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   Chapter 4 THE MYSTERIOUS BEHAVIOR OF FRED HATFIELD

Ruth Fielding at Snow Camp; Or, Lost in the Backwoods By Alice B. Emerson Characters: 7083

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Uncle Jabez Potter came in from the mill after a time. He was a gaunt, gray-faced man, who seldom smiled, and whose stern, rugged countenance had at first almost frightened Ruth whenever she looked at it. But she had fortunately gotten under the crust of Mr. Potter's manner and learned that there was something better there than the harsh surface the miller turned to all the world.

Uncle Jabez hoarded money for the pleasure of hoarding it; but he had been generous to Ruth, having put her at one of the best boarding schools in the State. He could be charitable at times, too; Aunt Alvirah could testify to that fact. So could a certain little lame friend of Ruth Fielding, Mercy Curtis, who was attending Briarwood Hall as the result of the combined charity of Uncle Jabez and Dr. Davison, of Cheslow.

But it is said that "charity begins at home"; when charity begins in a man's very bed, that seems a little too near! At least, so Mr. Potter thought.

"What's this I hear about a vagabond boy in my bed, Aunt Alviry?" he demanded, when he came in.

"The poor child!" said the old woman. "Oh, my back, and oh, my bones! Come in and see him, Jabez," she urged, hobbling toward the passage.

"No. Who is he? What is he here for? That Cameron talks so fast I never can get the rights of what he's saying till afterward. Says the boy belongs up there where he wants to take Ruth to-morrow?"

"He has run away from his home at Scarboro, Uncle," said Ruth.

"Young villain! A widder's son, too!" said her uncle.

"He says his father is dead," said Ruth, hesitating.

"I venture to say!" exclaimed Jabez Potter. "And he's in my bed; is he?"

He came back to this as being a reason for objection.

"Now, now, Jabez," said Aunt Alvirah, soothingly. "He ain't hurted the bed. He was wet-the coat frozen right on him-when they brought him in. I had to git him atween blankets jest as quick as I could. And your bedroom isn't so cold as the rooms upstairs."

"Well?" grunted Mr. Potter.

"Before bedtime I'll make him up a couch in here near the fire and put your bed straight for you."

"Young vagabond!" grunted Mr. Potter. "Don't know who he is. May rob us before morning. Perhaps he come here for just that purpose."

"That's not possible, Uncle," said Ruth, laughing. She told him the story of their adventure with the bull and Fred Hatfield's appearance. Yet all the time she looked worried herself. There was something troubling the girl of the Red Mill.

Ruth took the tray into the bedroom with the supper that Aunt Alvirah had prepared. There was a flaming red spot in the center of each of the boy's pallid cheeks, and his eyes were still bright. He had no little fever after the chill of his plunge into the creek. But the fever might have been as much from a mental as a physical cause.

It was on Ruth's lips to ask the boy certain questions. That newspaper clipping fairly burned in the bosom of her frock. But his suppressed excitement warned her to be silent.

He was hungry still. It was plain that he had been without proper food for some time. But in the midst of his appreciation of the meal he asked Ruth, suddenly:

"Wasn't there anything in that wallet when you gave it to that man,

Miss?"

"No," she replied, truthfully enough.

"No. He didn't say there was," muttered the boy, and said not another word.

Ruth watched him eat. He did not raise his light eyes to her. The color faded out of his cheeks. She knew that it was actual starvation that kept him eating; but he was g

reatly troubled in his mind. She went back to her own supper, and remained very quiet all through the evening.

Later Aunt Alvirah made up the couch with plenty of blankets and 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!"

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