Chapter VII. A Chance Meeting
 

Paul lost no time in reaching Cartown with the belated mail, and so was obliged to leave the girls an the road with scant ceremony, hardly pausing to discuss why he had been bound when no apparent robbery had been perpetrated.

Hazel appeared so agitated that Cora insisted upon her returning to the Kimball home to dinner, and also had succeeded in getting a promise from Paul that he would come there as early in the evening as it would be possible for him to do so.

Then, when the mail car was lost sight of, and the motor girls started again on their homeward way, Clip insisted upon leading.

"I know the variety of bandit," she declared, "and I want to meet him personally. He is sure to fall dead in love with me on the spot. And, oh, girls! Think of it! Me and the bandit!"

Even Hazel laughed. The suggestion called up a picture of the disgraceful Clip in robber uniform, with the proverbial red handkerchief on her head, and all the rest of the disreputable accessories. Clip would "look the part."

But the Thayer machine was not noted for its beauty or service - it had the reputation of bolting always at the "psychological moment," and when Clip dashed forward to meet her fate, the fate of the Turtle (as her car was called) intercepted her.

With a jerk the Turtle tossed up its head, bounced Clip off her seat, and then stopped.

"Oh!" exclaimed the girl. "Isn't this the utmost! And I about to meet my bandit! Now I suppose I will have to leave Turtle here to afford the foe a means of escape. I say, girls, isn't that the utmost?"

She jumped out of the car and, with a superficial glance at the fractious machine, waited for Cora's car.

"Come on, Ray," she said to her companion. "No use sitting there. That car will never, move unless it is dragged. I know her. No use monkeying with tools. When she stops, she stops, and we may as well make up our minds to it."

"But," argued Ray, "you have not even attempted to find out what is the matter. Perhaps we could fix it up - "

"No use attempting. I would find the whole thing the matter. Just feel," she suggested, putting her ungloved hand on the radiator. "You could make beef stew on any of her lids. Oh, I know this kind of hot box! I've boiled the water, and the cylinders are stuck."

By this time the other girls had come along. Cora insisted upon looking over the disabled machine, and, while she did so, Clip deliberately made herself comfortable in the Whirlwind.

"Get in with Daisy," she called to Ray. "This will do me."

"Can't we tow it?" asked Cora. "Why should you leave your machine out here? And it is almost dark!"

"That's the reason," replied Clip. "It is almost dark, and I prefer to leave the machine here as a little token of my love to the bandit. Suppose I want to be `run in' for traveling without a glimmer'?"

Cora saw that argument was useless. Reluctantly she turned from the Turtle. Ray climbed in with Daisy and Maud. Bess and Belle were ready to start "from the seat," without cranking up. Cora gave the Whirlwind a few turns.

"I hope we get home without any further trouble," came from the folds of Ray's blue veil. "I think we have had enough for one day."

"Enough!" echoed Clip. "Why, I could stand ten times that much! I love trouble - in the abstract."

"Suppose you call this the abstract," almost sneered Daisy, who evidently did not relish being crowded.

"Certainly I do," declared Clip. "Just gaze on the abstracted Turtle!"

"Who's that?" whispered Hazel nervously. A step could be heard in the roadway.

"My bandit!" breathed Clip. "Oh, my darling, desperate bandit!"

"Hush!" cautioned Cora, for she felt the possibility of Paul's captors being about still. Then two figures appeared from the sharp turn in the road. Cora wanted to start, but hesitated. The figures came closer. They were those of two well-dressed men; that was easily discernable.

Clip put her hand over her heart.

"Oh-h=h!" she groaned audibly. "Isn't he handsome!"

Hazel clutched at her sleeve. "Do stop!" she begged. "They may be - "

"They are!" answered Clip, and, as the, men halted beside the Turtle, she deliberately jumped out and approached them.

The other girls were spellbound. Cora, too, left her place - she knew Cecilia's recklessness and felt it her duty to stand by her.

The two strange men looked first at the girls and then at the car.

"Had an accident?" asked the taller of the two politely.

"Oh, no, it's chronic," answered Clip flippantly, much to Cora's dismay.

The men were evidently gentlemen. They were well dressed, and had the mannerisms of culture.

"Perhaps I can help you," suggested one, taking from his pocket a wrench. "I always carry tools - meet so many `chronics,' " and he laughed lightly.

"Come on," called Hazel from the Whirlwind. "You know, Paul will be waiting, Cora."

At this the men both started. He with the wrench ceased his attempt to open the motor hood. The other looked toward Hazel.

"Oh, I see," he said with affected ease. "Your friend promised to meet you, and you are late."

"My brother," said Hazel curtly.

"Paul Hastings," said Cora quickly, before she knew why.

"Oh!" almost whistled the taller man. "I see; of the Whitehall Company?"

"Do you know him?" demanded Cora rather sharply.

"Slight-ly," drawled the stout man, he with the wrench.

"Well, we had best not detain you, young ladies," said the other, "as you have so important an engagement," and with that they both turned off.

"What do you think of that?" exclaimed Cora.

"The utmost!" replied Clip, in her favorite way of expressing "the limit."

"They knew Paul!" gasped Hazel.

"Seemed to," answered Cora evasively. She had her opinions and doubts as to who these gentlemen might be.

"Just my luck," murmured Clip. "I rather liked the tall fellow, but I noticed that the other carried a gold filigree fountain pen, had a perfectly dear watch charm, and he talked like a lawyer."

"Oh, my!" exclaimed Cora. "You did size him up. I only noticed that he was a joint short on his right-hand thumb."

"That, my dear, is termed a professional thumb-mark. We will know him if we meet him in the dark," said Clip.

Cora laughed. She felt, however, more serious than she cared to have the others know. "Well, let's be off this time," she said. "We will hardly make town before dark now."