Chapter XXII. Ida Giles
 

Bess really surprised herself by the quickness with which she got her machine out of the barn. In the excitement the words of advice Paul had given her came back with force. In a few minutes the motor girls were rushing down the muddy roads, splashing through big puddles, but they themselves were kept from the drenching downpour by the firemen's heavy coats and helmets. They gave one look back at the burning house. The blaze had enveloped the entire roof.

"Oh, if we can only return in time!" cried Cora as she threw in the full speed forward.

Cora said afterward that they reached the barn in less than four minutes, but Bess declared they never went as fast as that. Mr. Appleby did not know what to make of three excited girls, in two panting automobiles, rushing up to him and demanding the fire apparatus, but--he managed to understand what had happened, and why they wanted it.

"Tie the hose carts to the back of the autos with ropes!" cried Cora. "We can pull them up the hill. Are there any men around to help with the hose? If there are we'll take them to the fire in our cars."

"No, I guess not; but I'll send my boy for some help right away. There'll be lots of men in their houses 'count of the rain. I'll go with you."

Fortunately there was no need to hunt for ropes, as there were two long ones on the hose carts, and Mr. Appleby, working with speed, aided by the girls, soon had the apparatus attached.

The run back took longer, but it--was made in good time, and Cora and Bess, at the wheels of their respective cars, guided them and the hose carts into the yard near the burning house.

The blaze was fiercer now, but it had not eaten down as far as it would have done had it not been for the heavy rain.

The farmer and his hired man had carried the bedridden woman out, placing her on a mattress in the carriage house.

"Attach the hose to the hydrants!" cried Mr. Appleby. "I'll turn on th' water."

"Who'll handle the nozzles?" asked the farmer.

"It'll take two men to each one, there's so much force to th' water."

"You an' I can handle one!" yelled Mr. Apple by, "an' your hired man."

"He can't manage th' other alone."

"Then we'll help!" called Cora. "Come on, girls!"

The lines were unreeled, attached to the hydrants, and were soon spurting water. Cora and Bess, for Belle declared herself too nervous to help, aided the hired man in holding one nozzle of the leaping, writhing hose, that seemed like some great snake as it squirmed under the pressure of the water. The farmer and Mr. Appleby managed the other.

The fire burned slowly, and the little force was really setting it under control when some men, summoned by young Appleby, arrived and relieved the girls. More lines of hose were run from the hydrants, each one of which could supply water to two, and the blaze was soon out, though the house had been considerably damaged.

"Well, if it hadn't been fer them young ladies and their machines, maybe you wouldn't have had any house, Frank," said Mr. Appleby to the farmer.

"That's right; and land knows I can't begin t' thank 'em. If ever they want a friend, all they've got to do is t' call on Frank Ettner---that's me."

He thrust out his rough hand, and Cora clasped--or tried to--the big palm in her own little one.

"I--I don't know how to thank you!" he exclaimed fervently.

"We couldn't help doing it," said Cora, blushing, and then Mr. Ettner insisted on shaking her hand again, and also with Belle and Bess.

"Well, we certainly had an adventure!" exclaimed Cora as the motor girls were riding home after the shower had stopped. "Whatever will the boys say?"

"The boys will be very proud of you, Cora," declared Belle.

It was a few days after this when Cora was out alone in her car, trying to understand, among many other things, why Ida had not called for her ring.

"And why doesn't Jack let me take it to her?" she asked herself again. "I declare I can't understand Jack," and she shook her head.

Along the turnpike she guided her car, going on slow speed to more fully enjoy the odor of the wild honeysuckle which in tangled masses lined the roadside, mingling with the wild rose perfume that was wafted on the gentle breezes.

She came to a narrow place, where there was room but for one vehicle to pass at a time, and seeing a bunch of wild fern, Cora got out of the car to gather some. As she did so she heard a girl's voice pleading in alarmed tones:

"Let me pass! You must let me pass!"

"Not until I get some money out of you--or somebody!" exclaimed the rough voice of a man.

"I tell you I haven't any money!"

"Well, you know who has. Come on, I want it."

There was a sound of breaking sticks, as if the man had taken a step nearer the girl. She retreated, and this brought her into view of Cora.

It was Ida Giles!

Cora leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the man. She was startled to see that he was that good-for-nothing Lem Gildy.

"Come on," growled Lem, "fork over some cash."

"I haven't any. Oh, please, Lem, let me pass!"

He took another step toward her with outstretched hands, and Ids shrank back. She screamed, but Lem only sneered.

"No one'll hear you," he said. "Come on, I must have money, or I'll tell some things I know."

Cora was hidden from the two by a screen of bushes, and on the dirt of the road, with her car running at low speed, they had not heard her.

Lem laid his hand on Ida's wrist.

"Let me alone!" she screamed. "Help! help!"

Cora saw a stout stick lying on the ground. With hardly a thought of what she was doing she caught it up and stepped forward.

"There's nobody here to help you," said Lem with a brutal chuckle.

"Yes, there is!" cried Cora in ringing tones. "Let go of her arm, Lem Gildy, or I'll strike you with this!" and the girl raised the stick over the rascal's head.

He hesitated a moment, still gripping Ida, who was on the verge of collapse. She looked at Cora with wonder and fear.

"Let go!" demanded Cora, taking a step nearer.

"Not for you!" answered Lem defiantly.

Cora brought the stick down with stinging force on his wrist. With a howl of pain he let go and advanced toward Cora, but she struck him aver the head with her weapon, and Ida, who had recovered her courage, catching up a heavy stone, made it a more even battle. With a muttered snarl Lem slunk away and disappeared in the underbrush. Cora felt herself trembling violently, but she kept control of herself.

"Oh, Cora!" sobbed Ida. "I believe I would have died if you had not come along. I was never afraid of Lem Gildy, and when I saw him following me along the road I never dreamed that he would molest me."

"What did he want?" asked Cora.

"Oh, it's all over that dreadful money! Mr. Foster's, you know."

Indeed, Cora was beginning to suspect that.

Sobbing like a child, Ida leaned on the arm that Cora held out to her, though as a matter of fact Cora was in need of assistance herself.

"Well, never mind," she said to Ida. "Just get in my car and we'll go right to your home. He was a perfectly horrid man, and should be punished. See what he did to Jack, starting off his car and injuring him. Now he tries to rob you."

"Not exactly rob, Cora. He says some one--"

"Now don't go into details until you feel better. Come, get in the car with me," and Cora led Ida back to where the auto waited.

"Oh; Cora! I--I can't get in your car with you--I--I can't accept any kindness from you--after--after what I've done. And to think that you should come to save me from him! I--I feel like a--a thief!"

"But you're not!" declared Cora stoutly.

"No, not exactly, but almost as bad. Oh, Cora, I--I wish I could tell you, but I--I daren't!" and again Ida sobbed hysterically.

"Well, Ida, dear, you don't have to tell me now--maybe not at any time," spoke Cora soothingly as she placed her arm about the girl's waist. "Come along for a ride in the Whirlwind. That will settle your nerves."

"Where are you going?" asked Ida as she noticed they were not heading for Chelton.

"We'll go to New City, Ida," went on Cora with sudden resolve. "I want to ask you a question."

"Yes," spoke Ida nervously.

"Did you lose anything at my party?" and Cora's thoughts were on the diamond ring in the safe.

"No," replied Ida firmly.

"Didn't you, really?" insisted Cora, surprised that Ida would not admit ownership of the ring.

"I--I didn't lose anything, Cora," and Cora wondered at the stress Ida placed on the word "lose."

"Well, I have a secret to tell you. Jack did not want me to speak of it, but I'm going to, for I'm just consumed with curiosity. Paul Hastings found a beautiful diamond ring in his pocket after the fete, and your initials were engraved in the gold."

Cora turned so as to look into Ida's face, and she could plainly see that a change came over her countenance.

"Paul Hastings found it?" murmured Ida. "The ring with my initials in?"

"Yes. Didn't you really lose it?"

For a moment Ida did not speak. She was biting her lips, and her fingers were nervously playing with the fringe on the lap robe.

"Cora," she exclaimed impulsively, "I have been mean--hateful to you--but--you have not deserved it. Sid Wilcox told me he had you out riding, and he said you spoke of a lot of things about me--"

"What!" cried Cora. "He dared to say that?"

"Yes; and people saw you out with him."

"So they might have; but the truth was he jumped into my car and ran away with it without my permission. That's how I came to be in the motor with him."

"He never told me that!" exclaimed Ida. "Well, that's just like him. Now I will tell you. It was he who forced that ring on me--and I would not take it at first. But he made me. Then I determined to get rid of it. I did not lose it, but I slipped it into Walter Pennington's pocket. Oh, Cora! You know I--I do like Walter, and I--I thought if he saw that I wouldn't keep some one else's engagement ring that--somehow--he might send it back where it came from, and--and--"

Her tears interrupted her. Cora did not understand.

"You put it in Walter Penniniton's pocket?" she repeated slowly. "Why, it was found in Paul Hastings' pocket."

"Wasn't Walter dressed up like Marc Anthony?" demanded Ida, ceasing her sobbing and looking up with wonder in her eyes.

"No. He was the clown. Paul was the Roman," and Cora began to see how some things had come about.

"That explains it," murmured Ida. "It was a mistake! And did that that ring actually have my initials in?"

"It is marked `I.G.,'" said Cora. "We have been expecting you to call for it."

"Where is it now?"

"Home, in our safe."

"Then keep it there!" exclaimed Ida, a new determination in her voice.

"But we cannot keep it," objected Cora. "It is not mine nor Jack's. Why not give it back to Sid?"

"Neither is it his," went on Ida. "He gave it to me, and now I ask you to keep it--in trust."

"I don't see how we can do that very well. The reason I mentioned it to you, against Jack's wish, was that I wanted to get rid of the responsibility of keeping it. Suppose it should be stolen? It is quite valuable."

"Well, I cannot take it," insisted Ida. "Mother would not allow me to have it in the house. Sid said it cost five hundred dollars."

"It is certainly a very valuable ring," admitted Cora. "But, Ida, if I were you I would give it back to Sid."

"Well, perhaps I shall--some day. But oh, Cora, you cannot imagine what I have gone through with in the last month!" and Ida pressed her handkerchief to her swollen eyes.

"I am sorry," said Cora simply. "Can I help you, Ida?"

They had ridden through New City, and were back again in Chelton. Ida had asked to be let out at the post-office, and as Cora--drew up in front of it for her to alight, Ida extended her hand, and the two girls looked into each other's eyes, each trying to read her neighbor's thoughts.

"Coca, you can help me, and I will soon ask you to do so," said Ida almost in a whisper; "but now--I cannot tell you now," and she hurried out of the car.