Ruth Fielding at Lighthouse Point/Chapter 13
CRAB PROVES TO BE OF THE HARDSHELL VARIETY
They came to the lighthouse. There was only a tiny, whitewashed cottage at the foot of the tall shaft. It seemed a long way to the brass-trimmed and glistening lantern at the top. Ruth wondered how the gaunt old woman who came to the door to welcome them could ever climb those many, many stairs to the narrow gallery at the top of the shaft. She certainly could not suffer as Aunt Alvirah did with her back and bones.
Sokennet Light was just a steady, bright light, sending its gleam far seaward. There was no mechanism for turning, such as marks the revolving lights in so many lighthouses. The simplicity of everything about Sokennet Light was what probably led the department officials to allow Mother Purling to remain after her husband died in harness.
"Jack Crab has done his cleaning and gone about his business," said Mother Purling, to the girls. "Ye may all climb up to the lantern if ye wish; but touch nothing."
Beside the shaft of the light was a huge fog bell. That was rung by clockwork. Mother Purling showed Ruth and her companions how it worked before the girls started up the stairs. Mercy remained in the little house with the good old woman, for she never could have hobbled up those spiral stairs.
"It's too bad about that girl," said Nita, brusquely, to Ruth. "Has she always been lame?"
Ruth warmed toward the runaway immediately when she found that Nita was touched by Mercy Curtis' affliction. She told Nita how the lame girl had once been much worse off than she was now, and all about her being operated on by the great physician.
"She's so much better off now than she was!" cried Ruth. "And so much happier!"
"But she's a great nuisance to have along," snapped Mary Cox, immediately behind them. "She had better stayed at home, I should think."
Ruth flushed angrily, but before she could speak, Nita said, looking coolly at The Fox:
"You're a might snappy, snarly sort of a girl; ain't you? And you think you are dreadfully smart. But somebody told you that. It ain't so. I've seen a whole lot smarter than you. You wouldn't last long among the boys where I come from."
"Thank you!" replied Mary, her head in the air. "I wouldn't care to be liked by the boys. It isn't ladylike to think of the boys all the time——"
"These are grown men, I mean," said Nita, coolly. "The punchers that work for—well, just cow punchers. You call them cowboys. They know what's good and fine, jest as well as Eastern folks. And a girl that talks like you do about a cripple wouldn't go far with them."
"I suppose your friend, the half-Indian, is a critic of deportment," said The Fox, with a laugh.
"Well, Jib wouldn't say anything mean about a cripple," said Nita, in her slow way, and The Fox seemed to have no reply.
But this little by-play drew Ruth Fielding closer to the queer girl who had selected her "hifaluting" name because it was the name of a girl in a paper-covered novel.
Nita had lived out of doors, that was plain. Ruth believed, from what the runaway had said, that she came from the plains of the great West. She had lived on a ranch. Perhaps her folks owned a ranch, and they might even now be searching the land over for their daughter. The thought made the girl from the Red Mill very serious, and she determined to try and gain Nita's confidence and influence her, if she could, to tell the truth about herself and to go back to her home. She knew that she could get Mr. Cameron to advance Nita's fare to the West, if the girl would return.
But up on the gallery in front of the shining lantern of the lighthouse there was no chance to talk seriously to the runaway. Heavy had to sit down when she reached this place, and she declared that she puffed like a steam engine. Then, when she had recovered her breath, she pointed out the places of interest to be seen from the tower—the smoke of Westhampton to the north; Fuller's Island, with its white sands and gleaming green lawns and clumps of wind-blown trees; the long strip of winding coast southward, like a ribbon laid down for the sea to wash, and far, far to the east, over the tumbling waves, still boisterous with the swell of last night's storm, the white riding sail of the lightship on No Man's Shoal.
They came down after an hour, wind-blown, the taste of salt on their lips, and delighted with the view. They found the ugly, hairy man sitting on the doorstep, listening with a scowl and a grin to Mercy's sharp speeches.
"I don't know what brought you back here to the light, Jack Crab, at this time of day," said Mother Purling. "You ain't wanted."
"I likes to see comp'ny, too, I do," growled the man.
"Well, these girls ain't your company," returned the old woman. "Now! get up and be off. Get out of the way."
Crab rose, surlily enough, but his sharp eyes sought Nita. He looked her all over, as though she were some strange object that he had never seen before.
"So you air the gal they brought ashore off the lumber schooner last night?" he asked her.
"Yes, I am," she returned, flatly.
"You ain't got no folks around here; hev ye?" he continued.
"No, I haven't."
"What's your name?"
"Puddin' Tame!" retorted Mercy, breaking in, in her shrill way. "And she lives in the lane, and her number's cucumber! There now! do you know all you want to know, Hardshell?"
Crab growled something under his breath and went off in a hangdog way.
"That's a bad man," said Mercy, with confidence. "And he's much interested in you, Miss Nita Anonymous. Do you know why?"
"I'm sure I don't," replied Nita, laughing quite as sharply as before, but helping the lame girl to the buckboard with kindliness.
"You look out for him, then," said Mercy, warningly. "He's a hardshell crab, all right. And either he thinks he knows you, or he's got something in his mind that don't mean good to you."
But only Ruth heard this. The others were bidding Mother Purling good-bye.