Chapter XVIII. Surprised
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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