Chapter XII. Sheep!
 

For a moment Betty hesitated, almost afraid of what she was going to do. The pepper gun might work, but if she were not quick enough or clever enough, her little trick might also result in a tragedy.

Her hesitation was only momentary, however, for Betty was a born fighter. Suddenly she cried out as if in joyful greeting to an unexpected arrival.

"Here they come! here they come!" she called, and in the moment that their captor turned his startled eyes from her to the road ahead, Betty acted.

She snatched the pepper gun from its hiding place in the car and as the man once more turned furiously upon her let him have the full contents directly in the face.

It was a dreadful thing to do. Choking and sputtering, the ruffian dropped his revolver and raised both fists to his tortured eyes.

"I'll get you for this!" he cried between great sneezes that threatened to tear him apart. "You just wait----"

But Betty refused to wait. As soon as the fellow had dropped his weapon she had started the engine, and now she guided the car past the stuttering robber and raced off down the road.

Mollie, who had only half understood what was going on but who had caught enough of it to be considerably alarmed did not stop to ask questions, but sped off down the road after Betty.

It was half a dozen miles farther on that Betty finally slowed the car and waited for Mollie and the others to catch up with her. Grace, who had been gradually recovering from her fright, had not yet recovered enough to ask any questions. She had been too much concerned in putting miles between them and the scene of their adventure.

As Mollie came up alongside, Betty drew her first free breath.

Of course Mollie and Amy and Mrs. Irving wanted to hear all about it, and Betty told them what had happened, her account interrupted by hysterical laughter.

But when she came to the pepper gun, the girls' expression of utter bewilderment changed to admiration of Betty's quick thought and quicker action.

"Why, Betty," cried Amy, incredulously, "I don't see how you ever had the courage to do it. Why, that man might have shot you!"

"He probably would have if I hadn't got him first," said Betty, half-way between laughter and tears. "It was taking an awfully big chance, but," with a flash of spirit, "I wasn't going to sit there calmly and have him take away all our money. Not if I could help it."

"Betty, I think you were simply wonderful," said Mollie in heart-felt admiration. "Why, if he had taken our money it would have completely spoiled our trip."

"How they talk," said Grace hysterically. "Any one would think it was only the trip that mattered when we might very easily have been killed."

This remark served to bring Mrs. Irving to a realization of the present, and she suggested that they start on again.

"Not that I am particularly nervous," she hastily added, as the girls looked at her suspiciously. "Only I will feel just as well when we have put a dozen miles between us and that highway robber, instead of only half that. I wish there was a town handy where we could notify the authorities."

They started on again, and as the miles slid past them they became less nervous and even began to laugh a little at thought of the robber's consternation when he received the contents of Betty's pepper gun full in his face.

"He was probably the most surprised crook ever," commented Grace with a chuckle. "He never will get over cursing you, Betty. How did you ever happen to have it? The pepper gun, I mean," she added curiously.

Betty explained how the gun had come into her possession. "I didn't know," she added ruefully, her foot on the accelerator as they sped up a steep hill, "when I bought it, that it would come in so handy. How much further do you suppose we have to go?" she asked, changing the subject abruptly.

"Why," said Grace, looking at her wrist watch and realizing suddenly that she was getting rather hungry, "we have been riding since ten o'clock and it is now after noon. We must be very nearly there by this time. Goodness, I hope there will be something to eat around Wild Rose Lodge. I'm getting famished."

"Mollie's Uncle John said he would attend to that-- stocking the cabin with good things, I mean," said Betty, herself suddenly conscious of a disturbingly hungry feeling. "He said we would find enough canned things to last us at least a week."

"Canned things, yes," pouted Grace. "But who in the world wants to live on canned things? I don't see why we didn't bring a chicken along, at least."

"Well, maybe we can manage to run over one," chuckled Betty, as they passed a farmhouse and several chickens scuttled squawking across the road. "Then we can have one good and fresh. For goodness' sake, what is Mollie tooting that horn for?" she added, as the raucous signal came from the car behind them. "Has she stopped the car, Grace? Look and see."

"It's stopped deader than a door nail," said Grace, obligingly screwing about in her seat and fixing on the road behind them a disapproving eye. "Now what do you suppose can be the trouble this time? If she has had a blowout or something, I'm not going to help fix the old thing----"

"You couldn't fix the blowout, dear, but you might help with the tire," Betty said, with a laugh, as she stopped the roadster and jumped to the road. "Come on, she seems to be excited about something----"

"Goodness, I hope it isn't another highway robber," said Grace anxiously, stopping in the middle of the road at the dreadful thought. "I don't see any, but----"

"You don't see any because there isn't any," Betty assured her, taking her by the arm and leading her decidedly forward. "You don't suppose there is a whole Robin Hood's band in this woods, do you?"

Mollie and Amy and Mrs. Irving came running to meet them excitedly-- or at least, Mollie and Amy did the running, while their chaperon followed more slowly.

"There are blackberries in there, whole bushels and bushels of them!" Mollie called. "You could see them from the road, and there you girls passed right by them without even looking."

"Blackberries!" repeated Grace resignedly, as she felt in her pocket to see if she had any candy left. "Just listen to her speaking of blackberries when what I'm dying for is a good big steak with onions on top of it--"

"Stop it," cried Mollie indignantly, while the others felt their mouths begin to water. "The idea of mentioning steak-- But here," she broke off, seizing Grace's hand and dragging her toward the woods, "come with me and pick berries if you value your life. Lucky we brought those tin pails along."

"But why," protested Grace patiently, as she was dragged along, "should we want to pick berries?"

"To eat," replied Mollie, attacking a bush that was fairly black with the luscious ripe fruit. "And besides," she added, lowering her voice to a confidential pitch, "Mrs. Irving said that if she could find some flour and baking powder in the lodge she would make us a steamed blackberry pudding for supper."

Grace stared for a moment then, without another word, set to work on the loaded bush.

"You might have told me that before," she grumbled, her mouth full of berries. "You always did have a mean disposition, Mollie."

To which Mollie's only reply was a chuckle and a sly wink at Betty, who was working close at her side.

They worked on happily for a few minutes, then suddenly Amy straightened up and stood quiet as though she were listening to something.

The girls, whose nerves were still a little on edge from their recent adventure, demanded to know in no uncertain tones what was the matter with her.

"N-nothing," Amy answered a little sheepishly. "I thought I heard a little rustling among the leaves, that's all."

"Probably a breeze coming up," said Betty matter-of-factly, and they went on with their berry picking.

But it was not long before a second disturbance came, and this time they all heard it. It was, as Amy had said, a rustling sound. However, it was louder this time, as though several heavy bodies were pushing through the underbrush on the other side of the road.

"Perhaps we had better go and see what is making all the noise," said Mrs. Irving, her light tone successfully hiding an undercurrent of nervousness. "I guess we have picked enough berries for our pudding, anyway."

The girls picked up their pails and started for the road, Betty in the lead. But when the latter reached the outer fringe of bushes she started back, almost treading on Mollie's toes and causing her to drop her pail in alarm.

"It's sheep!" cried the Little Captain. "Dozens and dozens of them! Come and look!"