The Outdoor Girls at Wild Rose Lodge or The Hermit of Moonlight Falls
by Laura Lee Hope
Author of "The Outdoor Girls of Deepdale," "The Outdoor Girls at Bluff Point," "The Moving Picture Girls," "The Bobbsey Twins," "Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue," "Six Little Bunkers at Grandma Bell's," Etc.
I Just Fun. II The Falling Tree. III The Queer Little Man. IV Good News. V Betty Takes a Dare. VI Nearly Wrecked. VII Bad Tidings Confirmed. VIII Premonitions. IX A Visitor. X Hurrah for Allen. XI The Hold-Up. XII Sheep! XIII The Enemy Routed. XIV Nothing Human. XV Wild Roses. XVI The Whirlpool. XVII The "Thing". XVIII Surprised. XIX Like Old Times. XX Very Much Alive. XXI Out of the Dark. XXII Tragedy. XXIII A Moonlight Apparition. XXIV Recovered. XXV The Old Crowd Again.
The Outdoor Girls at Wild Rose Lodge
"Did you ever see a more wonderful day?"
The four Outdoor Girls, in Mollie Billette's touring car and with Mollie herself at the wheel, were at the present moment rushing wildly over a dusty country road at the rate of thirty miles an hour.
Grace Ford was sitting in front with Mollie, while Betty Nelson and Amy Blackford "sprawled," to use Mollie's sarcastic and slightly exaggerated description, "all over the tonneau."
"You look as if you had never done a real day's work in your life," said Mollie, with a disapproving glance over her shoulder at the girls in the tonneau.
"We never have," returned quiet Amy, with a grin.
"And we are proud of it," added Betty, as she defiantly settled her feet still more comfortably on the foot rail. "Why should we be energetic when it is so much easier to be lazy?"
"There the proper spirit speaks," applauded Grace Ford from the front. "I think I shall have to change places with you, Betty. It's far too exciting up here with Mollie. She insists upon staging near collisions every few feet—thus keeping me awake!"
"Great heavens!" cried Mollie, pressing an impatient foot upon the accelerator to which the great car responded with an eager purring, "did any one ever give us the mistaken title of Outdoor Girls, I wonder? They should have called us the Rip Van Winkle club, instead."
"Now she's getting sour-castic," commented Grace lazily. "Have some candy, honey, and sweeten up."
She passed the ever-present box of delicacies over to Mollie, to which overture the young driver responded with so indignant a stare that Grace quickly withdrew the box, tucked it behind her, and strove to look unconscious.
"Please, ma'am, I didn't mean to do it," she said meekly.
"Well, don't do it again, that's all," returned Mollie, uncompromisingly, her eyes once more on the road ahead, "I've eaten so many chocolates this week that I've had indigestion and mother threatened to cut down my allowance."
"Goodness, it's my allowance that suffers," retorted Grace, ruefully, "since it is my candy that you eat."
"Stop quarreling, girls, and answer my question." said Betty, sitting up straight and regarding delightedly a vista of flying hills and woodland greenery. "I asked you a few minutes ago if you had ever seen so wonderful a day?"
"Yes, plenty of 'em," returned Mollie, as she took a sharp curve on two wheels. "If you weren't too lazy to notice anything, Betty Nelson, you would see that there is a storm coming up. Look at those clouds over there in the east."
"Oh, you're a kill-joy!" cried Betty, cocking an optimistic eye up at the sky. "It's only one teeny little cloud anyway, and who cares for clouds when the boys are coming home?"
Both Amy and Grace felt a breathless little tug at their hearts at the joyful challenge in Betty's words, but Mollie, with a perverseness that was sometimes characteristic of her, refused to be too happy.
"Who says they're coming home?" she asked. "Now you're only guessing."
"Guessing!" cried Betty indignantly. "What do you mean—guessing? The war is over, isn't it?"
"Yes; and has been for quite a while," Mollie responded dryly. "But that doesn't say that the boys are coming home right away."
"We don't care about the right away," interrupted Amy, with a quiet happiness in her face that made Betty hug her impulsively. "We can wait patiently, now that we know they are safe."
"It's all right for you to talk about patience, Amy," retorted Mollie, throttling her engine and sliding at breakneck speed down a long hill without the thought of using a brake. A brake to Mollie meant something to be used at the last minute when she couldn't think of anything else to do. "You're an angel, but I'm not——"
"No, indeed!" said Grace, so emphatically that the girls in the tonneau chuckled and Mollie looked at her threateningly.
"For goodness' sake, don't waste time looking at me," Grace pleaded, as they bounced into a hole in the road and out again, fairly jouncing the breath from the girls' bodies. "Keep your eyes on the road, Mollie dear. We're not ready to die yet."
"Well, look out, or you may—ready or not," threatened Mollie darkly, as the car skidded around another precipitous turn and the girls saw with relief a long stretch of flat road before them.
"Just the same the boys must be coming home before very long," said Amy, quietly returning to the subject. "And when they do come we'll have to give them some sort of big party or something, girls."
"Of course we will," said Grace, munching contentedly on a chocolate. "Something that will make the people in Deepdale sit up and take notice."
"We-el—I don't know," objected Betty thoughtfully. "They say that the few soldier boys who have come home object to any sort of fuss being made over them. They seem to want to forget everything that has happened 'over there,' and any sort of celebration brings the whole thing vividly before them again."
"Yes, that's true, too," Mollie agreed. "I remember our doctor telling mother that if people only wouldn't try to force confidences from the boys and would try to keep all thought of the awful things they had been through out of their minds, there would be fewer cases of nervous breakdowns."
"Pop!" said Grace, snapping her finger resignedly. "There go all our hopes of a good time, Amy. When the boys come home all we shall be allowed to do will be to smooth their fevered brows and hold their hands."
"Well, we might do worse things even than that," said Betty, with a light laugh, and Mollie shot her a malicious glance.
"Just watch Betty objecting to that" she said wickedly. "Before we know it she will be sighing that Allen has only one fevered brow to smooth!"
Amy and Grace looked at Betty mischievously—at Betty who could not for the life of her look as unconcerned as she would have liked.
"Don't be so foolish" she said hastily, at which the girls only laughed the more.
"Never mind, honey," said Amy, putting an arm fondly about her chum. "I guess we will all be crazy with joy to get the boys home again."
"Well, you needn't think you can hold hands with Will and smooth his fevered brow all the time," said Grace unexpectedly. "Because I really have some share in him myself, you know. Remember, mine was one of the three pictures he kept under his pillow."
Readers of previous volumes in this series may recall that joyful letter written to Betty not so long ago in which Sergeant Allen Washburn—now Lieutenant Allen Washburn—had spoken of the three pictures which Will Ford had kept under his pillow during his long convalescence in one of the army hospitals over there. These readers may also remember that one of the pictures was of the boy's mother, another of his sister, Grace, and the third of shy little Amy Blackford, who now was blushing so furiously at the mere mention of it.
"How about poor Frank and Roy?" asked Mollie, mentioning the other two boys who made up the quartette of the girls' boy chums. "Who will attend to their fevered brows?"
"Oh, you and Grace can take turns at that," said Betty, lightly adding, with a little sigh: "Try as we can, Amy and I never know quite how to pair you four off. We can't for the life of us find out which of you likes Frank best and which inclines to Roy."
"That's right, kid—keep 'em guessing," said Mollie slangily, as she turned on power and challenged a steep grade. "Grace and I believe in scattering our favors—as 'twere. See that hill just ahead of us? What do you bet I make it without changing gears?"
"If you make it without changing our looks, I'll be happy," said Grace ruefully, as they bumped and rumbled to the top of the steep grade. "Look out, Mollie!" she added suddenly, indicating a big pile of brushwood that jutted out almost into the center of the road. "For goodness' sake, slow down!"
But Mollie did more than slow down. She stopped—and with such suddenness that the girls were all but thrown out of the car and Betty bumped her nose on the seat in front.
They had scarcely regained their poise when they were startled by a shrill cry from Amy.
"Girls!" she almost screamed, clutching Betty's arm in a grip that hurt, "look at that tree. It's going to fall! Oh, we'll be killed!"
The girls followed the direction of her pointing finger and looks of horror sprang to their eyes. Slowly, its descent retarded somewhat by the branches of other trees, a towering giant of the forest tottered and crashed its destructive way downward. And they were directly in its path!
The Falling Tree
For a moment the Outdoor Girls sat fascinated, paralyzed, without the power to move a muscle. Then suddenly Grace seemed galvanized to action. She leaned toward Mollie, grasping the steering wheel of the motionless car frantically.
"For heaven's sake, Mollie, get out of the way! Start the car!" she screamed.
"I can't!" Mollie answered, tight-lipped. "Something's wrong. The motor's dead."
But with Grace's scream, Betty had come to her senses and had scrambled out of the car, dragging the still paralyzed Amy after her.
"Grace, get out! Mollie, are you crazy?" she shouted wildly. "You'll be killed—"
Automatically Grace started to clamber to the road, but Mollie still fussed with brakes and levers, her lips in a tight line, her eyes blazing.
"Something's wrong—but I'll get her started," she muttered over and over to herself while Betty raged at her from the road.
"Get out! get out!" fumed the Little Captain. "Jump, or I'll come after you and we'll both be killed. Mollie!"
Luckily for Mollie's suicidal stubbornness, the great tree had been halted for a moment in its downward plunge by some particularly heavy foliage and branches, but the girls could see that it was only a matter of seconds until the giant should tear itself loose and come plunging down upon them.
And still Mollie fumbled with levers in a vain and foolish attempt to save her beloved car at the risk of her own life.
Betty had just jumped upon the running board in a wild attempt to drag her chum from the car when suddenly help came to them from an unexpected quarter.
An elderly man came running from the woods, evidently attracted by their excited cries. He gave one look at the toppling tree, even now tearing itself loose from the impeding branches, another at the machine with the two girls still in it, and then, with a speed and decision which seemed to belie his age, went to the rescue.
"Come—help me push!" he cried to Amy and Grace, who were still standing dumbly in the middle of the road. A moment later he had thrown himself with all his might against the machine, striving to push it out of the path of the falling tree.
In an instant of time the girls had added their strength to his and the automobile was moving slowly down the road. Luckily the car was on a down grade or they never could have managed it. As it was, there was just time to get out of the way when the great tree came crashing down, its outermost branches just brushing Amy's skirt. The giant had fallen on the very spot where the car had been only a moment before!
"Girls," breathed Betty, with a shaky little attempt at a laugh, "I guess we've never in our lives been nearer death than we were just then."
And while the girls are marveling at their almost miraculous escape from a terrible death, time will be taken to introduce the Outdoor Girls to those readers who have not yet met them and also to review briefly a few of the exciting and interesting adventures they have had up to the time of this present narrative.
There were four of them. Betty Nelson, or the "Little Captain" as the girls often called her because she had such a decided talent for knowing just the right thing to do at just the right moment, was eighteen, dark-haired and dark-eyed. She had a fund of vitality and more than her share of sense and good judgment—all of which went toward making her what she was, the most popular girl in Deepdale.
Grace Ford, tall, slender and willowy, was almost the same age as Betty, but that fact and her love of the outdoors were the only things she had in common with the "Little Captain." Her father, James Ford, was a lawyer, and her mother, Mrs. Margaret Ford, a rather dressy lady who spent a good deal of her time at clubs, was quite a figure in the society of Deepdale. However, all through the war Mrs. Ford had worked with an untiring enthusiasm for the "cause," a fact which had made her many more friends than her social popularity could ever have done.
Next in the little quartette came Mollie Billette. Mollie was seventeen, French-American, and impulsive, with a quick temper that made more trouble for herself than for any one else. She and Betty were alike in their splendid vigor and vitality. Mollie, or "Billy" as she was sometimes called by her chums, had a very lovely widowed mother and an extremely mischievous young brother and sister, Paul and Dora (nicknamed "Dodo"), who were twins and six. Although the twins were pretty nearly always in trouble, they were really adorable children, whom everybody loved.
Amy Blackford, shy, sweet, pretty, completed the quartette. There had been a mystery about her past which had recently been cleared up, and it may have been this mystery that caused the girls to treat her with a little more consideration and gentleness than they did each other. Her guardian was a broker in the city who knew very little of the past except through letters.
The four boys who were close chums of the girls and had added to the interest and excitement of more than one of their adventures were Allen Washburn, who was very much interested in Betty, and in whom Betty was very much interested; Will Ford, Grace's brother, who had carried Amy Blackford's picture all through the war; Frank Haley, Will Ford's closest chum, and Roy Anderson who had not much distinction of any kind except that he was "lots of fun" and a chum of the other three boys.
In the first volume of this series the girls went on a camping and tramping tour, tramping for miles over the country and meeting with many adventures on the way.
Later they had more fun at Rainbow Lake, in a motor car, in a winter camp, in Florida, at Ocean View, then at Pine Island where the girls and boys together had cleared up a mystery surrounding a gypsy cave.
Later the girls and boys found themselves caught in the meshes of the great war, as many hundreds of thousands of others had been. The boys responded eagerly to the bugle call, and the girls, too, were eager for Army service and finally went to a hostess house at Camp Liberty. Though the girls had never worked harder in their lives, they found that the task had a stirringly romantic side as well.
Then in the volume directly preceding this, entitled "The Outdoor Girls at Bluff Point" the girls had had perhaps the most exciting adventure of all.
The Hostess House at Camp Liberty having burnt down, the chums found themselves forced to take a much-needed, although not entirely welcome, vacation and had decided to spend it at a romantic spot near the ocean called Bluff Point. The cottage on the bluff had been loaned to the girls by Grace's patriotic Aunt Mary, who declared that she owed something to the chums for having worked so hard for the good old Stars and Stripes. Mrs. Ford, worn out with war work, had gone with the girls to chaperon them.
Bad tidings at first threatened to overwhelm the chums. The Fords received word that Will was seriously wounded "somewhere in France" and later Mollie received a telegram from her mother saying that the twins, Dodo and Paul, had disappeared. Still later, while everything was at its blackest, Betty read Allen Washburn's name among the missing. However, everything cleared up later when the twins, who had been kidnapped, were recovered and their kidnapper sent to justice. Still later Allen proved that the report that he had been missing was an error by writing to Betty himself and in the letter he also spoke of Will Ford and the fact that he was getting over his wound splendidly. Of course there had been great rejoicing and the vacation had proved a happy one after all.
And now, at the time of this story, the war was over and the first regiments of soldiers had arrived from the other side and the girls were expecting a joyful reunion with the boys at any time.
They had not yet made definite plans for the summer and were just in the position of waiting for something to happen when something had happened with a vengeance—but not at all the kind of something which the four girls had expected.
"I think you are right, my dear," said the man who had saved the lives of at least two of the girls, rubbing his hands fussily together and peering out of small, near-sighted eyes, first at the tree and then at the girls. "It was a close call—a very close call. I declare, it was very nearly the closest call I ever saw!"
For the first time the girls really looked at him. He was a rather small man, slenderly built, with long sensitive hands and a very bald head, in the center of which a tuft of hair stood comically upright. These characteristics, coupled to the squinting eyes, gave the man a very odd appearance.
He was so queer a figure standing there in the center of the road that the girls found themselves staring unduly. Realizing something of this, Betty jumped down from the running board where she was still standing and held out her hand to the little man, thanking him in a voice that still trembled a little for the great service he had done them. The other girls followed suit and so overwhelmed their rescuer that he seemed quite embarrassed and looked around nervously as if for some means of escape.
Betty, seeing his embarrassment, was about to take pity upon him when something happened that they had not bargained for. It began to rain, not gently, but in a deluge, taking the girls completely by surprise.
Instinctively they turned toward the car, but Mollie suddenly began to laugh in a half-hysterical manner.
"This is what I call fun" she said. "Engine dead, caught in the rain, and I've even left the side curtains at home! I guess we're in for it, girls."
The Queer Little Man
While the girls stood looking wildly at each other their unknown rescuer seemed suddenly galvanized to action.
"This won't do at all!" he cried, raising both hands to his bald head which was by this time very wet and more shiny than ever. "You will get your death of cold, young ladies, you surely will. You must come with me. Here, right along this path I have a cottage—" All the time he was talking he was hustling them fussily ahead of him, for all the world like some old hen with a brood of chickens.
The girls, not knowing what else to do and being in rather a bewildered frame of mind, allowed themselves to be hustled. The rain was sheeting down in a terrific cloud burst, so that their clothes clung to them damply and they began to shiver.
They circled the fallen tree which had so nearly been their undoing, and a moment later found themselves upon a narrow footpath which seemed to lead into the very heart of the woods.
"I wonder where he is taking us," whispered Grace in Betty's ear. "Maybe he's a murderer or something."
In spite of her discomfort, Betty giggled.
"Did you ever see a murderer with a bald head like that?" she asked.
It seemed to the girls as if the path must be at least a mile long, but just as they were despairing of ever reaching the end of it, they came out into a partially cleared space and through the trees caught a glimpse of something that looked like a house.
Their new acquaintance, who up to this time had been bringing up the rear, now took the lead and led them over tangled underbrush, stones and foot-bruising rocks, to his strange little dwelling.
"It's a house, it's a house!" cried Grace thankfully, as they hurried after the little man. "I guess somebody will have to wring me out when we get inside. I'm soaked through!"
"Goodness, why don't you tell us something we don't know?" grumbled Mollie, but nobody was listening to her. They had reached the house and the man had swung the door open hospitably.
"Step inside, step inside, do," he urged with a nervous gesture that reminded the girls once more of the proverbial hen. "You will find it dry at least, and I will have a fire for you in a hurry. Just a moment till I get some wood—just a moment—"
And while he rambled on, suiting his words with quick nervous action, the girls crowded inside the cottage and looked about them curiously.
The room they had entered was large and scrupulously neat. At first glance it seemed a queer combination of hunting lodge and museum of natural history. The rough clapboards and beams of the ceiling and walls had never been plastered, and this very crudity seemed somehow to give the room an air of warmth and home-likeness that was very inviting.
Hung on the walls were several fairly large skins of animals, a gun or two, and over the huge open fireplace, which very nearly covered one end of the room, hung the magnificent head of a buck.
On the wall opposite the fireplace was a set of rudely-erected shelves, one beneath the other, and these shelves were covered with specimens of butterflies, beetles and other bugs of every size and description. That the specimens had been mounted by an expert even an inexperienced eye could see.
The girls, who had been regarding the oddities of the room with growing interest, were brought back to a realization of the discomfort of wet clothes by the owner of the place himself.
The latter had brought firewood from somewhere, and, with the aid of half a dozen matches, had succeeded in getting a fairly good blaze.
Then with a smile of satisfaction he turned to the girls, rubbing his hands together genially.
"Come nearer to the fire—come closer—do," he urged in his quick nervous way. "I am sure you are chilled through—quite chilled through. I will bring chairs." He stopped abruptly and looked about him with an embarrassed air, his gaze coming to rest on the only chair which adorned the room.
Betty, seeing his confusion, was trying to think of something helpful to say, when the little man suddenly found a way out of his quandary.
"Ah, I have it!" he cried, seizing enthusiastically upon a long bench that stood on one side of the room. "Four can sit upon this quite easily, I am sure. A happy thought—a very happy thought—" and he pulled and tugged at the bench until he succeeded in moving it close to the fire.
Afterward it occurred to the girls that they might have helped him, for it was a very heavy bench and he was rather a frail old man. But at the time they were too interested in this unusual place and their rather extraordinary host to think of anything very rational.
However, they seated themselves dutifully in a row upon the bench, "for all the world like an orphan asylum out for an airing," as Mollie said later, and gratefully stretched out their sodden shoes to the blaze.
They were cold and they were wet and they were fast becoming very hungry, all of which might have been expected to form a very good reason why they should have been miserable. But they weren't miserable—not at all. To the Outdoor Girls the thrill of an adventure always more than counterbalanced the possible discomforts attending it.
Their host started to draw up the one chair in the room, hesitated a moment then, as though he had just thought of something, turned and darted through the door, closing it with a little click behind him.
For the space of half a second the girls looked after him. Then they looked at each other. Then they drew a long breath and let loose the flood of curious questions which had been struggling for expression for the past twenty minutes.
"Well, isn't this a lark?" cried Mollie, her eyes dancing, "Half an hour ago we were awfully bored, and now look at us."
"Yes, look at us," said Grace with a little sniff. "I'm sure we're not very much to look at right now with our hair wet, and our clothes—"
"Oh, for goodness' sake, who cares about such things?" cried Betty gaily. "I think this is a darling place and I'm having the time of my life. I wonder who he is?"
"He seemed kind of scared just now, didn't he?" chuckled Mollie, feeling her shoe to see if it was drying out any. "It was funny the way he bolted out of the room."
"Poor old dear—no wonder he was scared," commented Grace, as she took off her hat and tried to do something with her hopelessly bedraggled locks. "The way we look we're enough to scare anybody. Oh, dear, hasn't any one a comb?"
"Why, of course, we carry a complete beauty parlor outfit just for your benefit, dear," giggled Mollie. "The rest of us don't need it though, We are too beautiful naturally."
"You know I like him a lot, the queer little man, I mean," said Amy, evidently following out her own train of thought. "He seems kind of fussy and peculiar but he has an awfully nice smile."
"Trust Amy to find the smile," said Betty, putting an arm fondly about the younger girl. "And of course we all like him," she added seriously. "If it hadn't been for him we probably wouldn't be feeling so happy right now."
"Yes, we would probably be in some hospital with our unhappy relatives weeping over our mangled remains," said the irrepressible Mollie, and laughed at the shriek that went up at her gruesome remark. "There probably wouldn't have been enough of us left to recognize," she added by way of good measure, and they shrieked again.
"For goodness' sake, let's talk of something pleasant," said Grace, rising suddenly and going over to the window. "If you want to sit on that old bench all day, you can."
It appeared that the girls had no intention of sitting on the bench all day. They got up and sauntered about the room, examining the skins on the walls and looking, but without much curiosity, at the rifles. They lingered longest before the shelves of butterflies and beetles, for some of the specimens were really beautiful and very rare.
After they had examined everything in sight they began to grow restive. They must have been in the place nearly an hour and it suddenly occurred to them to wonder where their host had been keeping himself all this time.
"I wish we could get started," worried Mollie, looking out upon the sodden landscape. The rain was apparently coming down just as hard as ever. "I hate to leave the car all by itself out there. Somebody might steal it."
"I wish I knew where that man was," said Grace nervously. "I never trust strange men. He may set the house on fire for all we know."
The words were hardly out of her mouth when the door opened and the topic of conversation himself entered, carrying a tray so big and heaped so high with sandwiches that one could scarcely discover the man behind it.
Betty and Amy ran to his assistance, and between them they got the tray safely to the bench. In one delighted glance the girls saw that not only sandwiches, but a steaming pot of coffee and the remains of what had been a great, three-layer chocolate cake were on the tray.
At thought of the fussy little man taking all this time and trouble, for it must have taken a good deal of work to make all that formidable array of sandwiches—the girls were sincerely touched and regarded their host with a new interest.
"There, there," he was saying, regarding the heaped-up tray with evident pleasure, "you must sit down and eat at once. You must be nearly starved— famished. I hope this will be enough."
He looked at them so anxiously that Betty felt like hugging him—and nearly did it.
"Enough! Well, I guess it is enough," she said heartily, as the other girls seated themselves on the bench either side of the tempting tray and began enthusiastically to help themselves. "It would be plenty for an army. We can't thank you enough."
"Indeed we can't," added Mollie.
"It's awfully good of you," said Grace, as she took a bite of her ham sandwich.
"Awfully good," added Amy, like an echo.
The little man waved aside their thanks and drew up the one chair in the room, talking all the time in his quick, jerky fashion.
"It was no trouble, I am sure,—no trouble whatever," he said, adding as though he wished to change the subject: "You didn't tell me your name—" he hesitated, looking at Betty, who of course did tell him her name on the spot. This proved a signal for mutual introductions, and the girls learned that their new friend was a college professor, Arnold Dempsey by name. They also learned that he had taken up woodcraft in the hope of recovering his health.
And while they contentedly munched sandwiches and sipped steaming coffee the girls learned a good deal more about Arnold Dempsey, and the more they learned of him the more they felt drawn to him.
And when he started to tell them of his two sons who had fought so nobly in the army of democracy, their eyes began to shine and they leaned toward him with an interest that was intensely real.
"Oh, it must be wonderful to have two big soldier sons," cried Amy, forgetting her shyness in her enthusiasm. "Aren't you dreadfully proud?"
A gleam came into Professor Dempsey's eyes and his thin shoulders straightened.
"Yes, yes," he said. "Of course I'm proud of my boys—very proud. And I hope," a look of absolute happiness came into his eyes and he smiled contentedly, "that before very long I shall see them."
"Oh, I'm sure you will!" cried Betty eagerly.
"That's what we are all hoping for, anyway," said Grace, adding with a sigh: "The boys have been gone so dreadfully long."
"Look," cried Mollie presently, rising suddenly to her feet and pointing toward the window. "We have been so busy talking that we never noticed the sun had come out."
"And doesn't it look good!" exulted Betty.
In spite of their reluctance to leave their new-found friend, the girls were anxious to be off, for they knew their parents would be worrying about them.
Professor Dempsey insisted on seeing them safely back to the road although they protested that there was absolutely no need of it.
"There are two or three paths that lead to the road," he explained, as he flung wide the door, letting in a flood of sunshine, "and I wouldn't have you lose your way for the world—not for the world!"
The woodland was beautiful after the rain, and the girls sniffed the fragrant air eagerly as they followed Professor Dempsey along the path. It was not till they had almost reached the road that Mollie had a disquieting thought.
"How do we know but what we're stuck here for good?" she asked the girls. "The car stopped dead, you remember, just under that horrible tree, and I'm sure I don't know what in the world made it. If I can't find out the trouble—"
"Oh, but you've got to find it," protested Grace, while Betty and Amy looked worried. "We can't stay here all night, and it may be a dozen miles to the nearest garage."
"I know that just as well as you do," grumbled Mollie. "But if I can't, I can't, that's all."
By this time they had reached the road and Mollie went straight to the car. While she and Betty were trying to find out what was wrong the other two girls and Professor Dempsey looked on anxiously.
"Well, as far as I can see there is absolutely nothing wrong with it," snapped Mollie at last, lifting a face flushed with exertion. "Get in, girls, and I'll start the engine—or try to. Then if she won't go we'll have to make up our minds to stay here all night or walk to the next garage."
Accordingly the girls got in and Mollie pressed the self-starter. To her great surprise, the engine purred a response, and as she shifted her gears the car moved slowly forward.
"Oh, goodie, we're going," cried Amy, and the faces of the other girls showed relief.
"Must have been a drop of water in the gasoline," hazarded Mollie, and then she throttled the engine once more while she and her chums turned to say good-bye to Professor Dempsey. The latter was still standing in the road, looking up at them rather wistfully.
"I'm glad that I had an opportunity of helping you, young ladies—very glad," he answered, in response to their repeated thanks. "You conferred a great favor on me also, for I have little company. Good-bye—and good luck to you."
The girls responded gayly, and as they started forward Betty leaned far out of the machine to call back an encouraging: "Keep hoping hard for your boys to come home. I am sure they will be back soon."
"Thank you, young lady, thank you," said Professor Dempsey, but the words were too low for Betty to catch and she was too far away to see the mist that sprang suddenly to his eyes.
Deepdale, the home of the four Outdoor Girls, is a thriving little city with a population of about fifteen thousand people. It is situated on the Argono River, a pleasant stream where a great many of the young folk of Deepdale, and some of the older ones too, keep motor boats and canoes and various other types of pleasure craft.
Farther on, the Argono empties into Rainbow Lake, which is picturesque in the extreme. It has several pretty and romantic looking islands, chief of which is Triangle Island—so called because of its shape.
There is a boat running from Deepdale to Clammerport at the foot of Rainbow Lake, and this boat is almost always crowded with pleasure seekers. In addition to this Deepdale is situated in the heart of New York state and is only a hundred-and-fifty-mile run from the city of that name. Thus one can easily see that Deepdale is a very desirable place in which to live.
At least that is what the four Outdoor Girls thought. And since they had spent most of their lives there, they certainly ought to know!
On the morning of this day, some ten days or so after their strange encounter with Professor Dempsey, the girls were gathered on Betty's porch, talking over their plans for the summer.
"I am only waiting to hear from Uncle John," Mollie was saying, as she swung lazily back and forth in the couch swing. "The last time I saw him he said that he was almost sure to go north this summer and he told me that as soon as he made definite plans he would let me know."
"You told us that two weeks ago," Grace reminded her. "And we haven't heard from him yet."
"It does seem to take him a long time to make up his mind," sighed Amy.
Betty, who had been trying to read a novel, closed the book and turned to them with a laugh.
"Goodness, you all sound doleful," she told them. "It seems to me that we ought to be able to live through it, even if we don't get Wild Rose Lodge for the summer. There are plenty of other things we can do."
Mollie turned upon her indignantly.
"How you talk, Betty Nelson," she scolded her. "As if we could possibly have as good a time anywhere else as we could at Wild Rose Lodge. Think of being in a real hunting lodge out in the woods away from everybody! Why, it will be a real adventure—"
"All right. I surrender—don't shoot," laughed Betty, coming over and perching on the railing beside Mollie. "I admit we should probably have more fun at the lodge than we could anywhere else. I was only trying to look on the bright side of things in case our plans should fall through. Hello—who's this?"
"This" proved to be Mollie's little sister Dora, or "Dodo," as she was called by almost everybody. With a sigh of relief, the girls saw that Dodo's twin brother, Paul, was not with her, for together the children were a simply unconquerable pair.
The twins had been spoiled by their widowed mother, Mrs. Billette, even before the time when they had been kidnapped and spirited off by a hideous Spaniard. But since their recovery, their joyful mother had indulged them in every way until they had become well nigh unmanageable.
Yet in spite of everything, the twins were very lovable, and every one loved them, even those whom they annoyed most.
And now as Dodo tore up the street toward them, waving something white in her hand, the girls instinctively glanced about to see what they ought to put out of sight before the cyclone struck them.
"Thank goodness, Paul isn't with her," murmured Grace. "Then we would be in for it."
"Dodo," cried Mollie as the child started up the walk, "scrape some of that mud off your feet before you come up. You will get Betty's porch all dirty."
"Name's Dora—not Dodo," the little girl answered, paying not the slightest heed to Mollie's caution about the mud. "Dodo's a baby's name— don't like it. Got something for you."
She stumbled heedlessly up the steps, leaving a trail of mud behind her, and almost breaking her neck in the bargain.
"Now just look at Betty's porch," Mollie was beginning in exasperation when Betty laughingly interfered.
"Oh, let her alone, Mollie," she coaxed. "The porch was dirty anyway and— what's that you have in your hand, Dodo?"
"Sumfin' for Mollie," answered Dodo, leaning sulkily against the rail while the girls regarded her anxiously. "An' if Mallie aren't nice to me she can't have it."
"Oh, for goodness' sake be nice to her and get it over with, Mollie," urged Grace, uneasily conscious of the candy box she had shoved hastily behind her. She was afraid one corner of it might show.
So Mollie got down from her perch on the railing and went over coaxingly to the little girl.
"Give it to Mollie, honey," she begged. "I'll even call you Dora, if you will."
"Always Dora—never Dodo?" asked Dodo eagerly, for she was growing out of babyhood just enough to resent being called by her baby name.
"Always Dora," Mollie promised.
For answer Dodo held out the white thing she had waved at them from the street, and with a little cry of excitement Mollie saw that it was a letter addressed to her in her Uncle John's firm hand.
At her exclamation the girls crowded round her eagerly. She hastily tore open the envelope and devoured the contents. Then she turned to the girls with a glowing face.
"It's all right, it's all right!" she cried, waving the letter round her head like a flag and nearly upsetting her chums. "Uncle John says it is settled. He is going to Canada for a couple of months and we can have the lodge for the whole time he is away or a part of it, just as we wish. Hooray! How's that for luck?"
The girls were so excited over their good fortune that they forgot all about Dodo. She, finding herself unobserved, had slipped around the girls to the swing, snatched the box of candy which Grace had exposed when she got up, had taken the steps two at a time and was flying off down the street before the girls saw what she was up to.
Then it was Grace who, with a dreadful premonition, thought of her candy. She turned quickly, saw that the box was gone, and uttered a wail of woe.
"That little Turk of a sister of yours has done it again," she cried, turning to Mollie, while Betty and Amy began to laugh. "You just wait till I catch her. I'll get my candy back if I have to—spank her," this last with a fierce scowl.
Betty put an arm about her excited chum, led her over to the swing and put her down in it.
"By the time you caught Dodo there wouldn't be any of your candy left," she said, adding soothingly: "Never mind, honey. We will get you some more if we have to take up a collection."
"Makes me feel like an orphan's home," grumbled Grace, but she laughed nevertheless with the rest and immediately forgot both her candy and Dodo in renewed excitement over Wild Rose Lodge.
"Just where is this place, Mollie?" asked Amy. "What is it called?"
"Oh, that's the very best part of it," said Mollie, with a mysterious smile. "It has the most wonderful, most romantic name. Come closer while I whisper it—Moonlight Falls. There, isn't that a real name for a place?"
"Wild Rose Lodge at Moonlight Falls," sighed Grace ecstatically. "If we don't have a wildly romantic time in a place with a name like that, it will be our own fault."
"But we will have to have a chaperon—" Amy was beginning when Betty interrupted her eagerly.
"I have fixed that," she said, and while they all looked in astonishment she went on quickly to explain. "I met Mrs. Irving in the street the other day—you know she has been away ever since that last time she was with us on Pine Island—and I asked her then if she would chaperon us this summer."
"But you didn't even know then that we were going to Wild Rose Lodge, Betty," Mollie interrupted.
"I knew we were sure to go somewhere. We always—" Betty was arguing when Grace cut in impatiently.
"Never mind about that," she said. "Did Mrs. Irving say she would go?"
"She said she was very sure she could manage it," Betty answered. "She seemed awfully surprised and said it would be great fun to be with us girls again."
"It will be great fun for all of us," said Amy happily. "I'll never forget the wonderful time we had on Pine Island with Mrs. Irving and the boys."
"Yes—and the boys," Betty repeated a little wistfully. She was thinking of Allen Washburn and the wonderful time they had had that never-to-be- forgotten summer—before the war had come to separate them and make their hearts ache. Oh, it would be unbelievably happy to have the boys back again—Will, Roy, Frank and—her Allen. The old crowd together once more. She looked around at the girls, who had also fallen into a thoughtful mood, and suddenly she smiled, the old bright, happy smile that was peculiarly Betty's own.
"Oh, cheer up, everybody," she cried gayly. "How do we know but what the boys will be home in time to join us at Wild Rose Lodge? Then think of the fun!"
"Oh, Betty, if we could only believe that!" they cried.
"Well," said the Little Captain stoutly, "you never can tell. Stranger things have happened, you know."
"But nothing so joyful," added Mollie.
Betty Takes a Dare
It would be a week or two before Wild Rose Lodge would be ready for the girls' occupancy, and as a relief for their impatience they filled in the time in hiking, motoring and put-putting up and down the Argono in their natty little motor boat.
But whatever it was they were doing, their conversation almost invariably returned to one of two subjects—the return of the boys and the good time they would have at Moonlight Falls.
They spoke often of Professor Arnold Dempsey. They took a real interest in the queer little old man, both because of the service he had done them and the fact that he was watching and waiting for his two big sons, even as they were anxiously awaiting the return of their boys.
"It must be dreadfully lonely for him in that little cabin or house or whatever you call it in the woods," Amy said one day as she and the girls sauntered down to the dock where their motor boat was anchored. "And he said he hardly ever had company."
"Goodness, I should think he would go crazy," Mollie commented. "Why, I go almost mad when I don't have any one to talk to for an hour."
"I wonder if he lived in that little house all during the war," said Betty thoughtfully. They had reached the dock and were walking slowly out upon it. "If he did, it must have been dreadfully hard for him. It makes me shiver to think of him sitting there all alone, reading the casualty list, terrified for fear the next name would be that of his son——"
"Oh, Betty," cried gentle Amy, all her sympathy quickly roused by the picture Betty had drawn, "what a dreadful thing to think of!"
"But he never did find their names among the missing or killed," Mollie reminded them soberly. "We know that because he said he expected to see them soon."
"Of course. And all we can do is hope with all our hearts that he gets his wish," said Betty brightly, adding with a sudden change of subject: "But away with dull care. The sun is shining and here's our fairy ship waiting to carry us off to fresh adventure. What more could any one want, I'd like to know."
"Humph," grunted Mollie, eyeing critically the trim little boat in which they had had so much fun and adventure, as the other girls tumbled aboard. "I'd say she didn't look very much like a fairy boat just now. She needs considerable polishing and scrubbing. Why don't you girls get busy, anyhow?"
"Just hear who's talking," yawned Grace, disposing herself lazily in a comfortable chair on deck. "I haven't noticed you waving a broom and mop frantically around these parts lately, Mollie dear."
"In fact," Betty added with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, "I think I remember suggesting that the Gem needed grooming the other day. Whereupon some one who shall be nameless suggested a motor ride instead."
"She's got you there, old dear," drawled Grace, taking the inevitable box of chocolates from her pocket and opening it lovingly. "I remember the incident pre-zactly as it has been described."
Mollie, who was still standing on the dock, regarding them frowningly, started to reply but Betty interrupted her with a shout. She had started the engine and the boat began to move slowly away from the dock.
"Better hurry up," suggested the Little Captain wickedly. "We'd rather not leave you behind, but if you insist—"
However, Mollie had not the slightest intention in the world of being left behind. With a gasp of mingled surprise and dismay she made a jump for it, cleared the foot of space between the dock and the boat and landed square in the middle of Grace's astonished and outraged lap. She would have sat on the candy box, too, and would, in all probability, have ruined it and her dress as well, had not Grace, with rare presence of mind, whipped the box out of danger just in the nick of time.
"Well," said Mollie, too surprised and indignant to move for a moment, while, at the comical picture she made, both Betty and Amy laughed merrily, "I surely like this!"
"You do, do you? Well, I don't!" cried Grace, recovering both her breath and her dignity at the same moment. "If you don't stop sitting on my lungs this minute, Mollie Billette, I'll—I'll—stick this pin into you."
With a yell Mollie stumbled to her feet and shook out her dress belligerently.
"You had better not. I'm stronger than you, Grace Ford, and I've a good mind to let you see what the bottom of the river looks like."
She advanced toward her prospective victim, and Betty stopped laughing long enough to call to her.
"You'd better change your mind, Mollie," she cautioned merrily. "You can't give Gracie a ducking without ruining her dress and she might charge you damages. Reconsider—I beg of you, reconsider!"
Mollie condescended to reconsider and plumped herself down cross-legged on the deck, disdaining a chair.
"Oh, very well," she said, adding as she glared darkly at Grace: "You will probably never know, woman, how near to death you were."
To which Grace replied with unexpected ferocity.
"And you may never know, woman, just how near to death you are this minute. Look at what you have done to my best sport skirt. I don't believe I will ever be able to get those wrinkles out."
"If you two will stop quarreling just long enough to tell me where you want to go," Betty requested, "I should be very much obliged. Up or down the river?"
"Anywhere," answered Grace, still regarding her crumpled sport skirt gloomily. "We are just trying to kill time this afternoon anyway, so I don't see that it makes much difference where we go."
"Suppose we take her up to the Point," suggested Mollie, getting up from the deck and going over to Betty who still had the wheel. "Maybe we can get some ice-cream and a drink of ice water. I am getting dreadfully thirsty already."
Betty looked tempted but a little doubtful.
"You know it is pretty dangerous to run in there, Mollie," she protested. "There are so many other boats driven by Percy Falconer's crazy lot who don't care whether they capsize you or not—"
"Goodness, Betty, it isn't like you to be afraid," Mollie started, but stopped at the look in the "Little Captain's" eye.
"I'd rather you didn't ever say that again, Mollie," she said. "I'll take you in there since you want it, but if anything should happen remember that I warned you."
"Goodness, Mollie, I don't see why you ever wanted to go and suggest that for," said Grace nervously. "We all know there is danger of a collision over at the Point, and I'm sure I don't want to spoil my clothes, even if you do."
"Your father said that he would rather we kept to this side of the river, Betty," urged Amy. "Please don't go over to the Point now."
"There's no use talking to her," snapped Grace. "You ought to know Betty well enough by this time to know that she would take us over to the Point now, after what Mollie said, if she knew we would all die of it. Might as well save your breath."
Mollie said nothing, but down in her heart she was more than a little bit anxious and was beginning to regret that she had deliberately egged Betty on.
Percy Falconer, of whom Betty had spoken, had once been a rather dudish, affected boy and had later developed into an exceedingly fast young man. He had an immensely rich father and a mother who denied him nothing so that he had been able to gather together a few kindred spirits among whom he was the leader. All the regular boys and girls in town thoroughly disliked "the set," but there were a few girls who were willing to put up with Percy Falconer and his crowd for sake of the long motor rides, dances, dinners and motorboat picnics that the boys were able to give them.
There were always some of this wild crowd over at the "Point," and it was for this reason as well as the very real danger of a collision with a recklessly driven boat that Betty's father had rather discouraged the chums going over to that side of the river.
However the day was fine, the water of the river was as calm as a lake and the Gem flew across the sparkling water like a gull, bringing a flush of pure excitement and pleasure to the faces of the girls. Danger— what danger could there be in this staunch little craft, with Betty at the wheel?
They were half way across the river, now—three quarters. The gay pleasure craft flaunting up and down the river were becoming more numerous and Betty slackened speed. Her breath came more quickly and her hands tightened on the wheel. She could drive a boat as well as any boy, but here, she knew, was a situation to test her greatest skill.
Craft of all sizes and descriptions seemed to the excited girls to be piling up about them. Most of the boats were being navigated carefully, but now and then a small, fast speed-craft would shoot out from behind another so suddenly that Betty would be forced to swerve sharply to one side, fairly grazing the stern of the racing boat.
On one of these occasions, when it had seemed impossible to avoid a collision, Amy called out sharply:
"Oh, Betty, don't you think we had better go back?"
And Betty replied with a queer little laugh:
"Might just as well go ahead as back now. We'll be there in a minute. Don't worry."
The words were scarcely out of her mouth when two craft running neck and neck and driven recklessly slipped out from behind a sailboat and drove directly down upon the Gem. It seemed impossible that the Outdoor Girls could escape disaster.
The girls did not scream. Perhaps they were too frightened or perhaps it was just natural pluck.
They did jump to their feet though as if with some wild thought of leaping overboard. But there they remained, staring with fascinated eyes at the fate that was bearing down upon them.
As for Betty, after one breath-taking minute when all the blood in her body seemed to rush to her head, she simply sat there and tried in the second that was given her to think what to do.
Almost automatically, she wrenched the wheel around, nearly capsizing the boat with the sudden turn. At almost the same second, as though the thing had been prearranged, the boys in the racing craft swung around in the opposite direction.
A slight scraping as the side of the Gem slid along the side of the nearer of the racing craft, and they were safe, with no harm done with the exception of a little paint scraped from the side of the boat.
It was a moment before the girls could realize what had happened to them. Then a voice hailed them from the boat alongside. In a glance the girls perceived that the voice belonged to no other than Percy Falconer himself.
"Hello," called Percy, adding boisterously as he recognized the girls: "Well, by all that's holy, if it isn't the Outdoor Girls! Thought you never came over to this side of the river."
"We don't," Betty answered, the hand that still gripped the wheel shaking nervously now that the danger was over. "And I don't believe we ever will again, either!"
"I say, your teeth are chattering," cried Percy, looking at Betty in open admiration. In the old days, Percy had tried hard to win favor in Betty's eyes, but the latter had always treated him with a good-natured indifference not unmixed with contempt that had been very hard for the young dude to bear. During the years he had still admired Betty from afar and hated Allen Washburn for being the "lucky one." So now he hastened to make the most of what he thought was an opportunity.
"Come on over to the Point with me and Derby here," indicating the young fellow in the other racing craft who had drawn his boat up close to them and was looking on with interest. "We will get you something to steady your nerves a bit. We had a pretty narrow squeak that time, and it's no wonder it upset you a little."
He was supposedly addressing all the girls, but his eyes were only for Betty. As for her, she suddenly had a startlingly clear mental picture of what her father would think were some one to tell him that his daughter and her chums had been seen at the "Point" with Percy Falconer and a friend of his.
In days gone by Percy had been very insipid, his mind entirely on his clothes; now he had become a sport, and the report was that he caroused around not a little.
Betty turned to the youth with a decided little shake of her head, though her eyes were smiling.
"I think we shall have to go right back," she said. "It looks as though it were going to rain. Thank you just as much," and she began to ease her motor boat gently away from the other craft.
"Oh, I say," Percy cried, disappointedly and a little angrily, for out of the corner of his eye he could see that his friend was laughing at him, "we would only keep you for a moment or two. You needn't be afraid of us. We won't bite, you know."
"We don't know you well enough to be sure even of that," said Mollie, coming suddenly and flippantly into the conversation.
But Percy took not the slightest notice of her and, as Betty was slowly but surely widening the distance between the Gem and his boat, he leaned forward eagerly.
"Betty, let me see you some time. How about to-morrow night?"
And because Betty was always kind to every one and was sorry for Mollie's flippant speech, she said, quite unexpectedly, even to herself, "All right."
Then she turned the Gem around and started for home, conscious that her chums were gazing at her in speechless amazement.
"Betty!" cried Grace, horrified. "You are never going to let Percy Falconer come to see you, are you?"
But Betty turned on her irritably. She was tired and nervous and angry at herself for having anything to do with that conceited dude, Percy Falconer.
"You heard me say he could come, didn't you?" she said in response to Grace's incredulous question, Amy's wide-eyed stare, and Mollie's grin. "And if you are going to ask me why I said so," she added desperately, "I'm not going to tell you. And if anybody speaks to me before I get back to the dock, I'll—wreck 'em, that's all."
The girls exchanged glances and wisely decided to change the subject, for the present at least. For the time they had plenty to do anyway, just watching out that somebody else did not run into them!
By the time they reached comparatively clear water they were all tired and they were glad for once when the Gem scraped against the home dock and the "cruise" was over.
"Well," said Mollie as they climbed on to the dock, "we surely did have some excitement, but we didn't get what we started out for after all."
"What's that?" asked Grace, as she tied the ribbon round her candy box and adjusted her hat at a more becoming angle.
"Ice-cream and a drink of ice water," said Mollie ruefully. "I've just remembered that I am dying of thirst."
"Come on around to my house," Betty invited. Her wrist was lame from gripping the wheel so hard and she felt it gingerly. "Mother said she would make a big pitcher of lemonade for us and leave it in the refrigerator."
"Whew," whistled Mollie, taking Betty's arm and hurrying her forward. "By any chance did you girls hear what I heard? Me for it, Betty Nelson."
The girls talked little on their way to Betty's house, but they thought a good deal. They were tired and disgruntled, and it seemed to them in their pessimistic mood that everything they had tried to do that day had gone wrong. And the climax of it all was their meeting—if it could be called a meeting—with Percy Falconer. Worst of all, Betty was going to allow him to call!
With something of this in her mind, Mollie glanced sideways at her chum and, curiosity getting the better of her discretion, ventured to remark upon it.
"I wonder what Allen will say," she said, "when he learns about Percy."
It was an unfortunate remark, as Betty very soon showed by turning upon her chum angrily.
"I don't know that Allen has a right to say anything at all about what I do," she said. "And as I don't intend ever to see Percy Falconer after to-morrow, I think we had better forget about him. But there," she added, bringing herself up short and giving Mollie's hand a little conciliatory squeeze, "I didn't mean to be cross. I'm just kind of mad about the whole thing—and tired, and hot—"
"I know," said Mollie generously. "I guess we all are—tired and hot, I mean. We will feel better after we have had something cold to drink."
Betty's mother had left not only the lemonade but some sandwiches of chopped nuts and cream cheese. Jubilantly the girls carried these delicacies out on the front porch and proceeded to devour them without further delay.
As they ate and drank, their ill-humor vanished and they began to feel once more like their cheerful, optimistic selves. They even began to laugh a little about the close shave they had had with Percy and his friend.
"It was mighty clever work of yours, Betty, swerving around like that," Mollie said reminiscently, as she patted the Little Captain's hand approvingly. "I'm sure I would have been so scared I'd have gone right ahead and then there would have been a nasty smash."
"I do hope the folks don't hear about it," worried Grace. "It would only make them nervous and they might even refuse to let us go out in the Gem any more."
"I don't see how the folks are going to know anything about it," said Amy calmly.
"Unless our dear friend Percy blabs it all over town," added Grace.
"I think we ought to tell the folks," Betty spoke up suddenly. "I know they would rather hear about it from us than from any one else. Hello," she broke off, as her eye lighted on a newspaper lying on the table, "this looks like the evening edition. Maybe it has some news of Allen's division."
"My, just listen to her," yawned Grace. "Allen's division, indeed. As though he were the only one we were interested in—"
But her words were cut short by a startled exclamation from Betty.
"Oh, girls, look here!" she cried. "Look at these names. Oh, I hope it isn't true! I hope it isn't!"
Bad Tidings Confirmed
"I wish I knew what you were talking about," said Mollie, pausing with a sandwich half-way to her mouth, while Amy and Grace regarded the Little Captain with astonishment. "What names? Where?"
But Betty was paying no attention to them. She was reading hastily the column that had caught her startled attention.
"Listen to this," she said, reading out loud. "Among those who were killed in the last great Allied offensive are the names of these brave soldiers. James Browning of Columbus, Ohio—No, that isn't what I mean—Look, here they are—James Dempsey and Arnold Dempsey, Junior. Girls, do you suppose —" and she looked at them with widening eyes.
"Arnold Dempsey, Arnold Dempsey," repeated Mollie, searching in her memory, but Amy interrupted excitedly.
"That was Professor Dempsey's name, wasn't it?" she asked. "Oh, Betty, do you suppose it could be his son?"
"Why, of course it is his son—how could it be any one else?" cried Grace, the excitement beginning to communicate itself to her. "Arnold Dempsey, Junior—and the professor said his sons were over there."
"Didn't it say something about James Dempey, too, Betty?" asked Mollie, fairly snatching the paper from her chum. "Yes, here it is. Do you suppose that can be his other son?"
Betty shook her head soberly.
"I don't know," she said. "Of course he didn't tell us the name of his other son, but it might easily be James. Oh, I hope it isn't so!" she added, her heart aching for the lonely old man whose one big interest in life was his boys. "I do hope there has been some mistake."
"I guess we all do," said Amy gently, adding with a sigh: "But I'm afraid there isn't very much hope of it. The Government is usually right when it comes to things like that."
"Not always," Mollie retorted quickly. "Look at the time they reported that Alien was among the missing and he wasn't at all. That is the only mistake we happen to know about, but I fancy there are plenty of others."
At mention of that dreadful time when she had read Alien's name in the long list of the missing, Betty experienced again something of the emotion she had felt at that time.
She saw again in imagination the dark room where she had gone to be by herself, she heard the thunder of the surf on the rocks outside and the rumble of the thunder overhead. She saw once more the vision of Alien as she had seen it then. Allen stretched out cold and dead perhaps on some shell-ridden battlefield or perhaps, more terrible still, a prisoner in the hands of the Hun, suffering unspeakable torture—
"But this is not as bad as though the boys were missing," she said suddenly, speaking her thought aloud. "At least the professor will know that his sons are dead."
The girls started and looked at Betty queerly.
"I was thinking of Allen," she explained in response to their rather startled glances, "and the time when we thought he was missing. If this thing is true about Professor Dempsey's sons I think I shall be able to sympathize with him, almost better than any of you."
"I guess you will, honey," said Mollie soberly, putting an arm about her chum. "It was a terrible time for us all—there at Bluff Point. But it was almost worth the suffering when we found out that Allen was alive and well and never had been missing at all Do you remember how happy we all were then?"
"Happy," Betty repeated, shaking off her depression and smiling at the memory. "I'll say we were the happiest girls on earth—especially after we recovered the twins. But what," she said, coming back to the present subject, "are we going to do about Professor Dempsey? We ought to do something, you know."
"I suppose we ought," said Grace, a little vaguely, "but I'm sure I don't know just what."
"I think," suggested Amy practically, "that the best thing would be to try to find out first of all whether these poor boys who were killed are really Professor Dempsey's sons or not."
"Humph, that sounds all right," observed Mollie. "But has any one here any suggestion as to just how we will go about it? I'm sure I don't know any one who is acquainted with Professor Dempsey—or his family either."
"I've got it," said Betty, leaning forward eagerly. "It may not be much of an idea, but then again it may."
"Speak up, speak up, what's on your mind?" urged Mollie slangily.
"Well," said Betty, "there is Mr. Haig, principal of Deepdale High. He knows pretty nearly every one at the university where Professor Dempsey used to teach and he is more than likely to know whether the professor has any sons and what their names are."
"Yes, that is all right as far as it goes," broke in Mollie impatiently.
"We all know Mr. Haig—" Amy began, but this time it was Grace who interrupted.
"Yes, we all know him," she said. "But I'd like to know if there is any one of us—except Betty perhaps—who would have the nerve to go to him and ask him a question like that—"
"Say, who's telling this story I'd like to know," broke in Betty impatiently. "I'm not asking any one to go to Mr. Haig with that question or any other—although I would be perfectly willing to brave the lion in his den if there were no other way. My plan is this. Dad knows Mr. Haig, you know—went to school with him—old college chums and all that. I'm sure that if we asked him real pretty he would go to Mr. Haig and find out about Professor Dempsey for us."
"Then suppose we find out that Professor Dempsey hasn't any sons by the name of James and Arnold?" suggested Grace.
"Then we shall be mighty glad we took the trouble to find out and set our minds at rest," answered Betty soberly.
"And if we find out that they are really his sons, what then?" queried Grace, and this time Betty looked puzzled and Mollie and Amy completely beyond their depth.
"Why then," said Betty hesitatingly, "I'm sure I don't just know what we ought to do. But don't you think," she added, brightening, "that it might be a good idea to wait until we have found out definite facts before we try to solve any more problems?"
Rather reluctantly the girls agreed and, after making Betty promise that she would let them know the very first minute she found out the names of Arnold Dempsey's sons, they said good-bye and started for home.
Of course Betty had already told her father and mother about Professor Dempsey and the part he had played in actually saving their lives; so when she told them that night of what she had read in the paper and begged her father to help her find out whether the dead soldiers were really Arnold Dempsey's sons or not, he readily consented to do what he could.
"I'll drop in and see Haig to-morrow," he promised. "I have often heard him speak of Professor Dempsey as being one of the best professors of zooelogy up at the university and I am sure I will be able to find out what you want to know. I hope you have been mistaken in your conclusions, for it would be a horrible blow to a man to lose both his grown sons at once and like that. Now run off to bed and tomorrow I may have some news for you."
With this Betty was forced to be content. She went to bed of course, there was nothing else to do, but she tossed restlessly all night and what sleep she got was checkered with horrid dreams and she woke up in the morning feeling as though she had not been to sleep at all.
The next day was a long one to live through, even though the girls did keep calling her up at frequent intervals to see if she had any news for them yet. She became so tired of hearing the telephone bell ring at last that she stuffed a handkerchief between the bell and the clapper and sat down to read a novel and while away the time as best she could till her father came home.
Luckily for her—and him too, perhaps—Mr. Nelson did get home early, and he was no sooner inside the door than Betty grabbed him by the arm, led him over to a divan in the corner of the living room, and let loose upon him a flood of questions.
"Did you see him? What did he say? Why didn't you let me know sooner?"
These and various other queries were hurled at Mr. Nelson so fast that it is no wonder the poor gentleman appeared slightly bewildered. But knowing his impetuous young daughter of old, he merely pinched her cheek fondly and waited for her to give him a chance to speak.
"If you will wait just a moment I will try to tell you about it," he said at last, mildly.
"There's only one thing I really want to know, Dad," said Betty soberly. "And that is the name of Professor Dempsey's sons."
Her father shook his head slowly, regretfully.
"I am afraid it is as you have feared, dear," he said. "Professor Dempsey has two sons—or rather, had—and their names were James and Arnold."
"Oh, Daddy!" Betty was quiet for a minute, letting the full consciousness of what her father had said sink into her heart. Then her lips trembled and her eyes filled with tears. "I—I was pretty sure it was true. But, oh, I was hoping so hard that it wouldn't be!"
Betty kept her promise and called up the girls to tell them the news. Like the Little Captain, they had felt almost sure of the identity of the two Dempsey boys who had been killed in France, yet the confirmation of their fears came as a distinct shock.
They waited for a couple of days, undecided what to do, if indeed it was their place to do anything at all. Vaguely they felt the need of comforting the queer little professor in his hour of greatest trouble, and yet they were at a loss to know just how to go about it.
Meanwhile, the occupations that had ordinarily filled their days to overflowing with fun, seemed dull and uninteresting and they found their thoughts reverting again and again to the bereaved father in his lonely little cabin in the woods.
Percy Falconer had called at Betty's house the day after the incident on the river as had been arranged, and Betty had conceived the plan of having all her chums there to meet him.
Her hope was that the gay Percy, seeing four, where he had expected only one, would be overwhelmed with numbers and would flee the premises early— to return no more.
Her faith in her plan was more than justified. Percy had always been a little afraid of the Outdoor Girls—Betty in particular—but it is probable that if he had been able to meet them one at a time, he might have come off victorious. As it was, he was routed, completely and ignominiously, leaving the girls to laugh at his discomfiture.
"There, I guess that is the end of that pest," Mollie had said when she had recovered a little from her mirth. "I imagine we won't see him around these parts again."
"I hope not," Betty had answered with a satisfied little yawn. "Wasn't he too funny in that checked suit and awful green necktie? Poor old Percy! I suppose he can't help it. He probably just grew that way."
She had been comparing him all evening with her splendid, upstanding Allen, and poor Percy had certainly not gained by the comparison.
The amusing incident served to divert their minds somewhat from the thought of Professor Dempsey, but the picture of him haunted their minds so continually day and night that the Outdoor Girls finally decided that something must be done about it.
"I can't stand it any longer," Betty confided to them one morning when they stood on Mollie's porch discussing what course of action it would be best to take. "I have a queer feeling that the poor professor is in desperate need of friends, and I don't believe I'll be able to sleep another night until I find out something definite about him."
"Won't he think we are sort of 'butting in'?" asked Grace, hesitating a little. "He might think we came just out of curiosity."
"I don't think he would," said Mollie. "You know he invited us to come back some time when we could stay long enough for him to tell us something about those bugs and butterflies and things he sticks pins into—"
"That's the idea!" exclaimed Betty quickly. "We won't have to tell him we know anything about his trouble. If he tells us—why, all right, but if he doesn't, of course we won't try to force a confidence. Anyway," she finished soberly, "we'll have the satisfaction of knowing we have done our best for him whether it really helps him any or not."
"And we owe him a very great deal," spoke tip Amy softly. "He really saved our lives, you know."
So it was settled, and while the other three girls ran home to put on coats and hats and get ready for the drive, Mollie ran around to the garage and brought her big car to the front of the house.
She waved good-bye to her mother, who was trying rather wildly to keep Dodo and Paul from running under the wheels of the car and getting killed, and purred off down the street in the direction of Betty's house.
When she arrived there she was a little surprised to see that Betty was backing her fast little roadster down the drive.
To Betty the little car was almost alive, and she talked to it as she would have to some loved horse or dog. She scrubbed it and scoured it and shined it so that it always looked like a brand new car.
"Hey, look out!" cried Mollie, for Betty, not noticing her and being a little worried about the sound of the engine, had backed the small car down the drive and almost into Mollie's big one. "What kind of driving do you call that? Do you want to buy me a new mudguard?"
"Oh, pardon me," said Betty, laughing back at her. "You were so small and insignificant, I came near not seeing you."
"Well, you would have felt me in another minute," grumbled Mollie, as she shut off the engine and got out of the car. "What's the idea of your little peanut, anyway? Thought you were going to ride in a regular car."
"That's why I chose mine," Betty laughed back impishly, still intent on the sound of the engine.
It was part of their fun to be always throwing insults at each other's car but the thrusts were invariably good-natured.
Only once had there threatened to be any trouble between the chums on account of rivalry over the cars. That had been when Mollie had taken Betty's "dare" to a race and Betty's little roadster had won the day, racing like a streak of light along the country road and leaving Mollie's high-powered but more clumsy car far behind.
But Mollie had taken her defeat like the little sport she was—even though it must be admitted she had been considerably disappointed and taken aback by her failure—and in her ever since there had been a great respect for Betty's car.
But now she eyed with impatience the bent figure of the Little Captain as she still leaned over the wheel, her ear tuned to the purr of the engine.
"For goodness' sake, what's the matter with you?" she cried. "I thought you were the one who was in a hurry to be off and now look at you—sitting there like—"
"Engine is missing," Betty informed her briskly. "Guess I had better have a look—"
"If you start fussing with bolts and screws now, you can count me out," said Mollie, resolutely climbing back into her car. "It is ten o'clock already, and we won't be home before night if we don't hurry."
"Oh, all right," laughed Betty. "But if the car gives out before we get back don't blame me, that's all."
"It would give me the greatest of pleasure," said Mollie with a diabolical chuckle as her machine moved off down the street, "to have everyone in Deepdale see me towing your poor little flivver through the town."
"Huh," sang back Betty scornfully as the roadster responded eagerly to her touch, "they will have a great deal better chance of seeing me in the lead with your great big jumbo tottering feebly at the end of a rope."
They picked up Amy and Grace on the way and were soon flying swiftly down the road in the direction of Professor Dempsey's tree-surrounded home.
They were in rather good spirits at first, for now that they were really on the way to doing something, though they were not quite sure what, they felt relieved and almost gay.
But as the distance shortened between them and their destination, a strange depression that they could neither explain nor brush away settled down over them.
Once, Grace, who sat beside the Little Captain in the roadster, sighed rather dolefully and Betty looked at her out of the corner of her eye.
"Do you feel that way too, Grade?" the latter asked.
"What way?" asked Grace uncertainly. "That sigh, do you mean?"
"Yes," nodded Betty. "You sounded rather mournful and that is exactly the way I feel. What's the matter with us, anyway? Where are our spirits?"
"I suppose we couldn't expect to feel joyful," said Grace after a little pause. "We aren't going, so far as I can see, on a very happy errand, you know."
"But I don't think it is that alone," said Betty, with a shake of her head. "I feel as if we were going to see something perfectly dreadful—"
"Betty," Grace looked at her in sudden alarm, her eyes wide, "you don't suppose that the professor could have done anything—anything rash, do you?"
"You mean—" said Betty, hesitating before the ugly word. "Oh, Grace, you don't mean—suicide, do you?"
Grace nodded and tried hard not to look as frightened as she felt.
"No, I—I don't think so," said Betty, grasping the wheel with hands that somehow seemed suddenly weak. "If I thought anything like that had happened I wouldn't have the courage to go on."
"Well, I don't believe I have—the courage, I mean," said Grace, irresolutely. "Don't you think we had better go back, Betty? It's so lonesome here and—and—everything—"
Her voice was rising to something like a wail, and Betty, striving to throttle her own misgivings, spoke in a voice that was intended to be reassuring.
"We wouldn't think very much of ourselves if we turned back now," she said. "And probably we are worrying a great deal about nothing. He didn't seem like the kind of man who would do a thing like that."
Grace said no more about turning back, and they were silent for the rest of the way. But instead of lightening, the cloud of depression became deeper and more foreboding until even the stout Little Captain began, almost to wish that they had not come.
When they came to the scene of what was so nearly a terrible accident a week or so before they found that the big tree which had extended clear across the road was gone and that the underbrush also had been cleared away.
They stopped the cars a little the other side of the path that led into the woods and slowly stepped down into the road.
When they caught sight of each other's faces they began to laugh shakily.
"We certainly look as if we were going on a ghost hunt," Mollie said. At this Grace uttered a little cry of protest. The thought had struck too near her own disquieting thoughts to be comfortable.
"For goodness' sake, somebody say something cheerful," she begged. "I've got to get up my courage some way."
"Well, I haven't any to lend you," grumbled Mollie, as she linked her arm in Betty's and the two went along toward the path. "I don't like this job a little bit."
"Don't you think," suggested Amy, holding back a little, "that somebody ought to stay here and take care of the cars?"
"No, you don't!" said Mollie, catching her by the hand and pulling her along after them. "If one of us goes we are all going."
"Oh, come along," urged Betty, eager to get the thing over with. "I think we are all acting like a lot of geese. It might help some if we tried to remember that we are Outdoor Girls."
This challenge did a great deal toward bolstering up the girls' courage and they hurried along the path more confidently.
Their pace slowed a bit, however, when they reached the cleared space where the little cottage stood and they paused for a moment in the shelter of the trees to discuss what to do next.
"Do you think we had all better go?" asked Grace nervously. "Perhaps the four of us would frighten him—"
"No, we will all go together," said Betty decidedly. "There is nothing to be gained by standing here talking about it. Come on, girls."
She started across the cleared space and the girls followed slowly. The little cottage looked deserted and forlorn and the dreary aspect of it served to increase the girls' uneasy sense of disaster.
Betty knocked gently on the door which had, upon that other occasion not so very long ago, been hospitably opened to them. But, though they waited breathlessly for a response, none came—the house was as silent as a tomb.
"Do it again, Betty. He might be asleep or something." suggested Mollie, with a glance over her shoulder at the quiet woodland. "Knock harder this time."
Betty obeyed, but with no better success than the first time. Everything was as silent as before.
"Isn't there a bell, I wonder?" suggested Amy, wishing ardently that they were back on the road once more. "Perhaps your knock isn't loud enough for him to hear."
"We might tap on the window," suggested Grace. "If I use my ring on the window pane he surely ought to hear that."
She started to suit her action to the words when an exclamation from Betty made her pause. The latter had tried the door and found to her surprise that it gave to her touch.
"The door is unlocked," she said. "I don't believe the professor is in here at all and if he has gone into the woods to hunt his butterflies and beetles I am sure he wouldn't mind our going inside. What do you think?"
She was about to push the door open, but Grace detained her with a nervous hand on her arm.
"Oh, I don't think we had better go in, Betty!" she cried. "You know what we were speaking of in the car. Suppose we should find that he has—that he has—"
"That he has what?" asked Amy, her eyes wide. "For goodness' sake, what do you mean, Grace?"
Betty tried to stop her, but Grace hurried on heedlessly.
"He may have committed suicide," she cried, adding, in response to Mollie's and Amy's cry of horror: "You know he must have been desperate enough to do anything, poor old man, out here all alone."
At the conviction in Grace's tone, Betty felt her own nerve slipping. She did not want to go into that silent house any more than the other girls did. Every instinct in her commanded that she run from the place to the commonplace safety of the road. She was afraid of what she might find on the other side of that unlocked door. And yet—
"I'm going in," she cried, and, suiting the action to the word, pushed the door quickly open and stepped over the threshold.
Emboldened by her example, the other girls followed and stopped short with a cry of dismay. They had not found what they feared—but something almost as bad.
The room, which had been so neat and orderly when they had last seen it, was now the scene of such utter confusion as one might only hope to see depicted in a cubist's nightmare.
The animal skins which had adorned the walls had been torn down and lay in a tattered heap upon the floor. The shelves upon which had rested the professor's botanical specimens had been swept clean and their contents also were scattered about the floor.
The bench upon which the girls had sat and partaken of the queer little man's hospitality was overturned and the one chair in the room was upside down on top of it. The whole room looked as though a cyclone—or a maniac —had been at work.
The girls stared for a minute and then drew closer together as if seeking protection from some unseen menace. They had some vague conception of what had taken place here in this lonely little cottage. The elderly and already nervous professor, reading the tragedy of his sons' death, all alone perhaps, with no one to comfort or restrain him, had lost his mind, temporarily at least, and had found an outlet in ruthlessly destroying everything which came within reach of his hand.
And if this were so, might he not even now be hiding about somewhere, watching them, perhaps?
This thought seemed to strike the girls at the same time, for after peering for a second about the room, they turned and made a concerted dash for the door.
Once outside the room, in the reassuring sunshine, they turned and looked at each other sheepishly. Then Betty wheeled about and started for the door again.
"Betty, you are never going back into that place again?" cried Amy wildly, holding to her skirt. "I won't let you! Do you hear me? Come back here!"
But Betty had no intention of coming back. She turned and faced the girls calmly, though inwardly she was trembling.
"Of course I am going back," she said. "Professor Dempsey may be in one of the other rooms and he may be sick. If nobody will go with me, I'm going in alone."
Of course the three girls could not let her go in alone, so they trailed back at her heels into the house, being very careful, however, to leave the door wide open behind them, in case a hasty retreat became necessary.
Cautiously Betty opened the door at the other end of the room and stepped into what had evidently been a sort of rough kitchen. Now it was nothing but a nightmare like the other room, and she shuddered as she looked about at the desolate confusion.
There was a door at the farther end of this room, and after some hesitation and an inward struggle Betty crossed hastily to it and flung it wide open.
What she half expected and feared to find there nobody but Betty herself ever knew, but whatever it was, she gave a great sigh of relief at not finding it there. The room was upset, though not quite as badly as the other two, but there was no sign of human occupancy anywhere.
She turned to the girls who had come up behind her and were eagerly and half shudderingly peering over her shoulder.
"There's nothing here," she announced, the relief she felt showing in her voice, "and as there doesn't seem to be any other room in the place, I suppose we might as well go back."
Echoing her suggestion heartily, me girls started to retrace their steps when a slight sound in the other room made them stop short in a panic.
"What was that?" Amy questioned, but Mollie held up her hand impatiently.
There came the sound of some one stumbling over something. This was followed by a muttered exclamation.
While the girls looked about them wildly for a means of escape Mollie began to laugh hysterically.
"We have a visitor," she announced in a strangled voice. "And he is between us and the only door in the place. Come on, girls, let's see who it is."
They stepped out into the cluttered living room and came face to face with a young man who seemed more startled at seeing them than they had been at sight of him.
"Well, I'll be jiggered!" he exclaimed, and at sound of the commonplace phrase the girls could have hugged the speaker in relief. Also they felt a rather hysterical desire to laugh long and foolishly.
As it was, the stranger stood staring at the girls and the girls at him so long that the funny side of the situation struck Betty and she really did begin to laugh.
"We haven't the slightest idea who you are," she told the astonished young man. "But I am sure of one thing, and that is that we were never so glad to see any one in all our lives as we are to see you."
Hurrah for Allen
The young man stared for a moment longer. Then the humor of the situation seemed to strike him too, and he smiled pleasantly.
"It surely is a pleasure to be as welcome as all that," he said pleasantly, and the girls noticed that he was a well set up young fellow and that he wore his uniform easily, as if he had been used to wearing it for a long, long time. "I am Wesley Travers," he went on. "I live in a cottage down the road and I came over this way to see if the old professor had come back yet. I saw the door open—came in—and found you."