Chapter VI. Cora Exploiting
 

There had been three delightful days at Camp Cozy. Cora managed most of the delight, with the able assistance of Belle and Bess, while Hazel did much toward discovering things that she declared all the girls ought to know, for Hazel's happiness was ever in obtaining knowledge.

The boys had almost lost hope of getting back their canoe. They had searched the lake from shore to shore, offered rewards and had gone through the rest of the lost formula, but the boat was not returned.

Cora kept to herself her suspicions about Jim Peters. She also said nothing of the ring that was in the purse when it left her hands, but not in it when the purse was returned to her.

It was a splendid morning for a trip on Cedar Lake, and although Belle and Hazel had planned a trip to the woods, Cora and Bess were going out in the Petrel.

Passing Center Landing, Cora called a pleasant good morning to Ben, who sat on the end string piece, his feet aiming at the water and his broad brimmed hat caught on halo fashion at the back of his neck.

"Oh, I must ask him something," said Cora, suddenly turning her boat toward the wharf. She drew near enough to speak quietly.

"Ben," she said, "where is that shanty you told me about--Jim Peter's place?"

"Lands sake miss! you ain't goin' there?" asked the man in some alarm.

"Why not?" demanded Cora. "Can't I take care of myself in broad daylight?"

"But you don't know how ugly that feller can be," insisted Ben. "I tell you miss, I'd give him plenty of room, if I war you."

"Don't go," urged Bess.

"But, Ben," argued Cora, "I am afraid you have all let Jim Peters bully you. I am going to try him another way. Where does he live?"

"Well a hour ago he went up the lake. He goes up there every mornin' regular. Like as if he had some important business on the island. When I asked him about it he said there was a fellow who had some dangerous disease, and was campin' out there, and Jim allowed that he had to fetch him things."

"Indeed!" exclaimed Cora. "That's a queer story for a man like Peters. But I'm going to his shack first, even if he is not at home. It would suit me just as well to find him out on my first visit."

"But that young feller who lives with him? He's just as sassy as Jim, when he's around the shack. Of course he don't stay there always, as Jim does."

"Who is he?" questioned Cora. "I hadn't heard of such a person."

"Oh, he gives the name of Jones but it don't fit him fer a cent. I wouldn't be surprised if his real name was Macaroni or even Noodles. He's foreign, sure."

Cora laughed. "And he's young, you say?"

"A lot younger than Jim, but he could be that and yet not be very young, fer I guess Jim has lost track of time," replied Ben. "Yes, Jones is a swell, all right."

"But the shack? Where is it? I must be off," insisted Cora.

"It's quite a trip down the lake. Then you come to a point. Go to the left of the point, and when you come to a place where the willows dip into the lake, get off there. The shack is straight back in the deepest clump of buttonball trees."

"All right Ben, and thank you," said Cora as she started up the motor. "I feel like exploring this morning, and your directions sound interesting. I will come back this way to show you that I am safe and sound," and with that she sheered off.

"I hope it will be all right," faltered Bess. "Cora, are you never afraid to risk such things?"

"What is there to risk? The land is public, and we have as much right to follow that track as has Jim Peters or Mr. Jones. I wonder what Mr. Jones is like?"

"Maybe he would be very nice--a complete surprise," ventured Bess, at which remark Cora laughed merrily.

"You little romancer! Do you imagine that anyone very nice would chum in with Jim Peters? Isn't there something in your book about birds of the same quills?"

"It's aigrettes, in my book," retorted Bess. "But it all applies to the same sort of birds. Just the same, I am interested in Mr. Jones."

"I fancy perhaps that we are," said Cora. "But there is the point Ben spoke of. We are to turn to the left."

Gracefully as a human thing, the boat curved around and made its path through the narrow part of the lake.

"And there are the willows," announced Bess, as she saw the great green giants dipped into the water's surface.

"Yes. I thought it would be much farther on. But this is an ideal spot for hiding. One could scarcely be found here without a megaphone."

"Hear our voices echo," remarked Bess. "An echo always makes me feel desolate."

"Don't you like to hear your own voice?" asked Cora lightly. "I rather fancy listening to mine. An echo was always a delight to me."

"There's a man sitting under that tree!" almost gasped Bess.

"So there is, and I am glad of it. He will be able to direct us. I shouldn't be surprised if he were Mr. Jones," said Cora turning the Petrel to shore.

Under a big willow, in a sort of natural basket seat, formed by the uncovered roots of the big trees, a man sat, and as the boat grazed the shore, he looked up from some papers he held in his hands. Cora could see that he was very dark, and had that almost uncomfortable manner of affecting extreme politeness peculiar to foreigners of certain classes, for, as she spoke to him, he arose, slid the paper into his pocket, and bowed most profusely.

"I am looking for the cabin of Mr. Peters," said Cora, stepping ashore toward the tree. "Can you direct me to it?"

"The cabin of Mr. Peters?" and when the man spoke the foreign suspicion was confirmed. "Why, who might Mr. Peters be?"

"Jim Peters; don't you know him?" asked Cora determined not to be thrown off the track. "He lives just in here--I should think in that grove--"

"Oh, my dear miss no! You are mistaken. No one lives around here. I am simply a rustic, looking about. But Jim Peters?"

"Are you not Mr. Jones?" blurted out Cora.

In spite of himself the man started.

"Mr. Jones?" he repeated. "Well, that name will do as well as any other. But allow me to tie your boat. Then I will take pleasure in showing you one of the prettiest strips of land this side of Naples."

"Oh, thank you. I have secured it," said Cora. "But I would like to explore this island."

Bess tugged at Cora's elbow. "Don't go too far. I am afraid of that man," she said in a whisper.

"Were you drawing as we came up?" Cora asked the stranger. "This is an ideal spot for sketching."

"Yes, I was drawing," he replied.

"Couldn't we see your picture?" asked Cora. "I do so love an outline."

"Oh, indeed it is not worth looking at. I must show you something when I have what will be worth while. This is only a bare idea."

"Well," said Cora starting off through the wood, "I must look for a cabin, or something like it. I have particular business with Jim Peters."

"But you will only hurt your feet miss," objected the man. "Allow me to show you the island," and he bowed again. "Such wild swamp flowers I have never seen. It is the everglades, and well worth the short journey."

There was something about his insistent civility that betokened a set purpose, and since Ben (what a wonder Ben was) had told Cora that a man named Jones "hung out" with Jim Peters, Cora instantly guessed that this was the man, and that he was determined to keep her away from the shack. The situation gave zest to her purpose. Bess was fairly quaking as Cora could see, but what danger could there be in insisting upon finding that shack?

"I have only a short time to be out," objected Cora, "and perhaps some other time I will come to see your everglade. Come, Bess, I see a path this way, and I fancy if we follow it we will find an end to the path," she concluded.

"But may I not have the pleasure of your name?" the man called after her. "Perhaps we might meet--"

"Don't," whispered Bess. "Pretend you did not hear him."

"Oh, just see those flag lilies!" Cora called to Bess, covering the man's question without answering it. "Let us get some."

"Oh, aren't they beautiful!" replied Bess, in a strained voice. "I certainly must secure some of those."

They hurried away from the dark-browed man. He took his hand out of his pocket and upon the smallest finger his eyes rested. He sneered as he looked at a diamond ring that glittered on that slim brown finger.

"Foolish maid," he said aloud, and then the web of a strange force threw its invisible yet unbreakable chains over the summer life of Cora Kimball.