RUTH FIELDING AND THE GYPSIES
Or The Missing Pearl Necklace
By ALICE B. EMERSON
Author of "Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill," "Ruth Fielding at Silver Ranch," etc.
New York CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY Publishers
Books for Girls
By ALICE B. EMERSON
RUTH FIELDING SERIES
12mo. Cloth. Illustrated. Price per volume, 40 cents, postpaid.
RUTH FIELDING OF THE RED MILL Or, Jasper Parloe's Secret.
RUTH FIELDING AT BRIARWOOD HALL Or, Solving the Campus Mystery.
RUTH FIELDING AT SNOW CAMP Or, Lost in the Backwoods.
RUTH FIELDING AT LIGHTHOUSE POINT Or, Nita, the Girl Castaway.
RUTH FIELDING AT SILVER RANCH Or, Schoolgirls Among the Cowboys.
RUTH FIELDING ON CLIFF ISLAND Or, The Old Hunter's Treasure Box.
RUTH FIELDING AT SUNRISE FARM Or, What Became of the Raby Orphans.
RUTH FIELDING AND THE GYPSIES Or, The Missing Pearl Necklace.
Cupples & Leon Co., Publishers, New York.
Copyright, 1915, by Cupples & Leon Company
Ruth Fielding and the Gypsies.
I. On the Lumano River 1 II. Roberto, the Gypsy 10 III. Evening at the Red Mill 19 IV. The Auto Tour 27 V. A Prophecy Fulfilled 37 VI. A Transaction in Mutton 43 VII. Fellow Travelers 53 VIII. What Was It All About? 61 IX. Queen Zelaya 69 X. In the Gypsy Camp 80 XI. Tom on the Trail 91 XII. A Break for Liberty 104 XIII. Ruth in the Toils 111 XIV. Roberto Again 116 XV. Helen's Escape 124 XVI. Through the Night and the Storm 133 XVII. Off for School Again 140 XVIII. Getting Into Harness 149 XIX. Can It Be Possible? 156 XX. He Cannot Talk 164 XXI. Ruth Intercedes 169 XXII. A Great Temptation 175 XXIII. Nettie Parsons' Feast 182 XXIV. Roberto Finds His Voice 190 XXV. Five Thousand Dollars 198
RUTH FIELDING AND THE GYPSIES
ON THE LUMANO RIVER
The steady turning of the grinding-stones set the old Red Mill a-quiver in every board and beam. The air within was full of dust—dust of the grain, and fine, fine dust from the stones themselves.
Uncle Jabez Potter, the miller, came to the door and looked across the grassy yard that separated the mill and the farmhouse attached from the highroad. Under a broad-spreading tree sat two girls, busy with their needles.
One, a sharp-faced, light-haired girl, who somehow carried a look of endured pain in her eyes in spite of the smile she flung at the old man, cried:
"Hello, Dusty Miller! come out and fly about a little. It will do you good."
The grim face of the miller lightened perceptibly. "How do you reckon a man like me kin fly, Mercy child?" he croaked.
"I'll lend you my aeroplanes, if you like," she returned, gaily, and held up the two ebony canes which had been hidden by the tall grass. They told the story of Mercy Curtis' look of pain, but once she had had to hobble on crutches and, as she pluckily declared, canes were "miles better than crutches."
"I ain't got no time, gals, an' that's a fac'," said the miller, his face clouding suddenly. "Ain't ye seen hide nor hair of Ben an' them mules?"
"Why, Uncle," said the second girl, quietly, "you know how many errands Ben had to do in town. He couldn't do them all and get back in so short a time."
"I dunno about that, Niece Ruth—I dunno about that," said the old man, sharply. "Seems ter me I could ha' gone an' been back by now. An' hi guy! there's four sacks o' flour to take acrost the river to Tim Lakeby—an' I kyan't do it by meself—Ben knows that. Takes two' on us ter handle thet punt 'ith the river runnin' like she is right now."
The girl who had last spoken folded the work in her lap and got up agilely. Her movements were followed—perhaps a little enviously—by the gaze of the lame girl.
"How quick you are, Ruthie," she said. When Ruth Fielding looked down upon Mercy Curtis, her smile started an answering one upon the lame girl's thin face.
"Quick on my feet, dearie," said Ruth. "But you have so much quicker a mind."
"Flatterer!" returned the other, yet the smile lingered upon the thin face and made it the sweeter.
The miller was turning, grumblingly, back into the shadowy interior of the mill, when Ruth hailed him.
"Oh, Uncle!" she cried. "Let me help you."
"What's that?" he demanded, wheeling again to look at her from under his shaggy eyebrows.
Now, Ruth Fielding was worth looking at. She was plump, but not too plump; and she was quick in her movements, while her lithe and graceful figure showed that she possessed not only health, but great vitality. Her hair was of a beautiful bright brown color, was thick, and curled just a little.
In her tanned cheeks the blood flowed richly—the color came and went with every breath she drew, it seemed, at times. That was when she was excited. But ordinarily she was of a placid temperament, and her brown eyes were as deep as wells. She possessed the power of looking searchingly and calmly at one without making her glance either impertinent or bold.
In her dark skirt, middy blouse, and black stockings and low shoes, she made a pretty picture as she stood under the tree, although her features were none of them perfect. Her cheeks were perhaps a little too round; her nose—well, it was not a dignified nose at all! And her mouth was generously large, but the teeth gleaming behind her red lips were even and white, and her smile lit up her whole face in a most engaging manner.
"Do let me help you, Uncle. I know I can," she repeated, as the old miller scowled at her.
"What's that?" he said again. "Go with me in that punt to Tim Lakeby's?"
"'Tain't no job for a gal, Niece Ruth," grumbled the miller.
"Any job is all right for a girl—if she can do it," said Ruth, happily. "And I can row, Uncle—you know I can."
"Ha! rowing one o' them paper-shell skiffs of Cameron's one thing; the ash oars to my punt ain't for baby's han's," growled the miller.
"Do let me try, Uncle Jabez," said Ruth again, when the lame girl broke in with:
"You are an awfully obstinate old Dusty Miller! Why don't you own up that Ruthie's more good to you than a dozen boys would be?"
"She ain't!" snarled the old man.
At that moment there appeared upon the farmhouse porch a little, bent old woman who hailed them in a shrill, sweet voice:
"What's the matter, gals? What's the matter, Jabez? Ain't nothin' broke down, hez there?"
"No, Aunt Alvirah," laughed Ruth. "I just want Uncle Jabez to let me help him——"
The old woman had started down the steps, her hand upon her back as she came, and intoning in a low voice: "Oh, my back! and oh, my bones!" She caught up the miller's remark, as he turned away again, very sharply, for he muttered something about "Silly gals' foolish idees."
"What d'ye mean by that, Jabez Potter?" she demanded. "If Ruth says she kin help ye, she kin. You oughter know that by this time."
"Help me row that punt across the river?" snarled the old man, wrathfully. "What nonsense!"
"I dunno," said the old woman, slowly. "I see Tim's flag a-flyin'. I guess he wants his flour bad."
"And I can pull an oar as good as you can, Uncle Jabez," added Ruth.
"Oh, all right! Come on, then. I see I shell hev no peace till I let ye try it. Ef we don't git back fer supper, don't blame me, Alviry."
The miller disappeared in the gathering gloom of the mill. Soon the jarring of the structure and the hum of the stones grew slower—slower—slower, and finally the machinery was altogether still.
Ruth had run for her hat. Then, waving her hand to Mercy and Aunt Alvirah, she ran around to the landing.
The Lumano River was a wide stream, but at this season of the year it was pretty shallow. There was little navigation from Lake Osago at any time, but now the channel was dotted with dangerous rocks, and there were even more perilous reefs just under the surface.
Uncle Jabez's boat was not really a "punt." It was a heavy rowboat, so stained and waterlogged in appearance that it might have been taken for a bit of drift-stuff that had been brought in to the Red Mill landing by the current.
And truly, that is probably the means by which the miller had originally obtained the boat. He was of a miserly nature, was Uncle Jabez Potter, and the old boat—which its first owner had never considered worth coming after, following some spring freshet—served the miller well enough to transport his goods across the river.
Tim Lakeby's store, on the north shore of the river, was in sight of the Red Mill. There were four sacks of flour to be transported, and already Uncle Jabez had placed two of them in the bottom of the boat, upon a clean tarpaulin.
"Ef we go down the river an' swamp, I shell lose this flour," grumbled Uncle Jabez. "Drat that Ben! I tell ye, he'd ought to be hum by now."
Ben was the hired man, and if the miller had not really been kindlier underneath than he appeared on the surface, Ben would never have remained as long with him as he had!
Uncle Jabez balanced the weight in the boat with judgment. Although there seemed to be no real danger, he knew very well the nature of the treacherous current. Ruth slipped into the bow seat with her oar, and Uncle Jabez took stroke.
The girl unknotted the painter, and the boat drifted out from the landing.
"Now, set yer feet square, an' pull!" ejaculated her uncle, thrusting the blade of his own oar beneath the rippling surface.
They were heavy ash oars—one was all the girl really could manage. But she was not afraid of a little hard work, her muscles were supple, and she had rowed one season in the first eight at Briarwood Hall, and so considered herself something of an oarswoman.
The miller, by stretching to see over his shoulder, got the boat pointed in the right direction. "Pull, now!" he commanded, and set a long, forceful stroke for the girl to match. With the water slapping against the high side of the craft, sometimes sprinkling them with spray, they drove her forward for some minutes in silence.
The boat lumbered heavily, and it was true that Ruth had all she could do to manage the oars. In some places, where the eddies tugged at the blade, it seemed as though a submerged giant seized it and tried to twist it from her grasp!
"I guess you air gittin' yer fill-up of it, Niece Ruth," growled the miller, with a sound in his throat that might have been a chuckle. "Look out, now! ye'll hev us over."
Ruth knew very well she had done nothing to give the boat that sudden jerk. It was the current; but she had no breath with which to argue the matter.
On and on they pulled, while the sinking sun gilded the little wavelets, and bathed both river and the shores in golden glory. A homing bird shrieked a shrill "good-night," as it passed above them, flying from shore to shore.
Now the northern shore was nearer than the landing they had left. Only occasionally Ruth turned her head, for she needed her full attention upon the oar which she managed with such difficulty.
"We gotter p'int up-stream," growled Uncle Jabez, after wringing his neck around again to spy out the landing near Lakeby's store. "Pesky current's kerried us too fur down."
He gave a mighty pull to his own oar to rehead the boat. It was a perilous move, and in a perilous place. Here the water ran, troubled and white-capped, over a hidden reef.
"Oh! do be careful, Uncle!" cried Ruth.
"Pull!" yelled the old man, in return.
By chance he sunk his own oar-blade so deeply, that it rubbed against the reef. It lifted Uncle Jabez from his seat, and unbalanced the boat.
Like a flash the heavy oar flew out of its socket, and the old man sprawled on his back in the bottom of the boat. The latter whirled around in the current, and before Ruth could scream, even, it crashed broadside upon the rock!
The rotting planks of the boat could not stand such a blow. Ruth saw the plank cave in, and the water followed. Down the boat settled upon the submerged part of the rock—a hopeless wreck!
This was not the worst of the accident. In seeking to recover his seat, Uncle Jabez went overboard, as the old boat tipped. He dove into the shallow water, and struck his head heavily on the reef.
Blood-stained bubbles rose to the surface, and the old man struggled only feebly to rise.
"He is hurt! he will be drowned!" gasped Ruth, and seeing him so helpless, she sprang nimbly over the canted side of the boat and sought to draw her uncle's head out of the water.
Although she was a good swimmer, and was not afraid of the water, the current was so swift, and her own footing so unstable, it was doubtful if Ruth Fielding could save both the miller and herself from the peril that menaced them.
ROBERTO, THE GYPSY
Ruth Fielding, following the death of her parents and while she was still a small girl, had left Darrowtown and Miss True Pettis, and all her other old friends and acquaintances, to live with her mother's uncle, at the Red Mill. Her coming to the mill and her early adventures in and about that charming place were related in the first volume of this series, entitled "Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill."
Ruth made many friends in her new home, among them Helen and Tom Cameron, the twin, motherless children of a wealthy dry-goods merchant who had a beautiful home, called "the Outlook," near the mill, and Mercy Curtis, the daughter of the railroad station agent at Cheslow, the nearest important town to Ruth's new home. Ruth, Helen, and Mercy all went to Briarwood Hall, a girls' school some distance from Cheslow, while Master Tom attended a military academy at Seven Oaks, near the girls' institution of learning. The incidents of their first term at school are related in the second volume of the series, while in the mid-winter vacation Ruth and her friends go to Snow Camp in the Adirondacks.
Later, our friends spent part of a summer vacation at Lighthouse Point on the Atlantic Coast, after which they visited Silver Ranch in Montana. The sixth volume tells of another mid-winter camping adventure on Cliff Island, while the volume previous to our present story—number seven, in fact—was entitled "Ruth Fielding at Sunrise Farm."
This story narrated Ruth's particular interest in Sadie Raby, a strange, wild girl who ran away from cruel people who had taken her "to raise." Her reunion with her twin brothers, Willie and Dickie, and how they all three became the special care of Mr. Steele, the wealthy owner of Sunrise Farm, is told. It is through Ruth's efforts that the Rabys are settled in life and win friends.
Now Ruth and her schoolmates had returned to the Red Mill and Cheslow, and but a brief space would elapse before the girls would begin their third year at Briarwood Hall; they were all looking toward the beginning of the fall term with great eagerness.
Had Ruth Fielding been able to think at this moment of the boat's overturn, or of anything but her uncle's peril, she might have considered that the possibility of her ever seeing Briarwood Hall again was somewhat doubtful!
The hurrying water tugged at her as though a hundred hands had laid hold of her person. She was nearly arm-pit deep in the flood, and her uncle's body was so heavy that she had all she could do to hold his head above the surface.
She could not get him back into the boat, even, and perhaps that would not have been a wise move. For the old skiff, shaking and rocking, was likely to be torn free by the battling current. If it should swing into deep water, it must sink almost at once, for the water was pouring in through the hole that had been battered in its side.
The flour was fast becoming saturated with the river-water, and its increased weight would bear the boat to the bottom, if it slipped from the reef.
Unable to see any good of boarding the boat again, Ruth tried to work her way along the reef until she stood upon a higher part of it. Uncle Jabez was unconscious, blood flowed from a deep cut on his head, and he lay a dead weight in her arms.
Never had Ruth Fielding been in greater peril. She was frightened, but mostly for the old man who seemed so seriously hurt.
Tossing her loosened hair out of her eyes, she stared longingly at the landing near Lakeby's store. It was some distance up-stream, and not a person was in sight. She feared, too, that it was too far away for her voice to carry.
Yet she must scream for help. She shouted again and again, endeavoring to put all the strength of her voice into the cries. Was that an answer? The girl held her uncle high in her arms and looked all about.
Nobody was at the store landing. Nobody was behind on the other shore of the river—and she was glad that Aunt Alvirah and Mercy had not seen the accident, for neither of them could have helped in this predicament.
Yes! there was the repeated shout—and nearer. Ruth's eyes turned to the north shore of the Lumano again. There was somebody running down the bank—not near the store kept by Timothy Lakeby, but directly opposite the rock on which the old boat had stranded.
"Oh! oh! Help! help!" shrieked the girl of the Red Mill.
"Hold on! I'm coming!"
The voice came to her more strongly than before. She could not see who the person was, but she knew he was alone. She could not imagine how he was to aid them.
Why did he not run to the store and bring other men to help? There! he seemed to have leaped right into the river!
"Oh, dear me! the strongest swimmer could not reach us, let alone help Uncle Jabez ashore," was Ruth's thought.
But up came the figure into sight again. Dripping, of course, now he stood firmly on a peak of rock that was thrust above the tide, and shook back the long black hair from his eyes.
He was a wild looking person. His feet were bare and his ragged trousers were rolled to his knees. He wore neither vest nor coat, and his shirt was open at his throat. To Ruth he seemed very bronzed and rough looking.
But whoever, or whatever, he might be, the girl prayed that he would prove able to rescue Uncle Jabez. She felt that she could save herself, but she was having all she could do to bear up the unconscious miller.
"Hold on!" shouted the rescuer again.
Once more he plunged forward. He disappeared off the rock. Was he swimming again? The half-overturned boat hid him from Ruth's gaze.
Suddenly he shouted close at hand. Up he bobbed on the higher point of rock just beyond the boat.
"What's the matter, Missy?" he demanded. "Is the old man hurt?"
"He hit his head. See! he is unconscious," explained Ruth.
"I'll get him! Look out, now; I've got to push off this old boat, Missy. She ain't no good, anyway."
Ruth saw that he was a big, black-haired, strong looking boy. His complexion was very dark and his eyes sparkling—like cut jet beads. He might have been seventeen or eighteen years old, but he was fully as tall, and apparently as strong, as an ordinary man.
His long hair curled and was tangled like a wild man's. His beard had begun to grow on his lip and chin. In his ears Ruth saw small gold rings and his wrists and forearms—which were bared—were covered with an intricate pattern of tattooing in red and blue ink.
Altogether, she had never seen so strange a boy in all her life—and certainly none so strong. He leaped into the broken boat, seized Ruth's oar that had not been lost in the overset, and bracing it against the rock, pushed the trembling boat free in a moment.
Ruth could not repress a scream. It looked as though he, too, must be thrown into the river, as the boat was caught by the current and jerked free.
But the wild boy laughed and leaped upon the higher part of the rock. As the miller's old boat drifted down stream, he sprang into the water again and reached the girl and her burden.
"Give him to me!" commanded the boy. "I can bear him up better than you, Missy. We'll get him ashore—and you can't be any wetter than you are now."
"Oh, never mind me!" cried Ruth. "I am not afraid of a ducking. And I can swim."
"You don't want to try swimming in this place, Missy," he returned. "You follow right behind me—so."
He turned, carrying the heavy figure of the miller in his arms as though he weighed but a hundred pounds instead of nearer two, and set off toward the shore along the ledge of rock by which he had come.
Ruth saw, now, that beyond where the boat had been wrecked, the rock joined the shore, with only here and there a place where it was deep under water.
She saw, too, that the boat was now sinking. It had not sailed ten yards in the fierce current before its gunwales disappeared. It sank in a deeper channel below—flour and all! Ruth realized that Uncle Jabez would be sorely troubled over the loss of those bags of flour.
Ruth paddled to the shore behind the strong boy, but before they really reached terra firma, she knew that Uncle Jabez was struggling back to consciousness. The boy lowered the miller easily to the ground.
"He's coming 'round, Missy," he said. His smile was broad, and the little gold rings twinkled in his ears.
Ruth, wet and bedrabbled as she was, did not think of her own discomfort. She knelt beside Uncle Jabez and spoke to him. For some seconds he was so dazed that he did not seem to recognize her. Then he stammered:
"Ha—ha——I knowed we couldn't do it. No—no gal kin do a man's work. Ha!"
This seemed rather hard on Ruth, after she had done her best, and it had not been her fault that the boat was wrecked, but she was too excited just then to trouble about the miller's grumbling.
"Oh, Uncle! you're not badly hurt, are you?"
"Ha—hum! I dunno," stuttered the miller, and sat up. He rubbed his forehead and brought his hand, with a little blood upon it, back to the level of his eyes. "I vum!" he ejaculated, with more interest than before. "I must ha' cracked my head some. Why was it I didn't drown?"
"This little missy, here," said the black-eyed youth, quickly. "She saved you, Mister. She held your head above water till I come."
"Why—why——Niece Ruth! you did that?"
"Oh, it was nothing, Uncle Jabez! I am so glad you are not hurt worse. This boy really saved you. He brought you ashore."
"Who be ye, young man?" asked the miller. "I'm obleeged to ye—if what my niece says is true."
"Oh, I am named Roberto. You need not to thank—no!" exclaimed the stranger, suddenly getting up and looking all about.
"But it was very brave of him," declared Ruth, and she seized the boy's hand. "I—I am so glad you were near."
"Here's Tim and Joe Bascom coming," said Uncle Jabez, who was facing the store.
Instantly Roberto, as he called himself, jerked his hand from Ruth's grasp. He had seen the men coming, too, and without a word he turned and fled back into the woods.
"Why—why——" began Ruth, in utter surprise.
"What's the matter with that feller?" demanded Uncle Jabez, just as the storekeeper and Farmer Bascom arrived.
"I seen the feller, Jabe," said the latter, eagerly. "He's one o' them blamed Gypsies. I run him out o' my orchard only yisterday."
EVENING AT THE RED MILL
About this time Uncle Jabez began to wake up to the fact that his boat and the flour were gone.
"It's a dumbed shame, Jabez! an' I needed that flour like tunket," said Timothy Lakeby, the storekeeper.
"Huh!" grunted the miller. "'Tain't nothin' out o' your pocket, Tim."
"But my customers air wantin' it."
"You lemme hev your boat, an' a boy to bring it back, an' we'll go right hum an' load ye up some more flour," groaned the miller. "That dratted Ben will be back by thet time, I fancy. Ef he'd been ter the mill I wouldn't hev been dependent upon my niece ter help row that old boat."
"Too heavy for her—too heavy for her, Jabe," declared Joe Bascom.
"Huh! is thet so?" snapped the miller. He could grumble to Ruth himself, but he would not stand for any other person's criticism of her. "Lemme tell ye, she worked her passage all right. An' I vum! I b'lieve thet 'twas me, myself, thet run the old tub on the rock."
"Aside from the flour, Jabez," said the storekeeper, "'tain't much of a loss. But you an' Ruthie might ha' both been drowned."
"I would, if it hadn't been for her," declared the miller, with more enthusiasm than he usually showed. "She held my head up when I was knocked out—kinder. Ye see this cut in my head?"
"Ye got out of it lucky arter all, then," said Bascom.
"Ya-as," drawled the miller. "But I ain't feelin' so pert erbout losin' thet boat an' the flour."
"But see how much worse it might have been, Uncle," suggested Ruth, timidly. "If it hadn't been for that boy——"
"What did he say his name was?" interrupted Timothy.
"Yah!" said Bascom. "Thet's a Gypsy name, all right! I'd like ter got holt on him."
"I wish I could have thanked him," sighed Ruth.
"If you see him ag'in, Joe," said the miller, "don't you bother about a peck o' summer apples. I'll pay for them," he added, with a sudden burst of generosity. "Of course—in trade," he added.
He could move about now, and the gash in his head had ceased bleeding. It was a warm evening, and neither Ruth nor her uncle were likely to take cold from their ducking. But her clothing clung to her in an uncomfortable manner, and the girl was anxious to get back to the mill.
Timothy Lakeby routed out a clerk and sent him with them in the lighter boat that was moored at the store landing. Ruth begged to pull an oar again, and her uncle did not forbid her. Perhaps he still felt a little weak and dazed.
He kept speaking of Roberto, the Gypsy boy. "Strong as an ox, that feller," he said. "Wisht I had a man like him at the mill. Ben ain't wuth his salt."
"Oh, I'm sure, Uncle Jabez, Ben is very faithful and good," urged Ruth.
"Wal, a feller that could carry me like that young man done—he's jest another Sandow, he is," said Uncle Jabez.
They easily got across the river in the storekeeper's lighter boat, and Ruth displayed her oarsmanship to better advantage, for the oars were lighter. The miller noted her work and grunted his approval.
"I vum! they did teach ye suthin' at thet school 'sides folderrols, didn't they?" he said.
Ruth asked the store clerk if he knew anything about the Gypsies.
"Why, yes, Miss. I hear they are camping 'way up the river—up near the lakes, beyond Minturn's Dam. You know that's a wild country up there."
Ruth remembered. She had been a little way in that direction with her friends, Tom and Helen Cameron, in their auto. Minturn Dam had burst two years before, and done much damage, but was now repaired.
"That is a long way from here," she suggested to the clerk.
"Yes'm. But Romany folks is gret roamers—thet's why they're called 'Romany,' mebbe," was the reply. "And I guess that black-eyed rascal is a wild one."
"Never mind. He got me out o' the river," mumbled Uncle Jabez.
They brought the boat to the mill landing in safety, and Ben appeared, having returned from town and put up the mules. He gazed in blank amazement at the condition of his employer and Ruth.
"For the good land!" exclaimed Ben; but he got no farther. He was not a talkative young man, and it took considerable to wake him up to as exciting an expression as the above.
"You kin talk!" snarled Uncle Jabez. "If you'd been here to help me, I wouldn't ha' lost our boat and the flour."
The miller fairly ached when he thought of his losses, and he had to lay the blame on somebody.
"Now you help me git four more sacks over to Tim Lakeby's——"
Ruth would not hear of his going back before he changed his clothing and had something put upon the cut in his head. After a little arguing, it was agreed that Ben and the clerk should ferry the flour across to the store, and then the clerk would bring Ben back.
"Goodness sakes alive!" shrieked Aunt Alvirah, when she saw them come onto the porch, still dripping. "What you been doing to my pretty, Jabez Potter?"
"Huh!" sniffed the miller. "Mebbe it's what she's been doing to me?" and he wreathed his thin lips into a wry grin.
Aunt Alvirah and Mercy must hear it all. The lame girl was delighted. She pointed her finger at the old man, who had now gotten into his Sunday suit and had a bandage on his head.
"Now, tell me, Dusty Miller, what do you think about girls being of some use? Isn't Ruth as good as any boy?"
"She sartainly kep' me from drownin' as good as any boy goin'," admitted the old man. "But that was only chancey, as ye might say. When it comes to bein' of main use in the world——Wal, it ain't gals thet makes the wheels go 'round!'
"And don't you really think, Uncle, that girls are any use in the world?" asked Ruth, quietly. She had come out upon the dimly lit porch (this was after their supper) in season to hear the miller's final observation.
"Ha!" ejaculated Jabez. Perhaps he had not intended Ruth to hear just that. "They're like flowers, I reckon—mighty purty an' ornamental; but they ain't no manner o' re'l use!"
Mercy fairly snorted, but she was too wise to say anything farther. Ruth, however, continued:
"That seems very unfair, Uncle. Many girls are 'worth their salt,' as you call it, to their families. Why can't I be of use to you—in time, of course?"
"Ha! everyone to his job," said Uncle Jabez, brusquely. "You kin be of gre't help to your Aunt Alviry, no doubt. But ye can't take a sack of flour on your shoulders an' throw it inter a waggin—like Ben there. Or like that Roberto thet lugged me ashore to-night. An' I'm some weight, I be."
"And is that all the kind of help you think you'll ever need, Uncle?" demanded Ruth, with rising emotion.
"I ain't expectin' ter be helpless an' want nussin' by no gal—not yet awhile," said Uncle Jabez, with a chuckle. "Gals is a gre't expense—a gre't expense."
"Now, Jabez! ye don't mean thet air," exclaimed the little old woman, coming from the kitchen. She lowered herself into the little rocker nearby, with her usual moan of, "Oh, my back! an' oh, my bones! Ye don't mean ter hurt my pretty's feelin's, I know."
"She axed me!" exclaimed the miller, angrily. "I vum! ain't I spendin' a fortun' on her schoolin' at that Briarwood Hall?"
"And didn't she save ye a tidy fortun' when she straightened out that Tintacker Mine trouble for ye, Jabez Potter?" demanded the old woman, vigorously. "An' the good Lord knows she's been a comfort an' help to ye, right an' left, in season an' out, ever since she fust stepped foot inter this Red Mill——What's she done for ye this very day, Jabez, as ye said yourself?"
Aunt Alvirah was one of the very few people who dared to talk plainly to the miller, when he was in one of his tempers. Now he growled out some rough reply, and strode into the house.
"You've driven him away, Auntie!" cried Ruth, under her breath.
"He'd oughter be driv' away," said the old woman, "when he's in thet mind."
"But what he says is true. I am a great expense to him. I—I wish I could earn my own way through school."
"Don't ye worry, my pretty. Jabez Potter's bark is wuss than his bite."
"But the bark hurts, just the same."
"He ought to be whipped!" hissed Mercy, in her most unmerciful tone. "I'd like to whip him, till all the dust flew out of his Dusty Miller clothes—so I would!"
"Sh!" commanded Ruth, recovering her self-command again and fighting back the tears. "Just as Aunt Alvirah observes, he doesn't mean half of what he says."
"It hurts just the same—you said it yourself," declared the lame girl, with a snap.
"I want to be independent, anyway," said Ruth, with some excitement. "I want an education so I can do something. I'd like to cultivate my voice—the teacher says it has possibilities. Mr. Cameron is going to let Helen go as far as she likes with the violin, and she doesn't have to think about making her way in the world."
"Gals ain't content now to sit down after gittin' some schoolin'—I kin see thet," sighed Aunt Alvirah. "It warn't so in my day. I never see the beat of 'em for wantin' ter go out inter the worl' an' make a livin'—jes' like men."
THE AUTO TOUR
"Straw, Ruth!—why don't you say?" cried the owner of the name, running to the porch and smiling out upon the Cameron twins, who had stopped their automobile at the Red Mill gate on a morning soon following that day on which Uncle Jabez and Ruth had undergone their involuntary ducking in the Lumano.
"Aren't you ready, Ruthie?" cried Helen from the back seat of the car.
"Do hurry up, Ruth—the horses don't want to stand," laughed Tom, who was slim and black haired and black eyed, like his twin. Indeed, the two were so much alike that, dressed in each other's clothing, it is doubtful if they could have been suspected in such disguise.
"But my bag isn't packed yet," cried Ruth. "I didn't know you'd be here so soon."
"Take your toothbrush and powder puff—that's all you girls really need," declared the irrepressible Tom.
"I like that! And on a two days' trip into the hills," said his sister, beating him soundly with an energetic fist.
"Give him one or two good ones for me, Helen," said Ruth, and ran in to finish her preparations for the journey she was to take with her friends.
"Pshaw!" grumbled the impatient Tom, "going to Uncle Ike's isn't like going to a fancy hotel. And we'll stop over to-night with Fred Larkin's folks—the girls there would lend you and Ruth all you need."
"Hold on!" exclaimed his sister. "Just what have you in your bag? I know it's heavy. You have all you want——"
"Sure. Pair of socks, two collars, fishing tackle, some books I borrowed of Fred last year, my bicycle wrench—you never know when you are going to need it,—a string of wampum I promised to take to Nealy Larkin—she's a Campfire girl, you know—and an Indian tomahawk for Fred——"
"But, clothes! clothes!" gasped Helen. "Where are your shirts?"
"Oh, I'll borrow a shirt, if I need one," declared Master Tom, grinning. "Uncle Ike's Benjy is about my size, you know. What's the use of carting around so much stuff?"
"I notice you have your bag full of trash," sniffed Helen. "It can plainly be seen that Mrs. Murchiston was called away so suddenly that she could not oversee our packing."
"Come on, Ruth!" shouted Tom again, turning toward the farmhouse.
"Now, don't get her in a flurry," admonished Helen. "She hasn't had but two hours' notice to get ready for this two days' trip. It's a wonder Uncle Jabez would let her go with us at all."
"Oh, Uncle Jabe isn't such a bad old fellow after all," said Tom.
"He's been just as cross and cranky as he can be, ever since he lost his boat in the river the other evening—you know that. And they say he would have been drowned, too, if it hadn't been for Ruthie. What a brave girl she is, Tom!"
"Bravest in seven states!" acknowledged Master Tom, promptly. He had always thought there was nobody just like Ruth, and his sister smiled upon him approvingly.
"I guess she is!" she agreed. "There isn't a girl at Briarwood Hall that will be her match in anything—now that Madge Steele has gotten through. Ruth is going to be head of the senior class before we graduate—you see."
"She'll have to hustle some to beat little Mercy Curtis," grinned Tom. "There's a sharp suffragette for you!"
Helen laughed. "That's right. But, unfortunately for Mercy, Mrs. Tellingham considers other work beside our books in grading us. Oh, Tommy! we're going to have a dandy time this coming year at school."
"You have my best wishes," returned her brother, with a slightly clouded face. "Bobbins and Busy Izzy and I expect to be drilled like everything, when we get back to Seven Oaks. Professor Darly is a terror."
Ruth came out with her bag then, and in the doorway behind her appeared the little, stooped figure of Aunt Alvirah. The Camerons waved their hands and shouted greetings to her.
"Take good keer of my pretty, Master Tom," shrilled the old lady, hobbling out into the yard. "Oh, my back! and oh, my bones!"
"We'll handle her as if she were made of glass," declared Tom, laughing. "Hop in, Ruthie!"
"Good-bye, Aunt Alvirah!" cried the girl of the Red Mill, clasping the little old lady around the neck and kissing her. Then she waved her hand to Uncle Jabez, who appeared in the mill doorway, and he nodded grimly, as the car started.
Ben appeared at a window and bashfully nodded to the departing pleasure party. The car quickly passed the end of the Cheslow road and sped up the riverside. These lowlands beyond the Red Mill had once been covered by a great flood, and the three friends would never forget their race with the freshet from Culm Falls, at the time the Minturn Dam burst.
"But we're bound far, far above the dam this time," said Tom. "Fred Larkin lives farther than that—beyond the gorge between the hills, and at the foot of the first pond. We'll get there long before dark unless something happens to this old mill I'm driving."
"There! Tommy's harping on his pet trouble," laughed Helen. "Father won't let us use the new car to go scooting about the country alone in, and Tommy thinks he is abused."
"Well! that 'six' is just eating its head off in the garage," grumbled the boy.
"Just as though it were a horse!" chuckled Ruth.
"You wait! I bet something happens on this trip, because of this old heap of scrap iron that pa calls a car."
"Goodness me!" exclaimed Helen, with some exasperation. "Don't you dare have a breakdown in the hills, Tom! I should be frightened. It's so wild up there beyond Loon Lake."
"You needn't blame me," returned her twin. "I shall do my best."
"And so will the auto—I have no doubt," added Ruth, laughingly. "Cheer up, Helen, dear——"
"I know the rest of it!" interrupted her chum. "'The worst is yet to come!' I—hope—not!"
Ruth Fielding would allow no worrying or criticism in this event. They were out for a good time, and she at once proceeded to cheer up the twins, and laugh at their fears, and interest them in other things.
They crossed the river at Culm Falls—a beautiful spot—and it was beyond the bridge, as the car was mounting the first long rise, that the party of adventurers found their first incident of moment.
Here and there were clearings in the forest upon the right side of the road (on the other side the hill fell abruptly to the river), and little farms. As the party came in sight of one of these farms, a great cry arose from the dooryard. The poultry was soundly disturbed—squawking, cackling, shrieking their protests noisily—while the deep baying of a dog rose savagely above the general turmoil.
"Something doing there!" quoth Tom Cameron, slowing down.
"A chicken hawk, perhaps?" suggested Ruth.
A woman was screaming admonition or advice; occasionally the gruffer voice of a man added to the turmoil. But the dog's barking was the loudest sound.
Suddenly, from around the corner of the barn, appeared a figure wildly running. It was neither the farmer, nor his wife—that was sure.
"Tramp!" exclaimed Tom, reaching for the starting lever again.
At that moment Helen shrieked. After the running man appeared a hound. He had broken his leash, and a more savage brute it would be difficult to imagine. He was following the runner with great leaps, and when the fugitive vaulted the roadside fence, the dog crashed through the rails, tearing down a length of them, and scrambling in the dusty road in an endeavor to get on the trail of the man again.
Only, it was not a man; it was a boy! He was big and strong looking, but his face was boyish. Ruth Fielding stood up suddenly in the car and shrieked to him:
"Come here! This way! Roberto!"
"My goodness! is he a friend of yours, Ruthie?" gasped Tom Cameron.
"He's the Gypsy boy that saved Uncle Jabez," returned Ruth, in a breath.
"Take him aboard—do!" urged Helen. "That awful dog——"
Roberto had heard and leaped for the running-board of the car. Tom switched on the power. Just as the huge hound leaped, and his fore-paws touched the step, the car darted away and the brute was left sprawling.
The car was a left-hand drive, and Tom motioned the panting youth to get in beside him. The dark-faced fellow did so. At first he was too breathless to speak, but his black eyes snapped like beads, and his lips smiled. He seemed to have enjoyed the race with the savage dog, instead of having been frightened by it.
"You save me, Missy, like I save your old man—eh?" he panted, at last, turning his brilliant smile upon Ruth. "Me! that dog mos' have me, eh?"
"What was the matter? How came you to start all that riot?" demanded Tom, looking at the Gypsy youth askance.
Roberto's grin became expansive. The little gold rings in his ears twinkled as well as his eyes.
"I did them no wrong. I slept in the man's haymow. He found me a little while ago. He say I haf to pay for my sleep—eh? How poor Gypsy pay?" and he opened his hands and shrugged his shoulders to show that his pockets were empty.
"Me, no money have got. Can I work? Of course I work—only the farmers do not trust me. They call all Gypsies thieves. Isn't it so, Missy?" and he flashed a glance at Ruth.
"I know, Mr. Joe Bascom drove you out of his orchard," agreed the girl of the Red Mill. "But you should have come across the river to us. Uncle Jabez is really grateful to you."
"Oh, that?" and the boy shrugged his shoulders again. "I do not want pay for what I do—no. I want no money. I would not work a day for all my grandmother's wealth—and she is a miser," and Roberto laughed again, showing all his white, strong teeth.
"But these people back here—this man and his woman—they want me to churn. It is a dog's work—no? I see where the dog haf to churn, but that dog die and they get this new, savage one—and it will not. Me, I think this dog very wise!" and Roberto's merriment broke out again, and he shook with it.
"So I tell them I will not do dog's work, and then he, the man, chases me with his pitchfork, and the woman unloose the dog. Oh, yes! I make a great noise in the henyard. That dog chase me hard. So—I got away as you see," he concluded.
"Say! you're a cool one," declared Tom, with growing admiration.
"But you ought not to be loafing about, sleeping anywhere, and without employment," said Helen, primly.
Roberto's black eyes sparkled. "Why does the little missy say I should work?" he demanded. "There is no need. I return to my people, perhaps. There I curry horses and fill the water pails for the women, and go with my uncle to the horse-fairs where he trades, or be under my grandmother's beck and call—the grandmother whom I tell you is a miser. But I never have money with them, and why should I work for it elsewhere?"
"To get good clothes, and good food, and pay your way everywhere," suggested Tom.
Roberto laughed again. He spread out his strong hands. "These keep me from day to day," he said. "But money burns a hole in my pocket. Or, would you have me like my grandmother? She hoards every penny-piece, and then gloats over her money-box, by the firelight, when the rest of the camp is asleep. Oh, I see her!"
A PROPHECY FULFILLED
This queer youth interested Ruth Fielding and her friends, the Cameron twins, very much. Roberto was not naturally talkative, it seemed, for he soon dropped into silence and it was hard to get aught out of him but "Yes" and "No." At first, however, he had been excited, and he told them a great deal of his life with the tribe and along the pleasant country roads.
The cities Roberto could not bear. "There is no breath left in them—it is used up by so many," he explained. He did not eschew work because he was lazy, it seemed; but he saw no use in it.
Clothing? Money? Rich food? Other things that people strive for in the main? They were nothing to Roberto. He could sleep under a haystack, crunch a crust of bread, and wear his garments until they fell off him in rags.
But he knew the woods and fields as nobody but a wild boy could. Every whistle and note of every bird was as familiar to him as his own Tzigane speech; and he could imitate them with exactness.
He delighted his new friends, as the car rumbled along. He soon stopped talking much, as I have said, but he answered their multitude of questions, and did not seem to mind being cross-questioned about the life of the Gypsies.
The auto party stopped soon after noon to lunch. It was Roberto who pointed out the spring of clear, cold water for which they searched. He had been over this road before and, it seemed, once along a trail was enough for the young Gypsy. He never forgot.
He went away down the little stream, and made himself very clean before appearing for his share of the food. To the surprise of Ruth and Helen he ate daintily and showed breeding of a kind. Nor was he enamored of the cakes and other dainties that Babette, the Camerons' cook, had put into the lunch hamper, but enjoyed, instead, the more simple viands.
Roberto grew restless of riding in the car soon after luncheon. He thanked them for giving him the lift, but explained that there were paths through the woods leading to the present camp of his tribe that he preferred to follow.
"It is a mark of kindness for you to have brought me this way," he said, softly, bending over Ruth's hand, for he insisted upon considering her his hostess. He realized that, had it not been for her, the Camerons would have been chary of taking him aboard.
"If you are ever near the Red Mill again," Ruth told him, "be sure to come and speak with Uncle Jabez. He will not forget you, I am sure."
"Of that—pooh!" exclaimed the Gypsy. "I do not want pay for such an act. Do you?"
And that set Ruth Fielding to thinking a bit. Perhaps she had expected payment—of a kind—for her action in helping Uncle Jabez in the river. She had hoped he would more freely respond to her affection than he did. Ah! it is hard to do a good act and not secretly hope for some small return. "Virtue is its own reward" is a moral hard to understand!
After Roberto had left them, the trio of friends were occupied in exchanging views regarding the Gypsy boy, and in discussing their several opinions as to what kind of people his folk really were.
"It must be loads of fun to jog along the roads in those caravans, and camp where you please, and all that," said Helen, reflectively. "I believe I'd like it."
"About twenty miles on a fast day, eh?" chuckled Tom, with scorn. "Not for me! When Gypsies get to riding in autos—and six-cylinder, up-to-date ones, too—I'll join the first tribe that comes along."
"I declare, Tommy!" laughed his sister, "you are getting to be a 'speed fiend.' Ruth and I will be scared to drive with you."
"It's great to go fast," exclaimed Master Tom. "Here's a straight piece of road ahead, girls. Hold on!"
As he spoke, he manipulated the levers and the car leaped ahead. Ruth's startled "Oh!" was left a quarter of a mile behind. The girls clung to the hand-holds, and Tom crouched behind the windshield and "let her out."
It was a straight piece of road, as he had said. But before they reached the first turn there was another house beside the road—a small farmhouse. Beyond it was a field, with a stone wall, and it chanced that just as the Camerons' car roared down the road, clearing at least thirty miles an hour, the leader of a flock of sheep in that pasture, butted through a place in the stone-fence and started to cross the highway.
One sheep would not have made much trouble; it would have been easy to dodge just one object. But here came a string of the woolly creatures—and greater fools than sheep have not been discovered in the animal world!
The old black-faced ram trotted across the road and through a gap in a fence on the river side. After him crowded the ewes and youngsters.
The roaring auto frightened the creatures, but they would not give way before it. They knew no better than to follow that old ram through the gap, one after the other.
Tom had shut off the engine and applied the brakes, as the girls shrieked. But he had been going too fast to stop short of the place where the sheep were passing. At the end of the flock came a lamb, bleating and trying to keep up with its mother.
"Oh, the lamb!" shrieked Helen.
"Look out, Tom!" added Ruth.
The lamb did not get across the road. The car struck it, and with a pitiful "baa-a-a!" it was knocked a dozen feet.
In a moment the car stopped. It had scarcely run its entire length past the spot where the lamb was struck. The poor creature lay panting, "baa-aing" feebly, beside the road.
Ruth was out of the tonneau and kneeling beside the creature almost before the wheels ceased to roll. The mother ewe had crowded through the fence. Now she put her foolish face out, and called to the lamb to follow.
"He can't!" almost sobbed Ruth. "He has a broken leg. Oh! what a foolish mother you were to lead him right into danger."
Tom was silent and looked pretty solemn, while Helen was scolding him nervously—although she knew that he was not really at fault.
"If you hadn't been speeding, this wouldn't have happened, Tom Cameron!" she said. "I told you so."
"Oh, all right. You're a fine prophetess," grunted her brother. "Keep on rubbing it in."
The lamb had tried to scramble up, but one of its forelegs certainly was broken. It tumbled over on its side again, and Ruth held it down tenderly and tried to soothe its fear.
"Oh, dear! whatever shall we do?" she murmured. "The poor, poor little thing."
"Guess we'll know pretty soon what we'll do," quoth Master Tom, standing beside the machine and looking back along the road. "Here comes the man that owns him."
"Oh, dear me!" whispered Helen. "Doesn't he look savage?"
"Worse than the old ram there," agreed her brother, for the black-faced leader of the flock was eyeing them through the fence.
A TRANSACTION IN MUTTON
The man who approached was a fierce, red-faced individual, with long legs encased to the knees in cowhide boots, overalls, a checked shirt, and a whisp of yellow whisker under his chin that parted and waved, as he strode toward the auto party.
His pale blue eyes were ablaze, and he had worked himself up into a towering rage. Like many farmers (and sometimes for cause), he had evidently sworn eternal feud against all automobilists!
"What d'ye mean, runnin' inter my sheep?" he bawled. "I'll have the law on ye! I'll make ye pay for ev'ry sheep ye killed! I'll attach yer machine, by glory! I'll put ye all in jail! I'll——"
"You're going to have your hands full with all that, Mister," interrupted Tom Cameron. "And you're excited more than is necessary. I'll pay for all the damage I've done—although there would have been none at all, had your sheep remained in their pasture. This is a county road, I take it."
"By glory!" exclaimed the farmer, arriving at the spot at last. "This road was built for folks ter drive over decent. Nobody reckoned on locomotives, an' sich comin' this way, when 'twas built—no, sir-ree!"
"I'm sorry," began Tom, but the man broke in:
"Thet don't pay me none for havin' all my sheep made into mutton b'fore their time. By glory! I got an attic home full o' 'sorries.' Ye can't git out o' it thet way."
"I am not trying to. I'll pay for any sheep I have hurt or killed," Tom said, unable to keep from grinning at the excited farmer.
"And don't ye git sassy none, neither!" commanded the man. "I'm one o' the school trustees in this deestrict, an' the church clerk. I got some influence. I guess if I arrested ye right naow—an' these gals, too—the jestice of the peace would consider I done jest right."
"Oh!" murmured Helen, clinging to Ruth's hand.
"He can't do it," whispered the latter.
"I feel sure, sir," said Tom, politely, "that it will be unnecessary for you to go to such lengths. I will pay satisfactory damages. There is the lamb we struck—and the only beast that is hurt."
The man had given but one glance to the lamb that lay on the grass beside the girls. He did not look to be any too tender-hearted, and the little creature's accident did not touch him at all—save in the region of his pocketbook.
He stepped to the gap in the fence, kicked the bleating ewe out of the way in a most brutal manner, and proceeded to count his flock. He had to do this twice before he was assured that none but the lamb was missing.
"You see," Tom said, quietly, "I have turned only one of your sheep into mutton—for I suppose this lamb must be killed."
"Oh, no, Tom!" cried Ruth, who was bending over the little creature again. "I am sure its leg will mend."
The farmer snorted. "Don't want no crippled critters erbout. Ye'll hafter pay me full price for that lamb, boy—then I'll give it to the dogs. 'Tain't no good the way it is."
Ruth had tied the leg firmly with her own handkerchief—which was of practical size. "If we could put it in splints, and keep the lamb still, it would mend," she declared to Helen.
"What do you consider the thing worth, sir?" asked Tom.
"Four dollars," declared the farmer, promptly. It was not worth two, even at the present price of lamb, for the creature was neither big nor fat.
"Here you are," said Tom, and thrust four one-dollar notes into his hand.
The man stared at them, and from them to Tom. He really seemed disappointed. Perhaps he wished he had said more, when Tom did not haggle over the price.
"Wal, I'll take it along to the house then," said the farmer. "An' when ye come this road ag'in, young man, ye better go a leetle slow—yaas, a leetle slow!"
"I certainly shall—as long as you have gaps in your sheep pasture fence," returned Tom, promptly.
"Git out'n the way, leetle gal," said the man, brushing Ruth aside. "I'll take him——"
The lamb struggled to get on its feet. The sudden appearance of the man frightened the animal.
"Stop that!" cried Ruth. "You'll hurt the poor thing."
"I'll knock him in the head, when I git to the chopping block," said the farmer, roughly. "Shucks! it's only a lamb."
"Don't you dare!" Ruth cried, standing in front of the quivering creature. "You are cruel."
"Hoity-toity!" cried the farmer. "I guess I kin do as I please with my own."
Helen clung to Ruth's hand and tried to draw her away from the rough man. Even Tom hesitated to arouse the farmer's wrath further. But the girl from the Red Mill stamped her foot and refused to move.
"Don't you dare touch it!" she exclaimed. "It isn't your lamb."
"What's that?" he demanded, and then broke into a hoarse laugh. "Thet thar's a good one! I raised thet lamb——"
"And we have just bought it—paid you your own price for it," cried Ruth.
"Crickey! that's so, Ruthie," Tom Cameron interposed. "Of course he doesn't own it. If you want the poor thing, we'll take it along to Fred Larkin's place."
"Say!" exclaimed the farmer. "What does this mean? I didn't sell ye the carcass of thet thar lamb; I only got damages——"
"You sold it. You know you did," Ruth declared, firmly. "I dare you to touch the poor little thing. It is ours—and I know its life can be saved."
"Pick it right up, girls, and come on," advised Tom, starting his engine. "We have the rights of it, and if he interferes, we'll just run on to the next town and bring a constable back with us. I guess we can call upon the authorities, too. What's sauce for the goose, ought to be sauce for the gander."
The man was stammering some very impolite words, and Tom was anxious to get his sister and Ruth away. The girls lifted the lamb in upon the back seat and laid it tenderly upon some wraps. Then the boy leaped into the front seat and prepared to start.
"I tell ye what it is!" exclaimed the farmer, coming close to the car. "This ain't no better than highway robbery. I never expected ter have ye take the carcass away, when I told ye sich a low price——"
"I have paid its full value, and you don't own a thread of its wool, Mister," said Tom, feeling the engine throb under him now. "I'm going to start——"
"You wait! I ain't got through with you——"
Just then the car started. The man had been holding to the end of the seat. He foolishly tried to continue his hold.
The car sprang ahead suddenly, the farmer was swung around like a top, and the last they saw of him he was sitting in the middle of the dusty road, shaking both fists after the car, and yelling at the top of his voice. Just what he said, it was perhaps better that they did not hear!
"Wasn't he a mean old thing?" cried Tom, when the car was purring along steadily.
"And wasn't Ruth smart to see that he had no right to this poor little sheep?" said Helen, admiringly.
"What you going to do with it, Ruthie?" demanded Tom, glancing back at the lamb. "Going to sell it to a butcher in Littletop? That's where Fred Larkin's folk live, you know."
"Sell it to a butcher!" exclaimed Ruth, in scorn. "That's what the farmer would have done—butchered it."
"It is the fate of most sheep to be turned into mutton," returned Tom, his eyes twinkling.
"And then the mutton is turned into boys and girls," laughed Ruth. "But if I have my way, this little fellow will never become either a Cameron, or a Fielding."
"Oh! I wouldn't want to eat him—after seeing him hurt," cried Helen. "Isn't he cunning? See! he knows we are going to be good to him."
"I hope he knows it," her chum replied. "After all, it doesn't take much to assure domestic animals of our good intentions toward them."
"Well," said Tom, grinning, "I promise not to eat this lamb, if you make a point of it, but if I don't get something to eat pretty soon, I assure you he'll be in grave danger!"
They made Littletop and the Larkins' residence before Tom became too ravenous, however; and the younger members of the Larkin family welcomed the adventurers—including the lamb—with enthusiasm.
Fred Larkin had some little aptitude for medicine and surgery—so they all said, at least—and he set the broken leg and put splints upon it. Then they put the little creature in one of the calf pens, fed it liberally, and Fred declared that in ten days it would be well enough to hop around.
The little Larkin folk were delighted with the lamb for a pet, so Ruth knew that she could safely trust her protege to them.
There was great fun that night, for the neighboring young folk were invited to meet the trio from Cheslow and the Red Mill, and it was midnight before the girls and boys were still. Therefore, there was no early start made for the second day's run.
Breakfast was late, and it was half-past nine before Tom started the car, and they left Littletop amid the cheers and good wishes of their friends.
"We must hustle, if we want to get to Uncle Ike's before dark," Tom declared. "So you will have to stand for some scorching, girls."
"See that you don't kill anything—or even maim it," advised his sister. "You are out four dollars for damages already."
"Never you mind. I reckon you girls won't care to be marooned along some of these wild roads all night."
"Nor to travel over them by night, either," advised Ruth. "My! we haven't seen a house for ten miles."
"It's somewhere up this way that those Gypsy friends of Roberto are encamped—as near as I could make out," Tom remarked.
"My! I wouldn't like to meet them," his sister said.
"They wouldn't hurt us—at least, Roberto didn't," laughed Ruth.
"That's all right. But Gypsies do carry off people——"
"And eat them?" scoffed Tom. "How silly, Nell!"
"Well, Mr. Smartie! they might hold us for ransom."
"Like regular brigands, eh?" returned Tom, lightly. "That would be an adventure worth chronicling."
"You can laugh——Oh!"
As she was speaking, Helen saw a head thrust out of the bushes not far along the road they traveled.
"What's the matter?" demanded Ruth, seizing her arm.
"Look there!" But the car was past the spot in a moment. "Somebody was watching us, and dodged back," declared Helen, anxiously.
"Oh, nonsense!" laughed her brother.
But before they took the next turn they looked back and saw two men standing in the road, talking. They were rough-looking fellows.
"Gypsies!" cried Helen.
However, they saw nobody else for a few miles. Now they were skirting one of the lakes in the upper chain, some miles above the gorge where the dam was built, and the scenery was both beautiful and rugged. There were few farms.
On a rising stretch of road, the engine began to miss, and something rattled painfully in the "internal arrangements" of the car. Tom looked serious, stopped several times, and just coaxed her slowly to the summit of the hill.
"Now don't tell us that we're going to have a breakdown!" cried Helen.
"Do you think those are thunder-heads hanging over the mountain?" asked Ruth, seriously.
"Sure of it!" responded Helen.
"You are a regular 'calamity howler'!" exclaimed Tom. "By Jove! this old mill is going to kick up rusty."
"There's a house!" cried Ruth, gaily, standing up in the back to look ahead. "Now we're all right if the machine has to be repaired, or a storm bursts upon us."
But when the car limped up and stopped in the sandy road before the sagging gate, the trio saw that their refuge was a windowless and abandoned structure that looked as gaunt and ghostly as a lightning-riven tree!
"Well! this is a pretty pickle!" groaned Tom, at last as much disturbed as Helen had been. "It's no use, girls. We'll have to stop here till the storm is over. It is coming."
"Well, that will be fun!" cried Ruth, cheerfully. "Of course we ought to be storm-bound in a deserted house. That is according to all romantic precedent."
"Humph! you and your precedent!" grumbled her chum. "I'd rather it was a nice roadside hotel, or tearoom. That would be something like."
"Come on! we'll take in the hamper, and make tea on the deserted hearthstone," said Ruth. "Tom can stay out here and repair his old auto."
"Tom will find a shelter for the machine first, I reckon. There! hear the thunder? We are going to get it, and I must raise the hood of the tonneau, too," proclaimed the lad. "Go on with your hamper and wraps. I see sheds back there, and I'll try to coax the old Juggernaut into that lane and so to the sheds."
He did as he proposed during the next few minutes, while the girls approached the deserted dwelling, with the hamper. The lower front windows were boarded, and the door closed. But the door giving entrance from the side porch was ajar.
"'Leave all hope behind, ye who enter here,'" quoted Helen, peering into the dusky interior. "It looks powerful ghostly, Ruthie."
"There are plenty of windows out, so we'll have light enough," returned the girl of the Red Mill. "Don't be a 'fraid cat,' Helen."
"That's all right," grumbled her chum. "You're only making a bluff yourself."
Ruth laughed. She was not bothered by fears of the supernatural, no matter what the old house was, or had been. Now, a good-sized rat might have made her shriek and run!
Into the house stepped Ruth Fielding, in her very bravest manner. The hall was dark, but the door into a room at the left—toward the back of the house—was open and through this doorway she ventured, the old, rough boards of the floor creaking beneath her feet.
This apartment must have been the dining-room. There was a high, ornate, altogether ugly mantle and open fireplace at one end of the room. At the other, there stood, fastened to the wall, or built into it, a china closet, the doors of which had been removed. These ugly, shallow caverns gaped at them and promised refuge to spiders and mice. On the hearth was a heap of crusted gray ashes.
"What a lonesome, eerie sort of a place," shivered Helen. "Wish the old car had kept running——"
"Through the rain?" suggested Ruth, pointing outside, where the air was already gray with approaching moisture.
Down from the higher hills the storm was sweeping. They could smell it, for the wind leaped in at the broken windows and rustled the shreds of paper still clinging to the walls of the dining-room.
"This isn't a fit place to eat in," grumbled Helen.
"Let's go above stairs. Carry that alcohol stove carefully, dear. We'll have a nice cup of tea, even if it does——"
"Oh!" shrieked Helen, as a long streak of lightning flew across their line of vision.
"Yes. Even in spite of that," repeated Ruth, smiling, and raising her voice that she might be heard above the cannonade of thunder.
"I don't like it, I tell you!" declared her chum.
"I can't say that I do myself, but I do not see how we are to help it."
"I wish Tom was inside here, too."
Ruth had glanced through the window and seen that Master Tom had managed to get the auto under a shed at the back. He was industriously putting up the curtains to the car, and making all snug against the rain, before he began to tinker with the machinery.
There was a faint drumming in the air—the sound of rain coming down the mountain side, beating its "charge" upon the leaves as it came. There were no other sounds, for the birds and insects had sought shelter before the wrathful face of the storm.
Yes! there was one other. The girls had not heard it until they began climbing the stairs out of the side entry. Helen clutched Ruth suddenly by the skirt.
"Hear that!" she whispered.
"Say it out loud, dear, do!" exclaimed the girl of the Red Mill. "There is never anything so nerve-shaking as a stage whisper."
"There! you heard it?"
"The wind rustling something," said Ruth, attempting to go on.
"Something squeaks—mice, I do believe."
"Mice would starve to death here," declared Helen.
"How smart of you! That is right," agreed Ruth. "Come on. Let us see what it is—if it's upstairs."
Helen clung close to her and trembled. There was the rustling, squeaking sound again. Ruth pushed on (secretly feeling rather staggered by the strange noise), and they entered one of the larger upper chambers.
Immediately she saw an open stovepipe hole in the chimney. "The noise comes from that," she declared, setting down the basket and pointing.
"But what is it?" wailed her frightened chum.
The lightning flashed again, and the thunder rolled nearer. Helen screamed, crouched down upon the floor, and covered her ears, squeezing her eyelids tight shut too.
"Dreadful! dreadful!" she gasped.
Still the silence outside between the reports of thunder; but the rustling in the chimney continued. Ruth looked around, found a piece of broken window-sash on the floor, and approached the open pipe-hole.
"Here's for stirring up Mr. Ghost," she said, in a much braver tone than she secretly felt.
She always felt her responsibility with Helen. The latter was of a nervous, imaginary temperament, and it was never well for her to get herself worked up in this way.
"Oh, Ruth! Don't! Suppose it bites you!" gasped Helen.
At that Ruth did laugh. "Whoever heard of a ghost with teeth?" she demanded, and instantly thrust the stick into the gaping hole.
There was a stir—a flutter—a squeaking—and out flopped a brown object about the size of a mouse. Helen shrieked again, and even Ruth darted back.
"A mouse!" cried Helen.
"Right—a flittermouse!" agreed Ruth, suddenly bursting into a laugh. "The chimney's full of them."
"Oh, let's get out!"
"In this rain?" and Ruth pointed to the window, where now the drops were falling, big and fast—the vanguard of the storm.
"But if a bat gets into your hair!" moaned Helen, rocking herself on her knees.
Ruth opened the big hamper, seized a newspaper, and swooped down upon the blind, fluttering brown bat. Seizing it as she would a spider, she ran to the window and flung it out, just as the water burst into the room in a flood.
Then she ran to the pipe-hole and thrust the paper into it, making a "stopper" which would not easily fall out. She dragged Helen to the other side of the room, where the floor was dry and they were out of the draught.
There the two girls cowered for some moments, hugged close together, Helen hiding her eyes from the intermittent lightning against Ruth's jacket. The thunder roared overhead, and the rain dashed down in torrents. For ten minutes it was as hard a storm as the girl of the Red Mill ever remembered seeing. Such tempests in the hills are not infrequent.
When the thunder began to roll away into the distance, and the lightning was less brilliant, the girls could take some notice of what else went on. The fierce drumming of the rain continued, but there seemed to be a noise in the lower part of the building.
"Tom has come in," said Helen, with satisfaction.
"He must have gotten awfully wet, then, getting here from that shed," Ruth returned. "Hush!"
Somebody sneezed heavily. Helen opened her mouth to cry out, but Ruth put her palm upon her lips, effectually smothing the cry.
"Sh!" the girl of the Red Mill admonished. "Let him find us."
"Oh! that will be fun," agreed Helen.
Ruth did not look at her. She listened intently. There was a heavy, scraping foot upon the floor below. To her mind, it did not sound like Tom at all.
She held Helen warningly by the wrist and they continued to strain their ears for some minutes. Then an odor reached them which Ruth was sure did not denote Tom's presence in the room below. It was the smell of strong tobacco smoked in an ancient pipe!
"What's that?" sniffed Helen, whisperingly.
Uncle Jabez smoked a strong pipe and Ruth could not be mistaken as to the nature of this one. She remembered the two men who had hidden in the bushes as the car rolled by, not many miles back on this road.
"Let's shout for Tom and bring him in here," Helen suggested.
"Perhaps get him into trouble? Let's try and find out, first, what sort of people they are," objected Ruth, for they now heard talking and knew that there were at least two visitors below.
Rising quietly, Ruth crept on tiptoe to the head of the stair. The drumming rain helped smother any sound she might have made.
Slowly, stair by stair, Ruth Fielding let herself down until she could see into the open doorway of the dining room. Two men were squatting on the hearth, both smoking assiduously.
They were rough looking, unlovely fellows, and the growl of their voices did not impress Ruth as being of a quality to inspire confidence.
WHAT WAS IT ALL ABOUT?
The two men were mumbling together—Ruth could not catch the words at first. When she did, they meant nothing to her, and she was puzzled.
But suddenly one said in clear, if peculiar, English:
"The old hag bags the best of the loot—always, my Carlo."
The other replied, still gruffly, yet in a musical language that Ruth could not identify; yet somehow she was reminded of Roberto. He, the Gypsy lad, had formed his English sentences much as this ruffian had formed his phrase. Were these two of Roberto's tribesmen?
"I like it not—I like it not!" the other burst out again, in anger. "Why should she govern? It is an iron rod in a trembling hand."
"Psst!" snapped the other. "You respect neither age nor wisdom." He now spoke in English, but later he relapsed into the Tzigane tongue. Helen crept down to Ruth's side and listened, too; but it was little the girls understood.
The angry ruffian—the complaining one—dropped more words in English now and then, like: "We risk all—she nothing." "There were the pearls, my Carlo—ah! beautiful! beautiful! Does she not seize them as her own?" "I put my neck in a noose no longer for any man but myself—surely not for a woman!"
Then it was that the man Carlo burst into a tirade in his native speech, and under cover of his loud talk Ruth motioned her chum to creep back up the stairway, and she followed.
A sudden disquieting thought came to her. The rain was growing less. Suppose Tom should come abruptly into the house? He might get into trouble with these ruffians.
She whispered this thought to Helen, and her friend was panic-stricken again. "We must warn Tom—oh, we must warn him somehow!" she gasped.
"Surely we will," declared the girl from the Red Mill. "Now, careful how you step. A creaking board might give us away."
They crept across the upper chamber to the rear of the house. Through another room they went, until they could look out of a broken window upon the sheds. There was Master Tom standing before the shed (the machine was hidden), wiping his hands upon a piece of waste, and looking out upon the falling rain.
He saw the girls almost instantly, and opened his mouth to shout to them, but Ruth clapped her own hand to her lips and motioned with the other for him to be silent. Tom understood.
He looked more than surprised—not a little startled, in fact.
"What will he think?" murmured Helen. "He's so reckless!"
"Leave it to me," declared Ruth, leaning out of the window into the still falling rain.
She caught the boy's eye. He watched her motions. There was built at this end of the house an outside stairway, and although it was in bad repair, she saw that an agile fellow like Tom could mount the steps without any difficulty.
Pointing to this flight, she motioned him to come by that means to their level, still warning him by gesture to make no sound. The boy understood and immediately darted across the intervening space to the house.
Ruth knew there was no dining-room window from which the ruffians downstairs could see him. And they had made no move as far as she had heard.
She left Helen to meet Tom when he came in through the sagging door at the top of the outside flight of stairs, and tiptoed back into that room where they had been frightened by the bat.
It was directly over the dining-room. The same chimney was built into each room. This thought gave Ruth's active mind food for further reflection.
The rumble of the men's voices continued from below. Tom and Helen followed her so softly into the room that Ruth did not hear them until they stood beside her. Tom touched her arm and pointed downward:
"Tramps?" he asked.
"Those Gypsies, I believe," whispered Ruth, in return.
Helen was just as scared as she could be, and clung tightly to Tom's hand. "Wish we could scare them away," suggested the boy, with knitted brow.
"Perhaps we can!" uttered Ruth, suddenly eager, and her brown eyes dancing. "Sh! Wait! Let me try."
She went to the paper-stuffed stovepipe hole, out of which the bat had fallen. Helen would have exclaimed aloud, had not Tom seen her lips open and squeezed her hand warningly.
"What is it?" he hissed.
"Don't! don't!" begged Helen. "You'll let those bats all out here——"
"Bats?" queried Tom, in wonder.
"In the chimney," whispered Ruth. "Listen!"
The stir and squeaking of the bats were audible. Enough rain had come in at the top of the broken chimney to disturb the nocturnal creatures.
"Just the thing!" giggled Tom, seeing what Ruth would do. "Frighten them to pieces!"
The girl of the Red Mill had secured the stick she used before. She pulled aside the "stopper" of newspaper and thrust in the stick. At once the rustling and squeaking increased.
She worked the stick up and down insistently. Scale from the inside of the chimney began to rattle down to the hearth below. The voices ceased. Then the men were heard to scramble up.
The bats were dislodged—perhaps many of them! There was a scuffling and scratching inside the flue.
Below, the men broke out into loud cries. They shouted their alarm in the strange language the girls had heard before. Then their feet stamped over the floor.
Tom ran lightly to the window. He saw a bat wheel out of the window below, and disappear. The rain had almost stopped.
It was evident that many of the creatures were flapping about that deserted dining-room. The two ruffians scrambled to the door, through the entry, and out upon the porch.
The sound of their feet did not hold upon the porch. They leaped down the steps, and Tom beckoned the girls eagerly to join him at the window. The two men were racing down the lane toward the muddy highroad, paying little attention to their steps or to the last of the rainstorm.
"Panic-stricken, sure enough! Smart girl, Ruthie," was Master Tom's comment. "Now tell a fellow all about it."
The girls did so, while Ruth lit the alcohol lamp and made the tea. Tom was ravenous—nothing could spoil that boy's appetite.
"Gyps., sure enough," was his comment. "But what you heard them say wasn't much."
"They'd been robbing somebody—or were going to rob," said Helen, shaking her head. "What frightful men they are!"
"Pooh! they've gone now, and the old machine is fixed. We'll plow on through the mud as soon as you like."
"I shall be glad, when we get to civilization again," said his sister.
"And I'd like very much to understand what those men were talking about," Ruth observed. "Do you suppose Roberto knows about it? Pearls—beautiful pearls, that fellow spoke of."
"I tell you they are thieves!" declared Helen.
"We'll probably never know," Tom said, confidently. "So let's not worry!"
Master Tom did not prove a good prophet on this point, although he had foreseen the breaking down of the automobile before they started from the Red Mill. They went back to the car and started from the old house in a much more cheerful mood, neither of the girls supposing that they were likely to run across the Gypsy men again.
"We must hustle to make Uncle Ike's to-night, sure enough," Tom said, as the car rolled out into the muddy highway.
"Is it very far yet?" asked Ruth.
"More than sixty miles, and a bad road, and it is now half-past five," replied the boy.
"Oh, my! I hope we'll not be delayed after dark," said his sister.
"I never knew you to be such a 'fraid-cat before, Helen," laughed Ruth.
"Everything's gone wrong to-day. And those awful men scared me. Let's stop at the hotel at Boise Landing, if it grows dark. Uncle Ike's is a long way beyond the town, Tom."
"Sure—if you say so," agreed her brother, cheerfully. "I can send word up to the folks that we are all right. Of course, they will be expecting us this evening. I telegraphed them this morning that we were on the way."
The car plowed on through the mud. These roads were in very bad shape, and even while it had been dry, the traveling was bad enough. Now the wheels skidded and slipped, and the engine panted as though it were tired.
It missed explosions frequently, too, and Tom sat under the wheel with a very serious face indeed. It was not far to a small settlement called, on the map, Severn Corners. Tom knew he could get gas there, if he needed it, but he was not sure that there was a repair shop at the place. If the old machine played a trick on them again——
And it did! Right at the foot of a hill, and not far from the shore of Long Lake, the engine "died."
"Whatever shall we do?" cried Helen.
"No use wrangling about it," said Ruth, with a laugh. "Will we have to walk?"
"Walk! and carry the ropes and everything else of value?" demanded Helen.
"We can't leave the machine unprotected," said Tom, seriously. "No knowing what would happen to it. But it's not far to Severn Corners. Only two miles, or so."
"Now, I tell you," said Ruth, briskly. "You walk on, Tom, and get help. Bring back a team to drag the auto into town. Perhaps you'll find a farm before you go far. We'll remain here till you come back."
"That's what you'll have to do, Tommy," agreed his sister, as the boy hesitated. "Of course, I'm only fooling. I won't be afraid."
"I'll do my best, girls," Tom assured them. "I am sure you'll be perfectly safe," and Master Tom started off along the road at a quick trot.
Ruth and her chum were both a little troubled by Tom Cameron's departure, but even Helen had braced up and was determined not to show her fear. The situation of the girls in the auto on this lonely road was enough to trouble the mind of any person unfamiliar with the wilderness.
The shore of Long Lake (which they could see from their seats in the car) was as wild as any stretch of country through which they had traveled during the two days of the tour.
The stalled auto was on the main-traveled road, however, and there was a chance of somebody coming along. Ruth and Helen hoped that if this happened, it would be somebody who would remain with them until Tom's return.
Both kept this wish a secret, for each tried to cheer the other. Perhaps, had it not been for that adventure at the old house shortly before, neither girl would have felt so nervous.
The outlook from the stalled auto was very attractive, if wild. They could overlook a considerable part of Long Lake, a stretch of its distant southern shore, and several islands.
The edge of the water was perhaps half a mile away, and the ground sloped abruptly from this road toward the lake. Following the very edge of the water was another road, but one which the girls knew nothing about and could scarcely see from the auto.
It was merely a brown ribbon of cart-path through the second-growth timber, and it wound along the hillside, sometimes approaching very close to the main highway. Before the county had built the better road, this path had been the trail to Boise Landing.
Had the girls been looking that way, they might have seen, through a small break in the trees, some minutes after Tom left them, a string of odd-looking wagons moving slowly along this lower trail.
First two men walked ahead, smoking their pipes and plowing through the mud and water without regard to where they stepped. Then followed three freshly painted green wagons—vehicles something like old-fashioned omnibuses, but with windows in the sides and front, and a door and steps behind. Through the roof of one a stovepipe was thrust.
Behind followed a troop of horses, with two bare-legged, wild-looking youngsters astride each a barebacked steed, and holding the others with leading-reins. These horses, as well as those drawing the wagons, were sleek and well curried.
A multitude of dogs ran in the mud and water, too, but there were no women and children about, save upon the front seats of each van with the drivers. Sounds from within the green vehicles, however, proclaimed the presence of a number of others.
They were a strange-looking people—all swarthy, dark-haired, red-lipped, men and women alike having their ears pierced. The rings in the lobes of the women's ears were much larger than the ornaments in those of the men.
At a certain opening in the shrubbery, the men ahead, looking upward, beheld the stalled auto and the two girls in it. One man held up his hand and the first wagon stopped. So did the remainder of the caravan.
The two spoke together, and then strode back to the first green van. The window behind the driver's seat was already open and a strange face appeared at it.
The man driving this van was young and rather handsome—in the same wild way that Roberto was handsome. Beside him sat a comely young woman, buxom of figure, with a child in her lap. Her head was encircled with a yellow silk kerchief, she wore a green, tight-fitting bodice, and her short skirt was of a peculiar purple. She wore black stockings and neat black pumps on her feet.
Between these two on the seat, from the open window, was thrust the wicked, haggard head of a woman who might have been a hundred from the network of wrinkles in her face, and her generally aged appearance. But her eyes—black as sloes—were as sharp as a bird's. Her lips were gray, thin, and drew back when she spoke, displaying several strong, yellow fangs rather than teeth!
When she spoke, it was with a hissing sound. She used the speech of the Gypsy folk, and the others—even the rough men in the road—were very respectful to her. They explained the stoppage of the caravan, and pointed out the auto and the girls above.
It was evident that one of the men had suggested something which pleased the hag, in regard to the strangers in the motor-car. She grinned suddenly, displaying gums and fangs in a most horrible grimace.
Nodding vigorously, she gave them some commands, and then spoke to the comely woman beside the driver. The latter passed the sleeping infant back to the old woman, who disappeared into the interior of the van. The younger woman leaped down into the road, and waiting beside the two rough men, allowed the entire caravan to pass on, leaving them behind.
It was fast growing dark. The sun had disappeared behind the hills in the west, and long shadows were stretching their gaunt hands out for the girls in the auto. The chill wind which came after the tempest made them shiver, although they were somewhat sheltered by the curtains which Tom had arranged.
"I suppose we could snuggle down here with the robes, in the tonneau, and spend the night in some comfort," suggested Ruth Fielding.
"Oh! don't mention it!" exclaimed her friend. "If Tom doesn't come back with a team, or with another auto, I'll never forgive him."
"Of course he will return. But he may be delayed, Helen."
"This auto-touring isn't as much fun as I thought it would be," groaned Helen Cameron. "Oh! what's that?"
She peered out of the automobile. There was a handsome, smiling, dark young woman standing in the road beside the car.
"Young ladies," said the stranger, in a pleasant voice, "are you in trouble? Can I help you at all?"
"My goodness me! do you live near here? Can we go home with you?" cried Helen, in excitement.
"Wait!" breathed Ruth, seizing her chum's arm, but Helen was too anxious to escape from her present situation to listen to Ruth.
"For if you'll take us in till my brother gets back from Severn Corners——"
"We are going to Severn Corners—my husband and I," said the woman, smiling.
"Oh! then you do not live near here?" cried Helen, in disappointment.
"Nobody lives near here, little lady," explained the stranger. "Nobody lives nearer than Severn Corners. But it is lonesome here. We will take you both on in our wagon—nobody shall hurt you. There is only my husband and baby and the old grandmother."
"Where is your wagon?" demanded Ruth, suddenly hopping out into the road and looking all about.
"Down yonder," said the woman, pointing below. "We follow the lower road. Just there. You can see the top of it."
"Oh! A bus! It's like Uncle Noah's," declared Helen, referring to the ancient vehicle much patronized by the girls at Briarwood Hall.
"Who are you?" demanded Ruth, again, with keen suspicion.
"We are pedlars. We are good folks," laughed the woman. She did, indeed, seem very pleasant, and even Ruth's suspicions were allayed. Besides, it was fast growing dark, and there was no sign of Tom on the hilltop ahead.
"Let's go on with them," begged Helen, seizing her chum's hand. "I am afraid to stay here any longer."
"But Tom will not know where we have gone," objected Ruth, feebly.
"I'll write him a note and leave it pinned to the seat."
She proceeded to do this, while Ruth lit the auto lamps so that neither Tom, on his return, or anybody else, would run into the car in the dark. Then they were ready to go with the woman, removing only their personal wraps and bags. They would have to risk having the touring car stripped by thieves before Tom Cameron came back.
"I don't believe there are any thieves around here," whispered Helen. "They would be scared to death in such a lonesome place!" she added, with a giggle.
Ruth felt some doubt about going with the woman. She was so dark and foreign looking. Yet she seemed desirous of doing the girls a service. And even she, Ruth, did not wish to stay longer on the lonely road. Something surely had happened to detain Tom.
In the south, too, "heat lightning" played sharply—and almost continuously. Ruth knew that this meant the tempest was raging at a distance and that it might return to this side of the lake.
The thought of being marooned on this mountain road, at night, in such a storm as that which they had experienced two or three hours before, was more than Ruth Fielding could endure with calmness.