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CHAPTER XVI A DISCOURAGED TORCH BEARER
The first week at Wohelo Wigwam, as the girls had named their camp, slipped by with incredible rapidity. Up with the dawn, they found the long sunny days entirely too short for the countless pleasures to be enjoyed in their woodland home. Vermilion Lake was a never-ending source of joy to them. Every morning found them out in the canoes and paddling up and down the portion of the lake nearest their camp. Under Blue Wolf’s efficient instruction, they were becoming fairly skillful canoeists.

With the second day in camp, Miss Drexal had wisely allotted to each girl a certain amount of camp work to be performed. Six o’clock had been the hour set for rising, and, promptly at six, the Guardian sounded the reveille call on a bugle which she had brought along for that very purpose. As she had been a bugler in one of the first Camp Fire groups to spend a summer in the open, she was familiar with the various calls used by the Army. Her flock hailed this bit of military procedure with acclamation. According to Sarah, it was “positively thrilling” to hear “Taps” fall sweetly on the summer air at ten o’clock each evening. She agreed with Jane, however, that “reveille” was not half so inspiring.

Thus far, they had made only short jaunts through the adjoining woods, content to keep fairly near to camp at first in order to explore their immediate surroundings. On these occasions Wohelo Wigwam was left to take care of itself. Owing to the fact that the canoes held comfortably only three persons, the party took turns in making voyages to the various nearby islands in the lake. With Blue Wolf as chief navigator, from three to five girls usually accompanied him, leaving the rest in camp. Ruth proving herself more adept at the paddle than her friends, she was constantly in demand, although Marian was rapidly becoming a close second.

True to his word, the Indian had ranged the woods for a suitable tree from which to fashion a canoe. It had required considerable searching to find one of sufficient size and straightness. His object was to secure, if possible, a single strip of bark that would extend the entire length of the canoe he purposed to make. The tree which he finally found was admirably suited to his project. Whenever not required by Miss Drexal, he was invariably to be seen squatted in front of his shack, his wiry fingers engaged in skillfully stripping the bark from his prize. Eager to do their part, Ruth and Frances also tried their hand at bark stripping. Blue Wolf firmly declined, however, to allow them to experiment on the tree he had chosen. Instead, he put them to work on a smaller tree, bluntly informing them, “You try cut him little tree! You spoil him, no matter. Heap more me get. Big tree you spoil, never I find again ’nother mebbe.”

Determined to do credit to their teacher, the two girls devoted themselves so industriously to their trial tree as to have the proud pleasure of at least furnishing the extra strips of bark which had to be added on each side to make the canoe sufficiently broad. Under his eagle eye they also helped to sew the seams with balsam roots, and assisted in daubing them with a black mixture of spruce gum and cedar ashes to render them water tight.

Had the Indian devoted himself solely to the work of fashioning the canoe, he could have finished it in five days. As it was, the end of their second week in the woods was upon them before he pronounced it ready for its first voyage. It was late on Friday afternoon, when a jubilant group collected at the edge of the lake to watch its trial trip. When the shapely canoe finally shot out on the placid water, under the guide’s practical hands, he received the ovation of his life. After thoroughly testing it, he brought it ashore and gravely invited Miss Drexal to become his first passenger. When she returned, Ruth and Frances were accorded the honor of the next trip and so on, until every girl, even to Blanche, had tested its merits. Considering her recent scathing denunciation of canoes in general, her companions were secretly amused at her apparent willingness to trust herself in one of them.

Blanche had her own reasons, however, for her change of mind. She was well aware that Blue Wolf took particular pains to keep out of her way. If she addressed him, he answered briefly and with no show of interest. With the others, he had grown quite friendly in his reserved, stately fashion. The canoe having been the chief center of importance since he had commenced its making, Blanche was not anxious to incur his fresh disapproval by refusing to try it. She therefore told herself scornfully she would at least show this “stupid Indian” that she was no coward. Back of this was also a slowly growing desire to “be in things.” Far removed from the artificial mode of living which she had ever held as all-important, the magic spell of the great outdoors was beginning to make itself felt.

She was no longer so entirely satisfied with herself as when she had first come to the Heights. Her ignorance of wood lore placed her at a decided disadvantage. Long accustomed to having her own way, it piqued her not a little to be a mere follower rather than a leader. Dislike for Ruth made her particularly envious of the former’s woodsman-like qualities. Miss Drexal herself frequently consulted Ruth regarding their various expeditions. This was as a thorn to Blanche’s flesh. It aroused in her a desire to do something remarkable that would redound to her own credit. To plod patiently along and win her honors for Wood Gatherer did not appeal to her. That would merely please Ruth, whom she wished to thwart whenever possible. She longed to do something especially clever that would place her in the front rank of popularity at a single bound.

Though her motive was ignoble, it was at least ambitious. Under her still languid pose, she began to keep an alert watch for the coveted opportunity. Should a sudden emergency arise which called for quick action or high courage, Blanche resolved that she would be first to grasp it, if only to show her superiority over Ruth.

With the completion of the canoe, the campers immediately made plans to explore in a body one of the larger islands of the lake, several miles distant. Blue Wolf had spoken of it to Ruth, who, impressed by his terse description of its beauty, had at once begged Miss Drexal that a canoeing party be gotten up with it as an objective.

Half past seven o’clock, on a cloudless Saturday morning, saw the dwellers of Wohelo Wig-wam setting jauntily off toward the lake, their packs slung over their shoulders. They were in high spirits as they tramped through the bit of woods to the lake shore, for the thought of invading fresh territory had fired their enthusiasm. Miss Drexal had demurred a little at leaving their camp with no one at home, but Blue Wolf had phlegmatically assured her: “When come back, camp him here, just same. No one see. No one steal. No one do nothing.”

In charge of the expedition, he was to pilot his crew to the island, land and leave them there for the day, while he turned about and paddled to Tower on his semi-weekly trip for supplies. In the late afternoon, a little before sunset, he was to return for them and see them safely back to camp. The problem of seating eleven persons in three canoes having been thoroughly discussed on the previous evening, it had been decided that for once a little crowding would be necessary. The canoe which the Indian had made was large enough to hold four persons. Four squeezed into one of the other two, and three in its mate, made a satisfactory division.

“You had best place us as you think wise, Blue Wolf,” directed Miss Drexal. “I would rather trust to your judgment. Girls, you must sit very still. Crowded as we shall be, the least touch is likely to capsize the canoes. Is the water very deep?” she asked, again addressing the Indian.

“Ugh! Heap deep, most way,” grunted the guide. His eyes roving reflectively over the group on the shore, he pointed to Ruth. “You smart girl. You paddle heap good. You take she an’ she an’ she.” He rapidly designated Blanche, Frances and Jane. “I take she an’ she an’ she.” He selected Emmy, Anne and Betty as his cargo. Marian was his choice of commandant for the third canoe, which left Sarah and Miss Drexal to go with her. He further selected Frances to help Ruth paddle, and accorded Betty the proud honor of assisting himself. Miss Drexal was to be Marian’s helper.

Reserving the launching of his own canoe until the last, he busied himself with starting off first Marian’s and then Ruth’s. The first principle of canoeing consists in knowing how to board one of the too-easily swamped little boats. By light and careful stepping, the girls managed to stow themselves into their limited quarters without mishap. The last to shove off from shore, Blue Wolf sent his canoe ahead of the others with a few practiced strokes of the paddle. Marian swung in close behind him. Ruth brought up the rear, and the little procession was soon well out of sight of the deserted camp and merrily following their leader along the tortuous course which gives Vermilion Lake so many miles of shore line.

So far as the old guide was concerned, he could not have selected a more amiable trio of passengers. It was quite possible that he knew it. Urged by Anne and Betty, it was not long before Emmy’s lovely voice was sending its exquisite sweetness over the sunlit water.

“How beautiful Emmy’s singing sounds,” remarked Ruth, resting her paddle for an instant to listen. Her glance falling on Blanche, who sat facing her in the bottom of the canoe, she smiled brightly, hoping to dispel the deep frown that had been in evidence on the other girl’s face since they had started. Blanche merely stared at her. An involuntary word of caution from Ruth as she had stepped into the canoe had added to her resentment at being placed temporarily under Ruth’s charge. Refusing to answer, she sulkily turned her head and began trailing one hand in the water. Slight though the movement was it set the frail shell rocking a trifle.

The smile faded from Ruth’s face as she resumed paddling. It was always the same. No matter how pleasantly she tried to treat Blanche, she was invariably rebuffed by cool or sullen glances. It was quite evident that Blanche had not forgotten, nor would she ever forgive her.

“You’d better not do that, Blanche.” Jane’s crisp tones broke up Ruth’s gloomy reverie.

“Do what?” Blanche made no effort to desist from her perilous pastime. Instead she leaned toward the hand she was trailing with an angry little jerk.

“Look out! You’ll have us all overboard!” Frances expostulated, raising her paddle, in quick alarm. Seated in the end of the canoe that faced Ruth, she cast the latter an appealing glance.

Ruth caught her breath sharply, then reluctantly added her plea of, “I’m afraid it isn’t quite safe, Blanche. You see—”

“I see that you girls are simply trying to be horrid to me!” interrupted Blanche furiously. Bringing up her hand from the lake with wrathful force, she overbalanced herself and swung heavily to the opposite side. Ruth’s sharp call, “Lean the other way!” alone saved them from disaster. With a sudden lurch, the canoe righted itself.

“I told you so,” snapped Jane, thoroughly incensed. “Only for Ruth we’d have gone straight into the lake. For goodness sake, sit still, Blanche, the rest of the way. I’m not anxious for a ducking even if you are.”

“Don’t think for a minute you can order me about, Jane Pellew!” stormed Blanche. “I won’t stay here and be treated like a child. Put me ashore,” she haughtily commanded Ruth. “I’ll find my way back to camp.”

“I can’t do that,” refused Ruth quietly. “Miss Drexal wouldn’t allow it. Don’t be cross, Blanche,” she made impetuous appeal. “We mustn’t quarrel this beautiful morning. As long as we weren’t upset—”

“I said ‘put me ashore,’” reiterated Blanche icily. “Are you going to do it?”

“No.” Ruth measured her angry vis-a-vis with a cool, level glance, then sent the canoe forward with a will. Their near-accident had left them some distance behind the others. Though she had kept her temper, Ruth’s paddle dipped and rose with an almost fierce energy. Never, since Blanche had joined them, had Ruth felt such exasperation against the ill-natured guest. She was quite ready to wash her hands of the whole reform movement.

Naturally, the disagreement put a damper on the quartette, as is always the case when one of a number is bent on being unamiable. Following Ruth’s “No!” Blanche had relapsed into formidable silence. Jane and Frances still continued to chatter to each other and to Ruth, yet all three were nettled over the fact that discord had arisen at the very outset of their voyage.

The sun was high in the heavens when the flotilla made harbor on a heavily-wooded shore of the island of their choice. Dark masses of tamarack, pine and spruce trees rose, grim and majestic, almost to the lake’s edge. This time they had truly reached the forest primeval. A hush pervaded the island, that suddenly stilled the voices of the landing party.

“It’s like an enchanted forest, isn’t it?” murmured Anne as, helped ashore by the Indian, she breathed deeply of the spicy air.

“We’ll have to blaze our own trails, I guess,” declared Betty, peering speculatively toward the unbroken ranks of forest kings, reigning long undisturbed in their towering might.

“We won’t dare go very far inland without Blue Wolf,” demurred Emmy. “We’d be likely to get lost. It’s too bad he can’t stay here to-day, instead of having to leave us to the mercy of the wilds.”

“Here’s our chance to be good woodsmen,” laughed Anne. “This time we’ve a real forest to practice in.”

“All safe ashore!” broke in Ruth’s cheery tones. Disdaining the Indian’s hand, she had made a nimble spring to terra-firma, calling out just as the guide landed Frances, the last to leave her canoe.

“It’s a wonder we are,” muttered Jane, who stood at her elbow.

“Don’t say anything about what happened to us,” warned Ruth in an undertone.

“I won’t go back in the same canoe with her,” protested Jane in low, vehement tones. “She spoiled our whole trip. We all made a big mistake in not saying ‘No’ when she first wanted to come to our reunion.”

For once Ruth was tempted to concur with Jane. She was beginning to believe that their kindly effort toward Blanche had been ill-advised. They had not succeeded in helping her, and there seemed small prospect that they ever would. The light that she had hoped to pass on undimmed to Blanche seemed in a fair way to flicker out.



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