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more than they had realized, so that Nancy suddenly taking alarm, whisked her away to bed. There, with many loving pats and hugs and words of affectionate comfort, they at last saw her ready for sleep. Yet Beatrice, lying broad awake in her little room, watching the curtains flutter in the windy dark, could not put from her mind the thought of what she had heard. Presently, she got up to steal into Nancy's room, opposite, and see how she was faring. She found that the bed was empty and that her sister was kneeling by the window, staring out into the forest. A solitary coyote was yelping in the woods, but it was a sound to which they had become so accustomed that it was doubtful if they even heard it. The pale light of a late moon showed the moving tree-tops, the dark chasm of the stream, and, hardly to be discerned among the pines, the square chimney-stacks and one tiny light that marked the place of John Herrick's house. “Don’t stay there in the cold,” remonstrated Beatrice. “You can’t see anything or—or anybody in the middle of the night.” “I know it,” sighed Nancy, as she turned from the window. “I was just thinking.” She climbed on the bed and sat with her knees humped up and her arms flung around them, still staring, as though fascinated, out through the window toward that slope of the mountain where John Herrick lived. “He does n’t look like Dad or Aunt Anna,” Beatrice protested suddenly, with no apparent connection with anything that had been said. “No, he is n’t like them at all.” “Maybe not,” returned Nancy, inscrutably, “but he has that same light yellow hair that she has. If Aunt Anna were very sunburned or he were very pale—it might be—that they would not be so very different.”
CHAPTER X MRS. BRUIN
ALTHOUGH the girls had talked so late of Aunt Anna's story and the strange thought they had concerning it, they were up early next morning and still discussing the matter busily as they prepared breakfast. “The question is,” said Nancy, plying her egg-beater with vigor, “shall we tell Aunt Anna what we think?” “If we should be mistaken, and John Herrick should turn out to be, oh, just anybody, she would be so disappointed. Perhaps we had better wait.” They had hardly finished breakfast when
there was a knock at the door, followed by Dr. Minturn's tall presence on the threshold. He inspected his patient and announced a very great improvement, and then said he must go on at once, since he hoped to visit the town and start back over the mountain that same day. Beatrice walked down with him through the pines, for he had tied his horse at the gate. “Your aunt seems less worried and far more cheerful than before,” he said. “Yes,” assented Beatrice, “I think it is because she has told us at last why she came.” She went on to give the substance of Aunt Anna's story. “I surmised it was something like that,” he observed when he had heard her to the end, “and I have been thinking about it ever since. I don’t know any man in this neighborhood by the name of Deems, but— I believe he is not so far away, after all.” Beatrice looked at him steadily. “I believe that too,” she said. Dr. Minturn stopped, for they had reached the bars, but he made no move to mount his horse. “I am going to give you some advice that is n’t medical,” he began slowly. “Whatever you think is, or is n’t so, don't—press anybody too hard; don't push some one by letting him know too quickly that you have guessed who he is. Your aunt is eager and overwrought; who would n’t be after ten years of anxiety and sorrow? She and you might be in too much of a hurry and ruin everything. John thinks he is safe under his assumed name, and with your aunt too ill to be about. He knows who you are and perhaps why you have come, but he can't yet make up his mind to conquer his stubborn pride. Give him time, that is all I say, give him time. He rode away into the hills the first day he saw you, but he must have thought things out up there in the mountains, for he came back again. But he can't come all the way yet.” “Do you think he ever will?” Beatrice asked anxiously. “Yes, I think he will. Does your aunt have any suspicion of who he is?” “I am sure she has n’t,” Beatrice declared. “She thinks of him as Hester's father, some one too old to be her brother. No, she does n’t dream it.” “Then don't tell her and don't tell him,” he urged. “Wait until John is ready to tell her himself. You must go gently with a man who has been hurt to his very soul.”
Beatrice held out her brown hand and the doctor shook it solemnly. She watched him ride away, then returned to the house to saddle Buck and set off presently up the mountain. Her mind was full of new, excited hopes that seemed to dance to the music of Buck's flying feet. Nancy, meanwhile, was not thinking so much of their new problem. She had the faculty of being completely absorbed in the object in hand, and to-day that object was a cake. Christina had given her a Swedish receipt, dwelling on the unusual deliciousness of the result, so that Nancy could scarcely wait to try it. With the greatest care possible she mixed and measured and weighed and stirred. “It is rather a long cake,” she reflected after she had spent an hour combining the ingredients; but she felt certain that the completed dish would amply repay her toil. She had just got it into the oven when a knock sounded on the kitchen door to announce the boy whom Hester had sent with a basket of eggs. “Thank you, Olaf,” she said as he set them down; then flushed, since she had not meant to speak his name. The color flooded his face, also. “I beg your pardon,” she added quickly; “we have been guessing who you were, but we did n’t mean to pry into any secrets.” “It does not matter,” he assured her. “My mother and John Herrick made me promise that I would not go to the village while things were so upset, since he says there is no use in stirring up bad feeling again. Your sister's letter caught me in San Francisco, just as I was to sail; but I could n’t help coming home, once I knew that my mother really wanted to see me. But I don’t like this hiding away, and I only agreed to it because I would do anything John Herrick says.” Old Tim came in to put away his tools and to sit down upon the doorstep to rest for a moment. “I can't think of another thing to do to this cabin,” he confessed. “I have to own that it is time for me to go home.” He was just getting up to go when a step was heard on the path and Dabney Mills came around the corner of the house, smiling and quite unabashed by any memories of his departure on his last visit. “I heard voices,” he said, “so I just thought I would n’t disturb any one by knocking at the front door and would—” “Would see if you could n't overhear some
thing,” Tim cut him short. “Well, we 're not speaking of anything you should n’t hear, so our talk would n't interest you.” He walked away, leaving the intruding youth looking after him in speechless indignation. Nancy turned to the stove to look at her cake. “I don't know this gentleman,” she heard Dabney say, staring at Olaf, and she heard Tim reply over his shoulder, “Nor do you need to know him, so far as I can see.” “I heard you talk of going berrying the other day, Miss Nancy,” Olaf said, coming to the door and quite disregarding the inquisitive reporter. “This is the best sort of afternoon for it, and I can show you just where to go. Your sister is coming up the hill, so your aunt won't be left alone. Would n’t you like to come?” “I would indeed. Will you excuse me,” she added politely to Dabney Mills; to which he gave a gruff assent and stalked out of sight around the corner of the house. She felt anxious to escape from his questions, and was sure that, in the hands of the determined Beatrice, he could find out very little. She fetched her hat and her basket and set off gaily, for to look for berries had been a cherished project for some days. They scrambled up the hill, out beyond the shadow of the pines to the open pastureland, where the trees had been cut and the new growth was springing up and where, among the old stumps, the berry bushes and vines matted the ground. It was a hot summer day, very still except for the grasshoppers singing in the grass, but not with that peaceful, drowsy heat that Nancy knew. The air was far too bracing for any one to feel lazy or sleepy, as on the summer days at home. The blue distances shimmered; the sky was cloudless; everything seemed to stir and throb with the energy of living. The baskets filled rapidly as the two went from one patch to another, climbing higher and higher up the mountain. Suddenly, Olaf glanced over his shoulder and then turned about quickly. “Just look there,” he said in a low voice. Something like a big black dog was moving among the bushes, its smooth round back showing now and again above the tangled thicket. Presently, as it crossed an open space, Nancy saw it more clearly, with its small head, clumsy feet and odd shuffling walk. She had never seen a bear at large before. “Oh!” she breathed, and dropped her basket.
“There is no need to be afraid,” Olaf assured her. “A bear won't bother you at all if you leave him alone. They have ugly tempers, and if you once make them angry, they will follow you a long way to get even. But this one won’t hurt us.” The creature, at first quite unconscious of their presence, went slowly along, snuffing among the roots, turning over stones to lick up the ants beneath them. Finally observing them, it stood on its hind legs to peer over a clump of bushes, looking so much like a shy, but inquisitive, little boy that Nancy laughed aloud. “Oh, see! there's another—two little ones!” she exclaimed. Olaf looked where she pointed and took up the baskets hastily. “If there are cubs, it 's quite a different thing,” he said duickly. “A mother bear never does anything you think she will. It would be better for us to go.” The bear stood watching their hasty departure for a moment, then, with a grunt, dropped on all fours again and turned once more to the pursuit of her dinner. Nancy, looking back, caught sight of the fat, round cubs as they came scampering forward to run at their mother's heels. One of them tumbled over and rolled upon the grass; whereupon its mother turned to lick it affectionately and give it a friendly cuff with her big paw. Evidently she considered the incident, so far as human beings were concerned, as being quite closed. Beatrice and Hester were at the cabin when the two berry-pickers returned. They declared that they had seen nothing of Dabney Mills, who had apparently taken himself off. They had a hilarious lunch, during which Beatrice imitated the airs and graces of the insistent reporter, while Nancy, as she waited on the table, assumed the shuffling mannerisms of Joe Ling. Aunt Anna declared herself so worn out with laughing at them that she retired early for her nap, and Beatrice presently, after Hester was gone, went upstairs to sleep also. Nancy spent a large part of the afternoon finishing her cake, for even the icing, with its alternate layers of brown and white, was a work of art in itself. Finally the task was completed, and the dish set to cool on the window-ledge. When at last it became time to think about the evening meal, she discovered that she needed fresh kindling for the fire and went out to the shed to fetch it. She opened the door and started back with a cry of surprise.
Seated on the straw, with his back to the wall and his note-book on his knee, was Dabney Mills. “I heard that fellow, Olaf you call him, say that he was coming back at four o'clock with the milk, so I came back to have a word with him when—when we would n’t be disturbed. I’ve been waiting quite a while. He's late,” he declared crossly. He got up and walked stiffly to the door. “Say,” he exclaimed, “what 's that beside your window. Golly, I do believe it 's a bear!” His tone was one of undisguised dismay. “Where?” said Nancy, running out after him. “Oh, my cake, my cake!” she added in distress. The same creature that she had seen when she was berrying had come down the hill and was running an investigating and appreciative tongue over the icing of the precious cake. She had been used, perhaps, to prowl about the cabin when it was empty, and was now making herself very much at home. Although plainly pleased with her refreshment, she dropped down when she heard their voices and began to shamble off toward the sheltering underbrush. “Let her go quietly,” Nancy warned; “don’t disturb her, don’t, don't!” For Dabney Mills, plucking up courage by the animal's willingness to depart, was attempting to speed her going by throwing stones after her. Picking up a square block of wood from beside the shed, he flung it with unfortunate success, in spite of Nancy clutching at his arm. It caught the bear full on the side of the head. The great beast turned, bared all her teeth in an angry snarl, and rushed upon them. Without ceremony, they fled, past the shed, away from the house and up the hill. To reach the safety of the cabin, they would have to pass by her, which at the moment was unthinkable. Therefore, as the angry creature climbed steadily after them, they were forced farther and farther up toward the open spaces of the mountain. “I 'm not afraid. She won't hurt us,” Nancy kept telling herself, though her teeth were chattering and her breath coming short. Bewildered as she was, she still had presence of mind enough to try to bend their course in a circle so that at last they might come nearer home. But no such coolness possessed her companion. Excited, almost hysterical with terror, he shouted at the bear, waved his arms and threw sticks and stones at her
every time the steep trail afforded him opportunity.
“Stop! don't! you are only making it worse!” Nancy begged him breathlessly; but he was far too terrified to pay any heed to her words.
Nancy felt that there could be nothing more terrible than this, the big swaying body that came up the hill after them, the little pointed head with its white teeth showing, its small eyes blazing with an animal's unreasoning fury. She was panting and exhausted; her knees shook under her; it seemed utterly impossible to go farther. One last hope flashed through her mind—it was the hour for Olaf to bring the milk, and he might be somewhere below, coming through the pines. She hollowed her hands before her mouth and, with a last effort of her panting lungs, shouted with all the strength she could command:
A faint hail came in answer. How far
away it was! Would he know what had happened? There was only a little farther for them to climb, for a long ridge of rock, shouldering up through the underbrush, cut off their ascent with a smooth wall that offered no foothold. Beside it, the mountain-side fell away in a sheer drop of a hundred feet of precipice, so that their retreat was blocked completely. A vast furry form rose through the bushes beside them, and the bear struck at them with her great paw. Nancy was too bewildered to understand how Dabney Mills came suddenly to be behind her, while she was thrust forward into the very face of their enemy. The blow missed her, however, and struck the boy, just where, she could not see. With a strange, sickening sigh, he dropped and rolled toward the edge of the cliff. Nancy flattened herself against the rock wall, staring, fascinated, as the bear settled her haunches firmly, seemed to pause a moment, and then squared off to strike at her again.