Chapter VII. Deep in the Dark Wood
 

"Cora, dear, please do not go any farther. Somehow I am afraid that man will follow us."

"Why, Bess! I thought you were going to be interested in Mr. Jones," and Cora stooped to pick up a wonderful clump of flag lilies.

"Jones! How could he be a Jones? He's a Spaniard."

"I thought so myself, Bess. But we do not have to plant his family tree. Now don't be a baby, girlie," and Cora squeezed the plump hand that hung so close to her own. "Let us get to the shack, and see if the boys' boat is about there. I am determined to run down Jim Peters."

Bess sighed. When Cora was determined! But the man had left the water's edge.

"Cora, see!" said Bess. "He is getting into a boat!"

"Yes and the boat belongs to Peters. There! He is surely the one who helps Jim out in all his affairs. Now we may seek the shack in safety," said Cora, as she watched the man at the water's edge push off. "I know the shack is over there, for I smell smoke in that direction. But we will turn the other way until he has cleared off," finished Cora as she and Bess stepped lightly over the dainty ferns that nestled in the damp earth.

"He is quite a boatman," remarked Bess, watching the man ply his oars, and make rapid progress up the lake.

"Yes, he must have been brought up near the water," replied Cora. "They say such skill as that is not accomplished on dry land. Jack always declared he could tell a fellow at college who had ever been near the water when a lad. They take to it like a duck."

"You can easily see that he is a foreigner," went on Bess with her speculations. "He must either be an Italian or a Spaniard."

"Now we may turn up the path. Yes this is a path, for everything is trodden down on it," declared Cora. "I hope the hut will not be too deep in the wood."

"We won't go if it is," objected Bess. "I don't fancy being taken captive by any wild woods clan."

"There," exclaimed Cora. "I just caught sight--of--it's a woman's skirt!"

"Yes, and there is a woman in it," added Bess. "See, here she comes."

"No, I don't think she does. I think she is standing still. We must have frightened her."

"What a looking--woman!"

"Great proportions," described Cora. "I guess wherever she lives they must feed her well."

Cora led the way, and Bess timidly followed.

"Don't go too near," whispered the latter.

"Why, she cannot eat us," replied Cora, smiling over her shoulder to the timid one.

"Well, what do you want?" roared the woman, as soon as she could be heard by the young ladies.

"We are looking for Jim Peter's shack," replied Cora bravely. "I have been sent here to speak with him."

"Have, eh? Well go ahead. Speak with me. I'm Mrs. Jim Peters," said the woman with a sneer.

"My business is with him," again spoke Cora, not in the least frightened by the voice which she knew was made coarser just to scare her.

"Well, he don't have no business that ain't mine," said the woman, "'specially with young 'uns like you, so you kin just clear off here before I--"

"Come on Cora," begged Bess. "I am shaking from head to foot."

"All right, dear," replied Cora, in a voice for Bess alone. "But, Mrs. Peters, can you tell me when your husband will be about here? I have some work to do on a boat and I understand he does that sort of thing."

The woman's face changed. "If that's what you want I'll tell him. You see it is always best to let the woman know first, fer Jim does do some foolish things. But just now he's got one boat to do?"

"I wonder if he might have a canoe to sell?" interrupted Cora, as the thought of thus trapping the woman occurred to her.

"He will have one in a few days," the other 'answered. "But it has to be fixed up."

"Could I see it?" asked Cora. "I may not be able to get over here again."

"Well, the shack is locked and I couldn't show it to you, but when Jim comes I'll tell him. Who will I say?"

Cora hesitated. "I hardly think it will be worth while really to order it," she said, "as I must have my brother look it over. I have a motor boat."

"I heard it chuggin' and I thought that lazy Tony had got a new way of wastin' his time. Tony is all right at writin' letters but he's a lazy bones else ways."

"Who's Tony?" asked Cora as if indifferently.

"He's Jim's side partner. Say, girl, I'll just tell you. I came up here a few weeks ago from a newspaper advertisement. I never knowed Jim Peters before, but if them two fellers think I'm goin' to cook in that hut and never go no place off this dock they're foolin' themselves. They don't know all about Kate Simpson."

Both girls were utterly surprised by her change of manner. Cora was quick to take advantage of it.

"You are quite right," she said. "This is no place for a lone woman, and some day when I have my brother along I will fetch my boat, and show you the big islands about here. It would do you good to get out in the clear--away from these dense woods."

"That it would, and I'm obliged to you miss," said the woman while Bess fairly gasped. "I want to go to one island--Fern Island they call it. Have you ever been there?"

"I know where it is," replied Cora, wondering what the woman's interest in that place might be. "I have been all around it."

"They say it's haunted," and the woman laughed. "It's a great game to put a haunt on a place to keep others off."

"Well, some day when you can leave your work, I'll take you over there," and Cora meant it, for she had not the slightest fear, either of the woman or her rough ways.

Besides, she felt instinctively that the woman's help would be valuable in the possible recovery of her ring and of the lost canoe.

"I'll be goin' back to the shackt fer if Jim comes along held raise a row fer me talkin' to strangers. You'd think I was looney the way he watches me."

"And is he a stranger to you?"

"Well, to tell the truth my mother and Jim's was cousins, but I never knowed him to be such a poor character as he is, or I'd never have come up here. But I don't have to stay all summer,"' she finished significantly.

"Well, good-bye, and I'll see you soon again," said Cora turning toward her boat.

"Good-bye, miss, but say," and she half whispered, "is that girl dumb?"

Cora burst out laughing. Bess a mute!

"No indeed, but she always lets me do the talking," answered Cora with a sty look at the blushing Bess.

"She has good sense, fer you know how to do it," declared Kate Simpson.

They could hear her bend the brush as she passed up the narrow way.

"What a queer creature," remarked Bess, when she felt that it was safe to try her voice.

"She is queer, but I think she knows a lot about things of interest to us. What did you think of her remark about Fern Island? To that pretty little spot we will make our next voyage," declared Cora, pulling on her thick gloves and taking her place in front of the motor. "Turn out into the open lake," she told Bess as they started off. "We will make a quick run and get back to the bungalow before the others have done the marketing. I am glad it is not our turn to get the lunch for I want to make a trip to Fern Island directly after we have had a bite. Seems to me," and she increased the speed of the engine a little, "it takes more time to get a meal at camp than it does at home. The simple life certainly has its own peculiar complications."

"Oh, there comes that man back! I am so glad we are away from that place," exclaimed Bess, as the boat of Jim Peters, with the smiling foreigner called "Jones" floated by.