Chapter III. "No Boys!"
 

Such shouting and such laughing!

There, hidden in the thicket near the spring, were discovered Jack Kimball and Walter Pennington, while the chuckles and other noises emerging from mysterious parts of the wood indicated the presence of human beings, although the sounds had a queer similarity to that made by furry beasts.

"Oh, Clip! Spare me!" called Jack, as Cecilia actually undertook to punish physically the offending young man. "I really did not think you would be scared - in fact, I had an idea you were scare- immune "

"I am," declared the girl; "but the idea of me wasting sympathy! I might have discovered the dead man of all my life-long dreams - had to appear in court, and all the other delightful consequences of finding a man under suspicious circumstances; and there you are not even sick. Jack Kimball, how could you? You might at least have had the politeness to be deadly ill."

Walter crawled out from the thicket.

"I thought I smelled eating," he remarked, "and I suggested that we postpone the wild and woolly until we had investigated."

"Oh, come on," called Cora. "We may as well allow you to move on. - You have actually interrupted the plans for our first official run.'

"Good!" exclaimed Ed Foster, who, with some other young chaps, had collected themselves from the various haunts. "Any boys?"

"Boys!" echoed Cora.

"B-o-y-s!" drawled Maud, "chucking the imploring look," as Cecilia whispered to Cora.

"We have been discussing the question," declared Bess, as they all started toward the lunch spread on the grass, "and we have now fully decided. The answer is: No boys!"

This verdict brought forth the expected chorus of groans from the young men.

"Indeed, you may be glad to get a fellow when you find yourselves in a good and proper smashup," declared Jack, "and I predict a smash-up about every other mile."

The sight of the tempting lunch and that of the other young ladies who had not undertaken the march to the spring, was the signal for a "grand rush" - and that was about all.

When the boys extricated themselves from the "rush" there was not a crumb visible.

"We had all we wished," faltered the circumspect Ray Stuart. "You were entirely welcome - might have saved, at least, the dishes."

"Oh," breathed Ed, "it is so much pleasanter to poach - don't spoil it."

Ed cast a most appreciative glance at Ray. She expected it, of course, and accepted it with a smile.

Clip was talking earnestly to Jack, Cora was being entertained by Walter, who, at the same time, managed to keep up a running conversation with the group of girls now busy putting away the lunch things.

"We had a dreadful accident coming out," said Belle. "Bess ran over - "

"A square meal in a square basket," interrupted Bess. "I demolished the hamper that Ida Giles had bestowed on Sidney Wilcox. It was a peace offering, I believe."

"And you should have seen the kind of `pieces' Bess made of it," commented Hazel with a merry laugh.

"Hush!" hissed Ed with his finger to his lips.

"Something tells me that the demolished hamper forbodes evil. You will regret the day, Miss Elizabeth, that you spilled Sid Wilcox's-"

"Pumpkin pie," finished Cora. "I never saw such pumpkiny pumpkin pie in my life. I can smell it yet!"

"Mrs. Giles' famous home-made," quoted Walter. "Well, it might have been worse - they might have eaten that pie."

"Say, fellows," said Jack suddenly, "this is all very pretty - the girls, I mean, of course - but does it smite any one of you young rustics that we have an engagement - ahem! At three-thirty, wasn't it?"

"Precisely," declared Ed. "So much obliged for the feed; and do we make a party call?"

"Of course," answered the pretty Ray, attempting to tie her huge scarf, without having any idea of doing so. "We shall expect - "

"The bunch?" interrupted Jack, knowing Ray's preference for the handsome Ed.

"How - "

"Naughty," simpered Cecilia. "Jack, how can you use slang in the presence of ladies?" and she assumed the characteristic "tough" walk, which had always been one of Clip's most laughable capers.

"Loidies!" echoed Jack, tilting his cap and striking an attitude appropriate to that assumed by Cecilia. He slipped his arm within hers, and the pair "strutted off," in the fashion identified with the burlesque stage.

"Here! here!" called more than one young lady. "Come back here, Clip! There are to be no boys!"

"This isn't a boy," called back Cecilia, keeping up the performance. "He's only a - "

"Don't you dare!" threatened Jack.

The girls began to gather the things up from the grass.

"Now don't hurry," remarked Ed coolly. "The fact is, we are not going your way."

"Don't want us!" almost gasped Ray.

"Shook!" groaned Bess.

"Not at all," Walter hurried to add, "but the real truth is - well, let me see. What's the real truth?"

Jack was fetching Cecilia back. At some secret sign the young men actually took to their heels, and ran away before the girls realized what was happening. But from a distance they waved a cheerful adieu.

"What do you think of that!" exclaimed Hazel.

"Oh, they are just up to some frolic, and could not take us in," said Cora. "If we were not so busy with our plans we might follow them. But I propose continuing the business meeting."

With some reluctance, for the time had been greatly enlivened by the appearance of the young men on the scene, the girls once more got to discussing the details of their proposed three days' tour.

As Cora had predicted, Maud wanted the stops along the way made at the homes of her various and varied relatives. Daisy feared her mother would insist upon a chaperone, and this almost absorbed Daisy's chance of being eligible. Ray thought the motors should flaunt flags - pretty light blue affairs - but Bess declared it would be infinitely more important to carry plenty of gasoline.

So the girls planned and plotted, until, in the northwest, a great black cloud came stealing over the silent blue, gathering fury as it came, and coming very quickly at that.

"A storm!" shouted Belle. "Oh, I do hope it won't be the thundering kind!"

There was a swirl of the leaves around them, and the wind gave a warning howl. All ran for the cars.

"A tornado, likely," said Hazel. "And, oh, dear! this is just about the time that Paul will be bringing the mail over. I am so nervous since his firm undertook the mail route between New City and Cartown. This is such a lonely road for an auto in a storm - especially when every one knows Paul carries the mail."

Hazel was greatly agitated, but the other girls endeavored to reassure her.

"Why, Paul will be all right," declared Cora, surprised at Hazel's alarm. "What could happen to him? Why is a storm in the afternoon of such consequence?"

"Oh, I don't know," sighed Hazel; "but having to manage a car, and be personally responsible for the big mailbag - there is so much important mail between Cartown and New City - I have been nervous about it ever since Paul began carrying it."

"But it makes him all the more important to his firm," said Cora convincingly, "and I am sure he will be all right."

"You read too many wild-west stories," commented Bess, who was still alongside the Whirlwind with her Flyaway. "There are no stagecoach hold-ups these days."

"I hope not," returned Hazel with a forced laugh.

Quickly the storm was gathering. With some apprehension Cora directed the line of cars.

"You lead, Daisy," she said, "as your clothes are most perishable."

"Indeed," shouted Cecilia, "my `strained' nurse suit will have to go to the laundry if it gets wet, and that adds to the price - reduces my bargain."

"Well, hurry, at any rate," commanded Cora. "I know of a barn we may be able to make."

"We ought to meet Paul at the bridge," remarked Hazel, evidently unable to dismiss her concern for her brother.

"Now, Hazel," exclaimed Cora, her voice carrying something of vexation, "one would think you suspected - "

"You don't really think those boys would play a trick on him?" interrupted Hazel. "Somehow I didn't like the way they looked - as if they were plotting something."

Cora laughed heartily. "Why, you precious baby!" she managed to say; "do you think boys of their caliber would tamper with the mail? To say nothing of putting so nice a boy as Paul to inconvenience?"

"Oh, of course; forgive me, Cora. I should not have asked that. But you know what Paul and I are to each other!"

"Yes, I know," said Cora with marked emphasis. "You are each the other's little brother and sister. But it's nice, Hazel, very nice, and I forgive you the fling at Jack."

"And Ed?" asked Hazel mischievously.

"And Walter," added Cora, ignoring the personal.

"Oh, mercy!" yelled Belle. "We're going to have another fire and brimstone thunderstorm! Cora, make for that farmhouse!"

"Yes," called Cora, "I guess it will be all wind, and it won't hurt the machines. Turn for the cottage, girls!"

Blinding and brutal, the wind and sand attacked the eyes and ears of the motor girls, in spite of all the hoods and goggles. It was one of those tearing windstorms, that often come in summer, seemingly bent on raising everything on earth heavenward except the sand - that always sought refuge under eyelids - the average grain of sand would rather get in a girl's eye than help to make up a reputable mountain.

The line of cars made straight for the little farmhouse. It was sheltered in a clump of pines quite near the roadside.

Bess drew up first. Belle was out, and upon the steps of the porch. She had even struck the brass knocker before the others could bring their machines to a stop.

"Belle is frightened," said Ray, taking her time to leave Cecilia's auto.

"Well, we had a great storm one day - and Belle has the reflex action," explained Cora, referring to an exciting incident told of in the first book of this series.

The door of the cottage opened.

"Come on, girls!" called Belle. "We may come in - the lady says."

"Now - now for an adventure!" whispered Cecilia. "I can see it through the closed blinds! I see it under the knocker. I feel it in my gloves! Yes, young ladies, there is going to be something doing inside that cottage!"