Chapter XIV. Nothing Human
 

They might have reached Wild Rose Lodge before dusk, in spite of Grace's gloomy prediction, if everything had gone well then. But it seemed that the evil genius of bad luck was not yet through with them.

They were scarcely five miles from their destination when, bang! went a report that made the girls clutch at each other wildly. At first they jumped to the conclusion that they were being held up again, but close on the heels of the first thought came the conviction of the truth. Mollie had had a blowout!

Betty, looking behind, saw the big car stop and brought her own little roadster to a standstill once more.

"There is nothing wrong with our tires, is there?" she asked of Grace. "Look over your side, Gracie, and see."

Finding nothing amiss, they jumped out and ran back to Mollie to offer assistance. Mollie was eyeing the flat tire gloomily and saying things under her breath that none of the girls could catch. Then as Betty spoke to her she seemed to come to life and ran around to the back of the machine.

"Of course you can help," she answered, working to release the extra tire. "I would like to see you get out of it. Lucky I bought an extra tire before we started, though I did hope," here she glared at the girls as if it were all their fault, "that I wouldn't have to use it so soon. We've had more trouble on this ride than any I can remember. A hold-up, sheep and-- this!"

"Well, there is no use talking about it," Betty reminded her cheerfully. "The less we talk, the harder we can work and the sooner we shall get started again."

"Yes, that's all very well," grumbled Mollie, as she fumbled for her tools; "but you don't know this place as well as I do."

"You talk," said Amy, her eyes widening, "as though there were wild animals or something in the woods. I didn't know they came as far east as this."

"They don't, goose," said Mollie grumpily, as she pulled at the tire. "I didn't say anything about wild animals, did I? Only we have to ride about two miles through the woods before we get to the lodge and I must say I didn't want to do that in the dark."

"But there is some sort of road, isn't there?" asked Grace.

Mollie, bending over the lifting jack, shot her a withering glance.

"Of course there's a road," she said shortly. "How else could we expect to use the cars?"

"It must be a sort of wagon road," suggested Betty as she deftly helped her chum. "And I don't blame you for not wanting to try it at night, Mollie. I don't much like the idea myself."

"I believe if we hurry that we can get there before dusk," said Mrs. Irving confidently, though it might have been noticed that she kept her eyes rather anxiously on the fast sinking sun.

At last, after what seemed an eternity to the impatient girls, the new tire had replaced the old one, the old one was safely strapped on the back of the car, the tools were put away, and they were ready to start once more.

"Give her plenty of gas this time, Betty," Mollie sung after her as the Little Captain climbed into her car. If we can manage to get to the woods before dark we will be doing good work. Let her go."

With which advice she settled herself behind the wheel of her own car and they were off once more.

Betty did "give her plenty of gas," the result being that they succeeded in reaching the wagon road that led into the woods to the lodge just on the edge of dusk.

However, when they started along the road they were dismayed to find that what was only dusk outside on the road became almost dark in here, and Betty had all she could do to keep to the road at all.

"Hadn't you better put on your lights?" Grace suggested uneasily. "We might run into a ditch or something. Betty, I'm half scared."

For answer Betty switched on the lights and the woods and the road ahead of them were suddenly flooded with a weird radiance. It brought out branches and leaves and stones in such sharp contrast to the dark background that the effect was startling.

"Oh," gasped Grace, "turn them off again, do, Betty. It is positively ghastly."

"Don't be foolish," said Betty, striving to make her voice sound matter-of-fact, her eyes glued to the road ahead of them as it twisted and turned through the woods. "I don't see why lights should make a perfectly harmless wood look ghastly. And, anyway, I couldn't turn them out now. I don't believe I could find my way. You don't want me to run into something, do you?"

"No, of course not," Grace said more firmly, rather ashamed of her fears. "I didn't mean to act in a silly fashion. But," she turned to Betty quickly, "that hold-up and all-- don't you feel a little queer yourself, Betty? Tell the truth."

"Yes," said the Little Captain truthfully. "I feel," she added slowly, as though searching for words, "I feel as though the woods belonged to somebody and that we were sort of-- sort of-- intruding."

"Why, Betty!" said Grace, staring at her, "what a funny thing to say."

"I suppose it is," said Betty, shaking off the illusion with a shrug of her shoulders. "I am getting foolish in my old age I guess. We shall all feel better when we get something to eat."

"If we ever do," said Grace gloomily, adding as a sudden turn in the woods shot them deeper into the gloom of it: "Do be careful, Betty. I feel as though we were going over a precipice."

But Betty was too busy keeping the road to listen to her.

"Look behind," she directed Grace, "and see if Mollie is following close to us."

"She is right behind," reported Grace, as two eyes of light shot their glare in her eyes. "She is following us closer than a poor relation."

Betty giggled at this, and then for a long time-- or at least it seemed a long time to their strained nerves-- they went on in silence, following the winding road wherever it led and getting deeper into the forest with every moment.

Then suddenly something loomed up dark against the shadows only a few hundred feet ahead of them, and with a great feeling of thankfulness they realized that they had reached their destination. Directly ahead of them stood Wild Rose Lodge. They had arrived!

But just as they were about to break into wild jubilation something happened that tightened Betty's hand on the wheel and made Grace cry out with dismay.

Out from the shadow of the lodge a second shadow detached itself, a hunched up, bulky, fearful shadow that seemed neither beast nor man, but a combination of both of them.

For a moment, while the girls watched, paralyzed with fright, the thing seemed about to spring into the path of the moving car. But in another instant it turned, wheeled, and disappeared into the thick bushes about the house.

Then and only then did Betty recover presence of mind enough to stop the car.

"Betty! Betty!" cried Grace in a horrified whisper, grasping Betty's hand as it clung to the wheel. "What was it? Oh, what was it?"

"I don't know," Betty answered mechanically. "I only know it was horrible."

Then quite suddenly and without warning Grace broke down and cried.