CAMP FIRE GIRLS SERIES, VOLUME II
The Camp Fire Girls On the Farm
Bessie King's New Chum
JANE L. STEWART
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THE SAALFIELD PUBLISHING COMPANY Chicago AKRON, OHIO New York MADE IN U.S.A.
COPYRIGHT, MCMXIV BY THE SAALFIELD PUBLISHING CO.
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The Camp Fire Girls On the Farm
IN THE CITY
"I never dreamed of such a lovely room, Zara, did you?"
Bessie King, her eyes open with admiration and wonder, asked her chum the question in a room in the home of Eleanor Mercer, Guardian of the Manasquan Camp Fire, of the Camp Fire Girls. Both the girls were new members of the organization, and Bessie, who had lived all her life in the country, and had known nothing of the luxuries and comforts that girls in the city, or the luckier ones of them, at least, take almost as a matter of course, had found something new to astonish her in almost every hour since they had come to the city.
"I've dreamed of it—yes," said Zara. "You see I've been in the city before, Bessie; and I've seen houses like this, and I've guessed that the rooms inside must be something like this, though I never lived in one. It's beautiful."
"I almost wish we were going to stay here, Zara. But I suppose it will be nice when we go to the farm."
Eleanor Mercer, who had been standing for a moment in the doorway, came in then, laughing merrily. She had overheard the remark, and Bessie was greatly distressed when she discovered it.
"Oh, Miss Eleanor!" she exclaimed. "Please, please don't think I'm ungrateful. I want to do whatever you think is right—"
"I know that, Bessie, and I know just what you were thinking, too. Well, you're going to have a surprise—I can promise you that. This farm isn't a bit like the farm you know about. I guess you know too much about one sort of farm to want ever to see another, don't you?"
"Maybe there are different sorts of farms," admitted Bessie. "I don't like Paw Hoover's kind."
Eleanor laughed again. She was a fresh, bright-cheeked girl, not so many years older than Bessie herself. One might guess, indeed, that she, as Guardian of her Camp Fire, didn't much more than manage to fulfill the requirement that Guardians, like Scoutmasters among the Boy Scouts, must be over twenty-one years of age.
"Indeed there are different sorts of farms from that one, Bessie," she said. "You'll see a farm where everything is done the way it should be, and, while I think Paw Hoover's a mighty nice man, I've got an idea that on his farm everything is done just about opposite to the proper fashion."
"When are we going, Miss Eleanor?"
Zara asked that question. In the last few days a hunted look had left Zara's eyes, for with relief from certain worries she had begun to be happier, and she was always asking questions now.
"I don't know exactly, Zara, but not right away. We want all the girls to go out together. We're going to have our next Council Fire at the farm. And some of them can't get away just now. But it will be fairly soon, I can promise you that. You like the country, don't you, Zara?"
"Indeed I do, Miss Eleanor! Until they took my father away I was ever so happy there."
"And just think, you're going to see him tomorrow, Zara! He's well, and as soon as he heard that you were here and safe, he stopped worrying. That was his chief trouble—he seemed to think more about what would happen to you than that he was in trouble himself."
"I knew he'd be thinking about me," said Zara, "He always did, even when he had most to bother him."
"I was sure he was a good father, Zara, when I heard you talk about him—and I've been surer of it than ever since I've had a chance to find out about him. My cousin, who's a lawyer, you know, is going to see that he is properly treated, and be says that Mr. Weeks, who tried so hard to make you stay behind and work for him, is at the bottom of all the trouble."
Zara shuddered at the name.
"How I hate that Farmer Weeks!" she exclaimed.
Eleanor Mercer sighed and shook her head. She couldn't blame Zara for hating the man, and yet, as she well knew, the spirit in the little foreign girl that cherished hatred and ideas of revenge was bad—bad for her. But how to eradicate it, and to make Zara feel more charitable, was something that puzzled the Guardian mightily, was, as she foresaw, likely to puzzle her still more. She left the two girls together, then, to answer a call from outside the room.
"I don't exactly like Farmer Weeks myself," said Bessie, thoughtfully, when they were alone. "But what's the use of hating him, Zara?"
"Why, Bessie! He made us run away from Hedgeville—he made me anyhow. And if he'd had his way, he'd have taken me back, and had me bound over to work for him just for board until I was twenty-one, if I hadn't starved to death first. You know what a miser he is."
"Yes, that's true enough, Zara. But, after all, if it hadn't happened that way, we'd never have met Miss Eleanor and the Camp Fire Girls, would we? And you're not sorry for that, are you?"
Zara's face, which had grown hard, softened.
"No, indeed, Bessie! They're the nicest people I ever did know, except you. But, even after we were with them, and had started to come to the city with them, he caught me, and if it hadn't been for you following us and guessing where he'd put me, I'd be with him now."
"Well, you're not, Zara. And you want to try to think of the good things that happen. Then you won't have time to remember all the bad things, and they won't bother you any more than if they'd never happened at all. Don't you see!"
"Well, I'll try, Bessie. I guess they can't hurt us here, anyhow, or on the farm. I think we're going to have lots of fun on the farm."
"I hope so, Zara. But I've often read about how jolly farms are—in books. In the books, you don't have to get up at four o'clock on the cold winter mornings to do chores, and you don't have to work all the time, the way I had to do for Maw Hoover."
"I guess that was just because it was Maw Hoover, Bessie, and not because it was on a farm. She'd have been mean to you, and made you work all the time, just the same, if it had been a farm or wherever it was. I think it's people that make you happy or unhappy, not other things."
"I guess that's about right, Zara. I'm awfully glad you're going to see your father in the morning. I bet he'll be glad to see you."
"Bessie! Zara!" Miss Eleanor was calling from downstairs, and they ran to answer the call.
"Come into the parlor," she said, as she heard them approaching.
They obeyed, and found her talking to a tall, good looking young man, who smiled cheerfully at them.
"This is my cousin, Charlie Jamieson, the lawyer, girls," said Miss Eleanor. "I've told him all about you, of course, and now he wants to talk to you."
"I'm going to be your lawyer, you know," Charlie Jamieson explained. "Girls like you don't have much use for a lawyer, as a rule, but I guess you need one about as badly as anyone I can think of. So I'm going to take the job, unless you know someone better."
"No, indeed," they chorused in answer, and both laughed when they saw that he was joking.
"I wish about a thousand other people were as anxious as that to be my clients. Then maybe I'd make enough money to pay my office rent."
"Don't you believe him, girls," said Eleanor, laughing, too. "He's one of the smartest young lawyers in this town, and he's busy most of the time, too. He always is, lately, when I want him to come to one of my parties or anything like that."
"Well, let's be serious for a while," said Jamieson. "I'm going to try to help your father out of his trouble, Zara, and I'm finding it pretty hard, because he doesn't want to trust me, or tell me much of anything. Perhaps you'll be able to do better."
Zara looked grave.
"I don't know much," she said. "But I do know this. My father used to trust people, but they've treated him so badly that he's afraid to do it any more. Like Farmer Weeks—I think' he trusted him."
"That's more than I'd do," said the lawyer, with a grin, "From all I've heard of him I wouldn't trust him around the corner with a counterfeit nickel—if I wanted it back. And—well, that sort of helps to get us started, doesn't it? You know why your father's in trouble? It's because they say he's been making bad money at that little house where you lived in Hedgeville."
"He didn't!" said Zara. "I know he didn't!"
"Well, the district attorney—he's the one who has to be against your father, you know—says that everyone in Hedgeville seems to think he did. And he says that where there's so much smoke there must be some fire; that if so many people think your father was crooked, they must be right. I told him that was unfair, but he just laughed at me."
"You may have to be a witness, Zara," said Eleanor.
"A witness?" said Zara, puzzled.
"Yes. You may have to go to court, and tell them what you know. They'll ask you questions, though, and you'll just have to answer them, and tell the truth just as you know it."
"Yes, that's why I'm here," said Jamieson, nodding his head. "You see, I may need you very badly and I want to make sure that they can't take you back to Hedgeville. You never saw anyone who told you that as long as your father couldn't look after you any more, you would have to stay with this Weeks, did you? A judge, I mean?"
"No. But when Farmer Weeks caught me that time, and carried me away in his buggy, he said he was going to take me to Zebulon—that's the county seat, you know—and have everything fixed up. But Bessie got me away from him before that could happen, so it was all right."
"And when he came after you at Pine Bridge—after you'd crossed the line into this state—the policeman there wouldn't let him touch you, would he?"
"No. Farmer Weeks showed him a paper, with a big red seal on it, but the policeman said it was no good in this state."
"That sounds all right. I guess they can't touch you. I had to make sure of that, you see. But, young lady, you want to be mighty careful. If they can get you over the state line, no matter how, they've got you. And I shouldn't be surprised if they tried just to kidnap you."
Eleanor Mercer looked frightened.
"Do you think there is any real danger, Charlie?" she asked.
"I certainly do. And it's because I don't know just what it is they're after. There's something funny here, something we don't know about at all yet. Maybe her father could tell us, but he isn't ready to do it. And I don't blame him much. I guess, from all I've heard, that he's had about as bad a time here with spies and enemies as he could have had anywhere in Europe."
"You hear that, Zara? You must be very careful. Don't go out alone, and if anyone tries to speak to you, no matter what they tell you, you pay no attention to them. If they keep on bothering you, speak to a policeman, if there's one around, and say that you want him to stop them from bothering you."
"Good idea," said Charlie Jamieson. "And if you do have to speak to a policeman, you mention my name. They all know me, and I guess most of them like me well enough to do any little favor for a friend of mine."
Then Jamieson turned to Bessie.
"We've got to think about your case, too," he said. "Miss Mercer tells me that you don't know what's become of your father and mother. Just what do you know about them?"
"Not very much," said Bessie, bravely, although the disappearance of her parents always weighed heavily on her mind. "When I was a little bit of a girl they left me with the Hoovers, at Hedgeville, and I lived with them after that. Maw Hoover said they promised to come back for me, and to pay her board for looking after me until they came, and that they did pay the board for a while. But then they stopped writing altogether, and no one has heard from them for years."
"H'm! Where did the last letter they wrote come from?"
"San Francisco. I've heard Maw Hoover say that, often. But that was years and years ago."
"Well, that's better than nothing, anyhow. You see, the Hoovers wouldn't have known how to start looking for them, even if they'd been particularly anxious to do it."
"And I don't believe they were," said Eleanor Mercer, indignantly. "They treated her shamefully, Charlie—made her work like a hired girl, and never paid her for it, at all. Instead, they acted, or the woman did, anyhow, just as if they were giving her charity in letting her stay there. Wasn't that an outrage?"
"Lots of people act as if they were being charitable when they get a good deal more than they give," said the lawyer dryly.
"Maw Hoover was always calling me lazy, and saying she'd send me to the poor-farm," said Bessie. "But it was she and Jake that made things so hard. Paw Hoover was always good to me, and he helped me to get away, too."
"That's what I'm driving at," said Jamieson. "You had a right to go whenever you liked, if they hadn't adopted you, or anything like that. Really, all you were in their place was a servant who wasn't getting paid."
"I knew she had a right to go," said Eleanor. "That's why I helped her, of course."
"Then we're all right. If she'd really run away from someone who had a right to keep her, it would be harder. I might be able to prove that they weren't fit guardians, but that's always hard, and it's a good thing we don't need to do it. Hullo, what's the matter now?"
"Look!" said Zara, who had risen, and was looking keenly at a figure across the street. "See, Bessie, don't you know who that is, even in those clothes?"
Bessie followed her eyes, and started to her feet.
"It's Jake Hoover!" she cried. "What can he want here?"
AN OLD ENEMY TURNS UP
Startled and frightened by Bessie's cry, Eleanor jumped up and followed her to the window.
"Well," said Eleanor, "I never saw him before, but I can't say I'm sorry for that. He looks mean enough to do all the things you've told us about him, Bessie."
"Who is this Hoover? One of the people Bessie lived with, in Hedgeville?" asked Jamieson.
"Yes; he's the son of the old farmer and his wife."
"H'm!" said the lawyer. "Then evidently he knows where she has come. That looks bad."
"Yes. You see, he was always his mother's pet," said Eleanor, "and I suppose he'll tell her all about the girls."
"Let him! I guess it can't do any harm. I don't see how it can now, anyhow, unless he's in with this Weeks or someone we don't know anything about, who has some interest in this affair. That's one of the things that's going to give me trouble, I'm afraid."
"What do you mean, Charlie?"
"Just that there's so much I don't know. You see, there's something mighty queer loose here. I can see that. There's a mystery and we haven't the key. The chances are that the people we've got to fight know everything there is to be known, while we don't even know who they are, except this Weeks. And I'm not a bit sure about him."
"I am, Charlie. If you'd seen him, and heard all about the way he acted, you'd know he was an enemy all right."
"That's not just what I mean, Eleanor. I'm thinking that perhaps he isn't just making this fight on his own account; that maybe he's working for someone else."
"I hadn't thought of that at all—"
"No reason why you should! But it's my business to think of every little thing that may happen to have an influence on any case that I'm mixed up in, you see. And, as I understand it, this Weeks is pretty close—pretty fond of money, isn't he?"
"He's a regular old miser, that's what he is!" said Zara, her eyes flashing.
"There's a motive for him, you see. Someone might have a reason for wanting to keep Zara where they could get her easily, and if they offered Weeks a little money to get hold of her, I judge he'd do it fast enough."
"But why shouldn't they try to get hold of her themselves, if that's what they want?"
"There might be lots of reasons for that. They might want to keep out of it, so that no one would know they were doing it, you see. That would be one reason. And then this Weeks is a bit of a politician. He's got a good, strong pull in that county, I guess. Lots of men who have a little money saved up can get a pull. They lend money, and then they can make the men to whom they lend it do about as they like, by threatening to take their land away from them if they don't pay up their mortgages as soon as they're due. It's pretty bad business, but that's the way things are. I'm afraid we're going to have a lot of trouble, and until I know just what's what, I've got to do a lot of my work in the dark. But I'm going to do my best."
"I know how Jake Hoover found I was here, I bet," said Bessie, who had been thinking hard.
"Well, you know General Seeley thought I'd frightened his pheasants and taken the eggs. And then, later, I found Jake was the one. General Seeley didn't punish him, but let him go with a warning."
"He's too soft-hearted," commented Jamieson, angrily. "A lad like that ought to be sent to the reformatory—proper place for him!"
"Well, anyhow," Bessie resumed, smiling at the young lawyer's vehemence, and at the look of approval that Zara shot at him, since she had felt just the same way about Jake, "he was turned away, and I guess he just hung around to see what I'd do, and where I'd go. I think he'd like to get even with me, if he could."
"He'd better behave himself if he's going to stay around here," said Jamieson. "His mother won't be around to make people believe that he hasn't done anything wrong, and he won't find everyone as lenient and forgiving as General Seeley when he's caught in the act of doing something he can be sent to jail for. Not if I've got anything to say about it, he won't!"
"I don't believe he'll be able to stay around here very long," said Bessie, pacifically. "It must cost him a lot of money to stay here in the city, and I don't know how he can manage that. Maw Hoover always gave him money whenever he wanted it, if she had it, but she never had very much."
"That's good," said the lawyer. "We'll hope that he'll be starved out pretty soon, and have to go home. But I guess we'd better not count very much on that. He may find someone who's anxious enough to make trouble for you two to pay him to stay here for a while. He'd be pretty useful, I imagine."
"I think we're foolish to do so much guessing," said Eleanor, suddenly. "You can know much better what to do when you've really found something out, Charlie. Now, listen. I was thinking of letting these two go to work for a little while before we went to the farm, so that they could earn some money for themselves."
"Yes," said Bessie and Zara, in one breath, eagerly. "We're so anxious to do that. We mustn't keep on living here and taking charity—"
But the lawyer shook his head vigorously.
"Not right away," he said. "It's just because I'm doing so much guessing that we mustn't take any chances, Eleanor. You want to keep them close to you for a while. I spoke about that before Bessie saw our young friend Hoover, and I think so more than ever now. Don't you see that they're being spied on already?"
"I certainly do," said Eleanor. "And I just want to do whatever is best for them. Bessie, you mustn't think you're getting charity when you stay here. You're here as my guests, and we love to have you—both of you."
"That's right, Bessie," said Jamieson, smiling. "She means that, or she wouldn't say it. I can tell you you were mighty lucky when you ran into Eleanor the way you did."
"We know that, Mr. Jamieson; we do, indeed!"
"Nonsense!" said Eleanor, flushing, but not really displeased by the compliment, which was evidently sincere. "I believe anyone would have done just what I did."
"I wish I had your faith in human nature, Eleanor, but I haven't and I know that mighty few people would have been willing to do it, even if they'd been able. You've got to remember that, too. Lots of people couldn't have done what you did. Well, I've got to be going."
"You'll call for us tomorrow, though, won't you, Charlie, to take Zara to see her father?"
"Yes, indeed. I won't fail you. He's looking forward to it, and I've got an idea, or I hope, at least, that when he finds I've kept my promise and brought Zara to see him, he'll feel more like trusting me."
"I'm sure he will when I tell him how good you've been to us, Mr. Jamieson," said Zara.
"Better not tell him about my goodness until I've done something beside talk, Zara. But I'm going to do my best anyhow, and I'm sure things will come out right in the end. Just keep smiling, be cheerful, and don't worry any more than you can help."
From the porch they watched him walk off down the street. He carried himself like the athlete he was, and his broad shoulders and fine, free stride were those of a man who inspires confidence and trust, even in those who only see his back.
"Look!" said Zara, suddenly. "Why is Jake Hoover going down that way? And isn't he acting queerly?"
"Why, I believe he's following Mr. Jamieson!" said Bessie. "See, he keeps getting behind trees and things, and he's staying on the other side of the street. Whenever Mr. Jamieson turns, Jake hides himself."
Eleanor frowned thoughtfully.
"I think you're right, Bessie," she said. "And I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to telephone to his office and tell his clerk to slip out and meet him, so that he can warn him. He ought to know about that."
She went in hurriedly to use the telephone.
"I'm going upstairs to get my handkerchief," said Zara. "My, isn't it warm?"
So Bessie was left alone on the piazza. She was afraid of Jake Hoover; afraid of the mischief he might do, that is. No longer was she afraid of him as she had been in the old days on the farm, when he had bullied her and made her the scapegoat for all the offences he could possibly load on her slim shoulders. One night in the woods, when Bessie, wrapped in a sheet and playing ghost, had frightened Jake and his mischievous friends away before they could terrify the Camp Fire Girls as they lay asleep, had taught Bessie that Jake was a coward.
"It's Zara they're after—not me," Bessie thought to herself. "I've been out alone ever and ever so often, and there's no one here to hurt me. I'm going to go after Jake myself, and try to see what he's up to."
At first Bessie's pursuit led her along the pleasant, tree-shaded streets of the suburb where the Mercers lived. Bessie had never been in the city before and all was strange to her. But here it seemed to her that the stories she had read of crowded streets must have been exaggerated, for she saw few people. Sometimes automobiles passed her, and delivery wagons, and a few children were playing here and there. But there were no high buildings, and it seemed almost as peaceful as it had around Hedgeville.
But then gradually, as she went on, conditions changed. She crossed a street on which there ran a street car line, and there many people were passing. Still she managed to keep Jake Hoover in sight, and, though she could not always see Charlie Jamieson, she supposed that Jake could, and it was Jake she was following, after all.
More than once Jake turned and looked behind him, and Bessie had to be constantly on her guard lest he discover her. At first it was easy enough to escape his eye—she had only to dodge behind a tree. But as she drew nearer and nearer to the business part of town the trees began to disappear. There was no more green grass between the pavement and the street itself; the pavements were narrower, and they were needed for the crowds that passed quickly along. But in those very crowds Bessie found a substitute for the trees. She felt that they would protect her and cover her movements, and she increased her pace, so that she could get nearer to Jake, and so run less risk of losing him in the crowd.
No one paid any attention to her, and that seemed strange to Bessie, used to the curiosity of country folk regarding any stranger, although Zara, who knew more about city life, had told her that it would be so. She was grateful, anyhow; she wanted to be let alone. And evidently Jake was profiting by the same indifference.
Her chase led her before long into the most thickly settled part of the city. Trolley cars clanged past her all the time now; the center of the street was full of vehicles of all sorts, and, as she hurried along, she was hard put to it to keep her feet, so great was the rush and the hurry of those with whom she shared the pavement.
Then she came to a sort of central square, where all the business of the town seemed to be concentrated. On one side was a great building. Outside were cabs and newsboys, and Bessie recognized it as the station through which, with Eleanor Mercer and the rest of the Camp Fire Girls, she had come to the city. Bessie stopped at the curb, dazed and confused. Here she lost sight of Jake.
After her long chase, that seemed bitterly hard. Had she only known what was coming, she would have been closer to him, but, as it was, she could only stand on the corner, looking helplessly about, on the off chance that she would again catch sight of his well-known figure.
But luck was not with her. Even someone far better used to the bustle and confusion of the city might well have been at a loss. It was the luncheon hour, and from all the buildings hundreds of people were pouring out, making the streets seem fuller than ever. And it was not long before Bessie decided with a sigh that she must give up, and find her way home. She was afraid Eleanor Mercer would be worried and alarmed by her absence, and she determined to return as she had come, and as fast as she could.
Still, on the way, surely she could peep into one of the beautiful store windows—and she did. For a moment she stood there, and then, suddenly, she felt a hand in her pocket. She turned to see whose it was—and looked up into the evil eyes of Farmer Weeks!
"Stop her!" he cried. "She picked my pocket!"
AND AN OLD FRIEND HELPS
Bessie gasped in sheer terror, and for a moment she couldn't open her mouth. Farmer Weeks, his weather-beaten face twisted into a grin of malice and dislike, stood looking down at her, his bony hand gripping her wrist. Even had it been in Bessie's mind to run away, she could not have done it. And, as a matter of fact, the shock of hearing his voice, of seeing him, and, above all, of being accused of such a thing, had deprived her for the moment of the use of her legs as well as of the power of speech.
Then, while Farmer Weeks lifted his voice again, calling for a policeman, Bessie got a vivid and sharp lesson in the interest a city crowd can be induced to take in anything out of the ordinary, no matter how trifling. The pavement where they stood was densely crowded already. Now more people seemed to spring up from nowhere at all, and they were surrounded by a ring of people who pressed against one another, calling curious questions, all trying to get into the front rank to see whatever was to be seen.
"Gosh all hemlock!" Farmer Weeks confided to the crowd. "They told me to look out fer them scalawags when I come to town, but I swan I didn't expect to see a gal like that tryin' to lift my wallet. No, sir! But they got to get up pretty early in the mornin' to fool me—they have that!"
Even in her fright, Bessie divined at once what the old rascal was trying to do. He was playing the part of the green and unsuspicious countryman, the farmer on a trip, usually the easy prey of sharpers of all sorts, and he was doing it for a purpose—to win the sympathy of the crowd. In her new clothes Bessie looked enough like a city girl to pass for one easily, while Farmer Weeks wore old-fashioned clothes of rusty black, a slouch hat, and a colored handkerchief knotted about his neck in place of a scarf. He carried an old-fashioned cotton umbrella; too, a huge affair—a regular "bumbleshoot," and he was dressed to play the part.
"Hey, mister, gimme a nickel an' I'll call a cop for you!" volunteered a small, sharp-faced boy, with a bundle of papers under his arm. Somehow he had managed to squirm through the crowd.
Weeks looked at him reproachfully.
"You call a constable—an' I'll give you the nickel when you come back with him," he said.
In spite of her deplorable situation, Bessie wanted to laugh. It was so like Farmer Weeks, the miser, to be unwilling to risk even five cents without being sure that he would get value for his money! The boy darted off, and Bessie heard half a dozen of the crowd make remarks applauding the good sense of her supposed victim.
"Ain't it too bad?" said Weeks tolerantly to the crowd, as he waited for a policeman, still clutching Bessie's hand tightly. "Who'd ever think a pretty young gal like her would try to rob an old man—hey?"
"Never can tell, Pop," said a keen-eyed youth, who was standing near. His eyes darted nervously about from one face to another. "Them as you wouldn't suspect naturally is the worst, as a rule—it's so easy for them to make a get-away."
Then the crowd gave way suddenly for a man in a blue uniform, but Bessie, still unable to say anything, saw at once it was not a policeman. But it was not until he was quite close to her that she recognized him with a little thrill of joy. And at the same moment he recognized her, too, as well as Farmer Weeks. It was Tom Norris, the friendly train conductor who had helped Zara and herself to escape to Pine Bridge, and out of the state in which Hedgeville was situated.
"Come, come; what's this?" asked the train conductor sharply. "Let go of that girl's arm, you Weeks!"
"What business is it of your'n!" asked Weeks, angrily.
"You let her go," said Norris, with determination, "or I'll pretty soon show you what business it is of mine—I'll knock you down, white hair and all! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, pickin' on the girl this way!"
He advanced, threateningly, and none of the crowd undertook to protect Weeks from his obvious anger. Norris was a big, strong man, and, for all his kindly ways, it was evident that he could fight well if he saw any reason for doing it. And now, it was plain, he thought the reason was excellent, and he was entirely ready to back up what he had to say with his sturdy fists. Weeks saw that plainly, and he had reason to fear the burly conductor. Quickly he released Bessie's wrist, and a moment later Norris would have had her out of the crush had not the arrival of another man in uniform created a diversion. This time it really was a policeman, and he came at the heels of the newsboy who had run after him.
"Here's yer cop, mister! Now gimme the nickel!" said the boy shrilly to the farmer.
"Run along! I never promised you no nickel," said Farmer Weeks, looking nervously at Norris. But at that the crowd, which had been disposed to side with him, transferred its sympathies suddenly to the cheated newsboy, who was pouring out a stream of angry words, the while he clung to Weeks' arm, demanding his money.
Weeks soon saw that he had better not try to save a nickel, much as he valued it, and, reluctantly enough, he drew a purse from his trousers pocket and gave the boy his money, counting out five pennies.
"Here, here; what's all this fuss about?" asked the policeman. He was responsible for keeping order on his post, and before Weeks could answer his question he drove the crowd away with sharp orders to move on and be quick about it. Then he turned back to the farmer, Bessie, and the conductor, who had taken Bessie's hand.
"Now then, whose pocket was picked? Yours, young lady?"
"No, consarn ye, mine!" said Farmer Weeks, angrily, as he heard the question. "And she done it, too—she's a slick one, she is! An' this fresh railroad man here was tryin' to help her get away. Like as not they work together, an' he was fixin' to have her give him half of what she got."
Norris smiled at the policeman.
"You know me, Mike," he said. "Think I'm in that sort of business?"
"Begorra, an' I know ye're not!" said the policeman, indignantly. "Talk straight, now, you old rube, an' tell me what it is you're tryin' to say. What sort of a charge ye're after makin'?"
"She put her hand in my pocket—an' she stole my wallet," said Farmer Weeks. "She's got it in her pocket now—her right-hand pocket!"
"How do you know that?" asked the policeman, sharply.
"How—why shouldn't I know? Look and see for yourself—"
But there was no need. Bessie herself, tears in her eyes, plunged her hand into the pocket Weeks had named—and, to her consternation, the wallet came out in her hand. She stared at it in stupefaction.
"I don't know how it got there! I never saw it before!" she exclaimed.
"H'm! This looks pretty bad, Tom," said the policeman. "Is this young lady a friend of yours?"
"She is that," said Tom, stoutly. "And I'll go bail for her anywhere. She never picked that old scalawag's pocket. I know him well, Mike, and I've never known any good of him. He never rides on my train without tryin' to beat the company out of the fare—uses every old trick you ever heard of. Many's the time I've had to threaten to put him off between stations before he'd fork over the money."
But Mike, the policeman, looked doubtful, as well he might, and there was a gleam of evil triumph in the farmer's eyes.
"Listen here!" said Tom, suddenly. "He says that's his wallet, and he's makin' enough fuss for it to have a thousand dollars inside. But when he paid the boy he took a purse from his pocket to get the money."
"That's right. I seen him myself," said Mike, still scratching his head. "I'll just have a look inside that pocket-book."
"Ye will not—that's my property!" said Farmer Weeks, reaching quickly for the wallet.
But Mike was too quick for him, and in a moment he had opened the wallet, and could see that it was empty, except for a few torn pieces of paper, evidently put in it to stuff it out, and deceive people into thinking that it contained a wad of bills.
"What sort of game are yez tryin' to put up on us here?" demanded the policeman, angrily. "Here, take yer book—"
"She's as much guilty of theft as if there had been a hundred dollars in it," said Farmer Weeks, recovering from his dismay at the exposure of the trick. "You arrest her or I'll—"
"What will yez do, ye spalpeen?" said the policeman. "If ye get gay wid me I'll run yez in—and don't be afther forgettin' that, either!"
As he spoke he turned, angrily, to observe a small boy who was tugging at his sleeve.
"Say, mister, say," begged the boy, "listen here a minute, will yer? I seen the old guy slip his purse into her pocket. She never took it."
Tom's eyes, as he heard, lighted up.
"By Gad, Mike, that's what he did!" he exclaimed. "Did you hear how ready he was to tell just which pocket she had it in? How'd he have known that—unless he put it there, eh?"
"It's a lie!" stormed Farmer Weeks. "Here, are you going to lock that girl up as a thief or not?"
"Indade and I'm not," said the officer, warmly. "Drop her wrist—quick!"
He stepped forward as he spoke, and Weeks, seeing by the gleam in the Irishman's eye that he had gone too far, quickly released Bessie. As she moved away from him he stood still, red-eyed and trembling with rage.
"An' what's more, you old scalawag," said the policeman, "I'm going to run you in. Maybe you never heard tell of perjury, but it's worse than pickin' pockets, let me tell you."
His heavy hand dropped to Weeks' shoulder, but he was too slow. With a yell of fright the old farmer, displaying an agility with which no one would have been ready to credit him, turned and dove headlong through the crowd.
The policeman started to give chase, but Tom Norris restrained him. He was laughing heartily.
"What's the use? Let him be, Mike," he said. "My, but it was as good as a play to see you handle him. Gosh! Watch the old beggar run, will you?"
Indeed, Weeks was running as fast as he could, and, even as they watched him, he disappeared inside the station.
"That's a good riddance. Maybe he'll go home and stay there," said the conductor. "He won't try his dirty tricks on you again," he added, turning to Bessie. "If he does, you'll have a friend in Mike, here."
"True for you, Tom Norris!" said the policeman. "I'm glad ye turned up, boy. Ye saved me from makin' a fool of meself, I'm thinkin'. The old omadhoun! To think he'd put up a job like that on a slip of a girl, and him ould enough to be her father—or her grandfather!"
"Well, I've helped you out again, haven't I?" said Tom Norris. "Are you living here in the city now? Suppose you tell me why old Weeks is so mean to you, now that we've the time."
"I will, and gladly," said Bessie. "But I haven't so very much time. Can you walk with me as I go home?"
So, with Tom Norris to look after her, Bessie began her trip back to the Mercer house, and, on the way, she told him the story of her flight from Hedgeville, and the adventures that had happened since its beginning.
"I suppose I was foolish to go after Jake Hoover that way," she concluded, "but I thought I might be able to help. I didn't like to see him following Mr. Jamieson that way, when he was trying to be so nice to us."
"Maybe you were foolish," said Tom. "But don't let it worry you too much. You meant well, and I guess there's lots of us are foolish without having as good an excuse as that."
"Oh, there's Mr. Jamieson now!" cried Bessie, suddenly spying the young lawyer on the other side of the street. "I think I'd better tell him what's happened, don't you, Mr. Norris?"
"I do indeed. Stay here, I'll run over. The young fellow with the brown suit, is it?"
Bessie nodded, and Tom Norris ran across the street and was back in a moment with Jamieson, who was mightily surprised to see Bessie, whom he had left only a short time before at the Mercer house. He frowned very thoughtfully as he heard her story.
"I'm not going to scold you for taking such a risk," he said. "I really didn't think, either, that it was you they would try to harm. I thought your friend Zara was the only one who was in danger."
"I suppose they'd try to get hold of Miss Bessie here, though," said the conductor, "because they'd think she'd be a good witness, perhaps, if there was any business in court. I don't know much about the law, except I think it's a good thing to keep clear of."
"You bet it is," said Jamieson, with a laugh.
"That's fine talk, from a lawyer!" smiled Tom Norris. "Ain't it your business to get people into lawsuits?"
"Not a bit of it!" said Jamieson. "A good lawyer keeps his clients out of court. He saves money for them that way, and they run less risk of being beaten. The biggest cases I have never get into court at all. It's only the shyster lawyers, like Isaac Brack, who are always going to court, whether there's any real reason for it or not."
"Brack!" said Tom. "Why, say, I know him! And, what's more, this man Weeks does, too. Brack's his lawyer. I heard that a long time ago. Brack gets about half the cases against the railroad, too. Whenever there's a little accident, Brack hunts up the people who might have been hurt, and tries to get damages for them. Only, if he wins a case for them, he keeps most of the money—and if they lose he charges them enough so that he comes out ahead, anyhow."
"That's the fellow," Jamieson said. "We'll get him disbarred sooner or later, too. He's a bad egg. I'm glad to know I've got to fight him in this case. If this young Hoover was following me, I'll bet Brack had something to do with it."
"He was certainly following you," said Bessie. "Whenever you turned around he got behind a tree or something, so that you wouldn't see him."
"He needn't have been so careful. He might have walked right next to me all the way into town, and I'd never have suspected him. As it happened, I wasn't going anywhere this morning—anywhere in particular, I mean. It wouldn't have made any difference if Brack had known just what I was doing. But I'm mighty glad to know that he is trying to spy on me, Bessie. In the next few days I'm apt to do some things I wouldn't want him to know about at all, and now that I'm warned I'll be able to keep my eyes and my ears open, and I guess Brack and his spies will have some trouble in getting on to anything I choose to keep hidden from them."
"That's the stuff!" approved Tom. "I told Miss Bessie here she'd done all right. She meant well, even if she did run a foolish risk. And there's no harm done."
"Well, we'd better hurry home," said Jamieson. "I don't want them to be worried about you, Bessie, so I'll take you home in a taxicab."
The cab took them swiftly toward the Mercer house. When they were still two or three blocks away Jamieson started and pointed out a man on the sidewalk to Bessie.
"There's Brack now!" he exclaimed. "See, Bessie? That little man, with the eyeglasses. He's up to some mischief. I wonder what he's doing out this way?"
When they arrived, Eleanor Mercer, her eyes showing that she was worried, was waiting for them on the porch.
"Oh, I'm so glad you're here!" she exclaimed.
"I'm so sorry if you were worried about me, Miss Eleanor," said Bessie, remorsefully.
"I wasn't, though," said Eleanor. "It's Zara! She's upstairs, crying her eyes out and she won't answer me when I try to get her to tell me what's wrong. You'd better see her, Bessie."
A NEW DANGER
Alarmed at this news of Zara, Bessie hurried upstairs at once to the room the two girls shared. She found her chum on the bed, crying as if her heart would break.
"Why, Zara, what's the matter? Why are you crying?" she asked.
But try as she might, Bessie could get no answer at all from Zara for a long time.
"Have I done anything to make you feel bad? Has anything gone wrong here?" urged Bessie. "If you'll only tell us what's the matter, dear, we'll straighten it out. Can't you trust me?"
"N—nothing's happened—you haven't done anything," Zara managed to say at last.
"Surely nothing Miss Eleanor has said has hurt you, Zara? I'm certain she'd feel terrible if she thought you were crying because of anything she had done!"
Zara shook her head vehemently at that, but her sobs only seemed to come harder than before.
Bessie was thoroughly puzzled. She knew that Zara, brought up in a foreign country, did not always understand American ways. Sometimes, when Bessie had first known her, little jesting remarks, which couldn't have been taken amiss by any American girl, had reduced her to tears. And Bessie thought it entirely possible that someone, either Miss Eleanor, or her mother, or one of the Mercer servants, might have offended Zara without in the least meaning to do so.
But Zara seemed determined to keep the cause of her woe to herself. Not all of Bessie's pleading could make her answer the simplest questions. Finally, seeming to feel a little better, she managed to speak more coherently.
"Leave me alone for a little while, please, Bessie," she begged. "I'll be all right then—really I will!"
So Bessie, reluctantly enough, had to go downstairs, since she understood thoroughly that to keep on pressing Zara for an explanation while she was in such a nervous state would do more harm than good.
"Could you find out what was wrong?" asked Eleanor anxiously when Bessie came down. Charlie Jamieson was still with her on the porch, smoking a cigar and frowning as if he were thinking of something very unpleasant. He was, as a matter of fact. He was changing all his ideas of the case in which Eleanor's encounter with the two girls had involved him, since, with Brack for an opponent, he knew only too well that he was in for a hard fight, and if, as he supposed, the opposition was entirely without a reasonable case, a fight in which dirty and unfair methods were sure to be employed.
Bessie shook her head.
"She wouldn't tell me anything—just begged me to leave her alone and said she'd be all right presently," she answered. "I've seen her this way before and, really, there's nothing to do but wait until she feels better."
"You've seen her this way before, you say?" said Jamieson, quickly. "What was the matter then? What made her act so? If we know why she did it before, perhaps it will give us a clue to why she is behaving in such a queer fashion now."
"She's awfully sensitive," she said. "Sometimes, when people have just joked with her a little bit, without meaning to say anything nasty at all, she's thought they were angry at her, or laughing at her for being a foreigner, and she's gone off just like this. I thought at first—"
"Yes?" said Eleanor, encouragingly, when Bessie stopped. "Don't be afraid to tell us what you think, Bessie. We just want to get to the bottom of this strange fit of hers, you know."
"Well, it seems awfully mean to say it," said poor Bessie, "when you've been so lovely to us, but I thought maybe someone had joked about her in some way. You know she sometimes pronounces words in a funny fashion, as if she'd only read them, and had never heard anyone speak them. In Hedgeville lots of people used to laugh at her for that. I think that's why she stopped going to school. And I thought, perhaps, that was what was the matter—"
"It might have happened, of course," said Eleanor, "and without anyone meaning to hurt her feelings. I'd be very careful myself, but some of the other people around the house wouldn't know, of course. But, no, that won't explain it, Bessie. Not this time."
"Are you sure, Eleanor!" asked Jamieson.
"Positively," she answered. "Because, after you went off, she was out here with me for quite a long time. Then I was called inside, and I'm quite sure no one from the house saw her at all after that until I found her crying. She'd been outside on the porch all the time—"
"Aha!" cried Jamieson, then. "If no one in the house here talked to her, someone from outside must have done it. Listen, Bessie. She wouldn't go off that way just from brooding, would she, just from thinking about things?"
"No, I'm quite sure she wouldn't, Mr. Jamieson. She's felt bad two or three times since we left Hedgeville, when she got to thinking about her father's troubles, and everything of that sort. But she's always told me about it and it hasn't made her feel just as she seems to now, anyhow."
"Well, then, can't you see? No one here said anything to her, so it must have been someone who isn't in the house—someone who spoke to her after you left her out here alone, Eleanor. And I know who it was, too!"
"That nasty looking man you pointed out to me as we were coming along with Mr. Norris?" cried Bessie.
"Yes, indeed—Brack!" said Jamieson. "He's just the one who would do it, too! Oh, I tell you, one has to look out for him! He's as mean as a man could be and still live, I guess. I've heard of more harsh, miserable things he's done than I could tell you in a week. Whenever he's around it's a warning to look out for trouble. Suppose you go up to her, Bessie, and see if mentioning his name will loosen her tongue."
But just as she was entering the house Zara, with only her reddened eyes to show that she had been crying at all, came out on the porch.
"I'm ever so ashamed of myself, Miss Eleanor," she said, smiling pluckily. "I suppose you think I'm an awful cry-baby, but I was just feeling bad about my father and everything, and I couldn't seem to help it."
Bessie looked at Zara in astonishment. To the eyes of those who didn't know her as well as Bessie, Zara might seem to be all right, but Bessie could see that her chum was still frightened and weak. She wondered why Zara was acting, for acting she was. She meant that Miss Mercer and everyone should think that her fit of depression had been only temporary, and that now everything was all right. And Bessie, loyal as ever, decided to help her.
But when Charlie Jamieson took his leave again to go back to his office and his interrupted work, he looked at her keenly and when he started to go he took Bessie by the hand playfully and pulled her off the porch, and out of sight of the others.
"Listen," he said, earnestly, "there's something more than we know about or can guess very easily the matter with your friend, Bessie. She's been frightened—badly frightened. And it's dollars to doughnuts that it's that scoundrel Brack who's frightened her, too. Keep your eyes on her—see that she doesn't get a chance to speak to him or anyone else alone."
"Do you think there's any danger of his coming back?" asked Bessie, alarmed by his serious tone.
"I don't know, Bessie, but I do know Brack. And I've found out this much about him. He's like a rabbit—he'll fight when he's driven into a corner. And the time he's most dangerous is when he seems to be beaten, when it looks as if he hadn't a leg to stand on."
"Do you think he's beaten now, Mr. Jamieson?"
"No, I don't! And just because he's the man he is. If it were anyone else, I'd say yes, because I don't see what they can expect to do. But you can depend upon it that Brack has some dirty trick up his sleeve, and from all you tell me of this man Weeks, he's the same sort of an ugly customer. So you keep your eyes open, and if anything happens to worry you, call me up right away. Get me at my office if it's before five o'clock; after that, call up this number." He wrote down a telephone number on a slip of paper and handed it to Bessie.
"That's the telephone at my home, and if I'm not there myself ask for my servant, Farrell. He'll be there, and he'll manage to get word to me somehow, no matter where I am."
"Oh, I do hope I shan't have to bother you, Mr. Jamieson."
"Don't you worry about that. That's what I'm here for, to be bothered, as you call it, if there's any need of me. Remember that you can't do everything yourself—and you may only get into trouble yourself without really helping if you try to do it all. So call on me if there's any need. And, whatever you do, don't let Zara go out of the house alone on any pretence. Remember that, will you?"
"I certainly will, Mr. Jamieson. You're awfully good to us, and I know Zara would be grateful, too, if she were herself. She will be as soon as all this trouble is over."
"I know that, Bessie. Don't you fuss around being grateful to me until I've really done something for you. You know, you're the sort of girl I like. You've got pluck, and you don't get discouraged, like so many girls—though Heaven knows you've had enough trouble to make you as nervous as any of them."
"I get awfully frightened. Indeed, I do!"
"Of course you do, but you've got pluck enough to admit it. Remember this: the real hero is the man who does what's right, and what he knows he ought to do, even if he's scared so that he's shaking like a leaf. Any fool can do a thing if it doesn't frighten him to do it, and he doesn't deserve any special credit for that. The real bravery is the sort a man shows when he goes into battle, for instance, and wants to turn around and run as soon as he hears the bullets singing over his head."
"I'm sure I would want to do just that—"
"But you wouldn't! That's the point, you see. And you always think things are going to be all right. That's fine—because about half the time we can control the things that happen to us. If we think everything will come right in the end, we can usually make them work out our way. But if we start in thinking that nothing is going to be right, why, then we're licked before we begin, and there's not much use trying at all. Now, you didn't say Zara would feel differently if things came out right. You said she would when everything was straightened out. And that's the spirit that wins. Try to put some more of it into her, and try to make her tell you what happened, too."
But all of Bessie's efforts to win Zara's confidence that day were in vain. Zara, however, seemed to be all right. She was brighter and livelier than she had been since Bessie had known her. All day long she laughed and burst into little snatches of song, and Miss Mercer was delighted.
Nevertheless Bessie wasn't satisfied, and she kept a close watch on Zara all day. It seemed time wasted, however. Zara made no attempt to keep away from her; seemed anxious, indeed, to be with her chum, that they might talk over their plans for winning enough honors as Camp Fire Girls to become Fire-Makers.
Had Bessie's eyes and her perceptions been less keen she would have thought her first idea, the one she shared with Charlie Jamieson, a mistaken one. But more than once, when Zara thought she was unobserved, and was therefore off her guard, Bessie saw the corners of her mouth droop and a wistful look come into her eyes. There was fear in those eyes, too, though of what, Bessie could not imagine.
It was long after midnight that night when Bessie was aroused, she scarcely knew how. Some instinct led her to turn on the light—and she could scarcely repress a scream when she saw that Zara's bed was empty!
For a moment she stood in the middle of the room, dazed, wondering what could have happened. The door was closed. Bessie rushed to it, and looked out, but there was no sign of Zara in the hall. She listened intently. The house was silent, with the silence that broods over a well regulated house at night, when everyone is or ought to be asleep. But then there was a noise from outside—a noise that came through the windows, from the street.
Bessie rushed back into the room and over to the window. She knew now that the noise she heard was the same one that had awakened her.
And, looking out of the window, Bessie saw what had made the noise—a big, green automobile, that, even as she looked, was gliding slowly but with increasing speed away from the Mercer house. She stood rooted to the spot, unable to cry out, or to make a move. But somehow, though she could never explain afterward how it happened, since the importance of it did not strike her at all at the time, Bessie managed to get a mental photograph of one thing that was to prove important in the extreme—the number of the automobile, plainly visible in the light of the tail lamp that shone full upon it. The figures were registered in her brain as if she had studied them for an hour in the effort to memorize them—4587.
Then, when the car was out of sight around the corner, Bessie's power of movement seemed to be restored to her as mysteriously as it had been taken away. Her first impulse was to cry out and arouse the household. But the futility of that soon struck her, and she remembered what Charlie Jamieson had said. If anything happened, if she was frightened, she was to call on him. And certainly something had happened. Of her alarm there could be no doubt. She was shaking like a leaf, as if she were exposed to a cold wind, although the night was hot and even sultry.
Swiftly she sought for and found the telephone number the lawyer had written down for her. Then, in her bare feet, lest she make a noise and arouse the whole household, she crept downstairs to reach the telephone.
"Oh, I do hope they won't see me or hear me," she breathed to herself. "There's nothing they can do, and maybe, if I get hold of Mr. Jamieson at once, we can have Zara back before they know she's gone."
At that hour of the night it was hard work to get the connection she wanted, and Bessie chafed at the delay, knowing that every moment might be precious, were Zara in real danger. But she got the number at last, after Central had tried to convince her no one would answer at such a time.
"What's happened? Has something gone wrong?" Jamieson asked anxiously as soon as he recognized her voice.
"Oh, I'm terribly afraid it has—and it was all my fault! I was asleep, Mr. Jamieson—and Zara's gone!"
"By herself, or don't you know?"
"I don't know positively, but I think she was taken off in a big automobile. But, Mr. Jamieson, I think she wanted to go!"
"Why, what makes you think that?"
"She's taken all the things that were given to her. And then, she got out so quietly that I didn't hear her. If anyone had carried her away, they'd have waked me up, I'm sure."
"That's bad—if she went away of her own accord. Makes it harder to find her, harder to get her back."
"What shall we do, Mr. Jamieson? You will try to get her back, won't you, even if she did go with them willingly?"
"Yes, yes, of course! I'll come out right away. Better not tell the others yet, if you haven't done it already."
Then Bessie told him about the automobile, and the number she had seen.
"Oh, that's different!" he exclaimed. "There's no use my coming to the house then—not right away, at least. I'll find out whose car that is right away—and then perhaps we'll be able to get a clue more quickly. Someone is almost sure to have noticed that number, you see. Policemen have a way of keeping their eyes on car numbers as late as this, just on the chance that there may be something wrong about people who are chasing around in this town when they ought to be in bed. You go back to sleep, if you can. I'll let you know as soon as there's something new."
"I don't see how I can sleep, Mr. Jamieson. Isn't there something I can do, please? That would make me feel ever so much better, I'm sure."
"I know, I know! But there isn't a thing you can do to-night. There's precious little I can do, for that matter, myself. You get some rest, so that you'll be fresh and strong in the morning. No telling what may turn up then; and we may need you to do a whole lot. Got to keep yourself in condition, you know. Remember that, always. That's the way to help. Good-night! I'm going to hurry out now and see what I can find out about that car."
So Bessie went back to her room, and, knowing that the lawyer had given her good advice when he had urged her to rest, she tried hard to go to sleep again. But trying to sleep and actually doing it are very different, and Bessie tossed restlessly for the remainder of the night. The sun, shining through her window in the early morning, was the most welcome of all possible sights, and she got up and dressed, glad that the night of inactivity was over, and that the time for action, if action there was to be, was at hand.
Eleanor was shocked and frightened when she heard what had happened.
"I'm sorry you didn't wake me, Bessie," she said. "It must have been dreadful for you, waiting for morning all alone up there. We could have talked, anyhow, and sometimes that helps a good deal."
"Well, I didn't see any use in spoiling the night for you and I'd have stayed awake anyhow, I think, even if I hadn't been alone. So there was no use keeping you up and awake, too."
"I'll telephone at once and see if anything has been found out, Bessie. Then we'll know better what to do. But I'm afraid there's not much that we can do—not just now."
Jamieson was not in his office, or at his home, when Eleanor telephoned. But when she stopped to think she realized that he was almost certain to be busy in his search for some clue to the missing girl.
"Come with me. Let's go down town," she said to Bessie. "I want to get some things for you, anyhow, and anything is better than sitting around the house here, just waiting for news. That's terrible. Don't you think so?"
"Yes, indeed. But suppose some news came when we were out?"
"Oh, we can easily telephone to the house and then, if there should be a message, we can get it right away, you see. I'll tell them here to write down any message that comes, and we'll telephone every fifteen minutes or so."
"Shall we see Mr. Jamieson while we're down town?"
"Yes, we will. That's a good idea. It will save his time, too, and there may be something he wants us to do."
So they started. Eleanor wanted to walk. But before they had gone very far a big automobile drew up along the sidewalk, and a cheery, pleasant man, middle aged, with a smiling face, and white hair, though he seemed too young for that, hailed them.
"Hello, Miss Mercer!" he said: "Jump in, won't you? I'll take you wherever you want to go. I've got lots of time—nothing in the world to do, and I'm lonely."
"Why, thank you very much, Mr. Holmes," said Eleanor, smiling at him. "This is my new friend, Bessie King, Mr. Holmes. Mr. Holmes is one of our family's oldest and best friends."
"Well, well, this is very nice!" he said. "I'd better be careful, though, or I'll have all the young fellows in town down on me, when they see an old codger like me driving two pretty young ladies around. Where shall we go, eh?"
"If you're really not in a hurry, Mr. Holmes," said Eleanor, "I wish you would take us down town by the long way around. I'd like Bessie to see the river and the Kent Bridge."
"Splendid!" said Mr. Holmes. "That's fine! You see, they say I'm a back number, now that I don't know how to run my store any more. I guess they're right, too. I just seem to be in the way when I go down there. So I stay away as long as I can find anything else to do."
Eleanor laughed, but Bessie somehow felt that the jovial words didn't ring true. There was a strange look in the eyes of their kindly host, and despite her attempts to convince herself that she was foolish, she didn't like him. But she enjoyed the ride thoroughly. He took them out of the town, and then, skirting the suburbs by a beautiful road, approached the heart of the business section by a new road that Bessie had not seen before. But then, though he had said, and, indeed, proved, that he was in no hurry, Mr. Holmes began to increase the speed of his car.
"He's going very fast if he's not in a hurry," suggested Bessie, sure that the driver could not hear in the rush of the wind made by the car's speed.
Eleanor laughed merrily.
"He always does everything in a hurry," she said. "This is the fastest car in town, and before automobiles got so popular, Mr. Holmes had the fastest horses. He just likes to go quickly. That's why his business was so successful, they say."
Just then the car stopped, and Holmes, laughing, turned to them.
"I heard that," he said. "After all, what's the harm? It would have taken you an hour to get down town if you'd walked all the way, wouldn't it, Miss Eleanor?"
"All right, then, I'll get you there as soon as that, and have time for a bit of a spin in the country, as well. We'll go pretty fast, so just put on these goggles, young ladies, and you'll have no trouble getting specks in your eyes. I'll do the same. I really intended to drive slowly today—that's why I haven't got mine on. But somehow, when I get a wheel between my hands, I can't drive slowly; it isn't in me, somehow!"
He handed them their goggles, and then put on his own, and changed his soft hat, which had two or three times threatened to blow off, for a cap that would stay on in any wind. And, as he faced them, Bessie had all she could do to suppress a sharp cry of amazement, and she was more than thankful for the goggles that partly concealed her start of surprise and dismay. For the sight of Holmes, thus equipped, had recalled something that seemed in a way, at least, to explain her feeling of distrust and dislike.
Eleanor saw that Bessie was troubled, even though Holmes was ignorant of the sensation he had caused, and, as soon as the car was moving at high speed again, she leaned over close.
"What is it, Bessie! What startled you so?"
"I'll tell you later, Miss Eleanor," whispered Bessie. "I'm not sure enough yet—really I'm not! But as soon as I am, I'll tell you all I know."
Mr. Holmes was as good as his word. He brought them into the central part of the town just at the time he had promised, and sprang out to open the door of the tonneau for them.
"Must you really go now?" he said, dejectedly. "You'll be leaving me all alone, you know. Can't you finish your shopping, and then let me run you out to Arkville for luncheon?"
"You speak as if it were just across the street," laughed Eleanor. "And you know, Bessie, it's really fifty miles or more away, and it's actually over the state line. It's in your old state—the same one Hedgeville is in. But it's in a different direction, and it's even further from Hedgeville than we are here, I guess. Isn't it, Mr. Holmes?"
"I'd have to know just where Hedgeville is to answer that, Miss Mercer. And I've never been there nor even traveled through it, so far as I can remember. I'll look it up on my road map, though, if you like—"
"Oh, no, please don't bother to do that. It's not of the slightest importance."
"Then we shall have to put off Arkville to another day, you think, Miss Mercer?"
"I'm afraid so, really. We've a good deal to do today, and there are reasons that I won't bother you with for our having to be in town. Thank you ever so much for the ride."
"Yes, thank you ever so much," echoed Bessie.
They were near Charlie Jamieson's office, and, as the car turned and disappeared in the mass of traffic, Bessie clutched Eleanor's arm.
"Oh, do come quickly, Miss Eleanor, please! Look at this. Don't you think we ought to tell Mr. Jamieson about it right away?"
She held out a piece of ribbon, torn and stained. It was not large, but there was enough of it to identify it easily. And, as Eleanor looked at it, she remembered faintly having seen it before.
"What is that? Where did you find it?" she asked, puzzled.
"It's the ribbon Zara wore in her hair, and I found it in the car. It fell on the floor when he opened the door for us to get out—it must have been caught there. And do you remember, we got in on the other side, so that that door wasn't opened then?"
Eleanor looked more puzzled than ever.
"I don't see how that can be Zara's ribbon," she protested. "What would she have been doing in Mr. Holmes' car? It's just an accident, Bessie. It's just a coincidence that that ribbon should be there. It might have belonged to someone else—I'm sure it did, in fact."
"Oh, please, please, I know!" said Bessie. "Won't you let me tell Mr. Jamieson about it!"
"Oh, yes, course, but he'll say just what I do, Bessie. You mustn't let this affect you so that you get nervous and hysterical, Bessie. That's not the way to help Zara."
They were walking toward the building in which Jamieson's offices were located, and Bessie was hurrying their progress as much as she could.
"I don't like Mr. Holmes. I'm afraid of him," she said. "I know that sounds dreadful, but it's true—"
"Why, Bessie, how absurd!" she exclaimed. "I've known him for years and years, and he's one of the nicest, kindest men in town."
"But, Miss Eleanor, do you remember when you asked him about Hedgeville, he said he'd never been there?"
"Yes, and I thought, as soon as I asked him, that he would probably have to tell me just that. Hedgeville's out of the way. You never saw automobile parties on trips going through, did you?"
"No, we didn't. About the only people who came there in automobiles came to see someone—and usually Farmer Weeks."
"There, you see!"
"But, Miss Eleanor, Mr. Holmes knows all about Hedgeville! He's been there ever so many times! I thought this morning, as soon as he stopped to talk to you, that I'd seen him before somewhere, but I wasn't sure."
"Why, what do you mean? Are you sure now?"
"Yes, I was sure the minute he put on those goggles and his cap. He's driven to Hedgeville a lot in the last year. The last time wasn't more than three weeks ago, and he was in that same car, and wore the same cap and goggles."
Eleanor stopped, looking very thoughtful.
"I think you must be mistaken, Bessie," she said. "There's no reason why he shouldn't tell us if he'd ever been there, and he certainly couldn't have forgotten it if he's been there as often as you say. Can't you see that! What object could he have in trying to deceive us?"
"I don't know. I can't guess that unless—well, I can tell you who it was he saw when he was there—every time. It was Farmer Weeks. And I think he was there the day before they took Zara's father away. I'm not sure, but I think so."
"If you could be certain," said Eleanor, doubtfully, "that would make it different, Bessie. We'll tell Mr. Jamieson, and see what he thinks. But I'm sure you must be mistaken."
A SUDDEN TURN
Jamieson was in his office when they entered.
"Well, I wondered where you two were!" he exclaimed, by way of greeting. "I tried to get you on the telephone a couple of times, but I supposed you were probably on your way here."
"We telephoned before we left the house, but we understood that you would be busy," said Eleanor. "So we started to walk into town, and Mr. Holmes saw us, and took us for a ride in his car. I hope it hasn't made any difference—that you didn't want us? Have you found out anything, Charlie?"
"No, it didn't make any difference," said the lawyer, gloomily. "As for finding out things, well, I have, and I haven't! There's no trace of Zara, but there's other news."
"What is it?"
"Well, it's mighty queer, I'll say that for it. When I went to see Zara's father this morning, he refused to see me—sent out word that he didn't want me to act as his lawyer any more. He's got another lawyer, and who do you suppose it is?"
The two girls stared at him, surprised and puzzled.
"Brack!" exclaimed Jamieson. "What do you know about that for a mess, eh? If half of what I believe is right, Brack's his worst enemy. He's hand in glove with the people who are responsible for all his trouble, and yet here he goes and gets the scoundrel to act as his lawyer!"
"Oh, what a shame!" said Eleanor, indignantly. "And he wouldn't even see you to explain?"
"Absolutely not! I tried to get them to let me in, and I sent him an urgent message, telling him it was of the utmost importance for us to have a talk, but I couldn't budge him."
Eleanor was flushed with resentment.
"Well, that settles it!" she said, indignantly. "If people don't want to be helped, one can't help them. He and Zara will just have to look out for themselves, I guess. Bessie, don't you think Zara must have gone with those people in the car willingly?"
"Yes, I do," said Bessie. "But—"
"Then I think she and her father are an ungrateful pair, and they deserve anything that happens to them! I'm certainly not going to worry myself about them any more, and I should think you would drop the whole thing, Charlie Jamieson, and attend to your own affairs!"
"Hold on! You're going a bit too fast, Eleanor," he said, laughing lightly. "Let's see what Bessie thinks about it."
Bessie, who had flushed too, but not with anger, when Eleanor thus gave her resentment full play, was glad of the chance to speak.
"I do think Zara went off willingly and of her own accord," she said. "I'm sure of that, because she couldn't have been taken away without my hearing something."
"Well, then," began Eleanor, "doesn't that prove—"
"But if Zara was willing to go off that way, I believe it's because she thought she was doing the right thing," Bessie went on, determinedly. "Someone must have seen her and told her something she believed, though perhaps it wasn't true."
"Of course!" said Jamieson, heartily, "That's what I've thought from the start, and don't you see who it probably was? Why, Brack! He was in the neighborhood yesterday morning and he must have seen her. He might have told her anything—any wild story. You see, we are pretty much in the dark about this affair yet. We don't know why these people are so keen after Zara's father, or why they've put up this job on him. So I don't think I'll get mad and drop it just because Zara and her father have probably been fooled into acting in a way that would seem likely to irritate me."
Eleanor was regretful at once.
"Oh, you're ever so much more sensible than I am, Charlie," she said. "It made me angry to think they were acting so when all we wanted was to help them, and I lost my temper."
"I suspect that that is just what Brack hoped I would do, Eleanor. And it makes me all the more determined to stick to the case. You see, I'm actually lawyer for Zara's father still, and unless I consent to a change of lawyers, he'll have trouble putting Brack in my place. Brack knows that, too, if he doesn't—and he knows, also, that I know one or two things about him that make it a good idea for him to be careful, unless he wants to be disbarred."
"Then you'll keep on working and you'll try to find out what's become of Zara, too?"
"Yes. I looked up the number that Bessie saw—the number of that car. And it's just as I thought. They were careful enough to use a false number. There's no such number recorded as the one that was on the car."
"But don't you suppose you can find anyone who saw it before they had a chance to change the numbers?"
"I'm working on that line now, but we haven't got any reports yet. I've gone to see the district attorney—the one who looks after the counterfeiting cases as well as the other, who's just in charge of local affairs. And I've convinced them that there's something very queer afoot here. Judge Bailey, who will prosecute Zara's father for counterfeiting, agrees with me that it looks as if a case had been worked up against him by someone who wants to make trouble for him, and he's pretty mad at the idea that anyone would dare to use him in such a crooked game. So we'll have a friend there, if I can get any evidence to back our suspicions."
Suddenly Eleanor remembered what Bessie had thought of Mr. Holmes, her suspicion that she had seen him in Hedgeville, and the incident of finding Zara's ribbon. And she made Bessie tell the lawyer her story.
He laughed when he heard it, much to Bessie's distress.
"I don't think very much of that idea," he said. "Mr. Holmes is one of our wealthiest and most respected citizens. He'd never let himself or his car be mixed up in such a business. And I'm sure he doesn't know Brack, and has never had anything to do with him."
"But it is Zara's ribbon! I'm positive of that," insisted Bessie. "And he's the same man I saw at Farmer Weeks' place in Hedgeville, too."
"No, no; I'm afraid you're mistaken, Bessie."
"But the ribbon—why should that be in his car?"
"Let me see it."
She handed him the ribbon, and he looked at it carefully.
"Why, that doesn't seem to be very promising evidence, Bessie," he said. "I suppose you could find ribbon like that in any dry goods store almost anywhere. Thousands of girls must have pieces just like it. Even if it is just the same as the one Zara wore, that doesn't prove anything. You'd have to have more evidence than that. However, I'll keep it in mind. You never can tell what's going to turn up, and I suppose it's easily possible to imagine stranger things than Mr. Holmes being mixed up in this affair. Well, you can depend upon it that everything possible is being done, and no one could do more than that. I wish I knew more, that's all."
So did Bessie, and she was thinking hard as they left his office and made their way toward some of the shops in which, the day before, she had so longed to be. Feminine instinct has more than once proved itself superior to masculine logic, and although both Jamieson and Eleanor seemed inclined to laugh at her, Bessie felt that she was right—that Mr. Holmes, in some queer way, was intimately concerned in the web in which she and Zara seemed to be caught.
She couldn't pretend to explain, even to herself, the manner in which he might be affected, but of the main fact she was sure. She knew that her memory had not deceived her; she had seen the man in Hedgeville. And the fact that he had deliberately lied about that seemed to her good evidence that he had something to conceal.
He knew Farmer Weeks. And in some fashion Farmer Weeks was intimately bound up with the affairs of Zara and her father. Everything that had happened since their flight from Hedgeville proved that beyond the shadow of a doubt. He had run great risks to get Zara back; although he was such a notorious miser, he had spent a good deal of money. And he was mixed up with Brack.
Suddenly a thought came to Bessie. Zara's father! He must know. And if he did, wasn't there a chance that he might be willing to talk to her, if she could only manage to see him? He distrusted Charlie Jamieson evidently, since he had refused to talk to him just when the lawyer had been sure that he was going to get some facts that would throw light on the mystery. But with Bessie he might well take a different stand. He had seen her in the country; he knew that she was a friend of Zara.
"Miss Eleanor," said Bessie, quickly, "I've got an idea and I wish you would let me talk to Mr. Jamieson about it. Will you, please—and by myself? You're angry still at Zara and her father, and perhaps you'd think I was all wrong."
"I'm not exactly angry, Bessie," said Eleanor. "I was hurt, but I'm beginning to see that very likely I am wrong, and that they were honestly mistaken, not deliberately ungrateful. At any rate, if Charlie Jamieson can stand the way Zara's father treats him, I guess I don't need to worry about it."
"Then may I go?"
"Yes, and hurry, or you'll find that he's left his office. You won't be long, will you?"
"No, indeed; only a few minutes. Will you be here in this store, Miss Eleanor, when I come back?"
"Yes, I'll meet you at the ribbon counter."
"Thank you, thank you ever so much, Miss Eleanor! I'll hurry just as much as I can, and I certainly won't be long."
Then she was off, and luckily enough she found that the lawyer had not yet gone. He listened to her suggestion with a smile.
"By George," he said, when she had finished, "maybe you've hit the right idea, Bessie, at that! I'm afraid I can't manage it today, but I'll take you to the jail myself in the morning, and see that you get a chance to talk to him. I doubt if he'll say anything, he's either obstinate or badly frightened. But it's worth the chance, if you don't mind going to the jail to see him. It's not a very nice place, you know."
"I'd do worse than that if I thought I could help Zara, Mr. Jamieson," she said. "Do you know I've got the strangest feeling that she's in trouble? It's just as if I could hear her calling me and as if she were sorry for leaving us, and wanted to be back."
Jamieson smiled grimly.
"I think the chances are that she's feeling just about that way," he said. "She certainly ought to be—if we're at all near to guessing the people she's gone with. They won't treat her as well as the Mercers, I'll be bound."
"That's what I'm afraid of, too," said Bessie.
Then thanking him for his promise she made her way to the street, and started to go back to the store where she had left Eleanor. But she was intercepted. And, to her amazement, the person who checked her, as she was walking swiftly along the crowded street, was Jake Hoover.
"'Lo, Bessie," he said shamefacedly, as she started with surprise at the sight of him. "Say, you're pretty in them new clothes of your'n. I'd never 'a' known you."
"I wish you hadn't, then," said Bessie, with spirit. "I'm through with you, Jake Hoover! You won't have me around home any more, to take the blame for all your wickedness. When things happen now they'll know whose fault it is—and maybe they'll begin to think that you may have done some of the things I used to get punished for, too."
"Aw, now, don't get mad, Bessie," he said, trying to pacify her. "This here's the city—'tain't Hedgeville! Maybe I was mean to you sometimes back home, Bessie, but I was jest jokin'. Say, Bess, here's a gentleman wants to talk to you. He's a lawyer an' a mighty smart man. An' he thinks he knows somethin' about your father and mother."
Another figure had loomed up beside that of Jake, and Bessie was hardly surprised to find that it was Brack who was leering at her.
"He's right. I know something about them," he said. "There's precious little old Brack don't know, my dear—an' that's a fact you can bet your last dollar on."
He chuckled, and made a movement as if he intended to take Bessie's hand, but she brushed his claw-like hand away with a motion of disgust.
"I haven't got time to be talking to you now," she said, decisively. "If you know anything you think I ought to be told, tell it to Mr. Jamieson."
"Oh, ho, tell it to him, eh!" he said. "Maybe you'd better be careful, girl! Maybe you wouldn't like everyone to know why your parents had to run away and leave you in such a hurry. Maybe they're in prison, and deserve to be. How'd you like to have people hear that, eh!"
"I wouldn't like it, but I don't believe it's true!" said Bessie, scornfully. "Not for a minute!" And she pressed on, but Brack followed and walked close beside her.
"Remember this—you'll never see them again, except through me," he said, malevolently.
OFF TO THE FARM
The next morning Bessie was doomed to be disappointed. She had looked forward confidently to seeing Zara's father, and had come to believe that there was a good chance for her to clear away some of the mystery that hung so heavily over Zara's affairs, even though she made no great progress toward straightening out her own confused ideas regarding herself and the reason for the disappearance of her parents. But, instead of the telephone call to Jamieson's office, for which she had waited with poorly concealed impatience from breakfast until nearly noon, she had a visit from Jamieson himself. The lawyer looked discouraged.
"Bad news, Bessie," he said, as soon as he saw her. She was waiting for him on the porch, and her eyes lighted with eagerness as soon as she saw him coming. "They've stolen a march on me."
"Why, how do you mean? Won't I be able to see Zara's father, after all?"
"Not just yet. Brack is cleverer than I thought. He's got a lot of political pull, and he got hold of a judge I thought was above stooping to anything wrong. So he was able to get this judge to sign an order putting him in my place as lawyer for Zara's father. The only way you can see the prisoner now is for Brack to give you permission, and if I know Brack, that's the last thing he'll do."
Bessie showed her discouragement.
"I'm afraid you're right there," she said. "I saw him yesterday, after I left you."
"You did? Whew! There's something queer here, Bessie. Now, try to remember just what was said and tell me all about it."
It was not hard for Bessie, guided by a few questions from Jamieson, to do that, and in a few moments she had supplied him with a complete review of her interview with the shyster, Brack, He nodded approvingly when she had finished.
"You did just right," he said, cheerfully. "I guess Mr. Brack won't get much change out of you, Bessie. There's one thing sure, you managed to acquire a lot of sense while you lived in Hedgeville. The sort we call common sense, though I don't know why, because it's the rarest sort of sense there is. Keep on acting just like that when people ask you questions and try to get you to tell them things."
"Do you think anyone else is likely to do that, Mr. Jamieson?"
"You can't tell. I'm all in the dark, you see. This thing acts just like a Chinese puzzle. They're simple enough when you know how to fit the pieces together, and you wonder why they ever stumped you. But until you do guess them—" He stopped, with a comical shrug of his shoulders to indicate his helplessness and his bewilderment, and Bessie laughed.
Then Eleanor came out, and the story of Brack's shrewdness had to be told to her.
"What are you going to do now?" she asked.
Jamieson threw up his hands with a laugh.
"Wait—and keep my eyes open," he said. "I'm going to act as if I'd lost all interest in the case. That may fool Brack. Our best chance now, you see, is to wait for the other side to make a mistake. They've made some already; the chances are they'll do it again. Then we can nab them. What I want to do is to make them think they're quite safe, that they needn't be afraid of us any more."
"You won't need Bessie, then, right away?"
"No. Really, she worries me. I feel as if she weren't safe here. They seem to be afraid of her, and I wouldn't put it past them to try to get hold of her and keep her where she can't do any talking until they've done what they want to do."
"But, Charlie, they must know that she's told us everything she knows already. Why should they want to take her away now?"
"If I knew that I could answer a lot of other questions, too. But here's a guess. Suppose she knows something without knowing at all what it means, or how important it is? That might easily be. She might be able to clear up the whole mystery with some single, seemingly unimportant remark. They may have good reason to know she hasn't done it yet, but they may also be afraid that, at any time, she will entirely by accident give away their whole game. And I've got an idea that if their game ever is exposed, someone will be in danger of going to jail. See? I'd like to figure out some good safe place for Bessie, where she'd be out of the way of all their tricks."
Eleanor clapped her hands.
"Then I've got the very place!" she said. "This business has upset the plans I'd made, but now I'm going to take my Camp Fire Girls down to dad's farm in Cheney County. You laughed at me when I was made a Camp Fire Guardian, Charlie, but you're going to see now what a fine thing the movement is."
"I didn't mean to laugh at you, Eleanor," he said, contritely. "And I got over doing it long ago, anyhow. I used to think this Camp Fire thing was a joke—just something got up to please a lot of girls who wanted to wear khaki skirts and camp out because their brothers had joined the Boy Scouts and told them what a good time they were having."
"That's just like a man," said Eleanor, quietly triumphant. "None of you think girls can do anything worth while on their own account. The Camp Fire Girls didn't imitate the Boy Scouts, and they're not a bit like them, really. We haven't anything against the Boy Scouts, but we think we're going to do better work among girls than even the Scout movement does among boys. Well, anyhow, we're going down to the farm, and Bessie shall go along. If anyone tries to kidnap her while she's with the girls, they'll have a hard time. We stick together, let me tell you, and Wohelo means something."