Chapter XI. The Hold-Up
 

The girls were glad that the letters had come from the boys just as they had, for it helped them to bridge over the tediously long wait till the next morning.

They read the missives with the little red triangles in the left hand corner over and over again and-- whisper it!-- at least two of them slept with the precious letters under their pillows.

And then-- the morning was upon them. It was a beautiful morning too, and as the girls dressed hurriedly they were glad that they had arranged to start early. In that way they could take their time and enjoy to the full the glorious ride to Moonlight Falls. It was only fifty-five miles, but by driving slowly they could make it seem like twice that.

It was barely half past nine when Betty, having finished breakfast and put the last finishing touches to her new white hat, ran around to the garage to get the car out.

Ten minutes later she had drawn up in front of Mollie's house, her ears still ringing with the hundred and one instructions of her anxious mother, and was tooting the horn of her little car furiously.

The summons had the desired effect. Mollie came running from the house, straightening her hat with one hand and lugging a valise in the other while the twins trailed at her skirts.

"For goodness' sake, let go of me, Paul. Dodo, if you touch that bag again, I'll spank you. Mother," she wailed, looking back pleadingly over her shoulder, "won't you please make these little pests go into the house?"

Whereupon Mrs. Billette suddenly appeared at the door, smiled at Betty, grabbed Paul with one hand, Dodo with the other, while the twins roared a protest.

Released, Mollie dropped her bag, sped round to the garage, and in a moment more was backing the big car round to the road.

The girls had decided to about live in their khaki tramping suits on this trip, merely packing in a good dress or two to wear on dress-up occasions. In this way they had to take less luggage and could have more space to "spread out" as Mollie said.

"Put your grip in here, Betty," Mollie suggested, as she slung her own grip into the tonneau of the big machine. "There is more room, and Mrs. Irving said she wouldn't mind in the least being entirely surrounded by suitcases."

Betty laughed, did as she was bid, and a moment later they were off, speeding down the road to Grace's house where they were to pick up the other two girls and Mrs. Irving.

They found the three waiting for them, and it took scarcely any time at all to add the extra grips to the growing pile in the tonneau of Mollie's car. Amid great fun, Mrs. Irving, who was rosy-cheeked and matronly and as jolly as the girls, was wedged into the remaining space, Amy climbed to the front seat beside Mollie and Grace took her seat with Betty.

They were off! The sting of the wind was in their faces, and the sun beat warmly down upon them as they rolled along, passing familiar houses, and sometimes familiar people, to whom they waved, and so on and on till they left the town behind them and started out on the open road.

"My, this is something like," commented Grace, stretching her feet out before her for all the world like a lazy, comfortable cat. "I feel awfully sorry for all the poor people who haven't cars to ride in to-day and Wild Rose Lodges to visit. By the way, why is it called Wild Rose Lodge, Betty?"

"Because they say there are lots of wild roses around it, of course," Betty responded, her hands resting easily on the wheel, her eyes bright with the joy of the moment. Grace, stealing a sideways glance at her, could not help thinking that Betty looked not unlike a wild rose herself.

"You look awfully pretty, honey," she said then, for Grace was always generous with praise where her friends were concerned. "I would give the world to have a color like yours."

"Goodness," remarked Betty, turning to look at her chum, her face a little brighter pink because of the honest compliment, "you have a lovely color-- as you very well know. Mine is too red sometimes."

"Nobody thinks that but you," said Grace, squeezing Betty's hand affectionately while she dived down in her pocket for some candy. "The only time I have noticed you get very red," she added, "is when some one happens to mention a certain young gentleman by the name of Lieutenant Allen Washburn."

Betty could feel that her face was burning, but she did not care. She was awfully proud of Allen and desperately fond of him and for the moment she did not care if the whole world knew about it.

"Isn't it wonderful, Gracie?" she cried, her heart pounding joyously. "About Allen being an officer, I mean. I have to pinch myself several times a minute to make myself realize that it is really true."

"It surely is great," Grace answered slowly, adding after a moment, while a faraway expression crept into her eyes, "I don't blame you for being crazy about him, honey. I could almost be foolish myself. Oh, don't worry," she went on quickly as Betty turned amazed and rather startled eyes upon her. "I'm no fonder of Allen than I am of any of the other boys. I just said that I didn't blame you, that's all."

Betty turned her eyes to the road once more, but in her heart she was troubled. There had been a note in Grace's voice that she had never heard before. Could it be possible that she really cared for Allen? But she pushed the thought from her mind resolutely. If such a thing could have been possible, she certainly would have discovered it before this. The mere thought was nonsense of course. And yet she was troubled.

"Have some candy," Grace invited, breaking in upon her thoughts. "You needn't stick up your nose at it to-day for I bought this fresh from the store this morning."

"Who said I was going to stick up my nose?" said Betty, helping herself to a chocolate that looked as if it might contain a nut and thankful for the break in her not-too-pleasant reflections. "If you will think back just a little, I think you will admit that I have been guilty very seldom of sticking up my nose at anything

"Except Percy Falconer," finished Grace drolly, and they both laughed merrily.

"Poor Percy!" said Betty, chewing her candy contentedly. "I suppose he will hate us more heartily than ever now."

They were running some eight or ten miles from the town along a quiet stretch of road, never dreaming of danger, when Betty's little racer nosed around a bend in the road and came smack into it! Not twenty feet ahead of them a man sprang into the middle of the road and leveled a revolver at them! In one electrified instant they saw that the fellow wore a mask and a slouch hat and looked for all the world like a brigand straight out of some sensational moving picture.

Betty, more surprised at first than alarmed, put on her brakes and came to a standstill, at the same time putting out a hand to warn the car behind them.

"Oh, Betty, we are being held up!" moaned Grace, who evidently was frightened enough for both of them. "For goodness' sake, hold up your hands. He may shoot."

Still feeling rather dazed with the suddenness of the thing, Betty raised both hands above her head, at the same time feeling a rather hysterical desire to laugh. It was so absurd, being held up by a masked stranger in broad daylight,

Nevertheless, she gave a little gasp of fright as the man waved his big revolver menacingly and came close to the car. She wished frantically that he would not point that firearm at her. Suppose it should go off!

"Come on, hand over what you got," the robber demanded in a gruff threatening voice. "The quicker you move, the better it will be for you."

"Wh-what do you want?" asked Betty, in a weak little voice that did not sound like her own at all. She had thought of her pocketbook beside her in the pocket of the car. The purse contained a whole month's allowance. She was sparring desperately for time-- help in some form or other might come at any moment. But the ruffian in the road was evidently in no frame of mind to be fooled with.

He waved his revolver once more, eliciting a terrified gurgle from Grace and commanded roughly that they get out of the car.

"No funny business," he snarled. "Get out!"

Betty was about to obey when she had a brilliant thought. Her pepper gun! She had bought it the day before from the son of her father's chauffeur, thinking it was an undesirable plaything for a nine-year-old boy and had put it, as the most convenient place, in her car. And the pepper gun was filled-- as it should have been-- with good red cayenne pepper!