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The Outdoor Girls at Wild Rose Lodge - or, The Hermit of Moonlight Falls
by Laura Lee Hope
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He smiled again pleasantly and looked as though he considered that he had fallen into rather good luck. But at his mention of the professor Betty had sobered instantly.

"Oh, then you know something about Professor Dempsey?" she questioned eagerly.

"Please tell us what happened to him," added Amy breathlessly.

"Did he do this?" asked Mollie, with a comprehensive sweep of her hand about the cluttered room.

"I'm afraid he did," answered the young fellow, sobering instantly. "You see, I just returned from overseas about a week ago and a couple of days later my dad read in the paper about the death of this queer old man's two sons. The pater had always been interested in the lonely old boy, so he sent me over to see if I could do anything for him. I found the place like this and—the bird had flown. Went dopy I suppose about the bad news and tore things up a bit."

Though the boy's words were slangy, there was real sympathy in his tone and the girls liked him the better for it.

"And you haven't heard anything from him since?" asked Betty softly.

"Not a word or a sign," answered the boy, with a shake of his head. "Just clean cleared out, that's all. Pretty hard luck, I call it. Just at the end of things too—when he had a right to expect the fellows home. Pretty tough luck. I wish I could find the poor old duffer and do something for him."

The girls heartily echoed the wish. Before leaving the place for good, they looked about the rooms once more for some sign or message that might give them a clue to the whereabouts of the professor. They found nothing, however, and finally were forced to give up the search.

As the young people stepped outside once more and closed the door after them upon the desolate house a great wave of pity swept over Betty. Somehow it did not seem right to go off like this as though they were abandoning the old man to his fate. Yet what could they do more than they had done?

"Girls," she said, a little quiver in her voice, "I would give almost everything I own to find the poor old professor and help him back to happiness. If I only could," she added after a pause. "Well," said Wesley Travers, as he looked admiringly at Betty's flushed, sympathetic little face, "I imagine if any one could find him and bring him happiness, you would be that one."

The young soldier accompanied them back to the road. After thanking him for the information he had given them, the girls climbed into their cars and headed toward home, leaving Wesley Travers still standing in the road and looking after them thoughtfully.

"A mighty nice bunch of girls," thought the latter. "Especially the little brown-haired one. They seemed rather interested in that dotty old professor too. Lucky fellow to have four girls like that interested in him!" After this remark he started off toward home.

Luckily for the girls, the next few days were so crowded with preparations for the trip to Wild Rose Lodge that they had not much time to dwell on the poor old professor and his misfortunes.

Only at night would they sometimes dream queer dreams in which wild-eyed men went around smashing everything in sight and a little cottage stood lonely and desolate and ghostlike amid a silent forest of trees.

After a night like this the girls were always glad to awake and find the sunshine streaming cheerfully in their windows. And they would throw themselves with more than usual energy into the activities of the day. Yet try as they would, they could never quite blot the tragedy from their minds.

On the afternoon of the day before they were to start for Moonlight Falls, the girls were gathered in Betty's garage at the back of the house, where the Little Captain was giving her car one last overhauling to make sure that it was in perfect condition for the trip. Mollie suddenly espied the postman coming down the street.

Now the postman was a very popular man with the girls, for the reason that he brought almost daily some message from the boys on the other side. He sympathized with the chums so fully in their desire for letters with the red triangle in one corner that he actually confessed to a guilty feeling when he had no missive of the sort for them.

So now, as Mollie ran toward him with outstretched hand, he held up to her delighted gaze not only one letter, but four.

"One for each of you," he said beamingly, as Mollie reached him. "I thought that probably I would find all four of you at one place, so I kept the letters together."

"Oh, thanks, it is awfully good of you," said Mollie absent-mindedly, as she took the welcome letters and hurried with them back to the garage. "One for each of us, just think of that!" she cried to the questioning girls. "It looks as if the boys had all written at the same time. Put down your duster, Betty, for goodness' sake, and read what Alien has to say. Maybe," she added hopefully, as she ripped her envelope open, "they will tell us something definite about coming home."

So down the girls sat in the midst of dust cloths and more or less dirt to find what the boys had written. For a moment only the crackling of paper broke the silence. Then Grace gave a little joyful cry.

"Will says he is almost sure to be home soon—"

"And he has been made a sergeant," Amy interrupted, or rather added, her eyes shining with pride. "Just think of that—Will, a sergeant!"

"I was just going to tell them that if you had waited a minute," said Grace, rather crossly. There was quite a little jealousy between Grace and Amy over Will. Grace had declared more than once that whereas she had known her brother all her life, Amy had only known him for a couple of years—or—or more. Grace loved her brother devotedly and once in a while she resented Amy's place in his affections.

So now to change the subject and avert a possible quarrel, Mollie jumped into the breach.

"Listen to this," she said. "Roy and Frank have been made corporals and Allen—oh, look at Betty blush!" She looked gleefully across at the Little Captain and Amy and Grace followed her glance.

Betty was not blushing, but she felt as uncomfortable as though she had been.

"Tell us what Allen says," Mollie dared her wickedly. "Come on, honey— dare you to."

"You can go on daring all you like," said Betty defiantly. This time she was blushing—from the fact that she knew she could not, or would not, tell the girls what Allen had said in his letter. Not for anything in this world!

"I don't mean what you mean," said Mollie, enjoying her confusion immensely, while Grace and Amy looked on laughingly. "I just thought that maybe you would like to be the one to tell us about his promotion."

"His promotion!" cried Amy and Grace together, and Betty looked quite as bewildered as any of them.

"Mollie, for goodness' sake tell us what you mean," she demanded.

"But didn't he tell you about it, Betty?" Mollie insisted.

"Wait a minute," said the Little Captain as she hastily scanned the pages of her long letter. Then, down near the end of the last page she found it, just a little paragraph, put in as though it had been an afterthought. "Why," cried Betty, her eyes beginning to shine with excitement, "girls, listen to this. Allen has been promoted. He's an officer now—a lieutenant! Think of it—leather leggings and all!"

It was too much for the girls. They laughed and cried and hugged each other and tried to imagine Allen in his new uniform to their hearts' content, for the young new-made officer was a favorite with them all.

"Goodness," said Amy happily, "I suppose when he gets home he will be altogether too high-toned to notice common folk like us."

"Oh, I don't know," said Grace happily, adding with a sly little glance at Betty, "I imagine he will make an exception of one of us at least."

"I wonder," drawled Mollie as she picked up her unfinished letter, "which one of us you can mean."



Chapter XI

The Hold-Up



The girls were glad that the letters had come from the boys just as they had, for it helped them to bridge over the tediously long wait till the next morning.

They read the missives with the little red triangles in the left hand corner over and over again and—whisper it!—at least two of them slept with the precious letters under their pillows.

And then—the morning was upon them. It was a beautiful morning too, and as the girls dressed hurriedly they were glad that they had arranged to start early. In that way they could take their time and enjoy to the full the glorious ride to Moonlight Falls. It was only fifty-five miles, but by driving slowly they could make it seem like twice that.

It was barely half past nine when Betty, having finished breakfast and put the last finishing touches to her new white hat, ran around to the garage to get the car out.

Ten minutes later she had drawn up in front of Mollie's house, her ears still ringing with the hundred and one instructions of her anxious mother, and was tooting the horn of her little car furiously.

The summons had the desired effect. Mollie came running from the house, straightening her hat with one hand and lugging a valise in the other while the twins trailed at her skirts.

"For goodness' sake, let go of me, Paul. Dodo, if you touch that bag again, I'll spank you. Mother," she wailed, looking back pleadingly over her shoulder, "won't you please make these little pests go into the house?"

Whereupon Mrs. Billette suddenly appeared at the door, smiled at Betty, grabbed Paul with one hand, Dodo with the other, while the twins roared a protest.

Released, Mollie dropped her bag, sped round to the garage, and in a moment more was backing the big car round to the road.

The girls had decided to about live in their khaki tramping suits on this trip, merely packing in a good dress or two to wear on dress-up occasions. In this way they had to take less luggage and could have more space to "spread out" as Mollie said.

"Put your grip in here, Betty," Mollie suggested, as she slung her own grip into the tonneau of the big machine. "There is more room, and Mrs. Irving said she wouldn't mind in the least being entirely surrounded by suitcases."

Betty laughed, did as she was bid, and a moment later they were off, speeding down the road to Grace's house where they were to pick up the other two girls and Mrs. Irving.

They found the three waiting for them, and it took scarcely any time at all to add the extra grips to the growing pile in the tonneau of Mollie's car. Amid great fun, Mrs. Irving, who was rosy-cheeked and matronly and as jolly as the girls, was wedged into the remaining space, Amy climbed to the front seat beside Mollie and Grace took her seat with Betty.

They were off! The sting of the wind was in their faces, and the sun beat warmly down upon them as they rolled along, passing familiar houses, and sometimes familiar people, to whom they waved, and so on and on till they left the town behind them and started out on the open road.

"My, this is something like," commented Grace, stretching her feet out before her for all the world like a lazy, comfortable cat. "I feel awfully sorry for all the poor people who haven't cars to ride in to-day and Wild Rose Lodges to visit. By the way, why is it called Wild Rose Lodge, Betty?"

"Because they say there are lots of wild roses around it, of course," Betty responded, her hands resting easily on the wheel, her eyes bright with the joy of the moment. Grace, stealing a sideways glance at her, could not help thinking that Betty looked not unlike a wild rose herself.

"You look awfully pretty, honey," she said then, for Grace was always generous with praise where her friends were concerned. "I would give the world to have a color like yours."

"Goodness," remarked Betty, turning to look at her chum, her face a little brighter pink because of the honest compliment, "you have a lovely color— as you very well know. Mine is too red sometimes."

"Nobody thinks that but you," said Grace, squeezing Betty's hand affectionately while she dived down in her pocket for some candy. "The only time I have noticed you get very red," she added, "is when some one happens to mention a certain young gentleman by the name of Lieutenant Allen Washburn."

Betty could feel that her face was burning, but she did not care. She was awfully proud of Allen and desperately fond of him and for the moment she did not care if the whole world knew about it.

"Isn't it wonderful, Grade?" she cried, her heart pounding joyously. "About Allen being an officer, I mean. I have to pinch myself several times a minute to make myself realize that it is really true."

"It surely is great," Grace answered slowly, adding after a moment, while a faraway expression crept into her eyes, "I don't blame you for being crazy about him, honey. I could almost be foolish myself. Oh, don't worry," she went on quickly as Betty turned amazed and rather startled eyes upon her. "I'm no fonder of Allen than I am of any of the other boys. I just said that I didn't blame you, that's all."

Betty turned her eyes to the road once more, but in her heart she was troubled. There had been a note in Grace's voice that she had never heard before. Could it be possible that she really cared for Allen? But she pushed the thought from her mind resolutely. If such a thing could have been possible, she certainly would have discovered it before this. The mere thought was nonsense of course. And yet she was troubled.

"Have some candy," Grace invited, breaking in upon her thoughts. "You needn't stick up your nose at it to-day for I bought this fresh from the store this morning."

"Who said I was going to stick up my nose?" said Betty, helping herself to a chocolate that looked as if it might contain a nut and thankful for the break in her not-too-pleasant reflections. "If you will think back just a little, I think you will admit that I have been guilty very seldom of sticking up my nose at anything—"

"Except Percy Falconer," finished Grace drolly, and they both laughed merrily.

"Poor Percy!" said Betty, chewing her candy contentedly. "I suppose he will hate us more heartily than ever now."

They were running some eight or ten miles from the town along a quiet stretch of road, never dreaming of danger, when Betty's little racer nosed around a bend in the road and came smack into it! Not twenty feet ahead of them a man sprang into the middle of the road and leveled a revolver at them! In one electrified instant they saw that the fellow wore a mask and a slouch hat and looked for all the world like a brigand straight out of some sensational moving picture.

Betty, more surprised at first than alarmed, put on her brakes and came to a standstill, at the same time putting out a hand to warn the car behind them.

"Oh, Betty, we are being held up!" moaned Grace, who evidently was frightened enough for both of them. "For goodness' sake, hold up your hands. He may shoot."

Still feeling rather dazed with the suddenness of the thing, Betty raised both hands above her head, at the same time feeling a rather hysterical desire to laugh. It was so absurd, being held up by a masked stranger in broad daylight.

Nevertheless, she gave a little gasp of fright as the man waved his big revolver menacingly and came close to the car. She wished frantically that he would not point that firearm at her. Suppose it should go off!

"Come on, hand over what you got," the robber demanded in a gruff threatening voice. "The quicker you move, the better it will be for you."

"Wh—what do you want?" asked Betty, in a weak little voice that did not sound like her own at all. She had thought of her pocketbook beside her in the pocket of the car. The purse contained a whole month's allowance. She was sparring desperately for time—help in some form or other might come at any moment. But the ruffian in the road was evidently in no frame of mind to be fooled with.

He waved his revolver once more, eliciting a terrified gurgle from Grace and commanded roughly that they get out of the car.

"No funny business," he snarled. "Get out!"

Betty was about to obey when she had a brilliant thought. Her pepper gun! She had bought it the day before from the son of her father's chauffeur, thinking it was an undesirable plaything for a nine-year-old boy and had put it, as the most convenient place, in her car. And the pepper gun was filled—as it should have been—with good red cayenne pepper!



Chapter XII

Sheep!



For a moment Betty hesitated, almost afraid of what she was going to do. The pepper gun might work, but if she were not quick enough or clever enough, her little trick might also result in a tragedy.

Her hesitation was only momentary, however, for Betty was a born fighter. Suddenly she cried out as if in joyful greeting to an unexpected arrival.

"Here they come! here they come!" she called, and in the moment that their captor turned his startled eyes from her to the road ahead, Betty acted.

She snatched the pepper gun from its hiding place in the car and as the man once more turned furiously upon her let him have the full contents directly in the face.

It was a dreadful thing to do. Choking and sputtering, the ruffian dropped his revolver and raised both fists to his tortured eyes.

"I'll get you for this!" he cried between great sneezes that threatened to tear him apart. "You just wait—"

But Betty refused to wait. As soon as the fellow had dropped his weapon she had started the engine, and now she guided the car past the stuttering robber and raced off down the road.

Mollie, who had only half understood what was going on but who had caught enough of it to be considerably alarmed did not stop to ask questions, but sped off down the road after Betty.

It was half a dozen miles farther on that Betty finally slowed the car and waited for Mollie and the others to catch up with her. Grace, who had been gradually recovering from her fright, had not yet recovered enough to ask any questions. She had been too much concerned in putting miles between them and the scene of their adventure.

As Mollie came up alongside, Betty drew her first free breath.

Of course Mollie and Amy and Mrs. Irving wanted to hear all about it, and Betty told them what had happened, her account interrupted by hysterical laughter.

But when she came to the pepper gun, the girls' expression of utter bewilderment changed to admiration of Betty's quick thought and quicker action.

"Why, Betty," cried Amy, incredulously, "I don't see how you ever had the courage to do it. Why, that man might have shot you!"

"He probably would have if I hadn't got him first," said Betty, half-way between laughter and tears. "It was taking an awfully big chance, but," with a flash of spirit, "I wasn't going to sit there calmly and have him take away all our money. Not if I could help it."

"Betty, I think you were simply wonderful," said Mollie in heart-felt admiration. "Why, if he had taken our money it would have completely spoiled our trip."

"How they talk," said Grace hysterically. "Any one would think it was only the trip that mattered when we might very easily have been killed."

This remark served to bring Mrs. Irving to a realization of the present, and she suggested that they start on again.

"Not that I am particularly nervous," she hastily added, as the girls looked at her suspiciously. "Only I will feel just as well when we have put a dozen miles between us and that highway robber, instead of only half that. I wish there was a town handy where we could notify the authorities."

They started on again, and as the miles slid past them they became less nervous and even began to laugh a little at thought of the robber's consternation when he received the contents of Betty's pepper gun full in his face.

"He was probably the most surprised crook ever," commenced Grace with a chuckle. "He never will get over cursing you, Betty. How did you ever happen to have it? The pepper gun, I mean," she added curiously.

Betty explained how the gun had come into her possession. "I didn't know," she added ruefully, her foot on the accelerator as they sped up a steep hill, "when I bought it, that it would come in so handy. How much further do you suppose we have to go?" she asked, changing the subject abruptly.

"Why," said Grace, looking at her wrist watch and realizing suddenly that she was getting rather hungry, "we have been riding since ten o'clock and it is now after noon. We must be very nearly there by this time. Goodness, I hope there will be something to eat around Wild Rose Lodge. I'm getting famished."

"Mollie's Uncle John said he would attend to that—stocking the cabin with good things, I mean," said Betty, herself suddenly conscious of a disturbingly hungry feeling. "He said we would find enough canned things to last us at least a week."

"Canned things, yes," pouted Grace. "But who in the world wants to live on canned things? I don't see why we didn't bring a chicken along, at least."

"Well, maybe we can manage to run over one," chuckled Betty, as they passed a farmhouse and several chickens scuttled squawking across the road. "Then we can have one good and fresh. For goodness' sake, what is Mollie tooting that horn for?" she added, as the raucous signal came from the car behind them, "Has she stopped the car, Grace? Look and see."

"It's stopped deader than a door nail," said Grace, obligingly screwing about in her seat and fixing on the road behind them a disapproving eye. "Now what do you suppose can be the trouble this time? If she has had a blowout or something, I'm not going to help fix the old thing—"

"You couldn't fix the blowout, dear, but you might help with the tire," Betty said, with a laugh, as she stopped the roadster and jumped to the road. "Come on, she seems to be excited about something—"

"Goodness, I hope it isn't another highway robber," said Grace anxiously, stopping in the middle of the road at the dreadful thought. "I don't see any, but—"

"You don't see any because there isn't any," Betty assured her, taking her by the arm and leading her decidedly forward. "You don't suppose there is a whole Robin Hood's band in this woods, do you?"

Mollie and Amy and Mrs. Irving came running to meet them excitedly—or at least, Mollie and Amy did the running, while their chaperon followed more slowly.

"There are blackberries in there, whole bushels and bushels of them!" Mollie called. "You could see them from the road, and there you girls passed right by them without even looking."

"Blackberries!" repeated Grace resignedly, as she felt in her pocket to see if she had any candy left. "Just listen to her speaking of blackberries when what I'm dying for is a good big steak with onions on top of it—"

"Stop it," cried Mollie indignantly, while the others felt their mouths begin to water. "The idea of mentioning steak—But here," she broke off, seizing Grace's hand and dragging her toward the woods, "come with me and pick berries if you value your life. Lucky we brought those tin pails along."

"But why," protested Grace patiently, as she was dragged along, "should we want to pick berries?"

"To eat," replied Mollie, attacking a bush that was fairly black with the luscious ripe fruit. "And besides," she added, lowering her voice to a confidential pitch, "Mrs. Irving said that if she could find some flour and baking powder in the lodge she would make us a steamed blackberry pudding for supper."

Grace stared for a moment then, without another word, set to work on the loaded bush.

"You might have told me that before," she grumbled, her mouth full of berries. "You always did have a mean disposition, Mollie."

To which Mollie's only reply was a chuckle and a sly wink at Betty, who was working close at her side.

They worked on happily for a few minutes, then suddenly Amy straightened up and stood quiet as though she were listening to something.

The girls, whose nerves were still a little on edge from their recent adventure, demanded to know in no uncertain tones what was the matter with her.

"N-nothing," Amy answered a little sheepishly. "I thought I heard a little rustling among the leaves, that's all."

"Probably a breeze coming up," said Betty matter-of-factly, and they went on with their berry picking.

But it was not long before a second disturbance came, and this time they all heard it. It was, as Amy had said, a rustling sound. However, it was louder this time, as though several heavy bodies were pushing through the underbrush on the other side of the road.

"Perhaps we had better go and see what is making all the noise," said Mrs. Irving, her light tone successfully hiding an undercurrent of nervousness. "I guess we have picked enough berries for our pudding, anyway."

The girls picked up their pails and started for the road, Betty in the lead. But when the latter reached the outer fringe of bushes she started back, almost treading on Mollie's toes and causing her to drop her pail in alarm.

"It's sheep!" cried the Little Captain. "Dozens and dozens of them! Come and look!"



Chapter XIII

The Enemy Routed



Mrs. Irving pushed forward beside Betty, and the girls stared unbelievingly over her shoulder. Then they saw that she was right.

While they had been picking berries in the woods a flock of sheep had wandered down to the road from the other direction and had completely surrounded their two cars.

The big-eyed, innocent looking animals were circling around and around the machines as if examining them with a sort of ovine interest and curiosity.

But to the girls the sheep had a rather terrifying aspect. There were so many of them and they had so completely taken possession of their automobiles! How in the world were they ever to get back their property?

"Goodness!" Grace whispered plaintively in Betty's ear, "I expect they will try to climb into the cars next. What ever are we going to do?"

"Sh," cautioned Amy fearfully, as some of the flock, attracted by the noise in the bushes, turned their heads in the direction of it. "Suppose they should come in here?"

"Well, they are not lions, you goose," said Mollie, coming out of the trance into which surprise had thrown her. "They are only sheep, and they couldn't hurt you if they tried."

"Not unless they stampeded," said Betty quietly. "In that case I wouldn't care to be in the way."

"But we can't stay here all night," Mollie protested impatiently.

"Held up by a lot of silly old sheep," added Grace, still more uncomfortably conscious of a growing appetite.

"It must be almost two o'clock," added Amy with a sigh.

"Yes, if things keep on this way it will be night before we reach the lodge," said Mollie, adding with decision, "I vote that we get some sticks and stones and scat 'em out of the way."

"I think I have a better suggestion than that," put in Mrs. Irving, speaking for the first time. "I think we had better wait for a short time before we do anything. The sheep will probably get tired in a little while and wander off of their own accord."

"Oh, all right," said Mollie, with rather bad grace as she seated herself on a convenient rock. "But all the time we are waiting for them to be tired, we will be getting tired ourselves and, goodness, Mrs. Irving, I'm being starved to death."

At the desperation in her tones the girls had to laugh, though they were as reluctant to sit with folded hands and wait as she was. Still, Mrs. Irving was their chaperon and probably knew best.

So with admirable resignation they disposed themselves beside Mollie on the big rock and settled down to watch for developments.

But after waiting for an everlasting five minutes they decided that there were to be no developments. The foolish sheep continued to circle lazily about the cars, nibbling now and then upon the grass by the roadside but showing not the slightest intention in the world of moving from there for some time to come.

"Oh, what shall we do?" moaned Grace, moving restlessly on her uncomfortable seat. "My foot is going to sleep and I'm trying to sit on a pointed stone or something."

"And it looks as though those crazy sheep were going to stay there all night," added Betty, herself growing restive at the apparent futility of waiting for something to happen. "Can't we do something, Mrs. Irving?"

"Wait just a few minutes more," begged the lady, who was afraid of the sheep, but was reluctant to confess her fear to her young charges. "Look, there seems to be a movement among them now," she added hopefully, as one sheep pressed against another and sent it scampering a few feet along the road. "We won't have to wait much longer, I am sure."

And so, both to break their chaperon's authority, the girls fidgeted and fumed, getting more impatient and hungrier with every leaden minute that dragged itself by until almost three-quarters of an hour had passed.

Then, when they began to think that they must scream if they were forced to wait another minute, their chaperon rose of her own accord and with a decided movement flicked the dust from her skirt.

"I think we have waited long enough," she hazarded, to which each girl said a fervent though silent "amen." "I suppose we shall have to follow Mollie's suggestion and gather sticks and stones. Perhaps we can scare them away."

"Hooray!" shouted Mollie, jumping to her feet with relief. At the unexpected sound the sheep in the road started and looked about them uneasily. "Come on, girls, I'm mad enough to attack Jem single-handed. All who are with me, say Aye."

"Aye!" they yelled, scurrying about to find sticks and stones.

Betty, flourishing a branch at the frightened flock, yelled: "We are wild, wild women, old sheep. You had better get out while the going's good. We eat little fellers like you alive!" and with a whoop of wild spirits she danced down to the edge of the wood waving her stick wildly about her head.

Her fun was contagious and, smothering their laughter, the girls waltzed after her, throwing sticks and stones and all sorts of improvised weapons into the midst of the now thoroughly frightened flock.

Mrs. Irving strove to caution them, but her voice was lost in the babble, and for once in her life at least she found herself utterly ignored. With a little sigh she picked up a stick of her own and followed after the girls.

For a moment it looked as though the panic stricken sheep would rush straight for the shouting girls, and in that moment what was little more than an exciting game to the girls might have turned into a rather dreadful tragedy.

But, luckily, half a dozen sheep broke through and, led by an old ram, started down the road and the rest of the flock, as is the habit of sheep, followed after.

In a moment the entire flock was galloping off down the road with the excited girls in pursuit. There is no telling how far they might have followed the sheep had not Betty become suddenly possessed of a grain of common-sense.

Panting and laughing, she came to a standstill while the girls rushed past her.

"Come back here!" she cried, her voice choked with laughter. "There's no use of our being as silly as the sheep. Mrs. Irving will think we have deserted her."

So reluctantly the girls abandoned the chase and started back to rejoin their much relieved but slightly dazed chaperon.

"Now if we had only done that an hour ago," said Mollie, as they climbed back into the machines determined to make up for lost time, "we would have been that much nearer the lodge and—something to eat."

"Goodness, it will be almost dark when we get there now," wailed Grace, as she slipped into the seat beside Betty. "And we haven't had anything to eat since breakfast."

"What with highway robbers and sheep," laughed Betty, as she started the engine, "we shall be lucky if we get there at all."

"Oh, Betty, if you love me don't mention that awful highwayman again," begged Grace, looking uneasily into the shadows of the wood. "I don't want to have any more thrills like that as long as I live."

"Let's hope we won't," said Betty fervently.

"It's a pity there is no telephone along this road—we could notify the folks at Deepdale," remarked Mollie.

"Humph, if we did that they might get so scared that they'd send for us to come home," came from Amy.

"That's so!" came from the other Outdoor Girls quickly.

"Well, as I said before, no more thrills like that for yours truly," repeated Grace.

But little did the girls know that in the weeks to follow they would have more and more startling thrills than they had ever experienced before.



Chapter XIV

Nothing Human



They might have reached Wild Rose Lodge before dusk, in spite of Grace's gloomy prediction, if everything had gone well then. But it seemed that the evil genius of bad luck was not yet through with them.

They were scarcely five miles from their destination when, bang! went a report that made the girls clutch at each other wildly. At first they jumped to the conclusion that they were being held up again, but close on the heels of the first thought came the conviction of the truth. Mollie had had a blowout!

Betty, looking behind, saw the big car stop and brought her own little roadster to a standstill once more. "There is nothing wrong with our tires, is there?" she asked of Grace. "Look over your side, Gracie, and see."

Finding nothing amiss, they jumped out and ran back to Mollie to offer assistance. Mollie was eyeing the flat tire gloomily and saying things under her breath that none of the girls could catch. Then as Betty spoke to her she seemed to come to life and ran around to the back of the machine.

"Of course you can help," she answered, working to release the extra tire. "I would like to see you get out of it. Lucky I bought an extra tire before we started, though I did hope," here she glared at the girls as if it were all their fault, "that I wouldn't have to use it so soon. We've had more trouble on this ride than any I can remember. A hold-up, sheep and—this!"

"Well, there is no use talking about it," Betty reminded her cheerfully. "The less we talk, the harder we can work and the sooner we shall get started again."

"Yes, that's all very well," grumbled Mollie, as she fumbled for her tools; "but you don't know this place as well as I do."

"You talk," said Amy, her eyes widening, "as though there were wild animals or something in the woods. I didn't know they came as far east as this."

"They don't, goose," said Mollie grumpily, as she pulled at the tire. "I didn't say anything about wild animals, did I? Only we have to ride about two miles through the woods before we get to the lodge and I must say I didn't want to do that in the dark."

"But there is some sort of road, isn't there?" asked Grace.

Mollie, bending over the lifting jack, shot her a withering glance.

"Of course there's a road," she said shortly. "How else could we expect to use the cars?"

"It must be a sort of wagon road," suggested Betty as she deftly helped her chum. "And I don't blame you for not wanting to try it at night, Mollie. I don't much like the idea myself."

"I believe if we hurry that we can get there before dusk," said Mrs. Irving confidently, though it might have been noticed that she kept her eyes rather anxiously on the fast sinking sun.

At last, after what seemed an eternity to the impatient girls, the new tire had replaced the old one, the old one was safely strapped on the back of the car, the tools were put away, and they were ready to start once more.

"Give her plenty of gas this time, Betty," Mollie sung after her as the Little Captain climbed into her car. "If we can manage to get to the woods before dark we will be doing good work. Let her go."

With which advice she settled herself behind the wheel of her own car and they were off once more.

Betty did "give her plenty of gas," the result being that they succeeded in reaching the wagon road that led into the woods to the lodge just on the edge of dusk.

However, when they started along the road they were dismayed to find that what was only dusk outside on the road became almost dark in here, and Betty had all she could do to keep to the road at all.

"Hadn't you better put on your lights?" Grace suggested uneasily. "We might run into a ditch or something. Betty, I'm half scared."

For answer Betty switched on the lights and the woods and the road ahead of them were suddenly flooded with a weird radiance. It brought out branches and leaves and stones in such sharp contrast to the dark background that the effect was startling.

"Oh," gasped Grace, "turn them off again, do, Betty. It is positively ghastly."

"Don't be foolish," said Betty, striving to make her voice sound matter-of-fact, her eyes glued to the road ahead of them as it twisted and turned through the woods. "I don't see why lights should make a perfectly harmless wood look ghastly. And, anyway, I couldn't turn them out now. I don't believe I could find my way. You don't want me to run into something, do you?"

"No, of course not," Grace said more firmly, rather ashamed of her fears. "I didn't mean to act in a silly fashion. But," she turned to Betty quickly, "that hold-up and all—don't you feel a little queer yourself, Betty? Tell the truth."

"Yes," said the Little Captain truthfully. "I feel," she added slowly, as though searching for words, "I feel as though the woods belonged to somebody and that we were sort of—sort of—intruding."

"Why, Betty!" said Grace, staring at her, "what a funny thing to say."

"I suppose it is," said Betty, shaking off the illusion with a shrug of her shoulders. "I am getting foolish in my old age I guess. We shall all feel better when we get something to eat."

"If we ever do," said Grace gloomily, adding as a sudden turn in the woods shot them deeper into the gloom of it: "Do be careful, Betty. I feel as though we were going over a precipice."

But Betty was too busy keeping the road to listen to her.

"Look behind," she directed Grace, "and see if Mollie is following close to us."

"She is right behind," reported Grace, as two eyes of light shot their glare in her eyes. "She is following us closer than a poor relation."

Betty giggled at this, and then for a long time—or at least it seemed a long time to their strained nerves—they went on in silence, following the winding road wherever it led and getting deeper into the forest with every moment.

Then suddenly something loomed up dark against the shadows only a few hundred feet ahead of them, and with a great feeling of thankfulness they realized that they had reached their destination. Directly ahead of them stood Wild Rose Lodge. They had arrived!

But just as they were about to break into wild jubilation something happened that tightened Betty's hand on the wheel and made Grace cry out with dismay.

Out from the shadow of the lodge a second shadow detached itself, a hunched up, bulky, fearful shadow that seemed neither beast nor man, but a combination of both of them.

For a moment, while the girls watched, paralyzed with fright, the thing seemed about to spring into the path of the moving car. But in another instant it turned, wheeled, and disappeared into the thick bushes about the house.

Then and only then did Betty recover presence of mind enough to stop the car.

"Betty! Betty!" cried Grace in a horrified whisper, grasping Betty's hand as it clung to the wheel. "What was it? Oh, what was it?"

"I don't know," Betty answered mechanically. "I only know it was horrible."

Then quite suddenly and without warning Grace broke down and cried.



Chapter XV

Wild Roses



"We will go into the house," Mrs. Irving answered to their concerted cry of "What shall we do?" "Whatever it was that has frightened us has disappeared now, and we shall certainly be safer inside the house than out here. Come on, girls, I have the key."

And so, leaving the cars where they were, the girls approached the house with shaking knees and hearts that hammered their fear aloud. The Outdoor Girls were ordinarily afraid of nothing real and human, but to be held up at the point of a pistol would unnerve almost any one, and the struggle the girls had made not to give way to their fears at the time had made them more nervous still. And this thing that had startled them now, added to what had gone before, seemed a little more than could be borne. It seemed, in fact, like nothing human.

Mrs. Irving turned the key in the lock, opened the door and stepped inside the dark place, motioning to the girls to follow her.

Fearfully the chums obeyed and Betty and Mollie pulled out their electric pocket torches, filling the place with a weird light. Mollie, being acquainted with the place, naturally took charge of the situation.

"There are matches over there," she said, "and candles over the fireplace. For goodness' sake, let's get a regular light, folks. Perhaps that will make us feel more natural."

"So say all of us," echoed Amy. "The dark makes everything worse, when you are not well acquainted with a place."

Mollie touched a match to the candles, and in the answering flare turned to face her chums.

"Girls," she said, determinedly, "I don't know how you feel about it, but I vote that before we do anything else we get something to eat. We all look like ghosts just now and I'm sure we feel much worse than that. But a little food makes a monstrous lot of difference."

"You know it does," cried Grace, relaxing into one of the big chairs that were scattered about the room and covering her face with her hands. "I think if I don't get something to eat soon, I'll die, that's all."

"Well, we are none of us going to die," said Mrs. Irving vigorously, as she threw aside her coat and hat. "Show us the way to the kitchen, Mollie, and if there is anything there to eat, we will get it."

Accordingly Mollie took one of the candles and led the way into a little room beyond while all the girls but Betty crowded in after her.

For the Little Captain slipped back for a moment and very quietly closed the door, shutting out definitely the shadow beyond it.

"I suppose it is foolish," she said to herself, "because if there is anything out there that really wants to get in there are plenty of ways that it can do it, without coming in through the door. But," and she turned the key in the lock, "it certainly makes one feel more comfortable to have the door closed." Then she followed the girls into the other room, and the sight that met her eyes was certainly more cheering than anything she could have imagined.

Mollie's Uncle John had surprised them. In the exact center of a table set for five lay a young pig, roasted whole and browned to a turn! Nor was this all. The table was littered with covered dishes of all sizes and descriptions, and as the contents of each one of these dishes was disclosed, the girls became more and more excited and hilarious.

There was apple sauce in one, salad in another, mashed potatoes that had become quite cold in another, and a boat of gravy which had also become quite cold.

"But we don't mind," cried Mollie joyfully, as she took the gravy-boat in one hand, the dish of potatoes in the other, and ran with them over to a great stove in one corner of the room. "We need only some matches to have this blazing hot in a minute. No, not that way, Grace," as the latter tried to help by lighting the burner. "This isn't a gas stove, you know; it's an oil stove and you had better look out or you will blow us all up."

It is small wonder if Betty was so dazzled by this joyful scene that she could neither move nor speak for the space of two seconds or so. Then, recovering her powers of locomotion, she went over to the table and picked up a note that, in their excitement, the girls had overlooked.

"See what this says," she called to them, and they looked at her rather impatiently. Just at that moment the only thing they cared to consider was food—and more food—and then some more!

But as Betty read they became more interested, and even stopped long enough to hear her through. It was a brief note. This is what it said.

"My dear young ladies:

"I am a neighbor of Mr. Prendergast," (this was the dressed-up name of Mollie's Uncle John) "and he axed me to get your dinner ready fer you. I tried to keep it hot but you wus so long comin' I had to go home to get dinner fer my old man. Hope things is all right.

"Lizzie Davis."

"So she is the one who has done all this," said Betty, looking around at the good things with dancing eyes. "I bet she is nice and plump and has rosy cheeks."

"Lizzie Davis? Lizzie Davis?" repeated Mollie, bringing the steaming gravy back and plumping the dish triumphantly down on the table. "Rather a funny name for a fairy godmother, but she sure does know how to cook. Don't forget the potatoes, Grace. Come on, girls—let's sit down."

So down the girls sat and acted like ravenous pigs—or so Grace described their conduct afterward. Mrs. Irving set to work carving the delicious pork, but they could not wait for her.

They seized slices of bread, spread apple sauce and butter on them, and ate like what they were, four famished girls and one equally famished chaperon who had been out in the open all day and had had nothing to eat since morning.

It was some time before they showed any considerable signs of slowing up. Then Grace put down her fork, leaned back lazily, and called for dessert. The latter was a huge cherry pie, and before the girls were through with it there was not enough left to color a robin's egg.

After the pangs of hunger had been satisfied they found to their great surprise that they were dead tired and sleepy.

"We will get the dishes out of the way and then Mollie can show us where we sleep," said Betty. "Oh, girls, did you ever in your life taste such a dinner?"

It was not till the dishes had all been cleared away and Mollie took up her candle to show them their quarters that the unwelcome thought of the thing that had so frightened them again crept terrifyingly into their minds. Try as they would to forget it, they could not.

There were three small sleeping rooms in the lodge, but, small as they were, they were comfortable and contained beds that seemed the height of luxury to the tired girls.

Because of the indistinct and flickering candle light the girls could make out very little of what the rooms really looked like, and they postponed any close examination until the morning. Back of the lodge was a shed for the cars.

The bedrooms were all joined by doors, which gave the girls a safe and sociable feeling. Mrs. Irving, of course, had one room to herself, Betty and Mollie slept together and Grace and Amy paired off.

They wasted little time in getting ready—Betty and Mollie had appointed themselves a committee of two to bring in the grips from Mollie's car—and before long they tasted the exquisite restfulness of comfortable beds after a long nerve-trying day in the out-of-doors.

"I don't believe I shall close my eyes all night," said Amy with conviction. "I'm too horribly nervous."

But three minutes later she was sound asleep!

The sun had been up a good two hours before any one stirred in Wild Rose Lodge. Betty was the first to awake, and in fifteen minutes she had the rest of the sleepy-eyed and protesting girls up and nearly dressed.

"What's the idea, anyway?" yawned Grace lazily. "I could have slept at least a good two hours more."

"On a day like this?" sang Betty, breathing in deep breaths of the wood-scented air. "And isn't this just the dearest room you ever saw?" she added, wheeling about and regarding the apartment delightedly. They were in Grace and Amy's room, for, as usual, Mollie and Betty had been the first dressed and had gone into their churns' room to hurry them up —if such a thing were possible.

Betty's summing up of the room they were in was indeed well deserved, for the place was charming. There was a dresser, a bed, and three chairs, and all of these articles of furniture had been rough-hewed out of logs, giving the place a delightfully rustic appearance. There was a grass rug on the floor and in one corner a little table covered with books.

"Isn't it darling?" cried Mollie, following Betty's glance about the place. "Uncle John built the lodge and made all of the furniture himself, you know. And he bought the grass rugs from the Indians."

They were still exclaiming about the place when Mrs. Irving called to them that breakfast was ready. With a whoop of delight they answered the summons, and a moment later sat themselves down to a most satisfying meal of omelet and toast and coffee with real cream in it. Also Mrs. Irving set on the table a yellow-topped pitcher of milk fresh from the cow.

"Our friend, Lizzie Davis, brought it," their chaperon answered with a smile, in response to the girls' curious questions. "Also some fresh butter and eggs. I have an idea," she added, as she got up to refill the butter plate, "that we shall live on the fat of the land while we are here."

"Lizzie Davis," repeated Betty, pausing in the act of filling her glass with fresh milk and regarding Mrs. Irving with dancing eyes. "Tell me, chaperon dear. Didn't she have nice red cheeks, and wasn't she delightfully plump?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Irving, smiling at Betty's flushed prettiness. "She was all of that, my dear. I don't believe I ever saw a more cozy looking person in my life."

"I knew it!" cried Betty triumphantly, adding with a suspicious eye on Grace: "Hand over that plate of toast, Gracie. You needn't think you can eat it all up!"

After breakfast they sallied forth to "view the country o'er." They would have stayed and helped Mrs. Irving clear up, but that good woman declared that she could do better by herself on this first morning. After she had become better acquainted with the place they could help her all they liked. Finally, after some protest, they had to let her have her way.

As they stepped out on the porch, Betty paused and held up her hand for silence.

"Listen," she said. "That murmuring sound and the splash of water—"

"It's the river and the falls," explained Mollie. "Let's go down and have a look at them."

But Amy, giving a little gasp of delight, fairly tumbled down the steps and into a riot of gorgeous pink wild roses. The lodge was fairly surrounded by them.

"Oh, you darlings!" cried Amy, putting both arms around a bush of the fragrant flowers as though she would gather in all their beauty at once. "I never saw anything so wonderful in all my life! Oh, girls, I'm glad I came!"



Chapter XVI

The Whirlpool



All the spirit and joy of the woods seemed to have entered into the Outdoor Girls. For the next half hour they romped in the woods and the beautiful flowers for all the world like little children whose first glimpse it was of the country.

They took down their hair and made wreaths of wild roses for crowns, and when, faces flushed with exercise and fun, they had finished, one might easily have mistaken them for real fairies come to life.

"But I want to see the river," Betty called to them, stopping once more to listen to the rhythmic sound of splashing water. "Come on, girls. It can't be more than a few hundred feet away, even though we can't see it for the bushes. Lead on, Mollie Billette, I wouldst hie me hence."

But when Mollie laughingly obeyed and started into the woods, Amy held back.

"What's the matter?" Grace asked, turning to her curiously.

"I—I was just thinking," stammered Amy, ashamed of her own weakness, "about last night."

"About last night," Betty prompted, still at a loss.

"You haven't forgotten, have you?" she asked, incredulously. "That—thing —on the porch."

"Oh!" they said, and a shadow fell over their bright faces.

"Why, yes," said Betty, slowly, adding as though she could not quite explain the phenomenon herself: "I suppose we did forget all about it."

"Or if we didn't, we should have," said Mollie, ungrammatically but decidedly. "Come on, girls, we aren't going to let any silly old thing like that frighten us out of a good time."

"It seems," said Grace thoughtfully, while Amy still held back, "almost as if we had dreamed the whole thing. The memory of it is so vague—and indistinct."

"Well, it isn't vague to me—or indistinct either," said Amy, feeling rather abused because the girls did not seem to share her feelings. "I hardly slept all night long just thinking about it"

"Oh, Amy Blackford!" said Grace accusingly, while Mollie and Betty turned twinkling eyes upon her. "If that isn't the biggest one I ever heard. Why, I woke up once or twice in the night and each time I found you almost snoring."

"Oh, I did not," protested Amy, flushing indignantly, but here Mollie and Betty stepped laughingly into the fray and peremptorily put an end to it.

"Let's not fight about it," said Betty, when she could make herself heard. "We don't care whether Amy snored or not. What we want to know is this: Who is coming with us for a look at the falls?"

"Now you're talking, Little Captain," said Mollie approvingly. "All in favor please say Aye." Amy still showed some inclination to hold back, but Mollie and Betty each took an arm and hurried her willy-nilly with them into the woods.

"You had better take the lead, Mollie," Betty suggested after they had gone some little distance along the path. "I can manage Amy alone now, I guess. She seems pretty well tamed."

"Tamed, but scared to death," Amy came back, with a wry smile. "Really, Betty," she turned to look at the Little Captain closely, "aren't you the least little bit nervous about what happened last night?"

"No, I don't think I am now," said Betty, adding candidly, "I must say I was last night though—just frightened to death. It seemed so awfully uncanny—coming upon that thing in the dark after what we had gone through with that bandit. But then," she added more lightly, "everything seems so much worse in the dark, you know."

"Yes," said Amy slowly and looking very serious. "That all may be very true. But I think that as long as we are sure we didn't dream it last night and that the skulking thing really dodged out from the corner of our porch that we ought to be on our guard against it. And how," she finished most reasonably, "can we be on our guard in the woods?"

Betty was at a loss to know just how to answer such a question. By this time Mollie and Grace were some little distance ahead of them and Amy's nervousness was beginning to communicate itself to her against her will.

She felt again the creeping sensation that had traveled up and down her spine at sight of that crouching, sinister figure that had sprung out from the shadow of the porch.

It had disappeared into the bushes last night, and, for all she knew—and the thought made her tingle weirdly—it might still be hiding in them, crouching, ready to spring—

With an effort she shook off the mood and turned to Amy brightly.

"There is no use in our making a mountain out of a mole hill," she said, plucking a wild rose as they swung by and smelling of its delicious fragrance. "Last night, I admit, it seemed very terrifying to us, but that was probably because we couldn't see what it was that frightened us. It may just have been a large dog or something."

"Humph," sniffed Amy, sceptically, "it must have been a monster dog. Sort of a ghost hound."

"Goodness, that's going from bad to worse," laughed Betty, as they rejoined the other girls. "Let's hope it isn't anything like that, Amy dear. Hello, what are you waiting for?" she hailed the girls cheerfully. "We almost fell over you."

"Watch your step," cautioned Mollie, adding as she cleared aside some bushes and motioned Betty to a place beside her: "We've reached the river, Betty, and a little farther up is the falls. Isn't it beautiful?"

"Oh, it is beautiful," rejoined Betty, a sentiment which Amy heartily echoed, and for a few minutes they stood there, drinking in the beauty of the scene, entirely unmindful of the lovely picture they themselves made with their loosened hair and wreaths of wild flowers.

The river was not very wide, but the water was deep and clear and swift and the continual swish-swish of its passage over rocks and between foliage-laden banks made a pleasant, even sound that was deliciously restful and refreshing.

"Oh, if we could only get down right into the very middle of it and let those little ripples wash over us forever and forever!" sighed Grace ecstatically.

"She would a little mermaid be!" sang Betty, as she slipped down to the very edge of the water and leaned over to catch her reflection in the bright depths of it. "But honestly, Mollie, isn't there any place in the river where we can swim?"

"It looks too swift for good swimming to me—" began Grace, but Mollie stopped her with a mysterious finger to her lips.

"Hush, my pretty one, not a word," said the latter, beginning to pick her way daintily along the river bank. "Follow me and you will wear diamonds, or seaweed, or whatever it is that mermaids wear. And don't fall over, whatever you do," she turned around to caution them. "The river is so swift here that I don't believe even the strongest swimmer would have a chance."

Accordingly the girls "watched their step," and for some distance followed Mollie uncomplainingly. Then, as there seemed no sign of their getting anywhere, Grace started to protest.

"Say, do you suppose she has any idea where she is going?" the latter asked of Betty in a tone that was designed to reach Mollie's ear. But before she could say anything more, Mollie herself swung jubilantly round upon them.

"Here we are, girls!" she cried. "Now see if you ever saw anything so pretty in all your lives."

Once more the girls stood spellbound by the natural beauty of the scene. As they walked they had become more and more conscious of the roaring noise made by rushing water, and now, ascending a small rise of ground, they came full upon the majestic beauty of Moonlight Falls.

The falls fell full thirty feet, and at the foot of it the river was churned into swirling, liquid foam that whirled around and around again in a sort of mad race and then went rushing off down the river in a shower of lacy spray.

It was wildly inspiring, exhilarating, and the girls thrilled with a strange new emotion as they watched. It was so free, so gloriously unchained!

"There is our swimming pool over there," Mollie said, raising her voice to make it heard above the roar of the water. "You see there is a sort of little back eddy below the falls and to one side of it, and right there we'll find the best swimming of our lives. But," she added, and her voice was impressively solemn, "heaven help any one of us who gets in the path of the falls."

"Look!" cried Amy suddenly, her voice ringing out full and clear and startled above the uproar. "That—thing—over there. It is going into the falls—no, under them!"

"Where?" cried Mollie eagerly, leaning far forward. "Oh, yes, I see what you mean. Oh, girls, I'm slipping!" Her voice rose to a terrified wail. "Betty! Catch me!"

But Betty was too late. She sprang forward just in time to see Mollie slide down the slippery bank and plunge into the maddened water of the river!



Chapter XVII

The "Thing"



It took the girls a moment to realize the extent of the awful thing that had happened. Then Betty, obeying her first impulse, raised her hands above her head as though to dive, but Amy screamed to her to stop.

"You will only be lost too!" she cried frantically. "Look—that flat stick—the long one—"

Instantly Betty saw what she meant and stooped to pick up a long broken branch that was lying at her feet. At the same instant Mollie came to the surface several feet away from the spot where she had fallen and threw her strength desperately against the rushing might of the river.

Betty ran along the river bank, Amy and Grace at her heels, shouting encouragement to Mollie as she ran.

"Hold tight!" she cried, adding with fresh dismay as she saw that the girl was being swept further from the shore: "Over this way, honey. Swim to your right—to your right—"

Blinded, chilled to the bone with the cold water, her hair in her eyes and her skirts clinging tight about her legs, Mollie struggled wildly, unable to hear the shouts of her chums above the ringing in her ears.

It was taking all her strength to hold her own against the rush of the river—and now she was not even doing that! Slowly, very slowly, she was being pushed backward; in a little while more she would be sucked downward, and then—

She closed her eyes, and then, as though the obliteration of one sense made more clear the other, she heard Betty calling to her above the roar of the falls.

"Mollie! Mollie!" it came, faint but distinct, "take hold of the stick and we'll pull you in. Mollie, do you hear me?"

The girl in the water was still struggling hard against the current that was dragging at her cruelly, and at the sound of Betty's words she shook the water from her eyes and looked about her dazedly. She had forgotten the girls.

Then she saw something that sent a tingle of renewed hope through her tired body. What she saw was a long branch bobbing on the water not two feet from her outstretched hand, and at the other end of the stick was— Betty.

With a sigh that was half a sob she struck out for it, reached it, and clung to it as only the drowning know how to cling.

Then she felt herself being drawn through the water, and once more she closed her eyes. When she opened them again she was on a warm grassy bank with Amy chafing one hand, Grace the other, while Betty was busy unfastening the clothes about her waist.

As Mollie was never under any circumstances expected to act as people thought she should act, so this occasion was no exception to the rule. She pushed Amy and Grace aside, glared at Betty, and sat up with a little jerk.

"For goodness' sake, stop undressing me, Betty Nelson!" she said. "I'm not dead yet."

"So we see," said Betty, while her eyes lost their anxious expression and began to twinkle instead. "But you might have been, you know, if we had left you to yourself."

Mollie looked down at her dripping clothes ruefully and then out at the rushing water.

"I guess you are right," she said with a little grimace. "It wasn't very pleasant while it lasted, either. Whew, but that water was cold!" She shivered involuntarily and Betty sprang to her feet.

"We had better be getting back to the lodge," she said. "You can put on some dry things, Mollie, and we girls will get you some hot soup. You are chilled to the bone."

"Nonsense," denied Mollie grumpily. "I'm beginning to feel fine and warm. Besides," she added, trying to cover a chill that fairly made her teeth ache, "I want to stay and find out about that thing that got us into all this fuss."

"Nonsense," Grace put in. Up to this time Grace had been made speechless by Mollie's sudden recovery. "You are shivering so you can't sit still."

"It makes me cold just to look at you," added Amy.

"Don't be foolish, honey," said Betty impatiently. "You can't sit there all day in dripping clothes, and besides you will really get cold."

"Humph," grunted Mollie, getting to her feet rather unsteadily and shaking out her sodden skirts. "I guess this isn't the first time I have taken a dip in cold water. And besides," she added impatiently: "I don't know about you girls, but I would like to know just what that thing was that we saw dart beneath the falls."

"That was what made you fall into the water, wasn't it?" asked Betty, her forehead wrinkling thoughtfully. "You leaned so far out to see—"

"Yes, yes," Mollie interrupted impatiently, all her curiosity revived. "That was what made me fall into the water all right. But what I want to know is—what was it?"

"I don't know," said Betty, shaking her head. "I didn't see it."

"Neither did I," Grace added.

Mollie looked from one to the other of them open-mouthed. Then she turned to Amy.

"You saw it, didn't you?" she asked. "You screamed, you know."

"Yes," said Amy, nodding her head very solemnly. "And it looked to me a lot like what we saw last night."

"Thank goodness, you saw it too or the girls would surely think I had been dreaming or was crazy," said Mollie, with relief. Then she suddenly turned and started off into the woods. "I'm going all alone to find out what that was," she told her stupefied chums. "I've got to clear up the mystery before I'm an hour older."

But this time Mollie found that there was some one stronger than she, and that was Betty. The Little Captain ran after her and brought her back, protesting but captive.

"We are going back to the house now and get you something hot to eat," said Betty, as they rejoined Amy and Grace and started off toward home. "Afterwards if everybody's willing we will hunt this strange beast that jumps out from porches and leaps into rivers just for the fun of the thing. But just now, Billy Billette, you are going home."

But Mollie had been more severely shocked than she was willing to admit by her experience, and it was some time before the girls visited the falls or the river again. Meanwhile they contented themselves with exploring the country about the lodge, taking short trips in the cars and wondering whether the boys would really be home before the summer was over.

Their days were not altogether happy, however, for the thought of that weird thing prowling around in the woods and ready, for all they knew, to spring out at them at every turn, refused to be banished from their minds.

Then, too, they thought a great deal about poor Professor Dempsey and the little ruined cottage in the woods. Somehow, they had an uneasy feeling that if they had gone to him at the very first minute they had heard of his trouble they might have helped him. Whereas, they had waited and—he had fled.

For a while the idea of a dip in the swimming pool was naturally not very attractive to Mollie, but at last there came a day when she herself suggested it and the girls enthusiastically seconded the motion.

More than the prospect of a good time, was the hope, unexpressed, that they might see again that strange thing which Amy and Mollie had only glimpsed the time before. Perhaps, they thought, if the mysterious thing were faced in the open and in broad daylight, it might prove to be no mystery at all but something ordinary and commonplace enough to do away with all their vague and weird imaginings.

But in this expectation they were most completely disappointed. Nothing at all unusual occurred and although they enjoyed their swim in the warm back eddy of the pool, they came away disgruntled and with a curious feeling that they had been cheated out of something.

"I only wish the boys would come," sighed Amy, as they turned in once more at the lodge.

After that the "Thing" became almost like an obsession with them. They must find out definitely what it was that was spoiling all their fun. They began to haunt the river, especially at the foot of the falls, in the hope of seeing something, anything that would put an end to their curiosity and uneasiness.

For a long time they had not got up courage enough to visit the place at night, but at last they became curious enough to brave even that.

"We have simply got to find out something," Mollie whispered to Betty as on this particular night they stood on the porch and waited for Mrs. Irving to join them. "We can't go on this way any longer, Betty. Why, I am getting so nervous I jump if you look at me."

"I know," said Betty soberly. "It really is getting on our nerves too much. Amy and Grace are feeling it even worse than we are."

"Yes," agreed Mollie grumpily. "Last night was the third night in succession that Amy got us all out of bed to listen to some fool noise outside. I'm just about sick of it."

The other three came then and they had no further chance for conversation. As a matter of fact, they talked surprisingly little on the walk to the river.

High above them a wonderful full moon sent its silvery light filtering down through leaves and branches, making of the woods a fairyland. Somehow, the very beauty of it filled the girls with a strange dread. To them the patches of moonlight were weird, unreal, the shadowy woods held a sinister menace.

By the time they had reached the river's edge they were almost ready to turn and run. But they conquered the impulse and pressed on. Then suddenly they saw what they had hoped, yet dreaded, to see.

On the opposite bank, staring down into the rapids with a terrible intentness, stood a man, or something that resembled a man. In one awful, breath-taking minute they realized that here at last was the "Thing."

As they watched, the hunched-up crouching figure on the opposite bank made a lumbering movement forward as though about to throw itself into the water at the foot of the falls.

"Oh!" screamed Betty, the words wrenched from her dry throat. "Don't do that! You mustn't do that! Go back! For goodness' sake, go back!"

With a hoarse cry that answered her own, the "Thing" flung back from the water's edge and disappeared into the darkness!



Chapter XVIII

Surprised



The Outdoor Girls could hardly have told how they got back to the lodge after that. Blindly they stumbled through the underbrush, expecting they knew not what horrible thing, thankful for the moonlight that made it possible for them to hurry.

They did reach home somehow and there they sat until late into the night, trying to find some explanation for the thing they had seen, striving to think up some plan for hunting it down until finally Mrs. Irving sent them to bed.

That did not do very much good, for they lay awake and talked until the first rays of sunlight crept into the windows. Then they said goodnight and sank into a sleep of exhaustion.

For three days after the episode the girls never went far from the house on foot. They would take the cars and spin down the open road, but a sort of horror of the supernatural kept them from venturing into the woods again.

But when the fourth day dawned the fright of their moonlight experience had begun to wear off and they were beginning to feel ashamed of their fear.

Having a little of this in her mind, Mollie gave voice to it at the breakfast table.

"I must say," she began, buttering a piece of bread energetically, "that it isn't like us Outdoor Girls to let anything scare us into staying near the house. Why, I declare, I don't believe there is one of us who would dare poke her nose past that rose bush in front of the porch after sundown. That's a pretty state of affairs, isn't it?"

"Well, you needn't glare at me as if it were all my fault," retorted Amy with spirit. "I'm sure I didn't wish the horrible old thing on us."

"I only wish I knew who did," sighed Grace, adding, with a sudden burst of ferocity: "I would wring his neck."

"Suppose somebody suggests something we can do about it," said Betty reasonably. "I'm sure that after the other night nobody could blame us for being frightened."

"No. But there is one thing I can blame you for," said Mollie, glaring morosely at her chum. "And that is for not letting the horrible old thing drown itself when it so very evidently wanted to. If that had happened all our worries would have been over."

"Goodness, Mollie, what a horrible idea!" Betty protested.

"I don't think it was a horrible idea," Grace put in. "I think it was just about the finest idea I ever heard of."

"Yes," added Amy with a deceptive mildness, "if you hadn't called out just then, Betty, the whole thing would have been over and the Thing would have been drowned. And then," she added plaintively, "we would have been able to enjoy our summer."

"It really wasn't any of our business, you know," Grace finished, moodily.

For a moment Betty sat and stared at them, undecided whether to be amused or indignant. However, the latter emotion won and she turned upon the girls with flashing eyes.

"I think you are all perfectly horrid," she said. "And I would think you were worse if I weren't perfectly sure that you don't really mean what you say. Why, just suppose," she went on earnestly, "that we had willingly permitted that man to commit suicide? Why, we would have been just as guilty as if we had murdered him!"

"But he may have done it since anyway," muttered Mollie stubbornly. "He didn't have to wait to ask our permission, and there are plenty of times that he can commit suicide when we are not around—if he really wants to do it."

"What he or anybody else does when we are not around, is not our business," answered Betty. "We can't help what happens in our absence."

"You seem to take it for granted that it is a man," Mollie continued, still stubbornly argumentative. "But I am not so sure about that. The several times that we have seen the—the—Thing—it has looked as much animal as human to me."

"Well, we won't argue that point," said Betty, rising and beginning to clear away the dishes, "because we don't know anything about it."

"That is just exactly what I am getting at," said Mollie earnestly, leaning forward and resting her elbows on the table while the girls watched her interestedly. "We don't know anything about it, but that is no reason why we should sit back and twiddle our thumbs and start at shadows."

"Well, for goodness' sake, tell us what's on your mind," prompted Grace impatiently. "We haven't sat back and twiddled our thumbs and started at shadows because we enjoyed it, you know."

"Now my plan is this," said Mollie, ignoring Grace, who shrugged her shoulders and reached for her candy box. "Suppose we take a tramp through the woods to the head of the falls? It is a beautiful hike and the scenery at the falls is magnificent. But aside from that we will have a chance to find out something about this thing that will do away with the mystery."

"If it doesn't do away with us at the same time," said Amy so ruefully that they had to laugh at her.

"Well, what do you say?" asked Mollie, looking around the circle of thoughtful faces—her glance a dare.

For a moment it looked as if they all might refuse to go, but then their sporting blood came to the fore and they decided for the adventure.

But when they told Mrs. Irving about their project and begged her to say yes to it, she looked very doubtful and only consented at last on the proviso that she was to go with them. This they were only too glad to have, and a few minutes later the lodge hummed with excitement and preparation once more. To the Outdoor Girls, active and fun-loving by nature, to be quiet for a few days was nothing short of torture. So now, even though there was still more than a little fear of the "Thing" in their hearts, they found relief in the promise of adventure.

They put up some sandwiches and fruit in a basket in case they were not able to get home by noon. Then they locked the door of the little lodge and started down the steps. They hesitated before starting into the woods, and Mollie had a happy thought.

"We can go part of the way along the road," she said. "And then there is a path that leads directly through to the head of the falls."

The celerity with which they accepted this suggestion seemed funny to them afterward, but at the time they had other things to think about. Mostly they were wondering if they would really be able to hold on to their nerve long enough to see the adventure through.

"I wish," said Betty wistfully, as she had wished so many times of late, "that the boys were here. They could help us out so beautifully." And she sighed, for when she spoke of "the boys," she always thought of one boy most—and that one was Allen.

"Well, there's no use wishing for what can't possibly happen," Grace was saying, when there came a whistle so clear and penetrating that it made them jump—then another, and another. Was it just that they were nervous or was there really something peculiarly familiar in the sound? At any rate they stopped and turned around to see who the whistlers could be.

There were three soldiers coming down the road, broad-shouldered, vital looking fellows who swung along toward the astonished girls as though they owned the world.

"Betty, oh, Betty!" whispered Grace in a tense voice, grasping Betty's arm so hard it hurt "It can't be, oh, it can't be the boys!"

But Mollie had broken away from the group and was rushing toward the soldier lads like the wild little tomboy she was.

"Girls, it's the boys! it's the boys! it's the boys!" she yelled. "They're all tanned and they're at least ten inches taller, but it's the boys just the same."

And before any of the other girls knew what she was about she had kissed each one of them twice and was hanging on the tallest one's arm, who happened to be Frank, laughing and crying at the same time.

Then the girls seemed to decide that she had had the lads to herself long enough, and they immediately entered the contest, all laughing at once, all crying at once, and all talking at once, until it was a wonder the boys did not lose their heads entirely.

The only one who was not absolutely and completely and deliriously happy was Betty. For the other three boys were there, but Allen had not come!

As though reading her thought, Will, who was much handsomer and more manly than when he went away, put an arm about the Little Captain's shoulder big brother fashion and drew her aside from the rest.

"You are wondering about Allen," he said, and Betty nodded eagerly. "You see," continued Will, his face lighting up in a smile that would always be boyish, "since Allen became one of the big bugs—which is another name for officer, you understand—he had to pay the penalty and stay over there with them for a little while longer. He will probably be over on the next transport, although of course you can never be sure about that. Oh, and I forgot," he put his hand in his pocket and drew forth a pocketknife, a wad of string and—a little three-cornered note. "He asked me to give this to you as soon as I saw you. So now you can tell him that 'I seen my duty and I done it noble.'"

With a twinkle in his eye Will turned back to the others and Betty was left to open her note. This is what she read:

"Gosh, some fellows do have all the luck, don't they? But never mind, little girl. I'm coming to you by the very first boat, and when I get there do you know what I'm going to do? Do you?"

Betty wanted to run away by herself and read the note over and over again. But she could not do that. With a sigh she hid the little message in a pocket of her skirt and turned back to the others.



Chapter XIX

Like Old Times



It was a long time before the boys and girls woke up to the fact that they were still standing in the center of the road and that they might be ever so much more comfortable on the porch of the lodge, if any one had had sense enough to think that far.

Mrs. Irving, who had been keeping herself rather in the background during the first rapturous greetings, now came in for her share of salutations and boyish greetings. The young soldiers crowded about her, patting her hands and her shoulders and telling her how awfully fine she looked and how glad they were to find her here until the lady actually blushed with pleasure and begged them to stop their nonsense. In fact, it was she who finally suggested that they go up to the lodge again.

"I don't see why we didn't think of that before," said Mollie, joyfully slipping an arm into Frank's and turning him right-about-face. "We are due to talk all day anyway, so we might as well do it in comfort. Don't forget the lunch basket, Betty," she called back to her chum.

Betty would have forgotten the basket and left it where it stood just as she had dropped it at the side of the road—and small wonder if she had— but as she stooped to pick it up, Will's strong brown hand whipped out in front of her nose and seized the handle firmly.

"That's the idea," said Grace approvingly, adding with a sisterly pat on his shoulder: "You run along with Amy and Mrs. Irving. I want to talk to Betty."

So Will, being a well-trained brother, did as he was told, and Grace drew Betty behind the others.

"What about Allen, honey?" she asked, her blue eyes honestly worried. "We all missed him so, but we didn't like to say too much for fear—for fear—"

"He's all right," said Betty, her heart glowing again at thought of the little note hidden away in her pocket. "He has only been delayed a little, that's all. Will says he will probably be over on the next transport."

"Oh, I am relieved," said Grace with such fervor that Betty looked at her quickly. Could it be, she wondered, that what she had half sensed before could be really true? Was Grace fond of Allen? But because the idea made her unhappy, she decided that she was just trying to think up trouble and dismissed it from her mind. All the girls loved Allen of course—who could help it?—but they couldn't any of them, she told herself fiercely, care for him the way she did.

"Well, what are you thinking about? You needn't look so fierce," she heard Grace saying, and she forced a smile to her face.

"I'm not looking fierce," Betty answered gayly. "Don't you know that that is just my natural expression, Gracie dear? That's the way I make little girls like you afraid of me."

"Well, I'm not afraid of you, not one little bit," asserted Grace, squeezing Betty's arm fondly. "Oh, Betty dear, isn't it wonderful having the boys back and don't they look fine—especially Will?"

"Don't they? Especially Will," agreed Betty with a sly little glance. "If you don't look out you will give the impression that you're rather fond of that worthless old brother of yours, honey."

"I love him awfully," replied Grace, adding with a little puckering of her forehead: "But I am going to tell you something, Betty, that I wouldn't tell to any one else for the world. I'm jealous, actually jealous! of Amy."

Betty gave a merry little laugh and slipped an arm about her chum.

"Gracie dear, we never would have known that if you hadn't told us," she said dryly. "Don't you know," as Grace looked at her reproachfully, "that we have all been perfectly well aware of that ever since Will first began to make eyes at Amy?"

"I can't help it," Grace retorted, while sudden tears sprang to her eyes. "I've known him longer than she has, and we've loved each other ever since he was two and I was two weeks! Did you see the way he looked at her?" she finished dolefully.

"Yes. But of course you couldn't see the way he looked at you," said Betty quickly. "And I did."

"Oh, did he look glad to see me? Did he?" demanded Grace with pathetic eagerness.

"Of course he did, you little goose," said Betty, adding with a chuckle: "You've been spoiled, that's all. You've been so used to being the only pebble on the beach, dear, that you can't be content with being just one of two."

By this time they had reached the lodge and were greeted noisily by the others, who had already seated themselves on the porch as though they intended to stay all day.

"Hello," called Frank. His handsome face, though somewhat thinner than the girls remembered, was better looking than ever and he had developed a trick of flinging the hair back from his forehead that the girls thought immensely attractive.

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