The Campfire Girls Go Motoring by Hildegard G. Frey
Sahwah's vanishing from the car was so uncanny and mysterious that, for a few minutes, we could think of nothing but a supernatural agency. The wind was like the wail of a banshee, and to our excited eyes the mist wraiths hovering over the swamp were like dancing figures. The croaking of the frogs was suddenly full of menace. They were not real frogs croaking down there in the mud; they were evil spirits dwelling in the swamp and they held the secret of Sahwah's disappearance. Shudders ran up and down our spines and the perspiration began to break out in our faces.
"Did Sahwah get into the car again after she helped you open the gate?" asked Nyoda.
At the sound of her voice our fear of the supernatural vanished and we were back to reality again. We were lost on a lonely road, it is true, but it was a (more or less) solid dirt road in the misty mid-region of Indiana, and not a ghoul-haunted pathway in the misty mid-region of Weir.
We all declared Sahwah had gotten into the car.
"She couldn't have," maintained Nyoda. "We haven't stopped since then and she couldn't have fallen out while we were going without making a splash that would have sent the water over the car."
"It's nearly a foot deep most of the way." We thought hard about the circumstances attendant upon our getting back into the car and it came to us that we were not positive, after all, that Sahwah had been with us.
"That wind--don't you remember?" said Nakwisi. "It whipped the corner of my veil into my eye and I couldn't open it again for some time after we started."
I remembered the wind. It had wrapped my veil around my face so that I couldn't see anything, and in my blindness I had slammed the door on my finger, and the pain made me forget everything else. It hadn't been a propitious time to count noses. I had dropped into the corner of the seat trying to get my finger into my mouth through the folds of my veil, and the effort not to cry out with pain made me faint. I had not even noticed when the car started. Margery was on the front seat with Nyoda and they had thought, of course, that Sahwah was in the back with Nakwisi and me. Well, it was evident that she wasn't.
"Poor Sahwah," said Nyoda. "Such a night to be waiting at the gate!"
"Backward, turn backward, Glow-worm, in your flight, Rescue poor Sahwah from her muddy plight!"
Which was easier said than done. That road was built for traveling ahead and not for turning. On one side was the swamp and on the other a steep drop off into a lake.
"We're in the straight and narrow path all right," said Nyoda, viewing the landscape. Then she sarcastically began to quote from a well-known automobile advertisement which emphasized the superiority of a long wheel base, whatever that is. "The Glow-worm simply won't make the turn," she said. "Here's one instance when the worm won't turn."
"It's a long worm that knows no turning," I misquoted.
Nyoda tried again, and this time, with its rear wheels in the swamp and its front lamps hanging over the precipice, the Glow-worm did turn. We were limp as rags from the strain by the time we were safely back in the road. I had been trying to make up my mind which would do the least damage to my clothes, landing in the swamp or in the lake, and had just about decided on the lake as the lesser of the two evils, as I couldn't get much wetter anyhow, when Nyoda called out, "It's all over."
"If you're speaking of the mud it certainly is all over," I said, feeling of the spatters on the back of the seat.
"Mud baths are hygienic," said Nyoda drily, if anyone can be said to speak drily when they are dripping at every corner. "Be a sport if you can't be a philosopher." Which statement contained food for reflection, as they say in books.
We made our way slowly and splashily back to the mud-wreathed gate, alas, we shoved sir--Gracious! I'm tobogganing into a quotation again! But, like the girl in the poem when the lover comes back to the gate after many years, Sahwah wasn't there. We called, oh, how we did call! With voices as hoarse as the frogs in the swamp.
"We might as well stop calling," said Nyoda, disgustedly. "She won't be able to tell the difference between us and the frogs."
But we kept on calling just the same and a hideous echo from somewhere threw our words back at us in a broken, mocking answer. That was all. We were paralyzed with fear that Sahwah had wandered into the swamp or had fallen over the precipice in the dark into the lake. We turned the lights of the car on the swamp for a long distance, but saw nothing.
I shuddered until my teeth chattered at that lonely stretch of marsh. Given the choice between a graveyard at night and a swamp, I think I should take the graveyard. The nice friendly ghosts that sit on tombstones are so much more cheerful than the nameless and shapeless Things that flit over a swamp at night. The yellow circle thrown by the Glow-worm's lamps was the only thing that linked us to earth and reason. Within that circle the mysterious shadows melted and no spirits dared dance. Then without warning the yellow circle dimmed and vanished, and left us completely at the mercy of the Shapes. The lights had gone out on the Glow-worm.
"Probably short circuited," we heard Nyoda's voice say. "Where was Moses when the light went out?" I asked, trying to be cheerful.
Margery trembled and clung to Nyoda. The swamp now seemed a living thing that clutched at us with hands. And somewhere in that darkness that pressed around us Sahwah was wandering around lost, or perhaps lying helpless in the water. It is not my intention to dwell on the unpleasant features of our trip any more than I have to. But somehow that night stands out more clearly in my memory than any of the other events. Nyoda says it is because I am gifted, or rather cursed, with a constructive imagination, and see and hear things that aren't there. I suppose it is true, because I can see whole armies marching in the sky, and boats and horses and dragons, when the other girls only see clouds. But I know I heard sounds in that swamp that night that weren't earthly; voices that sang tunes and children that cried, and things that fiddled and shrieked and sobbed and laughed and whispered and gurgled and moaned.
Our hunt for Sahwah had to be given up because without lights we dared not venture forth on the road for fear of running into the swamp.
"Sit up in front, Migwan, and be the headlight; you're bright enough," said Nyoda, cheerfully.
"I'm having an eclipse to-night," I replied.
So we sat still in the Glow-worm not far from the gate which had been the fountain and origin of all the trouble and wished fervently, not for Blucher or night, but for Sahwah or morning. And the reader knows which one of them came.
The rain stopped about dawn and the east began to redden and then we knew there was going to be a sunrise. I have been glad to see many things in my life; but I never was so glad to see anything, as I was, when the sun began to rise that morning after the night of water. Viewed in the magic light of morning, the road was not so bad, while the lake, rippling in the wind, was a thing of beauty, and the swamp was merely a swamp. The gate was right at the corner of a fence which enclosed a very large farm. We could just barely see the house and barn in the distance, set up on a sort of hill. The property ended on this end at the gate, and just beyond it began the descent to the lake. How we had gotten inside that fence the night before we never found out. We must have crossed that entire farm in the darkness on a private road which we mistook for the main road.
In the broad light of day we descended the steep way down to the lake and examined every foot of ground around it. It was all soft mud and if Sahwah had been down there she must have left traces of some kind. But the surface was unbroken save for a few tracks of birds. Clearly, she had not fallen over the edge. Where, then, had she gone. The mud around the gate was such soup that no footprints could be seen. Oh, if the gate could only speak!
"Could she have possibly found her way up to that farmhouse?" I asked. "I don't see how she ever did it in the dark, but still it's a possibility."
So we dragged the gate open again and drove up to the farmhouse. The men were just starting to work in the fields. It must be nice to work where you can see the earth wake up every morning. There are times when I simply long to be a milkmaid. A lean, sun-burned woman was washing clothes out under the trees and she looked up in surprise when we appeared. No, Sahwah had not been there. The mystery was still a mystery. But from the height of the farmhouse we saw what we had not seen from the level of the road, and that was that there was another road running parallel to the one we had been on, skirting the swamp on the other side and bordered by thick trees. From the gate we had thought that those trees grew in the swamp, as we could not see the road beyond it. Sahwah must have blundered into that road in the darkness, we concluded, and thought she was going after us.
We found a narrow lane leading to it, covered with water for most of its length, and there, sure enough, we saw deep footprints in the new road. We followed these, expecting to come upon her sitting in the wayside every minute. But the footprints went on. There were no houses along here; the only building we passed was an empty red barn covered over with tobacco advertisements. A little farther on the road ran into a highway and so did the footprints. A little beyond the turn Nyoda spied something lying in the road. How she managed to see it is beyond me, but Nyoda has eyes like a hawk. It was a button from Sahwah's coat. Sahwah's button-shedding habit is very useful as a clue.
"Here is a button; Sahwah can't be very far now," said Nyoda, cheerfully. A sign post we passed said "Lafayette 20 miles." At last we knew where we were. Deep ruts in the road showed where a car had passed just ahead of us. Then all of a sudden the footprints came to a stop; ended abruptly in the road, as if Sahwah had suddenly soared up into the air. There was a low stone where the footprints came to a stop and around it the mud was all trampled down.
At first we were frightened to death, thinking that Sahwah had been attacked and carried off. But the footprints did not lead anywhere. "Of course, they don't," said Nyoda. "Whoever made them got into that car and Sahwah did too. It's the car that's traveling ahead of us. It stopped and picked Sahwah up." (Just how literally Sahwah had been "picked up" we did not guess.)
"What will we do now?" asked Nakwisi.
"Follow the car," replied Nyoda.
"It sounds like Cadmus and 'follow the cow'," said I.
So we followed the ruts. The sun was up fair and warm by this time and we were beginning to dry off beautifully. I took off my soaked shoes and tied them out on the mud guard where they could bake. Nakwisi went me one better in the scheme of decoration and hung hers on the lamp bracket. Then we hung up our wet coats where they could fly in the wind. Margery was cold all the time and we let her have the exclusive use of the one robe, and the rest of us took turns being wrapped in the Winnebago banner. It was blanket shaped and made of heavy felt and served the purpose admirably. In a moment of forethought Sahwah had taken it down from the back of the car just before we were caught in the storm, and so it had escaped being soaked also.
"This is traveling de luxe" said I, stretching out my stockinged feet on the foot rail, and wiggling my cramped toes.
"I don't know about de looks," said Nyoda with a twinkle, "but as long as no one sees you it doesn't matter."
"Who's making puns now?" inquired Nakwisi, severely.
"What's this in the road?" asked Nyoda presently, as we came upon a bundle of bright green.
We stopped and picked it up. "It's a veil just like ours, and a hat," said Nyoda. "It's Sahwah's veil and hat!" she exclaimed, looking in the hatband where Sahwah's name was written. Then she discovered something tied in the veil. It was Sahwah's address book and on the first page was scrawled a message:
"To those interested:
Picked up by tourists. On way to Carrie Wentworth Inn, Chicago.
SARAH ANN BREWSTER."
Beside the signature was the familiar Sunfish which is Sahwah's symbol. There was no doubt about the note being genuine. Besides, it could only be quick-witted Sahwah who would think of leaving a blaze in the road on the slender chance that we would be coming along that way. How it smoothed everything out! Not knowing that we were so close behind her, Sahwah had had a chance to go on to Chicago, and would simply go to our hotel and wait until we came! What a long headed one Sahwah was, to be sure! We could have played hide and seek with each other around those roads for days and never found each other, the way the children did around the voting booth, but by clearing out altogether and going to our place of rendezvous she knew the chances of our meeting were much greater. How she had managed to find tourists who were on the way to Chicago was a piece of luck which could only have befallen Sahwah.
"I think the best thing for us to do is to hunt some breakfast and then make for Chicago as fast as we can," said Nyoda. "I've been thinking that that would be the best way to find the others. We don't seem to have been very successful in running around the country after them, and if they managed to get the wire we sent to Chicago the other day they will probably find us if we go there too."
"Did Gladys start out with us, or didn't she?" asked Nakwisi, thoughtfully. "I think sometimes it was all a delusion, and there were no more than four of us at the start."
"Sometimes I think so too," I agreed. Was the Striped Beetle a myth? We had almost forgotten our original quest in the chase after Sahwah.
We still debated uncertainly whether we had better go back to Indianapolis and hunt for Gladys, now that we were reasonably certain where Sahwah was, or go on to Chicago and make sure of her, at least. There were so many arguments on both sides that we could come to no decision and so we flipped a coin for it. Chicago won and the die was cast. The next move was breakfast and a place to clean up. We looked as though we had been fished out of the lake. Breakfast we would find in the town of Lafayette, which we were approaching. But we faltered by the wayside as usual. Whether or not that had any bearing on what happened later I don't know, but Nyoda says it would have been the same anyway, only different. Which is rather a neat little phrase, after all, in spite of being impure English. To me our stop over was simply another move in the game of checkers Fate was playing with us as counters.
The thing which caused us to falter by the wayside before we reached Lafayette was a sign on a big, old-fashioned farmhouse near the road which read:
TOURISTS TOOK IN Meals 35 cents
Nyoda couldn't resist the delicious humor of it. She stopped before the door. "You aren't going to stop here, are you?" I inquired.
"I want to be 'took in'," declared Nyoda. "Just as if all the other places don't do the same thing; only they aren't quite so frank about it. I want to see the creator of that sign. So we drove into the big, shady yard and parked the panting Glow-worm at the end of the long drive under arching trees. Then we went up on the side porch and knocked at the screen door while a black cat inspected us drowsily from the cushioned depths of a porch chair. A bustling, red-faced woman came to the door.
"We're tourists," said Nyoda, "and we want to be took in. We want breakfast."
"Come in an' set on the table," said the woman, and we knew we had found the author of the "Tourists Took In" sign.
Upon our asking for water and soap we were directed to a room on the second floor where a bowl and pitcher stood on a wash-stand and a towel hung over a chair.
"After having had such a dose of water last night I didn't think I'd ever care to wash again," said Nakwisi, "but that wash bowl's the best thing I've seen yet this morning. Hurry up and give me my turn."
I got through as quickly as possible to stop her clamoring, and while she scrubbed and primped I strolled over to the window, which overlooked the road in front of the house. The high spots were already drying in the warm wind. As I stood there I saw a speck coming down the road which gradually grew to the proportions of a man on a motorcycle exceeding the speed limit by about ten miles. He came to a stop in front of the house with such a jerk that I thought he would pitch off onto his head. He leaned the motorcycle against the porch and came up the steps, and as he did so I recognized the light-haired young man that had been in Rochester when we were. I must say it gave me a little thrill of pleasure to see him again.
The woman had evidently gone to the door in answer to his knock, for we heard her voice the next instant. Every word came up distinctly through the open window.
"Are there five young ladies in tan suits here?" he demanded. The woman was evidently offended at his curt manner. "What business is it of yours?" she asked, in a harsh voice.
"See here," he said sternly, "if you're in league with them and are trying to hide them you'll get into trouble. They're wanted by the police, and I'm here to arrest them."
We looked at each other thunderstruck. Wanted by the police! It was all a part of the strange mystery that had been surrounding us for the last few days. Could they be after us on account of the necklace?
"Tell me at once," persisted the man, "are they here, or did they go by?"
The woman evidently saw visions of her four breakfasts remaining uneaten and consequently un-paid for if she delivered us up, and tried to parley. "There's no such people here," she said brazenly, "they went by over an hour ago."
"They did nothing of the kind," said the young man, "they turned in here. I saw them across the field where the road turns."
"You can come in an' set in the parlor," said the woman firmly, "an' don't you set a foot in the rest of the house, an' I'll bring them to you."
We heard the front door open and close; then a movement in the room below us and the squeak of a chair as somebody sat down. Then we heard the door shut and the footsteps of the woman toward the back part of the house.
"I believe she locked him in," said Nyoda, laughing in the midst of her bewilderment, "and she doesn't mean to produce us until we've paid for that breakfast. It's too bad to disappoint her, but necessity comes before choice."
"What do you mean to do?" I asked.
Margery was as pale as a ghost. "It's my uncle after me," she gasped. "Oh, don't let them get me!"
I was too stupefied to say another word. That the nice young man with the light hair should turn out to be a police agent after us was too much for my comprehension.
Nyoda held up her hand for us to be silent and led us on tiptoe into a room which opened off at one side of the hall. She led us to the window, and we could see that it overlooked the yard on the other side from the dining-room and, that it opened out on a porch roof. A little way off we saw the Glow-worm standing under the trees. Nyoda crept out of the window and swung herself down to the ground by means of a flower trellis and we followed, helping Margery. Then we raced across the yard to the Glow-worm and started it just as a car drove by tooting its horn for dear life so that the sound of our engine was drowned in the noise.
We reached the road without going past the house and Nyoda opened the throttle wide. The last glimpse we had of the house where the tourists were "took in" was of a motorcycle leaning up against the porch. Our one thought was to get Margery safely to Chicago before the detective got her and took her back to her uncle. Nyoda had friends in Chicago who would take Margery in until she could go safely to Louisville in the event we could not take her with us. We knew that it would not be long before the man on the motorcycle would find out that we had escaped and would take the road after us, and we must not lose a minute. Lafayette flew by our eyes a mere line of stores and houses; we hardly slackened our speed going through, and then we began the long run northward to Chicago. We saw people turn to look at us as we rushed along, and then their faces blurred and vanished from sight. Now and then a chicken flew up right under the very wheels and once we ran over one. But we went on, on, unheeding. Then we struck a stretch of soft road and thought for a minute we were going to get stuck.
"Would you get through any better if you threw me overboard?" asked Nakwisi. "I'm pretty heavy." Nyoda only smiled and put on more speed and we went through. Margery's face was chalk white and her eyes were wide with fear; but excited as I was, I was enjoying the flight immensely. This was life. I thought of all the famous rides in history that I used to thrill over; Paul Revere's Ride, How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, Tam o' Shanter's Famous Ride, and all the others. Sahwah will regret to her dying day that she missed it.
Halfway to Chicago, Nakwisi, who was keeping a sharp lookout with her spy-glass, reported that there was a motorcycle chasing us about half a mile behind. The Glow-worm leapt forward a trifle faster under Nyoda's steady hand, but she never flicked an eyelash. Nyoda is simply a marvel of self-control in an emergency.
Soon we could all see the pursuer without the aid of the glass. He was gaining on us rapidly. We were approaching a railroad crossing and there was a train coming. If we had to wait until it went by we would be overtaken surely. Nyoda measured the distance between the train and the crossing with a swift eye and put on the last bit of speed of which the Glow-worm was capable. We bumped across the tracks just as the gates were beginning to go down. A minute later the way behind us was cut off by one of those interminably long, slow moving freight trains, and one the other side of the barrier was the impotent pursuer.
But the time gained by this lucky incident merely postponed the inevitable end of the chase. When did a loaded car ever outrun a motorcycle? We watched him approaching, helpless to ward off the thing which was coming, yet running on at the top of our speed, hoping against hope that his gas would give out or he would run into something. But none of these things happened and he drew alongside of us and caught hold of the fender.
Nyoda slowed down and came to a stop. "What do you want?" she asked, haughtily.
"Your little game is up," said the man, quietly.
Nyoda faced him bravely, determined not to give Margery up without a struggle. "Will you kindly tell me what you mean?" she asked.
The motorcyclist grinned. "Don't try to play off innocent," he said, severely. "You know as well as I do what I mean. But it isn't you I'm after most," he continued. "It's this one," and he pointed to Margery. Margery buried her face in Nyoda's arm. Nyoda saw it was no use. "Are you looking for Margery Anderson?" she asked.
"Margery Anderson!" said the man, with another grin. "That's a new one on me. But she changes so often there's no keeping track of her. She may be Margery Anderson now, but the one I'm after is Sal Jordan, better known as 'Light Fingered Sal', the slickest pickpocket and shoplifter between New York and San Francisco."
We all stared at him open-mouthed. "Oh, you may have forgotten about it," he said sarcastically, "but I'll refresh your memory." He was speaking to Margery now. "After you robbed that jewelry store in Toledo you got away with such a narrow squeak that the doors of the police station almost closed on you. Your friends didn't dare show themselves in town, so they went riding around in an automobile, pretending they were tourists, and you joined them out in the country somewhere. I've had my eye on you ever since you left Ft. Wayne. But we had word you were going to Indianapolis to carry on another little piece of business and I thought I'd let you go free awhile and catch you with the goods on. But you gave me the slip and didn't go, and I must say you've led me a fine chase. But it's all over now and you'll go along with me to Chicago like a little lamb with all your pretty friends."
He looked us over carefully. "Where's the other one?" he asked, suddenly. "There were five of you before. Great Scott!" he exclaimed. "You've sent her back to Indianapolis. Pretty cute, Sal, but it won't do any good. They're watching for her."
We sat petrified, looking at Margery. She had collapsed on the seat with her face in her hands--the very picture of Admission of Guilt. "Margery!" cried Nyoda, "is it true?"
But Margery shook her head. "I don't know anything about it," she said.
"You're mistaken," said Nyoda cooly to the man, "we know nothing whatever about this Sal person." Just then she drew her hand from her pocket with a convulsive movement, and out flew the scarab at the man's feet. He picked it up with a triumphant movement.
"Oh, no, you don't know anything about it," he said. "But you are carrying Sal's scarab, which is the countersign between the members of her gang. As I mentioned before, your little game is up."
"Margery!" said Nyoda the second time, "is it true?" But Margery buried her face in her hands and said nothing.
Our thoughts went whirling in somersaults. The girl we had picked up was not Margery, but "Light Fingered Sal", a pickpocket!
The appearance of the scarab and the scene at the ball when Nyoda had found the necklace in her pocket came over us like a flash. What dupes we had been never to suspect the truth before!
The procession moved on again with the motorcyclist keeping hold of the fender. Thus it was that we came into Chicago, under police escort, and were chaperoned up the steps of the police station.
Once inside, we blinked around with greater wonder than we had at anything which had happened so far.
Against the wall were standing in a row: Gladys, Chapa, Medmangi, Hinpoha, Sahwah between a strange man and woman, four young women we had never seen before but who wore suits and veils exactly like ours, and a girl in a blue suit.