Read CHAPTER V - GOOD NEWS FROM TOWN of A Campfire Girl's Test of Friendship , free online book, by Jane L. Stewart, on ReadCentral.com.

Everyone rushed eagerly forward, and crowded around Miss Mercer as she descended from the buggy, smiling pleasantly at the bashful Tom Pratt, who did his best to help her in her descent.  And not the least eager, by any means, was Tom Pratt’s mother, whose early indifference to the interest of these good Samaritans in her misfortunes seemed utterly to have vanished.

“Oh, these girls of yours!” cried Mrs. Pratt.  “You’ve no idea of how much they’ve done-or how much they’ve heartened us all up, Miss Mercer!  I don’t believe there were ever so many kind, nice people brought together before!”

Eleanor laughed, as if she were keeping a secret to herself.  And her words, when she spoke, proved that that was indeed the case.

“Just you wait till you know how many friends you really have around here, Mrs. Pratt!” she said.  “Well, I told you I hoped to bring back good news, and I have, and if you’ll all give me a chance, I’ll tell you what it is.”

“You’ve found a place for all the Pratts to go!” said Dolly.

“You’ve arranged something so that they won’t have to stay here!” agreed Margery.

“I don’t know whether Mrs. Pratt would agree that that was such good news,” she said.  “Tell me, Mrs. Pratt-you are still fond of this place, aren’t you?”

“Indeed, and I am, Miss Mercer!” she said, choking back a sob.  “When I first saw how it looked this morning, I thought I only wanted to go away and never see it again, if I only knew where to go.  But I feel so different now.  Why, all the time we’ve been working around here, it’s made me think of how Tom-I mean my poor husband-and I came here when we were first married.  Tom had the land, you see, and he’d built a little cabin for us with his own hands.”

“And all the farm grew from that?”

“Yes.  We worked hard, you see, and the children came, but we had a better place for each one to be born in, Miss Mercer-we really did!  It was our place.  We’ve earned it all, with the help from the place itself, and before the fire-”

She broke down then, and for a moment she couldn’t go on.

“Of course you love it!” said Eleanor, heartily.  “And I don’t think it would be very good news for you to know that you had a chance to go somewhere else and make a fresh start, though I could have managed that for you.”

“I’d be grateful, though, Miss Mercer,” said Mrs. Pratt.  “I don’t want you to think I wouldn’t.  It’ll be a wrench, though-I’m not saying it wouldn’t.  When you’ve lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived here, and seen all the changes, and had your children born in it, and-”

“I know-I know,” interrupted Eleanor, sympathetically.  “And I could see how much you loved the place.  So I never had any idea at all of suggesting anything that would take you away.”

“Do you really think we can get a new start here?” asked Mrs. Pratt, looking up hopefully.

“I don’t only believe it, I know it, Mrs. Pratt,” said Eleanor, enthusiastically.  “And what’s more, you’re going to be happier and more prosperous than you ever were before the fire.  Not just at first, perhaps, but you’re going to see the way clear ahead, and it won’t be long before you’ll be doing so well that you’ll be able to let my friend Tom here go to college.”

Mrs. Pratt’s face fell.  It seemed to her that Eleanor was promising too much.

“I don’t see how that could be,” she said.  “Why, his paw and I used to talk that over.  We wanted him to have a fine education, but we didn’t see how we could manage it, even when his paw was alive.”

“Well, you listen to me, and see if you don’t think there’s a good chance of it, anyhow,” said Eleanor.  “In the first place, none of the people in Cranford knew that you’d had all this trouble.  It was just as I thought.  Their own danger had been so great that they simply hadn’t had time to think of anything else.  They were shocked and sorry when I told them.”

“There’s a lot of good, kind people there,” said Mrs. Pratt, brightening again.  “I’m sure I didn’t think anything of their not having come out here to see how we were getting along.”

“Some of them would have been out in a day or two, even if I hadn’t told them, Mrs. Pratt.  As it is-but I think that part of my story had better wait.  Tell me, you’ve been selling all your milk and cream to the big creamery that supplies the milkmen in the city, haven’t you?”

“Yes, and I guess that we can keep their trade, if we can get on our feet pretty soon so that they can get it regular again.”

“I’ve no doubt you could,” said Eleanor, dryly.  “They make so much money buying from you at cheap prices and selling at high prices that they wouldn’t let the chance to keep on slip by in a hurry, I can tell you.  But I’ve got a better idea than that.”

Mrs. Pratt looked puzzled, but Tom Pratt, who seemed to be in Eleanor’s secret, only smiled and returned Eleanor’s wise look.

“When you make butter you salt it and keep it to use here, don’t you?” Eleanor asked next.

“Yes, ma’am, we do.”

“Well, if you made fresh, sweet butter, and didn’t salt it at all, do you know that you could sell it to people in the city for fifty cents a pound?”

Mrs. Pratt gasped.

“Why, no one in the world ever paid that much for butter!” she said, amazed.  “And, anyhow, butter without salt’s no good.”

“Lots of people don’t agree with you, and they’re willing to pay pretty well to have their own way, too,” she said, with a laugh.  “In the city rich families think fresh butter is a great luxury, and they can’t get enough of it that’s really good.  And it’s the same way, all summer long, at Lake Dean.

“The hotel there will take fifty pounds a week from you all summer long, as long as it’s open, that is.  And I have got orders for another fifty pounds a week from the people who own camps and cottages.  And what’s more, the manager of the hotel has another house, in Lakewood, in the winter time, and when he closes up the house at Cranford, he wants you to send him fifty pounds a week for that house, too.”

“Why, however did you manage to get all those orders?” asked Margery, amazed.

“I telephoned to the manager of the hotel,” said Eleanor.  “And then I remembered the girls at Camp Halsted, and I called up Marcia Bates and told her the whole story, and what I wanted them to do.  So she and two or three of the others went out in that fast motor boat of theirs and visited a lot of families around the lake, and when they told them about it, it was easy to get the orders.”

“Well, I never!” gasped Mrs. Pratt.  “I wouldn’t ever have thought of doin’ anythin’ like that, Miss Mercer, and folks around here seem to think I’m a pretty good business woman, too, since my husband died.  Why, we can make more out of the butter than we ever did out of a whole season’s crops, sellin’ at such prices!”

“You won’t get fifty cents a pound from the hotel,” said Eleanor.  “That’s because they’ll take such a lot, and they’ll pay you every week.  So I told them they could have all they wanted for forty cents a pound.  But, you see, at fifty pounds a week, that’s twenty dollars a week, all the year round, and with the other fifty pounds you’ll sell to private families, that will make forty-five dollars a week.  And you haven’t even started yet.  You’ll have lots more orders than you can fill.”

“I’m wonderin’ right now, ma’am, how we’ll be able to make a hundred pounds of butter a week.”

“I thought of that, too,” said Eleanor, “and I bought half a dozen more cows for you, right there in Cranford.  They’re pretty good cows, and if they’re well fed, and properly taken care of, they’ll be just what you want.”

“But I haven’t got the money to pay for them now, ma’am!” said Mrs. Pratt, dismayed.

“Oh, I’ve paid for them,” said Eleanor, “and you’re going to pay me when you begin to get the profits from this new butter business.  I’d be glad to give them to you, but you won’t need anyone to give you things; you’re going to be able to afford to pay for them yourself.”

Mrs. Pratt broke into tears.

“That’s the nicest thing you’ve said or done yet, Miss Mercer,” she sobbed.  “I just couldn’t bear to take charity-”

“Charity?  You don’t need it, you only need friendly help, Mrs. Pratt, and if I didn’t give you that someone else would!”

“And eggs!  They’ll be able to sell eggs, too, won’t they?” said Dolly, jumping up and down in her excitement.

“They certainly will!  I was coming to that,” said Eleanor.  “You know, this new parcel post is just the thing for you, Mrs. Pratt!  Just as soon as a letter I wrote is answered, you’ll get a couple of cases of new boxes that are meant especially for mailing butter and eggs and things like that from farmers to people in the city.

“You’ll be able to sell eggs and butter cheaper than people in the city can buy things that are anything like as good from the stores, because you won’t have to pay rent and lighting bills and all the other expensive things about a city store.  I’m going to be your agent, and I do believe I’ll make some extra pocket money, too, because I’m going to charge you a commission.”

Mrs. Pratt just laughed at that idea.

“Well, you wait and see!” said Eleanor.  “I’m glad to be able to help, Mrs. Pratt, but I know you’ll feel better if you think I’m getting something out of it, and I’m going to.  I think my running across you when you were in trouble is going to be a fine thing for both of us.  Why, before you get done with us, you’ll have to get more land, and a lot more cows and chickens, because we’re going to make it the fashionable thing to buy eggs and butter from you!”

Mrs. Pratt seemed to be overwhelmed, and Eleanor, in order to create a diversion, went over to inspect the lean-to.

“It’s just right,” she said.  “Having a floor made of those boards is a fine idea; I didn’t think of that at all.  Good for you, Margery!”

“That was Dolly’s idea, not mine,” said Margery.

“You were perfectly right, too.  Well, it’s getting a little late and I think it’s time we were thinking about dinner.  Margery, if you’ll go over to the buggy you’ll find quite a lot of things I bought in Cranford.  We don’t want to use up the stores we brought with us before we get away from here.  And-here’s a secret!”

“What?” said Margery, leaning toward her and smiling.  And Eleanor laughed as she whispered in Margery’s ear.

“There are going to be some extra people-at least seven or eight, and perhaps more-for dinner, so we want to have plenty, because I think they’re going to be good and hungry when they sit down to eat!”

“Oh, do tell me who they are,” cried Margery, eagerly.  “I never saw you act so mysteriously before!”

“No, it’s a surprise.  But you’ll enjoy it all the more when it comes for not knowing ahead of time.  Don’t breathe a word, except to those who help you cook if they ask too many questions.”

Dinner was soon under way, and those who were not called upon by Margery busied themselves about the lean-to, arranging blankets and making everything snug for the night.

The busy hands of the Camp Fire Girls had done much to rid the place of its look of desolation, and now everything spoke of hope and renewed activity instead of despair and inaction.  A healthier spirit prevailed, and now the Pratts, encouraged as to their future, were able to join heartily in the laughter and singing with which the Camp Fire Girls made the work seem like play.

“Why, what’s this?” cried Bessie, suddenly.  She had gone toward the road, and now she came running back.

“There are four or five big wagons, loaded with wood and shingles and all sorts of things like that coming in here from the road,” she cried.  “Whatever are they doing here?”

“That’s my second surprise,” laughed Eleanor.  “It’s your neighbors from Cranford, Mrs. Pratt.  Don’t you recognize Jud Harkness driving the first team there?”

“Hello, folks!” bellowed Jud, from his seat.  “How be you, Mis’ Pratt?  Think we’d clean forgot you?  We didn’t know you was in such an all-fired lot of trouble, or we’d ha’ been here before.  We’re come now, though, and we ain’t goin’ away till you’ve got a new house.  Brought it with us, by heck!”

He laughed as he descended, and stood before them, a huge, black-bearded man, but as gentle as a child.  And soon everyone could see what he meant, for the wagons were loaded with timber, and one contained all the tools that would be needed.

“There’ll be twenty of us here to-morrow,” he said, “and I guess we’ll show you how to build a house!  Won’t be as grand as the hotel at Cranford, mebbe, but you can live in it, and we’ll come out when we get the time and put on the finishing touches.  To-night we’ll clear away all this rubbish, and with sun-up in the morning we’ll be at work.”

Eleanor’s eyes shone as she turned to Mrs. Pratt.

“Now you see what I meant when I told you there were plenty of good friends for you not far from here!” she cried.  “As soon as I told Jud what trouble you were in he thought of this, and in half an hour he’d got promises from all the men to put in a day’s work fixing up a new house for you.”

Mrs. Pratt seemed too dazed to speak.

“But they can’t finish a whole house in one day!” declared Margery.

“They can’t paint it, and put up wall paper and do everything, Margery,” said Eleanor.  “That’s true enough.  But they can do a whole lot.  You’re used to thinking of city buildings, and that’s different.  In the country one or two men usually build a house, and build it well, and when there are twenty or thirty, why, the work just flies, especially when they’re doing the work for friendship, instead of because they’re hired to do it.  Oh, just you wait!”

“Have you ever seen this before?”

“I certainly have!  And you’re going to see sights to-morrow that will open your eyes, I can promise you.  You know what it’s like, Bessie, don’t you?  You’ve seen house raisings before?”

“I certainly have,” said Bessie.  “And it’s fine.  Everyone helps and does the best he can, and it seems no time at all before it’s all done.”

“Well, we’ll do our share,” said Eleanor.  “The men will be hungry, and I’ve promised that we’ll feed them.”