"What is it?" Dot asked curiously. "Is it a funny picture he's drawed?"
"It's funnier than a picture," laughed Luke, who had taken a squint at the paper. "I declare, isn't that a good one!"
"I don't think you folks are very polite," Tess said, rather haughtily, for the others were not going to show the paper to the little girls. On the sheet Neale had arranged the letters of the new baby's name as they were meant to be read—for he knew what was painted upon the inside of the doors of Mr. Stout's barn:
Ruth, however, would not let the joke go on. She took Dot up on her lap and explained kindly how the mistake had been make. For Nosmo was a pretty name; nobody could deny it. And, of course, King sounded particularly aristocratic.
Nevertheless, Dot there and then dropped the sailor-baby's fancy name, and he became Jack, to be known by that name forever more.
After the smaller girls had disappeared stairward, Neale and Luke unfolded one of the card-tables and began a game of chess which shut them entirely out of the general conversation for the remainder of the evening.
The girls and Mrs. MacCall chatted companionably. They had much to tell each other, for, after all, the Corner House girls and Cecile Shepard had spent but one adventurous night together and they needed to learn the particulars of each other's lives before they really could feel "at home with one another," as Agnes expressed it.
Cecile and her brother could scarcely remember their parents; and the maiden aunt they lived with—a half sister of their father's—was the only relative they knew anything about.
"Oh, no," Cecile said, "we can expect no step-up in this world by the aid of any interested relative. There is no wealthy and influential uncle or aunt to give us a helping hand. We're lucky to get an education. Aunt Lorena makes that possible with her aid. And she does what she can, I know full well, only by much self-sacrifice."
Then the cheerful girl began to laugh reminiscently. "That is," she pursued, "I can look forward to the help of no fairy godmother or godfather. But Luke is in better odor with Neighbor than I am."
"'Neighbor'!" repeated Ruth. "Who is he? Or is it a what?"
"Or a game?" laughed Agnes. "'Neighbor'!"
"He is really great fun," said Cecile, still laughing. "So I suppose he might be called a game. He really is a 'neighbor,' however. He is a man named Henry Harrison Northrup, who lives right beside Aunt Lorena's little cottage in Grantham.
"You see, Luke and I used always to work around Aunt Lorena's yard, and have a garden, and chickens, and what-not when we were younger. Everybody has big yards in that part of Grantham. And Mr. Northrup, on one side, was always quarreling with auntie. He is a misogynist—"
"A mis-what-inest?" gasped Mrs. MacCall, hearing a new word.
"Oh, I know!" cried Agnes, eagerly. "A woman-hater. A man who hates women."
"Humph!" scoffed Mrs. MacCall, "is there such indeed? And what do they call a man-hater?"
"That, Mrs. MacCall, I cannot tell you," laughed Cecile. "I fear there are no women man-haters—not really. At least there is no distinctive title for them in the dictionary."
"So much the worse for the dictionary, then," said the Scotch woman. "And, of course, that's man-made!"
"It was only the Greeks who were without 'em," put in Ruth, smiling. "The perfectly good, expressive English word 'man-hater' is in the dictionary without a doubt."
"But do go on about Neighbor," Agnes urged. "Does he quarrel with you people all the time?"
"Not with Luke," Cecile explained. "He likes Luke. He is really very fond of him, although it seems positively to hurt him to show love for anybody.
"But a long time ago Mr. Northrup began to show an interest in Luke. He would come to the fence between his and Aunt Lorena's places, and talk with Luke by the hour. But if either I or aunty came near he'd turn right around and walk away.
"He never allows a woman inside his door and hasn't, they say, for twenty years. He has a Japanese servant—the only one that was ever seen in Grantham; and they get along without a woman."
"I'd like tae see intae that hoos," snapped Mrs. MacCall, shaking her head and dropping into her broad Scotch, as she often did when excited. "What could twa' buddies of men do alone at housekeeping!"
"Oh, the Jap is trained to it," Cecile said. "Luke says everything is spick and span there. And Mr. Northrup himself, although he dresses queerly in old-fashioned clothes, has always clean linen and is well brushed.
"But he does not often appear outside of his own yard. He really hates to meet women. His front gate is locked. Luke climbs the fence when he goes to see Neighbor; but people with skirts aren't supposed to be able to climb fences; so Mr. Northrup is pretty safe. Even the minister's wife doesn't get in."
"But why do you call him Neighbor?" asked Ruth again.
"That's what he told Luke to call him in the first place. We were not very old when Luke's strange friendship with Mr. Northrup began. After they had become quite chummy Luke, who was a little fellow, asked the old gentleman if he couldn't call him Uncle Henry. You see, Luke liked him so much that he wanted to say something warmer than Mister.
"But that would never do. Mr. Northrup seemed to think that might connect him in people's minds with Aunt Lorena. So he told Luke finally to call him Neighbor.
"Of course, the old gentleman is really a dear—only he doesn't know it," continued Cecile. "He thinks he hates women, and the idea of marriage is as distasteful to him as a red rag is to a bull.
"He is going to leave Luke all his money he says. At any rate, he has promised to do something for him when he gets out of college if he manages to graduate in good odor with the faculty," and Cecile laughed.
"But if Luke should suggest such a thing as marrying—even if the girl were the nicest girl in the world—Neighbor would not listen to it. He would cut their friendship in a moment, I know," added the girl seriously. "And his help may be of great value to Luke later on."
If Cecile had some reason for telling the older Corner House girls and Mrs. MacCall this story she did not point the moral of it by as much as a word or a look. They were quickly upon another topic of conversation. But perhaps what she had said had taken deep root in the heart of one, at least, of her audience.
EVERYTHING AT SIXES AND SEVENS
Things sometimes begin to go wrong the very moment one wakes up in the morning.
Then there is the coming down to breakfast with a teeny, weeny twist in one's temper that makes some unfeeling person say:
"I guess you got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning."
Now, of course, that is silly. There can be no wrong side to a bed—that is, to get out of. Getting up has nothing to do with it. Things are just wrong and that is all there is to it.
Fortunately this state of mind seldom lasted all day with any of the four Corner House girls; nor did they often begin the day in such a humor.
But there are exceptions to every rule, they say. And this Wednesday most certainly was the day when matters were "at sixes and sevens" for Dorothy Kenway.
It would not be at all surprising if the trouble started the evening before when she learned that she had inadvertently named her new baby No Smoking. That certainly was cause for despair as well as making one feel horribly ridiculous.
Of course, Ruth in her kind way, had tried to make the smallest Corner House girl forget it; but Dot remembered it very clearly when morning came and she got up.
Then, she could not find the slippers she had worn the day before; and if Mrs. MacCall saw her with her best ones on, there would be something said about it—Dot knew that.
Then, Tess seemed suddenly very distant to her. She had something on her mind and carried herself with her very "grown-upest" air with Dot. The latter, on this morning particularly, hated to admit that Tess was more than a very few days older than herself.
Tess went off on this business that made her so haughty, all by herself, right after breakfast. When Dot called after her:
"Where are you going, Tess?" the latter had said very frankly, "Where you can't go," and then went right on without stopping for a moment to argue the point.
"I do think that is too mean for anything!" declared Dot to herself, quite too angry to cry. She sat sullenly on the porch steps, and although she heard Sandyface purring very loudly and suggestively, just inside the woodshed door, she would not get up to go to see the old cat's babies—of which Sandyface was inordinately proud.
"Wait," ruminated Dot, shaking her head. "Wait till Tess Kenway wants me to go somewhere with her. I won't go! There, now!"
So she sat, feeling very lonesome and miserable, and "enjoying" it immensely. She need not have been lonely. She could hear the older girls and Luke laughing in the front of the house, and she would have been welcomed had she gone there. Ruth was always a comforter, and even Agnes seldom said the smallest girl nay.
But Dot had managed to raise a laugh a little while before—she being the person laughed at. She chanced to hear Luke, who was running lightly over the old and yellowed keys of the piano, say:
"No wonder these instruments cost so much. You know it takes several elephants alone to make these," and he struck another chord.
Dot had heard about the intelligence of elephants and like most other little people believed that the great pachyderms could do almost anything. But this was too much for even Dot Kenway's belief.
"Oh, Ruth! elephants can't work at that trade, can they?" she demanded.
"What trade, honey?" asked the surprised older sister.
"Piano making. I should think that carpenters built pianos—not elephants."
Of course, the older ones had laughed, and Dot's spirits had fallen another degree, although Ruth was careful to explain to the little girl that Luke had meant it took the tusks of several elephants to fashion the ivory keys for one piano.
However, Dot was in no mood for "tagging" after the older ones. She just wanted to sit still and suffer! She heard Mabel Creamer "hoo-hooing" for her from beyond the yard fence, but she would not answer. Had it not been for the Alice-doll (which of course she hugged tight to her troubled little breast) life would have scarcely seemed worth living to the smallest Corner House girl.
And just then she looked up and saw a picture across the street even more woe-begone than the one she herself made. It was Sammy Pinkney, gloom corrugating his brow, an angry flush in his cheeks, and sullenly kicking the toe first of one shoe and then the other against the pickets of the fence where he stood.
It was evident that Sammy had been forbidden freedom other than that of his own premises. He stared across at the smallest Corner House girl; but he was too miserable even to hail Dot.
After all, it seemed to the latter, that Sammy was being inordinately punished for having given Sandyface and her family an aerial ride. Besides, misery loves company. Dot was in no mood to mingle with the joyous and free. But Sammy's state appealed to her deeply.
She finally got up off the step and strolled out of the yard and across the street.
"'Lo, Sammy," she said, as the boy continued to stare in another direction though knowing very well that she was present before him.
"'Lo, Dot," he grumbled.
"What's the matter, Sammy?" she asked.
"Ain't nothin' the matter," he denied, kicking on the pickets again.
"Dear me," sighed Dot, "I just think everything's too mean for anything!"
"And everybody at my house is mean to me, too," added the little girl, stirring up her own bile by the audible reiteration of her thoughts. "Yes, they are!"
"Huh!" repeated the scornful Sammy. "They ain't nowhere near as mean to you as my folks are to me."
"You don't know—"
"Did they lick you?" demanded the boy fiercely.
"And then make you stay in your room and have your supper there?"
"Ma brought it up on a tray," the boy said fiercely, "so I couldn't get no second helping of apple dumpling."
"Oh, Sammy!" Somehow, after all, his misery seemed greater than her own. Yet there was a sore spot in the little girl's heart. "I—I wish I could run away," she blurted out, never having thought of such a thing until that very moment. "Then they'd see."
"Hist!" breathed Sammy, coming closer and putting his lips as close to the little girl's ear as the pickets would allow. "Hist! I am going to run away!"
Dot took this statement much more calmly than he expected.
"Oh, yes," she said. "When you go to be a pirate. You've told me that before, Sammy Pinkney." In fact, she had been hearing this threat ever since she had come to the old Corner House and become acquainted with this youngster.
"And I am going to be a pirate," growled Sammy, with just as deep a voice as he could muster.
"Oh! not now?" gasped Dot, suddenly realizing that this occasion was fraught with more seriousness than any previous one of like character. "You aren't going right off now to be a pirate, Sammy Pinkney?"
"Yes, I am," declared the boy.
"Not now? Not this morning? Not before your mother comes back from marketing?" for she had seen Mrs. Pinkney's departure a few minutes before.
"Yes, I am," and Sammy clinched it with a vigorous nod, although he had not meant to run away until nightfall. People usually waited for night to run away so it seemed to Sammy, but he was not going to have his intention doubted.
"Oh, Sammy!" gasped Dot, clasping her hands across the Alice-doll's stomach, "are—are there girl pirates?"
"Are there what?" questioned Sammy in doubt.
"Can girls run away and be pirates, too?"
"Why—er—they wouldn't dars't."
"Yes, I would."
"You! Dot Kenway?"
"Yes I would," repeated Dot stubbornly.
"You want to be a pirate?" repeated Sammy. Of course he would rather have a boy to run away with. But then—
"Why can't girls be pirates?" demanded the logical Dot. "Don't pirates have to have somebody to cook and wash and keep house for them?"
"I—I don't know," admitted Sammy honestly. "I never read about any girl pirates. But," as he saw Dot's pretty face beginning to cloud over, "I don't know why there shouldn't be, if they wasn't too 'fraid."
"I won't be afraid," Dot declared, steeling herself as she had once done when she was forced to go to the dentist's office.
"We-ell," began Sammy still doubtfully. But Dot was nothing if not determined when once she made up her mind.
"Now, you come right along, Sammy Pinkney, if we're going to run away and be pirates. You know your mother won't let you if she comes home and catches you here."
"But—but we ought to take something to eat—and some clothes—and—and a pistol and a knife—"
"Oo-ee!" squealed the little girl. "You won't take any horrid pistol and knife if you're going to run off to be pirates with me, Sammy Pinkney. Why, I'd be afraid to go with you."
"Huh!" grumbled Sammy, "you don't haf to go."
"But you said I could," Dot declared, sure of her position. "And now you can't back out—you know you can't, Sammy. That wouldn't be fair."
"Aw, well. We gotter have money," he objected faintly.
"I'll run and get my purse," the little girl said cheerfully. "I've got more than fifty cents in it."
But now unwonted chivalry began to stir faintly in Sammy's breast. If they were going away together, it should be his "treat." He marched into the house, smashed his bank with the kitchen poker, and came out with a pocket full of silver and nickels that looked as if they amounted to much more than they really did.
However, the sinews of war in his pocket was not without a certain inspiration and comfort. Money would go a long way toward getting them to a place where their respective families could neither nag nor punish them.
As runaways they may have been different from most. But, then, Sammy and Dot were very modern runaways indeed. People who saw them merely observed two very well dressed children, walking hand in hand toward the suburbs of Milton; the little girl hugging a doll to her breast and the boy with a tight fist in one pocket holding down a couple of dollars worth of change.
Who would have dreamed that they were enamored of being pirates and expected to follow a career of rapine and bloodthirsty adventure on the Spanish Main?
ABOARD THE NANCY HANKS
It must be confessed—and not to the belittlement of Sammy Pinkney—that he never would have run away to be a pirate on this occasion had it not been for Dot Kenway. When this little miss had once set her mind to a thing it took a good deal to turn her from her purpose.
It had been Sammy's dire threat for a long time that he would seek the adventurous life of a buccaneer on the rolling main. But he had never set a definite date for his departure upon this venture. To-day was the day. Fate willed it thus. And it looked as though fate was disguised in the character of a strong-minded little girl with two cherry-red hair-ribbons and a doll hugged tightly in her arms.
Sammy, however, having once embarked on the venture considered that he must take a certain lead in affairs. Dot certainly had urged him away from home and mother; but now she gave up the guidance of affairs entirely into her companion's hands.
She had no more idea of what "being pirates" meant than she had of the location where "pirating" as a profession might be safely pursued. On Sammy's part, he knew that pirates roved the sea. The nearest water to the corner of Willow and Main Streets was the canal. Therefore he led the little girl by the hand toward that rather placid body of water that flowed through one end of Milton and into the river.
The canal connected two tributaries of a large watercourse—the largest in the state, in fact; but it was not a very busy waterway. Now and then a battered old barge was drawn through by a pair of equally battered horses or mules. Milton people held the canal folk in some contempt. But then, they knew very little about the followers of the inland waterways as a class.
Sometimes some of the canal boatmen came over as far as Meadow Street to purchase provisions of Mrs. Kranz, or of Joe Maroni, both of whom occupied stores on property belonging now to the four Corner House girls; and the way the two small runaways took on this day led them directly past this Meadow Street property.
"If we are going to be pirates," said Sammy rather soberly for him, "we must lay in a stock of provisions. We've got to eat, you know."
"Oh! have we?" asked the little girl, to whom the fact of piracy was a sublimated sort of existence in which she had not considered it would be necessary to think of mundane things.
"I've got the money, and we'll lay in a stock," Sammy said, proud of his position now as acknowledged leader of the expedition.
Mrs. Kranz, the German woman who kept the delicatessen store, was not at all surprised to see Dot. The Corner House girls often visited her and the other tenants on the property, and Dot was particularly beloved by the good woman.
"My! my! Undt de baby, too? Coom right in undt haf some nice pop-sarsaparilla. I haf some on de ice yet—you undt your young man."
"Oh, Mrs. Kranz!" cried Dot, eagerly, "we haven't come to visit you. We've come to buy something."
But Sammy nudged her quickly. "Let's have the sarsaparilla," he whispered in Dot's ear, as the generous woman bustled away to the icebox. "That'll go fine."
Maria Maroni, oldest of the fruit dealer's family, who dwelt in the cellar of the building but lived mostly with Mrs. Kranz, waited upon Sammy; so the storekeeper herself had no idea of the queer order Sammy gave.
He bought crackers—mostly of the animal kind; a piece of cheese; fishhooks; a ball of twine; a sack of potatoes (Maria ran and got those from her father); a pencil and a pad of paper; some raisins; a jar of peanut butter; some drop-cakes; and ten cents' worth of a confection just then very popular, called by the children "gumballs."
All these things, save the gumballs, he had put in a flour sack, and told Dot they were ready to depart.
"Undt dat iss a pig pundle of t'ings Mrs. MacCall sent you for," said Mrs. Kranz placidly, as the runaways started out of the store.
"Oh, Mrs. MacCall didn't send us," Dot explained.
"No? Are dey for de poy's mutter!"
"Oh, no. You see, Mrs. Kranz," Dot said gravely, "we're going to be pirates, and we have to have a stock of things to eat. Don't we, Sammy?"
"Come along," growled Sammy, fearful that they would be laughed at.
But Mrs. Kranz was befogged. She had never before heard of pirates, and she did not know whether it was a game, a lodge one belonged to, or a picnic. She guessed it was the last, however, for she bade them a hearty farewell and hoped they would have a pleasant day.
As they came out there was Joe Maroni himself, the neat, smiling, brown little Italian in his corduroy suit and with gold rings in his ears, ready waiting with a basket piled high with fruit.
"For the leetle padrona," Joe said, with a smiling bow, sending his usual gift to Ruth, whom he considered a grand signora and, as his "landlady," deserving of such thoughtful attentions.
"Aw, say!" cried Sammy his eyes growing big; "that's scrumptious."
"But they are for Ruthie," complained Dot. "We'll have to lug them all around with us—and no knowing when we'll get home from being pirates."
"Get home!" snorted the boy. "Why, we can't never go home again. If they catch us they'll hang us in chains."
Dot's mouth became suddenly a round "O" and nothing more, while her eyes Neale O'Neil would have said had he seen them, "bulged out." The assurance in Sammy's tone seemed final. She could not go home again! And "hanging in chains" somehow had an awfully creepy sound.
But as the boy himself did not seem to take these terrible possibilities very seriously, Dot took comfort from that fact and went on again cheerfully. Nor did she mind carrying the basket of attractive fruit. One of the peaches on top was a little mellow and she stuck a tentative finger into the most luscious spot she could see upon the cheek of that particular peach.
The juice was just as sweet! She touched it with her finger again and then put the finger to her lips.
By this time they had come out of Meadow Street and were crossing the open common toward the canal. On one hand was a blacksmith shop, and the smith was getting ready to shoe a pair of mules which, with drooping ears and saddened aspect, waited in the shade.
There was no moving boat on the canal and nothing stirring along the towpath. But a battered looking old barge was moored to the nigh bank, and Sammy's face brightened.
"Come on, Dot," he said, glancing back at the little girl. "There's a ship and I guess there isn't anybody aboard. Anyhow, if there is, we'll fight our way over the bulwarks, kill half the crew, and make the others walk the plank. That is what pirates would do."
"Oo-ee!" squealed Dot—and she dropped the basket of fruit.
"Aw, say!" growled Sammy. "What kind of a pirate will you make? Of course we have to do what all pirates do."
But it was not anything to do with the true business of pirating that had brought forth that squeal from Dot Kenway. Just as she had been about to touch that peach again with her pink finger, where the sweet juice was oozing out, a great ugly, yellow wasp came along and lit right on that juicy spot!
"Oo-ee!" squealed Dot again. Sammy valiantly came to the rescue, and beat away the "stinger" with his cap. But he carried the fruit himself, as well as the bag of other provisions, the rest of the way to the canalboat.
"Can't trust you with it, Dot," he declared. "You'd have the things all mush if you dropped them every time you saw a bee."
"I don't like bees," declared his little comrade.
"And you was one yourself, once," grinned Sammy. "In that show, you know."
"Oh, but I didn't sting anybody," the little girl replied. "I wouldn't be so mean!"
"How do you know this fellow was going to sting you?" demanded Sammy.
"Why, Sammy Pinkney! Of course he was!" declared Dot, earnestly. "I—I could see it right in his face! He was so ugly."
The canalboat was high out of the water, for its hold was empty; but the runaways climbed aboard easily. Sammy was as brave as a lion. He proposed to take possession of the craft and drive ashore anybody who might already be there. Only, there was nobody aboard.
"The crew maybe saw us coming and deserted her," he said to Dot. "Lots of 'em do. When they see the Black Roger flying at our peak—"
"What's the Black Roger?" demanded Dot, big-eyed again. She was gaining considerable information regarding pirates and "pirating."
"Our flag. And when the crews of the merchant ships see it, they tremble," went on Sammy.
"But we haven't got any flag," said the rather literal Dot. "You know we haven't, Sammy."
"Well," he returned cheerfully, "we'll have to make one. I made one once. I got one of my father's handkerchiefs, and blacked it with ma's liquid shoeblacking, all but white spots in the center for a skull and crossbones. But—but," he admitted, "ma took it away from me."
"Never mind," said Dot, kindly. "I've got a handkerchief," and she pulled forth from her pocket a diminutive bit of cambric. "You get some shoeblacking and we'll make another."
Sammy was for getting settled at once, and he went to the door of the decked over cabin intending to put their possessions inside. But the door was made fast with a big padlock.
However, a hatch cover was off one of the hatchways, and the sunshine shone down into the hold of the canalboat. It seemed dry and comfortable just under this opening and there was a rough ladder which gave access to the hold. Sammy went down first; then Dot delivered the package of groceries into his arms, then the basket of fruit, and lastly backed over the edge herself in a most gingerly way, and was helped down gallantly by the pirate chief.
"Now what'll we do, Sammy?" asked the little girl eagerly.
"We'll unpack our things first," said Sammy. "Then I'll rig up a fish-line. We'll have to catch fish to help out with the rest of the grub," added the practical youngster.
"But not with worms!" cried Dot, with a shudder. "If you bring any of those horrid, squirmy worms aboard this boat, I—I'll just go right home and not be pirates any more."
"Oh! All right," said the scornful Sammy, who found "female pirates" rather more trying than he had supposed. "I'll fish with grasshoppers."
"We-ell," agreed Dot. "Only don't let 'em jump on me. For if they do I'll scream— I know I shall, Sammy."
"Pooh! Pirates don't scream," growled the boy.
"Not—not even girl pirates?"
"No," said the boy doggedly. "'Taint the thing to do. We got to be real savage and—"
"Oh, but, Sammy!" gasped the little girl, "I couldn't be savage to a grasshopper."
However, they unpacked their provisions and arranged them on a board. Dot really could not keep her finger off that mellow peach.
"I don't believe Ruthie would mind," she said at last. "And, anyway, it's getting so juicy that maybe it wouldn't be good by the time we got home—"
"Don't I tell you we ain't going home no more!" demanded Sammy.
"Er—well, then I guess we'd better eat the peach to save it," said the little girl, with some hesitancy. "You cut it in half, Sammy," she added with more decision.
Inroads were made upon most of the other provisions within the first hour. For, indeed, what else is there more interesting in being pirates than using up the food laid in for a voyage? Sammy had spent his two dollars with the cheerfulness and judgment of a sailor ashore with his pay in his pocket. And he did not propose to let any greedy little girl eat her share and his own of their stock.
Several times Sammy ran up the ladder to examine the vicinity of the Nancy Hanks, as the battered old canalboat was named—its title being painted in big letters along either side of the decked-over cabin, which was a little higher than the remainder of the deck—but the pirate chief sighted no prey on the canal. The waters of that raging main seemed deserted of all craft whatsoever.
Suddenly, however, he sighted an approaching group. It came from the direction of the blacksmith shop. The mules they had seen waiting to be shod ambled ahead at a pace warranted to bring them to the towpath in time. Behind, at the same gait, came a tall, shambling man, what appeared to be a girl some twelve years of age in tattered calico, and shoeless, and a droop-eared, forlorn, yellow hound.
"Hist!" said Sammy, down the well of the hold.
Dot did not know just what to reply to this thrilling summons, but she ventured to ask:
"Do you want to say something to me, Sammy Pinkney? For if you do, you can."
"Hist! Keep quiet," ordered the pirate chief. "They're—they're in the offing."
"Wha—what's a offling?" she demanded. "We're orphans—Ruthie, and Aggie, and Tess, and me. So's Mr. Luke and Cecile. And so's Neale O'Neil," she added thoughtfully. "Is an offling like an orphan?"
"Keep still!" hissed the boy. "They're nearer."
"Shall I make 'em heave to when they come near 'nough, or shall we let 'em go on and give chase?"
"Goodness me, Sammy!" cried Dot, greatly puzzled. "You'd better come right down here. If anybody's coming we don't want to get into trouble. You know we didn't ask the man if we could come into this boat, and perhaps he don't like pirates."
This idea appealed to Sammy, too, as the mules and the little company with them drew near. He slipped over the edge of the hatchway and came down the ladder.
Overhead a threatening black cloud had obscured the sun. Thunder muttered in the distance. A tempest would probably break soon and neither Sammy nor Dot liked thunder and lightning.
"And we didn't bring any umbrella, Sammy Pinkney!" gasped Dot.
"Aw, we won't need one down here. We'll be dry enough," the boy declared.
Just then a drawling voice said: "Lowise, you better pull over that hatch right smart. It's agoin' to pour cats and dogs in a minute."
"You get the mewels hitched on, Pap," said a shriller and younger voice. "Where's the key to the house? Give it here. And you, Beauty, come aboard. Ain't no rabbits fur you to chase so near town as this."
"Oh," whispered the little girl below in the hold, "they have come on to our boat!"
"Hist!" said Sammy, shakingly.
"Do—do people do that to pirates?" demanded Dot, anxiously. "I—I thought we were going to—to get on to other people's boats and make them walk over a board."
"Walk the plank!" hissed Sammy.
"And aren't we?"
"Wait!" commanded the pirate chief in a most threatening tone.
They waited. By and by somebody came along and kicked the hatch-cover into place and the light was suddenly shut out of the hold. At the same time big drops of rain began drumming on the deck and the thunder burst forth in a rolling reverberation overhead.
"I guess we will wait, Sammy Pinkney!" gasped Dot, nervously. "They've shut us up down here!"
AFLOAT ON THE CANAL
Dot Kenway might have been much more frightened, shut into the canalboat hold in the dark, had it not been for two things. She was more afraid of the thunderstorm raging overhead than she was of the dark. Secondly, she had Sammy Pinkney with her.
That savage pirate might shake with nervousness, but he certainly could not be afraid!
"Don't you mind, Dottie," he said to her. "They don't know we're here yet."
"And if they do find out?" she asked.
"Why, if they do— Well, ain't we pirates?" demanded Sammy boldly. "I guess when they find that out they'll sing pretty small. Besides, there's only one man and a dog."
"But isn't there a girl!" asked Dot doubtfully.
"Pooh! what's a girl!" demanded Sammy loftily. "Girls don't count. They can't fight."
"No-o. I s'pose not," admitted the smallest Corner House girl, who knew very well that she could not fight. She was willing to cook, wash and keep house for pirates; but Sammy must do the fighting.
However, Sammy Pinkney was to learn something about the canalboat girl that would open his eyes. Just at this time something occurred that startled both runaways so greatly that they even forgot the thunder that rolled so threateningly.
The canalboat began to move!
"Oh, dear me! what can have happened?" gasped Dot as the boat rocked and swayed in being poled out from the bank by the boatman, and the mules started along the towpath.
"Je-ru-sa-lem!" murmured Sammy.
"We're going," said the boy, gulping down his first surprise.
"But where are we going, Sammy Pinkney? You know very well Ruthie will be scared to death if I'm not back to supper. And your mother—"
"Huh!" exclaimed Sammy, with returning valor, "didn't I tell you if we ran away to be pirates that we couldn't go home again?"
"Yes! but! you! didn't ever mean it!" wailed Dot, with big gulps between her words.
"Of course I meant it. Aw, shucks, Dot! What did I tell you? Girls can't be pirates. They're always blubbering."
"Not blubbering!" snapped Dot, too angry to really cry after all.
"Well, you started in to."
"No, I never! Just the same I don't want to be shut up in this old boat—not after it stops thundering and lightering," declared Dot, who, as Tess was not present, felt free to misuse the English language just as she pleased.
Certainly Sammy Pinkney had something more important to think of than the little girl's language. Here he was, a pirate chief, on a buccaneering expedition, and somebody had come along and coolly stolen his piratical craft, himself, and his crew!
If anything would rouse the spirit of a pirate chief it was such an emergency as this. He looked around for something with which to attack the villains who had boarded the Nancy Hanks, but he found not a thing more dangerous than his pocketknife and the fishhooks.
"And that's your fault, Dot Kenway," he declared, stricken by this startling discovery. "How am I going to fight these—these pirates, if I haven't anything to fight 'em with?"
"Oh, Sammy!" cried Dot, in amazement. "Are they pirates, just the same as we are pirates?"
"They must be," frankly admitted Sammy. "Else they wouldn't have come along and stolen this canalboat."
"Oo-ee!" gasped the little girl. "And do pirates steal?"
"Huh!" ejaculated the boy in vast disgust. "What did you suppose they was pirates for? Of course they steal! And they murder folks, and loot towns, and then bury their money and kill folks so's their ghosts will hang around the buryin' place and watch the treasure."
Horror stricken at the details of such a wicked state of things, Dot could not for the moment reply. They heard faintly a shrill voice—evidently of the "Lowise" formerly addressed by the canalboatman.
"Look out, Pap! Low bridge! Goin' to stop at Purdy's to git that mess of 'taters he said he'd have ready for us?"
There was a grumbling reply from the man.
"Dunno. It's rainin' so hard. Might's well keep right on to Durginville, I reckon, Lowise."
"Durginville!" murmured Sammy. "My! that's a long way off, Dot!"
"And are you going to let 'em carry us off this way?" demanded the little girl in growing alarm and disgust. "Why, I thought you were a pirate!"
If pirates were such dreadful people as Sammy had just intimated, she wanted to see him exercise some of that savagery in this important matter. Dot Kenway had not considered being kidnapped and carried away from Milton when she set forth to be a pirate's mate. She expected him to defend her from disaster.
Sammy saw the point. It was "up to him," and he was too much of a man to shirk the issue. After all, he realized that, although actually led away from home by this determined little girl, he was the one who had fully understood the enormity of what they were doing. In his own unuttered but emphatic phrase, "She was only a kid."
"All right, Dot," he declared with an assumption of confidence that he certainly did not feel. "I'll see about our getting out of this right away. Of course we won't want to go to Durginville. And it's stopping raining now, anyway, I guess."
The sound of the thunder was rolling away into the distance. But other sounds, too, seemed to have retreated as Sammy climbed the ladder to reach the hatch-cover. The hatchway was all of six feet square. The heavy plank cover that fitted tightly over it, was a weight far too great for a ten year old boy to lift.
Sammy very soon made this discovery. Dot, scarcely able to see him from below, the hold was so dark, made out that he was balked by something.
"Can't you budge it, Sammy?" she asked anxiously.
"I—I guess it's locked," he puffed.
"Oo-ee!" she gasped. "Holler, Sammy! Holler!"
Sammy "hollered." He was getting worried himself now. It was bad enough to contemplate facing a man who might not be fond of pirates—even small ones. But if they could not get out of the hold of the canalboat, they would not be able to face the man or anybody else.
The thought struck terror to the very soul of Sammy. Had he been alone he certainly would have done a little of that "blubbering" that he had just now accused Dot of doing. But "with a girl looking on a fellow couldn't really give way to unmanly tears."
He began to pound on the hatch with his fists and yell at the top of his voice:
"Lemme out! Lemme out!"
"Oh, Sammy," came the aggrieved voice of Dot from below. "Ask 'em to let us both out. I don't want to be left here alone."
"Aw, who's leavin' you here alone?" growled the boy.
In fact, there seemed little likelihood of either of them getting out. There was not a sound from outside, save a faint shout now and then of the shrill-voiced girl driving the mules.
The man had gone aft and was smoking his pipe as he sat easily on the broad tiller-arm. Sammy and Dot had descended into the canalboat hold by the forward hatchway and only the hollow echoes of their voices drummed through the hold of the old barge, disturbing the man not at all, while the girl was too far ahead on the towpath, spattering through the mud at the mules' heels, to notice anything so weak as the cries of the youthful stowaways.
Exhausted, and with scratched fists, Sammy tumbled down the ladder again. There was just enough light around the hatch to make the gloom where the boy and girl stood a sort of murky brown instead of the oppressive blackness of the hold all about them.
Dot shuddered as she tried to pierce the surrounding darkness. There might be most anything in that hold—creeping, crawling, biting things! She was beginning to lose her confidence in Sammy's ability, pirate or no pirate, to get them out of this difficult place.
"Oh, Sammy!" she gulped. "I—I guess I don't want to be pirates any longer. I—I want to go home."
"Aw, hush, Dot! Crying won't help," growled the boy.
"But—but we can't stay here all night!" she wailed. "It's lots wusser'n it was when Tess and I was losted and we slept out under a tree till morning, and that old owl hollered 'Who? Who-o?' all night—only I went to sleep and didn't hear him. But I couldn't sleep here."
"Aw, there ain't no owl here," said Sammy, with some dim idea of comforting his comrade.
"But mebbe there's—there's rats!" whispered the little girl, voicing the fear that had already clutched at her very soul.
"Wow!" ejaculated Sammy. But his scornful tone failed to ring true. There really might be rats in this old hulk of a barge. Were not rats supposed to infest the holds of all ships? Afloat with a cargo of rats in the hold of a ship on the tossing canal was nothing to laugh at.
"I—I believe there are rats here," sobbed Dot again. "And—and we can't get out. If—if they come and—and nibble me, Sammy Pinkney, I'll ne-never forgive you for taking me away off to be pirates."
"Oh, goodness, Dot Kenway! Who wanted you to come! I'm sure I didn't. I knew girls couldn't be pirates."
"I'm just as good a one as you are—so now!" she snapped, recovering herself somewhat.
Sammy found something just then in his pocket that he thought might aid matters. It was a bag of "gumballs."
"Oh, say, Dot! have a ball?" he asked thrusting out the bag in the dark.
"Oh, Sammy! Thanks!" She found one of the confections and immediately had such a sticky and difficult mouthful that it was impossible for her either to cry or talk for some time. This certainly was a relief to Sammy!
He could give his mind now to thinking. And no small boy ever had a more difficult problem to solve. Two youngsters in the hold of this huge old, empty canalboat, the deck planks of which seemed so thick that nobody outside could hear their cries, and unable to lift the cover. Query: How to obtain their release?
Sammy had read stories of stowaways who had wonderful adventures in the holds of ships. But he did not just fancy climbing around in this black hold, or exploring it in any way far from the hatch-well. There might be rats here, just as Dot suggested.
Of course, they were in no immediate danger of starvation. His two dollars so lavishly spent drove the ghost of hunger far, far away. But, to tell the truth, just at this time Sammy Pinkney did not feel as though he would ever care much about eating.
Even the gumballs did not taste so delicious as he had expected. Anxiety rode him hard—and the harder because he felt, after all, that the responsibility of Dot Kenway's being here rested upon his shoulders. She would never have thought of running away to be pirates all by herself. That was a fact that could not be gainsaid.
Meanwhile the canalboat was being drawn farther and farther away from Milton. Sammy did not wish to go with it, any more than Dot did. The situation was "up to him" indeed—the boy felt it keenly; but he had no idea as to what he should do to escape from this unfortunate imprisonment.
Agnes and Cecile had gone down town on a brief shopping trip, and Ruth, with Luke Shepard, was on the wide veranda of the old Corner House.
The great front yard that had been weed grown and neglected when the Kenway sisters and Aunt Sarah had come here to live, was now a well kept lawn, the grass and paths the joint care of Uncle Rufus and Neale O'Neil. For nowadays Neale had time to do little other work than that of running the Kenways' car and working about the old Corner House when he was not at school.
Ruth was busy, of course, with some sewing, for she, like Aunt Sarah, did not believe in being entirely idle while one gossiped. Whenever Ruth looked up from her work there was somebody passing along Main Street or Willow Street whom she knew, and who bowed or spoke to the Corner House girl.
"You have such hosts of friends, Miss Ruth," Luke Shepard said. "I believe you Corner House girls must be of that strange breed of folk who are 'universally popular.' I have rather doubted their existence until now."
"You are a flatterer," Ruth accused him, smiling. "I am sure you and Cecile make friends quite as easily as we do."
"But Grantham is not Milton. There are only a handful of people there."
Ruth bit off a thread thoughtfully.
"Cecile was telling us about 'Neighbor' last evening," she said.
Luke flushed quickly and he looked away from the girl for a moment.
"Oh!" he said. "The poor old gentleman is a character."
"But a very good friend of yours?"
"I am not so sure about that," and Luke tried to laugh naturally. "To tell the truth I'm afraid he's a bit cracked, don't you know."
"Oh, you do not mean that he is really—er—crazy!"
"No. Though they say—somebody has—that we are most of us a little crazy. Neighbor Northrup is more than a little peculiar. Cecile told you he is a woman-hater?"
"Yes. And that he carries his hatred to extremes."
"I should say he does!" exclaimed Luke with vast disgust. "He wants me to promise never to marry."
"My goodness, Miss Ruth! You say that calmly enough. How would you like to be nagged in such a way continually? It's no fun I can assure you."
Ruth laughed one of her hearty, delightful laughs that made even the vexed Luke join in.
"It's like Aunt Sarah," confessed Ruth. "She thinks very poorly of men, and is always advising Agnes and me to 'escape the wrath to come' by joining the spinster sisterhood."
"But you haven't—you won't?" gasped Luke in horror.
At that the oldest Corner House girl laughed again, and Luke found himself flushing and feeling rather shamefaced.
"Oh, well," he said, "you know what I mean. You girls wouldn't really be influenced by such foolishness?"
"Doesn't Neighbor influence you?" Ruth asked him quickly.
"No, indeed. Not even when he tries to bribe me. He can keep his old money."
"But he has been your good friend," the girl said slowly and thoughtfully. "And Cecile says he has promised to do much for you."
"And if he got tiffed he would refuse to do a thing. Oh, I know Neighbor!" growled Luke. "Yet you must not think, Miss Ruth," he added after a moment, "that I do not appreciate what he has already done for me. He is the kindest old fellow alive, get him off the subject of women. But he must have been hurt very much by a woman when he was young—he never speaks about it, but so I surmise—and he cannot forget his hatred of the sex.
"Why," continued the young man, "if it would do him a bit of good—my promising never to marry—any good in the world, there'd be some sense in thinking of it. But it's downright foolishness—and I'll never agree," and the young fellow shook his head angrily.
"If it would cure him of any disease, or the like, I might be coaxed to wear blinders so as not to see the pretty girls at all," and Luke tried to laugh it off again. "But he's wrong—utterly wrong. And old folks should not be encouraged in wrong doing."
"You feel yourself susceptible to the charms of pretty girls, then," suggested Ruth, smiling down at her sewing.
He tried to see her full expression, but could see only the smile wreathing her lips.
"Well, now, Miss Ruth," he said, in defense, "who isn't made happier by seeing a pretty and cheerful face?"
"Some of them say they are made miserable for life by such a sight," Ruth declared demurely. "Or, is it only a manner of speaking?"
"I shall begin to believe you are a man-hater, just as Neighbor is a woman-hater," laughed Luke.
"I have my doubts," confessed Ruth. "But you, Luke, have your own way to win in life, and if this man can and will help you, shouldn't you be willing to give up a little thing like that for policy's sake?"
"A little thing like what?" exclaimed Luke Shepard, rather warmly.
"Why—er—getting married," and Ruth Kenway's eyes danced as she looked at him again for an instant.
"The greatest thing in the world!" he almost shouted.
"You mean love is the greatest thing in the world," said Ruth still demurely smiling. "They say marriage hasn't much to do with that—sometimes."
"I believe you are pessimistic regarding the marriage state."
"I don't know anything about it. Never thought of it, really."
Tess just then came singing through the house, having been to see Miss Ann Titus, the dressmaker, regarding certain dresses that were to be got ready for the little girls to wear to school. She had refused to tell Dot where she was going because one of the dresses was to be a surprise to the smallest Corner House girl.
It needed no seer to discover that Tess had been to see the seamstress. She was a polite little girl and she did not like to break in upon other people's conversation; but she was so chock full of news that some of it had to spill over.
"D'juno, Ruthie, that Mr. Sauer, the milkman got 'rested because he didn't have enough milk in his wagon to serve his customers? The inspector said he didn't have a license to peddle water, and he took him down to the City Hall."
"I had not heard of it, Tess, no," replied her older sister.
"You know that awfully big man, Mr. Atkins—the awfully fat man, you know, who is a lawyer, or something, and always walks down town for exercise, and I s'pose he needs it? He stepped on a banana peel on Purchase Street the other day and almost fell. And if he had fallen on that hard walk I 'most guess he'd've exploded."
"Oh, Tessie!" exclaimed Ruth, while Luke laughed openly.
"And d'juno, Ruthie, that they are going to stop people from keeping pigs inside the city limits? Mr. Con Murphy can't have his any more, either. For the other day a pig that belonged to Hemstret, the butcher, got away and scared folks awful on Deering Street, 'cause he looked as though he had the yaller janders—"
"The what?" gasped her sister, while Luke actually roared.
"The yaller janders," repeated Tessie.
"Do you mean the yellow jaundice? Though how a pig could get such a disease—"
"Maybe. Anyway he was all yellow," Tess went on excitedly. "'Cause some boys took some ock-er-ra paint out of Mr. Timmins' shop—Timmins, the lame man, you know—and painted him and then let him out."
"Painted Mr. Timmins—the lame man?" gasped Luke, in the midst of his laughter.
"No. The pig that I was telling you about," said the small girl. "And Mrs. Bogert says that the next time Bogert goes to the lodge and stays till two o'clock in the morning, she's going home to her mother and take the children with her," and Tess ended this budget of news almost breathless.
Ruth had to laugh, too, although she did not approve of the children carrying such gossip. "I should know you had called upon Miss Ann Titus," she observed. "I hope you didn't hear anything worse than this."
"I heard her canary sing," confessed Tess; "and her little dog, Wopsy, was snoring dreadfully on the sofa. But I guess I didn't hear anything else. Where's Dot?"
"I'm sure I do not know," Ruth said placidly, while Luke wiped his eyes, still chuckling in a subdued way. He saw that he was beginning to hurt Tess' feelings and he was too kind-hearted to wish to do that. "Dot must be somewhere about the house."
Tess went to look for her. Her tender conscience punished her for having spoken to her little sister so shortly when she was starting on her errand to Miss Ann Titus. But how else could she have gotten rid of the "tagging" Dorothy!
Just now, however, Dot seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. Nobody had seen her for more than an hour. Tess went to the fence between their own and the Creamers' yard and "hoo-hooed" until Mabel appeared.
"Ain't seen her," declared that young person, shaking her head. "I tried to get you and her over here a long time ago. My mother let me make some 'lasses taffy, and I wanted you and Dot to come and help. But I had to do it all alone."
"Was it good?" asked Tess, longingly.
"It looked luscious," admitted Mabel scowling. "But that young 'un got at it when it was cooling on the porch and filled it full of gravel. I broke a tooth trying to eat a piece. Want some, Tess?"
"No-o," Tess said. "I guess not. I must find Dot."
But she did not find Dot. She wandered back to the front of the Corner House just as Mrs. Pinkney, rather wild-eyed and disheveled, appeared at the side fence on Willow Street and called to Ruth:
"Have you seen Sammy?"
"Have you seen Dot?" repeated Tess, quite as earnestly.
Ruth was finally shaken out of her composure. She rose from her seat, folding the work in her lap, and demanded:
"What do you suppose has become of them? For of course, if neither Sammy nor Dot can be found, they have gone off somewhere together."
THE HUE AND CRY
Ruth Kenway's suggestion bore the stamp of common sense, and even the excited mother of Sammy Pinkney accepted that as a fact. Sammy had been playing almost exclusively with the little Corner House girls of late (quite to his anxious mother's satisfaction, be it said) and if Dot was absent the boy was in all probability with her.
"Well, he certainly cannot have got into much mischief with little Dorothy along," sighed Mrs. Pinkney, relieved. "But I most certainly shall punish him when he comes back, for I forbade his leaving the yard this morning. And I shall tell his father."
This last promise made Tess look very serious. It was the most threatening speech that the good woman ever addressed to Sammy. Mr. Pinkney seemed a good deal like a bugaboo to the little Corner House girls; he was held over Sammy's head often as a threat of dire punishment. Sammy and his father, however, seemed to understand each other pretty well.
Sammy had once confided to the little Corner House girls that "We men have to hang together"; and although he respected his father, and feared what the latter might do in the way of punishment, the punishment was usually inflicted by Mrs. Pinkney, after all.
Sometimes when his mother considered that the boy had been extraordinarily naughty and she told the fact to his father, that wise man would take his son by the hand and walk away with him. Sammy always started on one of these walks with a most serious expression of countenance; but whatever was said to him, or done to him, during these absences, Sammy always returned with a cheerful mien and with a pocketful of goodies for himself and something extra nice for his mother.
Neale O'Neil frequently declared that Mr. Pinkney was one of the wisest men of his time and probably "put it all over old Solomon. They say Solomon had a lot of wives," Neale remarked. "But I bet he didn't know half as much about women and how to handle them as Mr. Pinkney does."
However, to get back to the discovery of the absence of Sammy and Dot. After Tess had searched the neighborhood without finding any trace of them, and Agnes had returned from down town, a council was held.
"Why, they did not even take Tom Jonah with them," observed Ruth.
"If they had," said Agnes, almost ready to weep, "we would be sure they were not really lost."
"Can't you find out at the police station?" suggested Cecile.
"Oh, my! Oh my!" cried Tess, in horror. "You don't s'pose our Dot has really been arrested?"
"Listen to the child!" exclaimed Mrs. Pinkney, kissing her. "Of course not. The young lady means that the police may help find them. But I do not know what Sam'l Pinkney would say if he thought the officers had to look for his son."
Ruth, in her usual decisive way, brooked no further delay. Surely the missing boy and girl had not gone straight up into the air, nor had they sunk into the ground. They could not have traveled far away from the corner of Willow and Main Streets without somebody seeing them who would remember the fact.
She went to the telephone and began calling up people whom she knew all about town, and after explaining to Central the need for her inquiries, that rather tart young person did all in her power to give Ruth quick connections.
Finally she remembered Mrs. Kranz. Dot and Sammy might have gone to Meadow Street, for many of their schoolmates lived in the tenements along that rather poor thoroughfare.
Maria Maroni answered the telephone and she, of course, had news of the lost children.
"Why, Miss Ruth," asked the little Italian girl into the transmitter, "wasn't you going on the picnic, too?"
"What picnic!" asked the eldest Corner House girl at the other end of the wire.
"Mrs. Kranz says Dottie and that little boy were going on a picnic. Sure they were! I sold them crackers and cheese and a lot of things. And my father sent you a basket of fruit like he always does. We thought you and Miss Agnes would be going, too."
Ruth reported this to the others; but the puzzle of the children's absence seemed not at all explained. Nobody whom Ruth and Agnes asked seemed to know any picnic slated for this day.
"They must have made it up themselves—all their own selves," Agnes declared. "They have gone off alone to picnic."
"Where would they be likely to go?" asked Luke Shepard, wishing to be helpful. "Is there a park over that way—or some regular picnicking grounds?"
"There's the canal bank," Ruth said quickly. "It's open fields along there. Sometimes the children have gone there with us."
"I just know Sammy has fallen in and been drowned," declared Mrs. Pinkney, accepting the supposition as a fact on the instant. "What will I ever say to Sam'l to-night when he comes home?"
"Well," said Tess, encouragingly, "I guess he won't spank Sammy for doing that. At least, I shouldn't think he would."
The older folk did not pay much attention to her philosophy. They were all more or less worried, including Mrs. MacCall and Aunt Sarah. The latter displayed more trouble over Dot's absence than one might have expected, knowing the maiden lady's usual unattached manner of looking at all domestic matters.
Ruth, feeling more responsibility after all than anybody else—and perhaps with more anxious love in her heart for Dot than the others, for had she not had the principal care of Dot since babyhood?—could not be convinced now that all they could do was to wait.
"There must be some way of tracing them," she declared. "If they were over on Meadow Street somebody must have seen them after they left Mrs. Kranz's store."
"That is the place to take up their trail, Ruth," Luke said. "Tell me how to find the store and I'll go down there and make enquiries."
"I will go with you," the eldest Corner House girl said quickly. "I know the people there and you don't."
"I'll go, too!" cried Agnes, wiping her eyes.
"No," said her sister decisively. "No use in more going. You remain at home with Tess and Cecile. I am much obliged to you, Luke. We'll start at once."
"And without your lunch?" cried Mrs. MacCall.
Ruth had no thought for lunch, and Luke denied all desire for the midday meal. "Come on!" he prophesied boldly, "we'll find those kids before we eat."
"Oh!" sighed Agnes, "I wish Neale O'Neil had not gone fishing. Then he could have chased around in the automobile and found those naughty children in a hurry."
"He would not know where to look for them any more than we do," her sister said. "All ready, Luke."
They set off briskly for the other side of town. Luke said:
"Wish I knew how to run an auto myself. That's going to be my very next addition to the sum of my knowledge. I could have taken you out in your car myself."
"Not without a license in this county," said Ruth. "And we'll do very well. I hope nothing has happened to these children."
"Of course nothing has," he said comfortingly. "That is, nothing that a little soap and water and a spanking won't cure."
"No. Dot has never been punished in that way."
"But Sammy has—oft and again," chuckled Luke. "And of course he is to blame for this escapade."
"I'm not altogether sure of that," said the just Ruth, who knew Dot's temperament if anybody did. "It doesn't matter which is the most to blame. I want to find them."
But this was a task not easy to perform, as they soon found out after reaching Meadow Street. Certainly Mrs. Kranz remembered all about the children coming to her store that morning—all but one thing. She stuck to it that Dot had said they were going on a picnic. The word "pirates" was strange to the ear of the German woman, so having misunderstood it the picnic idea was firmly fixed in her mind.
Maria Maroni had been too busy to watch which way Dot and Sammy went; nor did her father remember this important point. After leaving the store the runaways seemed to have utterly disappeared.
Ruth did not admit this woful fact until she had interviewed almost everybody she knew in the neighborhood. Sadie Goronofsky and her brothers and sisters scattered in all directions to find trace of Dot and Sammy. There was a mild panic when one child came shrieking into Mrs. Kranz's store that a little girl with a dog had been seen over by the blacksmith shop, and that she had been carried off on a canalboat.
"Them canalboatmen would steal anything, you bet," said Sadie Goronofsky, with confidence. "They're awful pad men—sure!"
Luke went down to the blacksmith shop and learned that the horseshoer knew exactly who the canalboatman in question was. And he knew about the little girl seen with him as well.
"That's Cap'n Bill Quigg and Louise. She is his twelve year old gal—and as smart as Bill is lazy. The dog belongs to them. Ornery hound. Wasn't anybody with them, and the old Nancy Hanks, their barge, has gone on toward Durginville. Went along about the time it showered."
The thunderstorm that had passed lightly over the edge of Milton had occurred before Ruth and Luke left the Corner House. This news which the young man brought back from the blacksmith shop seemed not to help the matter in the least. He and Ruth went over to the canal and asked people whom they met. Many had seen the canalboat going toward Durginville; but nobody had spied Sammy and Dot.
Where else could they go with any reasonable hope of finding trace of the runaways? Sammy and Dot, going directly across the open fields to the moored canalboat, and getting aboard that craft and into the hold, their small figures had not been spied by those living or working in the neighborhood.
The searchers went home, Ruth almost in tears and Luke vastly perturbed because he could not really aid her. Besides, he was getting very much worried now. It did seem as though something serious must have happened to Sammy Pinkney and Dot Kenway.
AN UNEXPECTED DELIGHT
Sammy and Dot, held prisoners in the hold of the Nancy Hanks, made one painful discovery at least. They learned that without light the time passed with great slowness.
It seemed as though they had been in the dark many hours longer than was actually the case. They sat down side by side and seriously ate all the gumballs. These scarcely satisfied their youthful appetites and, anyway, as Dot said, it must be supper time.
So they ate all of the provisions they could possibly swallow. This attack made fearful inroads upon the stock of provisions. There was no cheese left, few of the animal crackers, and half of the peanut butter was literally "licked up," for they had to use their fingers.
"Ho!" said Sammy, "what's the odds? Fingers was made before spoons."
"Not our fingers, Sammy Pinkney," retorted Dot. "But maybe pirates don't mind about table manners."
Just then her boy comrade was not thinking much about the pirate play. If he had ever felt that he was fitted to rove the seas under the Jolly Roger banner, on a career of loot and bloodshed, he had quite got over the hallucination.
He wanted to go home. He wanted to get Dot home. He had a very decided belief that if his father interviewed him after this escapade something serious would happen to him.
Dot, having recovered from her first fright, and being blessed now with a very full stomach, began to nod. She finally fell fast asleep with her head on Sammy's shoulder. He let her sink down on the boards, putting the sack of potatoes and his jacket under her head for a pillow.
He could not sleep himself. Of course not! He must keep watch all night long. No knowing when the people who had stolen the barge might come and open the hatchway and attack them. Sammy was quite convinced that the man and the girl had illegally taken possession of the canalboat.
He sat beside the softly breathing Dot and listened to certain rustling sounds in the hold, wondering fearfully what they meant. It seemed to him that no rats could make such noises.
"Might be wolves—or snakes," thought the boy, and shivered desperately as he sat in the dark.
The canalboat continued to go its blundering way, and scarcely a sound from out-of-doors reached the little boy's ears. Captain Bill Quigg fell asleep at the rudder arm and only woke up now and then when he came close to losing his pipe from between his teeth. "Lowise" kept close at the heels of the ancient mules, urging them with voice and goad. The hound, misnamed Beauty, slept the unhappy sleep of the flea-ridden dog.
The thunderstorm had cleared the air. It was a beautiful afternoon. For although the children in the hold thought it long past their usual supper-time, it was nothing of the kind.
The air in the hold began to feel close and it made Sammy very sleepy as well as Dot. But the boy was faithful to his trust. He propped his eyelids open and manfully held his watch.
Frightened? Never more so, was Sammy Pinkney. But there was some pluck in the youngster and he felt he must put on a bold front before Dot.
As for the canalboat captain and his "crew," they apparently went the even tenor of their way. Cap'n Bill Quigg was not a very smart man—either physically or mentally. The blacksmith at Milton had told Luke Shepard the truth. Little Louise was the smartest member of the Quigg family, which consisted only of herself, her father and the hound dog, Beauty.
She practically "ran the business." In some way Quigg had become possessed of the old Nancy Hanks and the mules. He plodded back and forth from one end of the canal to the other, taking such freight as he could obtain. If there chanced to be no freight, as on this occasion, he was quite philosophical about it.
Louise worried. She was of a keen, anxious disposition, anyway. She showed it in her face—a hatchet-face at best behind the plentiful sprinkling of freckles that adorned it. But by no means was the face unattractive.
She had had little schooling—only such as she had obtained in winter when the Nancy Hanks was frozen up near a schoolhouse. Then she studied with avidity. Had she ever remained long enough for the teachers really to get acquainted with the shy, odd child, she might have made good friends. As it was, she knew few people well and was as ignorant of life as it was lived by comfortably situated people as a civilized human being could be.
She had begun to scheme and plan for daily existence, and to keep the wolf of hunger away from the door of the canalboat cabin, when she was a very little girl—no older than Dot Kenway herself, in fact. Now she seemed quite grown up when one talked with her, despite her crass ignorance upon most subjects.
This afternoon she paddled on in her bare feet through the mire of the towpath, while the thunder storm passed over and the sun came out again. As she urged on the mules she was planning for a delight that had never yet entered into her crippled life.
She had not urged her father to stop for the farmer's potatoes, whereas on any other occasion she would have insisted upon doing so. A dollar to be earned was an important thing to Louise Quigg.
But she had two half dollars saved and hidden away in the cabin. She had squeezed the sum out of her bits of housekeeping money during the past two months. For all that time the dead walls and hoardings about Durginville had been plastered with announcements of a happening the thought of which thrilled little Louise Quigg to the very tips of her fingers and toes.
When they reached the Bumstead Lock this afternoon there was a chance for the girl to leave the mules grazing beside the towpath while the water rose slowly in the basin, and she could board the boat and talk with Cap'n Bill.
The hound, awakened by her approach, began sniffing around the edge of the forward hatch cover.
"Wonder what Beauty smells there?" Louise said idly. But her mind was on something else. The captain shook his head without much reflection and, now more thoroughly awakened, lit his pipe again.
"I say, Pap!"
"Wal, Lowise?" he drawled.
"We're going to lay up to-night short of the soapworks at Durginville."
"Heh?" he demanded, somewhat surprised, but still drawling. "What for, Lowise?"
"I want to hitch there by the Lawton Pike."
"Lawsy, Lowise! you don't wanter do no sech thing," said Cap'n Bill.
"Yes I do, Pap."
"Too many folks goin' to be there. A slather of folks, Lowise. Why! the circus grounds is right there. This is the day, ain't it?"
"That's it, Pap. I want to see the circus."
"Lawsy, Lowise!" the man stammered. "Circuses ain't for we folks."
"Yes they are, Pap."
"Ain't never been to one in all my life, Lowise," Cap'n Bill said reflectively.
"No more ain't I," agreed the girl. "But I'm goin' to this one."
"You goin'?" he demanded, his amazement growing.
"Yes. And you're goin' too, Pap."
"Git out!" gasped Cap'n Bill, actually forgetting to pull on his pipe.
"Yes, you are," declared Louise Quigg, nodding her head. "I've got the two half dollars. Beauty will stay and mind the boat. I jest got a taste in my mouth for that circus. Seems to me, Pap, I'd jest die if I didn't see it."
"Lawsy, Lowise!" murmured Captain Bill Quigg, and was too amazed to say anything more for an hour.
The Nancy Hanks got through the lock and the mules picked up the slack of the towrope again at Louise's vigorous suggestion. Inside the hold Sammy and Dot both wondered about the stopping of the boat. Dot was awakened by this.
"Sammy," she murmured, "is it morning? Have we been here all night?"
"I—I guess not, Dot. It can't be morning. Are you hungry?"
"No-o. I guess not," confessed the little girl.
"Then it can't be morning," Sammy declared, for what better time-keeper can there be than a child's stomach?
"But aren't they going to let us out—not ever, Sammy?" wailed the little girl.
"Pshaw! Of course they will. Some time they'll want to load up this old boat. And then they'll have to open the door up there in the deck. So we'll get out."
"But—but suppose it should be a long, long time?" breathed Dot, thrilled with the awfulness of the thought.
"We got plenty to eat," Sammy said stoutly.
"Not now we haven't, Sammy," Dot reminded him. "We ate a lot."
"But there's all the potatoes—"
"I wouldn't like 'em raw," put in Dot, with decision. "And you can't catch any fish as you were going to with your hook and line, Sammy. I heard that girl that's with the other pirates," she added, "tell their dog that he couldn't even catch rabbits along the canal. And what do you think, Sammy Pinkney!"
"What?" he asked, drearily enough.
"Why, Sadie Goronofsky said last spring that she had an uncle that was a rabbit. What do you think of that? I never heard of such a thing, did you?"
"He was a rabbit, Dot?" gasped Sammy, brought to life by this strange statement.
"That's just what she said. She said he was a rabbit, and he wore a round black cap and had long whiskers—like our goat, I guess. And he prayed—"
"Je-ru-sa-lem!" ejaculated Sammy.
"And the rabbit, Sadie's uncle, prayed," went on Dot, uninfluenced by Sammy's ejaculation. "Now what do you think of that?"
Master Sammy was as ignorant of the Jewish ritual and synagogue officers as was Dot Kenway. He burst out with disgust:
"I think Sadie Goronofsky was telling a fib, that's what I think!"
"I'm afraid so," Dot concluded with a sigh. "But I don't like to think so. I meant to ask Ruthie about it," and she shook her head again, still much puzzled over Sadie's uncle who was a rabbi.
The day waned, and still the two little stowaways heard nothing from above—not even the snuffing of the old hound about the hatch-cover. They were buried it seemed out of the ken of other human beings. It made them both feel very despondent. Sammy stuck to his guns and would not cry; but after a while Dot sobbed herself to sleep again—with a great luscious peach from Ruthie's basket of fruit, clutched in her hand and staining the frock of the Alice-doll.
The Nancy Hanks was finally brought to a mooring just across the canal from the tented field where the circus was pitched. The dirty brown canvas of the large and small tents showed that the circus had already had a long season. Everything was tarnished and tawdry about the show at this time of year. Even the ornate band wagon was shabby and the vociferous calliope seemed to have the croup whenever it was played.
But people had come from far and near to see the show. Its wonders were as fresh to the children as though the entertainment had just left winter quarters, all spic and span.
From the deck of the Nancy Hanks there looked to be hundreds and hundreds of people wandering about the fields where the tents were erected.
"Oh, come on, Pap, le's hurry!" exclaimed Louise Quigg, gaspingly. "Oh, my! Everybody'll see everything all up before we get there!"
The mules were driven aboard over the gangplank and stabled in the forward end of the house. The cabin door was locked and Beauty set on guard. Without the first idea that they were leaving any other human beings upon the barge when they left it, Louise and her father walked toward the drawbridge on the edge of town, over which they had to pass to reach the showgrounds.
Louise had hurriedly cooked supper on the other side of the partition from the coop where the mules were stabled. The fire was not entirely out when she had locked the door. Her desire to reach the showgrounds early made the child careless for once in her cramped life.
The mules, quarreling over their supper, became more than usually active. One mule bit the other, who promptly switched around, striving to land both his heels upon his mate's ribs.
Instead, the kicking mule burst in the partition between the stable and the living room, or cabin, of the Nancy Hanks. The flying planks knocked over the stove and the live coals were spread abroad upon the floor.
This began to smoke at once. Little flames soon began to lick along the cracks between the deck planks. The mules brayed and became more uneasy. They did not like the smell of the smoke; much less did they like the vicinity of the flames which grew rapidly longer and hotter.
As for Beauty, the hound, her idea of watching the premises was to curl down on an old coat of Quigg's on deck and sleep as soundly as though no peril at all threatened the old canalboat and anybody who might be aboard of it.
Neale O'Neil did not return to Mr. Con Murphy's with a creel of fish until late afternoon. He was going to clean some of his fish and take them as a present to the Corner House girls; but something the little cobbler told him quite changed his plan.
"Here's a letter that's come to ye, me bye," said Con, looking up from his tap, tap tapping on somebody's shoe, and gazing over the top of his silver-bowed spectacles at Neale.
"Thanks," said Neale, taking the missive from the leather seat beside Mr. Murphy. "Guess it's from Uncle Bill. He said he expected to show in Durginville this week."
"And there's trouble at the Corner House," said the cobbler.
"What sort of trouble?"
"I don't rightly know, me bye; save wan of the little gals seems to be lost."
"Lost!" gasped Neale anxiously. "Which one? Tess? Dot? Not Agnes?"
"Shure," said Con Murphy, "is that little beauty likely to be lost, I ax ye? No! 'Tis the very littlest wan of all."
"'Tis so. The other wan—Theresa—was here asking for her before noon-time," the cobbler added.
Neale waited for nothing further—not even to read his letter, which he slipped into his pocket; but hurried over the back fence into the rear premises of the Corner House.
By this time the entire neighborhood was aroused. Luke had called up the police station and given a description of Sammy and Dot. The telephone had been busy most of the time after he and Ruth had returned from their unsuccessful visit to the canal.
Agnes, red-eyed from weeping, ran at Neale when she saw him coming.
"Oh, Neale O'Neil! Why weren't you here! Get out the auto at once! Let us go and find them. I know they have been carried off—"
"Who's carried them, Aggie?" he demanded. "Brace up. Let's hear all the particulars of this kidnapping."
"Oh, you can laugh. Don't you dare laugh!" expostulated Agnes, quite beside herself, and scarcely knowing what she said. "But somebody must certainly have stolen Dot."
"That might be," confessed Neale. "But who in the world would want to steal Sammy? I can't imagine anybody wanting a youngster like him."
"Do be serious if you can, Neale," admonished Ruth, who had likewise been weeping, but was critical of the ex-circus boy as usual.
"I am," declared Neale. "Only, let's get down to facts. Who saw them last and where?"
He listened seriously to the story. His remark at the end might not have been very illuminating, but it was sensible.
"Well, then, if Mrs. Kranz and Joe Maroni saw them last, that's the place to start hunting for the kids."
"Didn't we go there?" demanded Ruth, sharply. "I have just told you—"
"But you didn't find them," Neale said mildly. "Just the same, I see nothing else to do but to make Mrs. Kranz's store the starting point of the search. The whole neighborhood there should be searched. Start running circles around that corner of Meadow Street."
"Didn't Luke and I go as far as the canal!" and Ruth was still rather warm of speech.
"But I guess Neale is right, Ruth," Luke put in. "I don't know the people over there or the neighborhood itself. There may have been lots of hiding places they could have slipped into."
"It's the starting point of the search," Neale declared dogmatically. "I am going right over there."
"Do get out the auto," cried Agnes, who had uncanny faith in the motor car as a means of aid in almost any emergency. "And I'm going!"
"Let's all go," Cecile Shepard suggested. "I think we ought to interview everybody around that shop. Don't you, Luke?"
"Right, Sis," her brother agreed. "Come on, Miss Ruth. Many hands should make light work. It isn't enough to have the constables on the outlook for the children. It will soon be night."
Although Ruth could not see that going to Meadow Street again promised to be of much benefit, save to keep them all occupied, she agreed to Neale's proposal which had been so warmly seconded by Luke.
The boys got out the automobile and the two older Corner House girls, with Cecile, joined them. The car rolled swiftly away from home, leaving Tess in tears, Mrs. MacCall, Aunt Sarah, Uncle Rufus and Linda in a much disturbed state of mind, and poor Mrs. Pinkney in the very lowest depths of despair.
They had all had a late luncheon—all save Neale. He had eaten only what he had put in his pocket when he left for his fishing trip to Pogue Lake that morning. It was approaching dinner time when they reached Meadow Street, but none of the anxious young people thought much about this fact.
The news of the loss of Dot Kenway and Sammy Pinkney had by this time become thoroughly known in the neighborhood of the Stower property on Meadow Street. Not only were the tenants of the Corner House girls, but all their friends and acquaintances, interested in the search.
Groups had gathered about the corner where Mrs. Kranz's store and Joe Maroni's fruit stand were situated, discussing the mystery. Suggestions of dragging the canal had been made; but these were hushed when the kindly people saw Agnes' tear-streaked face and Ruth Kenway's anxious eyes.
"Oh, my dear!" gasped Mrs. Kranz, her fat face wrinkling with emotion, and dabbing at her eyes while she patted Ruth's shoulder. "If I had only knowed vat dem kinder had in der kopfs yedt, oh, my dear! I vould haf made dem go right avay straight home."
"De leetla padrona allow, I go right away queek and looka for theem—yes? Maria and my Marouche watcha da stan'—sella da fruit. Yes?" cried Joe Maroni to the oldest Corner House girl.
"If we only—any of us—knew where to search!" Ruth cried.
Neale and Luke got out of the automobile, leaving the girls surrounded by the gossipy, though kindly, women of the neighborhood and the curious children. Neither of the young fellows had any well defined idea as to how to proceed; but they were not inclined to waste any more time merely canvassing the misfortune of Dot and Sammy's disappearance.
Neale, being better acquainted with the dwellers in this neighborhood, seized a half-grown youth on the edge of the crowd and put several very pertinent questions to him.
Was there any place right around there that the children might have fallen into—like a cellar, or an excavation! Any place into which they could have wandered and be unable to get out of, or to make their situation known? Had there been an accident of any kind near this vicinity during the day?
The answers extracted from this street youth, who would, Neale was sure, know of anything odd happening around this section of Milton, were negative.
"Say, it's been deader'n a doornail around here for a week," confessed the Meadow Street youth. "Even Dugan's goat hasn't been on the rampage. No, sir. I ain't seen an automobile goin' faster than a toad funeral all day. Say, the fastest things we got around here is the canalboats—believe me!"
"Funny how we always come around to that canal—or the barges on it—in this inquiry," murmured Luke to Neale O'Neil.
The two had started down the street, but Neale halted in his walk and stared at the young collegian.
"Funny!" he exclaimed suddenly. "No, there isn't anything funny in it at all. The canal. Canalboats. My goodness, Mr. Shepard, there must be something in it!"
"Water," growled Luke. "And very muddy water at that. I will not believe that the children fell in and were drowned!"
"No!" cried Neale just as vigorously. Then he grinned. "Sammy Pinkney's best friends say he will never be drowned, although some of them intimate that there is hemp growing for him. No, Sammy and Dot would not fall into the canal. But, crickey, Shepard! they might have fallen into a canalboat."
"What do you mean? Have been carried off in one? Kidnapped—actually kidnapped?"
"Sh! No. Perhaps not. But you never can tell what will happen to kids like them—nor what they will do. Whew! there's an idea. Sammy was always threatening to run away and be a pirate."
"The funny kid!" laughed Luke. "But Dot did not desire such a romantic career, I am sure."
"Did you ever find out yet what was in a girl's head?" asked Neale, with an assumption of worldly wisdom very funny in one of his age and experience. "You don't know what the smallest of them have in their noddles. Maybe if Sammy expressed an intention of being a pirate she wasn't going to be left behind."
He laughed. But he had hit the fact very nearly. And it seemed reasonable to Luke the more he thought of it.
"But on a canalboat?" he said, with lingering doubts.
"Well, it floats on the water, and it's a boat," urged Neale. "Put yourself in the kid's place. If the idea struck you suddenly to be a pirate where would you look around here for a pirate ship and water to sail it!"
"Great Peter!" murmured Luke. "The boundless canal!"
"Quite so," rejoined Neale O'Neil, his conviction growing. "Now, on that basis, let's ask about the barges that have gone east out from Milton to-day."
"Why not both ways?" queried Luke, quickly.
"Because most of the canalboats coming west go no farther than the Milton docks; and if the kids had got a ride on one into town, they would long since have been home. But it is a long journey to the other end of the canal. Why, it's fifteen or eighteen miles to Durginville."