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CHAPTER VI

Nancy’s Strategy

AT BESS’S warning, Nancy glanced at the rear-view mirror and saw that the driver of the heavy truck did indeed intend to pass her! There was only one way for her to avert an accident: take her car full speed ahead.

“Here goes!” she cried out, and the convertible shot forward.

The three girls held their breaths, praying that the bridge would be strong enough to hold both vehicles. The old bridge creaked and groaned but held up despite a plank cracked by the truck.

Nancy had barely reached the far end when the truck sped past her at an alarming rate. It grazed her car and tore off part of the bridge railing. The driver rushed on pell-mell.

“That fellow’s a madman!” George exclaimed angrily. “He should be arrested for reckless driving!”

“I wish I had taken his license number so we could report him to the police!” Bess added.

Nancy sighed. “At this point I’m just glad my car doesn’t have to go into the repair shop again! I have a lot of work to do trying to solve the mystery of the Raybolt fire.” As the girls drove on toward Sandy Creek, they finally forgot their indignation. When they reached the town, Nancy asked a policeman for directions. Following these, she arrived at a section near the river where small houses were crowded together. Bess and George carefully scanned the weather-worn cottages, searching for one with the name “Riverwood.” Bess caught sight of it first. “I see Honey out front!” she said eagerly. “Look! Isn’t she sweet?”

As Nancy halted the car before the old house, she saw that the child had fallen asleep under a tree. A large dog lay at her feet as though on guard. At the girls’ approach he jumped up and growled.

Nancy and her friends scarcely knew whether to advance or retreat, for the dog looked vicious and seemed determined to protect his tiny charge from the strangers. As they were hesitating, the child awoke. She recognized the girls at once, and scrambling up from the grass, ran toward them.

Despite her faded play suit and badly scuffed shoes, Honey was an attractive youngster. Her real name was Helen Ebba Swenson, but she had always been called Honey because of her sweet disposition. Her eyes were a bright blue, her fair skin was dotted with brown freckles, and her golden hair curled in a hundred ringlets.

“Hello, Honey,” Nancy greeted her. “Is your mother at home?”

The child shook her head. “Mommy’s gone to the post office to get a letter from Daddy. I wanted to go, but she said it was too far for me to walk.” “Isn’t your father at home?” Nancy inquired softly.

“Oh, no,” Honey replied in her most grown-up manner. “He’s been gone a long time.

Mommy’s worried. That’s why she went to the post office today.”

Nancy and her friends exchanged quick glances. Mrs. Swenson apparently still was awaiting word from her husband.

“Mommy’ll be coming home soon,” Honey went on, “‘cause it’s suppertime. I’m hungry, too.”

With a pang Nancy saw that the youngster looked thinner than ever.

“Mommy said if she could sell some of the eggs from our hens, she’d bring me something good to eat. I’m tired of eggs. We eat them all the time since Daddy left.” “Haven’t you anything else?” George asked bluntly.

“We have a little bread. Mommy says we must make our money last until we hear from

Daddy. She doesn’t know where he went and she cries a lot.”

Honey went on to tell the girls about her dog, Hans. “Daddy and I used to take him walking. Hans misses Daddy same as I do. Nancy, let’s all go in the house. I want to show you my toys Daddy made.” Honey led the way inside. The living room was neat and smelled fresh and clean. There was little furniture, one very small rug, and no draperies at the windows. Nancy’s eye was attracted to a photograph that stood on a small table.

“Whose picture is that?” she asked Honey.

“My daddy!” Honey answered proudly.

Nancy’s heart sank. It was a photograph of the stranger she had seen running away from the fire!

“Oh, dear!” she thought. “This is the worst situation I’ve ever been in!”

By this time Honey had brought out her toys from a cupboard. All were homemade, and several were mechanical, each one cleverly fashioned.

“My daddy’s an in-ven-tor.” The little girl had trouble pronouncing the word. “That’s why he went away—to get back one of his in-ven-tions.” Nancy, Bess, and George looked at one another horrified. The same thoughts raced through their minds. Mr. Swenson an inventor! The Swedish diary Nancy had found at the scene of the fire! Mr. Raybolt’s broken promises to inventors!

Bess, to hide tears that were gathering, walked into the kitchen. On impulse she opened the refrigerator and cupboards. They were practically empty. She came back and whispered to the others.

“Something must be done,” Bess declared. “Why, Honey and her mother haven’t enough to keep them from starving.” “It’s up to us,” Nancy announced firmly. “I have an idea! We’ll all eat supper here!”

As George and Bess looked puzzled, Nancy hastily explained her plan. She would drive to Sandy Creek, pick up Honey’s mother, and purchase enough food for supper.

“We’ll have a regular feast,” she promised. “How much money do you girls have with you?”

“Two dollars and ten cents,” Bess said, opening her purse.

“I have only one dollar with me,” George announced apologetically.

“With what I have that will be enough,” Nancy said briskly. “I’ll pay you both back when we get home.” “No you won’t,” George protested. “We’re all in on this.”

“Fine!” Nancy smiled. “You girls stay here with Honey. I’ll hurry back as quickly as I can.”

“Honey’s mother may not like our interfering,” Bess ventured doubtfully.

“I’ll be tactful,” Nancy promised.

Honey followed her to the car, eying Nancy with worshipful eyes.

“I like ice cream,” she ventured with a timid smile.

“I’ll bring some,” Nancy said. “And plenty of other good things. A bone, with meat on it, for Hans, too!” She drove away swiftly. A quarter mile down the road she caught sight of a woman trudging along dejectedly. Honey’s mother!

Nancy was quick to observe the downcast expression on the woman’s face and guessed that she had received no word from her husband. Undoubtedly Mrs. Swenson had hoped that he would send money so that she might purchase food.

“Poor thing!” Nancy thought. “I don’t believe I can ever bring myself to tell her about the diary. If her husband has done wrong, it will break her heart.” Pulling over to the side of the road, she called a cheery greeting. Mrs. Swenson started in surprise as she recognized Nancy.

“Won’t you let me drive you home?” Nancy asked her.

“But you’re going in the opposite direction,” Mrs. Swenson protested.

“Oh, that’s perfectly all right,” Nancy replied, as the woman wearily climbed in beside her.

“I’m on my way to town to buy some things,” Nancy explained, “but as soon as I’ve purchased them, I’ll take you straight home. You won’t mind the extra ride, will you?” “Indeed I won’t.” Mrs. Swenson smiled faintly. “I don’t feel as though I could walk another step. I must get home soon, though, for my little girl hasn’t had her supper.” Nancy wondered what would be the best way in which to broach the plan to Mrs. Swenson about the “feast.”

“Well, here goes!” Nancy thought. “If she refuses, there’s nothing the girls and I can do except return home.” CHAPTER VII

A Disclosure

AFTER outlining her plan for the supper party, Nancy waited expectantly for Mrs. Swenson’s response. During the moment of silence, she clearly read the woman’s thoughts. She was battling with her pride.

“How kind of you to take an interest in us!” Mrs. Swenson said at last. “I appreciate it more than I can tell you.” “Then I may go ahead with my shopping?” Nancy asked eagerly.

“Yes, it will be wonderful to have a ‘feast,’ as you call it. We haven’t had one since my husband left.” Mrs. Swenson caught herself quickly, and said, “Joe is away looking for work. I’m sure he’ll send me money in a few days and then I can repay you for—” “Oh, but this is a special party,” Nancy interrupted gaily. “You mustn’t think of repaying me.”

During the ride to town, Mrs. Swenson seldom spoke. She leaned wearily against the cushion, a half-smile playing over her pale face. Her weary blue eyes were kind, but the privations brought on by poverty and worry had stamped grim lines about her mouth.

Nancy parked the convertible on the main street of Sandy Creek and insisted that Mrs.

Swenson assist her in selecting the food for the feast. They chose a quantity of staples, then Nancy added as many luxuries as she could afford —ice cream, a thick juicy steak, fresh fruit and vegetables, cake and an assortment of melons.

“You’re buying enough to last a week!” Mrs. Swenson declared.

That was exactly what Nancy had intended to do. Not until she had practically exhausted her funds would she listen to the other’s protests.

“If it weren’t for Honey, I never would permit you to spend money on us,” Mrs. Swenson said as they climbed into the car. “We’re not accustomed to accepting charity. When my husband was employed, we lived well. We should still be well off if he hadn’t been cheated out of his rights!” This gave Nancy an opening, and as they drove back toward Riverwood Cottage she diplomatically questioned the woman. Mrs. Swenson, however, revealed very little about her husband. She seemed eager to impress Nancy with his kindness, rather than his apparent irresponsibility.

“Joe has always been good to me and he adores Honey. Some folks say he’s lazy, but that isn’t true. He’s always worked—harder than most folks. He’s an inventor, and if he hadn’t been cheated out of his patents, we’d be wealthy—” She broke off as the convertible turned a corner and a voice called out, “Hi, Nancy!”

“Ned Nickerson!” she exclaimed, and pulled to the curb behind Ned’s parked car.

With a pleased grin which spread over his entire face, Ned jumped from behind the wheel and came hurrying toward the convertible.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Oh, just prowling about.” Nancy laughed. She introduced Mrs. Swenson, then said, “What are you doing in Sandy Creek?” “On an errand for my mother. I’m about to rush home for something to eat. I’m nearly starved.”

“Better come with us,” Nancy proposed impetuously. “We’re having a feast at Mrs. Swenson’s.”

Ned accepted the invitation without an instant’s hesitation, and promised to follow in his car as soon as he had phoned home.

It was only a short distance to the cottage, and Mrs. Swenson showed no inclination to resume the interrupted conversation. Nancy had hoped that she would tell more about her husband’s work, but the woman did not volunteer any additional information.

“I’ll talk to Mrs. Swenson about it before I leave the cottage,” Nancy promised herself. “I must get to the bottom of the mystery.” The few hints that Mrs. Swenson had dropped only served to trouble Nancy further. Since Joe Swenson was an inventor, it seemed reasonable that he had gone to Mr. Raybolt to retrieve something of his. If no one were home, he might have become a housebreaker, then an arsonist. Nancy suddenly chided herself.

“I mustn’t have such thoughts! Time enough to draw conclusions when I’ve heard Mr.

Swenson’s side of the story! Right now, I’ll say nothing to ruin our little party.”

As Nancy parked in front of Riverwood Cottage, Bess, George, and Honey came running to see what she had brought. The little girl squealed with delight as she peered into the various packages.

“You didn’t forget Hans’s bone?” she asked.

“I should say not,” Nancy told her. “The butcher gave us the best one he had.”

Ned arrived, and everyone helped carry in the bundles. As Nancy stepped into the cottage it was her turn to be surprised. During her absence the girls had decorated the living-dining room with flowers from the garden and had brought out the best china, a lovely set of delftware.

“What beautiful dishes!” Nancy exclaimed admiringly.

“They’re all I have left of our good possessions,” Mrs. Swenson said. “The set was given to me as a wedding present. I must sell the dishes soon, but I keep putting it off.” “It seems a shame to sell a wedding gift,” Bess remarked sympathetically. “Especially such a lovely one as this.” Under the influence of the young people, Mrs. Swenson brightened. It was impossible to be downhearted around Ned and Nancy, who kept up a constant stream of good-natured banter. Mrs. Swenson, an excellent cook, took charge of preparing the meal, but she had four able assistants. Honey and Hans hovered near the stove where the steak was sizzling.

“Hans has his canine eye on another bone!” Ned laughed. “Well, he won’t get it until we’ve picked it bare.” Nancy had not misnamed the supper, for it really was a feast. There was plenty of everything and it was a pleasure to see Honey’s eyes grow big at the sight of each steaming dish that was brought to the table.

It was a happy meal, and Ned proved to be a very interesting dinner companion. Even Mrs. Swenson’s sober face lighted up and she ate her food with enjoyment. Nancy entered into the lighthearted conversation, but her mind was far from carefree. Several times during the meal George gazed at her significantly as though to ask what she intended to do about the diary. The girls had come to Sandy Creek to learn certain facts, but now that they realized how affairs were at the Swenson cottage, it seemed unkind to bring further trouble upon the family.

“I want to show you my little baby chicks,” Honey announced when the meal was over. “I have ten yellow ones—all my own.” Ned, Bess, and George obligingly followed the child outside.

“Coming?” Bess asked Nancy.

“No, I’ll stay and help with the dishes.”

Nancy felt that it was her opportunity to talk with Mrs. Swenson alone. Yet, after the others had gone, she did not know how to launch the important subject. As she scraped the dishes, she cautiously broached the subject of nationalities.

“We’re Swedish,” Mrs. Swenson declared. “You probably guessed that.”

Nancy had, but her heart sank at the definite assertion.

“You speak perfect English,” she replied.

“My husband is a university man,” the woman returned proudly. “He has always corrected my English and helped me with it.” “What were the other names in your families?” Nancy asked, smiling.

“My maiden name was the same as that of Joe’s mother—Dahl.” Nancy stifled a gasp. The ring with the initial “D” must have been inherited by Joe Swenson! Now she must find out about the diary!

“I’ve often heard that people who move to this country keep diaries. Did your family follow the custom?” Nancy inquired, trying to make her question sound uninquisitive.

“The Swensons always did, even at home. My husband kept a diary in which he also told of his inventions. He hoped that this would help keep his ideas safe. But—” Mrs. Swenson stopped speaking and gazed into space.

Nancy pretended not to notice the long pause. Finally she asked, “Did your husband always carry the diary with him?” “Yes, he did.”

At this affirmation of her suspicions, Nancy almost dropped a plate. She quickly caught it, but thought, “Evidence is piling up against Joe Swenson at an alarming rate!” Presently Mrs. Swenson spoke again. “Nancy, I can’t understand why I haven’t heard from my husband,” she confided. “Joe has been gone a month. He was sure of finding work and promised to send money home. But I haven’t had a single letter from him. That’s the reason I went to the post office today. But there was no mail for me. Oh, Nancy, I’m so worried about Joe. Something may have happened to him!” “Oh, I don’t think so,” Nancy said quickly.

Mrs. Swenson grabbed the girl’s arm. “Why do you say that?” she cried out. “Do you know something about Joe?” Nancy was dumfounded. What was she going to say now?

CHAPTER VIII

Worried Sleuths

TAKING a deep breath, Nancy put an arm around Mrs. Swenson. “I’m sure your husband carried identification. If anything had happened to him, surely you would have been notified by this time.” “But what about his not writing to me?” Mrs. Swenson persisted. “It’s unlike Joe not to keep a promise.” “Well, that puzzles me too,” Nancy confessed. “But I’m sure you’ll hear from him soon.”

“Oh, I hope so. It should have been easy for Joe to find work, because he’s very skillful. But as I told you before, he was cheated out of a fair deal on his cleverest invention. Unfortunately, he entrusted the drawings to an unscrupulous man who promised to take out patents for him—but didn’t!” “How dreadful!” Nancy remarked.

“Yes, the man took the patents out under his own name. He deliberately stole them from Joe.”

“Who is the man?” Nancy asked tensely, yet fearing the answer.

Mrs. Swenson hesitated an instant and then said, “Perhaps I shouldn’t give his name, but since you’ll most likely never see him, it can do no harm. The man who cheated Joe, who broke his spirit, is Felix Raybolt!” “Felix Raybolt!” Nancy echoed.

She had expected this answer, yet hearing the name gave her a distinct shock.

“Yes,” Mrs. Swenson returned, looking curiously at the girl. “Do you know him?”

“Only by reputation,” Nancy answered. “I did hear that his house burned.”

This was news to Mrs. Swenson. “Was anyone hurt?” she asked.

“The police and firemen think the house was unoccupied at the time.”

At that moment Honey and her new friends came in from the garden.

“Nancy,” Bess said, “don’t you think we’d better start for home? The sun is setting and we ought to cross that shaky bridge before dark.” “Yes,” Nancy agreed. “We’ll leave right away.”

While the other girls were gathering their handbags and saying good-by, she found an opportunity to speak to Ned privately.

“Have you heard any news about the Raybolts?” she asked in a low tone.

“Not a word. They haven’t been located yet.”

Nancy now hurriedly explained that she believed she had found the owner of the ring—Mr. Swenson.

Ned frowned. “This may involve him as a suspect in the fire. What a shame! Mrs. Swenson and Honey are such nice people. I like that little girl a lot.” “So do I,” Nancy admitted. “I wish I could do something for them—mainly, prove Joe Swenson’s innocent.” “I think you’ve done a lot already. It’s my turn now. Do you suppose they’d be offended if I left five dollars?” “It would be a blessing, Ned. I don’t believe they have a penny in the house. Why not hide it somewhere?” “That’s a good idea,” Ned said. “Mrs. Swenson can’t very well protest if she doesn’t find it until after we’re gone!” Without being detected, Ned managed to slip one corner of the five-dollar bill under the vase of flowers on the table. Then they said good-by, promising to return for another visit.

Nancy had told Ned about the broken-down bridge, and the young man insisted upon accompanying the girls past the detour. They found that the smashed railing had been marked by warning lights. As soon as Nancy had crossed over in safety, Ned waved and drove on ahead.

“He certainly intends to look after you, Nancy,” Bess teased mischievously. “Honestly, he has a terrible case!” “Hush!” Nancy retorted, but she was not displeased.

As they rode toward River Heights, she told the girls of her talk with Mrs. Swenson.

“Things are beginning to look black for her husband,” Bess declared. “He certainly had a motive if Mr. Raybolt stole the patent to his invention.” “All the evidence points that way,” Nancy admitted, “and yet I can’t believe he’s guilty.”

“He’ll be sent to jail if he is,” George stated flatly. “What do you intend to do?”

“I don’t know.” Nancy sighed deeply. “I was never in such a quandary in my life! If he goes to prison, Mrs. Swenson and Honey will be without means of support—to say nothing of the family name being clouded.” “But it isn’t right to protect a criminal,” Bess insisted.

“He’s innocent until proved otherwise,” Nancy reminded her friend. “Before doing anything more, I’m going to have a long talk with Dad.” By the time the girls arrived in River Heights, darkness had fallen. Nancy dropped her friends at their homes. When she reached her own house, she found Hannah tidying the kitchen.

“Isn’t Dad home yet?” Nancy asked.

“No, he telephoned he wouldn’t be back until late tonight.”

Nancy was disappointed that her father had not returned. It was only a little after eight o’clock, but after talking to the housekeeper a few minutes, Nancy went to her bedroom.

“I’ll have another look at that diary,” she thought. “Perhaps I’ll be able to make something out of it, now that I know more about Joe Swenson.” For one hour Nancy, with added incentive, patiently applied herself to the task of deciphering the cramped English scrawl. She looked at the drawing again and wondered whether it was a sketch for part of the stolen invention. Finally she was able to distinguish a few paragraphs—mostly notations of supplies purchased from various manufacturing concerns.

“Maybe Joe Swenson found a job in one of those places!” Nancy thought optimistically. “I’ll go from one to another and inquire!” Any possible lead was welcome at this point, Nancy told herself excitedly. She scanned the notations again. Her eyes lingered on the name of a company in the small city of Stanford.

“That’s where Mr. Baylor Weston lives—the man who ran into my car,” the young detective murmured. “I’ll go to Stanford first, and see Mr. Weston at the same time!” When Nancy came down to breakfast the next morning she found a sealed envelope beside her plate. She was mystified to note there was no return address on it.

“A man left the envelope early this morning,” Mrs. Gruen told Nancy.

CHAPTER IX

A Scare

EAGERLY Nancy tore open the envelope and unfolded the sheet inside.

“A bill for the repairs to my car,” she told Hannah Gruen. “It sounds very fair. Mr. Baylor

Weston—who ran into me—shouldn’t mind paying this amount.”

The housekeeper laughed. “The garage mechanic was certainly prompt in delivering his bill.”

“I asked him to be,” Nancy defended the man. “I want to present this bill and the Mapleton garage one right away to Mr. Weston.” “That’s the spirit,” came a voice from the doorway. “Good morning!” Mr. Drew walked in, kissed Nancy, and asked, “How are you, Hannah?” Carson Drew took his place at the head of the table, then said, “Nancy, I learned yesterday that Baylor Weston owns an electronics factory in Stanford.” “What a break for me!” Nancy exclaimed. “I can do two errands at once.” She told about having seen the name of the Stanford Electronics Company in the diary, and her intention of finding out if Mr. Swenson worked there.

“Excellent idea,” said Mr. Drew. “And now for more news.”

“You found Mr. Raybolt?” Nancy asked eagerly.

“Yes and no. To be strictly correct, I found Mrs. Raybolt.”

“Where is she, Dad?”

“At a summer resort on Lake Mentor. I talked with Mrs. Raybolt on the phone. She became very upset about the fire and told me she would return today to look into the matter.” “And her husband?”

“She didn’t say where he is and was rather evasive when I questioned her about him.”

“I’d like to talk to Mrs. Raybolt, Dad.”

“Well, why don’t you? She’ll surely stay at the Maplecroft Inn because it’s the only hotel within three miles of the Raybolt estate. My guess is that if you go there for luncheon you might meet her.” “That’s a grand idea!” Nancy said excitedly. “I see now why you’re called River Heights’ leading lawyer!” She asked her father if he knew of someone who could translate the diary. “I’ve already checked,” Mr. Drew replied. “But my two friends who speak Swedish are away on vacation.” Nancy was so enthusiastic about the idea of visiting the inn that as soon as she had finished breakfast, she phoned Bess and George. Always eager for adventure, they quickly said they would love to go along. By eleven o’clock the three girls were en route.

“I have a feeling that we’re about to learn something important!” Nancy confided to her friends.

It was only a few minutes after twelve when the girls reached the pleasant little inn. Nancy parked beside a row of cars at the rear of the building. The girls went inside and inquired for Mrs. Raybolt.

“She hasn’t arrived yet,” the desk clerk said, “but we expect her any minute.”

The girls strolled outside and sat down on the porch. But after an hour had elapsed, the wealthy woman still had not arrived. Bess gave a huge sigh. “I’m starved! We may as well have luncheon. I don’t believe Mrs. Raybolt is coming.” “It looks that way,” Nancy admitted in disappointment. “Wait a second, though, here comes another car.” Hopefully, the girls watched as a large automobile swept up the driveway. A chauffeur assisted a frail, nervous-looking woman of middle age to alight. She clung unsteadily to his arm and for a moment the girls thought she would faint.

The chauffeur said encouragingly, “You’ll feel better, Mrs. Raybolt, after you have had your lunch.”

So this was Mrs. Raybolt! She made no response other than to give a low moan. Still leaning on the chauffeur’s arm, she walked uncertainly up the porch steps.

“Goodness,” Bess exclaimed in a whisper, “isn’t that poor woman pale? She looks ill. I’m surprised her husband left her alone.” Nancy did not comment. She was watching Mrs. Raybolt closely and it struck her that the woman was actually ill. As she reached the porch, Mrs. Raybolt caught hold of a post for support.

“I can’t go on,” she whispered weakly. Then she fainted.

The chauffeur caught her in his arms as she fell and eased her to the level of the porch. Nancy and her friends, thoroughly alarmed, rushed forward to be of assistance.

“I’ll get some water!” Nancy cried, and dashed inside. The desk clerk came rushing out.

“Take her into the manager’s office,” he suggested kindly. “I’ll call a doctor.”

The chauffeur quickly explained that they had just been to the scene of the fire. Then Mrs. Raybolt was carried inside and made comfortable on the couch. Her face was pale, but as Nancy applied a wet cloth to her forehead, she revived somewhat.

“Felix!” she moaned. “Oh, Felix!”

“Your husband will be here soon,” Nancy assured her soothingly.

Her words had an astounding effect upon the woman. She half raised herself and her eyes, fluttering open, had a wild expression in them.

“My husband is dead,” she moaned. “He burned to death.”

“She must be hysterical,” said the manager’s secretary. “I hope the doctor gets here soon.”

“Your husband isn’t dead,” Nancy said comfortingly.

Mrs. Raybolt appeared not to hear the girl, for she went on wildly, “He burned to death in the fire! Oh, Felix!” “What’s she talking about?” demanded the manager, who had just entered the room.

“I’m sure her husband wasn’t in the house at the time it burned,” said Nancy. “The investigators found no evidence of anyone having been trapped inside.” Yet, as she spoke, doubt besieged Nancy. How did she know that Felix Raybolt had not been trapped inside the house? True, no body had been found, but what if the explosion—Nancy put the horrible thought out of her mind.

Mrs. Raybolt revived sufficiently to sit up, and after she had drunk the glass of water Nancy handed her, she appeared to be less agitated.

“I can’t go on!” the woman whispered weakly

“You must be mistaken about your husband,” Bess told her gently.

“No! No!” the woman cried. “He went there the night of the fire to see a man on business. I had a feeling he shouldn’t go and I tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t listen to me. I haven’t heard from Felix since that night.” Mrs. Raybolt broke down and sobbed hysterically. Nancy asked the name of the man whom Felix Raybolt had gone to see.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Felix never confided any business matters to me. He resented questions. I do know that Felix was uneasy about the appointment.” “Why?”

“He anticipated possible physical violence.”

Nancy and her friends gulped. If the person with whom Mr. Raybolt had an appointment was Joe Swenson, here was still another count against the Swedish inventor.

At that moment the doctor appeared. He briskly cleared the room, insisting that the patient have absolute quiet. Nancy and her friends left with the others.

“Well, what do you think of the case now?” George whispered tensely.

“I think,” Nancy returned soberly, “that things look very black for poor Joe Swenson.”

The three girls ate luncheon in silence. They did not want to discuss the mystery in public, and were too concerned to talk of anything else.

When they finished eating, Nancy stopped at the reservation desk and asked the clerk for directions to Stanford. “Take the short cut across Sunview Mountain,” he advised. “It’s half the distance it would be by the main road.” Nancy thanked him and the girls went to the car. As they were about to drive off, a state trooper stopped Nancy and said, “A word of advice, young ladies. We believe a dangerous criminal is hiding in the vicinity. Keep your doors locked.” “What did he do?” Bess asked fearfully.

“It’s suspected he’s a firebug, a robber, and—well, he may use a gun on anyone who gets in his way.” “What’s his name?” Nancy inquired, her heart sinking in the fear that it would be Joe Swenson.

To her relief, the officer replied that the police were still working to establish the man’s identity. “But watch your step, and if you should see anything suspicious, be sure to report it to us.” “I will,” Nancy promised, and drove off.

Five miles farther on she turned into the narrow short cut across Sunview Mountain. The twisting road, bordered by tangled undergrowth and dense woods, was deserted.

Bess shivered. “The wildest section in the county!” she exclaimed nervously. “Just the sort of place a criminal would choose for a hideout. For goodness sake, Nancy, step on the gas!” “This is a spooky road,” George murmured presently. “Wouldn’t it be funny if we should come upon Joe Swenson, peering out at us from the bushes?” “Funny?” Bess demanded. “I’d be frightened out of my wits. Wouldn’t you, Nancy?”

“Well, I don’t know,” the other returned truthfully. “I’m eager to find that man.”

“So am I,” Bess replied, “but I’d rather not run into any stranger in this out-of-the-way spot!”

Nancy did not reply immediately, and her friends noticed that she appeared to be scanning the woods searchingly.

“You think the criminal actually might be hiding along this road?” Bess demanded anxiously.

Nancy nodded. “It’s possible.”

“Turn back!” Bess pleaded. “No telling what he might do to us!”

“Don’t get jittery,” Nancy advised. “Remember, we have to find out if Joe Swenson works at the plant in Stanford.” As they drove along the winding road, the three girls maintained a vigilant lookout. Suddenly Bess cried out:

“There’s a man ahead, at the side of the road! He’s motioning us to stop! Don’t do it, Nancy!”

CHAPTER X

A Spooky Shack

INSTINCTIVELY Nancy pressed down hard on the gas pedal and shot past the man. In the rear-view mirror she saw an astonished look on his face. She slowed to a normal pace and laughed in relief.

“A hitchhiker! He probably thinks I’m crazy!”

The stranger did not in the least resemble a criminal type. He looked kind and pleasant.

“Better safe then sorry,” Bess defended herself as they left the amazed hitchhiker far behind.

“I’ll have to agree with you on that,” said George.

Presently Nancy came to a fork in the road and stopped the convertible. There were no signs to indicate which road led toward the Weston factory.

“I’d turn to the left,” Bess advised.

“The right-hand turn looks more likely to me,” George insisted. “Look—I see a shack over among those trees. Why not inquire there?” “A good idea!” Nancy approved. She pulled up before the shack and flung open the car door. George did the same and promptly stepped out.

But Bess held back. “No telling who lives there, girls! M-maybe that criminal!”

“George and I will go,” said Nancy. “You stay here, Bess.”

“Not on your life. If you’re going, I’ll go, too.”

George and Nancy were already pushing their way through the brush, and Bess, fearful of being left alone, hurried after them. The shack was located in a tiny clearing which was enclosed on three sides by dense forest.

The girls were halfway to the cabin when Bess clutched Nancy’s arm. “There’s someone in the bushes—over by the grape arbor—watching us!” The three girls huddled together, afraid to continue. They could see the motionless figure peeping out at them.

Suddenly Nancy burst into laughter.

“A scarecrow!” she exclaimed. “Bess, this makes the second time you’ve given us a scare!”

Bess looked sheepish and made no response.

“Come on!” George said in disgust. “We’re acting like babies!”

The girls approached the shack with a boldness they did not feel. Bess remarked nervously that the place seemed unnaturally quiet.

Summoning her courage, Nancy knocked on the door. There was no response. She knocked again, louder than before.

“I heard someone moving!” George whispered tensely.

Nancy thought she had heard something. A little chill of excitement ran down her spine. Was someone hiding inside?

“Let’s go back!” Bess urged fearfully.

“One more try,” Nancy begged, and knocked again.

When no answer came, Nancy gently turned the knob. The door opened so quickly she almost plunged headlong into the one-room shack. She sprang back, expecting to face an occupant. The room was empty. The few furnishings were broken down and covered with dust.

“Another joke on us!” Nancy said. “I’d have sworn I heard someone moving in here!”

“So would I,” murmured Bess in a relieved tone. “What a creepy place!”

The girls tiptoed around the shack, sidestepping the dirt, and ducking their heads, as they avoided the heavy cobwebs.

“Nobody home!” announced Nancy, gaily shaking off her former apprehensive mood.

“No one has used this shack in months,” George declared.

“We may as well run along,” said Nancy.

Returning to their car, the girls agreed after some debate to take the right-hand fork. A few minutes’ driving took them to the foot of Sunview Mountain.

“I see a town ahead,” Nancy observed. “We’ll stop there and inquire if we’re on the right road.”

When they reached the main section of the village, Nancy managed to attract the attention of a policeman, who left his post and came over to the car.

“The road to the Weston factory?” he repeated. “You should have taken the left fork several miles back.” The girls exchanged looks of consternation. After their recent experiences the thought of returning over the same route was cheerless indeed.

“There’s another way you can get there,” the policeman told them, “but it will take you a little longer.” “That’s all right,” Nancy said thankfully.

He then explained in detail how they could reach the factory. Nancy thanked him and drove on.

“We’ll have to hurry,” she remarked to her friends, “or the factory will be closed. Just our luck to take the wrong turn.” Swift driving partially made up for lost time, but Nancy’s wrist watch warned her that it was nearly four o’clock when they at last reached the factory on the outskirts of Stanford. It took the girls a few minutes to locate the office.

Nancy presented herself to the young woman in charge, stating that she wished to see Mr. Baylor Weston.

“It’s rather late,” the secretary informed Nancy with a superior air. “Mr. Weston doesn’t like to make appointments after three o’clock.” “We’ve driven here from River Heights,” Nancy explained patiently. “Please give him my name.”

The young woman vanished into an inner office. The girls sat down on a bench to wait. Five minutes passed.

“Looks as if we’re out of luck,” George grumbled. “The man probably suspects what we came for and means to get out of it if he possibly can.” She lowered her voice, for at that moment the secretary returned.

“Mr. Weston will see you,” she told Nancy. “Step into his office, please.”

If Nancy and the other girls expected to meet a defiant Baylor Weston they were mistaken. His every movement disclosed that he was as intensely nervous as he had been the day of the accident.

Mr. Weston recognized Nancy, and it was not necessary for her to state her mission. Evidently her visit had been anticipated.

He motioned the girls to be seated, and still without speaking, the manufacturer reached for the bills which Nancy held in her hand. He glanced at them and a look of relief came over his face.

“Well, that’s not half bad,” he remarked, relaxing. “I was sure it would be much more.”

Nancy expected Mr. Weston to mention his insurance company’s paying the amount, but instead he opened his desk drawer and took out a checkbook. As he wrote in it, he said: “I’m decidedly pleased that the total expense is so small. The last time I crashed into a car it cost me real money, to say nothing of the threatened lawsuit.” “The last time?” Nancy echoed with a smile.

“I’m very nervous—excitable,” the manufacturer reiterated. “Doctor’s right—I shouldn’t drive a car.” He handed the check to Nancy. “That covers everything?”

“Yes, and thank you. I hope you’ll have no more accidents.”

“So do I,” Baylor Weston returned with a grimace, “but very likely I shall, unless I get a chauffeur. Hm, that’s an idea! I’ll make a note of it!” He reached for a pad, and to the amusement of the girls, scribbled down the memorandum.

“By the way,” he remarked, “did you hear how much Raybolt lost in the fire?”

“I don’t believe the loss has been estimated,” Nancy replied. “Mrs. Raybolt visited the ruins today. She was quite overcome.” “The Raybolts always did hate to lose a penny,” the manufacturer grunted.

“It wasn’t that,” Nancy told him. “Mrs. Raybolt declares her husband was in the house at the time of the fire. She believes he was burned to death.” Baylor Weston shook his head doubtfully. “Can’t make me believe that Felix Raybolt was caught in that fire. He’s too foxy for that! If he has disappeared, you may wager it was for a purpose.” “Mrs. Raybolt’s grief seemed to be genuine,” Nancy commented.

“No doubt. Raybolt wasn’t the fellow to confide in his wife about anything. He kept his own council.”

“You knew him well.”

“At one time. We broke off business relations years ago. Raybolt was too tricky—mean and unfair in all his dealings. He’d steal ideas without a qualm.” “So I’ve heard,” Nancy returned dryly. “By the way,” she asked, “do you have a man by the name of Joe Swenson working for you?” Mr. Weston thought for a moment, then said, “The name is not familiar to me, but I’ll inquire of our personnel office.” He called the manager. After a few moments’ pause, the answer came back—no.

Nancy was disappointed. She thanked Mr. Weston and the three girls arose. They left the factory and walked to the car.

“Let’s take the longer route back to River Heights rather than the Sunview Mountain road,” Bess pleaded, and Nancy consented.

As she reached the Weston plant’s main gate at the highway, the girls saw that traffic had become heavy.

“Everyone must be coming to town for the carnival,” George observed. “I saw the posters advertising it when we drove through Stanford. There’s to be some sort of parade, too.” The steady stream of vehicles held the convertible at the entrance of the factory grounds. While the girls were impatiently waiting for a break in the line, the plant whistle blew.

“Now there will be a jam!” Nancy exclaimed.

A moment later she finally managed to turn into the highway, but the cars in front of her moved slowly. Again Nancy was forced to halt.

The blowing of the whistle had released hundreds of workmen. They came pouring from the plant. While she waited for the car ahead to move, Nancy watched the men with interest.

Suddenly a vaguely familiar figure caught her eye. At first Nancy thought she must be mistaken, but as the man turned his face toward her, she knew her first impression had been correct.

“Look!” Nancy cried excitedly. “There’s the man I saw running away from the fire! He’s Joe Swenson!” CHAPTER XI

Lost in the Crowd

“JOE SWENSON!” Bess and George exclaimed simultaneously. “Where?”

“He’s crossing the highway!” Nancy pointed. “The man with the blue shirt. Don’t take your eyes off him for a second! We must keep him in sight!” The cars ahead had started to move again and Nancy turned her attention to driving, while Bess and George watched Joe Swenson. They kept close behind him for nearly a block, then George called out that he had turned a corner.

Nancy stopped for a red traffic light, and when she finally turned into the side street, the man was a considerable distance ahead.

“He’s walking fast,” Bess observed. “We’ll lose him if we aren’t careful.”

The street was crooked and narrow. Children were playing ball and Nancy was forced to drive with extra caution.

Joe Swenson turned into another street, narrower than the first and rather dingy. Nancy rapidly drew nearer to him, only to lose him again as he cut through an alley.

“Does he know we’re following him?” Bess wondered.

“I don’t think so,” Nancy answered. “We’ll catch him at the next street. I can see where the alley ends.” Rubbish, tin cans, and boxes littered the alley, and she did not care to risk a punctured tire. Turning the car, she retraced her route, rounded the block, and reached the opposite end of the alley in time to see Joe Swenson heading toward one of the main streets of Stanford.

“We have him now,” Nancy said confidently.

Scarcely had she spoken when the girls noticed that the block directly ahead had been roped off. The sidewalks were lined with pedestrians, and policemen were turning automobiles into side streets.

“What’s this?” Nancy asked impatiently.

“It must be the parade,” George declared. “And there goes Joe Swenson, heading that way!”

“We’ll lose him sure!” Nancy groaned.

True to her prediction, the man melted into the crowd. A policeman motioned for Nancy to turn to the right and she had no choice but to comply. At the first opportunity she parked the car and the girls ran back.

In vain they searched through the throngs of people watching the parade. Joe Swenson had disappeared.

“If that isn’t a mean break!” Bess fretted.

“I admit it’s hopeless,” Nancy said slowly. “The best thing to do is come back tomorrow and try to find him.” The girls returned to the car. As they headed for River Heights, George said, “If Joe Swenson works at the Weston plant, why wasn’t his name on the personnel records?” “Maybe we were mistaken, after all,” Bess said.

Nancy did not reply for nearly a minute, then she declared, “Girls, I have a hunch.”

“About what?” George asked.

“That Joe Swenson works at the factory, all right.”

“But they said nobody by that name was there,” Bess objected.

Nancy smiled. “For reasons of his own, he could be using another name.”

“Like what?” George spoke up.

“Dahl,” Nancy answered.

“His mother’s maiden name!” Bess declared. “Oh, Nancy, you’re a genius!”

“Better not praise me until I’ve proved my hunch right,” Nancy cautioned.

“Will you phone Mr. Weston and ask him?”

“No, Bess. I want to talk to Joe Swenson without his suspecting anything. If he’s using an assumed name, it may be because he’s hiding something. Suppose he finds out someone has been inquiring for him? He may run away.” “You’re right,” George agreed.

Reluctantly the girls rode back to River Heights. “See you tomorrow,” Nancy told Bess and George as she stopped at their homes. Upon reaching the Drew house, she found Hannah Gruen awaiting her with a message.

“Ned Nickerson has phoned you five times, Nancy,” Hannah said with a smile. “It seems that he wants to invite you to a dinner dance. One of his fraternity brothers is giving it—on the spur of the moment—tonight. Ned would like you to call. I have the number.” Nancy’s heart was already pounding with excitement as she dialed. Of course she would accept!

“Great!” said Ned. “I was about to give up hope. Can you be ready in an hour?”

“I’ll do my best,” Nancy, replied.

Singing a gay tune, Nancy quickly disrobed, jumped under a shower, and was dressed in three-quarters of an hour.

“You look lovely, Nancy,” Mrs. Gruen complimented her.

“Oh, thank you.” Nancy surveyed herself in a long mirror. The pale-green chiffon dress was very becoming, and the gold evening shoes she wore set it off to advantage.

Still humming gaily, Nancy went downstairs holding her white wrap. Ned arrived in a few minutes and they drove off in his car. At first conversation was in a light vein, then Ned asked if Nancy had located the Raybolt arsonist yet.

“No. How about you?”

Ned replied, “All I know is what I read in the papers—first, that Mrs. Raybolt remains in a state bordering on collapse. She’s firmly convinced her husband lost his life in the fire.” “The police and fire investigators don’t think so,” Nancy remarked.

“I do have one interesting piece of news. The police are busy working on a new angle. A clue, which they’re withholding from the public, is expected to bring about the arrest of the criminal within a day or two.” “Is it possible that the police suspect Joe Swenson?” Nancy asked herself aloud. “If they arrest him, it will ruin all my plans for trying to help his family!” “You’re being very mysterious,” Ned complained good-naturedly. “Why would the police suspect Mr. Swenson? How about letting me in on the secret?” Nancy laughed. “Maybe you shouldn’t beg too hard, Ned. You may find yourself being called upon to do all kinds of outlandish sleuthing jobs.” “I’m at your service,” Ned replied quickly.

Little by little, Nancy told him the details. When she had finished, Ned said, “You’ve certainly done some terrific detective work! Well, good luck tomorrow. Wish I could be with you, but I’m slated to go on an all-day trip with my dad.” Nancy and Ned reached the home of his fraternity brother. Sounds of popular songs being sung in harmony by the guests drifted out. Laughingly, the couple hastened their steps.

All the boys and girls were strangers to Nancy, but she liked them at once. She found them intelligent and full of fun, and they quickly made her feel as if she had always been part of the group.

At the long dinner table the boy on her right, Phil Roberts, proved to be very entertaining. He told several amusing and true stories about strange letters which had come to the attention of the post office.

“Where did you hear about these letters?” Nancy asked him, after the laughter had subsided.

“Oh, my father’s the Stanford postmaster,” Phil explained. “He told me.”

Immediately Nancy wondered if Phil could have heard anything to shed light on the reason why Mrs. Swenson was not receiving mail from her husband. It took Nancy nearly five minutes to formulate a diplomatic question.

Finally she said, “If someone’s mail isn’t being delivered, what could be the reason?”

Phil smiled. “Two that I can think of. First, no one is writing to the person, and second, his mail is being stolen.” Suddenly he looked intently at Nancy. “What made you ask me that question?” “Because I know someone who should be getting mail but isn’t. If there were money or checks in the letters, a thief might steal them.” “A certain kind of thief would. Say, Nancy, I’m going to tell you something—it’s kind of confidential—but I think it might help your friend.” Nancy listened intently for the secret she was about to hear.

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