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The girls went through the dark forest as fast as they could. The moon was rising, and ghostly rays of light filtered through gaps in the foliage overhead. A faint breeze stirred the leaves into what seemed like menacing whispers. The girls finally reached the river trail and followed it.

“We must be careful now,” Nancy warned in a low voice. “We’re drawing near the colony.

The cult may have a lookout stationed during the night ceremonies.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Joanne murmured.

“I almost wish I hadn’t come,” Bess whispered nervously. “I had no idea it would be this dark.”

“What were you expecting at nine-thirty at night?” George chided in as low a tone as possible.

“It will be lighter when the moon rises higher,” Joanne told her. “Still—if you want to turn back—”

“No, I’m going through with this masquerade if the rest of you are!” Bess retorted stalwartly.

Nancy hoped fervently it would remain a masquerade. She was firmly convinced now that the Black Snake group were unscrupulous people working with, or at least friendly with Maurice Hale. Nancy now felt convinced that the mystic rites were nothing but a sham.

Fortunately, for Nancy’s purpose, the hillside was covered with large rocks as well as dense shrubs which would provide temporary hiding places. As the girls stole cautiously up the steep path, they could see cult members still congregating.

“We’re in plenty of time,” she thought.

The girls separated, George and Bess crouching behind a huge rock. Joanne and Nancy took cover behind a heavy growth of shrubs and tall grass.

For nearly ten minutes the girls watched as figures milled about the hillside. Then they heard the sound of cars approaching.

“They must be coming up through the pasture again,” Joanne said, listening intently.

An instant later she and Nancy saw the headlights of three automobiles.

“Look!” Joanne tugged at Nancy’s sleeve. “More members are coming out of their tents!”

The two girls watched the white-robed figures walking slowly toward the brow of the hill, where the three automobiles had parked.

“I wonder if one of the newcomers is Maurice Hale,” Nancy thought.

She and Joanne were too far away to hear what was being said, but they could see distinctly. They watched as a group of men and women, twelve in number, stepped from the cars. Nancy could not distinguish any of their faces.

The new arrivals quickly donned white garments and headgear similar to the outfits Nancy and her friends had made, then joined the other members of the cult.

The ghostly figures soon began dancing about in the moonlight, and Nancy felt that the time was right for her daring attempt to join the group. Before she could tell Joanne, there was a slight stir in the bushes directly behind her.

Involuntarily Nancy jumped, fully expecting to come face to face with one of the cult members. Instead, Bess and George emerged.

“Isn’t it about time for us to do something?” they asked, almost simultaneously.

“Yes,” Nancy agreed, “we’d better get into our robes as quickly as we can.”

The girls were well hidden by the rocks and bushes. They donned their costumes and pulled the headgear over their faces. For the first time, Nancy noticed the scent of Blue Jade on Bess. “I wonder if that was wise,” Nancy thought. “If it attracts attention to Bess it might increase her danger, but it’s too late now to do anything about it.” As George, overeager, started off, Nancy caught her friend’s arm. “Wait!” she warned. “We must slip quietly into the circle one at a time.” “My knees are shaking now,” Bess admitted. “I don’t know how I’ll be able to dance.”

“Stay here if you like,” Nancy told her. “I think we should leave someone to keep guard, anyway.”

“I’ll stay,” Joanne offered. “I know the way back through the woods better than you girls do.”

“Come on!” George pleaded. “If we don’t hurry we’ll be too late!”

“Good luck!” Joanne whispered as the girls crept away.

Inch by inch, the three girls made their way up the hill. They crouched behind a clump of bushes a stone’s throw from where the cult members were dancing. Nancy indicated that she would make the first move. Bess and George nodded.

“The slightest mistake will mean detection!” Nancy thought, her heart pounding.

Waiting for the right moment, she suddenly slipped out among the white-robed figures and instantly began waving her arms and making grotesque motions.

CHAPTER XVI

Startling Commands

RELIEVED that her entry into the group had not been noticed, Nancy marched along with the other ghostly figures. If only George and Bess were as successful!

Nancy watched her disguised companions and saw that the girls would have no trouble in following the motions, since each person was apparently making them up on the spur of the moment.

“So far, so good,” Nancy told herself.

Satisfied now that her own position was temporarily secure, she tried to help her friends. Deliberately moving toward the shrubs behind which George and Bess were hiding, she shielded them from the view of the cult members, all the time continuing her grotesque motions.

George realized what the young sleuth was trying to do and made the most of the opportunity. Choosing her time, she slipped out and joined the group on the hillside.

Bess was more timid. Several times at the critical moment she lost her nerve, but she finally managed to summon enough courage and made the plunge.

“Keep close together,” Nancy warned in an undertone. “If we lose each other, it may be disastrous.”

By this time the girls had made up their minds that there was nothing the least bit mystic about the queer rites of the Black Snake Colony. Disguised persons on all sides of them were making crude remarks which assured the girls that the cult members did not take the ceremony seriously.

“This ought to give the country yokels an eye-full” Nancy heard one man mutter.

“How much longer do we have to do this?” another grumbled. “I’m getting sick of flapping my arms around like a windmill!”

“This cult idea was all foolishness, anyway!” still another said.

“Foolishness, is it?” someone caught him up. Nancy thought she recognized the voice but was not certain. “Let me tell you a girl was prowling around here only a few days ago! I guess the Chief knew his business when he thought up this crazy cult idea.” “Well, enough of this!” a loud voice announced. Nancy decided the man must be one of the leaders. “We may as well go into the cave and get down to business!” George was just wondering what the girls had better do when Bess clutched Nancy’s hand and whispered nervously:

“Do we dare enter?”

“We must,” Nancy returned quietly.

The girls stood motionless, watching the white-robed figures march single file toward the entrance to the cave. Finally Nancy signaled, and the three friends followed the group, even though it occurred to them that they might be walking into a trap.

“Keep close behind me,” Nancy warned her companions in a whisper.

As they approached the mouth of the opening, Nancy saw a tall figure, robed in white, standing guard. Her heart nearly stopped as she realized that each person was uttering some password.

“We’re finished now,” she thought.

It was too late to turn back. The three girls could do nothing but hope that in some way they might get past the stalwart guard.

Nancy kept close to the person just ahead of her, and as he muttered the password, she managed to hear it.

“Kamar!”

When Nancy’s turn came to pass the guard, she spoke the word clearly. As she had hoped, George and Bess heard, and taking their cue from her, repeated the password. The sentry did not give them a second glance, yet the girls breathed easier when they were safely through the entrance.

The marchers descended into a cold, damp tunnel. Someone was carrying a torch at the head of the procession, but Nancy and her friends, who were near the end of the line, were in semidarkness.

“What do you suppose we’re getting into?” George muttered.

Nancy did not reply, but gave her friend a sharp nudge as a warning not to speak. A moment later Bess tripped over some object in the path and would have fallen if Nancy had not caught her by the arm. They walked farther underground, and then, unexpectedly, stepped into a dimly lighted chamber.

The members of the cult seated themselves on the floor, and the girls followed their example. Presently they became aware of the strong scent of Blue Jade perfume. Bess was not the only one wearing it tonight!

“So there is a definite connection between this distinctive perfume and the Black Snake Colony!” Nancy thought. “No wonder that man on the train was startled. Perhaps the women use it, and he couldn’t identify me but took it for granted I was one of the group. If so, it’s just as well Bess has some on.” Nancy suddenly recalled the forged note bearing the Blue Jade scent. “The woman who delivered it to me must be a member of the cult!” she thought excitedly.

After everyone had entered the room, the man who had given the sharp order outside the cave spoke again. He threw off his headgear and glanced over the group appraisingly. Nancy was stunned.

Maurice!

The man she had seen the first time she had stopped at the filling station!

“Is he Maurice Hale?” she asked herself excitedly.

“Everyone here?” he demanded gruffly.

He counted the group, and again Nancy and her friends held their breaths. Apparently some of the members of the colony were missing, for the leader did not notice that three new recruits had been added to his organization.

“We may as well get down to work,” the leader announced. “Snead, have you anything to report?”

At the question one of the disguised persons stood up and threw off his mask. Again Nancy was startled. He was none other than the man she had seen in Room 305!

“Here’s the good money,” he said, handing over an envelope. “Perfect score this time for our main distribution department.”

“Very fine. Then nothing’s gone wrong at your new office?”

“Not yet, Chief,” was the muttered reply, “but yesterday I saw a bird hangin’ around the building—looked like a plain-clothes cop to me. I don’t want you to think I’m backing out, but if you ask me, I’d say it’s about time to blow. This game can’t last forever, you know.” “I’ll do the thinking for this outfit!” the leader scathingly retorted. “We’ll stay here another week and then pick a new spot. What makes you think the cops are wise?” “Well, they may have got wise to the fact that we’re using Yvonne again—”

“That’s right!” a shrill, angry female voice interrupted. “Blame me! Every time somebody gets nervous, you bring me into it!” Nancy could scarcely restrain herself. She had been right about Yvonne! The girl was mixed up in the Hale Syndicate racket!

“You deserve blame,” A1 Snead retorted irritably. “First, you didn’t have any more sense than to sell a bottle of that perfume to a perfect stranger—” “I told you, that girl insisted upon buying it, and I was afraid if I flatly refused, she and her friends would get suspicious. Besides, I don’t see what harm it did to sell the perfume to a teenager!” “No,” Snead retorted sarcastically, “you’re so simple-minded you wouldn’t see it might land us in jail! When Pete was on the train going to River Heights he noticed the scent and thought that the girl was one of the Chief’s agents! Lucky for all of us, he saw his mistake before he spilled anything!” Yvonne sputtered back in defense. “Well, at least I phoned Al at his office right away so he could warn the agents about the stray bottle of Blue Jade. It’s not my fault Pete happened to be on the same train as those girls.” The leader suddenly became impatient. “Enough of this!” he shouted. “It’s not getting us anywhere! Snead, I placed Yvonne in your office and she’ll stay there as long as I say. I’m satisfied with the rest of her work. Get me?” Snead nodded sullenly.

Nancy had been studying the leader intently and by this time was convinced that he was far more clever and intelligent than his subordinates. She figured that Al Snead was right-hand man to the Chief, but resented his superior’s favoritism toward Yvonne Wong. The organization was a large one, evidently changing its scene and type of operation from time to time. If only she could slip away and get help from the authorities!

“Another thing,” Al Snead continued, addressing Maurice Hale, “we’d better make up a new code. Those girls that have been gettin’ too close to our operation just might notify the cops.” “All right,” the Chief responded. “I’ll work one out in a day or two.”

He called on another member of the organization for a report. “Two hundred packages passed, sir.”

“Good!” the leader exclaimed, rubbing his thin hands. “Now, if you’ll follow me to the workroom, I’ll give you each your cut, and dole out the stuff for next week.” Nancy and her friends could not have retreated had they wished, and certainly did not want to leave when they seemed so near the truth!

But the situation in which they found themselves was a foreboding one and the very atmosphere of the room was tense and frightening. Boldly they followed the others into an adjoining chamber which was brilliantly lighted with torches.

Though prepared for the unexpected, the girls were taken completely aback at the sight which greeted their eyes!

CHAPTER XVII

Tense Moments

NANCY’S first impression on entering was that the chamber appeared to be a cross between a printing shop and a United States mint.

“Counterfeiters!” she thought excitedly.

Hand presses stood about and several engraved plates had been left on a table. Various chemicals and inks were in evidence. Neat stacks of paper money lined one wall and other bills were scattered carelessly on the floor. Never in all her life had Nancy seen so much money!

The room was cluttered with it. Twenty-dollar bills appeared to be everywhere. Money, still damp, was drying on tables. Nancy observed that all the bills seemed to be of the twentydollar denomination.

At last she had the answer to the many questions which had been troubling her! This was the secret of the cave! The latest racket of the Hale Syndicate! The nature cult was a hoax, its so-called mysterious rites used only as a screen to hide the work of a clever band of counterfeiters! The Black Snake Colony seemed to her to be a perfect name.

Nancy realized that if she did not try to get away and bring help now, she and her friends would fail. There was nothing they could do by themselves.

Nancy turned to relay her intentions to Bess and George. A slight tug on their robes was all that was needed to make them understand, but to put the plan into operation was another matter.

The girls attempted to edge toward the chamber entrance by degrees, but Al Snead stood barring the door. For the time being escape was out of the question. They must bide their time.

As long as some members of the organization remained masked, the girls knew they would be comparatively safe. But already several people had stripped off their robes and headpieces. Every minute that the girls’ escape was delayed increased the danger of detection.

Since it was impossible to sneak away, Nancy made careful note of her surroundings and tried to identify the faces on her mind. Except for Yvonne, the leader Maurice Hale, Al Snead, and the man she had seen on the train, all were strangers. Six people besides Bess, George, and herself remained masked.

As Nancy surveyed the elaborate equipment in the workroom, she realized that this was an unusually large gang of counterfeiters. The engraved plate which had been copied from an actual United States Government twenty-dollar bill was a work of art. Probably the leader of the gang had at one time been noted as a skilled engraver and had decided to use his talents to unlawful advantage.

Nancy carefully glanced about the room. Maurice Hale was looking over some stacks of counterfeit money while several members of the gang talked quietly. Bess and George automatically followed Nancy’s gaze but stood perfectly still next to her near the table.

Nancy, under ordinary circumstances, could not have told the counterfeit money from the real thing-with the picture of Jackson on the face, and the White House on the back. But now that she had been alerted to examine the bills carefully, she noted that the color and texture of the paper appeared to be at fault.

When Nancy felt sure that she was not being observed, she stealthily picked up one of the bills and tucked it inside her robe as evidence.

“We made a pretty fair week’s profit,” Maurice Hale said gruffly as he stacked the bills into several large piles. You distributors and passers keep up like this for another month and I’d say we’ll all be on Easy Street.” “The racket won’t last another month,” Al Snead growled. “I tell you, the federal agents are getting wise that the phony stuff’s being passed around here.” “Bah!” Hale replied contemptuously. “Let them be suspicious! They wouldn’t think of this out-of-the-way place as our headquarters in a thousand years!” Nancy could not help but smile at his words. “That’s what he thinks!”

The next voice that spoke startled Nancy. She recognized it instantly as belonging to Mr. Kent —the would-be buyer of Red Gate Farm!

“Yeah, maybe not,” he was saying. “Still, it’s too bad the old lady wouldn’t sell her place. Then we’d really have a setup!” It flashed through Nancy’s mind that her hunch had been right about Mr. Kent being involved with the hillside cult. No wonder they wanted to obtain Red Gate Farm; it would have been a better headquarters for the gang than the cave.

The girl detective strained her ears as the conversation continued. A woman next to Kent said scornfully, “I only hope your bright idea about that fake letter we took to the Drew girl, and cutting the farm telephone wires, doesn’t backfire.” So, Nancy told herself, it was Kent, and the woman who had just spoken, who were the ones responsible for that part of the mystery. Mr. Kent also was undoubtedly the driver of the car which had slowed down one evening near the farmhouse.

Meanwhile, the leader went on deftly stacking the money. Nancy and her friends watched him with increasing uneasiness. When the various members of the organization were called upon to accept their share of the counterfeit bills, they would doubtless remove their masks. How would the girls escape detection then?

Nancy realized the situation was becoming more serious. She and her friends must escape before the actual distribution of the money began. If only Al Snead would move away from the door!

One thought comforted Nancy. Joanne was on guard outside the cave. If worst came to worst and escape was cut off, Joanne undoubtedly would become alarmed and hurry back to the farmhouse for help.

“We may have to make a dash for it!” Nancy warned George in a whisper. “If that man moves away from the door, be ready!”

Al Snead did not move, however, and it seemed to the girls that he was watching them. They wondered if their whispering had made him suspicious.

Bess trembled slightly, and moved nearer Nancy. Maurice Hale had finished counting the money, and, glancing over the assembly, announced in a commanding voice: “Well, those of you who haven’t removed your masks had better do it one by one. I want to be sure no one is here who shouldn’t be!” He pointed to Bess. “You first!” Nancy and her friends felt themselves go cold. They were trapped! There was nothing they could do now but make a wild dash for safety.

“Ready!” Nancy muttered under her breath.

Before the girls could put their ideas into action, they were startled by a loud commotion in the tunnel. An instant later the guard, who had been stationed at the entrance of the cave, burst into the chamber. He was half dragging a young girl who fought violently to free herself.

The victim was Joanne!

CHAPTER XVIII

Prisoners

NANCY’S first impulse was to dash forward and try to help Joanne. But instantly she realized the foolishness of such an act. George half started toward Joanne, but Nancy restrained her.

“Wait!” she whispered tensely.

If the situation had been grave before, it was even more serious now. With Joanne captured there was no one to go for help! The girls must depend entirely on themselves to escape from the cave. No one at the farmhouse knew that they were doing anything more than watching the Black Snake Colony from a safe distance.

“Let me go!” Joanne cried, struggling to free herself.

“Where did she come from?” Maurice Hale demanded unpleasantly.

“I saw her hiding among the bushes,” the guard informed him. “She was spying! But she got just a little too curious!”

“Spying, eh?” A harsh expression crossed the leader’s face. “Well, we know what to do with snoopers!”

“It’s all a mistake,” Joanne murmured, on the verge of tears. “I didn’t mean any harm. I’m

Mrs. Byrd’s granddaughter and I was merely curious to know more about the cult.”

Even as Joanne spoke, her eyes traveled about the room, noting the stacks of money and the queer printing presses. She tried not to show that she understood their significance, but it was too late. The leader had seen her startled expression.

“So?” he drawled smartly. “This time your curiosity has been the means of getting you into serious trouble. You’ll learn, by the time we get through with you, not to meddle in affairs that don’t concern you!” He turned quickly to Snead. “Al, see that no one leaves this room!” “Yes, Chief,” the guard answered.

Nancy wondered what he had in mind. Just then Maurice Hale continued in a cold, harsh voice:

“Just to make sure that other spies haven’t been pulling a fast one on us, I’ll have everyone remove his mask at once. Be mighty quick about it too!” “No!” Bess whimpered aloud. Then, realizing what she had done, she covered her mouth and sank back against the wall.

All heads turned in her direction. Nancy and her friends had deliberately delayed in removing their masks, but now Nancy knew their effort to gain time was doomed.

With Al Snead still blocking the door, things looked black. Most of the others already had stripped off their headgear.

In addition to Maurice Hale and Al Snead, Nancy immediately recognized Yvonne Wong and Pete, the man who had spoken to her on the train. Next she spotted Mr. Kent, and finally, the woman with the upswept hairdo who had brought her the faked letter.

“That woman’s the same one I saw at the service station with the three men,” Nancy thought. “If she hadn’t changed her hair style, I might have recognized her the night she delivered the note.” The other unmasked members were strangers to Nancy. Tensely now she watched as the leader stood before Bess.

“Nothing to be afraid of, dear,” he said, and gently lifted off the ghostly head covering. The next instant Maurice Hale practically shrieked, “A spy!” His face contorted with rage, Maurice snatched the white cloth headpieces from George’s face, then Nancy’s. Their scheme was exposed to all the members of the counterfeit gang!

For an instant there was stunned silence, then angry cries arose from the Black Snake Colony members.

“They’re the ones who bought the Blue Jade perfume from me!” Yvonne Wong shrieked.

Al Snead glared at Nancy. “Yeah. I knew something was wrong when you came into the office wearin’ the Blue Jade. I smelled it, but didn’t let on.” He then pointed accusingly toward Joanne. “That girl is the one who applied at our city office for a job! When she told me who she was and where she was from I knew she was the last person in the world we’d want to hire!” “That crazy idea of yours about someone with farm experience,” the leader cried. “We didn’t need anybody to talk to our agents about cows and chickens—” “But this place is in the country,” Al Snead defended himself. “And in our codes we use a lot of that kind of lingo.”

“Silence!” Maurice yelled, and turned to Joanne. “So you thought you’d get a job at our office and spy on us! And your meddling friend Nancy Drew was in cahoots with you.” “No, oh no!” Joanne cried out. “It was only by accident. I wanted to find a job and help my grandmother. Nancy was just trying to help me locate the office—” “Don’t expect us to believe a trumped-up story like that,” the leader said harshly. “We know all about why you two have been snooping around ever since Al had Pete trail you from Riverside Heights. What’s more, we know how to deal with such people!” Hale turned menacingly to Nancy. “You’ll wish you’d taken Pete’s advice when he called your pal”—he indicated George—“and warned her that you’d better mind your own business.” “Oh, Maurice, please don’t be too harsh with the girls,” a timid voice pleaded. “They didn’t mean any harm.” As she finished, the speaker removed her mask.

Nancy turned quickly to see the woman she had helped in the woods and later had taken to town.

“So she’s a counterfeiter!” Nancy told herself incredulously. “I can’t believe it!”

“Didn’t mean any harm?” Maurice drawled sarcastically. “Oh, no, of course not. They only wanted to land the whole Hale Syndicate in jail! Not that you would care! If I had known what a whiner you are, I’d never have married you! Mind your own business and let me take care of this!” In spite of the seriousness of her own situation, Nancy felt pity for the woman. Undoubtedly as the wife of such a tyrant as Maurice Hale she had stayed with him against her will. She had hated the life that he had forced her to lead, but evi dently she had been powerless to escape from it.

“No wonder the poor woman took a chance and slipped away from time to time,” Nancy thought.

Frightened by the harsh words of her husband, Mrs. Hale moved back into a far corner of the room. Nancy wished she could help her in some way, but realized that the woman dared not say more.

“What’ll we do with these girls?” the leader demanded. “We can’t let’em go. They know too much!”

On all sides angry mutterings arose. Yvonne Wong heartlessly proposed that the girls be tied up and left prisoners in the cave. But Maurice Hale ruled down that suggestion.

“We’ll have to get ‘em out of here,” he said. “They’ll be missed and a searching party might visit this joint. How about the shack at the river? It’s in such a desolate spot no one would think of looking there until after—” He did not finish the sentence, but from the sinister expression on his face, Nancy and her friends guessed his meaning. He intended to lock them up in the cabin and leave them without food!

A cry of anguish came from the leader’s wife. Rushing forward, she clutched her husband frantically by the arm.

“Oh, Mauricel You couldn’t be that cruell”

Mr. Hale flung her away from him with a force that sent the woman reeling against the wall. She uttered a little moan of pain and sank to the floor.

“Oh!” Bess screamed.

Even the cult members were startled.

“Be quiet!” ordered their chief.

The cruel action aroused Nancy. For an instant all eyes were centered on the woman, and Nancy thought she saw her opportunity. Quick as a flash she made a rush for the exit. Bess and George, equally alert, darted after her.

Al Snead, who stood in the opening, was taken completely by surprise. He tried to hold his ground but the girls were too strong for him. He managed to detain Bess and George, but Nancy wriggled from his grasp. She hesitated when she saw her friends had failed.

“Go on, Nancy!” Bess shrieked. “You must escape!”

Nancy darted into the next room, while George and Bess struggled with their captor, trying to block the door and give their friend more time.

“Stop that girl!” Maurice Hale shouted angrily. “If you let her get away, I’ll—”

Nancy plunged into the tunnel and was swallowed up by darkness. She ran for her life and for the lives of her friends, realizing this probably was her only chance.

The long white robe hindered her, but there was no time to tear it off. She held it high above her knees. Once she stumbled, but caught herself, and rushed on frantically.

“Go on, Nancy!” Bess shrieked,

“You must escape!”

The tunnel seemed to have no end. Behind her, Nancy could hear pounding footsteps and angry shouts. She thought the men must be gaining. If only she could reach the mouth of the cavel The tunnel wound in and out and several times Nancy brushed against the rough stone wall. The route was so circuitous that she began to think she had taken a wrong turn.

Then, just as she was giving up hope, Nancy spotted a dim light far ahead and knew she must be nearing the mouth of the cave. No one appeared to be left guarding the entrance. Her only chance! In a moment more she had reached the open air.

“Saved!” Nancy breathed.

At that instant a dark figure loomed up from the grass. Nancy felt a heavy hand on her shoulder!

CHAPTER XIX

Destroyed Evidence

“NOT so FAST there!” The man leered as he clutched Nancy firmly by the arm and whirled her around. “What’s the big rush, anyway?” Nancy, staring into his hard face, saw that he was the man who had been addressed as “Hank,” one of the three men she had seen at the filling station. Frantically she struggled to free herself.

“So—” he muttered in satisfaction, “the pretty blond spy the boys were telling me about. I thought you were warned by the guard to keep away from here! This time, I take it, you’re lookin’ for something besides a stray cow!” “Yes, and I’m going to find it!” Nancy said bravely.

“Oh, yeah? You’re going to find what? The police?” Hank looked at her costume. “You’re a spy. But your little game is up.” Nancy’s pulse was racing. How could she get away? She could hear running footsteps coming through the tunnel, and knew her chance of escape would be over in another instant. In desperation she tried to jerk herself free from Hank. But her captor gripped her more securely and laughed as she cried out in pain.

“Let me go!”

Nancy twisted and squirmed, but her efforts only made Hank tighten his grip. By the time the others reached her, she had given up the struggle and stood quietly waiting for the worst to come.

“Good thing you got her, Hank,” Maurice Hale called. “The little wildcat! We’ll give her a double dose for this smart trick! No girl’s going to put anything over on me!” At the entrance of the cave it was nearly as bright as day, for the moon was high. Maurice Hale glanced nervously about, as though fearing observation by unseen eyes.

“Get back inside!” he sharply ordered his followers. “It’s a clear night and some wise bird might see us without our costumes and wonder what’s up. We must destroy the evidence as quickly as we can and clear out of this place!” Even as the leader spoke, Nancy thought she heard a rustling in the nearby bushes. She told herself that it probably was only the wind stirring the leaves. Rescue was out of the question, for no one knew that she and her friends had planned such a dangerous mission. How foolish of them not to have revealed their full plans to someone!

Nancy made no protest as she was dragged back into the cavern. Bravely she tried to meet the eyes of her friends, for she saw that they were even more discouraged than she. Poor Bess was trembling with fright.

“Th-the perfume did it!” she wailed. “I knew this masquerade was far too dangerous for us to try!”

“Cheer up,” Nancy whispered encouragingly. “We’ll find some way to get out of here!”

Bess only shook her head. She was not to be deceived.

“And to think I was the one who couldn’t wait for a spooky adventure on the hillside,”

George moaned regretfully. “I really ought to have my head examined!”

The members of the syndicate were furious. There would be no second opportunity for these intruders to break away. At an order from the leader, Al Snead found several pieces of rope and bound Nancy and her friends hand and foot. He seemed to take particular delight in making Nancy’s bonds cruelly tight.

“I guess that’ll hold you for a while.” He grinned, gloating over the girls’ predicament.

“Get to work!” the leader commanded his men impatiently. “Do you think we have the rest of the night? If we don’t hurry up and get out of here, the cops are apt to be down on us! Don’t know what this girl’s done.” All colony members, except Mrs. Hale, went to work with a will; the fear of the law obviously had affected them. With a sinking heart, Nancy realized the men planned to destroy all the evidence of their counterfeiting operations.

“The machines that we can’t take with us well wreck,” Maurice Hale ordered. “If we save the plates we can start up again in a new place. Get a move on!” He stood over the men, driving them furiously. His wife had slumped down in a chair and had buried her face in her hands. She appeared crushed. Only once did she summon her energy to speak.

“Maurice,” she murmured brokenly, “why won’t you give up this dreadful life—always running from the police? We were happy before you got mixed up with such bad company.” Her husband cut her short with a sarcastic remark. She did not try to speak again, but sat hunched over, looking sorrowfully at the girls. Nancy knew that she wanted to help them, but did not have the courage for further defiance.

The work of destroying the counterfeiting machinery went on, but several times Maurice Hale glanced impatiently at his watch.

“No use waiting until we’re through here,” he observed after a time. “Let’s get the prisoners out of here pronto. The sooner we’re rid of them, the safer I’ll feel. Al, you start on ahead with one of the automobiles. You know the way to the shack, don’t you?” “Sure,” Al Snead agreed promptly.

“Then take Hank along to keep guard and get going!”

Nancy and her chums were jerked to their feet. The cords around their ankles were removed to permit them to walk, but their arms were kept tied securely behind them.

“Move along!” Al Snead ordered Nancy, giving her a hard shove forward.

The girls stumbled along through the dark passageway from the inner room to the mouth of the cave. Men and women followed them with angry, menacing threats.

Al and Hank pushed the girls to make them hurry. Nancy and her friends exchanged hopeless glances from time to time. George held her head up contemptuously, but Joanne was white as a sheet and Bess was on the verge of tears.

“Guess this’ll teach you girls to mix with the Black Snake Colony!” a raucous voice said as the group made its way toward the exit.

Nancy held back a retort, but her icy look told the man she did not appreciate the remark. Their walk seemed interminable. Finally, however, moonlight could be seen. In a moment they were approaching the mouth of the cave.

Nancy took a few halting steps and then paused as if she had turned to stone. Her eyes were riveted upon the entrance. There stood Mr. Abbott’s son, Karl jr.!

“Oh, Karl!” Nancy cried out. “These men are counterfeiters! Don’t let them capture you tool Run!”

CHAPTER XX

A Final Hunch

KARL ABBOTT did not run. Instead, he signaled with his hand. At once seven armed men sprang from the darkness of nearby bushes.

“Secret Service agents,” Karl explained quickly to the girls.

“Stand where you are! Don’t anyone move!” ordered one of the federal men.

So unexpected was their arrival that the counterfeiters were stunned. For an instant no one moved. Then, with a cry of rage, Maurice Hale darted into the cavern. He had taken only a few steps when one of the other agents grabbed him, firmly by one arm.

“None of that! We have you right this time, Hale. You won’t try any funny stuff with Uncle Sam again!”

Some of the counterfeiters who had not yet come from the cavern had turned back,

172 THE SECRET OF RED GATE FARM

“They’ll get away through the other exit!” Nancy cried out.

Karl smiled. “We have that covered too.”

He now introduced the four girls to Secret Service Agent Horton who was in charge of the group. The federal man gave Nancy Drew a quick word of praise for revealing the headquarters of the counterfeiting ring.

“Outwitted—by that snooping kid!” Maurice Hale screamed.

The thought seemed to unnerve the man completely. He did not protest when handcuffs were put on his wrists. Other members of the syndicate submitted to the agents without resistance, although Yvonne Wong vehemently protested her innocence.

“I didn’t know what it was all about until tonight,” she cried angrily. “It isn’t fair to arrest me! I’ve worked for Mr. Snead only a few days—” “You’ll have to think up a better story than that!” she was told bluntly. “Your name has been mixed up in underhanded deals before, but this is the first time we’ve been able to get any evidence against you.” While the prisoners were being rounded up, Karl Abbott rushed over to the girls and quickly freed their hands.

“Are you all right?” he asked anxiously.

“Yes,” Nancy told him, “but if you hadn’t arrived just when you did, it might have been a different story!”

She was on the verge of asking what had brought him to the cave at the psychological moment when she saw that two federal agents were placing handcuffs on the wrists of Maurice Hale’s wife. Breaking away from her friends, Nancy darted to the other side of the room.

“Oh, don’t arrest Mrs. Hale,” she pleaded. “She isn’t like the rest. She tried to save us, but they wouldn’t listen to her.” “Sorry,” Horton returned, “but we’ll have to take her along. If you want to intercede for her later, we may be able to have her sentence lightened.” After the prisoners had been herded out of the cave to waiting government automobiles and the printing plates used in the making of the counterfeit bills had been collected, Nancy felt explanations were in order from Karl.

“How did you know we had come here?” Nancy asked him.

“From Mrs. Byrd. She was greatly worried. When I came to see Father tonight she told me that after you’d gone she found evidence of your costume making. She confided in me you might have done just what you did. She asked me to try and stop you.” “Yes. Go on,” Nancy urged.

“Well, I’ve been suspicious of this hillside ceremony stuff, and after talking further with Mrs. Byrd, I decided to get in touch with the Secret Service men she said you had told her about. They couldn’t come, but the chief agent in this area sent some of his other men.” “How marvelous of you to have put two and two together!” Bess exclaimed.

“By the time we all got here,” Karl went on, “no one was around. I sneaked inside just as all of you were coming out. Mr. Horton thought you girls would not be harmed if you walked outside before the gang was captured.” “Thanks for that,” said George. “I’ve had enough!”

Just then Secret Service Agent Horton came over to Nancy’s group and extended his hand to her. “Miss Drew,” he said earnestly, “I want to thank you for your work which has resulted in the solution of one of the most baffling cases of counterfeiting the United States Government has ever had. How did you do it?” Nancy blushed at the praise. “It was sort of a chain reaction, I guess,” the young sleuth replied, and told of the various circumstances that had led to tonight’s adventure.

When she finished, the agent shook his head in amazement. “You cracked a code this gang had thought was unbreakable. My congratulations.” It was late when the four girls, escorted by Karl Abbott, left the cave. As they neared the farmhouse, Joanne observed that the lights were on. “I hope Gram hasn’t been too worried.” Before the girls reached the porch, Mrs. Byrd came hurrying toward them. She clung tightly to Joanne for an instant.

“I’m so glad you’re back,” she murmured in relief. “And you girls are all right. I was terribly afraid those members of the Black Snake Colony—” She was interrupted by Mrs. Salisbury’s voice from the dark porch. “You had us so worried we couldn’t go to bed. The idea of girls running around the country at this hour! That nature cult is all foolishness, anyway!” “Absolutely!” Mr. Abbott agreed. “The less you meddle with their affairs, the wiser you’ll be!”

“You’re wrong this time, Father,” Karl Jr. announced. “If the girls hadn’t meddled, those counterfeiters would have operated indefinitely.” “Counterfeiters!” the two boarders and Mrs. Byrd exclaimed together.

They were tense as Karl Jr. related everything that had happened. In fact, it was not until the next day that Mrs. Salisbury recovered from the shock sufficiently to boast: “Well, I always said those girls were up and coming!”

Mr. Abbott was very proud of the part his son had played in the case, and said so several times.

Mrs. Byrd had nothing except praise for Nancy and her friends. “And who would think,” she said incredulously, “that Bess’s innocent purchase of a bottle of perfume would lead you girls to a mystery right here at Red Gate Farm!” However, the removal of the Black Snake Colony from her property left her a serious financial problem. “I’m glad they’re gone,” she said, “but I’ll miss the money. I can’t hope to rent the land again. It isn’t fertile enough for farming. All this talk about counterfeiters is apt to give Red Gate a bad name, too. I’ll probably lose those other boarders who were coming!” “Publicity is a queer thing,” Nancy said thoughtfully. “Sometimes one can work it to one’s advantage. That’s what we’ll do now.” “How?” Joanne asked.

“We’ll advertise that counterfeiters’ cavern to sightseers and make enough money to lift a dozen mortgages!”

The others were enthusiastic. During the next week the girls, with Karl Jr.’s assistance, placed in the cave for public display an imitation setup of the counterfeiting operation. There were several old printing presses, and some dummy figures arranged before them as if “at work.” Scattered about the cave floor were stacks of homemade “money”—to represent counterfeit bills.

The following week Mr. Drew came to Red Gate Farm. A few miles away he halted his automobile at the side of the road, and with an amused smile studied a large billboard which read: Follow the arrow to Red Gate Farm! See the mysterious cavern used by counterfeiters! Admission fifty cents.

As Carson Drew continued slowly in his car, he presently came to another sign, bolder than the first:

Regain health at Red Gate Farm. Boarders by Day or Week.

The traffic was unusually heavy, and the lawyer soon realized that all of the cars were headed for the farm. The place was crowded. He parked as near the house as he could and walked up the path. The grounds were well kept and equipped with swings and huge umbrellas. A number of persons, evidently boarders, were enjoying the garden.

Before Carson Drew had reached the front door, it was flung open, and Nancy rushed to meet him. “Dad!” she cried joyfully. “Isn’t this wonderful?” “You’ve done a magnificent job, Nancy.”

After a hearty dinner Nancy and her friends took Mr. Drew to the hillside cave. Reuben Ames, looking most unlike himself in a new suit which was a trifle too tight, was in his glory as he conducted groups of visitors through the cavern.

“I’ve collected thirty dollars already today,” he hailed Nancy as she came up with her friends. “This beats plowin’ corn.” Bess grinned. “Didn’t I always say that adventure follows Nancy Drew around?”

And Bess was right, for another exciting adventure awaited her courageous friend, who very soon was to become involved in The Clue in the Diary.

Mr. Drew laughed. “Nancy,” he said, “as I think of your adventure at Red Gate Farm I can’t decide whether you’re better as a detective or as a promoter!”

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