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CHAPTER XVI THE MAN AND THE UMBRELLA
For a moment the man stood in the doorway of the cabin, staring at Ruth and Alice standing there in the drenching rain. They had recognized him at once as the man whom they had seen run out of the old barn—the limping man who had fled down the moonlit road when he espied them on the bridge.

Whether or not he knew the girls, they did not stop to consider. Certainly they were dressed differently than on either of the occasions they had encountered him; but that might not obviate recognition.

"Come—come on back to the woods," whispered Ruth. "We—we don't want to meet him, Alice."

"No, I suppose not," agreed Alice, "and yet," and she seemed to shiver, "we ought not to stand out in this storm when shelter is so near, no matter who that man is."

"Oh, Alice!" exclaimed Ruth.

"Well, I mean it! I am soaked, and you are, too. Besides, that lightning is awful—and the thunder! I can't stand it—come on. I'm sure he won't eat us!"

But the girls were saved any anxiety by the action of the strange man. Alice was trying to draw her sister toward the cabin, and Ruth, torn between a desire to get under shelter, and fear of the man, was hardly able to decide, when the stranger darted back into the cabin, and came out with an umbrella.

"Oh, he's going to offer it to us!" exclaimed Alice. "That is good of him."

But, to her surprise, no less than that of Ruth, the man called out:

"Come in, and welcome, young ladies. You may stay in this cabin as long as you like. The roof leaks in one place, but otherwise it is dry. I have to go away. Come in!"

And with that he put up the umbrella and hurried off, limping through the rain, but never once glancing back at the girls.

For a moment Alice and Ruth did not know what to do or think. The action was certainly strange. And why had not the man come to meet them with the umbrella, while he was about it? There was some little distance to go, from the fringe of trees where the two girls stood, to the cabin, and this space was open; whereas, by keeping under the leafy boughs they were, in a measure, protected from the pelting rain.

"What shall we do, Ruth?" asked Alice. She wanted to defer to the older judgment of her sister. But Ruth answered:

"I don't know, dear. What had we better do? I'm afraid——"

"And so am I afraid—but I'm more afraid of this thunder and lightning, to say nothing of the rain, than I am of what may be in that cabin, now that the man has so kindly left it to us. I'm going in there, Ruth, and stay until the storm is over."

With that, picking up her skirts, Alice sped across the open space, leaving Ruth to do as she pleased. And, naturally, Ruth would not stay there to be drenched alone.

"Wait for me, Alice—wait!" she pleaded. But there was no need for Alice to delay, since she would only get the wetter, and Ruth was in no danger.

"Come along," called Alice over her shoulder, and Ruth came. The sisters reached the cabin just as a brilliant flash of lightning, with almost simultaneous thunder, seemed to open the clouds, and the rain came down in a veritable flood.

"Just in time!" cried Alice. "We would have been drowned if we had stayed out there. That man has some good qualities about him, at any rate. He was nice enough to give us the use of this place."

"And maybe we're wronging him," panted Ruth, out of breath after her little run, and her hair all awry. "He may be all right, and it is foolish to suspect him of something we know nothing about."

"Perhaps," admitted Alice. "But there is a look in his face I do not like. I can't explain why, but he looks, somehow—oh, I can't explain it, but he looks as if he had been in prison—or some place like that."

"What a strange idea," responded Ruth. "I can't say I think that of him, but I agree with you that there is something repulsive about him. And that seems a mean thing to say, after he has given us the use of the cabin."

"How do we know it was his?" asked Alice. "It doesn't appear to me to belong to anybody. Certainly it isn't very sumptuously furnished!" and she looked about the place in considerable curiosity.

It was devoid of anything in the way of furniture, and only a few rough boxes were scattered about. On a stone hearth were the gray and blackened embers of a fire, and in one corner was a broken chair.

"It seems to have been deserted a long time," said Alice. "I guess that man was passing and took shelter in here, just as we intended to. But there's another room. We may as well inspect that, and there's another upstairs. That may be a little better. We'll look, Ruth."

"We'll do nothing of the kind!" exclaimed Ruth. "We'll just stay right by the door where we can run, in case—in case anything happens," she finished, rather falteringly.

"Silly!" exclaimed Alice. "There is no one in this place."

"But that man might come back."

"Not likely. Besides, don't you know that it's the worst thing in the world to stand in an open doorway, before a fireplace or in a draft of any kind when there's lightning. Lightning is always attracted by a draft, or a chimney, or something like that."

"Oh, why do you always think of such nervous, scary things?" cried Ruth.

"Because they're true," answered Alice. "And I want to get you into the other room. We might find out something. And if you won't come upstairs, I'll go alone."

"And leave me down here? I'll not stay!"

"Then come along. We'll investigate. We may find a clue, as they say in books."

Alice drew back from the open door, and started for the inner room. Ruth stood for a moment, uncertain what to do. She looked across the glade, but the strange man was not in sight. He and his umbrella had disappeared into the depths of the woods.

Just then there came another vivid flash of lightning, and such a startling clap of thunder that Ruth, with a little scream, darted back, and, springing across the room, clutched Alice by the arm.

"Oh, I'm so frightened!" she gasped.

"We'll be all right now—in the back room," soothed the younger girl. "Oh, look! I believe that man does live here after all!"

For the room was furnished with some chairs, a table, and in one corner was a cot bed, with the clothes tossed aside as if someone had lately been sleeping there. There was a small stove in the room, and pots, pans and dishes scattered about, as if meals had been recently cooked. A cupboard gave hint of things to eat.

All this the girls took in by means of the rapid flashes of lightning, for it was growing too dark to see well inside the cabin, which was of logs, and with only small windows.

"Yes, he must live here," agreed Ruth. "Oh, I hope he doesn't come back before the storm is over, so we can get away. You'll not go upstairs now; will you, Alice, dear?" Ruth looked pleadingly at her sister.

"No, I guess not," was the answer. "We couldn't see much, anyhow. And if that man really lives here it wouldn't be exactly polite to go about his place without a better invitation than we have. He spoke truly when he called this his cabin."

"Unless he just found it empty and took the use of it without asking the owner," suggested Ruth. "I wish we knew more about him."

"So do I," agreed Alice. "I wonder if he really had to go away in the storm, or whether he knew we would not come in the cabin while he was here, and so made an excuse to leave it to us alone?"

"If he did that it certainly was very kind of him," said Ruth.

"Perhaps he is bashful and shy," observed Alice. "He ran before, when he saw us on the bridge, and now he runs away and leaves us his house—such as it is. Clearly there is some mystery about him. Oh, listen to the rain!"

Indeed the storm was at its height now, and the girls were glad of the shelter of the cabin. As the man had said, there was a leak somewhere in the roof, and they could hear the steady drip, drip of water falling. But they did not see it, and the cabin seemed quite dry. It was a shelter from the wind, too, which was now blowing fiercely, bending the trees before the might of its blast.

But, like all summer showers, this was not destined to last long. Its fury kept up a little longer, and then began to die away. Gradually the lightning grew less vivid, and the flashes were farther apart. The thunder rumbled less heavily and the rain slackened. The girls went to the entrance room and gazed out.

"We can start soon," spoke Ruth. "It may sound a selfish thing to say, but I wish that man had left us his umbrella. We'll get quite wet going home, for the water will drip from the trees for some time."

"Perhaps he'll come back and offer us the use of it," suggested Alice.

"Don't you dare say such a thing!" exclaimed her sister. "Oh, I wish we were home! I'm afraid daddy will worry."

"I wish there was a fire in that stove," spoke Alice, musingly. "I'd make some coffee, if I could find any. I'm quite chilly. We are wet through, and can't be made much worse by not having a umbrella. I'm going to look and see if I can find some coffee."

"Alice, don't!" objected Ruth, but her sister was already in the rear room, and, not wanting to be left alone, Ruth followed. But, before either of the girls had time to look about and see if it were possible to kindle a blaze in the old stove, they heard a noise in the room they had just left. It was the patter, as of bare feet, on the wooden floor. Startled, the two gazed at one another. Then they clasped their arms about each other's waists.

"Did—did you hear that?" whispered Ruth.

Alice nodded, and looked over her sister's shoulder toward the door between the two rooms.

Meanwhile the pattering footfalls in the other apartment continued. They seemed to be coming nearer, and there was a panting, as though someone had run far, and was breathing hard.


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