Chapter XIII. The Red-Haired Man
 

For a moment or so no one seemed to know what answer to make to Laddie. He stood there, all out of breath, looking at his father and mother and Grandma Bell, who were sitting on the side porch.

"What--what did you say?" asked Mr. Bunker.

"It's Russ," Laddie answered. "He's going and he can't stop! I tried to make him, and he tried himself, but he can't stop, and he's running like anything!"

"What in the world does he mean?" asked Mother Bunker.

"Tell me about it!" said Grandma Bell.

"It's out in the barn," explained Laddie. "Russ got on something, and he can't stop running!"

"Maybe he's in a trap!" exclaimed Laddie's mother.

"If he was in a trap he couldn't run," said her husband. "I'll go out and see what it is."

The other little Bunkers were still playing with Muffin, the big gray cat, as Mr. and Mrs. Bunker and Grandma Bell hurried out to the barn.

As they drew near it they heard a voice shouting:

"Oh, make it stop! Make it stop going! I'm so tired! My legs are so tired!"

At the same time a low rumbling could be heard, like that of very distant thunder.

"Oh, what is it?" gasped Mother Bunker. "Oh, Russ, what have you done now?"

But a moment later they were all relieved to see Tom, the hired man, come to the door of the barn, leading Russ by the hand. The boy looked frightened, but not hurt.

"What was it?" asked his father.

"I got to going and I couldn't stop," explained Russ, who was breathing almost as hard as Laddie had done after his run.

"What did you get to going on, and why couldn't you stop?" his mother wanted to know.

"Oh, it was a--a sort of wooden hill," explained Russ. "I was running on it and----"

"What does he mean--a wooden hill in the barn?" asked Mrs. Bunker.

"It was the treadmill," explained Thomas Hardy. "I was in another part of the barn, and I guess Russ must have wandered upstairs, where we keep the old treadmill they used for the threshing machine and churn. He started to walk on the wooden roller platform, and it moved from under him. He had to keep running so he wouldn't slip down. That's what he meant when he said he couldn't stop."

"That was it," explained Russ. "I saw a funny machine upstairs in the barn, and I got on it. I didn't know it would move."

"Well, you couldn't get hurt on it, that's one good thing," said Grandma Bell. "At the same time it's better not to get on queer machines, or play with things you don't know about, Russ. The next time you might be hurt."

"I'll be careful," promised the little boy.

"What is the treadmill?" asked Vi, who had come out to the barn to see what all the excitement was about.

"It's a sort of engine," Grandma Bell explained. "You see out here, years ago, when Grandpa Bell ran the farm, we didn't have gasoline engines such as are now used in automobiles and for pumps and other farm work. So we had to use a sort of engine that one or two horses could make go. It was called a treadmill, and some were made so that even dogs, trotting on a moving wooden platform, could work a churn. We used to have one of those, but the one Russ got on was a treadmill for one horse."

"I saw it," said Laddie. "Russ wanted me to get on, but I wouldn't. He did and then he couldn't stop. He couldn't stop running!"

"That's right!" exclaimed Russ. He could laugh now, as he remembered what had happened. "Then I told Laddie to run and get somebody to help me," he added.

"I ran, but I didn't run on that funny machine," Laddie said. "And maybe I can think up a riddle about it, after a while."

By this time the rest of the little Bunkers had come out to the barn and, led by Tom, they went upstairs to see the treadmill. It was a big machine, with wheels and rollers; and a wooden platform, made of cross sticks, so the feet of the horse would not slip, was what Russ had run on. As he walked up a "wooden hill," as he called it, the slats moved from under his feet, for this is what they were meant to do when the horse should walk on them. And this moving platform of wood spun a wheel around, which, in its turn, would work a churn, a machine for threshing wheat or rye or do other work on the farm.

"But we haven't used the treadmill for years," said Grandma Bell. "I forgot about its being in the barn. Well, I'm glad no one was hurt. But be careful after this."

"I'd like to see it work," remarked Rose, so Tom Hardy got on the wooden platform and walked up the little hill it made. Then came the rumbling sound, and the faster Tom walked the faster the treadmill went around.

The weather was warm, it being early in July, soon after the Fourth, and a more delightful time of year would be hard to find during which to spend a vacation in the woods on the shore of Lake Sagatook.

"May we go down and paddle in the water?" asked Russ of his mother, after he and the other little Bunkers had wandered out to the barn and had seen Zip, the dog, and Muffin, the cat. "Mayn't we go down and wade in the lake?"

"Do you think it will be safe?" asked Mrs. Bunker of her husband.

"Well, I'll go down there and have a look," he said. "If we are to stay here for a month or so the children will have to get used to playing near the water. If it's safe we'll feel we won't have to be with them all the while."

"I think it will be safe if they keep near the shore out on the little point of land that extends into the lake," said Grandma Bell. "There is a sandy beach there, and the water is not deep. Let the children play there. You can see them from the house; so, if we look out every now and then, we'll be sure they are all right."

"Very well," said Daddy Bunker. "We'll first have a look at the lake."

"Oh, goody!" cried Russ.

"Now we can have a lot of fun and sail boats!" added Laddie. "We can have a whole lot of fun."

"I'll take my doll down and give her a bath," said Rose.

"Oh, won't water spoil your doll, my dear?" asked Grandma Bell.

"I don't mean my big one, that the lady took for her baby," explained the little girl. "I mean my small rubber doll."

"Oh! Well, I guess it will be all right to bathe her in the lake," said Grandma Bell with a laugh.

Daddy Bunker found that the sandy point, which Grandma Bell told about, was a very nice and safe place for the children to play. So, dressed in their old clothes which water and sand would not soil, they all trooped down to Lake Sagatook, and there, in the shade of the big woods, they began to have fun.

Russ and Laddie made little boats and set them adrift in the blue water. Rose and Vi played with their dolls, for they had each brought two or three of them. Mun Bun and Margy dug in the sand with sticks which they picked up on the shore of the lake.

"It's almost like the seashore," said Rose, when she came back from having given her rubber doll a dip in the lake, "only the water doesn't taste salty like when you cry tears."

"I like it here," said Vi. "I wish we could stay always."

The children were having lots of fun when, in the midst of their play, they heard the sound of water being splashed and the noise made by the oars of a boat. Looking up, they saw a rowboat not far from shore, and in it sat a big man.

And, at the sight of this man, Russ dropped the chip he was floating about, pretending it was a submarine, and, in a whisper, said:

"Hi, Laddie! do you see his hair?"

"Yes--it's red," returned Laddie.

"Well, maybe that's the tramp lumberman that took daddy's old coat and real estate papers," went on Russ. "He had red hair! Maybe this is the same one! Oh, Laddie! If it should be!"