Chapter III. What Happened to the Boys
 

"What can have happened to the boys?" murmured Belle. "I am afraid they are drowned."

"All of them?" and Cora could not repress a smile. "It would take a very large sized whale to gobble them all at once, and surely they could not all have been seized with swimming cramps at the same moment. No, Belle, I have no such fear. But I am going right out to investigate. I know Jack would never stay away if he could get here, especially when he knew this would be your first evening at the lake. Why, the boys were just wild to try my boat," and she threw her motor cape over her shoulders. "Come on girls, down to the steamer landing. There may have been some accident."

Belle and Bess were ready instantly. Indeed the twins seemed more alarmed than did Cora, but then they were not used to brothers, and did not realize how many things may happen and may not happen, to detain young men on a summer day or even a summer night.

"Oh dear!" sighed Belle, "I have always dreaded the water. I did promise mamma and Bess to conquer my nervousness and not make folks miserable, but now just see how things happen to upset me," and she was almost in tears.

"Nothing has happened yet, Belle dear," said Cora kindly, "and we hope nothing will happen. You see your great mistake comes from what Jack calls the 'sympathy bug.' You worry about people before you know they are in trouble. I feel certain the boys will be found safe and sound, but at the same time I would not be so foolhardy as to trust to dumb luck."

"You are a philosopher, Cora," answered the nervous girl, her tone showing that she meant to compliment her chum.

"No, merely logical," corrected Cora, as they walked along. "You know what marks I always get in logic."

"But it all comes from health," put in Bess. "Mother says Belle would be just as sensible as I am if she were as strong."

"Sensible as you are?" and Cora laughed. Bess had such a candid way of acknowledging her own good points. "Why, we have never noticed it, Bess."

"Oh, you know what I mean. I simply mean that I do not fuss," and Bess let her cheeks glow at least two shades deeper.

"Well it is sensible not to fuss, Bess, so we will grant your point," finished Cora as they stepped on the boardwalk that led to the boat landing. "Why, I didn't suppose they would light up with that moon," she said. "That's the old watchman over there."

A man was swinging a lantern from the landing. He held it above his head, then lowered it, and it was plain he was showing the light to signal someone on the water.

Cora's heart did give a quickened response to her nerves as she saw that something must be wrong. But she said not a word to her companions.

"What are they after?" asked Belle timidly.

"Probably some fishermen casting their nets for bait," Cora answered evasively. "You stay here, while I speak with old Ben."

Bess and Belle complied, although Bess felt she should have been the one to ask questions. What if anything had really happened to the boys! Jack was Cora's brother.

"Have you seen anything of some boys in a canoe?" Cora asked of the man with the lantern. "They set out this afternoon, and have not yet returned."

"Boys in a canoe?" repeated Ben, in that tantalizing way country folk have of delaying their answers.

"Yes, my brother and two of his friends went out toward Far Island--"

"Fern Island?" interrupted the man.

"No, when we last saw them they were going away from Fern and toward Far Island," said Cora.

"Well, if they're on Fern Island at night I pity them. There ain't never been anyone who put up there after dark who wasn't ready to die of fright, 'ceptin' Jim Peters. And the old boy hisself couldn't scare Jim. Guess he's too chununy with him," and the waterman chuckled at his joke.

"But you have not heard of any accident?" pressed Cora.

"I saw them young fellers myself. They was in a green canoe; wasn't they?"

"Yes," answered Cora eagerly.

"Well, I asked Jim Peters if he had sawed 'em, and he said--but then you can't never believe Jim."

"What did he say?" excitedly demanded Cora, as Bess and Belle stepped up to where she was talking.

"He said they had tied their boat up at the far dock, and had gone on the shore train to the merry-go-'round."

"But they were in their bathing suits!" exclaimed Cora.

"There! Didn't I tell you not to take any stock in Jim's news! I knowed he was fibbin'. But--say miss. There's this about Jim. He don't ever take the trouble to make up a yam unless he has a motive. Now I'll bet Jim knows something about them lads."

"Where does this man live?" asked Cora.

"He don't live no place in particular, but in general he stays at the shanty, when he ain't on the water. But he's a regular fish. The young 'uns calls him a fish hawk."

"How could we get to his place? Do you think he is at the shanty now?" went on Cora, determined to find out something of the man, for she had reason to believe that the dock-hand knew what he was talking about.

"Bless you, child! It ain't no place for young girls like you to go to any time, much less at night. But I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll jest take a look around myself. I sort of like a girl who knows how to talk to old Ben without being sassy."

"Thank you very much, Ben, but I really must hurry to trace the boys. I suppose you have no police around the island?"

"Wall, there's Constable Hannon. He is all right to trace a thing when you tell him where it is, but Tom Hannon hates to think." Ben raised the lantern above his head and then, as if satisfied that the signaling was all finished, he placed the lantern on a hook that hung over the edge of the dock.

"Oh, Cora," put in Bess, "it is almost eight O'clock. We must hurry along."

"I know, Bess dear, but I had to find out all this man knew. Now I am satisfied to start for the other end of the lake."

Cora's voice betrayed the emotion she was feeling in spite of her outward calm. The matter was now assuming a very serious aspect.

"One thing seems certain," she said to all who were listening, "they could not all have been drowned. They were all expert swimmers. Nor would they go to any merry-go-'round and leave us waiting for them. The question now is, what could have detained them?"

"Well, here comes Jim now," said Ben. "Just you keep quiet, and I'll pump him."

A man came slouching along the dock. He had the way of seeming much younger than he pretended to be--that is he walked with his head down although his shoulders were straight and broad as those of any well trained athlete. The three girls instantly decided that this man had some strange motive in his manner. He was shamming, they thought.

"Hello there, Ben," he called to the dock hand jokingly. "How's the tide?"

"Not much tide on this here lake," replied Ben sharply. "Never knowed much about them tides, as I've lived at this hole most all my born days. But how was business to-day? That was quite a fleet. How'd you make out?"

"Oh, same as usual," and Jim Peters looked from under his big hat at the girls. "Got company?"

"Yes, a couple friends of the old lady's. They're camping here."

"Oh," half-growled the man understandingly as he made his way to the water's edge.

"Where're you goin' now?" asked Ben.

"Up the lake," replied the man.

"Oh, say," spoke Ben as if the thought had just occurred to him, "where did you say them young fellers went? The ones who started out in a canoe?"

Now Cora saw that this was the man who had come down the lake with the canoe trailing behind his rowboat. He stepped into the lantern's light, and both Bess and Belle must also have recognized him, for they shot a meaning glance at Cora.

"What fellows?" drawled the man in answer to Ben's question.

"The ones I asked you about. You said they went to the merry-go-'round. Did they?"

"Yep," replied the man sententiously.

"Where is that?" asked Cora, unable to restrain herself longer.

"At the Peak," he said vaguely. Then he stepped into his rowboat and before anyone could question him further he was pulling up the lake.

"Well, I'll be hung! Excuse me ladies, but I am that surprised," said Ben apologetically. "Say, that fellow knows about the kids, and we've got to follow him. But how?"

"In my motor boat," proposed Cora quickly. "We could overtake him in that before he had any idea we were following him!"

"Have you a motor boat? Good! Where is it? Here, I'll call Dan. He kin run faster than a deer. Dan! Dan! Dan!" shouted the old man, and from a nearby rowboat, where, evidently, some boys were having some sort of a harmless game, Dan appeared. He was a tall youth, the sort that seems to grow near the water. "Hey Dan, I want you to go where this girl tells you, and fetch her boat," said Ben. "Quick now, we've got something to do."

"It's up at the new camp," said Cora. "It's the new boat you must have seen come up this afternoon."

"Oh, yes'm, I know it, and I know where it is," replied the lad, and then he was off, his bare feet making no sound. He called back through the darkness "Got any oil or gas?"

"Yes," replied Cora, and away he ran.

"Ain't he a regular dock rat," said Ben with something like pride in his voice.

"I hope we do not lose sight of that man," remarked Cora.

"Oh Jim can't pull as hard as he thinks, especially on a lazy day when he has been out some," affirmed Ben. "Now suppose you girls just sit on this plank while you wait? 'Twon't cost you nothin'."

He dusted off the big plank with his handkerchief, and upon the board, Cora, Bess and Belle seated themselves.

"I suppose Dan will haul the boat down," said Cora. "It isn't locked, but he may not want to start the motor."

"Oh, you can trust to Dan to get her here. When he isn't a dock rat he's a canal mule. There! Ain't that him? Yep, there he comes and he's got her all right," said old Ben proudly.

The boy could now be seen walking along the water's edge, as he pulled the motor boat by the bow rope. The girls were quick to follow Ben to the landing, and there all three, with Ben, got aboard.

The girls helped Cora light the port, starboard and aft-lights; then they were ready to start.

"Better let me run her," said the man, "as I know all the spots in this here lake. Besides," and he touched the engine almost fondly, "there ain't nothin' I like better than a boat, unless it's a fish line."

"This is a very simple motor," explained Cora, showing how readily the gas could be turned on and how promptly the engine responded to the spark.

"It's a beauty," agreed Ben, as the "chugchug" answered the first turn of the flywheel.

Belle and Bess sat in the stem and Cora went forward. It was a delightful evening and, but for the urgency of their quest, the first night sail of the Petrel on Cedar Lake would have been a perfect success.

"Isn't that a light?" asked Belle, loud enough for Cora to hear.

"Yes. Ben see, there is a light. Do you suppose that is on Jim's boat?" asked Cora.

"Never," replied Ben, "he's too stingy to light up on a moonlight night when the water's clear. Of course the law says he must, but who's goin' to back up the law?"

"Which way are you going?" she questioned further.

"See that track of foam over yonder? That's Jim's course. We'll just pick his trail," said Ben. "Now there! Watch him turn! He's headin' for Far Island!"

At this Ben throttled down, and, a few minutes later he turned off the gas and cut out the switch.

"We'll just drift a little to give him a chance to settle," he said. "We don't want to get too close--it might spoil the game."

Belle and Bess were both too nervous to talk. It seemed like some pirate story, that they should be following a strange fisherman to a wild island in the night, in hopes of finding the boys--possibly captured boys!

Cora listened eagerly. She, too, was losing courage--it was so slight a hope that this man would lead them to where the boys might be.

"There! See that!" exclaimed Ben. "He's talking to some one on land."

"Yes, I heard Jack's voice," exclaimed Cora. "Oh, I am so glad they are safe!"

"But how do we know?" asked Belle, her voice trembling.

"Jack's voice told me," replied Cora, "for if they were in distress he would not have shouted like that!"

"But he was mad," said Ben, and in this the old fisherman made no mistake, for the voices of the boys, in angry protest, could be heard, as they argued with some one, who succeeded in keeping his part of the conversation silent from the anxious listeners.