Betty Gordon in Washington/5

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CHAPTER V


CONSEQUENCES


"Oh, Bob!" Betty clutched the boy's sleeve in a panic. "And the balers have come!"

"So!" began Mr. Peabody, in tones of cold fury. "That's the way you carry out my orders! Not one forkful of hay pitched down, and the men ready to go to work to-morrow. You miserable, sneaking loafer, where have you been?"

"To the vendue," said Bob defiantly.

"Flatly refuse to mind, do you? Well, I'll give you one lesson you won't forget!" the man reached over and gripped Bob by his shirt collar. Struggling violently, he was pulled over the five-barred gate.

"I'll learn you!" snarled Peabody, raising the whip.

Betty sprang up on the gate, her eyes blazing.

"How dare you!" she cried, her voice shaking with anger. "How dare you strike him! I'll scream till some one comes if you touch him. Those men at the barn won't stand by and see you beat a boy."

"Hoity toity!" sputtered the amazed farmer, confronting the angry girl in the middy blouse with the blazing cheeks and tangled dark braids.

Bob tried to pull himself free, but was brought up short by a quick twist.

"I'm not through with you," Peabody informed him grimly. He glanced quickly toward the barn and observed the men watching him covertly. It was the better part of discretion, something told him, not to flog the boy before so many witnesses.

"I'm through with you!" declared Bob through clenched teeth. "I'm going! You've had all out of me you're going to get. Let go of me!"

For answer, Peabody tightened his hold on the worn shirt collar.

"Is that so?" he drawled. "Let me tell you, Mr. Smarty, you'll go out to that barn and pitch down the hay you were supposed to do this afternoon or you'll go back to the poorhouse. You can take your choice. The county has a place for incorrigible boys, and if you go far enough you'll land in the reform school. Are you going out to the barn or not?"

"I'll go," agreed Bob sullenly.

"Then see that you do. And you needn't bother to stop for supper—you've several hours' lost time to make up," said Peabody nastily. "Now go!"

He shook the boy till his teeth rattled and then released him with a powerful sling that sent him spinning into the dust. Bruised and shaken, Bob picked himself up and started for the barn.

"You hold your tongue a bit better, or something'll come your way," said Peabody shortly, eyeing Betty with disfavor and turning on his heel at a shout of "Ho, Boss!" from the foreman of the balers.

"Hateful!" cried Betty stormily, climbing down from the gate. "He's the most absolutely hateful man that ever lived! I wonder if he could send Bob back to the poorhouse?"

The same thought was troubling Bob, she found, when after supper she went out to the barn and climbed the loft ladder to see him. She had brought him some bread and water, the latter contributed by the Peabody pump and the bread saved from Betty's own meal.

"Do you know, Betty," confided the boy, wiping the heavy perspiration from his face with a distressingly hot looking red cotton handkerchief, "I've been thinking over what old Peabody said. He might take it into his head to send me back to the poorhouse. He really needs a younger boy, one he can slam about more. I'm getting so I can fight back. I don't fancy hanging on here till he makes up his mind to get another boy, and running away from the poorhouse isn't a simple matter. I'd better make the plunge while there's good swimming."

It was stifling in the loft, and Betty felt almost giddy. She sat at the top of the ladder, her feet hanging over the edge of the floor and regarded Bob anxiously.

"Well, perhaps you had better go early next week," she said judiciously. "It would be dreadful if he did return you to the poorhouse."

"Therefore, I'm going to-night," announced Bob coolly. "There's an eleven-thirty train from Glenside that will make some sort of connection with the southern local at the Junction. Wish me luck, Betty!"

"To-night!" gasped Betty in dismay. "Oh, Bob! don't go to-night. Wait just one night more, ah, please do!"

Betty had the truly feminine horror of quick decisions, and she was frankly upset by this determination of Bob's. Even as she pleaded she knew he had made up his mind and that it was useless to ask him to change it.

"I don't see how you can go—you're not ready," she argued feverishly. "Your shirts are on the line; I saw them. You're dead tired after all this work, and it's a long walk to Glenside. Wait just till to-morrow, Bob, and I won't say a word."

"No, I'm going to-night," said Bob firmly. "I haven't so much packing to do that it will take me over fifteen minutes. I'll help myself to the shirts on the line as I go in. By to-morrow morning I'll be as far away from Bramble Farm as the local can take me."

"But—but—I'll miss you so!" protested Betty, the catch in her voice sounding perilously close to tears. "What shall I ever do all alone in this hateful place!"

"Oh, now, Betty!" Bob put a clumsy hand on her shoulder in an effort to comfort her. "Don't you care—you'll be going to Washington as soon as you get word from your uncle. Maybe I'll be there when you come, and we'll go sightseeing together."

"Are you going right to Washington?" asked Betty, drying her eyes. "And are you sure you have enough money?"

"Oceans of cash," Bob assured her cheerfully. "That's right, brace up and smile. Think what it will mean to have one peaceful breakfast, for the last week Peabody has ragged me every meal. Sure I'm going to Washington to dig out a few facts from this Lockwood Hale. Now I'll throw down a little more hay for good measure and we'll go on in. Mustn't rouse suspicions by staying out too long. Peabody will probably sit up for me to come in to-night."

Betty waited till the hay was pitched down, then followed Bob to the main floor of the barn.

"Couldn't I walk just a little way with you?" she asked wistfully. "How soon are you going to start? I could go as far as the end of the lane."

"I'd rather you went to bed and to sleep," said Bob kindly. "You couldn't very well traipse around at night, Betty, and I'm not going till it is good and dark. There's no moon to-night, and you might have trouble getting back to the house."

"Well—all right," conceded Betty forlornly. "There doesn't seem to be anything I can do. Whistle under my window, please do, Bob. I'll be awake. And I could say good-by. I won't make a fuss, I promise."

The boy's packing was of the simplest, for he owned neither suitcase nor trunk, and his few belongings easily went into a square of old wrapping paper. He had earned them, few as they were, and felt no compunctions about taking them with him.

After the bundle was tied up he waited a half hour or so, purely as a precaution, for the Peabody household went to bed with the chickens and, with the possible exception of Mrs. Peabody, slumbered heavily. Bob slipped down the stairs, waking no one, unfastened the heavy front door, never locked and only occasionally, as to-night, bolted with a chain, and stepped softly around to the bush where his precious tin box was buried.

This box was Bob's sole inheritance from his mother, and he had only a vague knowledge of the papers entrusted to it. Among the yellowed slips was the marriage certificate of his parents, and he knew that there were one or two letters. When Joseph Peabody had taken him from the poorhouse, the lad had buried the box for safe-keeping, and during the three or four years he had been with Mr. Peabody had never taken it up.

It was not buried very deeply, and he easily uncovered it, smoothing down the earth to hide the traces of his hasty excavating. He went around to Betty's window and whistled softly, half hoping that she might be asleep.

"Hello, Bob dear!" she called instantly, leaning from the window, her vivid face so alight with affection and hope for him that it was a pity he could not see her clearly. "I'm wishing you the best of luck, and I hope the old bookstore man has splendid news for you. You wait for me in Washington."

"I will!" whispered Bob heartily. "And you tell Mr. Bender, won't you? He'll understand. I'll write him the first chance I get, and Doc Guerin, too. Good-by, Betty—I—I——"

To his surprise and confusion, Bob suddenly choked.

"Here's something to take with you," said Betty softly, dropping a little packet that landed at his feet. "Good-by, Bob. I just know things will turn out all right for you."

The dark head was withdrawn, and Bob, picking up the little package, turned and began his long walk to the Glenside station. A hoot-owl screeched at mournful intervals, and the night sounds would have tried a city lad's nerves in that long dark stretch that led him finally to the station. But Bob could identify every sound, and nature had always proved kind to him, far kinder than many of the people he had known. He trudged along sturdily, and, twenty minutes before the train was due, found himself the solitary passenger on the Glenside platform.

He stood under the uncertain rays of the lamp to examine the parting gift Betty had given him. Tucked under half a dozen chocolate wafers was a five dollar bill folded into the tiniest possible wad. The choky feeling assailed Bob again.

"She certainly is some girl!" he thought with mixed gratitude and admiration.