The Corner House Girls Snowbound
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The hills to the west were plainly visible. Their caps were either bald and snow covered, or crowned with the black-green forest. Toward the lakeside the slopes were alternately tree covered and of raw stumpage where the timber had recently been cut. These “slashes” were ugly looking spots.
“That is what all that part yonder of this estate will look like when the lumbermen get through,” said Ruth. “Isn’t it a shame?”
“But trees have to be cut down some time. I heard M’Graw say that much of the timber on this place was beginning to deteriorate,” Luke said in reply.
“Shucks!” exclaimed Neale O’Neil, “if a tree is beautiful, why not let it stand? Why slaughter it?”
“There speaks the altruistic spirit of the young artist,” laughed Luke. “Ask Mr. Howbridge. How about the money value of the tree?”
“Shucks!” Neale repeated, but with his eyes twinkling. “Is money everything?”
“Let me tell you, boy,” said Luke a little bitterly; “it buys almost everything that is worth while in this world. I want beautiful things, too; but I know it will cost a slew of money to buy them. I am going to set out and try for money first, then!”
“Hear the practical youth!” said Cecile. “That is what he learns at college. Say! aren’t we going to slide downhill? Or did we come up here to discuss political economy?”
Luke, holding up his hand in affirmation, declared: “I vow to discuss neither polit, bugs, pills, psyche, trig – ”
“Oh, stop!” commanded Ruth, yet with curiosity. “What are all those horrid sounding things?”
“Pshaw!” cried the collegian’s sister, “I know that much of his old slang. ‘Trig’ is trigonometry, of course; ‘psyche’ is psychology; ‘pills’ means physics; ‘bugs’ is biology; and ‘polit,’ of course, is political economy. Those college boys are awfully smart, aren’t they?”
“I want to sli-i-ide!” wailed Agnes, stamping her feet in the snow. “I am turning into a lump of ice, standing here.”
“Get aboard, then,” answered Neale.
She plumped herself on the sled. Luke straddled the seat just behind the steering wheel. The other girls took their places in rotation after Agnes, while Neale made ready to push off and then jump on himself at the rear.
“Ready?” he cried.
“Let her go!” responded the steersman.
“Hang on, girls!” commanded Neale, as he started the sled with a mighty shove.
The bobsled moved slowly. The runners grunted and strained over the soft snow that packed under them and, at first, retarded the movement of the sled. But soon the power of gravitation asserted itself. Neale settled himself on the seat. The wind began to whistle past their ears. In front a fine mist of snow particles was thrown up.
Faster and faster they rushed down the descent. The young people had thought this trail very smooth as they climbed it; but now they found there were plenty of “thank-you-ma’ams” in the path. The bobsled bumped over these, gathering speed, and finally began to leave the snow and fairly fly into the air when it struck a ridge.
The girls screamed when these hummocks arrived.But they laughed between them, too! It was a most exciting trip.
Like an arrow the sled shot past the fork in the road, keeping to the left. But it would have been a very easy matter, as Luke Shepard saw, to turn the sled into the steeper descent.
They started up a gray and white rabbit beside the path, and it raced them in desperate fright for several hundred yards, before it knew enough to turn off the road and leap into the brush. Luke’s head was down and his eyes half closed as he stared ahead. But Neale gave voice to his delight in re?choed shouts.
There were slides in Milton. The selectmen gave up certain streets to the young folk for coasting. But those streets were nothing like this.
On and on the bobsled flew, its pace increasing with every length. Although this wood road was in no place really steep, the hill was so long, and its slant so continuous that the momentum the sled gathered carried it over any little level that there might be, and at the foot of the decline still shot the merry crew over the snow at a swift pace and for a long distance.
Indeed, when the sled stopped they were almost at the back of the Red Deer Lodge premises. A mellow horn was calling them to lunch when they alighted.
“Oh! wasn’t it bully?” gasped the delighted Agnes. “I never did have such a sled-ride!”
“How about your trip up the lake!” Cecile asked.
“Oh! But that scooter was different.”
The other girls were quite as pleased with the slide as Agnes; and the three ran into the house to dress for lunch, chattering like magpies, while the boys put the sled away under the shed.
When Luke and Neale went into the house they found Ike M’Graw skinning the fox in the back kitchen, Tom Jonah being a much interested spectator. The woodsman beckoned Neale to him.
“Look here, young feller,” he said. “You seen this critter shot last night, you say?”
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“Where was it shot from? I’m derned if I can find any place where the feller stood along the edge of the woods to shoot him.”
“No. I couldn’t find any footprints either,” Neale confessed.
“Not knowing from which direction the bullet came – ”
“Oh, but I do know that, Mr. M’Graw. I am pretty positive, at least. I have been doubtful whether to say anything about it or not – and that’s a fact.”
“What d’you mean?” demanded the old man, eyeing him shrewdly.
“Well, I thought when I heard the shot and the fox was killed that the explosion was right over my head.”
“What’s that? Over your head! In the attic?”
“That is where the shot came from – yes.”
“Air you positive?” drawled the old man.
“I went up there this morning and saw the place where the fellow had rested the barrel of his gun across the window sill to shoot.”
“My! My!” muttered Ike thoughtfully. “And there wasn’t nobody up there this morning?”
“No. And I asked Hedden, and he said neither of the other men knew how to use a gun and that they all were in bed at the time the fox was shot.”
“Do tell!” muttered the woodsman. “Then they – well, the feller that shot the fox was up there in the attic about bedtime, was he?”
“Yes. Who do you suppose he was, Mr. M’Graw?” asked Neale curiously.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to make a guess. This here man workin’ in the kitchen tells me that there wasn’t a foot mark in the snow at all when he got up and went out of the back door here the fust time this morning. And, of course, there wasn’t no footprints at the front of the house, was there?”
“Oh, no! Not until after breakfast time.”
“Uh-huh! Well, after this John had tramped back an’ forth to the woodshed and the like half a dozen times, anybody could have gone out of here without their footprints being noticed. Ain’t that a fac’?”
He said this to himself more than to Neale, who had become vastly interested in the subject. He eagerly watched the old man’s weather-beaten face.
Suddenly the woodsman raised his head and looked at Neale thoughtfully. He asked a question that seemed to have nothing at all to do with the subject in hand.
“What kind of a dog is this here Tom Jonah?” Ike demanded. “Ain’t he got no nose?”
CHAPTER XVIII – FIGURING IT OUT
Of course Ike M’Graw could see for himself very easily that Tom Jonah had a nose. It was pointed just then at the fox pelt in the old woodsman’s hands, and was wrinkled as the dog sniffed at the skin.
So Neale O’Neil knew that the man meant something a little different from what he said. He, in fact, wanted to know if Tom Jonah was keen on the scent, and Neale answered him to that end.
“We think he’s got a pretty good nose, Mr. M’Graw, for a Newfoundland. Of course, Tom Jonah is not a hunting dog. If he runs a rabbit he runs him by sight, not by scent. But give him something that one of the children wears, and he’ll hunt that child out, as sure as sure! They play hide and seek with him just as though he were one of themselves – only Tom Jonah is always ‘it.’”
“Uh-huh?” grunted the old man. Then he said: “Don’t seem as though any stranger could have come down from the attic and got through that hall yonder without this dog making some sort of racket.”
“I never thought of Tom Jonah,” admitted Neale.
“He was in here all night, they tell me,” went on Ike.
“Yes. But didn’t the kitchen man, John, let him out when he first came downstairs this morning?”
“No. I asked him. He said the dog didn’t seem to want to go out. He opened that door yonder into this back kitchen and called the dog. This here dog come to the door, but he did not want to go out and turned away. So John shut the door again.”
“Crackey!” exclaimed Neale. “Then there was somebody in here, and don’t you forget it, Mr. M’Graw!”
“Uh-huh? But why didn’t the dog give tongue? Was it somebody the dog knowed? You see, son, there’s been food stole from that pantry yonder durin’ the night. Could it be the feller that shot the fox from the attic winder was right in here when John called the dog, loadin’ up his knapsack with grub?”
“Why – why – ”
“This dog must ha’ knowed him – eh?”
“I – I suppose so. But who could it be?” demanded Neale with wondering emphasis. “Surely it was none of our servants. And Luke Shepard and Sammy and I were in bed in one room. The girls – Mr. Howbridge – Mrs. MacCall – ”
“I guess,” said the old man, grinning, “that the lady and that lawyer man can be counted out of it. None of you brought a twenty-two rifle with you, anyway.”
“That’s what the fox was shot with. Here’s the pellet,” and Ike brought the little flattened lead bullet out of his vest pocket. “If it hadn’t been a good shot – spang through the brain – ’twould never have killed the fox. He had his head on one side, yappin’, and that bullet took him right.
“Now, better keep still about this. No use frightening the ladies. Girls an’ women is easy frightened, I expect. I’ll speak again to Mr. Howbridge about it. But this here dog – ”
He shook his head over Tom Jonah’s shortcomings, while Neale ran away to wash his hands and face before appearing at the lunch table.
The children around the table were in something of an uproar. Mrs. MacCall and Ruth were obliged to be firm in order to quiet Sammy, and Tess, and Dot.
For Agnes, unable to keep anything to herself, had blurted out all about the lovely sled-ride the older ones had enjoyed. Immediately the three younger children decided that they had been cheated.
“We wanted to go tobogganing, too,” Tess declared.
“I just love sliding downhill,” wailed Dot.
“Huh!” sniffed Sammy Pinkney. “A feller can’t have no fun where there’s big fellers and big girls. They always put you down, and leave you out of the best things.”
“You shall go sliding tomorrow if the snow holds off,” Ruth promised.
“Why not this afternoon, Ruthie?” begged Tess.
“Sister’s got something else to do this afternoon. Wait until tomorrow,” the oldest Kenway replied.
“It’s snowing already,” muttered Sammy disconsolately.
There were a few flakes in the air. But it did not look as though any heavy fall had begun.
“I don’t see why we need to have you go with us to slide,” Tess said, pouting. “We go sliding without you in Milton.”
“This is different, Tess,” Ruth said firmly. “Now, let us hear no more about it! You will annoy Mr. Howbridge.”
Sammy winked slyly at the two little girls. “Just you wait!” he mouthed so that only Tess and Dot heard him.
“Oh, Sammy!” murmured Dot. “What’ll you do?”
“Just you wait!” repeated the boy, and that mysterious statement comforted Dot a good deal, if it did not Tess Kenway. Dot believed that Sammy was fertile in expedient. She had run away with him once “to be pirates.”
Before the meal was over, Hedden came in and bent beside Mr. Howbridge to whisper into his ear.
“Oh! Has he come back again? I wondered where he went so suddenly,” said the lawyer. “Yes. Tell him I’ll come out to see him as soon as I am through.”
Neale knew that he referred to M’Graw. Bright-eyed and interested, he bent forward to say to Mr. Howbridge:
“I just told Mr. M’Graw something that I guess you’d wish to know, too, Mr. Howbridge. May I go with you when you speak to him?”
“Certainly, my boy. There’s nothing secret about it – not really. We are only puzzled about a suspicion that we have – ”
“That there was somebody in the house that ought not to be here,” whispered the boy.
“That’s it. How did you know?”
“I’ll tell you later,” returned Neale O’Neil.
Agnes was glaring at him in a most indignant fashion. It always angered the second Corner House girl if Neale seemed to have any secret that she did not share.
“What’s the matter with you?” she hissed, when Neale turned away from their host. “Don’t you know it isn’t polite to whisper at table, Neale O’Neil?”
“What are you doing it for, then?” he asked her, grinning, and would vouchsafe no further explanation of the secret between Mr. Howbridge and himself.
As soon as the lawyer arose from the table to go out to the kitchen to interview Ike, Neale jumped up to go with him. Agnes saw him depart with sparkling eyes and a very red face. She was really angry with Neale O’Neil.
The boy was too much interested in the mystery of the shooter of the fox and how he had got in and out of Red Deer Lodge to be much bothered by Agnes’ vexation. He and the lawyer found the old woodsman sitting in the servants’ dining-room where he had been eating.
“Well, sir,” he began, when Mr. Howbridge and the boy entered, “’twixt us all, I reckon we’re gettin’ to the bottom of this here mystery. Did I tell you I couldn’t find no place where the feller stood out there in the snow last evening to shoot that fox from?”
“But it’s a fac’. Now you tell him, sonny, what you told me about what you found in the attic. I’ve been up and made sure ’twas so.”
Neale told the surprised Mr. Howbridge of the proved fact that the fox was shot from one of the attic windows.
“And ’twas a play-toy rifle that done it – a twenty-two,” said the woodsman, as though to clinch some fact that had risen in his own mind, if not in the minds of the others.
“Now, let’s figger it out. We got enough fac’s now to point purty conclusive to who done it. Yes, sir.”
“Why, Ike, I don’t see that,” observed Mr. Howbridge.
“But you will, Mister, in a minute or so,” declared the old man, nodding with confidence. “Now, look you: Whoever was in this here house and made that fire in Miz’ Birdsall’s sittin’-room, was here when your people came day before yesterday.”
“No!” ejaculated Mr. Howbridge.
“Yes!” repeated M’Graw with decision.
“But you found that key in your cabin, did you not?”
“Yes. But I tell you I’ve figgered that out. Whoever ’twas come here, got the key, come in here, opened the back door, and then locked the front door on the outside same as always.”
“But – ”
“Wait! No buts about it,” interrupted the woodsman. “I got it figgered to a fare-you-well, I tell you. Now! The feller locked the front door, went back to my shanty and hung up the key, and then came back in by the rear door. See? He – ahem! – was in here when that man, Hedden, of yours, and the others, come.”
“But there were no footprints of human beings about the house in the snow.”
“That’s all right. The feller that built the fire upstairs had done all his walking around before the snow fell the day after I went to Ebettsville. Don’t you see? He didn’t leave here because his footprints would be seen, and he couldn’t lock the house up behind him if he did leave and make it look as though it had never been opened.”
“You are guessing at a lot of this!” exclaimed the lawyer, not at all convinced.
“No. I’m jest figgerin’. Now, this Neale boy here heard that shot fired upstairs that killed the fox. He went up this mornin’ and saw where the shot was fired from. I seen it, too. So the feller that opened the Lodge and that lit the fire was up there at ten or half past last evening, for sure.”
“Well?” murmured the lawyer.
“He didn’t go out during the night, or his footprints would have been seen by John this morning in the new-fallen snow.”
“That sounds right.”
“It is right!” said the old man vigorously. “Now we come to this here dog you brought.”
“Oh, yes!” cried Mr. Howbridge. “How about Tom Jonah? Surely if there had been a stranger about – one who stole food from the pantry – he would have interfered.”
“Mebbe he would. And mebbe again he wouldn’t. He’s a mighty friendly dog.”
“But he is a splendid watchdog,” interposed Neale O’Neil.
“That may be, too,” Ike said, quite unshaken in his opinion. “If anybody had come in from outside and undertaken to disturb anything, that old dog would probably have been right on the job.”
“I see your point,” Mr. Howbridge admitted. “But this person who came down from the garret must have been a stranger.”
“Now we’re gittin’ to it. Let’s figger some more,” said M’Graw, with a chuckle. “If you think hard, an’ figger close enough, I guess ’most any puzzle can be solved.”
CHAPTER XIX – SAMMY TAKES THE BIT IN HIS TEETH
M’Graw began slowly to fill his pipe. Mr. Howbridge saw that it was useless to hurry him, so he smiled at Neale and waited. When the tobacco was alight to suit him, Ike continued his “figgerin’.”
“When this here dog,” he said, looking at Neale in turn, “is at home, I guess he knows everybody in the neighborhood, don’t he?”
“Yes. But surely, you don’t think anybody from Milton is up here at Red Deer Lodge, except just these people that Mr. Howbridge brought?”
“Hold on. I’m doin’ the askin’. You just answer me, sonny,” chuckled Ike. “Now, let’s see. He does know lots o’ folks – especially young folks – around where he lives when he’s at home, don’t he?”
“Why, Tom Jonah,” said Neale, “knows every boy and girl that comes past the old Corner House. He’s a great friend of the kids.”
“Jest so,” said M’Graw, as Mr. Howbridge started and was about to speak. But the woodsman put up a hand and said to the lawyer: “Wait a minute. This man, Hedden, has looked over the stuff you brought up here in the line of canned goods and sech. He says what was stole was mostly sweets – canned peaches, an’ pears, an’ pineapple, an’ sugar-stuff, besides condensed milk. Jest what children would like.”
“The twins!” exclaimed Mr. Howbridge. “Do you think it could be possible, after all, Ike?”
“Goodness!” gasped Neale.
“Looks mighty like children’s work,” said the woodsman reflectively. “I knowed little Ralph had a twenty-two rifle. I taught him to shoot with it. He does me proud when it comes to shootin’. Yes, sir.”
“But to get clear up here – ”
“Them is purty smart children,” said the old man. “And it looks, as I say, like their work. Who else would give themselves dead away by shootin’ that fox out of the winder? No grown person would have done that if they didn’t want to be caught in the house.
“Then, Ralph and Rowena would have knowed where that key hung. They’d be more’n likely to build the fire in their ma’s sittin’-room. Now, when they sneaked out o’ the house this mornin’, they’d take just this kind of stuff that’s been took from the pantry.”
“I see. I see.”
“And the dog clinches it. He’s a friend to all children. He’d never have stopped them, especially as they was in the house and didn’t come from outside.”
“I believe you are right,” admitted Mr. Howbridge.
“I’m great on figgerin’,” said the woodsman. “Now, let’s see what sort of a nose that there dog’s got.”
“You mean Tom Jonah?”
“Yes. I ain’t got no dog. There ain’t none nearer’n Sim Hackett’s beagle at Ebettsville that’s wuth anything on the trail. Them youngsters must have gone somewhere, Mr. Howbridge. And they can’t be fur off. We’ve got to find ’em before this here storm that’s breedin’ comes down on us. There must be tracks somewheres, and a trail a good dog can sniff.”
“I understand what you mean. But how shall we start the dog on their trail! We have nothing the twins have worn,” said Mr. Howbridge.
“Let’s look around,” suggested Ike. “Up-stairs in that sittin’-room, where you found the live coals – or, your man did – there’s a closet where some of the twins’ clo’es used to hang. Mebbe there’s some there now. If that there dog has got a nose at all, an’ he sniffed them children good this mornin’, he’ll know the smell of ’em again. Yes, sir.”
“That is a good idea,” admitted Mr. Howbridge. “You go out and see if you can find any impressions of the children’s feet in the snow, Ike. I will hunt in the rooms upstairs for something the twins may have worn.”
“Stockin’s are best – stockin’s that ain’t been washed,” said the woodsman. “Or mittens, or gloves. Come on, sonny,” he added to Neale O’Neil. “You come with me and we’ll try to find some trail marks in the snow.” He glanced at the window. “And we’ve got to hurry. It’s snowin’ right hard now, and will smother marks and everything if it keeps on this way for long.”
Just then, while there was so much interest being felt in the Birdsall twins and the possibility of their having been at Red Deer Lodge, somebody should have felt a revived interest in three other children – Sammy Pinkney and the two youngest Corner House girls.
They had gone out after lunch, presumably to continue the building of the snow man in front of the Lodge. The older girls and Luke were engaged in their own matters, and thought not at all of the little folks. But Sammy, Tess and Dot had quite tired of playing in the snow.
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