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CHAPTER XVII IN THE WOODS

"What—what can it be?" faltered Ruth, as she clung to her sister.

"I—I don't know," answered Alice, and her voice was far from steady. "I wish we hadn't come in here."

"So do I!" Ruth confessed.

Nearer and nearer came the footfalls. Now the girls were able to distinguish that they were made by some four-footed beast, and not by a human being, for the sound came in a peculiar rhythm that was unmistakable. Also there could be heard a panting, sniffing sound, that could only be made by some beast.

"Oh, if it's a bear!" gasped Ruth.

"Silly!" chided Alice. She was less nervous now, for she realized, with Ruth's remark, that there were no savage beasts in that part of the country.

"Maybe it's only a cat," Alice suggested, after a moment.

"It's too big and heavy for a cat," objected Ruth. "Oh, there it is!" she suddenly cried, pointing to the doorway between the two rooms, and, looking, Alice saw a tawny animal standing looking at them in the fast falling darkness.

"It's only a dog!" cried Alice, in joyous relief. "A fine dog! Come here, sir!" she called, for Alice could make friends with almost any animal.

But this dog, though he barked in a friendly fashion, and wagged his tail as a flag of truce, would not come nearer. He sniffed in the direction of the girls and then, with another bark, turned and ran out toward the entrance door.

"Come on!" called Alice. "It has stopped raining, Ruth, and maybe that dog will follow us home. He'll be fine protection!"

Ruth was not at all averse to having some sort of guardian on the walk through the lonely woods, but when she and Alice reached the outer room the dog, with a last look back, and a farewell bark, trotted off across the glade in the direction taken by the strange man with the umbrella.

"He's gone!" exclaimed Alice, in disappointment. "Come back!" she invited. "Come back, sir!" and she whistled in boyish fashion. But the dog was not to be enticed, and was soon lost in the woods.

"Maybe he belonged to that man," suggested Ruth, "and came here looking for him. What sort of a dog was it, Alice?"

"A collie. The same kind Mrs. Delamont lost in the train wreck, you know."

"Oh, maybe it was her prize animal, Alice!"

"How could it be? He was lost a good way from here. But it looked to be a fine dog. Shall we go home, now?"

"Yes," agreed Ruth. "We can't get much wetter, and I don't want to stay here any longer. I know daddy will be worried about us."

With a last look about the cabin, wondering what could be the business of the man who stayed there, the girls started off. But they had not taken three steps before they saw, coming toward them from the other side of the clearing, two figures.

"Oh!" cried Ruth, drawing back. "There comes that man, and he's got someone with him."

Alice, too, was startled and a little bit afraid, but a moment later there came a cheerful hail.

"Oh, it's Russ and Paul!" Alice cried. "They have come for us!"

"Thank goodness!" exclaimed Ruth, and a few seconds later the four young people were together, making mutual explanations.

Mr. DeVere had indeed become worried about his daughters, when the storm arose, and, as they had left word whither they were going, Russ and Paul volunteered to go after them, taking raincoats and umbrellas.

"And here we are!" exclaimed Russ, as he helped Ruth on with her garment.

"And we were never so glad to see anyone in all our lives; were we?" went on Alice, who, in spite of her brave nature, had been considerably unnerved by the events of the last few minutes.

The young men were much surprised when told about the strange man and the dog, and they at once wanted to make an inspection of the cabin.

"Who knows what we might find!" exclaimed Russ.

"Wait until later, then," suggested Ruth. "Please take us home now."

Russ and Paul had no choice, after that, but to take the girls back to Oak Farm.

The rain was over, but the trees still dripped with moisture and the raincoats and umbrellas were very useful. Paul walked with Alice, while Russ kept pace at the side of Ruth. And as the four walked together they talked of the recent happenings, speculating as to the meaning of them all.

Back in the comfortable farmhouse, clothed in dry garments, Ruth and Alice were inclined to laugh at their scare, which, at the time, had seemed very real.

"I think that man was real kind," said Mrs. Apgar, as she heard the story. "To leave his cabin that way."

"He was, unless he had some object in view," said Sandy. "I'd like to know what his game is. He's got some object hangin' around here, and I'm goin' to find out what it is."

"Was that his cabin?" asked Ruth.

"No, that's an old shack that really belongs on this place," explained Mr. Apgar, "but there's a dispute as to the title, so no one really knows who owns it. 'Tain't much 'count, anyhow. But you say he was livin' in it?"

"He had it partly furnished, at any rate," said Alice. "It could be fixed up and made into a lovely little bungalow."

"Well, you folks kin do that if you like," offered Sandy. "I kin have it fixed so that fellow won't stay there. He's got no rights: only a squatter."

"I think we'd feel safer here," returned Ruth, with a smile. "That man might come back unexpectedly."

"I think I'll go up there to-morrow and have a look around," suggested Russ. "I'd like to see more of that cabin by daylight."

"And I'll go with you," offered Sandy. "I'm gittin' real interested in this chap."

But when they went up early next morning they found the place deserted, and no signs of the strange man. There was evidence that he had packed up some of his things, for the bed clothing was gone, with some of the cooking utensils the girls had seen in the kitchen.

"He's stolen a march on us," declared Paul, grimly.

"Probably took fright because the girls located his hiding place," said Russ.

"And I reckon he is in hidin' for some reason or other," remarked Sandy. "I wish I could have him arrested!"

"What for?" Russ wanted to know. "I'm afraid you'd have hard work to make a charge that would hold. So far he hasn't done anything that we know of."

"He could be held as a trespasser," spoke Paul. "He was in the Apgar barn; wasn't he?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

"That fellow's up to more than jest trespassin'," declared Sandy. "He's got some motive, and I'm goin' to find out what it is."

But for the present this was out of the question. The man was gone, and none at Oak Farm knew his whereabouts. The only thing they could do was to wait until he showed himself again.

"But having a dog was a new one," said Russ. "That is, if it was his the girls saw."

But even on this point they could not be sure. They returned to the house, for Russ had to make several films that day.

Several acts of one of the plays were to take place in the woods, and Russ had found a spot, not far from the lonely cabin, where there was the proper background of trees and hills.

Thither the company went that afternoon, and after a little rehearsal, Mr. Pertell gave the word for the real action of the drama to begin.

Miss Pennington and Miss Dixon were in this, as were Ruth and Alice. There was to be a picnic scene, with a campfire at which a meal was to be cooked, and real food had been prepared for the act.

"All ready!" called the manager, when he had looked over the little company, and seen that they were all in their proper positions. "Go ahead, Russ!"

For a time all went well, and then came a scream from Miss Dixon, who jumped up with such suddenness that she upset a pitcher of lemonade over Mr. Switzer.

"Cut that out, Russ!" called the manager, sharply. "We seem to be having all sorts of accidents of late."

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" apologized the actress. "But I—I saw a bug!"

"You usually do in der voods, my dear young lady!" said Mr. Switzer, as he sopped up the lemonade from his trousers with his handkerchief. "Und, if it iss all der same mit you, I vould like to have my oder lemonade on der insides of me und not on der outsides, ef you pliss!"

It took some little time to get matters straightened out, so that the making of the film could proceed. Several scenes were successfully made, and they were ready for the final one, when this time Miss Pennington screamed.

"Another bug?" asked Mr. Pertell, and he was a bit sarcastic over it, for several little things had bothered him that day.

"No, it's a snake! A snake! See, he's coming right for me!" and deserting the scene Miss Pennington made for a broad stump, upon which she jumped, screaming.

"Snake! Call that a snake!" cried Russ, as he picked up a rather large and squirming angleworm.

"Oh, put it down—the horrid thing!" begged Miss Dixon, who had joined her friend on the stump.

"Poor little thing!" laughed Russ, as he tossed the worm into a clump of leaves. "Go home and tell your folks you scared two brave young ladies!"

"Smarty!" exclaimed Miss Pennington, with a vindictive look at the moving picture operator, who had left his camera when the scene was broken up.

Once again matters were arranged and the taking of the film went on as before. But that was a day destined to be fraught with adventures of more or less moment.

In one scene Mr. Sneed had to pose as a wood chopper, and, to make it more realistic he was to fell a small tree. This action on his part had cost him no little time and trouble, for he was not proficient in the use of the axe. For several days the actor had had Sandy "coaching" him until he could do fairly well.

"We'll try that tree-cutting scene now," said Mr. Pertell, after a bit. "Get ready for that, Russ. And, whatever you do, Mr. Sneed, don't have the tree fall on the camera. I don't want all the film spoiled."

Soon all was in readiness for the final act of the day. Mr. Sneed swung his axe with vigorous strokes and the keen weapon bit deep into the wood. Alice and Ruth, who were acting with him, went through their parts in the little play.

At times Mr. Sneed would pause to go through some other "business," and then resume his chopping.

"Look out," warned Sandy Apgar, who was one of the characters in the act. "She'll fall in a minute."

"Yes, get from under," advised Russ. "I'll get a good picture of the tree coming down."

Mr. Sneed ran out of the way, as a cracking warned him that the tree was going to fall. It was not a large one, but it had very heavy and thick foliage.

Crash! Down came the tree, and then followed a cry of alarm.

"Ach! I am killet! I am caught under der tree!"

"Great Scott! Another accident!" groaned Mr. Pertell. "This certainly is a hoodoo day!" and they all ran to where Mr. Switzer had been pinned.



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