Chapter VIII. A Vain Search
 

"Here's where the collision occurred!" exclaimed Cora a little later, when her car and Jack's, having been sent at a fast speed down the road, came to a halt, and she directed her brother's attention to the spot.

"No, this isn't it," objected Walter. "It's farther on. It's right near an old stump, don't you remember?"

"Oh, yes," answered Cora as she sent her car ahead again. "This is where we nearly ran into the wagon. I'm so excited I can't think straight."

"Well, be sure you steer straight!" cried Jack from the rear. "I don't want to run into you. Better let Walter take the wheel."

"Indeed, I'll do nothing of the sort!" cried Cora, laughing. "With all due respect to you, Walter, of course," she added with a bright look up into the face of her companion. "But don't you think I can manage my machine pretty well?"

"More than pretty and more than well," was her escort's reply. "Jack is a base defamer of your ability."

"Oh, you had to say that, Walt!" cried Jack, the irrepressible. "Push on. We want to get that money before some one walks off with it."

They were soon at the spot, where many tracks in the road showed that there the collision had taken place. Here was where Ed had alighted to fix Cora's car. His small machine had on a set of peculiar tires, and the impressions and indentations of the rubber shoes, which were new, were plainly, visible in the road.

Stopping their machines alongside the highway, the three young people began a careful search of the dusty stretch. They went over every inch of the ground, particularly in the vicinity of the place where Ed had stopped to fix the broken mud guard. But there was no sign of the pocketbook.

"Maybe it was dropped farther back," suggested Jack.

"Well, we'll try there," assented Cora, and for ten minutes they walked up and down the road, some distance back from the place where Ed had alighted.

"Now try farther on," was Walter's suggestion, and they did this.

But all to no purpose. They were not rewarded by the welcome sight of a brown leather wallet, bulging with riches.

"It's no use," said Jack.

"Oh, let's try a little longer," begged Cora.

"Well, if he dropped it before he got here, or after he left, we might as well make the entire trip to New City, and then reverse and go to Chelton," went on Jack. "And we can't look over every inch of all the distance."

"We can drive along slowly," was Cora's idea. "The wallet is so large that it could easily be seen. It's too bad we haven't Sid and Ida along to help hunt for it. And the Robinson girls, and Mary. The more eyes, the better. I'll go on to New City, if you'll make a search on the road from here to Chelton, Jack."

"Oh, I don't know as it would do any good."

"It won't do any harm," said Walter. "That is, if Cora isn't too tired."

"Oh, I should love to go. I can't get enough of my new car. Will you come, Walter?"

"Of course."

"Then, Jack, you go back to Chelton and keep a lookout on both sides of the road."

"Hard to do that with one pair of eyes," was her brother's reply. "I wish I had some one to ride with me. But go ahead; I'll do the best I can."

"It would be a good plan," assented Cora, "to have a person with you. If you could pick up some one--"

"Or run across somebody," added Jack with a grin.

"No, Jack, I'm serious. Don't joke. Even a stranger would do. Some man--"

"Here comes a man now!" exclaimed Walter as an individual came in sight around a bend in the road. The man was not very well dressed.

"I don't like his looks," said Jack in a low voice. "He seems like a tramp."

"I don't blame you for not liking his looks," interrupted Walter. "That's Lem Gildy."

"The man we saw talking to Sid when he ran his auto into the blacksmith shop?" asked Cora.

Walter nodded.

"Humph!" mused Jack. "I don't exactly fancy telling Lem Gildy about a pocketbook containing twenty thousand dollars lying alongside the road. He might not admit that he saw it if he happened to spy it while with me, and later on he might come back and pick it up."

"Well, don't tell him what you're looking for," suggested Cora with ready wit. "Just say it's--er--a--er--"

"Say it's a lady's pocketbook," put in Walter, "and then he'll know it's got everything in it but money. That's playing a safety with a vengeance."

"Oh, so that's your opinion of us, is it?" asked Cora quickly. "But, after all, Jack, I think it's the best plan to ask him to ride back with you, and have him watch one side of the road. Of course, he's rather dirty--I mean his clothes--and it's not nice to sit alongside of him, but--"

"Oh, I don't mind clean dirt," interrupted Jack. "It's only garden soil on Lem's clothes. He does odd jobs, you know."

"Not very often," added Walter. "But go ahead, Jack. He's coming nearer. I don't believe you can do better than ask him to ride back to Chelton with you. Needn't be too specific about what's in the pocketbook. But two pairs of eyes are better than one, you know."

"All right," assented Jack. "Here goes."

Lem Gildy was shuffling along the road. He was a particularly unprepossessing man, with a reddish growth of whiskers which he never seemed to take the trouble to shave off, and they stuck out like so many bristles in a half-worn toothbrush.

His teeth were yellow, and his habit of chewing tobacco was not to be commended. In short, he was a "shiftless" character, and nice persons had very little to do with him.

"Hello, Lem!" called Jack pleasantly.

"Hello," was the rather surly answer, and Lem shot a suspicious glance at Jack. It was not often that the young and wealthy Jack Kimball condescended to speak to Lem Gildy, and Lem realized it.

"Want a ride?" went on Jack, trying to make his voice sound natural.

"Don't look as if you was goin' my way," replied Lem with a grin. Then he turned his gaze on Cora, and the beautiful girl could not repress a shudder as she felt the bold glance of the man.

"Oh, I'm going to turn around," declared Jack. "I'm going back to Chelton. That's where you're headed for, I take it?"

"Sure. That's where I'm goin', and I'm tired, too. I've had a long walk this mornin', and--"

"Are you working in the blacksmith shop?" asked Walter quietly.

"No. What made you think that?" asked Lem quickly. "If you think--"

Then he stopped suddenly. An indignant look, that Lem had assumed, faded from his face. "No, I wasn't workin' there," he went on. "I--er--I just stopped in to see about gettin' a piece of iron."

"Well, do you want to ride back with me?" asked Jack, who wondered at Walter's question.

"That's what I do, if you're goin' my way."

"Yes, I'll turn around in a minute. Go ahead, Cora and Walter. Get back as soon as you can."

Jack cranked up his car, got in, and, running in a half circle, steered it to where Lem was standing.

"I ain't much in the habit of ridin' in these here kind of wagons," remarked Lem with a smirk. "I hope nothin' happens t' us."

"I guess nothing will. But, Lem, I'm not going to give you a ride for nothing," said Jack.

The man drew back suspiciously. He had expected something like this, his manner seemed to say.

"I ain't got any money," he whined.

"No, it's not money," went on Jack. "I only want you to help me look for something."

"Look for Suthin'?"

"Yes; along the road."

"What's the matter? Lose part of your autymobil?"

"No; it's a pocketbook--a wallet."

"A wallet?" exclaimed Lem, with such suddenness that Jack started.

"Yes," cried the lad. "You don't mean to say you found it?"

Lem seemed agitated. He shuffled his feet in the dust.

"Me find a pocketbook?" he said at length with a short laugh. "Well, I guess not. I ain't in the habit of findin' such things as that. What kind was it, and what was in it?"

"It was a long one of brown leather," replied Jack, describing Ed's pocketbook and ignoring the question of what was in it. "A friend of mine dropped it along here, and we're helping him hunt for it. My sister and Mr. Pennington are going to look in one direction, and you and I'll look in the other."

Jack tried to make his voice sound friendly, but it was difficult work.

"You'll look on one side of the road, and I'll keep watch on the other," he went on.

"All right; I'm agreeable," said Lem with a leer. "I don't believe we'll find it, though--I ain't never very lucky."

He got into the auto beside Jack, and the two started off slowly. Cora and Walter also started, and the search for the missing twenty thousand dollars was continued.

Jack and Lem did not talk much on the way back. Lem Gildy was not an accomplished conversationalist, and Jack was too anxious to find the wallet to care for the distraction of talk. Several times he thought he saw the pocketbook, but each time it was a flat stone or a clod of dirt that misled him.

They reached Chelton, and Lem asked to be set down in a secluded street.

"Why?" asked Jack curiously.

"Because if some of me chums saw me ridin' in a swell wagon like this they'd never speak to me again," and Lem grinned and showed all his yellow teeth. "I was afraid we wouldn't find that pocketbook," he added.

"Well, maybe Cora will," said Jack.

"Yes," said Lem slowly, "maybe she will--or some one else will."

His tone was so peculiar that Jack asked quickly:

"What do you mean, Lem?"

"Oh, nothin'," and the fellow assumed an injured air. "Only if a pocketbook is lost, some one's bound to find it, ain't they?"

"I suppose so," assented Jack, and as he drove his car through the streets of Chelton, after the unsuccessful search, he found himself vainly puzzling over Lem's strange manner.

Then, as he was turning a corner, Jack caught sight of Ed.

"Hey!" he called.

Ed turned. There was a momentary look of hope on his face.

"Did you--" he began.

Jack sadly shook his head.