Chapter III.
 

We stared in open-mouthed astonishment. Gladys and the others not in Ft. Wayne? If they weren't there, where were they? We were expecting to join them this very morning. Nyoda came to a sensible conclusion first, as she always does, "Where are they?" she repeated. "Why, stranded in some place along the road, just as we are, of course. We're not the only ones that can have accidents. I thought Gladys would get into some trouble or other at the rate she was driving that car. I hope none of them got hurt, but it serves them right if they did have a hold-up of some kind. And I hope the trouble, whatever it is, keeps them tied up until we overtake them. We must ask at every village whether the Striped Beetle is there. Wouldn't we laugh to see them standing around some garage waiting impatiently for the damage to be mended?"

It was nine o'clock before the Glow-worm was in running order again and we were ready to take the road once more. Since being towed into the repair shop the night before we had seen nothing of the Frog, and I concluded that he had gone on his way and would cross our path no more. But we had not gone many miles on the road when I saw the now familiar roadster traveling leisurely along behind us. I mentioned the fact casually to Nyoda as I was sitting beside her, and while she made no comment whatever, I noticed that she began gradually to increase the pace of the car. As yet neither of us had hinted at our unspoken antagonism to this persistent follower--for Nyoda was antagonistic to him, because I noticed that she bit her lip in an annoyed way when she saw him again. After all, he might not be following us. He certainly had every right in the world to be traveling in the general direction of Chicago over the public highway at the same time we were making our trip.

And yet--why did he stay all night in S---- when there was nothing the matter with his car, and when accommodations were so very scarce. We hadn't the least idea where he had stayed, but he must have been in S---- all night or he couldn't have followed us out in the morning. Even that fact, which might have been a coincidence, did not convince me so much that he was following us as my own intuition did. And I have learned by experience to respect those intuitions. Out of a whole dining-room full that man had been the only one who had attracted my attention, and I felt antagonistic toward him instantly. I had the same feeling when I saw him behind us on the road to Napoleon. And the worst part of it was that he had done absolutely nothing to make me feel that way toward him. He hadn't been impertinent, in fact, he had never said a single word to any of us! All he had done was to stare searchingly at Nyoda through that goggle mask of his. There was nothing the matter with his looks, goodness knows. All we could see under the big goggles were part of a nose and a brown mustache and they looked harmless enough. Then why did Nyoda and I both have the same feeling toward him?

We inquired carefully all the way, but nowhere did we come upon any trace of the Striped Beetle. At several places they had seen the brown car go by the day before and at one place it had stopped for gasoline, but no one knew of any repairs that had been made on it. The thing began to loom up like a puzzle. If the Striped Beetle had not been delayed by accident why had not Gladys arrived in Ft. Wayne the night before as per schedule.

"Possibly they did arrive all right, and didn't go to a hotel because you weren't with them," suggested Sahwah. "Gladys may have friends there and they may have stayed with them." That fact was so very probable that we ceased to worry about the girls, trusting that the whole thing would be made clear when we got to Ft. Wayne.

We were in Indiana now, running through beautiful farm country, with occasional tiny villages. Sahwah made up a game, estimating the number of windmills we would see in a certain time and then counting them as we passed to see how near she came to being right. As we were keeping a sharp lookout on each side of the road so as not to miss any, we saw a girl running across a field toward the road just ahead of us. She was waving her arms and we looked to see whom or what she was waving at, but there was nothing in sight.

"I actually believe she's waving at us!" said Sahwah. There was no mistake about it. The girl stood still in the road waiting for us to come up and motioned us to stop. We did so. She stood and looked at us for a minute as if she were afraid to speak. I looked back to see if the Frog was gaining on us. The red roadster had disappeared. The girl who stood before us looked about eighteen or twenty. She wore a plain suit of dark blue cloth with a long skirt down to the ground and a white sailor hat with a veil draped around it that covered her face. In her hand she held a small traveling bag. She looked beseechingly from one to the other of us and then her eyes came back to Nyoda.

"Could you--would you--will you take me to Decatur?" she faltered. "I'll pay you whatever you think it's worth," she added hastily. Now Decatur was out of our course altogether, some miles to the south. We were hurrying to Ft. Wayne to find out what had become of Gladys and why our telegram had come back unanswered. But this girl was plainly in trouble. Through the veil we could see that her face looked haggard and her eyes were big and staring. She looked frightened to death. No girl in trouble ever came to Nyoda in vain.

"Do you want to go to Decatur very badly?" she asked, gently.

"I must go," said the girl, earnestly. "I have to catch a train there, the train for Louisville." She checked herself when she had said that and looked around as if afraid she had been overheard.

"But why go to Decatur?" asked Nyoda. "You can get the Louisville train in Ft. Wayne. We are going directly to Ft. Wayne and are nearer there now than Decatur. We will be very glad to take you along."

But at the mention of Ft. Wayne the girl shrank back. "No, no, not there," she said in evident terror. "They--they would be watching for me there."

Nyoda looked at the girl keenly. She must have seen what we did not. "My dear," she said, in a big sister tone, "are you running away from home?"

The girl started and looked haunted. "Yes, I am running away," she said in a tone of desperation, "but I'm not running away from home. I'm running back home. Home to my mother." She looked over her shoulder at a house set far back from the road.

"Tell me about it," said Nyoda, with that smile of hers that never fails to win a confidence. The girl looked into Nyoda's eyes and did not look away again. It's the way everybody does.

"I'm Margery Anderson," she said. "You know now who I am and why I'm running away."

Yes, we all knew. The papers all over had been full of the fight Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, who were separated, had been making to get possession of their daughter Margery. The law had given her to her mother, but she had been kidnapped twice by her father and the last that had been published about her was that she was in the keeping of an uncle, who was hiding her from her mother. But the papers had said that Margery was only thirteen years old. This girl looked older.

"My uncle wants to take me to Japan, where I'll never see my mother again," she said. "I want my mother!" she finished with a very childish sob.

Nyoda got out of the car and put her arm around her. "You shall go to your mother, my dear," she said. "We'll take you to Decatur."

In walking to the car Margery fell all over the long skirt she was wearing, and then we realized that she was dressed up in someone else's clothes to make herself look older. She was only thirteen after all. Nyoda had been able to observe this right away when she had looked at her closely. She was as straight and as slender as a boy and the jacket modeled for an older woman hung on her as on a pole.

"Do you know the road to Decatur?" asked Nyoda. Margery said that she did, and told Nyoda how to turn. Our arrival in Ft. Wayne would be delayed an hour or so by going to Decatur, but none of us minded. We were all keenly interested in this much talked of young girl and were anxious to see her get to her mother before her uncle could stop her. Who would not have done the same thing in our place?

"What time does the Louisville train leave Decatur?" asked Nyoda, looking at her watch.

"Eleven-thirty," said Margery.

Nyoda put the watch back hastily and increased the speed of the car. She did not say what time it was and none of us asked her, thinking that the time might be short and Margery would be worried for fear we would not make it. We knew Nyoda would make it if she possibly could do so. Margery looked at her inquiringly, and Nyoda answered with a bright reassuring smile. Once Nyoda and I caught each other looking behind at the same moment and we each smiled faintly. The red roadster was nowhere in sight. By making this detour to Decatur while it was delayed on the road we had undoubtedly thrown it off the track.

We could not have been many miles from Decatur when a shot startled us. We all looked around expecting to see Margery's uncle after us, but it was only the bursting of a tire. Only the bursting of a tire! But to this day I hold that that tire did not burst of its own accord. Fate deliberately jabbed a pin into it. We carried an extra and with the help of a farmer who was passing we jacked up the Glow-worm in a hurry and put on its new gum shoe, Margery walked up and down the road nervously during the process. I suppose the minutes seemed like hours to her.

I beguiled the time by scribbling verses in my note-book to celebrate the occasion:

  "Tires, brand new tires, I know not what they mean,
   Freshly inflated from the Free Air pump,
   Giving no warning of their base designs,
   Scatter in air with a terrific bang,
   And all upon a sudden are no more.

  "Sweeter it is than dreams of paradise
   To ride with friends beside one in one's car,
   O'er sunlit roads; past fields of waving grain.
   Bitter it is as drops of greenest gall,
   To blow a tire, and sit there in the sun."

At this juncture the exchange of tires was completed and we were off once more. I saw Nyoda look at her watch.

"What time is it?" asked Margery.

"My watch has stopped," answered Nyoda. There was a clock on the corner of two streets in the next village we passed through and the hands pointed to eleven. This would give us plenty of time. We were not far from Decatur. We all breathed a sigh of relief, for we had been afraid that the bursting of the tire had caused us to miss the train. Nyoda calculated closely and announced that we would have time to stop and buy gasoline. She was not sure whether we had enough to make Decatur or not, and it would be a shame to go dry outside the very walls of Rome, she said. It took the young boy in charge of the place where they sold the gasoline some minutes to fill our tank, as he was only looking after the place while the proprietor was out and he was awkward. It was ten minutes after eleven when we got under way again. Nyoda set her watch by the clock.

When we got into Decatur we had an unpleasant surprise. All the clocks we came to said ten minutes to twelve. The other clock we had seen had been half an hour slow. We hurried to the station in the hope that the train was late, but there was no such luck. It had been on time for once. Margery sank down on the seat in the waiting-room and looked at us with wide frightened eyes. Clearly she was appealing to Nyoda to tell her what to do.

"When is the next train to Louisville?" Nyoda inquired at the ticket window.

"None until to-morrow noon," was the reply.

Margery looked so dismayed that Nyoda said hastily, "Why won't you go to Ft. Wayne and get the train there? The fast trains that don't stop here stop there and you can get one later in the day."

But Margery looked more frightened than ever. "I can't go to Ft. Wayne," she said. "My uncle would expect me to go there and would have the station watched. That's why I wanted to go to Decatur. They would never think of looking there for me. What shall I do. I know I'll never get to mother!"

She looked so young and babyish and helpless that Nyoda made up her mind on the spot that she was not the kind of girl who could be left on her own resources.

"Tell me," she said, "does your mother expect you to-morrow?"

Margery shook her head. "She doesn't even know that I'm coming."

"Then," said Nyoda decidedly, "I'm not going to leave you to find your way there alone. We will be going through Louisville in a few days and you're going to stay right with us until we get there. Your uncle will probably be having trains watched and would never think of you in an automobile. It is the best solution of the problem. We'll get you a dress and veil like the other girls and everyone will think you are one of our party. In that case you don't need to be afraid to go to Ft. Wayne, where we must stop, as we will not go near a railway station."

Margery agreed to this plan with such an air of relief that it was plain to be seen what an ordeal it had been for her to try to travel alone.

With this delay of having to go to Decatur it was past noon before we got to Ft. Wayne. Once there we were at a loss how to proceed to find the Striped Beetle and the girls. I believe everyone of us confidently expected to find them waiting for us at some point where the road entered the city, and it threw us off our bearings to find they were not there. Even Nyoda was plainly puzzled what to do. We found the little Potter Hotel where we were to have stayed and asked to see the register. It was possible that the girls had been there after all in spite of the telegram not having been delivered. Telegrams have failed to connect before. But they had not been there. If they had stayed with friends we did not know where they were now. It was a riddle. Not getting any light on the subject we decided to eat our dinner before we looked farther.

We checked our cameras and the man at the checking counter looked at us closely when we came up. There was no one else there and he seemed inclined to be talkative.

"There was a party just like you here yesterday," he said.

"What do you mean by 'just like us?'" we asked.

"Same clothes," he answered. "Four girls in tan suits and green veils and one in a blue suit and white veil."

We all looked at each other. The four girls were evidently ours, but who was the one in blue?

"What time were they here?" we asked.

"About five o'clock yesterday afternoon," he answered. "They checked some things here and then went into the dining-room."

Five o'clock was the time we should all have reached Ft. Wayne if things had gone right.

"Have you any idea where they have gone now?" we asked, eagerly.

"They were on their way to Chicago, going through Ligonier," answered the man. "I heard them talking about it. They seemed to be in a great hurry and were only in the dining-room about fifteen minutes. The one in blue kept telling them to make haste."

"The plot thickens," said Sahwah. "Gladys is mixed up in some adventure of her own, apparently. She's not running away from us for the fun of the thing, you can rest assured. I never thought so from the first. She's probably taking some distressed damsel to Chicago in a grand rush and counts on us to trust her until we catch up with her and hear the explanation."

"Yes," agreed Nyoda, "she must have had some urgent reason for acting so, that's a foregone conclusion."

"It's a four gone one all right," said Sahwah, but Nyoda's mind was too busy with wondering about Gladys to notice the pun.

"I think the best thing to do is to follow them as fast as we can," said Sahwah.

"I think so too," said Nyoda.

Puzzled as we were about Gladys's strange behavior, we were yet relieved of all anxiety about the Striped Beetle and its passengers. The girls were on their way to Chicago by way of Ligonier, the way we had planned in the beginning, and had undoubtedly not fallen by the wayside. We did wait long enough in Ft. Wayne to buy Margery a suit and veil just like ours and were surprised and gratified to find that we could get a suit exactly like ours down to the last button.

"Who do you suppose the girl in blue is with Gladys?" we asked each other, as we took the road again. But, of course, no one could answer this.

I was sitting in the front seat beside Nyoda. We had not gone very far on the way when I saw her knit her brows in a frown and heard her mutter to herself, "I thought we had lost you!" At the same time she increased the speed of the car. Naturally, I looked ahead in the direction in which she was looking, but there was nothing in sight. Then I looked behind. About a hundred yards behind us was the red roadster with the Frog calmly sitting at the wheel. How did Nyoda know he was there? She had not turned around since we had left Ft. Wayne.

"Have you an eye in the back of your head?" I asked, curiously.

"No, but I have one in the back of my collar," she answered, trying to hide her annoyance in a joke. "I just had a feeling he was there," she added.

This time I actually had a chill when I saw him. There was something terrifying in that figure always following us, never coming any nearer, never saying anything, but yet, never losing sight of us. Those mask- like goggles and the cap he wore pulled low over his face made him look like one of the creatures you see in a bad dream.

We had spent so much time in Ft. Wayne looking for a suit for Margery that it was four o'clock before we finally got under way. The morning had been fine, but the afternoon was misty and chilly. It must have rained not long before, for the road was muddy. We did not make such very good time, for the car began to act badly, and it was soon evident that something was wrong. We began to run slowly. Involuntarily, I glanced around to see how much the roadster was gaining on us. It had slowed down too and was going at exactly our pace. By this time the other girls could not help noticing that it was following us. Margery crouched in the seat and clung to Sahwah's arm. She was sure it was her uncle after her, and then I had to explain that the Frog had been following us all the way from Toledo, before we had taken her in.

We had expected to make Ligonier in a very short time and reach South Bend before night, but as things turned out we never got there at all. Somewhere between Ligonier and Goshen, at a little town called Wellsville, the poor Glow-worm must have been taken with awful pains in its insides, for it began to pant and gasp like a creature in misery, and utter little squeals of distress. There was nothing left to do but hunt up the one garage in town, which fortunately had a repair shop in connection with it, and get someone to look at the engine. I don't pretend to know anything about the machinery of the car, so I haven't the slightest idea what was the matter, but the man talked knowingly about magnetos and carburetors and said he could have the trouble fixed by eight o'clock in the evening. We were vexed that it should take so long, because we had expected to make South Bend early in the evening, but there was no help for it, so we repaired to the hotel next door--"hotel" by courtesy, for it was nothing more than a wayside inn--for supper.

It was raining a fine drizzle, and, as we did not care to walk around in it, after supper we sat in the stuffy parlor and tried to pass away the hours until the Glow-worm would be cured of its sickness and we could resume our journey. The carpet on the floor was a mixture of hideous red and pink roses on a green background. I can see that carpet yet. It was a Brussels, and Sahwah kept referring to it as one of the Belgian Atrocities. There was a larger room opening out of the parlor in which we sat, a sort of general reception and smoking-room combined. There was an old square piano out there and some young man was banging ragtime on it, while half a dozen others leaned over it and roared out songs in several different keys at once. All around the room sat men, smoking until the air was blue, and talking in loud voices, or shouting snatches of the songs. They seemed a rather noisy lot and from the scraps of conversation we heard we judged that they had come from somewhere to attend the September horse races which were being held in the neighborhood. At any rate, the hotel was swarming with them and we were glad that we were to get out of there by eight o'clock and did not have to stay all night. Once one of them walked into the parlor where we sat and said "Good evenin', ladies," in an impertinent sort of way, but we all froze him up with a glance and he went out without saying anything more to us. We saw him cross the other room toward a door at the farther side, and, as he crossed the floor we saw someone else get up from a chair in the corner of the room and go out after him. The second man was right under a light and we recognized the Frog, still with his goggles and cap on. Soon there came a loud uproar from the invisible room and unmistakable sounds of scuffling. We waited to hear no more. If there was going to be a quarrel in that hotel we did not wish to see any of it. We ran out in the rain and went into the garage where the man was working on the Glow-worm. The quarrel we had fled from didn't amount to anything after all, I suppose, for in a few minutes we heard the men back at their singing.

It was now nearly eight o'clock and we looked anxiously from time to time at the Glow-worm to see if it was nearly finished, but some of the parts were scattered out on the floor and the man was wrenching away at what was left in the car and did not seem to be in any hurry to put the others back. At eight o'clock it was not done and Nyoda asked him how soon it would be.

"Not before nine or nine-thirty, Miss," replied the man.

The rain had stopped and we walked up and down the main street for the next two hours, stopping in at the garage every time we passed, in the vain hope that the work was finished and we could go on. But it was not to be so. It was half past ten before it was finally ready and that was too late to start. We realized that we would have to stay in that inn all night, much as we were disinclined to do so. The racket was still in full blast when we returned and were shown to rooms. We had to go up on the third floor because the other rooms were all taken by the racketers. The ceiling sloped down on our heads and the windows were small and the furniture was exceedingly cheap, but it was a place to stay and that was the main thing.

"There's only one quilt on my bed," said Nakwisi rather disdainfully, "and I don't believe that has more than an eighth of an inch of batting in it."

"I think an eighth of an inch is a pretty good batting average for a hotel quilt," giggled Sahwah, whose spirits nothing can dampen.

We made up our minds to get up at six o'clock and get a good early start the next morning. As things turned out we got a much earlier start than we had anticipated. Margery didn't like the room at all and cried while she was undressing, and Nyoda had to pet her and make a fuss over her before she would lie down in the bed. I couldn't help wondering just what Nyoda would have done to one of us if we had cried about that hotel room. But then Margery isn't a Winnebago, and that makes a lot of difference.

We went to sleep with the banging of the piano and the sound of the songs floating up from downstairs, and each of us puzzling about the appearance of the Frog and wondering why he hadn't approached us in the parlor if he were really trying to make our acquaintance. Possibly he meant to, later, only we upset his plan by going out when we did, I reflected. It really had been rather an eventful day, I thought, even if we hadn't made much progress with our trip. Think of spending a whole day in going a distance that should have consumed at the most only a few hours! We really must get an early start to-morrow and make Chicago in good time, or be laughed at for running a lame duck race, I thought as I dropped off to sleep.