Grace Hill.

The Corner House Girls on a Houseboat





Oh, dont let him get me! Dont let him get me! cried the little girl.

CHAPTER XIX ON THE LAKE

Instantly Ruth was out of bed, and while she slipped on her bath robe and while her bare feet sought her slippers under the edge of her bunk, she cried:

What is it, Tessie? Ruth is coming! Sister is coming!

At once the interior of the Bluebird seemed to pulsate with life. In the corridor which ran the length of the craft, and on either side of which the sleeping apartments were laid off, a night light burned. Opening her door Ruth saw Mrs. MacCall peering forth, a flaring candle in her hand.

What is it, lass? asked the sturdy Scotch woman. I thought I heard a wee cry in the night.

You did! exclaimed Ruth. It was Tess!

In quick succession, with kimonas or robes over their sleeping garments, Neale, Mr. Howbridge and Agnes came from their rooms. But from the apartments of Tess and Dot no one came, and ominous quiet reigned.

What was it? asked Mr. Howbridge. One of you girls screamed. Who was it?

Something gleamed in his hand, and Ruth knew it to be a weapon.

It was Tess who cried out! Ruth answered. All I could hear was something about her being afraid some one would catch her.

And then again from the room of Tess came a low cry of:

Ruthie! Ruthie! Come here!

Yes, dear, I am coming, was the soothing reply. What is it? Oh, my dear, what has happened?

When she opened the door she saw her sister sitting up in bed, a look of fear on her face but unharmed. And a quick look in the adjoining apartment showed Dot to be peacefully slumbering, her Alice-doll close clasped in her arms.

What was it, Tessie? asked Ruth in a whisper, carefully closing Dots door so as not to awaken her. What did you see?

I I dont just remember, was the answer. I was dreaming that I was riding on that funny Uncle Josh mule that knows Neale, and then a clown chased me and I fell off and the elephant came after me. I called to you, and

Was it all only a dream, dear? asked Ruth with a smile.

No, it wasnt all a dream, said Tess slowly. A man looked in the window at me.

What window? asked Agnes.

Tess pointed to one of the two small casements in her small apartment. They opened on the bank of the river, and it would have been easy for any one passing along the bank of the stream to have looked into Tesss windows, or, for that matter, into any of the openings on that side of the craft. But the windows, though open on account of the warm night, were protected by heavy screens to keep out mosquitoes and other insects.

Do you really mean some one opened your window in the night, or did you just dream that, too? asked Ruth. You have very vivid dreams sometimes.

I didnt dream about the man, insisted Tess. He really opened the screen and looked in. See, its loose now!

The screens swung outward on hinges, and there, plainly enough, the screen of one of the casements in Tesss room was partly open.

Perhaps the wind blew it, suggested Agnes, wishing she could believe this.

Neale stepped over and tested the screen.

It seems too stiff to have been blown open by the wind, was the comment.

But of course, Mr.

Howbridge suggested, the screen may not have been tightly closed when Theresa went to bed.

Oh, yes it was, sir! exclaimed Mrs. MacCall positively. I looked at them myself. I didnt want any of the mosquitoes to be eatin ma pretties. The screens were tight closed!

Oh dear, I dont like it here! said Tess, on the verge of tears. I dont want tramps looking in my room, and this man was just like a tramp.

The noise of some one moving around on the upper deck of the craft attracted the attention of all.

Thats Hank! exclaimed Neale. Ill go and see if he heard anything unusual or saw any one. It may be that some fellow was passing along the river road and was impudent enough to pull open a screen and look in, thinking he might pick up something off a shelf.

But Hank, who in his curtained-off place had been awakened by the confusion below him, declared he had seen or heard nothing.

Im a sound sleeper, he said. Once I get to bed I dont do much else but sleep.

So nothing was to be got out of him.

And it was difficult to tell whether or not Tess had dreamed about the man, as she had said she dreamed about the elephant and the mule. Neale volunteered to look on the bank underneath the window for a sign of footprints. He did look, using his flashlight, but discovered nothing.

I guess it was all a dream, said Ruth. Go to sleep, Tess dear. Youll be all right now.

Im not going to sleep alone, insisted the little girl, her lips beginning to quiver.

Ill stay with you, offered Ruth, and so it was arranged.

Its an awful queer happening, remarked Agnes.

Lots of things seem queer on this trip, put in Tess. Maybe we better give up the houseboat trip.

You wont say that in the morning, laughed Neale.

How do you know that?

Oh, I know, the boy laughed.

They all went back to their beds, but it was some time before several of them resumed their interrupted slumbers. Tess, the innocent cause of it all, fell off to dreamland with Ruths arm around her in the rather cramped quarters, for the bunks were not intended to accommodate two. But once Tess was breathing deeply and regularly, Ruth slipped back to her own apartment, pausing to whisper to Agnes that Tess seemed all right now.

Ruth remained awake for some time, her mind busy with many things, and mingled with her confused thoughts were visions of the mule driver, Hank Dayton, signaling to some tramp confederates in the woods the fact that all on board the Bluebird were deep in slumber, so that robbery might be easily committed.

Oh, but Im foolish to think such things, the Corner House girl told herself. Absolutely foolish!

And at last she convinced herself of that and went to sleep.

The next morning Neale and Mr. Howbridge, with Hank to help, made a careful examination of the soft earth on the river bank under Tesss window. They saw many footprints, and the stub of a cigarette.

But the footprints might have been made by themselves when they had moored the boat the evening before. As for the cigarette stub, though Hank smoked, he said he never used cigarettes. A pipe was his favorite, and neither Mr. Howbridge nor Neale smoked.

Some one passing in the daytime before we arrived may have flung the stub away, said the lawyer. I think all we can do is to ascribe the alarm to a dream Tess had.

The little girl had forgotten much of the occurrence of the night when questioned about it next morning. She hardly recalled her dream, but she did insist that a man had looked in her window.

Well, next time we tie up over night well do it in or near some city or village, and not in such a lonely place, decided Mr. Howbridge.

Neale and Hank made good their promise to repair the motor, and shortly after breakfast the craft was in shape to travel on.

The weather continued fine, and if it had not been for the alarm of the night before, and the shadow of the robbery hanging over Ruth and Agnes, and Neales anxiety about his father, the travelers would have been in a most happy mood. The trip was certainly affording them many new experiences.

Its almost as exciting as when we were snowbound, declared Agnes.

But Im glad we dont have to look for two little runaways or lost ones, put in Ruth, with a glance at Tess and Dot as they went out to play on the upper deck.

It was just before noon, when Ruth was helping Mrs. MacCall prepare the dinner, that the oldest Kenway girl heard a distressing cry from the upper deck where Tess and Dot had been playing all the morning.

Tess, stop! Ruth heard Dot exclaim. Im going to tell Ruthie on you! Youll drown her! Oh, Tess!

She cant drown! Havent I got a string on her? demanded Tess. This is a new way of giving her a bath. She likes it.

Give her to me! Ruthie! Ruthie! Make Tess stop! pleaded Dot.

I wonder what the matter is, said Ruth, as she set down the dish she was holding and hastened to the upper deck.

There she saw Dot and Tess both leaning over the rail, at rather a dangerous angle, and evidently struggling, one to get possession of and the other to retain, some object Ruth could not see.

Be careful! Youll fall in! Ruth cried.

At the sound of her voice her sisters turned toward her, and Ruth saw they each had hold of a cord.

What are you doing; fishing? Ruth asked. Dont you know Hank said you couldnt catch fish when the boat was moving unless you trolled with what he called a spoon?

Were not fishing! said Dot.

Im just giving the Alice-doll a bath, explained Tess. I tied her on the end of a string and Im letting her swim in the water. She likes it!

She does not! And you must stop! And you must give her to me! Oh, Ruthie! cried Dot, trying to pull the cord away from Tess. In an instant there was a struggle between the two little girls.

Children! Children! admonished Ruth, in perfect amazement at such behavior on the part of the gentle and considerate Tess. Im surprised at you! Tess, dear, give Dot her doll. You shouldnt have put her in water unless Dot allowed you to.

Well, but she needed a bath! insisted Tess. She was dirty!

I know it, and I was going to give her a bath; but she has a cold and I was waiting till she got over it! explained Dot. Tess, give me that string, and Ill pull my Alice-doll up! she demanded.

The struggle was renewed, and Ruth was hastening across the deck to stop it by the force of more authority than mere words, when Neale, who was steering the craft, called out.

Theres the big water! Were at Lake Macopic now!

Hardly had the echo of his words died away than Dot cried:

There! Now look what you did! You let go the string and my Alice-doll is gone!

CHAPTER XX DRIFTING

Dot burst into tears, and Tess, startled by the sudden tragic outcome of her prank, leaned so far over the edge of the boat to see what happened to the doll that Ruth cried:

Be careful! Youll fall! Dont you go into the lake, as well as the doll!

Tess bounced back on deck. She looked ashamed when she saw Dot crying.

You can have one of my dolls when we get back home, Tess offered. Or you can have my half of Almira the cat, and all her kittens. Ill give you my share.

I dont want em! I want my Alice-doll! wailed Dot.

Ill have Hank get her for you! called Neale, as he swung the boat around. The string will float, even if your doll wont, and Hank can fish it back aboard.

Neale signaled to Hank by means of a bell running from the upper deck near the steering wheel to the motor room below, where the former mule driver looked after the gasoline engine. It was arranged with a clutch, so it could be thrown out of gear, thus stopping or reversing the power, if need be.

Whats the matter? called Hank, coming out on the lower deck and looking up at Neale. Going to make a landing?

No. But Dot lost her Alice-doll overboard, Neale explained. Tess had a string to it and

Oh, is that what the string was? exclaimed Hank. I saw a cord drop down at the stern past the motor-room window and I made a grab for it. I thought it was somebodys fish line. Wait, Ill give it a haul and see what I can get on deck.

Leaving the wheel, which needed no attention since power was not now propelling the craft, Neale hastened to the lower deck, followed by Ruth, Tess and Agnes. They saw Hank pulling in, hand over hand, the long, white cord. Presently there came something slapping its way up the side of the Bluebird, and a moment later there slumped down on the deck a very wet, and much bedraggled doll.

Oh, its my Alice! Its Alice! cried Dot. Ive got her back once more.

There wont be much left of her if she gets in the water again, prophesied Neale. This is the second time this trip.

She is rather forlorn looking, agreed Ruth, trying not to smile and hurt her little sisters feelings, for Dot was very sensitive about her dolls, especially her Alice one. I shall have to get you a new one, Dot.

I dont want anybody but my Alice-doll! Will you hang her up in the sun for me so shell dry? begged Dot of Neale, holding out to him the really wretched doll.

Of course, Dottie. And when we get back to Milton we can take her to the hospital again and have her done over as we did after she was buried with the dried apples. Poor Alice-doll! She has had a hard life.

Tess had gone off by herself, thoroughly ashamed of her behavior. Dot now went to her own little room, to grieve over the fate of the Alice-doll.

Aggie, said Neale, I think our Tess must have surely gone insane. I never knew her to do a deliberately unkind thing before.

It certainly is curious. There, Neale, Mr. Howbridge is beckoning to you.

Yes, Neale replied. He wants us to start, and hes right. Start her up again, Hank, he added. Were on Lake Macopic now, and well have to watch our step. Theres more navigation here than there was on the river.

Is this really the lake? asked Ruth, Are we really on Macopic at last?

This is where the river broadens out into the lake, said Neale, indicating the sweep of waters about them. It is really a part of the lake, though the larger and main part lies around that point, and he indicated the point of land he meant.

Lake Macopic was a large body of water, and on its shores were many towns, villages and one or two places large enough to be dignified by the appellation cities. Quite a trade was done between some of the places, for the presence of so much water gave opportunity for power to be obtained from it, and around the lake were many mills and factories. There were a number of islands in the lake, some of them large enough for summer hotels, while others were merely clumps of trees. On some, campers spent their vacations, and on one or two, owned by fishermen, cabins were built.

Yes, we are really here at last, said Neale. I must find out where we are to head for. Where do you have to deliver this boat, Mr. Howbridge? he asked the lawyer.

At the upper end of the lake, was the answer. But there is no hurry about it. I intend that we shall all have a nice cruise on Lake Macopic before I let my client have possession of this boat. He is in no special need, and the summer is not nearly enough over to make me want to end our vacation yet. That is, unless you feel you must get back to the Corner House, Martha? and he smiled at his oldest ward.

Oh, no, Ruth made haste to reply. It is too lovely here to wish to leave. Im sure we shall find it most delightful.

Can we go in swimming? asked Tess, who liked the water.

Yes, there are bathing beaches several of them in fact, answered the lawyer. We will stop at one and let you children paddle around.

I can swim! boasted Tess.

I can too, added Dot, not to be outdone by her sister.

Lake Macopic was beautiful, reflecting the sunlight, the blue sky, and the white, fleecy clouds. The houseboat once more began slowly navigating it as Hank threw the clutch in and Neale kept the wheel steady. They passed several other boats, and then, as their supplies were running low, it was decided to put in at the nearest town.

Well get some cake and maybe a pie or two, said Ruth, after consulting Mrs. MacCall. And of course, some fresh vegetables.

Cant we get some strawberries? questioned Dot.

Too late Im afraid, Dot. But maybe we can get huckleberries.

Oh, I know what I would like, cried Tess.

I know too, declared Agnes. An ice-cream cone.

Yep. Strawberry.

I want chocolate, came promptly from Dot.

And oh, cant we have some lollypops too? went on Tess.

Sure if the stores keep them, answered Mr. Howbridge promptly. Yes, I see a sign, Ice Cream and Confectionery. I guess we can get what we want over there when we reach the place.

Oh, goody, cried Dot; and Tess patted her stomach in satisfaction.

It was early evening when they tied up at a wharf, which was operated in conjunction with a store, and while Mrs. MacCall and the girls were buying such things as were needed, Neale and Mr. Howbridge made some inquiries regarding the rules for navigating the lake. They found there would be no trouble in getting the Bluebird from place to place.

Have you seen a small motor boat run by two men around here lately? asked the lawyer of the dock keeper, after some unimportant talk.

What sort of men?

Roughly dressed.

That isnt much of a description, was the retort. A lot of the fishermen dress roughly, but theyre all right. But we do have some fellows up here who arent what Id call first-class.

What do you mean? asked Mr. Howbridge.

Well, I mean theres a bunch camping on one of the islands here. Somebody said they were returned miners from the Klondike, but I dont know that I believe that.

Why, those may be the very men we mean! cried the lawyer. One of them claims, or is said to have been, in the Alaskan gold regions. In fact this young mans father is, or was, a Klondike miner, went on Mr. Howbridge, indicating Neale. Maybe these men could tell us something about him. Did you ever hear any of them mention a Mr. ONeil? he asked.

The dock tender shook his head.

Cant say I did, he answered. I dont have much to do with those men. Theyre too rough for me. They may be the ones you mean, and they may not.

Further questioning elicited no more information, and Neale and Mr. Howbridge had to be content with this.

But well pay a visit to that island, decided the lawyer, when its location had been established. We may get some news of your father in that way.

I hope so, sighed Neale.

Rather than tie up at the dock that night, which would bring them too near the not very pleasant sights and sounds of a waterfront neighborhood, it was decided to anchor the Bluebird out some distance in the lake.

Accordingly, at dusk, when supper was over and a little stroll on shore had gotten the kinks out of their sea legs, the Bluebird was headed into the lake again and moored, with riding lights to warn other craft away.

In the middle of the night Neale felt the need of a drink, as he had eaten some buttered popcorn the evening before and he was now thirsty. As he arose to get a glass of water from a shelf in his apartment he became aware of a strange movement. At the same time he could hear the sighing of the wind.

Sounds as if a storm were coming up, mused the boy. And then, as he reached out his hand for the glass, he felt the Bluebird rise, fall and sway beneath him.

Why, were moving! Were drifting! exclaimed Neale. The anchor must be dragging or the cables have been cut. Were drifting fast, and may be in danger!

CHAPTER XXI THE STORM

Neale ONeil was a lad to whom, young as he was, emergencies came as a sort of second nature. His life in the circus had prepared him for quick and unusual action. Many times, while traveling with the tented shows, accidents had happened. Sometimes one of the animals would get loose, perhaps one of the hay feeders, by which is meant the elephants, horses or camels. Or, worse than this, one of the big cats, or the meat eaters including lions, tigers and leopards would break from a cage. Then consternation would reign.

But Neale had seen how the circus men had met these emergencies, always working for the safety of others.

And now, as he seemed to be alone in the semi-darkness and silence of the houseboat at midnight, Neale felt that the time had come for him to act.

We must have pulled our anchor, or else some one has cut us adrift, decided the lad. And if any one has cut us loose it must be those men from the motor boat the tramps the thieves!

He visualized their evil countenances and thought of how they had behaved toward Ruth and Agnes that is, if these were the two men in question.

And I wonder if Hank stands in with them, mused Neale. I must find out. But first Ive got to do something about the boat. If were adrift, as we surely are, we may run into some other craft, or one may run into us, or

Neale paused as he felt a grating beneath the broad, flat bottom of the boat and the craft careened slightly.

We may go aground or be blown on an island, was his completed thought. But were safe so far, he mentally added, as he felt the Bluebird slip off some under-water rock or reef of mud over which she progressed.

Then Neale galvanized himself into action. He forgot all about the drink he had been going to get, and, slipping on shoes and a rubber coat that hung in his room, he stepped out into the corridor which ran the length of the boat between the two rows of sleeping rooms.

Neale was going up on deck to look around and, if possible, find out what had caused the boat to break away from her moorings.

As Neale passed Ruths door it opened and she came out, wrapped in a heavy robe.

What is it, Neale? asked the oldest Corner House girl. Has anything happened?





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