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Astonishment, surprise and disappointment were so great for a few seconds after the discovery that the best part of the party - the ice cream - was gone, that no one knew, what to say. Then Flossie burst out with:
"Are you sure, Dinah? Maybe it fell off the porch."
"Deed an' it didn't, honey gal. I done looked eberywhar fo' dat freezer, an' it's jest gone complete."
"Maybe Snap took it," suggested Freddie, as a last hope. "Once he took my book and hid it. Snap, did you take the ice cream?"
Snap barked and wagged his tail, looking rather pained at being asked such a question.
"No, indeedy, Snap couldn't take off a big freezer like dat," declared Dinah. "It wasn't Snap."
"Then who could it have been?" asked Nan. Everyone had stopped eating while this talk went on. "Who could have taken our ice cream?"
"Dat's what I don't know, honey," answered the colored cook. "Dat's why I comed in heah to tell yo' mamma. I 'spects, Mrs. Bobbsey, dat we'd better phonograph fo' de police."
"Phonograph - I guess you mean telephone; don't you, Dinah?" asked Mrs. Bobbsey, with a smile.
"Yes'm, dat's what I done mean. Or else maybe we kin send mah man Sam down to de station house fo' 'em."
"No, I had better telephone, in case it is necessary. But perhaps I had better take a look out there. Perhaps the man from the store may have set the cream off to one side."
"No'm, he didn't do dat. I took p'ticlar notice where he set it. Dere's a wet ringmark on de porch where de freezer was, 'count of de salty water leakin' out. An' dat wet ringmark am all dat's left ob de cream, dar now!" and Dinah, standing with her hands on her hips, looked at the startled children, whose mouths were just ready for the ice cream.
"Well, I'm going to have a look, anyhow," said Bert. "Come on, Charley. Maybe, after all, that Danny Rugg is up to some of his tricks."
"I'm with you, Bert!" cried Charley. "But we ought to have some sort of a light. It's dark out."
"I'll get my little pocket electric light," said Bert. He had one, and it gave a good light. He went to his room for it.
Flossie and Freddie did not know what to do. That their lovely party should be spoiled by the missing ice cream seemed too bad to be true.
"Mamma, if we can't find this ice cream, can't we buy more?" Flossie wanted to know. "The girls just want some - so bad!"
"And the boys, too," added Freddie.
"Oh, I guess we'll manage to get some fo you, if we can't find this," answered Mrs. Bobbsey. "We may have to wait a little while for it, though."
"Well, we'll have a look," said Bert, as he came down with his little electric lamp. Some of his own particular chums, including Charley Mason, followed him out to the back porch, Dinah was in her kitchen, looking behind tables, under the sink, in the pantry and all about, hoping that, somehow or other, the freezer might have gotten in there. But it was not to be found.
"Well, here's where it stood," said Bert, as he looked at the round, wet mark on the porch where the freezer had set. He flashed his torch on it, and then cried out:
"And look, boys, here are some spots of water that must have leaked from the wooden tub that holds the tin freezer. See, the water has dripped down on each step! This is the way they carried off our ice cream."
The others could see a trail of water drops leading from the stoop down the steps and along the stone walk at the side of the Bobbsey house.
"Now we can follow and see just where they took our cream!" cried Bert. "This is the way Indians used to trail the white settlers."
"Let me come!" cried Freddie, hearing this. "I want to help hunt whoever took our ice cream."
"No, you'd better stay back there," said Bert.
"Why?" his little brother wanted to know.
"Because it might be - tramps - who have it, and there'd be trouble," said Bert.
"Wait until I get my cap pistol!" cried Freddie. "I can scare a tramp with that."
"No, you go back there, and stay in the house," went on Bert. "If we find tramps have it, we'll get a policeman."
"It might be that a tramp did steal up on the steps, and lift off the freezer," said Mrs. Bobbsey. "Bert, be careful," she called to her son, who set off in the darkness with his chums, flashing his electric light from time to time.
"I'll look out!" he called back.
For some distance it was easy to see which way the ice cream freezer had been carried, for there were the marks of the dripping water. Then these stopped about the middle of the sidewalk, and seemed to go over in the grass.
"We can't see 'em now," spoke Charley. "That's too bad."
"Well, we'll keep on this way in a straight line," suggested Bert. "Maybe they took the freezer down back of our berry bushes to eat the cream."
"I hope they left some," said John Anderson, in a mournful sort of voice.
Hurrying on after Bert, the boys looked eagerly about in the darkness for a sign of the missing ice cream. There were not many chances of them finding it, for though Bert's electric torch gave a brilliant light for a short distance, it was not very large.
"What's over there?" asked Charley, pausing and pointing to a patch of blackness.
"An old barn, that we used to use before we had our new one built," answered Bert. "Why?"
"Well, maybe they took the ice cream in there to eat it," went on Charley. "Is it open?"
"Yes, it's never locked. Say, we'll take a look in there, anyhow!" exclaimed Bert. "Come on, fellows!"
He led the way, the others following. As they approached the big, deserted barn Frank Black exclaimed in a whisper:
"I see a light!"
"So do I!" added Will Evans.
"And it's moving around," spoke Charley Mason.
"It's them, all right," decided Bert. "The tramps who took our ice cream are in there, all right!"
"What makes you think they are tramps?" asked Will.
"Well, I'm not sure, of course," admitted Bert. "But we can soon tell. Come on!"
"Are you - are you going up there?" sked Charley.
"Sure! Why not? I think we can scare em away."
The other boys hesitated. Some of them were older than Bert, and when they saw that he was determined to go on, they made up their minds that they would not let him go alone.
"All right - go ahead - we're with you," said Charley.
Bert and the others advanced. As they walked on they could see the light in the barn more plainly. And, as they stopped for a moment they could hear voices talking in low tones.
"More than one," whispered Charley.
"Yes, three or four," said Bert.
They walked ahead again, when suddenly Charley stepped on a stick that broke with a loud snap. In an instant the light in the barn went out, and then could be heard the footsteps of several persons running away.
"There they are!" shouted Bert, dashing forward. "Come on, fellows! We'll get 'em now!"
"That's right!" cried Charley. "Come on, surround 'em!"
Of course this was all said for effect, as the boys had no idea of trying to capture the tramps, or whoever it was that had taken the ice cream. But Bert thought that they could scare the thieves away, for the latter could not tell, in the darkness, how many, nor who were after them.
Flashing his light, Bert dashed ahead, followed by the others. Into the big barn they went, and, just as they entered the main part, they had a glimpse of someone running out of a side door.
"There they go!" cried Charley. "We can catch 'em!"
"No, let 'em go," advised Bert. "Here's our ice cream. Let's see if there's any left. If there is we'll take it back to the party. We might get into trouble if we went after those fellows."
By the gleam of the electric light they could all see the freezer of cream in the middle of the barn floor, near some upturned boxes. A hasty look showed that only a little had been taken out.
"There's plenty left!" said Bert. "We surprised 'em just in time. Now let's get beck to the house."
It was rather a triumphant procession that went back to the home of the Bobbsey twins, carrying the recovered ice cream freezer. And such a shout of delight from Flossie, Freddie and the others as greeted the boys!
"Is there any left?" asked Freddie.
"Plenty," said Bert.
"And did you catch the bad tramps?" Flossie wanted to know.
"They got away," her brother said. "But never mind, we scared them before they had a chance to eat much."
"I 'clar t' goodness sakes alive!" gasped Dinah, when she saw the ice cream freezer carried into her kitchen, "yo' am suttinly a smart boy, Massa Bert - dat's what yo' suah am!"
"Oh, well, the others helped me find it," said Bert, modestly.
As Dinah and Mrs. Bobbsey were dishing out the cream, the colored cook uttered a cry.
"Look out!" she exclaimed. "Dere's suffin black in dere, Mrs. Bobbsey. Maybe it's a stone dem careless tramps put in. Wait 'till I gits it out."
With a longhandled spoon Dinah fished for the black thing, and got it. She put it in a dish, with a small portion of the ice cream, and when the latter had melted, Bert, who was inspecting the object, gave a cry of surprise.
"Why, it's a button - a coat button!" he exclaimed.
"A button? How in the world could that get in there?" asked his mother. "Unless you boys dropped it in when you were carrying the cream."
Bert and the other boys quickly looked at their coats. There were no buttons missing.
"An' it suah wasn't in when de cream come heah," said Dinah. "I knows, fo I took off de kiver an' looked in t' see how hard it were froze. Dat button got in since!"
"Yes, and I think I know how, too!" exclaimed Bert.
"How?" asked Freddie.
"It was dropped in by whoever took the freezer. They must have been eating the cream right out of the can, and maybe they dropped the button in. I'll save it."
"What for?" asked Nan, wonderingly.
"I may be able to find out by it, who took the freezer," went on Bert. "I'm going to look at the coats of all the fellows in school next week, and if I find one with the button like this missing, I'll know what to think."
"Be careful not to accuse anyone wrongly," cautioned his mother.
Bert put the button carefully away, and the party guests were soon eating their ice cream, and discussing the disappearance of the freezer and the finding of it by the boys. Then with the playing of more games, and the singing of songs, the affair came to a close, and goodnights were said.
"We've had a lovely time!" said the boys and girls to Flossie and Freddie, as they left. "Glad you did - come again," invited the small Bobbsey twins.
Even Snap seemed to have enjoyed himself.
And when the house was settling down to quietness for the night, and when Dinah and Mrs. Bobbsey were picking up the dishes, the circus dog marched around like a soldier, with a stick for a gun, and one of the fancy caps, that came in the "surprise" packets, on his head.
When Bert went to bed that night he laid the button found in the ice cream where he would be sure to see it in the morning.
"I'm going to find out whose coat that came off of," he said to himself.
The little Bobbsey twins slept late the next morning, and so did Nan, but Bert was up early.
"I'm going over to the barn, and see if I can tell by looking around it, how many were at our freezer," he said.
But there was nothing there to help him in his search. Some old boxes, placed in a sort of circle, showed where the ones who had taken the ice cream, had rested to eat it.
"They must have had spoons with them," said Bert to himself, as he looked about, "That shows they came all prepared to take our ice cream. So they must have known it was going to be here. Well, I'll see whose coat has a button missing."
It took Bert some days to look carefully at the coats of the various boys in school, who might have been guilty of taking the cream. For a time he had no luck, and then, one afternoon, as he noticed Danny Rugg wearing a coat he seldom had on, Bert walked slowly up to him, clasping the button, with his hand, in his pocket.
His heart beat fast as he noticed that from the middle of Danny's coat a button was gone.
And a glance at the others showed Bert that they were just like the one found in the ice cream freezer.
"I see you've lost a button, Danny," said Bert, slowly.
"Hey?" exclaimed the bully, with a start.
"I see you've lost a button," repeated Bert.
"Yes, I guess it dropped off. Maybe it's home somewhere," said Danny.
"No, it isn't - it's here!" exclaimed Bert, suddenly holding the button out to him.
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