Betty Gordon at Mountain Camp/Chapter 3

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The crowd at the Littell lunch table (and it was literally a "crowd" although the Guerin girls and some of the other over-Christmas visitors had already gone home) hailed Betty's arrival vociferously.

"How do you stand it?" asked Uncle Dick, smiling at Mrs. Littell who presided at one end of the table. "I should think they would drive you distracted."

Mrs. Littell laughed jovially and beamed at her young company. "I am only distracted when Mr. Littell and I are here alone," she rejoined. "This is what keeps us young."

"You've only a shake to eat in, Betty," exclaimed Bobby Littell, who was very dark and very gay and very much alive all of the time. "Do hurry. We're 'most through."

"Dear me! what can I eat in a shake?" murmured Betty, as the soup was placed before her. "And I am hungry."

"A milk-shake should be absorbed in a shake," observed Bob Henderson, grinning at her from across the table.

"I need more than that, Bob, after what I have been through this morning. Such a job as shopping is! And oh, Bobby! I've got the lovliest thing to show you. You'll just squeal!"

"What is it?" cried Bobby, eager and big-eyed at once. "Do hurry your luncheon, Betty. We've all got to change, and it's almost time."

"Time for what?" demanded Betty, trying to eat daintly but hurriedly.

But Mrs. Littell called them to order here. "Give Betty time to eat properly. Whatever it is, Betty, it can't begin until you are ready."

"I'm through, Mother," said Bobby. "May I be excused? I'll have to help Esther, you know. You'd better forget your appetite, Betty," she whispered as she passed the latter on her way out of the room. "'Time and tide wait for no man'—or girl either."

"What does she mean?" wondered Betty, and became a little anxious as the others began to rise, too, and were excused. "Have we got to change? What is it—the movies? Or a party? Of course, it isn't skating? Even if there was a little scale of ice last night, it would never in this world bear us," added Betty, utterly puzzled.

Bob Henderson had slipped around to her side of the table and leaned over her chair back to whisper in Betty's ear:

"You've got to be ready in twenty minutes. The horses won't stand this cold weather—not under saddle."

"Saddle! Horses!" gasped Betty Gordon, rising right up from the table with the soup spoon in her hand. "I—I don't believe I want any more luncheon, Mrs. Littell. Really, I don't need any more. Will you please excuse me?"

"Not if you run away with my spoon, Betty," laughed her hostess. "It was the dish that ran away with the spoon, and you are not a dish, dear."

"She'll be dished if she doesn't hurry," called Bob from the door, and then he disappeared.

"Sit down and finish your luncheon, Betty," advised Mrs. Littell. "I assure you that they will not go without you. The men can walk the horses about a little if it is necessary."

"I haven't been in a saddle since I left the land of oil and my own dear Clover-pony!" cried Betty later, as she ran upstairs. "I know just where my riding habit is. Oh, dear! I hope I have as spirited a horse as dear Clover was. Are you all ready, Bobby? And you, too, Louise—and Esther? Goodness me! suppose Carter had broken down on the road and hadn't brought me back in time——

"Libbie! For goodness' sake don't sit down in that chair. That package has got the lovliest orange silk over-blouse in it. Wait till you see it, Bobby."

She fairly dragged the plump girl, Libbie, away from the proximity of the chair in question and then began to scramble into her riding dress. The clatter of hoofs was audible on the drive as she fixed the plain gold pin in her smart stock.

"Of course," Betty said with a sigh, "one can't wear a locket, with or without a chain, when one is riding. That dear locket Uncle Dick gave me! I suppose it is safe enough in my bag. Well, I'm ready."

They all ran down to the veranda to see the mounts. Betty's was a beautiful gray horse named Jim that she had seen before in the Fairfields stables.

"He's sort of hard-bitted, Miss," said the smiling negro who held the bridle and that of Bobby's own pony, a beautiful bay. "But he ain't got a bad trick and is as kind as a lamb, Miss."

"Oh, I'm not afraid of him," declared Betty. "You ought to see my Clover. All right, Uncle Dick, I'm up!"

They were all mounted and cantering down the drive in a very few minutes. Even plump little Libbie sat her steed well, for she had often ridden over her own Vermont hills.

"I don't know where we're going, but I'm on my way!" cried Betty, who was delighted to be once more in the saddle.

"We're going right across country to Bolter's stock farm," Louise told her. "Here's where we turn off. There will be some fences. Can you jump a fence, Betty?"

"I can go anywhere this gray horse goes," declared Betty proudly.

But Bob rode up beside her before they came to the first jump. "Look out for the icy places, Betsey," he warned her. "None of these horses are sharpened. They never have ice enough down here in Virginia to worry about, so they say."

Which was true enough on ordinary occasions. But the frost the night before had been a hard one and the air was still tingling with it. In the shady places the pools remained skimmed over. A gallop over the fields and through the woodland paths put both the horses and riders in a glow of excitement.

Perhaps Betty was a little careless—at least too confident. Her gray got the lead and sped away across some rough ground which bordered a ravine. Bob shouted again for her to be careful, and Betty turned and waved her hand reassuringly to him.

It was just then that Jim slipped on the edge of the bank. Both of his front feet slid on an icy patch and he almost came to his knees. Betty saved herself from going over his head by a skillful lunge backward, pulling sharply on the reins.

But the horse did not so easily regain his foothold. The edge of the bank crumbled. Betty did not utter a sound, but the girls behind her screamed in unison.

"Stop! Wait! She'll be killed!"

Betty knew that Bob was coming at a thundering pace on his brown mount; but the gray horse was on its haunches, sliding down the slope of the ravine, snorting as it went. Betty could not stop her horse, but she clung manfully to the reins and sat back in her saddle as though glued to it.

Just what would happen when they reached the bottom of the slope was a very serious question.