CHAPTER VI


THE RUNAWAY MISSED


Bob's absence was not discovered till breakfast time, for Ethan, who was a sound sleeper, when he woke and saw Bob's empty cot, supposed the boy had risen earlier than usual and gone to the barn. Mr. Peabody, too, took it for granted that the boy was milking, and it was not until they were seated at the table and half way through the meal that anything out of the ordinary was suspected.

"Why in tarnation doesn't that good for nothing bring in the milk?" grumbled Mr. Peabody. "I declare he gets later and later every morning. The balers will be over to start work at seven, and if he thinks he's going to spend half an hour dawdling over his breakfast after they get here, he's much mistaken."

The men who were to bale the hay had slept at the adjoining farm, according to the agreement made, and would be at Bramble Farm for dinner and supper and to spend that night.

"You're finished, Ethan. Go hurry him up," ordered Joe Peabody. "Send him in here flying and turn the cows out to pasture."

"He hasn't milked!" Ethan cleared the porch steps at a single bound and burst into the kitchen, shouting this intelligence. Excitement was scarce in Ethan's life, and he enjoyed the pleasurable sensation of carrying unusual tidings, even if unpleasant. "The barn door was shut and the cows were bellowing their heads off. Not a one of 'em's been milked!"

"I want to know!" said Joseph Peabody stupidly. "Was he in bed when you came down, Ethan?"

"No, he wasn't," answered the hired man. "I thought he'd gone on out. Do you suppose something's happened to him?"

Mr. Peabody stepped to the porch and gave a quick glance at the bench where the milk pails were usually left to air and dry. They were there, just as they had been left the night before.

"I think he's cleared out!" he announced grimly. "Betty, do you know what this young scoundrel is up to?"

Betty's eyes brimmed over, and she flung herself blindly into Mrs. Peabody's arms which closed around her, though that good woman was unaccustomed to demonstrations of affection.

"There, there." She tried to soothe the girl, for Betty's convulsive sobbing really alarmed her. "Don't you go to feel bad, dearie. If Bob's gone, he's gone, and that's all there is to it."

Peabody, milk pail in hand, motioned to Ethan to go out and begin milking.

"That isn't all there is to it, not by a long shot!" he growled at his wife. "If I get my hands on that boy he'll rue the day he ever set foot off this farm. He'll go back to the poorhouse and there he'll stay till he's of age."

Betty sat up, pushing the tumbled hair from her hot forehead.

"I'm glad Bob ran away!" she cried recklessly. "He's gone where you won't catch him, either. You never treated him fairly, and you know it."

Peabody banged the kitchen door by way of relieving his feelings, but the latch did not fasten so that he heard Betty's next sentence addressed to his wife.

"I'm only waiting for a letter from Uncle Dick," confided Betty. "Then I'm going to Washington. Things will never be any different here, Mrs. Peabody; you've said so yourself. I wish Uncle Dick would hurry and write. It's been a good while since I heard." And there was a catch in the girl's voice.

The man slouched off the porch, a peculiar smile on his lean, shrewd face. One hand, thrust into his ragged coat pocket, rested on a letter there. As he felt it beneath his fingers, his crafty eyes brightened with a gleam of mockery.

Mrs. Peabody may have been curious about Bob's departure, but she asked no questions, somewhat to Betty's surprise.

"I'm glad she doesn't ask me," thought Betty, helping mechanically in the preparations for dinner which were more elaborate than usual because of the presence of the three balers. "Bob must be half way to Washington by now, and I don't believe they have the slightest idea he is headed for there." The Peabodys, she reasoned, knew nothing of Lockwood Hale, and of the attraction the capital of the country held for the orphan lad.

Betty insisted on doing a fair share of the extra work after the noon meal, and then ran upstairs to get ready to go over to Glenside. She wanted to tell the Guerins that Bob had gone, and from their house she knew she could telephone to those other good friends, the Benders. Laurel Grove was too far to walk, even for a practised hiker like Betty.

To her dismay, as she left the house, Mr. Peabody joined her and fell into step.

"I'll go as far as Durlings with you," he announced affably, Durling being their neighbor on the south, his farm lying along the road in the direction of Glenside. "Sorry the horses haven't shoes, Betty, or you might drive."

Betty shot him a suspicious glance. The three horses never were shod, except when a certain amount of traveling had to be done on the stone road. In all the weeks she had spent at Bramble Farm a horse had never been offered for her convenience, and all of her trips to town had been either afoot, or taken with Bob in the rattling shabby, one-horse work wagon.

"Where did you say Bob was going?" came next.

Betty bit her lip.

"I didn't say," she said evenly. "I—I don't think it's fair to ask me."

"But you know," snapped Mr. Peabody. "I guess I have a right to know where he's gone. I'm responsible for him. I've got papers that show it. The poorhouse folks are going to ask me what becomes of him. You just tell me where he went, and I'll satisfy 'em. I won't follow him and try to bring him back, Betty. He's too old for that. Making his bed, he'll have to lie on it. I won't follow him."

The girl twisted her handkerchief nervously. She was not afraid of the man. That is, she feared no physical violence at his hands, but he was capable, she knew, of forcing her back to the farm and locking her up in her room till she furnished him with the required information. And what harm could it do Bob? It was not likely that Peabody could find the boy in a large city.

"He won't be made to come back," repeated her tormentor.

"I wish I could believe you," said Betty pitifully.

She looked so young and helpless, trying to pit her girlish intelligence and strength against the wily miser, that another man would have been ashamed to press her. Not so Peabody—he had always considered that he was entitled to whatever he could get from others, information, cash, or work, it mattered not.

They were approaching the Durling farm now, and suddenly Betty's pointed chin lifted.

"I won't tell you!" she said firmly. "I do know where Bob went, but he was perfectly justified in leaving a place where he was treated worse than a dog. You would do him no good—I'm sure of that. And if the poorhouse authorities make a fuss about his running off, I'll tell them what he had to endure."

Joseph Peabody's mouth dropped in astonishment. He had seen Betty lose her temper before, but she had never so openly defied him.

"You think you're high and mighty," he sneered. "Let me tell you, Miss, there's more ways than one of getting what you want in this world. Joe Peabody isn't checkmated very often, and it takes more than an impudent girl to do it. I'm going into Lem Durling's and telephone Jim Turner, the poormaster. I kind of surmise he can give me a line on the direction Bob's taken."

Betty walked on, disdaining to answer, her head very high in the air but her heart in her shoes. Jim Turner would be sure to tell of Lockwood Hale, and Mr. Peabody would be astute enough to guess that Bob's destination was Washington.

When she reached Doctor Guerin's house, between the heat and the dust and the long walk and her anxiety, she was in a highly excited state, and the doctor's wife made her lie down on the couch and rest before she would allow her to telephone to the Benders. Mrs. Bender's sister answered the telephone. The recorder and his wife had made a detour on their homeward trip that would extend their absence for another week.

"Betty, you'll be ill if you're going to get all worked up like this," scolded Mrs. Guerin, for Betty was crying as she hung up the receiver. "I never saw you so unstrung, my dear. You won't be fit to go to your uncle when he does send for you. I wonder if the doctor hadn't better see you?"

Norma and Alice Guerin, two pretty girls, the former about Betty's age, the latter a year or two older, looked at her anxiously. Betty in tears was an unusual sight to them.

"I'm all right," gulped that young person, inwardly alarmed at the thought of being too ill to travel when the word came. "I didn't sleep very well last night, thinking of Bob. Is that the secretary he bid on at the Faulkner sale?"

Knowing that the quickest way for Betty to get control of her nerves was to forget her troubles, Mrs. Guerin entered into an enthusiastic description of the beauties of the old desk, showing the secret drawer and the half score of carved pigeon-holes and dwelling on the doctor's delight in securing such a treasure at a bargain. Mrs. Guerin succeeded in having Betty more like her old self before Doctor Hal Guerin came in from a round of calls.

He was delighted to see Betty, who was an especial favorite of his, and much interested in her account of Bob's flight.

"Did the lad have money enough?" he growled. "I suppose he'd walk before he'd borrow from me."

"He had enough," Betty assured him. "All the charms you sold for him amounted to quite a lot, and he had saved every cent of that."

"And you probably helped him out," commented the doctor shrewdly. "Well, well, the lad may yet whittle his way to fame and fortune."

He referred to Bob's knack for fashioning pretty and quaint little wooden charms and pendants, which he polished to satin smoothness and painted and stained in bright colors. Norma Guerin had worn one at boarding school, and it was through her and her father that Bob had secured a large number of orders which had netted him a tidy little sum.

When the time came for Betty to go, the doctor insisted that he would take her as far as the lane, and on the trip she told him that as soon as she heard from her uncle she meant to pack her trunk and leave for Washington.

"I don't like the idea of your making the journey alone," grumbled Doctor Guerin; "but I don't see who there is to go with you. One thing, Betty girl, brushing up against the Peabodys has given you a practical fund of self-reliance. You're better fitted than Alice to find your way about alone. Not that I would have chosen to have you get your knocks just in the manner they've been handed to you, but the results leave nothing to be desired. You're standing squarely on your own feet, Betsey, and it's this summer's grilling training that has done it."