Chapter XVII. The Searching Party
 

"I know something has happened to Cora," Hazel was lamenting, "and I am afraid we have lost good time in not going with the boys. Let us get ready at once. Here Bess and Belle, you take these lanterns, Nettie carry matches--and take a strong mountain stick, and--"

"Oh, mercy!" exclaimed Belle, in terror, "why should we need a strong stick!"

"To make our way with," replied the practical Hazel. "It is not easy to get about in woods on a dark night like this," and she gave a look at the lights to make sure they were all right. "The boys were to send word here, or to leave word with Ben if they found her. Now let's hurry."

It was a sad little party that started off from Camp Cozy. When, that evening, according to the note Cora had left on the hanging lamp, she did not appear, for some little time, there was scarcely any anxiety. Cora was so reliable, and of course they could conjecture a dozen things that might have detained her. But when an hour passed, and she then was not to be found, Jack jumped up, Ed and Walter followed, and as they hurried off, left the word that through Ben, or by message to camp, they would report to the girls.

Now another whole hour had passed, and there was no message.

"Which way shall we go--?" asked tenderhearted Bess.

"To the landing first," Hazel replied. She was always leader in Cora's absence.

This was but a short way from the camp. At the landing stood Ben with his faithful lantern.

"They've got her boat," he blurted out.

"Where?" asked the girls in chorus.

"Just in the cove. But nothin' could hev hurt her there. She ain't drownded in that cove."

"But how could her boat get there?" demanded Hazel.

"No way but to be run in there," answered Ben. "I tell you, girls, this is some trick. 'Taint her fault of course, but she's all right somewhere."

The thought of the man Jones flashed through Hazel's mind. And he had threatened Cora. She had interfered in taking away Kate, the house keeper, she had found out about the man and girl on Fern Island, and she had saved little Mabel Blake! Now all that--

"Trick!" repeated Bess. "That could not be called a trick."

"For want of a better word," said Ben, with apology in his voice. "But when the boys found the boat they started off in her and left word you were not to follow."

"But we must," insisted Hazel. "We might find her and they might not. But how can we go?"

"I could get you another boat if you're set on it," offered Ben, "but I wouldn't like to displease the young men."

"Oh, we will answer for that," Hazel assured him, "just get the boat. We will go up the lake."

"Yes, you've got it right. Up the lake, fer I saw Tony comin' down the lake."

Only Hazel understood him. He, too, suspected the man of many names.

It was not more than five minutes later that Dan brought the small motor boat from the dock, and scarcely more than another five minutes passed before the girls were off.

There were many small boats dotted about the water, and the girls looked keenly for the flag of the Petrel which they could have distinguished even in the darkness for the white head-light always showed up its maroon and white, but old Ben took no heed of the craft in the lower end of the cove. He headed straight for either Far or Fern Island--the twin spots of land far away.

Out in the broadest part of the water they suddenly came upon a rowboat without a light.

"Look out there!" shouted Ben. "Where's your light?"

There was no answer. Ben turned as far out of his course as it was possible to do at the rate his own boat was running.

"There is no one in that boat," declared Hazel. "See, it is just drifting."

"Might be," said Ben, throttling down his gasoline so that he might turn nearer the other craft for inspection.

"There does not seem to, be any one in it," declared Bess, who also looked over the edge of the smaller boat.

Ben did not reply. He had recognized the other craft as that belonging to Jim Peters, and guessed that the man might be up to some trick. When he had almost stopped his motor he jumped up and peered into the rowboat.

"'Low there!" he called "Sleepin--?"

There was no answer.

"Hum," he sniffed, "thought so. It's Jim. Say there Jim, you're not over friendly."

Thus taunted the man in the other boat moved to the low seat. He growled rather than spoke, but Ben was not the sort to take offence at a fellow like Jim.

"Joy riding?" persisted Ben.

"Say, you smart 'un," spoke Peters, "when you want to be funny better try it on some 'un else. Leave me alone," and he picked up the oars and sculled off.

"What do you suppose he was hiding for?" asked Belle.

"Oh he always has somethin' up his sleeve," replied Ben with a light laugh, "and the best we can do is to follow him."

"But then we cannot look farther for Cora," Objected Hazel.

"The best way to find her is to make sure that he does not find her first," said Ben. "She's all right so long as we keep her away from her enemies," and he turned the boat down the lake toward the landing.