Ruth Fielding at Lighthouse Point/Chapter 24
PLUCKY MOTHER PURLING
Tom Cameron audibly chuckled; but he made believe to be busy with the painter of the catboat and so did not look at the Western girl. The harum-scarum, independent, "rough and ready" runaway was actually on the verge of tears. But—really—it was not surprising.
"How long have you been out here on this rock?" demanded Helen, in horror.
"Ever since I left the bungalow."
"Why didn't you wave your signal from the top of the rock, so that it could be seen on the point?" asked Ruth, wonderingly.
"There's no way to get to the top of the rock—or around to the other side of it, either," declared the runaway. "Look at these clothes! they are nearly torn off. And see my hands!"
"Oh, you poor, poor thing!" exclaimed Helen, seeing how the castaway's hands were torn.
"I tried it. I've shouted myself hoarse. No boat paid any attention to me. They were all too far away, I suppose."
"And did that awful man, Crab, bring you here?" cried Ruth.
"Yes. It was dark when he landed and showed me this cave in the rock. There was food and water. Why, I've got plenty to eat and drink even now. But nobody has been here——"
"Didn't he come back?" queried Tom, at last taking part in the conversation.
"He rowed out here once. I told him I'd sink his boat with a rock if he tried to land. I was afraid of him," declared the girl.
"But why did you come here with him that night?" demanded Ruth.
"'Cause I was foolish. I didn't know he was so bad then. I thought he'd really help me. He told me Jennie's aunt had written to my uncle——"
"Old Bill Hicks," remarked Tom, chuckling.
"Yes. I'm Jane Hicks. I'm not Nita," said the girl, gulping down something like a sob.
"We read all about you in the paper," said Helen, soothingly. "Don't you mind."
"And your uncle's come, and he's just as anxious to see you as he can be," declared Ruth.
"So they did send for him? " cried Jane Ann.
"No. Crab wrote a letter to Silver Ranch himself. He got you out here so as to be sure to collect five hundred dollars from your uncle before he gave you up," grunted Tom. "Nice mess of things you made by running off from us."
"Oh, I'll go back with Uncle Bill—I will, indeed," said the girl. "I've been so lonely and scared out here. Seems to me every time the tide rose, I'd be drowned in that cave. The sea's horrid, I think! I never want to see it again."
"Well," Tom observed, "I guess you won't have to worry about Crab any more. Get aboard the catboat. We'll slip ashore mighty easy now, and let him whistle for you—or the money. Mr. Hicks won't have to pay for getting you back."
"I expect he's awful mad at me," sighed Jane Ann, alias Nita.
"I know that he is awfully anxious to get you back again, my dear," said Ruth. "He is altogether too good a man for you to run away from."
"Don't you suppose I know that, Miss?" snapped the girl from the ranch.
They embarked in the catboat and Tom showed his seamanship to good advantage when he got the Jennie S. out of that dock without rubbing her paint. But the wind was very light and they had to run down with it past the island and then beat up between the Thimble and the lighthouse, toward the entrance to Sokennet Harbor.
Indeed, the breeze fell so at times that the catboat made no headway. In one of these calms Helen sighted a rowboat some distance away, but pulling toward them from among the little chain of islands beyond the reef on which the lumber schooner had been wrecked.
"Here's a fisherman coming," she said. "Do you suppose he'd take us ashore in his boat, Tom? We could walk home from the light. It's growing late and Miss Kate will be worried."
"Why, Sis, I can scull this old tub to the landing below the lighthouse yonder. We don't need to borrow a boat. Then Phineas can come around in the Miraflame to-morrow morning and tow the catboat home."
But Jane Ann had leaped up at once to eye the coming rowboat—and not with favor.
"That looks like the boat that Crab came out to the Thimble in," she exclaimed. "Why! it is him."
"Jack Crab!" exclaimed Helen, in terror. "He's after you, then."
"Well, he won't get her," declared Tom, boldly.
"What can we do against that man?" demanded Ruth, anxiously. "I'm afraid of him myself. Let's try to get ashore."
"And before he catches us," begged Helen. "Do, Tom!"
There was no hope of the wind helping them, and the man in the rowboat was pulling strongly for the becalmed Jennie S. Tom instantly dropped her sail and seized one of the oars. He could scull pretty well, and he forced the heavy boat through the quiet sea directly for the lighthouse landing.
The three girls were really much disturbed; Crab pulled his lighter boat much faster than Tom could drive the Jennie S. and it was a question if he would not overtake her before she reached the landing.
"He sees me," said Jane Hicks, excitedly. "He'll get hold of me if he can. And maybe he'll hurt you folks."
"He's got to catch us first," grunted Tom, straining at the oar.
"We're going to beat him, Tommy!" cried Helen, encouragingly. "Don't give up!"
Once Crab looked around and bawled some threat to them over his shoulder. But they did not reply. His voice inspired Tom with renewed strength—or seemed to. The boy strained at his single oar, and the Jennie S. moved landward at a good, stiff pace.
"Stand ready with the painter, Ruth!" called Tom, at last. "We must fasten the boat before we run."
"And where will we run to?" demanded Helen.
"To the light, of course," returned her chum.
"Give me the hitch-rein!" cried Jane Ann Hicks, snatching the coil of line from Ruth's hand, and the next moment she leaped from the deck of the catboat to the wharf.
The distance was seven or eight feet, but she cleaned it and landed on the stringpiece. She threw the line around one of the piles and made a knot with a dexterity that would have surprised her companions at another time.
But there was no opportunity then for Tom, Helen and Ruth to stop to notice it. All three got ashore the moment the catboat bumped, and they left her where she was and followed the flying Western girl up the wharf and over the stretches of sand towards the lightkeeper's cottage.
Before their feet were off the planks of the wharf Jack Crab's boat collided with the Jennie S. and the man scrambled upon her deck, and across it to the wharf. He left his own dory to go ashore if it would, and set out to catch the girl who—he considered—was worth five hundred dollars to him.
But Jane Ann and her friends whisked into the little white house at the foot of the light shaft, and slammed the door before Crab reached it.
"For the Land of Goshen!" cried the old lady, who was sitting knitting in her tiny sitting-room. "What's the meaning of this?"
"It's Crab! It's Jack Crab!" cried Helen, almost in hysterics. "He's after us!"
Tom had bolted the door. Now Crab thundered upon it, with both feet and fists.
"Let me in!" he roared from outside. "Mother Purling! you let me git that gal!"
"What does this mean?' repeated the lighthouse keeper, sternly. "Ain't this the gal that big man was after this morning?" she demanded, pointing at Jane Ann.
"Yes, Mrs. Purling—it is Jane Hicks. And this dreadful Crab man has kept her out on the Thimble all this time—alone!" cried Ruth. "Think of it! Now he has chased us in here——"
"I'll fix that Jack Crab," declared the plucky old woman, advancing toward the door. "Hi, you, Jack! go away from there."
"You open this door, Mother Purling, if you knows what's best for you," commanded the sailor.
"You better git away from that door, if you knows what's best for you, Jack Crab!" retorted the old woman. "I don't fear ye."
"I see that man here this morning. Did he leave aught for me?" cried Crab, after a moment. "If he left the five hundred dollars he promised to give for the gal, he can have her. Give me the money, and I'll go my ways."
"I ain't no go-between for a scoundrel such as you, Jack Crab," declared the lighthouse-keeper. "There's no money here for ye."
"Then I'll have the gal if I tear the lighthouse down for it—stone by stone!" roared the fellow.
"And it's your kind that always blows before they breeches," declared Mother Purling, referring to the habit of the whale, which spouts before it upends and dives out of sight. "Go away!"
"I won't go away!"
"Yes, ye will, an' quick, too!"
"Old woman, ye don't know me!" stormed the unreasonable man. "I want that money, an' I'm bound to have it—one way or th' other!"
"You'll get nuthin', Jack Crab, but a broken head if ye keep on in this fashion," returned the woman of the lighthouse, her honest wrath growing greater every moment.
"We'll see about that!" howled the man. "Are ye goin' to let me in or not?"
"No, I tell ye! Go away!"
"Then I'll bust my way in, see ef I don't!"
At that the fellow threw himself against the door, and the screws of one hinge began to tear out of the woodwork. Mother Purling saw it, and motioned the frightened girls and Tom toward the stairway which led to the gallery around the lantern.
"Go up yon!" she commanded. "Shut and lock that door on ye. He'll not durst set foot on government property, and that's what the light is. Go up."
She shooed them all into the stairway and slammed the door. There she stood with her back against it, while, at the next blow, Jack Crab forced the outer door of her cottage inward and fell sprawling across its wreck into the room.