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CHAPTER VII


A BELATED LETTER


The hay was all baled by the next morning, and the balers, atop the lumbering machine, caroled loudly if not musically as the fat horses dragged them slowly up the lane. Neat bales of hay were piled high on the barn floor, to be carted over to Hagar's Corners and loaded on a freight car. That would be Ethan's job, and he grumbled at the prospect of doing it without Bob's help.

Betty, coming in from the garden, stumbled over something in the narrow entry. It was a man's coat—Mr. Peabody's, she recognized when she picked it up and shook it slightly to free it from dust. A letter fell from the pocket as she replaced it on the hook where it usually hung, and, stopping to pick it up, she saw to her surprise that it was addressed to her.

"From Washington!" she said aloud, deciphering the postmark. "And mailed five days ago! He's carried it in his pocket ever since it came!"

At first she feared it had been read, but evidently Mr. Peabody had not troubled to open it; so hastily tearing the envelope, she read the brief note. A check was enclosed for her, and Mr. Gordon suggested that she go to Pinevllle and visit old friends there for a week or two until his plans were definitely shaped.


"I know the Arnolds are in California," he wrote; "but the Bensingers will be glad to have you, or any of your mother's old friends. You do not have to stay one minute where you are unhappy."


Betty looked up as a shadow fell across the sunny floor. It was Mr. Peabody, and he had the grace to show confusion when he saw the letter in her hand.

Betty sprang to her feet.

"Why did you keep my letter?" she demanded hotly. "How did you dare to hold back mail? This must have been in your coat pocket three or four days. It was mailed five days ago!"

"Been rummaging in my coat pocket, have you?" sneered the farmer.

"I have not! The coat was on the floor, and I fell over it. The letter fell out while I was trying to hang it up. No one has a right to hold back another person's mail!"

"Now hold your horses," advised Peabody pacifically. "Who's been holding back mail? If a body takes the mail out of the box and carries it around in his coat a day or two, because he doesn't remember it, that ain't such a crime that I ever knew. I just forgot there was a letter for you."

Betty turned away in disgust and went out to her favorite apple tree to think things over. She did not believe for one moment that Mr. Peabody had forgotten her letter. Indeed, absent-mindedness was far from being one of his traits. However, there was absolutely nothing to be gained by arguing, and the way was now clear for her to leave Bramble Farm. Surely the worst of her troubles were over.

"I might go to Pineville," she thought meditatively. "I'd love to see the Bensingers again and the dear little house where we lived. I'll pack this afternoon."

Betty was an orderly little person, and at her work that afternoon she stopped frequently to sew on a button here, to mend a rip in this garment or to whip a frayed edge that might mar an otherwise dainty belonging. Singing softly over her task, a timid knock at her door wakened the girl from a happy reverie.

"Come in, Mrs. Peabody," she called cheerfully. "Do sit down and give me advice about where things should go. I thought I hadn't bought anything this summer, but I seem to have a great deal more stuff than I brought with me."

"You're packing then?" asked Mrs. Peabody, taking a chair near the bed and regarding Betty oddly. "Are you really going, Betty?"

"Oh, yes," Betty answered matter-of-factly, "Uncle Dick wants me to stop in Pineville and visit old friends for a bit. And there's no use in pretending, Mrs. Peabody, that—that——"

"No, I suppose not," sighed the woman, understanding only too well. "Land knows, if I could get away I'd have no misgivings about the right of it. I'll miss you, though. You've been a sight of company this summer, and no one could have been sweeter to me, Betty."

"Agatha!" came a stentorian shout from the front hall. "Are you going to stay up there all day?"

"My stars, I forgot what I came up for!" Mrs. Peabody rose hurriedly. "Joseph sent me up to tell you he wanted to ask you something, Betty. And here I sit right down and him waiting there all this time!"

Betty was far from concerned over Mr. Peabody's wasted time, but she wondered uneasily what he could wish to ask her. Something connected with Bob, doubtless. She followed Mrs. Peabody downstairs and found the master of Bramble Farm striding up and down impatiently.

"Never saw the beat of women," he muttered. "Gabble, gabble, and an hour right out of a day's work means nothing to 'em. Oh, here you are, Miss. You know that gray alpaca coat of mine you took the letter from this morning?"

"The coat the letter fell out of?" corrected Betty, knowing that such quibbling was foolish on her part and might provoke serious irritation in her questioner, yet unable to refrain. "Of course I remember it; what about it?"

Peabody accepted her description of the coat. He was plainly excited and nervous, and betrayed a curious disposition to conciliate Betty, instantly detected in his change of tone.

"Did you pick up any other papers?" he asked quite politely. "Any folded sheets, I mean, or a long envelope? I thought you might have put them back of the clock or somewhere for safe keeping and forgotten to mention them to me."

Betty looked her astonishment. Automatically her eyes traveled to the clock which was pulled out of its place against the wall. So the man had actually looked there, believing that out of chagrin she might have concealed his papers from him!

"Nothing fell out of your pocket except my letter," she said earnestly and with a quietness that carried conviction. "I saw absolutely nothing else on the floor. If I had picked up other papers, I should have returned them to you, of course."

Mrs. Peabody cleared her throat, usually a sign of coming speech on the rare occasions when she did open her mouth in her husband's presence.

"What you lost, Joseph?" she asked eagerly. "Something missing out o' your pocket?"

"Yes, something out of my pocket!" said her husband savagely. "You wouldn't know if I told you, but it's an unrecorded deed and worth a good deal of money. And I'll bet I know who took it—that measly runaway, Bob Henderson! By gum, he carried the coat up to the house for me from the barn the day before he lit out. That's where it's gone. I see his game! He'll try to get money out of me. But I won't pay him a cent. No sir, I'll go to Washington first and choke the deed out of his dirty pocket."

"Did Bob go to Washington?" quavered Mrs. Peabody, her mind seizing on this concrete fact, the one statement she could understand in her husband's monologue. "How'd you find out, Joseph?"

"Not through Betty," returned Peabody grimly. "She's willing to take the scoundrel's part against honest folks any time. Jim Turner told me. Leastways he told me of some old duffer who runs a crazy shop down there, and he thinks Bob's gone looking him up to find out about his parents. Just let him try blackmailing me, and he'll learn a thing or two."

Betty had kept still as long as she could.

"Bob is no thief!" she said bravely. "You ought to be ashamed to say such a thing about him. I know he didn't take your old deed. What earthly use would it be to him? Besides, Bob would never touch a thing that wasn't his!"

"I don't believe he would take anything, Joseph," urged Mrs. Peabody with perfectly amazing temerity. As a rule she took neither side in a controversy. "Besides, as the child says, what good would an unrecorded deed do him? Unless—Joseph, have you bought the Warren lots?"

"You tend to your housework, and I'll manage my own affairs," snapped Peabody, turning a dull brick red, however. "I meant to put the thing in the safety deposit box over to the bank, and then that sick cow took my mind completely off it. If Betty didn't take it, Bob did. It's gone, and they're the only two that could have put hands on it."

"I tell you that I haven't seen the deed," said Betty firmly. "And I am equally certain that Bob never took it. He's the soul of honor, whatever you may think, and he would no more take what wasn't his than he would lie to you about it."

Peabody caught hold of her right hand suddenly.

"What you carrying?" he demanded suspiciously. "A trunk key? Looks mighty funny, doesn't it, to be packing up with something pretty valuable missing? The law would likely give me the right to search your trunk."

"What a dreadful old man you are!" cried Betty, involuntarily, shrinking from the sinister face that grinned malevolently into hers. "You have no right to touch my trunk."

"Well, no call to look like that," muttered Peabody, turning toward the door. "I knew that other young one took it, and I aim to make it hot for him."

"Bob didn't take any deed!" stormed Betty to Mrs. Peabody, her packing forgotten for the moment. "Why does he keep insisting Bob stole it? And why, oh, why did that poorhouse man have to tell where Bob had gone?"

Mrs. Peabody's natural curiosity had to be satisfied, and as it was no longer a secret Betty told her of Lockwood Hale and Bob's determination to find out more about himself.

"He doesn't want any deed," she finished scornfully. "Can't you make Mr. Peabody see how foolish such an accusation is?"

Mrs. Peabody leaned against the kitchen table wearily.

"I know what he's thinking," she said dully. "I know more than I want to know, Betty. Joseph has bought the Warren lots, and that means he's got 'em for his own price. Old man Warren is in his dotage and these lots have been surveyed and cut up into building plots on the stone road over t'other side of Laurel Grove where the trolley's coming through this spring. Joseph will probably sell 'em for three times what he's paid for 'em. That's why he doesn't have the deed recorded; Warren's children will get hold of it, and I doubt if the sale would hold in court. Everybody knows the old father isn't competent to handle his property. There was talk of having one of the sons made his guardian some months ago. Joseph has just talked him into selling. If he wasn't my husband, I should say the sale was a plain swindle."