U SUALLY Jean and Jock went to school in summer, for in winter the snow made the roads impassable, but at this time the Dominie was ill and until he should get well they had the long days to themselves. When breakfast was over the next morning and the Shepherd had gone with Tam to the hills, Jean decided to wash the clothes. Sandy Crumpet came early, and the two boys went off to play, leaving Jean standing on a stone in the middle of the burn, soaping the clothes and scrubbing them on the flat surface of a rock. The water was so cold it made her arms ache, and she soon decided to let the fast-running stream do the washing for her. She soaped the garments well, weighted them down with stones, and then went to join the boys. She found them flat on their stomachs by the stream, gazing down into a pool of clear water.
"What do you see?" she called out to them.
"Trout," answered Jock, his eyes shining with excitement.
"Let me take a keek," said Jean, flopping down beside them and craning her neck over the edge.
They were all three peering with breathless interest into the water when a strange voice behind them made them jump. For an instant they thought it might be Angus Niel.
"Hello!" said the voice.
The children whirled around, and there before them stood a boy not much older than themselves, but taller and thinner. He had a pale face with large black eyes and dark hair partly covered with a Glengarry bonnet set rakishly over one ear. He wore a suit of gray tweed with plaid-topped stockings, and carried a fishing-rod over his shoulder.
"Hello!" said the stranger again.
"Hello, yourself!" responded Jock.
Jean and Sandy were so relieved to find it wasn't Angus Niel that for an instant they merely gazed at him without speaking.
"What's there?" asked the new boy.
"Fish," said Jock.
"Fish!" cried the new boy, shifting his rod into position. "Where? Let me have a crack at 'em!"
"Na, na, don't be so hasty," cried Jock, heading him off. "You'll get yourself into trouble! Angus Niel would be after you in no time, and if he caught you, he'd cuff your lug for you, and drag you before the bailie for poaching!"
"Who's Angus Niel?" demanded the boy. "I'm not afraid of him."
"Not yet," answered Jock, "but just go on and you will be! He's gamekeeper to the Laird, and he'd rather do for you than not. Aye, he'd just like the feel of you in his fingers, he would." Jock rubbed his ear. "It's but two days gone since he nearly pulled the lug off me because I was running after a rabbit that was eating up our garden. He's terrible suspicious, is Angus, and he's mad at us besides."
"What for?" asked the boy.
"I stepped on him by accident," explained Jock, "and butted him into the burn."
"No wonder he was mad," laughed the boy. "Come on, now. Surely a body can fish. There's no law against that!"
"Well," said Sandy, "law or no law, Angus is against it, and the Auld Laird is terrible particular. He's going to turn out all the farmers in this region and make it into a great game preserve. Nothing else. You're strange hereabouts, I doubt, or you'd ken all this yourself. Where are you from?"
"I'm from London," replied the boy. "I'm staying with Eppie McLean at the castle."
"Are you, now?" gasped Sandy. "Is Eppie your aunt, maybe? She'll be telling you about Angus herself."
"Eppie's not my aunt," said the boy. "She's a friend of my mother, and my mother got her to take me in because I've been sick, and she thought I'd get strong up here, and I'm not going to have my summer spoiled by Angus Niel or any other old bogie man. Stand back now while I cast."
He swung his rod over his head, and the fly fell with a flop in the middle of the pool. He waited a breathless instant while Jock, Sandy, and Jean watched the fly with him, and then, as nothing happened, he cast again. When several such attempts brought no result, he said, "You're sure they're there?"
"They're lying at the bottom as soft as a baby in a cradle," said Jean. "I could catch them with a skimmer! Gin they don't bite, maybe I'll try it!"
Jock looked at Jean in amazement.
"You're a braw lassie, Jean Campbell," he said severely, "and you just telling about Angus Niel!"
"Good for you!" said the new boy with admiration. "You can have a turn with my rod. Try it once before you get the skimmer!"
Jean sprang to her feet and took the rod, though she had never had one like it in her hand before. She made a mighty sweep with it as she had seen the new boy do, but somehow the fly flew off in an unexpected direction and caught in a tree, while the line wound itself in a hopeless snarl around the tip. Jock and Sandy, who had stood by, green with envy, clapped their hands over their mouths and danced with mirth.
"It looks easy," said poor Jean mournfully, "but maybe I'd best stick to the skimmer when I fish."
"Oh, it always does that the first time," said the new boy comfortingly, as he rescued the fly and straightened out the line.
"When a girl tries to do it," added Jock witheringly.
The new boy held out the rod.
"You try it," he said to Jock, and Jock, full of confidence, did not wait for a second invitation.
"Look here, Jean," he said. "This is the way you do it."
He swung the rod with a mighty flourish over his head, but alas, the fly surprised him too. It caught in Sandy's trousers and surprised Sandy as well. Not only that, it scratched him.
"Ow!" howled Sandy, leaping about like a monkey on the end of the string. "Leave go of me!"
There was a snarl even worse than Jean's, too, and between that and Sandy's jumping about it was some time before the line was disentangled and the hook freed so that Sandy was able to take his turn. Jean, meanwhile, said nothing at all, for Jock looked so crestfallen that she hadn't the heart. When Sandy tried it things were still worse, for the fly flew about so wildly that Jock and Jean fled before it and hid behind some bushes.
"Whoever could catch fish with such gewgaws as them anyway?" said Sandy scornfully, when a second attempt brought no better result. "The fish aren't used to it."
Jock rolled up his sleeves, crept to the side of the burn, and looked over into the pool.
"Hold to me, Sandy," he said, and Sandy immediately sat down on his legs. Then Jock suddenly plunged his arms into the water and before the fish could whisk their tails he had caught one in his hand and thrown it on the grass.
Springing to his feet and upsetting Sandy, he jumped to a rock in the middle of the brook and caught two more. It was now the new boy's turn to be astonished. Apparently Jock had stirred up a whole school of trout, for Sandy, following Jock's lead, also leaped into the stream, and in a few moments six fine trout were flopping about on the grass.
"Let's build a fire and cook them," urged the new boy, whose name they soon learned was Alan McRae. "And if old Angus Niel comes nosing around we'll offer him a bite! He can do nothing with four of us, anyway, unless he shoots us, and he'd hang for that. Come on!"
By this time they were all so thrilled with the sport and were having such fun that nobody thought any more about Angus anyway, so Jean ran for a pan, while Jock and Sandy cleaned the fish with Alan's knife, and Alan gathered dry twigs and bracken for the fire. Jean brought down some scones, which she split and spread with butter while the fish were frying. When they were done to a golden brown she put a hot fish on each piece of scone and handed them out to the boys, and when they had eaten every scrap they buried the fish-bones in case Angus should come that way.
After lunch Jean went to wring out the clothes and hang them on the bushes to dry, while Jock and Sandy examined Alan's wonderful book of flies and his reel, and even the creel in which he was to have put the fish, if he had caught any.
"Losh, man!" exclaimed Sandy, swaggering about with his hands in his pockets, "that's all very well. Aye, it's a good game, and you might go dandering along a stream all day playing with it, but if you really want fish, just go after 'em yourself! That's my way. Guddling for trout like you saw me and Jock do, that's the real sport!"
"I believe you," said Alan. "I'm going to try it myself. Come on. Let's go farther up stream and see if we can find another good fishing-hole. I told Eppie I'd bring her a fish to her tea, and I'd hate to go back with nothing at all," and the three boys disappeared in the woods.
Jean finished her work by the brook and went to the house to make more scones, for the picnic had exhausted the supply and they used no other bread. She bustled about the kitchen, mixing, spreading them on the girdle over the fire, keeping the coals bright, and turning them out nicely browned on the mixing-board. She was just finishing the sixth one, when there was a great thumping at the door, and she ran to see what was the matter. There on the doorstep stood the three boys, Alan dripping wet from head to heel, shivering with cold, and with mud and water running from him in streams. Jean threw up her hands.
"It's most michty," she cried, "if I can't ever bake scones in this kitchen without some man body coming in half drowned to mess up my clean floor! However did you go and drop yourself in the burn, Alan McRae? 'Deed and I wonder that your mother lets you go out alone, you're that careless with yourself. And you not long out of a sick bed, too."
"He was guddling for trout," shouted Jock and Sandy in one breath, "and the hole was deep. There was no one sitting on him, and syne over he went!"
Jean seized Alan by the shoulder and drew him into the kitchen, and set him to drip on the hearth while she gave her orders.
"Jock, do you fill the basin with warm water, and you, Sandy, put more peat on the fire. He must have a rinse with hot water and something hot to drink."
"What'll he do for clothes?" cried Jock.
"Dinna fash yourself about clothes," said Jean, rummaging furiously in the "kist." "I'm laying out Father's old kilts he had when he was a boy. He can put them on till his own things are dry. Here's a towel for you," she added, tossing one to Alan. "Rub yourself down well, and when you've dressed, just give a chap at the door, and I'll come in and get you a sup of tea."
Then she disappeared. You can imagine what the kitchen looked like when she came back again. Alan's wet clothes were spread out on her father's chair by the fire, and Alan, gorgeous in his plaid kiltie, was strutting back and forth giving an imitation of the bagpipes on his nose, with Jock and Sandy marching behind him singing "Do ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay" at the top of their lungs.
"Have you gone clean daft?" Jean shouted. "Sit down by the fire and get out of my way while I mop up after you!"
The boys each seized one of the kitchen stools without stopping the song and marched with it to the hearth, and when they came to "Peel's view halloo would awaken the dead," they gave a howl that nearly brought down the ham from the rafters as they banged them down on the hearth-stones. Jean clapped her hands over her ears and ran for the mop, and in no time at all the puddles had disappeared and the boys were drinking tea by the fire.
Of course, Alan had no shoes to put on because his were soaking wet, and as it was now late in the afternoon it began to be a question how he should get back to the castle. It was still cold for going barefoot, and he was not used to it besides, and his clothes certainly would not be fit to put on for a long time. They held a consultation. Alan thought he could go without shoes.
"You'll do nothing of the kind," said Jean firmly. "What sickness was it you had, anyway?"
"Measles," said Alan, looking ashamed of it.
"Measles!" shouted Sandy. "That's naught but a baby disease. My little sister had that. Sal, but I've had worse things the matter with me! I've had the fever, and once I cut my toe with the axe!"
"Hold your tongue, Sandy," said Jean, "and dinna boast! If Alan's had measles he can't go back to the castle barefoot, so you must just be stepping yourself, and stop by at the castle to tell Eppie McLean that Alan will bide here till his things are dry."
Sandy rose reluctantly and set down his empty mug.
"Well, then, if I must, I must," he said, and started off down the hill whistling.