Chapter VI. The Hold-Up
 

Dashing over the country roads, the motor girls sent their machines ahead at fast speed, unwilling to stop to light up, and anxious to make the town before the twilight faded into nightfall.

Suddenly Cora, who was in the lead, grabbed the emergency brake and quickly shut off the power.

"What's that?" she asked. "Something straight ahead. Don't you see it, Hazel?"

Hazel stood up and peered into the gathering darkness.

"Yes; it looks like an auto. Perhaps some one got disabled, and had to leave the machine," she replied.

"Perhaps," returned Cora, going along carefully.

"It is an auto," declared Hazel presently, as they were almost upon the object in the roadway.

"The auto stage!" exclaimed Cora. "Don't be frightened, Hazel," she hurried to say. "Paul is not in it. He must have gone on with the mail."

Hazel sank down in the cushions and covered her eyes. Somehow she could not bear to look at the deserted auto stage.

The other girls were coming along cautiously - they saw that something was the matter.

The standing machine was directly in the road; it instantly struck Cora that this was strange. Who could have been so careless as to leave an unlighted auto in the roadway, and night coming on?

She turned her wheel to guide the Whirlwind to one side, and then stopped. Bess was next, and she shut off the power from the Flyaway.

"What is it?" asked Bess anxiously. Belle did not venture to leave the machine, but Hazel had bounded out of the Whirlwind almost before Cora had time to stop it.

"Oh," exclaimed Hazel, "there are Paul's gloves. Where can he be?"

"Perhaps playing a trick on us," suggested Cora, although she had little faith in the possibility. "I am sure he would not go far off and leave this expensive machine here."

By this time all the other girls had reached the spot, and were now deliberating upon the abandoned auto. Suddenly a call - shrill and distinct - startled them.

"That's Paul!" shrieked Hazel, turning instantly and dashing off in the direction from which the voice had come. Cora, Bess, Maud and Cecilia followed her. Over the wet fields, through briars and underbrush the girls ran, while the call was repeated; this time there being no possibility of mistake - it was Paul shouting.

Breathless, the girls hurried on. With a sister's instinct Hazel never stumbled, but seemed to get over every obstacle like some wood sprite called to duty.

"Oh, I'm all right, girls! Take your time!" came the voice in the woods.

"All right!" repeated Hazel in uncertain tones.

"Oh, look!" shrieked Cecilia. "Didn't I tell you it was a joke? Look!"

What a sight! There, sitting on something like a stool, with a big cotton umbrella opened over his head, his eyes blinded with something dark, and his hands and feet made secure, was Paul Hastings, the chauffeur of the auto stage.

"Whatever does this means?" asked Cora, hurrying to Hazel, who was now madly snatching the black silk handkerchief from her brother's eyes.

"A prisoner of war," replied Paul rather unsteadily. "Glad you came, girls - there, sis, in my back pocket, you will find a knife. Just cut those carpet rags off my feet and hands."

Cecilia found the pocket knife, and, more quickly than any boy might have done it, she severed the bonds, and Paul stretched out - free.

"Well," he exclaimed, "this is about the limit!"

"Did the boys do it?" asked Cora.

"Boys! Not a bit of it," replied Paul. "It was a regular hold-up. And the mail! I must get that, if they have left it on the road. Did you see the car? Is it all right?"

"It appeared to be," said Cora. "It was the car that brought us to a standstill. It's in the middle of the road."

Paul shook himself as if expecting to find some damage to limb or muscle. Then he turned toward the open path.

"Tell us about it," demanded Cecilia. "Wasn't it a joke?"

"Joke!" he reiterated. "Well, I should say not! Would you call it a joke to have two masked men jump in front of a running car, and flash something shiny? Then to have them climb in, cover my eyes and tell me I would be all right, and not to worry!"

"Oh," sighed Hazel, "I felt something would happen to you, Paul, dear. You must give up this position."

"Well, we will see about that," he replied. "Perhaps I won't have anything to say about it - if the mailpouch is gone."

"Then they brought you out here?" asked Cecilia, determined to hear all the story.

"Carried me like a baby," replied Paul, "and in sheer humane consideration they put me near the road, so that my call might be heard."

"And the umbrella?" asked Cora.

"Oh, they went to a barn for that. It was raining, and my polite friends did not want me to take cold."

His tone was bitterly cutting; taking cold would evidently have been of small account to him.

"And they sat you upon that log?" put in Maud.

"Like any ordinary bump," he rejoined. "I never knew the misery of a bump on a log before."

"And, you are not hurt?" Hazel pressed close to his side and looked up lovingly at the tall boy.

"Not in the least - that is, physically. But I am seriously hurt mentally."

Cora could not but recognize how handsome Paul was. The excitement seemed to fire his whole being, and throw some subtle human phosphorus - a light from his burning brain certainly brightened in his eyes and even in his cheeks.

"Come along, girls," he said hurriedly. "Never mind the paraphernalia. Some lonely goat might like the rags. Let's get out on the road."

His anxiety was of course for the mail. That leather bag meant more to him than the mere transference of Uncle Sam's freight - it meant his honor - his position.

Over the rough fields the girls followed him. Hazel clung to his hand like a little sister indeed, while the others were content to keep as close as the uncertain footing would allow.

Presently they reached the road, then the stage coach. The other girls, who had not run to Paul's rescue, were standing around breathless.

Paul jumped into the car - thrust his hand into the box under the floor, where he always put the government pouch.

He brought up the mailbag.