Grace Hill.

The Corner House Girls on a Houseboat





Oh, I hope so! exclaimed Ruth. It has been an awful shock.

I would rather they had taken a much larger amount of jewelry than have harmed either you or Agnes, went on the guardian. They were ruffians of the worst type, and would not have stopped at injuring a person to get what they wanted. But dont worry, we shall hear good news from the police, I am sure.

I believe that, too, put in Neale. I wish I was as sure of hearing good news of my father.

That is going to be a little harder problem, said Mr. Howbridge. However, we are doing all we can. I am hoping your Uncle Bill will have had definite news of your father and of where he has settled since he came back from the Klondike. Your father would be most likely to communicate with your uncle first.

I suppose so, agreed Neale. But when shall we see Uncle Bill?

As I told you, went on the lawyer, his circus will soon show at a town near which we shall pass in the boat. The younger children will probably want to go to the circus, and that will give me a good excuse for attending myself, the lawyer went on with a laugh, in which Ruth joined.

The night passed quietly, though about twelve oclock another boat came along and had to pass the Bluebird. As there is but one towpath along a canal, it is necessary when two boats meet, or when one passes the other, for the tow-line of one to go under or over the tow-line of the second boat.

As the Bluebird was tied to the shore it was needful, in this case, for the tow-line of the passing boat to be lifted up over it, and when this was being done it awakened Ruth and Agnes. At first the girls were startled, but they settled back when the nature of the disturbance was known.

Dot half awakened and murmured something about some one trying to take her Alice-doll, but Ruth soon quieted her.

Neale was awake early the next morning, and went on the upper deck for a breath of air before breakfast. He saw Hank emerge from the curtained-off place that had been arranged for the sleeping quarters of the mule driver.

Well, do we start soon? asked Hank, yawning and stretching.

I think so, Neale answered, and then he saw Hank make a sudden dart for something that had evidently slipped from a hole in his pocket. It was something that rolled across the deck, something round, and shining like gold.

The mule driver made a dive for the object and caught it before it could roll off the deck, and Neale had a chance to see that it was a gold ring.

Without a word Hank picked it up and put it back in his pocket. Then, without a glance at the boy, he turned aside, and, making his way to the towpath, he began carrying the mules their morning feed.

Neale stood staring after him, and at the memory of the ring he became possessed of strange thoughts and wonderings.

CHAPTER XIII THE TRICK MULE

Neale ONeil was wiser than most boys of his age.

Perhaps having once lived in a circus had something to do with it. At any rate, among the things he had learned was to think first and speak afterward. And he decided to put this into practice now. He was doing a deal of thinking about the ring he had seen roll over the deck to be so quickly, almost secretively, picked up by Hank Dayton. But of it Neale said nothing to the mule driver nor to those aboard the Bluebird.

Walking about on the upper deck and looking down the towpath toward Hank, who was bringing the mules from their sylvan stable to feed them, Neale heard Ruth call:

Hows the weather up there?

Glorious! cried the boy. Its going to be a dandy day.

Thats great! exclaimed Ruth. Come on, children! she called. Everybody up! The mules are up and we must be up too, she went on, paraphrasing a little verse in the school reader.

Did any of the mules fall into the canal? asked Dot, as she made haste to look at her Alice-doll, who had dried satisfactorily during the night.

Course not! Why should a mule fall into the canal? asked Tess.

Well, they might. My doll did, went on the smallest Corner House girl. But, anyhow, Im glad they didnt.

Yes, so am I, remarked Mr. Howbridge, as they all gathered around the breakfast table, which Mrs. MacCall had set, singing the while some Scotch song containing many new and strange words.

Well, shall we travel on? asked the lawyer, when the meal was over and Hank was hitching the mules to the tow-rope, the animals and their driver having had a satisfying meal.

Oh, yes, lets go on! urged Agnes. Im crazy to go through one of the locks.

Will there be any trouble about getting the houseboat through? asked Ruth of her guardian. She is a pretty big craft!

But not as long as many of the canal boats, though a trifle wider, or of more beam, as a sailor would say, he remarked. No, the locks are large enough to let us through. But tell me, do you find this method of travel too slow? he went on. I know you young folks like rapid motion, and this may bore you, and he glanced quickly at Ruth.

Oh, not at all, she hastened to say. I love it. The mules are so calm and peaceful.

Just then one of the animals let out a terrific hee-haw and Agnes, covering her ears with her hands, laughed at her sister.

Thats just as good as a honk-honk horn on an auto! exclaimed Tess.

Calm and peaceful! tittered Agnes. How do you like that, Ruth?

I dont mind it at all, was the calm answer. It blends in well with the environment, and its much better than the shriek of a locomotive whistle.

Bravo, Minerva! cried Mr. Howbridge. You should have been a lawyer. I shall call you Portia for a change.

Dont, please! she begged. You have enough nicknames for me now.

Very well then, well stick to the old ones. And, meanwhile, if you are all ready Ill give the word to Hank to start his mules. There is no hurry on this trip, as the man to whom I am to deliver this boat has no special need for it. But we may as well travel on.

Ill be glad when I can start the gasoline motor, remarked Neale.

Which will be as soon as we get off the canal and into the river, said the lawyer. Id use the motor now, only the canal company wont permit it on account of the wash of the propeller tearing away the banks.

The tow-line tauted as the mules leaned forward in their collars, and once more the Bluebird was under way.

Life aboard the houseboat was simple and easy, as it was intended to be. There was little housework to do, and it was soon over, and all that remained was to sit on deck and watch the ever-changing scenery. The changes were not too rapid, either, for a boat towed on a canal does not progress very fast.

Its like a moving picture, isnt it? remarked Agnes. It puts me in mind of some scenes in foreign countries rural scenes, I mean.

Only the moving pictures move so much faster, returned Ruth, with a smile. They show you hundreds of miles in a few minutes.

Gracious, I wouldnt want to ride as fast as that, exclaimed Tess. Wed fall off or blow away sure!

It just suited the Corner House girls, though, and Neale extracted full enjoyment from it, though, truth to tell, he was rather worried in his mind. One matter was the finding of his father, and the other was a suspicion concerning Hank and the ring.

This was a suspicion which, as yet, Neale hardly admitted to himself very plainly. He wanted to watch the mule driver for a time yet.

It may not have been one of Ruths rings, to begin with, reasoned Neale. And, if it is, I dont believe Hank had anything to do with taking it, though he may know who did. Ive got to keep on the watch!

His meditations were interrupted, as he sat on the deck of the boat, by hearing Hank cry:

Lock! Lock!

That meant the boat was approaching one of the devices by which canal craft are taken over hills. A canal is, of course, a stream on a level. It does not run like a river. In fact, it is just like a big ditch.

But as a canal winds over the country it comes to hills, and to get up or down these, two methods are employed. One is what is called an inclined plane.

The canal comes to the foot of a hill and stops. There a sort of big cradle is let down into the water, the boat is floated into the cradle, and then boat, cradle and all are pulled up over the hill on a sort of railroad track, a turbine water wheel usually furnishing the power. Once over the brow of the hill the cradle and boat slide down into the water again and the journey is resumed.

The other means of getting a canal boat over a hill is by means of a lock. When the waterway is stopped in its level progress by reaching a hill, a square place is excavated and lined with rocks so as to form a water-tight basin, the open end being closed by big, wooden gates.

The Bluebird was now approaching one of these locks, where it was to be raised from a low to a higher level. While Hank managed the mules, Neale steered the boat into the stone-lined basin. Then the big gates were closed behind the craft, and the mules, being unhitched, were sent forward to begin towing again when the boat should have been lifted.

Now we can watch! said Dot as she and Tess took their places at the railing. Going through canal locks was a novelty for them, as there were no locks near Milton, though the canal ran through the town.

Once the Bluebird was locked within the small stone-lined basin, water was admitted to it through gates at the other and higher end. These gates kept the body of water on the higher level from pouring into the lower part of the canal. Faster and faster the water rushed in as the lock keeper opened more valves in the big gates. The water foamed and hissed all around the boat.

Oh, were going up! cried Dot. Look, were rising!

Just like in an elevator! added Tess.

And, indeed, that is just what it was like. The water lifted the Bluebird up higher and higher. As soon as the water had raised it to the upper level, the other gates were opened, and the Bluebird moved slowly out of the lock, having been raised about fifteen feet, from a lower to a higher level. Going from a higher to a lower is just the reverse of this. Sometimes a hill is so high that three sets of locks are necessary to get a boat up or down.

Once more the mules were hitched to the tow-line, and started off. As the boat left the lock another one came in, which was to be lowered. The children watched this as long as they could, and then turned their attention to new scenes.

It was toward the close of the afternoon, during which nothing exciting had happened, except that Tess nearly fell overboard while leaning too far across the rail to see something in the water, that Neale, looking forward toward the mules and their driver, saw a man leading a lone animal come out of a shanty along the towpath and begin to talk to Hank.

Hank halted his team, and the Bluebird slowly came to a stop. Mr. Howbridge, who was talking to Ruth and Agnes, looked up from a book of accounts he was going over with them and inquired:

Whats the matter?

Oh, Hank has met a friend, I imagine, ventured Neale. Its a man with a lone mule.

Well, he shouldnt stop just to have a friendly talk, objected the lawyer. We arent hiring him for that. Give him a call, Neale, and see what he means.

But before this could be done Hank turned, and, making a megaphone of his hands, called:

Say, do you folks want to buy a good mule cheap?

Buy a mule, repeated the lawyer, somewhat puzzled.

Yes. This man has one to sell, and it might be a good plan for us to have an extra one.

I never thought of that, said the lawyer. It might be a good plan. Lets go up and see about it, Neale.

Lets all go, proposed Agnes. It will rest us to walk along the towpath.

The Bluebird was near shore and there was no difficulty in getting to the path. Then all save Mrs. MacCall, who preferred to remain on board, walked up toward the two men and the three mules.

The man who had stopped Hank was a rough-looking character, but many towpath men were that, and little was thought of it at the time.

Do you folks want to buy a good mule? he asked. Ill sell him cheap, he went on. I had a team, but the other died on me.

Im not much of an authority on mules, said Mr. Howbridge slowly. What do you say, Neale? Would you advise purchasing this animal if he is a bargain?

Neale did not answer. He was carefully looking at the mule, which stood near the other two.

Whered you get this mule? asked Neale quickly, looking at the stranger.

Oh, Ive had him a good while. Hes one of a team, but I sold my boat and

This mule never towed a boat! said the boy quickly.

What makes you say that? demanded the man in an angry voice.

Because I know, went on Neale. This is a trick mule, and, unless Im greatly mistaken, he used to be in my uncles circus!

CHAPTER XIV AT THE CIRCUS

All eyes were turned on Neale ONeil as he said this, and it would be difficult to say who was the more astonished. As for the Corner House girls, they simply stared at their friend. Hank Dayton looked surprised, and then he glanced from the mule in question to the man who had offered to dispose of the animal. Mr. Howbridge looked very much interested. As for the strange tramp for that is what he was he seemed very angry.

What do you mean? he cried. This mule isnt any trick mule!

Oh, isnt he? asked Neale quietly. And I suppose he never was in a circus, either?

Of course not! declared the man. Who are you, anyhow, and what do you mean by talking that way?

I advise you to be a little more respectful in tone, said Mr. Howbridge in his suave, lawyers voice. If we do any business at all it will be on this boys recommendation. He knows about mules. I do not. I shall hear what he and Hank have to say.

Well, its all foolish saying this mule was in a circus, blustered the man. Ive had him over a year, and I want to sell him now because he hasnt any mate. I cant pull a canal boat with one mule.

Especially not a trick mule that never hauled a boat in his life, put in Neale.

Here! You quit that! What do you mean? demanded the man in sullen tones.

I mean just what I said, declared Neale. I believe this is a trick mule that used to be in my uncle Bills show in Twomley and Sorbers Herculean Circus and Menagerie, to be exact. Of course I may be mistaken, but if not I can easily prove what I say.

Huh! Id like to see you do it! sneered the man.

All right, I will, and Neales manner was confident. I recognize this mule, he went on to Mr. Howbridge, by that mark on his off hind hoof, and he pointed to a bulge on the mules foot. But of course that may be on another mule, as well as on the one that was in my uncles circus. However, if I can make this mule do a trick I taught old Josh in the show, that ought to prove what I say, oughtnt it?

I should think so, agreed the lawyer.

You cant make this mule do any tricks, sneered the tramp. Hes a good mule for pulling canal boats, but he cant do tricks.

Oh, cant he? remarked Neale. Well, well see. Come here, Josh! he suddenly called.

The mule moved his big ears forward, as though to make sure of the voice, and then, looking at Neale, slowly approached him.

Anybody could do that! exclaimed the man disdainfully.

Well, can anybody do this? asked the boy. Josh dead mule! he suddenly cried. And, to the surprise of all, the mule dropped to the towpath, stretched out his legs stiffly and lay on his side with every appearance of having departed this life.

There! exclaimed Neale. Thats the trick I taught him in the show, before I left it.

The other mules were sniffing at their prostrate companion.

Oh, isnt he funny! cried Dot, as Josh opened one eye and looked straight at her.

Id rather have a mule than Billy Bumps for a pet! declared Tess.

Did you really make him do it, Neale? asked Ruth.

Yes, and I can do it again! declared the lad. Up, Josh! he commanded, and the mule scrambled to his feet. Dead mule Josh! cried Neale again, and down the animal went a second time.

Well, what have you to say to that? the boy turned to ask the tramp. But the man did not stay to answer. Off he ran, down the towpath, at top speed.

Shall I get him? cried Hank, throwing the reins on the back of one of his mules, while Josh, in response to a command from Neale, stood upright again.

No, let him go, advised Mr. Howbridge. It is very evident that he had no legal claim to this mule, and he either took him away from the circus himself, or received him from some one who did. Neale, I congratulate you.

Thanks. I thought I recognized old Uncle Josh, but the trick proved it. He hasnt forgotten that or me; have you, old fellow? he asked as he rubbed the mules velvety nose. And the animal seemed glad to be near the boy.

Pretty slick, I call that, said Hank admiringly. Guess youll have to teach my mules some trick, Neale.

It takes too long! laughed the lad.

Is this our mule now? asked Dot, as she approached the new animal, which was quite gentle and allowed the children to pet him.

Well, I dont know just who does own him, said Mr. Howbridge, not wanting to give a legal opinion which might be wrong. But he certainly does not belong to that man, and he looked after the retreating figure, now far down the towpath.

Cause if hes our mule Id like to give my Alice-doll a ride on his back, went on Dot.

Id like a ride myself! exclaimed Tess.

Oh, dont try that! sighed Ruth.

Josh wouldnt mind, put in Neale. I used to ride him in the circus. Look!

With a spring he reached the mules back, and then, at the word of command, Josh trotted up and down the towpath.

Oh, do let me try! begged Tess.

Shall I put her on? Neale asked, and, at a nod from Ruth, he lifted the little girl up on the mules back, and the delighted Tess was given a ride.

Oh, its ever so much nicern Scalawag! she cried as she was lifted down. Try it, Dot! Scalawag was the circus pony that Neales uncle had given to Tess and Dot.

I will if I can hold my Alice-doll! stipulated the youngest Kenway.

Sure! assented Neale, and the fun was continued.

I wish I dared to do it! exclaimed Agnes, with a look at Ruth. But Ruth shook her head, and Agnes, after a moments hesitation, yielded to Ruths sense of the fitness of things.

Well, the question now arises, said Mr. Howbridge, what shall we do with this mule, which seems to have been stolen?

I say take him along with us, answered Hank. One of our critters might get hurt, and wed have to lay up if we didnt have an extra one.

I dont believe Uncle Josh would pull in harness with another mule, said Neale. He has always been a trick mule, and has worked alone. He is quite valuable.

Do you suppose your uncle sold him? asked the lawyer.

I dont believe so, said the boy. I believe he was stolen, and I know, in that case, that Uncle Bill would be glad to get him back.

Well, then lets take him back, suggested Hank. I can drive him along with my mules for a spell until we come to the place where the circus is playing. Hell drive, I guess, if he wont pull a boat, and hell be company for my mules. Hank was fond of animals, and treated them kindly.

How does that plan appeal to you, Minerva? asked Ruths guardian. This is your trip, as well as mine. Do you want to be bothered with an extra mule?

Oh, I dont see that he would be any bother, she said. If Hank looks after him, we shant have to. And if its Neales uncles mule he ought to be returned.

That settles it, said Mr. Howbridge. Well take the mule with us.

Im sure Uncle Bill will be glad to get him back, declared Neale. And Im pretty sure he never sold him.

So it was arranged. Once more the Bluebird was under way, the two harnessed mules towing her and Uncle Josh, the trick animal, wandering along at his own sweet will.

For a time the Corner House girls, with Neale and Mr. Howbridge, walked along the towpath. Then they went back to the boat as Mrs. MacCall, blowing on a horn, announced meal time.

The trip along the canal continued in leisurely fashion. Now the Bluebird would be lifted up at some water-foaming lock, or lowered in the same fashion. Twice they were lifted over inclined planes, and the young folks, especially Dot and Tess, liked this very much.

The weather had been all that could be desired ever since they started, except the rain storm in which the girls were robbed. But now, about four days after leaving Milton, they awoke one morning to find a disagreeable drizzle. But Hank and the mules did not seem to mind it. In fact they rather liked splashing through the rain and mud.

Of course getting out and strolling along the towpath was out of the question for the voyagers, and they found amusements enough on board the houseboat.

It rained all day, but it needed more than this to take the joy out of life for the Corner House girls.

Fair day to-morrow! cried Neale, and so it proved.

They approached a small town early the next day, and as they tied up at a tow-barn station to get some supplies Dot cried:





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