Chapter XVIII. Found
 

From the finding of Cora's boat to the landing at Fern Island the boys lost little time. Somehow Jack felt the night's work had to do with the hermit and his daughter; also he feared that the man Jones might know of it, so that he lost no time in hurrying to the far end of the lake in hope of there finding his sister.

Few words were spoken by the three boys as they landed, took the lanterns from the motor boat, and after detaching the batteries, to make sure no one would run off with the craft, they sought a path in the wilderness.

Good fortune, or kind fate, led them in the right direction. They could see that the way had been beaten down. They walked on, one ahead of the other, when Jack, who was in the lead, stopped.

"What's this?" he exclaimed, stooping to pick up a white thing from the ground. "A letter," he finished, holding out a square envelope.

The other young men drew nearer to Jack, to examine what might prove to be an unexpected clew.

"What do you make of it?" asked Ed.

"It's--er--" Jack paused suddenly. On the envelope he had caught, in the light of a slanting ray from a lantern a girl's name--"Laurel." He had been on the point of taking the missive from its cover, but the glimpse of that name prevented him. Somehow he felt that it might have to do with the disappearance of Cora--she was always getting mixed up with girls, he reflected. And it might not be just the best thing to publish broadcast what this was Jack dissimulated.

"I guess it's some shooting license a hunter has dropped," he completed his half-finished sentence. "I'll just stick it in my pocket until we get to a place where I can look at it better. I might lose something from the envelope in the woods. Come on, boys."

"I think we're on the right trail," spoke Walter.

"But where in the world can Cora be?" asked Jack. He was beginning to be very much disturbed and was under a great mental strain.

"Let's yell!" suggested Ed. "If Cora is within hearing distance she'll hear us."

"Good!" cried Jack. "All together now!"

They raised their voices in a shrill cry that carried far.

As the echoes died away there seemed to come, from a distance, an echo of an echo. They all started as they heard it.

"Hark!" commanded Jack, standing at attention.

"It's a voice all right--an answer," declared Walter.

"Yes," agreed Cora's brother. "It was over this way. Come on, boys!"

Together they dashed through the bushes, trampling the underbrush beneath their feet. The lanterns they carried gave but poor light and more than once they crashed into trees. But they kept on, stopping now and then to call again and listen for the answer.

"Look! A light!" suddenly cried Jack, pointing off to the left.

"Come on!" shouted Ed, and they changed their course. Five minutes more of difficult going, for they had gotten off the path, brought them to the pine hut. In the doorway stood two girls with their arms about each other.

"Cora!" gasped Walter and Ed in one voice. "And the other may be--Laurel," murmured Jack, and then he too cried: "Cora!"

The next instant he had his sister in his arms, and there arose a confused clamor of joyful voices, each person trying to talk above the others.

"And--and you are really alive!" cried Jack, holding his sister off at arm's length and gazing fondly at her.

"Yes, Jack," was the glad response. "You see, Jack dear, it takes a good deal to do away with me."

"But--but something surely happened!" he insisted.

"Of course it did, but I'm not going to tell you about it now."

"Yes, make her, Jack!" insisted Walter and Ed.

"And your friend," added Cora's brother in a low voice.

"Oh, I almost forgot," she replied. "Boys, this is Laurel--Wild Laurel if you like. Laurel, these are the boys, including my brother. You can easily tell who he is," she added dryly. "More formal introductions can wait."

"Tell us what happened," demanded Jack, and then Cora briefly related what had taken place since she came to the island, how she had discovered the loss of her boat and had found Laurel and the old hermit. She told of their parting from Laurel's father and how she and her companion had returned to the hut.

"And then--then some one came toward the hut after we got here," she finished. "And, oh, how frightened we were! But whoever it was went away again and didn't bother us. Then we ate something and--and well, you know the rest."

"It's all right," Ed soothed, realizing that both girls had been terribly frightened. "We just came from the lake by your path. It's splendid to find you Cora," and he went over to press her hand. "And I am sure you and your friend are glad to be found."

Cora looked up, and in the dim lantern light she could be seen to smile. "It was all because someone took my boat," she said in a braver voice. "Laurel and I were just going to the main land."

"As soon as you feel able we will take you to the boat," suggested Jack. "It must have been very bad here for you, and with some one else loose in the woods."

"Oh, it was," said Cora. "Jack, I have been in many dreadful places, but on an island with an enemy prowling about seems to be the most fearful."

"An enemy?" repeated Walter.

"Yes, that man Tony, or Jones, took my boat," declared Cora, indignantly, "and this time I will not try to make the laws myself. I am sure he took your canoe, and now my boat!"

"Well, we have you anyway," said Jack giving his sister a great warm embrace, "and now we are going to take you both back to civilization. Walter, can you care for Miss Laurel?"

And then Jack, seeing a good chance, slipped into Laurel's hand the envelope he had picked up in the woods. The girl started, stared at him for a moment, and then hid the missive from sight. She did not speak, but looked her thanks to Jack.

So happy were the girls to get away and to be in such safe company, that the shock and exhaustion following it were almost forgotten. Cora felt much stronger, and so did Laurel. They looked like two very much tossed and tousled girls, but the boys were not thinking of their looks just then.

"Are we going in my own boat?" asked Cora, showing how the ownership of that boat had been so dear to her.

"In the Pet!" replied Ed, "Jack, let me help Cora; you take the light."

Walter, waited for Laurel. She seemed to have things to take with her from the hut. "A queer camp, isn't it?" she asked, "but it's a great little place on a warm clay."

"Or a dark night," dared Walter, whereat Ed threatened to take both girls and so leave the wily Walter alone--for punishment.

The girls laughed. "Walter is our champion," explained Cora. "I shouldn't wonder if it were he who found us."

"Never," contradicted Jack. "I--found you."

"That's a good, dear, old Jackie," replied Cora assuming something of her old-time lightheartedness. "Of course, Jack, you knew!"

Laurel was fumbling in her blouse. The others noticed the movement. "Just a picture I want to take," she explained. "You see, this is quite an old camp."

They saw but they did not understand. Then they started out in the darkness.

"Did you ever see such a black night?" asked Cora, "I had no idea Cedar lake was so--so threatening!"

"Never!" replied Ed.

"But the water is just as friendly as ever," declared Jack. "Now let us try it." He untied the boat, and the party stepped in. Cora pressed Laurel's hand in silent encouragement for she saw her turning her eyes toward Fern Island.

"A lovely boat," Laurel remarked too quietly for the young men to hear her.

"Shall I speed her?" asked Jack opening the gas valve.

"Oh, yes, let us get home," begged Cora. "The girls must be frightened to death."

"They are," Walter assured her. "Belle was smelling kerosene to keep up, when we left," he went on superciliously.

"And Hazel was looking for a club," Jack announced.

"What about Bess, Ed?" asked Cora.

"Bess--oh Bess, she was puffing--for breath. Bess had the puffs," he volunteered in a weak attempt at nonsense.

They were running down the lake. It seemed as if the boat knew exactly where to go, and also that her own mistress was aboard.

"Why, there's the landing!" exclaimed Cora, "how quickly we got here."

"And there is a crowd around. I'll wager they are there to welcome us," said Jack happily.

For a few moments all waited to see how the crowd would take the news of the finding of Cora.

"There are a lot of lights," remarked Ed in puzzled tones.

"And boats," added Walter.

They were looking intently at the center of the crowd on the water.

"What's going on over there?" asked Jack, looking up from the engine which he was slowing down.

"Something must have happened," answered Cora. "Hark! There's a lot of excited talk."

Across the water floated the murmur of voices, some of them raised high in discussion.

"What's going on?" called Jack to a man who slipped past the side of the Petrel in a rowboat.

"Fight!" was the quick answer. "Jim Peters and a fellow they call Tony. They had a quarrel about some papers and a girl, and I don't know what not."

"A girl?" gasped Cora, wondering if she could be involved in the unpleasantness.

"Well, that's what some say. I don't rightly know. Guess it didn't amount to much. Anyhow they've got Peters over there in his boat. They're bringing him to a doctor. It seems Tony whacked him with a boat hook, and then, thinking he'd done serious damage, he leaped overboard and swam for it. They can't find him."

"And I don't believe they ever will," put in another voice, and as a second boat came up Cora recognized old Ben. "Ah, it's Miss Kimball and her friends," he added as he saw Cora and those in the Petrel. "Now here's a chance for you to use your brains, Miss Cora. Can't you find Tony for us?"

"No, why should I," she answered somewhat coolly.

She did not quite like this familiarity.

"Oh, I didn't know," laughed Ben genially. "I just thought you always like to be doing things."

"Not that kind," put in Jack.

"Is Peters much hurt?" asked Ed.

"It's hard to say," answered Ben. "He's pretty tough and I guess it's hard to do him much damage. I'm going over to see about it."

He rowed over toward where the other boats were congregated and the Petrel with the slow progress of which he had been keeping pace, swung on to the dock. Cora and the others could see the return of the little flotilla about the boat in which was Jim Peters.