We got home with our fish just as Plunk and Binney were getting ready to eat. They had cooked dinner and waited for us until they couldn't stand it any longer. Mark and I were perfectly ready to begin, too.
After lunch we made a live-box to keep our fish in. It wasn't a first-class live-box, but it was enough to keep the fish from getting away. We made it by piling stones in the water close to the kitchen door, and when it was done we took our fish off the string and dumped them in. One was dead and one wasn't very lively, but the others seemed as good as new. We skinned the dead one and the poorly one and rubbed salt on them to have for supper. Binney and Plunk pretty nearly let their eyes pop out when they saw Mark's big bass.
"Guess that'll pay our rent for a week to Mr. Ames," says Plunk. "Hope he'll enjoy eatin' it as m-m-much as I did catchin' it," says Mark.
"What'll we do this afternoon?" Plunk wanted to know.
Mark wrinkled up his nose and squinted. "Seems to me," says he, "that we d-d-don't know as much about this hotel as we ought to. L-let's explore it from cellar to garret. If anybody's got a hidin'-place here we want to find out about it."
That did seem like common sense, so we all turned around and went into the office. From there we climbed the main stairs to the second floor and then to the third floor.
Well, sir, we went through every room on that floor, and every room on the second floor and every room on the first floor, and from one end to the other of the basement, and not a sign did we see of anybody. More than that, we didn't see anything to show that anybody had been there for half a dozen years. There was plenty of dirt and rubbish and cobwebs, but that was all. It made you feel sort of spooky, especially when you knew somebody had been there, and most likely had been living there some place for goodness knows how long. Mark Tidd looked pretty glum. Somehow, not finding anything seemed to upset him more than as if we had run on to something we didn't want to find. He didn't say a word, but just walked off to a corner of the porch and sat down. Pretty soon he began to whittle, and we knew that something would be happening shortly. Whittling is about the last resort for Mark Tidd. When everything else fails he sits down and whittles. Let him whittle for half an hour, and you can bet something will come of it.
While he was whittling I walked over to take a look at the big fish in the live-box. I could see the smaller ones, but the whopper wasn't in sight. At first I thought he was hiding in the shadow or had wedged in among the stones, but after I poked around with a stick and couldn't make him budge I began to get frightened. Frightened is the right word, and you would know it was if you had a five-pound small-mouthed black bass and it looked as if he had escaped.
I got down flat and looked as hard as I could, but Mr. Bass was gone. There wasn't a doubt of it.
"Fellows!" I yelled.
Something in my voice told them that everything wasn't going as it ought to, and they came running, even Mark Tidd.
"What's the m-m-matter?" he puffed.
"Big bass got away," says I.
Mark scowled and shook his head. "Couldn't get away," says he. "No f-f-fish could get out of that live-box."
"A fish did get out of it," says I, sort of provoked at him, "and if a fish did get out that proves a fish could get out, doesn't it?"
"Huh!" he grunted, and began looking careful all around the place. In a minute he stood up, and there was the funniest, most startled, hit-all-in-a-heap expression on his face that you ever saw. He held something up between his thumb and finger. It was a silver dollar.
"S-sure," says he in a minute, "the f-fish got out, Tallow. He got out and l-left this dollar to pay his board. Nice fish, wasn't he, eh? Because a f-fish did leave a dollar proves a fish can l-leave a dollar, eh? Good argument, Tallow."
"Some of us dropped it," says I.
"I didn't have a silver dollar," says Binney.
"Neither did I," says Plunk.
"Nor me," says Mark.
Well, that left it up to me. I did have a silver dollar-just one-and I felt in my pocket for it. It was there.
"I've heard of the goose that l-l-laid the golden egg, but I never heard tell of a bass that laid a s-silver dollar," says Mark.
"I don't b'lieve, and nobody's goin' to make me b'lieve, that fish left a dollar," says Plunk, who didn't always see a joke as quick as he ought to.
"But there's the dollar to prove it," says Mark, without a smile. "And he l-left it on purpose, 'cause it was wedged in and held there by a l-little stick. The bass must 'a' got out on land and f-f-fixed it up that way so we wouldn't miss findin' it."
"All I got to say," says Plunk, with a mighty solemn expression, "is that if fish in this lake can leave silver dollars behind 'em, I hain't goin' to do a thing but fish from now on."
"Good ides," says Mark, "but I calc'late nothin' but five-pound bass can do the trick. And five-pound bass hain't very thick. Might try it, though, Plunk."
"What do you make of it, Mark?" says I.
Mark was still peering around, examining the place as close as if he expected to find some more dollars. He got down on all- fours and looked at the ground, and then he sat back sort of contented-looking and self- satisfied.
"The b-bass was taken by somebody that wasn't very big-smaller than Binney, I should say, but heavier. He probably needed somethin' to eat. He was afraid of b- bein' seen, so he couldn't ask for it, so he took it, and, bein' honest, left what he thought the f-fish was worth to pay for it."
"Hum!" says I, sarcastic-like. "What color were his eyes?"
"Black," says Mark, as quick as a wink, "and he carried a club with a knob on the end of it."
"Yes," says I, sarcastic again, "and he had two arms and two legs and parted his hair on the left side."
"If you ever see him," says Mark, "you'll f- f-find out he doesn't part his hair at all."
"Rats!" says I.
Mark just grinned as provoking as could be. "If you'd use your eyes, Tallow, you wouldn't n-need to be told so much. L-look here."
He pointed to a footprint in the mud. "Little, hain't it? Smaller 'n Binney's. Here, Binney, step alongside."
Binney did and his foot was half an inch longer than the mark in the mud.
"And l-look here. Here's where he knelt down. Here's his toe and here's his knee. See how far apart they are. Whoever left the mark was some shorter 'n Binney. And the club. Right here you can see the mark of it with his hand gripped around its middle. Knob on one end, hain't there?"
Mark grinned at me malicious-like and I guess I looked sheepish. That was what I got for making fun of him. I might have known he wasn't guessing.
"How'd you know his eyes were black and that he didn't part his hair?" says Binney.
"I don't know that, but I'm willin' to b-bet a cookie I'm right."
"Well," says Plunk, "if he's smaller 'n Binney I dun'no's I'm so all-fired afraid as I was a spell back."
"Maybe," says Mark, "he's one of those savage African dwarfs and he's got his war- club. How about that, eh? Like to meet one of those dwarfs, Plunk?"
Plunk looked blank for a minute, but this time he got it through his head that Mark was joking, and said ha-ha sort of weak and doubtful-like.
"Tallow," says Mark, "the f-fact that a fish is gone don't prove anything but that a fish is gone. Remember that. It may come in handy."
"And you remember," says I, "that every time you see a summer hotel advertised it doesn't mean that the hotel is still running." It was the best I could think of just then, and if I do say it I think it was pretty fair. Mark thought so too, I guess, for he says:
"You've got me there, Tallow, so we'll call it quits."
We walked around to the front of the hotel and sat down on the porch. Mark was tossing the dollar up and catching it, and all of us were thinking about it, I expect.
"I guess we'll have to lock everything up if we want to keep it," says Plunk.
"It'll be better to l-l-lock up the fellow that's doing the sneakin'," says Mark.
"'Tain't so easy," says I. "If he ain't easy to see I don't guess he'll be easy to catch."
"And," says Binney, "it might not be so much fun catchin' him-with his club and that big dagger."
"That sounds sensible," says I. "Let's try to get a look at him before we do anything else. Then-maybe we'll want to move."
"Move!" says Mark Tidd, his forehead getting wrinkled and his jaw shoving out. "You can d-do as you want to about that, but I stay. We've a right to be here. The other fellow hasn't any right. I d-don't care if he's b-b-big as a house and savage as a Hot-Hot-Hot-" He stuttered over that word and just couldn't get it out.
"Hot cross bun," says I.
Mark paid no attention, but went on stuttering, "Hot-Hot-Hotten-tut-tut-tot."
"And that's the way we spell Hottentot," says I.
"I'm here," Mark says, "and I'm goin' to stay. We've a right to be here."
When it came to standing up for his rights Mark Tidd was the stubbornest boy that ever was. He just set like concrete, and the only way to move him was to blast him away. I suppose that's the way to be. The Revolution was fought by men who were stubborn about standing up for their rights, but I've noticed that's the kind of fellow who wears a black eye oftenest and has most lawsuits. Personally I'm for conceding a little before I get into a rumpus.
"But," says Mark, "I'm as anxious to get a peek at our visitor as you are."
"Only fair," says I. "Trade him peek for peek. He's peeked at us often enough."
"Probably he's peekin' at us now," says Binney. But as it turned out, he wasn't-not just then.