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Chapter 1 THE GORED COW

For lack of a better listener, Betty Gordon addressed the saucy little chipmunk that sat on the top rail of the old worn fence and stared at her with bright, unwinking eyes.

"It is the loveliest vase you ever saw," said Betty, busily sorting the tangled mass of grasses and flowers in her lap. "Heavy old colonial glass, you know, plain, but with beautiful lines."

The chipmunk continued to regard her gravely.

"I found it this morning when I was helping Mrs. Peabody clean the kitchen closet shelves," the girl went on, her slim fingers selecting and discarding slender stems with fascinating quickness. "It was on the very last shelf, and was covered with dust. I washed it, and we're going to have it on the supper table to-night with this bouquet in it. There! don't you think that's pretty?"

She held out the flowers deftly arranged and surveyed them proudly. The chipmunk cocked his brown head and seemed to be withholding his opinion.

Betty put the bouquet carefully down on the grass beside her and stretched the length of her trim, graceful self on the turf, burying her face luxuriously in the warm dry "second crop" of hay that had been raked into a thin pile under the pin oak and left there forgotten. Presently she rolled over and lay flat on her back, studying the lazy clouds that drifted across the very blue sky.

"I'd like to be up in an airplane," she murmured drowsily, her eyelids drooping. "I'd sail right into a cloud and see—What was that?"

She sat up with a jerk that sent the hitherto motionless chipmunk scurrying indignantly up the nearest tree, there to sit and shake his head angrily at her.

"Sounds like Bob!" said Betty to herself. "My goodness, that was Mr. Peabody—they must be having an awful quarrel!"

The voices and shouts came from the next field, separated from her by a brook, almost dry now, and a border of crooked young willow trees grown together in an effective windbreak.

"Anybody who'll gore a cow like that isn't fit to own a single dumb creature!" A clear young voice shaking with passion was carried by the wind to the listening girl.

"When I need a blithering, no-'count upstart to teach me my business, I'll call on you and not before," a deeper, harsh voice snarled. "When you're farming for yourself you can feed the neighbors' critters on your corn all you've a mind to!"

"Oh, dear!" Betty scrambled to her feet, forgetting the bouquet so carefully culled, and darted in the direction of the willow hedge. "I do hope Mr. Peabody hasn't been cruel to an animal. Bob is always so furious when he catches him at that!"

She crossed the puttering little brook by the simple expedient of jumping from one bank to the other and scrambled through the willow trees, emerging, flushed and anxious-eyed, to confront a boy about fourteen years old in a torn straw hat and faded overalls and a tall, lean middle-aged man with a pitchfork in his hands.

"Well?" the latter grunted, as Betty glanced fearfully at him. "What did you come for? I suppose you think two rows of corn down flat is something to snicker at?"

They stood on the edge of a flourishing field of corn, and, following the direction of Mr. Peabody's accusing finger, Betty Gordon saw that two fine rows had been partially eaten and trampled.

"Oh, that's too bad!" she said impulsively, "What did it—a stray cow?"

"Keppler's black and white heifer," answered Mr. Peabody grimly. "Bob here is finding fault with me because I didn't let it eat its head off."

"No such thing!" Bob Henderson was stung into speech. "Because the poor creature didn't get out fast enough to suit you—and you bewildered her with your shouting till she didn't know which way to turn—you jabbed her with the pitchfork. I saw the blood! And I say nobody but an out and out coward would do a thing like that to a dumb animal."

"Oh!" breathed Betty again, softly. "How could you!"

"Now I've heard about enough of that!" retorted Mr. Peabody angrily. "If you'd both attend to your own business and leave me to mind mine, we'd save a lot of time. You, Bob, go let down the bars and turn that critter into the road. Maybe Keppler will wake up and repair his fences after all his stock runs off. You'd better help him, Betty. He might step on a grub-worm if you don't go along to watch him!"

Bob strode off, kicking stones as he went, and Betty followed silently. She helped him lower the bars and drive the cow into the road, then put the bars in place again.

"Where are you going?" she ventured in surprise, as Bob moodily trudged after the animal wending an erratic way down the road.

"Going to take her home," snapped Bob, "Peabody would like to see Keppler have to get her out of the pound, but I'll save him that trouble. You can go on back and read your book."

"Just because you're mad at Mr. Peabody is no reason why you should be cross to me," said Betty with spirit. "I wasn't reading a book, and I'm coming with you. So there!"

Bob laughed and told her to "come on." He was seldom out of sorts long. Indeed, of the two, Betty had the quicker temper and cherished a grudge more enduringly.

"Just the same, Betty," Bob announced, as he skillfully persuaded the cow to forego the delights of a section of particularly sweet grass and proceed on her course, "I'm about through. I can't stand it much longer; and lately I've been afraid that in a rage I might strike Mr. Peabody with something and either kill him or hurt him badly. Of course, I wouldn't do it if I stopped to think, but when he gets me furious as he did to-day, I don't stop to think."

"Well, for mercy's sake, Bob Henderson," ejaculated Betty in an instant alarm, "don't kill him, whatever you do. Then you'd be put in prison for life!"

"All right," agreed Bob equably, "I won't kill him—just nick him in a few places—how will that do?"

"But I'm really serious," insisted Betty. "Don't let the cow turn up that lane. Think how awful you would feel if you were sent to prison, Bob."

Bob took refuge in a masculine stronghold.

"If that isn't just like a girl!" he said scornfully. "Who said I was going to prison? I merely say I don't want to lose my temper and do something rash, and you have me convicted and sentenced for life. Gee, Betty, have a little mercy!"

Betty's lips trembled.

"I can't bear to think of you going away and leaving me here," she faltered. "I'm not going to stay either, Bob, not one minute after I hear from Uncle Dick. I'm sure if the Benders knew how things were going, they would think we had a right to leave. I had the loveliest letter from Mrs. Bender this morning—but it had been opened."

Bob switched an unoffending flower head savagely.

"You come out of that!" he shouted to the perverse cow that seemed determined to turn to the left when she was plainly asked to turn to the right. "Wait a minute, Betty; here's Fred Keppler."

The half-grown boy who accosted them with "What are you doing with our cow?" grinned fatuously at Betty, showing several gaps in a row of fine teeth.

"Keep your cow at home where she belongs," directed Bob magnificently. "She's been making her dinner off our corn."

"Oh, gee," sighed the boy nervously. "I'll bet old Peabody was in a tearing fury. Look, Bob, something's tore her hide! She must have been down in the blackberry bushes along the brook."

"Well, see that it doesn't happen again," commanded Bob, gracefully withdrawing by walking backward. "Corn that's as high as ours is worth something, you know."

"You never told him about the pitchfork," said Betty accusingly, as soon as Fred Keppler and the cow were out of earshot. "You let him think it was blackberry bushes that scratched her like that."

"Well, his father will know the difference," grinned Bob cheerfully. "Why should I start an argument with Fred? Saving the cow from the pound ought to be enough, anyway. Mr. Keppler has had to buy more than one animal out before this; he will not pay attention to his fences."

Betty sat down on a broad boulder and leaned up against an old hickory tree.

"Stone in my shoe," she said briefly. "You'll have to wait just a minute, Bob."

Bob sat down on the grass and began to hunt for four leaf clovers, an occupation of which he never tired.

"Do you think Mr. Peabody opened your letter?" he asked abruptly.

Betty paused in the operation of untying her shoe.

"Who else would?" she said thoughtfully. "It wasn't even pasted together again, but slit across one end, showing that whoever did it didn't care whether I noticed it or not. I'll never mail another letter from that box. I'll walk to Glenside three times a day first!"

"Well, the only thing to do is to clear out," said Bob firmly. "You'll have to wait till you hear from your uncle, or at least till the Benders get back. We promised, you know, that we wouldn't run away without telling them, or if there wasn't time, writing to them and saying where we go. That shows, I think, that they suspected things might get too hot to be endured."

"I simply must get a letter from Uncle Dick or go crazy," sighed Betty feverishly. She put on her shoe and stood up. "I wish he would come for me himself and see how horrid everything is."