some sign of the youthful McKittricks, but with no better result.
"That must be it," concluded Tabitha, "though I should have thought—why, Mercedes, Susie! What is the matter?"
Coming suddenly around the corner of a huge boulder where the children often played house, the two girls almost tumbled over a row of the most woe-begone, utterly miserable looking figures they had ever seen,—Mercedes, Susie, Inez, Irene, Rosslyn and Janie, all seated on a broad, flat rock as stiff as marble statues, and with faces almost as stony and staring.
"Why, children!" echoed Gloriana, equally amazed. "What are you doing here? What has happened?"
"Mamma is crying again," whispered Mercedes, dabbing savagely at a tear which suddenly brimmed over and splashed down the end of her nose.
"She says she won't go and leave us alone with Mercy," gulped Susanne, striving hard to keep the telltale quiver out of her voice.
"And there ain't money enough to go and take us all," supplemented Inez, who had earned the title of "Susie's shadow," because she preferred the society of her older sister to that of her quiet twin.
"Miss Davis has gone away and won't be back until it's too late," mourned gentle Irene, gazing sorrowfully down toward the low station house on the flats below.
"Mrs. Goodale's gone, too, and there ain't nobody else to housekeep for us," Rosslyn added plaintively, "'cept Mercy."
"But we'd be ist as dood as anjils wiv Mercy," lisped little Janie dejectedly, seeming to comprehend the tragedy of the situation as well as did the older children.
Slowly Tabitha turned toward her companion. Gloriana's gray eyes bravely met the questioning glance of the black ones. "Would your father——"
"Our father," Tabitha mechanically corrected her.
"Our father let you—us, I mean?"
"All summer, if he thought we wanted to; but it won't be that long."
"Only two weeks."
"Until Miss Davis gets back—or Mrs. Goodale."
"Do you think Mrs. McKittrick would leave the——"
"I don't know," confessed the older girl in worried accents. "It's a chance for him. I believe she'll take it. I'm sure we are old enough."
"And know enough about keeping house."
"They would be perfectly safe with us two."
"Supposing we ask her."
Impulsively, Tabitha started for the house with Gloriana at her heels; and the children, though not understanding the drift of the conversation they had just overheard, fell in behind the two, and marched in solemn procession up the path, feeling sure that something was about to happen which would clear away the heavy cloud of despair hovering over their household.
Again Mrs. McKittrick was sitting beside the battered kitchen table with her head on her arms as they had found her the day before, but this time Tabitha did not hesitate. Breathlessly, excitedly, she began, almost before she was inside the house:
"Oh, Mrs. McKittrick, Mercy has told us all about it—how Miss Davis and Mrs. Goodale are away and you can't find anyone to leave the children with. But you mustn't stay here on that account! Glory and I will take charge of the house. Really, we know how to cook and can manage splendidly, I'm sure, if you will let us try. Miss Davis will soon be back and then she can look after everything. Two weeks isn't very long. No harm can come to us in that time, I know. We'd love to do it. Say you will go. It means so much to you——"
She had not intended to say just that, but misreading the look of wondering surprise in the tear-stained face lifted to hers, she blundered, hesitated, and stood silent and distressed in the middle of the floor, shifting uneasily from one foot to the other, and looking so much like the frank, outspoken, bungling Tabitha of old, that Mrs. McKittrick could not refrain from laughing. It was an odd, hysterical, little laugh, to be sure, more pathetic than mirthful, but it relieved the sharp tension of the situation; and Gloriana, quick to take advantage of auspicious moments, broke in, "All you need to do is to say yes. We will be model housekeepers and take the best of care of the family."
"But—but—what about your father? He won't listen to such a plan, I'm sure."
"Now, don't you fret about that!" cried Tabitha joyfully, regarding the battle as good as won. "Daddy won't care a mite! Two weeks is such a little time. He will be glad to have us come."
"I believe—I better—take Janie. She is so small, and——"
"I believe you better not!" the black-eyed girl laughingly retorted. "She would be dreadfully in your way, no matter how good she is; and you want to be free to take care of your—patient. Now, where is your trunk? What clothes do you need to take? If you will tell us where to find things, we will begin to pack at once while you are getting the house settled the way you want to leave it, and writing out your orders."
"'Cause we'll be ist as dood as anjils," lisped Janie, as the procession, at a signal from Mercedes, quietly trooped forth into the June sunshine once more, and, with radiant faces and happy hearts, skipped down to their boulder playhouse to celebrate.
TABITHA AND GLORIANA, HOUSEKEEPERS
"You really think you want to do it?" Mr. Catt glanced quizzically from one bright, girlish face to the other as his fingers gently stroked the red tresses and the black hovering so close to his knee.
"Sure, daddy!" promptly answered Tabitha, patting the arm nearest her in a fashion that a year before she never would have dreamed of.
"Perfectly sure!" repeated Gloriana, snuggling closer to the big armchair in which her adopted father sat, and smiling contentedly at thought of the new life opening up before her.
"Two weeks mean fourteen whole days," he warned them.
"Yes," they giggled, "fourteen whole days!"
"And six lively children can raise quite a racket."
"The house is too far from the rest of town for their noise to bother anyone else," Tabitha reminded him.
"That's another point. What would you do if burglars broke in at night? You would be too far from town to call help."
"There is nothing at McKittrick's to burgle," his daughter retorted triumphantly. "I am not afraid."
"Nor I," said Gloriana, though somewhat faintly, for of a sudden a new phase of the matter had presented itself. She was still afraid of the black desert nights, and burglars were a constant source of terror to her, though never in all her life had she encountered any of that species of mankind.
"The cottage on the cliff is no more isolated than our cottage here in the hollow, now that the Carsons are away," continued the black-haired girl. "It would be just as easy—easier, in fact, to get help if we needed it there, than here; for the McKittrick house is on the side of the mountain overlooking the town, while our place is hidden from the rest of Silver Bow by that hill. We can see only the roof of the assayer's office from here, and that is the nearest building to ours except Carrie's house."
"That's true!" exclaimed Gloriana with such an air of relief that Mr. Catt could not refrain from smiling.
"And besides, nothing is going to happen in two weeks," continued Tabitha.
"Suppose Miss Davis doesn't return in two weeks? I thought you wanted to spend your summer at the beach."
"Oh, Miss Davis will be back on time," was the confident reply. "And we had planned to stay here a few weeks anyway, you know. Myra won't be looking for us before the first of July, for we had expected Tom would come home early in the summer for his vacation instead of having to wait until fall, and so made our plans accordingly."
He smiled at the grown-up air she had assumed, then sighed, for something in her quiet self-assurance and dignified poise suddenly brought home to him the realization that his little girl was fast growing up. The sensitive, rebellious, little spitfire of a few months ago had developed into a charming, gentle-mannered maid; and while he rejoiced in gaining so sweet a daughter, he disliked to lose the wild, untamed elf who had so suddenly blossomed into a young lady before he could in any measure atone for the unhappy years of her loveless childhood. He would have kept her a little girl all her life, had he been able; but here she was springing up into the beauty of a glorious womanhood before his very eyes. So he sighed as he thought of his lost opportunities, then abruptly asked, "How old are you, Tabitha?"
"Going on sixteen, daddy."
"And you, my other daughter?" turning to Gloriana sitting silently on her low stool by his side.
"Rather youthful housekeepers," he drawled, teasingly.
"But experienced in spite of youth," Tabitha gayly retorted. "Why, Miss King says we are the two most promising domestic science pupils she has. Now what do you think of that?"
"That she is right," came the prompt though unexpected reply; "and if you really think you want to play Good Samaritan for a couple weeks, you have my hearty sanction. The fact of the matter is, I find it impossible to be here at home much for the next fortnight, myself; possibly not at all after tonight. So you might just as well be mothering the McKittricks as left alone in this end of the town, so far as I can see."
"I knew you would say yes," sighed Tabitha contentedly. "You shall see what model housekeepers your daughters can be. We'll make you proud of us."
"I have no doubt of it," he answered heartily. "But if you begin your arduous duties to-morrow, it is time you were in bed this minute. Fly away now!"
So they ran laughingly away to their room, both secretly glad of the chance to seek their pillows an hour earlier, for that day at the McKittrick cottage had been a busy one, and though neither would acknowledge it to the other, feet, arms and backs ached sadly. But the next morning, after a refreshing night's sleep, the duet was ready and eager for the novel role they were about to play; and just as soon as their own simple tasks were done, the necessary clothes packed and the little cottage made secure for its two weeks of solitude, they tramped merrily up the steep path to the Eagles' Nest, and entered upon their summer vacation as housekeepers for a family of six, as Susie expressed it.
Everything was topsy-turvy in the excitement of getting the injured father, and weary, distracted mother started on their brief journey; but finally they were off, and a row of sober-faced children stood on the bluff overlooking the flats below, watching the train puff its way slowly out of sight behind the mountains.
With the last glimpse of the departing cars, the sense of responsibility in her new charge descended upon the shoulders of the volunteer housekeeper, and Tabitha was for a brief moment appalled at the task which she had so rashly undertaken.
"Six children to look after for two whole weeks!" she gasped in dismay. Then her courage returned with a rush. "Why, Tabitha Catt, you coward! I am ashamed of you! If you can't take care of six children for two short weeks, particularly with Gloriana to help, you are not good for much!" Resolutely she turned toward the house, saying briskly, to hide her own wavering spirits, "Well, folkses, let's have chocolate pie for supper!"
"Oh, goody!" cried Inez, whirling about to follow her leader; and at mention of these words, the faces of the whole group brightened wonderfully.
"Can't we have some cake, too? Mamma said we might if you knew how to make it."
"Knew how to make it?" boasted Tabitha scornfully. "Well, I should say we do! What kind will you have?"
"Nut loaf," quickly responded Mercedes, who knew from experience how delicious Tabitha's nut loaves were.
"Angel cake," wheedled Susie, with her most engaging smile.
"Frosted with chocolate," added Inez.
"Devil's food," suggested Irene.
"Cookies," pleaded Rosslyn, who had a boy's fondness for that particular delicacy.
"Dingerbread," lisped the baby.
And Tabitha laughed. "That's quite a collection, my dears."
"I should say so!" gasped Gloriana. "We can't make them all to-night. In fact, it is nearly four o'clock now. There isn't time for both pie and cake."
"Unless we do make gingerbread, as Janie suggested," said Tabitha slowly, seeing the look of disappointment clouding the row of round, serious faces watching them so expectantly.
"Wiv raisins," coaxed Rosslyn. "Lots of 'em!"
Instantly the faces brightened again. "Oh, yes, that's the way we like it best," chorused the four older members.
"And let us seed them," pleaded Inez. "Mamma often lets us."
"She won't let us eat more'n twelve," added Irene hopefully, "and we can work real fast."
"Well, you will have to if we have gingerbread for supper," said Gloriana. "I supposed the raisins were already seeded. Will we have time, Tabitha?"
"Yes, if everyone hustles, I reckon. Mercy, you know where things are in the pantry. Supposing you get out the spices, sugar, flour, and things. Susie and the twins stone the raisins; and, Rosslyn, you might bring in some small wood for the stove. We'll use the range to-night, because I have baked in that oven before and know how it works, but won't know until I experiment with it, how the gasolene oven bakes."
While she was issuing orders, Tabitha flaxed blithely about the little kitchen, lighting the fire, hunting up cooking utensils, and beginning the process of making chocolate pie, leaving Gloriana to wrestle with the mysteries of a raisin gingerbread.
Anxious for the coming treat, the children obediently flew to their various tasks; and soon voices buzzed busily, while the little hands tried their best to hurry.
"There!" breathed Tabitha at last, lifting a red, perspiring face from an inspection of two beautifully frosted pies in the oven, "they are done. Don't they look fine? Now you can put in your gingerbread whenever you are ready, Glory. I'll set these on the wash bench outside to cool, while I hustle up the rest of the supper."
"Mamma always puts her pies in the pantry window," volunteered Irene, not wishing to have the tempting delicacy removed from her sight.
"But they will cool quicker in the open air," explained Tabitha. "And supper will be ready so soon that they won't be cool enough to eat if we set them in the window. Now, Mercy——"
"Oh, Kitty," came a sudden wail of alarm from the dooryard where Rosslyn was still busy with his basket of chips, "Janie is gone! I can't find her anywhere!"
Tabitha dropped her platter of cold potatoes which she was preparing to warm over; Mercedes hastily left her dishpan where she was piling up the soiled kitchen utensils which the youthful cooks had used with extravagant hand; Susie and the twins abruptly deserted the raisin jar; and all bolted for the door.
Only Gloriana remained at her post. She had arrived at the most critical stage of her gingerbread making, and though her first impulse was to join in the search for the missing baby with the rest of her mates, her thrifty bringing-up reminded her that in the meantime the cake would spoil. So she paused long enough to dump in the cupful of raisins still standing on the doorsill, where the seeders had been sitting at their task. Giving the mixture a final beat, she poured the spicy brown dough into the baking sheet, thrust it into the oven, adjusted the dampers, and followed the example of the others, setting out down the rocky path as rapidly as her lameness would permit.
Meanwhile, toiling up the steep trail on the other side of the house, came a tiny, tired figure, almost ready to drop from her unusual exertions. Her dress was torn in a dozen places where the cruel mesquite had caught her as she passed, one shoe was unlaced, one stocking hung in rolls about the plump, scratched ankle, she wore no hat, and her fair hair was sadly tousled by the wind and her struggle through sagebrush and Spanish bayonets. Altogether, she presented a woeful spectacle; but in spite of it all, she clasped tightly in one chubby fist, a soiled and crumpled letter, which every now and then she examined critically, having discovered that the warmth and moisture of her fat hands left tiny, smudgy fingerprints on the white envelope, and being anxious to present a clean document to her wondering audience when she should have reached her goal. But oh, it did seem so far up to the Eagles' Nest, and the way was so rough for her little feet! Still she kept plodding wearily along, and at length reached the end of her journey, only to find the house silent and deserted.
"Mercy!" she piped shrilly, pushing open the screen and stumbling into the hot kitchen. "I'se dot a letter! Where is you? Susie! Rossie!"
Still no answer. Puzzled at this unusual state of affairs, she raced from room to room as fast as her short, tired legs would carry her, but no one was there.
"Tabby!" she shrieked. "Dory! What did you leave me for?"
A panic seized her. She had been deserted! Tears gathered in her sea-blue eyes, and trickled in rivulets down her flushed cheeks. She was afraid to stay alone. Why had everyone left her? Back to the kitchen she pattered. It was empty, but a fire still burned in the stove and savory odors from the oven lured her on. Curiosity overcame her fear for a moment, and with a mighty tug, she jerked open the door, revealing Gloriana's gingerbread just done to a turn.
"Dingerbread!" cried the child, gloating over the huge, golden sheet which smelled, oh, so good! "I want some now!" And forgetting that the oven was hot, she seized the pan with both chubby fists, but instantly let go her hold and roared with pain, for ten rosy fingers were cruelly burned, and how they did smart!
Suddenly above the wail of her lusty voice came the sound of excited voices and flying feet; and the next instant frightened Tabitha with her adopted brood in close pursuit, flew into the kitchen, and gathered up the hurt, sobbing baby in her arms, crooning tenderly, "There, there, dearie, you mustn't cry any more. We've all come back. We were hunting you. Where did you go?"
"Oh, see her hands!" cried Irene, shuddering in sympathy. "She has burned herself!"
"But the gingerbread isn't burned at all," volunteered Susie with satisfaction, after a keen and anxious scrutiny of the spicy loaf half-way out of the oven.
"For goodness' sake!" ejaculated Tabitha, not having noticed the seared fingers up to that moment, "What do you do for burns?"
"Bring some butter," ordered Gloriana, remembering Granny Conover's first remedy for burns.
"Mamma uses molasses," said Irene; and Susie and Inez, recovering their senses at the same instant, dived into the pantry, returning immediately, one with a crock of butter in her hand, and the other bearing a bucket of molasses; and before either of the older girls could intervene, they plunged both of Janie's dirty, scorched hands first into one dish and then into the other, leaving them to drip sticky puddles down the front of Tabitha's dress and on to the clean kitchen floor.
"Why, you little monkeys!" gasped the senior housekeeper, forgetting the dignity of her position in her wrath at what seemed inexcusable carelessness on the part of the girls.
"Mamma always puts molasses on burns," quavered Inez, her lip trembling at Tabitha's tone.
"And Glory said butter," surprised Susie defended. Then both culprits dissolved in tears.
"There, there, never mind!" cried Tabitha in dismay. "I didn't mean to scold, but you ought to have known more than to stick the baby's dirty hands into the molasses pail and butter crock."
"Not dirty!" screamed the outraged Janie, striking the face above her with a dripping fist. "On'y burned! Ve pan was—" Her sentence unfinished, she found herself ruthlessly shaken and dumped into the middle of the floor, while angry Tabitha rushed out of the door into the cool dusk of early evening, leaving a dismayed family staring aghast at each other in the hot kitchen. Even the amazed baby forgot to voice her protest at such treatment, but stood where she had landed, staring with round, scared eyes after the fleeing figure.
Down the mountainside sped Tabitha to the big boulder, wheeled about and rushed back to the house as swiftly as she had left it, and before the astounded children had recovered their breath, she cried, "I am sorry I was cross. I reckon I'm a little tired and everything has gone upside down and—suppose we have supper now. I know you are all hungry. Susie, while I am tying up Janie's hands, you might put the potatoes on in the frying pan; Irene, set the table; Inez, fetch the water; and Mercy, cut the bread. Is the gingerbread done, Gloriana?"
"Yes," responded the junior housekeeper proudly, "and already sliced for the table. Shall I bring in the pie?"
"The pies!" shouted the six McKittricks.
"I had forgotten all about them," confessed the older girl. "Yes, you better get them right away. One will be enough for supper,—the tins are so large."
While Tabitha was speaking, Gloriana had stepped briskly out of the door into the summer night and disappeared around the corner of the house; but immediately a terrified scream pierced the air, there was a loud snort and the sound of startled, scampering feet, and Gloriana burst into the room again bearing an empty plate in one hand and a dilapidated looking pie, minus all its frosting, in the other.
"Oh, our lovely pies!" wailed the children in chorus.
"The burros!" gasped Tabitha.
Gloriana nodded. "One had his nose right in the middle of this pie. The other beast had upset the second tin and was licking up the crumbs from the gravel."
"Oh, dear, I want some pie!" whimpered Rosslyn, puckering his face to cry.
"Ain't that the worst luck?" Susie burst out.
"If you had put the pies in the window to cool, like mamma does—" began Inez.
"It's too late to make any more to-night," Gloriana hastily interrupted, seeing a wrathful sparkle in Tabitha's black eyes; "but if you don't make any more fuss about it this time, we'll bake some to-morrow."
"And if you want any supper at all, you'd better come now," advised Mercedes, from her post by the stove, where she was vigorously making hash of the sliced potatoes. "This stuff is beginning to burn."
Gloriana rescued the frying pan, and the disappointed children gathered about the table, trying to look cheerful, but failing dismally.
"Don't want any 'tato," objected Janie, scorning the proffered dish. "Dingerbread!"
"Potato and beans first," insisted Tabitha.
"Dingerbread!" stubbornly repeated the child, so sleepy and cross that the weary older girl said no more, but slid a large slice of the savory cake into the little plate, and proceeded to help the other children in the same liberal manner. No one wanted beans and potato, but at the first mouthful of the tempting-looking gingerbread, everyone paused, looked inquiringly at her neighbor, chewed cautiously a time or two, and then eight hands went to eight pair of lips.
"I thought we stoned raisins for this cake," cried Susie, half indignantly.
"So you did," replied Gloriana, her face flushed crimson as she bent over her plate, intently examining her slice of cake.
"Oh, and put the stones in the cake! What did you do with the raisins?" demanded Inez.
Before Glory could frame a reply, or offer any excuse for the accident, Irene slid hurriedly off her chair, flew through the doorway and down the path toward town, but she was back in a moment, and in her hand she held a cup of raisins.
"Why, Irene McKittrick!" cried Mercedes, lifting her hands in horror. "What made you hide them?"
"I didn't hide them," the twin indignantly protested. "The cup was in my lap when Rosslyn called that Janie was lost, and I forgot to put it down when I ran out-doors. I remembered it by the time we reached our playhouse, so I set it down there and that's where I found it now."
"Janie wasn't lost," interrupted that small maiden in drowsy tones. "Me went to get a letter."
"To get a letter!" chorused her sisters. "Where?"
"To the store where Mercy goes. A man dave me one, too," she finished triumphantly, squirming down from her high chair to search about the room for the missing epistle, while the rest of the family forgot both pie and gingerbread in joining in the hunt. Rosslyn found it at last under the stove where it had fallen when Janie began her investigation of the oven; and the girls exclaimed in genuine surprise, "Why, it is a real letter!"'
"Addressed to mamma," said Mercedes, "Do you suppose Janie really went to the post-office all alone?"
But Janie was fast asleep in her chair where she had retired when convinced that Rosslyn had actually found her precious letter; so the sisters once more bent curious eyes upon the soiled envelope.
"Better re-address it to your mother," suggested Tabitha, remembering that in her written instructions, Mrs. McKittrick had failed to mention the matter of mail which might come to Silver Bow for her.
"Mamma told me to open all her letters, and not even to send papa's to Los Angeles, unless 'twas something very important."
"Then why don't you open it?" cried Susanne impatiently.
"And see who wrote it," added Inez.
"I—I—guess I will." Deliberately she tore open the envelope, spread out the brief letter it contained, and with a comically important air, read the few short lines. Then beginning with the heading, she read it the second time, her face growing graver at each word, until impatient Inez could stand the strain no longer, and burst out, "Well, what's it all about? Does it take you all night to read that teenty letter?"
"It's from Aunt Kate, Uncle Dennis' wife," Mercedes slowly retorted. "She is going to Europe for something, and wants to send the boys out here to us."
"Williard and Theodore?"
"But how can they, with papa hurt and mamma gone?"
"She says that they will pay good board and she knows mamma will be glad enough to get the money, seeing that papa's still unable to work."
Tabitha's face darkened. "It's an imposition!" she exploded wrathfully.
"I sh'd say so!" agreed Susanne. "They are dreadful noisy boys. We had 'em here once before, and Aunt Kate got awful mad 'cause papa licked 'em when they touched a match to the old shed to see how the people on the desert put out fires."
"She said they never should come again," added Inez, "but I guess she's forgot."
"How old are they?" ventured Gloriana.
"Williard's between me and Susie," Mercedes answered, "and Theodore's between Susie and the twins."
"Are you going to let them come?" demanded Irene.
Mercedes turned helplessly toward Tabitha. "What would you do, Kitty?" she asked. "Shall I write and ask mamma?"
"I shouldn't," Tabitha promptly replied. "Your mother has her hands full now, and it would only worry her to know how nervy your Aunt Kate is. I'd write her,—your aunt, I mean,—and tell her just how things stand, your father in the hospital and your mother with him. She ought to know more than to send them then. Still, I believe I'd just say that the boys can't come. She would understand that all right. And I'll be responsible, Mercedes, if your mother should think we ought to have told her about it first."
"I'd telegraph, so's to be sure," said Susanne. "Aunt Kate doesn't think much about other folks' wishes, and if she wanted to go to Europe bad enough, she'd ship the boys to us if we all had smallpox."
"That's a good idea," Tabitha acknowledged. "We'll telegraph at once, and then she will have no excuse for not knowing how sick your father is. Where is there a pencil and paper? I'll write out a telegram now, and we'll slip down town, and send it to-night."
She hastily scribbled the words:
"Mrs. Dennis McKittrick, Jamaica Plains, Mass.
Don't send boys. Father in Los Angeles hospital. Mother with him.
Then taking Irene as company, she carried the message to the telegraph station that same evening, to make sure it reached its destination in time to prevent the threatened visit from the unwelcome cousins.
"Perhaps I acted in a high-handed manner," she confessed to Gloriana, as they were preparing for bed that night, "but I couldn't bear to think of that selfish old cat—yes, that's what she is,—imposing upon Mrs. McKittrick again. I remember the boys, though it was quite a while ago that they were here. They were only little shavers then, too. I never met them, but one doesn't have to in order to know all they want to know about their antics."
"And judging from our first day's experiences as housekeepers in this family, we shall have all we want to do, without two terrors of boys added."
"To-day has been rather hard and disappointing," Tabitha acknowledged with a gusty sigh.
"But to-morrow will be better," Gloriana comforted her. "And it is only for two weeks. That's one consolation."
"Thank fortune!" Tabitha exclaimed with fervor; and the tired eyelids closed over the drowsy black eyes and the gray.
"Well, one whole week is gone," said Tabitha exultantly, as she bent over the heaped-up mending basket one hot afternoon, and tried to make neat darns of the gaping holes in the heels of Susie's stockings.
"Yes, and half of the first day of the second week," Gloriana replied cheerily. "But really, Puss, time hasn't dragged as slowly as I feared. That first day was the longest, I think, I ever knew."
"That first day was a horrible nightmare," the older girl emphatically declared. "I thought it never would end, and I'd have quit my job on the spot if there had been anyone to take my place."
"I'd have quit it anyway if you had just said the word," laughed her companion. "I thought you'd never go to sleep that night—I wanted so badly to cry."
"Did you? So did I, but you kept tossing so restlessly that I knew you were still awake, and finally I dropped off without getting my cry at all."
"That's just what I did, too!" giggled Gloriana.
"And the next morning everything looked so different——"
"Yes, I could laugh then at the burro's nose in your lovely pie and the seeds in my gingerbread; but they didn't seem so funny the night before."
"They seemed anything but funny to me for several days, and I don't think I'll ever see a chocolate pie or a gingerbread again in my life without remembering this vacation."
"But things have gone splendidly since that first night," Gloriana reminded her. "The children have tried to be angels, even if they have executed some queer stunts for cherubs."
"Yes, I know, but I am glad just the same that half of our—apprenticeship—is over. If this week will pass as smoothly as last week did, it's all I'll— What in the world is the matter with the children? Sounds as if they were having an Indian war dance. I wonder if those Swanberg boys are bothering again."
Both girls dropped their mending and hurried to the door just in time to hear Inez's voice say cuttingly, "Of course we know who you are, Williard and Theodore McKittrick!"
"Guess again!" drawled the older of two strange boys, lolling on suitcases in the middle of the yard.
"Well, those are your names," Inez insisted.
"You look enough like you used to when you were here before, so we can't be mistaken," said Mercedes primly.
"Can't, eh? Well, our names are Williard and Theodore no longer. We are Billiard and Toady these days. Mind you don't forget! We've come to stay till the folks get back——"
"Didn't you get our telegram telling you not to come?" demanded belligerent Susie.
"Sure we did!"
"Then why didn't you stay at home?"
"'Cause ma had the arrangements all made to go across the ocean and there wasn't anyone else to send us to. Grandma's away travelling, and Aunt Helen's kids have got scarlet fever."
"But papa's in the hospital and mamma's there nursing him," said Irene indignantly.
"Truly?" The boy called Toady spoke for the first time.
"Do you think I'm lying?"
"Well, ma said she bet it was all a bluff to keep us from coming out here," Billiard explained, looking genuinely surprised at Irene's words.
"And anyway," supplemented Toady, "she said if it was true about your father and mother being away to Los Angeles, there'd have to be someone here to look after you kids, and two more wouldn't make much difference."
"Specially when she's paying for our board!"
Tabitha, a silent spectator in the doorway, ground her teeth in helpless rage, while Gloriana gasped audibly at the impudence of mother and sons.
"It's no more'n right that you should pay board," Susie declared in heat. "You make so much trouble wherever you go."
"Do, huh?" Billiard, frowning darkly, advanced threateningly toward his outspoken cousin, with fists doubled up and an ugly sneer on his face. But Susie was no coward, and when he shook his knuckles close to her little pug nose to emphasize his words, the girl's arm shot out unexpectedly and landed a blow fair and square on one eye.
With a yell of rage and pain, the surprised boy lunged forward, but instead of confronting Susie, he found himself in the grasp of a tall, irate young lady, who wore her shining black hair pinned up on top of her head, although her skirts were still short enough to show a pair of trim ankles. "Now stop right here!"
She spoke quietly, almost too quietly; but one look into the smouldering depths of those big, black eyes was enough to cow the bully, and he jerked himself free, muttering sulkily, "She hit me first!"
"She had to, or get hit herself," bawled Inez, jigging excitedly from one foot to the other in her exultation over her cousin's defeat.
"Well, he needn't have come! We telegraphed them not to!"
The girl subsided, and Billiard found courage to leer triumphantly at her discomfiture. But Tabitha intercepted the glance, and in that ominously calm voice which had struck terror to his cowardly heart before, she announced, "It is too late now to think of that side of the question. We'll have to make the most of a bad situation; but I will not tolerate fighting. You may as well understand that first as last. If you boys can't behave like gentlemen, you can just move on down to the hotel. Is that plain?"
"Yes, sir—ma'am," stammered the abashed Billiard, glancing uneasily about for some means of escape, but Tabitha had delivered her ultimatum, and now swept grandly into the house, satisfied that she had displayed her authority in a very impressive manner.
Hardly had the screen closed behind her, however, when her sharp ears caught Billiard's hoarsely whispered question, "Who is that high-headed geezer?"
"The girl who is taking care of us," answered Mercedes unguardedly.
"Sure! What did you take her for?"
"A—a new woman. A—one of these things that's trying to vote and do men's work and such like."
"Oho!" yelled the McKittrick girls in unison. "Why, she ain't much older'n us!"
"She goes to Ivy Hall in Los Angeles, the boarding school I belong to," said Mercedes.
"Cross my heart!"
And instinctively Tabitha knew that there was trouble ahead for her. "Isn't this the worst luck you ever heard of?" she groaned to Gloriana when once inside the house again.
"If I had my way about it, I'd ship them straight home on the next train," declared the red-haired girl angrily. "The very idea of their mother doing such a thing as that! What kind of a woman is she, anyway?"
"I don't know much about her, except that she is utterly selfish and very rich. The boys are sent away to school most of the year; and during vacations she manages to shift them onto some of her relatives. Fortunately, Jim McKittrick is too far away to be bothered with them very often."
"But what shall you—we do with them? Shall we tell Mrs. McKittrick that they have come?"
"Goodness, no! At least not yet. It would just worry her more than ever and she is worn to distraction now. No, we must make the best of it this week, and by that time Miss Davis will be here. She was raised in a family of boys and ought to know how to manage them."
"Well, I am thankful I am not in her shoes," breathed Gloriana. "I suppose we can get along somehow for the six days that are left. Where shall you put them?"
"Well, I declare! I had forgotten all about that part of it. They will think I am a real hospitable hostess." She stepped to the door to call them, but not a soul was in sight anywhere. Two open suitcases lay on the ground with their contents scattered all about, but both owners and their cousins had disappeared.
"Mercedes! Susie!" she called peremptorily, but no one answered; and not even the sound of their voices at play fell on her listening ear. "Strange," she muttered. "They were here a minute ago. Where can they have gone so quickly?"
She was about to start on a tour of investigation when a series of wild, piercing screams of abject terror rent the air, and Rosslyn came stumbling down the steep incline behind the house, bruised, scratched, torn, and covered from head to foot with what looked like blood Gloriana caught him as he fell, for Tabitha turned faint and sick at the sight; but a shout of boyish disgust from above brought her to her senses.
"Aw, come back, you bawl baby! We were just foolin'! You ain't hurt a mite!" Billiard swaggered into view from behind a tall boulder half-way up the mountainside, and even Tabitha shuddered at the spectacle he presented, for he was togged out in war paint and feathers till he looked fiendish as he brandished a tomahawk in one hand and an evil-looking knife in the other. At sight of the girl on the narrow piazza, he hastily retreated behind the rocks again; but Tabitha was there almost as soon as he. Snatching the gorgeous headdress from the culprit's head, she trampled it ruthlessly in the sharp gravel, disarmed the would-be Indian brave, breaking the treasured tomahawk and knife against the rocks, and shook the cowering savage with strong, relentless hands. But not a word did she speak, and though her victim writhed and squirmed and wriggled, he could not break the fierce grip on his shoulders.
"Don't, don't," he blubbered in desperation. "I didn't mean to scare him so bad. We were only playing Indian."
"Only—playing—Indian!" panted Tabitha, in scorching scorn. "Look at those children! You have frightened them all to death!" Pausing an instant in her vigorous shaking, she pointed at the circle of sisters,—Mercedes, weak and trembling, bent over the limp form of little Janie, blowing frantically in the still, white face; a thoroughly subdued and frightened Toady was wildly fanning poor Irene, who had likewise crumpled in a faint; while close by sat Susie and Inez clinging to each other and sobbing in terror.
"Oh, I didn't mean to!" bellowed Billiard, as Tabitha resumed her shaking. "I thought they'd seen Indians before."
"And so they have, but not such horrible savages as you!" Shake! Shake! Shake!
Irene sighed faintly and opened her eyes. Toady's heart gave a violent thump of relief and thanksgiving, and abruptly dropping the headdress of feathers which he had been using as a fan, he flew to his brother's rescue.
"Oh, please, Mrs. Tabitha," he pleaded, "you've drubbed him enough. Shake me if you ain't through yet. You'll have him plumb addled! Really, we were just in for some fun. We never dreamed the kids would scare so easy. That's only vegetable dye on Rosslyn's head. He thought we had scalped him, but we didn't mean to hurt him."
Tabitha glanced down into the entreating brown eyes at her elbow, straightway forgave Toady, and released her victim so suddenly that he fell sprawling into a nest of sharp-thorned Mormon pears; but of this she was unaware, for with one swoop she gathered up the now hysterical baby, and stalked off toward the house, saying grimly, "You boys stay right where you are until you are willing to apologize and promise to behave yourselves in the future. I've a mind to turn you over to the sheriff now. Come, girls!" Followed by the troop of white, shivering sisters, she disappeared within doors, and soon quiet reigned in the Eagles' Nest.
Only then did the cowed Billiard venture to peer from his retreat at the house below. It was nearing the supper hour and he was hungry, but Tabitha had said he must apologize and promise good behaviour before he would be admitted to the family circle. It was evident that she meant business.
"Toady," he whispered to the other boy, sitting silent and motionless where he had dropped when Tabitha had left them an hour before. "Toady, can you see anyone down there?"
Toady glanced off at the hazy flat below with its winding silver ribbon of railroad track, and the lonely, dingy station house, and shook his head.
"Aw, not there!" Billiard protested, seeing that his brother's thoughts had evidently been running in the same channel. "Down to Uncle Jim's, I mean."
Scarcely shifting his position, dutiful Toady craned his neck around a boulder, surveyed the quiet mountainside in the waning afternoon light, and again shook his head.
"Creep down and see what they're doing. Maybe they are talking about us."
"Go yourself," returned Toady briefly.
"Aw, come now, Toady! She ain't so mad at you, and besides, you're littler. They wouldn't see you so quick."
Still Toady remained seated.
"We'll have to have some water to wash off this stuff before she'll let us in to—to apologize," wheedled Billiard.
"Are you going to apologize?"
"Looks like we got to," answered the older boy gloomily. "She's a reg'lar cyclone. Smashed up half our things already, and like enough she will sick the sheriff on us like she said, 'nless we do—er—apologize."
It was very evident that Billiard was not in the habit of apologizing for anything; and Toady, grinning with no little satisfaction at his brother's discomfiture, arose and slowly descended by a roundabout trail to the cottage. He was gone a long time and Billiard was growing decidedly restless and anxious when he appeared in sight once more. "She's—they are going to write to Uncle Hogan!" he announced breathlessly.
"Uncle Hogan!" cried Billiard in dismay.
"Yes, that's just what I heard them say. Mercedes told her how Uncle Hogan——"
"I'll get even with Miss Mercedes," Billiard interrupted fiercely.
"You better get that paint off your face and hike for the house with your apology," advised the more easily persuaded brother, "else you'll never have a chance to get even with anybody again."
"Because if we don't promise to be good inside of an hour, they are going to ask the—the—some man, sort of a policeman, I guess, to look after us until Uncle Hogan answers."
"Do you really think they'd write to Uncle Hogan?"
"Sure! Tabitha knows him. She and that Glory girl with the red hair kept him all night last winter off some mountain he wanted to climb 'cause they didn't know who he was. She had a gun and shot at them; but when her father got there he said 'twas all right, and Uncle Hogan thinks Tabitha is the whole cheese now."
"Supposing we do—apologize, will they write to him still?"
"No, I guess not. If you'll promise to behave, they will let you stay until some woman who's going to take care of the kids most of the summer gets here. Then she can do as she pleases about writing. You better knuckle under, Billiard."
The older boy groaned. "You don't seem to care very much," he complained bitterly, feeling that Toady had deserted him at the most critical moment.
"I—I've apologized already," acknowledged the other. "I'd rather do that than have Uncle Hogan get after us."
"So would I," Billiard sulkily decided, and pulling himself up from his rocky seat, he slowly shambled down the mountainside, with Toady at his heels hugely enjoying his brother's humiliation, for, though comrades in mischief, the older boy loved to bully the younger, and Toady had a long list of scores to settle, so he could not refrain from grinning broadly behind Billiard's back, particularly since his part of the disagreeable program had already been accomplished.
"Better wash your face, first," he suggested, as Billiard made straight for the kitchen door, through which savory odors of supper cooking were beginning to steal.
"Aw, come off!"
"She won't let you in till you do."
"Well, then, where's the water?"
Toady pointed toward a basin on a nearby rock, and Billiard made a vigorous, if somewhat hasty toilet. Then, after a moment's further hesitation, he entered the kitchen with hanging head, and, addressing a grease spot on the floor by Tabitha's feet, muttered surlily, "I—er—apologize."
Tabitha's lips twitched. He looked so utterly downcast and abject that she could scarcely keep from smiling openly. "Are you ready to promise to behave yourself from now on?"
"Yes, sir—I mean, ma'am," he gulped, flushing angrily as the girls tittered.
Tabitha instantly silenced their mirth, and turning to the boy, said graciously, "Then we'll let bygones be bygones; but we'll have no more such actions while you stay. Your suitcase is in the back bedroom. Toady will show you. But first, please bring in a couple armfuls of wood. It looks like rain and——"
"Wood! We never bring in wood at home!" the boy rebelled.
"You are not at home now," Tabitha answered sweetly.
"But—we're paying board!"
"I haven't seen any board money yet. And anyway, we need the wood."
Angrily the boy jerked out a purse from his trousers pocket and slammed some gold pieces on the table.
"Twenty dollars," she counted. "For how long?"
"Ten weeks! Two dollars a week for two of you! Board on the desert is cheap at a dollar a day. You can write your mother to that effect; and in the meantime, perhaps you better put up at the hotel——"
"Oh, she said if anyone made a fuss, she'd pay more," Billiard hastily explained, for somehow the hotel idea did not appeal to him.
"Well, you tell her a dollar a day for each of you is the regular rate. And now you will have just about time to get that wood before supper is ready."
Billiard glanced questioningly up into the clear, olive face above him, as if he could not believe his ears.
"The pile is close to the door," she continued, paying no attention to the amazement in his face: "and the woodbox is on the screened porch."
Billiard hesitated, opened his lips as if to speak, closed them again, and inwardly raging, but outwardly meek, marched out of the door to the woodpile.
Tabitha retired late that night, weary but triumphant, congratulating herself that Billiard was conquered; but she had reckoned without her host. Two little heathen such as Williard and Theodore McKittrick are not to be converted in one day, nor are they apt to be forced into reforming. Brought up with utter disregard for other people's rights, by a mother who bore them no particular love, but who surrounded them with every luxury money could buy simply because she found it less trouble to indulge than to deny them, it is scarcely to be wondered at that they had no idea of honor or obedience.
Their father, Dennis McKittrick, had been more successful than his brothers in his struggle for wealth. After amassing a comfortable fortune, he had not lived to enjoy it, and before his oldest son had seen his sixth birthday, the father was laid to rest in the shadow of a resplendent monument in an Eastern cemetery; and the rearing of the two boys was left wholly to their fashion-plate mother, whose only gods were dress and personal pleasure. Tabitha had heard many stories of the selfish, heartless woman, who found her motherhood a burden rather than a blessing, but she did not understand the difficulties one must contend with in attempting to reform such lawless youths, and being little more than a child herself, it was only natural that she should make mistakes.
But she did not at once realize this fact, for Billiard, completely surprised by the unusual treatment accorded him, was a model of obedience and politeness for the next two days, and Tabitha was deceived into thinking his reformation was genuine and lasting; while in reality, the young scapegrace was merely studying the unique situation and plotting how to "get even" with the girl who already had mastered him twice. A coward at heart, he knew he could not come out openly and fight her, so he slyly planned little annoyances to hinder her work and try her patience. Yet so adroitly did he manoeuvre that Tabitha was some time in finding out the real culprit.
"My brefus food ain't nice," wailed Janie, the third morning of her cousins' stay.
"Nor mine, either," protested Rosslyn, tasting his critically, and wrinkling his nose in disgust.
"You've salted it something fierce," said Billiard, winking solemnly at Toady while Tabitha was busy sampling her dish of porridge.
"It's so salt that sugar doesn't sweeten it," added Susie, making a wry face at the first mouthful and taking a hasty swallow of water.
Tabitha's mystified face quickly cleared. Seizing the sugar-bowl, she cautiously tasted its contents, and turning toward Inez, said accusingly, "You filled it with salt instead of sugar!"
"Then someone put the salt cup in the sugar barrel," cried Inez indignantly, "'cause I just poured one cupful into the sugar-bowl."
"Well, be more careful the next time," admonished the black-eyed girl, retreating to the pantry for a fresh supply of sweetening; and Billiard, elated at the success of his first attempt, determined to try again.
"What in the world did you put in that salad dressing, Glory?" cried Tabitha, snatching up her glass of water with eager hands.
"What's the matter with it?" demanded the second cook, whose turn it was to wait upon the table that day.
"You used ginger 'stead of mustard," scolded Toady, who had a particular aversion for red hair, and took little pains to conceal it.
Gloriana had her suspicions as to how such an accident could have happened, but a hurried visit to the pantry disclosed the spice cans in their proper places, all correctly labelled; so she reluctantly admitted her mistake, but decided to keep her eyes open.
"There's soap in my glass of water," complained Irene at the next meal.
"Soap!" echoed Mercedes. "I washed those glasses myself, and never used a bit of soap on them! That's the way mamma told us to wash them."
But the fact still remained that not only was Irene's glass soapy, but more than half the dishes on the table tasted of Fels Naptha. Tabitha looked concerned, but Billiard and Toady were so innocent appearing that she never suspected them of having had a hand in the affair.
The next time it was Tabitha's biscuits. When they appeared on the table they were as thin as wafers and as hard as bricks. In some way she had substituted corn starch for baking powder; but as another hurried visit to the pantry showed both articles where they belonged on their respective shelves, she concluded that carelessness on her part had caused the trouble, and let the matter drop.
Then the house began to be infested with all sorts of obnoxious insects and reptiles. Mercedes found two huge grasshoppers in the soup one day; a long, wriggling centipede fell out of the cook-book as Tabitha turned its pages in search of a favorite recipe; a scorpion dropped off the cake plate which Gloriana was in the act of passing, so frightening the girl that she dashed cake, dish and all onto the floor, and promptly had hysterics. Horned toads, ugly lizards, and worms of every description made their appearance by the dozen, until even Tabitha grew alarmed; but still she did not suspect the cause of such an invasion, as the two brothers were apparently as docile and obedient as their gentler cousins.
Even when they found a dead rattler coiled up in the middle of the kitchen floor, Tabitha attributed it to Carrie's dog, General, who still spent much of his time at the McKittrick cottage. Nor did she notice that the reptile was coiled in a most impossible manner, with its head propped up by two tiny wires. She merely hustled the thing out of doors, hacked it into pieces with the axe, and buried the remnants under a pile of rocks to make sure no harm came of them. It never occurred to her to wonder how General, who was not allowed in the house, could have dragged the snake inside without someone seeing or hearing him, for he was proud of his snake-killing accomplishment and always made a big commotion when he succeeded in trapping one. So the culprits enjoyed the girls' scare, and retired to the water-tank behind the assayer's office to hatch up some new scheme.
Only Gloriana, whose cordial dislike for boys, caused by her unhappy experiences in Manchester, made her suspicious of all that species of humanity, seemed aware of what was going on, but she could not catch them red-handed. And knowing that she suspected them, the brothers made life miserable for her in a hundred ways. They hid her crutch in the most out-of-way places, adroitly misplaced her cooking utensils, or whatever article she was about to use, causing her many a long and annoying search when she was in a hurry. They stopped the clock or set it ahead with aggravating frequency; and discovering that the plucky girl grimly bore their tormenting in silence, they grew bolder, jumping out at her from unexpected corners, tweaking her long braids, tripping her up, and calling her "Carrots," or "Red-top," when Tabitha was out of hearing, for they still entertained a wholesome fear of that strong-armed, hot-tempered little housekeeper, who demanded instant obedience from her charges, and was able to enforce her authority by main strength if necessary.
Also, they felt a certain boyish admiration for the tall, lithe girl who bore such a record for bravery, though not for the world would they have admitted the fact, even to each other; and they could not resist plaguing her on the sly whenever a chance presented itself. But to tease her openly was out of the question; so Gloriana received a double share of tormenting, which she bore with such uncomplaining fortitude that the boys forgot to be cautious, and one afternoon while Tabitha was in town on an errand, Mercedes came upon them as they were limping about the kitchen in an exaggerated fashion chanting with tuneless voices,
"Baa-baa, black sheep, have you any wool? Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full; One for the master, one for the dame, And one for the 'gory head' who limps awful lame."
Tears were standing in the tired gray eyes, but Gloriana, with her back resolutely turned toward her tormentors, scrubbed her pan of vegetables more vigorously, and tried not to hear the taunting words, though she knew from the sound of their steps that the boys were circling nearer and ever nearer, and would soon jerk off her hair-ribbon or poke her in the back.
"Cowards!" exploded Mercedes wrathfully. "You'd never dare do that if Tabitha was here! I'm going to tell her just how mean you are!"
"Tattletale, tattletale!" jeered Billiard, taking a rapid survey of the yard as he limped past the door, to see if the other housekeeper had by any chance returned from the post-office.
"You wait and see what you get when Tabby finds out what you have been doing," threatened the girl; and the little name slipping inadvertently from her tongue gave the boys another inspiration.
"Tabby Catt, Tabby Catt," they began in unison, "where have you been? I've been to Silver Bow to buy me a bean. Tabby Catt, Tabby Catt, what saw you there? I saw 'Gory Hanner' with her fearful red hair."
So intent were they upon rendering their new song, that neither boy heard the screen open and close softly behind him, but Mercedes caught a glimpse of the set, white face and flashing eyes through the doorway, and held her breath in mingled fear and expectation.
"Billy goat, Billy goat, where have you been?" a low, ominous voice interrupted; and the two tormentors came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the floor, paralyzed at the unexpected appearance of the black-haired girl.
"A-chewing the whiskers, that grow under my chin," the voice calmly finished, and seizing the pan of dirty water from which Gloriana had just rescued the last potato, Tabitha dashed its contents over the astonished duet. Then realizing that once more she had let go of her fiery temper, she fled from the house up the trail to a great boulder on the summit of the mountain, and threw herself face down in an abandon of shame, remorse and despair.
"Oh, dear, why can't I be good?" she sobbed. "Just when I think I can hold onto myself and be ladylike no matter how mad I get, something comes up to show me that I'm mistaken. I'm just as hateful as Billiard! Oh, dear! And I thought he was being so good, and all the while he was doing mean things behind my back. I make a miserable fizzle of everything I undertake. What would Mrs. McKittrick say if she could have seen me a few minutes ago? Now I've lost all the hold I had on the boys. They can't respect anyone who doesn't control her temper any better than I.
"How I wish I had never offered to take care of the tribe of McKittrick! No, that isn't so, either, for then the mother couldn't have gone inside with Mr. McKittrick, and perhaps the operation would have killed him. I'm glad he had his chance, bad boys or no bad boys! But oh, I am so thankful that Miss Davis will soon be home. I will never play housekeeper again, never! But now,—how can I make it right with Billiard and Toady? What a world this is to live in! Always stepping on someone's toes and then having to beg pardon. The trouble of it is I—I don't believe I am very sorry that I doused the boys. I am sorry I got so mad and did such a hateful thing, of course, but they deserved more than they got. And yet they aren't to blame, either, after the bringing up they have had. I suppose—it's up to me—to do the apologizing act—myself—this trip."
Drying her eyes and taking a firm grip on herself, she descended from her refuge and sought out the boys in their room.
"Come in," Billiard called gruffly in response to her knock, though inwardly he was quaking with fear lest it might be the sheriff or Uncle Hogan, whose authority he had never but once dared to defy. So he was visibly relieved when he saw Tabitha standing alone on the threshold, but waited uncertainly for her to state her errand.
She was as anxious as they to have the ordeal over with, and plunged into the middle of her carefully framed speech, saying briefly, "I came to ask your pardon for my rudeness of a few minutes ago. I forgot myself. It was wrong of me to speak and act as I did, no matter how great the provocation."
Her wandering gaze suddenly fell upon Billiard's face, just in time to see him wink wickedly at Toady, and her good resolutions abruptly took wing. "But you deserved every bit you got," she finished fiercely, "and the next time I'll souse you in the rain barrel!"
Slamming the door in their surprised faces, she marched majestically away to the kitchen, and furiously began beating up a cake, so chagrined over this new defeat of her plans that she could not keep the tears from her eyes.
Suddenly a meek voice at her elbow spoke hesitatingly, "Say, Tabitha, we've apologized to Gory Anne—Gloriana, I mean. Will you—excuse—me for what we said about you, too?"
Toady's big, beseeching, brown eyes met hers unflinchingly—he certainly knew how to look angelic when occasion demanded it—and Tabitha relented.
"Yes, Toady, I'll excuse you," she said with meaning emphasis, which was not lost on the older brother, keeping well in the background.
"I—I'm ready to be excused, too," Billiard gulped at length, shuffling forward a few steps, but not raising his eyes from the floor.
"Very well," she answered coldly. "But don't you dare bother Gloriana again. I won't stand for it!"
"No, ma'am," Billiard responded meekly; and the two boys made good their escape, feeling very virtuous indeed.
"Miss Davis gets home to-day," sang Tabitha under her breath, as she drew on her slippers that bright, hot morning. "Do you know that, Gloriana Holliday?"
"Haven't I been counting every minute,—yes, every second for the past twenty-four hours?" laughed the second girl, letting down her luxuriant auburn mane and beginning to brush it vigorously. "But I had a horrible dream last night. I thought she sent us her wedding announcements, and we had to stay here all summer."
"False prophet! How dare you dream such a thing as that? Didn't we have a letter from her just two days ago saying she would reach here on to-day's train? And anyway, dreams always go by contraries, you know."
"It's mighty lucky they do in this case," Gloriana replied seriously. "But I woke in a cold sweat, the dream was so very real. I couldn't help wondering if something had delayed her so she wouldn't reach here as soon as we had expected."
"What a pessimist you are!" cried Tabitha, eyeing her companion in surprise. "You are usually just the opposite. What is the matter with you to-day, Glory?"
"Oh, I just somehow feel it in my bones that something is going to happen——"
"To be sure! Miss Davis is coming home and relieve us of our job."
"Something disappointing, I mean.
"Well, you just get that feeling out of your bones right away!" commanded Tabitha, thrusting the last pin into her shining, black hair and whisking into her big, kitchen apron. "You must have the rheumatism and that is bad for one's health. One more meal after this, and—exit Tabitha Catt and Gloriana Holliday, housekeepers."
Gloriana laughed, as, with a comical flourish and backward courtesy, the black-haired girl disappeared through the door, but her gay spirits were contagious, and presently the younger maid joined her companion in the kitchen, singing softly:
"'Maxwellton's braes are bonnie Where early fa's the dew, And 'twas there that Annie Laurie Gave me her promise true.'"
"There, that sounds better," Tabitha commented. "Really, I was beginning to get shivers of misgiving myself from your gloomy forebodings in the other room. What shall we have for dinner in honor of the occasion? Green peas, asparagus tips, French potatoes and caramel pudding? Or shall we invest in some strawberries at two bits a box and have shortcake for dessert?"
Merrily she skipped about the kitchen, making ready the simple breakfast for the hungry brood; and when that was out of the way, and the house swept and dusted, the two housekeepers began preparations for an elaborate dinner.
"To celebrate our release from bondage," laughed Gloriana, browning the sugar for a caramel pudding, while Tabitha carefully concocted her best layer cake. So busy were they that the morning flew by as on wings, and before either was aware of the hour, a shrill blast of a whistle proclaimed the approach of a locomotive.
"The train!" gasped Tabitha.
"And we haven't tidied the children up or changed our own dresses," mourned Gloriana.
"I intended to meet Miss Davis at the station, to be sure she came here for dinner," wailed the other.
"It's too late now to do that, but we can make the youngsters a little more presentable before the 'bus comes up from the depot," suggested the younger girl.
"They certainly will need cleaning up by this time, I'll admit. Call them, will you, please?"
Gloriana stepped to the door and yodelled shrilly, but there was no answering trill, save the echo thrown back by the mountain peaks.
"Decamped again!" sighed Tabitha impatiently. "Did you ever see a bunch of children who could do the disappearing act as quickly or as completely as the tribe of McKittrick? If you will watch these potatoes, I will go hunting. They were here only a few seconds ago, seems to me."
Briskly she circled the house. Not a chick nor a child was anywhere in evidence. Down to the boulder playhouse, up the trail to the summit, but nowhere were the children to be found. Tabitha became alarmed. What mischief had Billiard led them into now? He had been perfectly angelic for twenty-four hours. It was time for another outbreak.
Shading her eyes with her hand, she anxiously surveyed the surrounding hillsides, the gray flat below, the dingy station house, and presently her sharp eyes espied a procession of lagging figures straggling down the steps from the depot platform.
"Can it be—" she began. "Yes, I do believe it is! Horrors! Whatever will Miss Davis say when she sees that bunch of dirty ragamuffins! One, two, three, four—Billiard is lugging Janie pickaback, and Mercy and Toady have made a chair for Rosslyn. Yes, that is my family!"
She turned to go back to the house, but another thought had suddenly occurred to her. "Miss Davis! She's not with them. Can it be she didn't come? Was Gloriana right after all? She surely would not let the children plod home in the heat while she rode in the 'bus. No, there are only eight people in that bunch and they are all children. Oh, dear, suppose Glory's dream has come true!"
Mechanically she turned back to the house, and her comrade in misery, catching a glimpse of her disturbed face, cried in alarm, "Can't you find any of them?"
"Yes, they have been to the depot."
"The little rascals! Without so much as asking leave! And it is such a long walk for Rosslyn and Janie!"
"I suppose Billiard put them up to it," Tabitha murmured, glad that Glory had not asked about Miss Davis; and she fell to dishing up potatoes with such reckless energy that the hot fat slopped over and blistered her hand.
"Oh!" cried Gloriana pityingly, "you have burned yourself. Let me finish taking them up."
"No, it's nothing. Serves me right for getting so provoked. I do wish I could learn to control my temper."
Gloriana remained discreetly silent, thinking that Tabitha was angry because of the children's latest escapade; and in silence they finished dinner preparations, both waiting anxiously, nervously for the runaways' return.
At length they heard them coming up the steep path from town, and Susie flew through the door with two letters in her hand. "They are both for you, Tabitha," she panted. "One's from mamma. I'd know her writing in the dark. Miss Davis didn't come on to-day's train, but I s'pose likely she'll be here to-morrow, don't you think?"
Tabitha snatched the envelopes from Susie's outstretched hand, and ripped them open with one stroke of the knife she held, muttering feverishly, "The other is from Miss Davis." Her quick eyes swept the page at a single glance, it seemed, and a smothered groan escaped her.