Chapter XIX. In Brighter Mood
 

It takes but a small happening to furnish excitement for a small place, and the fact that Jim and Tony had quarreled, and that near the landing, created quite a buzz. Of course, much disliked as Jim was, he was one of the regular fishermen, while Tony was a comparative stranger. This caused the latter to disappear when he saw that he had knocked Jim down and had perhaps seriously injured him.

The landing of Cora and the meeting with her friends was almost unnoticed. It was the fight, and the possible hope of more of it, that occupied the morbid crowd.

"Cora! Cora!" the girls were exclaiming, each evidently trying to be the most exclamatory.

"Where have you been?" asked the ever-wise Hazel.

"Why, just getting Laurel," replied Cora as Belle loosed her hold on Cora's neck. "Belle dear, be careful," she begged, "my neck is awfully sunburned."

"We were scared to death," declared Bess, fanning herself with her handkerchief. "We thought you had been kidnapped."

"No, it was the boat that was kidnapped," replied Cora, "A boat is more useful than--"

"Now, Cora," interrupted Ed, "just be careful. Didn't we go after you? And didn't we carry you off?"

Laurel had taken Jack's advice and was resting on an old beam that lay alongside the dock. She was very pale, as one could see even in the uncertain light. Yet her sudden restoration to something like strength might be accounted for by the fact that she had eaten some food in the hut, the previous fast having weakened her greatly. Or was it the letter Jack gave her?

"It's wonderful to be back again," remarked Cora. "You have no idea how far away Fern Island is at night."

"Oh, dreadful!" exclaimed Belle. "I would have died."

"Poor place for dying," put in Ed. "'Twould be like the babes in the wood, and the birdies and the leaves and all that sort of thing. Even to die, Belle, one may do it up in style."

"I don't think you should make a joke of death," objected Belle, pouting.

"Oh, I didn't," declared Ed. "I was only trying to make a joke out of the idea of you being able to die--any place. You never will, Belle. You will go on being nice forever, like the brook."

The crowd had now scattered, so that the girls might make their way along to camp without brushing through the throng. They had left their boat at the landing, in order to see the girls, who, Jack declared, were waiting there. They could now go aboard again and finish the journey.

"Say folks," said Ed in a merry voice, "I propose that we make for the camp. We are starved, every one of us.

"And Laurel must be actually weak," added Cora, "for all sorts of adventures interfered with our supper."

Seeing the canoe girl, the others drew up to her. Whispered remarks were politely passed, but Jack kept winking and making queer signs toward Walter. Cora joined in the mirth as well as she could but was still nervous. As Cora's boat was setting out, Ben leaned over and whispered:

"Don't listen to word from any one, and what's more, if you know anything about the cause for this fight keep it close-to yourself. I told your brother the rest," and he covered her small white hand with his own brown rough palm.

"Thank you, Ben, and yes, I will remember," said Cora, with more stress in her voice than in her words. Then the Petrel puffed up to Camp Cozy.

There all attention was bestowed upon Laurel. The girl had gone from shock to shock until she was really in need of rest and nourishment. Of course Cora made light of her own predicament. She admitted she had been frightened when she found the boat gone, and Laurel sick, but tried to laugh and call it just one more experience, that would add to her general knowledge. But her face was white, and even Belle and Bess who had risen from prostration to over-joy could not be deceived.

"It's about that man Peters," Bess whispered to Belle. "You know she had some interest in him because she felt he knew about the hermit and the girl. But the girl is here now," she finished, unable further to explain Cora's agitation.

It was Jack who made the opportunity for Cora to talk privately with him, and the sister was not averse to seizing it.

Jack called her to the side porch directly after she had had some refreshments.

"What's worrying you, sis?" he asked kindly, putting his arm around her.

"Oh, Jack, I don't know. If you hadn't come!" and she shivered as she thought of that dire possibility.

"Oh, but we did come. We found you much sooner than we thought we would, and I must say you weren't half so frightened as you had a right to be under the circumstances. You are one of the bravest girls I ever saw--that's right and so is that Wild Laurel."

"Oh, I just love her Jack," said Cora warmly, "and if only this other thing about her father comes right, I shall not in the least regret the experience that brought us together. It is a great story, Jack. You know we have still to rescue her father."

"The hermit?" he asked.

"Yes, an outcast, for some mysterious reason. But we shall soon clear that up when Laurel is strong enough to be questioned. I feel so much better," and she kissed him as if he and she were just the babies they felt themselves to be on such occasions.

"Jack," she whispered, a little later, "I am just going to think it is all right. You can count on me. I am not going to have nervous prostration from so small a thing as to-night's happenings."

"Good, sis," and his second kiss was applause for her own. "Of course, you are the brickiest kind of brick. And so is Laurel, a Russet brick. Isn't she that?"

"Exactly that," and Cora started toward the room. "She will be a perfectly dear girl when she gets back to civilized ways. Hush, here she comes?"

"Cora," breathed Laurel, who now had on a robe that Belle insisted had been made for her, though her own mother had ordered it for Belle, "Cora, who was the man in the boat that was hurt?"

Wondering how the girl could have escaped overhearing the name Peters, Cora replied:

"A fisherman I believe, but he may not have been much hurt. Folks in such places as these cling to every sensation, and fix it up to suit themselves."

"But how will they find his assailant?" asked the girl, interested for some unknown reason.

Cora glanced at Jack. "They will look for him of course," Jack replied for his sister.

"Where was he hurt?" Laurel persisted.

"We have no reason to think he was hurt at all," said Jack decidedly. "It's only rumor, and if you don't mind my dictation, I should suggest that this be a forbidden subject. It is about the worst thing either of you can think of."

"Right brother, always right!" said Cora. "Now let us go in and try to make the girls happy with a little part of our story. You can trust me, Laurel," she said aside. "I know just what they want to know."

"Oh," breathed Bess, as Cora and Laurel entered the pretty, bright, little sitting room, "is it possible that our troubles are over for one night?"

"No, I see more kinds of trouble ahead," and of course she looked at the irresistible and irrisisting Walter. "Don't they match?" aside to Belle, whose ideas of color schemes and whose regard for the beautiful were blamed for the inflection of nerves.

"They do," she agreed. "Her hair is just russet-brown, and her eyes hazel. Oh, I have always loved that sort of face when it goes with the olive skin."

"How did you know that I had named her Russet?" asked Jack, touching with mock concern one stray yellow curl that threatened Belle's sight.

"I did not," she replied, "but I think it suits her exactly. And Walter is all of a shade."

"Oh, Belle. I am going to tell him? Wallie shady!"

"You know perfectly well, Jack Kimball, I said shade--in color."

"Oh, yes. Color blind. Poor, afflicted Wallie. I have often wondered about his neckties. But doesn't Laurel take to him? And isn't she a beaut in that bag?"

"Bag! My best kimono! Look what teeth she has when she laughs."

"And you not jealous? Belle I think, after all, I shall have to return to my first love," and he slipped his arm all the way back of her steamer chair, for Jack dearly loved to tease either Bess or Belle, declaring what happened to one twin would react on the other.

"Hazel cannot take her eyes off of Cora. I might be jealous there," reported the blonde twin.

"You may 'jell' all you like on that score," Jack consented. "But hello! Here's Paul!"

The tall, dark boy, Paul Hastings, Hazel's brother, had just entered the door. Instantly he was overcome with the welcome, for while the boys fell to kissing him and smoothing his hair in the most approved lover-like way, the girls crowded around and offered him empty plates and glasses of flowers, to say nothing of Bess, with the Japanese parasol, who stood over his chair while Cora fanned him.

Laurel looked on like one who enjoys a play. There seemed in her eyes something to indicate that such a scene was not entirely new to her, but was for some time forgotten. Presently Cora remembered that Laurel had not met Paul before, and so introduced them. She merely said Laurel in mentioning names, but the omission of anything so unimportant as a last title would never be noticed among these young folks.

"Say now, let a fellow breathe" begged Paul, "and also let him puff out a little. There! I feel better! And I just want to remark that I have found the lost canoe!"

At the words "lost canoe" Laurel started. Cora saw her, and slipped over to her side.

"You need not worry, dear. Everything is safe with us," whispered Cora, pressing the other's hand.

"Our old original! You don't mean it?" exclaimed Ed.

"None other," declared Paul. "And I wonder you did not find it before."

"Where was it?" asked Walter.

"Tied up to your own dock. I just spied it as I landed."

"Oh, you go on," threatened Jack. "Do you think we are teething?"

"No, jollying," vowed Paul. "I just this minute guessed it."

Without more comment the entire party hurried out the door, and made for the dock. Jack won first place and so held the lantern.

"She's red," he declared. "While ours was green."

"Just a matter of time," said Paul in his delightfully easy way. "Most girls are green when they come up here, and--"

Ed's hand was over Paul's mouth so he could not complete the joke. Jack was looking for the tell-tale piece of wood that had been inserted in the end of the canoe to mend a slight break.

"Yep, sure it's her," he declared.

"SHE!"' yelled the girls. "Jack!" Cora's voice came, "how can you so shock our English?"

"Pardon me, ladies," he murmured. "But this is it."

"Painted red," Belle was trying to realize out loud.

"Yes, and it's right becoming," agreed Ed, "but where did she get the sun-burn?"

"The Mystery of her Complexion, or, the Shade of Her Pretty Nose," quoth Jack. "Well, I don't mind. But I would like to get hold of The Silent Artist of Cedar Lake," he finished, in crude eloquence.

Paul was looking carefully inside the canoe. Presently he stood up straight, and held a note in his hand. "Let's have the light Jack?" he asked. "I have something."

Jack held the lantern so that it's gleam fell on the paper. "Miss Cora Kimball," they both read, then they handed the paper to Cora.

It was enclosed in an envelope of very fine linen; Cora saw this instantly, for she felt, as well as saw, the texture. Just as she was about to tear open the missive a thought occurred to her.

"I had best wait until I get indoors," she said. "I might drop something out of it here and break the charm."

A murmur of disapproval followed this remark. But Cora won out, and with much apprehension carried the strange letter inside. Under the light she looked first at the signature. It was Brentano!