THE MOTOR GIRLS ON CEDAR LAKE
The Hermit of Fern Island
"Oh, Cora! Isn't this perfectly splendid!" exclaimed Bess Robinson.
"Delightful!" chimed in her twin sister, Belle.
"I'm glad you like it," said Cora Kimball, the camp hostess. "I felt that you would, but one can never be sure—especially of Belle. Jack said she would fall a prey to that clump of white birches over there, and would want to paint pictures on the bark. But I fancied she would take more surely to the pines; they are so strong—and, like the big boys—always to be depended on. But not a word about camp now. Something more important is on. My new motor boat has just arrived!"
"Has it really?" This as a duet.
"And truly," finished Cora with a smile. "Yes, it has, and there is not a boy on the premises to show me how to run it. Jack expected to be here, but he isn't. So now I'm going to try it alone. I never could wait until evening to start my new boat. And isn't it lovely that you have arrived in time to take the initial run? I remember you both took the first spin with me in my auto, the Whirlwind, and now here you are all ready for the trial performance of the motor boat. Now Belle, don't refuse. There is absolutely no danger."
"But the water," objected the timid Belle.
"We can all swim," put in her sister, "and you promised, Belle, not to be nervous this trip. Yes, Cora, I'm all ready. I saw the craft as we came up. Wasn't it the boat with the new light oak deck and mahogany gunwale? I am sure it was,"
"Yes, isn't she a beauty? I should have been satisfied with any sort of a good boat, but mother wanted something really reliable, and she and Jack did it all before I had a chance to interfere."
"I wonder what your mother will next bestow upon you?" asked Belle with a laugh. "She has such absolute confidence in you."
"Let us hope it will not be a man; we can't let Cora get married, whatever else she may do," put in Bess, as she shook the dust from her motor coat, and prepared to follow Cora, who was already leaving the camp. Belle, too, started, but one could see that she, though a motor girl, did not exactly fancy experimenting on the water. It was but a short distance to the lake's edge, for the camp had been chosen especially on account of the water advantage.
"There she is! See how she stands out in the clear sunshiny water! I tell you it is the very prettiest boat on Cedar Lake, and that is saying something," exclaimed Cora, the proud possessor of the new motor craft.
"Beautiful," reiterated the Robinson twins.
"But what do you know about running it?" queried Belle.
"Why, I have been studying marine motors in general, and have been shown about this one in particular," replied Cora. "The man who ran it up from the freight depot for me gave me a few 'pointers,' as he called them."
She stepped into the trim craft and affectionately patted the shining engine.
"'It is much simpler to run than a car, and besides, there isn't so much to get in your way on the water," Cora went on.
"My!" exclaimed Bess as she stepped in after her hostess. "This is really—scrumptious!"
"You take the seat in the stern, Belle, and Bess, you may sit here near me," said Cora, "as I suppose you will be interested in seeing how it works. Oh! There is the steamer from the train. Hurry! Perhaps there are folks aboard we know. Let us act at home, and pretend we have been running motor boats all our lives."
Cora took her place at the engine and before Bess or Belle had really gotten seated she was turning on the gasoline.
"You see this is the little pipe that feeds the 'gas' from the tank to the carburetor," she explained. "Now, I just throw in the switch: that makes the electrical connection: then I have to give this fly wheel—it's stiff—but I have to swing it around so! There!" and the wheel "flew" around twice slowly and then began to revolve very rapidly. "Now we are ready," and the engine started its regular chug chug.
"How do you steer?" asked Bess anxiously, for the big steamer with its cargo of summer folks seemed rather near.
"I can steer here," and Cora turned a wheel amidships, "or one may steer at the bow. Suppose you take the forward wheel Bess, as I may, have enough to do to look after the engine."
"Very well," acquiesced the girl, "but I hope I make no mistakes."
"Oh you won't. Just turn the wheel the way you want to go. Now we'll hurry. I want to show off my boat."
Bess took up her place at the steering wheel and turned it so that the boat started on a clear course. Everything seemed to work beautifully, and presently Bess was so interested in the gentle swerving of the craft, as the rudder responded to her slightest touch, that she, too, thought it very much simpler than motoring on land.
"There are the Blakes!" suddenly exclaimed Belle. "See, they are waving to us."
"Yes," answered Cora as she snatched off her cap and fluttered a response to the folks on the steamer. "Bess, keep clear out. The landing is just over there! The steamer makes quite a swell."
Bess turned, but she did it too suddenly. A wave from the steamer caught them broadside, and drenched the girls before they knew what had happened.
"Oh!" screamed Belle, "—we are running right into the steamer!"
"Bess! Bess!" called Cora. "Turn! I can't connect—"
Shouts from the steamer added to their confusion. Would they be run down on this, their very first attempt at navigation?
"They are the motor girls!" Cora heard some one on the steamer shout, and while this much has been told it may be well to acquaint the reader with further details of the situation. The Motor Girls were friends whom we have met in the four previous volumes of this series entitled respectively: "The Motor Girls," "The Motor Girls on a Tour," "The Motor Girls at Lookout Beach," and "The Motor Girls Through New England." In each of these volumes we have met Cora Kimball, the handsome, dashing girl who conquers everything within reason, but who, herself, is occasionally conquered, both in the field of sports and in the field of human endeavors. It was she who had the first automobile, her Whirlwind and while out in it she had some very trying experiences.
In the first volume she managed to unravel the mystery of the road. Bess and Bell, the Robinson twins, were with her, as they were again in the second volume, the story of a strange promise. This promise, odd as it was, all three girls kept, to the delight and happiness of little Wren, the crippled child. Next the girls went to Lookout Beach, where they had plenty of good fun, as well as time enough to find the runaways, two very interesting young girls, who had decamped from the "Strawberry patch." It was like a game of hide and seek, but in the end the motor girls did capture the runaways. Then in the story "Through New England," it was Cora who was hidden away by the gypsies, and what she endured, and how she escaped were assuredly wonderful. There were brothers and friends of course, Jack Kimball being the most important person of the first variety, while Walter Pennington and Ed Foster were friends in need and friends indeed.
And now we find these same girls undertaking a new role—that of running a motor boat, the gift of Mrs. Kimball to her daughter, for that mother, in her days of widowhood, had learned how safe it was to repose confidence in her two children, Cora and Jack.
The camp at Cedar Lake had been taken by Cora and her friends for a summer vacation on the water, and now, after a day's run from Chelton, the home town, in their auto, the Flyaway, the Robinson girls had again joined Cora who had come up the day previous, with a maid to get the camp to rights.
The steamer was indeed too close! Cora was frantically trying to turn the auxiliary steering wheel, but Bess in her fright was turning the more powerful bow wheel in the very direction of danger!
"Oh! Mercy!" shrieked Belle. "We are lost!"
Another wave almost submerged them. The passengers on the steamer had all run to one side of their boat.
"Turn right!" shouted Cora as she jumped up and fairly jerked from Bess the forward wheel. "Turn to the right!"
THE HAUNTED ISLE
For some seconds no one seemed to know just what had happened. The steamer was clear, and the motor boat was running safely. Three very wet girls were thanking their good fortune that the water was their only damage—and water in the shape of a shower of spray is not much of a matter to complain of, after you escape a collision.
"What happened?" asked Belle, when she had the courage to uncover her eyes.
"Bess turned wrong," said Cora.
"I couldn't tell which way to go," put in the frightened girl. "I was simply stage-struck. But what saved us?"
"I jerked the wheel just enough to get a little to one side, and then the steamer had a chance to turn away," replied Cora. "I tell you we had a close shave, but that makes our first trip all the more interesting. Bess, can I trust you now to take my place while I look at that wheel? The rope may have slipped?"
"Oh, don't do anything," pleaded Belle. "Call to that boat over there, and let us have help. See, they are coming this way."
"Why, it's the boys—our boys!" exclaimed Cora. "Why have they gone out without telling me, when they knew I wanted to use my boat?"
In a canoe that looked like a big eel as it slipped over the water could be seen Jack, Ed and Walter.
"Well!" called Jack. "I like that! Where did you get the—ocean liner, Cora?"
"Don't say anything about the accident," she had a chance to whisper to the girls before replying to her brother. "I found my boat tied up at the dock," she answered gaily. "Isn't she a beauty?"
"What are you going to call her?" asked Walter.
"The Whirlpool, I guess," replied Cora, "that would go nicely with my Whirlwind, don't you think?"
"Oh, no, don't," objected Belle. "I should always feel that we were going to be—"
"Whirlpooled?" finished Jack. "Better make her the Petrel, Cora, for two reasons. We bought it from Mr. Peters, and she can walk on the water like the old original sea-fowl. Just see how she does saunter along."
"All right. Petrel will do, but it will be Pet for short," said Cora as now she allowed the boat to drift a little way from beside the boys' canoe.
"What was the matter with the steamer folks?" asked Ed. "Thought I heard something as we passed."
"Yes, you might have heard them talking about us if your ears had on their long distance," replied Cora quickly. "The Blakes are aboard."
"I saw their trunks at the station," said Jack "and they were tagged to The Burrow."
"That's the hole in the hill, isn't it?" asked Walter. "Well, I'm glad they have come up—the Benny Blakeses. I like a lot of folks around here. It is apt to have a depressing effect upon me if company is scarce and fishing shy."
"Or weather wet," put in Ed. "But say, Cora, I'd like to try the Pet." He remembered he was in a blue bathing suit, ever the most appropriate costume for a canoe. "But I'll wait until later, though I hate to. We have, as a matter of fact, an engagement at Far Island. Have you heard?"
"No, what?" asked the girls in chorus.
"Just a suspicion yet, but it may be true. We think—shall we give it away boys?"
"No; sell it," suggested Jack. "They sold us on this first trip, why should we give them anything?"
"Oh, Jack! You know I expected you to take me out the first time," said Cora reproachfully.
"Yes, and you know all about a boat, and start out without giving a fellow the slightest warning."
"But why didn't you come up when you knew the boat had arrived?" questioned the sister.
"Because—but that was what Ed was going to give away. It's a mysterious secret, and it is situated on Far Island. So long girls, I suppose you know how to land."
"Oh, yes indeed," said Cora in spite of the protest that was trembling on Belle's lips. "We started out, and we will get back all right. Wish you luck in whatever you are after," and she winked at Bess, who was now beside her at the engine, as Cora had concluded to guide the boat by the auxiliary steering wheel.
The boys veered off.
"I wonder what they are up to?" asked Cora. "As soon as we can do so, without being noticed, I think we will follow them. There must have been something important on, when Jack did not wait to take me out."
"Oh, don't let us go farther out on the lake," begged Belle. "I am nervous yet."
"Then suppose we take you in? Nettie is at the camp, and then Bess and I can go out to the island. There was really nothing the matter with the boat, the mistake was all due to our own nervousness."
"Well, I would feel better not to sail any farther," admitted the, pretty blond Belle, as she tossed back some of her breeze stray curls. "I am subject to sickness on the water, anyhow."
"On still water?" asked Bess archly. "Well, we will take you in, Twiny. And we will then go out. I want to redeem myself."
"Good for you, Bess," said Cora. "There is nothing like courage, unless it be gasoline," and after starting the engine, she turned the boat toward the shore. "There are the boys heading for the other island!" she exclaimed a moment later.
"They are trying to fool us. I wonder why?" asked Bess. "See, Belle. There are Nettie and Mary an shore—two of the best maids on the island. You will be all right with them, won't you, dear?"
"Of course," replied the twin, rather confusedly. "I don't need attention."
"But you are tired," put in Cora, "and those girls have not done a thing since lunch time. Just command them."
"'Very well. But do be careful, you two girls. A bad beginning you know."
"Oh, don't you worry about us," replied Cora confidently. "I feel as if this boat was a top in my hands. It is so much easier to handle than an auto. No gears, differentials or things like that. Good bye, Belle. Have supper ready when we return," and she sounded the small whistle that told of the start again.
"Good bye. Be careful," cautioned Belle. Then the two girls headed the craft for the little island around which they had just seen the boys disappear.
"I thought the boys looked very serious," said Bess, as she put her hand on the wheel Beside Cora's. "I wonder what is wrong?"
"Jack certainly had something very important on when he neglected me," said his sister. "I hope there is nothing really wrong. There are no people on that island, I believe."
"Then perhaps we had better not land?" suggested Bess. "It might be horribly lonely and we might not be able to find the boys."
"Well, when we get there we will be able to judge of all that," replied Cora. "Doesn't the Petrel motor beautifully?"
"And this lake," added Bess. "I never saw anything like it. Why some of those islands are big enough to inhabit."
"Yes, there is one island over there," answered Cora, pointing to the extreme eastern shore of the water, "and since I have seen it I am just dying to explore it. They call it Fern Island, and the store man tells the most wonderful tales about it. But we will have to wait until we all assemble. When did Hazel say she would come?"
"Tomorrow or next day. She has to take some special 'exams.' I am sorry that girl is so ambitious. It always interferes with her vacation."
"Hazel will make her mark some day, if she does not spoil it all by having someone make it for her—on a flat stone. But honestly Bess, I do hope she will come up before the others. Next to you and Belle I count more on Hazel Hastings than on anyone else in our party."
"And not a little on her brother Paul?" and Bess laughed in her teasing way. "Now Cora, Paul Hastings is acknowledged to be the most useful boy in all the Chelton set. He can fix an auto, fix an electric bell, fix an alarm clock—"
"And no doubt could overhaul a motor boat," finished Cora, as she turned the Petrel toward land. "Well, this is Far Island, and I am sure the boys headed this way. Let's shout."
Putting her hands to her mouth, funnel fashion, Cora sent out the shrill yodel known to all of the motor girls and motor boys. Bess took up the refrain; but there was no answer.
"If they were ashore wouldn't their boat be about?" asked Bess. "We can see all this side of the island, but you said it was too rocky to land on the other shore."
Cora looked about. Yes, one edge was all sandy and the other rocks. If the boys had come ashore they must have done so from the north side.
"My, what a lot of boats!" exclaimed Bess. "Cora, just see that flock," and she pointed to a distant flotilla of various craft across the lake.
"Yes, and so many canoes, we could hardly tell the boys in that throng. Do you suppose they are in that parade?"
"Oh, no. They had only bathing suits on, and that really looks like some fleet," replied Bess. "Yes, see there is their club banner. My! I had no idea that Cedar Lake boasted of such style."
"We may expect water picnics every day now," said Cora. "But just see that old man in the rowboat towing that pretty canoe. Do you suppose he has it for hire?"
"Likely. But how would anyone hire it out here? Why not from shore?" questioned Bess.
"Well, perhaps he is taking it to the dock," and Cora allowed her boat to touch the island shore. "At any rate if we are to find the boys we had better be at it, for I want to start back before that throng of boats gets in my way. I feel sure enough, but I like room."
Both girls stepped ashore as Cora caught the boat hook in the strong root of a tree and pulled the craft in. Then she shouted again.
"Jack! Jack!" she called. "Isn't it lonely here," she said suddenly, realizing that while she had expected the boys to be on the island, they might have gone to any of the other bits of land.
"Yes," said Bess. "I never felt so far away from everything before. On an island it is so different from being on real shore!"
"Yes, it is farther out," and Cora laughed at the description. "Bess, I guess I was mistaken. The boys do not seem to be here."
"Then do let's go back," pleaded Bess. "I am actually afraid."
"Of what? Not those 'jug-er-umms.' Just hear them. You would think the frogs were trying to drive us away from their territory."
"I always did hate the noise they make," declared Bess. "It sounds like a dead, dark night. Why do they croak in the daytime?"
"Night is coming," Cora explained, "and besides, it is so quiet here they do not have to wait for nightfall. But listen! Didn't you hear those dry leaves rustle?"
"Oh Cora, come!" and Bess pulled at her friend's skirt. "It may be a great—snake."
Cora stood and listened. "No," she said, "that was no snake. It sounded like something running."
"Come on, Cora dear," begged Bess, so that Cora was obliged to agree. "See, all the boats have gone the other way. And if anything happened we might just as well be on this desert island as on that desert water."
They had not ventured far into the wood, so that it was but a few steps back to the boat. Cora loosened the bow line and presently the engine was chugging away.
"Oh," sighed Bess, "I felt as if something dreadful was going to happen. Ever since those gypsies took you, Cora, I am actually afraid of everything in the country. It did seem safe on the water, but in those woods—"
"Now, Bess dear, you are to forget all about the gypsies. I have almost done so—that is, I have forgotten all the unpleasant part. Of course, I occasionally hear from Helka. Do you want to steer, Bess?"
"I would rather not," confessed Bess, "for I am actually trembling. Where do you suppose the boys could have gone?"
"Haven't the least idea, and we have no more time to speculate. There! Didn't you hear a strange noise on the island? I declare, that store man must be right. Those islands are haunted!"
"Wasn't that a queer noise! Oh! I am so glad we are safe in our boat," and Bess breathed a sigh of relief. "I would have died if that noise happened while we were there."
"But I should like to know what it is, and I will never be satisfied until I find out," declared Cora. "That was neither bird nor beast—it was human."
But the motor boat, girls headed straight for shore—the sun seemed falling into the lake as they reached the camp to be welcomed by Belle. The story of the trip to the island and the disappearance of the boys was quickly told.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BOYS
"What can have happened to the boys?" murmured Belle. "I am afraid they are drowned."
"All of them?" and Cora could not repress a smile. "It would take a very large sized whale to gobble them all at once, and surely they could not all have been seized with swimming cramps at the same moment. No, Belle, I have no such fear. But I am going right out to investigate. I know Jack would never stay away if he could get here, especially when he knew this would be your first evening at the lake. Why, the boys were just wild to try my boat," and she threw her motor cape over her shoulders. "Come on girls, down to the steamer landing. There may have been some accident."
Belle and Bess were ready instantly. Indeed the twins seemed more alarmed than did Cora, but then they were not used to brothers, and did not realize how many things may happen and may not happen, to detain young men on a summer day or even a summer night.
"Oh dear!" sighed Belle, "I have always dreaded the water. I did promise mamma and Bess to conquer my nervousness and not make folks miserable, but now just see how things happen to upset me," and she was almost in tears.
"Nothing has happened yet, Belle dear," said Cora kindly, "and we hope nothing will happen. You see your great mistake comes from what Jack calls the 'sympathy bug.' You worry about people before you know they are in trouble. I feel certain the boys will be found safe and sound, but at the same time I would not be so foolhardy as to trust to dumb luck."
"You are a philosopher, Cora," answered the nervous girl, her tone showing that she meant to compliment her chum.
"No, merely logical," corrected Cora, as they walked along. "You know what marks I always get in logic."
"But it all comes from health," put in Bess. "Mother says Belle would be just as sensible as I am if she were as strong."
"Sensible as you are?" and Cora laughed. Bess had such a candid way of acknowledging her own good points. "Why, we have never noticed it, Bess."
"Oh, you know what I mean. I simply mean that I do not fuss," and Bess let her cheeks glow at least two shades deeper.
"Well it is sensible not to fuss, Bess, so we will grant your point," finished Cora as they stepped on the boardwalk that led to the boat landing. "Why, I didn't suppose they would light up with that moon," she said. "That's the old watchman over there."
A man was swinging a lantern from the landing. He held it above his head, then lowered it, and it was plain he was showing the light to signal someone on the water.
Cora's heart did give a quickened response to her nerves as she saw that something must be wrong. But she said not a word to her companions.
"What are they after?" asked Belle timidly.
"Probably some fishermen casting their nets for bait," Cora answered evasively. "You stay here, while I speak with old Ben."
Bess and Belle complied, although Bess felt she should have been the one to ask questions. What if anything had really happened to the boys! Jack was Cora's brother.
"Have you seen anything of some boys in a canoe?" Cora asked of the man with the lantern. "They set out this afternoon, and have not yet returned."
"Boys in a canoe?" repeated Ben, in that tantalizing way country folk have of delaying their answers.
"Yes, my brother and two of his friends went out toward Far Island—"
"Fern Island?" interrupted the man.
"No, when we last saw them they were going away from Fern and toward Far Island," said Cora.
"Well, if they're on Fern Island at night I pity them. There ain't never been anyone who put up there after dark who wasn't ready to die of fright, 'ceptin' Jim Peters. And the old boy hisself couldn't scare Jim. Guess he's too chununy with him," and the waterman chuckled at his joke.
"But you have not heard of any accident?" pressed Cora.
"I saw them young fellers myself. They was in a green canoe; wasn't they?"
"Yes," answered Cora eagerly.
"Well, I asked Jim Peters if he had sawed 'em, and he said—but then you can't never believe Jim."
"What did he say?" excitedly demanded Cora, as Bess and Belle stepped up to where she was talking.
"He said they had tied their boat up at the far dock, and had gone on the shore train to the merry-go-'round."
"But they were in their bathing suits!" exclaimed Cora.
"There! Didn't I tell you not to take any stock in Jim's news! I knowed he was fibbin'. But—say miss. There's this about Jim. He don't ever take the trouble to make up a yam unless he has a motive. Now I'll bet Jim knows something about them lads."
"Where does this man live?" asked Cora.
"He don't live no place in particular, but in general he stays at the shanty, when he ain't on the water. But he's a regular fish. The young 'uns calls him a fish hawk."
"How could we get to his place? Do you think he is at the shanty now?" went on Cora, determined to find out something of the man, for she had reason to believe that the dock-hand knew what he was talking about.
"Bless you, child! It ain't no place for young girls like you to go to any time, much less at night. But I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll jest take a look around myself. I sort of like a girl who knows how to talk to old Ben without being sassy."
"Thank you very much, Ben, but I really must hurry to trace the boys. I suppose you have no police around the island?"
"Wall, there's Constable Hannon. He is all right to trace a thing when you tell him where it is, but Tom Hannon hates to think." Ben raised the lantern above his head and then, as if satisfied that the signaling was all finished, he placed the lantern on a hook that hung over the edge of the dock.
"Oh, Cora," put in Bess, "it is almost eight O'clock. We must hurry along."
"I know, Bess dear, but I had to find out all this man knew. Now I am satisfied to start for the other end of the lake."
Cora's voice betrayed the emotion she was feeling in spite of her outward calm. The matter was now assuming a very serious aspect.
"One thing seems certain," she said to all who were listening, "they could not all have been drowned. They were all expert swimmers. Nor would they go to any merry-go-'round and leave us waiting for them. The question now is, what could have detained them?"
"Well, here comes Jim now," said Ben. "Just you keep quiet, and I'll pump him."
A man came slouching along the dock. He had the way of seeming much younger than he pretended to be—that is he walked with his head down although his shoulders were straight and broad as those of any well trained athlete. The three girls instantly decided that this man had some strange motive in his manner. He was shamming, they thought.
"Hello there, Ben," he called to the dock hand jokingly. "How's the tide?"
"Not much tide on this here lake," replied Ben sharply. "Never knowed much about them tides, as I've lived at this hole most all my born days. But how was business to-day? That was quite a fleet. How'd you make out?"
"Oh, same as usual," and Jim Peters looked from under his big hat at the girls. "Got company?"
"Yes, a couple friends of the old lady's. They're camping here."
"Oh," half-growled the man understandingly as he made his way to the water's edge.
"Where're you goin' now?" asked Ben.
"Up the lake," replied the man.
"Oh, say," spoke Ben as if the thought had just occurred to him, "where did you say them young fellers went? The ones who started out in a canoe?"
Now Cora saw that this was the man who had come down the lake with the canoe trailing behind his rowboat. He stepped into the lantern's light, and both Bess and Belle must also have recognized him, for they shot a meaning glance at Cora.
"What fellows?" drawled the man in answer to Ben's question.
"The ones I asked you about. You said they went to the merry-go-'round. Did they?"
"Yep," replied the man sententiously.
"Where is that?" asked Cora, unable to restrain herself longer.
"At the Peak," he said vaguely. Then he stepped into his rowboat and before anyone could question him further he was pulling up the lake.
"Well, I'll be hung! Excuse me ladies, but I am that surprised," said Ben apologetically. "Say, that fellow knows about the kids, and we've got to follow him. But how?"
"In my motor boat," proposed Cora quickly. "We could overtake him in that before he had any idea we were following him!"
"Have you a motor boat? Good! Where is it? Here, I'll call Dan. He kin run faster than a deer. Dan! Dan! Dan!" shouted the old man, and from a nearby rowboat, where, evidently, some boys were having some sort of a harmless game, Dan appeared. He was a tall youth, the sort that seems to grow near the water. "Hey Dan, I want you to go where this girl tells you, and fetch her boat," said Ben. "Quick now, we've got something to do."
"It's up at the new camp," said Cora. "It's the new boat you must have seen come up this afternoon."
"Oh, yes'm, I know it, and I know where it is," replied the lad, and then he was off, his bare feet making no sound. He called back through the darkness "Got any oil or gas?"
"Yes," replied Cora, and away he ran.
"Ain't he a regular dock rat," said Ben with something like pride in his voice.
"I hope we do not lose sight of that man," remarked Cora.
"Oh Jim can't pull as hard as he thinks, especially on a lazy day when he has been out some," affirmed Ben. "Now suppose you girls just sit on this plank while you wait? 'Twon't cost you nothin'."
He dusted off the big plank with his handkerchief, and upon the board, Cora, Bess and Belle seated themselves.
"I suppose Dan will haul the boat down," said Cora. "It isn't locked, but he may not want to start the motor."
"Oh, you can trust to Dan to get her here. When he isn't a dock rat he's a canal mule. There! Ain't that him? Yep, there he comes and he's got her all right," said old Ben proudly.
The boy could now be seen walking along the water's edge, as he pulled the motor boat by the bow rope. The girls were quick to follow Ben to the landing, and there all three, with Ben, got aboard.
The girls helped Cora light the port, starboard and aft-lights; then they were ready to start.
"Better let me run her," said the man, "as I know all the spots in this here lake. Besides," and he touched the engine almost fondly, "there ain't nothin' I like better than a boat, unless it's a fish line."
"This is a very simple motor," explained Cora, showing how readily the gas could be turned on and how promptly the engine responded to the spark.
"It's a beauty," agreed Ben, as the "chugchug" answered the first turn of the flywheel.
Belle and Bess sat in the stem and Cora went forward. It was a delightful evening and, but for the urgency of their quest, the first night sail of the Petrel on Cedar Lake would have been a perfect success.
"Isn't that a light?" asked Belle, loud enough for Cora to hear.
"Yes. Ben see, there is a light. Do you suppose that is on Jim's boat?" asked Cora.
"Never," replied Ben, "he's too stingy to light up on a moonlight night when the water's clear. Of course the law says he must, but who's goin' to back up the law?"
"Which way are you going?" she questioned further.
"See that track of foam over yonder? That's Jim's course. We'll just pick his trail," said Ben. "Now there! Watch him turn! He's headin' for Far Island!"
At this Ben throttled down, and, a few minutes later he turned off the gas and cut out the switch.
"We'll just drift a little to give him a chance to settle," he said. "We don't want to get too close—it might spoil the game."
Belle and Bess were both too nervous to talk. It seemed like some pirate story, that they should be following a strange fisherman to a wild island in the night, in hopes of finding the boys—possibly captured boys!
Cora listened eagerly. She, too, was losing courage—it was so slight a hope that this man would lead them to where the boys might be.
"There! See that!" exclaimed Ben. "He's talking to some one on land."
"Yes, I heard Jack's voice," exclaimed Cora. "Oh, I am so glad they are safe!"
"But how do we know?" asked Belle, her voice trembling.
"Jack's voice told me," replied Cora, "for if they were in distress he would not have shouted like that!"
"But he was mad," said Ben, and in this the old fisherman made no mistake, for the voices of the boys, in angry protest, could be heard, as they argued with some one, who succeeded in keeping his part of the conversation silent from the anxious listeners.
A few minutes later the rowboat of Jim Peters came out from Far Island, and in it were the boys!
"If we have to bale her out all the way" Ed was saying, "I can't see why we should pay you a quarter a piece. Seems to me we are earning our fare."
They were now almost alongside the drifting motor boat.
"Jack! Jack," called Cora. "We are here, waiting for you. What ever happened to you?"
"Well," exclaimed the boys in great surprise. "Glad to see you girls—never gladder to see anyone in my life. Can you take us on?"
"Of course we can," replied Cora. "My! We thought you were lost."
"Not us, but our boat," answered Walter. "Some one stole our canoe and left us on the island, high and dry."
"There," said Ben, "didn't I tell you?"
"Well, you fellows owe me just the same as if you went all the way," growled Jim Peters. "I've lost my night hire waitin' fer you."
"How'd you know about them, Jim?" asked Ben, in a joking sort of tone. "Wasn't it luck you happened up this way to-night?"
The other man did not reply. Cora had stepped down to the seat in front of the engine where Ben sat.
"Do you think that man stole their canoe?" she asked.
"Hush! 'Taint no use to fight with Jim. He'd get the best of you sure, and besides, then he would be your enemy. Just make a joke of it, and I'll tell you more later," and Ben prepared to start as soon as the boys, who were climbing into the motor boat, were ready.
"I'll pay you when we get to land," said Jack to the boatman, "I have no money in my bathing suit."
"Well, see that you do," said the man in a rough voice. "I'm not goin' to leave my work to tow a couple of sports just for the fun of it."
"Oh you'll get paid all right," Jack assured him, "and so will the fellow who stole our boat—when we catch him."
"I'll chip in for that," said Walter. "Never saw such a trick. Hello Bess, also howdy Belle. My, isn't it fine to be rescued from a desert island by three pretty girls?"
"Wallie! Wallie. There's a stranger aboard," warned Cora.
"Oh yes, this is Ben—Ben—"
"Just Ben," interrupted the man at the wheel, with a chuckle.
"But he has been so kind," added Cora. "Only for him we should never have found out where you were."
"If you hadn't taken us off that old sieve," put in Ed, "I think we would soon have had to swim back to the island. We never could have made the shore in that thing, neither could we swim that distance."
"S'long Jim!" called Ben, as the old rowboat was sent off in the darkness.
"See, he isn't balin' her now," he told the boys.
"How's that?" all asked in chorus.
"Oh, that's a great boat—leaks to order," replied Ben, as he turned over the fly wheel and Cora's craft shot swiftly away from the island.
The boys were too busy talking to the girls, and the latter were too busy asking questions, to go further into the matter of the leaking boat, but Cora did not fail to notice that the craft must have "leaked to order." "What could that man have intended doing? Did he want to sink the boat?" she was wondering.
"Well, if we haven't had a pretty time of it," said Ed. "First, we had to go up trees to get out of the way of something—we are not yet sure whether it was man or beast. Then when we crawled down, and made for the shore the canoe was gone clear out of sight."
"Haven't you any idea who took it?" Cora asked.
"Wish we had—I'll wager he would have to sleep out of doors to-night," threatened Jack. "It was the meanest trick."
Cora gave Bess the signal to keep still about having seen a canoe at the back of Jim Peter's rowboat that afternoon. Cora was convinced that Ben knew what he was talking about when he warned her to be careful of Jim Peters.
"But why did you go back to the island?" asked Cora. "I thought you were going to spend the afternoon with us girls?"
"We were, then again we couldn't," answered her brother. "We had a very important appointment at Far Island."
"Ben, don't you want one of us to run her?" asked Ed. "We were to have had a try—"
"Nope. This here is the best fun I can have, and this boat is a beauty," replied the old man. "If I had one that could go like this and carry so many passengers I'd give up the dock."
"Yes, a boat like this would earn its own living," agreed Jack. "Run her as long as you like to, Ben. It gives us a chance—ahem—"
"To sit nearer your sisters," finished Ben, with a sly laugh.
"All's well that ends well," quoted Belle to Ed, for she was scarcely able yet to draw a free breath—her anxiety had been too keen. "I cannot believe that we are all here together again."
"Just pinch me," said Ed laughing, "and if I don't give our war whoop you may be sure this is not me—I am still on the Robinson ranch—there, that was an unpremeditated pun; I mean the old Robinson Crusoe and I forgot that he was great-grandfather to the present Robinson twins."
"Say, Ed," put in Walter, "what do you say if we buy a houseboat? This has the camp beaten to a frazzle."
"It's all right on such a night," replied Ed, "but houseboats, I believe, cost money, and our camp is rented to us for the season. Oh fickle Wallie! To fall in love with a motor boat, just because her name is Pet."
Walter was talking to Cora before Ed had finished speaking to him. That was Walter's irresistible way with the girls.
"No use talking, sis," said Jack, "this sail was worth being stranded for. If you are in no hurry, Ben, suppose we prolong it. Take us some place where we haven't been. You know the rounds of Cedar Lake."
This plan was agreed to, and, though the boys were not dressed as they would wish to have been, it was evening on the water, and their jersey suits were not altogether out of place.
"But what I would like to get at," began Ed, not being able to dismiss the subject, "is who stole our boat?"
"It may have drifted away," suggested Cora wisely. "There was a great fleet on the lake to-day, and any small boy might have let your boat go."
"Well, if I should lay hold of such a chap," declared Jack grimly, "he will grow up quickly. He will never be a small boy again."
"Now I'll tell you," offered Ben obligingly. "There's a lot of strange things likely to happen to you young 'uns while you're at this here lake. So take my advice an' go slow. Every one here goes slow, and it's the best way. If you suspicion a feller don't go at him. Just wait and he will walk right into your hands," and Ben sounded a warning whistle as he turned a point.
"He'll eat out of my hands if I get training him," prophesied Jack. "But all the same, Ben, I think that's first-rate advice. It saves us much trouble and that's the most important consideration. It takes time even to polish off such a specimen."
"And when you're done, you've got dirty hands," went on Ben in rough philosophy. "All the same, there is them that can't be otherwise dealt with, and when the time's ripe I'd—help myself. I know a man or two I'd like first-rate to get at, and stay at till I'd finished."
"Then, Ben," spoke Cora, "when you get your man we'll all help you, and when we get ours you can return the compliment."
Cora had a way of joking that invariably turned out prophetic—and this case was no exception.
"Well, if there ain't Dan sailin' around!" ex, claimed Ben suddenly. "He's lookin' fer me. Hey there, Dan! What's up?" he cried as he faced the boat with the brilliant lamp at the stern.
"Everything!" yelled back Dan. "Come up to the dock! There's trouble!"
Ben swung around the timer to gain more speed in a spurt of the motor.
"It's that Jim Peters, I'll bet," he declared, as they headed for Center Landing. "He's there ahead of us. He cut through the shallow channel."
Whether Jim Peters had taken leave of his senses or was simply unreasonably angry, folks were never able to say with certainty. At any rate, now, on this evening, the man seemed furious about something. No sooner had the motor boat come up to the dock to allow Ben to land, than Peters turned upon the young fellows he had been arguing with at the island, and in unmeasured terms spoke against all gasoline water craft. He said he couldn't see why the law allowed them to use the lake, for they made such a racket, filled the air with vile odors, and scared all the fish.
"You all ought to be arrested and deported!" he stormed. "The idea of peaceful folks being bothered with such nuisances! I'm not going to stand it if there's a law in the land! Why the idea! It's not right! I'll—" He stopped for breath.
"Now look here, Jim, you just quit!" said Ben quietly, as the fellow started off on another tirade, using still stronger language, and almost boiling over with rage. "Go easy," advised Ben. "There's that friend of yours, Tony Jones, comin'. Take a jab at him for a change."
As Ben got out, Jones sauntered along, and it was easy to see that, personally, he was quite a contrast to Jim. The situation seemed somewhat relieved.
"It's all right now," spoke Cora in a low voice, and with an easier air. "Let's go." With pleasant words for Ben and Dan she and her friends prepared to start off again. Walter gave the flywheel a few vigorous turns, but there was only a sort of apologetic sigh from the motor.
"Prime it a bit," suggested Ed.
With gasoline from a small oil can, Walter injected some of the fluid into the cylinder through the pet cock.
"Now for it!" he exclaimed. "Cross your fingers everybody," and once more he did the street-piano act, as Ed termed it. The engine only sighed gently.
Walter gave a quick glance over his shoulder toward the bow.
"Is that forward switch in?" he asked a bit sharply.
"Oh!" exclaimed Cora, "I accidentally pulled it out when I removed the bulkhead to look at the battery connections. There," she added after a quick motion, "it's in, Walter."
"Now for it! Hold your breaths," ordered the engineer. There was a sudden motion to the wheel, a whizzing buzz, a churning of the water under the stern and the boat moved away.
"We'll have to have a regular schedule—gasoline, switch, ground-wire, pet-cocks primed—oil cups up, and all that sort of thing," murmured Cora as they glided swiftly onward. "I'll print it on a card and hang it near the engine."
"Thanks," whispered Walter, as he took the wheel. "Where to?" he asked.
"The bath house," suggested Ed. "Our togs are there."
Gracefully the craft approached the group of bath houses, whence the boys had started in their canoe that afternoon. But no lights gleamed out to welcome the returning ones.
"My word!" exclaimed Walter a bit dubiously, "our togs are likely locked up in the safe, and here we are, forty miles from the pile of ready-to wear habiliments that hide behind Jack's trunk! Eh, what?"
"Sure thing!" agreed Ed with a sigh.
"Oh, never mind," consoled Cora. "Come over with us for a while, anyhow, if only to report progress."
A MAN IN THE SHADOW
When the engine had been carefully covered, on arrival at the camp dock, and the boat securely tied up for the night, the party were all literally shaking hands in gratitude for the rescue. It was only a short distance along the shore path to where the lads "bunked," but the young men shivered during the trip. The girls thought of their own coats and promptly offered them, for Walter, Ed and Jack were really suffering in their bathing suits.
"But we have heavy dresses on," insisted Cora, "and really Jack it is cool. Please take our coats," for her brother had objected.
"Well, if you insist," replied Jack, "but it seems to me we have had more than our share of bad luck for one day. First our boat is stolen, then our clothes are locked up. Who would think that that old boathouse man would go to bed so early."
"I am sure you are perfectly welcome to our coats," insisted Belle, as she and her sister divested themselves of their long automobile garments, "and they will look—"
"Lovely on us," put in Walter. "Let me have the blue one, please. It is so becoming."
Jack took Cora's heavy linen, Ed accepted the brown that Bess had worn, while Walter got the blue.
"Not so bad," said Jack, thrusting his hands deep into the patch pockets. "Don't know but what I'll get one like this, Cora."
"And I rather like the empire effect," said Ed turning around so that all, might admire the short-waisted coat he wore. "This is the Roman empire I believe, Bess; is it not?"
"No, the first Empire," corrected the girl. "My but you do look nice! You have a wonderful—outline."
"Yes, my nurse always complimented me on my outline. But do behold Wallie! Isn't he a peach?"
"He's a picture girl," declared Cora laughing. "Well, it is a good thing that we girls all wore coats when we went on the rescuing expedition. But say boys, what do you think was the trouble at the wharf? Ben seemed quite excited."
"I didn't like the looks of the fellow who offered us the boat ride," commented Ed. "And the queer part of it was, how did he know we were on the island?"
"And then his boat leaked and stopped. I'll bet his game was to make us fear drowning, and then save us at so much more per save. Like the philosopher and the ferryman, don't you know?"
"What philosopher?" asked Bess innocently.
"Oh, that old friend of mine who went to sea with his knowledge. Don't you remember?"
"I never heard of him," declared Bess falling into the trap.
"Then let me tell you," and Ed slipped his arm within hers as they walked along toward Cora's camp. "There was once a boatman and at the same time there was a philosopher. The former took the latter to sea, or to cross a small body of water, it doesn't really matter. All the way as they sailed the philosopher would say: 'Did you ever study astronomy?' The ferryman had not. 'Then half your life is gone,' said the philosopher. 'Did you ever study philosophy? No? Then another quarter of your life is gone.' And so on he went, Belle dear," continued Ed, "until suddenly the boatman interrupted him with: 'Say, did you ever study swimming?' And the philosopher admitted that he had not. 'Then,' said the boatman, 'the whole of your life is gone for this boat is sinking!' So you see, Belle, our boatman might have given us that little fairy story and charged accordingly."
"Yes, indeed!" put in Jack. "I think it was the luckiest thing that you girls came along. And Ben! We must give Ben a banquet or something fit."
"Ben is a great friend of mine," declared Cora. "I feel we would all have gone astray but for him. We girls would never have known enough—"
Then she stopped. She had no idea of telling the boys that they had followed Jim Peters with the hope of finding the missing ones whither he would lead them. Bess and Belle also had taken pains not to betray their story to the boys, for, as Cora said, Jim Peters was not a man to quarrel with, and the stolen boat was not a matter to joke about.
"Here comes Nettie!" exclaimed Belle. "I wonder what's her hurry."
"You've got company, miss," the maid said as she came up to the party walking toward the camp. "Miss Hasting and her brother have been waiting all evening."
"Hazel and Paul!" exclaimed Cora, almost running to the bungalow. "Oh, isn't that splendid!"
"And us in these!" wailed Walter. "Do you think Hazel will like me in baby blue?"
The boys really did look funny in the girls' long coats, but it all added to the merry-making. Paul Hastings was waiting outside the bungalow. He stood where the porch light fell upon him, and the girls all secretly agreed that he had grown handsomer since they had last seen him. Hazel, too, looked very attractive in her plain blue dress, with its turn-over collar and Windsor tie.
"What a pleasant surprise! We were afraid you would not come for some days Hazel!" said Cora in greeting.
"Oh, Paul had to come up here. Of course he has taken a position."
"What did I tell you!" cried Jack, folding the cloak about him in dramatic style. "Paul Hastings for the enterprise. Cedar Lake is the field; eh, Paul?"
"Well, I had a fine offer," said Paul modestly. "And I have been wanting to get out this way. They say there are all sorts of things to do in this locality."
"Looking for work! What do you think of that! Why, Paul dear, we are looking for a camp cook. Wallie nearly poisoned us on pancakes today," said Ed, "and if you would accept—"
"Come in doors," interrupted Cora. "We have had rather a strenuous afternoon, and I am almost tired. How did you get up from the train? Or did you come by boat?" she asked the new arrivals.
"A fellow rowed us up—"
"Yes and charged us fifty cents each," interrupted Hazel. "Wasn't that outrageous!"
"Some one like Jim Peters, I'll bet," said Ed. "But as Cora advised, let's go in doors. We really haven't dined!"
"Oh! you poor boys," cried Belle. "We almost forgot that you were stranded. Let me help Nettie fix up something."
"Yes, do. Fix up a lot of something," urged Jack. "That's the way I feel about it. But do we dine in these?"
By this time Hazel and Paul saw the queer attire of the three young men. Then a part of the situation was explained. The bungalow was one of those roomy affairs, built with a clear idea of affording every summer comfort. Cora was to be the hostess, and with her was the trusted maid, Nettie. There the girls were to visit as they chose, while the boys had taken a camp for themselves near the fishing grounds of the big lake.
"Now, make that coffee strong, girls," called Jack as the odor of the beverage came from the kitchen. "We are almost, if not quite, frozen."
He cuddled up on a big couch and threatened to do damage to Cora's pretty cloak.
"There's someone on the porch," suddenly whispered Bess, for a step sounded, so soft and stealthy, that she imagined someone was trying to look in the window.
"Yes, I heard it," said Ed, getting up and going to the door. A man stood in the shadow, stepping out quickly at the sight of the youth.
"I came for my money," he muttered. "You fellers ain't got no right to try to do me that way."
"Who tried to do you?" answered Ed, in no pleasant tones. "See here, Peters! This is not our camp, and we don't carry money in our bathing suits as we told you before. If you can't wait until to-morrow for the seventy-five cents you know what you can do."
"Oh I'll give it to you, Ed," said Cora, fearful that the man might become abusive. "I have plenty of small change."
She went into her room and got her purse. It was a pretty little affair, too frail to have been brought to camp, and too good to have left in the locked-up Chelton house. As she went back to Ed she held out the purse. "Here," she said, "take it and help yourself. My coffee will boil over."
Ed and Peters were standing near the edge of the porch. As Ed put his hand out to take Cora's purse it fell over the rail.
"Well," he exclaimed, "that's too bad. I must get a match."
At this Ed stepped to the door to ask for a box, while Peters hurried down the steps to look for the missing trinket. When Ed came back with a light Peters was looking industriously for the purse, but declared he had not seen it.
"Now see here, Peters," cried Ed angrily. "You have picked up that purse, and I want you to hand it right over here," and Ed dropped the cloak from his shoulders. "If you don't I'll teach you a lesson."
"Oh, you will, eh?" sneered the man. "Well you'd better get at it, kid," and with that he struck Ed a tantalizing blow on the cheek.
Ed clutched the man by the arm. By this time the confusion had been heard within doors, and the other boys hurried out.
"What's up?" asked Jack, just as Ed, with all his strength, almost bent the older man over backward.
Jim Peters was fairly roaring now. He was strong, but this young giant was a surprise to him, and after the way of the cowardly class, as soon as he found out he would be bested he "quit," and begged off.
"Hand me back that purse," demanded Ed. "I know you've got it as well as if I had seen you take it."
"What's that over there?" snarled Peters, pointing to something bright in the grass.
Ed picked it up. It was the purse, but it was empty. Ed's exclamation told them that.
"My ring," cried Cora. "I had my ring—oh no. I forgot—that was not the purse," and Cora went in doors, presently returning with some small coins. "Here, Ed," she said, her voice trembling. "Do pay that man, and let him go. I—I am so frightened!"
"Cora," whispered Bess, "was your ring in that purse?"
"Hush," cautioned the other girl. "Let us try to make things brighter. Since that man sailed down the lake to-day with our boys' canoe we have had nothing but mishaps. Now let him go. I'll manage to reckon with him without endangering the life of anyone. He's too desperate a character to deal with in the ordinary way. Remember what Ben told us."
There had been three delightful days at Camp Cozy. Cora managed most of the delight, with the able assistance of Belle and Bess, while Hazel did much toward discovering things that she declared all the girls ought to know, for Hazel's happiness was ever in obtaining knowledge.
The boys had almost lost hope of getting back their canoe. They had searched the lake from shore to shore, offered rewards and had gone through the rest of the lost formula, but the boat was not returned.
Cora kept to herself her suspicions about Jim Peters. She also said nothing of the ring that was in the purse when it left her hands, but not in it when the purse was returned to her.
It was a splendid morning for a trip on Cedar Lake, and although Belle and Hazel had planned a trip to the woods, Cora and Bess were going out in the Petrel.
Passing Center Landing, Cora called a pleasant good morning to Ben, who sat on the end string piece, his feet aiming at the water and his broad brimmed hat caught on halo fashion at the back of his neck.
"Oh, I must ask him something," said Cora, suddenly turning her boat toward the wharf. She drew near enough to speak quietly.
"Ben," she said, "where is that shanty you told me about—Jim Peter's place?"
"Lands sake miss! you ain't goin' there?" asked the man in some alarm.
"Why not?" demanded Cora. "Can't I take care of myself in broad daylight?"
"But you don't know how ugly that feller can be," insisted Ben. "I tell you miss, I'd give him plenty of room, if I war you."
"Don't go," urged Bess.
"But, Ben," argued Cora, "I am afraid you have all let Jim Peters bully you. I am going to try him another way. Where does he live?"
"Well a hour ago he went up the lake. He goes up there every mornin' regular. Like as if he had some important business on the island. When I asked him about it he said there was a fellow who had some dangerous disease, and was campin' out there, and Jim allowed that he had to fetch him things."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Cora. "That's a queer story for a man like Peters. But I'm going to his shack first, even if he is not at home. It would suit me just as well to find him out on my first visit."
"But that young feller who lives with him? He's just as sassy as Jim, when he's around the shack. Of course he don't stay there always, as Jim does."
"Who is he?" questioned Cora. "I hadn't heard of such a person."
"Oh, he gives the name of Jones but it don't fit him fer a cent. I wouldn't be surprised if his real name was Macaroni or even Noodles. He's foreign, sure."
Cora laughed. "And he's young, you say?"
"A lot younger than Jim, but he could be that and yet not be very young, fer I guess Jim has lost track of time," replied Ben. "Yes, Jones is a swell, all right."
"But the shack? Where is it? I must be off," insisted Cora.
"It's quite a trip down the lake. Then you come to a point. Go to the left of the point, and when you come to a place where the willows dip into the lake, get off there. The shack is straight back in the deepest clump of buttonball trees."
"All right Ben, and thank you," said Cora as she started up the motor. "I feel like exploring this morning, and your directions sound interesting. I will come back this way to show you that I am safe and sound," and with that she sheered off.
"I hope it will be all right," faltered Bess. "Cora, are you never afraid to risk such things?"
"What is there to risk? The land is public, and we have as much right to follow that track as has Jim Peters or Mr. Jones. I wonder what Mr. Jones is like?"
"Maybe he would be very nice—a complete surprise," ventured Bess, at which remark Cora laughed merrily.
"You little romancer! Do you imagine that anyone very nice would chum in with Jim Peters? Isn't there something in your book about birds of the same quills?"
"It's aigrettes, in my book," retorted Bess. "But it all applies to the same sort of birds. Just the same, I am interested in Mr. Jones."
"I fancy perhaps that we are," said Cora. "But there is the point Ben spoke of. We are to turn to the left."
Gracefully as a human thing, the boat curved around and made its path through the narrow part of the lake.
"And there are the willows," announced Bess, as she saw the great green giants dipped into the water's surface.
"Yes. I thought it would be much farther on. But this is an ideal spot for hiding. One could scarcely be found here without a megaphone."
"Hear our voices echo," remarked Bess. "An echo always makes me feel desolate."
"Don't you like to hear your own voice?" asked Cora lightly. "I rather fancy listening to mine. An echo was always a delight to me."
"There's a man sitting under that tree!" almost gasped Bess.
"So there is, and I am glad of it. He will be able to direct us. I shouldn't be surprised if he were Mr. Jones," said Cora turning the Petrel to shore.
Under a big willow, in a sort of natural basket seat, formed by the uncovered roots of the big trees, a man sat, and as the boat grazed the shore, he looked up from some papers he held in his hands. Cora could see that he was very dark, and had that almost uncomfortable manner of affecting extreme politeness peculiar to foreigners of certain classes, for, as she spoke to him, he arose, slid the paper into his pocket, and bowed most profusely.
"I am looking for the cabin of Mr. Peters," said Cora, stepping ashore toward the tree. "Can you direct me to it?"
"The cabin of Mr. Peters?" and when the man spoke the foreign suspicion was confirmed. "Why, who might Mr. Peters be?"
"Jim Peters; don't you know him?" asked Cora determined not to be thrown off the track. "He lives just in here—I should think in that grove—"
"Oh, my dear miss no! You are mistaken. No one lives around here. I am simply a rustic, looking about. But Jim Peters?"
"Are you not Mr. Jones?" blurted out Cora.
In spite of himself the man started.
"Mr. Jones?" he repeated. "Well, that name will do as well as any other. But allow me to tie your boat. Then I will take pleasure in showing you one of the prettiest strips of land this side of Naples."
"Oh, thank you. I have secured it," said Cora. "But I would like to explore this island."
Bess tugged at Cora's elbow. "Don't go too far. I am afraid of that man," she said in a whisper.
"Were you drawing as we came up?" Cora asked the stranger. "This is an ideal spot for sketching."
"Yes, I was drawing," he replied.
"Couldn't we see your picture?" asked Cora. "I do so love an outline."
"Oh, indeed it is not worth looking at. I must show you something when I have what will be worth while. This is only a bare idea."
"Well," said Cora starting off through the wood, "I must look for a cabin, or something like it. I have particular business with Jim Peters."
"But you will only hurt your feet miss," objected the man. "Allow me to show you the island," and he bowed again. "Such wild swamp flowers I have never seen. It is the everglades, and well worth the short journey."
There was something about his insistent civility that betokened a set purpose, and since Ben (what a wonder Ben was) had told Cora that a man named Jones "hung out" with Jim Peters, Cora instantly guessed that this was the man, and that he was determined to keep her away from the shack. The situation gave zest to her purpose. Bess was fairly quaking as Cora could see, but what danger could there be in insisting upon finding that shack?
"I have only a short time to be out," objected Cora, "and perhaps some other time I will come to see your everglade. Come, Bess, I see a path this way, and I fancy if we follow it we will find an end to the path," she concluded.
"But may I not have the pleasure of your name?" the man called after her. "Perhaps we might meet—"
"Don't," whispered Bess. "Pretend you did not hear him."
"Oh, just see those flag lilies!" Cora called to Bess, covering the man's question without answering it. "Let us get some."
"Oh, aren't they beautiful!" replied Bess, in a strained voice. "I certainly must secure some of those."
They hurried away from the dark-browed man. He took his hand out of his pocket and upon the smallest finger his eyes rested. He sneered as he looked at a diamond ring that glittered on that slim brown finger.
"Foolish maid," he said aloud, and then the web of a strange force threw its invisible yet unbreakable chains over the summer life of Cora Kimball.
DEEP IN THE DARK WOOD
"Cora, dear, please do not go any farther. Somehow I am afraid that man will follow us."
"Why, Bess! I thought you were going to be interested in Mr. Jones," and Cora stooped to pick up a wonderful clump of flag lilies.
"Jones! How could he be a Jones? He's a Spaniard."
"I thought so myself, Bess. But we do not have to plant his family tree. Now don't be a baby, girlie," and Cora squeezed the plump hand that hung so close to her own. "Let us get to the shack, and see if the boys' boat is about there. I am determined to run down Jim Peters."
Bess sighed. When Cora was determined! But the man had left the water's edge.
"Cora, see!" said Bess. "He is getting into a boat!"
"Yes and the boat belongs to Peters. There! He is surely the one who helps Jim out in all his affairs. Now we may seek the shack in safety," said Cora, as she watched the man at the water's edge push off. "I know the shack is over there, for I smell smoke in that direction. But we will turn the other way until he has cleared off," finished Cora as she and Bess stepped lightly over the dainty ferns that nestled in the damp earth.
"He is quite a boatman," remarked Bess, watching the man ply his oars, and make rapid progress up the lake.
"Yes, he must have been brought up near the water," replied Cora. "They say such skill as that is not accomplished on dry land. Jack always declared he could tell a fellow at college who had ever been near the water when a lad. They take to it like a duck."
"You can easily see that he is a foreigner," went on Bess with her speculations. "He must either be an Italian or a Spaniard."
"Now we may turn up the path. Yes this is a path, for everything is trodden down on it," declared Cora. "I hope the hut will not be too deep in the wood."
"We won't go if it is," objected Bess. "I don't fancy being taken captive by any wild woods clan."
"There," exclaimed Cora. "I just caught sight—of—it's a woman's skirt!"
"Yes, and there is a woman in it," added Bess. "See, here she comes."
"No, I don't think she does. I think she is standing still. We must have frightened her."
"What a looking—woman!"
"Great proportions," described Cora. "I guess wherever she lives they must feed her well."
Cora led the way, and Bess timidly followed.
"Don't go too near," whispered the latter.
"Why, she cannot eat us," replied Cora, smiling over her shoulder to the timid one.
"Well, what do you want?" roared the woman, as soon as she could be heard by the young ladies.
"We are looking for Jim Peter's shack," replied Cora bravely. "I have been sent here to speak with him."
"Have, eh? Well go ahead. Speak with me. I'm Mrs. Jim Peters," said the woman with a sneer.
"My business is with him," again spoke Cora, not in the least frightened by the voice which she knew was made coarser just to scare her.
"Well, he don't have no business that ain't mine," said the woman, "'specially with young 'uns like you, so you kin just clear off here before I—"
"Come on Cora," begged Bess. "I am shaking from head to foot."
"All right, dear," replied Cora, in a voice for Bess alone. "But, Mrs. Peters, can you tell me when your husband will be about here? I have some work to do on a boat and I understand he does that sort of thing."
The woman's face changed. "If that's what you want I'll tell him. You see it is always best to let the woman know first, fer Jim does do some foolish things. But just now he's got one boat to do?"
"I wonder if he might have a canoe to sell?" interrupted Cora, as the thought of thus trapping the woman occurred to her.
"He will have one in a few days," the other 'answered. "But it has to be fixed up."
"Could I see it?" asked Cora. "I may not be able to get over here again."
"Well, the shack is locked and I couldn't show it to you, but when Jim comes I'll tell him. Who will I say?"
Cora hesitated. "I hardly think it will be worth while really to order it," she said, "as I must have my brother look it over. I have a motor boat."
"I heard it chuggin' and I thought that lazy Tony had got a new way of wastin' his time. Tony is all right at writin' letters but he's a lazy bones else ways."
"Who's Tony?" asked Cora as if indifferently.
"He's Jim's side partner. Say, girl, I'll just tell you. I came up here a few weeks ago from a newspaper advertisement. I never knowed Jim Peters before, but if them two fellers think I'm goin' to cook in that hut and never go no place off this dock they're foolin' themselves. They don't know all about Kate Simpson."
Both girls were utterly surprised by her change of manner. Cora was quick to take advantage of it.
"You are quite right," she said. "This is no place for a lone woman, and some day when I have my brother along I will fetch my boat, and show you the big islands about here. It would do you good to get out in the clear—away from these dense woods."
"That it would, and I'm obliged to you miss," said the woman while Bess fairly gasped. "I want to go to one island—Fern Island they call it. Have you ever been there?"
"I know where it is," replied Cora, wondering what the woman's interest in that place might be. "I have been all around it."
"They say it's haunted," and the woman laughed. "It's a great game to put a haunt on a place to keep others off."
"Well, some day when you can leave your work, I'll take you over there," and Cora meant it, for she had not the slightest fear, either of the woman or her rough ways.
Besides, she felt instinctively that the woman's help would be valuable in the possible recovery of her ring and of the lost canoe.
"I'll be goin' back to the shackt fer if Jim comes along held raise a row fer me talkin' to strangers. You'd think I was looney the way he watches me."
"And is he a stranger to you?"
"Well, to tell the truth my mother and Jim's was cousins, but I never knowed him to be such a poor character as he is, or I'd never have come up here. But I don't have to stay all summer,"' she finished significantly.
"Well, good-bye, and I'll see you soon again," said Cora turning toward her boat.
"Good-bye, miss, but say," and she half whispered, "is that girl dumb?"
Cora burst out laughing. Bess a mute!
"No indeed, but she always lets me do the talking," answered Cora with a sty look at the blushing Bess.
"She has good sense, fer you know how to do it," declared Kate Simpson.
They could hear her bend the brush as she passed up the narrow way.
"What a queer creature," remarked Bess, when she felt that it was safe to try her voice.
"She is queer, but I think she knows a lot about things of interest to us. What did you think of her remark about Fern Island? To that pretty little spot we will make our next voyage," declared Cora, pulling on her thick gloves and taking her place in front of the motor. "Turn out into the open lake," she told Bess as they started off. "We will make a quick run and get back to the bungalow before the others have done the marketing. I am glad it is not our turn to get the lunch for I want to make a trip to Fern Island directly after we have had a bite. Seems to me," and she increased the speed of the engine a little, "it takes more time to get a meal at camp than it does at home. The simple life certainly has its own peculiar complications."
"Oh, there comes that man back! I am so glad we are away from that place," exclaimed Bess, as the boat of Jim Peters, with the smiling foreigner called "Jones" floated by.
THE HAUNT OF FERN ISLAND
The four motor girls started out in the Petrel. Never had the lake seemed so beautiful, nor had the sky appeared a deeper, truer blue. The pretty Placid lake was dotted all over with summer craft, the sound of the motor boat being almost constant in its echoing, "cut-a-cuta" against the wonderful green hills that banked shore and, island.
Hazel was steering, and of course Cora was running the engine. The pennant waved gaily from the bow of the boat, and of the many colors afloat it seemed that those chosen by the motor girls shone out most brilliantly on the glistening, silvery waters.
"I'm not a bit afraid now," admitted Belle, "I do think it is all a matter of getting used to the water. I thought I should never breathe again after that first day we went out."
"Yes," said Cora, "the water has a peculiar fascination when one is accustomed to it, and I am sure Belle will want to live on a houseboat before we break camp. There go the boys! What a fine motor boat!"
"Yes," said Hazel, "that's one from Paul's garage. Paul promised Jack he would speak to Mr. Breslin, the owner, about letting it out for the summer, as the Breslin family is not coming out here until later. It's the Peter-Pan, and the fastest boat on the lake."
"See them go! I guess they don't see us,"' remarked Belle.
"I am glad they do not," Cora said, "for I want to do some exploring, and if the boys came along they would be sure to have other plans for us. Now, Hazel, run in there. That is Fern Island."
"Oh, there's a canoe!" exclaimed Belle. "See! and a girl is paddling. What a queer looking girl!"
"Isn't she!" agreed Bess. "Why she has on a man's hat!"
"She sees that we are watching her. Look how she is hurrying off," remarked Cora. "I wonder how far this cove goes in?"
"We had better not try to find out," cautioned Belle. "I think we have had enough of happenings around here. This is where the boy's boat was stolen from; isn't it?"
"No, it was over there, but I guess we will put in at the front of the island, as there is no telling how deep the cove is," said Cora. "But see that girl go! Why she's actually gone! Where can she have disappeared to?"
"This ought to be called the 'disappearing' land," suggested Hazel. "I was sure that little canoe was directly in front of us, but now it is out of sight."
"Maybe that is the 'Haunt Girl of Fern Island,'" ventured Cora with a laugh. "I got a pretty good look at her, and I am willing to say she looked neither like a summer girl nor a winter girl—that is, one who might live here the year around. But just what sort of girl she might be I shouldn't like to speculate. Her hair got loose as she hurried, and she reminded me of some wild water bird."
"Be careful getting out," Belle cautioned Bess. "This new boat is new to slipperiness."
"Oh, I will get hold of a tree branch," Bess replied. "Then, if the boat drifts out, I can swing to safety."
All were ashore but Bess, and as such things often happen when they are looked for, the Petrel did careen from the waves of a passing launch, and just as Bess grasped an overhead willow branch, the boat swung out and she sprang in. Everybody laughed, but Bess lost her breath, a condition she disliked because it always added to the deep color of her plump cheeks.
"There!" cried Belle. "Didn't I tell you?"
"I wish that next time, Twin, you would leave me to guess!" exclaimed the other twin, rather pettishly.
"Isn't this perfectly delightful!" exclaimed Hazel, running over the soft earth where ferns were matted, and wild flowers grew tangled in their efforts for freedom. "I never saw such dainty little flowers! Oh! they are sabatial I have seen them in Massachusetts," and she fell to gathering the small pink blooms that rival the wild rose in shade and perfume.
"Here are the Maiden Hair ferns," called Cora. "No wonder they call this Fern Island."
"Let us see how many varieties of fern we can gather," suggested Belle. "I have ferns pressed since last year, and they look so pretty on picture mats."
At this the girls became interested in the number of ferns gatherable. Belle went one way, Bess another, and so on, until each had to call to make another hear her.
Cora ran along fearlessly. She was diving very deep into the ferny woods, and she was intent on coming out first, if it were only in a race to get ferns.
Suddenly she stopped!
What was that sound?
Surely it was some one running, and it was none of the girls!
Standing erect, listening with her nerves as well as with her ears, Cora waited. That running or rustling through the leaves was very close by. Should she call the girls?
But before she could answer herself, she saw something dart across a big rock that was caressed by a great maple tree that grew over it.
"Oh!" she screamed involuntarily. Then she saw what it was. A man, a wild looking man, with long hair and a bushy beard.
He had stopped just long enough to look in the direction of Cora. She saw him distinctly. Oh! if he should run toward Bess or Belle! Hazel would not be so easily alarmed but surely this was a wild man if ever there was such a creature.
"That is the ghost of Fern Island," Cora concluded. "I must get back to the girls."
She turned and hurried in the direction from which she had heard voices. "If they have not seen him," she reflected, "I will not say anything until we get back to camp."
"I have ten different kinds of ferns," suddenly called Belle, in a voice which plainly said that no wild man had crossed her path.
"I've got eight," said Hazel. "How many have you, Cora?"
Cora glanced at her empty hands. She had dropped her ferns.
"I have tossed away mine. I was afraid of black spiders," she said evasively.
"Isn't that too bad," wailed Bess, "and none of us picked any maiden hair because we thought you had it. Let us go and get some."
"Oh, I think we had best not this time," said Cora quickly. "I really want to get to the post office landing before the mail goes out. We can come another time when I have something to kill spiders with. I never saw such huge black fellows as there are around here." This was no shading of the truth, for indeed the spiders around Cedar Lake did grow like 'turtles', Jack had declared.
"Oh, all right," agreed Belle. "But this is the most delightful island and I am coming out here again. I hope the boys will come along, for there are such great bushes of huckleberries over there that we simply couldn't climb to them alone."'
"We will invite them next time," said Cora, and when she turned over the fly wheel of her boat her hands that had held the ferns were still trembling. She looked uneasily at the shore as they darted off.
"What's the matter, Cora?" asked Hazel. "You look as if you had seen the ghost of Fern Island."
"I have," said Cora, but the girls thought she had only agreed with Hazel to avoid disagreeing.
"What boat is that?" asked Bess a moment later, looking at a small rowing craft just leaving the other side of the island.
"It's Jim Peters'" replied Cora, "we were lucky to get back into ours before he saw it. I wouldn't wonder but what he might like to take a motor boat ride in the Petrel."
"Do you suppose he really would steal a boat?" exclaimed Belle.
"He might like to try a motor, I said," replied Cora. "They say that Jim Peters tries everything on Cedar Lake, even to running a shooting gallery. But see! He is reading a letter! Where ever did he get a letter on this barren island?"
"Maybe he carries the mail for the ghost," said Hazel, with a laugh.
JACK AND CORA
"Cora, where is your ring?"
The sister looked at her finger. "Oh Jack," she replied, "I will get it—but not just now. Why?"
"I thought you always wore that ring when you put on your frills, and I haven't seen you so dressed up since you came to camp. Somehow, Cora, I feared you might have lost it."
"I did," she said simply.
"Your new diamond!"
"Yes, but I feel sure of finding it. Now, Jackie dear, please don't cross question me. I shouldn't have taken it off, but I did, so and that is how I came to lose it. But I want to tell you something while we are alone. I saw the ghost of Fern Island to-day."
"Nonsense! A ghost?" sneered Jack. "Why, Cora, if the other girls said that I should laugh at them."
"Well I want to tell you. We were on the island-the girls and I— and I got a little away from them when suddenly the wildest looking man rushed across the path. He had a beard like Rip Van Winkle and looked a lot like him too."
"Rip might be summering out this way, though I rather thought he had taken a trip in an airship," said Jack. "But honestly, Cora, what was the man like? Paul had a story of that sort. He declares he, too, saw this famous ghost."
"Do you suppose he might have taken the canoe? The wild man I mean. We saw a strange looking girl in a canoe and somehow she vanished. We could see her boat and then we couldn't, although we could not make out where she went to. It was the queerest thing. There must be some strange curves on those islands."
"Oh there are, lots of them. They are as curvy as a ball-twirler's best pitch. But the ghost. That is what interests me, since—ahem—since he has a daughter. Was she pretty?"
"I should say she was rather pretty," replied Cora, quite seriously, "but she did have a wild look too. I do believe she is a daughter to the wild man, whoever he may be."
"Well, everyone around here declares that is land is haunted, but fisher-folk are always so superstitious. Yet we must hunt it up. I will go out with you the next time you go. Did the other girls see him?" went on the brother.
"No, and I decided not to tell them. You know how timid Bess and Belle are, and if they thought there was such a creature about the island I would never get them to put foot on shore there again, and I do so want to investigate that matter. I believe Jim Peters has something to do with it for I saw him coming away from there with a letter. Now what would he be doing with a letter out on a barren island?"
"Oh Jim is a foxy one. I wouldn't trust him as far as the end of my nose. But here come the others. Will you go over to the Casino this evening."
"Yes, we had planned to go. That is why I am dressed up. Hazel may have to go to town to-morrow, and I want her to see something before she goes," replied Cora, just as the girls, and Walter, Ed and Paul strode up to the bungalow.
"Oh! we have had the greatest time," blurted out Bess. "Cora, you should have been with us. Ben got angry with Jim Peters, and he and Dan threatened to throw Jim overboard, and—"
"Jim seems to have a hankering after fights," put in Ed. "I haven't settled with him yet."
"Ed, you promised me you would call that off," Cora reminded him. "You know it was all about me, and you have given me your promise not to take it up again. That Jim Peters is an ugly man."
"All the same we heard that you were not afraid of him," said Walter with a tug at Cora's elbow. "Didn't you beard the lion in his den?"
"Who said I did?" asked Cora flushing.
"I promised—crossed my heart not to tell," said Walter. "But all the same the folks at the landing are talking about the pretty girl who went all the way up the cove, and stopped at the place where Peters and his pal land. I would advise you to be careful. They say that tribe is not of the best social standing," went on Walter quite seriously.
"I won't go there again," put in Bess.
"What! Were you along?" demanded Jack. "Then you must have been the pretty girl referred to at the landing."
"I was a pretty scared girl," declared Bess. "I tell you, I don't want to meet any more Peters or Joneses or Kates," she finished.
"But what was the trouble between Jim and Ben?" asked Cora.
"Let me tell it," Belle exclaimed. "We were just standing by the boathouse, watching some men fish, when Jim Peters, came along. He stopped and took a paper out of his pocket. The wind suddenly blew up—"
"And took the paper out of his hand," interrupted Hazel. "It blew across to where Dan was standing, and what was more natural than that Dan should pick it up?"
"And did Jim get angry at that?" inquired Cora.
"Angry! He fairly fell upon poor Dan," put in Walter, "and when Ben saw him—I tell you Ben may stand a lot of trouble on his own account, but, when it comes to anyone trying to do Dan, Ben is right there to fight for him. Didn't he almost put Jim over the rail?"
"There must have been quite a lively time," said Jack. "Sorry I missed it. There is so little excitement around here that we need all we can get. And what was the answer?"
"Jim took his old letter and slunk off," finished Belle. "And Dan said he couldn't have read even the name on the out side if he had tried. He said it must have been written in Greek," and Belle laughed at the idea of the classics getting mixed up in any such small affair.
"Seems to me," said Cora thoughtfully, "that Jim had some very important reason for fearing that one might see that letter."
"Yes," declared Hazel, "that struck me right away. I shouldn't be surprised if it had been addressed to—the ghost!"
"Well, if you young ladies intend to see what is going on at the Casino this evening," Ed reminded them, "we had better make a start. This is amateur night, I believe."
"And the Blake girls are going to sing," announced Jack. "Then I shall have a chance to clap my hands at pretty Mabel," and he went, through one of those inimitable boys' pranks, neither funny nor tragic, but just descriptive.
"I think it is awfully nice of the Blake girls to take part," said Cora, "for in this little summer colony everyone ought to be agreeable."
"But I notice you are not taking part," Ed said with a laugh. "Just fancy Cora Kimball on the Casino platform."
"Don't fancy anything of the kind," objected Bess. "We are willing to be sociable but we have no ambition to shine."
"Come along," called Jack, who was on ahead with Hazel, "and mind, if anything brushes up against you, it is apt to be a coon, not a cat, as Belle thought the other night."
They started off for the path that led to the public pavilion on the lake shore. Cora was with Ed, Walter had Belle on one side and Bess on the other, because he declared that the twins should always go together to "balance" him. Jack and Hazel led the way.
At the pavilion the seats were almost all occupied, for campers from all sides of the lake flocked there on the entertainment evenings. A band was dreaming over some tune, each musician evidently being his own leader.
The elder Miss Blake, Jeannette, who sat on an end seat, arose as they entered and made room for the Chelton folks to sit beside her, meanwhile gushing over the prospect of the evening's good time, and the good luck of "meeting girls from home."
Walter allowed Bess and Belle to pass to the chairs beyond Miss Blake and thus placed himself beside the not any too desirable spinster.
He made a wry face aside to Jack. He liked girls but the elder Miss Blake!
"Mabel is going to sing 'Dreams,'" she said sweetly. "I do love Mabel's voice in 'Dreams.'"
"Yes, I think I should too," said Walter, but the joke was lost on Jeannette. "Who is that dark man over there?" he asked.
"Oh that's a foreigner. They call him Jones, but that's because his name is so unpronounceable. Isn't he handsome?" asked the lady.
"Rather odd looking I should say," returned Walter, "but it seems to me he is attracted in this direction. Why should he stare over this way so?"
"He knows me," replied Miss Blake, bowing vigorously to "Jones" who was almost turned around in his chair in his determination to see the Chelton party.
"He's mighty rude, I think," Walter complained again, leaning over to speak to Cora who was just beyond Bess. "Do you feel the draft from that window, Cora?" he asked.
"Oh I—" then she stopped. Something in Walter's voice told her that it was not the window draft he was referring to. She glanced across the room, and her eyes fell upon the man she had met at Jim Peter's landing place.
"I think those seats over there—up near the stage are much pleasanter," said Jack, who also saw that something was wrong. "Suppose we change?"
"All right" assented Cora, taking the cue. "There are just four."
"I will stay here with Hazel, while you and Wallie go over there with the girls," suggested Jack. "And say Wallie," he whispered, "if I catch you fanning that young lady in the row ahead I'll—duck you on the way home."
Walter apologized profusely for leaving Miss Blake. She evidently was sorry that the window had been open for she was "so enjoying talking of dear old Chelton." The place had only been thus mentioned by herself.
"Who is that dark man?" Hazel inquired of Jack, for, as if his eyes were magnets, every girl in the group felt they were riveted upon her.
"I don't know," replied Jack, "but he seems to be very much interested in someone here. There, he is watching Cora. I wonder who the fellow is?"
The curtain rising interrupted the speculation. A man cushioned like a cozy corner laughed at himself while waiting for his audience to do so. Then he gave a yell and started to sing a ridiculous song about the milkmaid and the summer boarder. When he had finished one verse he took another "fit" of laughter, but somehow the audience did not see it his way, and when he tried it again, he broke off with an explanation. He felt sure that the people did not quite understand the joke, and he tried to tell them how very funny it was. To relieve the situation another person came on. One side of the figure was draped in the evening garb of a lady, while the other wore the full dress suit of a gentleman. The illusion was not at all bad, especially when the "person" waltzed with himself, with his arms around the other side of the evening dress the effect was really funny.