Chapter XVII. The Thing
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Neither did I," Grace added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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