The Corner House Girls Under Canvas
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Neale was naturally of a mechanical turn, as well as an athlete. He had built a kerosene engine during the winter, with some assistance from Mr. Con Murphy, the shoemaker with whom he lived in Milton. Moreover, he had driven a boat just like this one of Mr. Stryver’s on the Milton river.
While Ruth was unlocking the chain of the Nimble Shanks, and fastening the dory in its place, Neale whirled the fly-wheel and caught the ignition spark; immediately the exhaust began to pop and Neale shouted:
“All free, there, Ruth?”
“Let her go, Neale!” returned Agnes, eagerly. “I can’t wait, it seems to me.”
“Sit tight, then, ladies,” said Neale, as Ruth scrambled aft. “I believe this craft can be made to travel.”
The girls obeyed as the Nimble Shanks started. She shot right out into the middle of the river, and the wave thrown up by her wedge-like bow rose higher and higher on either hand. Actually, when the motorboat had been running for five minutes, the girls in the sternsheets seemed sitting at a much lower level than the surface of the river.
“Goodness! if this boat stopped suddenly we’d be drowned by that wave,” gasped Ruth.
Neale headed up the river in a grand curve. They could see the shores on either hand. The boys ashore cheered their departure, though they did not know their errand.
They shot by the wooded bend like an express train. The girls kept watch on either hand for the boat. They hoped to see her rocking in some cove along one shore or the other.
But it was Neale himself who first sighted the drifting craft. The motorboat took the south channel in passing Wild Goose Island. Neale suddenly brought the speed of the craft down to one-half.
“There’s a boat ahead,” he said to the girls. “It appears to be empty. Stand up and see if it’s the one.”
Ruth rose and clung to Agnes’ shoulder to steady herself. She saw the empty cedar boat, bobbing on the little waves beyond the far point of Wild Goose Island.
“It’s her!” she said, breathlessly. “But where are the children?”
“We’ll find out,” said Neale, quickly. “Sit down again.”
“And Tom Jonah?” urged Ruth.
“Make up your mind that wherever the children are, he is, too,” said Neale, and he let the Nimble Shanks out again, and Ruth tumbled promptly into her seat.
The motorboat fairly leaped ahead. In five minutes they were near the empty boat, and Neale shut off the engine entirely. Under the momentum she had gained she slid right up beside the tossing cedar boat.
“Oh, oh!” groaned Agnes. “Where have they gone?”
“Not overboard, that’s sure,” said Neale, cheerfully. “They would have overturned the boat.”
“I – don’t – know,” began Ruth.
“Oh, Ruth!” shrieked Agnes. “Maybe they were not in her after all.”
“But that clam man said he saw them.”
“He didn’t see them in the boat when it was afloat,” said Agnes, clinging to the safer possibility.
“I know.But where else did they go?”
“Down the beach, maybe,” said Neale, slowly.
“The Gypsies have gotten them!” exclaimed Agnes, in despair.
“Stop it, Ag!” cried Ruth, shaking her sister. “You can think up the most perfectly awful things – ”
“Bet they got out of the boat on the shore somewhere, and let it drift away again,” suggested Neale, rather feebly.
“It wouldn’t be like Tess to do such a foolish thing,” said Ruth, shaking her head.
“They didn’t have anything to tie the boat up with. There’s no painter in her,” said the observant Neale.
“Of course there’s a painter!” cried Agnes, jumping up. “A nice long one – ”
“Where is it?” demanded the boy.
“Oh, Ruth! That’s gone!” gasped Agnes.
“Say!” said Neale, very seriously; “ropes don’t come untied of themselves. Sure it was fastened to the boat?”
“To that ring,” Ruth declared, confidently.
“And little Tess, or Dot, wouldn’t think to untie it themselves – I’m sure,” the boy observed. “They are with somebody who has taken them out of the boat – be sure of that.”
“You only – only say so to comfort us,” sobbed Agnes.
“Oh, Ag! stop being a ‘leaky vessel’!” cried Neale, with a boy’s exasperation at a girl’s tears. “Crying won’t help you any.”
Ruth had been examining the cedar boat, carefully. There was a little water in the bottom of it. She knew it did not leak. And floating on the water was a tiny russet leather slipper.
“That belongs to Dot’s Alice-doll!” she cried, leaning over the gunwale and fishing for the slipper. “They were in the boat.”
“We knew that before. The clam man said so,” sniffed Agnes.
“But they got out in a hurry. Otherwise Dot would have noticed that the doll had lost her slipper.”
“That seems reasonable,” admitted Neale O’Neil. “But what’s become of them? Where did they go? Where are they now?”
He was staring all about the river, while the two boats gently rubbed together, bobbing and courtesying on the tide.
“Don’t see anybody on the shores – and not another boat in sight,” the boy added.
“Maybe they went ashore on the island?” suggested Agnes, looking back.
“There’s nobody there,” said her sister, looking back, too. “Not a soul.”
“Guess you’re right. If there were anybody besides the girls there they’d have some kind of a boat, and we’d see it.”
“That’s so, Neale,” Ruth said. “And surely any grown person who rescued the girls wouldn’t have let the boat drift away again.”
The trio of searchers gazed at each other in trouble and amazement. They could not explain this mystery in any satisfactory way.
CHAPTER XIX – A STARTLING MEETING
Tess and Dot, sitting in the middle of a brush clump on Wild Goose Island, never saw the blue motorboat with their sisters and Neale O’Neil in it, fly past.
But the dark-faced girl, dressed in her bedraggled Gypsy finery, saw the Nimble Shanks, for she was on the watch at one side or the other of the island, all the time.
She observed the motorboat overtake the drifting craft, and saw Neale carry a line aboard the latter and then start up the engine of the power boat again. The two boats went up the lake at a fair pace; but the searching party could not travel so fast now, for fear of swamping the towed boat.
“I don’t think this is much fun,” said Dot, plaintively, when the big girl came back to them. “It’s hot here – and I’m hungry – and my Alice-doll has lost one of her shoes.”
“We’ll go up into the woods and pick some berries,” said the strange girl, not unkindly. “I know where there are some strawberries – and they’re just as sweet.”
“Oh! that will be fine. I do love strawberries,” declared Dot, easily appeased.
Tess was more troubled than her sister by this strange situation. She felt, somehow, as though the big girl were holding them prisoners. Yet she could not understand why.
She got up from the ground and at once Tom Jonah started up, barking and bounding about.
“Stop that dog!” exclaimed the big girl, crossly. “Make him walk beside you. I’ll tie him up,” she threatened.
“Then he’ll howl awful,” cried Dot. “We tried that once at home. Don’t you ’member, Tess?”
“Well, you keep him still,” snapped the big girl.
At a word from Tess the old dog drooped his tail and fell in behind them, in a most subdued manner. They went up through the thick woods to the higher part of the island. At no point could the little procession have been seen from the water.
There was a hillock up there, bare of trees, the southern side of which was sown thickly with strawberries. The bed was rich in berries, and how sweet and delicate was their flavor!
“Oh, so much nicer than boughten berries!” Tess declared, forgetting for the time all her anxiety.
Indeed, both of the Corner House girls were so busy satisfying their appetites with strawberries that they forgot about the unpleasant side to their adventure. Nor did they see the girl who had helped them ashore from the boat, creep over the knoll to watch the motorboat and its tow going down the river again, by way of the northern channel.
It was fully half past one. While Tess and Dot feasted in the wild strawberry patch, their sisters and Neale O’Neil munched cold, fried crabs on the Nimble Shanks.
It took a lot of berries to satisfy the healthy appetites of two girls like Tess and Dot whose dinner had been indefinitely postponed. Dot finally rolled right over in the shade, fast asleep, her dress and fingers berry-stained and the last plump one she had picked between her rosy lips!
The big girl came back and Tess whispered: “We’d best not wake her, for she usually takes a nap afternoons. When she wakes up, I guess we’d best be going. Ruth and Agnes will be awfully scared for us. And we’ve lost Ruth’s boat, too,” she added, disconsolately.
“How do you expect to get off this island?” demanded the strange girl.
“Why! how did you get on?” returned Tess.
“I paddled myself over on a raft of logs, early this morning before anybody else was up,” said the girl, after a minute. “I wasn’t going back till night. But if I keep you children all day there’ll be a big row, I s’pose,” she added, sullenly.
“I expect there will,” was Tess’ calm response.
“They’d get me for kidnapping, like enough,” said the girl, as though talking to herself. “Wish I hadn’t taken you out of that boat. But you and the dog were raising an awful noise.”
“I’m sorry,” said Tess, politely, “if we have been a nuisance. But of course we’ve got to get back to the tent before dark.”
“I s’pose so,” admitted the older girl.
“It’s funny Ruth hasn’t been up here before now looking for us,” Tess observed.
The big girl turned her head so Tess should not see her face. “Suppose she did not know you went sailing in the boat?” she said.
“Why! perhaps that is the reason,” Tess agreed. “They couldn’t have seen us; for if they had, Ruth would have been after the boat in a hurry.”
“Well,” said the strange girl, “I’ll have to get you across to the river bank. I wasn’t going till night. But – ”
“We are very much obliged to you,” Tess hastened to say. “But we couldn’t stay that long.”
“Oh, well! I’ll leave you children at a farmer’s over there. They’ll have a telephone and they’ll get word to your sisters. You’ll get back by suppertime.”
“Thank you,” Tess said, simply.
But she was more than a little disturbed in her mind. A raft of logs did not encourage her to look forward to the trip to the mainland with much pleasure.
Besides, the mystery regarding this pretty girl made Tess feel uncomfortable. Tess Kenway was quite old enough to know the difference between right and wrong; and there was something about the strange girl that was decidedly wrong!
Why had she come out here to Wild Goose Island in the early morning – before anybody in the neighborhood was up? Was she a runaway? Had she done something really naughty? and was she afraid to have her folks find her?
It was all a great puzzle and Tess sighed and shook her head. Finally she asked: “If you please, where is the raft of logs?”
“Right down there,” said the girl, pointing to the southern side of the island. “You can’t see it. I dragged it into shallow water and covered it up with branches and brush.”
“Is – is it safe?” queried Tess.
“Well, it didn’t drown me coming over,” said the girl, with a short, hard laugh. “But the logs came near parting.”
“I’ll fix ’em before we start back. That painter off your boat will help. We will be all right,” said the big girl, carelessly.
Dot awoke after a little, and so did Tom Jonah. The whole party went down to the brush-fringed shore. Tess saw that the girl had hidden her raft very ingeniously. And it was evident, too, that she hated to leave the island so long before evening.
“Got myself in a nice mess!” the Corner House girl heard her mutter, as she went about binding the three logs together more tightly with the strong rope from the cedar boat.
She worked hard for half an hour, standing almost waist deep in the water as she made the logs secure. It was not a heavy raft – nor was it very safe looking, to Tess’ mind.
But fortunately Dot thought it would be great fun to ride on such a craft, and Tess was too brave to say anything that would really frighten Dorothy.
Tom Jonah became restless and wanted to wander about; but the big girl was very sharp with him. “If he were my dog I’d make him mind better!” she threatened. “If anything gives us away, it will be that dog.”
Tess did not understand this; and like Dot she felt hurt when anybody criticised Tom Jonah. “Love me, love my dog” was the motto of the younger Kenway sisters.
Finally the big girl pronounced the raft strong enough, and she waded out of the water and put on her skirts again. “Now, get aboard there,” she commanded. “If we’ve got to go, we might as well start. The tide will be less strong now.”
Dot skipped aboard the raft with her Alice-doll, in great glee; Tess followed more slowly. But when Tom Jonah tried to come, too, the big girl, with the broken oar she used for a paddle, drove him back.
“It won’t hold him up, too!” she cried. “Get out!”
“Oh! don’t hurt Tom Jonah!” wailed Dot, shrilly. “Don’t!”
“You look out!” warned Tess. “He’ll grab you!”
Tom Jonah certainly did grab the paddle. And he nearly wrenched it from the hands of the big girl, strong as she was.
“He’ll tip us all over!” declared the girl, angrily, flushed and breathing heavily. “Don’t you see how deep in the water we are? Any little wave will come right over the logs and wet us.”
“Well!” cried Tess. “We’re barefooted. And we can’t leave Tom Jonah behind.”
“He can swim, can’t he? Silly!” exclaimed the big girl. She pushed off the raft suddenly, leaving the troubled dog on the bank. The current caught the raft instantly and headed it down stream. The big girl hurried to dip her paddle in the water on the lower side and swerve the head of the raft around.
“Oh, Tom Jonah! Come! Come!” cried Dot, fearful that the dog would be lost.
He plunged right in and swam to the rear of the raft. He did not try to climb aboard, but he rested his nose on the logs and paddled quietly behind. The big girl paid him no further attention. She had her hands full as it was, keeping the raft from being swept down stream.
The current of the river had now conquered the inflowing tide. The force of the latter was spent; but the channel on this side of the island was not rough. The little waves did not break over their feet as yet.
The passage of the river was not, however, so hard. The handsome dark girl was strong, and she plied the broken oar with vigor. In half an hour they drew near to the tree-fringed southern bank.
The girls saw nobody along the shore, nor had any boat put out to meet them. It was a day when all the farmers seemed to be busy in their fields, and this was a wild spot toward which the raft had been aimed.
At last the end of the logs touched a shelving, narrow beach. The big girl leaped off and commanded Tess and Dot to follow immediately. Already Tom Jonah had scrambled ashore and was shaking himself, as a dog will.
Suddenly the big dog uttered a throaty growl. None of the three girls paid any attention. The strange girl was busy helping Tess and Dot to land.
Again Tom Jonah uttered his warning, and then barked sharply.
“Shut up!” commanded the big girl, turning on him fiercely.
At that moment a man walked out of the wood. He was a fierce little fellow with a black mustache and a dirty red tie. His velveteen suit was worn and greasy and his hat broken.
The strange girl turned suddenly and saw him. She uttered a stifled scream and the fellow folded his arms and said something to her sternly in a language that afterwards Tess said “sounded like powder-crackers exploding!”
The girl was terrified in the extreme. She looked from side to side as though contemplating escape. The fellow took another stride toward her.
And then Tom Jonah intervened. The big dog sprang with an awful growl, hurling himself straight at the man’s chest. The fellow went over backward and Tom Jonah held him down with both paws on his chest and his bared teeth at the victim’s brown throat!
CHAPTER XX – THE FRANKFURTER MAN
Dot screamed shrilly; but Tess said, with conviction: “Well! I think it serves him right. Let him holler. He had no business trying to steal Ruthie’s chickens.”
For the young man that Tom Jonah held on the ground, and threatened so dreadfully, was the very Gypsy that had gotten into the hen-coop at the old Corner House in Milton, weeks before.
“Now, don’t you be afraid for him, Dot,” added Tess, quite calmly. “Tom Jonah won’t really bite him – not as long as he keeps still and doesn’t try to get up – ”
The fellow was moaning and begging just as he had when the big dog “treed” him on the henhouse roof.
“Tak’ away dog! Tak’ away dog!” he begged.
“I don’t know why we should – do you, Dot?” pursued Tess, undisturbed. “He was going to hurt her– ”
Tess turned around. The strange girl who had helped them out of the cedar boat and later had brought them to the river bank from Wild Goose Island, had disappeared like a shadow!
“Why – why,” stammered Tess. “And she never said ‘Good-bye’!”
“I guess she was afraid of this man,” Dot said, eyeing the prostrate and miserable victim of Tom Jonah’s attack without much pity. “What shall we do with him?”
“Oh!” cried Tess, with a sudden sharp idea. “She was afraid of him. Let us help her. She helped us.”
“How will we?” inquired the smaller girl.
“Just let Tom Jonah hold him where he is. We will give that pretty girl a good chance to get away. Won’t we?”
“That will be just the thing,” agreed Dot. “We can sit down and wait. I hope it isn’t too long a walk to the camp, Tess. Somehow those strawberries didn’t stay by me – much. I’m hungry right now!”
“We’ll keep him here a few minutes. Then we’ll find the road and start right back home. I know the direction,” said Tess, with confidence.
The frightened Gypsy moaned and begged for them to call off the dog; and Tom Jonah growled most frightfully every time the man squirmed. Under other circumstances the girls would have been quite stricken with pity for the poor man; but he had tried to steal Ruth’s hens, and he had now frightened their new friend away, and, as Dot whispered, “it served him right.”
Of course, they knew that the big dog would not really harm the fellow.
After some fifteen minutes Tess got up and motioned Dot to do the same. “We’d better start. The afternoon is going,” she said to her younger sister. “And I guess it’s a long walk home. Come on, Tom Jonah.”
The old dog lifted his head enquiringly. The muscles of his shoulders and fore-paws relaxed.
“Come on!” commanded Tess. “Leave him alone. Let him up, Tom Jonah! I guess he has been punished enough. Don’t you think so, Dot?”
The smaller girl nodded seriously, staring at the trembling Gypsy. “I hope you won’t ever try to steal our Ruthie’s hens again,” she said, pointedly.
The moment the fellow knew he was free, he scrambled up and dodged into the bushes. He did not stay for a word.
“That big girl must have gotten away by this time,” Tess said, cheerfully. “And he is too scared to catch her, anyway.”
Which was probably true. The two small girls walked away from the river bank in the direction where they knew the auto-stage road lay. Tom Jonah paced beside them, looking about suspiciously, and licking his lips now and then with his red tongue.
It was remarkable how ferocious he had been with that Gypsy, and how perfectly kind he was to the small Kenways. And nothing much could have overtaken them just then that Tom Jonah would not have attacked.
They came out of the fringe of wood that bordered the river and crossed a farmer’s fields. But the house was at a distance, and in the other direction from Pleasant Cove and the camps; so the girls did not go to that house.
In fact, Tess felt quite brave now that she was again on the mainland. She was sure that they could easily find Willowbend Camp.
They came out into the hot, dusty road. It stretched before them as bare as a tennis-court and as hot as a sea-beach. The trees that bordered it were white with dust far up their trunks and the leaves of their lower branches, too, were dust-covered.
This was the result of rapidly passing automobiles on the road; but none of these vehicles was in sight now. The road seemed deserted.
Save for just one thing. Dot saw it before Tess.
“Oh, look!” the smaller girl cried. “Isn’t that a peanut man, Tess? Don’t you wish you had a nickel?”
“He isn’t a peanut man,” said Tess, after a sharp look at the man pushing the little wagon along the road before them.
“Isn’t he?” returned Dot, disappointedly.
“It’s a hot-frankfurter man,” declared Tess.
“Oh, Tess! a nickel would buy two frankfurter sandwiches,” gasped Dot. “And I’m so hungry.”
So was Tess. The thought of the steaming sausages lying on the split Vienna roll, with a spoonful of mustard on each half-sausage, was enough to make any hungry person’s mouth water. At least, any hungry person of the age of Tess and Dot Kenway.
Where the frankfurter man had been with his wagon away up this country road, the girls did not know; but before they overtook him they smelled the warm sausages and saw that the top of his boxlike wagon was covered over with a glass case and that everything was clean about his outfit.
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