The Corner House Girls on a Houseboat
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CHAPTER XVII – UP THE RIVER
Neale O’Neil, who had been steering the houseboat during the operation of locking it from the canal into the river, sprang away from the tiller toward the side of the craft at Ruth’s cries. There was no immediate need of guiding the Bluebird for the moment, as she was floating idly with the momentum gained when she was slowly pulled from the lock basin.
“Are those the men?” asked Neale, pointing to two roughly dressed characters in a small motor boat.
“I’m sure they are!” asserted Ruth. “That one steering is the man who grabbed the box from me. Look, Agnes, don’t you remember them?”
Mr. Howbridge, who heard what was said, acted promptly. On the towpath, near the point where the river entered the canal through the lock, was Hank Dayton with the two mules, the services of which would no longer be needed.
“Hank! Hank! Stop those men!” cried the lawyer.
The driver dropped his reins, and sprang to the edge of the bank. Near him was a rowboat, empty at the time, and with the oars in the locks. It was the work of but a moment for Hank to spring in and shove off, and then he began rowing hard.
But of course he stood no chance against a motor boat. The two men in the gasoline craft turned on more power. The explosions came more rapidly and drowned the shouts of those on the houseboat. Hank soon gave up his useless effort, and turned back to shore, while Ruth and Agnes, leaning over the side of the rail, gazed at the fast-disappearing men.
“There must be some way of stopping them!” cried Mr. Howbridge, who was quite excited. “Isn’t there a motor boat around here – a police boat or something? Neale, can’t you get up steam and take after them?”
“The Bluebird could never catch that small boat,” answered the boy. “And there doesn’t seem to be anything else around here now, except rowboats and canalers.”
This was true, and those on board the Bluebird had to suffer the disappointment of seeing the men fade away in the distance.
“But something must be done!” insisted the lawyer. “An alarm must be given. The police must be notified. Where’s the keeper of the lock? He may know these ruffians, and where they are staying. We must do something!”
“Well, they’re getting away for the time being,” murmured Neale, as he gazed up the river on which the motor boat was now hardly discernible as it was turning a bend. “But we’re going the same way, and we may come across them. Are you sure, Ruth, that these are the same men who robbed you?”
“Positive!” declared the girl. “Aren’t you, Agnes?”
“No, I can’t be sure,” answered her sister with a shake of her head. “The men looked just as rough – and just as ugly – as the two who attacked us. But it was raining so hard, and we were in the doorway, and the umbrella was giving such trouble – no, Ruth,” she added, “I couldn’t be sure.”
“But I am!” declared the oldest Kenway girl.“I had a good look at the face of at least one of the men in the boat, and I know it was he who took my box! Oh, if I could only get it back I wouldn’t care what became of the men!”
“It ought to be an easy matter to trace them,” said the lawyer. “Their motor boat must be registered and licensed, as ours must be. We can trace them through that, I think. Neale, would you know the men if you saw them again?”
“I might,” answered the boy. “I didn’t have a very good look at them, though. They both had their backs toward me, and their hats were pulled down over their faces. As Ruth says, however, they looked rough and desperate.”
“We must take some action,” declared the lawyer, with his characteristic energy. “The authorities must be notified and that motor boat traced. We shall have to stop here to register our own craft and get a license, and it will give us an opportunity to make some inquiries.”
“Meanwhile those men will get away!” exclaimed Ruth. “And we’ll never get our jewelry back. If we could get mother’s ring,” she added, “it wouldn’t be so bad.”
“They can’t get very far away if they stick to the river,” said Mr. Howbridge. “The river flows into Lake Macopic and there is no outlet from that. If we have to pursue the men all the way to the lake we’ll do it.”
“Well, then let’s get busy,” suggested Neale. “The sooner we have our boat registered and licensed, the sooner we can start after those men. Of course we can’t catch them, for their boat goes so much faster than ours. But we can trace them.”
“I hope we can,” murmured Ruth, gazing up the river, on which there was now no trace of the boat containing the rough men. “We have two quests, now,” she added. “Looking for our jewelry box, and your father, Neale. And I hope we find your father, whether I get back my things or not – anything but the ring.”
“Let us hope we get both,” said the boy.
Then followed a busy hour. Certain formalities had to be gone through with, in order to enable the Bluebird to make the voyage on the river and lake. Her motor was inspected and passed. Neale had seen to it that the machinery was in good shape.
Mr. Howbridge came back from the boat registry office with the necessary permit and license, and Ruth asked him:
“Did you find out anything about the men?”
“No one here knows them,” he said. “They were never here before, and they came only to get some supplies. It appears they are camping on one of the islands in Lake Macopic.”
“Was their boat registered?” asked Neale.
“Yes. At least it is presumed so. But as we did not see the number on it we can give the authorities no clue. Motor boats up here don’t have to carry their number plates in such large size as autos do. That craft was not registered at this office, but it was, very likely, granted a permit at the office at the other end of the river or on the lake. So we can only keep on and hope either to overtake the men or to get a trace of them in some other way.”
“We can never overtake them if they keep going as fast as they did when they left here,” said Agnes.
“They won’t keep that speed up,” declared Neale. “But we had better get started. We’ll be under our own power now, and can travel whenever we like, night or day.”
“Are we going to take the mules with us – and Mr. Hank!” asked Dot, hugging her “Alice-doll.”
“Hank is going to accompany us,” said Mr. Howbridge. “But we’ll leave the mules behind, having no place for them on the Bluebird. I think I will dispose of them, for I probably shall not go on a vacation along the canal again.”
“But it was a delightful and novel one,” said Ruth.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” her guardian remarked. “It would have been little pleasure to me – this trip – if you young folks had not enjoyed it.”
“I just love it! And the best part is yet to come!” cried Agnes, with sparkling eyes. “I want to see the islands in the lake.”
“And I want to get to Trumbull and see if my father is there,” added Neale. “I think I’ll send him a letter. I’ll mail it here. It won’t take but a moment.”
“You don’t know his address,” said Agnes.
“I’ll send it just to Trumbull,” said the boy. “Post-office people are sharks at finding people.”
He wrote the note while the final preparations were being made for leaving on the trip up the river. Mrs. MacCall had attended to the buying of food, which was all that was needed.
And then, after Neale had sent his letter to the post-office, he went down in the engine room of the Bluebird.
“Are we all ready!” he called up to Mr. Howbridge, who was going to steer until Neale could come up on deck after the motor had been started.
“All ready!” answered Ruth.
Neale turned the flywheel over, there was a cough and a splutter, and then a steady chug-chugging.
“Oh, we’re going! We’re going!” gayly cried Tess and Dot. Almost anything satisfied them as long as they were in motion.
“Yes, we’re on our way,” said Mr. Howbridge, giving the wheel a turn and sending the houseboat out into the stream.
The trip up the Gentory River was no less delightful than the voyage on the canal had been, if one may call journeying on such a quiet stream a voyage. It was faster travel, of course, with the motor sending the Bluebird along.
“The only thing is, though,” said Hank, who sat near the wheel with Neale, “I haven’t anything to do. I miss the mules.”
“Oh, I guess there’ll be enough to do. Especially when we get up on the lake. You’ll have to help manage the boat,” remarked Neale. “I hear they have pretty good storms on Macopic.”
“They do,” confirmed Hank.
They motored along until dusk that evening, and then, as their way led for a time through a part of the stream where many craft navigate, it was decided to tie up for the night. It passed without incident, and they were on their way again the next morning.
It was calculated that the trip on the river would take three days, but an accident to the motor the second day delayed them, and they were more likely to be five than three days. However, they did not mind the wait.
The break occurred on a lonely part of the stream, and after stopping the craft and tying up, Neale announced, after an examination, that he and Hank could make the needful repairs.
“We’ll start in the morning,” said the boy.
“Then we’ll just go ashore and walk about a little,” suggested Ruth, and soon she and her sisters and Mr. Howbridge were on the bank of the beautiful stream.
The twilight lingered long that night, and it was light enough to see some distance ahead as Ruth and the others strolled on. The river bank turned and, following it beneath the trees, the party suddenly heard voices seemingly coming from a secluded cove where the stream formed an eddy.
“Must be fishermen in there,” said Mr. Howbridge. “We had better not disturb them.”
As they were turning away the voices became louder, and then on the still night air there came an exclamation.
“I don’t care what you think!” a man’s voice shouted. “Just because you’ve been in the Klondike doesn’t give you the right to boss me! You’ll give me an even half of the swag or – ”
And then it sounded as though a hand had been clapped suddenly over the speaker’s mouth.
CHAPTER XVIII – THE NIGHT ALARM
Mr. Howbridge and Ruth quickly looked at one another. The same thought and suspicion came in each of their minds at the same time.
“Who’s that?” Dot asked, she and Tess having lingered behind the others to pick some flowers from the bank of the stream.
“Hush, children,” cautioned Ruth in a whisper. “We must not disturb the – fishermen.”
She added the last word after a look at her guardian. No further sound came from the cove where the voice had been uttering a protest and had been so suddenly hushed.
“Oh, look at those big red flowers! I’m going to get some of those!” cried Dot, darting off to one side. “My Alice-doll loves red flowers,” she added.
“I’ll get some, too,” said Agnes. “Mrs. MacCall also loves red flowers, though she says there’s nothing prettier than ‘Heeland hither’ as she calls it.”
“Oh, yes, we’ll get her some, and she’ll have a bouquet for the table,” assented Dot. “And then maybe she’ll let us have a little play party for Alice-doll to-morrow, and we can have things to eat.”
“Oh, you’re always thinking of your old Alice-doll!” complained Tess. “You’d think all the play parties and all this trip were just for her, and the things to eat, too.”
“We can eat the things Mrs. MacCall gives us – if she gives us any,” corrected Dot. “Come on, help me get the flowers.”
“Oh, all right, I will,” said Tess. “But you know, Dot Kenway, that Ruthie will give us anything we want for a party.”
As the two little girls darted toward the clump of gay blossoms Ruth called:
“Be careful. It may he swampy around here.”
“I’ll look after them,” offered Agnes, “and you and Mr. Howbridge can go see if those men – ”
She did not finish her sentence, which she had begun in a whisper, but nodded in the direction of the clump of trees, around the eddy of the river. It was from there the stifled exclamation had come.
“Yes, I think it would be a good plan to take a look there,” said Mr. Howbridge to Ruth in a low voice. “Especially if the children are out of the way. I don’t suppose it could by any chance be the same men, but – ”
“Look!” suddenly exclaimed Ruth, pointing to something moving behind a screen of bushes that hung over the river near the eddy. As she spoke the bushes parted and a motor boat shoved her bow out into the stream. In another instant the boat came fully into view, and there was revealed as occupants two roughly dressed men. They gave one quick glance along the bank toward Ruth and Mr. Howbridge, and then while one attended to the wheel the other sprang to the engine to increase the speed.
There was a nervous spluttering from the motor, and the boat shot out into the river, the two men in her crouching down as though they feared being fired at.
“There they are!” cried Ruth, clasping Mr. Howbridge’s arm in her excitement. “The same two men!”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Well, they’re the same two we saw down near the canal lock, in the boat,” Ruth went on. “I’m sure it’s the same boat, and I’m as positive as I ever was that they are the ones who robbed us.”
“It is the same boat we saw the other day,” agreed the lawyer. “And I think the same men. Whether they are the thieves is, of course, open to question. But I should very much like to question them,” he added. “Hold on there!” he called to the men. “I want to see you!”
But the boat did not stop, rather she increased her speed, and it seemed that one of the men laughed. They did not look back.
“I wish there was some way of taking after them!” exclaimed Ruth’s guardian. “But, as it is, it’s out of the question.”
They were on a lonely part of the river. No houses were near and there was no other boat in sight, not even a leaky skiff, though some farmer boy might have one hidden along the shore under the bushes. But a rowing craft would not have been effective against the speedy motor boat, and finding another craft to match the one containing the two rough men was out of the question.
Farther and farther away the men were speeding now. Agnes and the two younger girls, having heard the shouts of Mr. Howbridge, turned back from their flower-gathering trip.
“Is anything the matter?” asked Agnes.
“Oh, no, nothing much. Mr. Howbridge saw two men in that boat,” answered Ruth, with a meaning look at her sister. “But they did not stop.” And when she had a chance, after Dot and Tess had moved out of hearing distance, Ruth added: “They’re the same men, Agnes!”
“You mean the ones who robbed us?”
“I’m pretty sure; yes!”
“Oh dear!” voiced Agnes, and she looked around the now darkening woods. “I wish we hadn’t stopped in such a lonely place,” she murmured.
“Nonsense!” laughed Mr. Howbridge. “I shall begin to think you doubt my ability as guardian. My physical, not my mental,” he added.
“Oh, no, it isn’t that,” Agnes made haste to say. “Only – ”
“And we have Neale, and Hank, too,” broke in Ruth. “While Mrs. MacCall is a tower of strength herself, even if she is getting old.”
“Oh, yes, I know,” murmured Agnes. “But – well, don’t let’s talk about it,” she finished.
“And I think we’d better be going back. It will soon be quite dark.”
“Yes,” agreed the lawyer. “We had better go back.”
He looked up the river. The boat containing the two rough men was no longer in sight, but finally there drifted down on the night wind the soft put-put of the motor.
“We thought you had deserted us,” said Neale when he saw, from the deck of the Bluebird, the lawyer and the girls returning.
“We went farther than we intended,” answered Ruth.
“How’s the motor?” asked the lawyer.
“Hank and I will have it fixed in the morning.”
“Where is Hank now?” Agnes wanted to know, and it seemed as though she had begun to rely on the rugged and rough strength of the man who had driven the mules.
“Oh, he went off for a walk, and he said maybe he’d fish a while,” Neale said. “He’s a bug on fishing.”
Then, while Mrs. MacCall took charge of Tess and Dot, giving exclamations of delight at the flowers, even while comparing them with her Highland heather, Agnes and Ruth told Neale what had happened – the swift-departure of the motor boat and its two occupants.
“They were evidently having a dispute when we came along,” said Ruth. “We heard one of them say something about the Klondike.”
“The Klondike!” exclaimed Neale, and there was a queer note in his voice.
“Yes, they certainly said that,” agreed Agnes. “Oh, I do wish we were away from here.” And from the deck of the boat she looked at the wooded shores of the river extending on either side of the moored craft. The Gentory was not very wide at this point, but the other shore was just as lonely and deserted as that where the voyagers had come to rest for the night.
“Don’t be so nervous and fussy,” said Ruth to Agnes. “Mr. Howbridge won’t like it. He will think we don’t care for the trip, and – ”
“Oh, I like the trip all right,” broke in Agnes. “It’s just the idea of staying all night in this lonely place.”
“We have plenty of protectors,” asserted Ruth. “There’s Neale and – ”
“What’s that?” asked the boy, hearing his name spoken.
“Agnes was saying she was timid,” went on Ruth, for Mr. Howbridge had gone to the dining-room for a glass of milk Mrs. MacCall had suggested he take before going to bed. “I tell her with you and Mr. Howbridge and Hank to protect us – ”
“Aggie timid! Oh, yes, we’ll look after you!” he promised with a laugh. “At the same time – Oh, well, I guess Hank won’t stay late,” and he looked at his watch.
“You seem worried,” said Agnes to her friend when they were alone for a moment. “Do you think these men – those Klondikers – are likely to make trouble?”
“No, not exactly that,” Neale answered. “To tell you the truth I was thinking of Hank. I may as well tell you,” he went on. “I didn’t see any connection between the two happenings before, but since you mentioned those men there may be.”
“What are you driving at?” asked Agnes, in surprise.
“Just this – ” answered Neale. “But let’s call Ruth.” Ruth came and then Neale continued: “Hank suddenly dropped his tools when we were working over the motor and said he was going for a walk. He also mentioned fishing. I didn’t think much of it at the time, for he may be odd that way when it comes to a steady job. But now I begin to think he may have gone off to meet those men.”
“But he didn’t meet them,” Ruth said. “We saw them speed away in motor boat alone.”
“They may have met Hank later,” the boy said.
“But what makes you suspicious of him?” Ruth asked.
“I’ll tell you.” And Neale related the episode of the gold ring.
“Oh, do you think it could be one of ours that the men took? Do you think Hank is in with them, and wants his share of the ‘swag’ as one man called it?” questioned Agnes eagerly.
“I don’t know, I’m sure,” answered Neale. “But he certainly had a ring. It rolled to the deck and he picked it up quickly enough.”
“Say, Ruthie!” exclaimed Agnes impulsively, “now’s a good chance while he’s away. We could look through the place where he keeps what few things he has – in that curtained off corner by his cot.”
Ruth shook her head.
“I’d rather not,” she remarked. “I couldn’t bear to do that. I’d much rather accuse him openly. But we won’t even do that now. We’ll just watch and wait, and we won’t even tell Mr. Howbridge until we are more sure of our ground.”
“All right,” agreed Neale and Agnes after they had talked it over at some length.
It was agreed that they should all three keep their eyes on Hank, and note whether there were any further suspicious happenings.
“Of course you want to be careful of one thing,” remarked Neale, as the three talked it over.
“What is that?” questioned Agnes quickly.
“You don’t want that mule driver to suspect that you are watching him. If he did suspect it he’d be more careful to hide his doings than ever.”
“We won’t let him suspect us, Neale,” declared Ruth.
“Of course he may be as innocent as they make ’em, and on the other hand he may be as deep as – ”
“The deep blue sea,” finished Agnes.
“He certainly doesn’t appear very deep,” remarked Ruth. “He looks rather simple minded.”
“But sometimes those simple looking customers are the deepest,” declared the youth. “I know we had that sort join the circus sometimes. You had to watch ’em every minute.” And there the talk came to an end.
The mule driver came along some time later. He had a goodly string of fish. Agnes was asleep, but Ruth heard him putting them in the ice box. She heard Neale speak to the man, and then, gradually, the Bluebird became quiet.
“Well, he got fish, at any rate,” Ruth reasoned as she turned over to go to sleep. “I hope he has no connection with those robbers. And yet, why should he hide a ring? Oh, I wonder if we shall ever see our things and mother’s wedding ring again.”
Ruth was too much of a philosopher to let this keep her awake. There was a slight feeling of timidity, as was natural, but she made herself conquer this.
Finally Ruth dozed off.
How long she slept she did not know, but she was suddenly awakened by hearing a scream. It was the high-pitched voice of a child, and after her first start Ruth knew it came from Tess.
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