THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN FLORIDA
Wintering in the Sunny South
LAURA LEE HOPE
Author of "The Outdoor Girls of Deepdale," "The Outdoor Girls in a Motor Car," "The Bobbsey Twins," "The Bobbsey Twins at School," Etc.
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers
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BOOKS FOR GIRLS BY LAURA LEE HOPE
12mo. Cloth. Illustrated. Price per volume, 40 cents, postpaid.
THE OUTDOOR GIRLS SERIES
THE OUTDOOR GIRLS OF DEEPDALE THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT RAINBOW LAKE THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN A MOTOR CAR THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN A WINTER CAMP THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN FLORIDA
THE BOBBSEY TWINS BOOKS
For Little Men and Women
THE BOBBSEY TWINS THE BOBBSEY TWINS IN THE COUNTRY THE BOBBSEY TWINS AT THE SEASHORE THE BOBBSEY TWINS AT SCHOOL THE BOBBSEY TWINS AT SNOW LODGE
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Grosset & Dunlap, Publishers, New York Copyright, 1913, by Grosset & Dunlap.
THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN FLORIDA
CHAPTER PAGE I BAD NEWS 1 II GOOD NEWS 14 III WILL'S LETTER 25 IV "COME HOME!" 33 V MISSING AGAIN 41 VI AN APPEAL FOR HELP 50 VII OFF FOR FLORIDA 59 VIII LAUNCHING THE BOAT 68 IX ON A SAND BAR 75 X DOUBTFUL HELP 82 XI INTO THE INTERIOR 93 XII A WARNING 103 XIII A STRANGE TOW 108 XIV THE TATTERED YOUTH 118 XV THE TWO MEN 126 XVI SUSPICIOUS CHARACTERS 132 XVII IN DANGER 139 XVIII BETWEEN TWO PERILS 147 XIX LOST 154 XX THE LOON 163 XXI TO THE RESCUE 169 XXII THE EVERGLADE CAMP 177 XXIII THE ESCAPE 185 XXIV THE YOUTH ON THE RAFT 189 XXV WILL FORD 196
THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN FLORIDA
"Why, Grace, what in the world is the matter? You've been crying!"
"Yes, I have, Betty. But don't mind me. It's all so sudden. Come in. I shall be all right presently. Don't mind!"
Grace Ford tried to repress her emotion, but the cause of her tears was evidently too recent, or the effort at self-control too much for her, for she gave way to another outburst, sobbing this time on the shoulder of Betty Nelson, who patted her sympathetically, and murmured soothingly to her chum.
"But what is it, Grace?" Betty asked, after waiting a minute.
"I—I'll tell you in a moment or two, Betty. Just—just wait," and the tall, graceful girl made a more successful effort to master her feelings.
"Here come Amy and Mollie," went on Betty, as she glanced from the library window and saw two girls walking up the path opened across the lawn through the mass of newly fallen snow. "Do you want to meet them, Grace; or shall I say you don't feel well—have a headache? They'll understand. And perhaps in a little while——"
"No—no, Betty. It's sweet of you to want to help me; but Amy and Mollie might just as well know now as later. I'll be able to see them—in a little while. It—it's all so sudden."
"But what does it all mean, Grace? I can't understand. Is anyone dead—or—or hurt?" and Betty Nelson, who had called at the house of Grace to talk over plans for a dance they were going to attend the following week, looked anxiously at her chum. Only the day before Grace had seemed like her nearly-always jolly self. She and her three chums, including Betty, had been down town shopping, and Grace, as usual, had indulged in chocolates—her one failing, if such it can be called.
"Surely she can't be ill," thought Betty. "Ill from too many chocolates? I've seen her take twice as many as she did yesterday, and she doesn't look ill."
With this half-formed thought in her mind Betty looked more critically at her chum. Aside from the tears—which seldom add to a girl's beauty—there was no change in Grace Ford.
That is, no change except one caused by something rather mysterious, Betty thought—something that was hard for Grace to tell, but which had deeply affected her.
There came a ring at the door. Betty started toward it from the library, where she and Grace had gone when Grace let her chum in a short time before.
"Shall I answer, Grace?" inquired Betty, hesitating.
"Yes, do, please. I think Katy is with mamma. She took the news very much to heart. Let Amy and Mollie in, and then I'll tell you all about it. Oh, but I don't know what to do!"
"Now look here, Grace Ford!" exclaimed Betty briskly, pausing a moment on her way to the door. "You just stop this! If no one is dead, and no one is hurt, then it can't be so very dreadful. You just stop now, and when we all get together we'll help you in whatever trouble you have. You know that; don't you?"
"Oh, yes, Betty, I do. You aren't the 'Little Captain' to all of us for nothing. I'll try and not cry any more."
"Do. It—it isn't at all becoming. Your nose is positively like a—lobster!"
"It is not, Betty Nelson!" Grace flared.
"It certainly is. Look in the glass if you don't believe me. There—take my chamois and give it a little rub before I let in Amy and Mollie. It's only nice, clean talcum—you needn't think it's powder."
"All right—as if talcum wasn't powder, though," and Grace smiled through the traces of her recent tears.
"That's better," decided Betty, with a nod of her shapely head and a bright look from her sparkling eyes. "Yes, I'll be there in a moment," she called as there came another ring at the bell.
"Shall I bring them right in, Grace?" she called over her shoulder, as she neared the door.
"Yes—yes. I might as well—have it over with," faltered the weeping one.
"Gracious, you'd think someone was going to be hanged, or beheaded, or sent to the galleys for life—or some other dreadful thing such as we read of in our ancient histories," commented Betty. "Cheer up, Grace. There may be worse to come."
"It's awfully good of you, Betty, to try and cheer me, only, if you understood—but there—let them in. They must be perishing!"
"Oh, it isn't so cold. You don't feel well, that's all. Hello, Amy—Mollie. Come in!" she greeted the other girls, at the same time endeavoring by nods and winks to convey some idea that all was not well with Grace.
But if Betty hoped to convey a quiet intimation that something out of the ordinary had happened she did not succeed. In her eagerness to warn the newcomers not to ask questions she overdid it, and succeeded only in making them alarmed.
"What—what is it?" asked Mollie, in a sort of stage whisper.
"Oh, nothing like that," said Betty, seeing that she was only making matters worse.
"Who—who is——" began Amy.
"No one!" said Betty, half-sharply. "Don't put on such a mournful look, Amy. But Grace has had some bad news, I expect, so I let you in."
"Bad news!" echoed Mollie.
"What kind?" inquired Amy.
"I don't know—yet. She's going to tell us."
The two newcomers, divesting themselves of their rubbers, walked on tiptoe toward the library, preceded by Betty. The latter heard their cautious approach and turned on them quickly.
"Nobody's asleep!" she exclaimed. "Why don't you act—naturally?"
"Why don't you, yourself, Betty Nelson?" demanded Mollie Billette, quickly, her dark eyes flashing. "You meet us as if—as if something terrible had happened, and because we live up to the part, and behave ourselves, you——"
"Hush, please," begged gentle Amy, for well she knew Mollie's failing—an exceedingly quick temper.
"I beg your pardon," spoke Mollie, contritely. "I forgot myself."
"That's all right," said Betty, with a smile. "I don't blame you. But we must all help Grace now. She feels very bad."
As the three entered the library they saw their chum standing near a window, looking out over the snow-covered lawn. Grace did not turn at the approach of her friends.
Then Amy stole softly up to her, and, reaching up her arms, tried to put them around Grace's neck. But Grace was tall, while Amy was rather short, so the little act of kindness could not be carried out.
Mollie laughed a little. She could not help it.
Amy flushed. She was rather sensitive on the point of her stature.
"Don't mind them, Amy," said Grace quickly, as she turned about, placing her own arms around the other. "I know I am too tall, and I seem to keep on growing. Hello, Mollie dear. I'm so glad you came," and she kissed the two newcomers.
Her eyes filled with tears again, seeing which Betty called out:
"Now, Grace, remember you promised not to do that any more. Just be brave, and tell us all about it; that is, if we can help you in any manner."
"I—I don't know whether you can or not," spoke Grace slowly, "but I'll tell you just the same. It's—it's about my brother Will!"
She paused a moment, catching her breath as she gave this piece of information.
"Has he—has he——" began Betty, hoping to make it easier for Grace to tell.
"No, he hasn't done anything to attract public attention this time," went on Grace. "But he has run away."
It was a surprised chorus from the three visitors.
"Yes he has left Uncle Isaac's home—stopped work in the cotton mill, and gone—no one knows where."
"Why, Grace!" exclaimed Mollie. "Do you really mean it?"
Grace nodded. She could not speak for a moment.
"How did it happen?" asked Betty.
"Who told you?" Amy wanted to know.
"Uncle Isaac himself told us," resumed Grace, after a pause. "As for how it happened we don't know yet. Uncle Isaac is on his way now to give us some particulars. He just telephoned to mamma, and that is what upset us all. I have sent for papa to come home from the office. He will be here to meet Uncle Isaac I hope. Oh, isn't it dreadful!"
"But perhaps it is only some boyish prank," suggested Betty hopefully. "What are the particulars? Perhaps he has only gone off with some friends, and will come back again, just as he did the—other time."
"The other time," as Betty called it was rather a delicate subject with the Ford family, for Will with some chums had gotten into a little difficulty not long before this story opens, and the present complication was an outcome of that. I shall describe them in order presently.
"No, I don't believe it is a prank this time," went on Grace. "He has been gone some time, and we never knew it until Uncle Isaac mentioned it casually over the telephone. Oh, I wish he would come! We can't do a thing until we hear the particulars. Then papa will start an inquiry, I think. Poor Will! I hope he is not—not hurt!" and again Grace showed symptoms of tears.
"Now stop that!" commanded the Little Captain sharply. "You know it does no good to worry. Wait until you have some real facts to go on."
"Yes, do," urged Mollie.
"But he isn't your brother," said Grace in retort. "How would you like it, Mollie Billette, if Paul should be missing some day?"
"Oh, I'd feel dreadful, of course. But Paul and Dodo get into so many scrapes," she added, with a curious shrug of her shoulders, in which she betrayed her French ancestry—"so very many scrapes, my dears, that we are past being shocked."
But, for all Mollie spoke so lightly, she knew—and so did her chums—that should anything happen to the twins Mollie would be the first to show emotion.
"Have you heard no word from Will himself?" asked Betty, after a pause.
"Not a word, and that makes it seem all the worse. If we only had some word—something to go by, we might not feel so bad. But it came like a bolt out of a blue sky—what Uncle Isaac telephoned about an hour ago. He is down town attending to business, and he said he'd come up as soon as he could. He was surprised himself, to know that Will was not home."
"Then he knew that he had left Atlanta?" asked Mollie.
"Yes, but he supposed Will had started back home."
"I'm afraid I don't exactly understand it all," said Amy in a low voice. "You know I've been away, and——"
"Oh, of course!" exclaimed Grace. "I forgot that you had been off with that newly-found brother of yours. Well, you see, Amy, Will disgraced himself a while ago——"
"I don't call it much of a disgrace," said Betty in defense of the absent one.
"Well, papa did," said Grace. "I thought perhaps he was a little too severe on Will, but mamma said it was best to be severe at the start."
"What did he do?" asked Amy.
"I didn't hear all the particulars," went on Grace. "But you know that new Latin teacher the High School boys have—Professor Cark, his name is."
"Well, the boys didn't like him from the very start," proceeded Grace, "and I guess he didn't like the boys any too well. They played some tricks on him, and he retaliated by doubling up on their lessons. Then one night he was kidnapped—taken from his boarding place and hazed. It was nothing very bad, but the faculty held a meeting, and voted to expel all the boys concerned in it. Will was one, and papa was so angry that he said he would punish Will in a way he wouldn't forget. He said he'd take him out of school, before he'd have him expelled, and make him lose a term.
"So poor Will was given his choice of starting the study of law in papa's office, or going to work for Uncle Isaac Ford—papa's brother. Uncle Isaac has a big cotton mill down in Atlanta, Georgia, you know. Papa thought it would be a good thing for Will to see what hard work meant. At the same time it would take him away from Deepdale, and out of the influence of some of the boys who were responsible for the hazing. I don't believe Will was one of the ringleaders."
"And did he go South?" asked Amy.
"He did. He chose to work for Uncle Isaac instead of studying law here. And for the past month or so he has been in the mill. Then, all of a sudden, he disappears."
"But how?" asked Mollie.
"We don't know the particulars," said Grace. "We supposed up to about an hour ago, that Will was in Atlanta, though we wondered why he didn't write. But then he never was very good at sending letters. Then came this 'phone message. I answered and I was surprised to hear Uncle Isaac speaking.
"At first I thought he was talking from Atlanta, and I was afraid something had happened. But Uncle Isaac said he was here—in Deepdale, and then he startled me by asking how Will was.
"'Why, isn't he down in your mill?' I asked. Uncle Isaac said he was not—that Will had not come to work one morning, and had left a note saying that he was going to quit. Of course Uncle Isaac thought Will had come back home. But when I told him we had not seen my brother, why, Uncle Isaac was as startled as I was. He said he'd come right up here and tell us all he knew."
Grace paused. She had spoken rather at length.
"Well, that is rather strange," murmured Mollie.
"But of course it may be easily explained when your Uncle comes," said Betty.
"There he is now!" cried Grace, glancing out of a window. "And he has papa with him. He must have stopped at the office. Oh, I'm so glad papa is here!" and she hurried to the front door to let them in.
"Oh, father!" gasped Grace, as she slipped into his waiting arms. Hardly a greeting did she give to Uncle Isaac, but perhaps this was on account of having spoken to him over the telephone shortly before. "Oh, father! Where is poor Will?"
"I don't know, Grace," answered Mr. Ford gently. "But don't worry. We shall find him. How is your mother?"
"Oh, she feels it dreadfully of course. She's been wanting you so much."
"I came as soon as I could. Your Uncle Isaac stopped for me after telephoning the news to you."
"Yes, I allowed that was the best procedure," said Mr. Ford Sr., he being the elder brother of the father of Grace. Uncle Isaac spoke with a slight Southern accent, but not very pronounced, since he had lived most of his life in the North.
"I'll see your mother first, Grace, and then we'll discuss what's best to be done," went on Mr. Ford. "It was rather a shock to me."
"Oh, father! I hope nothing has happened to poor Will!" sighed Grace.
"Well, if there has, he brought it on himself," said Uncle Isaac sharply. "He had a good place with me, and he could have stayed there and learned the business. Instead of that he chose to act like a——"
"Never mind, Isaac," spoke Mr. Ford quickly. "The thing is done, and we'll have to make the best of it. Perhaps I acted a bit hastily in sending him to you."
"It would have done him good if he had stayed with me. But boys are so foolish."
"And I presume you and I were—at Will's age," said the father. "Well, I'll go see your mother, Grace, and then I'll be down again. Is someone here?" and he looked at the rubbers in the hall.
"Yes, Betty, Mollie and Amy."
"Oh, that's all right. You can stay with them until I come down. Isaac, if you are hungry I'll have some lunch sent up."
"Not for me. I never eat between meals," and Uncle Isaac spoke with firmness.
As Betty looked out of a crack in the library door she made up her mind that Mr. Ford's brother seldom did anything "between meals." He seemed to be a man who lived by hard and fast rules, and he had not the most kindly face and manner in the world. He was quite a contrast to Grace's father.
"Maybe that's why Will left him," mused Betty. "I'm sure he looks as if he would be a hard master. Poor Will!"
"I'll just sit in here and look at the paper," went on Uncle Isaac, starting toward the library.
"The girls—my chums—are in there," said Grace quickly. "Of course, if you——"
"Excuse me!" interrupted Uncle Isaac. "I'll meet them later, after your father and I have straightened out this tangle—if it can be done. I'll sit in the parlor, though I'm not used to it. No use wearing out the best carpet. Is anyone in the dining room?"
"They are getting ready for dinner," said Grace with a smile, to which the elderly man did not respond. "I guess you'll have to go to the parlor, Uncle Isaac. Of course we'll entertain you, but——"
"No, I'd rather look over the paper. Go along, Jim, and comfort Margaret all you can. I'm sure it wasn't my fault——"
"Of course not, Isaac. I'll be back presently," and Mr. Ford started for his wife's room. Grace rejoined her chums, and Uncle Isaac went to the parlor.
And, while the scene is thus cleared for a moment I will take advantage of it to make my new readers somewhat better acquainted with the characters and setting of this story.
The initial volume of this series was "The Outdoor Girls of Deepdale; Or, Camping and Tramping for Fun and Health," and in that was related how Betty, Amy, Mollie and Grace had gone on a walking trip, and how they solved the strange secret of a five hundred dollar bill.
The second book brought our heroines into the midst of summer, and also saw them started on a voyage in Betty's motor boat. This book, called: "The Outdoor Girls at Rainbow Lake; Or, the Stirring Cruise of the Motor Boat Gem," had to do, in a measure, with a curious happening on an island, following the strange loss of some valuable papers, when a horse Grace was riding ran away with her. And how the papers were recovered—but there. It would not be "playing the game" to go into details now.
"The Outdoor Girls in a Motor Car; Or, The Haunted Mansion of Shadow Valley," was the third book of the series. As the sub-title indicates there really was a house where strange manifestations took place, and when Mollie was captured by the "ghost," her chums were very much alarmed.
The adventures of our friends in the touring car, which Mollie owned, carried them well into Fall, and when the first snow came, and the girls had the chance to go to the woods, they took advantage of the opportunity. In the fourth book, "The Outdoor Girls in a Winter Camp; Or, Glorious Days on Skates and Ice boats," there was related how a certain property dispute, involving Mr. Ford, was settled through good luck favoring the girls. Also how Amy was claimed by a brother, of whose existence she was unaware.
They had been back from camp some little time now, when the strange disappearance of Will Ford gave them new food for thought and action.
"Oh, if we only could find him for you, Grace!" exclaimed Betty, when her chum had returned to the library, after greeting her father. "If we only could."
"Yes. If only we could pick him up, as we did that five hundred dollar bill," added Mollie.
"We might," said Amy, half seriously.
And the girls discussed this possibility—one not so remote as might seem at first, since they had done many strange things of late.
A word or two more before I go on.
The girls, as I have intimated, lived in the city of Deepdale, in the heart of the Empire State. Deepdale—Dear Deepdale as the girls called it—lived up to its name. It was a charming town, with some country features that made it all the nicer. It nestled in a bend of the Argono River, a stream of some importance commercially.
The four girls I have already named—Grace Ford, Mollie Billette, Betty Nelson and Amy. In the first volume the latter was Amy Stonington, but a mystery concerning her had been solved, and a brother who had long sought her, at last found her. He was Henry Blackford, who was concerned in the five hundred dollar bill mystery, and he recognized Amy as his sister in a peculiar way. So Amy Stonington became Amy Blackford, and Mr. and Mrs. John Stonington, instead of being her uncle and aunt, were mere strangers to her.
No, not mere strangers, either, for they had not brought her up from a baby to so easily relinquish her now. They could not bear to give her up, and as she had no other relatives, except her brother, as far as she knew, and as he had to travel about considerably in his business, Amy remained with those she had so long regarded as her parents. She was very glad to do so.
Betty was the only child, while Grace had, as I have mentioned, a brother Will. Mollie had a small brother and sister—the twins, Dora (or "Dodo") and Paul. Her mother was a well-to-do widow, and the parents of the other girls were wealthy, but made no display of their means.
As I have noted, Will's foolish prank had brought its punishment, though perhaps he did not merit it as much as did some of his chums. One, Frank Haley, had been expelled, and another had been suspended for three weeks. But to Will would seem to have come the heavier punishment, now that he was away from home, no one knew where.
Mr. Ford came down from his wife's room. Grace glided out to him.
"How is she?" the girl inquired.
"I have made her feel a little easier," he announced. "Now we will hear what Uncle Isaac has to say."
It was not a great deal.
"I put Will right to work, as you directed me, Jim," the visitor said to his brother. "Work is good for boys, and I started him at the bottom of the ladder. That's what you wanted; wasn't it?"
"Well, I did think so at the time, after he got into that scrape," said Mr. Ford. "I was pretty well provoked, but I begin to think now I was a bit too harsh with him."
"Nonsense!" snorted Uncle Isaac. "Harshness is good for boys. I wasn't any harsher on him than on any of the boys that work in my mill. I made him toe the mark—that's all."
"But Will has a sensitive nature," said his father slowly. "Did he give any intimation that he was going to leave?"
"Not a bit. He did his work well—that is, as well as any boys do. None of 'em are much good."
Grace caught her breath. She started to say something, but her father, by a slight motion of his head, stopped her.
"Will stayed at my home, you know," went on Uncle Isaac. "I did the best by him I knew. I didn't let him out nights, I made him read good and helpful books like 'Pilgrims Progress,' and others of the kind, and I kept him from the moving pictures.
"Well the first thing I knew he wasn't in his room when I went to call him one morning, and there was this note."
He held it out. Mr. Ford read it eagerly. All it said was:
"I can't stand it any longer. I'm going to quit."
"And he had packed up his things and left," went on Uncle Isaac. "I was dumbfounded, I was. I didn't think it was much use to hunt for him as I thought he'd come right home. He had some money—you know you gave him some."
Mr. Ford nodded.
"I didn't write, as I calculated on coming up North," went on Uncle Isaac. "Then when I telephoned, and found Will hadn't come home, I didn't know what to think."
"Nor I either," said Mr. Ford, "when you stopped in at my office and told me. When did he leave your house?"
"It will be a week to-morrow."
"And never a word from him in all that time," mused the father. "I don't like it."
Grace felt her eyes filling with tears. Betty patted her hand.
"Well, something will have to be done," said Mr. Ford with a sigh. "Isaac, let's talk this over, and see what we can do. I may have to go to Atlanta to straighten this out. I don't believe Will would deliberately set out to cause us worry."
"I'm sure he wouldn't!" declared Grace, eagerly.
Her father and uncle left to go to Mr. Ford's private office in the house, for he was a lawyer, and kept a large library at home. The girls sat in the main library, looking at one another with sad eyes.
"Oh, isn't it too bad—just after we had such fun in our winter camp!" exclaimed Grace. "Poor Will! It does seem as if there was nothing happy in this world any more."
"Oh, don't feel that way!" protested Betty. "Come, have you girls no good news to cheer her up with?" she asked, looking at Mollie and Amy.
"I'm afraid I haven't—unless it's to tell the latest funny thing Dodo and Paul did," spoke Mollie. "And I detest telling of children's pranks."
"How about you, Amy? Can't you cheer up Grace?"
"Well, I did mean to tell you when I came in; but seeing Grace so upset I almost forgot it," said Amy.
"Forgot what?" asked Betty with a smile. "Girls, I am almost sure it's something good, Amy has such a quiet way with her that she always has unexpected pleasure for us."
"I don't know whether this will be pleasure or not," went on Amy with a blush, "but Uncle Stonington (I'm going to call him that, though he is no relation)" she interjected, "Uncle Stonington has bought an orange grove in Florida, and we can have all the oranges we want. If that's good news," she finished.
"It is—fine!" declared Mollie.
"And we were talking about it to-day," resumed the quiet girl, "and he said perhaps he would take Aunty down there to stay until spring, as her health is not very good. And I'll probably go——"
It was a protesting chorus.
"And I mentioned you girls, and Uncle Stonington said I could bring you down—if you'd come—all of you—to a Florida orange grove."
"Amy Stonington—I mean Blackford—I'm just going to hug you!" cried Betty. "Go! Of course we'll go!"
"After we find Will," put in Grace in a low voice.
Amy's announcement—unexpected as it was—had two effects. It dispelled, for a time, the gloom that had come with the news of Will Ford's disappearance, and it gave the girls something to talk about, to speculate over and to plan for.
"I must confess," admitted Betty, "that our strenuous life this Fall and Summer, living in the outdoors, has unfitted us for the hum-drum sort of existence that used to satisfy us. We seem to want some excitement all the while now."
"That's so," agreed Mollie. "But outdoor life is a little too chilling these days."
There had been a series of storms and cold weather in Deepdale, ever since the girls had returned from the logging camp.
"But it must be perfectly lovely in Florida now," spoke Grace, who found that by joining in the conversation she did not think so much about her missing brother. "The weather there in our winter season is delightful. Where is Mr. Stonington's orange grove, Amy—near Palm Beach?"
"No, it is somewhere in the Indian River section, I believe. I don't know just where."
"And do you really mean to say you can take us there?" asked Betty. "Oh, you're a dear!"
"Uncle Stonington said he would be glad if I could take you girls," said Amy. "He got the grove through some sort of a business deal. He doesn't know anything about raising oranges, but there are men in charge who do. There is quite a big sort of place—a ranch I believe they call it."
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Betty. "Ranches are only in the West. They are inhabited by—cow-punchers," and she seemed very proud of her knowledge.
"Why do they have to punch the cows?" asked Mollie. "Westerners use such funny words."
"Oh, they don't really punch them," said Grace. "I've heard Will and the boys talk about it. It's just a name. But there are no ranches in Florida."
"Well, then it's just a plain orange grove," said Amy. "There is a large house, some bungalows and other buildings. And there is a river and a lake——"
"My motor boat!" cried Betty.
"What's the matter with it?" demanded Mollie. "Do you see it?"
"No, but I wonder if we could take it along?"
"I'll ask Uncle Stonington," said Amy. "I'm sure you can. Oh, I do hope you girls can go! Do you think you can?"
"I'm going—if I have to walk!" declared Betty. "I can send my boat by freight, and we can have the most delightful times ever! Oh, Amy!" and she hugged her chum again.
"I'm not sure I can go," observed Grace, slowly. "If poor Will is in trouble——"
"We'll get him out!" cried Mollie. "Of course you'll go. And I'll go, too! We'll all go. We'll be outdoor girls down where there's no winter!"
"It sounds—enticing," murmured Grace, who did not like the cold weather. "Think of orange blossoms——"
"And brides!" completed Betty. "Oh, girls!"
"Silly!" chimed in Mollie.
"Is Mrs. Stonington very ill?" asked Betty. "You said something about her going down there."
"She is not at all well," spoke Amy. "Uncle Stonington is quite worried about her. I think when it came to getting the orange grove he took it as much on her account as on his own. The doctor said the air down there would do her good."
"Is it as bad as that?" asked Mollie, in a low voice.
"Well, she is not at all well," Amy replied. "But we all have hopes that a change will benefit her. I do hope you girls will come with me. I'll be so lonesome without you."
"Oh, we'll come," said Mollie, with much confidence.
They talked of the Florida possibilities at some length, and Betty was a bit anxious as to how she could get her motor boat down to the Land of the Everglades.
"You'll have to consult that sea-going uncle of yours," suggested Mollie.
"Perhaps I shall," Betty agreed, with a smile.
"Papa and Uncle Isaac are rather long," complained Grace. "I wonder what they are going to do?"
"If your father has to go South I'm sure Uncle Stonington would be glad to have him stop at the orange grove," said Amy.
"I don't know that he'd have time," remarked Grace. "If he has to search for poor Will——"
She was interrupted by the footsteps of her father and uncle as they came from the private library. Mr. Ford—as I shall indicate Grace's father—was speaking.
"Well, I don't see anything to do but to take a trip down there," he said. "When I'm on the ground I can decide what course to take. Writing is only nervous work. And yet I don't see how I can spare the time now."
"Perhaps I could manage for you," said Uncle Isaac. "If I find Will I can bring him back to the mill, and make him work harder than ever. Hard work——"
"No, no!" exclaimed Mr. Ford, quickly. "I think Will has been punished enough. I want to get him home, and then we'll map out a course of procedure. Perhaps I gave him too heavy a sentence," and, almost unconsciously, he glanced at his brother.
Certainly Mr. Ford, Sr., looked like an inexorable judge who would exact the last farthing of a debt, or the final round of punishment. Will had evidently had no easy time.
"Well, I must think about this Southern trip," went on Will's father. "Why, you girls look as though you had been talking secrets!" he exclaimed, not wanting to inflict too much of his family troubles on the visitors.
"We have!" cried Betty. "You are not the only one going South, Mr. Ford. We may go too."
"Go South? What do you mean?" he asked.
"Mr. Stonington has purchased an orange grove in Florida," Betty went on, "and Amy has asked us all down there. Do, please, say that Grace can go!" and she blew him a kiss, for the four chums shared their parents and friends as they did their—well, let us say—chocolates.
"Florida," spoke Mr. Ford, musingly. "I wonder if, by any chance, Will could have gone there? Many young men go down South in the winter to work as waiters in the big hotels. But I hardly think he would be so foolish. Well, of course if Grace wants to go——"
"I do want to, Daddy, but poor Will——"
"Oh, I'll find him. He has just gone off on some little trip, perhaps. Very likely he has written to us and the letter has miscarried. Or he may be carrying it around in his pocket, thinking he has mailed it. Yes, I think you may go, Grace, if the others do. Don't worry about your brother. We'll have trace of him soon."
"I'm sure we all hope so," said Mollie, impulsively. "We are thinking of taking Betty's boat down with us."
"A good idea. I wish I could go. And it is fortunate that, on account of a change in the school system, you will not miss a term." For following a shift in the educational work of Deepdale, had come a reconstruction of the system. The outdoor girls were sufficiently advanced to permit of their taking several months' vacation, and still remain up to the standard required by the State regents.
"And to think of going to Florida!" cried Betty, as she walked about the room. "I know we shall just love it there."
"Young folks waste a lot more time than I did when I was young," said Mr. Ford, Sr., with a sniff.
"Perhaps we should have been better off if we had 'wasted' a little more time, as you call it," remarked his brother, as he thought of his missing son.
"Humph!" snorted Uncle Isaac.
"Well, let's get down to my office," suggested Will's father, after a pause. "I'm going to have my hands full. To trace a missing boy—though really I don't imagine that will be serious—and have a daughter go to Florida is 'going some,' as the boys say. But I guess I can manage it. Now, Isaac, if you're ready——"
He was interrupted by a ring at the bell, and the shrill call of the postman's whistle.
"I'll go," Grace exclaimed, intercepting the maid. She brought back several letters, and at the sight of the handwriting on the envelope of one she exclaimed:
"It's from Will! It's from my brother. Oh, Daddy, here's a letter from Will!"
Grace's announcement caused a flutter of excitement among her chums, and Mr. Ford's face showed his pleasure and surprise. But a moment later he had steeled his features into a non-committal mask, for he was really much provoked by his son's conduct, and if this was an appeal for forgiveness he wanted to be in the proper censuring attitude. At least so he reasoned.
"We'll see you again, Grace," spoke Betty, as she led the way for the other two girls to follow. She felt that the family might like to be by themselves while perusing the first letter from Will since his latest escapade.
"Oh, don't go!" exclaimed Grace, guessing her chums' intention. "Stay and hear what Will has to say. I'm sure papa would want you to," and she looked at Mr. Ford, who was nervously tearing open the envelope. His brother was watching him anxiously, but it was not a kindly look on Uncle Isaac's face.
At first, when it seemed as if something seriously might have happened to Will, the elderly man was rather alarmed, thinking perhaps he might be blamed. Now that a communication had come from the youth, seeming to indicate that all was well with him, his former employer was ready to deal harshly with him. He was even meditating what form of punishment could be applied, and he planned harder tasks for him, in case his father should send Will back to the cotton mill in Atlanta.
"Yes, stay, by all means," spoke the younger Mr. Ford, in rather absent-minded tones, as he flipped open the letter. "We have no secrets from you girls, and if you are going to Florida, and Will is in that neighborhood, he can take a run over and see you. Let's see now; what does the rascal say?"
There was a caressing note in the father's voice in spite of the somewhat stern look on his face, and he slowly read the letter, half aloud. The girls could catch a word here and there. Grace was leaning forward expectantly, her lips parted. The strain had told on her, and her eyes were still red from the tears she could not hold back.
"'Dear Father and All,'" read Mr. Ford. "Hum—yes—I wonder if he's going to ask for money. 'I suppose this will surprise you'—yes, Will was always good on surprises."
"Oh, father, do please get on with the letter—tell us what has happened to Will!" begged Grace. "We're so anxious! Mother will want to know. Read faster, please, if you can; won't you, father?"
"All right, Grace. But nothing much seems to have happened to him so far. Hello, what's this, though? 'Going to strike out for myself. Can't stand Uncle'—um—'will write particulars later—I have a good chance for an opening'—I wonder if it's as a waiter in some Palm Beach hotel? 'There may be a good thing in this. I can learn the business, the agent says'——"
"Oh, Daddy, please read it right!" importuned Grace. "We can't tell what Will says and what you make up as you go along. Read it yourself, and tell us what it means. Then I'll go to mamma."
"Yes, and if he says anything against me, don't be afraid to come out with it," interjected Uncle Isaac. "Will and I didn't get along well—that's no secret. He didn't like work, and he didn't hesitate to say so. I've no doubt he had hard feelings against me, but I say here and now that I treated him as I would my own son. I made him work harder than I would my own son, in fact, for I felt that I had a duty to do by Will."
"And I guess you did it—too well," muttered Grace, with rather a vindictive look at her uncle, which look, however, he did not see.
"Well, to be frank with you, Isaac," spoke Mr. Ford, "the boy says that he did not like the life in the factory. But I did not suppose he would. I did not send him there to like it, but I thought the discipline would do him good. However, he seems to have struck out for himself."
"But, Daddy!" cried Grace, clinging to his arm. "What has happened? Where is Will? Where did he go?"
"There now," he said, soothingly. "It seems to be all right, and Will is in no danger. All your tears were wasted. To be brief, he writes that he did not like the work in the mill, and getting a chance to go to Jacksonville, Florida, he took it and went without the formality of a good-bye."
"What is he doing in Jacksonville?" asked Mollie. "If we go to Amy's orange grove we may see him."
"He writes that he has a chance to get in with a concern that is going to develop some of the Everglade lands," went on Mr. Ford, referring to the letter. 'The company plans to drain the swamps, and grow pecans, oranges and other tropical fruits and nuts.' Will says he was offered a sort of secretaryship to one of the developers, and took it.
"He asks my permission to stay and 'make good,' as he calls it. He thinks it is a great chance; better even than the cotton business, Isaac."
"Oh, yes, I s'pose so. There's a lot of folks been fooled in those Everglade-developing concerns, though. They're fakes, to my way of thinking. But let him live and learn. That's the only way."
"Are you going to let him stay down there?" asked Grace.
"Well, I don't know," said Mr. Ford, musingly. "I don't bank much on Will's knowledge of affairs. This company may be all right, and again it may not. I'd rather investigate a bit."
"Will says," he went on, again referring to the letter, "that he is sorry he went off in the abrupt way he did, but he felt that it was the only method to pursue. He says he feared you would stop him, if you heard about it, Isaac."
"I'd have tried, anyhow," was the grim comment.
"And as the opportunity had to be taken up quickly, or be lost, Will went away in a hurry," continued his father. "He says he wants to show all of us that he can make his own way in the world, if given a chance, and he doesn't want to come back until he has done so. He thinks he has had enough of school. He sends his love to—to all of us—and his mother, and says he will write again soon, and run up for a few days' visit as soon as he can get the time."
Mr. Ford's voice faltered a little as he went on. After all, he loved Will very much, and he knew that it was only the spirit of a proud boy that was keeping him away from home.
"Are you going to let him stay, Daddy?" asked Grace again.
"No, Grace, I think I'll write to him to come home," replied Mr. Ford. "I think this has been a lesson to him. He gives his prospective Jacksonville address in this note. I'll just send him a wire."
Going to the telephone, Mr. Ford dictated this brief telegram to his son.
"Come home. All is forgiven."
"It's like one of those advertisements you see in the newspapers," said Grace, with a little laugh.
She was much relieved now, and so were her chums. They could think with more pleasure of the prospective trip to Florida.
"But if Will left you a week ago, Uncle Isaac, I don't see why this letter has only now arrived," spoke Grace. "When is it postmarked, father?"
"It reached Deepdale to-day, but it was mailed in—let me see—why, I can't make out the other mark, nor the date either."
"Let me try," suggested Uncle Isaac, putting on his glasses. But he had no better luck.
"Either Will carried that letter around in his pocket after writing it," said Mr. Ford, "or he dropped it in some obscure postoffice where their cancelling stamps are worn out and letters go only once a week or so. The letter was written on the night he left your house, evidently," he said to his brother, indicating the superscription. "I guess the mails down your way are not very certain, Isaac."
"Not always. Well, I'm glad the boy is all right. I tried to do my duty by him, as I promised I would, Jim."
"I know you did, Isaac, and I think this will be a lesson to him. I'll be glad to have him back, though. For I—I've missed him," and again Mr. Ford's voice faltered.
"So have I," said Grace, softly. "And this will make mamma's headache better. I'm going up to tell her."
"And we'll be going, now that you have good news," remarked Betty. "Wasn't it odd to get good and bad news so close together?"
"But the good came last—and that makes it the best," observed Amy with a smile.
Mr. Ford gave Grace her brother's letter to take up to her mother, while he and his brother prepared to go down town again, to finish transacting some business that had called the Southerner up North.
"And I guess I'd better telegraph Will some money while I am at it," his father said. "He writes that he has plenty of cash, but his idea of a lot of money is a few one dollar bills and a pocket full of change. I'll wire twenty-five dollars to him in Jacksonville to come home with."
"I'll be down in a minute, girls," called Grace, as she hurried up stairs to her mother's room. "Wait for me, and we'll talk about this Florida trip."
When Grace came down, having made her mother happy with her good news, she was eating chocolates.
"Now we know she is all right," laughed Betty.
"And to think that in a few more days we'll leave all this behind us—all the cold, the icicles, the snow, the biting winds—leave it all, and sail into a land of sunshine and oranges and Spanish moss and magnolias and——"
"Alligators!" finished Betty for Grace, who was thus going into raptures over the prospect before them, as she looked over the wintry landscape that was in full view just outside the window of Amy's home. I say Amy's home, for, though it had developed that she was no relative of Mr. and Mrs. Stonington, still they insisted that she call their home hers as long as she liked. So it was at Amy's home, then, that her chums had gathered to talk over the trip to Florida.
It was the day after the somewhat startling developments regarding Will Ford, and Mr. Ford, true to his determination, had telegraphed his son twenty-five dollars.
"Well, of course Florida will be lovely!" exclaimed Mollie, "and I love oranges——"
"To say nothing of orange blossoms," interjected Grace.
"I said oranges!" went on Mollie, putting emphasis on the word. "I like them as well as anyone, but I love winter and skating and ice boating, too."
"Oh, I just can't bear cold weather!" said Grace, with a shiver, and a look toward the chair on which, in a fluffy pile, rested her furs—and Grace looked handsome in the sable set that her father had given to her at Christmas.
"You didn't seem so cold when we were up in the old lumber camp," remarked Betty. "You skated and ice-boated with the rest of us, and seemed to enjoy it."
"I know, but it was a different sort of cold up there—so dry, and not so penetrating as down here. The wind seems to go right through me," and again the tall girl shivered.
"It doesn't take long——" began Mollie, and then she stopped short and bit her lips to keep back a smile.
"Long to do what?" asked Grace, curiously.
"Never mind," spoke Mollie. "You might get angry."
"I will not. I haven't your——"
This time it was Grace who caught herself in time.
"Go on—say it. You may as well as think it!" snapped Mollie, with some asperity. "You were going to say you hadn't my temper, weren't you, now?"
"Well, yes, I was," said Grace, slowly. "And you were going to say I was so thin that the wind didn't take long to go through me; weren't you?" challenged Grace.
"Yes, I was, and——"
"Girls—Mollie—Grace!" cried Betty, anxious not to see a quarrel. "What can I do to pour oil on troubled waters? Let's talk about—Florida."
"Don't pour cod liver oil, whatever you do," said Grace, quickly. "I had to take some of the horrid stuff the last cough I had, and I can taste it yet. Where are my chocolates? Oh, thank you, Amy," as the latter passed them over. "Have some. These have maraschino cherries inside."
"Leave it to Grace to discover something luxurious in the candy line," observed Mollie.
"Well, I notice that you're only too glad to eat them," and Grace fairly snapped out the words.
"Oh, dear! It seems hopeless to keep peace between you two to-day," sighed Betty. "Can't you be nice? Especially after Amy has asked us over here to talk about the trip. Let's talk about——"
"What to wear!" exclaimed Amy, with a bright thought. "You see we'll have to take two sets of clothing. One to wear until we get to Florida, and the other after we arrive at the orange grove. We'll need thin things there. Aunt Stonington is making me up some pretty voile and white muslin dresses."
"I was wondering whether I ought to take my furs," said Grace.
"Furs in Florida!" cried Mollie. "Never!"
"But it will be cold going down," said Grace. "It's cold even in Washington, now. I think I'll wear them. I may not get another chance this winter if we stay there very long."
"We can stay as long as we like," said Amy. "Uncle Stonington says he'll remain until Spring, anyhow, for the business will take until then to get going properly. Then, too, he is anxious about Aunty's health. The doctor says the longer she stays in a mild climate the better she will be."
"She doesn't look very well," spoke Betty in a low voice. Mrs. Stonington had greeted the girls as they came to call on Amy, and had then gone to lie down. The callers had all noticed how frail and worn she seemed. Perhaps the shock of almost losing Amy had something to do with it. But there also appeared to be the seeds of some deep-seated malady present in her system. And a look at Mr. Stonington's face told that he, too, was worrying. But the trip to Florida might work wonders. They all hoped so, at any rate.
"If we're going to take Bet's boat we ought to wear our sailor suits part of the time," suggested Mollie. "Are you going to take the Gem?"
"What about that, Amy?" questioned Betty. "Did you inquire whether there are navigable waters near the orange grove?"
"There are. The grove is near the town of Bentonville, on the Mayfair River, which empties into Lake Chad, so I think there will be plenty of chance to go boating. The grove is in the Indian River section, where some of the finest oranges grow."
"Then the Gem goes along," decided Betty. "I'm going to stop at the freight office on my way home, and see about having it crated and shipped."
Discussing what they would take in the way of dresses, and other feminine accessories, talking over prospective trips in the motor boat, speculating as to whether Will or any of his boy chums would go to Florida for a brief visit, made the winter afternoon pass quickly.
"It would be nice if Will and some of the other boys could come down," said Mollie, reflectively.
"By 'some of the others' meaning Allen Washburn, I suppose," said Mollie, slyly, for Betty's liking for the young lawyer was no secret, nor was his for her.
"Speak for yourself, please," said the "Little Captain," a flush mounting to her already rosy cheeks. "Though of course if Will is coming home he won't want to go back again," she concluded.
"Hardly, I fancy," agreed Grace. "That's the last chocolate. I must get some more for to-night. Who's going downtown?"
They all were, it developed, and on the way Betty stopped at the railroad freight office and arranged to have a man sent to the boathouse to crate the Gem. Then it could be taken to the railroad on a truck.
"And what will we do with it when we get to Bentonville?" asked Amy. "It does look so big out of the water," for, after the visit to the freight office they had gone to where the Gem was stored in winter quarters.
"Oh, we can manage it there," said Betty.
"There must be plenty of men and trucks down there."
"Uncle Stonington says there are other motor boats on the river, so there must be ways of getting them on and off," put in Amy.
Grace got her chocolates, and also insisted on buying hot drinks for her chums.
"For I simply can't seem to get warm," she declared, as she sipped hers.
"And with all those furs," remarked Betty. "I guess you'll have to live in the South in Winter, Grace."
"I wish I could."
As the girls walked with Grace toward her house, the Ford home being the first on their way, they saw a messenger boy with his little black-covered book and a bunch of telegrams just turning into the gate.
"There's a message!" exclaimed Grace, breaking into a run. "I want to take it from him before he rings the bell. Mamma is so nervous at the sight of a telegram. She always thinks the worst thing has happened. I suppose this is from Will, saying he is on his way home. Poor boy! he has had a lesson."
"I feel sorry for him, too," said Betty.
"I'll take the message," spoke Grace to the boy, as she signed the extended book. "Prepaid? Yes. Here is a dime for yourself. Get a hot chocolate; you must be cold."
"T'anks!" was the reply. "I kin git two for dat!"
"I hope he won't buy cigarettes," ventured Mollie.
"Nonsense!" answered Grace, as she tore open the message, which was addressed to her father. She felt she had a right to do this, as, had it been some business communication, she argued, it would have gone to Mr. Ford's office. Grace felt sure it was from her brother.
Quickly she read the brief message in the waning light of the winter day. Then she swayed and her face paled.
"What is it—bad news?" asked Betty quickly, as she put her arms around her chum.
"Yes—yes. It's about—Will. Read it. Poor mother! How can I tell her? And she has been expecting him so!"
Betty glanced at the few words. They were:
"Cannot locate Will Ford at Jacksonville address given. Am holding the twenty-five dollars subject to your order. Party was at address noted, but information to our agent here is to effect that young man left in company with a labor contractor who does not bear a very good reputation. Young man's boarding mistress worried. What shall we do?"
The message was to Mr. Ford. It was from Jacksonville, and was signed by the telegraph operator there.
"Will is missing again!" sobbed Grace. "Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?"
AN APPEAL FOR HELP
For one of the very few times in her life when confronted by an emergency the "Little Captain" did not know quite what to do. Grace clung to Betty, murmuring over and over again:
"What shall I say? What shall I do?"
Amy and Mollie stared uncomprehendingly at one another. Grace still held the telegram that had brought more bad news.
Then Betty got her senses in working order.
"In the first place," she said, "you mustn't let your mother know about this, Grace. You must keep it from her. In the second place your father must be told at once. Now you go in and act as if nothing had happened. I'll go see your father."
"But I can't act as if nothing had happened," protested Grace, with a wailing tone in her voice. "I'd be sure to act so strangely that mamma would suspect at once, and begin to question me."
"Then Mollie or Amy must go in with you, and help to keep up appearances. Amy, you go in and talk—play—sing—dance—do anything to keep Grace from feeling bad, and giving away the secret. As soon as Mr. Ford comes he can decide whether or not to tell his wife. Mollie, you and I will go down to his office. This is the night he gets home late; isn't it, Grace?"
"Yes. Oh, how I wish he were here now! Poor Will!"
"Well, we'll soon have him home," declared Betty. "Now you two do as I tell you. Talk about Florida—anything but what has happened. Mr. Ford will know what to do when he comes. Now, Mollie, let's hurry. Gracious! I believe it's going to snow. Well, we won't have any of that in Florida, that's a blessing for you, Grace," and Betty smiled bravely.
"We may never go now—if Will isn't found."
"Oh, he'll be all right," declared Betty, with more confidence than she felt. "Come along, Mollie."
The two set off through the gathering storm, while Grace and Amy turned into the former's house. They were under a strain, and afterward they hardly remembered what they did. But Grace did not betray the secret, at any rate. The two girls talked of many things, and when Mrs. Ford referred to the home-coming of her son Amy changed the subject as soon as she could.
Then, fortunately, Mrs. Ford went upstairs to lie down until dinner was ready, and Grace, with a sigh of relief, threw herself on a couch.
"There!" she sighed. "We can act naturally now. Poor little mother—I wonder how she will take it?"
"Oh, she is brave," said Amy. "Besides, nothing very dreadful can have happened. Will may be all right. Even if he has gone off with a labor contractor, who has a bad reputation, your brother is able to look after himself. He can appeal to the police, if necessary."
"Perhaps. Anyhow, you can look on the bright side, Amy. I wish papa would hurry."
"Oh, he will, as soon as Betty tells him."
Meanwhile Betty and Mollie were hurrying on through the storm to Mr. Ford's office. They found him working over a complicated law case, and he seemed startled when he saw the two girls.
"Where is Grace—what has happened?" he asked, quickly.
"This telegram—it came for you to the house—Grace opened it," explained Mollie, briefly.
Mr. Ford seemed to comprehend it at a glance.
"I was afraid of this!" he exclaimed. "Some of those rascally labor contractors will do anything to get help. I will have to go down there, I think. Does Mrs. Ford know?"
"No, I told Grace to keep it from her until you came home."
"That was right. I must make light of this. Then I'll leave for Jacksonville at once. Thank you very much, Betty."
He closed his desk and went out with the girls, calling a carriage for them and himself, as the snow was now falling heavily.
In some way Mr. Ford managed to impart some of the details of the new emergency to his wife without unduly arousing her. He also spoke of the necessity of going to Florida.
"Oh, do you really have to go?" his wife asked, in alarm.
"I think it will be better. Will may do something rash, thinking he is putting through a fine business deal. I don't want him to get into—legal difficulties. It would not look well for my professional reputation," and Mr. Ford forced a laugh to reassure his wife.
Arrangements for going to Jacksonville were soon made, as he was to leave on the midnight train. In the meanwhile he communicated with the telegraph authorities in the South, telling them of his plans, and asking for any additional information.
All that he could learn was that Will had gone to the address given in his first letter—a private boarding house. He had been there a few days, making friends with the landlady, and finally had gone off with a man who bore a shady reputation in the city. Will had said he was going farther into the interior, and the woman thought she heard something about a lumber camp, or a place where turpentine and other pine-tar products, were obtained.
"Well, do the best you can, Grace, until I come back," said Mr. Ford. "And look after your mother. Perhaps this will be all right after all."
There were three weary days of waiting, relieved only by brief messages from Mr. Ford, saying that he was doing all he could to find Will. Mrs. Ford was not told the whole story, save that her son had gone into the interior.
"Oh, I'm sure something must have happened!" exclaimed Grace, when on the fourth day there came a message saying Mr. Ford was on his way back. "He hasn't Will with him, or he would have said so. Oh, isn't it perfectly terrible!"
"Now, don't worry," advised Betty. "I know that is easy to say, Grace, and hard to do. But try. Even if your father hasn't found Will, perhaps he has some trace of him. He would hardly come back without good reason."
"I suppose not. Oh, aren't boys—terrible!"
"But Will didn't mean to cause all this trouble," spoke Mollie.
"I know. But he has, just the same."
Grace was too miserable even to think of chocolates.
Mr. Ford looked pale and tired when he came home, and his eyes showed loss of sleep.
"Well," he said to Grace, who was surrounded by her three chums, "I didn't find Will. He seems to have made a mess of it."
"How?" asked his sister.
"Well, by getting in with this developing concern. It seems that he signed some sort of contract, agreeing to work for them. He supposed it was clerical or secretary's work, but it turns out that he was deceived. What he signed was a contract to work in one of the many camps in the wilds of the interior. He may be getting out cypress, or turpentine."
"Couldn't you locate him, Daddy?" asked Grace.
"No, for the firm he signed with operates many camps. I could get very little satisfaction from them. I may have to appeal to the authorities."
"But Will is not of age—they can't hold him even if he did sign a contract to work, especially when they deceived him," declared Grace.
"I know it, my dear," replied her father. "But they have him in their clutches, and possession, as you know, is nine points of the law, and part of the tenth. Where Will is I don't know. Just as the message said, he went off with that smooth talker, and he seems to have disappeared."
"How—how can you find him?" asked Grace.
"I'm going to have your Uncle Isaac trace him. He knows the South better than I, and can work to better advantage. That is why I came back. Uncle Isaac is in New York City now. I am going to telegraph him to come on here and I'll give him the particulars. Then he can hunt for Will. Poor boy! I guess he wishes now that he'd stayed in the mill."
The news was broken to Mrs. Ford as gently as could be, but it nearly prostrated her. Then Uncle Isaac came, and to his credit be it said that he was kinder than his wont. He seemed really sympathetic and did not once say, "I told you so!"
He readily agreed to search for his nephew, and left for the South as soon as he could finish his business.
"I guess our Florida trip is all off," said Grace with a sigh, one evening.
"Not at all," said her father. "I want you girls to go. It may be that you might hear some word of Will."
"Then we will go!" his sister cried. "Oh! I do hope we can find him."
The preparations for the Florida trip went on. Meanwhile nothing was heard from the missing youth, and Uncle Isaac had no success.
Then, most unexpectedly, there came word from the boy himself—indirect word—but news just the same.
It was in the shape of a letter from a Southern planter, who said one of his hands had picked up the enclosed note in a cotton field near a railroad track. It had probably been tossed from a train window, and had laid some time in the field, being rain-soaked. It bore Mr. Ford's address, and so the planter forwarded it. The note was as follows:
"DEAR DAD: I certainly am in trouble. That development business was a fake, and I have literally been kidnapped, with a lot of other young fellows—some colored. They're taking us away to a turpentine swamp to work. I've tried to escape, but it's no use. I appealed for help to the crowd, as did some of the others, but the contractors declared we were a lot of criminals farmed out by the State. And, as a lot of their workers really are convicts, I had no show. I don't know what to do—help me if you can. I don't know where they're taking us, but if I get a chance I'll send word. I'm scribbling this under my hat in the train, and I'm going to toss it out the window. I hope you get it.
OFF FOR FLORIDA
Grace was in tears when her father finished reading Will's pathetic letter. Nor were the eyes of her chums altogether dry, for they all liked Will, who seemed as much a brother to them as he did to his own sister.
"We—we mustn't let mamma know this," announced Grace, when she had regained control of herself. "It would prostrate her."
"Yes, we must keep it from her if we can," agreed Mr. Ford.
"To think of poor Will being in with—with criminals," went on his sister. "It will be a terrible experience for him."
"Perhaps they are not desperate criminals," suggested Amy, as a sort of ray of hope.
"No, I do not believe they are," said Mr. Ford, frankly. "The State would not let contractors hire them if they were. I suppose they are mostly young men who have been guilty of slight violations of the law, and hard work is the best punishment for them. But I certainly am sorry for Will.
"I had no idea that when, to punish him for what was more thoughtlessness than anything else, I sent him South, it would turn out this way. I regret it very much."
"But it wasn't your fault, Daddy," declared Grace. "It just couldn't be helped. But Will is brave—his letter shows that. Oh, can you help him?"
"I certainly shall, daughter," and Mr. Ford put his hand on Grace's head, now bowed in grief. "I will write to Uncle Isaac at once, and have him get in touch with the authorities. They should be able to tell where the different gangs of prisoners have been sent, and by investigating each one we can, by elimination, find Will. Then it will be an easy matter to get him home. And I think he will be very glad to see Deepdale again, in spite of the fact that he wanted to start out for himself to 'make good.' I hope the lesson will not be too hard for him."
"If we could only do something!" exclaimed Betty.
"Yes, girls always seem so—so helpless at a time like this," murmured Mollie. "Oh, I wish I were a—man!"
"Tut—tut!" exclaimed Mr. Ford, with a laugh, something he had seldom indulged in of late. "We couldn't get along without our girls. You can offer sympathy, if nothing else, and often that is something as real as actual service. But I don't agree that you girls are helpless. You have proved in the past that you outdoor lassies can do things, and I would not be surprised in the future if you gave further evidence of it."
Though he spoke rather lightly, Mr. Ford little realized how soon the time was to come when the outdoor girls were to prove their sterling worth in a peculiar manner.
"Well, things are certainly taking a queer turn," said Grace as she looked at the scribbled letter of her brother, so strangely forwarded to them. "There is no telling how long ago this was written. Poor Will is probably having a hard time this very minute."
"He probably is if he's at work in a turpentine camp," said Mr. Ford. "It is no easy work, and it is no wonder the contractors have to take criminals, and fairly kidnap their helpers. Then they have to literally mount guard over them to force them to remain. But I must start things moving to aid Will."
Letters were written to Uncle Isaac, to the planter who had so kindly forwarded the letter, and to various authorities.
"But you girls must not let this interfere with your trip, nor with the enjoyment of it," said Mr. Ford, who had told his wife something of the truth, but not enough to cause her to worry. He said they had word from Will, and hoped soon to have him home. And Mrs. Ford, who leaned much on her husband and daughter, was more content than she had been. "Get ready, Grace," said her father, "and enjoy your winter in the South."
"I certainly don't enjoy a winter in the North," she replied. "Girls, did you see my chocolates?"
"Hopeless! Hopeless!" murmured Mollie, with a smile, as she found the confections on the mantel.
Preparations for the Florida trip went on apace. The girls were so busy sorting out what clothes they were going to take, and having new gowns made that, for a time, they almost forgot about Will.
Though Mr. Ford had set in motion various forces, no definite word had yet been received. But they were hoping that every day would bring some message. Uncle Isaac wrote that he was doing all he could.
Frank Haley, Will's school chum, and Allen Washburn, the young lawyer, were very anxious to start off and make a search for their friend. But Mr. Ford, though deeply grateful to them, thought it might complicate matters. So, much against their desire, the two young men were forced to remain in Deepdale.
"Though we may take a run down and see you," said Allen to Betty a few days before the one set for the departure. "Would you mind?"
"We shall be very glad to see you," she answered, rather non-committally.
"We?" he asked, pointedly.
"Oh, of course I meant that I would, too," and she blushed as she glanced at him.
"That's better!" he laughed.
The next day Mollie telephoned for all of her chums to gather at her house for a sort of farewell tea some of the friends of the girls wished to tender to them. It was a cold, snowy, blustery day, and as Grace, wrapped in her furs, walked shiveringly along with Amy and Betty she remarked:
"I can almost envy Will now—down where it is nice and warm."
"Oh, we'll soon be there," answered Betty.
They found Mollie in the midst of showing some of her new gowns to her friends, and the three chums joined in the admiration. For Mollie, with the characteristics of a French girl, loved pretty clothes, and rather inclined to a pronounced style not indulged in by her chums. But she always dressed becomingly.
"It is lovely!" exclaimed Hattie Reynolds. "But isn't it awfully light, Mollie?"
"Not for where we are going," was the answer. "You forget that we are going to a summer land. Oh, Dodo—stop that!" she cried, for from the room where stood Mollie's half-packed trunk came the twin, trailing a garment. "That's my best petticoat!" wailed Mollie. "You'll ruin it. And Paul! What are you doing with that shirtwaist—it's my very finest lawn!"
"Us 'ookin' for tandy!" calmly announced Dodo. "Has oo dot any in oo pockets?"
"Pockets! We never have pockets!" cried Betty. "Oh, aren't they too funny for anything!"
"You wouldn't say so, if they did this—or something like it—to you three or four times a day," exclaimed Mollie, half-crossly, as she advanced to rescue her garments. But the twins backed away, stepping on the skirt.
"Paul—Dodo—give those to sister at once!" commanded Mollie.
"Us will—for tandy!" stipulated Paul, craftily.
"Oh, if I only had some!" exclaimed Mollie.
"Allow me," volunteered Grace, producing a bag. "Here, children."
"Not while they have my things!" cried Mollie. "Chocolate on my white waist—never! Put the things down. Paul—Dodo, and Grace will give you candy."
"Oo dot tandy?" asked Dodo, looking doubtfully at Grace.
"Yes," and she opened the bag to show them. This was evidence enough, and the garments were placed where they belonged, Mollie hastening in to lay them straight again.
The little tea was a success, in spite of the invasion of the twins. The girls were bidden farewell by their friends—rather envious friends, to be frank—for who would not envy one a trip to sunny Florida with its flowers in the midst of winter?
The motor boat had been crated and shipped. Mr. Stonington had arranged his business for a long stay in the South, and all was in readiness for the trip. The girls had decided on a hundred and one things to take with them, and had rejected as many, only to make new selections. But finally even their exacting tastes were gratified, and satisfied, and their trunks were ready to go.
"But oh, I do wish Aunty Stonington was better," sighed Amy, the day before that set for their departure.
"Why, is she worse?" asked Betty.
"She seems very weak. Uncle is quite worried about her, though the doctor says the change will benefit her as soon as we get there. But I am afraid about the trip, though we are to go in a compartment car, and won't have to change."
"That will be lovely," said Grace. "We'll look after your aunt for you, Amy."
"That's sweet of you girls. Perhaps it will not be as bad as I fear. But she seems failing rapidly. The winter has been unusually severe for her."
"And poor mamma is not herself," murmured Grace. "Lack of news from Will seems to prey on her mind. But there! don't let's talk any more about our troubles. Let's look on the bright side of the clouds. I'm sure we ought to just hug Amy to pieces for giving us this nice trip."
"Well, please leave enough pieces of me so I can eat an orange or two when we get to Florida," laughed Amy.
"Also enough to catch a few alligators," added Betty.
"Don't you mention the horrid things!" cried Grace with a nervous shiver. "Are there really any there, Amy? Say no, my dear, and I'll give you two chocolates."
"Well, there are some," said Amy, who never could seem to dissimulate. "But Uncle Stonington says they are small—at least, near where we are going. Some people have them for pets."
"Mercy!" cried Grace. "I'd as soon have a pet snake."
"Well, we won't worry about them until we get bitten," suggested Mollie. "And perhaps their bark is worse than their bite. Do they bark, Amy?"
"I'm sure I don't know."
"No, they cry—like babies," said Grace. "Don't you remember 'alligator tears?'"
"She's thinking of crocodiles," said Betty. "Or else alligator pears."
"Worse and worse," protested Mollie. "We'll have the fauna and flora of Florida hopelessly mixed before we get through. Now let's see if we have everything packed," and they went over their list of belongings for the tenth time.
But all things must have an end, and so did their preparations. The day of the start came, final good-byes were said, and with Mr. and Mrs. Stonington the four outdoor girls took the train for the Sunny South.
LAUNCHING THE BOAT
"Can you smell the orange blossoms?"
"Yes. Aren't they delicious!"
"It reminds me of a wedding—hark, can you hear the strains of Mendelssohn?"
"Those are frogs, Betty," laughed Mollie.
The girls and Mr. and Mrs. Stonington were driving in a big canopy-topped carriage along a Florida road, toward the orange grove on the outskirts of the town of Bentonville. Their journey was over and at last they were in Florida.
"Oh, see the magnolias!" cried Grace, as they passed a tree in full bloom, the fragrance being almost overpowering. "They are just like those the boys sold us when the train stopped."
"Only they smell much sweeter," said Betty.
"Yes, almost too sweet," added Mollie.
Their trip had been practically without incident, and certainly without accident. There had been one or two delays, caused by various small happenings, but finally they had steamed into the junction station, where they took a way train for Bentonville.
This last was a short trip, the one in the compartment car, without change, having been rather monotonous. And yet not dull, for the girls found much to talk about, to speculate upon and to wonder at.
The snow, the cold and biting winds had gradually been left behind, and Nature, coy and uncertain at first, had, with the advance into the South, grown bolder. They had come from the land of bleakness and barrenness—from the place of leafless trees—into the region of Summer, almost in a day and night. They had exchanged snows for flowers.
Mrs. Stonington had stood the trip well, though a trifle weary and worn as the end of the journey came in sight. But the warm and balmy air of the South seemed to revive her, and her cheeks, that had been pale, took on a tinge of color.
"Oh, I am so glad," murmured Amy, and the others were glad with her.
They had delayed at the Bentonville station long enough to make sure that Betty's boat had arrived, and to send home telegrams telling of their safe journey.
They had been met by a man from the orange grove, a kindly Southern worker, whose very nature seemed a protest against haste and worry.
"Well," he greeted them slowly, "I see you all has arrived. Welcome, folks! Now when you're ready we'll move along; but don't be in no rush. It's too pow'ful warm to rush."
Indeed it was warm, and the girls, who had changed to some of their summer garments, felt the truth of this.
"Oh, for a lawn waist and a white skirt, low canvas shoes and a palm leaf fan!" sighed Mollie, as they drove beneath great trees that tempered the heat of the sun.
"Anything else?" asked Betty with a laugh.
"Lemonade," suggested Amy. "Or, no, since we are on an orange plantation I suppose orangeade would be more appropriate, girls."
"Anything as long as it's cool," sighed Grace. "I declare, all my chocolates have run together," and she looked with dismay into a box of the confection she had been carrying.
"No wonder—it's summer, and we left winter behind us," said Betty. "You'll have to give up chocolates down here, Grace, my dear."
"Or else keep them on ice," ventured Amy.
A turn of the road brought them in full view of the orange grove in which Mr. Stonington was interested, and at the sight a murmur of pleased surprise broke from the girls.
"And to think of going out there and picking oranges as one would apples!" exclaimed Amy. "Doesn't it seem odd to see oranges that aren't in a crate, or a fruit store?"
"Some of those will be in crates 'fore night," said the driver. "We're picking every day now. It's a good season, and we're making the most of it," he added to Mr. Stonington.
"Glad to hear it. You'll have to ship them as fast as you can with four orange-hungry girls on hand," and he laughed at Amy and her chums.
"Oh, Uncle Stonington!" Amy cried. "As if we could eat all the oranges here!" and she looked over the rows and rows of fruit-laden trees.
"You ain't no idea how many oranges you can eat, when yo'all get them right off a tree," said the driver. "They taste different from the ones you Northerners have, I tell you!"
One of the foremen, whom Mr. Stonington had met before, came from the grove to welcome them, and to show them the way to the bungalow they were to occupy during their stay in the South.
"We hope you will like it here," said the overseer, a Mr. Hammond.
"I don't see how we could help it," said Mrs. Stonington. "I am in love with the place already, and I feel so much better even with this little taste of Summer."
"That's good!" exclaimed her husband, with shining eyes.
As the carriage stopped in front of a cool-looking bungalow, a "comfortable-looking" colored "mammy" came to the door smiling expansively.
"Bress all yo' hea'ts!" she exclaimed. "Climb right down, and come in yeah! I's got de fried chicken an' corn pone all ready fo' yo'all. An' dere's soft crabs fo' dem as wants 'em, an' chicken-gumbo soup, an'——"
"Hold on, Aunt Hannah!" exclaimed Mr. Hammond with a laugh. "Have a little mercy on them. Maybe they are not hungry for all your good things."
"Oh, aren't we, though!" cried Mollie. "Just try me. I've always wanted chicken fried in the Southern style."
"You'll get it here," said Mr. Stonington.
Let us pass over that first meal—something that the girls did not do by any means—but the mere details of our friends arriving, getting settled, and then of resting to enjoy life as they had never enjoyed it before, can have little of interest to the reader. So, as I said, let us pass over a few days.
Each one, it is true, brought something new and of peculiar interest to the girls, but it was only because they had never before been in Florida. To the residents it was all an old story—even the picking of oranges.
The grove was near a beautiful stream, not such a river as was the Argono of Deepdale, but broader, more shallow and sluggish.
"I wonder if there are alligators in it?" asked Betty, of one of the pickers.
"Not around here," he answered. "You have to go into the bayous, or swamps, for them critters. Don't yo'all worry 'bout the 'gators."
"We won't when we get in the Gem," said Betty. "I wonder when they will bring her up and launch her?"
"Let's go to the depot and find out," suggested Amy. "We can have a carriage and team with a driver any time we want it, Uncle Stonington said."
At the freight office the boat was promised to them for the following day, but it was two before this promise was kept.
"You mustn't fret," said Mr. Stonington, when Betty grew rather impatient. "Remember you are down South. Few persons hurry here."
But finally the Gem arrived, and after some hard work she was launched. Proudly she rode the river, as proudly as at Deepdale, and Betty, with a little cry of joy, took her place at the wheel.
Batteries and magneto were in place, some gasoline was provided, and a little later the motor boat was ready for her first trip in Southern waters.
"All aboard!" cried Betty, as the engine was started.
Slowly, but with gathering speed, the trim craft shot out into the middle of the Mayfair.
"Oh, this is just perfect!" breathed Mollie. There was a little cloud on the face of Grace. They all knew what it was, and sympathized with her. No news had come about Will.
They puffed along, to the wonder and admiration of many of the colored pickers, who stopped to look—any excuse was good enough for stopping—especially the sight of a motor boat. Suddenly Grace, who was trailing her hand over the stern, gave a startled cry, and sprang up.
"Oh! oh!" she screamed. "An alligator. I nearly touched the horrid thing! Go ashore, Betty!"
ON A SAND BAR
"Alligators!" screamed Amy. "Don't you dare say that, Grace!"
"But it's so—I saw one—I nearly put my hand on his big black head. Oh, isn't it horrid!"
Grace and Amy were clinging to each other now in the middle of the boat. Betty had turned about at their exclamations, and Mollie was gazing curiously into the swirling water.
"I don't see any alligator," she announced, unbelievingly. "Are you sure you saw one, Grace?"
"Of course I am. Oh, Betty! There's one now, just ahead of you. You're going to run into him!"
Betty turned her attention to guiding the boat only just in time. Certainly something long and knobby and black was almost at the bow. She veered to one side, and then exclaimed:
"Alligator! That was nothing but a log, Grace Ford! How silly of you!"
"Silly? Nothing of the sort. I tell you I did see an alligator."
"It was a log—but it does look like one of the big creatures, though," said Amy. "Oh, if it should have been one!"
"Well, it couldn't eat us—here in the boat," said Mollie.
"No, but it might have capsized us, and then—" Grace paused suggestively.
"'All's well that ends well,'" quoted Betty, as she turned the boat nearer shore. "Some day we must take our lunch, and have a picnic ashore. See the lovely Spanish moss hanging down from the trees. It's like living history over again. Just think of it, how Balboa came here and discovered the land, and——"
"It wasn't Balboa, it was Ponce de Leon who located Florida," corrected Mollie. "Don't you remember—Flowery Easter?"
"Oh, so it was. Well, anyhow——"
"There—there!" screamed Grace. "There's an alligator, surely. It's alive, too! Oh, dear! An alligator!"
She pointed to something long and dark floating in the river—something that seemed to be covered with scales and ridges—something that suddenly turned up an ugly head, with bulging eyes, which looked fishily at the girls in the boat.
Then, with a swirl of its tail, the creature sank below the surface.
"Yes, that was an alligator," said Betty quietly.
"I told you it was," spoke Grace. "And to think I nearly had my hand on it. Oh, I don't want to remember it."
"But it didn't bite you," said practical Mollie.
"If it had—well, the less said the better," remarked Betty. "Now let's forget all about it and enjoy ourselves. Maybe there are only a few of them here in the river."
"I wonder what alligators are good for, anyhow?" came from Amy, as she resumed her seat. "They don't seem fit for anything."
"You forget about alligator bags," corrected Mollie. "What would we do for valises and satchels if we had no alligators, I'd like to know?"
"That's so," admitted Amy.
Grace was looking over the surface of the river as though to see if any more of the ugly creatures were in sight, but the water was unruffled save by the wind.
Not knowing the character of the stream Betty did not want to venture to far. So, after going down about a mile or so, she turned the boat and headed up stream. They passed a number of small boats, manned by colored boys who were fishing, and the youngsters suspended operations to gaze with mingled wonder and fear at Betty's swiftly-moving craft.
They tied up at the small dock which extended out into the river at the foot of the orange grove, well satisfied with their first trip, even though they had been frightened by the alligators.
"Yes, you will find one or two 'gators, now and then," said Mr. Hammond, the overseer, when told of the girls' experience. "But they won't bother you, especially in a big boat. Don't worry."
But Grace was so nervous that night that she did not sleep well, and Mrs. Stonington grew quite alarmed. Perhaps it was as much worry over the fate of Will, as the recollection of her escape from the alligator, that disturbed Grace.
For no good news had come from Mr. Ford. He had set many influences at work on the case, but so far nothing had come of his inquiries.
Will seemed to have been taken into the interior of Florida, and there lost. There were so many turpentine camps, or places where contract labor was used to get out valuable wood, or other products, that a complete inquiry would take a long time.
Mrs. Ford was as well as could be expected, Grace's father wrote, though naturally very much worried. And Grace was worried too. If she could have engaged actively in a search for her brother perhaps she might not have fretted so. But it was harassing to sit idly by and let others do the work.
"Especially when we have already done so much," said Betty, agreeing with her chum's view of the case.
Watching the work of gathering oranges, occasionally themselves helping somewhat, taking walks, drives and trips in the motor boat, made time for the girls pass quickly.
Then, one day, Betty said:
"Girls, we must go on a picnic. Take our lunch and go down the river in the boat. Go ashore and eat. We will do some exploring."
"And perhaps find the fountain of youth that Ponce de Leon missed," added Mollie.
"If you find it, bring some of the water back," begged Mr. Stonington. "You girls will not need it—I do."
"We'll bottle some for you," promised Amy, laughing.
Soon they were off in the Gem again, Grace, at least, keeping a wary eye out for alligators. But they saw none of the unprepossessing creatures.
"Though perhaps we may meet with a sea-cow," suggested Betty, as she looked for a pleasant place whereon to go ashore for lunch.
"What's a sea-cow?" asked Mollie.
"One that eats sea-weed," cried Amy.
"No, I mean a manatee," went on Betty. "Don't you remember the big creatures we saw in the New York aquarium a year or so ago?"
"Oh, yes!" exclaimed Amy. "Well, they're not as bad as alligators—at least they haven't such large mouths."
"And they only eat—grass," added Mollie.
Betty was sending her boat ahead at good speed, scanning the shores of the river for some quiet cove into which to steer. The day was warm, and the sun shone down unclouded. From the banks came the odor of flowers.
Suddenly, as the boat chugged along, there came a momentary halt, as though it had struck something.
"What's that?" cried Grace.
"Maybe an alligator has us," suggested Mollie with a laugh. For the Gem went on as though nothing had happened.
"Don't be silly!" chided Grace. "It was certainly something."
Betty looked back a bit nervously, and glanced at the engine.
"I hope the gasoline isn't giving out," she murmured.
"The idea!" cried Grace.
Then with a shock that threw all the girls forward in their seats the Gem came to a sudden halt, and the engine raced furiously. Betty at once shut off the power.
"Oh, oh!" cried Grace. "What is it? Has an alligator got hold of us?"
Betty looked over the bow. Then she said grimly:
"We've run on a sand bar—that's all. Run on it good and hard, too. I wonder if we can get off?"
Betty's words caused her three chums to stare at her in wonder. Then, by glancing over the side of the boat themselves, they confirmed what she had said.
"A—a sand bar," faltered Grace, sinking back among some cushions that matched her dress wonderfully well. Mollie said later that Grace always tried to match something, even if it was only her chocolates.
"A plain, ordinary sand bar," repeated Betty. "One of the men at the dock warned me about them, and even told me how to locate them, by the peculiar ripple of the shallow water over them. But I forgot all about it. Oh dear!"
"Well, it can't be so very bad," spoke Mollie, who was idly splashing the water with one hand. "We can't sink, that's a consolation."
"Don't do that!" exclaimed Amy quickly. She had "cuddled" closer to Betty following the shock as the boat came to a stop on the concealed bar.
"Don't do what?" asked Mollie wonderingly.
"Put your hand in the water. There may be alligators, you know. I think—I'm not sure—but I think I saw something like the head of one a moment ago."
Mollie pulled in her hand so suddenly that she flirted a little shower of drops on all in the boat.
"Stop it! You mean thing!" cried Grace.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," spoke Mollie with elaborate politeness. "I didn't think your sailor suit would spot—mine doesn't."
"It isn't that—no indeed. I meant Amy—for bringing up such a topic as alligators at this moment, when we can't move. And the ugly creatures always come out on a sand bar to sun themselves; don't they?"
"Not on this sand bar," asserted Betty. "It's under water. If it had been out I should have seen it."
"I'm sure I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable, Grace," said Amy humbly, "but really I did not think it was safe for Mollie to put her hand in the water."
"Of course it wasn't, you dear!" soothed Mollie, patting Amy softly on the shoulder. "I wasn't thinking of what I was doing."
"And I didn't mean anything, either," added Grace, thinking that perhaps she and Mollie had not treated Amy with just the deference due a hostess, for Amy did figure in that role.
"Oh, that's all right," said Amy with a smile that seemed always full of warm fellowship and feeling. "I know just how you feel."
"Well, I feel wretched—there's no denying that," spoke Betty with a sigh. "To think that I should run you girls on a sand bar, almost on our first trip. Isn't it horrid?"
"Well, we'll forgive her if she'll run us off again; won't we, girls?" asked Grace, searching among the cushions.
"Here it is," said Amy with another of her calm smiles, as she produced the box of candy for which Grace was evidently searching.
"Thanks. Well, Betty, are you going to get forgiven?"
"Which means am I going to get you off this bar? Well, I'm going to do my best. Wait until I take a look at the engine."
"What's the matter with it?" asked Mollie quickly, a new cause for alarm dawning in her mind.
"Nothing, I hope," replied Betty. "But we ran on the bar so suddenly that it may be strained from its base."
"Is it a baseball engine?" asked Grace languidly. She seemed to have recovered her composure now. Whether it was the fact of her chocolates being safe, or that there was no immediate danger of sinking, or that no alligators were in sight, was not made manifest, but she certainly seemed all right again.
"It's enough of a ball game to have a base, and to be obliged to hold it," said Betty with a smile, as she bent over the machinery, testing the bolts and nuts that held the motor to the bottom of the boat.
"I guess it's all right," she added with a sigh of relief. "Now to see if it will operate. But first I think we'd better see if we can push ourselves off with the oars and boat hook," for Betty, knowing that the best of motors may not "mote" at times, carried a pair of long sweeps by which the Gem could laboriously be propelled in case of a break-down. There was also a long hooked pole, for landing purposes.
"Mollie, you take one of the oars, and I'll use the other," directed Betty, for she realized that she and the French girl were stronger than the others. "We'll let Grace and Amy use the hook. Then if we all push together we may get off without further trouble. If that won't answer, we'll try reversing the engine." The machinery had been shut down by Betty immediately following the sudden stop on the bar.
About the stranded craft swirled the muddy river. Bits of driftwood—logs and sticks—floated down, and sometimes there was seen what looked to be the long, knobby nose of an alligator, but the girls were not sure enough of this, and, truth to tell, they much preferred to think of the objects as black logs, or bits of wood. It was much more comforting.
"Are you all ready?" asked the Little Captain as she took her place on one side, well up in the bow, Mollie taking a similar position on the other side. Each held one of the long oars.
"All ready," answered Amy, who had taken up the boat hook.
"Wait a minute," begged Grace, looking for something on which to cleanse her hands of the brown smudge of chocolate. "This candy is so sticky!"
"There's the whole river to wash in," said Mollie. "'Water, water everywhere,' and not any solid enough to go ashore on," she concluded with a laugh.
"I'll never dip my hands in this water—not until I can see bottom," declared Grace, finally selecting a bit of rag that Betty used to polish the brass work of the engine.
"As if it would hurt to take hold of the boat hook with chocolate fingers," spoke Mollie a bit sharply. "At any rate one could wash the pole without fear if its being nipped by an alligator."
"Don't be silly," directed Grace with flashing eyes.
"Well, don't eat so much candy then."
"Come, girls, if we're going to get off the bar it's time we tried it," suggested Betty with a smile. She did not want the two tempers, that seemed often on the verge of striking fire, one from the other, to kindle now. There was enough of other trouble, she reasoned.
The oars and pole were thrust into the water ahead of the boat. Bottom was found within a few inches, showing how shallow was the stream over the bar. The prow of the Gem seemed to have buried itself deeply in it.
They pushed and pushed and pushed again, but the only noticeable effect was the bending of the slender pole of the boathook on which Grace and Amy were shoving with all their strength. The motor boat did not budge.
"Once more!" cried Betty. "I think it moved a little."
"I wish—I could—think so!" panted Mollie, as she shifted the position of her oar.
Again they all bent to the task, and Amy and Grace combining their strength on the pole caused it to bend more than ever.
"Stop!" cried Betty, in some alarm. "It will break, and I don't know where I can get another. We'd better try reversing the engine."
She sat down in the cushioned cockpit, an example followed by the others. They were breathing rather hard, and presently Betty went into the cabin and came out with some iced orangeade that had been put aboard in a vacuum bottle to retain its coolness.
"Here," she invited, "let's refresh ourselves a bit. I can see that we are going to have trouble."
"Trouble?" queried Amy, looking at her chums.
"Yes. We aren't going to get off as easily as I thought."
"Do you think we'll ever get off?" asked Grace.
"Of course we will," declared Betty promptly.
"I'll never wade or swim ashore—not with the river full of such nasty alligators!" announced Grace.
"Wait until you're asked," cried Mollie. "I'm sure we can get off when the motor is reversed."
"The propeller seems to be in deep water," spoke Betty, taking an observation over the stern. "Come back here, girls, and sit down."
"It's more comfortable here," objected Grace, languidly. "In fact, if it were not for the fact of being stranded I should like it here." The cockpit was covered by an awning which kept off the hot rays of the sun, and the cushions, as Grace said, were very comfortable.
"But I want to get all the weight possible in the stern," Betty insisted. "That will raise the bow."
Understanding what was required of them, the girls moved aft, and perched on the flat, broad deck, while Betty went to start the motor and slip in the reverse clutch.
The engine seemed a bit averse to starting at first, and, for a few seconds, Betty feared that it had suffered some damage. But suddenly it began to hum and throb, gaining in momentum quickly, as it was running free. Betty slowed it down at the throttle, and then, looking aft to see that all was clear, she slipped in the clutch that reversed the propeller.
There was a smother of foam under the stern of the Gem, which trembled and throbbed with the vibration. Betty turned on more power, until finally the maximum, under the circumstances, was reached.
"Are we moving?" she called, anxiously, to her chums.
"Not an inch!" answered Mollie, leaning over to look at the surface of the water. "Not an inch."
"We'll try it a little longer," said Betty. "Sometimes it takes a little while to pull loose from the sand."
"Suppose some of us go up in the bow and push?" suggested Mollie. "That may help some."
"Perhaps; and yet I want to keep the bow as light as possible, so it won't settle down any more in the sand."
"I'll go," volunteered Mollie. "One can't make much difference. And I am not so very heavy."
"All right," agreed Betty.
With one of the oars Mollie pushed hard down into the holding sand, while Betty kept the motor going at full speed, reversed.
But the Gem seemed too fond of her new location to quit it speedily, and the girls, looking anxiously over the side, could see no change in their position.
"It doesn't seem to do any good," wailed Betty, hopelessly, as she slowed down the engine. The water about the craft was very muddy and thick now, caused by the propeller stirring up the bottom of the river.
"I guess we'll have to wade, or swim, ashore," said Amy, in what she meant to be a cheerful voice.
"Never!" cried Grace. "I'll stay here until someone comes for us. Say, we haven't called for help!" she exclaimed, with sudden thought. "We're not so far from either shore but what we could make ourselves heard, I think. Let's give a good call!"
"That's so," agreed Mollie. "I never thought of that."
The girls looked across to the distant shores. True enough, the banks were not far off—too far to wade or swim, perhaps, but as the day was calm and still their voices might possibly carry.
"There doesn't seem to be much of a population on either side," observed Betty, grimly. "Still there may be houses back from the shore, hidden by the trees. Now, all together."