The Corner House Girls Snowbound
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Agnes pinched Neale’s arm. “What did I tell you?” she whispered.
“Ouch! I don’t know. You’ve told me so many things, Aggie,” he complained.
“Don’t you remember what Mr. Howbridge told us about the Birdsall twins and the picture he sent out to the police? He showed us that, too.”
“Jumping Jupiter!” gasped the amazed Neale. “Why – why, she,” pointing to the fisher-woman, “didn’t say anything about the twins.”
“Listen!” exclaimed Agnes again; and as Mrs. MacCall had taken the three younger children out of the shack, Agnes began to interrogate the woman as to the appearance of the strange girls who had remained for a week at the village on the ice.
Yes, they were both slim, and dark, and looked boyish enough – both of them. They seemed well behaved. She didn’t believe Bob —
“I tell you I know,” put in Bob from his corner. “One was a boy. He called the other by a girl name all right. Rowly – or Rowny – or sumpin’ – ”
“Rowena!” cried Agnes.
“Mebbe,” admitted Bob.
“For the land of liberty’s sake!” exclaimed his mother suddenly, “I’d like to know how you are so sure ’bout one bein’ a boy?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” grumbled Bob. “’Cause he licked me! Yes, he did. Licked me good and proper. No girl could ha’ done that, you bet!” said the disgruntled Bob.
“Now, Bob! I am ashamed of you!” said his mother.
“You needn’t be. He could fight, that fellow!”
“But did you think they were both girls till you got into this fight?” Neale asked, now becoming interested.
“Bet you. We thought we could get some of their lines. They had more’n enough. We went over there to Manny Cox’s shack, and she that was a girl was alone. So we took the lines.”
“Now, Bob!” murmured his mother.
“Guess a constable here wouldn’t be a bad thing after all,” chuckled Neale.
“Go on,” ordered Agnes.
“Why, that girl just cried and scolded. But the other one came back before me and Hank and Buddie got away.”
“The one you think was a boy?” asked Agnes.
“One I know was a boy – since he fought me. He didn’t do no cryin’. He squared right off, skirts an’ all, and jest lambasted me. And when Hank tried to put in an oar, he lambasted him. Buddie run, or he’d ’ve been licked, too, I guess.”
“Well!” exclaimed Bob’s mother. “I never did! And you never said a word about it!”
“What was the use?” asked her son. “We was licked. And the next morning that boy-girl and his sister was gone. We didn’t see ’em no more.”
“That is right,” said the woman thoughtfully. “They got away jest like that. I never did know what become of ’em or what they went for.”
Agnes dragged Neale out of the shack. She was excited.
“Let’s find Mr. Howbridge!” she cried. “He ought to know about this. I just feel sure those twins have been here in this fisher-town.”
CHAPTER X – INTO THE WILDERNESS
But the lawyer and guardian of the runaway Birdsall twins was not so easily convinced that Agnes had found the trail of the lost Ralph and Rowena.It seemed preposterous that the twins should have joined these rough fisherfolk and lived with them in the ice-village.
The party from Milton waited at the village for an hour while the lawyer cross-questioned the inhabitants. It was not that any of these people wished to hobble Mr. Howbridge’s curiosity regarding the “stragglers,” as they called the strangers who sometimes joined the community; but nobody had considered it his or her business to question or examine in any way the two unknown girls (if they were girls) who had occupied Manny Cox’s shack for a week.
After all, the boy, Bob, and his mates, gave the most convincing testimony regarding the strangers. He was positive that one of the stragglers had been a boy – a very sturdy and pugilistic one for a twelve-year-old lad.
“And that might fit young Ralph Birdsall’s reputation, as I got it from Rodgers, the butler,” said Mr. Howbridge. “Ralph has to be stirred by Rowena to fight; but, once stirred, Rodgers says he can fight like a wildcat.”
“Why, what a horrid boy!” murmured Tess, who heard this. “I guess I’m glad those twins didn’t come with us after all.”
“But, Mr. Howbridge,” asked Ruth, “does it seem possible that they could get away up here alone?”
“That is difficult to say. Nobody knows how much money they had when they left Arlington. They might have come as far as this. If they had wished to, I mean.”
It was getting quite dark, now, and the children were tired and hungry. The party could spend no more time at the fishing village. They set out across the ice for Coxford.
Neale took Dot pick-a-pack and Luke shouldered Tess, although the latter felt much embarrassed by this proceeding. Ruth had to urge her to remain upon the collegian’s shoulder.
“Really, I’m quite too big to play this way,” she objected.
But she was tired – she had to admit that. Sammy made no complaint; but his short legs were weary enough before they reached the shore.
Oil lamps on posts lit the few streets of Coxford. Most of the slab houses looked as though the wind, with a good puff, could blow them down. The forest came down to the edge of the village. If there should be a forest fire on this side of the mountain range, the slab-town would surely be destroyed.
Hedden, Mr. Howbridge’s man, had prepared things here for the party, as well as at Culberton. On the main street of the little town was what passed for a hotel. At this time of year it was but little patronized.
Therefore the lawyer’s man had chartered the house, as well as the family that owned it, to make the holiday vacation party comfortable over one night.
Roaring fires, hot supper, feather beds, and plenty of woolen blankets awaited the crowd from Milton at this backwoods hostelry. Mr. Dan Durkin, who was the proprietor of the Coxford Hotel, and his hospitable wife and daughters, could not do too much for the comfort of Mr. Howbridge and his friends.
“We don’t have enough strangers here in winter time to keep us in mind of what city folks are like,” the hotel-keeper declared. “When Miz’ Birdsall was alive, she and her man and the kids used to come through here three-four times ’twixt the first snow flurries an’ the spring break-up. They liked to see their camp up there in the hills durin’ the winter. But after Miz’ Birdsall died, he never came.”
“And the children?” asked Mr. Howbridge, thoughtfully.
“They did come in summer,” said Durkin; “but not in the winter.”
“You haven’t seen them of late, have you?” questioned the lawyer.
“Them twins? No. Nary hide nor hair of ’em. I tell you, ain’t nobody – scurcely – gets up here this time’ o’ year. ’Ceptin’ a few stragglers for the fishin’, perhaps. But we don’t see them here at the hotel. We don’t take in stragglers.”
But he and his family, as has been said, did their very best for the party from Milton. The young folks slept soundly, and warmly, as well, and were really sorry to crawl out of the feather beds at seven o’clock the next morning when they were called to get ready for breakfast.
The cold and the long ride of the day before seemed to have done nobody any harm. The balsam-laden air, when they went to the hotel porch for a breath of it before breakfast, seemed to search right down to the bottom of their lungs and invigorate them all. Surely, as Neale had told Agnes, no tubercular germ could live in such an atmosphere.
“Just the same,” said Ruth, wisely, when Agnes mentioned this scientific statement fathered by the ex-circus boy, “you children keep well wrapped up. What is one man’s medicine is another man’s poison, Mrs. Mac often says. And it is so with germs, I guess. What will kill one germ, another germ thrives on. A bad cold up here will be almost sure to turn into pneumonia. So beware!”
“Don’t keep talking about being sick,” cried Cecile. “You are almost as bad as Neighbor.” “Neighbor” Henry Northrup lived next door to the Shepards and their Aunt Lorena, and was Luke’s very good friend. “Neighbor is forever talking about symptoms and diseases. After a half hour visit with him I always go home feeling as though I needed to call the doctor for some complaint.”
They made a hearty and hilarious breakfast of country fare – fried pork and johnnycakes, with eggs and baked beans for “fillers.” Mrs. MacCall should not have tried to eat the crisply fried “crackling” as the farmers call the pork-rind; but she did. And one of the teeth on her upper plate snapped right off!
“Oh, dear me, Mrs. Mac!” gasped Agnes. “And not a dentist for miles and miles, I suppose!”
“Oh, well, I can get along without that one tooth.”
“My pop’s got a new set of false teeth,” Sammy said soberly. “He’s just got ’em – all new and shiny.”
“What did he do with the old ones he had?” asked Tess, interested.
“Huh! I dunno. Throwed ’em away, I hope. Anyway,” said Sammy, who had had much experience in wearing made over clothing, “mom can’t cut them down and make me wear ’em!”
The jangling of sleighbells hurried the party through breakfast. The little folks were first out upon the porch to look at the two pungs, filled with straw, and each drawn by a pair of heavy horses. The latter did not promise from their appearance a swift trip to Red Deer Lodge; but they were undoubtedly able to draw a heavy load through the deepest drifts in the forest.
They set out very gayly from the little lakeside town. It was not a brilliantly sunshiny day, for a haze wrapped the mountain tops about and was creeping down toward the ice-covered lake.
“There’s a storm gathering,” declared one of the men engaged to drive the Milton party into the woods. “I reckon you folks will git about all the snow you want for Christmas.”
“At any rate, it won’t be a green Christmas up here,” Agnes said to Neale, who sat beside her in the second sled. “I don’t think it is nice at all not to have plenty of snow over Christmas and New Year’s.”
“I’m with you there,” agreed the boy. “But I’m glad I haven’t got to shovel paths through these drifts,” he added, with a quick grin.
They found the tote-road, as the path was called, quite filled with snow in some places. There were only the marks of the sleds that had gone up two days before with the servants and baggage and returned – these same two pungs in which the party now rode.
The drifts were packed so hard that the horses drew the sleds right over the drifts, without breaking through more than an inch or two with their big hoofs. In some places they could trot heavily, jerking the sleds along at rather a good pace; but for most of the way the road was uphill, and the horses plodded slowly.
The boys got out now and then to stretch their legs. Agnes, too, demanded this privilege, and tramped along beside Neale after the sleds on the uphill grades. Mainly the party was warm and comfortable, and cheerful voices, laughter, and song rang through the spruce woods as they traversed the forest-clad hills.
Red Deer Lodge, it proved, was a long day’s journey from the lakeside into the wilderness. Never before had the Corner House girls and their friends visited so wild a place. But they foresaw no trouble in store for them – not even from the gathering storm.
“Of course,” Agnes said, when she was tramping on one occasion with the boys behind the second sled, “there must be bears, and wolves, and catamounts, and all those, in these woods in summer. But they are all hidden away for the winter now, aren’t they, Neale?”
“The bears are holed up,” he granted. “But the other varmints – ”
“What are those?”
“That is what Uncle Bill Sorber calls most carnivorous animals,” laughed Neale. “Creatures that prey – ”
“Je-ru-sa-lem!” ejaculated the wide-eared Sammy. “You don’t mean to say wild animals pray, do you? I never knew they were that religious!”
“Good-night!” laughed Neale. “I mean those that prey on other animals – live on ’em, you know. Prey on ’em.”
“Je-ru-sa-lem!” murmured Sammy. “Just like the fleas on my bulldog, Buster?”
“That’s enough! That’s enough!” groaned Neale. “No use trying to teach this boy anything.”
“Huh!” grumbled Sammy Pinkney. “They make me learn enough in school. Don’t you begin to pick on me out here in the woods, Neale O’Neil.”
Just then Tom Jonah, who, his tongue hanging out, had been padding on ahead, suddenly uttered a loud bark and leaped out of the path. He went tearing away across the tops of the drifts and through the open wood through which the tote-road then passed.
Out of a close-branched spruce just ahead of the big dog shot a tawny-gray body, and a fearsome yowl drowned the barking of the dog. But the creature that had created Tom Jonah’s excitement was running away.
“Call off that dog!” shouted the head driver. “Want him all chawed up?”
Tess stood up and began to scream for Tom Jonah to return. The old dog would obey her voice if no other.
“Oh! What is that?” cried Ruth.
“Link,” said the driver, succinctly, as the beast uttered another angry howl which made the returning Tom Jonah turn to snarl in the stranger’s direction.
“He means lynx,” said Mr. Howbridge.
“Don’t, nuther,” snorted the driver. “There’s only one of him, so he’s a link. If they was two or more they’d be links.”
“Oh! Ah!” chuckled Luke Shepard. “And that one is now the ‘missing link.’ He was making tracks for the port of ‘missing links’ when he disappeared.”
“He’s goin’ some. That dog give him a scare,” admitted the driver, as a third and more distant yowl floated back to them from the depths of the forest.
The whole party, however, was impressed by the incident. More than Dot were disturbed by the thought of danger.
“Just the same,” the smallest Corner House girl murmured in Tess’ ear. “I’m not going to throw my Alice-doll overboard, either for wolfs or linkses – so there!”
CHAPTER XI – EMBERS IN THE GRATE
Mr. Durkin of the Coxford Hotel had furnished the party with a hearty lunch to eat while they were en route to Red Deer Lodge, and Ruth had brought two big thermos bottles of hot tea, likewise prepared at the hotel. The drivers had their own lunches, and at noon the party halted in the shelter of a windbreak to breathe the horses and allow them to eat their oats.
Mrs. MacCall and the older girls complained of stiffness from sitting so long in the sledges. Riding so far in the cold was not altogether pleasant; there was no sunshine at all now. The gathering storm had overcast the entire sky, and as they went on after lunch a rising wind began moaning through the forest.
“I don’t see why the trees have to make such a meachin’ noise,” sighed Dot, as they climbed a steep hill so slowly that the rueful sound of the rising gale was quite audible.
“Where did you get such a word, Dot?” demanded Ruth, smiling at her.
“It is a good word. Uncle Rufus uses it,” declared the smallest Corner House girl. “And Uncle Rufus never uses bad words.”
“Granted,” Ruth said. “But what does ‘meachin’ mean?”
“Why, just as though the wind felt bad and was whimpering about it,” said Dot, with assurance. “It makes you all shivery to listen to it. And after we heard that link, and know that there are bears and wolfs about – O-o-oh! what’s that, Ruthie?”
Something white had flashed right up in front of the noses of the first team of horses, and with great leaps broke away from the road. Tom Jonah was at the rear of the procession and did not at first see this bounding shape.
Neale stood up in the second sleigh and clapped his hands sharply together. The white ball stopped – halting right in a snow-patch; being so much like the snow itself in color that those in the sledges could scarcely see it. The sharp crack of Neale’s ungloved palms seemed to make the creature cower in the snow. It halted for a moment only, however.
“Oh! The bunny!” gasped Tess, standing up to see.
“A big white hare,” Mr. Howbridge said. “I had no idea there were such big ones around here.”
The hare burst into high speed again and disappeared, almost before Tom Jonah set out for him.
“Come back, Tom Jonah!” shouted Tess. “Why, you couldn’t catch that bunny if you had started ahead of him.”
“Wow! that’s a good one,” said Neale O’Neil. “Tell you what, Aggie, those small sisters of yours are right full of new ideas.”
“That is what teacher says is the matter with Robbie Foote,” remarked Sammy, thoughtfully.
“How is that?” asked Agnes, expecting some illuminating information from the standpoint of a lower grade pupil.
“Why,” Sammy explained, “teacher asked Rob what was the plural of man. Rob told her ‘men.’ Then, of course, she had to keep right on at it. If you do answer her right she goes right at you again,” scoffed Sammy. “That’s why I don’t often answer her right if I can help it. It only makes you trouble.”
“Oh! Oh!” chuckled Neale. “A Daniel come to judgment.”
“Wait. Let’s hear the rest of Sam’s story,” begged Agnes. “What was Robbie Foote’s idea?”
“That’s what teacher said – he was full of ideas, only they were silly,” went on Sammy. “When he’d told her ‘men’ was the plural of ‘man,’ she said: ‘What is the plural of child?’ He told her ‘twins.’ What d’you know about that? She said his ideas were silly.”
“I’m not so sure he was silly,” laughed Neale.
“I wonder what has become of those Birdsall twins,” Agnes said thoughtfully. “Up here in this wild country – ”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Neale. “You don’t know anything of the kind. Those two girls that fisher-woman spoke about – ”
“One of them was a boy.”
“Well, that doesn’t prove anything. We don’t even know that the two at the fisher-village were twins.”
“But they were brother and sister roaming about – runaways and alone.”
“Oh, Aggie!” he cried, “don’t make up your mind a thing is so without getting some real evidence first. Mr. Howbridge asked, and he is not at all sure those stragglers were the twins.”
“Somehow I just feel that they were,” sighed the second Corner House girl, with a confidence that Neale saw it was useless to try to shake.
When Agnes Kenway made up her mind to a thing Neale wagged his head and gave it up.
The party was quite too jolly, however, to bother much about the lost Birdsall twins just then. Even Mr. Howbridge had said nothing about them since his cross-examination of the hotel-keeper back at Coxford.
If the twins had come this way, for instance, attempting to reach Red Deer Lodge, surely some of the people of Coxford or the woodsmen going back and forth on the tote-road would have met and recognized them. And if Ralph was dressed in some of his sister’s clothing, they would have been the more surely marked.
Two girls of twelve or so traveling into the woods? It seemed quite ridiculous.
For this was indeed a wild country through which the tote-road ran. The fact of its being a wilderness was marked even to the eyes of those so unfamiliar with such scenes.
Now and then a fox barked from the brakes in the lowland. Jays in droves winged across the clearings with raucous cries. More than one trampled place beside the thickets of edible brush showed where the deer herd had browsed within stone’s throw of the tote-road.
And then, as the party came closer to the ridge on which Red Deer Lodge was built, and the twilight began to gather, the big white owls of these northern forests went flapping through the tree-lanes, skimming the snowcrust for the rabbits and other small animals that might be afoot even this early in the evening.
The spread of the wings of the first of these monster owls that they saw was quite six feet from tip to tip, and it almost scared Dot Kenway. With an eerie “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo-oo!” and a swish of wings it crossed the road just ahead of the horses, and made even those plodding beasts toss their heads and prick up their ears.
“Oh, look at that ’normous great white chicken!” shouted Dot. “Did you ever?”
“It is an owl, child,” said Tess.
“An owl as big as that?” gasped the smaller girl. “Why – why – it could carry you right off like the eagle that Mr. Lycurgus Billet set his Sue for bait! Don’t you ’member?”
“I guess I do remember!” Tess declared. “But an owl isn’t like an eagle. It isn’t so savage.”
The party had come a long way, and the steaming horses were now weary. As evening approached the cold increased in intensity, while the mournfully sounding wind promised stern weather. The members of the party from Milton began to congratulate each other that they were arriving at the Lodge before a big storm should sweep over this northern country.
“And suppose we get snowed in and aren’t able to get out of the woods till spring?” suggested Cecile, not without some small fear that such might be a possibility.
“There goes little Miss Fidget!” cried her brother. “Always worrying over the worst that may happen.”
“But I suppose we could be snowbound up here?” suggested Ruth, although scarcely with anxiety.
“Yes!” agreed Luke, laughing. “And pigs might fly. But they tell me they are awful uncertain birds.”
“Don’t listen to him, Ruthie,” said Cecile. “We may have to stay here all winter long.”
“Then I only hope Mr. Howbridge sent up grub enough to see us through till spring,” put in the collegian gayly. “For I can foresee right now that this keen air is going to give me the appetite of an Eskimo.”
It was a long climb to the top of the ridge on which the Birdsalls had built their rustic home. When the party came in sight of it the lamps were already lighted and these beckoned cheerfully to the arrivals while they were still a long way off.
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