Ruth Fielding at Lighthouse Point/Chapter 22
Miss Kate said of course he could use the buckboard and ponies, and it was the ranchman's own choice that the young folks went, too. There was another wagon, and they could all crowd aboard one or the other vehicle—even Mercy Curtis went.
"I don't believe that Crab man will show up at the light," Ruth said to Tom and Helen. "He's plainly made up his mind that he won't meet Nita's friends personally. And to think of his getting five hundred dollars so easy!" and she sighed.
For the reward Mr. Hicks had offered for news of his niece, which would lead to her apprehension and return to his guardianship, would have entirely removed from Ruth Fielding's mind her anxiety about Briarwood. Let the Tintacker Mine, in which Uncle Jabez had invested, remain a deep and abiding mystery, if Ruth could earn that five hundred dollars.
But if Jack Crab had placed Nita in good hands and was merely awaiting an opportunity to exchange her for the reward which the runaway's uncle had offered, then Ruth need not hope for any portion of the money. And certainly, Crab would make nothing by hiding the girl away and refusing to give her up to Mr. Hicks.
"And if I took money for telling Mr. Hicks where Nita was, why—why it would be almost like taking blood money! Nita liked me, I believe; I think she ought to be with her uncle, and I am sure he is a nice man. But it would be playing the traitor to report her to Mr. Hicks—and that's a fact!" concluded Ruth, taking herself to task. "I could not think of earning money in such a contemptible way."
Whether her conclusion was right, or not, it seemed right to Ruth, and she put the thought of the reward out of her mind from that instant. The ranchman had taken a liking to Ruth and when he climbed into the buckboard he beckoned the girl from the Red Mill to a seat beside him. He drove the ponies, but seemed to give those spirited little animals very little attention. Ruth knew that he must be used to handling horses beside which the ponies seemed like tame rabbits.
"Now what do you think of my Jane Ann?" was the cattleman's question. "Ain't she pretty cute?"
"I am not quite sure that I know what you mean by that Mr. Hicks," Ruth answered, demurely. "But she isn't as smart as she ought to be, or she wouldn't have gone off with Jack Crab."
"Huh!" grunted the other. "Mebbe you're right on that p'int. He didn't have no drop on her—that's so! But ye can't tell what sort of a yarn he give her."
"She would better have had nothing to say to him," said Ruth, emphatically. "She should have confided in Miss Kate. Miss Kate and Jennie were treating her just as nicely as though she were an invited guest. Nita—or Jane, as you call her—may be smart, but she isn't grateful in the least."
"Oh, come now, Miss——"
"No. She isn't grateful," repeated Ruth. "She never even suggested going over to the life saving station and thanking Cap'n Abinadab and his men for bringing her ashore from the wreck of the Whipstitch."
"Great cats! I been thinkin' of that," sighed the Westerner. "I want to see them and tell 'em what I think of 'em. I 'spect Jane Ann never thought of such a thing."
"But I liked her, just the same," Ruth went on, slowly. "She was bold, and brave, and I guess she wouldn't ever do a really mean thing."
"I reckon not, Miss!" agreed Mr. Hicks. "My Jane Ann is plumb square, she is. I can forgive her for running away from us. Mebbe thar was reason for her gittin' sick of Silver Ranch. I—I stand ready to give her 'bout ev'rything she wants—in reason—when I git her back thar."
"Including a piano?" asked Ruth, curiously.
"Great cats! that's what we had our last spat about," groaned Bill Hicks. "Jib, he's had advantages, he has. Went to this here Carlisle Injun school ye hear so much talk about. It purty nigh ruined him, but he can break hosses. And thar he l'arned to play one o' them pianners. We was all in to Bullhide one time—we'd been shipping steers—and we piled into the Songbird Dancehall—had the place all to ourselves, for it was daytime—and Jib sot down and fingered them keys somethin' scand'lous. Bashful Ike—he's my foreman—says he never believed before that a sure 'nough man like Jibbeway Pottoway could ever be so ladylike!
"Wal! My Jane Ann was jest enchanted by that thar pianner—yes, Miss! She was jest enchanted. And she didn't give me no peace from then on. Said she wanted one o' the critters at the ranch so Jib could give her lessons. And I jest thought it was foolishness—and it cost money—oh, well! I see now I was a pretty mean old hunks——"
"That's what I heard her call you once," chuckled Ruth. "At least, I know now that she was speaking of you, sir."
"She hit me off right," sighed Mr. Hicks. "I hadn't never been used to spending money. But, laws, child! I got enough. I been some waked up since I come East. Folks spend money here, that's a fact."
They found Mother Purling's door opened at the foot of the lighthouse shaft, and the flutter of an apron on the balcony told them that the old lady had climbed to the lantern.
"She doesn't often do that," said Heavy. "Crab does all the cleaning and polishing up there."
"He's left her without any help, then," Ruth suggested. "That's what it means."
And truly, that is what it did mean, as they found out when Ruth, the Cameron twins, and the Westerner climbed the spiral staircase to the gallery outside the lantern.
"Yes; that Crab ain't been here this morning," Mother Purling admitted when Ruth explained that there was reason for Mr. Hicks wishing to see him. "He told me he was mebbe going off for a few days. 'Then you send me a substitute, Jack Crab,' I told him; but he only laughed and said he wasn't going to send a feller here to work into his job. He is handy, I allow. But I'm too old to be left all stark alone at this light. I'm going to have another man when Jack's month is out, just as sure as eggs is eggs!"
Mr. Hicks was just as polite to the old lady as he had been to Miss Kate; and he quickly explained his visit to the lighthouse, and showed her the two letters that Crabb had written.
"Well, ain't that the beatenest?" she cried. "Jack Crab is just as mean as they make 'em, I always did allow. But this is the capsheaf of all his didoes. And you say he run off with the little girl the other night in Mr. Stone's catboat? I dunno where he could have taken her. And that day he'd been traipsing off fishing with you folks on the motor launch; hadn't he? He's been leavin' me to do his work too much. This settles it. Me and Jack Crab parts company at the end of this month!"
"But what is Mr. Hicks to do about his niece, Mother Purling?" cried Ruth. "Will he pay the five hundred dollars to you——?"
"I just guess he won't!" cried the old lady, vigorously. "I ain't goin' to be collector for Crab in none of his risky dealin's—no, ma'am!"
"Then he says he won't give Nita up," exclaimed Tom.
"Can't help it. I'm a government employe. I can't afford to be mixed up in no such didoes."
"Now, I say, Missus!" exclaimed the cattleman, "this is shore too bad! Ye might know somethin' about whar I kin find this yere reptile by the name of Crab—though I reckon a crab is a inseck, not a reptile," and the ranchman grinned ruefully.
The young folks could scarcely control their laughter at this, and the idea that a crustacean might be an insect was never forgotten by the Cameron twins and Ruth Fielding.
"I dunno where he is," said Mother Purling, shortly. "I can't keep track of the shiftless critter. Ha'f the time when he oughter be here he's out fishing in the dory, yonder—or over to Thimble Island."
"Which is Thimble Island?" asked Tom, quickly.
"Just yon," said the lighthouse keeper, pointing to a cone-shaped rock—perhaps an imaginative person would call it thimble-shaped—lying not far off shore. The lumber schooner had gone on the reef not far from it.
"Ain't no likelihood of his being over thar now, Missus?" asked Mr. Hicks, quickly.
"An' ye could purty nigh throw a stone to it!" scoffed the old woman. "Not likely. B'sides, I dunno as there's a landin' on the island 'ceptin' at low tide. I reckon if he's hidin', Jack Crab is farther away than the Thimble. But I don't know nothin' about him. And I can't accept no money for him—that's all there is to that."
And really, that did seem to be all there was to it. Even such a go-ahead sort of a person as Mr. Hicks seemed balked by the lighthouse keeper's attitude. There seemed nothing further to do here.
Ruth was rather interested in what Mother Purling had said about Thimble Island, and she lingered to look at the conical rock, with the sea foaming about it, when the others started down the stairway. Tom came back for her.
"What are you dreaming about, Ruthie?" he demanded, nudging her.
"I was wondering, Tommy," she said, "just why Jack Crab went so often to the Thimble, as she says he does. I'd like to see that island nearer to; wouldn't you?"
"We'll borrow the catboat and sail out to it. I can handle the Jennie S. I bet Helen would like to go," said Tom, at once.
"Oh, I don't suppose that Crab man is there. It's just a barren rock," said Ruth. "But I would like to see the Thimble."
"And you shall," promised Tom.
But neither of them suspected to what strange result that promise tended.