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Title: The Corner House Girls Snowbound
Author: Hill, Grace Brooks
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Corner House Girls Snowbound" ***

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[Illustration: "The bobsled bumped over these hammocks, gathering
speed."]



THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS SNOWBOUND

  HOW THEY WENT AWAY
  WHAT THEY DISCOVERED
  AND HOW IT ENDED

BY GRACE BROOKS HILL

  Author of "The Corner House Girls," "The Corner
  House Girls on a Tour," Etc.

_ILLUSTRATED BY THELMA GOOCH_

NEW YORK

BARSE & HOPKINS

PUBLISHERS



BOOKS FOR GIRLS

By Grace Brooks Hill

The Corner House Girls Series

_12mo. Cloth. Illustrated._

  THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS
  THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS AT SCHOOL
  THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS UNDER CANVAS
  THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS IN A PLAY
  THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS' ODD FIND
  THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS ON A TOUR
  THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS GROWING UP
  THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS SNOWBOUND

BARSE & HOPKINS

PUBLISHERS--NEW YORK



Copyright, 1919, by Barse & Hopkins

_The Corner House Girls Snowbound_

Printed in U. S. A.



CONTENTS

  I--A Ghost and a Goat
  II--The Straw Ride
  III--Twins--And Trouble
  IV--Anticipations
  V--Merry Times
  VI--On the Wings of the Wind
  VII--The Scooter
  VIII--The Village on the Ice
  IX--A Cold Scent
  X--Into the Wilderness
  XI--Embers in the Grate
  XII--Mystery and Fun
  XIII--The Timber Cruiser
  XIV--By the Light of the Moon
  XV--A Variety of Happenings
  XVI--The Key
  XVII--All Down Hill
  XVIII--Figure It Out
  XIX--Sammy Takes the Bit in His Teeth
  XX--Following Another Trail
  XXI--Rowdy
  XXII--In the Cave
  XXIII--Anxiety
  XXIV--Rafe Is Cross
  XXV--Holidays--Conclusion



ILLUSTRATIONS

  The bobsled bumped over these hummocks, gathering speed
  Even Ruth could scarcely keep a sober face
  He fairly dragged her from under the flapping sail
  The housekeeping arrangements of the cave were primitive



THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS SNOWBOUND



CHAPTER I

A GHOST AND A GOAT


There was a vast amount of tramping up and down stairs, and little
feet, well shod, are noisy. This padding up and down was by the two
flights of back stairs from the entry off the kitchen porch to the big
heated room that was called by the older folks who lived in the old
Corner House, "the nursery."

"But it isn't a nursery," objected Dot Kenway, who really was not yet
big enough to fit the name of "Dorothy." "We never had a nurse, did
we, Tess? Ruthie helped bring us up after our own truly mamma died.
And, then, 'nursery' sounds so _little_."

"Just as though you were kids," put in Master Sammy Pinkney, who lived
in the house across the street, and nearest, on Willow Street, from
the Kenway sisters' beautiful home in Milton, but who felt that he,
too, "belonged" in the old Corner House.

"No. It should be called 'the playroom,'" agreed Tess, who was older
than Dot, and considerably bigger, yet who no more fitted the name she
was christened with than the fairylike Dot fitted hers. Nobody but
Aunt Sarah Maltby--and she only when she was in a most severe
mood--called the next-to-the-youngest Corner House girl "Theresa."

It was Saturday morning, and it had begun to snow; at first in a
desultory fashion before Tess and Dot--or even Sammy Pinkney--were out
of bed. Of course, they had hailed the fleecy, drifting snow with
delight; it looked to be the first real snowstorm of the season.

But by the time breakfast was well over (and breakfast on Saturday
morning at the old Corner House was a "movable feast," for the Kenway
sisters did not all get up so promptly as they did on school days)
Sammy Pinkney waded almost to the top of his rubber boots in coming
from his house to play with the two younger Kenway sisters.

Of course, Sammy had picked out the deepest places to wade in; but the
snow really was gathering very fast. Mrs. MacCall, the Kenways' dear
friend and housekeeper, declared that it was gathering and drifting as
fast as ever she had seen it as a child "at home in the Hielands," as
she expressed it.

"'Tis stay-in-the-hoose weather," the old Scotch woman declared.
"Roughs and toughs, like this Sammy Pinkney boy, can roll in the snow
like porpoises in the sea; but little girls would much better stay
indoor and dance 'Katie Beardie.'"

"Oh, Mrs. Mac!" cried Dot, "what is 'dancing Katie Beardie'?"

So the housekeeper stopped long enough in her oversight of Linda, the
Finnish girl, to repeat the old rhyme one hears to this day amid the
clatter of little clogs upon the pavements of Edinburgh.

  "'Katie Beardie had a grice,
  It could skate upon the ice;
  Wasna that a dainty grice?
    Dance, Katie Beardie!

  Katie Beardie had a hen,
  Cackled but and cackled ben;
  Wasna that a dainty hen?
    Dance, Katie Beardie!'

And you little ones have been 'cackling but and cackling ben' ever
since breakfast time. Do, children, go upstairs, like good bairns, and
stay awhile."

Tess and Dot understood a good deal of Mrs. MacCall's Scotch, for they
heard it daily. But now she had to explain that a "grice" was a pig
and that "but" and "ben" meant in and out. But even Sammy knew how to
"count out" in Scotch, for they had long since learned Mrs. MacCall's
doggerel for games.

Now they played hide and seek, using one of the counting-out rhymes
the housekeeper had taught them:

  Eenerty, feenerty, fickerty, faig,
  Ell, dell, domen, aig.
  Irky, birky, story, rock,
  Ann, tan, touzelt Jock.

And then Sammy disappeared! It was Dot's turn to be "it," and she
counted one hundred five times by the method approved, saying very
rapidly: "Ten, ten, double-ten, forty-five and fifteen!" Then she
began to hunt.

She found Tess in the wardrobe in the hall which led to the other ell
of the big house. But Sammy! Why, it was just as though he had flown
right out of existence!

Tess was soon curious, too, and aided her sister in the search, and
they hunted the three floors of the old Corner House, and it did not
seem as though any small boy could be small enough to hide in half the
places into which the girls looked for Sammy Pinkney!

Dot was a persistent and faithful searcher after more things than one.
If there was anything she really wanted, or wanted to know, she always
stuck to it until she had accomplished her end--or driven everybody
else in the house, as Agnes said, into spasms.

With her Alice-doll hugged in the crook of one arm--the Alice-doll was
her chiefest treasure--Dot hunted high and low for the elusive Sammy
Pinkney. Of course, occasional household happenings interfered with
the search; but Dot took up the quest again as soon as these little
happenings were over, for Sammy still remained in hiding.

For instance, Alfredia Blossom and one of her brothers came with the
family wash in a big basket with which they had struggled through the
snowdrifts. Of course they had to be taken into the kitchen and warmed
and fed on seed cookies. The little boy began to play with Mainsheet,
one of the cats, but Alfredia, the little girls took upstairs with
them in their continued hunt for Sammy.

"Wha' fur all dis traipsin' an' traipsin' up dese stairs?" demanded a
deep and unctuous voice from the dark end of the hall where the
uncarpeted stairs rose to the garret landing.

"Oh, Uncle Rufus!" chorused the little white girls, and:

"Howdy, Gran'pop?" said Alfredia, her face one broad grin.

"Well, if dat ain' de beatenes'!" declared the aged negro who was the
Kenways' man-of-all-work. "Heah you chillen is behin' me, an' I sho'
thought yo' all mus' be on ahaid of me. I sho' did!"

"Why, no, Uncle Rufus; _here_ we are," said Dot.

"I see yo' is, honey. I see yo'," he returned, chuckling gleefully.
"How's Pechunia, Alfredia? Spry?"

"Yes, sir," said his grandchild, bobbing her head on which the tightly
braided "pigtails" stood out like the rays of a very black sun.
"Mammy's all right."

"But who's been trackin' up all dese stairs, if 'twasn't yo' chillen?"
demanded the negro, returning to the source of his complaint. "Snow
jes' eberywhere! Wha's dat Sam Pinkney?" he added suddenly.

"We don't know, Uncle Rufus," said Tess slowly.

"Sammy went and hid from us, and we can't find him," explained Dot.

Uncle Rufus pointed a gnarled finger dramatically at a blob of snow on
the carpet at the foot of the garret stairs.

"Dah he is!" he exclaimed.

"Oh!" gasped Tess.

"Where, Uncle Rufus?" begged Dorothy, somewhat startled.

"Fo' de lan's sake!" murmured Alfredia, her eyes shining. "He mus' a
done melted most away."

"Dah's his feetsteps, chillen," declared the old man. "An' dey come
all de way up de two flights from de back do'. I been gadderin' up
lumps o' snow in dis here shovel--"

He halted with a sharp intake of breath, and raised his head to look
up the garret stairs. It was very dark up there, for the door that
opened into the great, open room extending the full width of the main
part of the old Corner House was closed. In winter the children seldom
went up there to play; and Uncle Rufus never mounted to the garret at
all if he could help it.

"What's dat?" he suddenly whispered.

"Tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap!" went the sound that had caught the old
man's attention. It receded, then drew nearer, then receded. Uncle
Rufus turned a face that had suddenly become gray toward the three
little girls.

"Dat's--dat's de same noise used to be up in dat garret befo' your
Unc' Stower die, chillen. Ma mercy me!"

"Oh!" squealed Alfredia, turning to run. "Dat's de garret ghos'! I's
heard ma mammy tell 'bout dat ol' ha'nt."

But Tess seized her and would not let her go.

"That is perfect nonsense, Alfredia!" she said very sternly. "There is
no such thing as a ghost."

"Don' you be too uppity, chile!" murmured Uncle Rufus.

"A ghost!" cried Dot, coming nearer to the attic stairs. "Oh, my! What
I thought was a goat when I was a very little girl? I remember!"

"Dat's jest de same noise," murmured Uncle Rufus, as the tapping sound
was repeated.

"But Ruthie laid that old ghost," said Tess with scorn. "And it wasn't
anything--much. But this--"

Dot, who had examined the wet marks and lumps of snow on the lower
treads of the garret stairs, suddenly squealed:

"Oh, looky here! 'Tisn't a ghost, but 'tis a goat! Those are Billy
Bumps' footsteps! Of course they are!"

"Sammy Pinkney!" was the chorus of voices, even Uncle Rufus joining
in. Then he added:

"Dat boy is de beatenes'! How come he make dat goat climb all dese
stairs?"

"Why," said Dot, "Billy Bumps can climb right up on the roof of the
hen houses. He can climb just like a--a--well, just like a goat!
Coming upstairs isn't anything hard for Billy Bumps."

"Sammy Pinkney, you come down from there with that goat!" commanded
Tess sternly. "What do you suppose Ruthie or Mrs. MacCall will say?"

The door swung open above, and the wan daylight which entered by the
small garret windows revealed Sammy Pinkney, plump, sturdy and
freckled, stooping to look down at the startled group at the top of
the stairs.

"I spy Sammy!" cried Dot shrilly, just remembering that they were
playing hide and seek--or had been.

But somebody else spied Sammy at that moment, too. The mischievous boy
had led Billy Bumps, the goat, up three long flights of stairs and
turned him loose to go tap, tap, tapping about the bare attic floor on
his hard little hoofs.

Billy spied Sammy as the youth stooped to grin down the stairs at
Uncle Rufus and the little girls. Billy had a hair-trigger temper. He
did not recognize Sammy from the rear, and he instantly charged.

Just as Sammy was going to tell those below how happy he was because
he had startled them, Billy Bumps dashed out of the garret and butted
the unsuspicious boy. Sammy sailed right into the air, arms and legs
spread like a jumping frog, and dived down the stairway, while Billy
stood blatting and shaking his horns at the head of the flight.



CHAPTER II

THE STRAW RIDE


Uncle Rufus and Alfredia had fallen back from the foot of the stairs
under the impression that it was the garret ghost, rather than the
garret goat, that was charging the mischievous Sammy Pinkney. And the
two smallest Corner House girls were much too small to catch Sammy in
full flight.

So it certainly would have gone hard with that youngster had not other
and more able hands intervened. There was a shout from behind Uncle
Rufus, an echoing bark, and a lean boy with a big dog dashed into the
forefront of this exciting adventure.

The boy, if tall and slender, was muscular enough. Indeed, Neale
O'Neil was a trained athlete, having begun his training very young
indeed with his uncle, Mr. William Sorber, of Twomley and Sorber's
Herculean Circus and Menagerie. As the big Newfoundland dog charged
upstairs to hold back the goat, Neale, with outspread arms, met Sammy
in mid-air.

Neale staggered back, clutching the small boy, and finally tripped and
fell on the carpet of the hall. But he was not hurt, nor was Sammy.

"Fo' de good lan' sake!" gasped Uncle Rufus, "what is we a-comin' to?
A goat in de attic, an'--Tessie! yo' call off dat dog or he'll eat
Billy Bumps, complete an' a-plenty!"

The big dog was barking vociferously, while the goat stamped his hoofs
and shook his horns threateningly at the head of the flight of stairs.
Tom Jonah and Billy Bumps never had been friends.

Tess called the old dog down while Sammy and Neale O'Neil scrambled up
from the hall floor. Two older girls appeared, running from the front
of the house--a blonde beauty with fluffy, braided hair, and a more
sedate brunette who was older than her sister by two years or more.

"What _is_ the matter?" demanded the blonde girl. "If this Corner
House isn't the noisiest place in Milton--Ruth, see that goat!"

"Well, Sammy!" exclaimed Ruth Kenway, severely, "why didn't you bring
Scalawag, the pony, into the house as well? That goat!"

"I was goin' to," confessed the rather abashed Sammy. "But I didn't
have time."

"Don't you ever do such a thing again, Sammy Pinkney!" ordered Ruth,
severely.

She had to be severe. Otherwise the younger ones would have completely
overrun the old Corner House and made it unlivable for more sedate and
quiet folk.

The responsibility for the welfare of her three sisters and that of
Aunt Sarah Maltby, who lived with them, had early fallen on Ruth
Kenway's shoulders. In a much larger city than Milton the Kenways had
lived in a very poor tenement and had had a hard struggle to get along
on a small pension, their mother and father both being dead, until Mr.
Howbridge, administrator of Uncle Peter Stower's estate, had looked
the sisters up.

At that time there was some uncertainty as to whom the old Corner
House, standing opposite the Parade Ground in Milton, and the rest of
the Stower property belonged; for Uncle Peter Stower had died, and his
will could not be found. That there was a will, Mr. Howbridge knew,
for he had drawn it for the miserly old man who had lived alone with
his colored servant, Uncle Rufus, in the old Corner House for so long.

The surrogate, however, finally allowed the guardian of the Kenway
sisters to place them in the roomy old house, with their aunt and with
Mrs. MacCall as housekeeper, while the court tangle was straightened
out. This last was satisfactorily arranged, as related in the first
book of this series, entitled "The Corner House Girls."

[Illustration: "Even Ruth could scarcely keep a sober face."]

In successive volumes are related in detail the adventures of the four
sisters and their friends since their establishment in the old Corner
House, telling of their adventures at school, in a summer camp at the
seashore, of their taking part in a school play, of the odd find made
in the old Corner House garret, and on an automobile tour through the
State.

In that sixth volume of the series the Kenways met Luke and Cecile
Shepard, brother and sister, who prove to be delightful friends,
especially to Ruth. Agnes, the second Kenway, already had a faithful
chum and companion in Neale O'Neil. But in Luke, Ruth found a most
charming acquaintance, and in the seventh book, "The Corner House
Girls Growing Up," the friendship of Ruth and Luke is cemented by a
series of incidents that try both of their characters.

Of course, each month saw the four sisters that many days older. They
were actually growing up--"growing out of aye ken!" Mrs. MacCall often
said. Just the same, they still liked fun and frolic and, especially
the younger ones, were just as likely to play pranks as ever.

Even Ruth could scarcely keep a sober face when she looked now from
Sammy Pinkney's rueful countenance to the goat shaking his head at the
top of the garret stairs.

"Now," she said as severely as possible, "I would like to know how you
intend to get him down again."

"More than that, Sam," said Neale: "How did you ever get him up
there?"

"Oh, that was easy!" declared the small boy, his confident grin
returning to his freckled face. "I got a stick and tied to it one of
those old cabbages that Uncle Rufus has got packed away under the
shed. Then," went on the inventive genius, "I went behind Billy and
pushed, holding the cabbage ahead of his nose. Say, that goat would
walk up the side of a house, let alone three flights of stairs, for a
cabbage!"

"Can you beat him?" murmured Neale, vastly delighted by this
confession.

"I feel sometimes as though I would like to beat him," answered Ruth.
"See if you can get Billy Bumps out to his proper quarters, Neale."

But that was not easy, and it took an hour's work and finally the
tying of Billy Bumps "hand and foot" before the sturdy goat was
overcome and returned to his pen.

By this time, however, the snow had stopped. Lunch was served in the
big Corner House dining-room, Neale and Sammy being guests.

It was an hilarious meal, of course. With such a crowd of young folks
about the table--and on Saturday, too!--a sedate time was not
possible. But Ruth tried to keep the younger ones from talking too
loud or being too careless in their table manners.

Aunt Sarah Maltby, sitting at one end of the table, shook her head
solemnly about midway of the meal at Sammy Pinkney.

"Young man," she said in her severest way, "what do you suppose will
become of you? You are the most mischievous boy I have ever seen--and
I have seen a good many in my time."

"Yes'm," said Sammy, hanging his head, for he was afraid of Aunt
Sarah.

"You should think of the future," admonished the old lady. "There is
something besides fun in this world."

"Yes'm," again came from the abashed, if not repentant, Sammy.

"Think what you might make of yourself, young man, if you desired. Do
you realize that every boy born in this country has a chance to be
president?"

"Huh!" ejaculated Sammy, suddenly looking up. "Be president, Miss
Maltby? Huh! I tell you what: I'll sell you my chance for a quarter."

The irrepressible laugh from the other young folks that followed might
have offended Aunt Sarah had not the front door bell rung at that very
moment. Agnes, who was nearest, and much quicker than rheumatic Uncle
Rufus, ran to answer the summons.

"Oh, Ruthie!" her clear voice instantly sounded as far as the
dining-room, "here's Mr. Howbridge's man, and he's got a great big
sleigh at the gate, and--Why, there's Mr. Howbridge himself!"

Not only the oldest Kenway ran to join her sister at the door, but all
the other young folks trooped out. They forgot their plates at the
announcement of the appearance of the girls' guardian.

"Did you e'er see such bairns before?" demanded the housekeeper of
Aunt Sarah. "They have neither appetite nor manners on a Saturday!"

In the big front hall the girls and boys were delightedly greeting Mr.
Howbridge, while the coach-man plowed back to the gate through the
snow to hold the frisky pair of bay horses harnessed to the big pung.
Bits of straw clung to the lawyer's clothing, and he was rosy and
smiling.

"I did not know but what you would already be out, young folks," Mr.
Howbridge announced. "Although I had John harness up just as soon as
the weather broke."

"Oh, Mr. Howbridge," Ruth said, remembering her "manners" after all,
"won't you come in?"

"Won't you come out, Miss Ruth?" responded the man, laughing.

"Oh! _Oh!_ OH!" cried Tess, in crescendo, peering out of the open
door. "That sleigh of Mr. Howbridge's is full of straw."

"A straw-ride!" gasped Agnes, clasping her hands. "Oh, Mr. Howbridge!
have you come to take us out?"

"Of course. All of you. The more the merrier," said their guardian,
who was very fond indeed of his wards and their young friends, and
missed no chance to give them pleasure.

At that statement there was a perfect rout while the young people ran
for their wraps and overshoes. The dessert was forgotten, although it
was Mrs. MacCall's famous "whangdoodle pudding and lallygag sauce."

"Never mind the eats now, Mrs. Mac!" cried Agnes, struggling into her
warm coat. "Have an extra big dinner. We'll come home tonight as
hungry as crows--see if we don't!"

In ten minutes the whole party, the four Kenway sisters, Neale, and
Sammy, and Tom Jonah, had tumbled into the body of the big sleigh
which was so heaped with clean straw that they burrowed right into it
just like mice! The big bay horses were eager to start, and tossed
their heads and made the little silver bells on the harness jingle to
a merry tune indeed.

Mr. Howbridge and Ruth sat up on the wide front seat--the only
seat--with the driver, John. The guardian wished to talk in private
with the oldest Kenway girl. He considered her a very bright girl,
with a very well-balanced mind.

While the younger folks shouted and joked and snowballed each other as
the horses sped along the almost unbroken track, Ruth and her guardian
were quite seriously engaged in conversation.

"I want to get some good advice from you, Miss Ruth Kenway," said the
lawyer, smiling sideways at her. "I know that you have an abundant
supply."

"You are a flatterer," declared the girl, her eyes sparkling
nevertheless. She was always proud to be taken into his confidence.
"Is it something about the estate?"

"No, my dear. Nothing about the Stower estate."

"I was afraid we might be spending too much money," said the girl,
laughing. "You know, I do think we are extravagant."

"Not in your personal expenditures," answered their guardian. "Only in
the Kenways' charities do I sometimes feel like putting on the brake.
But this," he added, "is something different."

"What is it, Mr. Howbridge? I am sure I shall be glad to help you if I
can," Ruth said earnestly.

"Well, now, Miss Ruth," said the lawyer, a quizzical smile wreathing
his lips. "What would you do, for instance, if a pair of twins had
been left to you?"



CHAPTER III

TWINS--AND TROUBLE


Sometimes Mr. Howbridge called her "Martha," because she was so
cumbered with family cares. Sometimes he called her "Minerva," and
acclaimed her to be wise. He so frequently joked with her in this way
that Ruth Kenway was not at all sure the lawyer was in earnest on this
occasion.

"Twins?" she repeated, smiling up at him over the top of her muff.
"Twin _what_? Twin puppies, or kittens, or even fish? I suppose there
are twin fish?"

"You joke me, and I am serious," he said, while the younger ones
shouted and sang amid the straw behind. "I really have had a pair of
twins given to me. I am their guardian, the administrator of their
estate, just as I was made administrator of the Stower estate and
guardian of you girls. It is no joke, I assure you," and he finished
rather ruefully.

"Goodness me! you don't mean it?" cried Ruth.

"Yes, I do. I mean it very much. I do, indeed, think it rather mean.
If all my friends who die and go to a better world leave me their
children to take care of, I shall be in a worse pickle than the Little
Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe."

"Like old Mrs. Bobster at Pleasant Cove," laughed Ruth. "But even she
did not have twins. And if your new family is as troublesome as the
Corner House crowd, what will you ever do?"

"That is what I am asking you, Minerva," he said seriously. "What
would you do if you had had twins left to you?"

"What are they, Mr. Howbridge? Boys or girls?"

"Both."

"Both? Oh! You mean one is a boy and one is a girl."

"Ralph and Rowena Birdsall."

"That is better than having two of either sex, I should say," Ruth
observed with more gravity. "They sort of--sort of balance each
other."

"I guess they are 'some kids,' as our friend Neale would say,"
suddenly laughed Mr. Howbridge. "I knew Birdsall very well. I might
say we were very close friends, both socially and in business. Poor
fellow! The last two years of his life were very sad indeed."

"Has he left plenty for the twins?" asked Ruth.

"More than 'plenty,'" said Mr. Howbridge. "He was very, very wealthy.
Ralph and Rowena will come into very large fortunes when they are of
age. The money is well invested."

"Then you need not worry about that," Ruth said sedately.

"No? The more money, the more worry for the administrator and
guardian," Mr. Howbridge said succinctly. "I can assure you that is
true. But it is what to do for, and with, the twins themselves that
bothers me most just at first."

"How old are they?"

"About twelve. Nice age! All legs and arms and imagination."

"Dear me! Do you know them well?"

"Haven't seen them since they were two little red mites in their
cradle."

"Then you merely imagine they are so very terrible."

"I heard enough about them from Frank, Frank Birdsall. That was their
father's name. He used to be very fond of talking about them. Proud as
Lucifer, he was, of Ralph and Rowena. And his wife--"

"Oh! Of course, the mother is dead, too."

"That was what killed Frank, I verily believe," said Mr. Howbridge
gravely. "She died two years ago at a camp he owned up near the
Canadian border. Red Deer Lodge it is called. Mrs. Birdsall was flung
from her horse.

"It crushed her husband. He brought the children away from there (they
had spent much of their time up in the wilderness, for they loved it)
and never went back again.

"That's another piece of work he's left me. Because he did not want
ever to see the Lodge again, I have to go up there--now, in
mid-winter--and attend to something that's been hanging fire too long
already. It is a nuisance."

"A camp in the woods in mid-winter must be an enjoyable place," Ruth
said thoughtfully. "You can take your guns; and you can snowshoe; can
skate; maybe--"

"And, as our good Mrs. Mac would say, eat fried snowballs and icicle
soup!" finished Mr. Howbridge. "Ugh! It's a fine place, Red Deer
Lodge, but I shall take only my man and we'll have to depend on some
old guide or trapper to do for us. No, I look forward to no pleasant
time at Red Deer Lodge, I assure you."

This conversation was not carried on in sequence. The party in the
body of the sleigh frequently interrupted. Sammy managed to dance all
over the sleigh, and half a dozen times he was on the point of
pitching out into the drifts.

"Let him!" snapped Agnes at last. "Let him be buried in the snow, and
we won't stop for him--not until we come back."

"The poor kid would be an icicle then," objected Neale O'Neil.

"And he'd miss the nice hot chocolate and buns Mr. Howbridge says we
are to have at Crowder's Inn," put in Tess, the thoughtful.

Dot squeezed her Alice-doll close to her little bosom and made up her
mind that that precious possession should not pop out by accident into
a drift and be left behind.

"I don't suppose I should have brought her," Dot confessed to Tess. "I
should have given the sailor-boy baby an airing instead."

"Oh, yes! Nosmo King Kenway," murmured her sister.

Dot hurried on, ignoring the suggestive name of the sailor-boy baby
who had been inadvertently christened after a sign on a barn door.

"You know," the smallest Corner House girl said, "Alice's complexion
is so delicate. Of course, Neale had her all made over in the doll's
hospital; but I am always afraid that the wind will crack it."

"I wouldn't worry so about her, Dot," advised Tess.

"You would if Alice were your baby," declared Dot. "And you know she
is delicate. She's never been the same since Lillie Treble buried her
with the dried apples in our back yard."

Meanwhile Neale O'Neil had caught a sentence or two flung back by the
wind from the high front seat. He bobbed up between Mr. Howbridge and
Ruth.

"What's all this about red deer, and snowshoes, and eating icicle
soup?" he asked. "Sounds awfully interesting. Are you planning to go
hunting, Mr. Howbridge?"

"I've got to go to a hunting lodge, clear up state, my boy," said the
lawyer. "And I dread it just as much as you young folks would enjoy
it."

"It would be fine, I think," murmured Ruth.

"Oh, bully!" shouted Agnes, suddenly standing up in the straw and
clinging to Neale for support. "To a regular, sure-enough winter camp?
Then Carrie and Lucy Poole, and Trix Severn can't crow over us any
more! They went, last year, to Letterbeg Camp, up beyond Hoosac."

"But, goodness, Agnes, wait till we are asked, do!" admonished Ruth.
"I never saw or heard of such precipitate young ones."

"Young one yourself!" grumbled Agnes.

"It's my fault," said the good-natured Neale. "Aggie misunderstood
what I said."

"No need to worry about it," said Mr. Howbridge cheerfully. "If you
young folks really want to come with me--"

"Oh, Mr. Howbridge!" exclaimed Ruth, in a tone that showed she,
herself, had been much taken with the idea.

"Why, I hate to go alone. I can send up some servants to open the
Lodge. Frank was always begging me to make use of it. After Mrs.
Birdsall was killed he never would go near the place, as I said.
Though I believe the twins, Ralph and Rowena, have been up there with
a caretaker and a governess, or somebody to look out for them."

"Where are they now?" asked Ruth.

"The Birdsall place in Arlington was closed soon after Frank died,
three months ago. His old butler and his wife live in a nice home near
by, and they have the children and their governess with them."

"With just servants?" murmured Ruth.

"They are very suitable people," declared Mr. Howbridge, as though he
felt the faint criticism in the girl's words. "I went myself and saw
Rodgers and Mrs. Rodgers. The governess and the twins were out for a
drive, so I did not see them."

"The poor things!" sighed Ruth.

"My!" exclaimed Agnes, "those children are worse off than we Kenways
were. They haven't got anybody like Ruth, Mr. Howbridge."

"That is true," agreed the lawyer. "But what am I to do? Separate
them? Send them to boarding school--the boy one way and the girl
another?"

"Gee! that would be tough, Mr. Howbridge," declared Neale O'Neil, with
considerable feeling for the unfortunate twins.

"I don't see what I'm to do," complained the lawyer.

"They should have a real home," Ruth stated, with some severity.
"Sending them to boarding school is dodging the issue. So is leaving
them wholly in the care of servants."

"Who would take in two tearing and wearing children, twelve years
old?" demanded Mr. Howbridge, on the defensive.

"Perhaps the fault does go back to the parents--to the father, at
least," admitted Ruth. "He should have made provision for his children
before he died."

"I suppose you think the duty devolves upon me," said Mr. Howbridge,
rather grumpily. "Should I take them into my house? Should I break up
the habits of years for two half-wild children?"

"Oh, I don't know that," Ruth told him brightly. "It's one of those
things one must decide for oneself, isn't it?"

There was not much more said after that during the ride about the
twins, Ralph and Rowena Birdsall. But Red Deer Lodge!

The idea of going to a real camp in winter was taken up by everybody
in the party, for even Tom Jonah barked. In the depths of the
wilderness, with wild woods, and wild animals, and perhaps wild men!
(this in Sammy's mind) all about the Lodge! The freckled boy
considered the idea even superior to his long cherished desire to run
away to be a pirate.

"I'll get me a bow-arrer and learn to shoot before we start," Sammy
declared, deluding himself, as he always did, with the idea that he
was to be a member of the party in any case.

"But you don't even know if your mother'll let you go, Sammy Pinkney!"
cried Tess.

"She'll let me go if Aggie says I may," declared Sammy. "I can, can't
I, Aggie?" grabbing her by her plaid skirt and almost pulling her over
backwards.

"Stop! You can can that!" declared the next-to-the-oldest Corner House
girl slangily. "What do you think I am--a bell rope, that you yank me
that way?"

"I can go to that Red Deer Lodge, can't I?" insisted the youngster.

"You can start right now, for all I care," said Agnes, rather
grumpily, and giving Sammy no further attention.

But that was enough for Sammy Pinkney. He considered that he had a
particular invitation to accompany the party into the woods, and he
would tell his mother so when he reached home.

But Dot began to be worried.

"Just see here, Tess Kenway!" she exclaimed suddenly. "Do you suppose
my Alice-doll--or any of the other dollies--can stand it?"

"Stand what?" her sister, quite excited, asked.

"Living in tents in winter?"

"In what tents?" asked the amazed Tess.

"Up there at Red Darling Camp--"

"Red _Deer_!"

"Well, I knew it was some nice word," Dot, undisturbed, said. "But
Alice is so delicate."

"Why, Dot Kenway! we won't have to live in tents," said Tess.

"We did in that other camp we went to," said the smaller girl. "Don't
you 'member? And the tent 'most blowed over one night, and you and I
and Tom Jonah went sailing in a boat? And that clam man--"

"But, Dot!" cried Tess, "that was a summer camp. This is a winter one.
And it's all made of logs, and there are doors and windows and
fireplaces and--and everything!"

"Oh!" murmured Dot. "I wondered how they'd keep Jack Frost out. And
he's stinging my ears right now, Tess Kenway."

The roadside inn was in sight now, and presently the big sleigh pulled
up before it with the bells jangling and the horses steaming, as Dot
remarked, "just as though they had boiling water in 'em and the smoke
was leaking out."

The whole party ran into the grillroom and chased Jack Frost away with
hot chocolate and cakes. There the idea of going to Red Deer Lodge for
the Christmas holidays was well thrashed out.

"Of course, I will send up my own servants and supplies. Being
administrator of the estate, there will be no question of my using the
Lodge as I see fit," Mr. Howbridge said cheerfully. "And I shall be
delighted to have you young folks with me.

"I am really going to confer with an old timber cruiser about the
standing timber contracted for by the Neven Lumber Company before
Frank Birdsall died. This timber cruiser--"

"It sounds like a sea-story!" interrupted Agnes, roguishly.

"What is a timber cruiser?" demanded Ruth, quite as puzzled as her
sister.

"It is not a 'what' but a 'who,'" laughed Mr. Howbridge. "In his way,
Ike M'Graw is quite a famous character up there. A timber cruiser is a
man who knows timber so well that just by walking through a wood lot
and looking he can number and mark down the trees that are sound and
will make good timber.

"Ike has written me through a friend (for the old man cannot use a pen
himself, save to make his cross) that he has been over the entire
Birdsall estate and that his figures and the figures of the Nevens
people are too far apart. I fear that the lumber company is trying to
put something over on me, and as administrator of the estate I must
look out for the twins' interests."

"You are more careful of their money, Mr. Howbridge, than you are of
the twins themselves, are you not?" Ruth suggested, in a low voice.

"Now, don't tell me that!" he cried. "I really cannot take those
children into my house."

"Well, you know," she told him, smiling, "you brought this on yourself
by asking my advice. And you intend to fill that Lodge up there with
us 'young ones.'"

"But I shall have you to manage for me, Miss Ruth," declared the
lawyer. "That is different."

"Perhaps we might take the twins along with us, and you'd get used to
them," Ruth said. "You say they like it up there in the wilderness."

"Frank said they were crazy about it."

"Well?"

"You don't know what you are letting yourselves in for. Ralph and
Rowena are young savages."

"Can't be much worse than Sammy, yonder," chuckled Neale, who, with
Agnes, was much interested in this part of the planning.

"Oh, Ruthie!" exclaimed the second Kenway sister suddenly, clasping
her hands. "There's Cecile and Luke!"

"Where--what--?"

"I mean we invited them to come to the Corner House for the holidays."

"Ah-ha!" exclaimed Mr. Howbridge promptly. "The Shepards? Of course! I
had already included them--in my mind."

"Mr. Howbridge! It will be more than a party. It will be a
convention," gasped Ruth.

"It's such a lonely place that we'll need a big crowd to make it worth
while going at all," the lawyer laughed. "Yes. Cecile and Luke are
invited. I will have them written to at once--in addition to your own
invitation to them, Miss Ruth."

"Dear me! you are just the best guardian, Mr. Howbridge," sighed Agnes
ecstatically.

"And I think," Ruth added, "that you ought to think seriously of
taking the Birdsall twins with us."

That was not decided at that time, however. And when the party got
back to the old Corner House, just across from the Parade Ground at
the head of Main Street, Mr. Howbridge was met with a piece of news
that shocked him much more than had the thought of the twins making
their home with him in his quiet bachelor residence.

A clerk from the lawyer's office awaited Mr. Howbridge. There was a
telegram from Rodgers, the Birdsalls' ex-butler. It read:

  "Ralph and Rowena away since yesterday noon. Hospitals searched.
  Cannot have pond dragged. Two feet of ice. Wire instructions.
                                                     --Rodgers."



CHAPTER IV

ANTICIPATIONS


Mr. Howbridge, before he hurried away to his office, asked Ruth:

"What do you think of that? And you suggest my keeping those
twins--those two wild youngsters--in my home!"

"I will tell you what I think of that telegram," said the oldest
Kenway girl, handing the yellow sheet of paper back to him. "I think
that man Rodgers is not a fit person to have charge of the boy and
girl."

"Why not?" he asked in surprise.

"Imagine thinking of dragging a pond in mid-winter--or at any other
time of the year--for two healthy children! First idea the man seems
to have. I guess the twins had reason for running away."

"Hear! Hear!" cried Agnes, who deliberately listened.

"Why, they have known Rodgers all their lives!"

"Perhaps that is why they have run away," said Ruth, smiling. "Rodgers
sounds to me--from his telegram--as though he had one awful lack."

"You frighten me. What lack?"

"Lack of a sense of humor. And that is fatal in the character of
anybody who has a pair of twins on his hands."

Mr. Howbridge threw up his own hands in amazement. "I must lack that
myself," he said. "I see nothing funny, at least, in the idea of
having Ralph and Rowena Birdsall in my house."

"It helps," said Ruth. "A sense of humor is what has kept me going all
these years," she added demurely. "If you think a pair of twins can be
compared to Tess and Dot and Sammy Pinkney--to say nothing of Aggie
and Neale--"

"Oh! Oh!" shouted the two latter in chorus.

"You have a mean mind, Ruthie Kenway," declared the blonde beauty.

"I knew I wasn't much liked," admitted Neale O'Neil. "But that is the
unkindest cut of all."

"You have had experience, I grant you," said Mr. Howbridge, about to
take his departure. "But I foresee much trouble in the case of these
Birdsall twins."

And he was a true prophet there. The twins had utterly disappeared.
The Arlington police--indeed, all the county officers together--could
find no trace of the orphaned brother and sister.

Mr. Howbridge put private detectives on the case. The twins seemed to
have disappeared as utterly as though they really were under the two
feet of ice on Arlington Pond.

The lawyer searched personally, advertised in the newspapers, and even
offered a reward for the apprehension of the children. A fortnight
passed without success.

The governess, Miss Mason, was discharged, for it seemed unnecessary
to pay her salary when there were no children for her to teach.
Rodgers and his wife could give no aid in the search. They were rather
relieved, if the truth were told, to be free of the twins.

"Master Ralph was hard enough to get along with," the ex-butler
admitted. "But Miss Rowena was worse. They wanted to go back into
their own house to live. They could not understand why it was shut up,
sir," and the old serving man shook his head.

"They seemed to have taken a dislike to you, sir," he added to Mr.
Howbridge. "They said you 'hadn't any right to boss.' That is the way
they put it."

"But I never even saw them," returned the lawyer. "I didn't try 'to
boss' them."

"Well, you know, sir," Rodgers explained, "I had to give 'em reasons
for things. You have to with children like Master Ralph and Miss
Rowena. So I had to tell 'em you said they were to do this and that."

"Oh! Ah! I see!" muttered the guardian.

He began to believe that perhaps Ruth Kenway was right. He should have
taken more of a personal interest in Ralph and Rowena. They had
evidently gained from the ex-butler an entirely wrong impression of
what a guardian was.

But the disappearance of the Birdsall twins did not make any change in
the plans for the mid-winter visit to Red Deer Lodge. Mr. Howbridge
had to go there in any case, and he would not disappoint the Kenways
and their friends.

As it chanced, full three weeks were given the Milton schools at the
Christmas Holiday time. There were repairs to make in the heating
arrangements of both high and grammar school buildings. The schools
would close the week before Christmas and not open again until the
week following New Year's Day.

If Sammy Pinkney had had his way, the schools would never have opened
again!

"I don't see what they have to learn you things for, anyway,"
complained the youngster. "You can find things out for yourself."

"That's rather an expensive way to learn, I've always heard," said
Ruth, admonishingly.

"Huh!" grumbled Sammy, "teachers don't know much, anyway. Look!
There's what Miss Grimsby told us in physics the other day--all about
what you're made of, and how you're made, and the names you can call
yourself--if you want to.

"You know: Your legs and arms are _limbs_--and all that. She told us
the middle part of our bodies is the _trunk_, and she asked us all if
we understood that. Some said 'yes,' and some didn't say nothing,"
went on the excited boy.

"'Don't you know the middle of the body is the trunk?' she asked Patsy
Roach. And what do you suppose he told Miss Grimsby?"

"I can't imagine," said Agnes, for this was in the evening and the
young people were gathered about the sitting-room table with their
lesson books.

"He told her: 'You ought to go to the circus, Miss Grimsby, and see
the elephant,'" giggled Sammy. "And I guess Patsy was right. Huh!
_Trunk!_" he added with scorn.

"Association of ideas," chuckled Neale O'Neil, who was likewise
present as usual during home study hour. "I heard that one of the kids
in Dot's grade gave Miss Andrews an extremely bright answer the other
day."

"What was that, Neale?" asked Agnes, who would rather talk than study
at any time.

"History. Miss Andrews asked one little girl who discovered America,
and the answer was, 'Ohio'!"

"Oh! Oh!" murmured Agnes, while even Ruth smiled.

"Yes," chuckled Neale. "Miss Andrews said, 'No; Columbus discovered
America,' and the kid said: 'Yes'm. That was his first name.'"

"She got her geography and history mixed," said Ruth, smiling.

"That was Sadie Goronofsky's half-sister, Becky," explained Dot. "She
isn't very bright."

"You bet she isn't bright!" snorted Sammy Pinkney. "Her pop's got a
little tailor shop with another man down on Meadow Street, and they
are always fighting."

"Who are always fighting?" asked Neale quizzically. "Becky and her
father or Becky and her father's partner?"

"Smartie! Becky's pop and the other man," answered Sammy. "And their
landlord was putting in a new store-front, and Becky's father put out
a sign telling folks they were still working--_you_ know. Becky said
it read: 'Business going on during altercations,' instead of
'alterations.' And 'altercations' means fights," concluded the wise
Sammy.

"Just see," remarked Ruth quietly, "how satisfied you children should
be that you know so much more than your little mates. You so
frequently bring home tales about them."

"Aw, now, Ruth," mumbled Sammy, who was bright enough to note her
characteristic criticism.

"I would try," the oldest Kenway said admonishingly, "to bring home
only the pleasant stories about my little school friends."

"Oh! _I_ know a nice story about Allie Newman's little brother,"
declared Dot eagerly.

"That little terror!" murmured Agnes.

"He is one tough little kid," admitted Neale O'Neil, in an undertone.

"What about the little Newman boy?" asked Ruth indulgently. "And then
we must all study."

"Why," said Dot, big-eyed and very much in earnest, "you know Robbie
Newman doesn't go to school yet; and he's an awful trial to his
mother."

"That is gossip, Dot," Tess interposed severely.

But the smallest Corner House girl was not to be derailed from the
main line of her story, and went right on:

"He was naughty the other day and his mamma told him she'd shut him up
somewhere all by himself. 'If you do, Mamma,' he said, 'I'll just
smash ev'rything in the room.'"

"Oh-oo!" gasped Tess, proving herself to be quite as much interested
in the "gossip" as the others around the evening lamp. "What a wicked
boy!"

"But he didn't smash anything," Dot was quick to explain. "For his
mother put him right out in the henhouse."

"The henhouse! Fancy!" said Agnes.

"There wasn't anything for him to smash there," said Dot. "But when
she had locked him in, Robbie put his head out of the little door
where the hens go in and out, and he called after her:

"'Mamma, you can lock me in here all you want to; but I won't lay any
eggs!'"

"I am not sure that it isn't gossip," chuckled Agnes, when the general
laugh had subsided.

"That will be all now," Ruth said with severity. "Study time is here."

But there was another and more important subject in all their minds
than either school happenings, the eccentricities of their friends, or
the lesson books themselves.

The holidays! The thought of going to Red Deer Lodge! A winter
vacation in the deep woods, and to live in "picnic" fashion, as they
supposed, lent a charm to the plan that delighted every member of the
Corner House party.

Ruth and Agnes wrote to the Shepards--to Cecile at home with her Aunt
Lorena, and to Luke at college--and they were immediately enamored of
the plan and returned enthusiastic acceptances of the invitation,
thanking Mr. Howbridge, of course, as well.

The lawyer was having a great deal to do at this time, and he came to
the old Corner House more than once to talk about the Birdsall twins
to Ruth and the others. As he said, it gave him comfort to talk over
something he did not know anything about with the oldest Corner House
sister.

He sat one stormy day in the cozy sitting-room, with Dot and the
Alice-doll on one knee and Tess and Almira, who was now a quite
grown-up cat and had kittens of her own, on his other knee. All the
Corner House cats were pets, no matter how grown-up they were.

"It is worrying me a great deal, Ruthie," he said to the sympathetic
girl. "Look at a day like this. We don't know where those poor
children are. Rodgers says they could have had but little money. In
fact, they scarcely knew what money was for, having always had
everything needful supplied them."

"Twelve-year-old children nowadays, Mr. Howbridge," said Ruth, "are
usually quite capable of looking after themselves."

"You think so?" queried the worried guardian.

"You remember what Agnes was at twelve. And look at our Tess."

The lawyer pinched Tess' cheek. "I see what she is. And she is going
to be twelve some day, I suppose," he agreed. "But what would she
and--say--Sammy Pinkney do, turned out alone into the world?"

"Oh!" cried Dot, the little pitcher with the big ears, "Sammy and I
went off alone to be pirates. And I'm younger than Tess."

"I hope I shouldn't run away with Sammy!" said Tess, in some disdain.

"Why," Dot put in, "suppose Sammy was your brother? I felt quite
sisterly to him that time we were hid in the canalboat."

"I guess that we all feel 'sisterly' to Sammy," laughed Ruth. "And I
am sure, Tess, you would know what to do if you were away from home
with him."

"I guess I would," agreed Tess severely. "I'd march him right back
again."

The lawyer joined in the laugh. But he was none the less anxious about
Ralph and Rowena Birdsall. There was an undercurrent of feeling in his
mind, too, that he had been derelict in his duty toward his wards.

"Three months after their father died, and I had not seen them," he
said more than once. "I blame myself. As you say, Ruth, I should have
won their confidence in that time."

"Oh, Mr. Howbridge, you are not to blame for that! You are unused to
children, anyway."

"But it was selfishness on my part--arrant selfishness, Frank's
children should have been my personal care. But, twins!" and he
groaned.

One might have been amused by his bachelor horror of the thought of
two children in his quiet home; only the situation was really too
serious to breed laughter. Two twelve-year-old children striking out
into the world for themselves might get into all sorts of mischief and
trouble.

The lawyer had done all he could, however, toward recovering the
runaways. The police of two States were on the watch for them, and
private detectives were likewise hunting for them. The advertisements
Mr. Howbridge put in the papers brought no helpful replies. There
seemed to be many children wandering about the country, singly and in
pairs, but none of them answered at all the description of the
Birdsall twins.

Meanwhile the Christmas holidays were approaching. Cecile Shepard
arrived at the old Corner House a week ahead of the date set for the
closing of school. Luke, however, would join the party at Culberton,
at the foot of Long Lake, nearly at the far end of which, and deep in
the woods, was Red Deer Lodge.

Cecile was a very pretty girl, as dark as Agnes was light. She went to
school every day with Agnes and sat beside her as a "visitor" during
the remainder of the term.

Of course, there was much to do to prepare for this mid-winter venture
into the woods. And, too, there were certain plans for Christmas to be
carried out by the Corner House girls, whether they were to be at home
on Christmas Day or not.

The Stower estate tenants on Meadow Street must not be forgotten.



CHAPTER V

MERRY TIMES


Uncle Peter Stower, in dying and leaving his four grandnieces the
Milton property, had left them, in addition (or so Ruth Kenway and her
sisters concluded), the duty of overlooking the welfare of certain
poor people who occupied the Stower tenements on Meadow Street, over
toward the canal.

These tenants were mostly poor people; but Mrs. Kranz, who kept a
delicatessen store and grocery, and Joe Maroni, whom Dot said was
"both an ice man and a nice man" were two of the tenants who were
well-to-do.

Joe Maroni, whose family lived in the corner cellar under Mrs. Kranz's
store, sold coal and wood, as well as ice, and had a vegetable and
fruit stand on the sidewalk. Mrs. Kranz, the large German woman, was
one of the Kenway girls' staunchest friends. Both these shopkeepers
were sure to aid the Corner House sisters in their plans for
Christmas.

The year before the children of the Stower estate tenants had appeared
under the bedroom windows of the old Corner House early on Christmas
morning and sung Christmas chants.

"Agnes said, just as though it was in old fuel times," Dot eagerly
told Cecile Shepard. "And Aggie wanted to throw large yeast cakes
among 'em. You know, like Lady Bountiful did, and--"

"Oh! _Oh!_ OH!" gasped Tess, in horror and amazement. "Why will you,
Dot, mix up your words so? It wasn't fuel times, it was feudal times."

"And why throw away the yeast cakes?" demanded Cecile, in amused
wonder.

"Dear me!" exclaimed Tess, with vast disdain. "She means _largess_.
That means gifts. Dot thought it was 'large yeast.' I never did hear
of such a child!"

"Well, I don't care!" wailed Dot, who did not like to be taken to task
for mispronouncing words, or for other mistakes in English. "I don't
think you are at all polite, Tessie Kenway, and I'm going to tell
Ruth--so now!"

Which proved that even the little Corner House girls had their little
spats. Everything did not always go smoothly.

However, the plans for the entertainment of the Meadow Street families
were made without any trouble. It was decided to have a great tree for
the whole crowd, and to set it up in a small hall on Meadow Street,
where certain lodges held their meetings, the date set for the
entertainment being a week in advance of Christmas Eve--the night
before the Corner House party was to start for Red Deer Lodge.

Mrs. Kranz took charge of the dressing of the tree, for when she was a
child in the old country a Christmas tree was the great annual feast.
Not a child among those belonging in the Stower tenements was
forgotten--nor the grown folk, either, for that matter.

Tess and Dot did their share in the purchasing of the presents and
preparing them for the tree. They both delighted in shopping, and
their favorite mart of trade was the five and ten cent store on Main
Street.

Such a jumble of things as they bought! The beauty of buying in the
five and ten cent store is (or so the children declared) that one can
get so much for a dollar.

Every afternoon for a week before the day set for the pre-Christmas
celebration, the little folks trudged down to their favorite emporium
and came back with their arms laden with a variety of articles to
delight the hearts and eyes of the Meadow Street children.

Dolls and dolls' toys were of course Dot's favorite purchases. Tess
went in for the more practical things--some to be hung on the tree
marked with her own private card for the grown-up members of the
expected audience.

In any case, and altogether, there was gathered at the old Corner
House to be hung on the Christmas tree for the Meadow Street people a
two-bushel basket of little packages, mostly from the five and ten
cent store.

Ruth and Agnes saw to it that there were plenty of practical things
for the poor children, too: warm coats, caps, leggings, shoes,
mittens--a dozen other useful things which would be needed by the
younger Goronofskys, the Pedermans, the O'Harras, and all the rest of
the conglomerate crew occupying the Stower tenements.

And they had _four_ "Santa Clauses"! Although, more properly speaking,
they were "the Misses Santa Claus." The Kenway sisters, in the
prescribed uniforms of the good St. Nicholas, presided over the
distribution of the presents from the illuminated tree.

Dot had every faith in the reality of Santa Claus, nor would her
sisters disabuse her of that cheerful belief.

"But, of course," the smallest Corner House girl said, "I know Santa
can't be everywhere at once. And this is a week too early for him,
anyway. And on Christmas Eve he does have to rush around so to get to
everybody's house!

"We're just going to make believe be Santa, Sammy," she explained to
that small boy. "And we're not going to be like you were last
Christmas, Sammy, and fall down the chimney and frighten everybody
so."

"Huh!" grumbled Sammy, to whom his fiasco as a Santa Claus in the old
Corner House chimney was a sore subject. "If that old brick hadn't
fallen I wouldn't have come down so sudden. And my mom burned my Santa
Claus suit up in the furnace because it was all over soot."

This night in the Meadow Street hall was long to be remembered. Mr.
Howbridge made a speech. It was a winter when work was hard to get,
and at Ruth's personal request he announced that a dollar a month
would be taken off every tenant's rent during the "hard times."

Mrs. Kranz and Joe Maroni, being in so much better circumstances than
the majority of the Stower estate tenants, gave many things for the
Christmas tree, too. There was candy, and cakes, and popcorn, and nuts
for the little folk, and hot drinks and cake and sandwiches for the
adults.

Altogether it was a night long to be remembered by the Corner House
girls. Even the little ones had begun to understand their duty toward
these poor people who helped swell the Kenway family bank account. The
estate might not now draw down the fifteen per cent. that Uncle Peter
Stower always demanded; but the income from the Meadow Street
tenements was considerable, and the tenants were now happier and more
content.

"It must be lovely," Cecile Shepard confessed to Ruth and Agnes, "to
have so many folks to look out for, and be kind to, and who like you.
And Ruthie has such a way with her. I can see the women all admire
her."

Agnes began to giggle. "Who wouldn't admire her?" she said. "Ruth
believes in helping folks just the way they want to be helped. She
doesn't furnish only flannels and cough sirup to the poor. Oh, no!"

"Now, Agnes!" admonished the older girl, blushing.

"I don't care! It's too good a joke, and it shows just why those
people over on Meadow Street worship Ruth," went on the younger
sister. "Did you see that biggest Pederman girl? Olga, the one with
the white eyebrows and no lashes?"

"Yes," said Cecile. "Her face looks almost like a blank wall."

"And a white-washed wall at that," went on Agnes. "She's a grown
woman, but she hasn't any too much intelligence. She was awfully sick
with diphtheria last spring, and Ruth went to see her--carrying gifts,
of course."

"Things to eat don't much appeal to you when you have diphtheria and
can't swallow," put in Ruth.

"I know that," chuckled Agnes. "And what do you think, Cecile? Ruthie
asked Olga what she would like to have--if she could get her anything
special?

"'Yes, Miss Wuth,' she croaked. Olga can't pronounce her 'R's' very
well. 'Yes, Miss Wuth, I've been wantin' a pair of them dangly jet
eawin's for so long!' And what do you suppose?" Agnes exploded in
conclusion. "Ruth went and bought them for her! She had them on
tonight."

"I don't care," Ruth said, with conviction. "The earrings came nearer
to curing Olga than all Dr. Forsyth's medicine. He said so himself."

"What do you think of that?" giggled Agnes.

"I think it was awfully sweet of our Ruth," declared Cecile, hugging
the oldest Kenway sister.

Mrs. MacCall, for her part, was not at all sure that the Kenway
sisters did not "encourage pauperism" in thus helping their tenants.
Mrs. MacCall was conservative in the extreme.

"No," Ruth said earnestly, "the dear little babies, and the little
folks with empty 'tummies,' are not paupers, Mrs. MacCall. Nor are
their parents such. We haven't a lazy tenant family in the Stower
houses."

"That may be as may be," said the housekeeper, shaking her head. "But
they are too frequently out o' work to suit me. And guidness knows
there's plenty to do in the world."

"They're just unfortunate," reiterated Ruth. "We have been lucky. We
never did a thing, we Kenways, to get Uncle Peter's wealth. We've had
better luck than the Pedermans and Goronofskys."

"Hush, my lassie! If you undertake to level things in this world for
all, you've a big job cut out for you. Nae doot of that."

Although the housekeeper was often opposed both in opinion and
practice to Ruth and her sisters, the latter were eager to have Mrs.
MacCall go with the vacation party as chaperone and manager. And,
indeed, had Mrs. MacCall not agreed, it is doubtful if Ruth would have
accepted Mr. Howbridge's invitation to go into the North Woods to Red
Deer Lodge.

Mrs. MacCall sacrificed her own desires and some comfort to accompany
the young folks; but she did it cheerfully because of her love for the
Corner House girls.

Aunt Sarah Maltby would remain at home to oversee things at the Corner
House; and of course Linda and Uncle Rufus would be with her.

Trunks had been packed the day before the early celebration of
Christmas in the Meadow Street lodge room, and had been sent on by
train with the serving people that Hedden, Mr. Howbridge's butler and
factotum, had engaged to go ahead of the vacation party and prepare
Red Deer Lodge for occupancy over the holidays.

Of course, Neale O'Neil and the older girls had their bags to carry
with them, and Sammy Pinkney came over to the old Corner House bright
and early on the morning of departure, lugging his bulging suitcase.

"And I hope," Agnes said with severity, "that you haven't worms in
that suitcase, with a lot of other worthless truck, as you had when
you went on our automobile tour, Sammy."

"Huh! where'd I dig fishworms this time of year?" responded the boy
with scorn. "Besides, mom packed this bag, and she's left out a whole
lot of things I'll need up there in the woods. She won't even let me
take my bow-arrer and a steel trap I got down at the blacksmith shop
by the canal. Of course, the latch of the trap was broke, but we might
have fixed it and used it to catch wolves with."

"Oh, my!" squealed Dot. "_Wolves?_ Why, they are savage!"

"Course they are savage," said Sammy.

"But--but Mr. Howbridge, our guardian, wouldn't let any wolves stay
around that Darling Lodge. They might eat my Alice-doll!"

"Sure," agreed the boy, as Agnes was not within hearing. "Like enough
the wolf pack will chase us when we are sleighing, and you'll have to
throw that doll over to pacificate 'em so we can escape with our
lives. They do that in Russia. Throw the babies away to save folks'
lives."

"Well!" exclaimed Tess, half doubting this bold statement. "Babies
must be awful cheap in Russia. Cheaper than they are here. You know we
can't get a baby in this house, and we all would like to have one."

But Dot had been stricken dumb by Sammy's wild statement. She hugged
the Alice-doll to her breast, and her eyes were wide with fear.

"Do you suppose that may happen, Tess?" she whispered.

"What may happen?"

"That we get chased by wolfs and--and have to throw somebody overboard
to 'em?"

"I don't believe so," said Tess, after all somewhat impressed by
Sammy's assurance.

"Well, anyway," said Dot, "I was only going to take Alice up there to
that Lodge; but I'll take the sailor-doll, too. He can stand being
thrown to the wolves better than Alice. He's tougher."

If it had not already been decided to take Tom Jonah, the big
Newfoundland, along on this winter trip, Dot might really have balked
at going.



CHAPTER VI

ON THE WINGS OF THE WIND


However, aside from Dot's disturbance of mind over the trip into the
deep woods where, on occasion, babies had to be flung to wolves, there
was something that disturbed Ruth on this morning which almost made
her doubt the advisability of starting for Red Deer Lodge.

Ruth had been up as early as Linda, the Finnish maid. There was still
much to do, and the sleigh would be at the door at eight-thirty. When
Linda came down, however, she stopped at Ruth's door and said she had
heard Uncle Rufus groaning most of the night. The old colored man was
undoubtedly suffering from one of his recurrent rheumatic attacks.

Ruth hurried up to the third story of the house and to Uncle Rufus'
room.

"Yes'm, Missie Ruth," groaned the old man. "Ah's jes' knocked right
down ag'in. Ah don' believe Ah's goin' to be able to git up a-tall to
see yo' off dis mawnin'."

"Poor Uncle Rufus!" said the oldest Corner House girl,
commiseratingly. "I believe I'd better telephone to Dr. Forsyth and
let him come--"

"No'm. Ah don' want dat Dr. Forsyth to come a-near me, Missie Ruth,"
interrupted Uncle Rufus.

"Why, of course you do," said the girl. "He gave you something before
that helped you. Don't you remember?"

"Ah don' say he don' know he's business, Missie Ruth," said the old
man, shaking his head. "Mebbe his med'cine's jest as good as de nex'
doctor's med'cine. But Ah don' want Dr. Forsyth no mo'."

"Why not?"

"Dr. Forsyth done insulted me," said the old man, with rising
indignation. "He done talk about me."

"Why, Uncle Rufus!"

"Sho' has!" repeated the black man. "An' Ah nebber did him a mite o'
harm. He done say things about me dat I can't nebber overlook--no,
ma'am!"

"Why, Uncle Rufus!" murmured the worried Ruth, "I think you must be
mistaken. I can't imagine Dr. Forsyth being unkind, or saying unkind
things about one."

"He sho' did," declared the obstinate old man. "And he done put it in
writin'. You jes' reach me ma best coat, Missie Ruth. It's all set
down dar on ma burial papers."

Of course, Uncle Rufus, like most frugal colored people, belonged to a
"burial association"--an insurance scheme by which one must die to
win.

"What could Dr. Forsyth have said about you that you think is unkind,
Uncle Rufus?" repeated Ruth, as she came into the room to get the
coat.

"Ah tell yo' what he done said!" exclaimed the old man, indignantly.
"Dr. Forsyth say Ah was a drunkard an' a joy-rider! Dat's what he say!
An' de goodness know, Missie Ruth, I ain't tetch a drap of gin fo'
many a long year, and I ain't nebber step foot in even your
automobile. No'm! He done insulted me befo' de members of ma burial
lodge, an' I don' want nothin' mo' to do wid dat white man--no'm!"

He spread out the insurance policy with a flourish and pointed to the
examining doctor's notation regarding Uncle Rufus' former illness:
"Autotoxication."

"Ah's a respectable man," urged Uncle Rufus, evidently hurt to the
quick by what he thought was Dr. Forsyth's uncalled-for criticism. "Ah
don't get drunk in no auto--no'm! An' I don't go scootin' roun' de
country in one o' dem 'bominations. Dere is niggers w'at owns one o'
dem flivvers an' drinks gin wid it. But not Unc' Rufus--no'm!"

"I never would accuse you of such reprehensible habits," Ruth assured
him, having considerable difficulty in suppressing after all a desire
to laugh. "Nor does Dr. Forsyth mean anything like that."

She explained carefully to the old negro that "autotoxication" meant
"self-poisoning"--the poisoning of the body by unexpelled organic
matter. This poison, in the form of an acid in the blood, was the
cause of Uncle Rufus' pains and aches.

"Fo' de lan's sake!" murmured Uncle Rufus. "Is dat sho' 'nough so,
Missie Ruth?"

"You know I would not mislead you, Uncle Rufus."

"Dat's right. You would not," agreed the old man. "An' is dat what dat
fool white doctor mean? Ah jes' got rheumatics, like Ah always has?"

"Yes, Uncle Rufus."

"Tell me, Missie Ruth," he asked, "what do dem doctors want to use
sech wo'ds fo', when dere is common wo'ds to use dat a pusson kin
understan'?"

"Just for that reason, I fancy," laughed Ruth. "So the patient cannot
understand. The doctors think it isn't well for the patient to know
too much about what ails him, so they call ordinary illnesses by hard
names."

"Ain't it a fac'? Ain't it a fac'?" repeated Uncle Rufus, shaking his
head. "Ah reckon if we knowed too much, we wouldn't want doctors
a-tall, eh? Well, now, Missie Ruth, you let dat Lindy gal git ma'
medicine bottle filled down to de drug store, and Ah'll dose up like
Ah done befo'. If dat white doctor's medicine was good fo' one time,
it ought to be good fo' another time."

Uncle Rufus remained in bed, however, and the little girls and Sammy,
as well as Neale and Agnes, trooped up to say good-bye to him before
they started for the railway station.

The north-bound express train halted at Milton at three minutes past
nine, and the Corner House party were in good season for it. Mr.
Howbridge joined them on the station platform. Hedden, the lawyer's
man, having gone ahead to make the path smooth for his employer and
his friends, Mr. Howbridge and Neale attended to getting the tickets
and to the light baggage; and they made the three older girls, Mrs.
MacCall, and the children comfortable in the chair car. Tom Jonah, of
course, rode in the baggage car.

It was two hundred miles and more to Culberton, at the foot of Long
Lake. The train made very good time, but it was past one o'clock when
they alighted at the lake city. There was a narrow gauge road here
that followed the line of the lake in a northerly direction; but it
was little more than a logging road and the trains were so slow, and
the schedule so poor, that Mr. Howbridge had planned for other and
more novel means of transportation up the lake to the small town from
which they would have to strike back into the wilderness by
"tote-road" to Red Deer Lodge. But this new means of transportation,
he told the young people, depended entirely upon the wind.

"Goodness!" gasped Agnes, "are we going up the lake by kite?"

"In a balloon, maybe?" Cecile laughed.

"Oh!" murmured Tess, who was much interested in air traffic, "I hope
it's a big aeroplane."

"Nothing like that," Neale assured her. "But if we have a good wind
you'll think we're flying, Tess."

Mr. Howbridge had taken the ex-circus boy into his confidence; but the
rest of the party were so busy greeting Luke Shepard, who was waiting
for them at this point, that they did not consider much how they were
to get up the lake. There was no train leaving Culberton over the Lake
Branch until evening. Neale disappeared immediately after greeting
Luke, and took Tom Jonah with him.

In a few minutes Neale returned to the waiting room of the Culberton
railroad station, and said to Mr. Howbridge:

"They are about ready. Man says the wind is good, and likely to be
fresher, if anything. Favorable time. He's making 'em ready."

"What's going on?" asked Luke, who was a handsome young collegian
particularly interested in Ruth Kenway, and not too serious to be
enthusiastic over the secret the lawyer and Neale had between them.

"Come on and we'll show you," Neale said, grinning.

"No, no!" exclaimed Mr. Howbridge. "Let us have lunch first. We have a
long, cold ride before us."

"In what?" Agnes asked. "We don't take to the sleigh yet, do we?"

"Aren't the cars on the branch line heated?" Ruth asked. "You know, we
must not let the children get cold--and Mrs. MacCall."

"Don't mind about me, lassie," returned the Scotchwoman. "I'll trust
myself to Mr. Howbridge."

"We'll go to the hotel first of all," said the lawyer. "Hedden will
have arranged for our comfort there--and other things, as well. Do not
be afraid for the children, Martha."

But "Martha" could not help being a bit worried, even if Mrs. MacCall
was along. And Neale's grin was too impish to be comforting.

"I know you men folks are cooking up something," she sighed. "And I am
not at all sure, Mr. Howbridge, that you consider the needs of small
children like Tess and Dot and Sammy."

"Huh!" grunted Sammy, who overheard this.

"I suppose if I had taken my twins home three months ago when Frank
Birdsall died, you think I would have learned something about the
needs and care of young persons by this time?" suggested the lawyer.

"Oh, I am sure you would have learned a great deal," agreed Ruth,
unable to suppress a smile.

"I wish I had!" groaned Mr. Howbridge.

The mystery of the disappearance of Ralph and Rowena Birdsall weighed
on Mr. Howbridge's mind continually. He did not often let the trouble
come to the surface, however, being desirous of giving the young
people with him a good time.

The surprise in store for them added zest to the enjoyment of the nice
luncheon at the Culberton hotel. At half past two they all trooped out
of the hotel, bags in hand, and instead of returning to the railway
station, set off down the hill toward the docks.

"Are we going by steamer?" Agnes wanted to know. "Is there a channel
open through the ice? I never _did_!"

"If there were two feet of ice on the Arlington Pond so that they
could not drag it for the poor Birdsall twins," Ruth said, "surely
this lake must be frozen quite as thick."

"But there's a sailboat! I see one!" cried Tess, pointing between the
buildings as they approached the waterfront.

"And there's another," said Sammy. "Oh, Je-ru-sa-_lem_! Looky, Aggie!
That boat's sailing on the ice!"

"Oh-ee!" squealed Agnes, clasping her hands and letting her bag fall
to the ground. "Ice-boats! Neale! Are they really ice-boats?"

"And are we going to sail on them?" murmured Ruth.

"For mercy's sake!" gasped the housekeeper. "Here's a fine thing! Have
you gone daft, Mr. Howbridge?"

"It will be a new experience for you and me, Mrs. MacCall," said the
lawyer calmly. "But they tell me it is very invigorating."

"It's the nearest thing to flying, as far as the sensation goes, that
there is, I guess," Luke Shepard put in.

"I used to have a scooter when we were in winter quarters," said Neale
O'Neil to Agnes. "Don't be afraid, Aggie."

"Oh, I won't be afraid if you are along, Neale," promptly declared the
little beauty. "I know you will take care of me."

"You bet!" responded Neale, his eyes shining.

As they came down to the big wharf the party got a better view of the
lake front. There were at least a dozen ice-boats, large and small, in
motion. Those farthest out from the shore had caught the full sweep of
the wind and were darting about, as Mrs. MacCall said, like water-bugs
on the surface of a pond.

Ruth looked around keenly as they came out on the wharf.

"Why!" she said to Mr. Howbridge, "this is the lumber company's wharf.
The company you said had bought the timber on the Birdsall Estate."

"It is the Neven Lumber Company, as you can see by the sign over the
offices yonder," agreed their guardian. "And here comes Neven
himself."

A red-faced man with a red vest on which were small yellow dots and
some grease spots, and who chewed a big and black cigar and wore his
hard hat on one side of his head, approached the group as Mr.
Howbridge spoke. He hailed the latter jovially.

"Hey, Howbridge! Glad to see you. So these are your folks, are they?
Hope you'll have a merry Christmas up there in the woods. Nice place,
Birdsall's Lodge."

"Thank you," said the lawyer quietly.

"Which of 'em's Birdsall's young ones?" continued the lumber dealer,
staring about with very bold eyes, and especially at Ruth Kenway and
Cecile Shepard.

"I am sorry to say, Mr. Neven," said the lawyer, "that the Birdsall
twins are not with us. The children have run away from their home--a
home with people who have known them since they were born. It is a
very strange affair, and is causing me much worry."

"You don't say!" exclaimed Neven. "Too bad! Too bad! But they'll turn
up. Young 'uns always do. I ran away myself when I was a kid; and look
at me now," and the lumberman puffed out his chest proudly, as though
satisfied that Lem Neven was a good deal of a man.

"I reckon," pursued the lumberman, "that you think it's your duty to
go up to the Birdsall place and look over the piece I've got stumpage
on. But you don't re'lly need to. My men are scientific, I tell you. I
don't hire no old has-beens like Ike M'Graw. Those old timber cruisers
are a hundred years behind the times."

"They have one very good attribute. At least, Ike has," Mr. Howbridge
said quietly.

"What's that?" asked Neven.

"He is perfectly honest," was the dry response. "I shall base my
demands for the Birdsall estate on Ike's report. I assure you of that
now, Mr. Neven, so that you need build no false hopes upon the reports
of your own cruisers. As the contract stands we can close it out and
deal with another company if it seems best to do so. And some
company--either yours or another----will go in there right after New
Year's and begin to cut."

He turned promptly away from the red-faced man and followed his party
along the wharf to its end. Here lay two large ice-boats. There was a
boxlike cockpit on each that would hold four passengers comfortably,
besides the tiller men and the boy who "trimmed ship." A crew of two
went with each boat.

"How will the other two of our party travel?" asked Ruth, when these
arrangements were explained.

Already Neale O'Neil had beckoned Agnes to one side. There lay behind
the two big boats a skeleton-like arrangement, with a seat at the
stern no wider than a bobsled, and another on the "outrigger," or
crossbeam. This scooter carried a huge boom for a leg-o'-mutton sail,
and it was a type of the very fastest ice-boats on the lake.

Neale helped the eager Agnes down a rude ladder to the ice. She was
just reckless enough to desire to try the new means of locomotion. Her
exclamations of delight drew Ruth to the edge of the wharf over their
heads.

"What are you two doing down there?" asked the older girl.

"Oh, now, Ruthie!" murmured Agnes, "do let me go with Neale in this
pretty boat. There isn't room for us in the bigger boats. Do!"

Ruth knew very little about racing ice-boats. The scooter looked no
more dangerous to her than did the lumbering craft that Hedden had
engaged for the rest of the party.

These bigger boats, furnished with square sails rather than the
leg-o'-muttons they now flaunted, were commonly used to transfer
merchandise, or even logs up and down the lake. They were lumbering
and slow.

"Well, if Mr. Howbridge says you can," the oldest Corner House girl
agreed, still somewhat doubtful.

Neale had already begged permission of Mr. Howbridge. The lawyer was
quite as ignorant regarding ice-boating as Ruth herself. Neither of
them considered that any real harm could come to Neale and Agnes in
the smaller craft.

The crews of the larger ice-boats were experienced boatmen. They got
their lumbering craft under way just as soon as the passengers were
settled with their light baggage in the cockpits. There were bear
robes and blankets in profusion. Although the wind was keen, the party
did not expect that Jack Frost would trouble them.

"Isn't this great?" cried Cecile, who was in one of the boats with
Ruth, her brother, and Sammy Pinkney. "My! we always manage to have
such very nice times when we are with you Corner House girls, Ruthie."

"This is all new to me," admitted her friend. "I hope nothing will
happen to wreck us."

"Wreck us! Fancy!" laughed Cecile.

"This wind is very strong, just the same," said Ruth.

"Hold hard!" cried Luke, laughing. "Low bridge!"

The boom swung over, and they all stooped quickly to avoid it. The
next moment the big sail filled, bulging with the force of the wind.
The heavy runners began to whine over the powdered ice, and they went
swiftly onward toward the middle of the lake.

"On the wings of the wind! How delightful!" cried Cecile. Then she
said again: "Isn't this great?"



CHAPTER VII

THE SCOOTER


Sammy Pinkney had desired greatly to go with Neale and Agnes on the
smaller ice-boat; but they would not hear to the proposal. He struck
up an acquaintance with the "crew" of the big boat to which he was
assigned, and gave Ruth and Luke Shepard no trouble.

In the other large boat Mr. Howbridge, Mrs. MacCall and the two
smallest Corner House girls, as well as Tom Jonah, were very cozily
ensconced. Dot clutched the Alice-doll very tightly and Tom Jonah
barked loudly when the barge slithered out upon the lake and began to
gather speed as the fresh wind filled the big sail.

Mrs. MacCall continued to have her doubts regarding the safety of this
strange means of locomotion.

"There's one good thing about it," she chattered, as the sledge jarred
over a few hummocks. "There's nae so far to fall if we do fall out."

"It's perfectly safe, they tell me," Mr. Howbridge assured her.

"Aye. It may look so," the good woman admitted. "But 'tis like Tam
Taggart goin' to London."

"How was that?" the lawyer asked, smiling.

"Tam was one o' these canny Highlanders, and he made up his mind after
muckle thought to spend a week in London. He went to 'broaden his
mind,' as they call it. Truly, to prove to himself that London and the
English were quite as bad as he'd believed all his life.

"So he goes to London, and he comes home again--very solemn like.
Nobody could get a word out of him at first," pursued Mrs. MacCall.
"Finally the folks, they gathered around him at the post-office and
one says:

"'What ails ye, Tam? Ye've no told us anything aboot Lunnon. Is it nae
the fine place they'd have us believe?'

"'Oo, aye, 'tis nae so bad,' says Tam. 'But they are nae honest up
there.'

"'Whit way air they no honest, Tam?' asks his friends.

"'Weel,' says Tam, 'I aye had my doots all the time; but I made sure
the day I bought me a penny-packet of needles. On the outside o' it,
it said there was one thousand needles inside.'

"'Oh, aye?'

"'I coonted 'em,' says Tam, 'an'--wad ye believe it?--there was only
nine hundred and ninety-three!' And this boat-sliding may look all
right," concluded the Corner House housekeeper, "but, like Tam, 'I
have me doots!'"

As the boat gathered speed, following the one on which Ruth and her
companions sailed out into the open lake, the little girls squealed
their delight. Even Dot forgot her fears. And Tom Jonah "smiled" just
as broadly as he could.

"Oh, Tessie!" Dot gasped. "It _is_ like flying! My breath's too big
for my mouth--just like I was in a swing."

"I guess you must feel like poor Sandyface did when Sammy sent her
with her kittens from our house to his in the fly-a-majig. You
remember?" said Tess.

"I should say I did!" agreed Dot in her old-fashioned way. "What an
awful time that was, wasn't it? And Sammy got spanked."

"Sammy's always getting spanked," Tess said coolly.

"Ye-as. He is. But I guess he's never got used to it yet," responded
the smallest Corner House girl thoughtfully.

The wind, when they faced forward, almost took their breath. The
little girls cowered down under the warm robes, looking astern. So
their bright eyes were the first to catch sight of the scooter
shooting out into the lake behind them.

The wharves and dun-colored houses of Culberton were already far
astern. And how fast the town was receding!

The smaller ice-boat, however, overtook the big boats almost as though
the latter were standing still! The others caught sight of the
careening ice-racer soon after Dot and Tess first shouted. But neither
of the little girls nor the other members of the party realized that
Neale and Agnes were aboard the craft that came, meteor-like, up the
lake.

They had started sedately enough, Neale O'Neil at the stern with the
tiller ropes in his mittened hands and Agnes strapped into the seat on
the outrigger, with the bight of the running sheet in her charge.

Neale had told her plainly what to do ordinarily, and had instructed
her to look to him for orders in any emergency. It looked to be very
simple, this working out an ice-scooter that had in it the possibility
of sailing at any speed up to a hundred miles an hour!

Somebody had started the creaking boat with the purchase of a pike
pole at the rear. The peavy bit into the ice, and the scooter rocked
out from the wharf. The big sail was already spread. They had wabbled
out of the confinement of the dock slowly and sedately enough.

Suddenly the wind puffed into the sail and bellied it. The stick bent
and groaned. It seemed as though the runners stuck to the surface of
the ice and the mast would be torn from the framework of the craft.

Then she really started!

The powerful on-thrust of the wind in the sail shot the scooter away
from the shore. She swooped like a gull across the ice. The whining of
steel on ice rose to a painful shriek in Agnes' ears.

She was scared. Oh, yes, she was scared! But she would not admit
it--not for worlds! Faster and faster the scooter moved. The girl
looked back once at Neale and caught a glimpse of his confident smile.
It heartened her wonderfully.

"Hold hard, Aggie!" his strong voice shouted, and she nodded, blinking
the water out of her eyes.

They had headed up Long Lake as they left the shore, and they could
travel on the wind, and without tacking, for a long way. They
overhauled the two big barges in which the rest of the party sailed,
in a way that fairly made Agnes gasp. She had never traveled so fast
before in all her life.

The scooter struck a hummock in the ice. It was not six inches above
the general level of the crystal surface of the lake. But the impetus
it gave the ice-boat sent that seemingly fragile craft up into the
air! She left the ice for a long, breathtaking, humming jump. It
seemed to Agnes as though they were going right up into the air, very
much as an aeroplane soars from the earth.

Indeed, had the ice-boat a movable tail like an aeroplane, surely it
would completely take to the air. Next to piloting an aeroplane,
ice-boat racing is the greatest sport in the world.

Spang! The scooter took to the ice again and ran like a scared rabbit.
The stays sang a new tune. Had the sheet not had a simple cast about a
peg beside her, Agnes would surely have lost the bight of it.

But Neale had told her certain things to do, and she would not fail
him. Through half-blinded eyes she cast another glance at him over her
shoulder. The boy showed no evidence of panic, and Agnes was ashamed
to display her own inner feelings.

When Neale said, "You're a regular little sport, Aggie!" it was the
finest tribute to character that Agnes Kenway knew anything about. She
was determined to win his approval now, if never before.

Ruth saw them coming, but had no idea at first that the careening
ice-racer was the small boat that Neale and her sister had engaged for
the run up the lake. The schooner came on like, and with, the wind!

"See that boat, Cecile!" cried the oldest Corner House girl. "How
reckless it is to ride so fast. Suppose the mast should snap or a
skate should break? My!"

"But look how they fly!" agreed her friend.

"Hey!" exclaimed Luke. "That's Neale O'Neil steering that thing."

"Oh! Mercy! _Agnes!_" shrieked Ruth, her eyes suddenly opened to the
identity of the two on the scooter.

"Hoorah!" yelled Luke. "What speed!"

The party on the other big boat had recognized the two on the scooter.
The fur-trimmed coat and brilliant-hued hood Agnes wore could not be
mistaken.

"Stop them! Stop them!" moaned Ruth, really alarmed.

It seemed to her that the boat she was riding in was going much too
fast for safety; but the scooter flew up the lake at a pace that made
the big boats seem to stand still.

Neale plainly knew how to handle the racer. He passed the two barges
and then tacked, aiming to cross the bows of the bigger craft.

Instantly, as the boom swung around, Agnes' end of the crossbeam went
into the air! They saw her sail upward, the flashing steel runners at
least four feet above the ice!

The girl's wind-whipped face was still smiling. Indeed, that smile
seemed frozen on. As the racer rushed by Agnes looked down upon her
sisters and other friends and waved one hand to them.

Then, like a huge kite, the big-bellied sail raced off across the
lake, taking the reckless pair almost instantly out of earshot.



CHAPTER VIII

THE VILLAGE ON THE ICE


The wild plunge of the scooter across the lake carried it, before a
wind-squall, far out of hearing of Ruth Kenway's voice. Yet she
shouted long and loud after her sister. Luke pulled her back into her
seat when she would have stood up to watch the careening scooter.

"They are in no danger," he urged. "Take it easy, Ruth."

"Why, they must be in peril! Did you see her--Agnes--up in the air?"

"Well, she's down again all right now, Ruthie," said Cecile Shepard
soothingly.

"Oh, if I had only known!"

"Known what?" asked Luke, inclined to grin if the truth was told.

"That the small boat would sail like that. Why, it is worse than a
racing automobile!"

"Faster, I guess. Almost as fast as a motorcycle," Luke agreed. "But
Neale's managed one of those things before. He told me all about it."

"But why didn't somebody tell me about it?" demanded Ruth rather
stormily.

"Tell you about what?" asked Cecile.

"About how fast that reckless thing would sail? Why! I'd never have
allowed Aggie to ride on it in this world."

In the other big ice-boat there was much anxiety as well. Mr.
Howbridge and Mrs. MacCall would have stopped the reckless ones could
they have done so, and Tom Jonah was barking his head off. He, too,
had recognized Agnes and Neale and believed that all was not right
with them.

The scooter, however, was clear across the lake again; they saw it
tack once more, and this time, because of the favoring breeze, Neale
headed her directly up the lake. Every minute he and Agnes on their
racer were leaving the rest of the party behind.

These scooters cannot be sailed at a slow pace. The skeleton craft is
so light, and the sail so big, that the least puff of breeze drives it
ahead at railroad speed.

Now with a pretty steady breeze behind them, the scooter was bound to
"show off." Nor did the young people realize just how fast they
sailed, or how perilous their course looked to their friends.

"We're running away from them!" Agnes managed to throw back over her
shoulder at Neale.

"Can't help it!" he cried in return. "This old scooter has taken the
bit in its teeth."

Agnes had begun to enjoy the speed to the full now. Why! this was
better than motoring over the finest kind of oiled road. And the young
girl did like to travel fast.

She began to see that the farther they went up Long Lake the wilder
the shores appeared to be and the fewer houses there were visible.
Here and there was a little village, with a white-steepled church
pointing heavenward among the almost black spruce and pine. Again, a
cleared farm showed forth, its fields sheeted with snow.

The lake was quite ten miles broad in most places, and occasionally it
spread to a width of more than twice that number of miles. Then they
could barely see the hazy shoreline at all.

"We could not be lonesomer," thought Agnes, "if we were sailing on the
ocean!"

The sails behind them had all disappeared. Once a squad of timber
barges with square sails was passed. The barges were going up empty to
the head of the lake there to be loaded and await a favoring breeze to
bring them back to Culberton again. It was much cheaper for the lumber
concerns to sail the logs down the lake if they could, than to load
them on the narrow gauge railroad and pay freight to Culberton. The
sticks had to be handled at the foot of the lake, anyway.

The scooter went past these slowly sailing barges almost as rapidly as
they had passed the two boats in which sailed the remainder of the
Corner House party. The stays creaked and the steel whined on the ice,
while the wind boomed in the big sail like a muffled drum.

The sun, hazy and red like the face of a haymaker in harvest time, was
going westward and would soon disappear behind the mountain ridge
which followed the shoreline of the lake, but at a distance. It was up
in the foothills of those mountains that Red Deer Lodge was located.

After passing the empty barges the boy and girl on the scooter saw no
other sail nor anything which excited their attention until Agnes
suddenly beheld a group of objects on the ice near the western shore
of the lake, not many miles ahead.

She began almost immediately to wonder what these things could be, but
she could not make Neale O'Neil understand the question she shouted to
him. By and by, however, she saw for herself that the objects were a
number of little huts, and that they really were built upon the frozen
surface of the lake.

Agnes was naturally very much interested in this strange sight. A
village on the ice was something quite novel to her mind. She desired
very much to ask questions of Neale, but the wind was too great and
they were sailing too fast for her to make her desire known to her boy
friend.

So she just used her eyes (when they did not water too much) and
stared at the strange collection of huts and its vicinity with all her
might. Why! from lengths of stove pipe through some of the slanting
roofs, smoke was climbing into the hazy atmosphere.

Back of the ice-village, on the steep western shore of the lake, was
built a regular town of slab shanties, with a slab church, stores, and
the like. Quite a village, this, and when Agnes looked back at Neale
questioningly and pointed to them, he shouted: "Coxford." So she knew
it was their destination.

Mr. Howbridge had said they would disembark from the ice-boats at
Coxford, and there would take sledges into the woods. It was fast
growing toward evening, however, and Agnes knew it would be too late
when they landed to continue the journey to Red Deer Lodge before the
next morning.

The ice-village was about two miles out from the shore. There were
half a hundred huts, some a dozen feet square. But for the most part
they were much smaller. They had doors, but no windows, and, as the
scooter drew swiftly nearer, Agnes could see that the structures were
little more than wind-breaks.

There were a number of people moving about the settlement of huts,
however, and not a few children among them, as well as dogs. As the
scooter drew near she saw, too, a team of horses drawing a sledge.
This sledge was being loaded with boxes, or crates; and what those
boxes could contain began to puzzle Agnes as much as anything else she
saw about the queer village.

Neale steered outside the line of the ice settlement; but once beyond
it he brought the scooter up into the wind and yelled at Agnes to let
go the sheet and falls. She loosened the lines from the pegs and
allowed them to slip. Down came the shaking canvas, the wooden hoops
clattering together as they slid down the greased mast. In a moment
the speed of the scooter was lost and they were all but smothered in
the fallen canvas.

"Get out from under!" Neale's voice shouted.

He dropped off at the stern and ran to the girl's aid. He unbuckled
the belt that had secured Agnes to her seat on the outrigger all this
while, and fairly dragged her from under the flapping sail.

"Fine work!" Neale shouted, his voice full of laughter. "We made
record time. But I'll let somebody else furl that sail."

"Oh, Neale!" gasped the girl, hobbling like a cripple. "I ca--can't
walk. I'm frozen stiff!"

"Come on to the shanties. We'll get warm. Take hold here, Aggie.
You'll be all right in a few minutes."

"Oh, dear!" she said. "I did not know I was so cold. But what a race
it was, Neale! Ruth will give us fits."

"Won't she?" chuckled Neale.

"But what is this place, Neale?" Agnes went on. "What are these people
doing here?"

"Fishing. Those are frozen fish they are loading on that sledge. Oh!
There it goes! We can't get ashore on that, after all."

"'Fishing'?" repeated the amazed girl. "How do they fish through the
ice? I don't see any holes."

[Illustration: "He fairly dragged her from under the flapping sail."]

"No. The holes wouldn't stay open long, as cold as it is out here.
It's about twenty below zero right now, my lady, and I'm keeping a
sharp eye on your nose."

"Oh! Oh!" gasped Agnes, putting her mittened hand tentatively to her
nose. "Is that why you told me to keep my collar up over my mouth and
nose?"

"It is!" declared the boy, rubbing his own face vigorously. "If you
see any white spot on anybody's face up here in this weather, grab a
handful of snow and begin rubbing the spot."

"Mercy!" Agnes murmured, with a gay little laugh. "Lucky Trix Severn
doesn't come up here. She uses rice powder dreadfully, and folks would
think she was being frost-bitten."

"Uh-huh!" agreed Neale.

"But you haven't told me how they fish," said the girl, as they
approached nearer to the huts and she was able to walk better.

"Through the ice of course," he laughed. "Only you don't see the
holes. They are inside the huts."

"You don't mean it, Neale?"

"To be sure I mean it! Some of those big shanties house whole
families. You see there are children and dogs. They have pot stoves
which warm the huts to a certain degree, and on which they cook. And
they have bunks built against the walls, with plenty of bedding."

"Why, I should think they would get their death of cold!" gasped the
girl.

"That's just what they don't get," Neale rejoined. "You can bet there
are no 'white plague' patients here. This atmosphere will kill
tubercular germs like a hammer kills a flea."

"Goodness, Neale!" giggled Agnes. "Did you ever kill a flea with a
hammer?"

"Yep. Sand-flea," he assured her, grinning. "Oh! I'm one quick lad,
Aggie."

She really thought he was joking, however, until she had looked into
two or three of the huts. People really did live in them, as she saw.
In the middle of the plank floors was a well, with open water kept
clear of frost. The set-lines were fastened to pegs in the planks and
the "flags" announced when a fish was on the hook.

A smiling woman, done up like an Eskimo, invited them into one shack.
She had evidently not seen the scooter arrive from down the lake and
thought the boy and girl had walked out from Coxford.

"Hello!" she said. "Goin' to try your hands at fishin'? You're town
folks, ain't you?"

"Yes," said Agnes, politely. "We come from Milton."

"Lawsy! That's a fur ways," said the woman. She was peeling potatoes,
and a kettle was boiling on the stove at one side. The visitors knew
by the odor that there was corned beef in the pot. "You goin' to try
your hands?" the woman repeated.

"No," said Neale. "We are with a party that is going up to Red Deer
Lodge."

"Oh! That's the Birdsall place. You can't git up there tonight. It's
too fur."

"I guess we shall stay in Coxford," admitted Neale.

"Didn't know but you an' your sister wanted to fish. Old Manny Cox got
ketched with rheumatics so that he had to give up fishin' this season.
I can hire you his shanty."

"No, thank you!" murmured Agnes, her eyes round with interest.

"I let it for a week or more to two gals," said the woman
complacently. "Got five dollars out of 'em for Manny. He'll be needin'
the money. Better stay awhile and try the fishin'."

"Goodness! Two girls alone?" asked Agnes.

"Yes. Younger'n you are, too. But they knowed their way around, I
guess," said the woman. "Good lookin' gals. Nice clo'es. Town folks, I
guess. Mebbe they wasn't older'n my Bob, and he's just turned twelve."

"Twelve years old! And two girls alone?" murmured Agnes.

"Oh, there ain't nobody to hurt you here. We don't never need no
constable out here on the ice. There's plenty of women folks--Miz'
Ashtable, and Hank Crummet's wife, and Mary Boley and her boys. Oh,
lots o' women here. We can help make money in the winter.

"There! See that set-line bob?"

She dropped the potato she was paring and crossed to the well. One of
the flags had dipped. With a strong hand she reeled in the wet line.
At its end was a big pickerel--the biggest pickerel the visitors had
ever seen.

"There!" exclaimed the woman. "Sorry I didn't git that before Joe
Jagson went with his load of fish. That's four pound if it weighs an
ounce."

She shook the flopping fish off the hook into a basket and then hung
the basket outside the door. In the frosty air the fish did not need
to be packed in ice. It would literally be ice within a very few
minutes.

"Got to hang 'em up to keep the dogs from gettin' them," said the
woman, rebaiting the hook and then returning to her potato paring.
"Can't leave 'em in a creel in the water, neither; pike would come
along an' eat 'em clean to the bone."

"Oh!" gasped Agnes.

"Yes. Regular cannibals, them pike," said the woman. "But all big fish
will eat little ones."

"What kind of fish do you catch?" Neale asked.

"Pickerel and pike, whitebait (we calls 'em that), perch, some lake
bass and once in a while a lake trout. Trout's out o' season. We don't
durst sell 'em. But we eat 'em. They ain't no 'season,' I tell 'em,
for a boy's appetite; and I got three boys and my man to feed."

At that moment there was a great shouting and barking of dogs outside,
and Neale and Agnes went out of the hut to learn what it meant. The
Corner House girl whispered to the boy:

"What do you think about those two twelve year old girls coming here
to stay and fish through the ice?"

"Great little sports," commented Neale.

"Well," exclaimed Agnes, "that's being too much of a sport, if you ask
me!"



CHAPTER IX

A COLD SCENT


The barking of the dogs was in answer to the booming note that Tom
Jonah sent echoing across the ice. Agnes and Neale found that the two
big ice-boats were near at hand.

As one of the crew of Mr. Howbridge's boat owned the scooter that
Neale and Agnes had come up the lake on, that owner wished to recover
his abandoned ice-boat. Besides, it was not more than two miles over
the ice to Coxford, and the wind was going down with the sun. The big
boats would have made slow work of it beating in to the slab-town on
the western shore of the lake.

Neale and Agnes ran out across the ice to meet their friends. Most of
the party were glad indeed to get on their feet, for the ride up the
lake had been a cold one.

In fact, Tess could scarcely walk when she got out of her seat, and
Dot tumbled right down on the ice, almost weeping.

"I--I guess I haven't got any feet," the smallest Corner House girl
half sobbed. "I can't feel 'em."

"Course you've got feet, Dot," said Sammy, staggering a good deal
himself when he walked toward her. "Just you jump up and down like
this," and he proceeded to follow his own advice.

"But won't we break through the ice?" murmured the smallest Corner
House girl.

"Why, Dot! do you s'pose," demanded Tess, "that you can jump hard
enough to break through two feet of ice?"

"Well, I never tried it before, did I?" demanded Dot. "How should _I_
know what might happen to the old ice?"

Agnes hurried the little ones over to the shanty of the friendly
fisher-woman, where they could get warm and be sheltered from the raw
wind that still puffed down in gusts from the hills.

Tom Jonah had jumped out of the cockpit of the ice-boat and found
himself immediately in the middle of what Luke Shepard called "a fine
ruction."

"Canines to right of him, canines to left of him, volleyed and
thundered!" laughed the college youth. "Hey! call off your
fish-hounds, or Tom Jonah will eat them up."

One cur was already running away yelping and limping; the others took
notice that the old dog had powerful jaws. But Ruth insisted that Tom
Jonah be put on a leash, and Luke meekly obeyed. Indeed, he was likely
to do almost anything that the oldest Corner House girl told him to
do, "right up to jumping through the ring of a doughnut!" his sister
whispered to Mrs. MacCall in great glee.

"Well, my lassie," was the housekeeper's comment, "he might be mindin'
a much worse mistress than our Ruthie."

Nothing that Ruth could or did do in most matters was wrong in Mrs.
MacCall's opinion, even if she did criticize the Kenways' charity. If
Luke Shepard some day expected to get Ruth for his wife, the
housekeeper considered that it was only right he should first learn to
obey Ruth's behests in all things.

Ruth had a word to say to Neale and Agnes at this time. She pointed
out to those two restless and reckless younger ones that there must be
no such venturesome escapades during the remainder of this winter
vacation as that connected with the ice-scooter.

"If you have no respect for your own bones, think of our feelings,"
she concluded. "Why! I almost had heart disease when I saw that horrid
scooter fly past with Agnes up in the air as though she were on a
flying trapeze."

"Shucks, Ruth!" said Neale, "you know I wouldn't let any harm come to
Aggie."

"Now, Neale," returned the older girl, "how would you keep her from
getting hurt if that ice-boat broke in two, for instance?"

"Oh, well--"

"That's what I thought!" snapped Ruth. "You had not thought of that."

"Don't scold him! Don't scold Neale!" begged Agnes. "He's all right."

"Oh, no, he isn't," said Ruth grimly. "One side of him is left! And
you will promise to be good or I'll make Mr. Howbridge send Neale
home, right from here."

"Oh!" cried her sister. "You would not be so mean, Ruthie Kenway."

"I don't know but I would," Ruth rejoined. "I don't think so much of
boys, anyway--"

"Not until they get to be collegians," whispered Neale shrilly from
behind his hand.

Ruth's eyes snapped at that, and she marched away without another
word. Mr. Howbridge refrained from commenting upon the incident, for
he saw that Ruth had said quite all that was necessary.

Neale and Agnes were much abashed. They followed the others slowly
toward the village on the ice. Neale said:

"Well, if she says I can't go any farther I'll stay right here and
fish until you come back, Aggie."

"Oh, Neale! You wouldn't!"

"Why not? Maybe I'd make a little money. If two twelve year old girls
could stand it for a week here, I don't see why I couldn't stand it
for three weeks."

"I've been thinking about those two girls that woman told us about,"
said Agnes with sudden eagerness.

"What about 'em?"

"Do you s'pose they were girls, Neale O'Neil?"

"Why! what do you mean? How do I know? The woman said they were."

"But two _girls_--and only twelve! It doesn't seem probable. I should
think the police--"

"Didn't you hear that woman say there were no constables out here on
the ice?" said Neale.

"I don't care! I'm suspicious," declared Agnes.

"Not of that fisher-woman?" asked the boy, puzzled indeed.

"No, no! But no two girls in this world would ever have considered
coming out here on the ice to fish. How ridiculous!"

"Say! what are you trying to get at, Agnes Kenway?" demanded her
friend. "You do have the craziest ideas!"

"Do I, Mr. Smartie?" she returned. "At least they are ideas. You never
seem to suspect a living thing, Neale O'Neil."

"Oh! I give it up," he groaned. "You are too much for me. I'm lashed
to the post and you have left me behind."

"Oh, do come on!" exclaimed Agnes, hastily dragging at his jacket
sleeve. "If you don't know what I'm about, just keep still and
listen."

"Oh, I'll do that little thing for you," returned Neale. "I can be as
dumb as a mute quahog with the lockjaw--just watch me!"

He tagged on behind Agnes with much interest. The girl hurried to the
shack into which the little folks had been taken for warmth. Mrs.
MacCall was there with them, talking with the genial fisher-woman.

"Hech!" exclaimed the housekeeper, warming her blue hands, "but this
is a strange way to live. 'Tis worse than sheep herding in the
Highlands. 'Tis so!"

"'Tain't so bad," said the woman. "And there's good money in the fish.
We are mostly all Coxford people here--or folks from back in the
hills. Few stragglers come here to bother us."

"But you said two strangers had been here this winter," Agnes
interposed, eagerly.

"I said so," the woman agreed. "Two stragglers. Two girls," and she
laughed. "But they didn't stay long. They kept to themselves like, and
never did us any harm."

"Say, Maw!" The voice came out of a shadowy corner. It was gloomy in
the shack, for the sun had now dipped below the hills and twilight had
come.

"That's my Bob," said the woman. "He's about the age of them two
gals."

"They wasn't two gals, Maw," said Bob from the darkness.

"What d'you mean?"

"One was a boy. Yes, she was--a boy! We kids found it out, and that's
why them two lit out over night."

"Good gracious, Bob! What are you sayin'?"

"That's right," said the voice from the dark corner, stubbornly. "They
was brother and sister. They owned up. Run away from somewhere, I
guess. And then they run away from here."

Agnes pinched Neale's arm. "What did I tell you?" she whispered.

"Ouch! I don't know. You've told me so many things, Aggie," he
complained.

"Don't you remember what Mr. Howbridge told us about the Birdsall
twins and the picture he sent out to the police? He showed us that,
too."

"Jumping Jupiter!" gasped the amazed Neale. "Why--why, _she_,"
pointing to the fisher-woman, "didn't say anything about the twins."

"Listen!" exclaimed Agnes again; and as Mrs. MacCall had taken the
three younger children out of the shack, Agnes began to interrogate
the woman as to the appearance of the strange girls who had remained
for a week at the village on the ice.

Yes, they were both slim, and dark, and looked boyish enough--both of
them. They seemed well behaved. She didn't believe Bob--

"I tell you I know," put in Bob from his corner. "One was a boy. He
called the other by a girl name all right. Rowly--or Rowny--or
sumpin'--"

"Rowena!" cried Agnes.

"Mebbe," admitted Bob.

"For the land of liberty's sake!" exclaimed his mother suddenly, "I'd
like to know how you are so sure 'bout one bein' a boy?"

"Well, I'll tell you," grumbled Bob. "'Cause he licked me! Yes, he
did. Licked me good and proper. No girl could ha' done that, you bet!"
said the disgruntled Bob.

"Now, Bob! I am ashamed of you!" said his mother.

"You needn't be. He could fight, that fellow!"

"But did you think they were both girls till you got into this fight?"
Neale asked, now becoming interested.

"Bet you. We thought we could get some of their lines. They had more'n
enough. We went over there to Manny Cox's shack, and she that was a
girl was alone. So we took the lines."

"Now, Bob!" murmured his mother.

"Guess a constable here wouldn't be a bad thing after all," chuckled
Neale.

"Go on," ordered Agnes.

"Why, that girl just cried and scolded. But the other one came back
before me and Hank and Buddie got away."

"The one you think was a boy?" asked Agnes.

"One I know was a boy--since he fought me. He didn't do no cryin'. He
squared right off, skirts an' all, and jest lambasted me. And when
Hank tried to put in an oar, he lambasted him. Buddie run, or he'd 've
been licked, too, I guess."

"Well!" exclaimed Bob's mother. "I never did! And you never said a
word about it!"

"What was the use?" asked her son. "We was licked. And the next
morning that boy-girl and his sister was gone. We didn't see 'em no
more."

"That is right," said the woman thoughtfully. "They got away jest like
that. I never did know what become of 'em or what they went for."

Agnes dragged Neale out of the shack. She was excited.

"Let's find Mr. Howbridge!" she cried. "He ought to know about this. I
just feel sure those twins have been here in this fisher-town."



CHAPTER X

INTO THE WILDERNESS


But the lawyer and guardian of the runaway Birdsall twins was not so
easily convinced that Agnes had found the trail of the lost Ralph and
Rowena. It seemed preposterous that the twins should have joined these
rough fisherfolk and lived with them in the ice-village.

The party from Milton waited at the village for an hour while the
lawyer cross-questioned the inhabitants. It was not that any of these
people wished to hobble Mr. Howbridge's curiosity regarding the
"stragglers," as they called the strangers who sometimes joined the
community; but nobody had considered it his or her business to
question or examine in any way the two unknown girls (if they were
girls) who had occupied Manny Cox's shack for a week.

After all, the boy, Bob, and his mates, gave the most convincing
testimony regarding the strangers. He was positive that one of the
stragglers had been a boy--a very sturdy and pugilistic one for a
twelve-year-old lad.

"And that might fit young Ralph Birdsall's reputation, as I got it
from Rodgers, the butler," said Mr. Howbridge. "Ralph has to be
stirred by Rowena to fight; but, once stirred, Rodgers says he can
fight like a wildcat."

"Why, what a horrid boy!" murmured Tess, who heard this. "I guess I'm
glad those twins didn't come with us after all."

"But, Mr. Howbridge," asked Ruth, "does it seem possible that they
could get away up here alone?"

"That is difficult to say. Nobody knows how much money they had when
they left Arlington. They might have come as far as this. If they had
wished to, I mean."

It was getting quite dark, now, and the children were tired and
hungry. The party could spend no more time at the fishing village.
They set out across the ice for Coxford.

Neale took Dot pick-a-pack and Luke shouldered Tess, although the
latter felt much embarrassed by this proceeding. Ruth had to urge her
to remain upon the collegian's shoulder.

"Really, I'm quite too big to play this way," she objected.

But she was tired--she had to admit that. Sammy made no complaint; but
his short legs were weary enough before they reached the shore.

Oil lamps on posts lit the few streets of Coxford. Most of the slab
houses looked as though the wind, with a good puff, could blow them
down. The forest came down to the edge of the village. If there should
be a forest fire on this side of the mountain range, the slab-town
would surely be destroyed.

Hedden, Mr. Howbridge's man, had prepared things here for the party,
as well as at Culberton. On the main street of the little town was
what passed for a hotel. At this time of year it was but little
patronized.

Therefore the lawyer's man had chartered the house, as well as the
family that owned it, to make the holiday vacation party comfortable
over one night.

Roaring fires, hot supper, feather beds, and plenty of woolen blankets
awaited the crowd from Milton at this backwoods hostelry. Mr. Dan
Durkin, who was the proprietor of the Coxford Hotel, and his
hospitable wife and daughters, could not do too much for the comfort
of Mr. Howbridge and his friends.

"We don't have enough strangers here in winter time to keep us in mind
of what city folks are like," the hotel-keeper declared. "When Miz'
Birdsall was alive, she and her man and the kids used to come through
here three-four times 'twixt the first snow flurries an' the spring
break-up. They liked to see their camp up there in the hills durin'
the winter. But after Miz' Birdsall died, he never came."

"And the children?" asked Mr. Howbridge, thoughtfully.

"They did come in summer," said Durkin; "but not in the winter."

"You haven't seen them of late, have you?" questioned the lawyer.

"Them twins? No. Nary hide nor hair of 'em. I tell you, ain't
nobody--scurcely--gets up here this time' o' year. 'Ceptin' a few
stragglers for the fishin', perhaps. But we don't see them here at the
hotel. We don't take in stragglers."

But he and his family, as has been said, did their very best for the
party from Milton. The young folks slept soundly, and warmly, as well,
and were really sorry to crawl out of the feather beds at seven
o'clock the next morning when they were called to get ready for
breakfast.

The cold and the long ride of the day before seemed to have done
nobody any harm. The balsam-laden air, when they went to the hotel
porch for a breath of it before breakfast, seemed to search right down
to the bottom of their lungs and invigorate them all. Surely, as Neale
had told Agnes, no tubercular germ could live in such an atmosphere.

"Just the same," said Ruth, wisely, when Agnes mentioned this
scientific statement fathered by the ex-circus boy, "you children keep
well wrapped up. What is one man's medicine is another man's poison,
Mrs. Mac often says. And it is so with germs, I guess. What will kill
one germ, another germ thrives on. A bad cold up here will be almost
sure to turn into pneumonia. So beware!"

"Don't keep talking about being sick," cried Cecile. "You are almost
as bad as Neighbor." "Neighbor" Henry Northrup lived next door to the
Shepards and their Aunt Lorena, and was Luke's very good friend.
"Neighbor is forever talking about symptoms and diseases. After a half
hour visit with him I always go home feeling as though I needed to
call the doctor for some complaint."

They made a hearty and hilarious breakfast of country fare--fried pork
and johnnycakes, with eggs and baked beans for "fillers." Mrs. MacCall
should not have tried to eat the crisply fried "crackling" as the
farmers call the pork-rind; but she did. And one of the teeth on her
upper plate snapped right off!

"Oh, dear me, Mrs. Mac!" gasped Agnes. "And not a dentist for miles
and miles, I suppose!"

"Oh, well, I can get along without that one tooth."

"My pop's got a new set of false teeth," Sammy said soberly. "He's
just got 'em--all new and shiny."

"What did he do with the old ones he had?" asked Tess, interested.

"Huh! I dunno. Throwed 'em away, I hope. Anyway," said Sammy, who had
had much experience in wearing made over clothing, "mom can't cut them
down and make me wear 'em!"

The jangling of sleighbells hurried the party through breakfast. The
little folks were first out upon the porch to look at the two pungs,
filled with straw, and each drawn by a pair of heavy horses. The
latter did not promise from their appearance a swift trip to Red Deer
Lodge; but they were undoubtedly able to draw a heavy load through the
deepest drifts in the forest.

They set out very gayly from the little lakeside town. It was not a
brilliantly sunshiny day, for a haze wrapped the mountain tops about
and was creeping down toward the ice-covered lake.

"There's a storm gathering," declared one of the men engaged to drive
the Milton party into the woods. "I reckon you folks will git about
all the snow you want for Christmas."

"At any rate, it won't be a green Christmas up here," Agnes said to
Neale, who sat beside her in the second sled. "I don't think it is
nice at all not to have plenty of snow over Christmas and New Year's."

"I'm with you there," agreed the boy. "But I'm glad I haven't got to
shovel paths through these drifts," he added, with a quick grin.

They found the tote-road, as the path was called, quite filled with
snow in some places. There were only the marks of the sleds that had
gone up two days before with the servants and baggage and
returned--these same two pungs in which the party now rode.

The drifts were packed so hard that the horses drew the sleds right
over the drifts, without breaking through more than an inch or two
with their big hoofs. In some places they could trot heavily, jerking
the sleds along at rather a good pace; but for most of the way the
road was uphill, and the horses plodded slowly.

The boys got out now and then to stretch their legs. Agnes, too,
demanded this privilege, and tramped along beside Neale after the
sleds on the uphill grades. Mainly the party was warm and comfortable,
and cheerful voices, laughter, and song rang through the spruce woods
as they traversed the forest-clad hills.

Red Deer Lodge, it proved, was a long day's journey from the lakeside
into the wilderness. Never before had the Corner House girls and their
friends visited so wild a place. But they foresaw no trouble in store
for them--not even from the gathering storm.

"Of course," Agnes said, when she was tramping on one occasion with
the boys behind the second sled, "there must be bears, and wolves, and
catamounts, and all those, in these woods in summer. But they are all
hidden away for the winter now, aren't they, Neale?"

"The bears are holed up," he granted. "But the other varmints--"

"What are those?"

"That is what Uncle Bill Sorber calls most carnivorous animals,"
laughed Neale. "Creatures that prey--"

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" ejaculated the wide-eared Sammy. "You don't mean to
say wild animals pray, do you? I never knew they were that religious!"

"Good-_night_!" laughed Neale. "I mean those that prey on other
animals--live on 'em, you know. _Prey_ on 'em."

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" murmured Sammy. "Just like the fleas on my bulldog,
Buster?"

"That's enough! That's enough!" groaned Neale. "No use trying to teach
this boy anything."

"Huh!" grumbled Sammy Pinkney. "They make me learn enough in school.
Don't you begin to pick on me out here in the woods, Neale O'Neil."

Just then Tom Jonah, who, his tongue hanging out, had been padding on
ahead, suddenly uttered a loud bark and leaped out of the path. He
went tearing away across the tops of the drifts and through the open
wood through which the tote-road then passed.

Out of a close-branched spruce just ahead of the big dog shot a
tawny-gray body, and a fearsome yowl drowned the barking of the dog.
But the creature that had created Tom Jonah's excitement was running
away.

"Call off that dog!" shouted the head driver. "Want him all chawed
up?"

Tess stood up and began to scream for Tom Jonah to return. The old dog
would obey her voice if no other.

"Oh! What _is_ that?" cried Ruth.

"Link," said the driver, succinctly, as the beast uttered another
angry howl which made the returning Tom Jonah turn to snarl in the
stranger's direction.

"Oh!"

"He means _lynx_," said Mr. Howbridge.

"Don't, nuther," snorted the driver. "There's only one of him, so he's
a link. If they was two or more they'd be links."

"Oh! Ah!" chuckled Luke Shepard. "And that one is now the 'missing
link.' He was making tracks for the port of 'missing links' when he
disappeared."

"He's goin' some. That dog give him a scare," admitted the driver, as
a third and more distant yowl floated back to them from the depths of
the forest.

The whole party, however, was impressed by the incident. More than Dot
were disturbed by the thought of danger.

"Just the same," the smallest Corner House girl murmured in Tess' ear.
"I'm _not_ going to throw my Alice-doll overboard, either for wolfs or
linkses--so there!"



CHAPTER XI

EMBERS IN THE GRATE


Mr. Durkin of the Coxford Hotel had furnished the party with a hearty
lunch to eat while they were en route to Red Deer Lodge, and Ruth had
brought two big thermos bottles of hot tea, likewise prepared at the
hotel. The drivers had their own lunches, and at noon the party halted
in the shelter of a windbreak to breathe the horses and allow them to
eat their oats.

Mrs. MacCall and the older girls complained of stiffness from sitting
so long in the sledges. Riding so far in the cold was not altogether
pleasant; there was no sunshine at all now. The gathering storm had
overcast the entire sky, and as they went on after lunch a rising wind
began moaning through the forest.

"I don't see why the trees have to make such a meachin' noise," sighed
Dot, as they climbed a steep hill so slowly that the rueful sound of
the rising gale was quite audible.

"Where did you get such a word, Dot?" demanded Ruth, smiling at her.

"It is a good word. Uncle Rufus uses it," declared the smallest Corner
House girl. "And Uncle Rufus never uses bad words."

"Granted," Ruth said. "But what does 'meachin' mean?"

"Why, just as though the wind felt bad and was whimpering about it,"
said Dot, with assurance. "It makes you all shivery to listen to it.
And after we heard that link, and know that there are bears and wolfs
about--O-o-oh! what's that, Ruthie?"

Something white had flashed right up in front of the noses of the
first team of horses, and with great leaps broke away from the road.
Tom Jonah was at the rear of the procession and did not at first see
this bounding shape.

Neale stood up in the second sleigh and clapped his hands sharply
together. The white ball stopped--halting right in a snow-patch; being
so much like the snow itself in color that those in the sledges could
scarcely see it. The sharp crack of Neale's ungloved palms seemed to
make the creature cower in the snow. It halted for a moment only,
however.

"Oh! The bunny!" gasped Tess, standing up to see.

"A big white hare," Mr. Howbridge said. "I had no idea there were such
big ones around here."

The hare burst into high speed again and disappeared, almost before
Tom Jonah set out for him.

"Come back, Tom Jonah!" shouted Tess. "Why, you couldn't catch that
bunny if you had started ahead of him."

"Wow! that's a good one," said Neale O'Neil. "Tell you what, Aggie,
those small sisters of yours are right full of new ideas."

"That is what teacher says is the matter with Robbie Foote," remarked
Sammy, thoughtfully.

"How is that?" asked Agnes, expecting some illuminating information
from the standpoint of a lower grade pupil.

"Why," Sammy explained, "teacher asked Rob what was the plural of man.
Rob told her 'men.' Then, of course, she had to keep right on at it.
If you do answer her right she goes right at you again," scoffed
Sammy. "That's why I don't often answer her right if I can help it. It
only makes you trouble."

"Oh! Oh!" chuckled Neale. "A Daniel come to judgment."

"Wait. Let's hear the rest of Sam's story," begged Agnes. "What was
Robbie Foote's idea?"

"That's what teacher said--he was full of ideas, only they were
silly," went on Sammy. "When he'd told her 'men' was the plural of
'man,' she said: 'What is the plural of child?' He told her 'twins.'
What d'you know about that? She said his ideas were silly."

"I'm not so sure he was silly," laughed Neale.

"I wonder what has become of those Birdsall twins," Agnes said
thoughtfully. "Up here in this wild country--"

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Neale. "You don't know anything of the kind.
Those two girls that fisher-woman spoke about--"

"One of them was a boy."

"Well, that doesn't prove anything. We don't even know that the two at
the fisher-village were twins."

"But they were brother and sister roaming about--runaways and alone."

"Oh, Aggie!" he cried, "don't make up your mind a thing is so without
getting some real evidence first. Mr. Howbridge asked, and he is not
at all sure those stragglers were the twins."

"Somehow I just feel that they were," sighed the second Corner House
girl, with a confidence that Neale saw it was useless to try to shake.

When Agnes Kenway made up her mind to a thing Neale wagged his head
and gave it up.

The party was quite too jolly, however, to bother much about the lost
Birdsall twins just then. Even Mr. Howbridge had said nothing about
them since his cross-examination of the hotel-keeper back at Coxford.

If the twins had come this way, for instance, attempting to reach Red
Deer Lodge, surely some of the people of Coxford or the woodsmen going
back and forth on the tote-road would have met and recognized them.
And if Ralph was dressed in some of his sister's clothing, they would
have been the more surely marked.

Two girls of twelve or so traveling into the woods? It seemed quite
ridiculous.

For this was indeed a wild country through which the tote-road ran.
The fact of its being a wilderness was marked even to the eyes of
those so unfamiliar with such scenes.

Now and then a fox barked from the brakes in the lowland. Jays in
droves winged across the clearings with raucous cries. More than one
trampled place beside the thickets of edible brush showed where the
deer herd had browsed within stone's throw of the tote-road.

And then, as the party came closer to the ridge on which Red Deer
Lodge was built, and the twilight began to gather, the big white owls
of these northern forests went flapping through the tree-lanes,
skimming the snowcrust for the rabbits and other small animals that
might be afoot even this early in the evening.

The spread of the wings of the first of these monster owls that they
saw was quite six feet from tip to tip, and it almost scared Dot
Kenway. With an eerie "Hoo! Hoo! Hoo-oo!" and a swish of wings it
crossed the road just ahead of the horses, and made even those
plodding beasts toss their heads and prick up their ears.

"Oh, look at that 'normous great white chicken!" shouted Dot. "Did you
ever?"

"It is an owl, child," said Tess.

"An owl as big as _that_?" gasped the smaller girl. "Why--why--it
could carry you right off like the eagle that Mr. Lycurgus Billet set
his Sue for bait! Don't you 'member?"

"I guess I do remember!" Tess declared. "But an owl isn't like an
eagle. It isn't so savage."

The party had come a long way, and the steaming horses were now weary.
As evening approached the cold increased in intensity, while the
mournfully sounding wind promised stern weather. The members of the
party from Milton began to congratulate each other that they were
arriving at the Lodge before a big storm should sweep over this
northern country.

"And suppose we get snowed in and aren't able to get out of the woods
till spring?" suggested Cecile, not without some small fear that such
might be a possibility.

"There goes little Miss Fidget!" cried her brother. "Always worrying
over the worst that may happen."

"But I suppose we could be snowbound up here?" suggested Ruth,
although scarcely with anxiety.

"Yes!" agreed Luke, laughing. "And pigs might fly. But they tell me
they are awful uncertain birds."

"Don't listen to him, Ruthie," said Cecile. "We may have to stay here
all winter long."

"Then I only hope Mr. Howbridge sent up grub enough to see us through
till spring," put in the collegian gayly. "For I can foresee right now
that this keen air is going to give me the appetite of an Eskimo."

It was a long climb to the top of the ridge on which the Birdsalls had
built their rustic home. When the party came in sight of it the lamps
were already lighted and these beckoned cheerfully to the arrivals
while they were still a long way off.

The private road which had branched off from the regular tote-road at
the foot of the ridge was easy to ascend beside some of the hills they
had climbed. The teams, however, were not to be urged out of a walk.

There was a sudden flare of sulphurous light over the wooded caps of
the mountains to the west of the ridge; but this lasted only a few
minutes. The sun was then smothered in the mists as it sank to rest.
Dusk almost at once filled the aisles of the forest.

On the summit of the ridge about the big, sprawling, rustic house only
shade trees had been allowed to stand. The land was cleared and tilled
to some extent. At least, there was plenty of open space around the
Lodge and the log barns and the outbuildings.

Somebody was on watch, for the big entrance door opened before the
sleds reached the steps, and yellow lamplight shone out across the
porch. Hedden stood in the doorway, while another man ran down to
assist with the bags and bundles.

"Oh, what a homelike looking place!" Ruth cried, quite as amazed as
the other visitors by the appearance of the Lodge.

Aside from the fact that the house was built of round logs with the
bark peeled off, it did not seem to be at all rough or of crude
construction. There were two floors and a garret. The entrance hall
seemed as big as a barn.

It was cozy and warm, however, despite its size. There was a gallery
all around this hall at the level of the second floor, and a stairway
went up on either side. At the rear was a huge fireplace, and this was
heaped with logs which gave off both light and heat. There was a
chandelier dropped from the ceiling, however, and acetylene gas flared
from the burners of this fixture.

The whole party crowded to the hearth where benches and chairs were
drawn up in a wide circle before the flames. The maids relieved Mrs.
MacCall and the girls of their outer wraps and overshoes. The boys had
been shown where they were to leave their caps and coats.

Such a hilarious crowd as they were! Jokes and cheerful gossip were
the order of this hour of rest. With all but one member of the party!
There was one very serious face, and this was the countenance of the
youngest of the four Kenway sisters.

"Dorothy Kenway! what is the matter with you?" demanded Tess, at last
seeing the expression on the face of her little sister.

Dot had been gazing all about the room with amazed eyes until this
question came. Then with gravity she asked:

"Tessie! didn't Mr. Howbridge say this was a lodge?"

"Why, yes; this is Red Deer Lodge, child," rejoined Tess.

"But--but, Tess! you know it isn't a lodge, nor a room where they have
lodges! Now, is it?!"

"Why--why--"

"It can't be!" went on the smaller girl with great insistence. "You
know that was a lodge where we went night before last to have our
Christmas tree on Meadow Street."

"A _lodge_?" gasped Tess.

"Yes. You know it was. And there was a pulpit and chairs on a platform
at both ends of the lodge. And lodges are held there. I know, 'cause
Becky Goronofsky's father belongs to one that meets there. She said
so. And he wears a little white apron with a blue border and a sash
over his shoulder.

"Now," said the earnest Dot, "there's nothing like that here, so it's
not a lodge at all. I don't see why they call it a red lodge for
deers."

Tess would have been tempted to call on Mr. Howbridge himself for an
explanation of this seeming mystery had the lawyer not been just then
in conference with Hedden in a corner of the room. The butler had
beckoned his employer away from the others.

"What is it, Hedden?" asked the lawyer. "Has something gone wrong?"

"Not with the arrangements for the comfort of your party, Mr.
Howbridge," the man assured him. "But when we came in here yesterday
(and I unlocked the door myself with the key you gave me) I found that
somebody had recently occupied the Lodge."

"You don't mean it! Somebody broken in! Some thief?"

"No, sir. I went around to all the windows and doors. Nobody had
broken in. Whoever it was must have had a key, too."

"But who was it? What did the intruder do?"

"I find nothing disturbed, sir. Nothing of importance. But one room,
at least, had been used recently. It is a sitting-room upstairs--right
near this main hall. There had been a fire in the grate up there. When
we came in yesterday the embers were still glowing. But I could find
no intruder anywhere about the Lodge, sir."



CHAPTER XII

MYSTERY AND FUN


Mr. Howbridge was evidently somewhat impressed by Hedden's report. He
stared gravely for a minute at his grizzled butler. Then he nodded.

"Take me upstairs and show me which room you mean, Hedden," he said.

"Yes, sir. This way, sir."

He led the lawyer toward the nearest stairway. They mounted to the
gallery. Then the man led his employer down a passage and turned short
into a doorway. The room they entered was really on the other side of
the chimney from the big entrance hall.

It was a small, cozy den. Mr. Howbridge looked the place over keenly,
scrutinizing the furnishings before he glanced at the open coal grate
to which Hedden sought to draw his attention first of all.

"Ah. Yes," said the lawyer, thoughtfully. "A work-basket. Low rocker.
A dressing table. Couch. This, Hedden, was Mrs. Birdsall's private
sitting-room when she was alive. I never saw the house before, but I
have heard Birdsall describe it."

"Yes, sir?"

"Mrs. Birdsall spent a good deal of her time indoors in this room, and
the children with her. So he said. And you found live embers in the
grate there?"

"Yes, sir," said the butler, his own eyes big with wonder.

"No other signs of anybody having been here?"

"Not that I could see," said Hedden.

"Strange--if anybody had been in here who had a key. Have you seen Ike
M'Graw?"

"No, sir. The men who brought us up here said the man had gone
away--had been away for a week, sir--but would return tonight."

"Then he was not the person who built the fire the embers of which you
found. The coals would not have burned for a week. He is the person
who has a key to the Lodge, and nobody else."

"Yes, sir."

"Whoever got in here, of course, either departed when you came,
Hedden, or before. Did you notice any tracks about the house?"

"Plenty, sir. But only of beasts and birds."

"Ah-ha! Are the animals as tame as that up here?"

"There were footprints that the men from town assured me were those of
a big cat of some kind, and there were dog footprints; only the men
said they were those of wolves. They say the beasts are getting hungry
early in the season, because of the deep and early snow, sir."

"Humph! Better say nothing to the children about that," said Mr.
Howbridge. "Of course, this party's being here will keep any marauding
animals at a distance. We won't care for that sort of visitor."

"I think there is no danger, sir. I will tell the chef to throw out no
table-scraps, and to feed that big dog we have brought in the back
kitchen. Then there will be nothing to attract the wild creatures to
the door."

"Good idea," Mr. Howbridge said. "And I will warn them all tomorrow
not to leave the vicinity of the Lodge alone. When Ike M'Graw arrives
we shall be all right. This vicinity is his natural habitat, and he
will know all that's right to do, and what not to do."

Mr. Howbridge still looked about the room. The thing that interested
him most was the mystery of the intruder who had built the fire in the
grate. Mrs. Birdsall's sitting-room! And the lawyer knew from hearing
the story repeated again and again by the sorrowing widower, that the
woman had been brought in here after her fall from the horse and had
died upon the couch in the corner of the room.

He wondered.

Meanwhile the crowd of young people below were comforted with tea and
crackers before they went to their bedrooms to change their clothes
for dinner. Mr. Howbridge had brought the customs of his own formal
household to Red Deer Lodge, and, knowing how particular the lawyer
was, Ruth Kenway had warned the others to come prepared to dress for
dinner.

Mrs. MacCall, after drinking her third cup of tea, went off with the
chief maid to view the house and learn something about it. The Scotch
woman was very capable and had governed Mr. Howbridge's own home
before she went to the old Corner House to keep straight the household
lines there for the Kenways.

Her situation here at the Lodge was one between the serving people and
the family; but the latter, especially the smaller girls, would have
been woeful indeed had Mrs. MacCall not sat at the table with them and
been one of the family as she was at home in Milton.

The girls were shown to their two big rooms on the second floor, and
found them warm and cozy. They were heated by wood fires in
drum-stoves. Ike M'Graw, general caretaker of the Lodge, had long
since piled each wood box in the house full with billets of hard wood.

Neale and Luke and Sammy were given another room off the gallery above
the main hall. There they washed, and freshened up their apparel, and
otherwise made themselves more presentable. Even Sammy looked a little
less grubby than usual when they came down to the big fire again.

It was black dark outside by this time. The wind was still moaning in
the forest, and when they went to the door the fugitive snowflakes
drifted against one's cheek.

"Going to be a bad night, I guess," Neale said, coming back from an
observation, just as the girls came down the stairway. "Oh, look! see
'em all fussed up!"

The girls had shaken out their furbelows, and now came down smiling
and preening not a little. Mr. Howbridge appeared in a Tuxedo coat.

"Wish I'd brought my 'soup to nuts,'" admitted Luke Shepard. "This is
going to be a dress-up affair. I thought we were coming into the
wilderness to rough it."

"All the roughing it will be done outside the house, young man," said
Cecile to her brother. "You must be on your very best behavior
inside."

Hedden's assistant announced dinner, and Mr. Howbridge offered his arm
to Mrs. MacCall, who had just descended the stairway in old-fashioned
rustling black silk.

Immediately Luke joined the procession with Ruth on his arm, and Neale
followed with Agnes, giggling of course. Cecile made Sammy walk beside
her, and he was really proud to do this, only he would not admit it.
At the end of the procession came the two little girls.

They had not seen the dining-room before. It was big enough for a
banquet hall, and the table without being extended would have seated a
dozen. There was an open fireplace on either side of this room. The
acetylene lamps gave plenty of light. There were favors at each plate.
There were even flowers on the table. Aside from the unplastered walls
and raftered ceiling, one might have thought this dinner served in Mr.
Howbridge's own home.

They all (the older ones at least) began to realize how great a cross
it would have been for the lawyer to take into his home in Milton two
harum-scarum children like the Birdsall twins. If all tales about them
were true, they were what Neale O'Neil called "terrors."

Such children would surely break every rule of the lawyer's
well-ordered existence. And bachelors of Mr. Howbridge's age do not
take kindly to changes.

"Think of bringing the refinements of his own establishment away up
here into the woods for a three weeks' vacation!" gasped Cecile
afterwards to Ruth.

To-night at dinner every rule of a well-furnished and well-governed
household was followed. Hedden and his assistant served. The food was
deliciously cooked and the sauce of a good appetite aided all to enjoy
the meal.

And the fun and laughter! Mr. Howbridge and Mrs. MacCall enjoyed the
jokes and chatter as much as the younger people themselves. Dot's
discovery that this was not at all like the lodge room on Meadow
Street delighted everybody.

"If you think that red deer ever held lodge meetings in this house,
you are much mistaken, honey," Agnes told the smallest Corner House
girl.

Tom Jonah was allowed to come in and "sit up" at table. The old dog
was so well trained that his table manners (and this was Ruth's
declaration) were far superior to those of Sammy Pinkney. But Sammy
was on his best behavior this evening. The grandeur of the table
service quite overpowered him.

When they all filed back into the hall, which was really the
living-room and reception hall combined, Tom Jonah went with them and
curled down on a warm spot on the hearth. One of the men staggered in
with a great armful of chunks for the evening fire. Hedden found a
popper and popcorn. There was a basket of shiny apples, and even a jug
of sweet cider appeared, to be set down near the fire to take the
chill off it.

"Now, this," said Mr. Howbridge, sitting in a great chair with his
slippered feet outstretched toward the fire, "is what I call country
comfort."

"Whist, man!" exclaimed Mrs. MacCall. "'Tis plain to be seen you ken
little about country comforts, or discomforts either. You were born in
the city, Mr. Howbridge, and you have lived in the city most of your
days. 'Tis little you know what it means to live away from towns and
from luxuries."

"Why," laughed the lawyer, "I always go away for a vacation in the
summer, and I usually choose some rustic neighborhood."

"Aye. Where they have piped water in the house, and electricity, an'
hair mattresses. Aye. I know your kind of 'country,' too, Mr.
Howbridge. But when I was a child at home we lived in the real
country--only two farms in the vale and the shepherds' cots. My
feyther was a shepherd, you know."

"You must be some relation of ours, then, Mrs. MacCall," Luke said,
smiling.

"Oh, aye. By Adam," said the housekeeper coolly. "I've nae doot we
sprang from the same stock the Bible speaks of."

"Now will you be good?" cried Cecile, shaking a finger at her brother.
"Go on, Mrs. MacCall. Tell us about your Highland home."

"Hech! There's very little to tell," said the housekeeper, shaking her
head, "save that 'twas a very lonely vale we lived in, and forbye in
winter. Then we'd not see a strange body from end to end of the snows.
And the snow came early and went late.

"If we had not a grand oat bin and a cow in the stable we bairns would
oft go hungry. Why, our mother would sometimes keep us abed in stormy
weather to save turf. A fire like yon," she added, nodding toward the
blazing pile in the chimney, "would have been counted a sin even in a
laird's house."

"Ah, Mrs. MacCall," said the lawyer, "we're all lairds over here."

"Aye, that can pay the price can have the luxuries. 'Tis so. But
luxuries we knew naught about where I was born and bred."

"I suppose the people right around us here--the residents of this
neighborhood--have few luxuries," Ruth said thoughtfully.

"There aren't many neighbors, I guess," said Neale, laughing.

"But those people living in that fishing village--and even at
Coxford--never saw a tenth of the things which we consider necessary
at home," Ruth pursued.

"Suppose!" exclaimed Cecile eagerly. "Just suppose we were snowed in
up here and could not get out for weeks, and nobody could get to us. I
guess we would have to learn to go without luxuries! Maybe without
food."

"Oh, don't suggest such a thing," begged Agnes. "And this cold air
gives one such an appetite!"

"Don't mention a shortage of food," put in Neale, chuckling, "or Aggie
will be getting up in the night and coming down to rob the pantry."

There might have been a squabble right then and there had not Hedden
appeared, and, in his grave way, announced:

"Mr. M'Graw has arrived, sir. Shall I bring him in here?"

"Ah!" exclaimed the lawyer, waking up from a brown study. "Ike M'Graw?
I understood from Birdsall that he is a character. Has he had supper,
Hedden?"

"Yes, sir. I knew that you would wish him served. He has been eating
in the servants' dining-room, sir."

"Send him in," the lawyer said. "Now, young folks, here is the man who
can tell us more about Red Deer Lodge and the country hereabout, and
all that goes on in it, than anybody else. Here--"

The door opened again. Hedden announced gravely:

"Mr. Ike M'Graw, sir."

There strode over the threshold one of the tallest men the young
people, at least, had ever seen. And he was so lean that his height
seemed more than it really was.

"Why," gasped Neale to Agnes, "he's so thin he doesn't cast a shadow,
I bet!"

"Sh!" advised the girl warningly.

They were all vastly interested in the appearance of Mr. Ike M'Graw.



CHAPTER XIII

THE TIMBER CRUISER


Mr. Howbridge got up from his chair and advanced to meet the
backwoodsman with hospitable hand. The roughly dressed, bewhiskered
forester did not impress the young folks at first as being different
from the men who had driven the sledges to the camp or those who had
brought the party up Long Lake in the ice-boats.

Ike M'Graw had an enormous moustache ("like that of a walrus," Cecile
whispered), but his iron-gray beard was cropped close. His face was
long and solemn of expression, but his gray eyes, surrounded by
innumerable wrinkles, had a humorous cast, and were as bright as the
eyes of a much younger person.

He seized Mr. Howbridge's hand and pumped it warmly. His grip was
strong, and Mr. Howbridge winced, but he continued to smile upon the
old man.

"Mr. Birdsall told me that if I wanted to know anything up here, or
wanted anything done, to look to you, Mr. M'Graw," said the lawyer, as
their hands fell apart.

"I bet he didn't say it jest that way, Mr. Howbridge," chuckled the
man. "No. I reckon he jest called me 'Ike.' Now, didn't he? And 'Old
Ike,' at that!"

Mr. Howbridge laughed. "Well, he did speak of you in that way, yes,"
he admitted.

"I reckoned so," M'Graw said. "Yep, I'm 'Old Ike' to my friends, and
what my enemies call me don't matter at all--not at all."

"I fancy you don't make many enemies up here in the woods, M'Graw,"
said Mr. Howbridge, waving the visitor to a comfortable seat before
the fire.

"Nor friends, nuther," chuckled the man. "No, sir, there ain't sech a
slather of folks up here to mix in with, by any count."

Before the woodsman took his seat the lawyer introduced him to Mrs.
MacCall and to Ruth, individually, and to the rest of the group in
general.

"Hi gorry!" exclaimed Ike M'Graw, "you've got a right big fam'ly,
haven't you? You won't be lonesome up here--no, you won't be
lonesome."

"And that is what I should think you would be," Mr. Howbridge said.
"Lonesome. If you get snowed in you don't see anybody for weeks, I
suppose?"

"Better say 'months,' Mister," declared M'Graw. "I've been snowed into
my cabin back yonder in the valley from the day before Christmas till
come St. Patrick's Day. That's right."

"I understood you lived near the Lodge, here, Ike?" said the lawyer.

"Oh, I do in winter, since Mr. Birdsall asked me to," the man said.
"But sometimes--'specially when there was visitors up here--the
population of this here ridge got too thick for Old Ike. Then I'd hike
out for my old cabin in the valley."

Quickly Mr. Howbridge put in a query that had formed in his mind early
in the evening:

"Have you been troubled with visitors up here this winter?"

"No, sir! It's been right quiet here, you might say."

"Nobody here at all until my party came yesterday?"

"Well, not many. Some timbermen went through for Neven. His company's
got a camp over beyond the Birdsall line. Yes, sir."

"Strangers have not been here, then?"

"Why, no. Not to my knowledge," said M'Graw, with a keener look at the
lawyer. "You wasn't meanin' nothin' special, was you? I've been away
over to Ebettsville for a week. Nothin' stirring here before I went."

The conversation had become general again among the main party. Mr.
Howbridge drew his chair nearer to the old man's ear.

"Listen," he said. "When my men came up yesterday and opened the house
with the key I had given them, they found somebody had been in here
not many hours before they arrived."

"How'd they know?"

"The fire had scarcely died out in one of the grates upstairs."

"Hum! Fire, eh? And I hadn't been inside this Lodge since b'fore
Thanksgiving. Kinder funny, heh?"

"Yes."

"Anything stole?"

"Not a thing touched as far as we know. No other traces but the embers
in that grate--"

"Hold on, Mister!" exclaimed M'Graw, but in a low voice. "What grate
are you referrin' to? Which room was this fire in?"

Mr. Howbridge told him. The old man's face was curious to look upon.
His brows drew down into a frown. His sharp eyes lost their humorous
cast. Of a sudden he was very serious indeed.

"That thar room," he said slowly, and at length, "was Miz'
Birdsall's."

"So I believed from the way it was furnished and from what Frank had
told me of the house."

"Yes, Mister. That was her room. She thought a heap of sittin' in that
room; 'specially in stormy weather. And the little shavers used to
play there with her, too."

"Yes?"

"Them little shavers thought a sight of their mom," pursued M'Graw.

"I gathered as much from what Frank told me," Mr. Howbridge said
seriously.

"By the way, Mr. Howbridge," said M'Graw in a different tone, "where
are the little shavers?"

"You mean the twins, of course? Ralph and Rowena?"

"Yes, sir."

The guardian of the Birdsall twins rather hesitatingly told the old
man just why he had not brought Ralph and Rowena to Red Deer Lodge at
this time.

"Ran away? Now listen to that!" murmured the old man. "That don't
sound right. Wasn't they with folks able to take keer of 'em?"

"I thought they were," said Mr. Howbridge. "Rodgers, the butler, and
his wife."

"Whoof!" exclaimed the backwoodsman, expelling his breath in a great
snort of disgust. "That butler! Wal, what for a man wants to buttle
for, I don't know. I never could make it out that it was a real man's
job, anyway. And that Rodgers was one useless critter. I don't blame
them little shavers for runnin' away from Rodgers an' that sour-apple
wife of his. I know 'em both."

"If that is the case," said the lawyer sadly, "I wish I had known them
as well as you appear to. Then I should have made other provision for
the twins right at the start."

"But shucks!" said M'Graw, suddenly grinning. "Them two little shavers
will turn up all right. Ralph and Roweny are right smart kids."

"That may be. But we don't know where they have gone to. Of course,
Ike, they couldn't have got up here to Red Deer Lodge, could they?"

"I don't know 'bout that," said the old man. "I reckon they could have
got here if they'd wanted to. But I know well 'nough they didn't--not
before I went away to Ebettsville a week ago."

"Of course not! Somebody would have seen them at Coxford. And then, if
they had come here, where are they now?"

"That's right, Mister," agreed Ike M'Graw. "But--but who started that
fire in the grate?"

"If it had been the children wouldn't they have been found here?"

"Mebbe. Tell you the truth"--and the old man's weather-beaten face
reddened a little. "Well, to tell you the truth, when you spoke of the
fire in the grate, I was some took aback. Miz' Birdsall bein' killed
here. And she likin' that room so. And she finally dyin' in it--well,
I don't know--"

"Ike! you are superstitious, I do believe," said the lawyer.

"Mebbe. But that never killed nobody," said the man. "And funny things
do happen. Howsomever--Say!" he exclaimed suddenly, "how'd these folks
that made the fire get into the house and out again?"

"Hedden, my man, says he found nothing broken or burst open. It must
have been by the use of a key. And the only key I knew of up here was
yours, Ike."

"That's right," said the backwoodsman, nodding. "Mine's the only key
up here."

"But the intruders couldn't have used that."

"Yes, they could, too! I didn't take it with me when I went away from
here."

"Who would know where it was?"

"Anybody might have seen it that looked into my shack," admitted the
old man. "I ain't in the habit of hidin' things. We don't have
burglars up here, Mister. That key, and others, hung right on a nail
beside my chimley-place. Yes, sir!"

"Then any person passing by could have found the key and entered the
Lodge?" asked Mr. Howbridge.

"Only we don't have many folks passin' by," returned Ike thoughtfully.

"I can't understand it."

"It is a puzzle," admitted M'Graw. "Hi gorry! I ain't been to my shack
yet since comin' back from Ebettsville. Mebbe the key ain't thar no
more."

"To what door was it?" asked the lawyer.

"This here," replied M'Graw, jerking a thumb toward the main entrance.
"Padlock on the outside of the door. All the other doors was barred on
the inside. Oh, she was locked up hard and fast!"

"I don't understand it," said the lawyer. "You look when you go home
and see if the key is hanging where you left it."

"Hi gorry! I will," promised the backwoodsman. "I'd better bring the
key over here tomorrow, anyway. And I reckon you want them figgers on
the timber Neven wants to cut?"

"Yes. Of course, Ike, you have made no mistake in cruising the
timberland?"

"I never make mistakes, Mister," said the old man. "That wouldn't do
in the woods. The man that's brought up, as I was, with wildcats an'
bears an' sech, can't afford to make mistakes. This was a lots wilder
country when I was a boy from what 'tis now."

"I find that Neven's figures are very different from yours."

"Likely. And I reckon they're in his favor, ain't they?" and M'Graw
chuckled. "Ye-as? I thought so. Well, you take it from me, Mister: I'm
working for Birdsall's youngsters, not for Neven."

"I believe that to be a fact," the lawyer agreed warmly. "I have
already told Neven that there are other companies that will make a
contract with us if he doesn't care to accept your report."

"I b'lieve I know this Birdsall strip a leetle better'n any other
feller in these parts. I've lived on it twenty year, and knowed it
well before that time. I've seen some o' this timber grow. Reckon I
ain't fooled myself none."

After that Mr. Howbridge drew the old into the general conversation.
Ike approved vastly of the young people, it was evident. Agnes and the
smaller children were popping corn. There were apples roasting on the
hearth. The cider was handed about in glasses which one of the
servants brought.

"We shall look to you for help in amusing these young people, Ike,"
Mr. Howbridge said. "Is it going to snow enough tonight to keep them
indoors tomorrow?"

"No, no," the old woodsman assured them. "It's snowing some, but not
much yet awhile. This here storm that's comin' has got to gather fust.
We'll get a heavy fall, I don't doubt, in the end; but not yet. Like
enough, 'twill be purty fair tomorrow."

Reassured by this prophecy, the little folks soon after went to bed.
Nor were the older members of the party long behind them. They had had
a long and wearying day, and the beds beckoned them.



CHAPTER XIV

BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON


Ike M'Graw, the timber cruiser, was an excellent weather prophet; and
this was proved to be a fact before all of those at Red Deer Lodge had
gone to bed on this first night.

Neale O'Neil chanced to raise the shade of one of the windows in the
boys' room before undressing, and exclaimed to Luke:

"Hey! who said it snowed? Look at that moon up there!"

Luke Shepard joined him and looked out, too, at the rather misty orb
of night that peered through the breaking clouds. But little snow had
fallen during the evening.

"Going to be a good day, just as that old codger said it would,"
agreed Luke. "My, how white everything is--really, silver! And a
lonely place, isn't it?"

"You said it," agreed Neale. He was feeling in his pockets, and
suddenly added: "Crackey! I've lost my knife."

"You had it down there peeling apples for the girls," said Luke, who
was beginning to undress.

Sammy was already in bed and sound asleep. Neale started for the door.

"I don't want to lose that knife," he said. "I am going to run down
and get it."

The serving people had gone to bed, but there were dim lights on the
gallery and one below in the big hall. Neale ran lightly down the
carpeted stairs on his side of the house. The light was so dim that he
fumbled around a good while hunting for the missing knife.

Suddenly something clattered about his ears--some missiles that came
from above, but were not much heavier than snowflakes, it would seem.
Neale jumped, and then stared around.

He could not see a thing moving or hear anything. Where the white
objects had come from he could not understand. Finally he found one
that had rolled on the floor.

"Popcorn! Say! it's not snowing popcorn in here--not by any natural
means," the boy told himself, immediately suspicious.

Suddenly he spied his knife, and he pocketed that. As he did so there
came another baptism of popcorn. He dropped down below the edge of a
table which stood in the middle of the room under the chandelier. All
the light came from above, and there was not much of that; so it was
dark under the table.

He heard a faint giggle. "Ah-ha!" thought Neale. "I smell a mouse!
That is a girl's giggle."

He saw that the way to the foot of the stairs that were nearest the
girls' rooms, was quite dark. He ran out from under the table, but
softly and on his hands and knees, and reached the stairway without
making a sound.

The popcorn rattled again upon the table top, and once more he heard
the giggle. He wormed his way up the stairs in the shadow and reached
the gallery. Here a jet of gas from the side wall gave some light. He
saw the robed figure hanging over the bannister and in the act of
throwing another handful of popcorn at the spot where the boy was
supposed to be crouching.

Neale O'Neil crept forward from the top of the stairs, still on his
hands and knees. He was likewise in the shadow, although he could see
the figure ahead of him plainly.

"Meow!" crooned the boy, imitating a cat with remarkable ingenuity.
"Meow!"

"Oh, mercy!" hissed a startled voice.

"Ma-ro-o-ow!" urged Neale O'Neil, repeating his feline success.

"Mercy!" ejaculated the whisperer. "That's a strange cat."

"Ma-row-ro-o-ow!" continued Neale, with a lingering wail.

"Here, kitty! kitty! kitty!" murmured the girl crouching by the
bannister. "Oh, where are you? Poor kitty!"

Immediately Neale changed his tone and produced a growl that not only
sounded savage but seemed so near that the startled girl jumped up
with a cry:

"Oh! Oh! Neale!"

"Ma-row-ro-o-ow! Ssst!" continued what purported to be a cat, and one
that was very much annoyed.

"Oh! _Oh!_ OH!" shrieked Agnes, springing up and leaning over the
railing. "Neale! Come quick!"

And there Neale was right beside her! He appeared so suddenly that she
would have shrieked again, and perhaps brought half the household to
the spot, had not the boy grabbed her quickly and placed a hand over
her mouth, stifling the cry about to burst forth.

"Hush!" he commanded. "Want to get Mrs. Mac or Mr. Howbridge out here
to see what is the matter?"

"Oh, Neale!" sputtered Agnes. "I thought you were a cat."

"And I thought you were a hailstorm of popcorn."

"You horrid boy! To scare me so!"

"You horrid girl! To shower me with popcorn!"

"I don't care--"

"Neither do I."

Agnes began to giggle. "What were you doing down there?" she asked.

"I was looking for my pocketknife. Wouldn't lose it for a farm Down
East with a pig on it!" declared the boy. "What are you doing out
here?"

"I went to Mrs. Mac's room to give her her nightcap. It was in my bag.
Oh, Neale! do you suppose it will be clear by morning, as that funny
old man says?"

"It's clear now."

"You don't mean it?"

"Come along here to the window and look for yourself," the boy said,
and led her toward the front of the house along the gallery.

There was a broad and deep-silled window over the front door of the
Lodge. Neale drew back the hangings. They could see out into the night
which was now all black and silver.

The forest that edged the clearing in which stood the Lodge was as
black as ever an evergreen forest could be. The tops of the trees were
silvered by the moonbeams, but the shadows at the foot of the trees
were like ink.

In the open the new-fallen snow glittered as though the moonlight fell
on precious stones. It was so beautiful a scene that for a moment
Agnes could only grip Neale O'Neil's arm and utter an ecstatic sigh.

"Scrumptious, isn't it?" said the boy, understanding her mood.

"Lovely!" sighed Agnes. "Ruth and Cecile ought to see this."

"Hold on!" warned the boy. "Get them out here and we'll both be sent
to bed in a hurry. Ruth's got her bossing clothes on--has had 'em on
ever since we left Milton."

"Te-he!" giggled Agnes suddenly. "She feels her responsibility."

"Guess she does," chuckled Neale. "But there's no need to add to her
troubles. Believe me! the less I am bossed around by her the better I
like it."

"Oh, Neale," said Agnes, "she only does it for your good."

"Don't you fret," returned the boy, with a sniff. "I can get along
without Ruth or anybody else worrying about whether I'm good, or not.
Believe me!"

"Oh!" squealed Agnes suddenly. "What's that?"

"Huh! Seen a rat? Scared to death?" scoffed Neale O'Neil.

"Look at that thing out there! It's no rat," declared the girl
eagerly.

Neale then looked in the direction she pointed. Not twenty yards from
the house, and sitting on its haunches in the snow, was an object that
at first Neale thought was a dog. The shadow it cast upon the moon-lit
snow showed pointed ears, however, and a bushy tail.

"Crackey, Aggie!" gasped Neale, "that's a fox."

"A fox? Right here near the house? Just like that?" gasped the girl.
"Why--why, he must be wild!"

"Crackey!" returned Neale, smothering his laughter, "you didn't
suppose he was tame, did you?"

"But--but," stammered the girl, "if a wild fox comes so near the
house, one of those dreadful lynxes may come--or a bear. I never! Why,
we might be besieged by wolves and bears and wildcats. Did you ever?"

"No, I never was," scoffed Neale. "Not yet. But, really, I am willing
to be. I'll try anything--once."

"I guess you wouldn't be so smart, young man, if the animals really
did come here and serenade us. Why--"

"Listen! That fellow is serenading us now," declared Neale, much
amused.

The sharp, shrill yap of the fox reached their ears. Then, from the
rear of the house where Tom Jonah was confined in the back kitchen,
the roar of the old dog's bark answered the fox's yapping.

And then from somewhere--was it from above and inside the house, or
outside and in the black woods?--there sounded a sharp explosion.
Agnes flashed a questioning glance at Neale; but the boy pointed,
crying:

"Quick! Look! The fox!"

The little animal with the bushy tail that had raised its pointed nose
to yap mournfully at the moon, had suddenly sprung straight up into
the air. It cleared the snow at least four feet. One convulsive
wriggle it gave with its whole body, and fell back, a black heap, on
the snow.

"Oh, Neale! what happened to it?" gasped Agnes, amazed.

"Shot," said the youth, a curious note in his voice.

"Oh, who shot it?"

"Ask me an easier one."

"Why--what--I think that was sort of cruel, after all," sighed the
girl. "He wasn't really doing any harm."

"I thought you were afraid he might eat us all up," said Neale,
dropping the curtain which he had been holding back, and turning away
from the window.

"Oh--but--I am serious now," she said. "Who do you suppose shot him?"

"I could not say."

"That old woodsman, perhaps? There is none of our party out there with
a gun, of course. Oh, dear! I hope I don't dream of it. I don't like
to see things killed."

But the thought of dreaming about seeing the fox shot did not trouble
Neale O'Neil when he parted with Agnes and went back to his room. Nor
was it anything about the death of the creature that absorbed his
attention.

It was who the huntsman was and from where the shot was fired that
puzzled Neale O 'Neil. Had the shot been made from outside or inside
the house?

For it seemed to the boy that the explosion had been above their
heads; and he chanced to know that none of the party from Milton--not
even the servants--were quartered on the third floor of Red Deer
Lodge.

Who, then, could be up there shooting out of one of the small windows
at the yapping fox? He said nothing about this to Agnes; but he
determined to make inquiry regarding it the first thing in the
morning.



CHAPTER XV

A VARIETY OF HAPPENINGS


They were near the shortest day of the year and the sun rose very late
indeed; so nobody at Red Deer Lodge got up early, unless it was the
kitchen man who had to light the fires and bring in much wood. He
tramped paths through the new-fallen snow to the outbuildings before
sunrise. By the time Neale O'Neil, his head filled with the puzzling
thoughts of the night before, reached the rear premises, the yard of
the Lodge was marked and re-marked with footsteps.

He sought Hedden, however, having seen that the snow in front of the
Lodge showed no footprint. The fox lay just where it had been shot.

"Does any of our party sleep in the garret, Hedden?" Neale asked the
butler.

"No, young man. We all have rooms at the back of the house."

The boy told the man about the shooting of the fox. "Of course, one of
the men was not out with a small rifle, and plugged old Reynard when
he was howling at the moon, was he?"

"No," replied the butler. "Neither John nor Lawrence knows how to use
a gun, I'm sure. Perhaps it was that tall man, Ike M'Graw."

"Well, seems to me he ought to have come and got the pelt," said
Neale, ruminatingly. "It's worth something all right, when furs are so
high. Say, Hedden, how do you get upstairs into the garret?"

Hedden told him, presuming that it was merely a boy's curiosity that
caused him to ask. But Neale had a deeper reason than that for wishing
to find the way upstairs.

He could not understand from what angle the fox had been shot while he
and Agnes were looking out of the window, if the hunter had been in
the wood. There had been no flash or sign of smoke from the edge of
the forest, and Neale's vision swept the line of black shadow for
hundreds of yards at the moment of the report.

"Smokeless powder is all right," muttered the boy. "But they can't
overcome the flash of the exploding shell in the dark. No, sir! That
marksman was not in the wood. And the report sounded right over our
heads!"

He said nothing more to Hedden, but found the upper stairs at the rear
of the house. At the top was a heavy door, but it was not locked. He
thrust it open rather gingerly, and looked into the great, raftered
loft.

The sun was above the treetops now and shone redly into the front
windows. There was light enough for him to see that as far as human
occupants went, the garret of the Lodge was empty.

There was not much up here, anyway. Several boxes, some lumber, and a
heap of rubbish in one corner.

Neale O'Neil stepped into the place and walked to the front of the
building. The windows were square and swung inward on hinges. He knew
that this row of front windows was directly over that at which he and
Agnes stood looking out upon the moon-lit lawn at bedtime.

The windows were all fastened with buttons. As far as he could see
none gave evidence--at least on the inside--of having been recently
opened. Neale shivered in the chill, dead air of the loft.

If the marksman that had shot the fox was up here, from which window
did he shoot? Neale could not find any mark along the window sill or
on the floor.

Suddenly the boy began opening the windows, one after the other. Some
of them stuck, but he persisted until each one swung open. Outside the
snow that had fallen the evening before lay in a fluffy layer on the
window sill.

At the third window he halted. In this layer of light snow was a mark.
Neale uttered a satisfied exclamation.

It was the matrix of a round tube--the barrel of the gun that had
fired the shot which had finished Reynard, the fox!

"Can't be anything else," thought the boy. "He knelt right here and
rested his gun across the sill. Yes! it points downward--pressed
heavier at the outer end than near the window. Yes!"

The boy got down and squinted along the mark in the snow. His keen eye
easily brought the huddled, sandy object on the snow down below into
range.

"Now, what do you know about that?" Neale O'Neil asked aloud. "Who was
up here with a gun last night and popped over that fox? I wonder if I
ought to tell Mr. Howbridge."

Had he done so the lawyer would quickly have pieced together what
Hedden had told him about the live embers in the grate and Neale's
discovery. Whether he would have arrived at a correct conclusion in
the matter, was another thing.

However that might be, Neale O'Neil was sure that somebody had access
to the garret and had shot the fox therefrom. After the rear premises
of the Lodge had been tracked up so before daylight, half a dozen
people might have left the house by the rear door without their
footprints being seen. If the marksman had no business in the Lodge he
could easily have got away.

Puzzling over these thoughts, Neale descended to find most of the
party before the fire in the living-room, waiting for breakfast. Agnes
was eagerly telling of the fox she had seen shot at bedtime.

Neale added no details to her story, save that the fox still lay on
the snow outside.

"Whoever hit him didn't care for the pelt," said the boy. "Now that it
is frozen, it will be hard to skin. A fox hide is worth something. I'm
going to thaw out the body and try to save the skin--for Aggie, of
course."

"Oh, my!" cried the beauty, "won't it be fine to have a collar or a
muff made out of a fox that I saw shot with my own eyes?"

"Odd about that," said Mr. Howbridge thoughtfully. "I wonder who could
have been so near the Lodge last evening. And then, to have left the
fox there!"

The breakfast call interrupted him. Neale said nothing further about
it. After the meal, however, the young people all got into their warm
wraps and overshoes and went out of doors.

Tom Jonah was turned loose, and he almost at once dashed around the
house to the spot where the body of the fox lay. The children gathered
around the fuzzy animal in great excitement.

"Oh, it looks like Mrs. Allen's spitz dog--only this is reddish and
Sambo, the spitz, is white," Tess said. "The poor--little--thing!"

"This is no 'expectorates' dog," chuckled Neale, grabbing the creature
by the tail. "'Expectorates' is a much better word than 'spits,' Tess.
Now, I am going to take this fellow and hang him up in the back
kitchen where he will thaw out. No, Tom Jonah! you are not going to
worry him."

"What lovely long fur!" murmured Agnes. "Do you suppose you can really
cure the skin for me, Neale?" she demanded.

"What's the matter with the skin?" demanded Sammy, in wonder. "Is it
sick?"

"Good gracious!" exclaimed Agnes. "These children have to be explained
to every minute. I hope that fox skin has no disease, Sammy."

Luke and Ruth and Cecile had gone for a tramp through the wood. The
little folks set to work building a snow man which was to be of
wondrous proportions when completed. Naturally Neale and Agnes kept
together.

Agnes had been wandering along the edge of the wood in front of the
house while Neale carried the fox indoors. Tom Jonah came back with
Neale and began snuffing about the spot where the fox had laid.

"See here, Neale O'Neil," cried Agnes, "I can't find anybody's
footprints over here. Where do you suppose that man shot the fox
from?"

"Humph!" grunted Neale noncommittally.

"But here's just the cunningest hoofprints! See them!" cried Agnes.

The boy joined her. Two rows of marks made by split-hoofed animals ran
along the edge of the wood.

"Crackey!" ejaculated the boy. "Those are deer."

"You don't mean it?"

"Must be. Red deer, I bet. And right close to the Lodge! How tame
these creatures are."

"Well, deer won't hurt us," said Agnes, decidedly. "Let's see where
they went to."

Neale was nothing loath. One direction was as good as another. He
wanted much to talk to somebody about the discovery he had made in the
loft of the Lodge; but he did not wish to frighten Agnes, so he did
not broach the subject.

The two rows of hoof marks went on, side by side, along the edge of
the clearing. They followed them to the very end of the opening which
had been cleared about Red Deer Lodge--the northern end.

Here began a narrow path into the woods. The spoor of the two animals
led into this path, and the boy and girl tramped along after them.

"I guess nothing frightened them," said Neale, "for they appear to be
trotting right along at an easy gait. They must have passed this way
in the night. And that's kind of funny, too."

"What is funny?" asked Agnes.

"Why, deer--especially two, alone--ought to have been hiding in some
clump of brush during the night. They don't go wandering around much
unless they are hungry. And there is plenty of brush fodder for them
to eat along the edge of the swamps, that is sure."

"Are you sure they are deer?" asked Agnes. "They couldn't be anything
else, could they?"

"I reckon not," laughed Neale. "I say! who lives here?"

They caught a glimpse of an opening in the forest ahead. Then a cabin
appeared, from the chimney of which a curl of blue smoke rose into the
air. There were several smaller buildings in the clearing, too.

"Guess we have struck that old timber cruiser's place," Neale said,
answering his own question.

"Oh! Mr. Ike M'Graw!" cried Agnes. "Now we can ask him if he shot the
fox last night."

"But where did these deer go?" exclaimed Neale, stopping on the edge
of the little clearing and staring all around.

For here the tracks they had followed seemed to cross and criss-cross
all about the clearing. That wild deer should frolic so about an
occupied house was indeed puzzling. He saw, too, that there were human
footprints over-running the marks of the split hoofs.

Suddenly from around the corner of the cabin appeared the long,
slablike figure of the woodsman. He saw them almost immediately.

"Hullo, there!" he cried. "Ain't you out early? I wouldn't have been
up near so early myself, if it hadn't been for those confounded shoats
of mine."

"What happened to the pigs?" asked Neale, smiling.

"They broke out o' their pen. Always doin' that!" returned M'Graw.
"Run off through the woods somewhere, and then come back and made sech
a racket around my shanty that I can't sleep. Confound 'em!"

Neale suddenly saw a great light. He seized Agnes' hand and squeezed
it in warning. With his other hand he pointed to the marks in the
snow.

"Are those the pigs' footprints?"

"Yes. I just got 'em shut up again," said the woodsman. "Come in,
won't you? I guess my coffee's biled sufficient, and I'm about to fry
me a mess of bacon and johnnycake."

"What do you know about that?" murmured Neale to the giggling Agnes.
"We followed those pig tracks for deer tracks. Aren't we great
hunters--I don't think!"



CHAPTER XVI

THE KEY


The interior of Ike M'Graw's cabin was a place of interest to Neale
and Agnes. There was not much room, but it was neat and clean. There
were two bunks, one over the other at one end of the room. At the
other end was the big, open fireplace.

There were andirons, a chimney crane for a pot, a dutch oven, and a
sheet-iron shelf that could be pushed over the coals, on which the old
man baked his johnnycake, or pan-bread.

The coffee pot was already bubbling on this shelf and gave off a
strong odor of Rio. The bacon was sliced, ready for the frying pan.
Ike wanted to cut more and give his two young visitors a second
breakfast; but they would not hear to that.

"We'll take a cup of coffee with you," Agnes said brightly. "But I
know I could not possibly eat another thing. Could you, Neale?"

"Not yet," agreed the boy. "And anyway," he added, with a smile, "if
we are going to have a big storm as they say we are, Mr. M'Graw will
need to conserve his food."

"Don't you fret, son," said M'Graw; "I've got enough pork and bacon,
flour, meal and coffee, to last me clean into spring. I never stint my
stomach. Likewise, as long as I can pull the trigger of Old Betsey
there, I shan't go hungry in these here woods. No, sir!"

Neale stepped to the rack in the corner where stood the brown-barreled
rifle the woodsman called "Old Betsey," as well as a single and a
double-barreled shotgun.

"Which of these did you use last night, Mr. M'Graw, when you shot that
fox?" Agnes asked.

"Heh? What fox?"

"Maybe it wasn't you," said the Corner House girl. "But somebody shot
a fox right up there in front of the Lodge."

"When was this?" demanded the old man, looking at her curiously.

Neale told him the time. The woodsman shook his head slowly.

"I was buried in my blankets by that time," he declared. "Are you sure
the fox was shot, young feller?"

"I've got it hung up to get the frost out so I can skin it," said
Neale quietly.

"Shot, eh?"

"Yes, sir."

"What sort of a ball killed it?"

"A small bullet. It was no large rifle bullet," said Neale
confidently. "I should think it was no more than a twenty-two
caliber."

"Pshaw! that's only a play-toy," returned the old man. "Who'd have a
gun like that up here in the woods? Guess you're mistook, young
feller."

"When you come up to the house you take a look at the fox," said
Neale.

"I'll do that. Where'd the feller stand when he shot the fox?"

"Why," put in Agnes, as Neale hesitated, "we couldn't find his
footprints at all."

"Humph!" muttered the old fellow.

He poured out the coffee. The cups were deep, thick, and had no
handles. He poured his own into the deep saucer, blew it noisily, and
sipped it in great, scalding gulps. Agnes tried not to give this
operation any attention.

Neale meanwhile was examining several fine skins hung upon the log
walls. There was a wolf skin among them, and a big, black bear robe
was flung over the lower bunk for warmth.

"I got him," said the woodsman, "five year ago. He was in a berry
patch over against the mountain, yonder. And he was as fat as butter."

"And the wolf?" asked Agnes, with considerable interest.

"I trapped him. Last winter. He was a tremendous big feller," said
M'Graw, heaping a tin plate with johnnycake and pouring bacon grease
over it. "There's a small pack living up in the hills, and I'm likely
to get more this winter. These heavy snows will no doubt be driving
'em down."

"Oh! Wolves!" gasped the girl.

"They won't bother you none," said M'Graw. "Don't go off by yourself,
and if any of your party takes a long tramp, carry a gun. Like enough
you'll get a shot at something; but not wolves. They're too sly."

The conversation of the old backwoodsman was both illuminating and
amusing. And his hunting trophies were vastly interesting, at least to
Neale.

There was a big photograph on the wall of Ike and another man standing
on either side of a fallen moose. The great, spoon-shaped horns of the
creature were at least six feet across.

"You'll see that head up over the main mantelpiece up to the Lodge,"
said M'Graw. "That's Mr. Birdsall. He an' me shot that moose over the
line in Canady. But we brought the head home."

Over his own fireplace was a handsome head--that of a stag of the red
deer.

"Got him," Ike vouchsafed between bites, "down in the east swamp, ten
year ago come Christmas. Ain't been a bigger shot in this part of the
country, I reckon, 'ceptin' the ghost deer Tom Lawrence shot three
winters ago over towards Ebettsville."

"Ghost deer!" exclaimed Neale and Agnes together.

"What does that mean?" added the boy.

"Surely you don't believe there are spirits of deer returned to earth,
do you, Mr. M'Graw?" asked Agnes, smiling.

M'Graw grinned. "Ain't no tellin'. Mebbe there is. I'm mighty careful
what I say about ghosts," he rejoined. "But this here ghost deer,
now--"

He had finished breakfast and was filling his pipe. "Lemme tell you
about it," he said. "I will say, though, 'twasn't no spirit, for I eat
some of the venison from that ghost deer.

"But for two seasons the critter had had the whole of Ebettsville by
the ears. The hunters couldn't get a shot, and some folks said 'twas a
sure-enough ghost.

"But if 'twas a ghost, it was the fust one that ever left footprints
in the snow. That's sure," chuckled M'Graw. "I went over there with
Old Betsey once; but never got a shot at it. Jest the same I seen the
footprints, and I knowed what it was."

"What was it?"

"Looked like a ghost flying past in the twilight. It was an
albino--white deer. I told 'em so. And fin'ly Tom Lawrence, as I said,
shot it. Why they hadn't got it before, I guess, was because them that
shot at it shivered so for fear 'twas a ghost they couldn't hit the
broad side of a barn!" and M'Graw broke into a loud laugh.

"I did not know that deer were ever white," Agnes said.

"One o' the wonders of nature," Ike assured her. "And not frequent
seen. But that critter was one--and a big one. Weighed upwards of two
hundred pound. Tom give me a haunch, and when it was seasoned some,
'twasn't much tougher than shoe-leather. _Me_, I kill me a doe when I
want tender meat. My teeth is gettin' kind of wore down," chuckled the
old man.

"Was it really all white?" asked Neale.

"Well, that buck's horns an' hoofs was considerable lighter in color
than ordinary. With them exceptions, and a few hairs on the forehead
and a tuft on the hind leg, that critter was perfectly white. Queer.
Jest an albino, as I said," M'Graw concluded between puffs.

Beside the chimney on a big nail driven into a log, hung a string of
rusty keys, with one big shiny brass one by itself. Agnes said:

"I guess you have to lock everything up when you leave home, don't
you, Mr. M'Graw?"

"Me? Never lock a thing. We don't have no tramps. And if I leave home
I always leave a fire laid and everything so that a visitor can come
right in and go to housekeeping. It's a purty mean man that'll lock up
his cabin in the woods. No, ma'am. I never lock nothin'."

"But those keys?" the Corner House girl suggested curiously.

"Oh! Them? Just spare keys I picked up. All but this," and he reached
for the brass key briskly. "This is the key to the Lodge padlock, I'm
goin' to take it up to that Mr. Howbridge of yours and tell him
something about it. I'll walk back with you."

He slipped into his leather jacket and buckled up his leggings. Then
banking the fire on the hearth, he said he was ready to go. He put the
big brass key in his pocket, but as he had intimated, he left the
cabin door unlocked.

Once outside, they saw that the sun was clouded over again. "That
storm is surely a-coming," Ike observed. "I shouldn't wonder, when it
does get here, if it turns out to be a humdinger. 'Long threaten, long
last,' they say."

When they arrived at the Lodge the old man took a look at the fox
Neale had hung up. He examined the small hole under the ear where the
bullet had gone into the animal's head.

"Nice shot," he muttered. "Dropped him without a struggle, I reckon.
And you sure are right, boy," he added to Neale. "It was a twenty-two.
Nothin' bigger. Humph! mighty funny, that.

"Well, you let it hang here and I'll skin it for you before I go back
home. Fust off I want to see your Mr. Howbridge."

As M'Graw went through the hall to find the lawyer, Neale and Agnes
were called by Luke from one of the sheds. His voice and beckoning
hand hurried them to the spot.

"What do you know about this?" cried Luke. "Here are two perfectly
good sleds--a big one and a smaller. And one of those drivers that
have just started back for Coxford, told me where there was a dandy
slide."

"Crackey, that's fine!" agreed the eager Neale.

Agnes, too, was delighted. The other girls were eager to try the
coasting.

"But we must get away without the children. It is too far for them to
go," Ruth said. "At least, we must try it out before we let them join
us."

"They are all right at the front with their snow man. I just saw
them," Agnes said. "Come on!" Agnes was always ready for sport.

They started away from the house, the two boys dragging the bobsled.
There were about four inches of fluffy, dry snow on top, and under
that the drifts were almost ice-hard.

"Ought to make the finest kind of sledding," Luke declared.

Meanwhile Ike M'Graw had found Mr. Howbridge reading a book in a
corner of one of the comfortable settees in the big living-room. He
dropped the book and stood up to greet the woodsman with a smile.

"How are you, this morning, M'Graw?" asked the lawyer. "How about the
key?"

"Here 'tis," said the guide. "Found it just where it should be. Looked
as though it had never been touched since I was gone. But, of course,
as I tell you, anybody might have been in my cabin. I don't lock
nothin' up."

"If the key was used, it was by somebody who knew it was the key and
where to find it," Mr. Howbridge said reflectively.

"You struck it there," agreed Ike. "And there's only two keys to that
big padlock. Unless there's been one made since Mr. Birdsall died," he
added.

"If anybody borrowed the key and got in here, they got out again and
locked the front door and returned the key."

"So 'twould seem. You say there wasn't no marks in the snow when your
folks fust came?"

"No."

"It snowed the day after I went away from here to Ebettsville. They
must have come here and gone before that snow then. That snow covered
their tracks. How's that?"

"Not so good," the lawyer promptly told him. "You forget the live
embers in the grate. Those embers would not have stayed alive for five
days."

"Ain't that a fac'?" muttered the old man.

They pondered in silence for a moment.

Hedden suddenly entered the room. He seemed flurried, and his employer
knew that something of moment had occurred.

"What is the matter, Hedden?" the latter asked.

"I have to report, sir, that somebody has been at the goods in the
pantry--the canned food and other provisions that we brought up."

"What do you mean?" asked Mr. Howbridge curiously.

"The chef, sir, says that quite a good deal of food has been stolen.
He put the stuff away. There is a lot of it gone, sir--and that since
last night at dinner time."

"Humph! Isn't that strange?" murmured the lawyer.

M'Graw grunted and started for the front door.

"Where are you going, M'Graw?" asked Mr. Howbridge.

"I'm going to find out who shot that fox," was the woodsman's
enigmatical answer.



CHAPTER XVII

ALL DOWN HILL


The party of young people with the bobsled was very merry indeed just
as soon as they got out of hearing of the Lodge. By striking into a
path which opened into the wood right behind the barns, they cut off
any view the two little girls and Sammy Pinkney might have caught of
their departure.

"I feel somewhat condemned for leaving them behind," Ruth said. "Yet I
know it is too far for such little people to go along and get back for
lunch."

"Oh, they are having a good time," Cecile said. "You make yourself a
slave to your young family, Ruthie," and she laughed.

"We will make it up to the kids," Luke joined in. "After we have tried
the slide they can have a shot at it."

"That's all right," grinned Neale O'Neil. "But if Tess Kenway thinks
she has been snubbed or neglected--well! you will not hear the last of
it in a hurry, believe me."

This part of the wood into which the young people had entered was a
sapling growth. Not many years before the timber had been cut and
there were only brush clumps and small trees here now.

Flocks of several different kinds of birds--sparrows, buntings, jays,
swamp robins, and others--flew noisily about. There were berries and
seeds to be found in the thickets. The birds had begun to forage far
from the swamps--a sign that the snow was heavy and deep in their
usual winter feeding places.

"The dear little birdies!" cooed Agnes, waving her gloved hand at a
flock that spread out fan-wise in the covert, frightened by the
approach of the young people.

Suddenly there arose a vast racket--a whirring and trampling sound, as
though it were of runaway hoofs. Agnes shrieked and glanced about her.
The other girls looked startled.

"That horse! It's running away!" cried Agnes. "Oh, Neale!"

"Shucks!" said that youth, scornfully. "'The dear little birdies!' Ho,
ho! I thought you liked 'em, Aggie?"

"Liked what?" she demanded, as the noise faded away into the wood.

"The birdies. That was a flock of partridges. They can make some
noise, can't they? Food in the swamps must be getting mighty scarce,
or they would not be away up here."

"Who ever would have thought it?" murmured Cecile. "Partridges!"

"Wish I had a gun," said Luke.

"Don't be afraid. They won't bite," chuckled Neale O'Neil. "And we
won't be likely to meet anything much more dangerous than birds in the
day time."

"Yet we saw that big cat yesterday," Ruth said.

"It ran all right. We might have brought Tom Jonah; only he was
playing with the kids," said Neale. "Anyway, the best he would do
would be to scare up creatures in the thickets that we otherwise would
not know were there."

"Now, stop that, Neale O'Neil!" cried Agnes. "Are you trying to
frighten us?"

"Shucks, Aggie!" he returned. "You know the kind of wild animal we
scared up this morning when we found Ike M'Graw's place."

"Oh! Oh!" cried Agnes, with laughter.

"What's the joke?" asked Luke.

So Neale told the rest of the party how he and Agnes had followed the
footprints of the "deer" clear to the old man's cabin.

"And there we could hear them squealing in their pen," was the way
Neale finished it.

"Two mighty hunters, you!" chuckled Luke.

The road over which they dragged the sled soon became steep. They were
now climbing a long hill through heavier timber. It was a straight
path, and the crown of the ascent was more than a mile from Red Deer
Lodge.

Half way up they passed a fork in the timber road. The roads were not
rutted at all, for they were full of firm snow. This second road
dipped to the north, running down the steep hill and out of sight.

"That chap who told me about this slide told me to 'ware that road,"
Luke said. "Around that curve he said it was steep and there'd be no
stopping the sled for a long way. If we stick to the right track, well
slide back almost to the Lodge itself."

"That'll help some," Cecile said. "I am getting tired tramping over
this snow. It's a harder pull than I imagined it would be."

"We were very wise not to let the children come," Ruth remarked.

Uphill for all of a mile was, in truth, no easy climb.

Agnes and Neale O'Neil began to bicker.

"I'm no horse," said Neale rather grumpily, when Agnes suggested that
the boys could drag the girls on the sled.

"No; your ears are too long," she retorted impishly.

"Now, children!" admonished Ruth, "How is it you two always manage to
fight?"

"They're only showing off," chuckled Luke Shepard. "In secret they
have a terrible crush on each other."

"Such slang!" groaned his sister.

"Real college brand," said Agnes cheerfully. "I do love slang, Luke.
Tell us some more."

"I object! No, no!" cried Ruth. "She learns quite enough high-school
slang. Don't teach her any more of the college brand, Luke."

They puffed up the final rise and arrived at the top of the ascent.
This was the very peak of the ridge on which Red Deer Lodge was built.

Because it was winter and all but the evergreens and oaks were denuded
of leaves, they could see much farther over the surrounding landscape
than would have been possible in the leafy seasons; however, on all
sides the forest was so thick at a distance that a good view of the
country was not easily obtained.

The valley toward the north was black with spruce and hemlock. One
could not see if there were clearings in the valley. It seemed there
to be an unbroken and primeval forest.

This valley was included in the Birdsall estate, and the timber which
the Neven Lumber Company wished to cut practically lay entirely in
that wild valley.

The hills to the west were plainly visible. Their caps were either
bald and snow covered, or crowned with the black-green forest. Toward
the lakeside the slopes were alternately tree covered and of raw
stumpage where the timber had recently been cut. These "slashes" were
ugly looking spots.

"That is what all that part yonder of this estate will look like when
the lumbermen get through," said Ruth. "Isn't it a shame?"

"But trees have to be cut down some time. I heard M'Graw say that much
of the timber on this place was beginning to deteriorate," Luke said
in reply.

"Shucks!" exclaimed Neale O'Neil, "if a tree is beautiful, why not let
it stand? Why slaughter it?"

"There speaks the altruistic spirit of the young artist," laughed
Luke. "Ask Mr. Howbridge. How about the money value of the tree?"

"Shucks!" Neale repeated, but with his eyes twinkling. "Is money
everything?"

"Let me tell you, boy," said Luke a little bitterly; "it buys almost
everything that is worth while in this world. I want beautiful things,
too; but I know it will cost a slew of money to buy them. I am going
to set out and try for money first, then!"

"Hear the practical youth!" said Cecile. "That is what he learns at
college. Say! aren't we going to slide downhill? Or did we come up
here to discuss political economy?"

Luke, holding up his hand in affirmation, declared: "I vow to discuss
neither polit, bugs, pills, psyche, trig--"

"Oh, stop!" commanded Ruth, yet with curiosity. "What are all those
horrid sounding things?"

"Pshaw!" cried the collegian's sister, "I know that much of his old
slang. 'Trig' is trigonometry, of course; 'psyche' is psychology;
'pills' means physics; 'bugs' is biology; and 'poit,' of course, is
political economy. Those college boys are awfully smart, aren't they?"

"I want to sli-i-ide!" wailed Agnes, stamping her feet in the snow. "I
am turning into a lump of ice, standing here."

"Get aboard, then," answered Neale.

She plumped herself on the sled. Luke straddled the seat just behind
the steering wheel. The other girls took their places in rotation
after Agnes, while Neale made ready to push off and then jump on
himself at the rear.

"Ready?" he cried.

"Let her go!" responded the steersman.

"Hang on, girls!" commanded Neale, as he started the sled with a
mighty shove.

The bobsled moved slowly. The runners grunted and strained over the
soft snow that packed under them and, at first, retarded the movement
of the sled. But soon the power of gravitation asserted itself. Neale
settled himself on the seat. The wind began to whistle past their
ears. In front a fine mist of snow particles was thrown up.

Faster and faster they rushed down the descent. The young people had
thought this trail very smooth as they climbed it; but now they found
there were plenty of "thank-you-ma'ams" in the path. The bobsled
bumped over these, gathering speed, and finally began to leave the
snow and fairly fly into the air when it struck a ridge.

The girls screamed when these hummocks arrived. But they laughed
between them, too! It was a most exciting trip.

Like an arrow the sled shot past the fork in the road, keeping to the
left. But it would have been a very easy matter, as Luke Shepard saw,
to turn the sled into the steeper descent.

They started up a gray and white rabbit beside the path, and it raced
them in desperate fright for several hundred yards, before it knew
enough to turn off the road and leap into the brush. Luke's head was
down and his eyes half closed as he stared ahead. But Neale gave voice
to his delight in reëchoed shouts.

There were slides in Milton. The selectmen gave up certain streets to
the young folk for coasting. But those streets were nothing like this.

On and on the bobsled flew, its pace increasing with, every length.
Although this woodroad was in no place really steep, the hill was so
long, and its slant so continuous that the momentum the sled gathered
carried it over any little level that there might be, and at the foot
of the decline still shot the merry crew over the snow at a swift pace
and for a long distance.

Indeed, when the sled stopped they were almost at the back of the Red
Deer Lodge premises. A mellow horn was calling them to lunch when they
alighted.

"Oh! wasn't it bully?" gasped the delighted Agnes. "I never did have
such a sled-ride!"

"How about your trip up the lake!" Cecile asked.

"Oh! But that scooter was different."

The other girls were quite as pleased with the slide as Agnes; and the
three ran into the house to dress for lunch, chattering like magpies,
while the boys put the sled away under the shed.

When Luke and Neale went into the house they found Ike M'Graw skinning
the fox in the back kitchen, Tom Jonah being a much interested
spectator. The woodsman beckoned Neale to him.

"Look here, young feller," he said. "You seen this critter shot last
night, you say?"

"Yes," replied the boy.

"Where was it shot from? I'm derned if I can find any place where the
feller stood along the edge of the woods to shoot him."

"No. I couldn't find any footprints either," Neale confessed.

"Not knowing from which direction the bullet came--"

"Oh, but I do know that, Mr. M'Graw. I am pretty positive, at least. I
have been doubtful whether to say anything about it or not--and that's
a fact."

"What d'you mean?" demanded the old man, eyeing him shrewdly.

"Well, I thought when I heard the shot and the fox was killed that the
explosion was right over my head."

"What's that? Over your head! In the attic?"

"That is where the shot came from--yes."

"Air you positive?" drawled the old man.

"I went up there this morning and saw the place where the fellow had
rested the barrel of his gun across the window sill to shoot."

"My! My!" muttered Ike thoughtfully. "And there wasn't nobody up there
this morning?"

"No. And I asked Hedden, and he said neither of the other men knew how
to use a gun and that they all were in bed at the time the fox was
shot."

"Do tell!" muttered the woodsman. "Then they--well, the feller that
shot the fox was up there in the attic about bedtime, was he?"

"Yes. Who do you suppose he was, Mr. M'Graw?" asked Neale curiously.

"Well, I wouldn't want to make a guess. This here man workin' in the
kitchen tells me that there wasn't a foot mark in the snow at all when
he got up and went out of the back door here the fust time this
morning. And, of course, there wasn't no footprints at the front of
the house, was there?"

"Oh, no! Not until after breakfast time."

"Uh-huh! Well, after this John had tramped back an' forth to the
woodshed and the like half a dozen times, anybody could have gone out
of here without their footprints being noticed. Ain't that a fac'?"

He said this to himself more than to Neale, who had become vastly
interested in the subject. He eagerly watched the old man's
weather-beaten face.

Suddenly the woodsman raised his head and looked at Neale
thoughtfully. He asked a question that seemed to have nothing at all
to do with the subject in hand.

"What kind of a dog is this here Tom Jonah?" Ike demanded. "Ain't he
got no nose?"



CHAPTER XVIII

FIGURING IT OUT


Of course Ike M'Graw could see for himself very easily that Tom Jonah
had a nose. It was pointed just then at the fox pelt in the old
woodsman's hands, and was wrinkled as the dog sniffed at the skin.

So Neale O'Neil knew that the man meant something a little different
from what he said. He, in fact, wanted to know if Tom Jonah was keen
on the scent, and Neale answered him to that end.

"We think he's got a pretty good nose, Mr. M'Graw, for a Newfoundland.
Of course, Tom Jonah is not a hunting dog. If he runs a rabbit he runs
him by sight, not by scent. But give him something that one of the
children wears, and he'll hunt that child out, as sure as sure! They
play hide and seek with him just as though he were one of
themselves--only Tom Jonah is always 'it.'"

"Uh-huh?" grunted the old man. Then he said: "Don't seem as though any
stranger could have come down from the attic and got through that hall
yonder without this dog making some sort of racket."

"I never thought of Tom Jonah," admitted Neale.

"He was in here all night, they tell me," went on Ike.

"Yes. But didn't the kitchen man, John, let him out when he first came
downstairs this morning?"

"No. I asked him. He said the dog didn't seem to want to go out. He
opened that door yonder into this back kitchen and called the dog.
This here dog come to the door, but he did not want to go out and
turned away. So John shut the door again."

"Crackey!" exclaimed Neale. "Then there was somebody in here, and
don't you forget it, Mr. M'Graw!"

"Uh-huh? But why didn't the dog give tongue? Was it somebody the dog
knowed? You see, son, there's been food stole from that pantry yonder
durin' the night. Could it be the feller that shot the fox from the
attic winder was right in here when John called the dog, loadin' up
his knapsack with grub?"

"Why--why--"

"This dog must ha' knowed him--eh?"

"I--I suppose so. But who could it be?" demanded Neale with wondering
emphasis. "Surely it was none of our servants. And Luke Shepard and
Sammy and I were in bed in one room. The girls--Mr. Howbridge--Mrs.
MacCall--"

"I guess," said the old man, grinning, "that the lady and that lawyer
man can be counted out of it. None of you brought a twenty-two rifle
with you, anyway."

"No."

"That's what the fox was shot with. Here's the pellet," and Ike
brought the little flattened lead bullet out of his vest pocket. "If
it hadn't been a good shot--spang through the brain--'twould never
have killed the fox. He had his head on one side, yappin', and that
bullet took him right.

"Now, better keep still about this. No use frightening the ladies.
Girls an' women is easy frightened, I expect. I'll speak again to Mr.
Howbridge about it. But this here dog--"

He shook his head over Tom Jonah's shortcomings, while Neale ran away
to wash his hands and face before appearing at the lunch table.

The children around the table were in something of an uproar. Mrs.
MacCall and Ruth were obliged to be firm in order to quiet Sammy, and
Tess, and Dot.

For Agnes, unable to keep anything to herself, had blurted out all
about the lovely sled-ride the older ones had enjoyed. Immediately the
three younger children decided that they had been cheated.

"We wanted to go tobogganing, too," Tess declared.

"I just _love_ sliding downhill," wailed Dot.

"Huh!" sniffed Sammy Pinkney. "A feller can't have no fun where
there's big fellers and big girls. They always put you down, and leave
you out of the best things."

"You shall go sliding tomorrow if the snow holds off," Ruth promised.

"Why not this afternoon, Ruthie?" begged Tess.

"Sister's got something else to do this afternoon. Wait until
tomorrow," the oldest Kenway replied.

"It's snowing already," muttered Sammy disconsolately.

There were a few flakes in the air. But it did not look as though any
heavy fall had begun.

"I don't see why we need to have you go with us to slide," Tess said,
pouting. "We go sliding without you in Milton."

"This is different, Tess," Ruth said firmly. "Now, let us hear no more
about it! You will annoy Mr. Howbridge."

Sammy winked slyly at the two little girls. "Just you wait!" he
mouthed so that only Tess and Dot heard him.

"Oh, Sammy!" murmured Dot. "What'll you do?"

"Just you wait!" repeated the boy, and that mysterious statement
comforted Dot a good deal, if it did not Tess Kenway. Dot believed
that Sammy was fertile in expedient. She had run away with him once
"to be pirates."

Before the meal was over, Hedden came in and bent beside Mr. Howbridge
to whisper into his ear.

"Oh! Has he come back again? I wondered where he went so suddenly,"
said the lawyer. "Yes. Tell him I'll come out to see him as soon as I
am through."

Neale knew that he referred to M'Graw. Bright-eyed and interested, he
bent forward to say to Mr. Howbridge:

"I just told Mr. M'Graw something that I guess you'd wish to know,
too, Mr. Howbridge. May I go with you when you speak to him?"

"Certainly, my boy. There's nothing secret about it--not really. We
are only puzzled about a suspicion that we have--"

"That there was somebody in the house that ought not to be here,"
whispered the boy.

"That's it. How did you know?"

"I'll tell you later," returned Neale O'Neil.

Agnes was glaring at him in a most indignant fashion. It always
angered the second Corner House girl if Neale seemed to have any
secret that she did not share.

"What's the matter with you?" she hissed, when Neale turned away from
their host. "Don't you know it isn't polite to whisper at table, Neale
O'Neil?"

"What are you doing it for, then?" he asked her, grinning, and would
vouchsafe no further explanation of the secret between Mr. Howbridge
and himself.

As soon as the lawyer arose from the table to go out to the kitchen to
interview Ike, Neale jumped up to go with him. Agnes saw him depart
with sparkling eyes and a very red face. She was really angry with
Neale O'Neil.

The boy was too much interested in the mystery of the shooter of the
fox and how he had got in and out of Red Deer Lodge to be much
bothered by Agnes' vexation. He and the lawyer found the old woodsman
sitting in the servants' dining-room where he had been eating.

"Well, sir," he began, when Mr. Howbridge and the boy entered, "'twixt
us all, I reckon we're gettin' to the bottom of this here mystery. Did
I tell you I couldn't find no place where the feller stood out there
in the snow last evening to shoot that fox from?"

"No."

"But it's a fac'. Now you tell him, sonny, what you told me about what
you found in the attic. I've been up and made sure 'twas so."

Neale told the surprised Mr. Howbridge of the proved fact that the fox
was shot from one of the attic windows.

"And 'twas a play-toy rifle that done it--a twenty-two," said the
woodsman, as though to clinch some fact that had risen in his own
mind, if not in the minds of the others.

"Now, let's figger it out. We got enough fac's now to point purty
conclusive to who done it. Yes, sir."

"Why, Ike, I don't see that," observed Mr. Howbridge.

"But you will, Mister, in a minute or so," declared the old man,
nodding with confidence. "Now, look you: Whoever was in this here
house and made that fire in Miz' Birdsall's sittin'-room, was here
when your people came day before yesterday."

"No!" ejaculated Mr. Howbridge.

"Yes!" repeated M'Graw with decision.

"But you found that key in your cabin, did you not?"

"Yes. But I tell you I've figgered that out. Whoever 'twas come here,
got the key, come in here, opened the back door, and then locked the
front door on the outside same as always."

"Wait! No buts about it," interrupted the woodsman. "I got it figgered
to a fare-you-well, I tell you. Now! The feller locked the front door,
went back to my shanty and hung up the key, and then came back in by
the rear door. See? He--ahem!--was in here when that man, Hedden, of
yours, and the others, come."

"But there were no footprints of human beings about the house in the
snow."

"That's all right. The feller that built the fire upstairs had done
all his walking around before the snow fell the day after I went to
Ebettsville. Don't you see? He didn't leave here because his
footprints would be seen, and he couldn't lock the house up behind him
if he did leave and make it look as though it had never been opened."

"You are guessing at a lot of this!" exclaimed the lawyer, not at all
convinced.

"No. I'm jest figgerin'. Now, this Neale boy here heard that shot
fired upstairs that killed the fox. He went up this mornin' and saw
where the shot was fired from. I seen it, too. So the feller that
opened the Lodge and that lit the fire was up there at ten or half
past last evening, for sure."

"Well?" murmured the lawyer.

"He didn't go out during the night, or his footprints would have been
seen by John this morning in the new-fallen snow."

"That sounds right."

"It is right!" said the old man vigorously. "Now we come to this here
dog you brought."

"Oh, yes!" cried Mr. Howbridge. "How about Tom Jonah? Surely if there
had been a stranger about--one who stole food from the pantry--he
would have interfered."

"Mebbe he would. And mebbe again he wouldn't. He's a mighty friendly
dog."

"But he is a splendid watchdog," interposed Neale O'Neil.

"That may be, too," Ike said, quite unshaken in his opinion. "If
anybody had come in from outside and undertaken to disturb anything,
that old dog would probably have been right on the job."

"I see your point," Mr. Howbridge admitted. "But this person who came
down from the garret must have been a stranger."

"Now we're gittin' to it. Let's figger some more," said M'Graw, with a
chuckle. "If you think hard, an' figger close enough, I guess 'most
any puzzle can be solved."



CHAPTER XIX

SAMMY TAKES THE BIT IN HIS TEETH


M'Graw began slowly to fill his pipe. Mr. Howbridge saw that it was
useless to hurry him, so he smiled at Neale and waited. When the
tobacco was alight to suit him, Ike continued his "figgerin'."

"When this here dog," he said, looking at Neale in turn, "is at home,
I guess he knows everybody in the neighborhood, don't he?"

"Yes. But surely, you don't think anybody from Milton is up here at
Red Deer Lodge, except just these people that Mr. Howbridge brought?"

"Hold on. I'm doin' the askin'. You just answer me, sonny," chuckled
Ike. "Now, let's see. He does know lots o' folks--especially young
folks--around where he lives when he's at home, don't he?"

"Why, Tom Jonah," said Neale, "knows every boy and girl that comes
past the old Corner House. He's a great friend of the kids."

"Jest so," said M'Graw, as Mr. Howbridge started and was about to
speak. But the woodsman put up a hand and said to the lawyer: "Wait a
minute. This man, Hedden, has looked over the stuff you brought up
here in the line of canned goods and sech. He says what was stole was
mostly sweets--canned peaches, an' pears, an' pineapple, an'
sugar-stuff, besides condensed milk. Jest what children would like."

"The twins!" exclaimed Mr. Howbridge. "Do you think it could be
possible, after all, Ike?"

"Goodness!" gasped Neale.

"Looks mighty like children's work," said the woodsman reflectively.
"I knowed little Ralph had a twenty-two rifle. I taught him to shoot
with it. He does me proud when it comes to shootin'. Yes, sir."

"But to get clear up here--"

"Them is purty smart children," said the old man. "And it looks, as I
say, like their work. Who else would give themselves dead away by
shootin' that fox out of the winder? No grown person would have done
that if they didn't want to be caught in the house.

"Then, Ralph and Rowena would have knowed where that key hung. They'd
be more'n likely to build the fire in their ma's sittin'-room. Now,
when they sneaked out o' the house this mornin', they'd take just this
kind of stuff that's been took from the pantry."

"I see. I see."

"And the dog clinches it. He's a friend to all children. He'd never
have stopped them, especially as they was in the house and didn't come
from outside."

"I believe you are right," admitted Mr. Howbridge.

"I'm great on figgerin'," said the woodsman. "Now, let's see what sort
of a nose that there dog's got."

"You mean Tom Jonah?"

"Yes. I ain't got no dog. There ain't none nearer'n Sim Hackett's
beagle at Ebettsville that's wuth anything on the trail. Them
youngsters must have gone somewhere, Mr. Howbridge. And they can't be
fur off. We've got to find 'em before this here storm that's breedin'
comes down on us. There must be tracks somewheres, and a trail a good
dog can sniff."

"I understand what you mean. But how shall we start the dog on their
trail! We have nothing the twins have worn," said Mr. Howbridge.

"Let's look around," suggested Ike. "Up-stairs in that sittin'-room,
where you found the live coals--or, your man did--there's a closet
where some of the twins' clo'es used to hang. Mebbe there's some there
now. If that there dog has got a nose at all, an' he sniffed them
children good this mornin', he'll know the smell of 'em again. Yes,
sir."

"That is a good idea," admitted Mr. Howbridge. "You go out and see if
you can find any impressions of the children's feet in the snow, Ike.
I will hunt in the rooms upstairs for something the twins may have
worn."

"Stockin's are best--stockin's that ain't been washed," said the
woodsman. "Or mittens, or gloves. Come on, sonny," he added to Neale
O'Neil. "You come with me and we'll try to find some trail marks in
the snow." He glanced at the window. "And we've got to hurry. It's
snowin' right hard now, and will smother marks and everything if it
keeps on this way for long."

Just then, while there was so much interest being felt in the Birdsall
twins and the possibility of their having been at Red Deer Lodge,
somebody should have felt a revived interest in three other
children--Sammy Pinkney and the two youngest Corner House girls.

They had gone out after lunch, presumably to continue the building of
the snow man in front of the Lodge. The older girls and Luke were
engaged in their own matters, and thought not at all of the little
folks. But Sammy, Tess and Dot had quite tired of playing in the snow.

"They're awful mean not to have taken us slidin' with them," declared
Sammy, sitting on the front step and making no effort to continue the
work of snow man building.

"I love to slide," repeated Dot, sadly.

"And now it's going to snow," said Tess, biting her lip. "If it snows
a lot we can't slide tomorrow."

"Awful mean," reiterated Sammy. "Say! Aggie said there was a small
sled back there where they found the big one. Let's go and see it."

Any idea seemed good to the disappointed little girls. Even just
looking at the sled they could use, if nothing happened, was
interesting. They followed Sammy.

But Sammy had more in his mind than just the idea of looking at the
sled. Only, from past experience, he knew that to get Tess and Dot
Kenway to leave the path of rectitude took some sharp "figuring." So
he, like Ike M'Graw, was exercising his faculties.

They came to the shed.

"Oh, what a nice sled!" cried Dot, as Sammy drew out a shiny sled, big
enough for three or four little folks, and with a steering arrangement
in front.

"It's a better sled than the one I have at home," admitted Sammy.

"I guess we could slide all right on that," said Tess slowly.

"Guess we could!" agreed the boy.

"I'd like a ride on it," said Dot wistfully.

"Get on, kid. Me and Tess will drag you," said Sammy.

Dot overlooked the objectionable way in which Sammy had addressed her
and hurried to seat herself on the sled. Sammy and Tess took hold of
the rope. It was not very hard to pull such a light body as that of
the fairylike Dot through the soft snow.

Sammy wisely turned away from the Lodge and followed the tracks of the
bobsled. In two minutes they were out of sight of the Lodge, and even
of the sheds. At that time Neale and the old woodsman had not come out
for the purpose of searching the vicinity of the Lodge for the
footprints of the Birdsall twins.

Sammy and the two smallest Corner House girls moved up the woods path
which the other sledding party had found and followed. If Ruth and the
others had gone this way, surely they could safely follow the same
route. Although the snow was increasing, even the cautious Tess Kenway
saw no danger menacing the trio.

But at first she had no idea just what Sammy had determined upon. In
fact, Sammy Pinkney had taken the bit in his teeth, and he was
determined to do exactly what they had been forbidden to do. If the
older ones could slide downhill, why could he and the little girls not
have the same pleasure?

He and Tess drew Dot for a long way, much to that little girl's
delight. Then the uphill grade tired Tess so much that she had to
stop.

"Shift with Dot," Sammy said. "Come on, Dot. You and I will drag Tess
a piece."

The little girl was willing, and she and her sister changed places.
Dot could not do much to aid Sammy, but he buckled down to the work
and pulled manfully.

When he had to stop, puffing, they were then so far up the hill that
his suggestion that they keep on to the top and slide back, met with
even Tess' approval.

"We've come so far, we might's well finish it," she said.

"Well, I hope it isn't much farther," said Dot, "for it's awful hard
walking in this snow. And it's snowing harder, too."

"Don't be a 'fraid-cat, Dottie," snorted Sammy. "I never saw such a
girl!"

"Am not a 'fraid-cat!" declared the smallest Corner House girl, prompt
to deny such an impeachment. "Snow don't hurt. But you can't see where
you are going when it snows so thick,"

"Shucks!" said Sammy. "We can't get lost on this road, can we, Tess?"

"No-o," agreed Tess. "I guess we can't. We can't get off the path,
that's sure. And we can see the marks the big sled made all the way."

These tracks, however, were rapidly being effaced. The children were
not cold, for as the snow increased it seemed to become warmer, and
the hard walking helped to keep them warm.

They had to put Dot back on the sled and draw her the final two or
three hundred yards to the top of the hill. There, fast as the snow
was gathering, they could see where the other coasters had turned the
bobsled around and prepared to launch themselves from the top of the
hill.

"I guess they slid almost all the way home," said Tess, with some
anxiety. "I hope we can do as well, Sammy."

"Sure," agreed Sammy. "Ain't no need to worry about that. Now I'm
goin' to lie right down, and Dot can straddle me. Then you push off
and hang on at the back end of the sled, Tess. Don't you kids fall
off."

"I wish you wouldn't call me a kid, Sammy Pinkney," complained Dot.
"And don't wiggle Bo if I've got to sit on you."

"Well, I got to get fixed," Sammy rejoined. "Hang on now. All ready,
Tess?"

"Yes. My! how the wind blows this snow into your face."

"Put your head down when we get started. I've got to keep lookin'
ahead. Bet this is a dandy slide--and such a long one!"

"Here we go!" cried Tess, pushing with vigor.

The sled started. It seemed to slide over the soft snow very nicely.
She scrambled on, and, sitting sideways, clung with both hands to the
rails. Dot was hanging to Sammy's shoulders.

"Choo! Choo! Choo! Here we go!" yelled Sammy, wriggling with
eagerness.

"_Do_ keep still, Sammy!" begged Dot.

But the sled did not gain speed. The gathering snow impeded the craft
even on the down grade.

"Kick! Kick behind, Tess!" yelled Sammy. "Kick _hard_."

"I--I am kicking," panted his friend. "Why don't the old thing go
better?"

"This snow is loadin' right up in front of it," sputtered Sammy. "It's
too de-e-ep! Aw--shucks!"

The sled almost stopped. Then it went over a thank-you-ma'am and slid
a little faster. The slide was nowhere near as nice as they had
expected. Why! they were not going downhill much faster than they had
come up.

The snow was sifting down now very thickly, and in a very short time
the trio was likely to have to drag the empty sled through deep
drifts. Even Sammy was secretly sorry they had come such a long way
from the Lodge. Although it was barely mid-afternoon, it seemed to be
growing dark.

They struggled to make the sled slide, however; neither Sammy nor Tess
was a child who easily gave up when circumstances became obstinate.
Tess continued to dig her heels into the snow, and when the sled
almost stopped, Sammy plunged his arms elbow deep into the snow to aid
in its movement.

But suddenly they went over a hummock. It seemed a steep descent on
the other side. In spite of the gathering snow the sled got under
better headway.

"Hurrah, Tess!" yelled Sammy. "We're all right now."

"I--I hope so!" gasped the older girl.

"Oh! Oh!" shrieked Dot. "We're going!"

They really were going--or, so it seemed. Faster and faster ran the
sled, for the hill had suddenly become steep. It was snowing too
thickly for any of them to notice that this part of the track was
entirely new to them.

They shot around a turn and took another dip toward the valley. Sammy
did not mind the snow beating into his face now. He yelled with
pleasure. The little girls hung on, delighted. The sled sped downward.

All marks of the bobsled's runners were long since lost under the new
snow. The hill grew steeper. Sammy's yells were half stifled by the
wind and snow.

It did seem as though that slide was a very long one! In climbing the
hill the trio had had no idea they had walked so far. And how steep it
was!

Over a level piece the sled would travel at a moderate rate, and then
shoot down a sudden decline that almost took their breath. Surely they
must have traveled almost to the Lodge from which they had started.

Finally the path became level. Great trees rose all about them. They
could see but a short distance in any direction because of the falling
snow.

The sled stopped. The girls hopped off and Sammy struggled to his feet
and shook the snow out of his eyes.

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" he choked. "What a slide! Did you ever, Tess?"

"No, I never did," admitted Tess quite seriously.

"Oh!" cried Dot. "Let's go home. I'm co-co-o-old. Why--why--" she
gasped suddenly, looking about on all sides.

"Well, don't cry about it," snorted Sammy. "Of course we'll go home.
We must be almost there now--we slid so far."

"Oh, yes. We _must_ be near Red Deer Lodge," agreed Tess.

It did not look like any place they had ever seen before. The trees
were much taller than any they had noticed about the Lodge. Yet there
was the open path ahead of them. They set Dot upon the sled again, and
Tess helped Sammy drag it and her sister straight ahead. Somewhere in
that direction they were all three sure Red Deer Lodge was situated.



CHAPTER XX

FOLLOWING ANOTHER TRAIL


After all the activities of the forenoon both by the older boys and
girls of the vacation party at Red Deer Lodge, and by the children as
well, the soft snow was considerably marked up by footprints around
the premises.

Ike M'Graw and Neale O'Neil, searching for prints of the feet of those
who they thought had left the vicinity of the house early that
morning, struck directly off for the edge of the clearing.

"The best we can do," M'Graw declared, "is to follow the line of the
woods clean around the clearing. Somewhere, whoever 'tis got that fox
and lifted the canned goods, must have struck into the woods. They
ain't hidin' in the barns or anywhere here. I've been searchin' them.
That's certain."

Neale had very bright eyes, and not much could escape them; but the
snow was coming down fast now and even he could not distinguish marks
many yards ahead.

Here and there they beheld footprints; but always examination proved
them to be of somebody who belonged at the Lodge. The prints in the
snow Luke and his sister and Ruth had made soon after breakfast fooled
Neale for a moment, but not for long.

They saw the woodsman's big prints, too, where he had been looking for
the marks of the fox hunter. There were the marks Neale himself and
Agnes had made when they had followed the "deer."

All these various marks bothered the searchers; and all the time, too,
the snow was falling and making the identification of the various
prints of feet the more difficult.

"This here's worse than nailing the animals that they say went into
the ark that time Noah set sail for Ararat," declared Ike, chuckling.
"Whoever followed them critters up to the gangplank must have been
some mixed up--

"Hello! What's this?"

They had come around behind the sheds. Here was the entrance to the
road on which Neale and Luke with the three older girls had coasted
that forenoon. The woodsman was pointing to marks in the snow, now
being rapidly filled in. Neale said:

"Oh, we were sliding on this hill, you know."

"Uh-huh? Who was?"

"Five of us. With a big bobsled."

"Now, you don't tell me that bobsled made them marks," interposed the
old man. "I know that bobsled."

"Why--I--"

"Them runner marks was made by little Ralph Birdsall's scootin' sled.
I know that, too. Who's gone up to slide this afternoon?"

"That must be the kids!" exclaimed Neale. "I wonder if Ruth knows they
are out here playing! I remember now I didn't see them at the front of
the house."

"You don't suppose they've gone far?"

"Oh, I guess they will come to no harm around here. Ruth would not let
them go away from the Lodge to play."

"Humph!" muttered the old man.

But he went on. There was really no reason for Neale to be worried
about the children. They were almost always well behaved. At least,
they seldom disobeyed.

Besides, it was only a few minutes later when Mr. Howbridge, well
muffled against the storm, appeared with Tom Jonah on a leash. The old
woodsman had just got down on his knees in the snow to examine two
lines of faint impressions that left the path John's footprints had
made to the farther shed.

"Now, what's this? A deer jumped out here--or what?"

Neale waited and Mr. Howbridge held the dog back. Ike got up and
followed the half-filled impressions a little farther. They headed
directly for the thicker woods to the north of the Lodge premises.

"Might have been feet--small feet. And two sets of 'em," said Ike.
"Hi, Mister! did you find anything up in that closet belongin' to the
twins?"

"Here is a pair of bed slippers. Knitted ones. They are much too small
for a grown person," the lawyer declared.

M'Graw took the articles thoughtfully into his big hands. "Humph! Look
like little Missie's slippers. Certainly do. Roweny, you know. Wonder
if this old dog knows anything."

He offered the slippers to Tom Jonah to sniff. The dog had been used
to following a scent in times past; often they would send him after
Dot or Tess or Sammy. He snuffed eagerly at the knitted shoes.

"Don't know how strong the scent is on 'em. It's been some time,
p'r'aps, since little Roweny wore 'em. But--"

Tom Jonah whined, sniffed again, and then lifted up his muzzle and
barked, straining at the leash.

"Looks like he understands," said the old man, reaching for the leash
and taking the bight of it from Mr. Howbridge's hand. "Good dog! Now,
go to it. These here footprints--if that's what they are--are fillin'
in fast."

Tom Jonah put his nose to the marks in the snow. He sniffed, threw
some of the light snow about with his nose, and started off. He
followed the faint trail into the woods. But Neale doubted if the dog
followed by scent.

Once, in the thicket the marks were only visible here and there. The
fresh snow was sifting down faster and faster. The dog leaped from one
spot to another, whining, and eagerly seeking to pick up the scent.

"It's awful unlucky this here snow commenced as it has. Hi! I don't
see what we can do," sighed Ike.

"Do you really believe those marks were the twins' footsteps?"

"I do. I believe they was in the house when your folks came, Mr.
Howbridge," M'Graw said. "But now--"

Tom Jonah halted, threw up his shaggy head, and howled mournfully.

"Oh, don't, Tom Jonah!" cried Neale O'Neil. "It sounds like--like
somebody was dead!"

"Or lost, eh?" suggested Ike. "Ain't no use. He--nor a better
dog--couldn't follow a scent through such snow. We're too late. But
I'd like to know where them children went, if these is them!"

They turned back toward the Lodge, rather disheartened. If the two
Birdsall children, who had been left to the care of Mr. Howbridge,
were really up here alone in the wilderness--and perhaps shelterless
at this time--what might not happen to them? What would be the end of
this strange and menacing situation?

Nobody spoke after M'Graw expressed himself until they came to the
path on which they had previously seen the marks of the small sled and
the footprints of Sammy and the two youngest Corner House girls. These
traces were now entirely obliterated. It was snowing heavily and the
wind was rising.

"Hi gorry!" ejaculated the old woodsman, "how about those other
children? Are they at home where they ought to be?"

"Whom do you mean?" asked the lawyer, rather startled.

But Neale understood. He looked sharply about. Not an impression in
the snow but that of their own feet was visible.

"I'll go and see if the sled is returned to the place they got it
from," he said, and dashed away to the shed.

Before Mr. Howbridge and M'Graw had reached the Lodge Neale O'Neil
came tearing after them.

"Oh, wait! Wait!" he shouted. "They haven't come back with the sled.
What do you suppose can have happened to Sammy and Tess and Dot?"



CHAPTER XXI

ROWDY


About the time Neale O'Neil was asking his very pertinent question
about the whereabouts of Sammy and Tess and Dot, that trio had
stopped, breathless and not a little frightened, in a big drift at
what seemed the bottom of a deep hole.

The snow swirled about them so, and they seemed to have come so far
down from the place where they had pushed off on the sled, that they
believed it was a deep hole; and there seemed no possibility of
getting out of it.

"I--I guess," quavered Dot, "that we'll just have to lie right down
here and let the snow cover us all--all up."

"I do wish, child, when you get into trouble that you wouldn't give up
all hope, right first off!" exclaimed Tess, rather exasperated at her
sister. "Of course we are not going to give up and lie down in this
snow."

"Of course not!" echoed Sammy Pinkney.

Nevertheless, Sammy experienced a chill up and down his spine, and the
short hairs at the back of his neck stiffened. It was borne upon his
mind all of a sudden that they were lost--utterly lost! He could not
understand how they had got off of the straight path to Red Deer
Lodge; but he was very sure that they had done so and, as far as he
knew, they were miles and miles away from that shelter and from their
friends.

Yet there seemed nothing to do but keep on through the snow--as long
as they could press forward. Tess was quite as plucky as he made
believe to be. And they could haul Dot a little way at a time on the
sled.

"But we're going on, Sammy, without getting anywhere," was Tess' very
wise observation. "I think we ought to scrouge down under something
until the snow stops."

"Just like the Babes in the Woods," wailed Dot, who knew all the
nursery stories.

"Do be still!" cried her sister, quite tartly. "Sammy and I are going
to find you a nice place to stop, Dot."

"Well, I hope it's a place with a fire in it, 'cause I'm cold,"
complained the smallest Corner House girl.

They all wished for a fire and shelter, but the older ones feared with
reason that both comforts would not be immediately found. Sammy had
not ventured forth this time prepared for all emergencies, as he had
the time that Dot and he ran away to sail piratically the canal. He
had no means of making a fire, even if he could find fuel.

Sammy was not without fertility of ideas, however; and these to a
practical end. It must never be said of him, when the lost party got
back to Red Deer Lodge, that he had not done his duty toward his
companions.

He saw that the lower branches of some of the big spruce trees swept
the snow--indeed, their ends were drifted over in places. Under those
trees were shelters that would break both the wind and the snow. He
said this to Tess, and she agreed.

"But we must keep a hole open to look out of," she said. "Otherwise we
won't see the folks when they come hunting for us."

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_! If they come along this road while it's snowing like
this lookin' for us, we'd never see 'em," muttered the boy.

But he kept this opinion to himself. Vigorous action claimed Sammy
Pinkney almost immediately. While Dot "sniffled," as he called it, on
the half-buried sled, Sammy started to dig under the boughs of a tree
near at hand.

The wind seemed to be less boisterous here, but the snow was drifting
rapidly. Back of the tree the steep hillside rose abruptly, somewhat
sheltering the spot.

Sammy burrowed through the drift like a dog seeking a rabbit. He found
a way between two branches of the spruce, over which the snow had
packed hard at a previous fall. He had to break away fronds of the
tough branches to open a hole into the dark interior.

"Come on!" he shouted, half smothered by the snow he was pawing out.
"Here's a hole."

"Oh, Sammy! suppose there should be something in there?" gasped Tess,
her lips close to his ear.

At this suggestion Master Sammy drew back with some precipitation.

"Aw, Tess! what d'you want to say such things to a feller for?" he
growled. "If there is anything in there we'll find it out soon
enough."

Dot's sharp ears had heard something of this. She shrieked:

"Oh! Is it mice? I hm afraid of mice, and I won't go in there till you
drive them all out, Sammy."

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" murmured Sammy, with vast disgust. "Don't girls beat
everything?"

"I don't care! I don't like mice," reiterated the smallest Corner
House girl.

"Huh!" declared Sammy, wickedly, "maybe there'll be wolves under
there."

"Wolfs? Well, I haven't my Alice-doll here, so I don't care about
wolfs. But mice I am afraid of!"

At that Sammy took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, and dived out of
sight. He found that there was quite a sharp incline over hard snow to
the bottom of the hole. All around the trunk of the tree, and next to
it, was bare, hard ground. It made a roomy shelter, and it was just as
warm as any house could be without a fire.

There was a quantity of dry and dead branches under here to scratch
him and tear at his clothing. Sammy broke these off as he crawled
around the tree, making the way less difficult for the little girls
when they should enter.

A little light entered by the hole down which he had plunged. It made
the interior of the strange shelter of a murky brownness, not at all
helpful in "seeing things."

Sammy was quite sure there was no wolf housed in here; but about the
mice or other small rodents he was not so sure.

However, he called to the little girls cheerfully to come down, and
Dot immediately scrambled in, feet first. Tess followed her sister
with less precipitation. Like Sammy, she felt the burden of their
situation much more than did Dot. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil
thereof," was Dot's opinion.

Sammy crawled out again and rescued the sled which was already buried
in the snow. He dragged it to the opening and left it right over the
hole so as to keep the snow from drifting in upon them.

"But it makes it so dark, Sammy!" said Tess, a little sharply.

"Wait a while. You can see better pretty soon. Your eyes get used to
the dark--just like you went down cellar at night for a hod of coal."

"Oh, I wouldn't!" declared Dot. "But I'm not afraid of the dark. It's
nothing you can feel."

So they were very cozy and fairly warm under the tree. Soon the snow
had heaped so thickly over the mouth of their shelter that they could
not even hear the wind.

They had eaten a good lunch. Sammy had some nuts in his pockets. It
was now about four o'clock. They were not likely to suffer for
anything needful for some time. And, of course, neither of the three
thought that their stay under the spruce tree would be for long.

"If the snow doesn't stop pretty soon, and so we can get out and find
the way home, Neale O'Neil and Aggie will come for us," Dot said, with
considerable cheerfulness for her. "I'm all warm now, and I don't
care."

Sammy did not feel altogether as sure that they would escape from the
difficulty so easily; but he did not openly express his belief. He
was, like the little girls, glad to have found shelter. With
provisions and a fire, he said, they could stay here like Crusoes.

"You know, Robinson Crusoe lived in a cave, and in a hut. And he was
all alone till he got some goats and a Man Friday."

"We might have brought Billy Bumps along," said Dot thoughtfully.

"I guess I wouldn't want to live with an old goat," Tess observed,
with scorn.

They had no means of measuring the passage of time, and of course it
seemed that "hours and hours" must have passed before Sammy tried to
look out through the opening the first time.

And this was no easy work. The snow had gathered so quickly and packed
down so hard upon the sled that the boy could scarcely raise it.
Finally, by backing under the sled and rising up with it on his
shoulders, the sturdy little fellow broke through the drift.

"I got it!" he shouted back to Tess and Dot. "But, oh, Je-ru-sa-_lem_!
ain't it snowin' though? Bet it never snowed so hard before. I guess
we'll have to stay here till they dig us out."

"Oh, Sammy! All night?" gasped Dot.

"Well, I don't know about that. But until this old snow stops,
anyway."

He, nor the little girls, scarcely appreciated the fact that the worst
blizzard of the winter had broken over that territory, and that trails
and paths were being utterly obliterated. The keenest scented dog, and
the most experienced woodsman, could not have traced the three
children to their present shelter.

Sammy came in and fixed the sled again to keep out the snow. He felt
pretty serious--for him. Sammy Pinkney was not in the habit of looking
for the worst to happen. Quite the contrary.

Yet he could not throw off anxiety as easily as Dot could. As long as
she was not hungry, and was warm, the smallest Corner House girl felt
quite cheerful.

They could see a little better in their cozy nest now, and being
assured that there were no mice, thought of other wild creatures of
the forest did not disturb Dot Kenway.

"Let's play something," said Dot. "Cum-ge-cum!"

"What do you come by?" asked Tess quickly. This was an old, old game
of guessing that Aunt Sarah Maltby had taught the little folks.

"I come by the letter 'S,'" declared Dot.

"Snow," guessed Sammy promptly.

"No."

"It's got to be the 'nitial of something in this--this house," Tess
observed. "Shoes, Dottie?"

"No. 'Tisn't shoes. And 'tis in the house--if you call this a house."

"Shirt," Sammy declared.

"Nopy!"

"Sled?" guessed Tess.

"No, it is not 'sled,'" said the littlest girl.

"Stockin's?" suggested Sammy. "I've got a hole in one o' mine. Feels
like my big toe was stranglin' to death, so it does."

"S-s-s--"

"Oh, stop!" shrieked Dot suddenly. "What's that at the door?"

The two little girls shrieked again and scrambled behind the trunk of
the tree. Sammy was just as scared as a child could be, but he sat
right where he was and watched the dim light grow at the hole over
which he had pulled the sled.

Something was scratching there, dragging the sled away from over the
hole in the snowdrift. Sammy did not know that even the hungriest
animal in the forest was snugly housed during this storm. The
creatures of the wild do not hunt when the weather is so boisterous.

It might have been a wolf, or a bear, or a lynx, _or a tiger_, as far
as the small boy knew. Just the same, having the responsibility of
Tess and Dot on his mind, he had to stay and face the unknown.

Suddenly a voice spoke from without. It said with much disgust:

"Oh, shut up your squalling. I'm not going to bite you."

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" murmured Sammy. "What's this?"

In a minute he was reassured, for the sled was torn away and a head
and shoulders appeared down the opening through the drift.

"Hello!" exclaimed the voice again. "How did you get here? How many of
you are there?"

"Two girls and a boy. And we slid here," said Sammy, gulping down a
big lump in his throat.

"_Girls?_" gasped the stranger, who seemed to be very little older
than Sammy himself. "Girls out in this blizzard?"

"No. We're all safe in here under the tree," said Sammy, with some
indignation. "I wouldn't let 'em stay out in the storm."

"Oh!" exclaimed the stranger. "And do you intend to stay here till it
stops snowing?"

"Why not?" demanded Sammy.

"That won't be until tomorrow--maybe next day," was the cheerful
response. "I guess you don't know much about storms up here in the
woods."

"Nope. We come from Milton."

"Oh!" exclaimed the other. "You're some of that bunch from Red Deer
Lodge, aren't you?"

"Ye--yes, sir," Tess interposed politely. "Do you suppose you could
show us the way home?"

"Just now I couldn't," said the other, wriggling his way into the
shelter. "This is pretty good in here. But you'd better come to my
cave."

"Oh! do you live in a cave?" asked Sammy.

"Isn't it dark?" asked Tess.

"Are there fishes in it with blind eyes?" demanded Dot, who had heard
something about the fish of the streams in the Mammoth Cave, and
thought all caves were alike.

"Fish?" snorted the newcomer. "I guess not! Wish there were. We'd eat
them. And we need meat."

"Is--is your cave far?" asked Sammy, in some doubt.

"No. Just back of this tree. And we'd better get back there quick, or
the door will be all snowed under. This is a big, big storm."

"Who are you?" Tess asked. "If you don't mind telling us. This is
Sammy Pinkney; and I'm Tess Kenway; and this is my sister, Dot."

"Huh!" said the stranger. "I--I'm Rowdy."

"Rowdy?" repeated Tess, wonderingly.

"That's what they call me," said the other hastily. "Just Rowdy. And
we'd better go to my cave."

"But you don't live out here in the woods all by yourself, do you?"
asked Sammy, in much surprise.

"No. But--but my father's gone a long way off." The boy hesitated a
moment, and then added: "Gone to Canada--trapping. Won't be back for
ever so long. So I live in the cave."

"Oh, my!" murmured Tess.

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" exclaimed Sammy. "Ain't you afraid to live here
alone?"

"I'm not afraid," said their new friend. "And there's nobody to boss
you all the time here. Come on. You follow me. Drag along the sled. We
might need that after the snow's stopped."

He started to crawl out through the hole into the storm again, and the
trio from Red Deer Lodge decided that there was nothing better to do
than to follow him.



CHAPTER XXII

IN THE CAVE


The snow beat down upon them so when they were outside of the shelter
that the little girls could scarcely get their breath. Dot clung to
Tess' hand and bleated a few complaining words. But the strange boy
said sharply:

"Don't be blubbering. We'll be all right in a minute. I want to hunt
for something around here. That's what I come out of the cave for."

"Am not blubbering!" muttered Dot, quite indignant. "But this old
snow--"

"Oh, I've got it!" shouted the strange boy, leaping ahead through the
snow with great vigor. "Come on! Don't lose sight of me."

"You bet we won't," said Sammy, urging Tess and Dot on ahead of him
and dragging the sled after.

"What is it?" asked Tess, curiously.

"A trap," said the other.

"Oh!"

"What kind of a trap?" asked the eager Sammy.

"Rabbit trap. Box trap. Rafe and I brought it down here with us and
set it this morning. I put a handful of corn in it and I saw rabbit
tracks all about just before it began to snow so hard. Here it is."

The speaker had knelt down in the snow and was uncovering some long,
narrow object with his hands.

"It's sprung, anyway. You see, the door's dropped," he said. "The
rabbit pokes right in after the corn, and when he begins to eat the
bait clear at the end of the box, he trips the trigger and the door
falls. Yes! He's here!"

"Oh, Je-ru-sa-_lem_! A real rabbit?" gasped Sammy Pinkney.

"A poor little bunny?" murmured Tess, her tender heart at once
disturbed at the thought of the trapped animal.

"Huh! If we are snowed up in that cave for a week or so," said the boy
called Rowdy, "you'll be mighty glad I caught this rabbit."

He had lifted the door and thrust in his left hand to seize the
animal.

"Oh! Oh!" squealed Dot. "Won't it bite you?"

"It doesn't bite with its hind legs," said Rowdy with scorn. "Ah! I
got him."

He drew forth the rabbit, kicking and squirming. The little mouse-like
cry the poor beast made sounded very pitiful to Tess. She murmured:

"Oh, don't hurt him!"

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" exclaimed Sammy to Rowdy. "Ain't girls the worst
ever?"

"Huh!" said the strange boy, suddenly glaring at Sammy Pinkney, "what
do you know about girls?"

He was a dark boy, with ragged black hair that had evidently been
sheared off roughly by an amateur barber. He was dressed warmly and in
good clothes. He wore leggings that came up to his hips. He was
bigger, and must have been older than Sammy.

He stood up now, with the kicking rabbit held by the hind legs. The
trapped animal was fat and was of good size.

"Oh! Oh!" cried Dot. "He'll get away from you."

"Like fun he will."

"How are you going to kill him?" Sammy, the practical, asked.

"Break its neck," was the prompt reply.

"Oh! How awful!" gasped Tess. "Won't it hurt him?"

"It won't know anything about it," said Rowdy.

He was already holding the rabbit away from him almost at arm's length
and poised his right hand, edge out, for the blow that was to finish
the creature. Sharp and quick was the blow, the outer edge of the
boy's hand striking across the back of the rabbit's neck just at the
base of the brain. The vertebra was snapped in this way and the
creature instantly killed--a merciful and sudden death. The rabbit
kicked but once, and then was still.

"Oh! Oh!" murmured Tess.

"Oh, don't worry," said Rowdy. "Ike M'Graw showed me how to do that."

"Oh!" cried Dot. "_We_ know Mr. Ike M'Graw--so we do."

"How did you come to know him?" demanded Rowdy, quickly and
suspiciously, it seemed. "He isn't at home now."

"Yes, he is," said Sammy. "He was up at Red Deer Lodge last night and
he was there again this morning."

"Oh!" ejaculated Rowdy, standing and holding the rabbit as though the
information gave him considerable mental disturbance. "I--I thought
he'd gone away for good."

Then he turned suddenly and plunged into the drifting snow. "Come on!"
he exclaimed again. "This snow is drifting awfully."

Sammy drove the little girls ahead of him again. "Aw, go on!" he
muttered. "He's all right. He's got some kind of a hide-out."

"I don't believe I like that Rowdy," said Tess softly. "He--he's real
cruel. All boys are, I s'pose."

"They have to be," returned Sammy.

"Why?" demanded Tess, in wonder.

"Cause girls are such softies," declared the impolite Sammy.

They plunged ahead, wading far above their waists now. Behind the
trees the hillside rose abruptly. It towered so above their heads in
the snow that the children were almost scared. Suppose that hill of
snow should tumble right down on top of them!

"Goodness!" exclaimed Tess, with some exasperation. "Where is your old
cave?"

"Come on," said Rowdy, patiently. "It's here somewhere. But the old
snow--Ye-e--yi, yi!" he suddenly yelled.

Faintly there came an answering voice--half smothered, wholly eerie
sounding.

"Oh! Who's that?" demanded Sammy.

"Him," said Rowdy shortly.

"Then don't you live alone?" Tess demanded.

"I have my brother with me," said Rowdy, plunging on to the right.

The snow beat into their faces and eyes, almost blinding them and
wholly stopping their chatter. Above their heads the huge trees
rocked, limbs writhing as though they were alive and in pain. And from
these writhing limbs the snow was shaken down in avalanches.

One great blob of snow fell square on Sammy, trudging on behind the
procession, and he went down with a howl like a wolf, buried to his
ears.

"Oh, Sammy! Sammy!" shrieked Tess, above the wind. "Are you hurt?"

"I--I'm smothered!" groaned the boy, struggling to get out of the heap
of snow. "Hey, you Rowdy! Get us out of this, or we'll be buried and
lost."

"Come on!" sang out the bigger boy from up ahead. "O-ee! Rafe!" he
shouted.

A figure appeared before them--the figure of a boy not much bigger
than Rowdy.

"What have you there?" a hoarse voice demanded.

"A rabbit."

"I mean who are those behind you?" and the hoarse voice was very tart
now.

"A couple of girls and a boy," said Rowdy. "I picked 'em up back there
by the trap."

"Well! But we don't keep a hotel," said the second boy.

"Hush!" commanded Rowdy. "Where are your manners? And they come from
the Lodge," he added.

"How are we going to feed so many people?" was the rather selfish
demand of the second boy from the cave.

"Mercy! you're a regular pig, Rafe," exclaimed Rowdy. "Go on. Take
this rabbit. I'll help the little girl. She's almost done for."

Dot Kenway really was breathless and almost exhausted. She was glad to
be taken in the strong arms of Rowdy. He staggered along behind the
one called Rafe, and so came to an opening behind a bowlder which
seemed to have been rolled by nature against the hillside.

The hole was sheltered from the direct effect of the wind that was
drifting the snow in a huge mound against the bowlder. Rafe, with the
rabbit, dived first into the hole. Rowdy followed, with Dot in his
arms.

"Oh! Oh!" cried the littlest girl with delight. "Here's a fire."

"Isn't that splendid?" demanded Tess, who came next and saw the blaze
at the back of the cave, between two stones. "Why! what a nice cave
you've got here."

The fire lit up the cave, for it was only about a dozen feet square.
Only, it was not really square, being of a circular shape at the back.
The smoke from the fire rose straight up and disappeared through a
hole in the low roof through which there must have been considerable
draught.

Of course, there was a strong smell of wood smoke in the cave; but not
enough smoke to make one's eyes smart. There were some old blankets
and rugs on the floor for carpet. Against one side wall was a great
heap of balsam boughs, over which were flung robes.

When Sammy came staggering in with the sled he fairly shouted his
approval of the cave.

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_! what a jim-dandy place. Say! I bet Neale O'Neil would
like to see this."

"Well, you needn't be bringing anybody here and showing it. This is
our own particular hideout--Rowdy's and mine. So now," observed Rafe,
who seemed to be less friendly than his brother.

"Oh, hush," pleaded the latter. "Do be hospitable, Rafe. Don't you
know these kids are our guests?"

"'Guests!'" snorted the other.

"Yes, they are."

"Oh, please don't quarrel about us," urged Tess Kenway gently. "We'll
go right away as soon as it stops snowing, and we'll never tell
anybody about this cave if you don't want us to."

"Don't mind him," said Rowdy. "He's got a cold and a grouch. Come on,
Rafe; help me pluck this rabbit."

"Oh, I'll do that!" cried the red-faced Sammy. "Let me!"

While the little girls were glad to sit before the fire on the
blankets, he wished to make himself useful. Besides, to help skin a
real rabbit was a height of delight to which Sammy Pinkney had never
before risen.

"All right," said Rowdy. "You get the potatoes and onions ready, Rafe.
We have salt and pepper and we can have a nice rabbit stew."

"Just fry it," recommended the other cave dweller. "That's less
trouble."

"You do as I say!" exclaimed Rowdy, sternly. "There are five of us
instead of two to eat, and we've got to make this rabbit go a long
way."

"Well, who brought them in? I didn't," said Rafe, angrily. "You knew
we didn't have any too much to eat."

"You are a nice one!" began Rowdy, when Tess broke in with:

"I'm awful sorry we came if we are going to make trouble. We can go
back under that tree--can't we, Sammy?"

"I'm not going back there," Dot said stubbornly. "There's no fire
there. If this other boy doesn't like us because we are girls, can't
he go out and live under the tree himself?"

This idea seemed to amuse Rowdy a good deal. He laughed aloud--and the
laugh did not sound just like a boy's laugh, either. Tess stared at
him wonderingly.

"If Rafe's going to be so mean," he said, "he ought to be put out. Go
ahead and peel the potatoes and onions, Rafe."

"Sha'n't. That's girl's work," growled Rafe.

"Oh! If you've got a knife I'll peel them," said Tess. "I don't mind."

"All right," Rowdy said. "Give her the knife, Rafe. Put over the pot
with some snow in it. The little girl can feed that till there is a
lot of water ready. We'll want some for tea."

"Don't want tea," growled Rafe. "I want coffee."

"Oh, stop that, Rafe, or I'll slap you good!" promised Rowdy, his
vexation finally boiling over. "I never saw such a boy. Come on here,
Sammy. Hold this rabbit by the hind legs and I'll skin it in a jiffy."

With the help of a knife to start the rabbit's hide, Rowdy "plucked"
the bunny very handily. It was drawn and cleaned, too, and soon Rowdy
was disjointing it as one would a chicken, using a flat stone for a
butcher block.

"It--it looks so much like a kitten," murmured Tess. "Do you suppose
it is really good to eat?"

"You wait till you taste it," chuckled Rowdy, who seemed to be a very
practical boy indeed. "I'm going to make dumplings with it, too. I
have flour and lard. We'll have a fine supper by and by. Then Rafe
will feel better."

Rafe merely coughed and grunted. He seemed determined not to be
friendly, or even pleasant.

Tess was an experienced potato peeler. She often helped Linda or Mrs.
MacCall at home in Milton. In the matter of the onions she was quite
as successful, although she confessed that they made her cry.

"I don't see why onions act so," Dot said, wiping her own eyes. "There
ought to be some way of smothering 'em while you take their jackets
off. Oh, Tess, that one squirted right into my face!"

"You'll have to take your face away from me, then," said her sister.
"I can't tell where the onion's going to squirt next. They are worse
than those clams we got down at Pleasant Cove, about squirting."

"Goodness' sake!" exclaimed Rowdy. "Clams and onions! Never heard them
compared before. Did you, Rafe?"

"Don't bother me," growled Rafe, from the bed where he had lain down.

Rowdy kept right on with his cooking. There being plenty of snow
melted, he put down the disjointed rabbit with a little water and
pepper and salt to simmer. Later he put in the onions and the
potatoes. But they all had to simmer slowly for some time before the
dumplings were made and put into the covered pot with the rabbit stew.

The children were all very hungry indeed (all save Rafe, the grouch)
before Rowdy pronounced the stew ready to be eaten. By that time it
was late in the evening. It seemed to the younger children as though
they had been living in the cave already for a long, long time!



CHAPTER XXIII

ANXIETY


In this valley into which Sammy and the two youngest Corner House
girls had coasted without realizing their unfortunate change of
direction, the blizzard that had swept down from the north-east upon
the wilderness about Red Deer Lodge did not reveal to the castaways
its greatest velocity.

The wind was mild in the valley compared to the way it swept across
the ridge on which the Birdsalls' home had been built. Already, when
Neale O'Neil discovered the absence of the small sled Sammy and Tess
and Dot had taken, the storm was becoming threatening in the extreme.

Urged by Mr. Howbridge, Neale ran into the house to make sure that
Sammy and the little girls were really gone. Nobody indoors knew
anything about the trio. Instantly anxiety was aroused in the minds of
every one.

Hedden, John and Lawrence, as well as Luke Shepard, soon joined in the
search. Ike M'Graw of course took the lead. He knew the locality, and
he knew the nature of the storm that had now developed after
forty-eight hours of threatening.

"No use lookin' for them twins," he had told Mr. Howbridge bluntly.
"If they got away from here this mornin' with grub and a gun, they'll
likely be all right for a while. They know where to hole up, it's
likely, over this storm. 'Tain't as though they hadn't lived in the
woods a good deal, winter and summer. When this storm is over I'll
have a look for them twins, and like enough I'll find 'em all right.
They air smart young shavers--'specially little Missie.

"But these here young ones you brought with you--well, they don't know
nothin' about the woods. If they started up that road to have a slide,
no knowin' where they are now. They've got to be found and brought
home. Yes, sir!"

Ruth and the other girls had come running to the back kitchen where
the party was making ready for departure. Agnes and Cecile were in
tears; but although Ruth felt even more keenly that she had neglected
the little folks, and because of that neglect they were lost, she kept
her head.

The oldest Kenway hurried matters in the kitchen, and before Ike was
ready to start with his crew, she brought two big thermos bottles, one
with hot milk and the other with hot coffee.

"That's a good idee, Miss," said the woodsman, buttoning up his
leather coat. "But we'll probably get them youngsters so quick they
won't be much cold. Scared, mostly."

All the members of the searching party did not feel so confident as
Ike's expression pictured his feelings. And perhaps Ike said this only
to help ease the minds of those who remained at the Lodge.

Neale and Luke walked side by side as they set forth against the wind
that now blew so hard. The snow sheeted them about so quickly that
they were lost to the vision of the girls and Mr. Howbridge before
they had gone twenty yards.

The boys were right behind M'Graw. The other men trailed them.

"Don't you fellers stray off the road we're goin' to follow," advised
the old woodsman. "This is a humdinger of a storm, and it's goin' to
get worse and worse from now on."

"Those poor kids will be buried in it," Luke shouted in Neale's ear.

"We'll dig 'em out, then," returned Neale, confidently. "Don't give up
the ship before we've even started."

But there was not much talk after getting into the road up which they
knew Sammy and the little girls had started with the sled. In fact,
they could not talk. By this time the blizzard was at its height, and
it was blowing directly in their faces as they advanced.

Over boot-tops, over knees, even leg-deep where the drifts were, the
searchers pressed on. Hedden overtook the backwoodsman and shouted:

"Hadn't we better separate, Mr. M'Graw, and beat the bushes on either
side of this road?"

"No. Don't believe it's safe. And I don't think them little shavers
separated. They've holed-in together somewhere by this time, or--"

He did not finish his remark, but plowed on. He did not pass a hummock
or snow-covered stump beside the road that he did not kick into and
quite thoroughly examine. Every time Neale O'Neil saw one of these
drifts he felt suddenly ill. Suppose the little folks should be under
that heap of snow? Nor did Luke bear the uncertainty in lighter vein.
There were tears frozen on his cheeks as they pressed on.

The falling snow and sleet, driven by the wind, seemed like a solid
wall ahead of them. This buffeted the searchers with tremendous power.
It took all their individual force to stand against the storm.

When they finally reached the summit of the road, where the young
people had started the bobsled for the long slide that forenoon, they
had found no sign of Sammy and the little girls.

Lawrence, one of the men, was completely exhausted. Ike made him sit
down in the shelter of a tree and dosed him with a big draught of the
hot coffee.

"Don't want to have to lug you back in our arms, young man," snorted
the old woodsman. "You city fellers ain't got much backbone, I allow."

Meanwhile the other members of the searching party examined every
brush pile and heap of snow for a circle of twenty yards around the
point where Ike and Lawrence waited. Neale and Luke shrieked
themselves hoarse calling the names of the trio of lost children.

"Do you suppose any wild animal has attacked them, or frightened them,
Mr. M'Graw?" Hedden asked.

"Lynx and them is holed up, all right," declared the backwoodsman with
conviction. "Nothing would bother them while this storm lasts. But I
declare I don't see why we ain't found 'em," he added, shaking his
head. "Not if they come this way."

"I don't think they would have gone beyond this spot, do you?" Neale
asked. "Here's the top of the hill. They must have started for this
place with the sled."

"'Twould seem so," agreed Ike M'Graw.

"I doubt if they could have walked so far from the house," said Luke.

"'Twasn't snowin' like this when they was on the way. But if they come
up here and slid down again, why didn't we find 'em on our way up?
Beats me!"

"Perhaps we should have brought Tom Jonah with us," Neale observed.
"He might have nosed them out."

"The old dog couldn't scurcely git through this here snow," said
M'Graw. "I don't guess he can help us much till the storm's over. But
let's go back. Them young ones must have turned out o' this road
somewheres. Stands to reason the snow scared 'em and they started
back. They must have got out o' this woodroad, and then--"

He slowly shook his head. His anxiety was shared by all. Wherever the
children had gone, they were surely overtaken by the storm. If they
had found some shelter-they might be safely "holed up" till the storm
stopped. But if not, neither Ike M'Graw nor the others knew where to
look for them.

And the blizzard was now sweeping so desperately across the ridge that
the sturdiest of the party could scarcely stand against it. Had it not
been at their backs as they headed for Red Deer Lodge again, it is
doubtful if they would have got to their destination alive.

The last few hundred yards the party made by holding hands and pulling
each other through the drifts. It was a tremendous task, and even
M'Graw was blown when Red Deer Lodge was reached.

Lawrence was the worst off of them all. Neale and Luke literally
dragged him through the storm from the sheds to the rear door of the
Lodge. He would probably have died in the drifts had he been alone.

The girls and Mrs. MacCall, as well as Mr. Howbridge, were awaiting
the return of the searchers with the utmost anxiety. Not only were
they disturbed over the loss of the three children, but the
possibility of the men themselves not returning had grown big in their
minds. The rapidity with which the snow was gathering and the
fierceness of the gale threatened disaster to the searchers.

When M'Graw fell against the storm door at the rear of the house and
burst it open, everybody within hearing came running to the back
kitchen. When Ruth saw that they did not bring with them the two
little girls and Sammy, she broke down utterly.

Her despair was pitiful. She had held in bravely until now. To think
that they had come up here to Red Deer Lodge for a jolly vacation only
to have this tragedy occur!

For that it was tragedy even Ike M'Graw now admitted. There was no
knowing when the storm would cease. If the children had not been
providentially sheltered before the gale reached this high point, it
was scarcely possible that they would be found alive after the
blizzard was over.

At this hour no human being could live for long exposed to the storm
which gripped the whole countryside.

                   *       *       *       *       *

There was anxiety in the cave in the valley as well as at Red Deer
Lodge about this same hour. But it must be confessed that the children
who had taken refuge in the cave were mostly anxious about that rabbit
stew!

Was there going to be enough to go around? And had Rowdy made the
dumplings all right and seasoned the stew so that it would be
palatable?

[Illustration: "The housekeeping arrangements of the cave were
primitive."]

"Why, you're all sitting around here and sniffing at that stew every
time I lift the pot cover like hungry dogs," declared Rowdy. "I guess
if it doesn't turn out right, you'll eat me."

"Oh, no," said Dot. "We wouldn't like to do that, for we aren't cannon
balls."

"You aren't _what_?" cried the boy, amazed.

"Oh, dear, Dot! Why _will_ you get so mixed up in your words?" Tess
wailed. "She doesn't mean 'cannon balls,' Rowdy; she means cannibals.'
And we aren't. It is bad enough to have to eat rabbit when it looks so
much like a cat."

This very much amused Rowdy and Sammy Pinkney; but Rafe, the grouchy
brother, would not be even friendly enough to laugh at the smallest
Corner House girl.

"I don't know what's got into him," said Rowdy. "He never was this way
before."

Rafe lay on the bed of balsam branches, and when his brother tried to
stir him up he growled and said: "Let me alone!" But when the stew was
done he was ready for his share.

The housekeeping arrangements of the cave were primitive. There were a
few odd plates and dishes. But knives and forks were not plentiful,
and the tea had to be drunk out of tin cups, and there were only three
of them.

There was condensed milk for the tea; and besides the dumplings which
Rowdy had made, there were crackers and some cold cornbread left from
a previous meal.

Rowdy seemed to be a pretty good cook for a boy of his age. And he was
just as handy with dishes and in housekeeping matters as a girl.

The visitors praised his rabbit stew. They really had to do that
because they ate so much of it. Rafe grumbled that they took more than
their share.

"I'd like to know what's got into you!" Rowdy said to his brother in
great disgust. "You are just as mean as poison ivy--so there!"

"I am not!"

"Yes, you are. And what are you scratching that way for?"

"Because my chest itches. What does anybody scratch for?" growled
Rafe.

After eating, Rafe rolled up in a robe and went to sleep at one end of
the bed. The others helped Rowdy clean up; and, as he said, "just to
pay Rafe off for being so mean," they had dessert which Rafe had no
part in. Rowdy produced a can of pears and they opened and ate them
all!

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" ejaculated Sammy, when this was finished, "ain't it
fun living in a cave? I'd rather be here than up to that Red Deer
Lodge place. Hadn't you, Tess?"

"No-o," admitted the honest but polite little girl. "I can't say just
that. But I think Rowdy's cave is very nice, and we are having a very
nice time here."

Dot frankly yawned. She had been doing that, off and on, all through
supper.

"I'm afraid there won't be anybody to put my Alice-doll to bed
tonight," she said. "And I haven't any nightgown with me. Why, Tess!
what shall we do?"

"I guess you wouldn't want to take off your clothes here. It isn't
warm enough," said Rowdy.

"But can't we say our prayers?" murmured the startled Dot. "Of course,
Tess and I spent the night once right out under a tree--didn't we,
Tessie? Last summer, you know, when we went on that tour in our
automobile. But we said our prayers first."

"I guess we'd all better say our prayers and go to bed," said Rowdy.
"This is a pretty big storm, and maybe it won't stop snowing for ever
so long. The more we sleep, the less we'll know about it."

Therefore, a little later, the four joined the already slumbering Rafe
upon the heaped up branches; wrapping themselves as best they could in
the torn robes and pieces of carpet.

It was not a very comfortable bed or very nice bedding; but they were
all too weary to criticize the shortcomings of Rowdy's cave. At least,
it was shelter from the storm.



CHAPTER XXIV

RAFE IS CROSS


Sammy Pinkney awoke to hear barking. But it was not Tom Jonah, as he
had dreamed it was. He was chilly, too, and when his eyes got used to
the semi-darkness of the cave he was sleeping in, Sammy discovered
that Rafe had deliberately removed the share of the bedclothes that
had been over Sammy and spread them over himself.

"Aw, say!" muttered Sammy. "Ain't he fresh?"

Then Rafe barked again.

"He certainly has one fierce cold!" muttered Sammy. "I ain't got the
heart to start nothing on him."

Instead he got up and crept over, to the fireplace where there were
still some red embers. Rowdy, or somebody, had evidently been up more
than once to put fuel on the fire, and now Sammy did the same and blew
the coals until the wood caught and blazed.

Beside the fireplace was a great stack of billets of seasoned wood.
Evidently this cave had been used as a living place for a long time;
or perhaps it had merely been stocked with fuel for a long time.

Sammy hoped it was well stocked with food, too. For Sammy was hungry,
right then! It seemed to him that the rabbit stew had been eaten a
long time before. There was no clock; but judging from the way he felt
he thought he must have slept the clock around.

He wondered if the storm had ceased. Was there likelihood of their
being able to get back to Red Deer Lodge this morning (if it was
morning), or would they have to remain until some one came to dig them
out?

The fire having sprung up now, and the flickering light aiding him to
see his way about the cavern, Sammy moved toward the entrance. This
aperture beside the huge bowlder was scarcely higher than Sammy
himself. Before it Rowdy and Rafe, the two strange boys, had hung a
piece of matting. When Sammy pulled this matting away he saw
snow--snow that filled the hole "chock-er-block," as he expressed it.

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" muttered the startled Sammy, "I guess it did snow
some. How are we ever going to dig out of here?"

There was a slab of wood standing beside the opening, leaning against
the rock. Sammy seized this and began to dig desperately at the snow.

So interested did he become in digging through the bank that filled
the cave entrance that he did not pay much attention to where he flung
the snow behind him. He was still digging like a woodchuck when
Rowdy's voice reached him:

"What are you trying to do? Going to fill this cave with snow?"

"Say!" said Sammy, "it's getting-up time. And there's an awful lot of
snow here. I guess we're buried alive, that's what I guess!"

Just then Rafe coughed again, and his brother hopped up and went to
him.

"Don't scatter that snow all about, Sammy," he commanded. Then to
Rafe: "What's the matter, Rafe, dear? Don't you feel any better?"

"I'm--I'm chilly," chattered the boy with the cough.

"I'll cover you up better," said Rowdy, getting his own blanket. "And
we'll have more fire and some breakfast. Are you hungry, Rafe?"

"I'm thirsty," said Rafe, rather whiningly. "I want some--some
coffee."

"I'll make some right away. Don't be sick, now, Rafe. I don't see what
we should do for you if you got sick. What _are_ you scratching for?"

"Because I itch," replied Rafe drowsily.

But he snuggled down under the coverings until the coffee should be
made. He seemed in a pleasanter humor, at least, than on the evening
before.

Rowdy bustled about, making coffee and stirring up some kind of bread
by the light of the fire. Soon the fuel heaped upon the blaze made the
cave warm again, although the smoke set them all to coughing.

The two little girls woke up. Dot demanded a light.

"I don't like this old smoky fire to see by," she complained. "Why
don't you keep your fire in a stove, Rowdy?"

"Haven't a stove," replied Rowdy promptly. "How did you girls sleep?"

"All right, I guess," Tess replied. "What are you doing, Sammy? Can we
go home this morning?"

Sammy was still digging. He tramped the snow into a corner behind him.
But the more snow he dug out of the hole the more there seemed to be.
He took a round stick as tall as he was himself and pushed it up
through the snowbank, and it let in no light at all.

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" he cried. "There's all the snow in the world blown
into this hole, I guess. We'll never get out of here!"

"Oh!" squealed Dot, "don't say that, Sammy. Of course we must get out.
It's coming Christmas, you know, and I've got to finish my motto that
I'm making for Ruthie. It's got to be done, and I didn't bring it with
me."

"But," said Tess, yet with some hesitation now, "the folks will surely
come to find us. Don't you say so, Rowdy?"

"If they know where you are," said Rowdy.

"But we didn't tell 'em," growled Sammy, coming to the fire to get
warm.

"That'll be all right," Dot declared, seeing no difficulty. "Tom Jonah
will find us. You know, we never can hide from Tom Jonah."

Tess explained to Rowdy that Tom Jonah was a dog, and a very good dog,
too. But she secretly had some doubts, as did Sammy, that the old dog
would be able to find them away down at the bottom of this hole where
they had coasted. She was careful to say nothing to frighten Dot, or
to discourage her.

They were all much interested in Rowdy's preparations for breakfast.
He produced a strip of bacon and he fried some of this in a pan while
the bread was cooking. There was no butter, and the coffee was rather
muddy; but not even Dot complained, as long as she got her share.

While they ate, they talked. At least, Rowdy and the visitors talked.
Rafe drank the coffee and ate his share of the breakfast, and then
went back to the bed and heaped almost all the coverings over him. He
had little red specks on his chest and arms, and he said he could not
get warm.

Sammy was desirous of getting out through the cave entrance to see if
it had stopped snowing and what the prospect was for clear weather.
But he dug for an hour after breakfast without accomplishing much.
Then Rowdy came to help him.

"I tell you what I think," said the Milton boy, in a low voice, so the
girls would not hear. "I b'lieve all that snow that was up on that
hill has just come tumbling down before this cave--so there!"

"An avalanche!" gasped Rowdy.

"I don't know what you call it. But that's what I think," repeated
Sammy. "We'll never dig out of here in this world."

"But I guess we've got to," said Rowdy sharply. "We can't live here
long."

"It ain't a bad sort of a place," said Sammy cheerfully. "I guess
Robinson Crusoe didn't have a better cave."

"He had more food than we have," said Rowdy thoughtfully. "And you
kids do eat a lot. If I'd known you were coming here to live I'd have
brought more stuff to eat--I surely would!"

"Can't we catch any more rabbits?" suggested Sammy.

"How are you going to catch rabbits when we can't get outside this
cave?" returned Rowdy. "I guess all boys are foolish. That sounds just
like Rafe."

"Say! You're a boy yourself," said Sammy, in surprise. "You needn't
talk."

"Oh!" rejoined Rowdy, and said nothing more for a time.

But they gave up digging through the snowbank. The snow seemed packed
very hard, and it was difficult to dig with a slab of wood. If there
had been an avalanche over the mouth of the cave their chances for
digging out were small, indeed. Luckily none of the children realized
just what that meant.

Living in the cave was some fun, as Sammy declared. At least, it had
the virtue of novelty. The time did not drag. They played games, paid
forfeits, and Tess told stories, and Rowdy sang songs. He had a very
sweet voice, and Tess told him that he sang almost as well as Agnes
did.

"And Agnes sings in the church chorus," explained Tess.

"And I think you cook 'most as good as a girl," said Dot. "I guess you
cook 'most as good as our Linda, at home, in Milton."

If Rowdy considered these statements compliments he did not say so.
Indeed, he seemed to be very silent after they were made. He sat
beside Rafe on the bed for some time, and they whispered together.
Rafe seemed to get no better, and he slept a good deal.

So did the other children sleep, after a while. Having no means of
telling whether one day or two had passed, after eating a second time
they all curled down, covering themselves as best they could, and
found in slumber a panacea for their anxiety.

It was not Sammy who awoke the next time, but Tess. She became wide
awake in a moment, hearing a sound from somewhere outside of the cave.
She sat up to hear it repeated.

Something was scrambling and scratching in the snow. She even heard a
"woof! woof!" just as though some animal tossed aside the snow and
blew through it. Tess was badly frightened.

"Sammy! Rowdy! Oh, please!" she cried. "Is it a bear?"

"Is what a bear?" demanded Rowdy, waking up in some confusion. "I
guess you've been dreaming, Tess."

"That isn't any dream!" cried the Corner House girl, and she sprang
up, seizing Dot in her arms.

Rowdy screamed now; not at all like a boy would cry out. He leaped
from the bed and ran to the other side of the room. There, hanging on
two pegs, was a small rifle. Sammy had eyed it with longing. But Rafe,
awakened as well, shouted:

"No good taking that, Rowdy! It isn't loaded. You know I shot away the
last cartridge at that old fox."

"Oh, Rafe! I told you then you were foolish," said Rowdy. "What shall
we do?"

"What is it?" yelled Sammy, tumbling out of bed.

"It's a wolf!" replied Rowdy. "I can hear it! Listen!"

Dot added her voice to the din. "Tell that wolf we haven't anything to
throw to him, so he might's well go away," she declared.

Rowdy ran to the hole in the snow. It seemed to be suddenly lighter
there. Was the beast that was scratching through letting daylight into
the cave?

Rafe shrieked and leaped out from under his coverings.

"You'll be killed, Rowdy! Don't go there!" he cried.

Dashing across the floor of the cave, he seized Rowdy and pulled him
out of the way.

"Give me the gun!" he ordered, wresting it from Rowdy's hands. He
seized it by the barrel and poised it as a club.

"Get out, Rowdy!" he commanded. "This isn't any place for a girl!"

At that amazing statement the little girls from the old Corner House
and Sammy Pinkney were so utterly surprised that they quite forgot the
savage animal that seemed to be trying to dig into the cave to attack
them.



CHAPTER XXV

HOLIDAYS--CONCLUSION


It was rather fortunate that Ralph Birdsall had shot way his last
cartridge in killing the fox three nights before from the garret
window of Red Deer Lodge. Otherwise he might have hurt Tom Jonah.

For the old dog scrambled through the drift ahead of the searching
party that had started out as soon as the gale ceased. Tom Jonah was
pretty near crazy--or he acted so.

Barking and leaping, the dog threw himself upon Ralph and tumbled him
over. He was prodigal with his expressions of joy and affection, going
from one to the other of the five children, and in his boisterousness
tumbling them in heaps.

"I never did! Tom Jonah! why don't you behave?" demanded Tess. "And I
have been telling Rowdy and Rafe, these nice boys, just how good and
smart you are."

"Je-ru-sa-_lem_!" gasped Sammy, finally getting his breath. "They
ain't boys!"

"Who aren't boys?" asked Tess, wonderingly.

"Well--well, _this_ one isn't," said Sammy, pointing at Rowdy. "He's a
girl, that's what he is."

"Why, Rowdy! I _thought_ there was something funny about you," Tess
Kenway said. "You--you were so much nicer than boys are. I declare!"

But this point was discussed no further at the time. For into the
entrance to the cave came tumbling Neale O'Neil and Luke Shepard,
covered with snow and shouting their joy, while behind them was Ike
M'Graw.

"Ralph! Roweny!" shouted the old timber cruiser. "Jest what sort of
doin's do you call this?"

Neale and Luke greeted the three lost Milton children with vehemence.
Afterward Sammy confessed that maybe it was a good thing to get lost,
for then you found out how much folks thought of you.

These three, with Tom Jonah, made up the searching party this time.
They had come away from Red Deer Lodge without letting the others know
where they were going.

It was really Agnes who started them off on the right trail. While the
gale still rocked Red Deer Lodge in its arms and nobody could go out
of doors, Agnes remembered about the fork in the road where she and
her friends had coasted.

"If the little ones tried to slide, they might have taken that wrong
road," she said. "They could have slid right into it without knowing.
Where does it go, Mr. M'Graw?"

It did not take Ike long to study out what she meant. Then he did some
more "figgering." He knew exactly where the branch road led to.

He was so successful in this figuring that he encouraged the young
people from Milton to believe as he did. He saw a chance for the three
little folks who had gone sliding to be safely housed in the cave that
he called "Ralph and little Missie's playhouse."

The Birdsall twins had often camped out in that cave hollowed in the
hillside at the bottom of the valley. If Sammy and Tess and Dot had
slid down there, more than likely, so Ike said, they had found the
cave and had taken refuge there.

In addition (but this was his own secret) the timber cruiser believed
that the twins, having been in Red Deer Lodge, had started for that
very cave some hours before the gale broke.

If the young Birdsalls were there, the lost children would be safe
enough. This had proved to be the case.

Nevertheless, the old woodsman scolded Ralph and Rowena heartily.

"What d'you mean?" he demanded, "by running way from your guardian!
Mr. Howbridge is as fine a man as ever stepped in shoe-leather. I'm
ashamed of you children. And when you did come clean up here, why
didn't you come to my shack and stay?"

"We did go there; but you were away. Then we thought we had a right to
live in our own house. You know papa built it," said Rowena, bravely.
"We didn't know anybody was coming there this winter. And we brought
some food with us from Coxford. Then those people came, and we waited
till we could get out without being caught at it."

"Some young ones! Some young ones!" groaned M'Graw. "Well, now, you'll
go back to the Lodge and see what Mr. Howbridge has to say to you. And
you dressed like a boy, Roweny!"

"I don't care," said "Rowdy." "Ralph dressed up like a girl at first.
We came up here that way. But other kids picked on us so that I
thought I'd better be a boy as well as Ralph. And we had these clothes
at Red Deer Lodge. I make as good a boy as he does a girl."

"Say!" asked Neale O'Neil, vastly interested, "you two stopped a week
at the village on the ice and fished, didn't you?"

"Yes," said Rowena.

"And you were girls there?"

"Yes."

"Well," said Neale, laughing now, "what I want to know is, which of
you it was that thrashed those two boys that tried to steal your
set-lines?"

"That was Rowena!" croaked Ralph from the bed. "I acted just like a
girl ought to and let them take the lines; but Rowena fought them, and
licked them good, too!"

There was a deal of talk after that, but most of it was done following
the arrival of the party at Red Deer Lodge. As soon as that had
occurred, however, and Mrs. MacCall had heard Ralph cough and heard
about the itching, she made an examination.

"There!" she declared, half an hour later after she had put the boy
between blankets and given him a hot drink, "I might have known
something would happen if we came up to this out-of-the-world place."

"I should think something had happened!" murmured Ruth, who still held
Dot in her lap and hugged her as though she could not let her go
again. "What is the matter with Ralph?"

"Chickenpox. And it's coming out thick on him right this minute."

"Oh! Oh! _Chickens?_" gasped the smallest Corner House girl. "Are they
roosting on him? No wonder Rafe scratched."

"And like enough you'll be scratching my lassie," said the Scotch
woman. "One an' all of you. I never knew it to fail. If one bairn gets
it, all the others in the neighborhood catches it."

Nor was she a poor prophet. All the little folks, even Rowena,
developed mild cases of chickenpox and were kept in the house for most
of the holidays.

Holidays they were, nevertheless. Perhaps the little Corner House folk
had never had so good a time over Christmas and New Year's. Ralph and
Rowena Birdsall proved to be rollicking, good-natured children, and
they felt themselves at home at Red Deer Lodge and could entertain
Tess and Dot and Sammy Pinkney.

"We won't blame them for giving us chicken scratches," said Dot to
Tess. "At least, Ralph did. But he couldn't help it. And mine's most
gone, anyway."

The "older young folks," as Mr. Howbridge called them, had most
delightful times out of doors, as well as in. There was four or five
feet of snow on the ground, on the level, and it was packed hard
enough to make splendid snow-shoeing.

Ike M'Graw had plenty of snowshoes, and he taught them all how to use
them. When they became adept he led them in short jaunts all about the
section in which Red Deer Lodge was situated.

The boys went out with him at night, hunting. Neale and Luke both
killed rabbits, and Neale shot a bigger fox than the one Ralph
Birdsall had knocked over.

Those were wonderful days; but the nights were still more wonderful,
for they were moon-lighted for most of the holiday time.

There is nothing better than coasting by moonlight, and of that sport
Ruth, Agnes and Cecile, as well as the two boys, had their fill.

Nor did they overlook the two holidays, Christmas and New Year's. Ike
cut and trimmed a huge Christmas tree and that was set up in the main
hall of the Lodge and decorated in a most beautiful manner. Presents
had been brought up from Milton for everybody. And although Ralph and
Rowena Birdsall and Ike M'Graw were "added entries," as Luke said,
they were not allowed to feel slighted when the presents were given
out on Christmas night.

A big sledge came through from Coxford two days after Christmas, and
this brought additional supplies for the party at Red Deer Lodge.
There came on the sledge, too, the red-faced Mr. Neven who wished to
buy the standing timber on a part of the Birdsall tract.

There was much talk between the lumberman, Mr. Howbridge and M'Graw
regarding the timber. But Ike proved himself a good "figgerer" in more
ways than one. The lawyer remained determined to accept the old timber
cruiser's report as correct and finally Neven came to their terms.

Before the holiday of the Milton party was ended, a big gang of
lumbermen came up the tote-road from Coxford and the lake, ready to
set up a camp in the valley near the twins' cave, and finish the
season by cutting over several acres of the Birdsall piece.

"I won't want to see our place up here again until the new timber is
grown," cried Rowena, mournfully.

"Then you'll have to wait till we get through college," Ralph told
her. "Mr. Howbridge is going to have us live with him till we go to
college. But I expect he'll bring us up here once in a while if you
change your mind, Rowdy, and want to come."

"Don't call me 'Rowdy,' Ralph," said his sister. "That was only for
our trip up here. And, anyhow, I am not going to be a boy--never--any
more!"

"We're going to have a lot to tell the kids back home," remarked Sammy
Pinkney one day before they left Red Deer Lodge. "Je-ru-sa-_lem_!
think of that long slide, Tess."

"But it ended bad," said Tess.

"It ended good!" cried the boy. "Didn't we find Ralph and Rowena, and
live in a cave, and eat rabbit stew, and--"

"And get chicken scratches," put in Dot. "But mine don't scratch any
now. The chickens went away quick."


THE END



CHARMING STORIES FOR GIRLS

(From eight to twelve years old)

THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS SERIES

BY GRACE BROOKS HILL

Four girls from eight to fourteen years of age receive word that a
rich bachelor uncle has died, leaving them the old Corner House he
occupied. They move into it and then the fun begins. What they find
and do will provoke many a hearty laugh. Later, they enter school and
make many friends. One of these invites the girls to spend a few weeks
at a bungalow owned by her parents; and the adventures they meet with
make very interesting reading. Clean, wholesome stories of humor and
adventure, sure to appeal to all young girls.

  1 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS.
  2 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS AT SCHOOL.
  3 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS UNDER CANVAS.
  4 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS IN A PLAY.
  5 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS' ODD FIND.
  6 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS ON A TOUR.
  7 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS GROWING UP.
  8 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS SNOWBOUND.
  9 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS ON A HOUSEBOAT.
  10 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS AMONG THE GYPSIES.
  11 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS ON PALM ISLAND.

BARSE & HOPKINS, PUBLISHERS NEWARK, N. J.--NEW YORK, N. Y.



THE POLLY PENDLETON SERIES

BY DOROTHY WHITEHILL

Polly Pendleton is a resourceful, wide-awake American girl who goes to
a boarding school on the Hudson River some miles above New York. By
her pluck and resourcefulness, she soon makes a place for herself and
this she holds right through the course. The account of boarding
school life is faithful and pleasing and will attract every girl in
her teens.

  1 POLLY'S FIRST YEAR AT BOARDING SCHOOL
  2 POLLY'S SUMMER VACATION
  3 POLLY'S SENIOR YEAR AT BOARDING SCHOOL
  4 POLLY SEES THE WORLD AT WAR
  5 POLLY AND LOIS
  6 POLLY AND BOB

Cloth, Large 12mo., Illustrated.

BARSE & HOPKINS, PUBLISHERS NEWARK, N. J.--NEW YORK, N. Y.



CHICKEN LITTLE JANE SERIES

By LILY MUNSELL RITCHIE

Chicken Little Jane is a Western prairie girl who lives a happy,
outdoor life in a country where there is plenty of room to turn
around. She is a wide-awake, resourceful girl who will instantly win
her way into the hearts of other girls. And what good times she
has!--with her pets, her friends, and her many interests. "Chicken
Little" is the affectionate nickname given to her when she is very,
very good, but when she misbehaves it is "Jane"--just Jane!

  Adventures of Chicken Little Jane
  Chicken Little Jane on the "Big John"
  Chicken Little Jane Comes to Town

With numerous illustrations in pen and ink

By CHARLES D. HUBBARD

BARSE & HOPKINS, PUBLISHERS NEWARK, N. J.--NEW YORK, N. Y.



DOROTHY WHITEHILL SERIES FOR GIRLS

Here is a sparkling new series of stories for girls--just what they
will like, and ask for more of the same kind. It is all about twin
sisters, who for the first few years in their lives grow up in
ignorance of each other's existence. Then they are at last brought
together and things begin to happen. Janet is an independent go-ahead
sort of girl; while her sister Phyllis is--but meet the twins for
yourself and be entertained.

6 Titles, Cloth, large 12mo.

Covers in color.

  1. JANET, A TWIN
  2. PHYLLIS, A TWIN
  3. THE TWINS IN THE WEST
  4. THE TWINS IN THE SOUTH
  5. THE TWINS' SUMMER VACATION
  6. THE TWINS AND TOMMY JR.

BARSE & HOPKINS, PUBLISHERS NEWARK, N. J.--NEW YORK, N. Y.





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