Chapter XI. The Barking Dog.
 

Disappointment, and not a little worriment, held the four girls silent for a moment. Then Betty, feeling that it was her place to assume the leadership, said:

"Are you sure, little boy? A man told us, at the last dividing of the roads, to take the left, as that led to Rockford."

"Well, he didn't know what he was talking about," asserted the little chap, with the supreme confidence of youth. "To get to Rockford you've got to go back."

"All that distance?" cried Grace. "We'll never make it in time."

"Isn't there a shorter way--some cross-road we can take?" inquired Betty.

"Who's got the candy?" inquired the little chap, evidently thinking that he had already earned some reward.

"Here!" said Grace, hopelessly, holding out an almost emptied box. "But please--please don't tell us we're lost."

"Oh, you ain't exactly lost!" exclaimed the urchin, with a grin. "I live just down the road a piece, and it's only a mile to Bakersville. That's a good town. They got a movin' picture show there. I went onct!"

"Did you indeed?" said Betty. "But we can't go there. Isn't there some way of getting to Rockford without going all the way back to the fork? Why, it's miles and miles!"

"I wish I had that man here who directed us wrongly!" exclaimed Mollie, with a flash of her dark eyes. "I--I'd make him get a carriage and drive us to your aunt's house, Betty."

"That would not be revenge enough," declared Grace. "He ought to be made to buy us each a box of the best chocolates."

"Nothing like making the punishment fit the crime," murmured Betty.

"Say, are you play-actors?" demanded the boy, who had stood in opened-mouth wonder during this dialogue. The girls broke into peals of merry laughter that, in a measure, served to relieve the tension on their nerves.

"Now do please tell us how to get to Rockford?" begged Mollie when they had quieted down. "We must be there to-night."

"Well, you kin git there by goin' on a mile further and taking the main road that goes through Sayreville," said the boy, his mouth full of candy.

"Would that be nearer than going back to where we made the mistake?" Betty asked.

"Yep, a lot nearer. Come on; I'll show you as far as I'm goin'," and the boy started off as though the task--or shall I say, pleasure?--of leading four pretty girls was an every-day occurrence.

"We never can get there before dark," declared Mollie.

"Oh, yes, we will," said Betty, hopefully. "We can walk faster than this."

"If you do I'll simply give up," wailed Grace. "These shoes!" and she leaned against a tree.

And to the eternal credit of the other girls be it said that they did not remark: "I told you so!"

Silently and unconcernedly, the snub-nosed boy led them on. Finally he came to his own home, and rather ungallantly, did not offer to go farther.

"You jest keep on for about half a mile," he said, "an' you'll come to a cross-road."

"I hope it isn't too cross," murmured Grace, with a grave face.

"Huh?"

The boy looked at her wonderingly.

"I mean not cross enough to bite," she went on.

"You turn to the left," the boy continued, "and keep straight on till you get to Watson's Corners. Then you turn to the right, keep on past an old stone church, turn to the right and that's a straight road to Rockford." He looked curiously at Grace, as though in doubt as to her sanity. "A cross road!" he murmured.

"Gracious, we'll never remember all that!" exclaimed Amy.

"I have it down!" said practical Betty, as she wrote rapidly in her note book. "I'm sure we can find it. Come on, girls!"

"Have another candy," invited Grace, hospitably extending the now nearly depleted box.

"Sure--thanks!" exclaimed the boy, but he backed quickly away from her. Her joke had fallen on a suspicious mind, evidently.

The girls trudged on, rather silent now, for somehow the edge of their enjoyment seemed to have been taken off. But still they were not discouraged. They were true outdoor girls, and they knew, even if worse came to worst, and darkness found them far from their destination, and Betty's aunt's house, that no real harm could come to them.

Successfully they found the various points of identification mentioned by the freckled boy, and at last they located a sign-post that read:

FIVE MILES TO ROCKFORD

"Five miles!" exclaimed Grace, with a tragic air. "We can never do it!"

"We must!" declared Betty, firmly. "Of course we can do it. Why, even with going out of our way as we did, we won't have covered more than eighteen miles to-day. And we set twenty as an average."

"But this is the first day," said Mollie.

"We can--we must get to Rockford to-night," insisted Betty.

Rather hopelessly they tramped on. The sun seemed to sink with surprising rapidity after getting to a certain point in the western sky.

"It's dropping faster and faster all the while!" cried Amy, as they watched it from a crest of the road.

"Never mind--June evenings are the longest of the year," consoled Betty.

They hurried on. The sun sank to its nightly rest amid a bed of golden, green, purple, pink and olive clouds, and there followed a glorious maze of colors that reached high up toward zenith.

"Girls, we simply must stop and admire this--if it's only for a minute!" exclaimed Grace. "Isn't that wonderful!" and she pointed a slender hand, beautified by exquisitely kept nails, toward the gorgeous sky picture.

"Every minute counts!" remarked practical Betty. Yet she knew better than to worry her friends.

The glow faded, and again the girls advanced. From the fields came the lowing of the cows, as they waited impatiently for the bars of the pastures to be let down. A herd of sheep was driven along the road, raising a cloud of dust. From farm houses came the barking of dogs and the not unmusical notes of conch or tin horns, summoning the "men folks" to the evening meal.

"Girls, we're never going to make it in time!" exclaimed Grace as the sky darkened. "We must see if we can't stop at one of these houses over night," and she pointed to a little hamlet they were approaching.

"Grace!" exclaimed Betty. "Aunt Sallie would be worried to death if we didn't come, after she expected us."

"Then we must send her word. I can't go another step."

They all paused irresolutely. They were in front of a big white house--a typical country home. Betty glanced toward it.

"It's too bad," she said. "I know just how you feel, and yet can we go up to one of these places, perfect strangers, and ask them to keep us over night? It doesn't seem reasonable."

"Anything is reasonable when you have to," declared Mollie. "I'll ask," she volunteered, starting toward the house. "The worst they can say is 'no,' and maybe we can hire a team to drive to Rockford, if they can't keep us. I can drive!"

"Well, we'll ask, anyhow," agreed Betty, rather hopelessly. She hardly knew what to do next.

As they advanced toward the House the savage barking of a dog was heard, and as they reached the front gate the beast came rushing down the walk, while behind him lumbered a farmer, shouting:

"Here! Come back! Down, Nero! Don't mind him, ladies!" he added. "He won't hurt you!"

But the aspect, and the savage growls and barks, of the creature seemed to indicate differently, and the girls shrank back. Betty, reaching in her bag, drew out the nearly emptied olive bottle for a weapon.

"Don't hit him! Don't hit him!" cried the farmer. "That will only make him worse! Come back here, Nero!"

"Run, girls! Run!" begged Amy. "He'll tear us to pieces!" and she turned and fled.