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CHAPTER X

Following a Clue

WITH soaring spirits, Nancy walked homeward. “I wonder,” she thought, “how the Tophams will feel about Josiah Crowley’s old clock if it costs them the inheritance they’re counting on.”

At dinner that night Nancy chatted with unusual animation, deciding not to tell of her exciting plans until after Hannah had served dessert.

Mr. Drew, however, sensed that big news was coming. “My dear,” he said, laying a hand on his daughter’s arm, “you look like the cat that swallowed the canary. What’s the big scoop?”

Nancy giggled. “Oh, Dad. I can’t keep any secrets from you.” Then, as the table was cleared, the young sleuth told of her great stroke of luck. “And just think, Helen invited me to her aunt’s camp!”

“Good,” her father commented, smiling. “You can combine business with pleasure, Nancy. Swimming and boating and fun with the girls will provide a much-needed vacation.” “May I start first thing in the morning?” his daughter asked.

“An excellent idea, Nancy. The change will do wonders for you. Go, by all means.” Hurriedly she packed a suitcase and the next morning was off to an early start.

Moon Lake was about a fifty-mile drive. One way to go was past the Hoover girls’ farm and Nancy decided to stop there. As she approached the house, the young sleuth heard singing. It was coming from the barn.

“How beautiful!” Nancy thought, as the clear soprano voice went through a series of trills and flutelike scales.

In a moment the singer appeared and Nancy teasingly applauded. Allison’s eyes danced. “Thanks. I was just trying to imitate some of the greats.”

“You’ll be great yourself one of these days,” Nancy prophesied.

“Not unless I get some money to finance lessons,” Allison said. “Any news, Nancy?”

“Sort of. I’ve had a little luck.” At this moment Grace appeared and instantly invited Nancy to stay, but the young detective said she too had work to do. “I hope to have a good report for you soon,” she added, and waved good-by.

Grace’s face brightened and Allison declared cheerfully, “Then there’s still hope? We are so lucky to have you as a friend, Nancy. Come see us again soon. Please.”

Resuming her journey, Nancy soon branched off from the River Road and headed toward Moon Lake. As she drove along, her thoughts revolved constantly around the Crowley relatives and the Hoovers.

She sighed. “How different things would be for them now if Josiah Crowley hadn’t been so secretive!”

Her reverie was ended by the sudden strange actions of her car. It kept veering to the left of the road in spite of her efforts to keep it in the middle. With foreboding, Nancy stopped and got out to make an inspection. As she had suspected, a rear tire was flat.

“Oh dear!” she murmured in disgust. “Such luck!”

Though Nancy was able to change a tire, she never relished the task. Quickly she took out the spare tire from the rear compartment, found the jack and lug wrench, and went to work. By the time her job was completed, she was hot and a little breathless.

“Whew!” she exclaimed, as she started on her way again. “I’ll be ready for a nice, cool swim in Moon Lake!”

It was after twelve o’clock when she came in sight of Camp Avondale, run by Helen’s aunt. Through the tall trees Nancy caught a glimpse of cabins and tents. Beyond, the blue lake sparkled and glimmered in the sunlight.

As Nancy drove into the camp, a group of girls gathered about her car. Helen came running out of a cabin to greet her chum.

“Girls, it’s Nancy Drew!” she exclaimed joyfully and made introductions. Nancy did not know any of the campers, but in no time they made her feel warmly welcome.

“Nancy,” said Helen, “park your car back of the dining hall, then come have lunch.”

“That sounds wonderful.” Nancy laughed. “I’m nearly starved!”

First, she was escorted to the main building where she met Aunt Martha, the camp director, and registered.

“May she stay with me?” Helen asked.

“Certainly, dear. And I hope you have a splendid time, Nancy.”

“I’m sure I shall, Aunt Martha.”

As the two girls walked off Nancy told Helen about selling the charity-dance tickets and gave her the money paid by Mr. Topham.

“He surely was generous!” Helen commented in surprise. Then she smiled wryly. “I have a feeling he did it more for social prestige than sympathy for the cause.”

Nancy scarcely had time to deposit her suitcase under her cot and freshen up after the long ride when lunch was announced by the ringing of a bell. Campers hurried from all directions to the dining hall. The food was plain but appetizing and Nancy ate with zest.

The meal over, she was rushed from one activity to another. The girls insisted that she join them in a hike. Then came a cooling dip in the lake. Nancy enjoyed herself immensely, but the Crowley mystery was never far from her mind.

“I must find out where the Tophams’ cottage is located,” she reminded herself. “And next, manage to go there alone.”

Nancy’s opportunity to accomplish the first part of her quest came when Helen suggested about five o’clock, “How about going for a ride around the lake in the camp launch? There’s just time before supper.”

“Wonderful!” Nancy accepted readily. “By the way, can you see many of the summer cottages from the water?”

“Oh, yes. Lots of them.”

Helen led her friend down to a small clock and with four other girls climbed into the launch, a medium-sized craft.

As one of the campers started the motor, Helen remarked, “It’s always a relief to us when this engine starts. Once in a while it balks, but you never know when or where.”

“Yes,” spoke up a girl named Barby. “And when you’re stuck this time of year, you’re stuck. There are hardly any cottagers up here yet, so their boats are still in winter storage.”

As the little launch turned out into the lake, Nancy was entranced with the beautiful sight before her. The delicate azure blue of the sky and the mellow gold of the late afternoon sun were reflected in the shimmering surface of the water.

“What a lovely scene for an oil painting!” she thought.

As they sped along, however, Nancy kept glancing at the cottages, intermingled with tall evergreen trees that bordered the shore line.

“The Tophams have a bungalow up here, haven’t they?” she questioned casually.

“Yes, it’s across the lake,” Helen replied. “We’ll come to it soon.”

“Is anyone staying there now?”

“Oh, no, the cottage is closed. It’s being looked after by Jeff Tucker, the caretaker. He’s the tallest, skinniest man I’ve ever seen outside a circus.”

“Is it hard to get to the place?”

“Not if you go by launch. But it’s a long way if you take the road around the lake.” Helen looked at her friend. “I didn’t know you were particularly interested in the Tophams, Nancy.”

“Oh, they’re not friends of mine, as you know,” Nancy returned hastily. “I was merely curious.”

After a time, as the launch slowed down and chugged along close to shore, Helen pointed out a wide path through the woods. At the end of it stood a large, rambling white cottage.

“That’s the Topham place,” she said.

Trying not to appear too eager, Nancy looked intently at the bungalow. She made a quick mental note of its location.

“Tomorrow I’ll visit that place and try to solve the mystery!” she told herself.

CHAPTER XI

An Unexpected Adventure

NANCY awoke the next morning to the fragrant odor of pines. Eager to start out for the Topham bungalow, she dressed quickly.

But in her plans she had reckoned without Helen Corning and her friends. From the moment breakfast was over, Nancy was swept into another whirlwind of activity by the campers of Avondale. The entire day passed without a chance for her to break away.

“Oh, Helen!” Nancy groaned as she tumbled into bed that night. “Tennis matches, canoe races, swimming, water skiing—it’s been fun. But tomorrow I think I’ll stay out of the activities.”

Helen laughed gaily. “You’ll change your mind after a sound sleep, Nancy. Wait and see.”

For answer, Nancy murmured a sleepy good night. But even as she slipped into slumber, she vowed that in the morning she would not be deterred again from visiting the Tophams’ summer place!

After breakfast the next day, Nancy stood firm in her resolve. When Helen urged her to accompany the girls on an all-day hike, Nancy shook her head.

“Thanks a lot, but please excuse me today, Helen.”

Normally Nancy would have loved going on such a hike. But she had to achieve her plan of sleuthing. Helen, though disappointed, heeded her friend’s plea and trudged off with the other campers into the woods.

As soon as they were out of sight, Nancy leaped into action. After obtaining Aunt Martha’s permission to use the launch, she hurried down to the dock. Nancy had frequently handled motorboats and was confident she could manage this one.

“Now.Full speed ahead for the Tophams’!”

To her delight the motor started immediately, and Nancy steered out into the lake. As the launch cut through the water, a cool spray blew into her face. The young sleuth felt a thrill of excitement as she guided the craft toward her destination which might hold a solution to the mystery.

“If only the Tophams’ caretaker will let me in when I get there!” she thought.

Nancy’s heart beat somewhat faster as she neared her goal. But all of a sudden there was a sputter from the engine. The next instant, to Nancy’s utter dismay, the motor gave one long wheeze and died.

“Oh!” she cried aloud.

Nancy knew that the tank held plenty of fuel, for she had checked this before departing. A moment later she recalled Helen’s remark about the engine becoming balky at times.

With a sigh of impatience at the unexpected delay, Nancy examined the motor. For over an hour she worked on it, trying every adjustment she could think of. But her efforts were useless. There was not a sound of response from the motor.

“What miserable luck!” she said aloud. “Of all days for the motor to conk out! This means I won’t get to the Topham cottage after all!”

For a moment Nancy was tempted to swim ashore. To be so close to the bungalow and not be able to reach it was tantalizing. But she resisted the impulse; she could not leave the boat stranded—it would drift off and she would be responsible.

“I’ll just have to wait for a passing boat to rescue me,” Nancy decided.

But fate was against her. The hours dragged by and not another craft appeared in sight. Nancy became increasingly uncomfortable as the hot sun beat down on her. Also, she was growing weak from hunger.

“And worst of all,” Nancy thought gloomily, “another whole day is being wasted. I want to get to the bottom of this mystery!”

To occupy her mind, Nancy concentrated once more on the motor. Determinedly she bent over the engine. It was not until the sun sank low in. the sky that she sat up and drew a long breath.

“There!” she declared. “I’ve done everything. If it doesn’t start now, it never will.”

To her relief and astonishment, it responded with a steady roar as if nothing had ever gone wrong!

Nancy lost no time in heading back toward camp. She dared not attempt to visit the bungalow, since it would be dark very soon.

When finally she eased up to the dock, Nancy saw Helen and her friends awaiting her. They greeted her with delight.

“We were just going to send out a search party for you!” Helen exclaimed. She stopped abruptly and stared at her friend. “You’re sunburned and covered with grease! What happened?”

Nancy laughed. “I had an extended sun bath.” Then she gave a lighthearted account of her mishap as the campers trooped back to their cabins. When Helen learned that Nancy had had nothing to eat since breakfast, she went to the kitchen and brought back some food.

The following morning the young sleuth decided on her next move. Directly after breakfast she began packing.

When Helen entered the cabin she exclaimed in amazement, “Why, Nancy Drew! You’re not leaving camp already!”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to, Helen. Right after lunch. I may be back but I’m not sure, so I’d better take my bag with me.”

“Don’t you like it here?”

“Of course!” Nancy assured her. “I’ve had a wonderful time. It’s just that there’s something very important I must attend to at once.”

Helen looked at her friend searchingly, then grinned. “Nancy Drew, you’re working on some mystery with your father!”

“Well, sort of,” Nancy admitted. “But I’ll try to get back. Okay?”

“Oh, please do,” Helen begged.

Nancy went to the office to pay Aunt Martha and explain her hasty departure. After lunch she set off in her car to a chorus of farewells from the campers, who sadly watched her depart.

She headed the car toward the end of the lake, then took the dirt road leading to the Topham cottage. Soon she came to a fork in the woods.

“Now, which way shall I turn for the bungalow?” she wondered. After a moment’s hesitation, Nancy calculated that she should turn left toward the water and did so.

The going was rather rough due to ruts in the road. Two of them, deeper than the others, apparently had been made by a heavy truck.

“The tracks appear fresh,” Nancy mused.

As she drove along, the young sleuth noticed a number of summer cottages. Most of them were still boarded up, since it was early in the season. As she gazed at one of them, the steering wheel was nearly wrenched from her hand by a crooked rut. As Nancy turned the steering wheel, to bring the car back to the center of the narrow road, one hand accidentally touched the horn. It blared loudly in the still woods.

“That must have scared all the birds and animals.” Nancy chuckled.

Around a bend in the road, she caught sight of a white bungalow ahead on the right side of the road.

There was no sign at the entrance to the driveway to indicate who the owner was, but a wooded path leading down to the lake looked like the one she had seen from the water.

“I think I’ll walk down to the shore and look at the cottage from there,” Nancy determined. “Then I’ll know for sure if this is the place Helen pointed out.”

Nancy parked at the edge of the road and got out. To her surprise, she observed that the truck’s tire marks turned into the driveway. A second set of tracks indicated that the vehicle had backed out and gone on down the road.

“Delivering supplies for the summer, no doubt,” Nancy told herself.

She went down the path to the water, then turned around to look at the cottage.

“It’s the Tophams’ all right,” Nancy decided.

Instead of coming back by way of the path, she decided to take a short cut through the woods. “With mounting anticipation of solving the Crowley mystery, she reached the road and hurried up the driveway.

“I hope the caretaker is here,” she thought

Nancy suddenly stopped short with a gasp of astonishment. “Why, the Tophams must be moving out!”

The front and side doors of the cottage stood wide open. Some of the furniture on the porch was overturned and various small household items were strewn along the driveway.

Nancy bent to examine some marks in the soft earth. She noted that several were boot prints, while others were long lines probably caused by dragging cartons and furniture across the lawn.

“That must have been a moving van’s tracks I saw,” Nancy told herself. “But the Tophams didn’t say anything about moving.” She frowned in puzzlement.

Her feeling persisted and grew strong as she walked up the steps of the cottage porch. Nancy knocked loudly on the opened door. No response. Nancy rapped again. Silence.

Where was Jeff Tucker, the caretaker? Why wasn’t he on hand to keep an eye on the moving activities? An air of complete desertion hung over the place.

“There’s something very strange about this,” she thought.

Curious and puzzled, Nancy entered the living room. Again her eyes met a scene of disorder. Except for a few small pieces, the room was bare of furniture. Even the draperies had been pulled from their rods and all floor coverings were gone.

“Hm! Most of the furnishings have been taken out,” Nancy thought. “I suppose the movers will be back for the other odds and ends.”

She made a careful tour of the first floor. All but one room had been virtually emptied. This was a small study. As Nancy entered it, she noticed that the rug lay rolled up and tied, and some of the furniture had evidently been shifted in readiness for moving.

“Funny I didn’t hear anything about the Tophams deciding to give up their cottage,” she murmured. “And I must say those moving men were awfully careless—”

A vague suspicion that had been forming in the back of Nancy’s mind now came into startling focus. “Those men may not be movers!” she burst out “They may be thieves!”

At once Nancy thought of the dark-gray van which had stopped at the Turners. “Those men may be the same ones who robbed them!”

That would explain, Nancy thought fearfully, the evidences of the truck’s hasty departure.

“Probably the thieves were scared away when I sounded my horn!”

Nancy glanced about uneasily. What if the men were still nearby, watching for a chance to return and pick up the remaining valuables? The realization that she was alone, some distance from the nearest house, swept over her. A tingling sensation crept up Nancy’s spine.

But resolutely she shook off her nervousness. “At least I must see if the Crowley clock is still here,” Nancy reminded herself, and then went through the bungalow again.

She found no trace of the timepiece, however. “I guess the thieves took that too,” Nancy concluded. “I’d better report this robbery to the police right now.” She looked about for a phone but there was none. “I’ll have to drive to the nearest State Police headquarters.”

Nancy started toward the front door. Passing a window, she glanced out, then paused in sheer fright. A man, wearing a cap pulled low over his eyes, was stalking up the driveway toward the cottage. He was not tall and slender like the caretaker. This stranger was rather short and heavy-set.

“This man fits the Turners’ description! He must be one of the thieves who stole the silver heirlooms!” Nancy thought wildly.

CHAPTER XII

A Desperate Situation

FOR A moment Nancy stood frozen to the spot, positive that the man who was coming to the Topham cottage was one of the thieves.

But she hesitated only an instant. Then she turned and ran back into the study. Too late she realized that she had trapped herself, for this room had no other door.

Nancy started back toward the living room. But before she had taken half a dozen steps she knew that escape had been cut off from that direction. The man had reached the porch steps.

“It won’t do a bit of good to talk to him,” she reasoned. “I’ll hide, and when he leaves, I’ll follow him in my car and report him to the police!”

Frantically the young sleuth glanced about for a hiding place. A closet offered the only possible refuge. She scurried inside and closed the door.

Nancy was not a second too soon. She had scarcely shut the door when she heard the tread of the man’s heavy shoes on the floor just outside. Peeping cautiously through a tiny crack in the door, she saw the heavy-set man come into the study. His face wore a cruel expression.

As he turned toward the closet where she huddled, Nancy hardly dared to breathe, lest her presence be detected. Apparently the man noticed nothing amiss, because his eyes rested only casually on the door.

Nancy’s hiding place was anything but comfortable. It was dark and musty, and old clothing hung from nails on the walls. As dust assailed her nostrils, she held a handkerchief to her face.

“If I sneeze he’ll surely find me,” she told herself.

She felt around and once came close to ripping her hand on a sharp nail. Then she came upon something soft on a shelf and imagined it was a sleeping cat. She drew back, then touched it more cautiously.

“Only an old fur cap,” she told herself in disgust. “Ooo, now I feel like sneezing more than ever!”

She held one hand over her mouth hard and waited in agony. But presently the desire to sneeze passed and Nancy breathed more freely.

When she dared to peep out through the crack a second time, she saw that two other rough-looking men had come into the room. One was short and stout, the other taller. Nancy was sure that neither of these two men was the caretaker, because Helen Corning had mentioned that the man was skinny.

The heavy-set man who had come in first seemed to be the leader, for he proceeded to issue orders. “Get a move on!” he growled. “We haven’t got all day unless we want to be caught That girl you saw, Jake, may be back any time from the shore. And she just might get snoopy.”

The man addressed as Jake scowled. “What’s the matter with you, Sid? Going chicken? If that girl comes around, we’ll just give her a smooth story and send her on her way.”

“Cut out the yaking,” said Sid. “Parky, you and Jake take that desk out of here.”

There was no doubt now in Nancy’s mind. She was trapped by a clever gang of thieves! She could only continue to watch and listen helplessly from her hiding place.

The two men lifted the heavy piece of furniture and started with it to the door. But they did not move swiftly enough to satisfy the leader, and he berated them savagely.

Jake turned on him. “If you’re in such a hurry, why don’t you bring the van back to the driveway, instead of leaving it hidden on that road in the woods?”

“And have someone driving past here see us!” sneered the leader. “Now get going!”

Little by little the men stripped the room of everything valuable. Nancy was given no opportunity to escape. Sid remained in the room while the others made several trips to the van.

“Well, I guess we have all the stuff that’s worth anything now,” Sid muttered at last.

He turned to follow his companions, who already had left the room, but in the doorway he paused for a final careful survey of the room.

At that same moment Nancy felt an uncontrollable urge to sneeze. She tried to muffle the sound, but to no avail.

The thief wheeled about. “Hey! What—”

Walking directly to the closet, he flung open the door. Instantly he spotted Nancy and angrily jerked her out.

“Spying on us, eh?” he snarled.

Nancy faced the man defiantly. “I wasn’t spying on anyone.”

“Then what were you doing in that closet?” the thief demanded, his eyes narrowing to slits.

“I came to see the caretaker.”

“Looking for him in a funny place,ain’t you?” the man sneered.

Nancy realized that she was in a desperate situation. But she steeled herself not to show any of her inward fears.

“I must keep calm,” she told herself firmly. Aloud, she explained coolly, “I heard someone coming and I just felt a bit nervous.”

“Well, you’re going to be a lot more nervous,” the man said threateningly. “This will be the last time you’ll ever stick your nose in business that doesn’t concern you!”

A fresh wave of fright swept over Nancy, but resolutely she held on to her courage. “You have no right to be here, helping yourself to the Tophams’ furniture!” she retorted. “You should be turned over to the police!”

“Well, you’ll never get the chance to do it.” The ringleader laughed loudly. “You’ll wish you’d never come snoopin’ around here. I’ll give you the same treatment the caretaker got.” “The caretaker!” Nancy gasped in horror. “What have you done to him?”

“You’ll find out in good time.”

Nancy gave a sudden agile twist, darted past the man, and raced for the door. The thief gave a cry of rage, and in one long leap overtook her. He caught Nancy roughly by the arm.

“Think you’re smart, eh?” he snarled. “Well, I’m smarter!”

Nancy struggled to get away. She twisted and squirmed, kicked and clawed. But she was helpless in the viselike grip of the powerful man.

“Let me go!” Nancy cried, struggling harder. “Let me go!”

Sid, ignoring her pleas, half dragged her across the room. Opening the closet door, he flung her inside.

Nancy heard a key turn.

“Now you can spy all you want!” Sid sneered. “But to make sure nobody’ll let you out, I’ll just take this key along.”

When Nancy could no longer hear the tramp of “his heavy boots she was sure Sid had left the house. For a moment a feeling of great relief engulfed her.

But the next instant Nancy’s heart gave a leap. As she heard the muffled roar of the van starting up in the distance, a horrifying realization gripped her.

“They’ve left me here to—to starve!” she thought frantically.

CHAPTER XIII

The Frustrating Wait

AT FIRST Nancy was too frightened to think logically. She beat upon the door with her fists, but the heavy oak panels would not give way.

“Help! Help!” she screamed.

At last, exhausted by her efforts to force the door open, she sank down on the floor. The house was as silent as a tomb. Bad as her predicament was, Nancy felt thankful that enough air seeped into the closet to permit normal breathing.

Although she had little hope that there was anyone within miles of the cottage, Nancy got to her feet, raised her voice, and again shouted for help. Her cries echoed through the empty house and seemed to mock her.

“Oh, why didn’t I have enough sense to tell Helen where I was going?” she berated herself miserably. “The girls at camp will never dream that I came here.”

Then Nancy remembered mournfully that her father thought she intended to remain at Camp Avondale for a week! He would not become alarmed over her absence until it was too late.

“Someone may find my car at the side of the road,” Nancy reasoned, “but it isn’t very likely. Few persons pass this way so early in the season.”

She wondered, with a shudder, what had become of Jeff Tucker. The thief called Sid had hinted that the caretaker had received the same treatment as Nancy. If he was locked up somewhere, she could expect no aid from him.

“Those thieves will get so far away that even if I could get out of here, I’d be too late.”

As the full significance of the situation dawned upon Nancy, panic again took possession of her. In a desperate attempt to break down the door, she threw her weight against it again and again. She pounded on the panels until her fingers were bruised and bleeding. At last she sank down again on the floor to rest and tried to force herself to reason calmly.

“I’m only wasting my strength this way. I must try to think logically.”

Nancy recalled that it was sometimes possible to pick a lock with a wire. She removed a bobby pin from her hair, opened it, and began to work at the lock. But in the darkness she could not see and made no progress. After fifteen minutes she gave up the task in disgust.

“It’s no use,” she decided dejectedly. “I—I guess I’m in here for good.”

She began to think of her father, of Hannah. Gruen, of Helen Corning, and other dear friends. Would she ever see them again? As despondency claimed Nancy, she was dangerously near tears.

“This will never do,” she reprimanded herself sternly. “I must keep my head and try to think of, some way to escape.”

The trapped girl began to rummage in the closet, hoping that by some lucky chance she might find a tool which would help her force the lock of the door. Nancy searched carefully through the pockets of every garment which hung from the hooks. She groped over every inch of the floor.

She found nothing useful, however, and the cloud of dust which she had stirred up made breathing more difficult than before. The closet had become uncomfortably warm by this time. Longingly she thought of the fresh air and cool lake water from which she was closed off.

Then, unexpectedly, Nancy’s hand struck something hard. Quickly investigating with her fingers, she discovered a wooden rod suspended high overhead. It was fastened to either side wall and ran the length of the closet. Evidently it had once been used for dress and coat hangers.

“I might be able to use that rod to break out a panel of the door,” Nancy thought hopefully. “It feels strong and it’s about the right size.”

She tugged at the rod with all her might. When it did not budge, she swung herself back and forth on it. At last, amid the cracking of plaster, one side gave way. Another hard jerk brought the rod down.

To Nancy’s bitter, disappointment, she found that unfortunately the rod was too long to use as a ram in the cramped space. But after further examination, she discovered that it had pointed ends.

“I might use this rod as a wedge in the crack,” she thought hopefully.

The young sleuth inserted one end in the space between the hinges and the door, and threw all her weight against the rod. At first the door did not move in the slightest.

“That old Greek scientist, Archimedes, didn’t know what he was talking about when he said the world could be moved with a lever,” Nancy murmured. “I’d like to see him move this door!”

As she applied steady pressure to the rod a second time, she saw that the hinges were beginning to give. Encouraged, Nancy again pushed full force on the “lever.” “It’s coming!” she cried.

Once more she threw her weight against the rod. A hinge tore from the casing and the door sagged. It was now easy to insert the wedge, and Nancy joyously realized that success would soon be hers. With renewed strength she continued her efforts.

Then, just as another hinge gave way, she was startled to hear footsteps. Someone came running into the study, and a heavy body hurled itself against the door of the closet.

For a moment Nancy was stunned. Could this be one of the thieves who had heard the noise she had made and had returned to make sure that she did not escape? She discarded the theory quickly. Surely the three men would want to get far away as quickly as possible. But who was this newcomer? One of the Tophams?

“So, one o’ you ornery robbers got yourself locked up, did you?” came an indignant male voice. “That’ll teach you to try puttin’ one over on old Jeff Tucker. You won’t be doin’ any more pilferin’. I got you surrounded.”

The caretaker! Nancy heaved a sigh of fervent relief. “Let me out!” she pleaded. “I’m not one of the thieves! If you’ll only let me out of here, I’ll explain every thing!”

There was silence for a moment. Then the voice on the other side of the door said dubiously, “Say, you aimin’ to throw me off, imitatin’ a lady’s voice? Well, it won’t do you any good! No, sir. Old Jeff Tucker’s not gettin’ fooled again!”

Nancy decided to convince the man beyond doubt. She gave a long, loud feminine scream.

“All right, all right, ma’am. I believe you! No man could make that racket. This way out, lady!”

Expectantly Nancy waited. But the door did not open. Then she heard to her dismay:

“If that ain’t the limit. The key’s gone and I’ve left my ring of extra keys somewhere. It’s not in my pockets.”

Nancy groaned. “Oh, Mr. Tucker, you must find it. Have you looked in every one of your pockets? Please hurry and get me out.”

“Hold on, ma’am,” the caretaker said soothingly. “I’ll just check again.”

Nancy was beginning to think she would still have to break down the door, when she heard Jeff Tucker exclaim, “Found it! You were right, ma’am. Key was in my back pocket all the time. It—”

“Please open the door!” Nancy broke in desperately.

A key turned in the lock and the bolt clicked. Joyfully Nancy pushed the door open and stepped out. For a moment the bright sunlight in the room almost blinded her. When her vision adjusted, she saw a very tall, thin, elderly man in blue shirt and overalls. He stared at her with concern and amazement.

“Mr. Tucker,” she explained quickly, “I’m Nancy Drew. I was here looking for you when those awful thieves came and locked me in the closet.” She paused and gazed at the caretaker. “I’m glad to see that you’re all right. Their leader told me they’d locked you up too.” She then asked the elderly man to tell his story.

Jeff Tucker seemed embarrassed as he began to speak. “I was plain hornswoggled by those critters, Miss Drew. They pulled up here in a movin’ van, and told me I’d better get after some trespassers they’d seen nearby. So,” the elderly man went on with a sigh, “I believed ‘em. One of the men went with me down to the lake and locked me in a shed. I just got out.” He shook his head sadly. “And all this time they wasrobbin’ the place. Guess I’ll be fired.”

Secretly Nancy was inclined to agree, knowing the Tophams. But aloud she said reassuringly:

“Don’t worry, Mr. Tucker. We’ll report this robbery to the State Police immediately. Perhaps the troopers can catch the thieves before they get rid of the stolen furniture.”

The caretaker looked somewhat relieved. “And I can sure give a good description o’ those crooks. I’d never forget their ugly faces!”

“Fine,” said Nancy. A sudden thought struck her. “Oh, before we go, Mr. Tucker, tell me, was there an old clock in this house? A tall, square-faced mantel clock?”

Jeff Tucker’s bright blue eyes squinted. “Mantel clock?Hm.Why, sure enough!” He pointed to the mantel over the living-room fireplace. “Sat right up there. Got so used to seein’ it, I couldn’t remember for a minute. Don’t know how come they took that too. Never thought it was worth much. The Tophams never bothered windin’ the thing.”

Nancy’s pulse quickened. Knowing that the clock had been stolen, she was more eager than ever to have the thieves apprehended. She urged Jeff Tucker to hurry out to her car.

“Where’s the nearest State Police headquarters?” she asked him as they climbed into the convertible.

“There’s none till you get to Melborne, Miss Drew.”

“We’ll hurry.”

Nancy headed as fast as possible for the highway. Would she succeed in heading off the thieves and recovering the old Crowley clock, so she could learn its secret?

CHAPTER XIV

A Tense Chase

“WHICH way is Melborne?” Nancy asked the caretaker when they reached the highway.

“Down there.” He pointed.

“That’s the direction the thieves took,” Nancy told him, noting the dust and tire marks which revealed the van’s exit onto the highway. “But,” she added, glancing at the dashboard clock, “they’re probably too far away by this time for us to catch them.” “Yes, ding it,” Jeff muttered.

Nancy drove as rapidly as the law permitted toward Melborne. All the while, Jeff Tucker peered from one side of the road to the other.

“Those rascal thieves might just have nerve enough to stop an’ count their loot,” he said to Nancy. “So I’m keepin’ a sharp eye peeled.”

Nancy smiled in spite of the gravity of the situation. “Maybe,” she replied. “Though I doubt that those men would be so reckless.”

“Oh, I don’t mean out in plain sight. They might have pulled off the road, back o’ some o’ these closed-up summer places.”

“We’ll watch for their tire marks on any dirt side road,” the young sleuth said.

Jeff became so absorbed in looking for the van’s tire marks that he never asked Nancy why she had come to see him at the Topham house.

“Those fake movers,” he said, as they neared the outskirts of Melborne. “I wonder how far they went.”

Nancy did not reply until they came to a crossroad, then she pointed. “They turned north here on this dirt road. How much farther is it to Melborne?”

“Only a mile.”

As they came into the little town, Nancy asked her companion, “Which way to State Police headquarters?”

“Go right down Central Avenue to Maple Street. Turn left, and there it is.”

Reaching headquarters, Nancy parked the car and hopped out. Jeff Tucker followed as she walked briskly into the office.

“I want to report a robbery,” she told the desk sergeant after identifying herself.

For a moment the officer, taken aback, looked in astonishment at Nancy. “You’ve been robbed?” he asked. “In our town?”

“No, no!” Nancy cried out. She then gave a quick but complete resume of what had taken place at the Tophams’ cottage. Jeff Tucker added his account.

The police officer needed no further urging. Immediately he summoned four men and issued orders. “Now,” he said, turning to Nancy, “have you any idea which road the thieves took?”

“Yes, Officer. When we passed the road crossing a mile outside of town, I saw their truck tracks on the dirt road leading north. I’ll be glad to show you.”

“Good. Lead the way. But first I’ll send out a general alarm.”

“Hurry!” Nancy begged as she started out. “Those thieves have at least an hour’s head start!”

Jeff Tucker had been advised to return to his home. Accordingly he telephoned his son to come and pick him up in his car.

“Good luck!” he called, as the others pulled away. “I sure don’t know how I’m goin’ to break this to the Tophams.”

Nancy was sorry for him, but she felt a thrill of excitement as she proceeded up the street, the police car following close behind.

Beyond the town, Nancy chose the road which she felt certain the thieves had used. The two cars sped along until Nancy unexpectedly came to a fork. Both branches were paved and no tire marks were visible. Nancy stopped. The police car pulled up alongside.

“What’s the matter?” asked the officer in charge, whose name was Elton.

“I’m not sure which way to go now.”

The policemen sprang from their automobile and began to examine the road. Officer Elton said that if a moving van had passed that way, its tire marks had been obliterated by other vehicles. It was impossible to tell which route the thieves had traveled.

“It’ll be strictly guesswork from here,” Officer Elton said to Nancy.

“In that case,” replied Nancy, “it’s my guess that the van went to the left.” She pointed to a sign which read: Garwin, 50 miles. “Isn’t Garwin a fairly large city?” she queried.

“Yes.”

“Perhaps the thieves headed that way to dispose of the stolen furniture.”

The officer nodded approvingly. “Sounds reasonable,” he said. “Well, in any case, we can’t go much farther, because we’re near the state line.”

Nancy had another thought. “I’ll take the road to Garwin and swing around toward River Heights.” She smiled. “If I see those thieves, I’ll let you know.”

“Well, you watch out, young lady. Those men may lock you up again!”

“I will. Anyhow, there’ll be plenty of traffic as soon as I reach the main highway.”

Without giving the policemen an opportunity for further objection, Nancy started up and swung her car to the left. She noted in her rear-view mirror that the squad car had turned onto the right-hand road.

“The officers must have picked up a clue,” Nancy said to herself. “But I certainly wish I could spot that van and maybe find a chance to look in the old clock!”

Nancy soon reached the main road. As mile after mile of highway spun behind her, Nancy’s hopes grew dim. There were a number of side roads, any one of which the moving van might have taken to elude pursuers.

The young sleuth decided to adhere to her original theory—that Sid and his pals had headed for Garwin—and kept on the main highway.

“Those thieves think Jeff and I are still locked up and won’t suspect they’re being followed,” she assured herself. Smiling, she thought hopefully, “In that case they won’t be on their guard!”

About ten minutes later Nancy stopped at a service station to have her car refueled, and on impulse asked the attendant, “Did you by any chance see a moving van pass here recently?”

“Sure did, miss,” was the prompt answer. “About half an hour ago. I noticed it because the driver was going at a terrific speed for a van.”

Heartened, Nancy thanked him and resumed her pursuit, going past the turn for River Heights. “If only I can overtake the truck and somehow examine the Crowley clock before I have to report to the police!” she thought.

Again time elapsed and Nancy still saw no sign of a moving van on the highway. It was growing dusk and she decided that she would have to admit defeat.

“I never caught up to them.” She sighed in disappointment, and turning into the opposite lane, headed back for the River Heights road.

Just then Nancy recalled that a little beyond the service station where she had stopped, she had noticed a rather run-down old inn. It was a slim hope, she knew, but the thieves might have put their van behind it while having a meal there.

“I’ll go in and ask, anyhow,” she decided.

Nancy increased her speed as much as she dared and within a few minutes came in sight of the inn. It stood back from the road a short distance and was half-hidden by tall trees. In front of the building a battered sign bearing the name Slack Horse Inn creaked back and forth from a post. There was no sign of the van. Beyond the inn Nancy glimpsed a garage and a large barn. The doors to both were closed.

“I wonder,” mused Nancy, “if the moving van is parked inside either one.”

At the far side of the inn was a small woods with a narrow road leading into it. For safety’s sake, Nancy thought it best to park her car on this little-used road.

She turned off the car lights, pocketed the key, and walked back to the curving driveway leading to the inn. As Nancy made her way forward, her heart pounded. There were tire marks which could belong to Sid’s van I They led to the barn I “Maybe those thieves are eating,” she thought. “I’ll look.”

As Nancy stepped onto the porch, the sound of raucous laughter reached her ears. She tiptoed to a window and peered inside. What the young sleuth saw made her gasp, but she felt a glow of satisfaction.

In a dingy, dimly lighted room three men were seated about a table, eating voraciously. They were the thieves who had robbed the Topham bungalow!

CHAPTER XV

Nancy’s Risky Undertaking

“I MUST notify the police at once!” Nancy told herself as she recognized the three thieves.

Turning away from the window, she crept noiselessly from the porch. She was about to make a dash for her car when a sudden thought occurred to her.

“If the gang have parked their van in the barn, now’s my chance to look for the Crowley clock. I’m sure those men will be eating for a while, or they may even be staying overnight.”

Acting on the impulse, Nancy sprinted to her car. Hastily she snatched a flashlight from the compartment, since it was now dark outside.

She made her way cautiously to the rear of the inn. Reaching the barn, she tried the closed doors, her heart pounding. They had not been locked!

As she slid back one of the doors, it squeaked in an alarming fashion. Anxiously Nancy glanced toward the inn, but so far as she could tell, her actions were unobserved. There was no one in sight.

Focusing her flashlight, she peered hopefully into the dark interior. A cry of satisfaction escaped her lips.

In front of her stood the moving van!

“What luck!” she exclaimed, snapping off her light.

With a last cautious glance in the direction of the inn, she hastily stepped inside and closed the barn door. With it shut, the interior of the barn was pitch dark.

Nancy switched on her flashlight again and played it over the moving van. She saw that its rear doors were closed.

Securing a firm grip on the handle, she gave it a quick turn. To her dismay the door did not open. The thieves had locked the van!

“Oh dear! Now what shall I do?” she wondered frantically. “I’ll never be able to break the lock.”

Desperately Nancy glanced about. She dared not remain many minutes in the barn, lest the thieves return and find her there. But she had to find out whether the Crowley clock was in the van.

“Perhaps the keys were left in the ignition,” Nancy thought hopefully.

She rushed to the front of the van and clambered into the driver’s seat. But there were no keys hanging from the ignition lock.

Nancy’s mind worked frantically. She must find the keys! Perhaps the men had not taken them into the inn but had concealed them in the truck. Suddenly she remembered that people sometimes hide automobile keys under the floor mat. It was barely possible that the thieves had done this.

Hastily she pulled up a corner of the mat Her flashlight revealed a small ring of keys!

“Luck was with me this time,” she murmured, and quickly snatching up the ring, she ran back to the rear of the van.

After trying several of the keys, she at last found one which fitted the lock. Turning it, she jerked open the door. Nancy flashed her light about inside the truck. To her joy she recognized the van’s contents as the furniture stolen from the Topham cottage!

“What will I do if the clock is on the bottom of the load?” Nancy wondered as she surveyed the pile of furniture. “I’ll never find it.”

Dexterously she swung herself up into the truck and flashed the light slowly about on chairs, tables, rugs, and boxes. There was no sign of the Crowley clock.

Then the beam rested for a moment on an object in a far corner. With a low cry of delight, Nancy saw that her search had been rewarded. Protected by a blanket, an old-fashioned mantel clock rested on top of a table in the very front of the van!

The young sleuth scrambled over the pieces o£ furniture as she tried to reach the clock. Her dress caught on something sharp and tore. Finally she arrived within arm’s reach of the blanket. She grasped it and carefully pulled the clock toward her.

One glance at the timepiece assured her that it fitted the description Abby Rowen had given her. It had a square face and the top was ornamented with a crescent.

“The Crowley clock at last!” Nancy whispered almost unbelievingly.

But as she stood staring at it, her keen ears detected the sound of voices. The thieves!

“I’ll be caught!” flashed through her mind. “And I won’t be able to escape a second time!”

Clutching the blanket and the clock tightly in her arms, Nancy scrambled over the piled-up furniture as she struggled to get out of the truck before it was too late.

Reaching the door, she leaped lightly to the floor. She could now hear heavy footsteps coming closer and closer.

Nancy shut the truck doors as quickly as possible, and searched wildly for the keys.

“Oh, what did I do with them?” she thought frantically.

She saw that they had fallen to the floor and snatched them up. Hurriedly inserting the correct key in the lock, she secured the doors.

But as Nancy wheeled about she heard men’s angry voices directly outside. Already someone was starting to slide back the barn door!

“Oh, what shall I do?” Nancy thought in despair. “I’m cornered!”

She realized instantly that she could not hope to run to the front of the car and place the keys under the mat where she had found them. “I’ll just put them on the floor,” she decided quickly. “Maybe the men will think they dropped them.”

Then, glancing frantically about for a hiding place, Nancy saw an empty grain bin. Running to it, still holding the clock, she climbed inside and dropped the blanket over her head just as one of the barn doors slid open.

One of the men was speaking loudly. Nancy recognized the voice instantly. It belonged to Sid, the ringleader of the thieves.

“You had enough to eat,” he growled. “We’re goin’ to get out of here before we have the cops down on our heads.”

He climbed into the cab and turned on the headlights. Nancy held her breath. Would her hiding place be discovered? But the men apparently did not even look toward the bin.

In a moment Sid cried out, “What did you do with those keys? Thought you put ‘em under the floor mat.”

“I did.”

“Well, they ain’t here.”

“Honest, boss, I—”

“Then come and find ‘em, and don’t be all night about it either!”

“All right. Get out of the way and give me a chance!”

As Jake went to the truck and began a careful search for the keys, Nancy listened fearfully from her hiding place.

“Say, if you’ve lost ‘em—” the leader did not finish the threat, for at that moment the third man announced:

“Here they are on the floor! You must have thought you’d put ‘em in your pocket, Jake, and dropped ‘em instead.”

“I didn’t!” the other retorted.

The thieves were obviously in a quarrelsome mood. Just then the leader interposed:

“Cut out the yaking! We ain’t got no time for a fight unless we want to land behind bars!”

“And if we do, it’ll be your fault, Sid Sax. You left that girl to starve—” “Shut up!” the leader snarled.

After a few more angry words, the three thieves climbed into the front seat and in a moment the engine started.

In relief Nancy heard the men go. The moment they were a safe distance from the barn, she climbed out of the bin.

Nancy watched long enough to make certain that the van had taken the road to Garwin. Then, snatching up her flashlight and clutching the precious clock in her arms, she turned and ran. “I’d better cut through the woods,” she decided.

As Nancy darted among the trees, she cast an anxious glance over her shoulder, but to her intense relief she saw that she was not being followed. There seemed to be no one in the vicinity of the Black Horse Inn.

“I had a narrow escape that time,” the young sleuth told herself as she ran. “I hate to think what might have happened if I had been discovered!” She clutched the mantel clock more tightly in her arms. “But it was worth the risk I took! I found the clock and maybe the secret of Josiah Crowley’s will!”

Reaching the car, Nancy sprang inside. She took the key from her pocket and inserted it in the ignition lock.

“I’ll notify the police as fast as I can,” she decided. “Perhaps the state troopers can catch those men before they dispose of the furniture.”

Then, just as Nancy was about to start the motor, her glance fell upon the Crowley clock which she had placed on the seat beside her. Did it contain old Josiah’s mysterious notebook as she suspected?

“Oh, I must find out!” She got her flashlight.

Since the clock was too unwieldy to open inside the car, Nancy stepped out and laid it on the ground. She unfastened the glass door and ran her hand around the walls. There was nothing inside. She tried the back. Only the mechanism of the timepiece was there.

“Gone!” Nancy groaned. “Oh dear! Has my luck run out?”

Could it be, she wondered, that the Tophams had discovered the notebook only to destroy it? Nancy discarded this thought as quickly as it came to mind, for she recalled the conversation she had overheard between Ada and Isabel. No, the Tophams were as ignorant as herself concerning the location of a later will.

It was more likely that Abby Rowen had been confused in her story. After all, she had not de-dared that the notebook would be found inside the clock. Nancy herself had made the deduction.

“I was almost certain I’d find the notebook,” she murmured in disappointment. But a moment later she took heart again. “It must be here somewhere,” she told herself.

Turning the clock upside down, Nancy gave it a hard shake. Something inside moved. Hopefully she repeated the action.

“Unless I’m wrong,” Nancy thought excitedly, “there’s something inside this clock besides the works!” She examined it more closely. “An extra piece of cardboard back of the face! And something in between the two! The notebook maybe!”

After a vain attempt to remove the heavy cardboard face with her fingers, Nancy took a small screw driver from the glove compartment. With the tool it required but an instant to remove the two hands of the clock and jerk off the face.

As the cardboard fell to the floor, Nancy peered inside and gave a low cry of joy.

There, at one side of the clock, attached to a hook in the top, dangled a tiny dark-blue notebook!

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