Chapter II. 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 far 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 got 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."