Chapter III. A Sudden Acquaintance
 

Despite the tense moment of anxiety, the almost certainty that the auto would crash into the train, Cora's quick eye had seen something that she hoped would enable her to avert the accident.

She knew that she could not stop the machine in time, by any means at her command. There was but one other thing to do. That was to steer to one side.

To the left there was a solid stone wall. To dash into that would mean almost as horrible an accident as if she collided with the train. To the right there was a field, but it was fenced in, and between it and the road was a little miry, brook.

In some places the brook widened almost into a pond. The bottom was treacherous, and to steer into it meant to sink down deeply into the mud. To run into the fence might mean that one of the rails would become entangled in the mechanism of the motor, tearing it all to pieces. Or one of the long pieces of wood might even impale the occupants of the car.

Cora's eyes swept down the length of the barrier with a flash.

There was just what she wanted! A gap in the fence!

She could go through that in safety. But suppose the machine was brought to too sudden a stop in the mud? They would all be thrown out and perhaps injured. But it was the only thing to do.

With a firm grasp of the wheel Cora sent the auto from the road.

Elizabeth screamed as she felt the swaying of the car. She had to hold her sister from being tossed but, for Isabel was incapable of taking care of herself.

Straight for the field rushed the car, the engineer of the train now tooting his whistle as if in gladness at the narrow escape.

Splash!

The auto fairly dived into the brook, and gradually slackened speed. Right toward a clump of willow trees it surged, throwing a spray of water in advance. Then it became stationary in the middle of a spot where the brook widened into a pond.

Cora was dimly conscious of a figure on the opposite bank of the stream. A figure of a young man, with a fishing-pole in his hands. She saw a spray of water, cast up by the auto, drench him. She even heard him cry out, but at that moment she gave him not a thought.

Everything centered on her narrow escape, the condition of her two chums, and, last, but not least, whether her new auto had been damaged.

Cora leaned over the side and looked at the water flowing past the mud guards.

"Safe!" she exclaimed. "I--I thought we were doomed, girls. Didn't you?"

"Doomed?" echoed Elizabeth. "I never want to go through that experience again."

"Me either," added Cora fervently. "Has Belle fainted?"

"I'm afraid so."

Cora leaned over, scooped some water up in her hand, and dashed it into the white face of the girl. Isabel opened her eyes.

"Are we--are we--" she gasped.

"We're all right, you little goose," said Cora with a laugh, though her voice trembled and her hands shook. "I guess it wasn't nearly as dangerous as it looked."

"It was bad enough," spoke Elizabeth.

"Anyhow, the auto stopped," went on Cora. "Don't you see where we are? In the middle of Campbell's Pond. And we won't have to swim out, either. It's not very deep. But, Bess, you look like a sheet, and Belle, you seem like--"

"A pillow-case, with the pillow out," added Isabel with a wan smile. "I never was so glad to get a ducking in all my life."

"And I guess we're not the only ones who got a ducking," said Cora as she shook some drops from her hair.

"Why?" inquired Bess.

"Look!" and Cora pointed across the pond. A very much drenched figure was standing up. The man with the fishing-pole was wiping the water from his face. He looked at the girls in the auto.

"Oh, dear!" exclaimed Elizabeth. "I should think we did give him a ducking!"

"I'm awfully sorry, but--but we couldn't help it," said Cora, standing up and looking at the young man.

He approached closer, began wading out into the pond toward the auto. The water was not very deep, hardly up to his knees. Cora found herself wondering how he had managed to fish in it.

He was very good-looking, each of the girls was thinking to herself.

"Can't I help you?" he asked, smiling broadly, in spite of the mud and water splashed all over him. There was actually a little globule of mud on the end of his nose. He seemed as much amused over his own predicament as he was over that of the motor girls. "Do you need any help?" he went on.

"I'm sure I--er--that is, I hardly know," stammered Cora. She was not altogether certain about the state of the auto. "I'm afraid we've been very--very impolite--to splash water, and--er--mud all over you," she added.

"Not at all--not at all," he assured her. "I never saw a better--a better turn, so to speak. You are very plucky, if I may be permitted to say so. I--er--I almost said my prayers when I saw you racing down toward the train. Then I saw you turn in here. But what happened that you couldn't stop before?"

"The brake," replied Cora. "It refused to work. This is a new car--our first trip, in fact."

"Oh, I see," replied the young man. "Well, I know a little about cars. Perhaps I can run her out for you. Just let me try."

Cora shifted over to the other side, leaving the wheel free. The young fisherman cranked up, from a very insecure and muddy footing in the middle of the pond. There came a welcome "Chug! chug! chug!"

The auto was all right, after all.

The young man climbed in. The spot of mud was still on his nose, and Cora felt an insane desire to laugh. But she nobly restrained it. He took the wheel and threw in the low speed gear. There was a grinding sound, the Whirlwind seemed to shiver and shake, and then it began to move. A few seconds later, after running slowly through the pond, it ran up the soft bank, and, under the skilful touch of the stranger, came to a stop in a grassy meadow.

"There!" exclaimed the young man. "I guess you're all right now. But let me look at that brake. Perhaps I can fix it."

Then it occurred to Cora that she might attempt to introduce her friends and herself. The twins had not yet spoken a word to the fisherman.

The same thought "wave" must have surged into the stranger's brain, for he said:

"My name is Foster--Edward Foster," and he raised his wet cap. "I was just trying to kill time by fishing, but it was a cruelty to time. I don't believe a fish ever saw this pond."

"Mr. Foster, my name is--er--Kimball--Cora, Kimball," said the owner of the auto, imitating the young man's masculine style of introduction, "and these are my friends, the Misses Robinson."

The young man bowed twice, once for each of the twins. Mr. Foster had a most attractive manner--that was instantly decided by the three girls.

"I know your brother," he remarked to Cora. "Jack Kimball, of Exmouth College."

"Oh, yes, of course. I've heard Jack speak of you, I'm sure."

"Yes, he was on our team--"

"Oh, you are the great football player," interrupted Elizabeth. She made no secret of her admiration for "great football players."

"Not exactly great," answered Mr. Foster, "but I have played some. My interest in sports has rather kept me away from society. That accounts for me not being better acquainted in Chelton, or perhaps--"

"Hello there!" came a hail from the road.

"Jack and Walter!" exclaimed Cora, as at that moment another machine came along and drew up alongside the fence which separated the highway from the meadow. "Now, won't they laugh at us!"

"Well, I declare!" exclaimed the mud-bespattered young fellow. "If that isn't Jack! And Walter Pennington is with him!"

"What's up?" called Jack, leaping from the car and running across the meadow, after a quick climb over the fence.

"A great deal is up," said Cora.

"Well--Ed Foster! Where in the world did you come from?" Jack added as he saw the young man about to alight from Cora's car.

"From the ditch," was Ed's laughing answer, as he looked down at his splattered garments. "I just got but in time to--"

"Never mind--shake!" interrupted Jack, extending his hand. "When I was a youngster, and our big Newfoundland dog came out With the stick from the pond--"

"Now! now!" cautioned Ed. "I may be big, and I may have just crawled from the pond, but I deny the stick."

"I'm sure we would have been here forever if Mr. Foster hadn't--" began Cora.

"Been here first," interrupted Jack. "That's all very well, sis. But I told you so! A brand-new, spick-and-span car like this! And to run it into a muddy ditch!"

"Indeed!" exclaimed Elizabeth. "We were almost killed! Cora just saved our lives!"

"Mercy me!" cried Walter, who had left the car and joined Jack. "Now, Cora," he added mockingly, "when you start out to save lives, why don't you give a fellow the tip? There's nothing I do so love as to see lives saved--especially nice young ladies," and he made a low bow.

"Oh, you may laugh," said Cora somewhat indignantly, "but I don't want anything like it to happen again. The brake would not work, and--"

"The train was just in front of us, and we were running right in it," put in Isabel, her voice far from steady, and her face still very white.

At this point Ed insisted upon telling the whole story, and he described the plight of the motor girls so graphically that both Jack and Walter were compelled to admit that Cora did indeed know how to drive a car in an emergency, and that she had acted most wisely.

"Good for you, sis!" exclaimed Jack, when the story Was finished. "I could not have done better myself."

"Such praise is praise indeed," spoke Ed with a laugh.

He went around back to look at the brake, and found what had caused the trouble. A loose nut had fallen between the brake band and the wheel hub, and prevented the band from tightening. The trouble was soon remedied, and the brake put in working order.

"There--you are all ready for the road now," remarked Ed.

"Thank you--very much," said Cora quietly, but there was a world of meaning in her tones.

Ed looked into her eyes rather longer than perhaps was necessary.

"Come on; get in with us, Ed," invited Jack. "Haven't seen you in an age. Let's hear about the Detroit team."

"Oh, I'm--I'm too dirty to get in the car, I'm afraid," objected Ed, with a glance at the mud spots that were now turning to light-gray polka-dots on his clothes, in the strong sunlight.

"Nonsense!" cried Jack heartily. "Come along. Walter will drive for Cora, in case she is nervous. It needs a strong wrist in this soft ground."

"Oh, yes! Do please steer for us," begged the still trembling Isabel. "I'd feel so much safer--"

"Well, I like that!" cried Corm with a light laugh. "Is that the way you treat me, after having saved your life?"

"But it was you-who--who almost ran us into the train, Cora," answered Isabel, giving her friend a little pinch on her now rosy cheek. "So you see it was your duty to save us."

"Well, I did it," replied Cora, glad that she had come out of the affair with such flying colors.

Walter took Ed's place at the steering wheel of the Whirlwind, and the fisherman seated himself beside Jack. Then Walter ran Cora's car out of the mire of the meadow and into the road, the three girls remaining in the machine.

"I suppose if the young ladies hadn't run you down we wouldn't have seen you the entire summer," said Jack to Ed as he ran the smaller machine along behind the touring car.

"Oh, indeed you would," answered Ed. "I really intended looking you up in a day or two. You see, I have been very busy. What are you laughing at? Because I said I was busy? Well, I guess I have the busiest kind of business on hand. Say, let me whisper," and he leaned over confidentially, though there was no need for it, as the other auto was some distance ahead. "I'm going into finance."

"Finance?"

"Yes. Stocks--bonds--and so on, you know. Bank stocks. Think of that, Jack, my boy!"

"Good for you! Three cheers for the bank stock!" exclaimed Jack in a half whisper. "In the new bank, I suppose?"

"The correct supposition," answered Ed. "I have been invited to subscribe for some of the new issue of stock, and I've decided to. I'm going over to get it in a day or two. I'm to pay partly in cash, and turn over to them some of my bonds and other negotiable securities that I inherited from father, who was a banker, you know. I think I am making a good investment."

"Not a bit of doubt about it," said Jack. "I wish I had the chance."

"I hear that Sid Wilcox wanted to get some of the stock, Jack," went on Ed. "He comes of age soon, and he will have some cash to invest. But, somehow, there's a prejudice against Sid. He has not been asked to take stock, though the directors rectors know he has money."

"Well, I guess the trouble is he can't be depended on. He'd be peddling the stock all over the State, or putting it up for doubtful transactions, and I guess the directors wouldn't like that. He's a reckless sort. I shouldn't mind his fits of crankiness, if he would only leave girls out. But when he goes in for some kind of mischief harmless in itself, he invariably brings some girl into it, and she has to suffer in the scrape with him. It's not right of Sid. But--speaking of angels--there he is now."

Jack's runabout, called the Get There, had been climbing the hill back of the Whirlwind, and both machines were now on a level stretch of road and approaching Fisher's store--an "emporium," as the sign called it, and a place where one could get anything from a watch to a shoestring, if old Jared Fisher only knew that it was wanted before he went to town.

It so happened, however, by some strange intervention of providence, that he never did know in time. But, at any rate, you could always get soda water--the kind that comes in the "push-in-the-cork bottles," and that was something.

As the two autos drew up, the occupants beheld, standing on the steps of the store, Sidney Wilcox and Ida Giles. Jack halted his car behind the Whirlwind.

"Hello there!" called out Ed. "Seems to me I'm bound to meet all my friends to-day. How are you, Sid?"

Ed leaped from Jack's car and up the steps to greet Sid.

"Oh, I'm so-so," was the rather drawling answer. "But what's the matter with you? Been clamming?"

"Not exactly," replied Ed, glancing down at the mud spots; "but I caught something, just the same."

"So I see," responded Sid, chuckling at his wit. "Pity to take it all, though. You should have left some for the turtles. They like mud."

Jack, who followed Ed, said something in conventional greeting to Ida. But the girl with Sid never turned her head to look in the direction of the Whirlwind. Cora remarked on this in a low voice to Isabel and Elizabeth.

"I hear that you are going in for--er--Wall Street," said Sid to Ed in rather a sarcastic voice.

"Oh, no. Nothing like that. No chance for a lamb like me in Wall Street. It's too much of a losing game."

"Oh, I don't know," drawled Sid. "A fellow might make good, and then do--well, better."

Ed glanced at Jack. How did Sid know about Ed's plan to take stock in the new bank? That was a question that each youth flashed to the other.

There was something unpleasant in the manner of Sidney Wilcox. All in the party seemed to feel it. And as far as the girls were concerned, they noticed much of the same manner in Ida, though Jack and Ed were not quite so critical. As for Walter, he did not seem to be giving Ida a thought. But it is doubtful if she was so indifferent toward him. Still, she would not look in his direction while Cora and her two chums were with him.

Corn walked slowly up the broad store steps; Bess and Belle following.

"I'm simply choked," said Cora with a laugh. "I never had such a thirsty run."

Ida seemed very much interested in the distant landscape.

"The roads are awfully dry," she murmured.

"And so am I," added Elizabeth as she followed her sister and Cora into the store. Walter and Jack trailed in after them, while Ed stayed for a moment outside with Ida and Sid. The latter did not introduce Ed to Ida. It was a habit Sid had, of never presenting his young men chums to his "girl," unless he could not avoid it. Ida, perhaps, knew this, and she strolled to the other end of the porch.

"How'd you make out in your exams?" asked Ed of Sid, for the latter attended college with Jack. That is, he was in his study class, though not in the same grade socially.

"Oh, pretty fair. I cut most of 'em. I finish next year, and I don't intend to get gray hairs over any exams now."

"You cut 'em?" repeated Ed.

"Sure," and Sid started toward his car, Ida following. "So long."

"Well, you're not going away mad, are you?" asked Ed with a laugh, wondering the while over the identity of the striking-looking girl whom Sid so obviously refrained from introducing to him.

"Oh, not's so's you could notice it," was Sid's answer as he began to tuck the dust robe over Ida's lap.

Then Sid cranked up his car, which he had named the Streak, though it didn't always live up to the name, and soon he and the girl were out of sight around a turn in the road.

"Humph!" exclaimed Ed as he entered the store. "I wonder where he heard about my plan to take--bank stock? I wish he didn't know of it. And I also wonder who that pretty girl was?" For Ida was pretty, in spite of her reddish hair and her rather jealous disposition, which was reflected in her face.

Ed shook his head. He was puzzled over something.