Chapter VIII. The Haunt of Fern Island
 

The four motor girls started out in the Petrel. Never had the lake seemed so beautiful, nor had the sky appeared a deeper, truer blue. The pretty Placid lake was dotted all over with summer craft, the sound of the motor boat being almost constant in its echoing, "cut-a-cuta" against the wonderful green hills that banked shore and, island.

Hazel was steering, and of course Cora was running the engine. The pennant waved gaily from the bow of the boat, and of the many colors afloat it seemed that those chosen by the motor girls shone out most brilliantly on the glistening, silvery waters.

"I'm not a bit afraid now," admitted Belle, "I do think it is all a matter of getting used to the water. I thought I should never breathe again after that first day we went out."

"Yes," said Cora, "the water has a peculiar fascination when one is accustomed to it, and I am sure Belle will want to live on a houseboat before we break camp. There go the boys! What a fine motor boat!"

"Yes," said Hazel, "that's one from Paul's garage. Paul promised Jack he would speak to Mr. Breslin, the owner, about letting it out for the summer, as the Breslin family is not coming out here until later. It's the Peter-Pan, and the fastest boat on the lake."

"See them go! I guess they don't see us,"' remarked Belle.

"I am glad they do not," Cora said, "for I want to do some exploring, and if the boys came along they would be sure to have other plans for us. Now, Hazel, run in there. That is Fern Island."

"Oh, there's a canoe!" exclaimed Belle. "See! and a girl is paddling. What a queer looking girl!"

"Isn't she!" agreed Bess. "Why she has on a man's hat!"

"She sees that we are watching her. Look how she is hurrying off," remarked Cora. "I wonder how far this cove goes in?"

"We had better not try to find out," cautioned Belle. "I think we have had enough of happenings around here. This is where the boy's boat was stolen from; isn't it?"

"No, it was over there, but I guess we will put in at the front of the island, as there is no telling how deep the cove is," said Cora. "But see that girl go! Why she's actually gone! Where can she have disappeared to?"

"This ought to be called the 'disappearing' land," suggested Hazel. "I was sure that little canoe was directly in front of us, but now it is out of sight."

"Maybe that is the 'Haunt Girl of Fern Island,'" ventured Cora with a laugh. "I got a pretty good look at her, and I am willing to say she looked neither like a summer girl nor a winter girl--that is, one who might live here the year around. But just what sort of girl she might be I shouldn't like to speculate. Her hair got loose as she hurried, and she reminded me of some wild water bird."

"Be careful getting out," Belle cautioned Bess. "This new boat is new to slipperiness."

"Oh, I will get hold of a tree branch," Bess replied. "Then, if the boat drifts out, I can swing to safety."

All were ashore but Bess, and as such things often happen when they are looked for, the Petrel did careen from the waves of a passing launch, and just as Bess grasped an overhead willow branch, the boat swung out and she sprang in. Everybody laughed, but Bess lost her breath, a condition she disliked because it always added to the deep color of her plump cheeks.

"There!" cried Belle. "Didn't I tell you?"

"I wish that next time, Twin, you would leave me to guess!" exclaimed the other twin, rather pettishly.

"Isn't this perfectly delightful!" exclaimed Hazel, running over the soft earth where ferns were matted, and wild flowers grew tangled in their efforts for freedom. "I never saw such dainty little flowers! Oh! they are sabatial I have seen them in Massachusetts," and she fell to gathering the small pink blooms that rival the wild rose in shade and perfume.

"Here are the Maiden Hair ferns," called Cora. "No wonder they call this Fern Island."

"Let us see how many varieties of fern we can gather," suggested Belle. "I have ferns pressed since last year, and they look so pretty on picture mats."

At this the girls became interested in the number of ferns gatherable. Belle went one way, Bess another, and so on, until each had to call to make another hear her.

Cora ran along fearlessly. She was diving very deep into the ferny woods, and she was intent on coming out first, if it were only in a race to get ferns.

Suddenly she stopped!

What was that sound?

Surely it was some one running, and it was none of the girls!

Standing erect, listening with her nerves as well as with her ears, Cora waited. That running or rustling through the leaves was very close by. Should she call the girls?

But before she could answer herself, she saw something dart across a big rock that was caressed by a great maple tree that grew over it.

"Oh!" she screamed involuntarily. Then she saw what it was. A man, a wild looking man, with long hair and a bushy beard.

He had stopped just long enough to look in the direction of Cora. She saw him distinctly. Oh! if he should run toward Bess or Belle! Hazel would not be so easily alarmed but surely this was a wild man if ever there was such a creature.

"That is the ghost of Fern Island," Cora concluded. "I must get back to the girls."

She turned and hurried in the direction from which she had heard voices. "If they have not seen him," she reflected, "I will not say anything until we get back to camp."

"I have ten different kinds of ferns," suddenly called Belle, in a voice which plainly said that no wild man had crossed her path.

"I've got eight," said Hazel. "How many have you, Cora?"

Cora glanced at her empty hands. She had dropped her ferns.

"I have tossed away mine. I was afraid of black spiders," she said evasively.

"Isn't that too bad," wailed Bess, "and none of us picked any maiden hair because we thought you had it. Let us go and get some."

"Oh, I think we had best not this time," said Cora quickly. "I really want to get to the post office landing before the mail goes out. We can come another time when I have something to kill spiders with. I never saw such huge black fellows as there are around here." This was no shading of the truth, for indeed the spiders around Cedar Lake did grow like 'turtles', Jack had declared.

"Oh, all right," agreed Belle. "But this is the most delightful island and I am coming out here again. I hope the boys will come along, for there are such great bushes of huckleberries over there that we simply couldn't climb to them alone."'

"We will invite them next time," said Cora, and when she turned over the fly wheel of her boat her hands that had held the ferns were still trembling. She looked uneasily at the shore as they darted off.

"What's the matter, Cora?" asked Hazel. "You look as if you had seen the ghost of Fern Island."

"I have," said Cora, but the girls thought she had only agreed with Hazel to avoid disagreeing.

"What boat is that?" asked Bess a moment later, looking at a small rowing craft just leaving the other side of the island.

"It's Jim Peters'" replied Cora, "we were lucky to get back into ours before he saw it. I wouldn't wonder but what he might like to take a motor boat ride in the Petrel."

"Do you suppose he really would steal a boat?" exclaimed Belle.

"He might like to try a motor, I said," replied Cora. "They say that Jim Peters tries everything on Cedar Lake, even to running a shooting gallery. But see! He is reading a letter! Where ever did he get a letter on this barren island?"

"Maybe he carries the mail for the ghost," said Hazel, with a laugh.