The Outdoor Girls at Wild Rose Lodge - or, The Hermit of Moonlight Falls
by Laura Lee Hope
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Roy, who had seated himself on the railing of the porch and was swinging his feet, looked more unchanged than either of the boys, though the girls were soon to find out that he had changed the most.

Will, who had settled Amy in a chair and was sitting cross-legged on the floor at her feet, was gazing up at the girl with his heart in his eyes. As for Amy—well, the girls had never known she could look so radiant.

"Have a seat," invited Roy, rising lazily to the dignity of his six feet as Betty and Grace came up on the porch. "It would seem like old times to see you girls perched on the railing."

"I'll have you know, sir," said Betty very demurely, as she pulled Grace down beside her on the top step of the porch, "that we have quite grown up since you have been away. We will sit here where we can get a good view of you all."

"And we want to hear about everything you have done over there," broke in Amy eagerly. "Please, everything—right from the beginning."

The boys fidgeted, looked dismayed, and Roy burst forth in protest.

"Oh, I say!" he cried. "We'll do anything else for you, but please don't ask us to do that."

"We don't want to talk about ourselves or the war," muttered Frank, almost as if to himself. "We want to forget about it—if we can."

"You see," Will explained, and there was a stern note in his young voice, "we worked and we sweated and we fought. We lived under conditions week after week and month after month that it makes us shudder even to think of now. For months we lived in a perfect inferno—and do you know what our idea of heaven was then?"

They said nothing and he went on in a lighter tone.

"It was just to get back alive and, well, to God's country and you girls— to sit for hours, days if we could, where we could look at you and listen to you and not do a thing but just be happy. I wonder if you can understand that?"

"Of course, we can, Will!" cried Betty, impulsively reaching over and laying a hand on the boy's arm. "You have earned the right to sit and be amused, and we'll do it till you cry aloud for mercy. And you needn't tell us a single word about yourselves until you get good and ready."

"You're a brick, Betty," said Will warmly, laying his hand over her little one. "I might have known we could count on you."

"By the way," Roy broke in suddenly, his eye on the basket of eatables that the girls had prepared for their adventure, "what's in that hamper, anyway? If it's anything to eat, let's have it."

Betty pulled the basket over to her, lifted the cover and passed it over to the ravenous one.

"Eat while there is anything left," she commanded, adding with a chuckle: "Our adventure seems to be over for to-day, at least."

"Adventure?" repeated Frank inquiringly, as he reached for a sandwich.

"Yes," said Mollie, adding with a sigh: "And you boys had to come along just in time to spoil it all."

Chapter XX

Very Much Alive

"That is complimentary, I must say," grinned Will, getting up from his seat on the porch and going over to join Roy on the railing. "After being away for months we are told the minute we get back that we've 'spoiled everything.'"

"'Tis rather hard lines," said Mollie with an answering grin. "But one must tell the truth, you know."

"By the way," put in Grace curiously, "I know Betty promised that we wouldn't ask questions, but there is just one thing I want to know."

"Speak, fair damsel," Roy replied, thinking meanwhile how much prettier Grace had grown. "We will promise to answer faithfully anything that is not connected with war."

"When did you get in?" asked Grace, "and how did you get here?"

"We came in yesterday," answered Roy, helping himself to another sandwich. "And of course we beat it for headquarters right away."

"Yes'm, and I'll tell you we were a disappointed lot when we found that you girls had flown," added Frank ruefully. "We were all set for a jolly reunion—"

"But we wrote you about spending the summer here," Betty interrupted. "And we were mourning because you couldn't be at the lodge with us."

"We missed your letters, I guess," said Will. "We sailed very suddenly, and there is probably a stack of them piled up there at the old service station."

"We found out where you were all rightie, though," Roy continued. "So we took the first train out this morning, debarked at the nearest station south of here, and proceeded to walk the rest of the way. It was thus that you came upon us."

"You came upon us, you mean," Amy corrected. "We ought to know well enough, because you nearly gave us heart failure."

Will looked at her as if he wanted to say something but did not quite dare in public. However, she intercepted the look and with a little panicky feeling turned her eyes away.

"I imagine," said Grace softly, looking up at Will, "that mother wasn't glad to see you or anything."

"Not at all," returned Will, a soft light in his eyes as he remembered the greeting between him and his parents. "I was a little afraid," he added soberly, "that mother and dad wouldn't like my skipping off like this the day after I'd got home. But they seemed to understand all right."

"Gee, but this is great," said Frank, stretching contentedly and looking about the group with happy eyes. "I wonder how many times we've seen this all in our dreams, fellows. Only we couldn't have imagined it half as perfect as this."

"It sure is like old times," agreed Roy, adding with a smile as he turned to their chaperon, who had been quietly enjoying herself: "We even have Mrs. Irving with us. Gee, it's just like that summer at Pine Island! All the old crowd together—"

"Except Allen," put in Will, frowning a little. "Gosh, it didn't seem right at all to leave the old fellow behind. You wouldn't know him," he added, his face flushing enthusiastically, "I've never seen a fellow change the way Allen has—for the better."

"Was there so much room for improvement?" asked Betty demurely, and they looked at her laughingly.

"Nobody would expect you to think so," Will replied, his eyes twinkling, then added seriously:

"Of course we all know that Allen was the finest kind even before the war, but, gosh! I wish you could just see how all the fellows love him and how even his superior officers consult him and seem to value his judgment. I tell you, I'm glad to have him call me his friend."

"You bet!" exclaimed Frank, nodding soberly.

"Allen sure has come out strong," Roy agreed; and at this glowing praise of the only absent one Betty felt her heart swell with pride and she wanted to hug the boys for being so loyal to her Allen. Also, deep down in her heart, she began to feel a little trepidation about the homecoming of this hero. Who was she, Betty Nelson, to call this glorious Lieutenant Allen Washburn, her Allen?

So engrossed was she in these and other absorbing thoughts that it was some time before she noticed that the conversation had taken another turn. Also that the boys and girls were becoming rather excited.

"I didn't say it was a ghost," Mollie was declaring hotly. "In fact I have always thought of a ghost as wearing a sheet and pillow case sort of garb. And this thing certainly wore nothing of the sort."

"Tell us all about it," said Frank, leaning forward.

"Yes, it sounds as if it might prove interesting," added Roy.

So the girls told them all about it from that first night when they had been so badly frightened by the "Thing" that had hidden in the shadows of the porch. The boys listened with scarcely an interruption till they were through.

"Gosh, I don't like the sound of that at all," said Will, when they had finished. "It isn't a pleasant thing to have a lunatic roaming the woods while you girls are all alone here in this place. Could you possibly put us up for the night?" he asked, turning abruptly to Mrs. Irving.

"Why, there isn't any room," said the latter slowly, frowning a little as she tried to think up ways and means. "There aren't any extra beds, but there is a large settee in the living room and a couple of you can sleep on that. I found plenty of blankets stowed away."

"Fine!" cried Will enthusiastically. "Just the very thing! One of us can take turns sleeping on the floor. It won't be the first time we've slept on harder things."

"Goodness, any one would think they were going to stay a month," said Mollie in dismay.

"No, we won't stay a month," Will went on. "But we are going to stay until we find out what it is that has been bothering you girls. Do you suppose we would leave you unprotected here? I should say not!" Grace noticed that when he said this his glance was first for Amy, and, afterward, for her.

So it was settled. Mrs. Irving went inside to see about getting lunch. "Though how the boys can find any room for lunch after eating all those sandwiches, I don't know," Amy had commented wonderingly.

Mrs. Irving had refused absolutely to let any of the girls even so much as help with this lunch, saying they must stay outside and visit with the boys on this momentous occasion.

"Since you are convinced that this thing is not a ghost," Will went on, while appetizing odors began to waft toward them from the open kitchen windows, "we will take it for granted that it is a man, and a man who has, presumably, lost his mind."

"A crazy man," murmured Betty. "Worse and worse—and more of it."

"Girls," cried Amy, jumping suddenly to her feet, "I have an idea."

"Impossible!" drawled Grace.

"Why," went on Amy, unheeding Grace's remark and growing visibly more excited as she talked, "you know, Professor Dempsey went crazy—or at least we supposed he did—and ran away into the woods. Now since Will thinks this man is crazy too, why, they may be one and the same—"

"Amy!" cried Mollie, her eyes beginning to shine as she realized the possibility of what the girl had said. "You are a wonder, child! Why didn't any of us think of that before?"

"Because it is rather far-fetched and absurd, I suppose," said Grace, the suggestion of a sneer in her voice bringing a quick flush to Amy's face.

"I don't see that it is so far-fetched—or absurd either," Betty broke in quietly. "Remember, we are only a little over fifty miles from the place where Professor Dempsey had his cottage, and it would be easy for him to wander this far."

Here Frank broke in on behalf of the very much mystified boys.

"Before you stage the hair-pulling contest," he said, "would you mind telling us poor benighted males what it is all about?"

So the girls told them all about Professor Dempsey, and while they talked the boys became more and more excited. Finally Will could keep quiet no longer.

"Say," he asked, leaning forward, "did the two sons of the cracked old professor happen to bear the names of James and Arnold?"

The girls gaped at him. "Yes," they breathed. "How did you know?"

"Because," said Will, "those very same fellows were in our regiment. In fact, I was beside Arnold when he was wounded in that last engagement. Strange thing that James was wounded at the same time."

"Wounded?" repeated Betty, who like all the girls was feeling rather dazed at this new development. "Then they weren't killed?"

"Not a bit of it," Will replied vehemently. "Why, even their wounds weren't serious enough to lay them up for long. The last I heard of them they were coming over on a hospital ship and expected to be here almost as soon as we were. For all I know, they may have landed by this time."

"Oh," said Amy, still too dazed to take it all in. "Then all this time we have thought of them as dead, they were alive—"

"Very much so," said Will, with a grin, "and probably kicking too—just like us!"

Chapter XXI

Out of the Dark

It took the Outdoor Girls a moment or two to digest this rather startling information. And when it did finally seep into their consciousness, their first feeling was one of joy for the poor professor whose sons would be restored to him after all.

But quick on the heels of this thought came another. How could the sons be restored to their father, if the father were nowhere to be found?

"You say the old chap skipped out, decamped?" Will broke in on their meditations. "That sort of complicates matters, doesn't it?"

"Rather," agreed Roy, frowning. "It is going to be rather tough on those fellows, James and Arnold, to come home, expecting to be welcomed by a rejoicing parent, only to find said parent missing."

"Humph, that's the first time I've thought of the boys' side of it," said Betty. "We have been too much occupied right along in being sorry for the poor old professor."

"Well, if you had known the boys, you would have thought of their side of it all right," said Frank seriously. "They are mighty good scouts, both of them, and they think a lot of their old dad, too, I can tell you. Why, many a night"—his voice took on a reminiscent note and the girls felt once again that they were privileged in having a brief glimpse of the life "over there"—"when a surprise attack was scheduled for the next morning or we were waiting for some such manoeuvre from the enemy, Arnold would talk to me about his dad—that was the time when fellows got chummy, you know, and got to know each other's souls—and once he gave me a note for the old chap and asked me to deliver it if I came through and he didn't. I think I have it about me somewhere." He fumbled about in his pockets while the girls waited silently.

Presently he drew forth a little slip of paper, muddy and worn and dust-stained from being carried about for a long, long time in a khaki pocket.

"He told me," Frank went on, still holding the slip of paper in his hand but making no attempt to open it, "that his mother had died when he and Jimmy were young and that since then his dad had been father and mother both to them and that he had worked himself nearly to death to give them a chance for the college education that he had had. He said that the one thing that had always threatened to floor the old boy was when either he or Jim got mad and threatened to give up school and go to work so as to take some of the load from the old pater's shoulders. So they were glad, actually glad, when the war came along and gave them a chance not only to serve their country and earn some money—even if it was only a miserable pittance—so that they could send some home to their dad and feel that they had stopped being a drag upon him. He used to tell me," Frank went on, for the spell of those old thrilling times was strong upon him again, "with tears in his eyes—and I'll tell you there was no braver man in all the American army than Arnold Dempsey; he was good for two Boches any day —that it would be the happiest moment of his life when he got back to the old country and announced to his proud and admiring pater that he had come home to turn the tables; that Jimmy and he were going to make the old fellow take a rest and do the work themselves for a change. And he asked me, in case anything did happen to him and Jimmy, to be kind to his dad and try to make up to him as much as I could. I gave him my promise that night." Frank looked about the intent group of faces soberly. "In case the boys had been killed, I would have regarded it as a sacred trust."

Something swelled in the girls' hearts and for; a moment they could not speak. Then,

"I guess we all love you for that, Frank," said Betty simply. With a little nod of her head toward the slip of paper he still held, she added: "What about that—now?"

Frank looked down at the slip of paper for a moment uncomprehendingly, for his thoughts had been far away.

"Oh, the note," he said. "Why, that was only to be given to his father in case anything happened, you know. But now that the boys are coming back to him themselves, I suppose the thing is worthless." He made a motion as though to tear the note up, but Grace stopped him with a quick exclamation.

"Don't!" she cried, adding as they all looked at her in surprise: "Don't you suppose there might be something in it that would give us a clue to the professor's whereabouts now, perhaps? Don't you think it would be wise to look, at least?"

But Frank slowly shook his head.

"Arnold Dempsey's message, written to his dad when he thought he might never see him again, doesn't belong to us," he said decidedly. "The note was given in trust to me, and since I can't deliver it—or at least, since there is now no reason for delivering it—the only thing I can honorably do is this." And very slowly and very decidedly he tore the note into little bits and threw the pieces among the wild roses at the side of the porch.

It was the first real glimpse the girls had had of the man who had come back in the old Frank's place, and with all their hearts they admired him.

Even Grace, who had seemed inclined to pout a little, could not but admit that the action was splendid in him.

"And now," said Will, "after all that, the boys will come back to find their dad gone, heaven knows where, dead perhaps—"

"Oh, I wonder if there isn't some way we can follow him and find out at least what has happened to him?" broke in Amy earnestly. "It seems dreadful just to sit back and not even try to help."

"I don't see what we can do," said Will judicially, just as Mrs. Irving appeared in the doorway. "We will postpone the discussion for the present anyway," he added, in a different tone, rising with alacrity and dusting off his uniform. "Something tells me that lunch is waiting. Come, let us eat!"

So ended all serious discussion for that day, and the girls and boys gave themselves up to the delight of being together again. Only Betty's thoughts seemed to wander at times and she had to be brought back by sundry mischievous and significant remarks from the young folks.

Worn out with fun, the young soldiers slept like tops that night in their improvised beds and rose the next morning professing to feel like "two year olds" and ready for whatever new fun and adventure the day might bring them.

And for the first night since their arrival at Wild Rose Lodge the girls slept soundly without being bothered by the haunting fear of the "Thing"— at least, so they said.

That day they wandered through the woods together, searching for some sign of their strange visitor, but found not a trace of anything unusual and alarming.

"I'm really beginning to believe that you girls have let your imaginations run away from you," Will remarked, when they sat about the living-room after a satisfying supper, just luxuriating in idleness.

"Or perhaps the gentleman has been frightened away by our coming," Roy suggested in a superior tone that made the girls want to throw something at him. "Perhaps he is afraid of the uniform of the U.S.A."

"He may be afraid of the uniform," sniffed Mollie scathingly. "But he certainly couldn't be afraid of you."

"Now you don't mean that, you know you don't," laughed Roy, drawing her down beside him on the couch and holding her there with an iron grip of his brown fingers. "Say you didn't, like a pretty little girl, and I'll let you go."

"I won't say any such—" Mollie began, then suddenly her gaze stiffened into such a stare of wonder, and even alarm, that it made the girls fairly hold their breath.

"Mollie, what is it?" demanded Roy commandingly.

"Over there!" she shrieked. "At the window, Roy! Do you see it?"

Chapter XXII


There, pressed so close to the pane of the window that the nose was flattened grotesquely, eyes wildly staring, hair disheveled, was a face that even in that tense moment the girls recognized—the face of Professor Dempsey!

It took the boys perhaps a second to fling out of the room, jump down the steps of the porch and circle the house to the window.

And yet, in that second, the man was gone, leaving no more trace than if the earth had opened and swallowed him up. For almost an hour the boys searched the woods about the lodge, refusing to allow the girls to accompany them, saying truly that they would hamper them more than they could help.

"You see, I was right after all," Amy stated for at least the tenth time. "From the moment the idea came to me, I felt almost sure that poor crazy Professor Dempsey was this thing that was frightening us."

"But did you ever see such an awful face in all your life?" said Mollie, shuddering at the recollection.

"And the look in his eyes as he stared at Roy," Grace added in a hushed voice. "I shouldn't wonder if—if we hadn't been there, he might have murdered him."

"Oh, Gracie, don't!" Amy clapped her hands to her ears. "We are frightened enough without having you say things like that"

"Suppose," said Mollie, in a sepulchral voice, "he should come back before the boys do?"

"That's just what I was thinking," said a quiet voice behind them, and they jumped and cried out in alarm. The next moment they saw it was Mrs. Irving and felt ashamed of themselves.

"I think you had all better come into the house till the boys come back," their chaperon continued. "I shall feel safer when we are behind locked doors."

The girls shivered, but Mollie protested.

"Suppose anything should happen to the boys?" she asked, but here Mrs. Irving chose to exercise her authority.

"We will talk about that when we are inside the house," she said very firmly, and Mollie had nothing else to do but obey.

The girls did breathe a little more freely when the door was locked, but they found themselves wishing even more ardently that the boys would come back.

The window against which the horribly distorted face had been pressed seemed to hold a peculiar fascination for the Outdoor Girls and they found themselves unable to turn their eyes away from it.

"Oh, I wish the boys would come back," moaned Amy, after a few moments more had passed in strained silence. "If anything should happen to them I'm sure I would die."

"Nonsense, Amy," snapped Mollie. "What could one little mad old man do to three big husky soldier boys?"

The words had hardly been spoken when the sound of voices could be heard coming toward the house, and a moment later the boys themselves stamped up on the porch.

"Not a sign of him," said Will in response to the girls' eager questions. "I don't see how he could have disappeared so completely in such a short time."

"We all took different directions, too," said Roy, taking a seat on the couch again and staring fascinatedly at the window. "If all the rest of you hadn't seen it too, I should certainly think I had been mistaken."

"You weren't mistaken," Mollie assured him grimly. "I can vouch for that."

"Didn't one of you girls call out something about Professor Dempsey?" asked Frank, abruptly.

"Yes," said Betty, going over to him and putting an excited hand on his shoulder. "That's the thing that startled us so, Frank. We are sure it was Professor Dempsey's face. But, still, it was so wild and distorted that we really wouldn't feel like contradicting any one who told us it wasn't he," she added slowly. "Do you understand what I mean?"

Frank nodded, and Will broke in excitedly:

"But the poor old codger's looks would naturally be changed," he argued, "after he had spent all this time wandering around the woods—out of his mind at that. I am inclined to think that the girls are right and that it is really Professor Dempsey."

"If only I could have gotten my hands on him!" mourned Roy. "We wouldn't have been in any further doubt."

"There is really no doubt, boys. We just want—oh, I don't know what we want!" exclaimed Mollie, who was excited and unstrung and nervous.

Soon after that they all went to bed, having first decided to make a more thorough search of the woods in the morning and take the postponed trip to the head of the falls.

They slept fitfully and were glad when at last they woke to find the sun shining in their windows. For once Amy and Grace did not have to be coaxed or wheedled or forced to get out of bed, but dressed quickly and were ready almost as soon as Mollie and Betty.

"You know I rather hated to leave the boys in that room last night," Betty confided to Grace, stopping before the mirror for one final little pat of her hair. "I was afraid that—he—might come back—"

"Oh, Betty, what a horrid idea," said Grace. "Come on, let's see if everything is all right."

But they found that their fears had been wasted. The boys were in the kitchen hilariously helping Mrs. Irving get the breakfast to the accompaniment of continual good-natured scolding from that flushed and perspiring lady. It was Amy's day to get the breakfast, but, as usual, she was late in getting down.

"You make a good deal more trouble than you mend," Mrs. Irving was saying as the girls came to the door, then added relievedly as she caught sight of them: "For goodness' sake, get these young ruffians out of the kitchen, my dears, or we'll not have any breakfast until noon."

So amid much fun and nonsense the boys were shooed forth into the bright sunshine of the out-of-doors, and all the girls fell to to help their chaperon, not wanting to put the extra work the boys made entirely on Amy's shoulders.

Breakfast was good, but they ate hurriedly, anxious to get at the business of the day. They wanted more than they had wanted anything in a very long time to find Professor Dempsey and tell him the joyful news that his sons were alive.

"I'm horribly afraid of him at night," Mollie confided, as they started out at last, "but in the daytime I am only sorry for him."

"Do you think we shall find him, Will?" asked Amy, with a helpless little look into Will's self-reliant young face. "I do want to so much."

Will looked down at her with an expression that said to any one who would read it: "I would give you anything in the world you asked for, if I only could."

But all he really said was: "That remains to be seen. He proved himself a rather slippery customer last night, and the chase we put up may only serve to put him on his guard. Crazy people are tricky, you know."

"Goodness," said Grace, looking fearfully over her shoulder. "There is nothing in the world I am so afraid of as a crazy person."

"That's why she has always been so afraid of me, I suppose," grinned Mollie.

"Afraid of you," said Grace, her eyebrows raised in mock surprise. "Little shrimp—who are you?" There followed a characteristic scene that somewhat lifted the oppression they had all been feeling, and it was not till they had nearly reached the river at the head of the falls that they became serious again.

"It was right about here," said Betty soberly, "that we saw him the night that he started to jump into the river—or I suppose it was the same one," she added.

"Let us hope so," said Mollie fervently. "I wouldn't like to think that there were two lunatics wandering round these woods. One is quite enough."

As they came closer to the river they became more and more conscious that they were not alone, that some one, hidden in the bushes, was craftily watching them.

So strong did this feeling finally become that once the boys separated, thrashing the bushes in all directions. They did not find anything, and finally continued along the path, a little ashamed of what they thought was an attack of nerves.

"Phew, this is getting a little hot for me," said Frank, running his hand through his shock of fair hair. "I don't mind fighting anything in the open—" He left the sentence unfinished, for at that moment they broke through the bushes at the river's edge upon a sight that struck them speechless.

Not twenty yards down the bank stood a ragged scarecrow of a man, so unkempt, so wild, so abandoned in its crouching attitude as to appear hardly human.

Before they had time to utter a word or move a muscle, the man threw up his arms in a gesture indescribably terrible, and with a hoarse shout disappeared in the swirling waters.

It all happened so quickly that for the space of a dazed second they wondered if they had really seen it at all. Then they recovered their powers of motion and rushed to the spot where the man had disappeared.

Though they leaned far out over the water they could see no sign of anything human, and with a creeping feeling of horror they began to speak of what had probably already happened.

"It's certain death down there," Roy muttered, as though to himself, gazing into the rushing river. "The poor old fellow! He has got his, I guess."

"Look here, fellows, here are some clothes," Will called out suddenly, and the boys rushed over to where he stood, a tattered old hat and an equally ragged coat in his hands. "Maybe there will be something in the jacket to tell us where the poor fellow has been staying and what he has been up to."

They searched through the coat and finally pulled out a wallet.

"Now if it only has some writing in it," said Mollie breathlessly.

There was a card, and the card bore the words which they expected, yet dreaded, Arnold Dempsey, Ph. D. But there was nothing else, and suddenly tears dimmed their eyes and they had to turn away.

"It will be mighty hard on Jimmy and Arnold," muttered Roy, gazing somberly at the fast-flowing river. "To have their dad go that way! They'll take it mighty hard—those boys."

Chapter XXIII

A Moonlight Apparition

"Let's look around a little anyway," Betty suggested. "He may possibly have been swept up on the shore farther down the river."

"If such a thing were possible he would probably be dead anyway," Frank protested, but the girls paid no attention to him. The mere suggestion that the professor might still be alive and in need of assistance was enough for them, and they set about feverishly to scour the woods on both sides of the river and for a considerable distance down its shores.

After an hour of vain search, however, they were forced to conclude that the old man was indeed dead, and so reluctantly and with heavy hearts they turned their steps back toward Wild Rose Lodge.

They talked very little on the way back, for they were too occupied with their own gloomy thoughts. Only once Betty spoke what was in the minds of all of them.

"It seems such a terrible waste—such a pity," she said. "Just a mistake on the part of the Government to have resulted in this tragedy. Arnold and James Dempsey coming home, safe and well and hopeful to find their father —dead!"

The boys stayed on for several days at the lodge, and for all the Outdoor Girls but Betty their stay was unmitigated joy. But in the heart of the Little Captain, hard as she tried to fight against it, was a little sense of injury to think that her chums had got their boys back and she had been denied hers.

To be sure, all the boys made much of her and petted her—for there was not one of them who had not competed for her favor in the old days before Allen had shouldered them all out—but no amount of attention from any one else could make up for one little word from Allen.

At each sunrise she awoke thrilling with the thought that perhaps Allen would be with her before the sun went down. And as each evening came without him she sighed and thought, "Perhaps to-morrow."

Since the tragic death of Professor Dempsey they felt that they need no longer fear the woods, although they never ventured near the river or the falls without a heartache and the fervent wish that they might have reached the poor demented man with the glad news of his sons' safety in time to avert the tragedy.

However, they did enjoy their liberty, and took long tramps with the boys through the woods and picnicked with them beside little unexpected brooks and streams, quite in the nature of old days.

Then at last came the day when the boys announced that they would have to return to town and to the military camp to obtain their formal discharge from the army.

"We may surprise you by coming back in 'civies' a week or two from now," Will laughed, as the girls prepared to spin them to the railroad station in the cars. "So you had better be prepared for the shock."

"Maybe they won't care for us any more when they see us out of uniform," grinned Roy, as he shook hands with Mrs. Irving. "You know the old saying that a uniform has made many a hero of a bootblack."

"Goodness, I hope you aren't a bootblack," said Mollie from her car, where she was "doing things" with the engine.

"I'm not," answered Roy, adding with a grin, "Nothing half so honest."

Although the girls knew that they were only saying good-bye to the boys for a few days, the parting was hard just the same, and half an hour later they watched the train wind serpent-like down the shining track with a sinking feeling at their hearts.

"Aren't we a lot of geese?" said Grace impatiently, as they climbed back into the cars. "We have done without the boys for a couple of years, and now when they have just gone as far as Deepdale for a couple of weeks, we are almost crying about it."

"I suppose it is just because we have had so much separation that we can't bear any more of it—even a little," suggested gentle Amy, feeling as if she had just awakened from a blissful dream.

"Never mind," said Mollie, putting an arm about Betty's waist and giving it a little squeeze. "Just think how lovely it will be to see the boys in regular clothes again, and maybe," with a sly glance at Betty, "by the time they come back they will have added one to their number."

"Goodness, I hope so!" said Betty, unashamed.

In spite of some regret at not having the boys, the girls managed to enjoy themselves in the days that followed. They motored and swam and fished and hiked, and got as becomingly sun-burned and tanned as young Indians. It was not until two or three days before the boys returned that anything untoward happened to disturb their peace of mind.

Then one night the moon came out with such dazzling brilliance that Betty was seized with a strong desire to be out in it.

"Let's go for a moonlight swim," she suggested excitedly, as they all stood on the porch of the lodge staring up through the trees to where the moon shone glitteringly down. "We haven't done it since we came, and surely our vacation wouldn't be complete without one."

"Or more," said Mollie, seconding the plan with enthusiasm. "Come on. Let's tell Mrs. Irving where we are going. Maybe she will wish to go along, but I doubt it."

Mollie was right: Mrs. Irving did not wish to go, and the girls rushed upstairs to don bathing suits in preparation for the lark.

A few minutes later they were racing like slim young ghosts through the woods, laughing and calling to each other and entirely abandoned to the joy of the moment.

"Race you to the old swimming hole," Mollie called out, as they neared the river; and away they all raced in response to the challenge.

Betty won, in spite of the fact that Mollie had had a short head start, and the girls, wild in their exuberance, would have lifted her to their shoulders had not Betty herself laughingly fought them off.

"I have another challenge," she cried. "My fresh box of candy to whoever swims to the other side of the swimming hole first. Are you on?"

"We're on!" yelled Grace enthusiastically, adding: "I'd swim from here to Jericho for that box of candy, Betty."

As a matter of fact, whether it was really the thought of the candy or whether it was because the other girls were tired from the last spurt, Grace really did get to the other side of the swimming pool first, and, pulling herself up on the other bank, dripping and triumphant, demanded the prize.

"You surely did win it, and you shall have that box of candy—much as I hoped to keep it in the family," laughed Betty, shaking the water from her eyes and drawing herself up beside her chum. "Goodness, isn't that water delicious to-night?" she added, wriggling her toes luxuriously in the rippling wavelets. "Just cool enough to be refreshing and not cold enough to chill you——" She broke off suddenly and sat staring, her eyes widening and her body tense.

"Girls," she said in a queer voice, for Mollie and Amy had also drawn themselves up on the bank, "have I gone crazy, or what is the matter with me? Do you see—what—I see—up there?"

Alarmed, the girls followed the direction of her strained gaze, and suddenly they seemed to feel themselves congeal with momentary horror.

Far above them on the bank near the falls and on the other side of the river, stood the crouched-up, animal-like figure of—the "Thing!"

Chapter XXIV


The sight was almost too much for the girls. What they felt was sheer animal panic and they wanted to run away—anywhere—just so they put distance enough between them and that figure on the bank.

"Sit still," Betty commanded them, recovering her presence of mind. "That is Professor Dempsey up there, and if we make any sudden sound we are sure of frightening him away."

"But he was killed—we saw it," moaned Amy. "That must be his g-ghost."

"Don't be ridiculous," snapped Mollie, her thoughts working along with Betty's. "You know you don't believe in ghosts."

"But how——" Amy was beginning when Betty interrupted sharply.

"Listen," she said. "I came across an old derelict of a rowboat the other day when we were exploring the upper river, but I didn't say anything to you girls about it because I thought it was too much of a wreck to bother with. For all I know it isn't even water tight—"

"Betty," Mollie broke in excitedly, "I see what you mean! We can row across the upper river to where Professor Dempsey is—Were there oars in the boat?" she broke off to ask.

"A couple of old sticks that would serve for oars," Betty answered. "Of course it's taking a big chance—"

"Say no more," cried Mollie, jumping to her feet and wringing out her bathing suit. "Big chance is our middle name anyway. Lead on, Betty. Where do we find this craft?"

"I'm not quite sure that I can find it," said Betty, leading the way into the woods, "but it was down this way somewhere. Don't make any noise, girls, and let's hurry, or we won't get there before he disappears again."

Grace and Amy were now entering into the spirit of the thing, and they followed at Betty's heels eagerly, careful not to step on stick or stone that might betray their presence.

Luckily Betty managed to stumble directly on the old derelict rowboat where it lay in ancient helplessness in the concealment of a thick grove of bushes along the upper reach of the stream.

"Goody! This is almost too much luck," cried Betty exultantly. "You get in the stern, Amy, and Grace in the bow. Mollie and I will do the rowing."

"I only hope the old thing doesn't take in too much water," said Amy, as she and Grace got gingerly into the rickety old craft and Betty and Mollie pushed it off from the shore.

"That remains to be seen," answered the Little Captain as she handed one of the ancient oars to Mollie. "There is one thing we shall have to remember, Mollie," she said, as they pushed clear of the bank and glided out into the swift water of the river, "and that is to keep far enough this side of the falls to guard against being swept over it. Bear hard on your right hand, Mollie honey. It wouldn't be much fun if we upset here, you know."

"Oh!" gasped Grace, holding fast to the side of the boat and noting with dismay how plainly the roar of the falls came to them. "I wish we had another oar, I'd help——"

"You can help most, Grade," cut in the Little Captain briskly, "by keeping your nerve and helping us to keep ours. Mollie," she called in a whisper that carried the length of the boat, "can you see—It—yet?"

"Yes," Mollie telegraphed back in the same tense whisper. "It's got its back to us, I think."

"Good," said Betty softly, adding as she threw all her weight against her oar, "now let's keep still and work."

It was queer how they referred to that presence at the head of the falls as "It." Some way, in the weird moonlight, under the more than unusual circumstances, it seemed almost impossible to give the thing a name.

"Was it Professor Dempsey?" they kept asking themselves over and over again. But he had committed suicide. Or at least they had seen him fall into the river, and they could have vowed that he did not come out again. They had searched both sides of the river. How could they have missed him? And yet, if that motionless figure at the head of the falls was really Professor Dempsey, he must have been washed ashore that day and evaded them as he had succeeded in evading them so many times before.

And all the time the roar of the falls was growing louder and louder in their ears and they knew that theirs was a race with life and death.

Could they succeed in reaching the opposite bank before the deadly current of the river should suck them over the falls, to almost certain annihilation?

The answer to the question came a moment: later when, without warning, the prow of the little boat struck on an unexpected projection of the shore and they came to a standstill.

"Thank heaven!" said Betty under her breath as Mollie jumped out and pulled the craft further in to shore. "That was nearly the riskiest thing you ever did, Betty Nelson."

Once on shore again, the girls' confidence returned and they hurried silently through the woods toward the spot where they had seen the figure. Then Betty, who had taken the lead, suddenly motioned to them to stop.

She had caught a glimpse through the trees of the man, who resembled more than ever a scarecrow in his crazy makeshift garments—and at the sight of him her heart unaccountably skipped a beat.

Her thoughts had not gone beyond this moment. Strangely enough all her energy had been concentrated upon reaching the man before he disappeared. But now that they had succeeded so far she was at a loss what to do next.

But at that moment she inadvertently stepped on a dry twig that snapped sharply under her foot, and at the sound the man had turned fiercely, like an animal at bay. Then he wheeled about and made as though to flee for the shelter of the woods.

In this emergency Betty followed impulse. She ran out into the open, calling to him wildly that his sons were alive. Not to run away, because his sons were safe and well. They were coming to him——

The pitiful wreck of a man paused in his flight as the import of the words seemed to sink into his befuddled brain, but he turned upon the Little Captain a look of ferocious hatred that would have terrified a less courageous girl than Betty. But her whole heart was in her mission, and she had utterly forgotten herself.

"Won't you please believe me?" she said, advancing toward him, hands outstretched pleadingly. "I know what I'm talking about. Your sons, Arnold and Jimmy——"

As though the names of his boys had released some cord in his brain, the man cried out hoarsely:

"Jimmy and Arnold—my sons, my little boys!" Then, turning fiercely to Betty, he cried: "You're not lying to me, are you? Because I'll throw you into the river! I'll cut you into little pieces!"

As the man advanced menacingly, Grace screamed and Mollie ran forward with some wild idea of protecting her chum, but Betty waved them back.

"I'm not lying to you," she told the crazy man, looking straight into his glaring eyes. "Your boys were wounded, but not seriously, and they sailed a few days ago for this country on a hospital ship. They want to see you more than anything else in the world," she added, playing on the sudden softness that had crept into his wild eyes. "And they sent their love to their dad."

At sound of the old loving name all the fight went out of the old man and he sank to his knees on the grass, sobbing horribly.

They let him alone for a moment, then Betty motioned to Mollie, and together they lifted him to his feet. The sight of his tear-stained, unkempt old face, creased and lined with suffering, but with the wildness gone out of the eyes, stirred a profound pity in the girls and they wished more than anything in the world to make him happy again.

"We are going to take you home, Professor Dempsey," Betty told him soothingly, as with Mollie's help she half led, half carried, him through the woods toward the spot where they had left the boat, Amy and Grace following awed and silent behind them. "And as soon as your boys reach home we will bring them to you. Be careful of this big rock. Ah, here's the boat." And talking all the time, softly and soothingly as one would to a child, Betty at last succeeded in seating the derelict old man in the equally derelict old boat.

The girls tumbled in after him, and with a prayer in her heart Betty pushed off from shore.

That ride back across the river was as weird and unreal as any nightmare the girls had ever lived through. Their queer passenger, seeming the most unreal of all, was quiet for the most part but occasionally he would sit up and look about him wildly and could only be soothed back to reason by Betty's sweet voice telling him of his boys—Jimmy and Arnold.

Somehow they reached the opposite shore, and, after pulling the boat up among the bushes once more, they started back, the old man with them, to Wild Rose Lodge.

Chapter XXV

The Old Crowd Again

Mrs. Irving, who had been worried by their prolonged absence, met the girls at the door as they stumbled with the almost exhausted old man up the steps of the porch.

At sight of the latter she grew deathly pale, and leaned against the door for support. She felt that all the world was growing black——

"Oh, please, please don't faint!" she heard Betty's young voice calling to her desperately as it seemed from a long distance. "We've depended upon you to help us."

With a great effort she fought off the dizziness and drew herself away from Betty's supporting arm.

"It's all right," she said dazedly. "The shock, I guess. Betty what—who— is that——"

"Oh, please don't ask any questions now," Betty begged feverishly. "Just help us, and we will tell you all about it later. This is Professor Dempsey," she added, turning to the broken old man who stood staring at them uncomprehendingly. "He can have Mollie's and my room, can't he, Mrs. Irving? and we will bunk somewhere else."

Mrs. Irving nodded automatically, still too dazed by the suddenness of the thing even to think, and they helped the old man into Betty's room and laid him on the bed. The tired, ragged, unkempt old head had hardly touched the pillow before its owner had sunk into a heavy sleep.

For a moment the girls were startled, for it almost seemed as though he were dead, but Betty put her hand on the ragged old shirt above the heart and found that the action was strong and regular.

"Perhaps it is the very best thing that could happen to him," she said softly, and, laying a light cover over him, tip-toed from the room, followed quietly by Mrs. Irving and the other girls.

Once in the other room, with the need for action over, the girls felt weak and spent, and it was only then that they realized that they had been through a terrible ordeal.

In broken sentences they told Mrs. Irving all that had happened and as she listened she more and more appalled at the risk they had run and the danger they had gone through.

"Girls, girls," she cried when they had finished, "I was half wild about you as it was. But if I had known the truth I think I should have gone crazy. Just the same," she added and her eyes shone with pride in them, "it was a glorious thing for you to do—an unselfish, wonderfully courageous thing. I'm proud of you!"

In spite of the fact that they were tired out, the girls insisted upon standing watch and watch that night. They felt that some one should be with Professor Dempsey all the time in case he should wake in the night with his old madness upon him. It was the longest night any of them had ever spent, and the morning dawned upon a hollow-eyed, worn-out set of Outdoor Girls.

"I never," said Betty, looking around at her white-faced chums wearily, "spent such a terrible night in my life. How is the patient?" she added, taking up the subject that had not left their minds for a minute. "Who was in there last?"

"I," said Grace, brushing out her hair, listlessly. "He is still asleep."

That report continued good all morning, and it was almost noon before the ragged, unbelievably unkempt old man on the bed opened his eyes.

The girls had been looking forward to, yet dreading, this minute. It had been decided that only one of them should be in the room with him when he awoke, but the rest were hovering close to the door ready to give assistance if it should become necessary.

But they need not have worried. The magic of his long sleep, together with the glad news he had heard the night before, seemed to have transformed the man overnight to his old gentle self.

To be sure, he was amazed at his strange surroundings, and looked uncomprehendingly into Betty's face as she bent compassionately over him. But all he said was:

"I declare, this is all very strange, young lady—very strange. Would you mind—er—telling me where I am?"

At the tone, even more than the words, the girls felt a wild desire to shout aloud their relief. For the tone was the same, gentle, polite one that they remembered hearing that day when the little man had entertained them in his cabin in the woods.

Then Betty, as gently as she knew how, told him a little of what had happened to him, and the girls could see by the surprise on his face that he had no recollection whatever of the matters of which she was speaking.

"I declare it is most strange—most strange," he declared when she had finished, adding as he looked down and plucked distastefully at his tattered shirt: "And this is the result of my—er—temporary aberration, is it? Ah, but I remember," he sat up suddenly, a gleam of fear in his eyes. "It was when I read of the death of my boys. Something snapped in my brain, I think. You say"—he turned to Betty, grasping her hand imploringly—"you say that my sons are well—that they are coming to me?"

"Yes," said Betty soothingly, pressing him back upon the pillow. "They are well and safe and will be with you soon—in a few days, perhaps."

"Ah," said the little man, submitting to Betty's touch, a happy smile on his lips, "that is good. That is very—very—good—" and with a sigh like a tired child's, he fell asleep again!

"Did you hear what he said?" whispered Betty, her eyes shining as she tip-toed from the room, closed the door softly behind her and faced her awed and incredulous chums. "He's well, girls. He's completely sane again."

"It's a miracle," said Mollie breathlessly.

And so it came to pass that some little time later four good-looking young fellows, recently in the service of the greatest country on the earth, and one of them still wearing his regimentals, saw a rather unexpected sight as they swung down the path toward Wild Rose Lodge.

On the porch sat an elderly, contented looking man, clad in garments that would easily have accommodated two men of his size—garments belonging to Mollie's Uncle John, and seated about him in attitudes of lazy comfort were four young girls.

These young girls—who were, at least from the standpoint of the four young men, exceedingly good to look upon, were engaged in doing some sort of fancy work. All but one of them, that is; for the fourth, a girl with wavy brown hair and bright brown eyes, pink cheeks, and a dream of a mouth, was reading to the elderly man who sat in the chair of state.

"Gee, Allen," whispered one of the tall youths to the one who still wore the uniform of his country's service, "I feel as though we were crabbing your act. Can't we fellows do the disappearing act——"

But just at the moment the girl with the brown eyes and the pink cheeks looked up, gave one little startled cry, and dropped the book to the porch.

The other girls looked up and then followed a scene that very nearly made the temporarily forgotten and neglected old man on the porch drop out of his chair in surprise.

"Allen!" screamed the girls, all except the brown-haired, pink-cheeked one, who, for some unaccountable reason hung back behind the others. "You perfect angel!"

"Why didn't you let us know you were coming so that we could have been prepared?"

"Oh, isn't your uniform lovely!"

"And look at the dressed-up leggings!"

These and various other exclamations like them, coupled to the fact that all the girls, except the one that he wanted to most, had kissed him, rather overwhelmed young Lieutenant Washburn and took his breath away.

His three companions, however, finding themselves neglected and out in the cold, interfered at this point and saved his life.

"Betty, what are you hiding away back there for?" cried Mollie to the Little Captain, whose cheeks were pinker than ever and whose eyes were shining very brightly with a sort of mixture of joy and fright. "Don't you know Allen in his uniform?"

"Aren't you going to kiss him?" chimed in Grace wickedly.

"We all did," added Amy.

But Betty had no intention of kissing Allen, although he begged her to with his laughing eyes and she continued backing into the doorway, until Mrs. Irving, coming up behind her, caught her up and pushed her out upon the porch again.

However, the chaperon monopolized Allen for a few minutes and gave Betty time to catch her breath. She found Mollie introducing Professor Dempsey to the astonished boys. These young soldiers wanted to ask a hundred questions, but, catching a warning look from Betty, decided to wait till later, when the little man himself was not present.

Frank, who was perhaps more glad than any of them to see the father of his chums alive and well, settled himself near the man and began to pour into his starved and eager ears news of his sons and tales of adventures in which they had figured.

And while Betty was still smiling in sympathy with the look of absolute happiness on Professor Dempsey's face, Allen dragged himself away from the group of his admirers and came over to her.

Boldly he pulled her hand through his arm and led her past the laughing boys and girls, down the steps, and along the path that led into the woods.

"Be back in time for supper," Will called after them. "Something tells me we are going to have some feed."

"Oh, don't bother them," they heard Mollie's voice in laughing reproof. "Remember, you were young yourself, once!"

"And now," said Allen, when they had gone just far enough for the trees and bushes to screen them from the view of the people on the porch, "I want you to look at me, Betty. You haven't yet, you know."

"I c-can't," said Betty in a muffled voice. "I guess—" she added whimsically, "I guess I'm a little afraid of you, Lieutenant Allen Washburn."

With a glad laugh Allen put his strong young arms about her.

"Do you think you can keep on all your life being afraid of me—like that?" he asked. "Little Betty?"

And Betty, with the radiant joy of all youth in her heart, slowly nodded.

* * * * *

And what glorious days followed! The young folks never tired of their tramps through the woods and walks in the vicinity of Moonlight Falls. They gave themselves up to a good time and had it in full measure.

"Gee, what an improvement over the trenches in France!" remarked Will one day. "No more wars for me!"

"So say we all of us!" sang out Frank.

When they had to return to Deepdale the boys took Professor Dempsey with them and Frank saw to it that the old man was made comfortable until his wounded sons returned to him. Both of the hurt soldiers were recovering, and the reunion of father and sons was most affecting.

"Now for a final swim below the falls!" cried Mollie one day, when the outing was coming to an end.

"We ought to have a good time—now there is no ghost to disturb us," put in Amy.

"A chocolate for the first one to enter the water!" exclaimed Grace, waving her ever-present candy box in the air.

"That settles it—I'm off!" burst out Betty; and then all made a wild dash for the swimming pool. And here let us say good-bye to the Outdoor Girls.


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