So she agreed to go with the woman. Tom would know where they had gone when he returned, for he could not miss the note his sister had left.
At least, that is what both girls believed. Only, they were scarcely out of sight of the car with the woman, when one of the rough-looking men, who had walked ahead of the Gypsy caravan, appeared from the bushes, stepped into the auto, tore the note from where it had been pinned, and at once slipped back into the shadows, with the crumpled paper in his pocket!
Now the girls and their guide were down on the lower road. There was a twinkling light that showed the green van, horses, and the handsome driver—and the man looked like Roberto.
"They are Gypsies, I believe," whispered Ruth.
"Oh! you have Gypsies on the brain," flung back her chum. "At least, we shall be dry in that bus, if it rains. And we can find somebody at Severn Corners to put us up, even if there is no hotel."
Ruth sighed, and agreed. The woman had been speaking to the man on the seat. Now she took the lantern and went around to the back of the van.
"This way, little ladies," she said, in her most winning tone. "You may rest in comfort inside here. Nobody but the good old grandmother and my bebe."
"Come on!" said Helen to Ruth, leading the way.
There was a light in the interior and it dazzled the girls' eyes, as they climbed in. The door snapped to behind them, and the horses started along the road before either Ruth or Helen were able to see much of their surroundings.
And strange enough their surroundings were; berths on either side of the strange cart, made up for sleeping and covered with gay quilts. There were chests and boxes, some of them padlocked, and all with cushions on them for seats.
There was a table, and a hanging lamp, and a stove. A child was asleep in one of the bunks; a white-haired poodle lay crouched at the child's feet, and showed its teeth and snarled at the two visitors.
But the appearance that amazed—and really startled—the girls most was the figure that sat facing them, as they entered the van. It was that of an old, old crone, sitting on a stool, bent forward with her sharp chin resting on her clenched fists, and her elbows on her knees, while iron-gray elf-locks hung about her wrinkled, nut-brown face, half screening it.
Her bead-like eyes held the girls entranced from the first. Ruth and Helen looked at each other, startled and amazed, but they could not speak. Nor could they keep their gaze for long off the strange old woman.
"Who are you, little ladies?" croaked the hag at last.
Ruth became the spokesman. "We are two girls who have been motoring over the hills. Our motor-car broke down, and we were left alone while my friend's brother went for help. We grew fearful when it became dark——"
The gray lips opened again: "You own the motor-car, little ladies?"
"My friend's father owns it," said Ruth.
"Then your parents are wealthy," and the fangs suddenly displayed themselves in a dreadful smile. "It is fine to be rich. The poor Gypsy scarcely knows where to lay her head, but you little ladies have great houses and much money—eh?"
"Gypsy!" gasped Helen, seizing Ruth's hand.
Ruth felt a sinking at her own heart. All the stories she had ever heard of these strange, wandering tribes rushed in upon her mind again. She had not been afraid of Roberto, and the woman who had brought them to the van seemed kind enough. But this old hag——!
"Do not shrink from the old Romany woman," advised the hag, her eyes sparkling again. "She would not hurt the little ladies. She is a queen among her people—what she says is law to them. Do not fear."
"Oh, I see no reason why we should be afraid of you," Ruth said, trying to speak in an unshaken voice. "I think you all mean us kindly, and we are thankful for this lift to Severn Corners."
Something like a cackle broke from the hag's throat. "Queen Zelaya will let nothing befall you, little ladies," she declared. "Fear not. Her word is law among the Romany folk, poor as she may be. And now tell me, my little birds,—tell me of your riches, and your great houses, and all the wealth your parents have. I love to hear of such things—even I, poor Zelaya, who have nothing after a long, long life of toil."
IN THE GYPSY CAMP
Ruth remembered what Roberto had said about his miserly grandmother. She believed these people who had offered her and Helen a ride were of the same tribe as Roberto, and the way Queen Zelaya spoke, caused the girl to believe that this old woman and Roberto's grandmother were one and the same person.
She could say nothing to Helen at the moment. Personally she felt more afraid of this Gypsy Queen than she had of the two rough men in the abandoned house that afternoon!
"Come!" repeated Zelaya. "Tell me of all the riches and jewels—the gold and silver-plates you eat from, the jewelry you have to wear, the rich silks—all of it! I love to hear of such things," exclaimed the woman, grinning again in her terrible way.
Helen opened her lips to speak, but Ruth pinched her. "Tell her nothing," the girl of the Red Mill whispered. "I am afraid we have said too much already."
"Why?" queried Helen, wonderingly.
"Pshaw! this old woman can't hurt us. Isn't she funny?"
"Speak up, my little ladies!" commanded Queen Zelaya. "My will is law here. Do not forget that."
"I guess your will isn't much law to us," replied Helen, laughing and tossing her head. "You see, we do not know you——"
"You shall!" hissed the horrible old creature, suddenly stretching forth one of her claw-like hands. "Come here!"
Ruth seized her friend tightly. Helen was laughing, but suddenly she stopped. The queen's terrible eyes seemed to hold the girl in a spell. Involuntarily Helen's limbs bore her toward the far end of the van.
The girl's face became pale; her own eyes protruded from their sockets; the Gypsy Queen charmed her, just as a snake is said to charm a young bird in its nest.
But Ruth sprang after her, seized Helen's arm again, and shook her.
"You stop that!" she cried, to the old woman. "Don't you mind her, Helen. She has some wicked power in her eyes, my dear!"
Her cry broke the hypnotic spell the woman had cast over Helen Cameron. The latter sank down, trembling and sobbing, with her hands over her face.
"Oh, dear, Ruthie! I wish we hadn't gotten into this wagon," she moaned.
"I am sure I wish so, too," returned her chum, in a low voice, while the old woman rocked herself to and fro in her seat, and cackled her horrid laughter.
"Aren't we ever going to get to that town? Tom said it was only two miles or a little over."
"I wish we could speak to that other woman," muttered Ruth.
"Do you suppose this old thing is crazy?" whispered Helen.
"Worse than that," returned Ruth. "I am afraid of them all. I don't believe they mean us well. Let's get out, Helen."
"Oh! where shall we go?" returned her friend, in a tone quite as soft as Ruth's own.
"We must be somewhere near the town."
"It is pitch dark outside the windows," complained Helen.
"Let's try it. Pitch dark is not as bad as this wicked old creature——"
The hag laughed again, although she was not looking at them. Surely she could not hear the girls' whispers, yet her cackling laugh sent a shiver over both girls. It was just as though Queen Zelaya, as she called herself, could read what was in their minds.
"Yes, yes!" whispered Helen, with sudden eagerness in her voice. "You are right. We will go."
"We'll slip out without anybody but the old woman seeing us——Then we'll run!"
Ruth jumped up suddenly and stepped to the door at the rear of the van. She turned the knob and tried to open it. The door was fastened upon the outside!
Again the old woman broke into her cackling laugh. "Oh, no! oh, no!" she cried. "The pretty, rich little ladies cannot go yet. They must be the guests of the poor old Gypsy a little longer—they must eat of her salt. Then they will be her friends—and maybe they will help to make her rich."
The girls stood close together, panting, afraid. Helen put her lips to Ruth's ear, and whispered:
"Does that mean she is going to hold us for ransom? Oh, dear! what did I say this very day? I knew Gypsies were like this."
"Hush!" warned Ruth. "Try and not let her see you are so afraid. Perhaps she means only to frighten us."
"But—but when she looks at me, I seem to lose everything—speech, power to move, even power to think," gasped Helen.
Just then the van turned suddenly from the road and came to a halt. They had been traveling much faster than Ruth and Helen had supposed.
Lights flashed outside, and dogs barked, while the voices of men, women and children rose in a chorus of shouts and cries.
"Oh, thank goodness!" exclaimed Helen. "They have gotten into town at last."
Ruth feared this was not so. She tried to peer out of one of the windows. There was a bonfire at one side, and she thought she saw a tent. There were other wagons like the one in which they seemed to be imprisoned.
"Now they'll have to let us out," repeated Helen.
"I am afraid not," returned the girl of the Red Mill. "This is the Gypsy camp, I am sure, dear. Do try to be brave! I think they never meant to take us after Tom, at all. We are prisoners, dear."
At once Helen's spirits sank, but she grew angry.
"You'd better not keep us here," she cried, looking again at the old woman. "My father has plenty of money and he will spend it all to get me back—and to punish you."
"We will not take all his money from him, my pretty little lady," returned Zelaya. "Only a part of it. And the poor Gypsy has nothing," and once more she cackled.
The door of the van was unlocked and opened. In the lamplight appeared a rough-looking man, with an evil face and a squint in one eye. He said something to the queen in their own tongue, but he spoke with great respect, and removed his hat and bowed to her, when she replied.
Ruth and Helen started for the door, but the man motioned them back and scowled at them in an evil manner. They could see a crowd of curious faces without, and behind this man were children, women both old and young, and a few men.
Zelaya lifted the child from its bed, and passed her into the arms of the woman who had guided Ruth and Helen to the van. She smiled upon the girls just as pleasantly as before, but now they knew that she was false and cruel.
Then the queen waved her hand and the door was closed. "You remain with me to-night, little ladies. Oh! Zelaya would let nothing trouble you—no, no!"
Helen burst into wild sobs at this, and threw herself upon the floor of the van. Ruth faced the old woman with wrathful sparks in her brown eyes.
"You are acting very foolishly, indeed, whoever you are. You Gypsies cannot carry things with such a high hand in this State of New York. You'll find out——"
"I am Zelaya, the Queen," interrupted the old hag, hoarsely. "Have a care! I will put a spell upon you, little lady——"
"Pooh! you can't frighten me that way," declared Ruth Fielding. "I am not afraid of your spells, or your fortune telling, or any of your foolish magic. If you believe in any of it yourself, you have not gained much wisdom all the years you have lived."
"You do not fear the arts of my people?" repeated Zelaya, trying to hold Ruth with her eye as she had Helen.
"No, I do not. I fear your wickedness. And I know you must be very dishonest and cruel. But you have no more supernatural power than I have myself!"
Zelaya's wrinkled face suddenly reddened with passion. She raised her claw-like hand and struck the bold girl sharply upon the cheek.
"Impudence!" she muttered.
"And that is nothing supernatural," said Ruth, with continued boldness, although the blow had hurt her—leaving its mark. "You are breaking the laws of the land, which are far more powerful than any Gypsy law——"
"Wait!" commanded the woman, threateningly. "You will learn yet, bold girl, how strong our laws are."
She went back to her stool, mumbling to herself. Ruth lifted Helen into one of the berths, and sat down beside her. By and by the door of the van opened again and a bold-looking young woman—not the one that had brought them to the van—came in with three wooden bowls of a savory stew. She offered the tray to the visitors at a motion from old Zelaya, so that they had their choice before the queen received her own supper.
"Let's eat it," whispered Ruth to Helen, when she saw that Zelaya plunged her own tin spoon into the stew. "It surely isn't drugged, or she wouldn't touch it."
They ate greedily, for both were hungry. It takes more than fear to spoil the healthy appetite of youth!
"Do you suppose," whispered Helen, "that we could climb out of one of these windows after she falls asleep?"
"I am sure I couldn't get through one," returned Ruth. "And I doubt if you could. Besides, there will be guards, and the dogs are awake. We've got to wait for help from outside, my dear."
"Do you suppose Tom will find us?"
"I hope not!" exclaimed Ruth. "Not while he is alone. But he certainly will give the alarm, and the whole countryside will be aroused."
"Oh, dear, me! this old woman seems so sure that she can hold us captive."
"I think she is crazy," Ruth declared. "And the other Gypsies must lack good sense, too, or they would not be governed by her."
The queen gobbled down her supper and then prepared to retire to her own bunk. She told the girls to do the same, and they removed their shoes and outer garments and lay down—one on one side of the wagon, and one on the other.
Ruth's head was toward the door. She could watch the movements of the old Gypsy woman. Zelaya did not go to sleep at all, but seemed to be waiting for the camp to get quiet and for her two visitors to fall into slumber.
She kept raising her head and looking first at Helen, then at Ruth. The latter knew by her chum's breathing that, despite her fears, Helen had fallen asleep almost instantly.
So Ruth began to breathe deeply and regularly, too. She closed her eyes—almost entirely. This was what Zelaya had been waiting for.
Silently the old woman arose and turned up the lampwick a little. She knelt down before one of the padlocked boxes and unlocked it softly. Then she rummaged in the box—seemingly beneath a lot of rubbish that filled it, and drew forth a japanned box—like a cashbox. This was locked, too, and Zelaya wore the key of it on a string about her neck.
Silently, with a glance at the two girls now and then, she unlocked this box and opened it on the top of the chest, before which she knelt.
Ruth could see the old woman's face. It changed very much as she gazed upon what was in the japanned box. Her black eyes glowed, and her gray, thin lips were wreathed in a smile of delight.
Again Ruth remembered Roberto's account of his grandmother. She was a miser, and he had mentioned that he had seen her at night gloating over her hoarded wealth.
Surely Zelaya had all the signs of a miser. The next moment Ruth saw that the old woman verily possessed something worth gloating over.
She lifted from the interior of the box a string of flashing gems—a broad band, or necklace, of them, in fact—and let them flow through her fingers in a stream of sparkling light. They were beautiful, beautiful pearls—a really wonderful necklace of them!
Ruth held her breath for a moment. The queen turned suddenly and shot a keen, suspicious glance at her. The girl knew enough to cough, turn slightly, and recommence her steady breathing.
The old woman had dropped the pearls in haste. Now she picked them up again, and went on with her silent worship of the gems.
Ruth did not startle her again; but she saw something that made her own heart beat faster and brought the perspiration out upon her limbs.
Above the old woman's head, and behind her, was a window. Pressed close to the pane of the window Ruth saw a face—dark, evil, be-mustached. It was one of the Gypsy men.
She remembered now what she had overheard between the two supposed tramps who had taken shelter in the deserted house during the tempest. Was this one of those two ruffians? And was he the one who had railed at the division of some stolen treasure, and had spoken with covetousness of the beautiful pearls?
The thought made Ruth tremble. His wicked face withdrew, but all the time the Gypsy queen was admiring the necklace, Ruth felt that the evil eyes of the man were also gloating over the pearls.
TOM ON THE TRAIL
In spite of the fact that his sister thought it hard that Tom Cameron had not returned to the stalled auto by dark, the lad was having no easy time.
In the first place, he had not run a mile on the road to Severn Corners when he stepped on a pebble, turned his ankle sharply, and had to hobble the rest of the way at a much slower pace than he had expected.
All the time, too, Tom was troubled about the uncertainty of there being at the Corners any repair shop. He knew it was a small settlement. At most, the repair garage would be very small, and perhaps the mechanic a mere country "jack-of-all-trades," who would fumble the job.
To obtain a car to drag his own into the town was beyond the boy's hopes, and when he came at last to a comfortable looking farmhouse some half a mile that side of the settlement, he determined to see if he could not obtain a pair of horses from the farmer, to get the car to the hamlet.
He approached the back door of the house without seeing anybody about. It was already growing dark, he had hobbled so slowly on the road. As he stepped upon the porch, Tom heard a sudden furious barking inside the house.
"Welcome to our city!" he muttered. "If nobody's at home but that savage beast, I'm likely to fare about as Roberto did at that farmhouse 'way back on the road by Culm Falls."
But he ventured to rap upon the door. It was one of those old-fashioned doors which opens in two parts. The upper half swung outward, but the lower remained bolted.
Lucky for Tom Cameron this was so. A great, shaggy beast, with gleaming fangs and slobbering jaws, appeared over the ledge, scratching with his strong claws to get out at the intruder.
"What do you want?" demanded a shrill voice from somewhere behind the excited brute. "We ain't got nothin' for tramps."
"I should say you most certainly had something for tramps, Madam," said Tom, when he could make himself heard. "Any tramp would run from that fellow."
"I don't see you running. But you better," advised the woman, who was thin-faced, scant of hair, and had a voice about as pleasant as a whip-saw going through a knot.
"But I am not a tramp, I assure you, Madam," said Tom, politely.
"Huh! ye look it," declared the woman, without any politeness at all.
And the boy did look rather dilapidated. He had gotten more than a little wet in the first of the shower, and he had pawed around among the "internal arrangements" of the balky auto to such purpose, that he was disheveled and oil-streaked from head to foot.
"I'm in disguise just now, Ma'am," laughed Tom, cheerfully. "But really, I have not come begging either food or lodging. Is your husband at home?"
"Yes, he is. And he'll be here in a minute and chase ye off the place—ef ye don't scat at once," said the woman, sourly. "He wouldn't hold back this dog, now, I tell ye."
"Please believe me, Madam," urged Tom, "that I am better than I appear. Our car broke down on the road yonder, and I have come to see if I can hire a team of horses to drag it into the Corners."
"Car? What kind of a car? Ain't no railroad here," she said, suspiciously.
The dog had barked himself breathless by now and they could talk a little easier. Tom smiled, as he replied:
"Our motor car—automobile."
"Huh! why didn't ye say so?" she demanded. "Tryin' to fool me. It's bad enough ter drive one o' them abominations over people's roads, but tryin' to make out ye air on a train—though, land o' Goshen! some of ye make 'em go as fast as airy express I ever see. Wal! what about your ortermobile?"
"It's broken down," said Tom, feeling that he had struck the wrong house, after all, if he expected help.
"I'm 'tarnal glad of it!" snapped the farmer's wife. "Nuthin' could please me better. Las' time I went to town one o' them plagued nuisances come hootin' erlong an' made the old mare back us clean inter the ditch—an' I broke a dozen an' a ha'f of aigs right in the lap of my new bombazeen dress. Drat 'em all, I say!"
"I am very sorry, Ma'am, that the accident occurred. But I can assure you I was not the cause of it," Tom said, quietly, and stifling a great desire to laugh. "I wish only to get your husband to help me with his team—and I will pay him well."
"Huh! what d'ye call well?" she demanded. "A boy like you ain't likely to have much money."
Thus brought to a "show down," Tom promptly pulled out his billcase and opened it in the light that streamed out of the doorway. The woman could see that he carried quite a bundle of notes—and that they were not all single dollar bills!
"Land o' Goshen!" she ejaculated. "Where'd you steal all that money, ye young ruffian? I thought there was suthin' mighty bad about you when I fust set eyes on ye."
This was a compliment that Tom Cameron had not been looking for! He was certainly taken aback at the woman's words, and before he could make any response, she raised her voice and began to shout for "Sam!"
"Crickey!" thought the boy, "I hope Sam will have a better opinion of me than she does, or I'm likely to get into trouble."
He began to back off the porch, and had his ankle not pained him so, he certainly would have set off on a run. Perhaps it is well he did not try this, however, for the woman cried:
"You move a step off'n thet platform before Sam Blodgett comes an' I'll open the lower ha'f of this door and let the dawg loose on ye!"
Then she bawled for her husband again, and pretty soon a shouted response came from the direction of the barns. Then a lantern flickered and swung, and Tom knew the man was coming toward the house.
He appeared—a short, heavy-set man, barefooted, and with a pail of milk in one hand and the lantern in the other.
"What's the matter, Sairy?" he demanded.
"Thet's what I wanter know," snapped the woman. "It 'pears like he's one o' these runaway boys ye read about in the papers—an' he's stole some money."
"I haven't either!" cried Tom, in some exasperation. "I don't have to steal money—or anything else, I hope. I showed her that I had some money, so that she would believe I could pay you for some work I wanted done——"
"What work?" interposed the farmer.
Tom told him about the stalled auto and what he wanted.
"How much'll ye give?" shot in the farmer, right to the point.
"What do you ask to drag the machine to town—to the Corners, I mean?"
"If it's where ye say it is, ten dollars!"
"All right," agreed the boy. "Your wife knows I have the money. I'll pay you when we get to the Corners."
"I know ye got the money," said the woman. "But I don't know how ye got it. And if you've got an ortermobile, too, I bet ye stole that!"
"You hesh up, Sairy," advised Mr. Blodgett. "No need of your sp'ilin' a trade. Gimme my supper. I'll hafter eat b'fore I go with ye, young man."
"Oh, all right," sighed Tom, remembering how the girls must be very much frightened by this time.
The man tramped into the house with the milk and the lantern. Neither he nor his wife asked Tom inside—or mentioned supper to him. The woman put it steaming on the table and Tom—like the dog—might stand and look on.
At last the farmer was finished. "Guess the team's eat by now," he remarked, and came out with the lantern hung on his arm. All this time the dog had had "fits and starts" of wanting to get at Tom and eat him up. Now he slipped past his master and ran at the visitor with a savage growl.
The boy had no idea of being made the supper of the brute, no matter how hungry Fido might be. So he kicked out and barely touched him. Instantly the brute set up a terrible "ki-yi-ing!" and shot off the porch and disappeared into the darkness. Evidently the Blodgetts kept the animal for its bark, for it did not have the pluck of a woodchuck!
"Come on," advised Sam, as the woman began to rail again. "She's wound up an' ain't likely to run down again for a week. You sure you wanter pay ten dollars for this job?"
"I'm sure I will pay that for it, whether I want to or not," declared Tom, with confidence.
"Aw right. We'll be movin'. Maybe another shower by'm'by, an' I sha'n't wanter be out in it."
"We'll go just as fast as you want to," said Tom, hobbling along to the stables. "I won't keep you back, Mr. Blodgett."
"You're lame, I see," said the man, not unkindly. "You kin straddle one of the hosses if you like."
Tom was glad enough to do this, and in a few minutes they were going back over the dark track Tom had come, the harness jingling from the horses' hames, and Mr. Blodgett trudging sturdily along by the animals' heads.
They came to the top of the ridge from which the stalled car had last been seen by Tom. "There are the lights!" he cried.
He was glad to see them. They shone cheerfully in the dark, and he had no idea that the girls were in any trouble.
But when they got down to the bottom of the hill there was neither sign nor sound of the two girls. Tom shouted at the top of his voice. He searched the car all over for some written word. He saw that the girls had carried off only their own personal belongings and nothing else.
What could it mean? Surely no thieves had come this way, or the car would have been stripped of everything portable, and of value. At least, so it seemed to Master Tom. He was not wise enough to suspect that the goods in the car had been left alone to mislead him. The Gypsies had been after bigger game than a few dollars' worth of auto furnishings.
"Come now!" exclaimed Sam Blodgett. "I can't wait here all night. I only agreed to drag the car ter town."
"But where could those girls have gone? My sister and Ruth Fielding?"
"Ye ain't payin' me ter be no detectif," drawled the man. "Come! Shell I hitch on?"
"Oh, yes! I don't know what else to do," groaned the boy. "I've got to get the car fixed first of all. Then I will find help and follow the girls."
The farmer was as unsympathetic as a man possibly could be. He started the car and let Tom ride in it. But he had no word of advice to give about the absent girls.
Perhaps, like his wife, he believed that Tom was not honest, that the car was stolen, and that Tom's companions were mythical!
They rolled into Severn Corners at ten o'clock. Of course, in a hamlet of that kind, there was scarcely a light burning. Tom had learned from Blodgett that the local blacksmith sometimes "monkeyed with ortermobiles that come erlong busted."
So he had the farmer draw the car to the door of the blacksmith shop.
"Sim lives right next door, there," said Blodgett, preparing to depart. "Mebbe ye kin wake him up an' convince him he'd oughter mend yer contraption in the middle of the night. But Sim Peck is constable, too, so mebbe ye won't keer ter trouble him," and the farmer drove away with a chuckle.
This news was, however, important to Tom. A constable was just about the man he most wanted to see. It had dawned on the boy's mind that his sister and Ruth had gotten into trouble, and he must find help for them.
The street of the village was dark. This was one of the nights when the moon was booked to shine, but forgot to! The town fathers evidently lit the street lights only when the almanac said there was to be no moon.
Tom removed one of the headlights and found his way to the door of the cottage next to the smithy. There was neither bell nor knocker, but he thundered at the panel with right good will, until he heard a stir in a chamber above. Finally a blind opened a little way and a sleepy voice inquired what he wanted.
"Are you the blacksmith, sir?" asked Tom.
"Huh? Wal! I should say I was. But I ain't no doctor," snarled the man above, "and I ain't in the habit of answering night calls. Don't ye see I ain't got no night bell? Go away! you're actin' foolish. I don't shoe hosses this time o' night."
"It's not a horse," explained Tom, near laughter despite his serious feelings. "It's a motor-car."
"Naw, I don't shoe no ortermobile, neither!" declared the man, and prepared to close the blind.
"Say, Mister!" shouted Tom. "Do come down. I need you——"
"If I come down thar, I won't come as no blacksmith, nor no mechanic. I'll come as the constable and run ye in—ye plaguey whipper-snapper!"
"All right," cried Tom, fearing he would shut the blind. "Come down as constable. I reckon I need you in that character more than any other."
"I believe ye do!" exclaimed the man, angrily. "If you air there when I git on my pants, you'll take a walk to the callaboose. None o' you young city sports air goin' to disturb the neighborhood like this—not if I know it!"
Meanwhile, Tom could hear him stirring around, tumbling over the chairs in the dark, and growling at his boots, and otherwise showing his anger. But the boy was desperate, and he stood still until the man appeared—tin star pinned to his vest.
"Wal, by gravey!" exclaimed the blacksmith-constable. "Ain't you a reckless youngster ter face up the majesty of the law in this here way?"
Tom saw that, after all, the constable was grinning, and was not such an ill-natured fellow, now that he was really awake. The boy plunged into his story and told it with brevity, but in detail.
"Why, I see how it is, youngster," said the man. "You're some scart about your sister and that other girl. But mebbe nothing's happened 'em at all."
"But where have they gone?"
"I couldn't tell you. We'll make search. But we've got to have something to travel in, and if it don't take too long to fix your auto, we'll travel in that."
Of course, this was good sense, and Tom saw it, impatient as he was. The constable laid aside the vest with the badge of office upon it, and the blacksmith proceeded to open his forge and light a fire and a lantern. Then he listened to Tom's explanation of what had happened to the car, and went to work.
Fortunately the damage was not serious, and the blacksmith was not a bad mechanic. Therefore, in an hour and a half he closed the smithy again, removing his apron, and the constable donned his vest and got into the car beside the troubled Tom.
"Now let her out, son!" advised the official. "You've got all the law with ye that there is in this section, and ye kin go as fast as ye please."
Tom needed no urging. He shot the repaired car over the road at a pace that would have made his sister and her chum scream indeed!
Once at the bottom of the hill where the car had been stalled, they stopped and got out, each taking a lantern by the constable's advice. Blodgett and his horses had done their best to trample out the girls' footsteps, but there had been no other vehicle along the road, and the searchers managed to find footprints of the girls at one side.
"Sure them's them?" asked Mr. Peck.
"You can see they are not the prints of men's shoes," said Tom, confidently.
"Right ye air! And here's another woman's shoe—only larger. They went away with some woman, that's sure."
"A woman?" muttered Tom, greatly amazed. "Whoever could she be—and where have they gone with her?"
A BREAK FOR LIBERTY
Ruth finally slept in the Gypsy van as sweetly as though she were in her own little bed in the gable room at the Red Mill. She was bodily wearied, and she had lost herself while yet she was watching the Gypsy Queen worshipping the pearl necklace, and fearing that the man with the evil eyes was peering into the interior of the van.
A hundred noises of the Gypsy camp awakened her when the sun was scarcely showing his face. Dogs barked and scampered about; horses neighed and stamped; roosters crowed and hens cackled. The children were crying, or laughing, and the women chattering as they went about the getting of breakfast at the fires.
The fires crackled; the men sat upon the van tongues cleaning harness after the rain and mud of the afternoon before. The boys were polishing the coats of the beautiful horses, till they shone again.
All these activities Ruth Fielding could see through the tiny windows of the queen's van, in which she and Helen Cameron were imprisoned. Her chum roused, too, but was half tempted to cry, when she remembered their circumstances. Queen Zelaya had gone out.
"Come on!" exclaimed Ruth. "We've got to make the best of it. Get on your dress and shoes, and perhaps they will let us out, too."
"Let's run away, Ruthie," whispered Helen.
"The very first chance we get—sure we will!" agreed her chum.
They found the door unlocked, and, as nobody stayed them, the two girls descended the steps to the ground. A cross-looking dog came and smelled of them, but the bold-looking girl who had brought the supper the night before drove him away.
Ruth essayed to speak to her, but she shook her head and laughed. Perhaps she did not understand much English.
Ruth was looking around eagerly for Roberto. Had she seen the Gypsy boy, she would certainly have thrown herself—and Helen—upon him for protection. But although not many of the Gypsies looked unkindly toward the girls, none appeared really friendly.
The woman who had aided in their capture the night before took them down to the water, where they might wash their faces and hands and comb their hair, using the toilet requisites from their bags. Nobody had offered to interfere with them in any manner, or touch their belongings. The woman waited patiently until they were ready, and took them back to the camping ground for breakfast.
But Ruth had seen something. At first she dared not whisper it to her chum. After they had eaten (and a very good breakfast it was that the Gypsies gave them), she managed to get Helen out of earshot of the watchers.
Everybody in the camp watched the prisoners. The girls were not driven back into the van again at once, but Ruth saw that even the children circled about her and Helen, at a little distance, so that the girls were continuously guarded.
They sat down upon an old stump, in an open space, where nobody could creep near enough to hear what Ruth said to Helen without one or the other of the captives seeing the eavesdropper.
"What is it?" asked Helen, anxiously. "Oh, Ruth! where do you suppose Tom is? What can he think of us?"
"I only hope Tom won't come along here alone and fall into trouble, too," said the girl of the Red Mill, in return. "But I believe there is a chance for us to get away without his help, dear."
"Oh, how?" demanded her chum.
"Did you look along the shore when we were down there to the lake just now?"
"Yes. In both directions. There wasn't a soul in sight but you and myself and that woman," returned Helen, showing that she had been observant to a degree, at least.
"You are right. It is a lonely spot. I saw nobody. But I saw a fishing punt."
"A fishing punt?"
"Yes. Pulled up on the shore a little way. There is a pole in it, too. It can be pushed off into the water easily, and I did not see another boat of any kind in either direction."
"Oh, Ruth! Neither did I. I didn't even see the boat you speak of."
"It is there just the same. We can reach it in one minute from here—by running."
"Let's run, then!" whispered Helen, energetically.
"We'll wait our chance. They are watching too closely now. By and by they must get more careless. Then we'll try it."
"But I don't just see what we can do in that boat," queried Helen, after a moment's thought.
"Push out into the lake, so that they can't reach us. Then risk being seen by Tom or somebody else who will help us escape the Gypsies."
"But these men will follow us," said Helen, with a shudder. "They can swim—some of them—surely."
"And if they try it, we'll beat them off with the push-pole," declared Ruth. "Keep up your pluck, Helen. They will not really dare hurt us—especially if they expect to get money for our release. And I'd like to know," added Ruth, with rather a bitter little laugh, "who will pay my ransom?"
"I'll make father pay whatever they ask," whispered Helen. "Oh, dear! won't he be just mad when he hears about it?"
Soon the activities of the camp changed. It was plain to the two girls that their captors had no intention of spending the day in this dell by the lake side.
A number of the men and boys had gone off with some of the horses early. Now they returned, and it was evident that the men were angry, if not a little frightened. They talked loudly with Zelaya, and the Queen of the Gypsies seemed to be scolding them soundly.
It was surprising to the visitors at the camp that the old woman should have such influence over these black-browed ruffians. But she did possess a power; it was self-evident!
Soon preparations were begun for shifting camp. The tents were struck and all the paraphernalia of the camp was returned to the three vans.
"Something has happened," whispered Ruth to Helen. "Perhaps Tom has raised the hue and cry for us, and they are afraid of being caught here with us in their possession."
"Mean old things!" snapped Helen. "I wish they would all be caught and put into jail."
"The little children, too?"
"The little ones will grow up to be big ones—and they are all bad," declared Helen, with confidence.
"I can't believe that Roberto is bad," said Ruth, thoughtfully. "I wish he was with them now. I believe he would help us get away."
"Maybe these are not his people."
"I think they are," returned Ruth. But she did not say anything then to Helen about the pearl necklace, and the cashbox of Queen Zelaya.
The necklace was never out of Ruth's thought, however, for she was sure it had been stolen. The girl of the Red Mill would know the necklace again; wherever she might see it.
In the first place it was the most beautiful necklace she had ever seen. But there was a peculiar pendant attached to it—in the shape of a fleur-de-lis—of larger pearls, that would distinguish it among any number of such articles of adornment.
Ruth kept in mind the chance she hoped would arise for their escape. Helen was hopeless; but she had agreed to make the attempt, if Ruth did.
The whole camp was busy in preparing for departure. There were not so many eyes now upon the girls. And—therefore—there being no regular guard set over them, the opportunity Ruth hoped for arose.
In harnessing one of the horses to a van, something happened to call most of the excited crowd together. The horse kicked, and one of the men was hurt.
The moment the shouting over this incident arose, Ruth pinched Helen and they both got up and slipped into the wood. They were out of sight in a moment, and having chosen the side toward the lake, they set off at top speed through the underbrush for the spot where Ruth had seen the fishing punt.
"Suppose it leaks?" gasped Helen, running hard beside her friend.
"Well! we'll know it when we're in deep water," grimly returned Ruth.
At that moment they heard a great hullabaloo at the camp behind them.
"They've discovered we're missing," gasped Helen.
"Come on, then!" cried Ruth. "Let's see if we can outwit them. We've got a chance for liberty, my dear. Don't lose heart."
RUTH IN THE TOILS
The lake shore was just ahead of the fugitives. Ruth had been but a few yards out of the way in her calculations. She and Helen came out upon the beach almost at the spot where the fishing punt lay.
The boat appeared to be sound, and the pole lying in it was a straight, peeled ash sapling, not too heavy for either of the girls to handle.
"Jump in, Helen!" commanded Ruth. "Take the pole and push off. I'll push here at the bow."
"But you'll get all wet!" quavered her chum.
"As though that mattered," returned the other, with a chuckle, as she leaned against the bow of the punt and braced her feet for the grand effort. "Now!"
Helen had scrambled in and seized the pole. She thrust it against the shore, her own weight bearing down the stern, which was in the water, and thus raising the bow a trifle.
"All-to-geth-er!" gasped Ruth, as though they were at "tug-of-war" in the Briarwood gymnasium.
The boat moved. Ruth's feet slipped and she scrambled to get a fresh brace for them.
"Now, again!" she cried.
At that moment a great hound came rushing out of the wood upon their trail, raised his red eyes, saw them, and uttered a mournful bay.
"We're caught!" wailed Helen.
"We're nothing of the kind!" returned her friend. "Push again, Helen!"
One more effort and Ruth was ankle deep in the water. The boat floated free!
But before the brave girl could scramble aboard, the hound leaped for her. Helen screamed. That shriek was enough, without the baying of the hound, to bring their enemies to the water's edge.
Ruth Fielding was terrified—of course! But she gave a final push to the boat as the hound grabbed her. Fortunately the beast seized only her skirt. Perhaps he had been taught not to actually worry his prey.
However, the girl was dragged to her knees, and she could not escape. The punt shot out into the lake, and Ruth shouted to her chum:
"Keep on! keep on! Never mind me! Find Tom and bring help——Oh!"
The weight of the big dog had cast her into the shallow water. She immediately scrambled to her feet again. The hound held onto the skirt. The material was too strong to easily tear, and she could not get away.
There was a crashing in the brush and out upon the edge of the lake came half a dozen of the Gypsy men and one of the women. She was the one who had befooled Ruth and Helen into entering the green van the night before. When she saw Ruth's plight, standing in the water with the hound holding her, she laughed as though it were a great joke.
But the men did not laugh. He with the squinting eye strode down to the girl and would have slapped her with his hard palm, had not the woman jumped in and put herself between the man and Ruth. She seemed to threaten him in her own language, and the ruffian desisted.
One of the boys threw off his clothing—all his outer garments, at least—and plunged right into the lake after Helen. The boat had swung around, for there was considerable current in Long Lake.
"Don't let him come near you, Helen!" screamed Ruth. "Use your pole!"
Her friend stood very bravely in the stern of the punt and raised the pole threateningly. The Gypsy boy could not easily overtake the boat, which was drifting farther and farther out toward the middle of the lake.
Some of the others began running along the shore as though to keep pace with the boat. But suddenly a long-drawn, eerie cry resounded from the direction of the camp. The men stopped and returned; the boy scrambled ashore and hastily grabbed his clothing. The woman and the squint-eyed man dragged Ruth into the bush.
The cry was a signal of some kind, and one not to be disobeyed. The Gypsies hurried back to the vans, and Ruth did not see Helen again.
All was confusion at the camp. The horses were ready to start, and the movables were packed. The children and women swarmed into two of the vans. Queen Zelaya stood at the door of the other, and the moment she saw that one of the prisoners had not been recovered, she began to harangue her people threateningly.
The squint-eyed man pushed Ruth toward the old woman. Zelaya's claw-like hand seized the girl's shoulder.
She was jerked forward and up the steps into the van. Almost at once the caravan started, and Zelaya pulled the door to, and darkened the windows.
"Quick, now!" she commanded the girl. "Take off your hat. Gypsies have no use for hats."
She seized it and thrust it into one of her boxes. Then she commanded Ruth to remove her frock, and that followed the hat into the same receptacle. Afterward the girl was forced to take off her shoes and stockings.
"Sit down here!" commanded Zelaya, as the van rolled along. The queen had been mixing some kind of a lotion in a bowl. Now with a sponge she anointed Ruth's face and neck, far below the collar of any gown she would wear; likewise her arms and hands, and her limbs from the knees down. Then Zelaya threw some earth on Ruth's feet and streaked her limbs with the same. She gave her a torn and not over-clean frock to put on instead of her own clothing, and insisted that she don the ugly garment at once.
"Now, Gentile girl," hissed the old woman, "if they come to search for you, speak at your peril. We say you are ours—a wicked, orphan Gypsy, wicked through and through."
She tore down Ruth's hair and rubbed some lotion into it that darkened its color, too. She really looked as wild and uncouth as the bold girl who waited upon the queen of the Gypsies.
"Now let them find you!" cackled the old woman. "You are Belle, my great-granddaughter, and you are touched here—eh?" and she tapped her own wrinkled forehead with her finger.
Ruth cried a little. But, after all, it was more because she was lonely than for any other reason. What would eventually happen to her in the Gypsy queen's toils she did not know. She had not begun to worry about that as yet.
Helen had gotten clear away. She was confident of that, and was likewise sure that her chum would rouse the authorities and come in search of her. Tom, too, was faithful; he must already be stirring up the whole neighborhood to find his sister and Ruth.
How far the caravan had traveled the night before, after the girls had joined the Gypsies, Ruth could not guess. But she realized that now they were making very good time up the road leading to Boise Landing, along the edge of Long Lake.
There might be some pursuit already. If Tom had telegraphed his father, Mr. Cameron would come looking for Helen "on the jump"! And had the searchers any idea the Gypsies had captured the two girls, Ruth was sure that the wanderers would get into trouble very quickly.
"Why, even Uncle Jabez would 'start something,' as Tom would say, if he learned of this. I believe, even if I am not 'as good as a boy,' that Uncle Jabez loves me and would not let a parcel of tramps carry me off like this."
She wiped away the tears, therefore, and in looking into a cloudy little mirror screwed to the wall of the vehicle, she found that the tears did not wash off the walnut stain. She had been dyed with a "fast color," sure enough!
"If Heavy and The Fox, or Belle and Lluella could see me now!" thought Ruth Fielding.
Suddenly the caravan halted. There were shouts and cries, and evidently the other vans were being emptied of their occupants in a hurry. Some of the men seemed to be arguing in English at the head of the queen's van.
Ruth believed that a searching party had overtaken the Gypsies. She feared there would be a fight, and she was anxious to show herself, so that her unknown rescuers might see her.
But she dared not scream. Old Zelaya scowled at her so savagely and threatened her so angrily with her clenched fist, that Ruth dared not speak. Finally the old woman opened the door of the van and flung her down the steps.
The act was so unexpected that Ruth fell into the arms of the crowd waiting for her. It was evidently ready for her appearance. The boys and girls, and some of the women, received her into their midst, and they made so much noise, chattering and shrieking, and dancing about her, that Ruth was both confused and frightened.
Had she herself shrieked aloud, her voice would have been drowned in the general hullabaloo. This noise was all intentional on the part of the Gypsies, for up at the head of the caravan Ruth caught a glimpse of a big man standing with a stout oak club in his hand and a big shiny star pinned to his vest near the armhole.
A constable! Whether he was there searching for her and Helen, or was merely making inquiries about a robbed hen-roost, the girl from the Red Mill could not guess. There was so much confusion about her, that she could not hear a word the constable said!
She waved her hand to him and tried to attract his attention. The girls and boys laughed at her, and pulled her about, and the bold girl she had seen before almost tore the frock from her shoulders.
Suddenly Ruth realized that, even did the constable look right at her, he would not discover that she was a white girl. She looked just as disreputable in every way as the Gypsy children themselves!
The constable came toward the first van. Zelaya now sat upon the top step, smoking a cheroot, and nodding in the sun as though she were too old and too feeble to realize what was going on. Yet Ruth was sure that the sly old queen had planned this scene and told her tribesmen what to do.
Ruth was whisked away from the steps of the queen's van, and borne off by the shouting, dancing children. She tried to cry out so that the constable would hear her, but the crowd drowned her cries.
She saw the constable search each of the three vans. Of course, he found no girls answering to the descriptions of Ruth and Helen—and it was the girls that he was searching for. He was Sim Peck, the blacksmith-constable from Severn Corners. It was a pity Tom Cameron had not been with him!
Finally Ruth saw that the man had given up the search, and the Gypsies were going to depart. She determined to make a desperate attempt to attract his attention to herself.
She suddenly sprang through the group of children, knocking the bold girl down in her effort, and started, yelling, for the constable. Instantly one of the men halted her, swung her about, clapped a palm over her mouth, and she saw him staring balefully down into her face.
"You do that ageen—I keel you!" he hissed.
It was the evil-eyed man who had spied upon Queen Zelaya, as she had worshipped the pearl necklace in the van the evening before. Ruth was stricken dumb and motionless. The man looked wicked enough to do just what he said he would.
She saw the constable depart. Then the Gypsies huddled into the wagons, and she was seized by Zelaya and put into the first van. The old witch was grinning broadly.
"Ah, ha!" she chuckled. "What does the Gentile girl think now? That she shall escape so easily Zelaya? Ha! she is already like one of our own kind. Her own parents would not know her—nor shall they see her again until they have paid, and paid in full!"
"You are holding the wrong girl, Zelaya," murmured Ruth. "My parents are dead, and there is nobody to pay you a great ransom for me."
"False!" croaked the hag, and struck her again.
The caravan rolled on after that for a long way. It did not stop for dinner, and Ruth grew very hungry, for she and Helen had been too excited that morning to eat much breakfast.
Through the open door and the forward window Ruth saw considerable of the road. They were seldom out of sight of the lake. By and by they turned right down to the water's edge and she heard the horses' feet splashing through the shallow water.
She could not imagine where they were going. Out of the door she saw that they seemed to be leaving the land and striking right out into the lake. The water grew deeper slowly, rising first over one step and then another, while the shore of the lake receded behind them. The other vans and the boys driving the horses followed in their wake.
Curious, Ruth arose and went to the forward end of the van. She could see out between the driver and his wife, and over the heads of the horses. The latter were almost shoulder deep now, and were advancing very slowly.
Some rods ahead she saw that there was a wooded island. It was of good size and seemed to be densely covered with trees and brush. Yet, there was a patch of sandy shore toward which the horses were being urged.
The lake was so low, that there was a fordable stretch of its bottom between the mainland and this island. These Gypsies seemed to know this bar perfectly, and the driver of the queen's van made no mistake in guiding his span.
In half an hour the horses were trotting through the shallows again. They rolled out upon the white beach, and then Ruth saw that a faint wagon trail led into the interior of the island.
The Gypsies had been there before. There, in the middle of the wooded isle, was a clearing. The moment the vans arrived, all the people jumped out, laughing and talking, and the usual preparations for an encampment were begun. Only, in this case, Queen Zelaya sent the squint-eyed man and the ruffian who had so frightened Ruth to either shore of the island to keep watch.
Tents were set up, fires kindled, a great supper begun, and the poultry was set loose to roam at will. Somewhere the Gypsy children had picked up a kid and a little calf. Both of these were freed, and at once began to butt each other, to the vast delight of the little ones.
All about, under-foot and growling if they were disturbed, were the ugly dogs. Ruth was afraid of them!
Now that they were on the island, the Gypsies gave her slight attention. The children did not come near her, and she was glad of that. Of course, the adults knew she could not escape.
Later she heard one of the men on the shore shout. Nobody was disturbed at the camp, but after a little, there was some loud conversation and then somebody broke through the bushes and appeared suddenly in the little clearing.
Ruth Fielding gasped and sprang to her feet. Nobody noticed her.
The newcomer was Roberto. He strode swiftly across the camp to the queen's van. Zelaya sat upon the steps and when he came before her, he bowed very respectfully.
The old woman showed more emotion at his appearance than Ruth believed possible. She got up quickly and kissed the boy on both of his cheeks. Her eyes sparkled and she talked with him for some time in the Tzigane tongue.
Once or twice Roberto glanced in Ruth's direction, as though he and the old woman had been speaking of the captive girl. But, to the latter's surprise, she saw no look of recognition in the Gypsy boy's eyes.
Finally, when he parted from the queen, Roberto crossed the encampment directly toward Ruth. The girl, fearful, yet hoping he would see and know her, rose to her feet and took a single step toward him.
Roberto turned upon her fiercely. He struck at her with his arm and pushed Ruth roughly back into her seat. But although the action was so cruel and his look so hateful, the girl heard him whisper:
"Wait! Let the little lady have no fear!"
Then he passed on to greet his friends about the nearest campfire.
Helen Cameron was so fearful at first of the Gypsies overtaking her, that she had no thought of any peril which might lie ahead of the drifting punt, into which she had scrambled. She realized that Ruth had sacrificed herself in their attempt to escape, but she could render her chum no help now. Indeed, the current which had seized the boat was so strong that she could not have gotten back to the shore, had she tried.
When the Gypsies disappeared into the wood, taking Ruth with them, Helen realized her helplessness and loneliness, and she wept. She sat in the stern of the punt and floated on and on, without regard to where she was going.
She could not have changed the course of the punt, however. She was now in too deep water; the guiding pole was of no use to her, and there were no oars, of course. She was drifting toward the middle of the lake, it seemed, yet the general direction was eastward.
There, at the lower end of the lake, a wide stream carried its waters toward the distant Minturn Dam. But long before the stream came to that place, there was much of what the local guides called "white water."
These swift rapids Helen thought little about at first. She had had no experience to warn her of her peril. At this moment she was fearful only of the wild Gypsy clan that had tried to keep her prisoner and that had, indeed, succeeded in carrying away her dear friend, Ruth Fielding.
As she floated on, she saw nothing more of the Gypsies. She began to believe that they had not turned back to follow her along the edge of the lake. They were satisfied with their single prisoner!
"But father will see to that!" sobbed Helen. "He won't let them run away with Ruth Fielding—I know he won't! Dear, dear! what would I ever do if Ruth disappeared and we shouldn't meet each other again—or not until we were quite grown up?
"Such things have happened! I've read about it in books. And those dreadful Gypsies make the children they capture become Gypsies, too. Suppose, years and years hence, I should meet Ruth and she should ask to tell my fortune as Gypsy women do—and she shouldn't know me——"
Helen began to sob again. She was working herself up into a highly nervous state and her imagination was "running away with her," as Ruth often said.
Just then she almost lost the punt-pole, and this near-accident startled her. She might need that pole yet—especially if the boat drifted into shallow water.
She looked all around. She stood up, so as to see farther. Not a moving object appeared along either shore of the lake. This was a veritable wilderness, and human habitations were far, far away.
She raised her eyes to the chain of hills over which she and her brother and Ruth had ridden the day before. At one point she could see the road itself, and just then there flashed into view an auto, traveling eastward at a fast clip.
"But, of course, they can't see me 'way down here," said Helen, shaking her head. "They wouldn't notice such a speck on the lake."
So she did not even try to signal to the motor-car, and it was quickly out of sight.
The current was now stronger, it seemed. The punt drifted straight down the lake toward the broad stream through which Long Lake was drained. Helen hoped the boat would drift in near one shore, or the other, but it entered the stream as near the middle as though it had been aimed for that point!
Here the water gripped the heavy boat and drew it onward, swifter and swifter. At first Helen was not afraid. She saw the banks slipping by on either hand, and was now so far from the Gypsies, that she would have been glad to get ashore. Yet she did not think herself in any increased danger.
Suddenly, however, an eddy gripped the boat. To her amazement the craft swung around swiftly and she was floating down stream, stern foremost!
"Oh, dear me! I wish I had a pair of oars. Then I could manage this thing," she told herself.
Then the boat scraped upon a rock. The blow was a glancing one, but it drove the craft around again. She was glad, however, to see the bow aimed properly.
From moment to moment the boat now moved more swiftly. It seemed that the foam-streaked water tore at its sides as though desiring to swamp it. Helen sat very quietly in the middle seat, and watched the dimpling, eddying stream with increasing anxiety.
Suddenly the punt darted shoreward. It looked just as though it must be cast upon the beach. Helen raised herself stiffly, seized the pole more firmly, and prepared to leap ashore with its aid.
And just as she was about to risk the feat, the bow of the boat whirled outward again, she was almost cast into the water, and once more the boat whirled down the middle current.
She dropped back into her seat with a gasp. This was terrible! She could not possibly control the craft in the rapids, and she was traveling faster and faster.
The boat came to another eddy, and was whirled around and around, so swiftly, that Helen's poor head swam, too! She raised her voice in a cry for help, but it was likewise a cry of despair. She had no idea that there was a soul within the sound of her voice.
Crash! the boat went against an outcropping rock. It spun around again and darted down the current. It was leaking now; the water poured into it between the sprung planks.
The river widened suddenly into a great pool, fringed with trees. At one point a rock was out-thrust into the river and Helen saw—dimly enough at first—a figure spring into view upon this boulder.
"Help! help!" shrieked the girl, as the boat spun about.
"Hi! catch that!"
It was dear old Tom's voice! The shout brought hope to Helen's heart.
"Oh, Tom! Tom!" she cried. "Save me!"
"Bet you I will!" returned the boy. "Just grab this rope——Now!"
She saw the loop come hurtling through the air. Tom had learned how to properly throw a lariat the summer before, while in Montana, and he and his particular chums had practised the art assiduously ever since that time.
Now, at his second trial, he dropped the noose right across the punt. Helen seized upon it.
"Hitch it to the ring in the bow—quick!" commanded her brother, and Helen obeyed.
In five minutes he had her ashore, but the punt sunk in shallow water.
"I don't care! I don't care!" cried Helen, wading through the shallow water. "I really thought I was going to drown, Tommy boy."
"But where's Ruth? Whatever have you girls been doing since last evening? Where did you go to?"
He held her in his arms for a moment and hugged her tightly. Helen sobbed a little, with her face against his shoulder.
"Oh! it's so-o good to have you again, Tommy," she declared.
Then she told him swiftly all that had happened. Tom was mighty glad to get his sister back, but he was vastly worried about her chum.
"That's what I feared. I had a feeling that you girls had fallen into the hands of those Gypsies. Those men in the old house were two of them——"
"I know it. We saw them at the encampment."
"But if Ruth is still with them," Tom said, "Peck will get her. He said he knew how to handle Gyps. He's been used to them all his life. And this tribe often come through this region, he told me."
"Who is Mr. Peck?" asked Helen, puzzled.
Tom told her of his adventures on the previous night. After returning to the spot where the auto had been stalled earlier in the evening, Tom and the constable had searched with the lanterns all about the place, and had followed the footsteps of the girls and the strange woman to the lower road.
"I had no idea then that the wagon you had evidently gotten into was a Gypsy cart," pursued Tom. "We saw you'd gone on toward Severn Corners, however, and we went back. But you come along with me, now, Helen, and we'll return to that very place. I expect Uncle Ike will be waiting for us. I telephoned him before daylight this morning—and it's now ten o'clock. The car is right back here on the road."
"Oh! I am so glad!"
"Yes. Soon after breakfast Peck and I separated! I came this way in the car, hoping to find some trace of you. Peck made inquiries and said he'd follow the Gyps. Ruth will be taken away from them," declared Tom, with conviction. "That big smith isn't afraid of anybody."
"Oh, I hope so," said Helen. "But that horrible old Gypsy—the queen, she calls herself—is very powerful."
"Not much she isn't!" laughed Tom. "Peck fully feels the importance of that star he wears. I think he would tackle a herd of elephants, if they were breaking the law."
So they sped on in the motor-car, feeling considerably better. The twins were very fond of each other, and were never really happy, when they were apart for long.
But when they ran down into Severn Corners, expecting to find Ruth at the constable's house, they were gravely disappointed. The forge was open and Sim Peck was shoeing a horse. He stood up, hammer in hand, when the motor-car stopped before the smithy.
"Hello!" he said to Tom. "Did you get her?"
"I got my sister. She's had an awful time. Those Gypsies ought to be all shut up in jail," said Tom, vigorously.
"Them 'Gyptians?" drawled Peck, in surprise. "What they got ter do with it?"
"Why, they had everything to do with it. Don't you know that they carried off both my sister here and Ruth Fielding?"
"Look here," said the blacksmith-constable, slowly, "let me understand this. Your sister has been with the 'Gyptians?"
"Yes. Didn't you find Ruth with them?"
"Wait a minute. Was she with old Zelaya's tribe?"
"Yes," cried Helen. "That is the name of the Gypsy queen."
"And the other gal?" demanded the man. "Where is she?"
"That's what I ask you," said Tom, anxiously. "My sister escaped from them, but they recaptured the other girl."
"Sure o' that?" he demanded.
"Yes, I am!" cried Helen. "I saw them drag her back through the woods to the encampment."
"When was this?"
"Not far from six o'clock this morning."
"By gravey!" ejaculated the man. "She ain't with 'em now. I been all through them vans, and seen the whole tribe. There ain't a white gal with 'em," said Mr. Peck, with confidence.
THROUGH THE NIGHT AND THE STORM
Ruth did not really know what to think of Roberto, the Gypsy boy.
His push, as he passed her, had been most rude, but his whispered words seemed a promise of friendship. He did not look at her again, as he went around the encampment. Roberto seemed a privileged character, and it was not hard to guess that he was Queen Zelaya's favorite grandchild.
As for the prisoner, she was scarcely spoken to by anybody. She was not abused, but she felt her position keenly. Particularly was she ashamed of her appearance—barefooted, bareheaded, and stained until she seemed as dark as the Gypsy girls themselves. Ruth thought she looked altogether hateful!
"I really would be ashamed to have Tom Cameron see me now," she thought.
Yet she would have been delighted indeed to see Tom! It was in her chum's twin brother that she hoped, after all, for escape.
For Roberto, the Gypsy, ignored her completely. She feared that his whispered words to her, when he first entered the camp, had meant nothing after all. Why should she expect him to be different from his tribesmen?
The Gypsies fed her well and allowed her to wander about the camp as she pleased. There were two sentinels set to watch the northern and southern shores of the lake. Nobody could approach the island without being observed and warning given to the camp.
Ruth had lost hope of anybody coming to the encampment in search of her, for the present. The constable had doubtless been sent by Tom Cameron, and he would report that there was nobody but Gypsies in the camp. Nobody but her immediate friends would distinguish Ruth from a Gypsy now.
If Helen had found Tom, the situation could not be changed much for Ruth—and the latter realized that. Mr. Cameron and Uncle Jabez would have to be communicated with, before a general alarm could be sent out and detectives put on the case.
By that time, where would the girl from the Red Mill be?
This question was no easy one to answer. Ruth did not believe the Gypsies would remain on this island for any length of time. Queen Zelaya was doubtless shrewd enough to plan a long jump next time, and so throw off pursuit.
Indeed, all the next day the girl could do little but worry about her own situation, and about Helen's fate. The last she had seen of her chum, she had been drifting out into the middle of this lake. Suppose the punt had sprung a leak, or capsized?
Clouds gathered that day, and the second evening on the island closed with a steady, fine rain falling. The encampment was quiet early. Even the dogs found shelter from the wet, but Ruth had every reason to believe that the Gypsy men took turns in guarding the encampment.
Ruth was made to sleep in Queen Zelaya's van, and as soon as it had become real dark, the old woman made her enter. In her rags of clothing, Ruth was not afraid of a little rain—surely she had on nothing that would be spoiled by the wet; but she had to obey the old hag.
At supper time Roberto brought the bowls of savory stew that usually made up that meal for the Gypsies. There were three bowls on the tray and the boy gave Ruth a sharp side glance and pointed to a certain bowl. She dared not refuse to take it.
When he approached his grandmother at the other end of the van, he removed his own bowl before setting the tray upon the box beside her. Ruth hesitated to eat her own portion; she had been afraid of being drugged from the beginning.
Yet, somehow, she could not help feeling confidence in Roberto. The latter ate his supper with gusto, talking all the while with the old woman. But he went away without a word or look at Ruth after the meal.
Soon Zelaya made her go to bed. Ruth was not sleepy, but she appeared to go to sleep almost at once, as she had before. She lay down in all the clothing she wore, for she was apprehensive of something happening on this night. She saw that the old woman was very drowsy herself.
Appearing to sleep, Ruth waited and watched. The storm whined in the trees of the island, but there was no other noise.
Zelaya was at the locked box again, and she soon drew forth her treasure-casket. She fondled the collar of pearls as she had on the first night Ruth had slept in the van.
The girl was watching for that evil face at the window again. For a moment she thought she saw it, but then she recognized that it was Roberto's handsome face against the wet pane.
Suddenly Ruth realized that the old woman had fallen asleep over her box of valuables. The girl was confident that there had been a drugged bowl at supper time, but she had not eaten of it.
There was a little noise at the door—ever so slight. The handle turned, and Roberto's head was thrust in. He nodded at Ruth as though he were sure she was not asleep, and then creeping up the steps, he gazed at his grandmother.
There could be no doubt that she was sound asleep! He slipped in and closed the door. At first he did not say a word to Ruth.
He went to Zelaya's side and shook her lightly. She did not awake. As though she were a child, the strong youth lifted her and placed her in the bed. Then he locked the small box, put the key again around Zelaya's neck, and lowered the treasure box into the chest. The padlock of this he snapped and then turned cheerfully to the watchful Ruth.
"Come!" he whispered. "Missy not afraid of Roberto? Come!"
No. Ruth was not afraid of him. She rose quickly and preceded him, as he directed by a gesture, out of the door of the van. There was neither light nor sound in the whole camp.
Once they were free, Roberto seized the girl's hand and led her through the darkness and the rain. Ruth's tender feet stumbled painfully over the rough ground, but the boy was not impatient.
He seemed to know his way in the dark by instinct. Certainly, Ruth could scarcely see her hand before her face!
However, it was not long before she realized that they had come out upon the shore of the island. There was a vast, empty-looking place before them, which Ruth knew must be the open lake.
Where the sentinels had gone, she could not guess, unless Roberto had managed to drug them, too!
However, there was not a word said, save when Roberto led her down, to the water and she felt it lave her feet. Then he muttered, in a low tone:
"Don't fear, little Missy."
As they waded deeper and deeper into the lake, following as she supposed the track by which the wagons had come to the island, Ruth was more than a little frightened. Yet she would not show Roberto it was so.
Once she whispered to him: "I can swim, Roberto."
"Good! But I will carry you," and he suddenly stooped, slung her across his shoulder as though she had been a feather-weight, and marched on through the water.
It was plain that the Gypsy boy knew this ford better than the drivers of the vans, for he found no spot that he could not wade through and carry Ruth, as well. It was nearly an hour before they reached the land.
The rain beat upon them and the wind soughed in the trees. It seemed to get darker and darker, yet Roberto never hesitated for direction, and setting Ruth down upon her own feet, helped her on till they came to a well-traveled road.
Not far ahead was a light. Ruth knew at once that it was a lamp shining through the windows of some farmhouse kitchen.
"There they will take you in," Roberto said. "They are kind people. I am sorry I could not bring away your own clothes and your bag. But it could not be, Missy."
"Oh! you have been so good to me, Roberto!" she cried, seizing both of his hands. "However can I thank you—or repay you?"
"Don't be too hard on Gypsy—on my old grandmother. She is old and she is a miser. She thought she could make your friends pay her money. But now we will all leave here in the morning and you shall never be troubled by us again."
"I will do nothing to punish her, Roberto," promised Ruth. "But I hope I shall see you at the Red Mill some time."
"Perhaps—who knows?" returned the youth, with a smile that she could see in the dark, his teeth were so white. "Now run to the door and knock. When I see it opened and you go in, I will return."
Ruth Fielding did as she was bidden. She entered the gate, mounted the porch, and rapped upon the kitchen door. The moment she looked into the motherly face of the woman who answered her knock, the girl knew that her troubles were over.
OFF FOR SCHOOL AGAIN
There was much bustle about the old Red Mill. The first tang of frost was in the air, and September was lavishly painting the trees and bushes along the banks of the Lumano with crimson and yellow.
A week had elapsed since Ruth and Helen had been prisoners in the Gypsies' encampment, up in the hills. That week had been crowded with excitement and adventure for the chums and Tom Cameron. They would all three have much to talk about regarding the Gypsies and their ways, for weeks to come.
Uncle Ike Cameron had roused up the County Sheriff and all his minions, before Ruth appeared at Severn Corners, driven by the kindly farmer to whose door Roberto had brought her through the darkness and rain.
Constable Peck, having searched the Gypsy camp, believed that Ruth must have escaped from the Romany people at the same time as Helen. Therefore, it was not until Ruth's complete story was told, that actual pursuit of the Gypsies by the county authorities was begun.
Then Queen Zelaya and her band were not only out of the county, but out of the state, as well. They had hurried across the border, and it was understood that the tribe had gone south—as they usually did in the winter—and would be seen no more in New York State—at least not until the next spring.
The three friends had much to tell wherever they went during this intervening week. They had had a fine time at "Uncle Ike's," but every adventure they had was tame in comparison to those they had experienced on the road overlooking Long Lake.
They wondered what had become of Roberto—if he had returned to his people and risked being accused of letting Ruth escape. Ruth discussed this point with her friends; but one thing she had never mentioned to either Helen, or her brother Tom.
She did not speak to them of the wonderful pearl necklace she had seen in the old Gypsy queen's possession. There was a mystery about that; she believed Zelaya must have stolen it. The man with the wicked face had intimated that it was part of some plunder the Gypsies had secured.
Now, Ruth and Helen—and Tom as well—were ready to start for school again. This was the last morning for some time to come, that Ruth would look out of her little bedroom window at the Red Mill.
She always left the beautiful place with regret. She had come to love old Aunt Alvirah so much, and have such a deep affection and pity for the miserly miller, that the joy of going back to Briarwood was well tempered with remorse.
The night before, Uncle Jabez had come to Ruth, when she was alone, and thrust a roll of coin in her hand. "Ye'll want some ter fritter away as us'al, Niece Ruth," he had said in his most snarling tone.
When she looked at it, her heart beat high. There were five ten-dollar gold pieces!
It was given in an ungrateful way, yet the girl of the Red Mill believed her uncle meant to be kind after all. The very thought of giving up possession of so much money made him cranky. Perhaps he was determined to give her these fifty dollars on the very day they had been wrecked on the Lumano. No wonder he had been so cross all this time!
It was Uncle Jabez's way. As Aunt Alvirah said, he could not help it. At least, he had never learned to make any effort to cure this unfortunate niggardliness that made him seem so unkind.
"I do wish I had a lot of money," she told Aunt Alvirah, with a sigh. "I would never have to ask him to pay out a cent again. I could refuse to take this that he has given me and then I——"
"Tut, tut, my pretty! don't say that," said the little old woman, soothingly. "It does him good to put his hand in his pocket—it does, indeed. If it is a sad wrench for him ter git it out ag'in—all the better!" and she chuckled a little as she lowered herself into her rocker. "Oh, my back! and oh, my bones!"
"Ye don't understand yer uncle's nater like I do, Ruthie. You bein' his charge has been the salvation of him—yes, it has! Don't worry when he gives ye money; it's all thet keeps his old heart from freezin' right up solid."
Now the Cameron automobile was at the gate, and Helen and Tom were calling to Ruth to hurry. Ben had taken her trunk to the Cheslow station the day before. Ruth appeared with her new handbag (the Gypsies had the old one), flung her arms about Aunt Alvirah's neck as she sat on the porch, and then ran swiftly to the door of the mill.
"Uncle! I'm going!" she called into the brown dusk of the place.
He came slowly to the door. His gray, grim face was unlighted by even an attempt at a smile, as he shook hands with her.
"I know ye'll be a good gal," he said, sourly. "Ye allus be. But be savin' with—with all thet money I gave ye. It's enough to be the ruination of a young gal to hev so much."
He repented of his gift, she knew. Yet she remembered what Aunt Alvirah had said, and refrained from handing it back to him. She determined, however, if she could, to never touch the five gold pieces, and some time, when she was self-supporting, she would hand the very same coins back to him!
This was in her thought as she moved away. So, on this occasion, Ruth Fielding did not leave the Red Mill with a very happy feeling at her heart.
The automobile sped away along the shady road into Cheslow. At the station Mercy Curtis, the lame girl, was awaiting them, although it was still some time before the train was due that would bear them away to Lake Osago.
When it did steam into view and come to a slow stop beside the platform, there was Heavy Stone and The Fox with their hands out of the windows, shouting to them. They had secured two seats facing each other, and Ruth and Mercy joined them, while Tom and Helen took the seat behind.
Such a chattering as there was! The fleshy girl and Mary Cox had not seen Ruth and Helen and Mercy since they had all returned from the Steeles' summer home at Sunrise Farm, and you may believe there was plenty to talk about.
"Who else is here?" demanded Ruth, standing up to search the length of the car for familiar faces.
"Look out, Miss!" cried Heavy, producing her first joke of the fall term. "Remember Lot's wife!"
"Why so?" asked Helen.
"Goodness me! how ignorant you are—and you took chemistry last year, too," declared Jennie Stone.
"I—don't—just—see," admitted Helen.
"You mean to say you don't know what two-fold chemical change Lot's wife underwent?"
"Give it up!"
"Why," giggled Heavy, "first she turned to rubber, and then she turned to salt!"
When the crowd had shown their appreciation, The Fox said:
"We're going to pick up an Infant at Maxwell. Heard about her?"
"No. Who is she?" asked Helen. "Not that Infants interest me much now. We can let the juniors take them in hand. Remember, girls, we are full-fledged seniors this year."
"You'll have an interest in this new girl," said Miss Cox, with assurance.
"She is Nettie Parsons. You know her father is the big sugar man. He has oodles of money!"
"Lot's of sugar, eh?" chuckled Heavy. "Hope she'll bring some to school with her. I have a sweet tooth, I hope you know."
"A tooth! a whole set of sweet teeth, you mean!" cried Ruth.
"I only hope she is nice. I don't care how much money she has," said Helen, smiling. "We won't hold her wealth up against her, if she's the right sort."
"Oh, I'm not fooling," said The Fox, rather sharply, for she had a short temper, "to match her red hair," as Heavy said. "She'll probably bring trunks full of nice dresses to school and loads of jewelry——"
"Won't that be silly? For Mrs. Tellingham won't let her wear them."
"Only on state and date occasions," put in Mercy.
"At any rate, her folks have splendid things. Why! don't you remember about her aunt losing that be-a-utiful necklace last spring?"
"Necklace?" repeated Ruth. "What sort of a necklace?"
"One of the finest pearl collars in the world, they say. Worth maybe fifty thousand dollars. Wonderful!"
"A pearl necklace?" queried the girl from the Red Mill, her interest growing.
"How careless of her!" said Heavy, with a yawn.
"Silly!" exclaimed The Fox. "It was stolen, of course."
"By whom?" demanded Ruth.
"Why, if the police knew that, they'd get back the necklace, wouldn't they?" demanded Mary Cox, with scorn.
"But I didn't know—they might suspect?" suggested Ruth, meekly.
"They do. Gypsies."
"Gypsies!" cried Ruth and Helen together. And then the latter began: "Oh, girls! listen to what happened to Ruth and me only a week ago!"
"Wait a bit, dear," broke in Ruth. "Let us know a little more about the lost necklace. Why do they think the Gypsies took it?"
"I'll tell you," said The Fox. "You see, this aunt of Nettie's is very, very rich. She comes from California, and she was on to visit the Parsons last spring.
"There was a tribe of Gypsies camping near the Parsons estate. They all went over to have their fortunes told—just for a lark, you know. It was after dinner one evening, and there was company. Nettie's Aunt Rachel had dressed her best, and she wore the necklace to the Gypsy camp.
"That very night the Parsons' house was robbed. Not much was taken except the aunt's jewel-box and some money she had in her desk. The robbers were frightened away before they could go to any of the other suites.
"The next day the Gypsies had left their encampment, too. Of course, there was nothing to connect the robbery with the Gyps., save circumstantial evidence. The police didn't find either the Gypsies or the necklace. But Aunt Rachel offered five thousand dollars' reward for the return of the pearls."
"Just think of that!" gasped Helen. "Five thousand dollars. My, Ruthie! wouldn't you like to win that?"
"Indeed I would," returned her chum, with longing.
"But I guess the Gypsies we were mixed up with never owned a pearl necklace like that. They didn't look as though they had anything but the gaily colored rags they stood in—and their horses."
"What do you know about Gypsies?" asked The Fox.
"A whole lot," cried Helen. "Let me tell you," and she proceeded to repeat the story of their adventure with Queen Zelaya and her tribe. Ruth said nothing during the story; her mind was busy with the mystery of the missing necklace.
GETTING INTO HARNESS
Nettie Parsons proved to be a very sweet, quiet girl, when she came aboard the train at Maxwell. She was rather older than the majority of girls who entered Briarwood Hall as "Infants." It seemed that she had suffered considerable illness and that had made her backward in her books.
"Never mind! She'll be company for Ann Hicks," said Helen. "Won't that be fine? Neither of them will feel so badly, then, because they are in the lower classes."
"We'll get the Sweetbriars to make her feel at home," said Ruth, to her chum. "No hazing this term, girlie! Let's welcome the newcomers like friends and sisters."
"Sure, my dear," agreed Helen. "We haven't forgotten what they did to us, when we first landed at Briarwood Hall."
When the train ran down to the dock where they were to take the steamboat Lanawaxa for the other side of the lake, there was a crowd of a dozen or more girls in waiting. A welcoming shout greeted Ruth as she headed the party from the vestibule coach:
"S. B.—Ah-h h! S. B.—Ah-h-h! Sound our battle-cry Near and far! S. B.—All! Briarwood Hall! Sweetbriars, do or die— This be our battle-cry— Briarwood Hall! That's All!"
Every girl present belonged to the now famous school society, and Nettie Parsons was interested right away. She wished to know all about it, and how to join, and of course she was referred to Ruth.
In this way the girl of the Red Mill and the new pupil became better acquainted, and Ruth found opportunity very soon to ask Nettie about the pearl necklace that her Aunt Rachel had lost some months before.
Meanwhile, the girls, with their hand luggage, trooped down the long dock to the Lanawaxa's boarding-plank. Heavy Stone turned suddenly in the hot sunshine (for it was a glowing noon) to find two of the smaller girls mincing along in her very footsteps.
"I say! what are you two Infants following me so closely for?" she demanded.
"Please, Miss," giggled one of them, "mother told me to take Sadie for a nice long walk, but to be sure and keep her in the shade!"
This delighted the other girls immensely, for it was not often that anybody got ahead of the plump girl. She was too good-natured to take offense, however, and only grinned at them.
They all crowded aboard and sought seats on the upper deck of the steamer. Tom had met some of his friends who attended the Seven Oaks Military Academy, among them big Bob Steele and little Isadore Phelps.
Of course the boys joined the girls, and necessary introductions were made. Before the Lanawaxa pulled out of the dock, they were all having great fun.
"But how we will miss Madge!" was the general cry of the older girls, for Bobbins' sister no longer attended Briarwood Hall, and her absence would be felt indeed.
Not being under the immediate eye of his sharp-tongued sister, Bobbins showed his preference for Mercy Curtis, and spent a good deal of time at the lame girl's side. He was so big and she was so slight and delicate, that they made rather an odd-looking pair.
However, Bobbins enjoyed her sharp tongue and withstood her raillery. She called him "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" and made believe that she was very much afraid of him; yet it was noticeable that there was no venom in the sharp speeches the lame girl addressed to her big cavalier—and Mercy Curtis could be most unmerciful if she so desired!
Soon they were on the train again, and a short run to the Seven Oaks station, where the red brick barracks of the Military School frowned down upon the railroad from the heights above.
"I wouldn't go to school in such an ugly place," declared the girls.
Here is where they separated from their boy friends. A great, ramshackle bus, and another vehicle, were waiting at the end of the platform. An old man in a long duster stood beside the bus to help the girls in and see to their baggage. This was "Uncle Noah" Dolliver.
At once The Fox formed the girls into line, and keeping step to the march, they tramped the length of the platform, singing:
"Uncle Noah, he built an ark— One wide river to cross! And in it we have many a lark— One wide river to cross! One wide river! One wide river of Jordan! One wide river! One wide river to cross!
"The Sweetbriars get in, one by one— One wide river to cross! The last in line is Heavy Stone— One wide river to cross!"
And the plump girl was the last one to pop into the ancient equipage, filling the very last seat—tight!
"Lucky you brought along another wagon, Uncle Noah," said The Fox, as the remainder of the girls ran to the second vehicle.
Both of the wagons soon started. It was a hot and dusty afternoon and the girls were really crowded.