The Corner House Girls on a Houseboat
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However, before turning in again, Mrs. MacCall insisted on making a pot of tea for the older folk, while the small children were given some bread and milk. As the berths where Dot and Tess had been sleeping were uncomfortably tilted by the listing of the boat, the little girls were given the places occupied by Ruth and Agnes, who managed to make shift to get some rest in the slanting beds.
“Whew!” exclaimed Neale as he went to his room when all that was possible had been done, “this has been some night!”
As might have been expected, the morning broke clear, warm and sunny, and the only trace of the storm was in the rather high waves of the lake. Before Mrs. MacCall served breakfast Neale, Mr. Howbridge, Agnes and Ruth went ashore, an easy matter, since the Bluebird was stranded, and made an examination. They found their craft so firmly fixed on the rocky shore that help would be needed before she could be floated.
“But how are we going to get help?” asked Ruth.
“Oh, there may be fishermen living on this island,” said Mr. Howbridge. “We’ll make a tour and see.”
“And if there is none,” added Neale, “Hank or I can row over to the next nearest island or to the mainland and bring back some men.”
The Bluebird carried on her afterdeck a small skiff to be used in making trips to and from the craft when she was at anchor out in some stream or lake. This boat would be available for the journey to the mainland or to another island.
An examination showed that the houseboat was not damaged more than superficially, and after a hearty breakfast, Neale and Mr. Howbridge held a consultation with Ruth and Agnes.
“What we had better do is this,” said the lawyer. “We had better turn our energies in two ways. One toward getting the disabled motor in shape, and the other toward seeking help to put us afloat once more.”
“Hank can work on the motor,” decided Neale. “All it needs is to have the monkey wrench taken out of the pit. In fact the space is so cramped that only one can work to advantage at a time. That will leave me free to go ashore in the boat.”
“Why not try this island first?” asked Ruth. “If there are any fishermen here they could help us get afloat, and it would save time. It is quite a distance to the main shore or even to the next island.”
“Yes, it is,” agreed Neale. “But I don’t mind the row.”
“It is still rough,” put in Agnes, looking over the heaving lake.
“Then I think the best thing to do,” said Mr. Howbridge, “is for some of us to go ashore and see if we can find any men to help us. Three or four of them, with long poles, could pry the Bluebird off the rocks and into the water again.”
“Oh, do let’s go ashore!” cried Agnes, and Tess and Dot, coming up just then, echoed this.
Mrs. MacCall did not care to go, saying she would prepare dinner for them. Hank took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves and started to work on the motor, while the others began their island explorations.
The houseboat had been blown on one of the largest bits of wooded land that studded Lake Macopic.In fact it was so large and wild that after half an hour’s walk no sign of habitation or inhabitants had been seen.
“Looks to be deserted,” said Neale. “I guess I’ll have to make the trip to the mainland after all.”
“Perhaps,” agreed the lawyer, while Ruth called to Tess and Dot not to stray too far off in their eagerness to see all there was to be seen in the strange woods. “Well, we are in no special rush, and while our position is not altogether comfortable on board the Bluebird, the relief from the storm is grateful. I wonder – ”
“Hark!” suddenly whispered Ruth, holding up a hand to enjoin silence. “I hear voices!”
They all heard them a moment later.
“I guess some one lives here after all,” remarked Mr. Howbridge. “The talk seems to come from just beyond us.”
“Let’s follow this path,” suggested Neale, pointing to a fairly well defined one amid the trees. It skirted the shore, swung down into a little hollow, and then emerged on the bank of a small cove which formed a natural harbor for a small motor boat.
And a motor boat was at that moment in the sheltered cove. All in the party saw it, and they also saw something else. This was a view of two roughly dressed men, who, at the sound of crackling branches and rustling leaves beneath the feet of the explorers, looked up quickly.
“It’s them again! Come on!” quickly cried one of the men, and in an instant they had jumped into the motor boat which was tied to a tree near shore.
It was the work of but a moment for one of them to turn over the flywheel and start the motor. The other cast off, and in less than a minute from the time the Corner House girls and their friends had glimpsed them the two ragged men were on their way in their boat out of the cove.
“Look! Look!” cried Ruth, pointing at them. “They’re the same ones!”
“The men we saw at the lock?” asked Neale.
“Yes, and the men who robbed us – I am almost positive of that!” cried the oldest Corner House girl.
“The rascals!” exclaimed the lawyer. “They’re going to escape us again! Fate seems to be with them! Every time we come upon them they manage to distance us!”
This was what was happening now. The tramps – such they seemed to be, though the possession of a motor boat took them out of the ordinary class – with never a look behind, speeded away.
“How provoking!” cried Agnes. “To think they have our jewelry and we can’t make them give it up.”
“You are not sure they have it,” said Mr. Howbridge, as the motor craft passed out of sight beyond a tree-fringed point.
“I think I am,” said Ruth. “If they are not guilty why do they always hurry away when they see us?”
“Well, Minerva, that is a question I can not answer,” said her guardian, with a smile. “You are a better lawyer than I when it comes to that. Certainly it does look suspicious.”
“Oh, for a motor boat!” sighed Neale. “I’d like to chase those rascals!”
“Yes, it would be interesting to find out why they seem to fear us,” agreed Mr. Howbridge. “But it’s too late, now.”
“I wonder why they came to this island,” mused Ruth. “Do you think they were fishermen?”
“They didn’t have any implements of the trade,” said Mr. Howbridge. “But their presence proves that the island is not altogether uninhabited. Let’s go along, and we may find some one to help get the boat back into the water.”
They resumed their journey, new beauties of nature being revealed at every step. The trees and grass were particularly green after the effective washing of the night before, and there were many wild flowers which the two little girls gathered, with many exclamations of delight.
Turning with the path, the trampers suddenly came to a small clearing amid the trees. It was a little grassy glade, through which flowed a stream of water, doubtless from some hidden spring higher up among the rocks. But what most interested Neale, Agnes, Ruth and the lawyer was a small cabin that stood in the middle of the beautiful green grass.
“There’s a house!” cried Dot. “Look!”
“It’s the start of one, anyhow,” agreed Mr. Howbridge.
“And somebody lives in it,” went on Ruth, as the door of the cabin opened and a heavily bearded man came out, followed by a dog. The dog ran, barking, toward the explorers, but a command from the man brought him back.
“I hope we aren’t trespassing,” said Mr. Howbridge. “We were blown on the island last night, and we’re looking for help to get our houseboat back into the lake.”
“Oh, no, you aren’t trespassing,” the man replied with a smile, showing two rows of white teeth that contrasted strangely with his black beard. “I own part of the island, but not all of it. What sort of boat did you say?”
“Houseboat,” and the lawyer explained the trouble. “Are there men here we can get to help us pole her off the shore?” he asked.
“Well, I guess I and my two boys could give you a hand,” was the slow answer. “They’ve gone over to the mainland with some fish to sell, but they’ll be back around noon.”
“We’ll be glad of their help,” went on the lawyer. “Do you live here all the while?”
“Mostly. I and my boys fish and guide. Lots of men come here in the summer that don’t know where to fish, and we take ’em out.”
“Were those your two sons we saw in a motor boat back there in the cove?” asked Neale, indicating the place where the tramps had been observed. Rather anxiously the bearded man’s answer was awaited.
“What sort of boat was it?” he countered.
Neale described it sufficiently well.
“No, those weren’t my boys,” returned the man, while the dog made friends with the visitors, much to the delight of Dot and Tess. “We haven’t any such boat as that. I don’t know who those fellows could be, though of course many people come to this island.”
“I wish we could find out who those men are,” said Mr. Howbridge. “I have peculiar reasons for wanting to know,” he went on.
“I think they call themselves Klondikers, because they have been, or claim to have been, to the Alaskan Klondike,” said Neale. “Do you happen to know any Klondikers around here?”
Somewhat to the surprise of the boy the answer came promptly:
“Yes, I do. A man named O’Neil.”
“What!” exclaimed Neale, starting forward. “Do you know my father? Where is he? Tell me about him!”
“Well, I don’t know that he’s your father,” went on the black-bearded man. “Though, now I recollect, he did say he had a son and he hoped to see him soon. But this O’Neil lives on one of the islands here in the lake. Or at least he’s been staying there the last week. He bought some fish of me, and he said then he’d been to the Klondike after gold.”
“Did he say he got any?” asked Neale.
The man of the cabin shook his head.
“I wouldn’t say so,” he remarked. “Mr. O’Neil had to borrow money of one of my boys to hire a boat. I guess he’s poorer than the general run. He couldn’t have got any gold in the Klondike.”
At this answer Neale’s heart sank, and a worried suspicion crept into his mind. If his father were poor it might explain something that had been troubling the boy of late. Somehow, all the brightness seemed to go out of the day. Neale’s happy prospects appeared very dim now.
“Poor father!” he murmured to himself.
Suddenly, from the lake behind them came some loud shouts, at which the dog began to bark. Then followed a shot, and the animal raced down the slope toward the water.
CHAPTER XXIV – CLOSING IN
“Perhaps these are the men!” exclaimed Ruth to the lawyer.
“What men?” he asked.
“Those tramps – the ones who robbed us in the rain storm that day. If they come here – ”
“What’s the matter?” asked the man of the cabin – Aleck Martin he had said his name was. “What seems to be the trouble with the young lady?” And, as he spoke, gazing at Ruth, the barking of the dog and the shouting grew apace.
“She is excited, thinking the rascals about whom we have been inquiring might now make their appearance,” Mr. Howbridge answered.
“Mr. Martin laughed so heartily that his black beard waved up and down like a bush in the wind, and Dot and Tess watched it in fascination.
“Excuse me, friend,” the dweller in the cabin went on, “but I couldn’t help it. Those are my two boys coming back. They always cut up like that. Seems like the quietness of the lake and this island gets on their nerves sometimes, and they have to raise a ruction. No harm in it, not a bit. Jack, the dog, enjoys it as much as they do.”
This was evident a few moments later, for up the slope came two sturdy young men, one carrying a gun, and the dog was frisking about between the two, having the jolliest time imaginable.
“There are my boys!” said Mr. Martin, and he spoke with pride.
“Oh, will you excuse me?” asked Ruth, in some confusion.
“That’s all right – they do look like tramps,” said their father. “But you can’t wear your best clothes fussing around boats and fish and taking parties out. Well, Tom and Henry, any luck?” he asked the newcomers.
“Extra fine, Dad,” answered one, while both of them stared curiously at the visitors.
“That’s good,” went on Mr. Martin. “These folks,” he added, “were blown ashore last night in their houseboat. They want help to get it off.”
“Will you go and look at her, and then we can make a bargain?” interposed Mr. Howbridge.
“Oh, shucks now, friend, we aren’t always out for money, though we make a living by working for summer folks like you,” said Mr. Martin, smiling.
“Is that your boat over there?” asked one of the young men whose name, they learned later, was Tom.
“Yes,” assented Neale, for the fisherman pointed in the direction of the stranded Bluebird, which, however, could not be seen from the cabin.
“We saw her as we came around,” went on Henry. “I wondered what she was doing up on shore, and we intended to have a look after we tied up our craft.”
“Will you be able to help us get her afloat?” asked Ruth, for she rather liked the healthful, manly appearance of the two young men.
“Sure!” assented their father. “This is that O’Neil man’s son,” he went on, speaking to his boys.
“What, O’Neil; the Klondiker?” asked Tom quickly.
“Yes,” assented Neale. “Can you tell me about him? Where is he? How did he make out in Alaska?”
“Well, he’s on an island about ten miles from here,” was the answer of Henry. “As for making out, I don’t believe he did very well in the gold business, to tell you the truth. He doesn’t say much about it, but I guess the other men got most of it.”
“What other men?” asked Neale, and again his heart sank and that terrible suspicion came back to him.
“Oh, a bunch he is in with,” answered Henry Martin. “They all live together in a shack on Cedar Island. Your father hired a boat of us. I trusted him for it, as he said he had no ready cash. But I reckon it’s all right.”
This only served to make Neale more uneasy. He had been hoping against hope that his father would have found at least a competence in the Klondike.
Now it seemed he had not, and, driven by poverty, he might have adopted desperate measures. Nor did Neale like the remarks about his father being in with a “bunch” of men. True, Mr. O’Neil had been in the circus at one time, and they, of necessity, are a class of rough and ready men. But they are honest, Neale reflected. These other men – if the two who had escaped in the motor boat were any samples – were not to be trusted.
So it was with falling spirits that the boy waited for what was to happen next.
Agnes’ quick mind and ready sympathy guessed Neale’s thoughts.
“It will be all right, Neale O’Neil. You know it will. Your father couldn’t go wrong.”
“You’re a pal worth having, Aggie,” he whispered to the girl.
“I would like to see my father,” he said to the lawyer. “Do you think we could go to Cedar Island in the houseboat?”
“Of course we can!” exclaimed Mr. Howbridge. “We’ll go as soon as we can get her afloat.”
“And that won’t take long; she didn’t seem to be in a bad position,” said Tom. “Come on, we’ll go over now,” he went on, nodding to his father and his brother.
“I have an Alice-doll on the boat,” said Dot, taking a sudden liking to Henry.
“You have?” he exclaimed, taking hold of her hand which she thrust confidingly into his. “Well, that’s fine! I wish I had a doll!”
“Do you?” asked Dot, all smiles now. “Well, I have a lot of ’em at home. There’s Muriel and Bonnie Betty and a sailor boy doll, and Nosmo King Kenway, and then I have twins – Ann Eliza and Eliza Ann, and – ”
“Eliza Ann isn’t a twin any more – anyway not a good twin,” put in Tess. “Both her legs are off!”
“Oh, that’s too bad!” exclaimed Henry sympathetically.
“And if you want a doll, I can give you one of mine,” proceeded Dot. “Only I don’t want to give you Alice-doll ’cause she’s all I have with me. But if you want Muriel – ”
“Muriel has only one eye,” said Tess quickly.
“I think I should love a one-eyed doll!” said the young man, who seemed to know just how to talk to children.
“Then I’ll send her to you!” delightedly offered Dot.
“And I’ll send you one of Almira’s kittens!” said Tess, who did not seem to want her sister to do all the giving.
“Hold on there! Don’t I get anything?” asked Tom, in mock distress.
“Almira’s got a lot of kittens,” said Dot. “Would you like one of them?”
“Well I should say so! If Henry’s going to have a kitten and a doll, I think I ought at least to have a kitten,” he said.
“Well, I’ll send you one,” promised Tess.
And then, with the two children, one in charge of Henry and the other holding Tom’s hand, the trip was made back to where the Bluebird was stranded.
“It won’t be much of a job to get her off,” declared Mr. Martin, when he and his sons had made an expert examination. “Get some long poles, boys, and some blocks, and I think half an hour’s work will do the trick.”
“Oh, shall we be able to move soon?” asked Mrs. MacCall, coming out on deck.
“We hope so,” answered Ruth, as she went on board and told of the visit to the cabin, while Neale hurried to the engine room to see what success Hank had met with. The mule driver had succeeded in getting the monkey wrench out from under the flywheel, and the craft could move under her own power once she was afloat.
“What’s the matter with Neale?” asked Mrs. MacCall, while the men were in the woods getting the poles. “He looks as if all the joy had departed from life.”
“I’m afraid it has, for him,” said Ruth soberly. “It seems that his father is located near here – on Cedar Island – and is poor.”
“Nothing in that to take the joy out of life!” And Mrs. MacCall strode away.
“Well, being poor isn’t anything,” declared Agnes. “Lots of people are poor. We were, before Uncle Peter Stower left us the Corner House.”
“I think Neale fears his father may have had something to do with – Oh, Agnes, I hate to say it, but I think Neale believes his father either robbed us, or knows something about the men who took the jewelry box!”
“But we know it isn’t true!” exclaimed Agnes.
“Anyway, the Klondike trip was a failure.”
“Yes, and I’m so sorry!” exclaimed Agnes. “Couldn’t we help – ”
“I think we shall just have to wait,” advised her sister. “We can talk to Mr. Howbridge about it after we find out more. I think they are going to move the boat now.”
This task was undertaken, and to such good advantage did Mr. Martin and his sons work, aided, of course, by Neale, Mr. Howbridge and Hank, that the Bluebird was soon afloat again.
“Now we can go on, and when I get back home I’ll send you a doll and a pussy cat!” offered Dot to Henry.
“And I’ll send you two pussy cats!” Tess said to Tom.
The young men laughed, their father joining in.
“How much do I owe you?” asked the lawyer, when it was certain that the houseboat was afloat, undamaged, and could proceed on her way.
“Not a cent!” was the hearty answer of Mr. Martin. “We always help our neighbors up here, and you were neighbors for a while,” he added with a laugh.
“Well, I’m a thousand times obliged to you,” said the guardian of the Corner House girls. “Our trip might have been spoiled if we couldn’t have gone on, though I must say you have a delightful resting spot in this island.”
“We like it here,” admitted the fisherman, while his sons were looking over the houseboat, which they pronounced “slick.”
Neale seemed to have lost heart and spirit. Dot and Tess, of course, did not notice it so much, as there was plenty to occupy them. But to Ruth and Agnes, as well as to Mr. Howbridge, Neale’s dejection was very evident.
“Is the motor all right?” asked the lawyer of Neale, when the Martins had departed with their dog.
“Yes, she runs all right now.”
“Then we might as well head for Cedar Island,” suggested the lawyer. “The sooner you find your father the better.”
“Yes – I suppose so,” and Neale turned away to hide his sudden emotion.
Once more the Bluebird was under way, moving slowly over the sparkling waters of Lake Macopic. All traces of the storm had vanished.
“Mrs. Mac wants to know if we are going to pass any stores,” said Agnes, coming up on deck when the island on which they had been stranded had been left behind.
“We can run over to the mainland if she wants us to,” the lawyer said. “Is it anything important, Agnes?”
“Only some things to eat.”
“Well, that’s important enough!” he laughed. “We’ll stop at that point over there,” and he indicated one. “From there we can make a straight run to Cedar Island. You won’t mind the delay, will you?” he asked Neale, who was steering.
“Oh, no,” was the indifferent answer. “I guess there’s no hurry.”
They all felt sorry for the lad, but decided nothing could be done. Mr. Howbridge admitted, after Ruth had spoken to him, that matters looked black for Mr. O’Neil, but with his legal wisdom the lawyer said:
“Don’t bring in a verdict of guilty until you have heard all the evidence. It is only fair to suspend judgment. It would be cruel to raise Neale’s hopes, only to dash them again, but I am hoping for the best.”
This comforted Ruth and Agnes a little; though of course Agnes, in her loyalty to Neale, did not allow doubt to enter her mind.
The point for which the boat was headed was a little settlement on the lake shore. It was also the center of a summer colony, and was a lively place just at present, this being the height of the season.
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