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- Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill - 5/26 -
parrot, or some other ill-natured talking bird; only Ruth saw nothing of the feathered conversationalist when Sam opened the door and ushered her in.
"Here we are, wife!" he exclaimed, cheerfully. "And how's Mercy?"
The reiterated declaration had stopped instantly. A comely, kind-faced woman with snow-white hair, came forward. Ruth saw that she was some years younger than Curtis, and he was not yet forty. It was not Father Time that had powdered Mrs. Curtis' head so thickly.
"Mercy is-- Why, who's this?" she asked espying Ruth. "One of the girls come in to see her?"
Instantly the same whining, shrill voice began:
"I don't want her to see me! They come to stare at me! I hate 'em all! All girls do is to run and jump and play tag and ring-around-a-rosy and run errands, and dance! I hate 'em!"
This was said very, very fast-- almost chattered; and it sounded so ill-natured, so impatient, so altogether mean and hateful, that Ruth fell back a step, almost afraid to enter the pleasant room. But then she saw the white-haired lady's face, and it was so grieved, yet looked such a warm welcome to her, that she took heart and stepped farther in, so that Sam Curtis could shut the door,
The father appeared to pay no attention to the fault-finding, shrill declamation of the unhappy voice. He said, in explanation, to his wife:
"This is Ruth Fielding. She has come a long. way by train to-day, expecting to meet her uncle, old Jabe Potter of the Red Mill. And you know how funny Jabe is, wife? He came before the train, and did not wait, but drove right away with his mules and so there was nobody here to meet Ruthie. She's marooned here till the morning, you see."
"Then she shall stay with us to-night," declared Mrs. Curtis, quickly.
"I don't want her to stay here to-night!" ejaculated the same shrill voice.
Mr. and Mrs. Curtis paid no attention to what was said by this mysterious third party. Ruth, coming farther into the room, found that it was large and pleasant. There was a comfortable look about it all. The supper table was set and the door was opened into the warm kitchen, from which delicious odors of tea and toast with some warm dish of meat, were wafted in. But the shrill and complaining voice had not come from the next room.
In the other corner beside the stove, yet not too near it, stood a small canopy bed with the pretty chintz curtains drawn all about it. Beside it stood a wheel-chair such as Ruth knew was used by invalids who could not walk. It was a tiny chair, too, and it and the small bed went together. But of the occupant of either she saw not a sign.
"Supper will be ready just as soon as our guest has a chance to remove the traces of travel, Sam," said Mrs. Curtis, briskly. "Come with me, Ruth."
When they returned from the pleasant little bed-chamber which the good-hearted lady told Ruth was to be her own for that night, they heard voices in the sitting room-- the voice of Mr. Curtis and the querulous one. But it was not so sharp and strained as it seemed before. However, on opening the door, Mr. Curtis was revealed sitting alone and there was no sign of the owner of the sharp voice, which Ruth supposed must belong to the invalid.
"Mercy has had her supper; hasn't she, wife?" said the station master as he drew his chair to the table and motioned Ruth to the extra place Mrs. Curtis had set.
The woman nodded and went briskly about putting the supper on the table. While they ate Mr. Curtis told about Reno stopping the train, and of the search for and recovery of the injured Cameron boy. All the time Ruth, who sat sideways to the canopied bed, realized that the curtains at the foot were drawn apart just a crack and that two very bright, pin-point eyes were watching her. So interested did these eyes become as the story progressed, and Ruth answered questions, that more of Mercy Curtis' face was revealed-- a sharp, worn little face, with a peaked chin and pale, thin cheeks.
Ruth was very tired when supper was ended and the kind Mrs. Curtis suggested that she go to bed and obtain a good night's rest if she was to walk to the Red Mill in the morning. But even when she bade her entertainers good-night she did not see the child in the canopy bed and she felt diffident about asking Mrs. Curtis about her. The young traveler slept soundly-- almost from the moment her head touched the pillow. Yet her last thought was of Uncle Jabez. He had been in town some time before the train on which she arrived was due and had driven away from the station with his mules, Mr. Curtis said. Had he driven over that dark and dangerous road on which Tom Cameron met with his accident, and had he run down the injured boy, or forced him over the bank of the deep gully where they had found Tom lying unconscious?
"It was Jabe Potter-- he did it," the injured lad had murmured, and these words were woven in the pattern of Ruth's dreams all night.
The little cottage was astir early and Ruth was no laggard. She came down to breakfast while the sun was just peeping above the house-tops and as she entered the sitting room she found an occupant at last in the little wheel-chair. It was the sharp, pale little face that confronted her above the warm wrapper and the rug that covered the lower part of the child's body; for child Mercy Curtis was, and little older than Ruth herself, although her face seemed so old.
To Ruth's surprise the first greeting of the invalid was a most ill-natured one. She made a very unpleasant face at the visitor, ran out her tongue, and then said, in her shrill, discordant voice:
"I don't like you at all-- I tell you that, Miss!"
"I am sorry you do not like me," replied Ruth, gently. "I think I should like you if you'd let me."
"Yah!" ejaculated the very unpleasant, but much to be pitied invalid.
The mother and father ignored all this ill-nature on the part of the lame girl and were as kind and friendly with their visitor as they had been on the previous evening. Once during breakfast time (Mercy took hers from a tray that was fastened to her chair before her) the child burst out again, speaking to Ruth. There were eggs on the table and, pointing to the golden-brown fried egg that Mrs. Curtis had just placed upon Ruth's plate, Mercy snapped:
"Do you know what's the worst wish I'd wish on My Enemy?"
Ruth looked her astonishment and hesitated to reply. But Mercy did not expect a reply, for she continued quickly:
"I'd wish My Enemy to have to eat every morning for breakfast two soft fried eggs with his best clothes on-- that's what I'd wish!"
And this is every word she would say to the visitor while Ruth remained. But Mr. Curtis bade Ruth good-bye very kindly when he hurried away to the station, and Mrs. Curtis urged her to come and see them whenever she came to town after getting settled at the Red Mill.
It was a fresh and lovely morning, although to the weather-wise the haze in the West foredoomed the end of the day to disaster. Ruth felt more cheerful as she crossed the railroad tracks and struck into the same street she had followed with the searching party the evening before. She could not mistake Doctor Davison's house when she passed it, and there was a fine big automobile standing before the gate where the two green lanterns were. But there was nobody in the car, nor did she see anybody about the doctor's house.
Beyond the doctor's abode the houses were far apart-- farther and farther apart as she trudged on. Nobody noticed or spoke to the girl as she went on with her small bag-- the bag that grew heavy, despite its smallness, as she progressed. And so she traveled two miles, or more, along the pleasant road. Then she heard the purring of an automobile behind her-- the first vehicle that she had seen since leaving town.
It was the big gray car that had been standing before Doctor Davison's house when she had passed, and Ruth would have known the girl who sat at the steering wheel and was driving the car alone, even had Reno, the big mastiff, not sat in great dignity on the seat beside her. For no girl could look so much like Tom Cameron without being Tom Cameron's sister.
And the girl, the moment she saw Ruth on the road, retarded the speed of the machine. Reno, too, lost all semblance of dignity and would not wait for the car to completely stop before bounding into the road and coming to caress her hand.
"I know who you are!" cried the girl in the automobile. "You are Ruth Fielding."
She was a brilliant, black-eyed, vivacious girl, perhaps a year or more older than Ruth, and really handsome, having her brother's olive complexion with plenty of color in cheeks and lips. And that her nature was impulsive and frank there could be no doubt, for she immediately leaped out of the automobile, when it had stopped, and ran to embrace Ruth.
"Thank you! thank you!" she cried. "Doctor Davison has told us all about you-- and how brave you are! And see how fond Reno is of you! He knows who found his master; don't you, Reno?"
"Oh, dear me," said Ruth, breathlessly, "Doctor Davison has been too kind. I did nothing at all toward finding your brother-- I suppose he is your brother, Miss?"
"How dare you 'Miss' me?" demanded the other girl, hugging her again. "You're a dear; I knew you must be! And I was running back and intended to stop at the Red Mill to see you. I took father to town this morning, as he had to take an early train to the city, and we wished to see Tom again,"
"He-- he isn't badly hurt, then-- your brother, I mean?" said Ruth, timidly.
"He is going to stay at the doctor's to-day, and then he can come home. But he will carry his arm in a sling for a while, although no bone was broken, after all. His head is badly cut, but his hair will hide that. Poor Tom! he is always falling down, or getting bumped, or something. And he's just as reckless as he can be. Father says he is not to be trusted with the car as much as I am."
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