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- Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill - 2/26 -
"Not above a mile, Miss," he replied.
His smile, and his way of speaking, encouraged her to ask:
"Can you tell me why we have stopped?"
"Something on the track, Miss. I have set out my signal lamp and am going forward to inquire."
Three or four of the male passengers followed him out of the car. Ruth saw that quite a number had disembarked from the cars ahead, that a goodly company was moving forward, and that there were ladies among the curious crowd. If it was perfectly safe for them to satisfy their curiosity, why not she? She arose and hurried out of the car, following the swinging lamp of the brakeman as he strode on.
Ruth ran a little, seeing well enough to pick her way over the ends of the ties, and arrived to find at least half a hundred people grouped on the track ahead of the locomotive pilot. The great, unblinking, white eye of the huge machine revealed the group clearly-- and the object around which the curious passengers, as well as the train crew, had gathered.
It was a dog-- a great, handsome, fawn-colored mastiff, sleek of coat and well fed, but muddied now along his flanks, evidently having waded through the mire of the wet meadow beside the tracks. He had come under, or through, a barbed wire fence, too, for there was a long scratch upon his shoulder and another raw cut upon his muzzle.
To his broad collar was fastened a red lamp. Nobody had taken it off, for both the train men and the passengers were excitedly discussing what his presence here might mean; and some of them seemed afraid of the great fellow.
But Ruth had been used to dogs, and this noble looking fellow had no terrors for her. He seemed so woebegone, his great brown eyes pleaded so earnestly, that she could only pity and fondle him.
"Look out, Miss; maybe he bites," warned the anxious conductor. "I wager this is some boy's trick to stop the train. And yet--"
Ruth bent down, still patting the dog's head, and turned the great silver plate on his collar so that she could read, in the light of the lanterns, that which was engraved upon it. She read the words aloud:
"'This is Reno, Tom Cameron's Dog.'"
"Cameron?" repeated some man behind her. "That Tom Cameron lives just outside of Cheslow. His father is the rich dry-goods merchant, Macy Cameron. What's his dog doing here?"
"And with a red light tied to his collar?" propounded somebody else.
"It's some boy's trick, I tell you," stormed the conductor. "I'll have to report this at headquarters."
Just then Ruth made a discovery. Wound about the collar was a bit of twisted cloth-- a strip of linen-- part of a white handkerchief. Her nimble fingers unwound it quickly and she spread out the soiled rag.
"Oh, see here!" she cried, in amazement as well as fear. "See! What can it mean? See what's drawn on this cloth--"
It was a single word-- a word smeared across the rag in shaking, uneven letters:
"By George!" exclaimed one of the brakemen. "The little girl's right. That spells 'Help!' plain enough."
"It-- it is written in something red, sir," cried Ruth, her voice trembling. "See! It is blood!"
"I tell you we've wasted a lot of time here," declared the conductor. "I am sorry if anybody is hurt, but we cannot stop for him. Get back to the cars, please, gentlemen. Do you belong aboard?" he added, to Ruth. "Get aboard, if you do."
"Oh, sir! You will not leave the poor dog here?" Ruth asked.
"Not with that red lamp on his collar-- no!" exclaimed the conductor. "He will be fooling some other engineer--"
He reached to disentangle the wire from the dog's collar; but Reno uttered a low growl.
"Plague take the dog!" ejaculated the conductor, stepping back hastily. "Whoever it is that's hurt, or wherever he is, we cannot send him help from here. We'll report the circumstance at the Cheslow Station. Put the dog in the baggage car. He can find the place where his master is hurt, from Cheslow as well as from here, it's likely."
"You try to make him follow you, Miss," added the conductor to Ruth. "He doesn't like me, it's plain."
"Come here, Reno!" Ruth commanded. "Come here, old fellow."
The big dog hesitated, stepped a yard or two after her, stopped, looked around and across the track toward the swamp meadow, and whined.
Ruth went back to him and put both arms about the noble fellow's neck. "Come, Reno," she said "Come with me. We will go to find your master by and by."
She started for the cars again, with one hand on the dog's neck. He trotted meekly beside her with head hanging. At the open baggage-car door one of the brakemen lifted her in.
"Come, Reno! Come up, sir!" she said, and the great mastiff, crouching for an instant, sprang into the car.
Even before they were fairly aboard, the train started. They were late enough, indeed! But the engineer dared not speed up much for that last mile of the lap to Cheslow. There might be something ahead on the track."
"You get out at Cheslow; don't you Miss?" asked the conductor.
"Yes, sir," returned Ruth, sitting down with an air of possession upon her old-fashioned cowhide trunk that had already been put out by the door ready for discharging at the next station.
"And you were sitting in the last car. Have you a bag there?"
"Yes, sir, a small bag. That is all."
"I'll send it forward to you," he said, not unkindly, and bustled away.
And so Ruth Fielding was sitting on her own trunk, with her bag in her lap, and the great mastiff lying on the floor of the baggage car beside her, when the train slowed down and stopped beside the Cheslow platform. She had not expected to arrive just in this way at her journey's end.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED?
The baggage-car door was wheeled wide open again and the lamps on the platform shone in. There was the forward brakeman to "jump" her down from the high doorway, and Reno, with the little red light still hung to his collar, bounded after her.
The conductor bustled away to tell the station master about the dog with the red light, and of the word scrawled on the cloth which Ruth had found wound around his collar. Indeed, Ruth herself was very anxious and very much excited regarding this mystery; but she was anxious, too, about herself. Was Uncle Jabez here to meet her? Or had he sent somebody to take her to the Red Mill? He had been informed by Miss True Pettis the week before on which train to expect his niece.
Carrying her bag and followed dejectedly by the huge mastiff, Ruth started down the long platform. The conductor ran out of the station, signalled the train crew with his hand, and lanterns waved the length of the train. Panting, with its huge springs squeaking, the locomotive started the string of cars. Faster and faster the train moved, and before Ruth reached the pent-house roof of the little brick station, the tail-lights of the last car had passed her.
A short, bullet-headed old man, with close-cropped, whitish-yellow hair, atop of which was a boy's baseball cap, his face smoothly shaven and deeply lined, and the stain of tobacco at either corner of his mouth, was standing on the platform. He was not a nice looking old man at all, he was dressed in shabby and patched garments, and his little eyes seemed so sly that they were even trying to hide from each other on either side of a hawksbill nose.
He began to eye Ruth curiously as the girl approached, and she, seeing that he was the only person who gave her any attention, jumped to the conclusion that this was Uncle Jabez. The thought shocked her. She instinctively feared and disliked this queer looking old man. The lump in her throat that would not be swallowed almost choked her again, and she winked her eyes fast to keep from crying.
She would, in her fear and disappointment, have passed the old man by without speaking had he not stepped in front of her.
"Where d'ye wanter go, Miss?" he whined, looking at her still more sharply out of his narrow eyes. "Yeou be a stranger here, eh?"
"Yes, sir," admitted Ruth.
"Where are you goin'?" asked the man again, and Ruth had enough Yankee blood in her to answer the query by asking:
"Are you Mr. Jabez Potter?"
"Me Jabez Potter? Why, ef I was Jabe Potter I'd be owing myself money, that's what I'd be doin'. You warn't never lookin' for Jabe Potter?"
Much relieved, Ruth admitted the fact frankly. "He is my uncle, sir," she said. "I am going to live at the Red Mill."
The strange old man puckered up his lips into a whistle, and shook his head, eyeing her all the time so slily that Ruth was more and more thankful that he had not proven to be Uncle Jabez.
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