Chapter XVI. The Deserted House.
 

The girls screamed in concert, and whose voice was the loudest was a matter that was in doubt. Not that the Little Captain and her chums lingered long to determine. The bear stopped short in the middle of the road, standing on its hind legs, waving its huge forepaws, and lolling its head from side to side in a sort of Comical amazement.

"Run! Run!" screamed Betty. "To the woods!"

"Oh! Oh! Oh!" That seemed the extent of Mollie's vocabulary just then.

"Climb a tree," was the advice of Grace.

"Is he coming? Is it coming after us?" Amy wanted to know.

She glanced over her shoulder as she put the question, and there nearly followed an accident, for Amy was running, and the look back caused her to stumble. Betty, who was racing beside her, just managed to save her chum from a bad fall. All the girls were running--running as though their lives depended on their speed. Luckily they wore short, walking skirts, which did not hinder free movement, and they really made good speed.

They crossed the road and plunged into the underbrush, crashing through it in very terror. They clung to their small suitcases instinctively. Then suddenly, as they ran on, there came the clear notes of a bugle in an army call. Betty recalled something.

"Stop, girls!" she cried.

"What, with that bear after us?" wailed Grace. "Never!"

"It's all right--I tell you it's all right!" went on Betty.

"Oh, she's lost her mind! She's so frightened she doesn't know what she is saying!" exclaimed Mollie. "Oh, poor Betty!"

"Silly! Stop, I tell you. That bear--"

Again came the notes of the bugle, and then the girls, looking through the fringe of trees at the road, saw a man with a red jacket, and wearing a hat in which was a long feather, come along, and grasp a chain that dangled from the leather muzzle which they had failed to notice on the bear's nose.

"It's a tame bear!" cried Betty. "That's what I meant. He won't harm us. Come on back to the road! Oh, I've torn my skirt!" and she gazed ruefully at a rent in the garment.

The girls hesitated a moment, and then, understanding the situation, and being encouraged by the fact that the man now had his bear in charge, also seeing another man, evidently the mate of the first, approaching with a second bear, they all went back to the highway. The bugle blew again, and one of the bears, at a command from the man, turned a clumsy somersault.

Grace burst into hysterical laughter, in which she was joined by the others.

"Weren't we silly!" exclaimed Mollie.

"Oh, but it looked just like a real bear!" gasped Amy in self-defense.

"Listen to her," said Betty. "A real bear--why, of course it is. Did you think it was the Teddy variety?"

"Oh, you know what I mean," spoke Amy, "I thought it was a wild bear."

"It probably was--once," remarked Grace.

They were all out in the road now, and the two men, with the bears, were slowly approaching. Evidently the foremost man had seen the precipitate flight of the girls, so, taking off his hat, and bowing with foreign politeness, he said:

"Excuse--please. Juno him get away from me--I chase after--I catch. Excuse, please."

"That's all right," said Betty, pleasantly. "We were frightened for a minute."

"Verra sorry. Juno made the dance for the ladies!"

He blew some notes on a battered brass horn, and began some foreign words in a sing-song tone, at which the bear moved clumsily about on its hind feet.

"Juno--kiss!" the man cried.

The great shaggy creature extended its muzzle toward the man's face, touching his cheek.

"Excuse--please," said the bear-trainer, smiling.

"Come on girls," suggested Amy. The place was rather a lonely one, though there were houses just beyond, and the two men, in spite of their bows, did not seem very prepossessing.

With hearts that beat rapidly from their recent flight and excitement, the girls passed the bears, the men both taking off their hats and bowing. Then the strange company was lost to sight down a turn in the road, the notes of the bugles coming faintly to the girls.

"Gracious! That was an adventure!" exclaimed Mollie.

"I thought I should faint," breathed Amy.

"Have a chocolate--do," urged Grace.

"They're nourishing," and she held out some.

"Girls, we must hurry," spoke Betty, "or we'll never get to Broxton before the rain. Hurry along!"

They walked fast, passing through the little village of Chanceford, where they attracted considerable attention. It was not every day that four such pretty, and smartly-attired, girls were seen on the village main street--the only thoroughfare, by the way. Then they came to the open country again. They had been going along at a good pace, and were practically certain of reaching Grace's sister's house in time for supper.

"It's raining!" suddenly exclaimed Betty, holding up her hand to make sure.

A drop splashed on it. Then another. Amy looked up into the clouds overhead.

"Oh!" she cried. "A drop fell in my eye."

Then with a suddenness that was surprising, the shower came down hard. Little dark spots mottled the white dust of the road.

"Run!" cried Mollie. "There's a house. We can stay on the porch until the rain passes. The people won't mind."

A little in advance, enclosed with a neat red fence, and setting back some distance from the road was a large, white house, with green shutters. The windows in front were open, as was the front door, and from one casement a lace curtain flapped in the wind.

"Run! Run! We'll be drenched!" cried Grace, thinking of her new walking suit. Without more ado the girls hurried through the gate, up the gravel walk and got to the porch just as the rain reached its maximum. It was coming down now in a veritable torrent.

"Queer the people here don't shut their door," remarked Betty.

"And see, the rain is coming in the parlor window," added Amy.

"Maybe they don't know it," suggested Grace. "Oh, the wind is blowing the rain right in on us!" she cried.

"I wonder if it would be impertinent to walk in?" suggested Mollie.

"We at least can knock and ask--they won't refuse," said Betty. "And really, with the wind this way, the porch is no protection at all."

She rapped on the open door. There was no response and she tapped again--louder, to make it heard above the noise of the storm.

"That's queer--maybe no one is at home," said Grace.

"They would hardly go off and leave the house all open, when it looked so much like rain," declared Amy. "Suppose we call to them? Maybe they are upstairs."

The girls were now getting so wet that they decided not to stand on ceremony. They went into the hall, through the front door. There was a parlor on one side, and evidently a sitting room on the other side of the central hall.

"See that rain coming in on the curtains and carpets!" cried Betty. "Girls, we must close the windows," and she darted into the parlor. The others followed her example, and soon the house was closed against the elements.

Breathless the girls waited for some sign or evidence of life in the house. There was none. The place was silent, the only sound being the patter of the rain and the sighing of the wind. The girls looked at each other. Then Betty spoke:

"I don't believe there's a soul here!" she exclaimed. "Not a soul! The house is deserted!"