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- Ruth Fielding at Snow Camp - 5/27 -
thick, downy "comforters," and when Ruth had gone to bed the boy came out into the kitchen and left Uncle Jabez free to seek his own repose. But though the whole house slept, Ruth could not--at first. Long after it was still, and she knew Aunt Alvirah was asleep and Uncle Jabez was snoring, Ruth arose, slipped on a warm wrapper and her slippers, and squeezing something tightly between her fingers, crept down the stairs to the kitchen door. She unlatched it softly and let it swing open a couple of inches.
There was a stir within. She waited, holding her breath. She heard the couch creak. Then came the sound of a shuffling step.
The moonlight lay in a broad band under the front window. Into this radiance moved the figure of the vagabond boy, shrouded in a blanket. He came to the table and he felt around until he found the wallet. He had doubtless marked it lying there by the window before Aunt Alvirah had put the lamp out and left him.
He seized the wallet and opened it wide. He shook it over the table. Then Ruth heard him groan:
"It's gone! it's gone!"
He stood there, shaking, and dropped the leather case unnoticed. For half a minute he stood there, uncertain and--Ruth thought--sobbing softly. Then the boy approached the garments hung upon the chairs about the stove, wherein the coal fire was banked for the night.
He stopped before he touched his underclothing. All these garments were well dried by this time; but Aunt Alvirah had wished them left there to be warm when he put them on in the morning. Ruth knew exactly what Fred Hatfield had in his mind. The vagabond boy was determined to dress quietly and secretly leave the miller's house.
But when Master Fred touched the first garment Ruth rattled the door latch ever so lightly. Fred stopped and turned fearfully in that direction. His lips parted. She could see that he was panting with fear.
Ruth rattled the latch again. He ran back to his couch and plunged into the comforters with a gasp. Ruth pulled the door quietly to and stood there, shivering in the dark, wondering what to do. She knew that the boy had it in his mind to escape. She did not wish to arouse Uncle Jabez. Nor did she wish the strange boy to depart so secretly.
Mr. Cameron expected to find him here when he came in the morning, she was sure. Although Mr. Cameron only supposed him an ordinary runaway, and perhaps wished to advise him to return to his mother, Ruth knew well that Fred Hatfield's was no ordinary case of vagabondage.
Ruth hesitated on the stairs for some minutes. Uncle Jabez snored. There was no further movement from the boy on the couch.
She was growing very cold. Ruth could not remain there on the stairs to guard the boy all night. Something desperate had to be done--and something very desperate she did!
She unlatched the door again as quietly as possible. She pushed it open far enough to slip through into the kitchen. There was no movement from the boy--not a sound. Nor did Ruth dare even look in his direction.
She crept across the kitchen floor to the stove. She reached the garments hung upon the chair backs. She selected one and withdrew in a hurry to the staircase, and so ran up to her room.
"There!" she thought, shutting her door and breathing heavily. "If he wants to run away he can; but he'll have to go without his trousers!"
OFF FOR THE BACKWOODS
It was still dark when Ruth awoke and slipped down to the kitchen again. But she heard her uncle rattling the stove grate. He was a very early riser. She peered into the kitchen and saw the grove of drying clothing, so knew that her trick of the night before had kept Fred Hatfield from running away.
Therefore she merely dropped the boy's nether garments inside the kitchen door and scurried back to her own room to dress by candle-light. She heard Aunt Alvirah stumbling about her room and groaning her old, old tune, "Oh, my back, and oh, my bones!" As soon as Ruth was dressed she ran in to see if she could do anything for the old woman.
"Ah, deary! what a precious pretty you be," said the old woman, hugging her. "I'm so glad to see you again after your being away so long. And your Uncle's that proud of you, too! He often reads the reports the school teacher sends him--I see him doing that in the evening. He keeps the reports in his cash-box, just as though they was as precious as his stocks and bonds. Yes-indeedy!"
"You are so glad to have me at home, Aunt Alvirah, that I feel guilty to be going away again so soon," Ruth said.
"No, honey. Have your good times while ye may, my pretty creetur. It's mighty nice of the Camerons to take you away with them. You go and have a good time. Your trunk's all packed and ready, and your young friend, Helen, would be dreadful disappointed if you didn't go. Now, let's go down and git breakfast. Jabez has been up for some time and I heard him just go out to the mill. That boy must be up and dressed by now, for if he had been sick, Jabez would have hollered up the stairs about it."
She was right. Fred Hatfield was completely dressed when they came into the kitchen. Ruth did not look at him, but busied herself with the details of getting breakfast. She did not speak to him, nor did Fred speak to her. But Aunt Alvirah was as cheerful and as chatty as ever.
Uncle Jabez was never talkative; but he was no more taciturn this morning than was their guest. The boy ate his breakfast with downcast eyes and only said timidly, at the end of the meal:
"I'm real obliged for your kindness, Mr. Potter. I think I'm all right again now. Can't I do some work for you to pay--"
"I don't need another hand at the mill--and I couldn't make use of a boy like you at all," said Mr. Potter, hastily. "You wait till Mr. Cameron comes here this morning."
Ruth saw that there was an understanding between her uncle and Mr. Cameron regarding this boy. But Fred said, still hesitating:
"If--if I can't do anything to repay you, I'd rather go on. I was making for Cheslow. I'll get a job--"
"You wait here as you're told, boy," snapped Uncle Jabez, and the runaway shrank into his chair again and said nothing more.
Breakfast at the Red Mill was always early; it had been finished before seven o'clock on this clear winter morning. It was a fine day when the sun appeared, and Ruth's mind--at least, a _part_ of it!--delighted in the thought of the journey to be taken into the great woods to the north and east of Osago Lake. She had several little things to do in preparation; therefore she could not be blamed if she lost sight of Fred Hatfield occasionally.
Suddenly, however, she found that he had left the kitchen. She cried up the stairs to Aunt Alvirah:
"Have you seen him, Auntie? Where is he?"
"Where's who?" returned the old woman.
"That boy. He's not here."
"For the land's sake!" returned Aunt Alvirah. "I dunno. Didn't your uncle tell him to wait for Mr. Cameron here?"
"But he's gone!" exclaimed Ruth; and picking up her cap she pulled it on, and likewise her sweater, and went out of the house with a bang. He was not on the road to Cheslow. She could see that, straight before the mill, for a mile. She ran down to the gate and looked along the river road, up stream. No figure appeared there. Nor in the other direction--although the Camerons' car would appear from that way, and if the runaway went in that direction he would surely run right into the Camerons.
"He slipped out of the back door--towards the river," she whispered.
Back she ran into the house. She caught up her skates in the back hall and burst out upon the back porch, which was partly enclosed. There was the figure of Fred Hatfield on the ice--some distance, already, from the shore.
Ruth ran eagerly down to the shore. She had no idea what young Hatfield intended; but she was well aware that he could get across the Lumano if he chose; the ice was thick enough.
She quickly clamped the skates upon her shoes, and within five minutes was darting off across the ice.
Hatfield heard the ring of her skates within a very few moments; he threw a glance over his shoulder, saw her, and then began to run. It was a feeble attempt to escape, for unless some accident happened to Ruth, she could easily overtake him.
And she did so, although he ran straight ahead, and ran so hard that finally he slipped and fell, panting, to his knees. Ruth was beside him before he could rise.
"Don't you be such a ridiculous boy!" she commanded, seizing the lad by the shoulder, as he attempted to rise. "You mustn't run away. Mr. Cameron expects to find you at the mill, and you must stay. And they'll be here, ready to take the train from Cheslow, shortly."
"I--I don't want to stay here," stammered the boy. "I--I don't want to see that man again."
"But he expects to see you, and I could not let you go before he comes."
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