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CHAPTER XIII ON GUARD
Perhaps Alice really intended to do as she had intimated, and seek to learn, through a direct question, the identity of the mysterious man who seemed to have some object in remaining about Oak Farm. Then, again, she may not. I believe it may not have been altogether clear in her own mind.

At any rate, once Ruth began to show the white feather, and to insist that Alice come away—then, if ever, the younger girl made up her mind that she would do as she had said—really interview the stranger—for, be it known, Alice was rather headstrong when opposed.

But she had no chance to carry out her resolution, for the simple reason that the man himself acted to prevent it.

"Come, Alice! Please come!" pleaded Ruth, almost in a frenzy of fear.

And then the man, catching sight of the girls, who were in bold relief in the gleam of the moonlight, on the white bridge, and hearing their voices, stood still for a moment in a light patch. Then he turned and went rapidly down the road, limping as he hurried along.

So Alice had no chance to do as she had said she would.

"There he goes!" she exclaimed.

"So I see," responded Ruth with a sigh of relief. "Oh, I'm so glad!"

"I'm not!" declared Alice, and she really thought she meant it. Perhaps she did.

"Oh, Alice!" exclaimed Ruth. "Suppose he had kept on?"

"Just what I wanted him to do. There's nothing very harmful in one man, particularly as there are two of us, and we are so near the house, and on a public road. Oh, it was the best chance we've yet had of finding out who he is, and what he wants around here. And he had to go and—spoil it!" Alice acted as though really grieved.

"We had better go back and tell Sandy or his father," suggested Ruth. "They may want to chase him."

"Not much chance of catching him," replied Alice, ruefully. "See him go, even if he is lame." The man was really making rapid progress down the road in spite of his halting gait. "But come on," Alice resumed, "we'll tell the men, and they can do as they like."

The two sisters hurried back to the farmhouse, and the message they delivered caused some excitement. For all were more or less interested in the mysterious man.

Sandy, Russ and Paul at once hurried out, and went in the direction where Alice and Ruth had last seen the man. The girls, including Miss Pennington and Miss Dixon, also went out to see what success should attend the efforts of the young men. But it was the same as before—there was no sign of the man. This was not strange, though, considering that he might have slipped off at either side of the road, and gone into hiding in the fields, or in a patch of woodland nearby.

"Guess we'll have to give it up," said Russ, as he and the others turned back. "I'd like to find out who he is, though."

"Do you suppose he could be one of those men who tried to get your patent?" asked Alice. "I mean, he might be disguised."

"I hardly think so," was the answer of the young moving picture operator. "Besides, my patent is fully protected now. They couldn't make anything out of that."

"Then he must be after something on the farm," suggested Paul, who was walking beside Alice.

"There ain't nothin' valuable lyin' aroun' here loose," said Sandy, with a short laugh. "I only wish there was. I'd get it myself an' pay off th' mortgage. More likely that fellow is after some of your movin' pictures. Aren't those reels, as you call 'em, valuable?"

"That's so!" exclaimed Paul. "I never thought of that. Maybe he is after some of our films, Russ! We'd better speak to Mr. Pertell about it."

"Perhaps we had. There are some moving picture men mean enough to try to take the ideas of other folks, and they might not be above taking the reels of exposed films, too. We've got some good ones on hand."

Mr. Pertell was a little skeptical about the matter when it was mentioned to him, but he agreed that there was something in the idea, after all, and that it was rather odd for the mysterious man to remain so long in the vicinity of Oak Farm, without disclosing his errand.

"He's a stranger—that's sure," said Mr. Apgar, Sandy's father. "He's a stranger here, for none of th' farmers in these parts know him. I've heard one or two mention seein' a lame feller going about, as if he had plenty of spare time. It must be this man. But, as Sandy says, we ain't got nothin' he can git. It all belongs t' Squire Blasdell," he added with a rueful laugh. "Or it will after th' mortgage is foreclosed," he finished with a sigh.

The old man looked over at his wife, who was seated in a rocking chair, mending stockings. She was a good sewer, and members of the theatrical troupe had her do work for them, thus enabling her to earn a little money, for which she was very grateful.

The plight of the old people was really pitiful, with the dark shadow of losing their home ever looming nearer. Sandy tried to be cheerful, and several times said that perhaps at the last minute a way might be found to save the farm. But he was not very hopeful. He worked hard—doubly hard, since his father was able to do very little. This made it necessary to hire help, and that left so much less profit on the gathered crops.

"Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to keep watch to-night," suggested Mr. DeVere, when the matter of the mysterious man was being discussed. "That fellow may have designs on some of your farm buildings, Mr. Apgar."

"That's so, he might," agreed the farmer. "Barns has been sot afire afore this."

"Don't talk that way, Father, you'll scare the young folks," chided his wife gently, as she looked at Ruth and smiled reassuringly. "That'll never happen," she added, for, at the mention of the word "fire," Ruth had glanced nervously at the door, as though the limping man stood on the other side of it.

"I'll keep an eye open to-night," said Sandy. "If that fellow comes around I'll be ready for him."

"I'll help you," volunteered Russ, and Paul, too, said he would help in standing guard.

It was arranged that the three men should take turns in keeping watch, and, during the night, patrol the barns and other buildings occasionally, to watch for any signs of the stranger.

At first the girls, and even Mrs. Maguire, were a bit nervous, and this made little Tommy and Nellie, the latter's grandchildren, somewhat timid. Then Mr. Pertell suggested that they all consider their parts in a new drama that was to be started next day, as that would take their minds off the scare.

Save for the occasional barking of a dog, who bayed at the moon, and the lowing of the cattle, there was scarcely a sound, except those of the night insects. The night passed quietly, and there was no sign of the mysterious man.

"I guess you girls scared him away for good," remarked Paul, at the breakfast table.

"I hope so," murmured Alice. "I had one look at his face, and if ever I saw a hard and cruel one I saw it then."

Work and rehearsals of the new play occupied all for the next two days. Several new things in the way of properties were needed, and this kept Pop Snooks busy. One of the things he had to provide was a rickety two-wheeled cart, that was to be hitched to a donkey, one of the farm animals.

"Who's going to ride in that cart?" asked Mr. Bunn, as he strode about the place with the new silk hat which, true to promise, Mr. Pertell had purchased to replace the water-soaked one.

"I think I'll cast Ruth DeVere to ride in the cart," said the manager. "Someone will have to ride the mule, though, and as I want a tall man for that act I think I'll take you, Mr. Bunn. You will black up as a colored man, and——"

"Stop! Stop where you are!" cried the Shakespearean actor, in stentorian tones. "I shall do nothing of the sort. You may consider that I have resigned!"


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