Chapter XVI. The Whirlpool
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Now you're talking, Little Captain," said Mollie approvingly. "All in favor please say Aye."

Amy still showed some inclination to hold back, but Mollie and Betty each took an arm and hurried her willy-nilly with them into the woods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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