A NEW ACQUAINTANCE

It was a beautiful evening. In the west the sunset glow still hung
above the hills. Eastward the full moon’s great, golden disk was poised
against the darkening blue of the summer sky. It was very still and
quiet, and the only sounds that came to them were the soft _pat-pat_ of
their shoes on the dusty road. When half the distance to the house-boat
had been covered they slowed down to a walk, panting and puffing.

“What–are we going–to do–when we get–there?” asked Dick.

“Have some supper,” said Chub, decisively.

“But we can’t stay where we are. When he finds that we’ve skipped out,
he will be as mad as a hornet and will come down here looking for us.”

“Pshaw, I don’t think he believed a word we said about being in a
boat,” said Chub. “Besides, he’s just as likely to look up the river
as down.”

“And just as likely to look down as up,” replied Roy. “I guess Dick’s
right we’d better move on.”

“All right, then, we will; just as soon as we’ve had something to eat,”
agreed Chub.

“If we wait for that our supper is likely to consist of bread and
water,” answered Roy, dryly. “What we want to do is to get across to
the other side of the river. I never thought I’d be glad to get to New
Jersey, but the time has come.”

“That isn’t Jersey over there, it’s New York,” said Chub.

“Anyway, it’s a heap better than the calaboose,” laughed Dick. “Was
that wheels I heard?”

They stopped and listened, but the only sound that reached them was the
distant barking of a dog.

“Carlo!” said Chub.

“Get out! It’s the wrong direction. Come on and let’s get back. I had
no idea we’d gone as far as we have.”

“Nor I,” said Dick. “And what’s more I don’t believe we have!”

“What do you mean?” asked Chub, anxiously.

“I mean that we’ve gone by the boat.” They stopped and looked about
them in the twilight. Chub thrust his cap back and rubbed his forehead
reflectively.

“I guess you’re right,” he said. “All I remember is that we came
through a strip of woods, and it’s woods all along on this side. We’d
better strike through them here and see if we can see the boat.”

Much subdued they followed him between the trees and bushes. After a
minute or two of slow progress they came to a narrow field.

“I never saw this before,” growled Roy.

“There wasn’t any field here an hour ago,” agreed Dick.

“I’d just like to know,” muttered Chub, “how it got here. Someone’s
been taking liberties with the landscape.”

“It strikes me,” remarked Roy, “that we’re just lost.”

“Well come on. The river’s down here somewhere. Once we get to that
all we’ve got to do is to follow it till we find the _Jolly_–find the
_Slow Poke_,” said Dick, encouragingly.

“And which way shall we walk, upstream or down?” Chub inquired. Dick
looked a trifle crestfallen for an instant. Then,

“We can decide that when we get there,” he said. “Anyhow, don’t let’s
spend the night here. I’m as hungry as a bear.”

“Hungry!” muttered Chub, bitterly. “So am I! Well, come along.”

They crossed the field, a particularly moist and “squashy” one, and
entered more woods. By this time, although it was still light enough in
the open, it was difficult to see much in the forest, and they stumbled
over stumps and wandered into blackberry thickets every few steps.

“A chap needs a suit of chain armor for this sort of thing,” said Roy.

“‘This is the forest primeval,’” murmured Chub, picking himself out of
a bush. “It’s evil, anyhow.”

“Here it is,” cried Dick, who had found fewer pitfalls and had taken
the lead. “Here it is!”

“The boat?” asked Roy, eagerly.

“No, the river.”

“Oh!” they joined him and found themselves on the shore of a little
cove, but it was shallower than the one they had left the boat in and
was quite empty of craft. Chub sat down on a rock and sighed.

“How beautiful is Nature!” he murmured.

“I’ll swap my interest in it for a cup of coffee and a slice of bread,”
answered Dick, morosely. “I’m going to see if I can find the boat.”

“Don’t go,” begged Chub. “Sit here beside me on this downy couch and
let us view the prospect o’er.”

“I’ll wager we’re too far down the river,” said Roy, inattentively.
“Let’s go that way. From that point there we ought to be able to see
the boat.”

“Lead on,” cried Chub. “We place ourselves in your hands.”

They skirted the cove and reached the point, but although from there
they could see several hundred yards up the shore, there was no sight
of either another cove or the _Slow Poke_.

“I guess we’re too far upstream, after all,” said Roy. “Let’s look the
other way.”

“I’m thankful the river doesn’t run east and west as well,” said Chub.
“’Tis a merry life we lead.”

Back they went to the cove and around that to another point. But below
there the shore wound in and out confusedly, and, even had the _Slow
Poke_ lain fifty yards away from them, it was now so dark that it is
doubtful if they could have discerned her.

“Let us lie down here quietly and die,” suggested Chub.

“Oh, don’t fool,” said Roy. “Come on.”

“Wait a minute, fellows!” this from Dick. “Come to think of it, when
we got out onto the road this afternoon there was a sign on the fence,
don’t you remember?”

“Sure!” cried Chub. “‘Noble’s Chill and Fever Compound;’ we spoke of
it! That’s easy; all we’ve got to do is to get back to the road and
find the sign.”

“For all we know there may be one every fifty feet,” said Roy,
pessimistically. “However, we’ll try it.”

Getting back to the road was no simple matter, though. The woods were
pitch dark now, and the field beyond was not much lighter, while to
make matters worse they crossed the latter where it was little better
than a swamp, and at every step their shoes went _squash_, _squash_ in
the yielding turf. But they were soon across it and in the gloom of the
farther woods.

“Courage, mon braves,” said Chub. “It is soon over.”

But Chub was wrong, for they stumbled on and on, through bushes and
briars, and still no road appeared out of the darkness.

“This is funny,” panted Dick, pausing to disentangle himself from the
affectionate embrace of a vine. “We ought to have reached the road long
ago.”

“It is the enchanted forest,” replied Chub. “Have you never read of the
enchanted forest?”

“We’ve been keeping too far to the right,” said Roy, thoughtfully.
“Let’s try it off this way.”

“By all means!” Chub bumped into a tree, drew back to murmur politely,
“I beg your pardon, madam,” and followed.

“If I ever find that road,” said Dick, savagely, “you can be sure I’m
going to stay on it!”

“I don’t believe there is a road,” said Chub.

“I’m going to find one if I have to walk all night,” said Roy.

“That’s what you think,” replied Chub, sadly. “But you’re in the
enchanted forest, I tell you. We’re Little _Nemos_, that’s what we are!”

But the next moment the darkness gave place to twilight and they
stumbled down a little bank to the dusty road. With one accord they
threw themselves down on the grass.

“Here’s where I stay until morning,” sighed Dick.

“Isn’t that a sign over there?” Roy asked.

“Maybe,” muttered Chub, “but I’ve got so I don’t believe in signs.”
Roy, however, had crossed the road and was trying to decipher the words
on the panel nailed to the fence. Finally he lighted a match and,

“‘Noble’s Chill and Fever Compound,’” he read, “‘safe and certain. Ask
your druggist.’”

“‘Ask your druggist,’” sneered Dick. “I’d like to have the chance
to ask a druggist! I wouldn’t ask for that, though; I’d ask for a
chocolate, or an egg-and-milk.”

“I suppose those things are stuck all along the road,” said Roy,
throwing himself down again on the bank. “We know that that one isn’t
the one we saw before.”

“Maybe if we sit here much longer,” said Chub, “we’ll be glad to know
of a good remedy for chills and fever. I’m going on.”

“Where?” asked Roy.

“Anywhere! What matters it? If we walk long enough we’ll come to a
village. And once in a village if I don’t get my hands on a sandwich
and a cup of coffee it’s a wonder!”

“Well,” sighed Dick, “which way shall we go?”

“South,” answered Chub. “I saw a sort of a village a mile or so before
we stopped this afternoon. Come on, fellows; never say die!”

“Maybe we will come across a house pretty soon,” said Roy. “If we do
let’s ask for something to eat and a bed in the barn.”

“I don’t think they have beds in the barns around here,” replied Chub,
flippantly. “However, whatever we do let us _not_–remark the emphasis,
please–let us NOT ask for milk!”

They trudged southward along the winding road. At intervals they came
to advertisements of “Noble’s Chill and Fever Compound” nailed to
fence-rails and trees. For a while Dick religiously bowed and saluted
each one, but at last his anger wore itself out and he only growled
when he saw one. They had been walking for perhaps a quarter of an hour
when a turn in the road disclosed what, at first sight, appeared to be
a light in the window of a house, but their murmurs of satisfaction
were quickly ended, for, as they approached they saw that the light was
the tail lamp of an automobile standing by the side of the road.

“Wait!” whispered Dick, seizing Roy by the arm. “Maybe it’s old Ewing
and the constable.”

“And where would they get an automobile?” asked Roy.

“They might; you can’t tell. Better let me go ahead and have a look
first.” But the others laughed him to scorn. Just then a second light
came into sight, and, as they were now close to the car, they saw that
some one had been leaning with it over the engine.

“She’s broken down,” said Chub. As they drew near, the man with the
lantern held it up until its rays shone on them, when, as though he
had hoped for better things, he turned indifferently away and began
to pull things from under the rear seat. It was a large car, seating
seven, and was painted gray with trimming of some darker color.

“Having trouble?” asked Chub, sympathetically.

“No, I’m just spending the night here from choice,” was the answer.

“Well, it’s a pretty spot,” laughed Chub. “Anything we can do for you?”
The man turned and regarded Chub, disgustedly.

“Yes, get out!”

“Of course!” said Chub. “That’s easy. I asked you a civil question,
though. Good night.”

“Hold on!” called the other. “I didn’t mean to be haughty. But I’ve
been stuck here since six o’clock and I don’t know yet what the
trouble is. That’s enough to make a man rather peevish, isn’t it?” He
laughed grudgingly. He was about twenty-one or -two years old, with a
good-looking, if at present not over clean, face, and a nice voice.

“I suppose so,” answered Chub. “You’ve had your supper though, haven’t
you?”

“Yes, I’ve had that.”

“Well, we haven’t. And we’ve been chasing around the country for an
hour and a half on foot. And we’re tired and hungry. I imagine we’re
entitled to a little peevishness too, eh?”

“That’s so,” said the other. “Where are you going?”

“No one knows,” said Chub. “We’re just walking along this road in the
hope that some day we’ll come to a place where we can get something to
eat. What do you think the chances are?”

“Well, you’d do better if you went the other way. You won’t find a
hotel or a store nearer than five miles in this direction.”

Dick groaned.

“I wish this old thing would go,” continued the automobilist. “Then I’d
help you out. I suppose you don’t know anything about these things?”
His glance ranged over the three faces.

“Well I don’t know that kind,” answered Chub, “but I’ve had a little
experience with a four-cylinder Adams. May be, though, if we start and
go over her again together we’ll find the trouble. Getting your spark
all right, are you?”

“Yes, the trouble is somewhere in the engine, I guess.”

Chub took off his coat and hung it on a fence post.

For a while Dick and Roy looked on, following the others around the car
in the glow of the lantern. Then Dick asked permission to get in and
sit down and he and Roy sank onto the cushions of the rear seats and
stretched their tired legs luxuriously. The minutes came and went. They
listened drowsily to the talk of Chub and the owner of the machine,
to the clink of tools, the turning of the crank. The full moon worked
itself out of a cloud bank and cast a faint radiance over the scene. A
breeze came rustling across a corn-field, and Roy reached down sleepily
and pulled a robe over him. By that time Dick was frankly slumbering.
A half-hour passed since their arrival. Suddenly, there was a grunt of
satisfaction from the automobilist, an amused laugh from Chub and a
jarring that awoke the boys in the tonneau. The engine was going.

“I don’t believe I’d ever have found that without you,” the owner was
saying gaily as he slammed the tool-chest shut. “Pile in now, and I’ll
give you a lift.”

“Is it all right?” asked Roy, drowsily.

“Yes, Siree; your friend here is a regular genius.”

“Yes, that’s my middle name,” answered Chub as he climbed into the
front seat. “Wake up, Dick, we’re going to supper!”

“I am awake. Where are we going to get it?”

“By jove!” muttered their new acquaintance. “I wonder, myself.” He was
silent a moment, but when the car was rushing along smoothly into the
flood of white light thrown by the powerful lamps, he turned his head.
“Look here, you fellows. My name’s Whiting, Joe Whiting, and I live
about seven miles down the road. All my folks are away for the summer
and I’m going myself to-morrow, and so things aren’t in very good shape
for guests. But if you chaps don’t mind bunking around on mattresses
and couches I’ll be glad to put you up for the night. Any way, I can
give you plenty to eat. What do you say?”

“If you weren’t steering,” answered Chub, “I’d fall on your neck! We
accept your kind invitation, Mr. Whiting. We are too far gone to have
any sense of decency left; we accept anything and everything you want
to offer.”

[Illustration: Dick and Roy slumbering]

“All right,” laughed Whiting, jovially. “That’s good. Do you fellows
mind going a bit fast?”

“Not a bit,” answered Roy and Dick in a breath. The big car shot
forward and the wind rushed by them. The road was fairly straight and
level and quite deserted, and the car tossed the miles behind in a way
that made the boys stare.

“Going all right now!” bawled Whiting in Chub’s ear.

“None too fast for me–Whoa!”

“What’s the matter?”

“Cap’s gone. It doesn’t matter, though.”

“Lost your cap? I’ll stop and you can–”

“Don’t do it,” begged Chub. “I couldn’t find it in a week–besides I’d
rather lose a dozen caps than have this stop!”

On they went into the white radiance. Trees and fences and poles rushed
toward them from the glare ahead and disappeared into the blackness
behind. The road was following the railroad now, and for an exciting
minute or two they raced a train and gained on it, and would have left
it behind, perhaps, had the road not swerved to the left and taken
them out of sight. There was a defiant shriek from the engine, a brief
glimpse of the lighted car windows through the trees and they were once
more alone, coasting down a long hill with only the whirr of the fan
to be heard. A few minutes later the car swept from the public road
through a stone-pillared gateway and circled up to a big house in which
a single light gleamed through the transom above the front door.

“Doesn’t look very gay, does it?” inquired their host. “I don’t doubt
the servant has gone to bed. We’ll run around and leave the machine, if
you don’t mind.”

They got out when the car had trundled itself into the garage and
stretched their cramped limbs.

“I don’t believe,” said Dick, “that I changed my position once all the
way. I had a sort of a notion that if I moved we’d go flying off the
road into the next county. That was a dandy ride, Mr. Whiting.”

“Glad you liked it. Come on now and let’s eat. I had dinner at six, but
can dally with a little supper. I’m afraid, though,” he added as he
locked the doors, “I can’t give you fellows anything hot except coffee.”

“Hot or cold, it’s all the same to us,” said Roy.

Mr. Whiting unlocked the front door and admitted them to a wide hall
and from there conducted them into a big library and flooded it with
light at the touch of a button.

“Make yourselves at home now. If you want to wash come on up-stairs.
You needn’t be afraid of making a noise, the place is empty except for
Williams and he’s at the back of the house and wouldn’t hear a sound if
he wasn’t.”

They trooped up after him to the bath-room and washed the dust from
hands and faces. Chub, smoothing his hair with the silver-backed
brushes which their host provided, encountered in the glass the gaze of
Whiting fixed on him speculatively.

“Say, what’s your name?” asked Whiting.

“My name’s Eaton,” answered Chub. “And my companions are Mr. Porter
and Mr. Somes. I beg your pardon, I’m sure; we ought to have introduced
ourselves before.”

“Oh, that’s all right; I only asked because it seems to me I’ve seen
you before somewhere.”

“It’s possible, I live in Pittsburg.”

“You didn’t have to tell,” said Dick, reproachfully.

“I’ve never been there,” said Whiting, “but all the same–Well, never
mind. Let’s go down and see what we can find.”

They found a good deal. Together they raided the pantry and refrigerator
and bore their booty into the dining-room and spread it helter-skelter
on the big mahogany table. Then they made coffee, about two quarts of
it, and if it wasn’t perfectly clear it at least tasted very, very good.
It was after nine o’clock when they sat down to supper and it was well
toward ten when they got up. It takes some time to satisfy such hungers
as Chub and Roy and Dick had. But, of course, they didn’t spend quite
all the time eating, for Whiting’s curiosity had to be satisfied and so
it was incumbent to narrate the adventure in search of milk. Whiting
thought that a fine joke and wished he had been along.




“I tell you what I’ll do, fellows,” he said. “In the morning I’ll take
you back in the car, if you don’t mind starting rather early, and you
won’t have much difficulty finding your boat in broad daylight. I hope
no one has stolen anything out of it, though.”

Back in the library the boys stretched themselves out comfortably in
the big leather chairs, and Whiting turned to Chub with;

“Say, Eaton, do you play ball?”

“Yes, some.”

“Only some, eh? I thought that maybe I’d seen you on the ball field,
but–”

“He’s a fibber,” said Dick. “He was captain of his freshman team this
year and played on the ’varsity in the big game.”

“Jupiter!” cried Whiting. “I remember now! You’re the chap they put in
for Pritchett at the end of the game; you stole home and won the game!
That was all right, Eaton!” Whiting beamed across at him. “Thunder, I’m
glad I picked you fellows up! I’m a junior next year. You must come
and see me. Are you in college, too?”

“Yes,” answered Roy. “I’m in the same class with Chub, and Dick enters
in the fall.”

“That’s fine! It was good luck that I came across you to-night. If I
hadn’t I’d been stuck back there in the road yet!”

After that there was plenty to talk about, you may believe, and it
was well toward midnight when they climbed the stairs and distributed
themselves around the empty bedrooms.

“I suppose I might find sheets and blankets and things,” said Whiting,
apologetically, “but the mater has them put away somewhere and I
wouldn’t know where to look for them. But if a couple of you chaps will
only take my bed I’ll be perfectly comfortable in another room.”

“So will we,” said Chub. “Don’t you bother. A good hair mattress like
this is all a fellow needs, anyway; and it’s too warm for covers if we
had them. We’ll be all right, thank you. But you’ll have to wake us up
in the morning. I feel as though I could sleep for a week!”

“That’s all right; you’ll be called early enough. I told Williams to
have breakfast at seven. I’ve got over a hundred miles to do in the
car to-morrow and want to get started early. Good-night, fellows. I do
hope you’ll be comfortable.”

“If I felt any better,” murmured Chub, sprawled out on a big wide bed
which he was to have all to himself, “I’d certainly yell. Good-night,
Whiting. May you be forever blest!”

They slept finely, were up at half past six, had shower-baths, and were
seated around the table at a little after seven. Williams tried hard
not to show the astonishment he felt at finding the family circle so
suddenly and inexplicably enlarged, but didn’t altogether succeed. At
eight they were in the car again, retracing their path of the night
before, Chub attired in a plaid cap which his host insisted on his
accepting. It was a wonderful golden morning with the bluest of blue
skies overhead and an innocent-looking pile of fluffy white clouds in
the west, which Whiting declared meant a thunder-storm later on. But no
one was troubled about that. The big gray car was on its best behavior,
and in less than half an hour they were back in the vicinity of the
_Slow Poke_. After some hesitation, they decided on a spot to be set
down and bade their new friend good-by.

“Mind you look me up in the fall,” he reiterated. “I want to introduce
you to some of the fellows I know; you’ll like them. Good-by and good
luck. Hope you find your boat.”

He was off again in a cloud of dust and the three turned and plunged
into the woods. Their judgment was not in error, for after a minute or
so they came out on the shore of the cove. Twenty yards away lay the
_Slow Poke_.

“Thank goodness!” said Roy, devoutly. “I thought–”

But he didn’t tell what he thought. Instead, he stopped suddenly in his
tracks, and Chub and Dick stopped with him.

Sitting on the rail of the _Slow Poke_, his gun across his knees, was
Farmer Ewing.

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