“No, they live in shacks and tents near the river. I’ve never really had the nerve to visit the place. Of course if you girls went along—”
“When can we go?” Nancy asked excitedly.
“I’ll speak to Gram,” Joanne offered.
“It’s odd you’ve never spoken to any of the colony members,” Nancy remarked thoughtfully. “Who pays the rent?”
“It’s sent by mail. They even leased the land that way.”
“Didn’t it strike you as a peculiar way of doing business?” Nancy asked.
“Yes,” Joanne admitted, “but I suppose it’s part of their creed, or whatever you call it. They probably don’t believe in mingling with people outside the cult. That’s often the case.”
Directly after lunch the girls helped the Byrds straighten and clean the rooms for the expected boarders. They hung curtains, newly made by Mrs. Byrd, and put fresh flowers in each room.
At the end of the afternoon they were very pleased with the result.
“All you girls have worked hard enough,” Mrs. Byrd said. “You go rest while I fix supper.”
She was insistent, so Joanne led her friends to the porch. Bess stretched out in the hammock and picked up the day’s newspaper. The others chatted. Suddenly Bess gave an exclamation of surprise.
“Nancy,” she asked tensely, “what was the name of that girl who sold me the perfume?”
“Wong,” Nancy answered in amazement. “Yvonne Wong. Why?”
“Because there’s an article in the paper that mentions her name!” Bess thrust the newspaper into Nancy’s hands, indicating the paragraph. “Wow! This is something! Read it yourself!”
NANCY read aloud:
“‘The Hale Syndicate, which has been engaged in the illegal importation of Oriental articles, has been dissolved by court order.”’ Nancy looked up and said, “I don’t see what that has to do with our perfume friend Yvonne Wong.”
“A great deal,” Bess declared. “Read on and you’ll find out!”
“Oh!” Nancy exclaimed a few seconds later. “Yvonne was employed by the syndicate as a clerk in their shop. She hasn’t been indicted, because of insufficient evidence, and the top men have skipped!”
Bess nodded, realizing the impact of her important discovery. “That perfume store we visited must have been owned by the syndicate!”
“How long ago was the fraud discovered?” George asked.
“The article doesn’t say,” Nancy returned. “It has just now been made public.”
“It doesn t surprise me that the Wong girl was mixed up in some underhanded affair,” George remarked. “I didn’t like her attitude from the beginning!
“Nor did I,” Bess added. “And I liked her less after Nancy found out she had received the job Jo wanted.”
“I’m certainly glad I didn’t get that job.” Joanne smiled. “I’d much rather be here.”
“Do you suppose Yvonne knew the work of the syndicate was dishonest?” Bess asked with concern.
“I’m sure of it,” George answered flatly. “But it looks as if she and the others slipped out quickly when the federal authorities became aware of the racket.”
All this time Nancy had been staring into space. It had occurred to her that Yvonne Wong might still be employed by the syndicate. Undoubtedly the name and offices had been changed to throw off the federal authorities. Was Room 305 now the syndicate’s headquarters?
Nancy immediately thought of the coded message she had brought with her. “The third number in it, 5, was the letter H,” she told herself. Then she reflected on the recent newspaper article about the syndicate.
“This‘H’ might stand for Hale!” she thought excitedly. “And the line over it might mean that someone by this name is Important—the ring-leader, perhaps! I must talk to Chief McGinnis again. I may have stumbled onto a clue to those missing Hale Syndicate men!”
After supper she phoned the chief and pro-pounded her theory. “Well, Nancy,” he said, “it sounds as if you might have picked up a clue, sure enough. Send me a copy of that code and I’ll get busy on it.”
After Nancy completed the call, she and the other girls studied the code once more.
Gazing at the 16 and the 5, Nancy suddenly said, “M—M—why that could stand for Maurice! Maybe that man’s name is Maurice Hale!”
“Now I’ll sleep better,” Bess sighed. The girls went to bed happy and excited.
The next day everyone’s attention was focused on a new boarder. Shortly after church services, Mrs. Alice Salisbury and her daughter Nona arrived in an expensive sedan. Mrs. Salisbury walked with a cane, and complained loudly of her arthritis as the girls helped her into the house.
Nona waited only long enough to see that her mother was made comfortable. Then she announced that she must hurry back to the city nearby, where she lived.
“Mother was born on a farm,” she told Mrs. Byrd as she stepped into the car, “and she simply pines for the country. I thought this arrangement might be ideal since she’s never entirely happy with me in the city. I’ll drive down to see her week ends. I do hope she’ll be happier here at Red Gate Farm.”
Joanne and her friends hoped so too, but they were not at all certain, for it became increasingly apparent that Mrs. Salisbury could not be happy anywhere. She found no fault with the immaculate farmhouse or the lovely view from her bedroom window, but she constantly complained of her various aches and pains. She talked incessantly about her many operations. She had a sharp tongue and delighted in using it.
“She wouldn’t be so bad, if only she’d stop talking operations,” George burst out. “Makes me feel as though I’m ready for the hospital myself!”
By the time the girls had adjusted themselves to Mrs. Salisbury, the second boarder arrived. He was Karl Abbott, a diamond-in-the-rough type of man. In spite of his sixty-three years, he boasted that he was as spry as his son Karl Jr., who had brought him.
Karl Jr., who worked in a nearby city, was a personable young man. The girls, particularly Bess, were sorry he could not remain with his father.
The girls liked Mr. Abbott very much, but they were appalled by his tremendous appetite. “I wish we could turn him out in the yard to forage for himself,” Joanne sighed several days later as she peeled her second heaping pan of potatoes. “It’s all I can do to keep one helping ahead of him!”
At first Mr. Abbott insisted upon remaining in the kitchen, teasing the girls as they worked and sampling the food. Then he fell into the habit of sitting on the front porch with Mrs. Salisbury and chatting with her for hours. Frequently they became involved in violent arguments about trivial matters just for diversion.
After one of their disagreements Mrs. Salisbury would maintain a stony silence which was refreshing. But Mr. Abbott would once again take refuge in the kitchen!
In spite of such slight annoyances, the days at Red Gate Farm passed very pleasantly. Nancy would go into town on various errands for the boarders and sometimes Mrs. Byrd.
One day she had just returned to the farm from a shopping trip and on her way to the house stopped at the mailbox.
“There might be a letter from Dad,” she thought, and drew out a stack of mail.
She took it all into the house, where Mrs. Byrd asked Nancy to distribute the letters. As she was sorting them out, she came to one addressed to the Black Snake Colony.
“Look!” Nancy exclaimed. “This letter belongs to the nature cult. The mailman must have put it in our box by mistake.”
“What will you do?” asked Bess seriously. “Drive over with it?”
“Of course not,” growled Mr. Abbott, who had just entered the room. “You keep away from those outrageous people. Take it back to the post office.”
Nancy studied the postmark. It was very blurred. Could it be Riverside Heights, or was she mistaken? Her curiosity about the mysterious cult was now even more aroused. Perhaps she could deliver the letter in person! But she got no further in her plan, for just then a neighbor passed on his way to town. Mrs. Byrd handed him the letter to remail.
Nancy felt disappointed, but was determined to find out in some way what was going on “over the hill.” “If I can only be alone with Bess and George a little later, maybe we can come up with some plan” she thought.
There had been a letter from Mr. Drew, informing Nancy that he had returned home. “At least Dad’s making progress on his case!” she said to herself.
Then Nancy hurried off to the barn where the “city slickers,” as Reuben called them, were to have a milking lesson.
“It’s no trick at all!” Bess insisted. “Give me that pail and I’ll show you just how it’s done.”
Reuben handed over the bucket, and Bess marched determinedly up to the cow.
“Nice bossy,” she murmured, giving the animal a timid pat on the neck.
The cow responded with a suspicious look and flirt of her tail. As Bess set down the milking stool, the cow kicked it over.
Bess sprang back in alarm. “You can’t expect me to milk a vicious cow!” she exclaimed.
Joanne and Reuben exploded with laughter.
“Primrose is an extremely smart cow,” Reuben drawled. “She won’t stand being milked except from the side she’s used to!”
Reluctantly Bess picked up the overturned stool and went around to the left side. The cow leisurely moved herself sideways.
“I give up! Here, you try it, George.”
“Oh, no, Bess. I wouldn’t spoil your fun for anything!”
After a great deal of maneuvering, Bess succeeded in handling the whole procedure to the satisfaction of Primrose. Nancy came last, and she, too, was a bit awkward. When Reuben finally sat down to do the milking, the girls watched him with admiration. “It just takes practice,” he said, smiling.
That evening Mrs. Salisbury and Mr. Abbott had their usual disagreement and both retired early. Mrs. Byrd soon followed, leaving the girls alone on the porch.
“Do you think there will be any activity on the hill tonight?” George asked suddenly.
“I’m not sure,” Joanne answered. “But it’s a good clear night and the moon is full, so the setting is perfect for it.”
“I’m dying to see what those nature enthusiasts look like,” added Bess. “Just so they don’t come too close!”
It was a lovely evening and Nancy had been only half listening to the chatter. She remained silent and thoughtful. The letter addressed to the Black Snake Colony was still very much on her mind.
“What’s up, Nancy?” Bess finally asked, noticing her friend’s silence.
“Three guesses,” Nancy replied with a laugh. “I’m still curious about that envelope I had in my hands this afternoon. I’m almost certain that blurred postmark read Riverside Heights.”
“Even if it did,” George remarked, “it could have been written by almost anyone and simply
in Riverside Heights.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Nancy agreed. “I guess I’m trying too hard. But let’s walk over toward the hill.”
The four girls started off. They crossed one field in front of the house and were just climbing a rail fence to the next one when Nancy cried out:
“Am I seeing things? Look! Over there on that hill!”
Following her gaze, the girls were astonished to see shadowy white figures flitting about in the moonlight.
“Ghosts!” Bess exclaimed.
“Ghosts nothing,” George retorted. “There’s no such animal!”
“Don’t be alarmed,” Joanne said with a smile. “I imagine the members of the nature cult are having one of their festive airings by the light of the moon!”
The girls watched the cult members go through their mystic rites.
“They’re not doing much of anything,” Nancy observed, “except flapping around.”
Within ten minutes the ceremony apparently was concluded. The white figures clustered together for a moment, then moved off across the hillside.
“I wonder where they’re heading,” Nancy mused. “Back to their tents?”
Joanne had been watching intently. Now she shook her head. “I don’t think so. I forgot to tell you—the cave has another opening on the slope of the hill, near the river. The colony members are going in that direction.”
Immediately Nancy’s curiosity was aroused. Did this mean the white-robed group intended to go into the cave itself? If so, why? To continue the ceremony?
“It certainly was a short performance,” Bess remarked as the mysterious “dancers” vanished from sight. “I wonder if the ritual has any significance.”
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Nancy said quietly. “And that’s what we must find out!”
“Not tonight!” Joanne said firmly. “Grandmother will be very upset if we don’t come right back.”
Reluctantly Nancy gave up the idea. The girls started for the farmhouse, but Nancy kept looking back over her shoulder, determined not to miss anything. However, the hillside remained uninhabited and still.
As the girls drew near the road, the motor of a car broke the silence and headlights appeared. The automobile slowed down in front of the farmhouse as if about to stop. Then suddenly the car went on. Why? Nancy wondered. Had the driver seen the girls and changed his mind?
Black Snake Colony Member
NANCY was too far away from the car to see its driver or license plate. Thoughtfully she went to bed, but lay awake for some time, feeling completely baffled over the many mysterious happenings.
By morning she felt eager for action. Ever since her arrival at Red Gate Farm, Nancy had wanted to visit the cavern on the hillside. The strange moonlight ceremony and the unidentified car which had hesitated in front of the house only intensified her interest in the place.
She broached the subject of a visit there to Mrs. Byrd, but Joanne’s grandmother frowned on the idea. “I’ll worry if you go,” she said. “Those folks are probably harmless, but we don’t know much about them. I wish now I had never rented the land. The neighbors are saying I was foolish to do it in the first place.”