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CHAPTER XIV THE START
The visit of Blue Wolf marked the beginning of pleasantly exciting days at the Heights. As a caller, he could hardly be classed a social success. The very sight of the bevy of bright-faced girls with their merry ways and eager questions filled him with intense embarrassment. No one but himself was aware of this, however. Outwardly, he preserved a wooden dignity that was admirable to behold. True to Miss Drexal’s prediction, he soon shook the dust of the living room from his restless feet, and strode majestically out of the Heights to be swallowed up in the soft summer darkness.

He appeared again the next morning for breakfast. Afterward, he and Miss Drexal entered into solemn conclave in the living room regarding the details of the proposed trip. It was well toward noon when he took leave of her, entrusted with the funds necessary to secure camping equipment, and to hire horses and a vehicle sufficiently large to accommodate the party on their journey from the town of Tower to the borders of Vermilion Lake, where they were to make camp.

At luncheon that day little else was talked of save the coming excursion into the wilderness. Even Blanche Shirly exerted herself to ask a question or two regarding it.

“Do tell us all about Vermilion Lake, Miss Drexal,” begged Sarah. “I never heard of such a lake until I came up here.”

“I’m afraid the noble study of geography has been wasted on Sarah,” put in Frances slyly.

“Do you know where it is?” challenged Sarah.

“Somewhere around here,” fenced Frances airily.

“That answer shows just how much you know about it, which isn’t any more than I do,” retorted Sarah with a derisive chuckle.

Miss Drexal met this spirited exchange of comments with an indulgent smile. “There is a great deal to be told of Vermilion Lake,” she began. “It lies about a hundred miles north of Duluth in the very center of the iron district. In fact, iron was first found in Minnesota in the town of Tower, which is situated on the lake itself. That happened in 1880, and Tower was nothing then but a straggling settlement. Long before that time, it was a trading post of the famous Hudson Bay Company. The Indians used to come there from the north by a series of small waterways, in canoes, which were usually loaded with furs. From there they would pack their loads on sleds drawn by dogs, and go south by the Old Vermilion Trail to Fond du Lac, at the head of Lake Superior. At the time when iron was discovered, the few inhabitants of Tower used to walk to Duluth. It took them four days to make the trip, and they went by way of what they called a ‘tote’ road, cut through the woods.”

“Glad I wasn’t living in Tower in those days,” put in the irrepressible Frances. “It was a long way to Duluth, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” agreed Jane. “Don’t interrupt Miss Drexal,” she added severely.

“After iron was found, mining was started at Tower and the village grew,” resumed the registrar. “Later, mining operations were transferred to Jasper Rock, about two miles from Tower. By the way, Jasper Peak is the highest elevation in Minnesota. At that, it is nothing but a ragged, round hill. With the taking away of the mining interest, Tower stood still. It is only within the last few years that it has begun to prosper again on account of the building of two very large saw mills on the shores of Vermilion Lake. That is about all I can say of Tower.

“Vermilion Lake is much more interesting. It is only about thirty-five miles long as the bird flies, but it has so many unexpected twists and turns that it is said to have almost eight hundred miles of shore line. Then, too, it is thickly dotted with islands. I have been told that altogether there are three hundred and fifty-five of them. Some, of course, are so small as to measure only a few square yards. Others comprise several thousand acres of woodland. Along the shores, the woods are not so thick, due to lumbering and also forest fires. Blue Wolf tells me that the place he has selected for our camp is quite heavily wooded, however. It is about ten miles from Tower and we shall go there by wagon. He is going to arrange for us to have two canoes, too, so we can paddle about among the nearby islands as much as we please.”

An ecstatic sigh swept the listeners at this last information.

“Won’t it be glorious?” breathed Ruth. “I do hope Blue Wolf will teach us canoeing. I’ve always been crazy to learn it.”

“So have I,” declared Betty and Marian in concert.

“I can manage a canoe,” proudly asserted Jane. “It’s as easy as falling off a log.”

“I think I could manage to upset one,” grinned Frances. “When we get to Vermilion Lake, Plain Jane, you and I will go canoeing and see what happens.”

“I wouldn’t risk my precious self in a canoe with you, Frances Bliss, for anything in the world!” declined Jane loftily.

“I wouldn’t set foot in a canoe.” It was Blanche who made this emphatic assertion. “They are never safe. It takes only a touch to upset one.”

“They’re safe enough if you don’t try to stand up in one, and know how to step into it in the first place,” stoutly contested Jane.

“You may think so, but I don’t,” persisted Blanche tartly.

“I don’t think so, I know it.” Jane could never resist an opportunity to oppose Blanche.

“I shall expect all of you to be very careful when on the water,” cautioned Miss Drexal. “You must promise not to take the canoes out, unless Blue Wolf is on hand to look after you. The passages between the islands are very narrow and confusing. You are likely to get lost if you try to go far alone. Now we had best decide about our luggage. We shall wear our Camp Fire suits, and each carry a pack, containing only strictly necessary articles. We will put all our extra clothing into a large trunk of mine, and send it on to be put with our other equipment. I would advise you to carry your sweaters along with your packs. We will pack our ceremonial dresses in the trunk, in case we wish to hold a Council Fire. We shall make our own bough-beds and cover them with blankets.

“As this is Sunday, we will not do any packing. To-morrow morning we will pack the trunk and also a box of cooking utensils. The blankets can go in on top of them. I will ’phone to Lakeview for an expressman, and have them shipped to Tower. Blue Wolf will be there when they arrive to look after them, and see that they are put with the other equipment. Everything will go ahead on a separate wagon to our camping site, and be there before we arrive.

“My plan is to start at sunrise Wednesday morning and walk to Lakeview. We will take our time, and eat an early luncheon on the way. From there we can take the train to Duluth, spend the night there and go by railway to Tower on Thursday morning. By that time, Blue Wolf will be ready for us. We can lunch at a hotel and start by one o’clock for our camp, reaching it before supper time.”

Miss Drexal’s outline of their journey met with noisy approval. Sunday seemed a long day to the impatient girls. They were not sorry when nine o’clock in the evening came round, and unanimously voted for an early bed-time. Eager as they were to be off to pastures new, the next three days were filled with a delightful stir of preparation that sent them slipping by with incredible swiftness. Under Miss Drexal’s competent direction, they made up the light packs each was to carry. Ruth, Marian and Emmy proved themselves particularly adept at this. Jane, however, packed and unpacked and repacked with much sputtering, while Sarah and Frances looked on with derisive enjoyment.

Wednesday’s sun rose bright and hot on a sturdy little procession that started jauntily down the road to Lakeview, waving frantic farewells to Martha. She had stolidly refused to accompany them, declaring that nothing could hire her to go tramping about through woods and swamps, let alone sleeping on the damp ground. During their absence, she had elected to visit a sister living in Lakeview, who was to come for her with a horse and buggy at noon that day.

Yet, in that merry company, there was one face that did not reflect the radiant happiness that shone from the eyes of her companions. Blanche Shirly took the road to Lakeview, a most unsmiling hiker. Ever since Ruth had so plainly outlined to her her position, she had been racking her brain for some excuse to leave the Heights. After long and gloomy consideration, she had been obliged to give up in despair. She was fairly caught in a trap of her own making. Nor was she resourceful enough to devise a way of release. Then, too, her conscience had begun to trouble her a little. Something in Ruth’s ringing tones had lingered in her ears, and given her a vague sense of her own failings, which was entirely new to her and very disquieting. She had vowed to herself that she would do nothing that might please Ruth, no matter what happened. Ruth would have to learn that there was one person at least whom she could not wind around her finger. Back of her resentment, however, lurked a faint interest in the camping expedition which she could not quite root out. Though she did not know it, she had a girl’s capacity for enjoying the new and the unusual. After years of constant artificiality, she was beginning to wonder dimly if, after all, these girls, whom she scorned as babies, were not really getting more out of life than she.


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