The Corner House Girls Snowbound
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“Stop them! Stop them!” moaned Ruth, really alarmed.
It seemed to her that the boat she was riding in was going much too fast for safety; but the scooter flew up the lake at a pace that made the big boats seem to stand still.
Neale plainly knew how to handle the racer. He passed the two barges and then tacked, aiming to cross the bows of the bigger craft.
Instantly, as the boom swung around, Agnes’ end of the crossbeam went into the air! They saw her sail upward, the flashing steel runners at least four feet above the ice!
The girl’s wind-whipped face was still smiling. Indeed, that smile seemed frozen on. As the racer rushed by Agnes looked down upon her sisters and other friends and waved one hand to them.
Then, like a huge kite, the big-bellied sail raced off across the lake, taking the reckless pair almost instantly out of earshot.
CHAPTER VIII – THE VILLAGE ON THE ICE
The wild plunge of the scooter across the lake carried it, before a wind-squall, far out of hearing of Ruth Kenway’s voice. Yet she shouted long and loud after her sister. Luke pulled her back into her seat when she would have stood up to watch the careening scooter.
“They are in no danger,” he urged. “Take it easy, Ruth.”
“Why, they must be in peril! Did you see her – Agnes – up in the air?”
“Well, she’s down again all right now, Ruthie,” said Cecile Shepard soothingly.
“Oh, if I had only known!”
“Known what?” asked Luke, inclined to grin if the truth was told.
“That the small boat would sail like that. Why, it is worse than a racing automobile!”
“Faster, I guess. Almost as fast as a motorcycle,” Luke agreed. “But Neale’s managed one of those things before. He told me all about it.”
“But why didn’t somebody tell me about it?” demanded Ruth rather stormily.
“Tell you about what?” asked Cecile.
“About how fast that reckless thing would sail? Why! I’d never have allowed Aggie to ride on it in this world.”
In the other big ice-boat there was much anxiety as well. Mr. Howbridge and Mrs. MacCall would have stopped the reckless ones could they have done so, and Tom Jonah was barking his head off. He, too, had recognized Agnes and Neale and believed that all was not right with them.
The scooter, however, was clear across the lake again; they saw it tack once more, and this time, because of the favoring breeze, Neale headed her directly up the lake. Every minute he and Agnes on their racer were leaving the rest of the party behind.
These scooters cannot be sailed at a slow pace. The skeleton craft is so light, and the sail so big, that the least puff of breeze drives it ahead at railroad speed.
Now with a pretty steady breeze behind them, the scooter was bound to “show off.” Nor did the young people realize just how fast they sailed, or how perilous their course looked to their friends.
“We’re running away from them!” Agnes managed to throw back over her shoulder at Neale.
“Can’t help it!” he cried in return.“This old scooter has taken the bit in its teeth.”
Agnes had begun to enjoy the speed to the full now. Why! this was better than motoring over the finest kind of oiled road. And the young girl did like to travel fast.
She began to see that the farther they went up Long Lake the wilder the shores appeared to be and the fewer houses there were visible. Here and there was a little village, with a white-steepled church pointing heavenward among the almost black spruce and pine. Again, a cleared farm showed forth, its fields sheeted with snow.
The lake was quite ten miles broad in most places, and occasionally it spread to a width of more than twice that number of miles. Then they could barely see the hazy shoreline at all.
“We could not be lonesomer,” thought Agnes, “if we were sailing on the ocean!”
The sails behind them had all disappeared. Once a squad of timber barges with square sails was passed. The barges were going up empty to the head of the lake there to be loaded and await a favoring breeze to bring them back to Culberton again. It was much cheaper for the lumber concerns to sail the logs down the lake if they could, than to load them on the narrow gauge railroad and pay freight to Culberton. The sticks had to be handled at the foot of the lake, anyway.
The scooter went past these slowly sailing barges almost as rapidly as they had passed the two boats in which sailed the remainder of the Corner House party. The stays creaked and the steel whined on the ice, while the wind boomed in the big sail like a muffled drum.
The sun, hazy and red like the face of a haymaker in harvest time, was going westward and would soon disappear behind the mountain ridge which followed the shoreline of the lake, but at a distance. It was up in the foothills of those mountains that Red Deer Lodge was located.
After passing the empty barges the boy and girl on the scooter saw no other sail nor anything which excited their attention until Agnes suddenly beheld a group of objects on the ice near the western shore of the lake, not many miles ahead.
She began almost immediately to wonder what these things could be, but she could not make Neale O’Neil understand the question she shouted to him. By and by, however, she saw for herself that the objects were a number of little huts, and that they really were built upon the frozen surface of the lake.
Agnes was naturally very much interested in this strange sight. A village on the ice was something quite novel to her mind. She desired very much to ask questions of Neale, but the wind was too great and they were sailing too fast for her to make her desire known to her boy friend.
So she just used her eyes (when they did not water too much) and stared at the strange collection of huts and its vicinity with all her might. Why! from lengths of stove pipe through some of the slanting roofs, smoke was climbing into the hazy atmosphere.
Back of the ice-village, on the steep western shore of the lake, was built a regular town of slab shanties, with a slab church, stores, and the like. Quite a village, this, and when Agnes looked back at Neale questioningly and pointed to them, he shouted: “Coxford.” So she knew it was their destination.
Mr. Howbridge had said they would disembark from the ice-boats at Coxford, and there would take sledges into the woods. It was fast growing toward evening, however, and Agnes knew it would be too late when they landed to continue the journey to Red Deer Lodge before the next morning.
The ice-village was about two miles out from the shore. There were half a hundred huts, some a dozen feet square. But for the most part they were much smaller. They had doors, but no windows, and, as the scooter drew swiftly nearer, Agnes could see that the structures were little more than wind-breaks.
There were a number of people moving about the settlement of huts, however, and not a few children among them, as well as dogs. As the scooter drew near she saw, too, a team of horses drawing a sledge. This sledge was being loaded with boxes, or crates; and what those boxes could contain began to puzzle Agnes as much as anything else she saw about the queer village.
Neale steered outside the line of the ice settlement; but once beyond it he brought the scooter up into the wind and yelled at Agnes to let go the sheet and falls. She loosened the lines from the pegs and allowed them to slip. Down came the shaking canvas, the wooden hoops clattering together as they slid down the greased mast. In a moment the speed of the scooter was lost and they were all but smothered in the fallen canvas.
“Get out from under!” Neale’s voice shouted.
He dropped off at the stern and ran to the girl’s aid. He unbuckled the belt that had secured Agnes to her seat on the outrigger all this while, and fairly dragged her from under the flapping sail.
“Fine work!” Neale shouted, his voice full of laughter. “We made record time. But I’ll let somebody else furl that sail.”
“Oh, Neale!” gasped the girl, hobbling like a cripple. “I ca – can’t walk. I’m frozen stiff!”
“Come on to the shanties. We’ll get warm. Take hold here, Aggie. You’ll be all right in a few minutes.”
“Oh, dear!” she said. “I did not know I was so cold. But what a race it was, Neale! Ruth will give us fits.”
“Won’t she?” chuckled Neale.
“But what is this place, Neale?” Agnes went on. “What are these people doing here?”
“Fishing. Those are frozen fish they are loading on that sledge. Oh! There it goes! We can’t get ashore on that, after all.”
“‘Fishing’?” repeated the amazed girl. “How do they fish through the ice? I don’t see any holes.”
“No. The holes wouldn’t stay open long, as cold as it is out here. It’s about twenty below zero right now, my lady, and I’m keeping a sharp eye on your nose.”
“Oh! Oh!” gasped Agnes, putting her mittened hand tentatively to her nose. “Is that why you told me to keep my collar up over my mouth and nose?”
“It is!” declared the boy, rubbing his own face vigorously. “If you see any white spot on anybody’s face up here in this weather, grab a handful of snow and begin rubbing the spot.”
“Mercy!” Agnes murmured, with a gay little laugh. “Lucky Trix Severn doesn’t come up here. She uses rice powder dreadfully, and folks would think she was being frost-bitten.”
“Uh-huh!” agreed Neale.
“But you haven’t told me how they fish,” said the girl, as they approached nearer to the huts and she was able to walk better.
“Through the ice of course,” he laughed. “Only you don’t see the holes. They are inside the huts.”
“You don’t mean it, Neale?”
“To be sure I mean it! Some of those big shanties house whole families. You see there are children and dogs. They have pot stoves which warm the huts to a certain degree, and on which they cook. And they have bunks built against the walls, with plenty of bedding.”
“Why, I should think they would get their death of cold!” gasped the girl.
“That’s just what they don’t get,” Neale rejoined. “You can bet there are no ‘white plague’ patients here. This atmosphere will kill tubercular germs like a hammer kills a flea.”
“Goodness, Neale!” giggled Agnes. “Did you ever kill a flea with a hammer?”
“Yep. Sand-flea,” he assured her, grinning. “Oh! I’m one quick lad, Aggie.”
She really thought he was joking, however, until she had looked into two or three of the huts. People really did live in them, as she saw. In the middle of the plank floors was a well, with open water kept clear of frost. The set-lines were fastened to pegs in the planks and the “flags” announced when a fish was on the hook.
A smiling woman, done up like an Eskimo, invited them into one shack. She had evidently not seen the scooter arrive from down the lake and thought the boy and girl had walked out from Coxford.
“Hello!” she said. “Goin’ to try your hands at fishin’? You’re town folks, ain’t you?”
“Yes,” said Agnes, politely. “We come from Milton.”
“Lawsy! That’s a fur ways,” said the woman. She was peeling potatoes, and a kettle was boiling on the stove at one side. The visitors knew by the odor that there was corned beef in the pot. “You goin’ to try your hands?” the woman repeated.
“No,” said Neale. “We are with a party that is going up to Red Deer Lodge.”
“Oh! That’s the Birdsall place. You can’t git up there tonight. It’s too fur.”
“I guess we shall stay in Coxford,” admitted Neale.
“Didn’t know but you an’ your sister wanted to fish. Old Manny Cox got ketched with rheumatics so that he had to give up fishin’ this season. I can hire you his shanty.”
“No, thank you!” murmured Agnes, her eyes round with interest.
“I let it for a week or more to two gals,” said the woman complacently. “Got five dollars out of ’em for Manny. He’ll be needin’ the money. Better stay awhile and try the fishin’.”
“Goodness! Two girls alone?” asked Agnes.
“Yes. Younger’n you are, too. But they knowed their way around, I guess,” said the woman. “Good lookin’ gals. Nice clo’es. Town folks, I guess. Mebbe they wasn’t older’n my Bob, and he’s just turned twelve.”
“Twelve years old! And two girls alone?” murmured Agnes.
“Oh, there ain’t nobody to hurt you here. We don’t never need no constable out here on the ice. There’s plenty of women folks – Miz’ Ashtable, and Hank Crummet’s wife, and Mary Boley and her boys. Oh, lots o’ women here. We can help make money in the winter.
“There! See that set-line bob?”
She dropped the potato she was paring and crossed to the well. One of the flags had dipped. With a strong hand she reeled in the wet line. At its end was a big pickerel – the biggest pickerel the visitors had ever seen.
“There!” exclaimed the woman. “Sorry I didn’t git that before Joe Jagson went with his load of fish. That’s four pound if it weighs an ounce.”
She shook the flopping fish off the hook into a basket and then hung the basket outside the door. In the frosty air the fish did not need to be packed in ice. It would literally be ice within a very few minutes.
“Got to hang ’em up to keep the dogs from gettin’ them,” said the woman, rebaiting the hook and then returning to her potato paring. “Can’t leave ’em in a creel in the water, neither; pike would come along an’ eat ’em clean to the bone.”
“Oh!” gasped Agnes.
“Yes. Regular cannibals, them pike,” said the woman. “But all big fish will eat little ones.”
“What kind of fish do you catch?” Neale asked.
“Pickerel and pike, whitebait (we calls ’em that), perch, some lake bass and once in a while a lake trout. Trout’s out o’ season. We don’t durst sell ’em. But we eat ’em. They ain’t no ‘season,’ I tell ’em, for a boy’s appetite; and I got three boys and my man to feed.”
At that moment there was a great shouting and barking of dogs outside, and Neale and Agnes went out of the hut to learn what it meant. The Corner House girl whispered to the boy:
“What do you think about those two twelve year old girls coming here to stay and fish through the ice?”
“Great little sports,” commented Neale.
“Well,” exclaimed Agnes, “that’s being too much of a sport, if you ask me!”
CHAPTER IX – A COLD SCENT
The barking of the dogs was in answer to the booming note that Tom Jonah sent echoing across the ice. Agnes and Neale found that the two big ice-boats were near at hand.
As one of the crew of Mr. Howbridge’s boat owned the scooter that Neale and Agnes had come up the lake on, that owner wished to recover his abandoned ice-boat. Besides, it was not more than two miles over the ice to Coxford, and the wind was going down with the sun. The big boats would have made slow work of it beating in to the slab-town on the western shore of the lake.
Neale and Agnes ran out across the ice to meet their friends. Most of the party were glad indeed to get on their feet, for the ride up the lake had been a cold one.
In fact, Tess could scarcely walk when she got out of her seat, and Dot tumbled right down on the ice, almost weeping.
“I – I guess I haven’t got any feet,” the smallest Corner House girl half sobbed. “I can’t feel ’em.”
“Course you’ve got feet, Dot,” said Sammy, staggering a good deal himself when he walked toward her. “Just you jump up and down like this,” and he proceeded to follow his own advice.
“But won’t we break through the ice?” murmured the smallest Corner House girl.
“Why, Dot! do you s’pose,” demanded Tess, “that you can jump hard enough to break through two feet of ice?”
“Well, I never tried it before, did I?” demanded Dot. “How should I know what might happen to the old ice?”
Agnes hurried the little ones over to the shanty of the friendly fisher-woman, where they could get warm and be sheltered from the raw wind that still puffed down in gusts from the hills.
Tom Jonah had jumped out of the cockpit of the ice-boat and found himself immediately in the middle of what Luke Shepard called “a fine ruction.”
“Canines to right of him, canines to left of him, volleyed and thundered!” laughed the college youth. “Hey! call off your fish-hounds, or Tom Jonah will eat them up.”
One cur was already running away yelping and limping; the others took notice that the old dog had powerful jaws. But Ruth insisted that Tom Jonah be put on a leash, and Luke meekly obeyed. Indeed, he was likely to do almost anything that the oldest Corner House girl told him to do, “right up to jumping through the ring of a doughnut!” his sister whispered to Mrs. MacCall in great glee.
“Well, my lassie,” was the housekeeper’s comment, “he might be mindin’ a much worse mistress than our Ruthie.”
Nothing that Ruth could or did do in most matters was wrong in Mrs. MacCall’s opinion, even if she did criticize the Kenways’ charity. If Luke Shepard some day expected to get Ruth for his wife, the housekeeper considered that it was only right he should first learn to obey Ruth’s behests in all things.
Ruth had a word to say to Neale and Agnes at this time. She pointed out to those two restless and reckless younger ones that there must be no such venturesome escapades during the remainder of this winter vacation as that connected with the ice-scooter.
“If you have no respect for your own bones, think of our feelings,” she concluded. “Why! I almost had heart disease when I saw that horrid scooter fly past with Agnes up in the air as though she were on a flying trapeze.”
“Shucks, Ruth!” said Neale, “you know I wouldn’t let any harm come to Aggie.”
“Now, Neale,” returned the older girl, “how would you keep her from getting hurt if that ice-boat broke in two, for instance?”
“Oh, well – ”
“That’s what I thought!” snapped Ruth. “You had not thought of that.”
“Don’t scold him! Don’t scold Neale!” begged Agnes. “He’s all right.”
“Oh, no, he isn’t,” said Ruth grimly. “One side of him is left! And you will promise to be good or I’ll make Mr. Howbridge send Neale home, right from here.”
“Oh!” cried her sister. “You would not be so mean, Ruthie Kenway.”
“I don’t know but I would,” Ruth rejoined. “I don’t think so much of boys, anyway – ”
“Not until they get to be collegians,” whispered Neale shrilly from behind his hand.
Ruth’s eyes snapped at that, and she marched away without another word. Mr. Howbridge refrained from commenting upon the incident, for he saw that Ruth had said quite all that was necessary.
Neale and Agnes were much abashed. They followed the others slowly toward the village on the ice. Neale said:
“Well, if she says I can’t go any farther I’ll stay right here and fish until you come back, Aggie.”
“Oh, Neale! You wouldn’t!”
“Why not? Maybe I’d make a little money. If two twelve year old girls could stand it for a week here, I don’t see why I couldn’t stand it for three weeks.”
“I’ve been thinking about those two girls that woman told us about,” said Agnes with sudden eagerness.
“What about ’em?”
“Do you s’pose they were girls, Neale O’Neil?”
“Why! what do you mean? How do I know? The woman said they were.”
“But two girls– and only twelve! It doesn’t seem probable. I should think the police – ”
“Didn’t you hear that woman say there were no constables out here on the ice?” said Neale.
“I don’t care! I’m suspicious,” declared Agnes.
“Not of that fisher-woman?” asked the boy, puzzled indeed.
“No, no! But no two girls in this world would ever have considered coming out here on the ice to fish. How ridiculous!”
“Say! what are you trying to get at, Agnes Kenway?” demanded her friend. “You do have the craziest ideas!”
“Do I, Mr. Smartie?” she returned. “At least they are ideas. You never seem to suspect a living thing, Neale O’Neil.”
“Oh! I give it up,” he groaned. “You are too much for me. I’m lashed to the post and you have left me behind.”
“Oh, do come on!” exclaimed Agnes, hastily dragging at his jacket sleeve. “If you don’t know what I’m about, just keep still and listen.”
“Oh, I’ll do that little thing for you,” returned Neale. “I can be as dumb as a mute quahog with the lockjaw – just watch me!”
He tagged on behind Agnes with much interest. The girl hurried to the shack into which the little folks had been taken for warmth. Mrs. MacCall was there with them, talking with the genial fisher-woman.
“Hech!” exclaimed the housekeeper, warming her blue hands, “but this is a strange way to live. ’Tis worse than sheep herding in the Highlands. ’Tis so!”
“’Tain’t so bad,” said the woman. “And there’s good money in the fish. We are mostly all Coxford people here – or folks from back in the hills. Few stragglers come here to bother us.”
“But you said two strangers had been here this winter,” Agnes interposed, eagerly.
“I said so,” the woman agreed. “Two stragglers. Two girls,” and she laughed. “But they didn’t stay long. They kept to themselves like, and never did us any harm.”
“Say, Maw!” The voice came out of a shadowy corner. It was gloomy in the shack, for the sun had now dipped below the hills and twilight had come.
“That’s my Bob,” said the woman. “He’s about the age of them two gals.”
“They wasn’t two gals, Maw,” said Bob from the darkness.
“What d’you mean?”
“One was a boy. Yes, she was – a boy! We kids found it out, and that’s why them two lit out over night.”
“Good gracious, Bob! What are you sayin’?”
“That’s right,” said the voice from the dark corner, stubbornly. “They was brother and sister. They owned up. Run away from somewhere, I guess. And then they run away from here.”
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