The Carter Girls' Week-End Camp
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“You just say that to keep me from feeling bad. I said all the time we were on our own mountain and I was certainly the one to suggest our climbing up to the top. I don’t see how or when we managed to get in this mix-up.”
“You see, we were down at the foot of the mountain and we must have spilled over on another one without knowing it. They so kinder run together at the bottom,” soothed Lucy.
Lil was so worn out after the climb that she could do no more than sink to the ground; but she smiled bravely at poor self-accusing Frank as she gasped out:
“What a grand, romantic spot to play ‘Babes in the Wood’! I bid to be a babe and let you boys be the robins.”
“In my opinion it is nobody’s fault that we have got lost, but lost we are. Of course Frank and I ought to have had more sense, but we didn’t have it, and I reckon what we ain’t got ain’t our fault. – But if it wasn’t our fault for losing you girls, it is sure up to us to get you home again and now we had better set to it somehow.”
Skeeter deposited his gunnysack of squirrels beside the one of grapes and threw himself down beside Lil on the green, green grass of the unexpected dimple.
“Well, Lil and I are not blaming you. If we haven’t got as much sense as you boys, I dare one of you to say so. We could have told we were getting lost just as much as either one of you, and it is no more your business to get us home than it is our business to get you home, is it, Lil?”
“I – I – reckon not,” faltered Lil; “but I’ve got to rest a while before I can get myself or anybody else home.” Poor Lil! She was about all in but she kept up a brave smile.
“There must be water here or this grass would not be so pizen green in August,” said Skeeter. “Let’s go find the spring first, Frank.” The boys wanted to get off together to discuss ways and means and hold a council of war.
“Say, Skeeter, what are we going to do?” asked Frank, as they made for a pile of rocks down in the middle of the dimple, where it seemed likely a spring might be hidden.
“Do you know it’s ’most night? I thought when we got to the top there would be lots of light, but all the time we were coming up the sun was going down, and blamed if it hasn’t set now.”
“Yes, and no moon until ’most morning. What will Miss Douglas and Miss Helen say to us?”
“I’m not worrying about what they will say, but what will they think? I am afraid Lil can’t take another step tonight. She is game as game, but she is just about flopped.”
“We might make a basket of our hands and carry her thataway,” suggested Skeeter.
“Yes, we might! Lil is not so big but she is no dollbaby, and I don’t believe we could pack her a mile if our lives depended on it.”
“Well, what will we do? Can you think of anything?”
“Well, I think that one of us must stay with the girls and the other one go snooping around to try to find somebody, a house, or something.You stay with them and I’ll go. I bid to!”
“All – right!”
But Skeeter did think, considering he was at least two months older than Frank and at least three inches taller, that he should be the one to go the front. The r?le of home guard did not appeal to him much, but when a fellow says “he bids to,” that settles it.
The spring was found down low between the rocks – such a clear, clean spring that even the greatest germ fearer would not hesitate to drink of its waters.
“Look, there’s a little path leading from the other side! It must go somewhere!” cried Frank.
“Yes, it must go somewhere just as all the trails we have followed today must – but where? Don’t tell me about paths! They are frauds, delusions and snares. I reckon there won’t be any supper for us tonight, so I might just as well fill up on water,” and Skeeter stooped and drank until his chum became alarmed. Skeeter’s capacity was surely miraculous.
“Let’s not tell the girls we might not be able to get back before night. It might get them upset,” cautioned Frank.
They reckoned without their host, however, in this matter. When the boys returned to the forlorn damsels bearing a can of water for their refreshment, the can having been discovered by the spring, they found them not forlorn at all. They had spunked up each other and now were almost lively. Lil was tired and pale and Lucy had a rather bedraggled look, but they called out cheerily:
“What ho, brave knights!”
“Listen! Don’t you hear a strange sound, kind of like music without a tune?” said Lucy.
There was a sound, certainly. It might be the wind in the pines and it might be a giant fly buzzing in a flower that had closed its doors for the night.
“It is coming closer,” cried Lil. “Maybe it is the bold brigands who are to bear us off to captivity in their mountain fastnesses. I tell you, if they want me they will have to bear me. I can’t hobble.”
Just then there came through the scrub growth on the opposite side of the green dimple where our young people had made their temporary abiding place, a strange figure. It was a tall, lean young man dressed in a coat of many colors, a shirt that seemed to be made of patches, no two patches of the same color and none of them matching the original color of the shirt, which was of a vivid blue. His trousers were of bright pink calico, the kind you see on the shelves of country stores and that is usually spoken of as “candy pink.” His head was bare; his hair long and yellow. A large tin bucket was hung on his arm while he diligently played a jew’s-harp.
The effect of this strange figure was so weird as it appeared through the gathering twilight that the girls could hardly hold in the screams that were in their throats. They controlled them, however, so that they only came out as faint giggles.
The music of the jew’s-harp can be very eyrie in broad daylight when made by an ordinary human being; but just at dusk in a mountain fastness when four young persons have decided they are lost and may have to spend the night in the woods, this music, coming from such a strange, motley figure, seemed positively grewsome.
“Speak to it!” gasped Lucy.
The youth stood still in his path but went on with his weird near-tune. Skeeter approached him and the others followed, although poor Lil found herself limping painfully.
“Please, we are lost!”
“Oh, no, not lost, for I have found you uns. We uns is always findin’.” His voice had an indescribable softness and gentleness and his blue eyes a far-away look as though he lived in some other world. “Only t’other day we uns ’most found a great bird floating in the sky, but it flew away. We uns thought at first it was lost but it wasn’t. If it had a been lost, we uns would have found it. A great big bird, bigger’n a bald-headed eagle, bigger’n a buzzard.”
“Now that you have found us, what are you going to do with us?” asked Lil.
“Oh, what we uns finds, we uns hides ag’in. Thar’s a hole in the mounting whar we uns puts things.”
“Uhhh – a brigand, sure enough!” whispered Lucy.
“But you wouldn’t put us there, because we are alive. You have a home somewhere near here, haven’t you?” asked Frank. But the half-witted fellow shook his head sadly.
“We uns ain’t got no mo’ home since they came and found my maw – they came and found her and hid her in the ground. We uns must have lost her and never can find her – but there are lots of other things to find,” and his blue eyes that had looked all clouded at the sad thought of never finding his mother, now began to sparkle. “Only this evening we uns found the prettiest light in the sky – it’s gone now – gone – before we uns could hide it in the hole, but we uns will find another.”
“Where do you live?”
Skeeter asked it gently.
“Oh, we uns lives with the spring-keeper.”
“The spring-keeper! Who is he?”
“Oh, we uns found him when they took my maw! He is a little daffy – that is what folks say, but we uns can’t see but he is as smart as them what laughs at him.”
The young people were quite aghast at the news that the person with whom this strange being lived was considered daffy. The boys had their doubts about the advantage of asking shelter in a house where two crazy people lived, but perhaps the spring-keeper was not crazy, after all. This young man certainly seemed harmless enough, and perhaps he could show them the way to Greendale.
“Does the spring-keeper live far from here?” asked Lil.
“Oh, no, just round the mounting. We uns will show you uns the way.”
He filled his bucket at the crystal spring and then led the way along the narrow path.
“Who taught you to play the jew’s-harp?” asked Lucy.
“Nobody! We uns just makes the music we uns finds in the trees. We uns can make the tune the bee tree makes, too. We uns can do so many things. We uns made these pants and every day we uns sews a pretty new color on this shirt. The spring-keeper fetches pretty cloth from the store and sometimes we uns sews quilts. Look, thar’s the place whar the spring-keeper lives when he ain’t a-tendin’ to his business.”
“What is his business?” asked Frank.
“We uns done told you he’s a spring-keeper. Be you uns daffy, too?”
That made them all laugh, and then the guide laughed too, delightedly.
“Now we uns is found some happiness!” he exclaimed. “The spring-keeper says that is all that’s worth finding. He says he has found it but he never laughs like that. He just smiles but never makes no music when he’s happy. But neither does the sunshine.”
The cabin which they were approaching was different in a way from the usual one found in the mountains. It was made of logs and had the outline of the ordinary abode of the mountaineer, but a long porch went along two sides and this porch was screened. Screening is something almost unheard-of with the natives, although the flies abound in the mountains as well as in the valleys. A little clearing around the cabin was one great tangle of flowers: golden glow, love-in-the-mist, four o’clocks, bachelor’s buttons, zenias, asters, hollyhocks, sunflowers, poppies, cornflowers, scarlet sage, roses and honeysuckles. Some greedy bees were still buzzing around the roses, although the sun was down and it was high time all laborers were knocking off for the night. There was a light in the cabin which sent a very cheering message to the foot-sore travelers – also an odor of cooking that appealed very strongly to all of them but sent Skeeter off into an ecstasy of anticipation.
The guide put down his bucket of water and placing his jew’s-harp to his lips gave a kind of buzzing call. Immediately an old man came out of the door.
“Is that you, Tom Tit?” It was such a kind, sweet voice that the four were made sure they were right in coming to his abode.
“Yes, Spring-keeper, and we uns found something.”
“I’ll be bound you have! What is it this time? Another aeroplane or a rainbow?”
“No, it is four laughs, look!”
The old man did look, and when he saw the wanderers, he hastened out to make them welcome. Never was there a more charming manner than his. No wonder the half-witted youth thought of the sunshine in connection with his smile.
He was tall and stalwart, with a long gray beard that could only be equalled by Santa Claus himself. His hair was silver white and his cheeks as rosy as a girl would like to have hers. His eyes were gray and so kind and twinkling that all fear of his being crazy was immediately dispelled from the minds of our young people.
“They thought they were lost but they were wrong – we uns found ’em.”
“Good work, Tom Tit! And now what are we to do with them?” he asked, although he did not wait to find out what his poor companion had in his befuddled mind but ushered them to the porch, where he made the girls comfortable in steamer chairs and let the boys find seats for themselves.
Their story was soon told and much was their amazement to learn that they were more than ten miles from Greendale.
“You must have been walking all day in the wrong direction. No wonder this poor little girl is limping. Now the first thing for us to do is to have something to eat.”
“Ahem!” from Skeeter.
The spring-keeper smiled.
“Ah, methinks thou hast a lean and hungry look.”
“Hungry’s not the word. Starving Belgium is nothing to me. I feel as though I had had nothing to eat since yesterday.”
“Oh, Skeeter! Think of all that lunch!” exclaimed Lil, lolling back luxuriously in the steamer chair with grass cloth cushions tucked in around her. “Why, Mr. – Mr. – Spring-keeper, he has done nothing but eat all day!”
“We think it is very hard on you for all of us to come piling in on you this way,” said Lucy.
“Hard on us! Why, Tom Tit and I are so happy we hardly know what to do to show it,” said the old man kindly. “But you must excuse me while I go prepare some food for you.”
“But you must let us help!” from the girls, although Lil was rather perfunctory in her offers of assistance. She felt as though nothing short of dynamite could get her out of that chair.
“No, indeed! Tom Tit and I are famous cooks and we can get something ready in short order.”
“Please, sir,” said Frank, who had been very quiet while the others were telling their host of their adventures, “I – I – must not stop one moment to eat or anything else. I want you to tell me how to find my way back to Greendale so I can tell the people at the camp that Lucy and Lil are all right. They were put in our charge, and I must let them know.”
“Of course, I am going, too,” put in Skeeter, “but I thought I might eat first.”
Everyone had to laugh at poor Skeeter’s rueful countenance. The spring-keeper smiled broadly, but he patted Frank on the back.
“Have you a telephone at camp?”
“Yes, we had to put one in.”
“Well, then, we’ll just ’phone them even before we begin to cook our feast.”
“’Phone! Have you a telephone here?” exclaimed Lucy.
“Yes, my dear young lady. I love the wildwood, but I have to know what’s going on in the world. A man who does not take the good the gods provide him in the way of modern inventions is a fool. I may be a fool, but I’m not that kind of a fool.”
“Lucy, you had better do the ’phoning so they’ll know you girls are safe, first thing,” suggested Frank.
“Yes, and it had better be done immediately,” said their host. “Central in the mountains goes to roost very early, and you might not get connection. I’ll call up Greendale and make them give me the camp.”
Connection was got without much trouble and Lucy took the receiver.
“Hello! Is that Camp Carter? Well, this is me.”
“Lucy! Is it you?” in Helen’s distracted tones from the other end.
“Yes, it’s me, and all of us are all right, but we are going to spend the night out.”
“About ten miles from Greendale!”
“You mean outdoors?”
“Oh, no; with a spring-keeper!”
“A what? Oh, Lucy, are you crazy? We are so uneasy about all of you, we are nearly wild! It’s dark as can be and we are trying to keep it from mother and father that you have not come home. Tell me where you are. Speak distinctly and loudly and stop giggling.” Of course the usual giggles had rendered Lucy unable to speak.
“Here, Skeeter, come and tell her!” she gasped.
“Hello, Miss Helen! I’m Skeeter. The girls are all right. Yes, Frank and I are, too. We got lost somehow and never did find Jude Hanford’s, but we found a kind gentleman who lives ’way over on another mountain and he is going to feed us right now.”
“Who is the gentleman?”
“Mr. Spring-keeper is his name.”
“You can’t get home somehow tonight?”
“No’m! Lil is mighty tired and will have to rest up some. We’ll be home tomorrow. You mustn’t worry about the girls – they’re all right and the gentleman is bully. We’ll tell you all about it when we see you. Say, Miss Helen, the lunch was out of sight.”
“You bet it was when once Skeeter got his hooks into it,” muttered Frank. “The supper will be, too, in no time.”
“Well, good-bye, Skeeter! We are still trusting you and Frank to take care of our girls and bring them back safely. I knew all the time you were doing your best, although I was uneasy about all of you. I was afraid you had shot each other or snakes had bitten you or something.”
“Not on your life! We shot some squirrels and got you some fox grapes, though. Good-bye! Good-bye!”
“I tell you, Miss Helen is a peach,” he added to Frank, after he hung up the receiver. “She is still trusting us.”