A Tense Chase
"WHICH way is Melborne?" Nancy asked the caretaker when they reached the highway.
"Down there." He pointed.
"That's the direction the thieves took," Nancy told him, noting the dust and tire marks which revealed the van's exit onto the highway. "But," she added, glancing at the dashboard clock, "they're probably too far away by this time for us to catch them."
"Yes, ding it," Jeff muttered.
Nancy drove as rapidly as the law permitted toward Melborne. All the while, Jeff Tucker peered from one side of the road to the other.
"Those rascal thieves might just have nerve enough to stop an' count their loot," he said to Nancy. "So I'm keepin' a sharp eye peeled."
Nancy smiled in spite of the gravity of the situation. "Maybe," she replied. "Though I doubt that those men would be so reckless."
"Oh, I don't mean out in plain sight. They might have pulled off the road, back o' some o' these closed-up summer places."
"We'll watch for their tire marks on any dirt side road," the young sleuth said.
Jeff became so absorbed in looking for the van's tire marks that he never asked Nancy why she had come to see him at the Topham house.
"Those fake movers," he said, as they neared the outskirts of Melborne. "I wonder how far they went."
Nancy did not reply until they came to a crossroad, then she pointed. "They turned north here on this dirt road. How much farther is it to Melborne?"
"Only a mile."
As they came into the little town, Nancy asked her companion, "Which way to State Police headquarters?"
"Go right down Central Avenue to Maple Street. Turn left, and there it is."
Reaching headquarters, Nancy parked the car and hopped out. Jeff Tucker followed as she walked briskly into the office.
"I want to report a robbery," she told the desk sergeant after identifying herself.
For a moment the officer, taken aback, looked in astonishment at Nancy. "You've been robbed?" he asked. "In our town?"
"No, no!" Nancy cried out. She then gave a quick but complete resume of what had taken place at the Tophams' cottage. Jeff Tucker added his account.
The police officer needed no further urging. Immediately he summoned four men and issued orders. "Now," he said, turning to Nancy, "have you any idea which road the thieves took?"
"Yes, Officer. When we passed the road crossing a mile outside of town, I saw their truck tracks on the dirt road leading north. I'll be glad to show you."
"Good. Lead the way. But first I'll send out a general alarm."
"Hurry!" Nancy begged as she started out. "Those thieves have at least an hour's head start!"
Jeff Tucker had been advised to return to his home. Accordingly he telephoned his son to come and pick him up in his car.
"Good luck!" he called, as the others pulled away. "I sure don't know how I'm goin' to break this to the Tophams."
Nancy was sorry for him, but she felt a thrill of excitement as she proceeded up the street, the police car following close behind.
Beyond the town, Nancy chose the road which she felt certain the thieves had used. The two cars sped along until Nancy unexpectedly came to a fork. Both branches were paved and no tire marks were visible. Nancy stopped. The police car pulled up alongside.
"What's the matter?" asked the officer in charge, whose name was Elton.
"I'm not sure which way to go now."
The policemen sprang from their automobile and began to examine the road. Officer Elton said that if a moving van had passed that way, its tire marks had been obliterated by other vehicles. It was impossible to tell which route the thieves had traveled.
"It'll be strictly guesswork from here," Officer Elton said to Nancy.
"In that case," replied Nancy, "it's my guess that the van went to the left." She pointed to a sign which read: Garwin, 50 miles. "Isn't Garwin a fairly large city?" she queried.
"Perhaps the thieves headed that way to dispose of the stolen furniture."
The officer nodded approvingly. "Sounds reasonable," he said. "Well, in any case, we can't go much farther, because we're near the state line."
Nancy had another thought. "I'll take the road to Garwin and swing around toward River Heights." She smiled. "If I see those thieves, I'll let you know."
"Well, you watch out, young lady. Those men may lock you up again!"
"I will. Anyhow, there'll be plenty of traffic as soon as I reach the main highway."
Without giving the policemen an opportunity for further objection, Nancy started up and swung her car to the left. She noted in her rear-view mirror that the squad car had turned onto the right-hand road.
"The officers must have picked up a clue," Nancy said to herself. "But I certainly wish I could spot that van and maybe find a chance to look in the old clock!"
Nancy soon reached the main road. As mile after mile of highway spun behind her, Nancy's hopes grew dim. There were a number of side roads, any one of which the moving van might have taken to elude pursuers.
The young sleuth decided to adhere to her original theory—that Sid and his pals had headed for Garwin—and kept on the main highway.
"Those thieves think Jeff and I are still locked up and won't suspect they're being followed," she assured herself. Smiling, she thought hopefully, "In that case they won't be on their guard!"
About ten minutes later Nancy stopped at a service station to have her car refueled, and on impulse asked the attendant, "Did you by any chance see a moving van pass here recently?"
"Sure did, miss," was the prompt answer. "About half an hour ago. I noticed it because the driver was going at a terrific speed for a