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A few minutes later she pointed out a combination filling station and lunchroom which looked clean and inviting. Nancy turned the convertible into the driveway and parked out of the way of other drivers who might want to stop for gasoline.

The group entered the lunchroom and took seats at one of the small white tables. They all decided on chocolate nut sundaes topped with whipped cream.

“Here goes another pound.” Bess sighed as she gave her order. “But I’d rather be pleasantly plump than give up sundaes!” Though there were few customers in the room, the woman in charge, who also did the serving, was extremely slow in filling the orders. Twice Nancy glanced at her watch.

“If you’ll excuse me,” she said, “I’ll step outside and get the gasoline. It will save us a little time in getting started. Don’t wait for me if our sundaes come.” She drove the car over to the pump and asked the attendant to fill the tank. Before he could do so, however, a large, high-powered sedan pulled up to the other pump, coming to an abrupt stop almost parallel to Nancy’s car.

“Give me five and make it snappy!” a voice called out impatiently.

The attendant glanced inquiringly at Nancy Drew. “Do you mind?” he asked.

“Wait on them first if you like,” she said graciously.

Nancy observed the passengers with interest. There were three rather coarse-looking men, accompanied by a woman.

Nancy could not see the face of the driver, for it was turned away from her. But suddenly he opened the door of his car.

“I’m goin’ inside and get a couple bottles of ginger ale,” she heard him grumble to his companions.

As he stepped from the automobile and turned, Nancy saw his face. He was the mysterious man who had spoken to her that day on the train!

In view of the telephone call George had received, Nancy did not wish to be observed. She turned her head quickly, leaned down, and pretended to be studying a road map. “I hope he doesn’t recognize me!” Nancy thought, “or see my license plate!” To her relief, the man walked in front of the convertible without a sideward glance. At that moment the woman alighted and walked toward the lunchroom, passing close to Nancy’s car. She was tall and slender, with blond hair that was almost shoulder length. Nancy’s attention was suddenly arrested when she detected on the stranger a familiar scent—Blue Jade perfume!

After the driver and the blond woman had entered the lunchroom, Nancy gazed at the two men who remained in the automobile. They were the sort Carson Drew would describe as “tough customers.” The blond woman soon reappeared and got back into the sedan. Then the driver came out carrying the cold drinks. Without looking in Nancy’s direction, he addressed the attendant harshly.

“Say, ain’t you finished yet?”

He turned to one of the men in the car and handed him the bottles of ginger ale.

“Hold these, will you, Hank? I got to pay this bird!”

Nancy started. “That man in Room 305 called one of his friends ‘Hank’ over the telephone,” she said to herself. “Could he be this person?” Her attention was drawn back to the driver, who was paying the attendant. He took a thick roll of bills from his pocket, and with a careless gesture peeled off a ten-dollar bill.

“Aren’t you afraid to carry such a wad around, sir?” the attendant questioned, gazing admiringly at the thick roll.

The driver laughed boisterously. “Plenty more where this comes from. Eh, Hank?”

“You bet! My roll makes his look like a flat tire! Just feast your eyes on this!” He flashed an even larger roll of bills in the amazed attendant’s face.

The filling-station man shrugged. “I’ll have to go inside to get, your change.”

The moment he had disappeared, the third man in the car muttered to his companions, “You fools! Do you want to make him suspicious? Pipe down!” He spoke in a low tone but the wind carried his voice in Nancy’s direction.

“Maurice is right,” the driver admitted. “The fellow is only a cornball, but we can’t be too careful.”

The attendant returned with the change. The driver pocketed it and drove off without another word. Nancy instinctively noted the license number of the car. On impulse she went to a phone booth and dialed her friend Chief McGinnis of the River Heights Police Department.

“I’ll ask him to let me know who owns both the sedan and the foreign-make car that slowed down at George’s house,” she determined. “Then I’ll find out about the driver, the woman wearing the Blue Jade, the men named Maurice and Hank, and maybe the man in Room 3051” CHAPTER VI

A Worrisome Journey

“SOME class, eh?” the attendant remarked to Nancy as she came back to her car. “Must be millionaires.”

“Or racketeers,” Nancy thought. As soon as her gas tank was filled, she paid the bill and hurried back into the lunchroom. The girls already had been served.

“What took you so long?” Bess asked.

“Another car drove up and I had to wait,” Nancy answered simply. She sat down, thoughtfully eating her sundae.

“What’s the matter with you?” George de· manded presently. “You’ve hardly said a word since you sat down.”

Nancy looked around and saw that no one was seated near their table. In whispers she told what had happened.

“Oh, dear,” said Bess, “maybe that man on the train found out where we’re going and is on his way there too!”

“Don’t be silly,” George chided her cousin. “If he’s in some shady deal around River Heights, he’d be glad to have our young sleuth out of the way.” Joanne looked a bit worried, but all she said was, “I think we’d better be on our way. I have to be there before that man comes to buy the farm. I must talk Gram out of it!” The girls finished the sundaes and picked up their checks, but Nancy insisted upon paying.

“I want to break this twenty-dollar bill Dad gave me,” she said. “I’ve spent most of my smaller bills.”

The waitress changed the bill for her without comment and the girls left the lunchroom. As they climbed into the car, Nancy glanced anxiously at the sky. There was a dark overcast in the west.

“It does look like rain over my way,” Joanne observed. “And we leave the paved road and take a dirt one about five miles from the farm.” “I’m afraid it’s going to be a race against time,” Nancy warned, starting the car. “A bad storm on a dirt road won’t help matters at all!” The girls now noticed a change in the country-side. The hills had become steeper and the valleys deeper. The farms dotting the landscape were very attractive.

Nancy made fast time, for she was bent on beating the storm. The sky became gloomier and overcast. Soon the first raindrops appeared on the windshield. “We’re in for a downpour all right!” Nancy declared grimly, as she turned onto the dirt road.

Soon there was thunder and lightning, and the rain came down in torrents.

“Listen to that wind!” Bess exclaimed. “It’s enough to blow us off the road!”

The next minute everyone groaned in dismay, and Nancy braked the car. Across the road stood a wooden blockade. On it was a sign:DETOUR BRIDGE UNDER REPAIR

George read it aloud in disgust. An arrow on the sign indicated a narrow road to the right. As Nancy made the turn, Joanne gave a sigh.

“Oh, dear,” she said, “this back way will take us much longer to reach Red Gate.”

The detour led through a woodland of tall trees. Daylight had been blotted out entirely, and even with the car’s headlights on full, Nancy could barely see ahead. Again she was forced to slow down.

Suddenly a jagged streak of lightning hit a big oak a short distance from the car. It splintered the tree.

“Oh!” screamed Bess. “‘This is terrible!”

Nancy pretended to be calm, but she really was very much worried. She decided it would be safer to get away from the dangerous line of trees, any one of which might crash down on them!

“How long is this stretch of woods?” she asked Joanne.

“Oh, perhaps five hundred feet.”

“We’ll have to chance it.” Nancy drove as quickly as she dared in the darkness. The girls breathed sighs of relief when open country was reached.

But Joanne’s fears were not yet over. “Watch out!” she advised. “There’s a sharp, treacherous curve very soon, just before we take the turnoff for the farm.” By now the brief storm had moved off to a distant sky and it was easier to see the boundaries of the slippery road. Nancy rounded a curve, but as the car took the turn, the wheels on the right side sank into the thick mud of a ditch, bringing the car to a lurching halt.

The unexpected mishap stunned the girls for a moment. Finally Bess found her voice. “Now what?”

Nancy endeavored to drive the car out of the ditch, but it was useless. “Well”—she sighed— “we may as well jump out and examine the car. Keep your fingers crossed.” They found the convertible at a lopsided angle. The right wheels, however, were firmly anchored by the mud. The four girls attempted to push the car, but without success.

“I’ll look in the trunk,” Nancy said, “to see if there’s something to help us.”

Nancy found two pieces of heavy burlap. Bess and George put them in front of the two back wheels for traction. Then they gathered and broke up some brush to make a mat for each tire.

“I hope this works,” Joanne said, taking her place to assist in pushing the car. “There probably won’t be anyone else using this desolate road who could help us. ”I—I’m afraid we won’t reach the farm in time!” Nancy stepped into the car and started the motor, easing the gas and slowly rocking the convertible back and forth. Inch by inch the tires crept forward, finally catching on the burlap and brush and rolling out of the ditch.

“We’ve done it!” Bess shouted proudly.

“With a little outside help!” George panted with a grin. The girls laughed from sheer relief.

They started off again, more slowly than before. But they had gone only a mile when a new storm seemed to be coming up. In less than five minutes complete darkness descended again, bringing another deluge of rain. Deafening thunderclaps instantly followed vivid forks of lightning.

Of necessity, Nancy once more kept the automobile at a snail’s pace. It was impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. Anxiously Joanne kept glancing at her watch. “It’s fivefifteen,” she announced nervously.

Nancy tried to assuage the worried girl’s fears. “This storm may have delayed your grandmother’s caller.”

The wind and rain continued unabated. As the convertible climbed the brow of a hill, there was a brilliant flash of lightning. George, who was seated in front with Nancy, screamed, “Don’t hit her!” Nancy jammed on the brakes so quickly that the rear of the car skidded around sideways in the road.

“Who?” she demanded, horrified.

“The woman in the road! Didn’t you see her? Maybe she’s under the car!”

Heartsick, Nancy jumped out one door, Bess another. They peered under the car, alongside it, in back of it. They could see no one.

“Are you sure you saw a woman?” Nancy inquired.

Just then another streak of lightning illuminated the sky, and Bess called out, “There goes someone running across that field!” Nancy glanced quickly in that direction and saw the running figure of a woman. At that same moment the woman looked back over her shoul der, revealing a thin, haggard face. Nancy judged her to be in her early fifties.

All four girls stared in mystification. Nancy and Bess returned to the car and the journey was resumed.

“Why would any sane person be walking in such a storm?” Bess spoke up finally.

“She’s headed in the direction of the cavern,” said Joanne, and explained that they were now nearing the farm. “Maybe she’s one of those strange people over there!” Nancy and her friends were immediately curious. Before they could ask what Joanne meant, the car reached the crest of a steep hill and Joanne cried out: “There’s Red Gate Farm!” She pointed to the valley below them.

The storm had let up and the sun was coming out. The River Heights girls could clearly see the forty-acre farm, with its groves of pine trees and a winding river which curled along the valley. Everything looked green and fresh after the heavy rain.

“It’s beautiful!” exclaimed Bess.

“And cool—and peaceful,” Joanne added excitedly.

“Don’t count on much relaxation with Nancy around,” George advised their new friend.

“She’ll find some adventure to occupy every waking hour!”

“Yes,” Bess agreed. “Adventure with mystery added.”

Nancy smiled. She reflected on the two mysteries she had already encountered; the unsolved case of the Blue Jade perfume and the strange code.

As the car descended into the valley, the girls caught a better glimpse of the farm with its huge red barn and various adjoining sheds and the large, rambling house, partly covered with vines. There were bright-red geraniums in the window boxes, and a freshly painted picket fence surrounding the yard.

Nancy stopped the car in front of the big red gate which opened into the garden. “Oh, I hope it’s not too late!” Joanne cried as she sprang out to unlatch the gate.


Nature Cult

NANCY drove in to Red Gate Farm and parked. She consulted her watch and noted with dismay it was quarter to six. By now the farmhouse door had opened, and a gray-haired woman in a crisp gingham dress and white apron came hurrying out to meet them. Her blue eyes were bright as she welcomed Joanne warmly.

“My granddaughter told me how kind you all were to her in the city,” she said to Nancy and her friends. “I can’t thank you enough.” “Gram!” Joanne exclaimed. “I can’t stand the suspense. Did you sell the farm to that man?”

Mrs. Byrd shook her head. “Mercy! I was so excited at your coming back I forgot to tell you. He phoned a little while ago and said that because of the storm he’d rather come here tomorrow—he could wait one more day.” Not only Joanne, but her visitors, heaved sighs of relief. Further discussion of the subject was deferred when Mrs. Byrd insisted the girls freshen up for supper.

They entered the large, rambling house, and a little later everyone sat down in the plainly furnished but comfortable dining room. Mrs. Byrd appeared very happy as she bustled about, serving the delicious meal of hot biscuits, sizzling ham, sweet potatoes, and coffee. The girls had not realized how hungry they were.

“Nothing like driving through a storm to work up an appetite.” George grinned.

It was not until dessert—freshly baked lemon meringue pie—that Joanne mentioned again what was uppermost in her mind. “Gram,” she said gently, “please call up that man and tell him you don’t want to sell our farm. Please. We’ll find a way to stay here, somehow. I’m sure there’ll be answers to your ads for boarders.” Nancy quickly spoke up. “Yes, Mrs. Byrd. It certainly would be a shame to give up Red Gate. And besides, George, Bess, and I would like to be paying guests for a while—if you’d like us to stay, that is.” “Of course I want you all here as long as possible. But I really can’t accept any money,” Mrs.

Byrd protested. “You have been so wonderful to Jo.”

“If you won’t let us pay our share, we’ll have to return home tomorrow,” Nancy insisted.

Mrs. Byrd finally relented and declared with a smile: “I believe I was just waiting to be dissuaded from taking that Mr. Kent’s offer. I’ll call him right now. He gave me his telephone number.” The girls followed her into the kitchen, and sat down while Mrs. Byrd went to the phone there and put in the call.

“Mr. Kent? I’ve decided not to sell Red Gate Farm—at any price…. No. I … No…. Absolutely.” The woman winced and held the phone away from her ear.

Nancy and her friends exchanged glances. The man was evidently incensed and was speaking so loudly they could hear his voice easily. Finally Mrs. Byrd put down the receiver.

“Well, I’m glad that man isn’t going to own Red Gate,” she declared. “He certainly was unpleasant. He even said I might regret my decision.” Joanne’s face was radiant and she hugged her grandmother. “I feel so much better now.” She turned to her new friends. “Somehow, I know you’re going to bring us luck, Nancy, Bess, and George.” Suddenly Mrs. Byrd said, “Goodness! I’ve forgotten to look in our mailbox today.”

“I’ll go.” Joanne hurried outside and was back in a minute, several envelopes in her hand.

“Graml One of these is from the Round Valley Gazette. Do you think—?” Excitedly she handed the mail to her grandmother.

The girls watched eagerly as Mrs. Byrd tore open a long, bulky envelope and took out a number of enclosed letters. She looked at them quickly. A smile spread over her face.

“Gram, are they answers to the ad for board ers?” Joanne asked excitedly.

Mrs. Byrd nodded. “I can hardly believe it! Two people are arriving the day after tomorrow. First, a Mrs. Salisbury, then a Mr. Abbott. Several others will come later this month.” “Wonderful!” Nancy said, and immediately offered her assistance in getting rooms ready.

“Count Bess and me in too,” said George.

Joanne and her grandmother at first demurred, but were outvoted. “Very well.” Mrs. Byrd smiled. “Tomorrow afternoon will be time enough to get things ready.” Later, as the guests bid her good night, Mrs. Byrd said:

“Jo was right. You three girls have brought us luck. Bless you!”

George and Bess were shown to the room in which they would sleep. Nancy was to share Joanne’s bedroom.

“Oh, how sweet it smells in here,” Joanne commented, as Nancy unpacked.

“That’s some of the Oriental perfume which splashed on my clothes in the train,” said

Nancy. “It certainly is strong and lasting!”

When Nancy awoke the next morning, warm sunlight was streaming through the windows. Joanne had already gone downstairs. Nancy’s first thought was to phone Police Chief McGinnis and find out about the owner, or owners, of the cars driven by the suspicious man. After dressing hurriedly she went to the first floor and placed the call.

“Good morning, Nancy,” the officer said. “Here’s the information you wanted. Both cars were rented from drive-yourself agencies by a man named Philip Smith, a native of Dallas, Texas. They’ve been returned.” Nancy thanked the chief and hung up. “That clue wasn’t any help,” she thought. “None of those suspicious men talked like a Texan. The name Philip Smith was probably phony, and made up on the spur of the moment. Also, a forged driver’s license might have been used.” Presently Bess and George came down and the girls enjoyed a delicious breakfast of pancakes and sausages. Afterward, Joanne took the girls on a tour of the farm. She showed them the lovely gardens, a large chicken house, and her pet goat, Chester.

A turkey took a dislike to Bess and chased her to the farmhouse porch, much to the amusement of the onlookers! Joanne came to the rescue and chased the turkey away.

“Our farm isn’t very well stocked,” she admitted as she led the way to the barn. “We keep only one cow and one work horse. Poor old Michael should be retired on a pension, but we can’t afford to lose him yet!” Joanne cheerfully hailed the hired man. Reuben Ames was about forty years old, red-haired, and rather quiet in manner. He acknowledged each introduction with a mumbled “Pleased to meet you, miss,” and extended a work-worn hand for each girl to shake. Reuben shifted uncomfortably and then returned to the barn.

“Reuben is as good as gold, even if he is bashful,” Joanne told the girls. “I don’t know what we’d do without him.” “We’d better keep an eye on Bess,” George teased. “She’ll be breaking another heart.”

Bess made a good-natured retort as the girls started for the orchard. George demonstrated her agility by climbing the nearest apple tree. Once back at the farmhouse, Nancy asked curiously, “Jo, please tell us more about the cave that you spoke about yesterday. I’m bursting to know all about it.” “Well, the cave is on a piece of land along the river which Gram rents out.”

“Oh, then I suppose it’ll be impossible for us to visit the cavern,” Nancy commented.

“I don’t see why we can’t. It’s still our land.” Joanne frowned. “A queer lot of people are renting it, though.” “How do you mean?” Nancy questioned, recalling Joanne’s remark of the previous day.

“They’re some sort of sect—a nature cult, I think, and part of a large organization. At least that’s what it said in the letter Gram received from their leader. Anyway, this group calls itself the Black Snake Colony.” “Pleasant name,” Bess observed cynically.

“I’m not sure what they do,” Joanne admitted. “We’ve never even spoken to any members. I suppose they believe in living an outdoor life.” “You can live that way without joining a nature cult,” George said dryly. “I suppose they dance when the dew is on the grass and such nonsense!” “Believe it or not they do dance!” Joanne laughed. “But only nights when the moon is out. I’ve seen them from here in the moonlight. It’s an eerie sight. They wear white robes and flit around waving their arms. They even wear masks!” “Masks!” Nancy exclaimed. “Why?”

“I can’t imagine. It all sounds senseless. But the rent money is helpful.”

“Do they live in this cavern?” George asked in amazement.

“No, they live in shacks and tents near the river. I’ve never really had the nerve to visit the place. Of course if you girls went along—” “When can we go?” Nancy asked excitedly.

“I’ll speak to Gram,” Joanne offered.

“It’s odd you’ve never spoken to any of the colony members,” Nancy remarked thoughtfully. “Who pays the rent?” “It’s sent by mail. They even leased the land that way.”

“Didn’t it strike you as a peculiar way of doing business?” Nancy asked.

“Yes,” Joanne admitted, “but I suppose it’s part of their creed, or whatever you call it. They probably don’t believe in mingling with people outside the cult. That’s often the case.” Directly after lunch the girls helped the Byrds straighten and clean the rooms for the expected boarders. They hung curtains, newly made by Mrs. Byrd, and put fresh flowers in each room.

At the end of the afternoon they were very pleased with the result.

“All you girls have worked hard enough,” Mrs. Byrd said. “You go rest while I fix supper.”

She was insistent, so Joanne led her friends to the porch. Bess stretched out in the hammock and picked up the day’s newspaper. The others chatted. Suddenly Bess gave an exclamation of surprise.

“Nancy,” she asked tensely, “what was the name of that girl who sold me the perfume?”

“Wong,” Nancy answered in amazement. “Yvonne Wong. Why?”

“Because there’s an article in the paper that mentions her name!” Bess thrust the newspaper into Nancy’s hands, indicating the paragraph. “Wow! This is something! Read it yourself!” CHAPTER VIII

Hillside Ghosts

NANCY read aloud:

“‘The Hale Syndicate, which has been engaged in the illegal importation of Oriental articles, has been dissolved by court order.”’ Nancy looked up and said, “I don’t see what that has to do with our perfume friend Yvonne Wong.” “A great deal,” Bess declared. “Read on and you’ll find out!”

“Oh!” Nancy exclaimed a few seconds later. “Yvonne was employed by the syndicate as a clerk in their shop. She hasn’t been indicted, because of insufficient evidence, and the top men have skipped!” Bess nodded, realizing the impact of her important discovery. “That perfume store we visited must have been owned by the syndicate!” “How long ago was the fraud discovered?” George asked.

“The article doesn’t say,” Nancy returned. “It has just now been made public.”

“It doesn t surprise me that the Wong girl was mixed up in some underhanded affair,” George remarked. “I didn’t like her attitude from the beginning!

“Nor did I,” Bess added. “And I liked her less after Nancy found out she had received the job Jo wanted.”

“I’m certainly glad I didn’t get that job.” Joanne smiled. “I’d much rather be here.”

“Do you suppose Yvonne knew the work of the syndicate was dishonest?” Bess asked with concern.

“I’m sure of it,” George answered flatly. “But it looks as if she and the others slipped out quickly when the federal authorities became aware of the racket.” All this time Nancy had been staring into space. It had occurred to her that Yvonne Wong might still be employed by the syndicate. Undoubtedly the name and offices had been changed to throw off the federal authorities. Was Room 305 now the syndicate’s headquarters?

Nancy immediately thought of the coded message she had brought with her. “The third number in it, 5, was the letter H,” she told herself. Then she reflected on the recent newspaper article about the syndicate.

“This‘H’ might stand for Hale!” she thought excitedly. “And the line over it might mean that someone by this name is Important—the ring-leader, perhaps! I must talk to Chief McGinnis again. I may have stumbled onto a clue to those missing Hale Syndicate men!” After supper she phoned the chief and pro-pounded her theory. “Well, Nancy,” he said, “it sounds as if you might have picked up a clue, sure enough. Send me a copy of that code and I’ll get busy on it.” After Nancy completed the call, she and the other girls studied the code once more.

Gazing at the 16 and the 5, Nancy suddenly said, “M—M—why that could stand for Maurice! Maybe that man’s name is Maurice Hale!” “Now I’ll sleep better,” Bess sighed. The girls went to bed happy and excited.

The next day everyone’s attention was focused on a new boarder. Shortly after church services, Mrs. Alice Salisbury and her daughter Nona arrived in an expensive sedan. Mrs. Salisbury walked with a cane, and complained loudly of her arthritis as the girls helped her into the house.

Nona waited only long enough to see that her mother was made comfortable. Then she announced that she must hurry back to the city nearby, where she lived.

“Mother was born on a farm,” she told Mrs. Byrd as she stepped into the car, “and she simply pines for the country. I thought this arrangement might be ideal since she’s never entirely happy with me in the city. I’ll drive down to see her week ends. I do hope she’ll be happier here at Red Gate Farm.” Joanne and her friends hoped so too, but they were not at all certain, for it became increasingly apparent that Mrs. Salisbury could not be happy anywhere. She found no fault with the immaculate farmhouse or the lovely view from her bedroom window, but she constantly complained of her various aches and pains. She talked incessantly about her many operations. She had a sharp tongue and delighted in using it.

“She wouldn’t be so bad, if only she’d stop talking operations,” George burst out. “Makes me feel as though I’m ready for the hospital myself!” By the time the girls had adjusted themselves to Mrs. Salisbury, the second boarder arrived. He was Karl Abbott, a diamond-in-the-rough type of man. In spite of his sixty-three years, he boasted that he was as spry as his son Karl Jr., who had brought him.

Karl Jr., who worked in a nearby city, was a personable young man. The girls, particularly Bess, were sorry he could not remain with his father.

The girls liked Mr. Abbott very much, but they were appalled by his tremendous appetite. “I wish we could turn him out in the yard to forage for himself,” Joanne sighed several days later as she peeled her second heaping pan of potatoes. “It’s all I can do to keep one helping ahead of him!” At first Mr. Abbott insisted upon remaining in the kitchen, teasing the girls as they worked and sampling the food. Then he fell into the habit of sitting on the front porch with Mrs. Salisbury and chatting with her for hours. Frequently they became involved in violent arguments about trivial matters just for diversion.

After one of their disagreements Mrs. Salisbury would maintain a stony silence which was refreshing. But Mr. Abbott would once again take refuge in the kitchen!

In spite of such slight annoyances, the days at Red Gate Farm passed very pleasantly. Nancy would go into town on various errands for the boarders and sometimes Mrs. Byrd.

One day she had just returned to the farm from a shopping trip and on her way to the house stopped at the mailbox.

“There might be a letter from Dad,” she thought, and drew out a stack of mail.

She took it all into the house, where Mrs. Byrd asked Nancy to distribute the letters. As she was sorting them out, she came to one addressed to the Black Snake Colony.

“Look!” Nancy exclaimed. “This letter belongs to the nature cult. The mailman must have put it in our box by mistake.” “What will you do?” asked Bess seriously. “Drive over with it?”

“Of course not,” growled Mr. Abbott, who had just entered the room. “You keep away from those outrageous people. Take it back to the post office.” Nancy studied the postmark. It was very blurred. Could it be Riverside Heights, or was she mistaken? Her curiosity about the mysterious cult was now even more aroused. Perhaps she could deliver the letter in person! But she got no further in her plan, for just then a neighbor passed on his way to town. Mrs. Byrd handed him the letter to remail.

Nancy felt disappointed, but was determined to find out in some way what was going on “over the hill.” “If I can only be alone with Bess and George a little later, maybe we can come up with some plan” she thought.

There had been a letter from Mr. Drew, informing Nancy that he had returned home. “At least Dad’s making progress on his case!” she said to herself.

Then Nancy hurried off to the barn where the “city slickers,” as Reuben called them, were to have a milking lesson.

“It’s no trick at all!” Bess insisted. “Give me that pail and I’ll show you just how it’s done.”

Reuben handed over the bucket, and Bess marched determinedly up to the cow.

“Nice bossy,” she murmured, giving the animal a timid pat on the neck.

The cow responded with a suspicious look and flirt of her tail. As Bess set down the milking stool, the cow kicked it over.

Bess sprang back in alarm. “You can’t expect me to milk a vicious cow!” she exclaimed.

Joanne and Reuben exploded with laughter.

“Primrose is an extremely smart cow,” Reuben drawled. “She won’t stand being milked except from the side she’s used to!” Reluctantly Bess picked up the overturned stool and went around to the left side. The cow leisurely moved herself sideways.

“I give up! Here, you try it, George.”

“Oh, no, Bess. I wouldn’t spoil your fun for anything!”

After a great deal of maneuvering, Bess succeeded in handling the whole procedure to the satisfaction of Primrose. Nancy came last, and she, too, was a bit awkward. When Reuben finally sat down to do the milking, the girls watched him with admiration. “It just takes practice,” he said, smiling.

That evening Mrs. Salisbury and Mr. Abbott had their usual disagreement and both retired early. Mrs. Byrd soon followed, leaving the girls alone on the porch.

“Do you think there will be any activity on the hill tonight?” George asked suddenly.

“I’m not sure,” Joanne answered. “But it’s a good clear night and the moon is full, so the setting is perfect for it.” “I’m dying to see what those nature enthusiasts look like,” added Bess. “Just so they don’t come too close!”

It was a lovely evening and Nancy had been only half listening to the chatter. She remained silent and thoughtful. The letter addressed to the Black Snake Colony was still very much on her mind.

“What’s up, Nancy?” Bess finally asked, noticing her friend’s silence.

“Three guesses,” Nancy replied with a laugh. “I’m still curious about that envelope I had in my hands this afternoon. I’m almost certain that blurred postmark read Riverside Heights.” “Even if it did,” George remarked, “it could have been written by almost anyone and simply mailed in Riverside Heights.” “I suppose you’re right,” Nancy agreed. “I guess I’m trying too hard. But let’s walk over toward the hill.”

The four girls started off. They crossed one field in front of the house and were just climbing a rail fence to the next one when Nancy cried out: “Am I seeing things? Look! Over there on that hill!”

Following her gaze, the girls were astonished to see shadowy white figures flitting about in the moonlight.

“Ghosts!” Bess exclaimed.

“Ghosts nothing,” George retorted. “There’s no such animal!”

“Don’t be alarmed,” Joanne said with a smile. “I imagine the members of the nature cult are having one of their festive airings by the light of the moon!” The girls watched the cult members go through their mystic rites.

“They’re not doing much of anything,” Nancy observed, “except flapping around.”

Within ten minutes the ceremony apparently was concluded. The white figures clustered together for a moment, then moved off across the hillside.

“I wonder where they’re heading,” Nancy mused. “Back to their tents?”

Joanne had been watching intently. Now she shook her head. “I don’t think so. I forgot to tell you—the cave has another opening on the slope of the hill, near the river. The colony members are going in that direction.” Immediately Nancy’s curiosity was aroused. Did this mean the white-robed group intended to go into the cave itself? If so, why? To continue the ceremony?

“It certainly was a short performance,” Bess remarked as the mysterious “dancers” vanished from sight. “I wonder if the ritual has any significance.” “That’s what I’d like to know,” Nancy said quietly. “And that’s what we must find out!”

“Not tonight!” Joanne said firmly. “Grandmother will be very upset if we don’t come right back.”

Reluctantly Nancy gave up the idea. The girls started for the farmhouse, but Nancy kept looking back over her shoulder, determined not to miss anything. However, the hillside remained uninhabited and still.

As the girls drew near the road, the motor of a car broke the silence and headlights appeared. The automobile slowed down in front of the farmhouse as if about to stop. Then suddenly the car went on. Why? Nancy wondered. Had the driver seen the girls and changed his mind?


Black Snake Colony Member

NANCY was too far away from the car to see its driver or license plate. Thoughtfully she went to bed, but lay awake for some time, feeling completely baffled over the many mysterious happenings.

By morning she felt eager for action. Ever since her arrival at Red Gate Farm, Nancy had wanted to visit the cavern on the hillside. The strange moonlight ceremony and the unidentified car which had hesitated in front of the house only intensified her interest in the place.

She broached the subject of a visit there to Mrs. Byrd, but Joanne’s grandmother frowned on the idea. “I’ll worry if you go,” she said. “Those folks are probably harmless, but we don’t know much about them. I wish now I had never rented the land. The neighbors are saying I was foolish to do it in the first place.” “And so you were!” Mrs. Salisbury, who had overheard the conversation, chimed in. “You’ll ruin the value of your farm. Why, people around are saying dreadful things about the members of that cult. Even Reuben is afraid to go near the place!” “I’m not,” Nancy announced. “I think it would be fun to investigate.”

Mrs. Salisbury snorted. “Fun! Girls these days have strange ideas of fun! First thing you know, Mrs. Byrd, she’ll be wanting to join the colony!” “Nonsense.” Mrs. Byrd smiled.

In order to avoid further dissension, Nancy dropped the subject of the cave. But that afternoon she set out alone on a hike. Making her way to the woods which skirted the river, Nancy struck a well-worn path and decided to continue along it.

She had walked only a short way when the sound of a faint cry came to her. Nancy halted in the path and listened intently. The cry was not repeated.

“Maybe I imagined it,” she said to herself.

Nevertheless, Nancy quickened her pace, looking about her as she walked. As she rounded a bend a few minutes later, she was startled to see a woman hunched over on the ground, writhing in pain.

“What’s the matter?” Nancy cried out, hurrying over to her. Then the girl’s eyes widened. This was the woman she had seen running across a field the night of the storm.

“I tripped on a root in the path,” the woman murmured, rocking back and forth in pain. “My ankle—it’s broken.” Nancy dropped to one knee and quickly examined the injured ankle. It was swelling rapidly, but all the bones seemed to be in place.

“See if you can stand,” she advised.

With Nancy’s help the woman managed to get to her feet, but winced as she tried to take her first step.

“It isn’t broken,” Nancy said gently, “but you have a bad sprain.”

“Oh, what’ll I do now?” the woman moaned.

“Do you live far from here?” Nancy asked.

The stranger looked at her rather queerly and did not answer at once. Nancy thought she had not understood, so repeated the question.

“About a quarter of a mile up the river,” was the mumbled response. “I’ll get there all right.”

“You’re scarcely able to walk a step,” Nancy said with a troubled frown. “Please let me run back to the farm and bring help.” “No, no,” the woman protested, clutching Nancy fearfully by the arm. “I don’t want to be a bother to anyone!”

“Nonsense! You shouldn’t be walking at all. It won’t take me a minute to get someone to help you.”

The woman shook her head stubbornly. “My foot feels better now. I can walk by myself.”

She started off, but nearly collapsed by the time she had taken three steps.

“If you won’t let me go for help, then at least let me take you home.”

Again the woman protested, but Nancy took hold of her arm and placed it over her own shoulder. With Nancy’s support, the woman made slow and painful progress up the path. “This is killing you,” Nancy said, dismayed that the woman was so foolishly stubborn. “I can get our hired man to carry you—” “No!” the woman objected vehemently.

Her unwillingness to accept help puzzled Nancy. As they made their way slowly along, she became aware that her companion’s distress was not entirely due to pain, but partially to Nancy’s own presence. This mystified Nancy, but she could not turn back as long as she knew the woman really needed her.

“I don’t remember seeing any houses along the river,” Nancy said after a time. “You’re not a member of the nature cult, are you?” A half-cynical expression crossed the woman’s face, then one of sadness. “Yes,” she returned quietly, “I’m one of the members.” Nancy took time to scrutinize her companion more carefully than before. She wore a blue gingham dress which was plain and durable, and certainly did not appear to be a costume. The woman did not speak or act as Nancy imagined a member of the cult would. She seemed like any other person.

“It must be healthful to live an outdoor life,” Nancy remarked, feeling that some comment was necessary. “I’ve often looked over at your tents and thought I should like to visit the colony some time.” The woman stopped abruptly in the path and faced Nancy, an odd look on her face.

“You must never come near!”

“Why not?”

“It wouldn’t be safe!”

“Not safe!” Nancy echoed in astonishment. “I don’t understand.”

“I—I mean the members of the cult don’t want folks prying around,” the woman said hastily.

“I see. The rites are secret?”

“That’s it,” the woman said in obvious relief.

“But why couldn’t I visit the colony sometime when ceremonies aren’t being held?” Nancy persisted.

“You mustn’t come near the hillside—ever!” the stranger warned.

The two continued up the path. To Nancy it was apparent that her questions had disturbed the woman, for several times she caught her looking distressed and worried.

As they approached the hillside colony, and before they were within sight of the tents, the woman stopped short.

“Thank you for your help,” she said quietly. “I can make it alone from here.”

Nancy hesitated. The woman’s firm tone told her it would do no good to protest. She was not going to let Nancy come any nearer the camp!

“At least let me find something that you can use as a cane,” Nancy said.

She searched along the path and found a branch that was strong enough. The woman accepted it gratefully. Her face softened and she stood for an instant, looking intently at Nancy.

“You’re a good girl to help a stranger like me. I wish—” The woman turned away abruptly.

“Remember,” she advised sternly over her shoulder, “don’t ever come near the camp!”

Still perplexed, Nancy watched the woman hobble away. It took her a long time to reach the top of the hill, but at last she disappeared from sight.

“I can’t understand why the poor thing acted the way she did,” Nancy said to herself as she sat down on a log to think. “What harm could it have done if I’d gone with her to the colony? The cult must have some very important secrets!” The more Nancy considered the matter, the more baffled she became.

“You must never come near the hillside!”

the stranger warned

“The woman didn’t look as though being a member of the Black Snake Colony made her very happy,” Nancy thought. “If they’re so afraid that someone will discover their secrets, they must be doing more than just flitting at night in white robes! Maybe that’s only to keep people from guessing what really goes on there!” As Nancy reached this startling conclusion, she jumped up and walked briskly toward Red Gate Farm.

“There’s one thing certain,” she said to herself with a chuckle. “Now that the woman has forbidden me to go near the camp, I can’t resist finding out what’s happening there!” Nancy was just approaching the farmhouse when she heard the phone ringing. She hurried inside and answered it.

“Yes, this is Nancy Drew,” she replied to a strange man’s question.

“One moment.”

While Nancy waited, she wondered who the caller might be. Was someone going to threaten her to desist in her detective work?

“Oh!” she said as the next speaker announced himself as Chief McGinnis. A sense of relief came over the girl.

“I have some news, Nancy,” the officer said. “It’s discouraging. Nothing on the code or the missing men.” Then he chuckled. “We need another clue from you.” Nancy realized her old friend was teasing. “Glad to help,” she said gaily. “What’s the assignment?”

“To find out where the Hale Syndicate moved to after it left Room 305.”

“Then that was their headquarters!” Nancy cried excitedly.

“Temporarily. But they left no forwarding address,” the police chief said.

“If we could decipher the rest of the code we might be able to trace them,” Nancy said.

“Anyhow, I’ll be on the lookout for any clues. At least it shouldn’t be too hard to find Yvonne Wong.”

Chief McGinnis agreed and assured Nancy he would let her know if there were any new developments. Then he asked, “And what are you doing? Any mysteries up your way?” “There might be.” She told him the little she had been able to glean about the mysterious nature cult. She described the unusual moonlight ceremony the girls had witnessed and the appearance of the unidentified car.

The police chief whistled in amazement. “Sounds as though you do have another mystery up your sleeve! Have you come across any possible clues to what the cult is worshiping, Nancy?” The girl detective hesitated a moment before telling Chief McGinnis about her curious conversation with the woman she had assisted in the woods. She decided to mention it, and added that although the woman had readily admitted to being a member of the cult, she had given Nancy no reason for her firm warning to stay away from the meeting place.

“Black Snake Colony, eh?” the police chief said reflectively.

“Yes,” Nancy replied. “Have you ever heard of it?”

“No, but let me look in a report we have here on all cults. I’ll call you right back.”

Nancy waited eagerly for the phone to ring. When it did she snatched up the receiver. “The Black Snake Colony is not listed,” Chief McGinnis told her.

“You mean it’s a phony?” Nancy asked excitedly.


Plan of Attack

CHIEF McGINNIS refused to comment on the possibility that the Black Snake Colony might be a phony group.

“They may not have been in existence long enough to be known,” he replied. “But you might try to find out what you can and let me know.” “I’ll do that,” the young detective agreed.

After Nancy had put down the phone, she reflected for a long minute on the new twist to the hillside mystery, then walked out to the front porch, where Mrs. Salisbury, Mr. Abbott, and the three girls were seated.

Nancy had not planned to tell them of her experience, but her face was so animated it revealed her thoughts. They besieged her with questions until finally she revealed her meeting with the woman member of the strange nature cult.

“Told you not to come near, did she?” Mrs. Salisbury cackled. “Well, I hope you intend to follow her advice.”

Nancy laughed and shook her head. “I’m more interested than ever in what’s going on up there on the hillside. I’m ready for a little adventure right about now!” “So am I,” George chimed in.

Joanne nodded vigorously, while Bess, always more cautious, agreed rather halfheartedly. “Better stay away,” Mr. Abbott advised, for once not contradicting Mrs. Salisbury. “You can’t tell what may be going on there.” Nancy was tempted to comment, but instead she forced a smile and said, “It seems to me that this matter may be of deep concern to Jo and her grandmother, if not to me.” Mrs. Byrd had stepped to the porch door in time to get the gist of the conversation, and at once spoke up.

“I think Nancy is right,” she declared thoughtfully. “Of course, I don’t want the girls to go looking for trouble, but I’m beginning to think someone ought to investigate those mysterious people. If anything questionable is going on, I want to know about it. I’ll ask the Black Snake Colony to move out, even if I do lose the rent. Why, I might get into trouble myself if they stay.” Mr. Abbott and Mrs. Salisbury fell into an injured silence. Nancy gave her friends a sly wink, and in a few minutes they all quietly withdrew to the springhouse to discuss their plans. Here, she told the girls about her conversation with Chief McGinnis.

“Something peculiar is going on at those cult meetings, I’m sure,” Nancy went on, “and I must find out about them if I can. Do you all want to join me in the investigation?” “Of course,” Joanne and George said.

“Do you think it’ll be safe?” Bess asked.

“I’m not making any rash promises.” Nancy laughed.

Bess gave a little shiver. “I don’t like it, but count me in.”

“How can we visit the colony without being caught?” George asked.

“That’s the problem,” Nancy replied. “We must make our plans carefully. Before we do anything, I suggest we find out about the robes the cult members wear. We may need to wear similar ones to help us in our investigation.” “There’s only one way to find that out,” Joanne said. “Some night when they’re having a ceremonial meeting, we can sneak through the woods and try to get a closer look at what’s going on.” Nancy nodded excitedly. “The double entrance to the cave will be perfect!” she said. “If we can’t sneak into the meetings any other way, we can get into the cave at the end they don’t use.” “Sounds terribly risky to me!” Bess commented.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” George said scornfully. “Don’t be such a wet blanket, Bess!”

Her cousin opened her mouth to retort, but Nancy interposed quickly to forestall any further argument.

“We’d better not tell our plan to anyone except your grandmother, Jo,” she advised.

“Otherwise, Mrs. Salisbury and Mr. Abbott will try to talk her out of letting us investigate.”

After a light supper and some rather forced conversation on trivial matters, the girls retired. They had tried to keep silent about the activities of the nature cult, but their secretive manner did not escape the notice of Mrs. Salisbury and Mr. Abbott.

“You’re up to something,” Mrs. Salisbury remarked the next morning. “And if I were Mrs. Byrd, I’d put a stop to it at once!” Mrs. Byrd, however, went on serenely with her work, being careful not to interfere with the girls’ plans. They maintained a close watch of the hillside, but for two days seldom saw anyone in the vicinity.

“I think they’ve holed in for the rest of the summer,” George declared impatiently at breakfast. “Either that, or they’ve moved out.” “The cult’s still there,” Joanne reassured her. “The rent check arrived in the morning mail.”

“By the way, where do these nature people get their food?” Nancy queried. “They can’t live on blue sky and inspiration.” “I think friends must bring food to them in automobiles,” Joanne answered. “Several times

I’ve seen swanky cars drive up and park near the hillside.”

“The cult members must be fairly well off, then,” Nancy said thoughtfully. “I’m getting tired of marking time. I wish something would happen soon. If it doesn’t, I think I’ll investigate that cave, anywayl”

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