The Corner House Girls Snowbound
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“What lovely long fur!” murmured Agnes. “Do you suppose you can really cure the skin for me, Neale?” she demanded.
“What’s the matter with the skin?” demanded Sammy, in wonder. “Is it sick?”
“Good gracious!” exclaimed Agnes. “These children have to be explained to every minute. I hope that fox skin has no disease, Sammy.”
Luke and Ruth and Cecile had gone for a tramp through the wood. The little folks set to work building a snow man which was to be of wondrous proportions when completed. Naturally Neale and Agnes kept together.
Agnes had been wandering along the edge of the wood in front of the house while Neale carried the fox indoors. Tom Jonah came back with Neale and began snuffing about the spot where the fox had laid.
“See here, Neale O’Neil,” cried Agnes, “I can’t find anybody’s footprints over here. Where do you suppose that man shot the fox from?”
“Humph!” grunted Neale noncommittally.
“But here’s just the cunningest hoofprints! See them!” cried Agnes.
The boy joined her. Two rows of marks made by split-hoofed animals ran along the edge of the wood.
“Crackey!” ejaculated the boy. “Those are deer.”
“You don’t mean it?”
“Must be. Red deer, I bet. And right close to the Lodge! How tame these creatures are.”
“Well, deer won’t hurt us,” said Agnes, decidedly. “Let’s see where they went to.”
Neale was nothing loath. One direction was as good as another. He wanted much to talk to somebody about the discovery he had made in the loft of the Lodge; but he did not wish to frighten Agnes, so he did not broach the subject.
The two rows of hoof marks went on, side by side, along the edge of the clearing. They followed them to the very end of the opening which had been cleared about Red Deer Lodge – the northern end.
Here began a narrow path into the woods. The spoor of the two animals led into this path, and the boy and girl tramped along after them.
“I guess nothing frightened them,” said Neale, “for they appear to be trotting right along at an easy gait. They must have passed this way in the night. And that’s kind of funny, too.”
“What is funny?” asked Agnes.
“Why, deer – especially two, alone – ought to have been hiding in some clump of brush during the night. They don’t go wandering around much unless they are hungry. And there is plenty of brush fodder for them to eat along the edge of the swamps, that is sure.”
“Are you sure they are deer?” asked Agnes. “They couldn’t be anything else, could they?”
“I reckon not,” laughed Neale. “I say! who lives here?”
They caught a glimpse of an opening in the forest ahead. Then a cabin appeared, from the chimney of which a curl of blue smoke rose into the air. There were several smaller buildings in the clearing, too.
“Guess we have struck that old timber cruiser’s place,” Neale said, answering his own question.
“Oh! Mr. Ike M’Graw!” cried Agnes. “Now we can ask him if he shot the fox last night.”
“But where did these deer go?” exclaimed Neale, stopping on the edge of the little clearing and staring all around.
For here the tracks they had followed seemed to cross and criss-cross all about the clearing.That wild deer should frolic so about an occupied house was indeed puzzling. He saw, too, that there were human footprints over-running the marks of the split hoofs.
Suddenly from around the corner of the cabin appeared the long, slablike figure of the woodsman. He saw them almost immediately.
“Hullo, there!” he cried. “Ain’t you out early? I wouldn’t have been up near so early myself, if it hadn’t been for those confounded shoats of mine.”
“What happened to the pigs?” asked Neale, smiling.
“They broke out o’ their pen. Always doin’ that!” returned M’Graw. “Run off through the woods somewhere, and then come back and made sech a racket around my shanty that I can’t sleep. Confound ’em!”
Neale suddenly saw a great light. He seized Agnes’ hand and squeezed it in warning. With his other hand he pointed to the marks in the snow.
“Are those the pigs’ footprints?”
“Yes. I just got ’em shut up again,” said the woodsman. “Come in, won’t you? I guess my coffee’s biled sufficient, and I’m about to fry me a mess of bacon and johnnycake.”
“What do you know about that?” murmured Neale to the giggling Agnes. “We followed those pig tracks for deer tracks. Aren’t we great hunters – I don’t think!”
CHAPTER XVI – THE KEY
The interior of Ike M’Graw’s cabin was a place of interest to Neale and Agnes. There was not much room, but it was neat and clean. There were two bunks, one over the other at one end of the room. At the other end was the big, open fireplace.
There were andirons, a chimney crane for a pot, a dutch oven, and a sheet-iron shelf that could be pushed over the coals, on which the old man baked his johnnycake, or pan-bread.
The coffee pot was already bubbling on this shelf and gave off a strong odor of Rio. The bacon was sliced, ready for the frying pan. Ike wanted to cut more and give his two young visitors a second breakfast; but they would not hear to that.
“We’ll take a cup of coffee with you,” Agnes said brightly. “But I know I could not possibly eat another thing. Could you, Neale?”
“Not yet,” agreed the boy. “And anyway,” he added, with a smile, “if we are going to have a big storm as they say we are, Mr. M’Graw will need to conserve his food.”
“Don’t you fret, son,” said M’Graw; “I’ve got enough pork and bacon, flour, meal and coffee, to last me clean into spring. I never stint my stomach. Likewise, as long as I can pull the trigger of Old Betsey there, I shan’t go hungry in these here woods. No, sir!”
Neale stepped to the rack in the corner where stood the brown-barreled rifle the woodsman called “Old Betsey,” as well as a single and a double-barreled shotgun.
“Which of these did you use last night, Mr. M’Graw, when you shot that fox?” Agnes asked.
“Heh? What fox?”
“Maybe it wasn’t you,” said the Corner House girl. “But somebody shot a fox right up there in front of the Lodge.”
“When was this?” demanded the old man, looking at her curiously.
Neale told him the time. The woodsman shook his head slowly.
“I was buried in my blankets by that time,” he declared. “Are you sure the fox was shot, young feller?”
“I’ve got it hung up to get the frost out so I can skin it,” said Neale quietly.
“What sort of a ball killed it?”
“A small bullet. It was no large rifle bullet,” said Neale confidently. “I should think it was no more than a twenty-two caliber.”
“Pshaw! that’s only a play-toy,” returned the old man. “Who’d have a gun like that up here in the woods? Guess you’re mistook, young feller.”
“When you come up to the house you take a look at the fox,” said Neale.
“I’ll do that. Where’d the feller stand when he shot the fox?”
“Why,” put in Agnes, as Neale hesitated, “we couldn’t find his footprints at all.”
“Humph!” muttered the old fellow.
He poured out the coffee. The cups were deep, thick, and had no handles. He poured his own into the deep saucer, blew it noisily, and sipped it in great, scalding gulps. Agnes tried not to give this operation any attention.
Neale meanwhile was examining several fine skins hung upon the log walls. There was a wolf skin among them, and a big, black bear robe was flung over the lower bunk for warmth.
“I got him,” said the woodsman, “five year ago. He was in a berry patch over against the mountain, yonder. And he was as fat as butter.”
“And the wolf?” asked Agnes, with considerable interest.
“I trapped him. Last winter. He was a tremendous big feller,” said M’Graw, heaping a tin plate with johnnycake and pouring bacon grease over it. “There’s a small pack living up in the hills, and I’m likely to get more this winter. These heavy snows will no doubt be driving ’em down.”
“Oh! Wolves!” gasped the girl.
“They won’t bother you none,” said M’Graw. “Don’t go off by yourself, and if any of your party takes a long tramp, carry a gun. Like enough you’ll get a shot at something; but not wolves. They’re too sly.”
The conversation of the old backwoodsman was both illuminating and amusing. And his hunting trophies were vastly interesting, at least to Neale.
There was a big photograph on the wall of Ike and another man standing on either side of a fallen moose. The great, spoon-shaped horns of the creature were at least six feet across.
“You’ll see that head up over the main mantelpiece up to the Lodge,” said M’Graw. “That’s Mr. Birdsall. He an’ me shot that moose over the line in Canady. But we brought the head home.”
Over his own fireplace was a handsome head – that of a stag of the red deer.
“Got him,” Ike vouchsafed between bites, “down in the east swamp, ten year ago come Christmas. Ain’t been a bigger shot in this part of the country, I reckon, ’ceptin’ the ghost deer Tom Lawrence shot three winters ago over towards Ebettsville.”
“Ghost deer!” exclaimed Neale and Agnes together.
“What does that mean?” added the boy.
“Surely you don’t believe there are spirits of deer returned to earth, do you, Mr. M’Graw?” asked Agnes, smiling.
M’Graw grinned. “Ain’t no tellin’. Mebbe there is. I’m mighty careful what I say about ghosts,” he rejoined. “But this here ghost deer, now – ”
He had finished breakfast and was filling his pipe. “Lemme tell you about it,” he said. “I will say, though, ’twasn’t no spirit, for I eat some of the venison from that ghost deer.
“But for two seasons the critter had had the whole of Ebettsville by the ears. The hunters couldn’t get a shot, and some folks said ’twas a sure-enough ghost.
“But if ’twas a ghost, it was the fust one that ever left footprints in the snow. That’s sure,” chuckled M’Graw. “I went over there with Old Betsey once; but never got a shot at it. Jest the same I seen the footprints, and I knowed what it was.”
“What was it?”
“Looked like a ghost flying past in the twilight. It was an albino – white deer. I told ’em so. And fin’ly Tom Lawrence, as I said, shot it. Why they hadn’t got it before, I guess, was because them that shot at it shivered so for fear ’twas a ghost they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn!” and M’Graw broke into a loud laugh.
“I did not know that deer were ever white,” Agnes said.
“One o’ the wonders of nature,” Ike assured her. “And not frequent seen. But that critter was one – and a big one. Weighed upwards of two hundred pound. Tom give me a haunch, and when it was seasoned some, ’twasn’t much tougher than shoe-leather. Me, I kill me a doe when I want tender meat. My teeth is gettin’ kind of wore down,” chuckled the old man.
“Was it really all white?” asked Neale.
“Well, that buck’s horns an’ hoofs was considerable lighter in color than ordinary. With them exceptions, and a few hairs on the forehead and a tuft on the hind leg, that critter was perfectly white. Queer. Jest an albino, as I said,” M’Graw concluded between puffs.
Beside the chimney on a big nail driven into a log, hung a string of rusty keys, with one big shiny brass one by itself. Agnes said:
“I guess you have to lock everything up when you leave home, don’t you, Mr. M’Graw?”
“Me? Never lock a thing. We don’t have no tramps. And if I leave home I always leave a fire laid and everything so that a visitor can come right in and go to housekeeping. It’s a purty mean man that’ll lock up his cabin in the woods. No, ma’am. I never lock nothin’.”
“But those keys?” the Corner House girl suggested curiously.
“Oh! Them? Just spare keys I picked up. All but this,” and he reached for the brass key briskly. “This is the key to the Lodge padlock, I’m goin’ to take it up to that Mr. Howbridge of yours and tell him something about it. I’ll walk back with you.”
He slipped into his leather jacket and buckled up his leggings. Then banking the fire on the hearth, he said he was ready to go. He put the big brass key in his pocket, but as he had intimated, he left the cabin door unlocked.
Once outside, they saw that the sun was clouded over again. “That storm is surely a-coming,” Ike observed. “I shouldn’t wonder, when it does get here, if it turns out to be a humdinger. ‘Long threaten, long last,’ they say.”
When they arrived at the Lodge the old man took a look at the fox Neale had hung up. He examined the small hole under the ear where the bullet had gone into the animal’s head.
“Nice shot,” he muttered. “Dropped him without a struggle, I reckon. And you sure are right, boy,” he added to Neale. “It was a twenty-two. Nothin’ bigger. Humph! mighty funny, that.
“Well, you let it hang here and I’ll skin it for you before I go back home. Fust off I want to see your Mr. Howbridge.”
As M’Graw went through the hall to find the lawyer, Neale and Agnes were called by Luke from one of the sheds. His voice and beckoning hand hurried them to the spot.
“What do you know about this?” cried Luke. “Here are two perfectly good sleds – a big one and a smaller. And one of those drivers that have just started back for Coxford, told me where there was a dandy slide.”
“Crackey, that’s fine!” agreed the eager Neale.
Agnes, too, was delighted. The other girls were eager to try the coasting.
“But we must get away without the children. It is too far for them to go,” Ruth said. “At least, we must try it out before we let them join us.”
“They are all right at the front with their snow man. I just saw them,” Agnes said. “Come on!” Agnes was always ready for sport.
They started away from the house, the two boys dragging the bobsled. There were about four inches of fluffy, dry snow on top, and under that the drifts were almost ice-hard.
“Ought to make the finest kind of sledding,” Luke declared.
Meanwhile Ike M’Graw had found Mr. Howbridge reading a book in a corner of one of the comfortable settees in the big living-room. He dropped the book and stood up to greet the woodsman with a smile.
“How are you, this morning, M’Graw?” asked the lawyer. “How about the key?”
“Here ’tis,” said the guide. “Found it just where it should be. Looked as though it had never been touched since I was gone. But, of course, as I tell you, anybody might have been in my cabin. I don’t lock nothin’ up.”
“If the key was used, it was by somebody who knew it was the key and where to find it,” Mr. Howbridge said reflectively.
“You struck it there,” agreed Ike. “And there’s only two keys to that big padlock. Unless there’s been one made since Mr. Birdsall died,” he added.
“If anybody borrowed the key and got in here, they got out again and locked the front door and returned the key.”
“So ’twould seem. You say there wasn’t no marks in the snow when your folks fust came?”
“It snowed the day after I went away from here to Ebettsville. They must have come here and gone before that snow then. That snow covered their tracks. How’s that?”
“Not so good,” the lawyer promptly told him. “You forget the live embers in the grate. Those embers would not have stayed alive for five days.”
“Ain’t that a fac’?” muttered the old man.
They pondered in silence for a moment.
Hedden suddenly entered the room. He seemed flurried, and his employer knew that something of moment had occurred.
“What is the matter, Hedden?” the latter asked.
“I have to report, sir, that somebody has been at the goods in the pantry – the canned food and other provisions that we brought up.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mr. Howbridge curiously.
“The chef, sir, says that quite a good deal of food has been stolen. He put the stuff away. There is a lot of it gone, sir – and that since last night at dinner time.”
“Humph! Isn’t that strange?” murmured the lawyer.
M’Graw grunted and started for the front door.
“Where are you going, M’Graw?” asked Mr. Howbridge.
“I’m going to find out who shot that fox,” was the woodsman’s enigmatical answer.
CHAPTER XVII – ALL DOWN HILL
The party of young people with the bobsled was very merry indeed just as soon as they got out of hearing of the Lodge. By striking into a path which opened into the wood right behind the barns, they cut off any view the two little girls and Sammy Pinkney might have caught of their departure.
“I feel somewhat condemned for leaving them behind,” Ruth said. “Yet I know it is too far for such little people to go along and get back for lunch.”
“Oh, they are having a good time,” Cecile said. “You make yourself a slave to your young family, Ruthie,” and she laughed.
“We will make it up to the kids,” Luke joined in. “After we have tried the slide they can have a shot at it.”
“That’s all right,” grinned Neale O’Neil. “But if Tess Kenway thinks she has been snubbed or neglected – well! you will not hear the last of it in a hurry, believe me.”
This part of the wood into which the young people had entered was a sapling growth. Not many years before the timber had been cut and there were only brush clumps and small trees here now.
Flocks of several different kinds of birds – sparrows, buntings, jays, swamp robins, and others – flew noisily about. There were berries and seeds to be found in the thickets. The birds had begun to forage far from the swamps – a sign that the snow was heavy and deep in their usual winter feeding places.
“The dear little birdies!” cooed Agnes, waving her gloved hand at a flock that spread out fan-wise in the covert, frightened by the approach of the young people.
Suddenly there arose a vast racket – a whirring and trampling sound, as though it were of runaway hoofs. Agnes shrieked and glanced about her. The other girls looked startled.
“That horse! It’s running away!” cried Agnes. “Oh, Neale!”
“Shucks!” said that youth, scornfully. “‘The dear little birdies!’ Ho, ho! I thought you liked ’em, Aggie?”
“Liked what?” she demanded, as the noise faded away into the wood.
“The birdies. That was a flock of partridges. They can make some noise, can’t they? Food in the swamps must be getting mighty scarce, or they would not be away up here.”
“Who ever would have thought it?” murmured Cecile. “Partridges!”
“Wish I had a gun,” said Luke.
“Don’t be afraid. They won’t bite,” chuckled Neale O’Neil. “And we won’t be likely to meet anything much more dangerous than birds in the day time.”
“Yet we saw that big cat yesterday,” Ruth said.
“It ran all right. We might have brought Tom Jonah; only he was playing with the kids,” said Neale. “Anyway, the best he would do would be to scare up creatures in the thickets that we otherwise would not know were there.”
“Now, stop that, Neale O’Neil!” cried Agnes. “Are you trying to frighten us?”
“Shucks, Aggie!” he returned. “You know the kind of wild animal we scared up this morning when we found Ike M’Graw’s place.”
“Oh! Oh!” cried Agnes, with laughter.
“What’s the joke?” asked Luke.
So Neale told the rest of the party how he and Agnes had followed the footprints of the “deer” clear to the old man’s cabin.
“And there we could hear them squealing in their pen,” was the way Neale finished it.
“Two mighty hunters, you!” chuckled Luke.
The road over which they dragged the sled soon became steep. They were now climbing a long hill through heavier timber. It was a straight path, and the crown of the ascent was more than a mile from Red Deer Lodge.
Half way up they passed a fork in the timber road. The roads were not rutted at all, for they were full of firm snow. This second road dipped to the north, running down the steep hill and out of sight.
“That chap who told me about this slide told me to ’ware that road,” Luke said. “Around that curve he said it was steep and there’d be no stopping the sled for a long way. If we stick to the right track, we’ll slide back almost to the Lodge itself.”
“That’ll help some,” Cecile said. “I am getting tired tramping over this snow. It’s a harder pull than I imagined it would be.”
“We were very wise not to let the children come,” Ruth remarked.
Uphill for all of a mile was, in truth, no easy climb.
Agnes and Neale O’Neil began to bicker.
“I’m no horse,” said Neale rather grumpily, when Agnes suggested that the boys could drag the girls on the sled.
“No; your ears are too long,” she retorted impishly.
“Now, children!” admonished Ruth, “How is it you two always manage to fight?”
“They’re only showing off,” chuckled Luke Shepard. “In secret they have a terrible crush on each other.”
“Such slang!” groaned his sister.
“Real college brand,” said Agnes cheerfully. “I do love slang, Luke. Tell us some more.”
“I object! No, no!” cried Ruth. “She learns quite enough high-school slang. Don’t teach her any more of the college brand, Luke.”
They puffed up the final rise and arrived at the top of the ascent. This was the very peak of the ridge on which Red Deer Lodge was built.
Because it was winter and all but the evergreens and oaks were denuded of leaves, they could see much farther over the surrounding landscape than would have been possible in the leafy seasons; however, on all sides the forest was so thick at a distance that a good view of the country was not easily obtained.
The valley toward the north was black with spruce and hemlock. One could not see if there were clearings in the valley. It seemed there to be an unbroken and primeval forest.
This valley was included in the Birdsall estate, and the timber which the Neven Lumber Company wished to cut practically lay entirely in that wild valley.
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