Read CHAPTER IV - FRED GETS A SHOCK of Fred Fenton on the Track / The Athletes of Riverport School, free online book, by Allen Chapman, on ReadCentral.com.

“Shall we follow, Fred?” asked Bristles, a little dubiously it must be confessed.

The girl had darted eagerly through the open doorway.

“That’s the program,” replied the leading boy; and with these words he immediately crossed the doorsill.

The interior of the cottage was not any too well lighted, for the shades of the windows were partly down.  Fred saw at a glance, however, that a hurried and thorough search had been made by the three tramps, when they thought to find something of value in the lonely farmhouse.

All manner of articles had been thrown recklessly about, drawers emptied, and even chairs overturned as they sought to turn up the edges of the scanty carpet, under the old belief that family treasures are generally secreted either there or between the mattresses of the bed.

Voices in an adjoining room gave Fred a reassuring sensation.  Then the sick man had not passed away, as his daughter seemed to have feared; for while one of the voices was undoubtedly that of the girl, the other belonged to a man.  It was weak and complaining, however, as might be expected, under the circumstances.

So Fred, again followed by Bristles, lost no time in passing through the first room, and entering the adjoining one.  A glance showed him a bed upon which a thin-faced man was lying.  The girl was gently stroking his forehead with considerable affection, murmuring endearing terms.

At the entrance of the two boys, however, the sick man started half up in bed.  He stared at them in utter amazement, nor could Fred blame him.  After the experience through which he had recently passed, the sick man must almost believe he was losing his senses, to see two lads in running costume burst in upon him.

“What! who are these, daughter?” he exclaimed.  “I sent you for help, to get our German neighbor, Johann Swain, and you come back after all these hours bringing freaks from a circus.  But at least they do not look as bad as those terrible tramps.”

Bristles laughed outright at this.

“I hope not, sir,” he could not help saying, before Fred could utter a word; “you see, we’re only a couple of boys from Riverport, engaged in a cross-country run; and we’re mightily glad to be on hand in time to help you and ­your girl.”

“But what makes your dress so wet, child; and you are shivering like a leaf?  Don’t tell me that you fell into the river?” the sick man asked, turning his attention upon his daughter once more, now that he realized there was nothing to be feared from the two strangers.

“No,” she replied, soothingly; “when you sent me away I could not leave you alone with those dreadful men; so, meaning to hide just below the curbing of the well, I took hold of the rope; but the windlass was free, and I fell in.”

“And you have been there all this time!” cried the man, reproachfully; “while I lay here, recovering my strength, and expecting you to come every minute with help.  Oh! if I had but heard you call, nothing could have prevented me from crawling out to rescue you, child.  And did these boys get you out?”

“Yes, and we owe them more than we can ever pay, father,” she replied, warmly; “for I could not have held on much longer; and the water was deep enough to drown a helpless girl.”

“Oh!  Sarah, child! what a blessing that they came!” exclaimed the man, thrusting a weak and trembling hand out, first toward Fred, whom he saw was wet, and somehow guessed must have borne the brunt of the rescue; and then repeating the act with regard to Bristles.

The sick man asked Fred a number of questions.  As a rule these concerned his daughter, and in what condition they had found the poor girl at the bottom of the well; but he also seemed anxious as to whether they had seen anything of the three tramps.

“One of them was terribly enraged when they failed to find even a dollar for their pains, and I assured him I did not have such a thing to my name,” the aged man said, almost pathetically, Fred thought.  “He would have struck me with the poker, as he threatened to do, only his companions held his arm.  I have been in mortal fear that he might return.”

“No danger of that sir,” Fred went on to say; and already in his mind he was determined that some of the good people of Riverport should quickly know about the sick man and his devoted daughter, who lived in such a lonely place, and were almost at the point of starvation.

“I used to have a man who worked on shares with me,” the other continued, as though he thought some explanation was due to account for the situation; “but he changed his mind suddenly this summer past, and left me alone.  I might have managed, only for this sickness.  Sarah has tried to do everything, but, poor child, she was unable to take care of me and the farm too.  So it has come to this, and my heart is nearly broken worrying about her.”

“Never mind, it will be all right, sir,” Fred continued to assure him.  “We are from Riverport, and we know a lot of good people there who will be only too glad to do everything they can for you.  It is not charity, you see, but just what one neighbor ought to be ready to do for another.”

For his years, Fred was wise; he realized that this man undoubtedly had more or less pride, and might hesitate to accept assistance when he had no means of returning favors.

To his surprise the other started, and looked keenly at him.

“Riverport, you say, young man?” he muttered.  “I don’t seem to know you.  Might I ask your name, please?”

“Fred Fenton, sir.  But as we only came to the place a year ago last spring, of course you wouldn’t be apt to know me.”

“No, I haven’t been in Riverport for quite a number of years.  We do what little trading we have in Grafton, which is just as near, though not so large a town.  But you spoke of interesting some people in our condition.  For her sake I would even sink my pride and accept their help.  But you must make me one promise, boy!”

“As many as you like, sir; what might this particular one be?” asked Fred, cheerfully.

“Don’t, under any circumstances, let Sparks Lemington have anything to do with the assistance you bring me; or I would utterly refuse to touch the slightest thing, even if we both starved for it!” was the astonishing reply of the sick man, as a look of anger showed in his face, and he shut his jaws hard.

Evidently, then, he had some good cause for detesting the rich and unscrupulous Squire Lemington.  Well, Fred found reason to believe there were a good many others besides this farmer who felt the same.

“Oh!  Fred, come out here!” called Bristles, just then, before Fred could ask any further questions.

Believing that his chum might be having some difficulty in finding things, and wanted help, Fred hurried into the adjoining room, which was the kitchen.  There was also a dining room next, which they had entered first, and apparently a couple of sleeping rooms up stairs, for the girl had gone above.

Bristles was busily engaged.  He had succeeded in getting a fire started, and was rummaging through a cupboard, looking for eatables.  Accustomed to seeing a well stocked larder in his own home, Bristles was shocked at the lack of everything a hungry boy would think ought to be found in a kitchen pantry.

“Shucks, Fred,” he remarked, in a low voice, for the door between the rooms was open a trifle.  “There isn’t enough stuff here to feed a canary bird, let alone two human beings.  Why, whatever do they live on?  They must be as poor as Job’s turkey.  I can’t just place that man, somehow; seems as if I must have known him once; but he’s changed a heap.  Help me skirmish around for some grub; won’t you?”

Fred was perfectly willing, and proceeded to search until he had discovered part of a loaf of home-made bread, and the coffee that was so necessary to warm the poor girl.  There was a strip of bacon a few inches thick, some flour, grits ­and these were about all.

Just then Bristles came over to where he was putting the coffee in the pot.

“I’ve just remembered who that sick man is, Fred!” he said, in a low tone, but with a vein of satisfaction in it, for he had been racking his memory all the while.

“Who is he, then?” Fred asked, a bit eagerly.

“Why,” Bristles went on, “you see, his name is Masterson!”