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Sinister hooded riders are terrorizing farmers at night, and most of the farmers are reluctant to talk. Meanwhile, a man named Blake makes a generous donation to the Riverview orphan's camp and offers to buy their land, but Penny suspects that he is somehow trying to cheat the orphans. Penny links the hooded bandits to Blake and prevents the orphans from being cheated...
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All rights reserved. Aside from brief quotations for media coverage and reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any form without the author’s permission. Thank you for supporting authors and a diverse, creative culture by purchasing this book and complying with copyright laws.
Copyright © 2017 by Mildred Wirt
Published by Jovian Press
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
CHAPTER 1 SANDWICHES FOR TWO
CHAPTER 2 NIGHT RIDERS
CHAPTER 3 A BLACK HOOD
CHAPTER 4 A NEW CARETAKER
CHAPTER 5 OLD SETH
CHAPTER 6 TALL CORN
CHAPTER 7 MR. BLAKE’S DONATION
CHAPTER 8 PUBLICITY BY PENNY
CHAPTER 9 JERRY’S PARTY
CHAPTER 10 IN THE MELON PATCH
CHAPTER 11 PENNY’S CLUE
CHAPTER 12 ADELLE’S DISAPPEARANCE
CHAPTER 13 AN EXTRA STROKE
CHAPTER 14 THROUGH THE WINDOW
CHAPTER 15 TRACING BEN BOWMAN
CHAPTER 16 A FAMILIAR NAME
CHAPTER 17 FALSE RECORDS
CHAPTER 18 ADELLE’S ACCUSATION
CHAPTER 19 TRAILING A FUGITIVE
CHAPTER 20 CLEM DAVIS’ DISCLOSURE
CHAPTER 21 A BROKEN PROMISE
CHAPTER 22 THE MAN IN GRAY
CHAPTER 23 A TRAP SET
CHAPTER 24 TIMELY HELP
CHAPTER 25 SPECIAL EDITION
JAUNTILY, PENNY PARKER WALKED THROUGH the dimly lighted newsroom of the Riverview Star, her rubber heels making no sound on the bare, freshly scrubbed floor. Desks were deserted, for the final night edition of the paper had gone to press half an hour earlier, and only the cleaning women were at work. One of the women arrested a long sweep of her mop just in time to avoid splashing the girl with water.
“I sorry,” she apologized in her best broken English. “I no look for someone to come so very late.”
“Oh, curfew never rings for me,” Penny laughed, side stepping a puddle of water. “I’m likely to be abroad at any hour.”
At the far end of the long room a light glowed behind a frosted glass door marked: “Anthony Parker—Editor.” There the girl paused, and seeing her father’s grotesque shadow, opened the door a tiny crack, to rumble in a deep voice:
“Hands up! I have you covered!”
Taken by surprise, Mr. Parker swung quickly around, his swivel chair squeaking a loud protest.
“Penny, I wish you wouldn’t do that!” he exclaimed. “You know it always makes me jump.”
“Sorry, Dad,” Penny grinned, slumping into a leather chair beside her father’s desk. “A girl has to have some amusement, you know.”
“Didn’t three hours at the moving picture theatre satisfy you?”
“Oh, the show was worse than awful. By the way, here’s something for you.”
Removing a sealed yellow envelope from her purse, Penny flipped it carelessly across the desk.
“I met a Western Union boy downstairs,” she explained. “He was looking for you. I paid for the message and saved him a trip upstairs. Two dollars and ten cents, if you don’t mind.”
Absently Mr. Parker took two crisp dollar bills from his pocket and reached for the telegram.
“Don’t forget the dime,” Penny reminded him. “It may seem a trifle to you, but not to a girl who has to live on a weekly allowance.”
For lack of change, the editor tossed over a quarter, which his daughter pocketed with deep satisfaction. Ripping open the envelope, he scanned the telegram, but as he read, his face darkened.
“Why, Dad, what’s wrong?” Penny asked in surprise.
Mr. Parker crumpled the sheet into a round ball and hurled it toward the waste paper basket.
“Your aim gets worse every day,” Penny chuckled, stooping to retrieve the paper. Smoothing the corrugations, she read aloud:
“YOUR EDITORIAL ‘FREEDOM OF THE PRESS’ IN THURSDAY’S STAR THOROUGHLY DISGUSTED THIS READER. WHAT YOUR CHEAP PAPER NEEDS IS A LITTLE LESS FREEDOM AND MORE DECENCY. IF OUR FOREFATHERS COULD HAVE FORESEEN THE YELLOW PRESS OF TODAY THEY WOULD HAVE REGULATED IT, NOT MADE IT FREE. WHY DON’T YOU TAKE THAT AMERICAN FLAG OFF YOUR MASTHEAD AND SUBSTITUTE A CASH REGISTER? FLY YOUR TRUE COLORS AND SOFT-PEDAL THE PARKER BRAND OF HYPOCRISY!”
“Stop it—don’t read another line!” the editor commanded before Penny had half finished.
“Why, Dad, you poor old wounded lion!” she chided, blue eyes dancing with mischief. “I thought you prided yourself that uncomplimentary opinions never disturbed you. Can’t you take it any more?”
“I don’t mind a few insults,” Mr. Parker snapped, “but paying for them is another matter.”
“That’s so, this little gem of literature did set you back two dollars and ten cents. Lucky I collected before you opened the telegram.”
Mr. Parker slammed his desk shut with a force which rattled the office windows.
“This same crack-pot who signs himself ‘Disgusted Reader’ or ‘Ben Bowman,’ or whatever name suits his fancy, has sent me six telegrams in the past month! I’m getting fed up!”
“All of the messages collect?”
“Every one. The nit-wit has criticised everything from the Star’s comic strips to the advertising columns. I’ve had enough of it!”
“Then why not do something about it?” Penny asked soothingly. “Refuse the telegrams.”
“It’s not that easy,” the editor growled. “Each day the Starreceives a large number of ‘collect’ messages, hot news tips from out-of-town correspondents and from reporters who try to sell free lance stories. We’re glad to pay for these telegrams. This fellow who keeps bombarding us is just smart enough to use different names and send his wires from various places. Sometimes he addresses the telegrams to me, and then perhaps to City Editor DeWitt or one of the other staff members.”
“In that case, I’m afraid you’re out of luck,” Penny said teasingly. “How about drowning your troubles in a little sleep?”
“It is late,” Mr. Parker admitted, glancing at his watch. “Almost midnight. Time we’re starting home.”
Reaching for his hat, Mr. Parker switched off the light, locked the door, and followed Penny down the stairway to the street. At the parking lot opposite the Star building, he tramped about restlessly while waiting for an attendant to bring the car.
“I’ll drive,” Penny said, sliding behind the steering wheel. “In your present mood you might inadvertently pick off a few pedestrians!”
“It makes my blood boil,” Mr. Parker muttered, his thoughts reverting to the telegram. “Call my paper yellow, eh? And that crack about the cash register!”
“Oh, everyone knows the Star is the best paper in the state,” Penny said, trying to coax him into a better mood. “You’re a good editor too, and a pretty fair father.”
“Thanks,” Mr. Parker responded with a mock bow. “Since we’re passing out compliments, you’re not so bad yourself.”
Suddenly relaxing, he reached out to touch Penny’s hand in a rare expression of affection. Tall and lean, a newspaper man with a reputation for courage and fight, he had only two interests in life—his paper and his daughter. Penny’s mother had been dead many years, but at times he saw his wife again in the girl’s sparkling blue eyes, golden hair, and especially in the way she smiled.
“Hungry, Dad?” Penny asked unexpectedly, intruding upon his thoughts. “I know a dandy new hamburger place not far from here. Wonderful coffee too.”
“Well, all right,” Mr. Parker consented. “It’s pretty late though. The big clock’s striking midnight.”
As the car halted for a traffic light, they both listened to the musical chimes which preceded the regularly spaced strokes of the giant clock. Penny turned her head to gaze at the Hubell Memorial Tower, a grim stone building which rose to the height of seventy-five feet. Erected ten years before as a monument to one of Riverview’s wealthy citizens, its chimes could be heard for nearly a mile on a still night. On one side, its high, narrow windows overlooked the city, while on the other, the cultivated lands of truck farmers.
“How strange!” Penny murmured as the last stroke of the clock died away.
“What is strange?” Mr. Parker asked gruffly.
“Why, that clock struck thirteen times instead of twelve!”
“Bunk and bosh!”
“Oh, but it did!” Penny earnestly insisted. “I counted each stroke distinctly.”
“And one of them twice,” scoffed her father. “Or are you spoofing your old Dad?”
“Oh, I’m not,” Penny maintained. As the car moved ahead, she craned her neck to stare up at the stone tower. “I know I counted thirteen. Why, Dad, there’s a green light burning in one of the windows! I never saw that before. What can it mean?”
“It means we’ll have a wreck unless you watch the road!” Mr. Parker cried, giving the steering wheel a quick turn. “Where are you taking me anyhow?”
“Out to Toni’s.” Reluctantly Penny centered her full attention upon the highway. “It’s only a mile into the country.”
“We won’t be home before one o’clock,” Mr. Parker complained. “But since we’re this far, I suppose we may as well keep on.”
“Dad, about that light,” Penny said thoughtfully. “Did you ever notice it before?”
Mr. Parker turned to gaze back toward the stone tower.
“There’s no green light,” he answered grimly. “Every window is dark.”
“But I saw it only an instant ago! And I did hear the clock strike thirteen. Cross my heart and hope to die—”
“Never mind the dramatics,” Mr. Parker cut in. “If the clock struck an extra time—which it didn’t—something could have gone wrong with the mechanism. Don’t try to build up a mystery out of your imagination.”
The car rattled over a bridge and passed a deserted farm house that formerly had belonged to a queer old man named Peter Fenestra. Penny’s gaze fastened momentarily upon an old fashioned storm cellar which marred the appearance of the front yard.
“I suppose I imagined all that too,” she said, waving her hand toward the disfiguring cement hump. “Old Peter never had any hidden gold, he never had a SECRET PACT with tattooed sailors, and he never tried to burn your newspaper plant!”
“I’ll admit you did a nice piece of detective work when you uncovered that story,” her father acknowledged. “Likewise, you brought the Star one of its best scoops by outwitting slippery Al Gepper and entangling him in his own Silken Ladder.”
“Don’t forget the Tale of the Witch Doll either,” Penny reminded him. “You laughed at me then, just as you’re doing now.”
“I’m not laughing,” denied the editor. “I merely say that no light was burning in the tower window, and I very much doubt that the clock struck more than twelve times.”
“Tomorrow I shall go to the tower and talk with the caretaker, Seth McGuire. I’ll prove to you that I was right!”
“If you do, I’ll treat to a dish of ice cream decorated with nuts.”
“Make it five gallons of gasoline and I’ll be really interested,” she countered.
Due to an unusual set of circumstances, Penny had fallen heir to two automobiles, one a second-hand contraption whose battered sides bore the signature of nearly every young person in Riverview. The other, a handsome maroon sedan, had been the gift of her father, presented in gratitude because of her excellent reporting of a case known to many as Behind the Green Door. Always hard pressed for funds, she found it all but impossible to keep two automobiles in operation, and her financial difficulties were a constant source of amusement to everyone but herself.
Soon, an electric sign proclaiming “Toni’s” in huge block letters loomed up. Penny swung into the parking area, tooting the horn for service. Immediately a white-coated waiter brought out a menu.
“Coffee and two hamburgers,” Penny ordered with a flourish. “Everything on one, and everything but, on the other.”
“No onions for the little lady?” the waiter grinned. “Okay. I’ll have ’em right out.”
While waiting, Penny noticed that another car, a gray sedan, had drawn up close to the building. Although the two men who occupied the front seat had ordered food, they were not eating it. Instead they conversed in low tones as they appeared to watch someone inside the cafe.
“Dad, notice those two men,” she whispered, touching his arm.
“What about them?” he asked, but before she could reply, the waiter came with a tray of sandwiches which he hooked over the car door.
“Not bad,” Mr. Parker praised as he bit into a giant-size hamburger. “First decent cup of coffee I’ve had in a week too.”
“Dad, watch!” Penny reminded him.
The restaurant door had opened, and a man of early middle age came outside. Immediately the couple in the gray sedan stiffened to alert attention. As the man passed their car they lowered their heads, but the instant he had gone on, they turned to peer after him.
The man who was being observed so closely seemed unaware of the scrutiny. Crossing the parking lot, he chose a trail which led into a dense grove of trees.
“Now’s our chance!” cried one of the men in the gray sedan. “Come on, we’ll get him!” Both alighted and likewise disappeared into the woods.
“Dad, did you hear what they said?” asked Penny.
“I did,” he answered grimly. “Tough looking customers too.”
“I’m afraid they mean to rob that first man. Isn’t there anything we can do?”
Mr. Parker barely hesitated. “I may make a chump of myself,” he said, “but here goes! I’ll tag along and try to be on hand if anything happens.”
“Dad, don’t do it!” Penny pleaded, suddenly frightened lest her father face danger. “You might get hurt!”
Mr. Parker paid no heed. Swinging open the car door, he strode across the parking lot, and entered the dark woods.
NOT TO BE LEFT BEHIND, Penny quickly followed her father, overtaking him before he had gone very far into the forest.
“Penny, you shouldn’t have come,” he said sternly. “There may be trouble, and I’ll not have you taking unnecessary risks.”
“I don’t want you to do it either,” she insisted. “Which way did the men go?”
“That’s what I wonder,” Mr. Parker responded, listening intently. “Hear anything?”
“Not a sound.”
“Queer that all three of them could disappear so quickly,” the editor muttered. “I’m sure there’s been no attack. Listen! What was that?”
“It sounded like a car being started!” Penny exclaimed.
Hastening to the edge of the woods, she gazed toward the parking lot. The Parker car stood where it had been abandoned, but the gray sedan was missing. A moving tail light could be seen far down the road.
“There go our friends,” Mr. Parker commented rather irritably. “Their sudden departure probably saved me from making a chump of myself.”
“How could we tell they didn’t mean to rob that other man?” Penny asked in an injured tone. “You thought yourself that they intended to harm him.”
“Oh, I’m not blaming you,” the editor answered, starting toward the parking lot. “I’m annoyed at myself. This is a graphic example of what we were talking about awhile ago—imagination!”
Decidedly crestfallen, Penny followed her father to the car. They finished their hamburgers, which had grown cold, and after the tray was removed, started home.
“I could do with a little sleep,” Mr. Parker yawned. “After a hard day at the office, your brand of night life is a bit too strenuous for me.”
Selecting a short-cut route to Riverview, Penny paid strict attention to the road, for the narrow pavement had been patched in many places. On either side of the highway stretched truck farms with row upon row of neatly staked tomatoes and other crops.
Rounding a bend, Penny was startled to see tongues of flame brightening the horizon. A large wooden barn, situated in plain view, on a slight knoll, had caught fire and was burning rapidly. As she slammed on the brake, Mr. Parker aroused from light slumber.
“Now what?” he mumbled drowsily.
“Dad, unless I’m imagining things again, that barn is on fire!”
“Let ’er burn,” he mumbled, and then fully aroused, swung open the car door.
There were no fire fighters on the scene, in fact the only person visible was a woman in dark flannel night robe, who stood silhouetted in the red glare. As Penny and Mr. Parker reached her side, she stared at them almost stupidly.
“We’ll lose everything,” she said tonelessly. “Our entire crop of melons is inside the barn, packed for shipment. And my husband’s new truck!”
“Have you called a fire company?” the editor asked.
“I’ve called, but it won’t do any good,” she answered. “The barn will be gone before they can get here.”
With a high wind whipping the flames, Penny and her father knew that the woman spoke the truth. Already the fire had such a start that even had water been available, the barn could not have been saved.
“Maybe I can get out the truck for you!” Mr. Parker offered.
As he swung open the barn doors, a wave of heat rushed into his face. Coughing and choking, he forced his way into the smoke filled interior, unaware that Penny was at his side. Seeing her a moment later, he tried to send her back.
“You can’t get the truck out without me to help push,” she replied, refusing to retreat. “Come on, we can do it!”
The shiny red truck was a fairly light one and stood on an inclined cement floor which sloped toward the exit. Nevertheless, although Penny and her father exerted every iota of their combined strength, they could not start it moving.
“Maybe the brake is on!” Mr. Parker gasped, running around to the cab. “Yes, it is!”
Pushing once more, they were able to start the truck rolling. Once in motion its own momentum carried it down the runway into the open, a safe distance from the flames.
“How about the crated melons?” Penny asked, breathing hard from the strenuous exertion.
“Not a chance to save them,” Mr. Parker answered. “We were lucky to get out the truck.”
Driven back by the heat, Penny and her father went to stand beside the woman in dark flannel. Thanking them for their efforts in her behalf, she added that her name was Mrs. Preston and that her husband was absent.
“John went to Riverview and hasn’t come back yet,” she said brokenly. “This is going to be a great shock to him. All our work gone up in smoke!”
“Didn’t you have the barn insured?” the editor questioned her.
“John has a small policy,” Mrs. Preston replied. “It covers the barn, but not the melons stored inside. Those men did it on purpose, too! I saw one of ’em riding away.”
“What’s that?” Mr. Parker demanded, wondering if he had understood the woman correctly. “You don’t mean the fire deliberately was set?”
“Yes, it was,” the woman affirmed angrily. “I was sound asleep, and then I heard a horse galloping into the yard. I ran to the window and saw the rider throw a lighted torch into the old hay loft. As soon as he saw it blaze up, he rode off.”
“Was the man anyone you knew?” Mr. Parker asked, amazed by the disclosure. “Were you able to see his face?”
“Hardly,” Mrs. Preston returned with a short laugh. “He wore a black hood. It covered his head and shoulders.”
“A black hood!” Penny exclaimed. “Why, Dad, that sounds like night riders!”
“Mrs. Preston, do you know of any reason why you and your husband might be made the target of such cowardly action?” the newspaper man inquired.
“It must have been done because John wouldn’t join up with them.”
“Join some organization, you mean?”
“Yes, they kept warning him something like this would happen, but John wouldn’t have anything to do with ’em.”
“I don’t blame your husband,” said the editor, seeking to gather more information. “Tell me, what is the name of this disreputable organization? What is its purpose, and the names of the men who run it?”
“I don’t know any more about it than what I’ve told you,” Mrs. Preston replied, suddenly becoming close-lipped. “John never said much about it to me.”
“Are you afraid to tell what you know?” Mr. Parker asked abruptly.
“It doesn’t pay to do too much talking. You act real friendly and you did me a good turn saving my truck—but I don’t even know your name.”
“Anthony Parker, owner of the Riverview Star.”
The information was anything but reassuring to the woman.
“You’re not aiming to write up anything I’ve told you for the paper?” she asked anxiously.
“Not unless I believe that by doing so I can expose these night riders who have destroyed your barn.”
“Please don’t print anything in the paper,” Mrs. Preston pleaded. “It will only do harm. Those men will turn on John harder than ever.”
Before Mr. Parker could reply, the roof of the storage barn collapsed, sending up a shower of sparks and burning brands. By this time the red glare in the sky had attracted the attention of neighbors, and several men came running into the yard. Realizing that he could not hope to gain additional information from the woman, Mr. Parker began to examine the ground in the vicinity of the barn.
“Looking for hoof tracks?” Penny asked, falling into step beside him.
“I thought we might find some, providing the woman told a straight story.”
“Dad, did you ever hear of an organization such as Mrs. Preston mentioned?” Penny inquired, her gaze on the ground. “I mean around Riverview, of course.”
Mr. Parker shook his head. “I never did, Penny. But if what she says is true, the Star will launch an investigation. We’ll have no night riders in this community, not if it’s in my power to blast them out!”
“Here’s your first clue, Dad!”
Excitedly, Penny pointed to a series of hoof marks plainly visible in the soft earth. The tracks led toward the main road.
“Apparently Mrs. Preston told the truth about the barn being fired by a man on horseback,” Mr. Parker declared as he followed the trail leading out of the yard. “These prints haven’t been made very long.”
“Dad, you look like Sherlock Holmes scooting along with his nose to the ground!” Penny giggled. “You should have a magnifying glass to make the picture perfect.”
“Never mind the comedy,” her father retorted gruffly. “This may mean a big story for the Star, not to mention a worthwhile service to the community.”
“Oh, I’m heartily in favor of your welfare work,” Penny chuckled. “In fact, I think it would be wonderfully exciting to capture a night rider. Is that what you have in mind?”
“We may as well follow this trail as far as we can. Apparently, the fellow rode his horse just off the main highway, heading toward Riverview.”
“Be sure you don’t follow the trail backwards,” Penny teased. “That would absolutely ruin your reputation as a detective.”
“Jump in the car and drive while I stand on the running board,” Mr. Parker ordered, ignoring his daughter’s attempt at wit. “Keep close to the edge of the pavement and go slowly.”
Obeying instructions, Penny drove the car at an even speed. Due to a recent rain which had made the ground very soft, it was possible to follow the trail of hoof prints without difficulty.
“We turn left here,” Mr. Parker called as they came to a dirt road. “Speed up a bit or the tires may stick. And watch sharp for soft places.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” Penny laughed, thoroughly enjoying the adventure.
Soon the car came to the entrance of a narrow, muddy lane, and there Mr. Parker called a halt.
“We’ve come to the end of the trail,” he announced.
“Have the tracks ended?” Penny asked in disappointment as she applied brakes.
“Quite the contrary. They turn into this lane.”
Both Mr. Parker and his daughter gazed thoughtfully toward a small cabin which could be seen far back among the trees. Despite the late hour, a light still glowed in one of the windows.
“The man who set the fire must live there!” Penny exclaimed. “What’s our next move, Dad?”
As she spoke, the roar of a fast traveling automobile was heard far up the road, approaching from the direction whence they had just come.
“Pull over,” Mr. Parker instructed. “And flash the tail light. We don’t want to risk being struck.”
Barely did Penny have time to obey before the head-beams of the oncoming car illuminated the roadway. But as it approached, the automobile suddenly slackened speed, finally skidding to a standstill beside the Parker sedan.
“That you, Clem Davis?” boomed a loud voice. “Stand where you are, and don’t make any false moves!”
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