Chapter XXI. Motor Troubles

"It is strange Laurel does not come back," remarked Bess, as the girls sat on the porch after a most unsuccessful fishing trip (as far as fish were concerned), "Somehow I feel she would if she could."

"That's it exactly," Cora corroborated. "If she could get back here this afternoon, we would have seen her. But then her father may have been too lonely without her, or any of many other things may have detained her."

Cora jumped up suddenly, and skipped down the path to where her motor boat was fastened. She would look over the engine. The wire connections had slipped, and she would tighten them, and make some other minor adjustments.

Cora found more to do on her boat than she had expected. The boys had had the craft out latest and had neglected to put down the oil cup levers. This caused the cylinder to be flooded with lubricant, and if there was one thing Cora disliked more than another it was to run an oil puffing boat, and "inhale the fumes."

She pulled on her heavy gloves and got to work to drain out the oil through the base cock. Bending over her task she did not see, neither did she hear, an approaching person. It was Ben.

"Busy, eh?" he said in his splendid, candid way. Cora was so glad it was only Ben.

"Oh yes," she replied, "the boys never seem to know how to leave a boat. This is thoroughly oil-soaked."

"They're careless that way," admitted Ben, stepping into the boat to see what the trouble was. "If I were you I would make some rules and tack 'em down by the license card."

"They would never read them," Cora declared. "There--just look at that oil," as she collected some in a funnel. "This would have made the muffler smoke like a locomotive."

Ben looked at the oil cups. "There isn't any thing meaner than running a boat that throws out soft coal smoke," he admitted. "Those boys left the plungers up. But I say, girl, where's your new friend?"

"Laurel?" asked Cora as she put the wrench in the tool box.

"Yes. I thought she had come down here to stay."

"Well, we thought so too, but then she could not be expected to leave the island--all at once," and Cora wondered if she were saying too much.

"It's queer to me," went on Ben. "Them fellows have something to do with that," and he nodded his head toward the landing.

"You mean--Peters and Tony?"

"Yes. And what I want to say, Miss, is this. You had best keep clear of them. The row at the landing isn't exactly fixed up. I think it had to do with something at Fern Island."

"About Laurel?"

"Yes. I have suspected for a long time that the little runs that Peters makes up there must have paid him pretty well. Now that he has fallen out with Tony, likely it'll all come to Jim. Best thing we can do, miss, is to keep a sharp look out for the girl. If you can get her to come to camp with you I fancy all the rest will soon straighten itself."

Cora wondered just how much Ben knew of the mystery of that island. She felt obliged to withhold Laurel's secret, yet she felt, too, that Ben would do everything to help her get the girl and the hermit away from their place of exile.

"I'll tell you, Ben," she said finally. "I'll come to you for advice just as soon as I find it is time to act. Depend upon it we are not going to leave Cedar Lake until the mystery of Fern Island is cleared up."

This seemed to satisfy Ben, for beneath the deep brown of his cheeks there showed the glow of color that came with pleasure.

"All right, little girl," he said, "if you want me before I come again, just let me know. Ben will be only too glad to stick by you and all the rest of them," meaning the campers at Camp Cozy and those who bungalowed at the Bungle.

He went off, shambling along with his face turned toward the sky and his feet taking care of themselves. Cora looked after him.

"Dear old Ben," Cora mused, "everything seems worth while when it takes 'everything' to make such a friend as you can be." Then she went back to her engine. She must tighten the wires, and leave the craft in readiness for a quick run.

"Oh, Cora!" came the voice of Bess suddenly, "you've missed it. We have had the most glorious time."

Bess approached, her cheeks as red as the sumac she carried, and her eyes as bright as the very ragged sailors that hung rather dangerously from her belt. "Hasn't Laurel come yet?"

"No, not yet," replied Cora, intent upon her task at the wires. "I am afraid she will hardly come to-night."

"Then we have got to go after her," declared Bess. "Jack said so. He said she could not stay alone on that island all night."

"Oh, did he?" Cora replied in an absent-minded way. "I have had such--a time--with this boat," and she pulled on the wires to make them taut, breaking one and necessitating a splice.

"Can't we take the boat to look for Laurel?" persisted Bess, with more concern than she usually showed.

"Why, of course, I suppose so," said Cora. "There, I guess that will do," and she straightened up with a sigh, for the use of the pliers made her hands ache.

"Why, Cora!" exclaimed Bess, "you look actually pale. You must be awfully tired."

"Me pale," and she laughed. "Now, Bess, don't get romantic. Just fancy me being pale!"

"Well, you are, and I insist that you come back to camp at once and get a drink of warm milk. Cora Kimball, you--look--scared!"

"Oh, I am. Think what it would mean if the boys had knocked my engine out. And it did seem for a time that there was no 'if' in it." Cora jumped lightly out of the boat and was ready to greet the other girls. Soon a discussion of color and its causes was in progress, Cora maintaining that her cause of anxiety had been that awful engine and its troubles.

Ed, Walter and Jack had joined the others.

"I say," began Ed, "where do we, go to look for the wild Olive or was it the mountain Laurel? Jack is in a fit, and Walter can't be held. What do you say if we all start out in a searching party? No one has been lost for twenty-four hours, and this state of affairs is getting monotonous."

Without waiting for an answer the girls and boys clambered into the Petrel while Bess went to the camp with Cora who insisted upon washing her hands before making the trip.

"Did anything happen, Cora, while we were away?" asked Bess kindly.

"Not a thing, Bess. I only wish something real would happen; we have so many imitations of excitement."