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- Ruth Fielding at Snow Camp - 4/27 -
Fred Hatfield sank back in the feathers and weakly rolled his head from side to side. The blood receded from his cheeks, leaving him quite as pale as before. He whispered:
"I ran away."
"Yes. That's what I supposed," said Mr. Cameron, easily. "What for?"
"I--I can't tell you."
"What did you do?"
"I didn't say I did anything. I just got sick of it up there, and came away," the boy said, sullenly.
"Your father is dead?" asked the gentleman, shrewdly.
"Got a mother?"
"Doesn't she need you?"
"She's got Ez, and Peter, and 'Lias to work the farm. They're all older'n me. Then there's the two gals and Bob, who are younger. She don't need me," declared Fred Hatfield, doggedly.
"I don't believe a mother ever had so many children that she didn't sorely miss the one who was absent," declared Mr. Cameron, quietly. "Tell me how you came away down here,"
Brokenly the boy told his story--not an uncommon one. He had traveled most of the distance afoot, working here and there for farmers and storekeepers. He admitted that he had been some weeks on the road. His being in that hollow stump in Hiram Bassett's field was quite by accident. He was passing through the field, making for the main road, when he had seen Ruth, Helen, and Tom, and stepped behind the tree so as not to be observed.
"What made you so afraid of being seen by anyone?" demanded Mr. Cameron, at this point. "Do you think your folks are trying to find you?"
"I--I don't know," stammered the lad.
This was about all his questioner was able to get out of him.
"You'll be cared for here to-night--I'll speak to Mr. Potter," said Mr. Cameron. "And in the morning I'll decide what's to be done with you."
"Why, Dad! we're going----"
Tom had begun this speech when his father warned him with a look to be still.
"You'll be all right here," pursued Mr. Cameron, cheerfully. "Aunt Alviry and Ruth will look after you. Why! I wouldn't want better nurses if _I_ was sick."
"But I'm not sick," said Fred Hatfield, as the little old woman hobbled in with a steaming bowl. His eyes were wolfish when he saw the gruel, however.
"No, you're not so sick but that a good, square meal would be your best medicine, I'll be bound," cried the gentleman, laughing.
He went out to the mill then and was gone some moments; when he returned he called Helen and Tom to come with him quickly to the car.
"Remember and be ready as early as nine o'clock, Ruth!" called Helen, looking back as she climbed into the automobile.
When her friends had bowled away up the frozen road, Ruth came back into the kitchen. Aunt Alvirah was still in the bedroom with their strange guest. Of a sudden the girl's eye caught sight of the newspaper clipping laid on the window sill to dry.
Mr. Cameron had placed the old wallet belonging to Fred Hatfield's father on the table when he came out of the bedroom. Now Ruth picked it up, found it dry, and went to the window to replace the clipping in it. It was the most natural thing in the world for Ruth to glance at the slip of paper when she picked it up. There is nothing secret about a newspaper clipping; it was no infringement of good manners to read the article.
And read it Ruth did when she had once seen the heading--she read it all through with breathless attention. Her rosy face paled as she came to the conclusion, and she glanced suddenly toward the bedroom as she heard Aunt Alvirah's voice again.
Dropping the old wallet on the table, Ruth folded the clipping and hastily thrust it into the bosom of her frock. She did not dare face the old woman when she appeared, but kept her back turned until she was sure the color had returned to her cheeks. And all the time she helped Aunt Alvirah get supper, Ruth was very, very silent.
THE MYSTERIOUS BEHAVIOR OF FRED HATFIELD
Uncle Jabez Potter came in from the mill after a time. He was a gaunt, gray-faced man, who seldom smiled, and whose stern, rugged countenance had at first almost frightened Ruth whenever she looked at it. But she had fortunately gotten under the crust of Mr. Potter's manner and learned that there was something better there than the harsh surface the miller turned to all the world.
Uncle Jabez hoarded money for the pleasure of hoarding it; but he had been generous to Ruth, having put her at one of the best boarding schools in the State. He could be charitable at times, too; Aunt Alvirah could testify to that fact. So could a certain little lame friend of Ruth Fielding, Mercy Curtis, who was attending Briarwood Hall as the result of the combined charity of Uncle Jabez and Dr. Davison, of Cheslow.
But it is said that "charity begins at home"; when charity begins in a man's very bed, that seems a little too near! At least, so Mr. Potter thought.
"What's this I hear about a vagabond boy in my bed, Aunt Alviry?" he demanded, when he came in.
"The poor child!" said the old woman. "Oh, my back, and oh, my bones! Come in and see him, Jabez," she urged, hobbling toward the passage.
"No. Who is he? What is he here for? That Cameron talks so fast I never can get the rights of what he's saying till afterward. Says the boy belongs up there where he wants to take Ruth to-morrow?"
"He has run away from his home at Scarboro, Uncle," said Ruth.
"Young villain! A widder's son, too!" said her uncle.
"He says his father is dead," said Ruth, hesitating.
"I venture to say!" exclaimed Jabez Potter. "And he's in my bed; is he?"
He came back to this as being a reason for objection.
"Now, now, Jabez," said Aunt Alvirah, soothingly. "He ain't hurted the bed. He was wet--the coat frozen right on him--when they brought him in. I had to git him atween blankets jest as quick as I could. And your bedroom isn't so cold as the rooms upstairs."
"Well?" grunted Mr. Potter.
"Before bedtime I'll make him up a couch in here near the fire and put your bed straight for you."
"Young vagabond!" grunted Mr. Potter. "Don't know who he is. May rob us before morning. Perhaps he come here for just that purpose."
"That's not possible, Uncle," said Ruth, laughing. She told him the story of their adventure with the bull and Fred Hatfield's appearance. Yet all the time she looked worried herself. There was something troubling the girl of the Red Mill.
Ruth took the tray into the bedroom with the supper that Aunt Alvirah had prepared. There was a flaming red spot in the center of each of the boy's pallid cheeks, and his eyes were still bright. He had no little fever after the chill of his plunge into the creek. But the fever might have been as much from a mental as a physical cause.
It was on Ruth's lips to ask the boy certain questions. That newspaper clipping fairly burned in the bosom of her frock. But his suppressed excitement warned her to be silent.
He was hungry still. It was plain that he had been without proper food for some time. But in the midst of his appreciation of the meal he asked Ruth, suddenly:
"Wasn't there anything in that wallet when you gave it to that man, Miss?"
"No," she replied, truthfully enough.
"No. He didn't say there was," muttered the boy, and said not another word.
Ruth watched him eat. He did not raise his light eyes to her. The color faded out of his cheeks. She knew that it was actual starvation that kept him eating; but he was greatly troubled in his mind. She went back to her own supper, and remained very quiet all through the evening.
Later Aunt Alvirah made up the couch with plenty of blankets and
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