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CHAPTER X THE ASTRONOMER
“It’s a Boy!” Both girls burst forth simultaneously, explosively, with the discovery. The explosion was followed by an inarticulate rumble made up of mirth, that was one part trepidation at this boy’s very singular behavior, and of the gratification which variety always brings in its train, for in three weeks and three days of camping they had not seen a boy, saving at long range.

One of Captain Andy’s wooden camps upon the Sugarloaf beach, flanking their own Camp Morning-Glory, was unoccupied. The other sheltered an elderly naturalist and his wife—young people there were none, outside of their own group.

“But what a fat boy!” Penelope’s gaze was measuring the padded breadth of the yellow-brown shoulders, hunched and bowed. “Ever see such a fat thing in your life?” The hills rang with her giggle, half-hysterical now, for the sun was departing, shadows creeping among the dunes; she was not absolutely sure that this bloated yellowish back, persistently toward her, was human.

Was it a swollen spectre of the Sugarloaf?

And while the girls stood clinging to each other in nervous indecision they became definitely conscious of a distant, organ-like volume of sound coming from no point in sight; they had heard it right along, but, knowing whence it boomed, paid no attention to it. It was the roar of the breakers at high tide, breaking upon the sand-bar, half a mile off, where the tidal river met the open bay, or sea.

It sounded louder here than on the beach near their camp and the incessant, invisible sobbing added to the mystery enveloping that surly back.

All of a sudden the Mystery turned plump around and addressed them.

“For the love o’ Mike!” it burst forth irritably, “why do you stand there staring; why don’t you offer to do something for a fellow who’s a ‘goner,’ eh?”

“Are you a ‘goner’?” Penelope plucked up heart to ask; the yellow-brown Mystery was presenting not a back, but a shoulder to her now, together with a short, thick neck, a double chin and the fat profile of a head, covered with clammy hair, which, inclining to one side like a bird’s, looked up at her sidelong.

That slanting gaze became an amazed one presently; the owner of the flesh-cushioned back, whether human or goblin, was evidently struck for a moment by the unique spectacle of two fringed and moccasined maidens, with their hair in long braids, head-bands on their foreheads, colored beads upon their necks, looking down at him from under the waving wing of dusk, their pedestal a white sand-hill.

But his interest in anything outside himself and his clump of basswood was evidently momentary.

“Of course I’m a goner,” he reaffirmed glumly. “Can’t you see it to look at me?” in the tone of one whose plight exempts him from the civilities of life. “I’m just making my will.”

He pointed with the dignity of a dying sage to a little grey book upon his knee and waved a stub of pencil.

“Gee! he’s crazy,” ejaculated Penelope—and Olive was deaf to her slang now.

“No, I’m not ‘crazy,’” came up from the basswood. “I’m poisoned.”

“Poisoned! With—what?” It was Olive’s startled lips which put the question.

“Arsenate of lead.”

Here was a thunderclap, indeed, which shook the sands under the girls’ feet; neither of them knew much about poisons, but this sounded deadly.

“Yes, I guess I’m done for. If you can’t do anything for me, don’t stand staring down at me! I want to make my will in peace.” The fat fingers which held the stubby pencil waved it solemnly and then began to write again in the little grey book which had a vivid colored picture on the cover.

“If I’m to go”—the youthful testator looked up with something like a sob of self-admiration—“if I have to go, I want to die like a plucky—Scout.”

“Ho! He’s a Boy Scout.” Penelope caught her breath. She squeezed Olive’s hand in a convulsive grip. She rose to tiptoe on the sand-peak. Something was rising up in Penelope, stretching itself like a body of fire within her own frame so that she felt it in every extremity of her actual body, something was queening it within her, the motherly impulse, the mothering impulse fed and fostered by the care of three younger brothers.

This fat Scout called himself a “goner.” His puffy cheeks looked pale, too, in the waning golden light; so did the double chin bent over the pencil.

But just so, a year ago, had her thirteen-year-old brother Jim moaned that he was a “goner” when he fell fifteen feet from a tin roof that he was painting and broke his arm in three places.

Jim’s father was away, his deaf mother could not hear the doctor’s requests—the doctor whom Pen hastily summoned; it was Penelope, herself, not then fifteen, who had waited upon the surgeon, furnished safety-pins, etc., while he manipulated his ether bottle and bandages.

It was Penelope who had shrunk into a corner and sobbed and prayed while Jim was taking the ether, but it was Penelope, too, who, when that surgeon needed further help, had stumbled forth from her corner, had bravely stretched herself on the bed beside Jim and held the ether pad to his nostrils and mouth, sticking to the task even when she felt her own senses reeling off into dizzy sickness.

And it was Penelope, now, who tossed Olive’s arm which was around her away, as if it were a lifeless limb of juniper, who in another moment was crouching by the clump of basswood, beside the boy who had made up his mind that he had to “go” and was scribbling his boyish bequests.

Fiercely she grasped his arm in its khaki uniform and shook it!

“Listen to me! Look at me!” she gasped. “Where did you get the arsenic or lead or whatever it was?”

“Arsenate of lead!” corrected the testator, mildly now. “Dead-deadly poison—poisons you some if it only trickles over your body!”

Penny’s cheeks lost a good deal of their color which ebbed away into a hard little island of red under each cheek-bone.

“Where did you get it?” she repeated.

“In the woods over there, beyond the creek, where the trees and the berries and the ground an’ all were sprayed with it.”

“Were you alone? Was anybody with you?”

“Kenjo was. He’s another Scout. He’s gone off over the dunes to try an’ find a house, or camp, to get something to give me. But I guess it’s no use!” with a deep gulp that in a girl would have been a collapsing sob.

“Mercy!” The fingers of Penelope’s left hand distractedly clawed her cheek; her eyes, sharpened to a glittering point, pierced the victim’s face as she thrust her own near to it.

Suddenly she wheeled and changed her tactics.

“Here! let me see the will you’re making: ‘To my brother Basil I leave my push-mobile, stern wheel is off, he can fix it, to my chum Snuffy I leave my mandolin, it has two strings busted, b-but——’” read Penelope aloud in high, strained tones which exploded in a quavering shriek.

She flung the book—it was a Boy Scout diary, with the will scrawled and misspelt upon a blank page headed Memoranda—she flung it from her into the heart of the basswood.

“Look here!” Like a hurricane she turned on the victim. “I don’t say you’re making all this up, but I do believe that, down deep, you’re not sure you’re poisoned an’ are going to die right away. You only think you think you are!”

How on earth Penelope’s girlish intuition leaped to the fact that there was more of melodrama than of hopeless tragedy in this strange scene among the pale dunes Olive did not know, but at heart she felt herself going down on her shaking knees to Penelope for the way in which the younger girl handled the situation, even though Penny’s next words were delivered with her crudest gust.

“Where do you feel bad, anyhow?” She leveled her forefinger at the victim who, deprived of the melancholy satisfaction of making his will and bequeathing his lame treasures, slanted his gaze up at her, his short neck with its double chin thrust forward; there was a fat quiver of that chin now as if he were uncertain whether to follow her hopeful lead, or not.

“‘Ba-ad!’” he echoed waveringly. “Why! I’ve got a circus in my head or a merry-go-round—something that’s wheeling an’ spinning.”

“You’re just dizzy. Have you been wandering round in the woods?”

“Yes, quite a bit.”

“Where else do you feel poisoned? Have you got cramps?”

The victim rubbed his waist-line: “No, but I feel kind o’ sick an’—an’ ’s if ’twas low tide inside me.”

“Pshaw, ten to one you’re hungry! An’ they’re cooking supper over at our camp on the beach. Goodness! I can just smell the bacon toasting here; can’t you, Olive?”

“Ye-es,” fibbed Blue Heron, spreading her dainty nostrils toward the broad sandy acres of up-hill and down-hill which separated the trio from the camp fire—that was later to be a Council Fire—on the beach.

“Bacon!” The victim stirred; a hungry shudder shook him that gave way to a renewed shiver of despair; he stretched out an arm to recover his book.

“No, you sha’n’t have it! You’re not going to die and leave your ‘busted mandolin.’... He! He! He! Hi!” Penelope’s giggle rang out shrilly. “How long is it since you swallowed the poison? You haven’t told yet how you came to take it!”

“I’ll tell you,” struck in another voice. A manly-looking Boy Scout appeared suddenly from behind the basswood, his broad hat pushed back from a haggard face. “I went off to get help for him,” he explained. “I saw some camps, but they were a good way off. I thought I’d come back and haul him over there, where I could give him an antidote, you know, whites of eggs or salt an’ water—or something somebody would let me have.”

“We have got all those things at our camp,” suggested Olive eagerly.

“You see, I don’t know how much he really is poisoned.” This older Scout looked down upon the fat victim. “It all happened this way: We’re camping with a whole lot of other Scouts in that Boy Scout camp among the dunes on the opposite side of the river. Well! to-day our Scoutmaster said that Fatty an’ I might take the rowboat—we call him that—his name is Tommy Orr——”

“Most times they call me the Astronomer, because they say I’m always looking up,” mildly interjected the poisoned one.

“So you are; fat boys who have short necks mostly do; they can’t look at you straight!” threw in Penelope.

“Ha! Indeed! Is that so?” The victim straightened himself more than he had done yet, to glare at her sarcastically, then collapsed into a huddle again. “Well, go on, Kenjo, tell them about the dead chewink with the blackberry in its beak,” he sighed. “We call him Kenjo Red,” with a fat wave of the hand toward his brother Scout, “because we don’t need a fire in camp while we have his head.”

The newcomer, whose scalp-locks escaping from under his broad hat were indeed of the firiest hue, only smiled in a tired way and hastily took up the tale of woe where he dropped it.

“Well, we two took the boat, rowed across to this side of the river and up Loaf Creek, the little creek that runs in round the Sugarloaf——”

“Yes, I know; we’re going to explore it some day,” put in Olive excitedly. “Was it in the woods at the head of the creek that he got the poison?”

“Yes, the ground was all sprayed white with it in one place, but Tommy didn’t notice it at first; he’s only been three months a Scout. We had been wandering about the woods—they were pretty thick—after we landed from the boat and didn’t quite know where we were! Tommy walked on ahead o’ me while I was trying to take our bearings; he had been eating blackberries an’ went on eating ’em——”

“Sour they were, too—mean sour!” interjected Tenderfoot Tommy Orr.

“When I started after him I saw that the ground was all sprayed white here and there with the lead poison that the State uses for getting rid of caterpillar pests and I yelled to him to stop. Just a little farther on we came upon two dead rabbits and three dead birds; one o’ the birds, a chewink—little grey ground-robbin, you know—had a half-pecked blackberry in its beak; another, a wild canary, was stiffening out, with a berry ’longside it.”

This looked horribly serious. Tenderfoot Orr groaned aloud and rubbed his cushioned waist-line.

“Well! Tommy made up his mind then that he was a ‘goner’ as well as the chewink. I saw no house or camp near, so I hustled him back to the boat, rowed down the creek, landed here on the Sugarloaf, where I left him a few minutes ago, to look around and see in which direction there was a camp.”

“Ours is the nearest: we’ll give you all the antidotes you want—salt and water enough to float the boat—or the boy! Goody, how that bacon smells!” Penelope sniffed vigorously to the dune breeze. “We must be getting back anyway, mustn’t we, Olive? They won’t know what on earth’s become of us. Oh, come along!” She seized the tenderfoot’s fat arm as she might have seized that of her brother Jim. “Never mind the little diarybook; exercise your will, now, instead of making it!”

And with a heavy groan, led by the mythical odors of bacon sizzling over an outdoor fire, the hungry tenderfoot picked up his broad hat that rested like an olive-green mushroom in a near-by patch of sage-brush, so alike in hue that it would be hard to tell one from the other, arose and followed her.

Near where the dunes sloped down into the beach, the anxious party came upon Captain Andy. He eyed the girls aslant, reprovingly.

“Well! you two would be a good pair to send after trouble,” he remarked caustically, “you take so long in getting back. I was just starting off on a cruise to look for you.”

“Hullo, Capt’n Andy!” boomed Kenjo, intercepting a reply by his joyous greeting to an old friend: “Yes”—reproachfully—“you’re all taken up with the Camp Fire Girls now—Scouts don’t get a look-in!”

“Petticoats first—bloomers, rather!” chuckled the jolly mariner. “Skirts go ahead—meaning skirts have the preference, especially when they’re new-fangled skirts like these!” pointing to the khaki ceremonial dresses of the two excited girls who had forgotten all about the fuel they gathered.

“Hey! what’s the matter with this Scout? He don’t look very chipper.”

The captain laid a hand on Tommy’s shoulder.

“He’s poisoned—poisoned dead—or thinks he is; from eating blackberries an’ arsenic an’ lead!” explained Penny with great lucidity.

In a few words Kenjo cleared up the situation.

“How long is it since he ate those blackberries?” asked Captain Andy, gravely. “An hour yet?”

“Oh, I guess it is—pretty nearly an hour, anyway.”

“Well! let me tell you that if he had got enough of that arsenate of lead into him to finish him as it did the birds an’ rabbits, he’d hear more from it by this time. You’d have horrible cramps by now an’ you’d look a heap worse than you do!” The captain gazed down reassuringly on Tenderfoot Tommy, alias “the Astronomer,” who, with fat neck thrust forward, was slanting a very anxious look up at him.

“So she said. She said I only b’lieved I b’lieved I was poisoned. She’s a brick.” The Astronomer blinked at Penelope now.

“I’m a star,” she informed him. “That’s my Camp Fire name; as you’re an Astronomer you can look up to me all you want to!” Nobody blamed Pen for her giggle then. “You see, that dead chewink and the wild canary might have pecked at some more poisoned stuff besides the blackberries,” she sagely suggested. “Maybe the sprayed poison wasn’t on the berries at all.”

“That’s so!” assented Captain Andy. “You come over to my tent at the foot o’ the dunes”—he pushed Tommy along by the shoulder. “I know the signs of that poison, for I’ve used it myself; I’ll examine you an’ dose you, if necessary; if not, you can have some supper. It’s all ready down there on the beach. Great guns! I was feelin’ scared about you and so was the Guardian, Miss Dewey.” He looked at the two tired girls. “I thought, maybe, you were never coming back to play that Kullibígan game to-night, after my whittling out the witchtop for you!”


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