Chapter X. Adrift
 

"Well, Captain Betty, what are your orders?" asked Amy, as the four girls, and Aunt Kate, stood grouped in the space aft of the trunk cabin, Betty being at the wheel, while the Gem moved slowly down the Argono River.

"Just make yourselves perfectly at home," answered Betty. "This trip is for fun and pleasure, and, as far as possible, we are to do just as we please. You don't mind; do you, Aunt Kate?"

"Not in the least, my dear, as long as you don't sink," and the chaperone smiled indulgently.

"This boat won't sink," declared Betty, with confidence. "It has water-tight compartments. Uncle Amos had them built purposely."

"It certainly is a beautiful boat-- beautiful," murmured Mollie, looking about as she pulled and straightened her middy blouse. "And it was so good of you, Bet, to ask us on this cruise."

"Why, that's what the boat is for-- for one's friends. We are all shipmates now."

"'Strike up a song, here comes a sailor,'" chanted Grace, rather indistinctly, for she was, as usual, eating a chocolate.

The girls, standing there on the little depressed deck, their hair tastefully arranged, topped by natty little caps, with their sailor suits of blue and white, presented a picture that more than one turned to look at. The Gem was near the shore, along which ran a main-traveled highway, and there seemed to be plenty of traffic this morning. Also, a number of boats were going up or down stream, some large, some small, and often the occupants turned to take a second look at the Outdoor Girls.

Certainly they had every appearance of living the life of the open, for they had been well tanned by the long walk they took, and that "berry-brown" was being added to now by the summer sun reflecting from the river.

"Is this as fast as you can go?" asked Mollie, as she looked over the side and noted that they were not much exceeding the current of the river.

"Indeed, no! Look!" cried Betty, as she released the throttle control that connected the gasoline supply with the motor. At once, as when the accelerator pedal of an auto is pressed, the engine hummed and throbbed, and a mass of foam appeared at the stern to show the presence of the whirling propeller.

"That's fine!" cried Grace, as Betty slowed down once more.

"I thought we'd take it easy," the Little Captain went on, "as we don't want to finish our cruise in one day, or even two. If I drove the Gem to the limit, we'd be in Rainbow Lake, and out of it, in too short a time. So I planned to go down the river slowly, stop at noon and go ashore for our lunch, go on slowly again, and tie up for the night."

"Then we're going to sleep aboard?" asked Grace.

"Of course! What would be the fun of having bunks if we didn't use them? Of course we'll sleep here."

"And stand watches-- and all that sort of thing, the way your uncle told of it being done aboard ships?" Mollie wanted to know.

"There'll be no need of that," declared Betty. "But we can leave a light burning."

"To scare away sharks?" asked Amy, with a laugh.

"No, but if we didn't some one passing might think the boat deserted and-- come aboard to take things."

"I hope they don't take us!" cried Mollie. "I'm going to hide my new bracelet," and she looked at the sparkling trinket on her wrist.

"Amy, want to steer?" asked Grace, after a while, and the girl of mystery agreed eagerly. But she nearly came to grief within a few minutes. A canoeist rather rashly crossed the bows of the Gem at no great distance.

"Port! Port!" cried Betty, suddenly, seeing the danger.

"Which is port-- right or left? I've forgotten!" wailed Amy, helplessly.

"To the left! To the left!" answered Betty, springing forward. She was not in time to prevent Amy from turning the wheel to the left, which had the effect of swinging the boat to the right, and almost directly toward the canoeist, who shouted in alarm.

But by this time Betty had reached the wheel, and twirled it rapidly. She was only just in time, and the Gem fairly grazed the canoe, the wash from the propeller rocking it dangerously.

"We beg your pardon!" called Betty to the young man in the frail craft.

"That's all right," he said, pleasantly. "It was my own fault."

"Thank you," spoke Amy, gratefully. "Here, Bet, I don't want to steer any more."

"No, keep the wheel. You may as well learn, and I'll stand by you. No telling when you may have to steer all alone."

They stopped for lunch in a pretty little grove, and sat and talked for an hour afterward. Mollie hunted up a telephone and got into communication with her house. She came back looking rather sober.

"The specialist says Dodo will have to undergo an operation," she reported. Grace gasped, and the others looked worried.

"It isn't serious," continued Mollie, "and he says she will surely be better after it. But of course mamma feels dreadful about it."

"I should think so," observed Betty. "They never found out who those mean autoists were, did they?"

"No," answered Grace, "and we've never gotten a trace of Prince, or the missing papers. Papa is much worried."

"Well, let's talk about something more pleasant," suggested Betty. "Shall we start off again?"

"Might as well," agreed Grace. "And as it isn't far to that funny Mr. Lagg's store, let's stop and---- "

"Get some candy and poetry," sniped Amy, with a laugh.

"I was going to say hairpins, as I need them," spoke Grace, with a dignity that soon vanished, "but since you suggested chocolates, I'll get them as well."

They found Mr. Lagg smiling as usual.

  "This fine and beautiful sunny day,
   what will you have-- oats or hay?"

Thus he greeted the girls, who laughingly declined anything in the line of fodder.

"Unless you could put some out as a bait for our horse Prince," spoke Grace. "It's the queerest thing where he can have gone."

"It is strange," admitted the genial storekeeper, who had heard the story from Will. "But if I hear of him I'll let you know. And, now what can I do for you?

  "I've razors, soap and perfume rare,
   To scent the balmy summer air,"

He bowed to the girls in turn.

"How about chewing gum?" asked Betty.

"Oh, would you?" asked Grace, in rather horrified tones.

"Certainly, aboard the boat where no one will see us."

  "Gum, gum; chewing gum,
   One and two is a small sum,"

Mr. Lagg thus quoted as he opened the showcase.

The girls made several purchases, and were treated to more of the storekeeper's amusing couplets. Then they started off again, having inquired for a good place at which to tie up for the night.

Dunkirk, on the western shore, was recommended by Mr. Lagg in a little rhyme, and then he waved to them from the end of his dock as the Gem was once more under way.

"Look out for that big steamer," cautioned Betty a little later, to Grace, who was steering.

"Why, I'm far enough off," answered Grace.

"You never can tell," responded the Little Captain, "for there is often a strong attraction between vessels on a body of water. Give it a wide berth, as Uncle Amos would say."

That Betty's advice was needed was made manifest a moment later, for the large steamer whistled sharply, which was an intimation to the smaller craft to veer off, and Grace shifted the wheel.

They reached Dunkirk without further incident, except that about a mile from it the motor developed some trouble. In vain Betty and the others poked about in the forward compartment trying to locate it, and they might not have succeeded had not a man, passing in a little one-cylindered boat, kindly stopped and discovered that one of the spark plug wires was loose. It was soon adjusted and the Gem proceeded.

"I'll always be on the lookout for that first, when there is any trouble after this," said Betty, as she thanked the stranger.

"Oh, that isn't the only kind of trouble that can develop in a motor," he assured her. But Betty well knew this herself.

They had passed Elm Island soon after leaving Mr. Lagg's store, but saw no sign of life on it. They intended to come back later on in their cruise and camp there, if they decided to carry out their original plans of living in a tent or bungalow.

"That is, if the ghost doesn't make it too unpleasant," remarked Betty.

They ate supper aboard the boat, cooking on the little galley stove. Then the work of getting ready for the night, washing the dishes, preparing the bunks, and so on, was divided among the five, though Aunt Kate wanted the girls to go ashore and let her attend to everything.

"We'll take a little walk ashore after we have everything ready," suggested Betty. The stroll along the river bank in the cool of the evening, while the colors of the glorious sunset were still in the sky, was most enjoyable.

"Gracious! A mosquito bit me!" exclaimed Grace, as she rubbed the back of her slim, white hand.

"That isn't a capital crime," laughed Mollie.

"No, but if there are mosquitoes here they will make life miserable for us to-night," Grace went on.

"I have citronella, and there are mosquito nettings over the bunks," said Betty. "Don't worry."

They went back to the boat, and the lanterns were lighted.

"Oh, doesn't it look too nice to sleep in!" exclaimed Amy, as they gazed into the little cabin, with its tastefully arranged berths.

"I'm tired enough to sleep on almost any thing," yawned Mollie. "Let's see who'll be the first to---- "

"Not snore, I hope!" exclaimed Betty.

"Don't suggest such a thing," came from Amy. "We are none of us addicted to the luxury."

But, after all, tired as they were, no one felt like going to sleep, once they were prepared for it. They talked over the events of the day, got to laughing, and from laughing to almost hysterical giggling. But finally nature asserted herself, and all was quiet aboard the Gem, which had been moored to a private dock, just above the town.

It was Betty, rather a light sleeper, who awoke first, and she could not account at once for the peculiar motion. It was as though she was swinging in a hammock. She sat up, and peered about the dimly lighted cabin. Then the remembrance of where she was came to her.

"But-- but!" she exclaimed. "We're adrift! We're floating down the river!"

She sprang from her berth and awakened Grace by shaking her.