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CHAPTER XVII RUTH DELIVERS HER ULTIMATUM
“Do you think you can go to Tower and return here before sunset, Blue Wolf?” There was a dubious inflection in Miss Drexal’s voice, as she addressed her question to the guide.

“Go alone, go fast,” assured the Indian. “Come back plenty time ’fore him sundown. You walk around island, any place. No ’fraid. You get lost, me find. Me know him. Now go quick an’ come back.” Suiting the action to the word, he made a lithe spring into his canoe and prepared to push off from shore.

“We’ll all be here when you come for us,” predicted Ruth gaily. “Such good foresters as we can be trusted to find our way anywhere.”

Blue Wolf met this sally with an approving “Ugh!” Then the canoe shot through the placid water, alive under his practiced hands.

“We might as well eat luncheon and have it over with,” said Miss Drexal, as the watchers on the bank lost sight of the guide around a bend. “Shall we eat it here, or have it in the woods?”

“This seems to be a good enough place,” commented Marian. “We can gather enough dry wood right around here for a fire to make the coffee. As long as we haven’t brought much except sandwiches, sweet crackers and fruit, it won’t take long to get it ready. Only one thing is needed—water.”

“There’s a little spring just back in the woods,” informed Emmy. “Blue Wolf told us about it, didn’t he, Betty? He landed us here so we’d be near it.”

“Let’s all go and look for it,” proposed Sarah. “I’m terribly thirsty.”

“Now that you mention it, Sarey, so am I,” beamed Frances. “Lead us to it, Emmy, provided you know how. I’m going to leave my pack here, and take only my drinking cup.”

Frances’ announcement caused a general shedding of packs. Each forester being provided with the individual collapsible drinking cup, Emmy and Betty headed the procession to the spring, Miss Drexal alone electing to remain behind. Ruth brought up the rear with a good-sized white enamel pitcher, which was to hold the water necessary to the coffee-making.

Less than a hundred yards straight into the woods from the point where they had landed, they came upon the spring. Even that short distance proved not especially easy going. From the shore of the lake the ground was rough and rocky, and sloped gradually upward. There was also plenty of dry underbrush, which crackled and snapped under their invading feet as they went. The object of their search proved to be a mere trickle of clear water, flowing from between rocks into a tiny natural hollow in the earth.

Due to its aggravatingly-slow flow, it took some minutes to obtain sufficient water to quench the thirst of the explorers, who impatiently waited for each other’s cups to be filled.

“It will take all day to fill that pitcher,” observed Jane as Ruth held it under the tiny crystal thread of water.

“Then go ahead and don’t wait for me. While I’m filling it, you can get the firewood together and help Miss Drexal. I’ll stay here by my lonesome and commune with Nature,” laughed Ruth. “There’s no danger of my getting lost as long as I am within hearing of you noisy persons.”

“I was going to offer to stay and console you, but not after that cruel cut,” asserted Frances. “I’d rather go with the crowd and be a ‘Wood Gatherer.’ I’ll console Plain Jane instead. What shall I say to thee, heart of my heart?” she inquired, peering languishingly at her usual victim. “Dost wish to argue, Janie?”

“No, I don’t, you ridiculous goose,” retorted Jane.

“This pitcher will be full before you even make a start,” teased Ruth.

“Come on, she wants to get rid of us,” accused Sarah.

“How did you guess it?” dimpled Ruth. “Run along, children. I’ll be right at your heels.”

With a parting shot from Jane, “Our room is better than our company,” the girls left Ruth to herself. Though Blanche had accompanied them, she had not once opened her lips. Stolidly mute, she had filled her cup, drunk a little water and pettishly thrown the remainder of it into the bushes. As she turned to leave the spring, she purposely dropped behind the others, followed them a few steps, then swung about and went back to Ruth.

Her eyes fixed on the nearly full pitcher, Ruth almost let it fall from her hands when a tense voice assailed her surprised ears: “You talked about me to Jane Pellew when we got out of the canoes! I saw you with your heads together. Then she looked right at me. What did you tell her? If you’ve said a word to her about—”

“I won’t answer your question.” The limit of Ruth’s endurance had been reached. “It’s not worthy of an answer.”

“Then I shall make Jane tell me what you said to her.”

A faintly scornful smile touched Ruth’s firm lips. Very deliberately she said: “You’re bent on quarreling with me, Blanche. I can see that. But as I don’t intend to quarrel with you, I think the less we have to say to each other the better it will be for us both. That’s all.”

Whirling, she set off through the woods, with as much speed as the carrying of the pitcher would permit. She could hear Blanche crashing along behind her, and, determined to escape further talk with her, Ruth quickened her steps. Having delivered her ultimatum, she would now stick to it. Torch Bearer or not, she would not tamely submit to being accused of having broken her word. Hurt pride whispered against it. She was glad she had spoken so plainly. She would not let herself feel sorry afterward, either. If, later, the others noticed the estrangement, she would not deny it. Blanche had forced it upon her. Hereafter, she could look out for herself. Ruth knew in her own heart that she could honestly hold herself blameless.

Blanche, however, was overcome with dismay as she stumbled her way back to the lake. Always fearful that Ruth might some day break her word, she this time knew she had been too ready to take her to task. Unconsciously judging Ruth’s standards of honor by her own, she reflected that Ruth would probably now break her promise, purely for spite.

Returned to the group of busy workers, her gaze wandered from one to another until it rested on Ruth. The latter’s calm face betrayed no hint of displeasure. She was talking gaily to Emmy and Marian as she poured a stream of water from the pitcher into the big coffee-pot.

“Here’s Blanche!” called out Sarah. “We didn’t miss you till we got back here. Ruth said you were coming along just behind her. Did you put those two boxes of cakes in your pack? We can’t find them.”

“Yes.” Picking up her pack from where she had deposited it on the ground, Blanche fumbled in it. “Here they are,” she said shortly. Without offering to assist in the preparations, she wandered aimlessly along the shore away from the party, brooding darkly upon her fancied wrong. So the girls had not even missed her. It simply went to show how wrapped up in themselves they were.

It would serve them right if she were to slip quietly into the woods and let them wonder what had become of her. She took an undecided step as though about to put the thought into execution, then halted. She was hungry and wanted her luncheon. She would wait until afterward. Once the party were well started on their trip through the woods, she would drop out and return to the lake shore. If they spent most of the afternoon hunting her, she did not care. She hoped her disappearance would give them all a good scare. Ten to one they wouldn’t miss her.

Somewhat cheered by this malicious plan of revenge, Blanche strolled back to her companions, who were now putting the last touches to the spread.

“Come and get it,” caroled Frances, wildly waving her arms. “That’s the way an old man, who cooks for the sheep-men on our ranch, calls the boys to their meals,” she laughingly explained to Miss Drexal. “Next summer I hope you and the Equitable Eight will visit me. There are oceans of good times to be had on a ranch.”

“I am sure of it,” concurred the Guardian heartily. “It will be well worth looking forward to.”

“Please remember you’re not the only person who lives on a ranch,” reminded Sarah, who had been listening. “I’ve just decided to hold the reunion at our ranch.”

This announcement heralded a playfully spirited discussion between the rival would-be hostesses. It continued energetically as the picnickers seated themselves about the spread, and ended with Frances challenging Sarah to a duel, with canoe-paddles as weapons, to decide the momentous question.

Under cover of the general air of hilarity that pervaded the al fresco meal, not one noticed that the wires of communication were down between Ruth and Blanche. Thus far, Ruth was still unrelenting. If Blanche had addressed a remark to her, it is doubtful if she would have replied to it. Blanche knew better than to chance it. The very manner in which Ruth ignored her, warned her not to try it.

Luncheon eaten, a hasty clearing-up ensued. The foresters were impatient to start on their jaunt. With over half the day already sped, they had no time to waste. It was their ambition to travel straight across the island and back again.

“It is now ten minutes past one,” announced Miss Drexal. “We must be back here not later than half-past five. At three o’clock we must about-face, wherever we may happen to be. I am not sure that we shall be able to cross the island by three o’clock. It will depend largely on the going, also upon how much we play along the way. ‘Keep together’ must be our watchword. There must be no strays in this flock. Marian, will you take the lead with me and help me blaze the trail?”

“I’d love to.” Marian’s mild brown eyes sparkled as she stepped to the Guardian’s side. The others fell in behind the pair, and the valorous expedition sallied forth in high feather on what was destined to prove a momentous wayfaring.


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