Chapter XVII. An Awkward Situation.

Frequent letters from Betty Jo informed Brian and Auntie Sue of that practical and businesslike young woman's negotiations with various Eastern publishers, until, at last, the matter was finally settled to Betty Jo's satisfaction.

She had contracted with a well-known firm for the publication of the book. The details were all arranged. The work was to begin immediately. Betty Jo was returning to the little log house by the river.

Brian drove to Thompsonville the morning she was to arrive, and it seemed to him that "Old Prince" had never jogged so leisurely along the winding river road, yet he was at the little mountain station nearly an hour before the train was due.

Those weeks had been very anxious weeks to Brian, in spite of Auntie Sue's oft-repeated assurances that no publisher could fail to recognize the value of his work. And, to be entirely truthful, Brian himself, deep down in his heart, felt a certainty that his work would receive recognition. But, still, he would argue with himself, his feeling of confidence might very well be due to the dear old gentlewoman's enthusiastic faith in him rather than in any merit in the book itself; and it was a well-established fact--to all unpublished writers at least--that publishers are a heartless folk, and exceedingly loth to extend a helpful hand to unrecognized genius, however great the worth of its offering. He could scarcely believe the letters which announced the good news. It did not seem possible that this all-important first step toward the success which Auntie Sue so confidently predicted for his book was now an accomplished fact.

And now that Betty Jo's mission was completed, it seemed months ago that he had said good-bye to her and had watched the train disappear between the hills. But when at last the long whistle echoing and reechoing from the timbered mountain-sides announced the coming of the train that was bringing her back, and the train itself a moment later burst into view and, with a rushing roar of steam and wheels and brakes, came to a stop at the depot platform, and there was Betty Jo herself, it seemed that it was only yesterday that she had gone away.

Very calm and self-possessed and well poised was Betty Jo when she stepped from the train to meet him. She was very capable and businesslike as she claimed her baggage and saw it safely in the spring wagon. But still there was a something in her manner--a light in the gray eyes, perhaps, or a quality in the clear voice--that meant worlds more to the man than her simple statement, that she was glad to see him again. Laughingly, she refused to tell him about her trip as they rode home, saying that Auntie Sue must hear it all with him. And so conscious was the man of her presence there beside him that, somehow, the prospective success or failure of his book did not so much matter, after all.

In the excitement of the joyous meeting between Auntie Sue and Betty Jo, Judy's stoical self-repression was unnoticed. The mountain girl went about her part of the household work silently with apparent indifference to the young woman's presence. But when, after the late dinner was over, Auntie Sue and Brian listened to Betty Jo's story, Judy, unobserved, was nearby, so that no word of the conversation escaped her.

Three times that night, when all was still in the little log house by the river, the door of Judy's room opened cautiously, and the twisted form of the mountain girl appeared. Each time, for a few minutes, she stood there in the moonlight that shone through the open window into the quiet room, listening, listening; then went stealthily to the door of the room where Betty Jo was sleeping, and each time she paused before that closed door to look fearfully about the dimly lighted living room. Once she crept to Brian's door, and then to Auntie Sue's, and once she silently put her hand on the latch of that door between her and Betty Jo; but, each time, she went stealthily back to her own room.

Betty Jo awoke early that morning. Outside her open window the birds were singing, and the sun, which was just above the higher mountain-tops, was flooding the world with its wealth of morning beauty. The music of the feathery chorus and the golden beauty of the light that streamed through the window into her room, with the fresh enticing perfume of the balmy air, were very alluring to the young woman just returned from the cities' stale and dingy atmosphere.

Betty Jo decided instantly that she must go for a before-breakfast walk. From the window, as she dressed, she saw Brian going to the barn with the milk-pail, and heard him greet the waiting "Bess" and exchange a cheery good-morning with "Old Prince," who hailed his coming with a low whinny.

Quietly, so as not to disturb Auntie Sue, Betty Jo slipped from the house and went down the gentle slope to the river-bank, and strolled along the margin of the stream toward Elbow Rock,--pausing sometimes to look out over the water as her attention was drawn to some movement of the river life, or turning aside to pluck a wild flower that caught her eye. She had made her way thus leisurely two-thirds of the distance perhaps from the house to Elbow Rock bluff when Judy suddenly confronted her. The mountain girl came so unexpectedly from among the bushes that Betty Jo, who was stooping over a flower, was startled.

"Judy!" she exclaimed. "Goodness! child, how you frightened me!" she finished with a good-natured laugh. But as she noticed the mountain girl's appearance, the laugh died on her lips, and her face was grave with puzzled concern.

Poor Judy's black hair was uncombed and dishevelled. The sallow, old-young face was distorted with passion, and the beady eyes glittered with the light of an insane purpose.

"What is it, Judy?" asked Betty Jo. "What in the world is the matter?"

"What'd you-all come back for?" demanded Judy with sullen menace in every word. "I done told him not ter let you. Hit 'pears ter me youuns ought ter have more sense."

Alarmed at the girl's manner, Betty Jo thought to calm her by saying, gently: "Why, Judy, dear, you are all excited and not a bit like yourself. Tell me what troubles you. I came back because I love to be here with Auntie Sue, of course. Why shouldn't I some if Auntie Sue likes to have me?"

"You-all are a-lyin'," returned Judy viciously. "But you-all sure can't fool me. You-all come back 'cause he's here."

A warm blush colored Betty Jo's face.

Judy's voice raised shrilly as she saw the effect of her words.

"You-all knows dad burned well that's what you come back for. But hit ain't a-goin' ter do you no good; hit sure ain't. I done told him. I sure warned him what'd happen if he let you come back. I heard you-all a-talkin' yesterday evenin' all 'bout his book an' what a great man that there publisher-feller back East 'lows he's goin' ter be. An' I kin see, now, that you-all has knowed hit from the start, an' that's why you-all been a-fixin' ter git him away from me. I done studied hit all out last night; but I sure ain't a-goin' ter let you do hit."

As she finished, the mountain girl, who had worked herself into a frenzy of rage, moved stealthily toward Betty Jo, and her face, with those blazing black eyes, and its frame of black unkempt hair, and its expression of insane fury, was the face of a fiend.

Betty Jo drew back, frightened at the poor creature's wild and threatening appearance.

"Judy!" she said sharply. "Judy! What do you mean!"

With a snarling grin of malicious triumph, Judy cried: "Scared, ain't you! You sure got reason ter be, 'cause there ain't nothin' kin stop me now. Know what I'm a-goin' ter do? I'm a-goin' ter put you-all in the river, just like I told him, an' old Elbow Rock is a-goin' ter make you-all broken an' twisted an' ugly like what my pap made me. Oh, hit'll sure fix that there fine slim body of your'n, an' that there pretty face what he likes ter look at so, an' them fine clothes'll be all wet an' mussed an' torn off you. You-all sure will be a-lookin' worse'n what I ever looked the next time he sees you,--you with your no-'count, half-gal and half-boy name!"

As the mountain girl, with the quickness of a wild thing, leaped upon her, Betty Jo screamed--one piercing cry, that ended in a choking gasp as Judy's hands found her throat.

Brian, who was still at the barn, busy with the morning chores, heard. With all his might, he ran toward the spot from which the call came.

Betty Jo fought desperately; but, strong as she was, she could never have endured against the vicious strength of the frenzied mountain-bred Judy, who was slowly and surely forcing her toward the brink of the river-bank, against which the swift waters of the rapids swept with terrific force.

A moment more and Brian would have been too late. Throwing Judy aside, he caught the exhausted Betty Jo in his arms, and, carrying her a little back from the edge of the stream, placed her gently on the ground.

Betty Jo did not faint; but she was too spent with her exertions to speak, though she managed to smile at him reassuringly, and shook her head when he asked if she was hurt.

When Brian was assured that the girl was really unharmed, he turned angrily to face Judy. But Judy had disappeared in the brush.

Presently, as Betty Jo's breathing became normal, she arranged her disordered hair and dress, and told Brian what the mountain girl had said; and this, of course, forced the man to relate his experience with Judy that night when she had told him that Betty Jo must not come back.

"I suppose I should have warned you, Miss Williams," he finished; "but the whole thing seemed to me so impossible, I could not believe there was any danger of the crazy creature actually attempting to carry out her wild threat; and, besides,--well, you can see that it was rather difficult for me to speak of it to you. I am sorry," he ended, with embarrassment.

For a long moment, the two looked at each other silently; then Betty Jo's practical common sense came to the rescue: "It would have been awkward for you to try to tell me, wouldn't it, Mr. Burns? And now that it is all over, and no harm done, we must just forget it as quickly as we can. We won't ever mention it again, will we?"

"Certainly not," he agreed heartily. "But I shall keep an eye on Miss Judy, in the future, I can promise you."

"I doubt if we ever see her again," returned Betty Jo, thoughtfully. "I don't see how she would dare go back to the house after this. I expect she will return to her father. Poor thing! But we must be careful not to let Auntie Sue know." Then smiling up at him, she added: "It seems like Auntie Sue is getting us into all sorts of conspiracies, doesn't it? What DO you suppose we will be called upon to hide from her next?"

At Brian's suggestion, they went first to the barn, where he quickly finished his work. Then, carrying the full milk-pail between them, they proceeded, laughing and chatting, to the house, where Auntie Sue stood in the doorway.

The dear old lady smiled when she saw them coming so, and, returning their cheery greeting happily, added: "Have you children seen Judy anywhere? The child is not in her room, and the fire is not even made in the kitchen-stove yet."