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دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

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دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

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That night the girls were late in finishing the dishes. By the time they had put everything away it was quite dark. When they went out to the porch, they were relieved to find that the boarders had gone to their rooms.

The girls sat talking quietly for some time. The moon was high, and Nancy, from force of habit, glanced eagerly toward the distant hill.

“Look, girls!” she exclaimed. “They’re at it again!”

The four girls could see white objects moving to and fro, apparently going through a weird ritual. Nancy sprang to her feet.

“We’ll have to hurry if we want to see anything,” she said. “Come on! We’ll take the short cut!”

They dashed across the lawn, flung open the gate, and ran through the woods. Nancy led the way up the river path, then to the sparsely wooded hillside. Not until they were dose to the camp did she stop.

“We’ll have to be very careful,” she warned in a whisper. “Scatter and hide behind trees. And don’t make a sound.” The girls obeyed, Bess staying as close to George as possible. Nancy found a huge oak tree well up the hill, and hid behind it. From this vantage point she could see fairly welL Nancy had been there for less than five minutes when she heard the sound of several cars approaching. They came up the woods road and stopped at the foot of the hill, not far from the nature camp.

Several men stepped from the cars. Nancy was too far away to see their faces, but she did observe that they quickly donned long white robes with head masks, and joined the other costumed figures who were on the brow of the hill.

For nearly ten minutes the members of the cult flitted back and forth, waving their arms and making weird noises. Then they moved single file toward the cavern and vanished.

Suddenly Nancy felt herself grasped by an arm. She wheeled sharply and then laughed softly.

“George! For goodness sake, don’t ever do that again! You scared me silly!”

“What do you make of it, Nancy?”

“It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been able to figure it out.”

“What should we do next?” asked Bess, who had joined them.

“Let’s follow them into the cave!” George proposed rashly.

“And be caught?” Nancy returned. “No, this is serious business. I think it’s time to go home and plan our own costumes.” “I wonder why so many people came here in automobiles?” Joanne mused, as the girls walked off slowly.

“That’s what I’ve been wondering,” Nancy replied soberly, “but I think I might know.”

“Why?” her friends demanded.

“It looks to me as if only a few persons are actually living in the Black Snake Colony. Apparently they want to give the impression that the organization is a large one, so they have these other people come the night set for the ceremonials.” “There were certainly a lot of men in those cars,” added Bess.

“Why should they go to all that trouble?” Joanne asked doubtfully.

“I don’t know,” Nancy admitted, “unless it’s because they’re trying to hide something they’re doing here.” She changed the subject. “I think we’ll be able to make costumes like theirs if you’ll give us some old pillowcases and sheets, Jo. When we visit the cave, we must disguise ourselves to make our scheme work!” CHAPTER XI

A Midnight Message

“WHEN shall we visit the cave?” George asked.

“As soon as we can,” Nancy answered. “Of course we must help Jo and her grandmother with the work.”

Since there was no further evidence of activity on the hillside, the girls went to bed.

The next morning George remarked, as she helped Nancy make her bed, “What do you suppose those men do between ceremonials? It certainly is strange how much time they spend in that cave!” “What puzzles me is those automobiles that were on the hillside,” Bess said. “Why did they come? Surely those men were here for something besides ballet dancing. What’s your guess, Nancy?” “I’m afraid I haven’t any answer. But I mean to find one for Mrs. Byrd’s and Jo’s sakes.”

The three girls learned that Reuben was due to be absent most of the day and offered to do his chores. During the morning they picked cherries and took them to town to sell at a local market. When they returned, a small, strange car was standing in the driveway. Loud voices were coming from the living room.

“I don’t have to sell and I won’t sell!” Mrs. Byrd said with finality in her tone.

“That’s what you think,” a man said sneeringly. “You’re going to lose this farm and I can buy it cheaper from the bank. Why don’t you sell it to me and make a little profit? Then you can go to the city and take life easy.” “We don’t want to go to the city,” Joanne spoke up. “We’re getting along all right here. More boarders are coming soon and we are paying off our back mortgage interest. So we don’t have to sell.” Outside, Nancy, Bess, and George looked at one another. The insistent buyer again! Fervently they hoped that Mrs. Byrd would not weaken in her decision. A moment later they felt relieved.

“I will say good afternoon, Mr. Kent,” Mrs. Byrd said. “Thank you for your offer, but I cannot accept it.”

“You’ll be sorry! You’ll regret this!” the caller stormed. He came out the screen door, slamming it viciously behind him.

Nancy stared in surprise. Mr. Kent certainly was one of the most ill-mannered men she had ever seen! And also, she thought wryly, one of the most tenacious! Why was he so determined to buy the Byrd home?

Mr. Kent, his face red with anger, stepped into his car and sped off, but not before he gave Nancy and her friends a baleful look. “Nice disposition,” George commented sarcastically.

“I hope he never shows up again,” Bess said firmly.

The girls found Mrs. Byrd and Joanne quite shaken. “I can’t understand that man’s persistence,” the woman said.

Nancy was sure the matter was tied in with the cult on the hillside but did not mention this theory. She merely said, “Try not to worry about Mr. Kent. I doubt that he’ll return.” Soon the incident was forgotten as preparations for supper were started and the farm animals were fed. George elected to take care of gathering eggs from the henhouse. Bess gave the horse hay and water.

“I’ll get the cow,” Nancy offered, and went off toward the pasture to drive Primrose in.

But the cow was not there. Nancy walked around the fence surrounding the field to see if there was any opening through which the animal might have wandered. Finally she found one, and saw hoofprints leading toward a patch of woods.

Nancy dashed off among the trees. She had never been that way before, but there was only one path to follow. Several times she paused to listen and thought she heard the faint tinkling of a cowbell somewhere ahead of her.

It was rapidly growing dusky in the woods and Nancy hurried on. Again she stopped to listen. She could hear the cowbell distinctly now.

“Primrose can’t be far ahead,” she thought in relief, and went in that direction. Nancy finally caught sight of the Jersey contentedly munching grass on the hillside beyond.

Nancy stopped short and gave a gasp of astonishment—the sound of the cowbell had brought her to the mouth of the cave!

“I can hardly believe it!” she almost exclaimed aloud. This must be the other opening near the nature camp Jo told me about!” Eagerly Nancy rushed toward the cave. But no sooner had she peered into the dark entrance than she was startled by the crackling of a twig behind her. Nancy wheeled to find a man standing not three feet away from her!

He seemed to have risen from the bushes which half hid the opening of the cave. Instantly it flashed through Nancy’s mind that he had been stationed there to see that intruders did not enter.

“What’re you doing here?” he asked, his voice as cold as steel.

Nancy recoiled. The man stood in the shadows of the shrubbery so that she could not see his face distinctly. But at the sound of his voice she knew instantly she was in danger.

“I must persuade him I wasn’t spying,” she thought desperately.

“Better speak up!” the man snarled. “What’re you doin’ here, girlie?”

“I was hunting for that cow,” Nancy replied as casually as possible. She pointed to the Jersey, which was grazing a short distance away.

She held her ground defiantly. There was a moment’s silence. Nancy could feel that the man was staring at her, as if undecided whether or not to believe her.

“So you were after the cow?” the lookout growled. “Then why are you by this cave?”

“Why, I was just wondering what was inside,” Nancy said innocently. “Surely there’s no harm in looking.”

“You’ve no business around here!” the man snapped. “This property belongs to the members of the Black Snake Colony.” “Oh!” Nancy exclaimed in pretended awe. “Then you must belong to the colony. How very interesting!”

The man made no response to Nancy’s remark. Instead, he muttered:

“Round up that old cow of yours and get out of here! And don’t come trespassing again!”

Nancy knew she would gain nothing by arguing. Obediently she overtook the cow and headed her back toward Red Gate. The man watched until Nancy disappeared into the woods.

As soon as she had started the cow down the path, however, Nancy quietly retraced her steps. She reached the edge of the woods just in time to catch a glimpse of the man entering the cave.

“That proves he’s one of the Black Snake group,” she told herself. “He was acting as a guard for them.”

For an instant Nancy was tempted to follow, but common sense told her not to press her luck. The lookout seemed determined enough to make trouble for her if she took the chance. Reluctantly, the young sleuth turned back toward the farm.

It was clear to Nancy that the entire business of the Black Snake group was anything but open and aboveboard! Obviously they were afraid that some of the countryfolk would attempt to investigate.

When Nancy finally reached the barn and Joanne began to milk Primrose, the other girls plied their friend with questions.

“We were beginning to worry,” Joanne said in relief. “I wouldn’t have let you go alone if I’d known this cow of ours would stray so far.” “I’m glad I went,” Nancy said quickly.

She then told the others what had taken place near the mouth of the cave. They gasped in astonishment upon hearing of her encounter with the lookout.

“Weren’t you frightened when he sprang up out of nowhere?” Bess asked, giving Nancy an admiring glance. “I’d have fainted on the spot!” “That’s an easy way out if I ever heard one!” Nancy commented with a laugh.

“Girls don’t faint these days,” George scoffed. “Probably you’d have screamed and brought all the members down on you. They’d have dragged you off and put an end to you!” “Thanks, George,” Bess muttered. “You say the nicest things!”

“Well, girls, talk all you like,” Nancy added, “but don’t lose your nerve altogether. I still want to get a closer look at that cave!” “Not tonight!” Bess said firmly.

Nancy smiled. “I hope there won’t be a ritual on the hillside tonight. We’ve been too busy to get our costumes ready.” The girls watched but the distant landscape remained dark. Finally they went to bed. Not long afterward, Nancy was roused from a fitful slumber by the stopping of a car not far from her window. She hopped from bed and went to peer out. A tall, slender woman who wore her hair piled high was walking to the front door.

Nancy leaned out the window and called, “What is it you wish?”

“Nancy Drew. Is she here?”

“Yes, I’m Nancy.”

“I have a letter for you.” Nancy did not recognize the woman’s voice. But she might be disguising it.

“From whom?”

“Your father.”

“Why are you bringing it now?”

“It’s an urgent message,” the strange woman said. “I’ll leave it on the doorstep.”

She dropped the letter, hurried into the car, and the man at the wheel drove off. Heart pounding, Nancy put on her robe and slippers and hurried down to the front door.

CHAPTER XII

Secret Service Agents

THE stopping of the car at the house had awakened Mrs. Byrd who slept on the first floor. She met Nancy in the hall and asked what was happening.

Quickly Nancy told her, then opened the door. On the porch lay a plain envelope with Nancy’s name typed on it.

“This seems like a peculiar way for your father to get in touch with you,” Mrs. Byrd remarked. “Why didn’t he phone if it’s urgent?” “I don’t understand it myself,” Nancy answered, as she tore open the letter.

The message was typewritten and was succinct. Nancy was to return home at once. Her father needed her. She was not to try to communicate with him. He could not explain why. It was signed “Dad.” Nancy read the letter to Mrs. Byrd. “Oh, I couldn’t let you start out at this time of night alone,” the woman said at once. “You must wait until morning.” “This whole thing doesn’t seem like Dad,” Nancy reflected. “He wouldn’t send a terse note like this even if he were in some kind of trouble.” Mrs. Byrd was very much concerned. “It seems to me he would have called you on the phone in an emergency,” she offered thoughtfully.

“Yes,” Nancy agreed, “that’s why this puzzles me so. But don’t you worry about it, Mrs.

Byrd. This is something I’ll have to try to figure out myself.”

“But, my dear,” Mrs. Byrd repeated, “it’s impossible for you to do anything about it at this hour.”

Nancy carefully studied the note again. Suddenly she became aware of a familiar scent of perfume. The young detective held the envelope to her nostrils. It had been handled by someone who used the distinctive Blue Jade scent which Bess had purchased!

Instantly Nancy was alerted. “It wouldn’t surprise me, Mrs. Byrd, if this letter is a phony! I’m going to call Dad, even though it’s an unearthly hour to waken him.” She picked up the receiver in the hall. No sound reached her ears. “I’m afraid the line is dead,” she told Mrs. Byrd. “Does this happen often?” “It has never happened before,” Mrs. Byrd said. “I made a call after supper and everything was all right then.” Nancy stood in perplexed silence. Had her father tried to get her, found the line out of order, then given the note to the couple? The woman might have carried the letter in a handbag which contained a purse-size bottle of the Oriental perfume.

“In that case I ought to start for River Heights,” Nancy thought. But a feeling of suspicion about the whole thing overpowered her. It might be a trap. The telephone line could have been cut. One or more persons might try to capture her on the road.

“But why?” Nancy asked herself repeatedly. She came to the conclusion that the Hale Syndicate was back of the incident. They must have found out she had reported her suspicions to the police and somehow had learned where she was staying.

She turned to Mrs. Byrd and said, “I’ll wait until seven o’clock, then try the phone again. If it still isn’t working, I’ll go to town and call Dad.” “Thank you, dear.” Mrs. Byrd patted Nancy on the shoulder. “But don’t go anywhere alone. Take Bess and George with you.” “I will.”

Promptly at seven o’clock Nancy tried to get in touch with her father but the phone still was not working. Joanne was already up, but Nancy roused Bess and George. The three girls were astounded to learn about the note.

“We’ll get breakfast in town,” Nancy told Mrs. Byrd as she prepared to drive off with her friends. “And if I don’t have to go to River Heights, I can do your shopping, too. Suppose you give me the list.” Halfway to town, George said suddenly, “Nancy, isn’t your gasoline tank nearly empty?”

Nancy nodded. “I’m glad you reminded me. Watch for a station and we’ll stop.”

Presently Bess sighted one on the main road. “It’s the same place we stopped to eat on our way to the farm,” she said.

“So it is,” George remarked.

“I can phone from here,” Nancy decided.

She turned in at the gravel driveway, but as two other cars were ahead of her, she drew up some distance from the pump.

“How about getting breakfast here after you phone?” Bess suggested.

The girls agreed. Bess and George entered the lunchroom while Nancy went to an outdoor phone booth. She had her father on the wire in a few moments.

“Dad, did you send me a note last night?”

“Why, no.”

Quickly his daughter explained her question. The lawyer said grimly, “It’s plain to see someone wants to harm you in one way or another. Please be very careful.” Nancy promised and said, “Anyway, I’m glad you’re all right.”

After Nancy hung up, she dialed the phone company to report that the Byrd line was out of order. A few minutes later she joined Bess and George at a table and whispered the result of her conversation with Mr. Drew.

“Oh, Nancy, this means you’re in danger!” Bess said worriedly.

“I thought at least I’d be safe at Red Gate Farm,” Nancy said.

“I wonder,” George muttered.

The girls were the only customers in the restaurant. No one came to wait on them. From an inner room, evidently used as an office, they could hear excited voices.

“Something’s wrong,” Nancy said to her companions.

Just then two men came out of the office in company with the gasoline-station attendant and the woman who served as waitress of the restaurant. The woman was talking excitedly.

“We found the twenty-dollar bill in the cash register at the end of the day. It looked like any other money, and we didn’t suspect anything was wrong until John took the day’s receipts to the bank. And of all things they said the bill was counterfeit and they’d have to turn it over to the Secret Service!” “Yes,” one of the agents spoke up, “we’ve just come from the bank and it’s a counterfeit all right. There’s been a lot of this bad money passed lately. The forgery is very clever.” “What am I going to do?” the woman cried. “We were cheated out of twenty dollars! It isn’t fair to hard-working people like John and me. Aren’t you Secret Service agents going to do something about it?” “We’re doing all we can,” one of the men replied. “We don’t have much to go on.”

“It was a girl who gave me the bill,” the woman explained. “There were several of them in the party. I’d recognize—Oh!” she shrieked. “There’s the very girl!” She pointed an accusing finger at Nancy Drew.

Nancy and her friends stared in astonishment. They could not believe what they had just heard.

“Arrest that girl!” the woman screamed. “Don’t let any of them get away—they’re all in on it together!”

“Just a minute,” one of the agents said. “Suppose you explain,” he suggested to Nancy.

The excited woman, however, was not to be calmed. She rushed toward Nancy and shook her fist at the girl. “Don’t deny you gave me that phony bill!” she almost screamed.

“I neither deny nor affirm it,” Nancy said, turning to the agents. “I did give the woman a twenty-dollar bill, but how do you know it was the counterfeit?” “It was the only twenty we took in that day,” the waitress retorted.

Nancy’s thoughts raced. “I’ll take your word for it,” she said quietly.

Opening her purse she took out another twenty-dollar bill. The woman snatched the money and handed it to one of the Secret Service men. “Is this good?” she asked crisply.

The agent examined the bill. Then he looked at Nancy. “Where did you get this?”

“From my father. He gave me both bills, as a matter of fact. One was for car emergencies.”

Instead of giving the bill to the woman, the man put it into his pocket. “This is serious business, young lady. The bill you just gave me is also counterfeit!” Nancy was thunderstruck. Bess and George gasped. Before any of them could speak, the lunchroom woman cried out, “She’s one of the gang! Arrest her!” For the first time the station attendant spoke up. “Take it easy, Liz. These girls don’t exactly look like counterfeiters.” Liz sniffed. “People don’t usually go around paying for sundaes with twenty-dollar bills!” she said tartly.

“My father gave me the money because I was going on a vacation.”

“A likely story!” the woman sneered.

“It’s the truth!” George spoke up indignantly. “The idea of accusing my friend of passing bad money on purpose! It’s ridiculous!” “Ridiculous, is it?” the woman retorted angrily. “You’ll sing a different tune when you’re in jail!”

“You can’t have Nancy arrested. She didn’t realize it was counterfeit money!” Bess protested. “George and I have some cash. We’ll pay you twenty good dollars to make up for the bad one.” As the cousins pooled their funds and handed over the money, the woman quieted down. “Maybe I was a little hasty,” she admitted. But she was not entirely cowed. “How about your father?” she asked Nancy. “How come he had counterfeit bills?” Nancy said she did not know, but certainly he had not acquired them dishonestly.

One of the Secret Service men said, “Suppose you tell us who you are, and—”

“I’ll tell you who she is!” came an authoritative voice from the doorway.

CHAPTER XIII

A Hesitant Hitchhiker

UNOBSERVED by the girls, an automobile had driven up and parked near the filling station. A tall young man had alighted and started for the lunchroom. Upon hearing the amazing conversation inside, he had halted. Then, realizing Nancy was in need of help, he had stepped inside.

“Karl!” Nancy cried out. She had never before been so glad to see anyone!

“It looks as if I just got here in the nick of time.” Karl Abbott Jr. smiled.

“They’re trying to arrest us!” Bess exclaimed.

“You’re kidding!” Karl cried in astonishment.

“It’s no joke,” Nancy returned earnestly, then told him of her predicament.

“Look here,” Karl said bluntly, turning to the two Secret Service agents, “you can’t hold these girls.”

“Who are you?” one of the agents demanded.

“My name is Karl Abbott, and these girls are friends of mine. As it happens, my father is living at Red Gate Farm in Round Valley, where they also are staying. I was on my way there when I thought I’d stop for a bite to eat. Lucky I did, too!” “These girls may be friends of yours,” the unpleasant woman spoke up shrilly, “but this girl had better explain why she gave me counterfeit money!” “If you’re accusing these girls of deliberately trying to pass counterfeit money, you’re crazy!” Karl Abbott cried out.

“You’re willing to vouch for the honesty of this young lady’s father as well?” the agent asked.

“Most definitely. This is Nancy Drew. No doubt you’ve heard of her father, the famous lawyer. If you haven’t, you soon will!” “Not Carson Drew of River Heights?”

“Yes,” Karl replied.

“Why didn’t you tell us who you were?” the restaurant owner asked.

“You didn’t give me a chance to tell you anything!” Nancy retorted. “And you didn’t seem ready to believe what I did have to say.” The two agents looked at each other. One asked to see Nancy’s driver’s license, then with a smile he said, “Too bad you have such a loss because of the counterfeit money. The outfit which is distributing the twenty-dollar bills is a clever one.

“The money is turning up in many places. I’ll get in touch with your father to find out where he was given the bills. Incidentally, we understand a few women are mixed up in the racket. That’s why we detained you.” “Let’s get out of here!” George urged.

The girls hurriedly left the lunchroom with Karl. The government agents leisurely followed them outside.

As Nancy was about to step into her car, she thought of something. It occurred to her that by some remote chance the investigators might be interested in the phony message which she had brought with her.

“This may or may not have anything to do with the case,” she told them, handing over the scented note. “But the signature is a forgery, and the perfume has some mystery to it.” She gave a brief account of her own involvement with the mystery, beginning with her encounter on the train with the man who had mentioned “the Chief,” and ending with the code.

“If the rest of the code can be deciphered,” Nancy concluded, “that might give us the answer to everything, including the Hale Syndicate’s whereabouts.” “So you’re the young detective Chief McGinnis mentioned in his reports to us,” one of the agents said admiringly. “What you’ve done so far is really astounding. Chief McGinnis didn’t mention you by name. He probably figured you would prefer him not to.

“Your deductions seem very sound, Miss Drew, and I’d advise you to be careful. That Hale gang may think you know too much already. I’ll take this note and pass it along to a handwriting expert. Perhaps Yvonne Wong was the person who delivered it.” Nancy shook her head. “From what I could see of the woman, I know she wasn’t Yvonne.” After the agent had wished Nancy luck on the solution of the mystery, she said good-by to the men, and, with the others, went back to her car.

Although Karl Abbott was eager to continue on to Red Gate Farm to see his father, he expressed concern about the three girls and their upsetting experience. He asked for a detailed account of the events which had led to Nancy’s predicament. He was most interested and sympathetic when the girls told him the whole story.

“Well,” he said admiringly, “I guess I won’t worry too much about you girls. You certainly aren’t easily daunted by emergencies.” After Karl Jr. and the trio had exchanged good-bys, the young man got into his car and drove on to the farm.

Bess turned to her companions. “Where to? I’m more starved than ever.”

“It’s only a short way to town from here,” Nancy replied. “We can get breakfast there and then do our shopping.” Soon the girls reached Round Valley. When they finished eating, Nancy looked at Mrs. Byrd’s list.

“There’s really not much on it,” she commented. “Two of us could do the shopping. Suppose you girls take over and I’ll go buy the material for our costumes.” “Material?” Bess queried.

Nancy laughed. “If we’re going to join the Black Snake group in one of their rites, we’ll need ghost costumes, and I’ve decided it wouldn’t be fair to Mrs. Byrd to ruin four of her sheets and pillowcases.” Suddenly George said, “What are we going to use for money?”

Nancy had only two dollars. Bess and George between them counted six.

“That will pay for the meat and groceries,” Bess said. “I guess our costume material and the other errands will have to wait.” The food shopping was soon finished and the girls returned to Red Gate Farm.

Joanne met them at the kitchen door. “Guess what?” she burst out. “The telephone repairman was here. He said our line had been cut!” Nancy nodded. “By those people who were here last night.”

“I suppose so. Oh, Nancy, I’m so worried for you. And Karl Jr. tells us you’ve had another adventure this morning. He said you’d explain.” Nancy, with lively interruptions from Bess and George, related the girls’ recent experience.

“I gave those Secret Service men the note and told them the Hale Syndicate might be mixed up in some way with the counterfeiters. The syndicate may be the distributors of the phony bills.” “Well, do let the authorities take care of it,” Joanne urged. “I want you girls to have a good time while you’re here.” “Oh, I’m having a wonderful time,” Nancy assured her. “By the way, I think we should work on our costumes for the hillside ceremony. Could you repay us the money we spent today so I can buy more material? We decided it isn’t fair to use your grandmother’s good linens.” “Oh, yes, right away. I’ll get it from Gram. And I think there are a few more groceries she needs.”

Joanne returned in a few minutes and handed over the money to which she added enough for the marketing. Nancy headed for town. She had gone about a mile when she sighted a woman hurrying along the side of the country road. She was limping slightly.

“I’ll offer her a ride,” Nancy decided. “She seems to be in a great hurry.”

She halted the car and called, “May I give you a lift to town?”

The woman glanced up, startled. Nancy was surprised to see that she was the woman from the Black Snake Colony whom she had helped several days before on the river trail! What she was doing so far from her camp Nancy did not know, but she was determined to make the most of the opportunity at hand.

“Please get in,” Nancy urged, as the woman hesitated. “I’m sure your foot must be paining you. I notice that you are still limping.” “Thanks,” the woman returned gratefully, hobbling over to the car door which Nancy held open for her. “I am in a hurry to get to town.” Before stepping inside she looked quickly over her shoulder as though fearing that someone might observe her actions.

She sighed in relief and settled back, looking very pale and exhausted.

“You weren’t intending to walk all the way to town?” Nancy asked in a friendly, conversational tone.

The woman nodded. “I had to get there somehow.”

“But aren’t the members of your colony permitted to use any of the cars I’ve seen around the camp?” Nancy questioned, watching her companion closely and hoping that she might tactfully glean some information.

“We aren’t allowed much freedom,” the woman answered.

“You shouldn’t be walking on that foot yet,” Nancy protested. “You’re apt to injure your ankle permanently.” “It’s nearly well now,” the woman told her, avoiding Nancy’s eyes. “They didn’t know at the camp that I was going to town. I—I left in a hurry.” Again the stranger cast an anxious glance over her shoulder. “She obviously thinks she’s being followed,” Nancy thought to herself. “Perhaps she’s even running away!” Nancy wanted to ask her companion a number of questions but the woman’s aloofness discouraged her. Deciding on an entirely different course, the young sleuth pretended not to pay particular attention to the woman. For some time they drove along in silence. Nancy could see that her passenger was gradually relaxing and losing her fear.

“Am I going too fast for you?” Nancy inquired, thinking the time was right to launch the conversation.

“Oh, no,” the woman returned quickly. “You can’t go too fast for me.” She hesitated, and then added, “I have an important letter to mail.” “Why don’t you drop it in one of the roadside mailboxes?” Nancy suggested casually. “The rural carrier will pick it up and save you a long trip.” “I want to get it off this morning if I possibly can.”

“I’ll be glad to gro to the post office and mail it for you,” Nancy said, purposely drawing the woman out.

“Thank you, but no,” the woman mumbled. “I—I’d feel better if I did it myself.” As Nancy did not reply, she said, “I don’t mean to be ungrateful for all you’ve done—really I don’t. It’s only that I mustn’t get you into trouble.” “How could I get into trouble by helping you?” Nancy asked with a smile.

“You don’t understand,” her companion replied nervously. “There are things I can’t explain. The leaders of the colony will be very angry with me if they find I have left even for a few hours, and especially that I’ve mailed this letter to my sister. The cult forbids communication with the outside world.” “I can’t understand why you tolerate such rigid supervision,” Nancy said impatiently. “Why, the leader of the cult must treat you as prisoners!” “You’re not far from wrong,” the woman confessed.

“Then why don’t you run away?”

The question startled the woman. She glanced sharply at Nancy, then as quickly looked away.

“I would if I dared,” she said finally.

“Why don’t you dare?” Nancy challenged. “I’ll help you.”

“No, you mustn’t get mixed up in this. Perhaps later I can get away.”

“I don’t see what anyone can do to you if you decide to leave the colony,” Nancy went on. “Surely you’re a free person.” “Not any more,” her companion returned sadly. “I’m in it too deep now. I’ll have to go on until Fate helps me.” “I wouldn’t wait,” Nancy advised bluntly. “Let me help you—right now!”

CHAPTER XIV

Disturbing Gossip

THE strange woman in Nancy’s car seemed to waver for a moment, as if about to accept the girl’s offer of help. Then she shook her head.

“No, I won’t drag you into it!” she said with finality. “You don’t know what you’d be getting into if you helped me. Why, if they even learn that you’ve aided me in mailing this letter—” Nancy saw the woman shudder. For one fleeting instant she, too, felt afraid—afraid of something she could not define.

The young sleuth realized that the woman was trying to warn her of danger. Nancy knew the wise thing to do was forget all about the nature cult and the strange things which apparently went on in the hillside cave. Yet, she felt that she was on the verge of discovering an important secret.

Nancy’s companion was obviously relieved when the car rounded a bend and brought them within sight of town. “If you’ll just drop me off at the post office, I’ll be most grateful,” the woman said.

“May I take you back with me?” Nancy asked. “I’ll be returning in less than an hour.”

“No, I’ll walk back.”

Nancy saw that it was useless to protest and let the matter rest. She made no comment.

After leaving her passenger in front of the post office, Nancy continued down the main street to the supermarket. Later, while she waited in the check-out line to pay for her groceries, two women took their places behind her. They were talking earnestly together, and did not pay any attention to Nancy. She, in turn, did not notice them until one of the shoppers began to speak on a startling subject.

“It beats me the way those people carry on,” she heard one of them say. “You’d think Mrs. Byrd would turn them out!” Instantly Nancy became alert.

“I suppose she needs the money,” the other woman responded, “but someone should speak to her about it. The idea of those folks capering around in bedclothes! They must be crazy!” “That’s just what I think!” the first woman remarked. “If I lived near that farm I wouldn’t feel safe! And I don’t think it’s decent for a law-abiding community like ours to have folks like that around. I’m going to get a big group together and call on Mrs. Byrd to tell her what we think of her!” “I’ll certainly join you,” the woman said.

Nancy felt the situation was becoming serious; that the criticism of Mrs. Byrd would grow even sharper. If the two women carried out their threat, the consequences might be very unpleasant. Prospective Red Gate boarders might change their minds! The colony might take reprisals!

“One thing is certain,” Nancy decided. “Our costumes must be ready by tonight in case the colony members have a meeting.” She paid for the groceries and went directly to the material shop, where she bought several yards of white muslin, then started for home.

Driving back to Red Gate Farm, Nancy kept a sharp lookout for the woman from the Black

Snake Colony, but she was nowhere along the road. “I wish I could have talked to her more. It might have helped in my plan to attend the ceremony.” Joanne, Bess, and George were just returning from the woods with pails brimming over with luscious-looking berries when Nancy drove into the barnyard. As they started to help her carry in the packages, Karl Abbott Jr. rushed gallantly from the house to assist. He glanced curiously at the soft, fat one which Nancy kept tucked under her arm, but she did not give any explanation of its contents. Besides, the elder Mr. Abbott and Mrs. Salisbury were within hearing distance.

Immediately after a late lunch and some pleasant conversation with the guests, Nancy excused herself and summoned the other girls to her room. There she unwrapped the material and brought out scissors, needles, and thread.

“We must work like mad,” she said, “in case there’s a meeting tonight.”

With great excitement and anticipation she cut out the first costume which was to serve as an entering wedge to the nature-cult ceremonial. As Nancy worked, she told the story of her adventure with her passenger and the conversation of the women in the market.

Joanne was alarmed. “Oh, Gram must never hear of this!” she exclaimed. “She’d be heartbroken!”

The others agreed. “We won’t tell Mrs. Byrd any more than we have to,” George said. “I do hope we can solve the mystery before something ugly happens!” For the next few hours their needles flew furiously. At last the costumes were finished. The four friends could not control their laughter as they tried them on.

“You certainly look as if you’re ready for Halloween!” George told Nancy.

“Do you think I’ll pass?”

“In the moonlight they won’t be able to tell you from a full-fledged member of the cult,”

Bess declared. “Let’s see you go through the mystic rites.”

To the delight of her chums, Nancy danced around the room, waving her arms wildly and making weird moans.

“Jo!” a voice called. “Dinner’s ready!”

Startled, the girls scrambled out of the white robes and hastily hid them. They tried to compose their faces as they hurried downstairs, but merely succeeded in looking guilty.

“Seems to me you girls spent a long time locked up in your rooms.” Mrs. Salisbury sniffed suspiciously.

“Planning some kind of mischief, no doubt.” Mr. Abbott wagged his finger playfully at the four girls.

George had a hard time keeping a straight face, and hastily took a sip of milk. Bess could not restrain a giggle, whereupon Mrs. Salisbury gave her a sharp look.

“Humph!” she exclaimed. “I must say I’ll have to agree with Mr. Abbott this time. I’m sure you four are up to some prank.” Even Nancy and Joanne had to smother tell-tale grins. They only smiled pleasantly, but offered no explanation.

Actually, the girls were so excited over their prospective adventure they could scarcely do justice to the excellent meal Mrs. Byrd had prepared. Karl Jr., as usual, was a charming companion.

He had many amusing anecdotes to tell, and Nancy was happy to observe that Joanne seemed to be enjoying it all immensely.

Indeed, by the time dessert was finished, Nancy and her chums realized that they had temporarily forgotten counterfeiters, syndicates, and even the nature cult on the hill.

Everyone was sorry, a little later, when the young man announced that he must leave.

“I wish I could stay,” he said regretfully, letting his eyes rest especially long on Nancy, “but I must get back to the city tonight. I’ll try to run down again in a few days to see Father. Take care of yourselves,” he added to the girls.

After Karl Jr. had gone, and the girls were washing the dishes, George said teasingly, “You can’t tell me ‘Father’ is the only attraction at Red Gate Farm! He has his eye on Nancy!” “Silly!” Nancy laughed.

“He scarcely took his eyes off you all evening,” George insisted. “You made quite a hit this morning with that rescued-heroine bit.” “Oh, honestly, George!” Nancy blushed. “You never give up, do you?”

“Karl Jr. wouldn’t be so bad,” Bess added, “but imagine having Mr. Abbott for a father-inlaw!”

“You do the imagining,” Nancy said lightly. “I’m going outside and look at the hillside.”.

All the girls watched until late in the evening, but the mysterious place remained dark and deserted. Disappointed, the girls went to bed.

They awakened early the next morning, for they had gradually become accustomed to farm hours. When they learned from Mrs. Byrd that Reuben was not feeling well, the girls eagerly helped with the various outdoor chores. It was noontime before they realized how much time had passed.

“You girls should have some relaxation this afternoon,” Mrs. Byrd said. “How about a swim down in the brook? There’s a spot that used to be known as the old swimming hole. It’s fairly deep.” “That sounds wonderful,” Bess declared.

Jo declined, but at two o’clock Nancy, Bess, and George set off in bathing suits. For two hours they swam, floated, and sun-bathed on the shore. Every once in a while Nancy or George would mention some angle of the colony, Hale Syndicate, or counterfeiting mysteries.

But immediately Bess would say, “Shush! We’re relaxing. We may have a big night tonight.”

Finally the girls started for the farmhouse. To reach it they had to cross a field in the corner of which lay a heap of large stones, apparently raked there when the acreage was cultivated.

George, grinning, climbed across the stones, saying, “This life is making me rugged. I—Oh, ouch!” she cried loudly, then added, “A snakel It bit me!” CHAPTER XV

Masqueraders

NANCY and George turned just in time to see a brownish snake slither off in a wiggling motion and disappear among the stones.

“Oh, George!” Bess cried. “Was it a poisonous one?”

“I’m not sure,” she answered, “I—I hope it wasn’t a copperhead.”

“We’d better not take any chances,” Nancy declared, whipping a handkerchief from her beach robe. “Let’s put on tourniquets, Bess.” Like lightning the two girls tied their handkerchiefs tightly above and below the puncture marks made in George’s calf by the snake’s fangs.

Then Nancy took a tiny pair of scissors from her bag. “I wish I had something to sterilize these with,” she said.

“Will perfume do?” Bess asked, and took from her bag the tiny bottle of Blue Jade.

The liquid was poured onto the scissors, then Nancy deftly made a crosscut incision near the punctures. Blood spurted out, and with it, she hoped, any serum the snake might have injected.

George stoically had not made a sound, but finally she said, “Thanks, girls. Your quick first aid probably made it possible for me to go to the ceremonies tonight—if they have them.” “I think you’d better not step on your foot, or stimulate circulation,” Nancy advised. “Suppose Bess and I carry you.” George started to protest but finally consented. Seated on a “chair” made by the intertwined hands of Nancy and Bess, George was carried toward the farmhouse.

The trip, though awkward and slow, went at a steady pace. George maintained her Spartan attitude. She not only refused to complain but teasingly asked Bess, “Aren’t you glad I don’t eat as much as you do?” “I don’t know what you mean,” Bess replied, puzzled.

“Well, if I loved desserts as you do,” George teased, “I wouldn’t be such a featherweight to carry!”

Bess gave her cousin an indignant glance. “How do you like that for gratitude! Next time I lug you all the way home—!” Nancy interrupted with a grin, “I guess we all do our share of eating dessert. Anyhow, we’ve made it, girls. Red Gate Farm is just ahead!” As they came up to the house, Mrs. Salisbury, who was in the garden, exclaimed, “Oh, gracious! What happened?” Mr. Abbott and Mrs. Byrd hurried from the house.

“Just a precautionary measure,” Nancy explained, and told of the snake incident.

George was carried indoors and laid on a couch. Mrs. Byrd quickly called the family physician. He arrived shortly, and examined George’s wound.

The doctor nodded approvingly as he bathed it with an antiseptic and removed the tourniquets.

“Excellent first-aid treatment,” he announced. “You’ll be fine, young lady. I’d advise you to rest for several hours.” “Thank you. That’s good news.” George gave a relieved grin.

For the remainder of the afternoon she was made to lie inactive. When dinnertime came, George got up, declaring, “I never felt better!” “But take it easy in case we go out tonight,” Nancy pleaded with her.

To allay suspicion on the part of the other boarders, Bess and Joanne were posted as guards across the road. If they saw the beginning of rites on the hill, the girls were to give birdcalls. In the meantime, Nancy and George waited in George’s room, the costumes ready to be picked up at a moment’s notice.

Suddenly Nancy leaped from her chair and flew into her own bedroom. “What’s eating you?” George called.

“Oh, why didn’t I think of it before? How stupid of me!” Nancy said, returning with a piece of paper in her hand.

“What are you talking about?” George demanded.

“That snake today. The way he wriggled. It looked just like the mark over the numeral 2 in the coded message!” Nancy cried excitedly. “The 2 we think means B!” George sat up. “You mean the B with the wavy line over it might signify the Black Snake Colony?”

“Yes. Oh, George, this connects the Hale Syndicate with the nature cult here. Now the message reads: ”Maurice Hale calling Black Snake Colony meeting—” “And the 18. How about that?” George asked.

“Not too hard to guess, George. The 18 is the letter R, and could stand for Red Gate Farm.”

“Nancy, you’re a whiz, as I’ve often told you,” her friend declared.

The young sleuth smiled, then said wistfully, “If I could only have had another second to copy the next few numbers, I might have known the exact time.” “What happens now? Will you notify the police?”

At that instant Nancy and George heard soft birdcalls. “No time to phone now,” Nancy said.

She grabbed two of the costumes and dashed from the room. George followed with the others. As prearranged, the girls left by the kitchen door to avoid the boarders. Mrs. Byrd had been told that the girls might go up the hillside to watch if the nature cult put on a performance.

Nancy and George joined the other girls and they all scurried toward the woods. It was very dark beneath the dense canopy of trees, and Bess gripped Nancy’s arm. Joanne was familiar with every path and led the way toward the hillside.

A weird cry broke the stillness. Involuntarily the girls halted and moved closer together. “What—was—that?” Bess chattered.

“Only some wild animal,” Nancy reassured her. “Come on!” she urged. “We must hurry or we’ll miss the ritual!”

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