Read CHAPTER XIV of The Automobile Girls at Chicago, free online book, by Laura Dent Crane, on ReadCentral.com.

TOMMY TAKES A WILD RIDE

For a moment the little group stood regarding one another in horror-stricken silence, then by common consent they all made for the stairway. Mr. Presby was half carrying, half dragging his wife, who was in a state of collapse. All had lost their heads completely. They did not know at what moment that terrible mysterious force might whisk them all out of existence. Instead of remaining calmly to solve the reason for Mollie’s disappearance before their very eyes, all hands were fleeing from the scene of the double disaster. Mollie had not even cried out. She had simply gone, followed by that mighty crash. That was all they knew about it.

They did not halt until they had reached the ground floor, where Mr. Presby called a servant to summon the neighbors and summon them quickly. Fifteen minutes later the neighbors began to arrive. With them were two or three strangers, whose offers to join in the search through the house Mr. Presby politely declined, as he was suspicious of all strangers. Those of the neighbors who were friends of long standing were given free rein to search the house and grounds as thoroughly as they wished. They took full advantage of the opportunity, delving into every nook and corner.

In the meantime Ruth Stuart with the shivering Tommy by her side was driving her automobile across the country. There was no storm curtain in place now. Even the wind shield had been turned down because the snow clouded it so Ruth could not get a clear sight ahead. As it was, she could see no more than a rod or two in advance. She took the storm full on the right side of her face. The girl’s eyes and nerves were steady now. Her touch on the steering wheel was light, for at that speed a heavy hand might have ditched the outfit.

Country people on the road were startled by a rush of wind and a shadowy monster shooting past them with a snort, occasionally sending their horses off the highway in frightened leaps. But Ruth Stuart’s eyes never wavered from the straight path ahead. Evidently she had forgotten her promise to herself to drive with her car under more perfect control. Every ounce of speed that Mr. A. Bubble possessed was being used on the present run.

Tommy’s eyes were full of snow, his lips were blue, his hands were gripping the cushions until he had no feeling left in them.

“Tell me when we get near to the place,” commanded Ruth in a sharp, incisive tone.

“Ju-s-s-st around the nu-nu-next turn,” chattered Thomas. “He’s at Martin’s ranch.”

Ruth turned the air into her siren. A wild, weird wail rose from the horn. Tommy shivered more than ever. That sound always did make the hair rise right up on the crown of his head. Ruth kept the siren going. Rounding the bend at top speed, her siren wailing, she made enough noise to be plainly heard above the storm. Taking careful note of her position, she ran up the drive into the yard, slowing down just as she saw two men come from the house bare-headed.

“Jump in, quick!” she cried to Bob Stevens. “Trouble!”

Bob was quick-witted. He understood that something was wrong. He caught one of the canopy braces and swung himself in over the closed door.

The car was still in motion. Without a word of further explanation, Ruth advanced her spark. When they rounded into the road the snow from the skidding rear wheels flew up into the air higher than the peak of Jud Martin’s hip-roofed barn. Stevens instinctively gripped the automobile body.

“Put a blanket over your head,” called back Ruth.

“I can stand it bare-headed here, if you can keep your seat in this cold wind up ahead,” answered Stevens calmly. “What is it?”

“I’ll tell you when you get there. I haven’t time now.”

Bob asked no further questions. They were racing back to Treasureholme at a rate of speed that would have left the Pacific Coast Limited some distance to the rear in a very short time.

Boom! A report like that of a cannon startled Tommy. Boom! Another similar report and Tom was on the verge of leaping from the car.

“Tire’s gone. Rear tire’s down,” called Stevens. Ruth nodded, but he could not see that she reduced the speed of the car in the slightest degree. Bob Stevens never had had such a ride as that, even on a railroad train, but he declined to give in to his inclination to warn her to slow down. If a young woman had the nerve to drive a car at that speed he surely should have sufficient pluck to ride behind her.

Tommy had tightened his grip on the cushion. His body was swaying from side to side, now and then humping up into the air as the wheels passed over a hummock.

“I shall go on as long as the rims hold,” flung back Ruth in acknowledgment of his warning about the tires.

The young man knew very well that the rims were likely to be crunched in like egg shells at any second. That would mean the complete wreck of the car and no doubt the instant death of the passengers at the speed they were now traveling. The soft, springy snow that covered the ground protected the rims from the hard road somewhat. He observed, however, that in rounding sharp turns in the road, Ruth steadied the car with her foot brake. She was driving with great skill, even though the pace was a reckless one. Bob gazed at the back of her head, a great admiration for her pluck welling up within him. But he felt sorry for Tommy. It was plainly to be seen that Thomas Warrington Presby was not having the happiest ride imaginable.

“Almost there,” encouraged Ruth. “If anything happens, never mind me, but run for the house as fast as you can go.”

He did not answer, but he was thinking deeply. Something of a very serious nature must have occurred at Treasureholme to make necessary all this haste. He did not know that they had sent for him because of the great confidence the Presbys reposed in him. It would have made little difference to the resourceful Bob Stevens if he had known.

The car lurched into the drive, past the scene of Ruth’s previous disaster, where the broken posts and twisted gates still lay at one side of the drive. None of the occupants of the car heeded these evidences of a former smash-up. Ruth’s eyes were on the drive. Bob’s eyes were on the house, while Tommy’s eyes were so full of snow that they weren’t fixed on anything in particular.

The car came to a jolting stop in front of the Presby home. At that instant the rear of the car settled with a crunching sound.

“There go the rims,” said Ruth calmly. “But I don’t care now. Please hurry.”

Bob lifted Tommy to the ground, the boy being on the side that Stevens had leaped from just as the rims were going down. He then assisted Ruth out. Tommy rubbed the snow from his eyes, blinked rapidly and gazed at Ruth.

“Never no more for mine,” he declared, with ungrammatical force.

Ruth tried to run up the steps. She halted suddenly. Her body swayed unsteadily. Stevens thought she was going to collapse. He took firm hold of her arm.

“Let me assist you,” he said politely.

“I I am all right,” muttered Ruth. “Just a little dizzy from watching the road so closely,” then she crumpled up on the steps of Treasureholme.

Bob Stevens picked her up and carried the girl into the house, followed by Tom, still blinking. Tom was choking a little, too. Everything had been moving so rapidly that, active as was his mind, he hadn’t been able to follow matters very clearly.

The door swung open. Bob handed his burden over to Mrs. Presby.

“She’s played out. Better put her to bed. What’s wrong?”

“No, no, no!” protested Ruth. “Give me a drink of something hot. I I’m chilled through.” She staggered to one side of the hall, waved assistance aside and leaned against the wall with closed eyes for a few seconds. Then Ruth straightened up suddenly.

“Bab! Have they found her?” she cried.

Mrs. Presby shook her head. Grace came running down the hall. She threw herself into Ruth’s arms.

“Oh, Ruth! Mollie’s gone, too!” she sobbed.

“What’s this?” demanded Stevens. “Tell me quickly what has occurred.”

Mrs. Presby told him very briefly all that she knew about the series of disasters that had befallen them. The hall was fairly well filled with neighbors, all more or less helpless. With bulging eyes and open mouths, they were listening and gaping without doing anything on their own account.

Bob dashed toward the stairs without asking another question. Neighbors, the Presbys and the three girls followed him. Mr. Presby was the last in line. He thumped up the stairs with the aid of his stick. Bob had halted near the door of the attic, where he stood surveying the room with critical eyes.

“Get lights! It’s dark here,” he directed sharply. “Now tell me just what occurred as far as you know, please. Who discovered the loss of Miss Thurston and her sister?”

Ruth told him what she knew of Bab’s disappearance. Olive related the story of how Mollie had suddenly vanished.

“They certainly didn’t vanish into thin air. They are still in this house and I am going to find them, even if I have to tear the house down, with Mr. Presby’s permission, of course.”

“Get the girls. Go as far as you like. Tear down the old house if you must. I shall not have use for it very much longer.”

Bob groped about on the floor. His hands found a broken stove poker. With this he began sounding the walls about waist high, thumping and listening, listening and thumping. He paused suddenly.

“Where was Miss Mollie standing when you last saw her?” he demanded, turning to the group.

“There on the south side,” answered Olive.

“Something has been there against the wall for some time, hasn’t there? I see a mark on the wall.”

“I don’t recall whether or not there was anything there,” answered Mr. Presby.

“Yes, there was an old dresser there. I moved it aside to-day to get some things that had fallen behind it. We were cleaning out the garret. That’s the dresser over yonder,” Olive informed him.

The young man did not look at the piece of furniture indicated by Miss Presby. Instead, he strode over to the point where the dresser had stood for no one knew how long. It was a dresser belonging to some of the Presby ancestors. It never had been disturbed during the present owner’s occupancy.

Stevens began thumping over every inch of the wall at that point. He varied his investigations finally by trying the wainscoting on either side. The latter to his keen ears gave out a different sound. He turned sharply.

“Bring me a maul, if you have one.”

Mr. Presby directed one of the farm hands to bring one from the woodshed. In the meantime the others in the attic watched in breathless silence as Stevens pursued his investigations.

“You haven’t heard them call or cry out?”

“No,” answered Olive.

Ruth had said scarcely a word. She had appeared to be crushed upon hearing of Mollie’s disappearance. She had answered questions briefly and with apparent great effort. But now her eyes were following every movement of Bob Stevens.

A commotion on the stairs caused Bob to stride over to the door. It was the man with the maul, a heavy tool used for driving fence posts and other similar work. Bob took it from him and started for the place where the dresser had formerly stood. He halted just before reaching his objective point. The others in the chamber were crowding about him.

“I would suggest that you people stand back,” he said. “We don’t know what might happen. I might loose my grip on the maul. I don’t want to injure anyone.”

The “people” shrank back out of the way.

“I’m going to do some damage, Mr. Presby. At least I think I am.”

Richard Presby nodded.

Bob stepped close to the wall, moved back three or four feet, then slowly swung the maul in a circle and let drive with all the force at his command against the side of the wall. The maul landed with a tremendous report.

A most remarkable thing followed, sending the occupants of the room rushing for the staircase, the women uttering cries of alarm. Bob staggered backwards and sat down heavily on the floor. His experiment had been attended with greater success than he had even dreamed were possible. It had been followed by a terrific crash. A cloud of dust filled the room, the structure vibrated as if from a slight earthquake shock, then quiet once more settled over the gloomy attic of Treasureholme.