Chapter XXII. The Stowaway

"Come back here!" cried Bert, as he rushed on.

There was the sound of a fall in the passageway, and some one groaned.

"What is it?" cried Harry, running from the kitchen. "What's the matter, Bert? Did you catch the rat?"

"No, but I caught something else," Bert answered. By this time he had run into the passageway, and there, in front of the locker, or closet, where the strange noises had been heard, lay the ragged boy. He had fallen and hurt his head. The cake and bread had been knocked from his hands. The door of the locker or closet was open.

"Why--why---" began Harry, in surprise. "It's a--a boy."

"Yes, and now I know who he is," said Bert, as the stowaway sat up, not having been badly hurt by his fall. He had tripped in his bare feet.

"Who--who is it?" asked Harry.

"It's that boy who gave us the fish--Will Watson, who worked for the man that made the wire fence--Mr. Hardee."

"Yes, I'm that boy," said the other, slowly. "Oh, I hope your folks won't be very mad at me. I--I didn't know what to do, so when I ran away, I hid on your boat."

"And have you been here ever since?" asked Bert.

"Yes," answered Will. "I've been hiding here ever since."

"And was it you who took the things?" Harry wanted to know.

"Yes, I took them. I was half starved. But I'll pay you back as soon as I get out west, where my uncle lives. He's a gold miner, and I guess he's got lots of money. Oh, I hope your father and mother will forgive me."

"Of course they will," said Bert, seeing tears in the eyes of the ragged boy.

"What's the matter there?" called Mr. Bobbsey. "Has anything happened, Bert?"

"Yes," answered Bert. "We've solved the mystery--Harry and I."

"Solved the mystery!" cried Mr. Bobbsey. "I'll be right there."

"Oh, what can it be?" his wife asked.

Meanwhile, Captain White, Dinah and the little Bobbsey twins had been awakened by the loud voices. Up on deck Snap, the dog, feeling that something was wrong, was barking loudly.

"I--I hope the dog doesn't get me!" said Will, looking about.

"I won't let him hurt you," promised Bert. "So it was you, hiding in the closet that made Snap act so funny?" he asked. "He knew you were there."

"Yes, only I wasn't in the closet all the while. There was a loose board at the back. I could slip out of the closet through that hole. I hid down in the lower part of the boat. I'll show you."

"You poor boy!" exclaimed Mrs. Bobbsey when, with her husband, she had come to see the "mystery," as Bert laughingly called him.

"Indeed we'll forgive you. You must have had a terrible time, hiding away as you did. Now tell us all about it. But first I want you to drink this warm milk Dinah has made for you," for Mrs. Bobbsey had told the cook to heat some. "You look half starved," she said to the boy.

"I am," answered Will. "I--I didn't take any more of your food than I could help, though."

"Yo' am welcome to all yo' want, honey lamb!" exclaimed Dinah. "Mah land, but I shuah am glad yo' ain't no ghostest! I shuah am!" and she sighed in relief, as she saw that Will was a real, flesh-and-blood boy. He was, however, very thin and starved-looking.

"Now tell us all about it," said Mr. Bobbsey. "How did you come on our boat?"

Will told them. After Mr. Bobbsey had stopped the cruel farmer from beating him, Will crawled up to his room to sob himself to sleep. Then he began to think that after the houseboat had gone, Mr. Hardee would probably treat him all the more meanly, on account of having been interfered with.

"So I just ran away," said Will. "I packed up what few things I had, and when I saw your boat near shore, I crept aboard and hid myself away. I easily found a place down--down cellar," he said with a smile.

"I suppose you mean in the hold, or the place below the lower deck," spoke Mr. Bobbsey. "Cellars on a boat are called 'holds.' Well, what happened?"

"I--I just stayed there. I found some old bags, and made a bed on them," Will said. "Then when my food gave out, I used to crawl out during the nights and take some from your kitchen.

"I had some bread when I ran away," Will went on. "I took it from Mrs. Hardee's kitchen, but they owed me money for working, and I didn't take more bread than I ought."

"I'm sure you didn't," said Mrs. Bobbsey, kindly.

"I didn't want you to know I was on board the boat," Will resumed, "for I was afraid you'd send me off, and I didn't want Mr. Hardee to find me again. I was afraid he'd whip me."

"But what did you intend to do?" asked Mr. Bobbsey.

"Well, I heard you say you were going to Lake Romano," said the boy, "and I thought I would ride as far as you went. Then I wouldn't have so far to walk to get to my uncle out west. I'm going to him. He'll look after me, I know. I can't stand Mr. Hardee any more."

"You poor boy. We'll help you find your uncle," said Mrs. Bobbsey.

"And you've been on board ever since?" asked Mr. Bobbsey.

"Yes, sir. I hid down in the 'hold,' as you call it. Then when I got hungry, I found a loose board, so I could get into the closet. Then at night I would come out and get things to eat and a little water or milk to drink. I didn't mean any harm."

"No, I'm sure you did not," the twins' father said. "Well, I'm glad Bert found you," he went on, as Bert and Harry told how they had kept watch. "So it was you who took the things, and who made the noises that frightened Dinah?"

"Yes, but I didn't mean, to scare her," Will said. "That day I got my hand caught in the loose board, and it hurt so, and I felt so bad that I--I cried. That was what she heard, I guess."

"You poor boy!" said Mrs. Bobbsey again.

"And--and did you see any rats in the cellar?" asked Freddie, who was moving about in his little night dress.

"No," answered Will, "I didn't see any rats. It was bad enough in the dark place, without any rats."

"Well, I guess your troubles are over, for a time," said Mr. Bobbsey. "We'll fix you up a bed, and then I'll have a talk with you about this miner uncle of yours."

Will finished his warm milk, and ate some bread and cake--the same he had taken from Dinah's kitchen. He had gone in there and taken it, but Harry had not heard him, for Harry had fallen asleep.

"And so it was a stowaway boy, and not rats or ghosts or anything else that was the mystery," said Mrs. Bobbsey, when everything once more quiet on the Bluebird.

"That's what it was," her husband said "Bert was real smart to sit up and watch."

"And he never told us a thing about it."

"Oh, he wanted to surprise us," laughed Mr. Bobbsey.

"And didn't I see you, the time I fell overboard?" asked Flossie, looking at Will.

"I think you did," he laughed. "I happened to put my head out of a ventilating hole just as you looked. I pulled it in again, soon enough, though. I hope I didn't scare you."

"Not very much," Flossie said. "I was sure I saw you, but nobody else would believe me."

Snap soon made friends with the new boy. It was Will, hiding behind the closet wall, that had made the dog act as though a rat were there.

I must bring my story to a close, now that the mystery is explained. And, really, there is little else to tell. Will had, in the little bundle of things he had brought away from Mr. Hardee's with him, the address of a man he thought knew where the miner uncle was. Mr. Bobbsey wrote several letters, and, in due time, word came back that Will's uncle was well off now, and would look after him. His name was Mr. Jackson. He had lost track of Will for some years and had just begun a search for him, when Mr. Bobbsey's letter came. Enough money was sent on to enable Will to make the trip out west, where he would be well cared for. He could not thank the Bobbsey family enough for what they had done for him.

Mr. Hardee heard where his runaway boy had been found, and tried to get him back, but Mr. Bobbsey would not permit this. So Will's life began to be a pleasant one. The time he had spent on the houseboat, after coming from his hiding place, was the happiest he had ever known.

"Well, what shall we do now?" asked Bert one day, after Will had gone. "It seems queer not to have to be on the lookout for a mystery or something like that."

"Doesn't it," agreed Harry.

"And so that was your secret?" asked Nan.

"Yes, that was it," her brother answered. "But I wish we had something to do now."

"Whatever you do, you want to do in the next two weeks," said Mr. Bobbsey, coming up on deck.

"Why?" asked Bert.

"Because our houseboat trip will come to an end then."

"Oh!" cried the Bobbsey twins in a chorus. "That's too bad!"

"But I have other pleasures for you," went on Mr. Bobbsey. "The summer vacation is not yet over."

And those of you who wish to read of what further pleasures the children had, may do so in the following volume, which will be called "The Bobbsey Twins at Meadow Brook."

"Let's have one more picnic on an island!" proposed Nan, a few days before the trip on Lake Romano was to end.

"And a marshmallow roast!" added Dorothy.

"Fine!" cried Bert. "I'll eat all the candies you toast!"

"And I'll help!" added Harry.

"You boys will have to make the fire," Nan said.

"I'll gather wood!" offered Freddie. "And I'll have my little fire engine all ready to put out the blaze, if it gets too big."

"A pail of water will be better," laughed Bert. "Your engine might get going so fast, like it did once, we couldn't stop it."

"I'll sharpen the sticks to put the marshmallows on," offered Harry.

"I wish Will Watson was here to help us eat these," said Nan a little later that afternoon, when the children were having their marshmallow roast on a little island in the lake. "He was a nice boy."

"Yes, and he will be well looked after now," said Mrs. Bobbsey. "Your father had a letter from the miner uncle to-day, saying he was going to make a miner of Will. He gave up the idea of going to sea."

"And will he dig gold?" asked Flossie.

"I suppose so, dear!"

"Oh, I'm going to dig gold when I grow to be a man," said Freddie. "May I have another marshmallow, Nan?" "Yes, little fat fireman," she laughed.

A few days later, after making a trip around the lower end of the lake, the Bobbsey twins started for home, reaching there safely, and having no more trouble with Mr. Hardee and his wire fence.

And so, as they are now safe at home, we shall say good-bye to the Bobbsey twins and their friends.