Chapter II. The Woodland Conference
 

In the first volume of this series, entitled "The Motor Girls; Or, A Mystery of the Road," we became acquainted with these vivacious young ladies. Cora Kimball, the first to own her own motor-car, the Whirlwind, was the only daughter of Mrs. Grace Kimball, a wealthy widow of the little town of Chelton. Jack Kimball, Cora's brother, a typical college boy, had plenty to do in unraveling the mystery of the road, while his chums, Walter Pennington and Edward Foster, were each such attractive young men that even to the end it was difficult to guess which one would carry off the highest honors socially - with Cora as judge, of course.

It was Ed Foster who lost the money, a small fortune, and it was the rather unpleasant Sid Wilcox, and perhaps unfortunate Ida Giles, who finally cleared up the mystery, happily enough, all things considered, although in spite of the other girls' opportune intention it was not possible to reflect any degree of credit upon those responsible for the troubles and trials which that mystery involved.

Speaking of the young men, Paul Hastings, a young chauffeur, should not be overlooked. Paul was a very agreeable youth indeed, and his sister, Hazel, a most interesting young lady, with very special qualities of talent and learning.

"Among those present" in the first volume were the attractive Robinson twins, Bess inclined to rather more weight than height, and Belle, the tall, graceful creature, who delighted in the aesthetic and reveled in "nerves."

Mr. Perry Robinson, the girls' father, was a wealthy railroad magnate, devoted to carriage rides, and not caring for motors, but not too "set" to allow his daughters the entire ownership of the pretty new runabout - the Flyaway.

Cora, Hazel, Bess and Belle were flying over the country roads in their cars, making for Woodbine Park, where they were to hold a preliminary meet to arrange for a tour on the road.

Past the bridge at the appointed time, they reached the wooded park exactly at twelve - the hour set for the rest and luncheon, to be followed by the "business meeting."

"There come Daisy and Maud," called Cora, as along the winding road she discerned another car approaching.

"And there are Clip and Ray," added Belle, shutting off the gasoline and preparing to bring her machine to a standstill.

"I think it a shame to call Cecilia Thayer Clip," objected Belle. "She is no more of a romp than - "

"Any boy," interrupted Bess. "Well, the boys call her Clip, and it's handy."

By this time the new car was up in line with the others.

"'Lo, there!" called Cecilia, jerking her machine to a stop in the manner deplored by skilled mechanicians.

"Look out!" cautioned Cora. "You'll `bust' something."

Cecilia had bounded out on the road.

"Stiff as a stick!" she exclaimed with a rather becoming twist of her agile form. "I never make that road without absorbing every bump on the thoroughfare."

Cecilia was not altogether pretty, for she had the "accent on her nose," as Cora put it, but she was dashing, and, at a glance, one might easily guess why she had been called Clip.

Rachel Stuart was a striking blonde, tall to a fault, pink and white to bisqueness and, withal, evidently conscious of her charms. Even while motoring she affected the pastel tints, and this morning looked radiant in her immense blue scarf and her well-matched blue linen coat.

"You look," said Cora to Cecilia, as the latter continued to shake herself out of the absorbed bumps, "like nothing so much as like a `strained' nurse - Jack's variety."

"Exactly that!" admitted Cecilia. "I have been searching high and low for a cheap and economical rig to drive in, and I have just hit upon this." She pirouetted wonderfully. "All ready made - the `strained' nurse variety, sure enough. How do you like it?"

"Very becoming," decided Bess.

"And very practical," announced Belle.

"Sweet," declared Cora.

"When you say a good thing, stop," ordered Cecilia, just as Ray was about to give her verdict.

"And now to the woods," suggested Cora. "We may as well put our machines up in the open near the grove. We can see them there, and make sure that no one is tempted to investigate them."

It was a level stretch over the field to the grove. Cora led the way and the others followed. Lunch baskets and boxes were quickly gathered up from the machines, and, with the keenness of appetite common to young and healthy, and "painful" to our fair motorists (for Cecilia declared her appetite "hurt"), the party scampered off to an appropriate spot where the lunch might be enjoyed.

"And there are to be no boys?" asked Maud Morris, she with the "imploring look," as Cecilia put it, although Maud was familiarly known as a very sweet girl.

"No boys!" echoed Bess, between uncertain mouthfuls.

Daisy Bennet turned her head away in evident disapproval.

"No boys," she repeated faintly. Daisy did everything faintly. She was a perfectly healthy young girl, but a little affected otherwise - too fond of paper-covered books, and perhaps too fond of other sorts of romance. But we must not condemn Daisy - her mother had the health-traveling habit, and what was Daisy to do with herself?

Cora handed around some lettuce sandwiches.

"I am just as keen on boys as any of you," she admitted, "but for a real motor girl tour it is apparent that boys will have to be tabooed."

Bess grunted, Belle sighed, Cecilia bit her tongue, Ray raised her eyebrows, Hazel made a "minute" of the report.

"And silence ensued," commented Cecilia, reaching back of Maud and securing a dainty morsel from the lunch-box of the latter.

"Water?" called Bess.

"Yes," chimed in Cecilia, "go and fetch some."

"The spring is away down the other side of the hill," objected Bess.

"You need the exercise," declared Cecilia.

"Clip, you go fetch some," suggested Cora, "and I'll give you half my pie."

Without another word Clip was on her feet, had upset Daisy's improvised table of sticks and paper napkins in her haste to secure the water bottle, and was now running over the hill toward the spring.

Presently she stopped as if listening to something. Then she turned and hurried back to the party on the grass. Her face was white with alarm.

"Oh!" she gasped. "I heard the awfullest groans! Some one must be either dying for a drink, or dying from a drink. The groans were wet!"

Cora jumped up, as did some of the others.

"Come on," said Cora. "I'm not afraid. Some one may need help."

"Oh, they do - I am sure," panted Cecilia. "All kinds of help, I should say. The moans were chromatic."

"Listen!" commanded Cora, as the sounds came over the hill. Low, then fierce growls and groans, tapering down to grunts and exclamation marks sounded through the grove.

"Oh!" screamed Belle.

"What can it be?" exclaimed Daisy.

"Almost anything," suggested Cora. "But we had best be specific," and she started in the direction of the mysterious sounds.

Cecilia followed, as did Bess, while the others held off in evident fear.

Although it was high noon, in the grove the heavy spruce and cedar trees darkened the place, and the farther the girls penetrated into the depths of the wood, the deeper did the shadows close in around them. Cora picked up a stout stick as she advanced.

"Get me one," begged Cecilia. "We may encounter a bear."

"Human?" asked Cora with a laugh.

"Preferably," answered Cecilia, keeping very close to Cora.

The noises had ceased. The girls halted, waiting for a sound to give them the clue of direction.

"He's dead!" gasped Cecilia. "It was the drink - he got the drink, and then died!"

"As long as he got it," whispered Cora. She was anxious to catch another "groan."

"There!" exclaimed Bess, as a sound, faint but decisive, was heard from a hollow ahead.

"Where?" asked Cora, purposely misunderstanding Bess.

"Here!" called Cecilia, who, with sudden resolve, had snatched the stick from Cora's hand, and now darted forward.

She went straight for the spring.